Nichelle Nichols, RIP

We’ve lost another member of the original Star Trek crew. Nichelle Nichols died in her sleep over the weekend at the age of 89.

It’s impossible to overstate what a huge influence Nichols was, initially just by her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise as an officer working alongside the white folks (and the aliens) at the height of Civil Rights unrest — a role so important that no less a personage than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his own self convinced her to stick with the role when she thought about leaving the show to join a Broadway play.

After Trek, she leveraged her status as a Trek actor to recruit more women and people of color to NASA. Growing up seeing her on the Enterprise was a huge inspiration for so many, from Whoopi Goldberg to Dr. Mae Jemison.

She brought a tremendous dignity to the role of Uhura, who came across as an amazing person even though the part was (as was typical for supporting TV roles in the 1960s) pretty underwritten.

And every time she went to conventions — from the first Trek conventions in the early 1970s all the way to her farewell tour in 2019 — she was always friendly, always outgoing, always happy to see everyone who came to see her.

Usually when people remember Uhura’s great moments onscreen they mention “Sorry, neither” in “The Naked Time” or her serenading Spock in “Charlie X” or confronting “Mr. Adventure” in The Search for Spock. But my favorite bit of hers is in “Space Seed.” From my rewatch of the episode on Tor.com in 2015: “Khan orders Uhura to operate the viewscreen so they can see Kirk being tortured. She refuses, so Joaquin drags her forcibly to the console. She still refuses, so Joaquin belts her. She still refuses so Joaquin moves to belt her again, and she stands up to show that it won’t work a second time either. … The look on Uhura’s face after the first slap is priceless, and just Nichols’s eyes alone tell you that the strike had the opposite of the desired effect.”

One of my favorite stories I heard Nichols tell at a convention was at Shore Leave one year. The night before Jemison was going to go into space — the first woman of color to do so — Nichols called Cape Canaveral to wish her well. But the people at Canaveral kept transferring her around to other people because everyone there wanted to nerd out and talk to Lieutenant Uhura. (I worked that anecdote into my story “What You Can Become Tomorrow” in Three Time Travelers Walk Into…, with Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician, telling that story to her husband.)

She was an inspiration, she was a joy, she was amazing. The world was a better place because she was in it and it’s a lesser place without her.

Rest in peace, great lady.

Gilbert Gottfried, RIP

The world is a quieter place today, as Gilbert Gottfried, the short, loud, gleefully obnoxious comedian who is probably best known as the voice of Iago in Disney’s Aladdin movie, died at the too-damn-young age of 67 due to myotonic dystrophy type 2.

Here’s one of his greatest moments, on Hollywood Squares, the famous “YOU FOOL!” episode. (What you don’t see in this clip is that it was Penn & Teller that started the whole “YOU FOOL!” thing, but Gottfried ran with it to say the least. Besides, this is Gottfried’s tribute…..)

in memoriam

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915

Joe Migliucci, RIP

JoeMarios

One of my favorite restaurants in all the world is Mario’s on Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. The Bronx has the real Little Italy in New York — the one in lower Manhattan has a longer history, but these days is a tiny tourist trap. The area around Arthur Avenue and E. 187th Street is still an Italian enclave full of shops run by Italian immigrants.

A hundred years ago, Mario’s opened as a pizza place, and later became one of the finest restaurants in the area. My mother first started going there when she was a teenager (she’s in her seventies now), and for as long as I’ve been going there regularly (since my early twenties), Joe Migliucci has been in charge. Mario’s was founded by his grandfather in 1919, and Joe has kept the family business going, as have his own children and grandchildren.

My parents and I used to go to Mario’s every Friday night for dinner, a tradition that fell by the wayside for various and sundry reasons, but we still are regulars there, and are considered famiglia by the staff. I remember one time taking two friends of ours there after a trip to the nearby Bronx Zoo, forgetting that the also nearby Fordham University was having Homecoming that weekend. (As an alumnus I should’ve remembered that, but I’m dumb.) However, as soon as we got there, we were still treated well, and we got served quickly and efficiently and happily despite the huge crowds.

When Wrenn and I decided to get married, Mario’s was where we had the wedding — initially scheduled for October 2016, hastily moved to April 2017 when we were forced to move in the late summer of ’16. Regina — who now manages the place — was very good to us, and they treated us phenomenally well. We got amazing food, amazing service, and a glorious time was had by all.

Over the last few years, as Joe has approached 80 (a milestone he reached in November of 2018), he has cut back on his time in the kitchen, leaving it to his successors, among them his son. But he still had his hand in periodically. For a long time, he would make pasta fromaggio, pre-cooked pasta heated up by using a big chunk of parmesan as the pan, along with herbs, alcohol, and olive oil, and it was glorious. He’d make it right there in front of you, too, and it was always fun to see the looks on the faces of the other customers who’d never had it before and watching them change their order so they could get that, too.

When we had our wedding in the upstairs function room, we were heartened and honored to see that Joe did the cooking himself for us and our guests.

Over the last few years, he’s mostly been an eminence grise at the restaurant, leaving the cooking and the managing to his younger family members. He would sit at the front and greet people as they came in. Every time Wrenn and I were there, he’d have a hearty handshake for me, a very European kiss on the cheek for Wrenn, and a bright smile for both of us.

Mario’s has been closed since the pandemic started, and it was announced yesterday that Joe had died. I have no idea if it was coronavirus-related or not — he’d been in mediocre health for years, and he was 81, so the possibilities are legion — but regardless of how he died, he will be sorely missed. The restaurant should carry on without him — as it did without his forebears who founded and continued the place over the past century — but his beautiful presence will be missed.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s confirmed that Joe did indeed die due to complications from COVID-19. Sigh.

Rest in peace, good sir. I raise a glass of Montelpulciano to you.

IMG_20170422_183336929_BURST000_COVER_TOP

midweek music: Joseph Shabalala, RIP

I first was introduced to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s brilliant Graceland album in 1986 — indeed, lots of people were introduced to this amazing South African a cappella band then, though they’ve been around since 1960. They sang with Simon on “Homeless,” which was co-written by Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, and also on “You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Simon later produced their album Shaka Zulu.

Simon promoted Graceland with a tour that included a bunch of South African musicians: besides Mambazo, he was also joined by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, as well as a backing band made up entirely of South African musicians, led by Ray Phiri of Stimela.

Joseph Shabalala retired from Mambazo in 2014, and yesterday he died in his home in Pretoria.

I named a Star Trek character after Shabalala, giving his name to the U.S.S. Odyssey first officer played by Michael Jace in the Deep Space Nine episode “The Jem’Hadar” in my novel The Brave and the Bold Book 1. Because that character was killed in the DS9 episode (my novel was a prequel to it), I kept the tribute going by putting his son Anthony Shabalala on the U.S.S. da Vinci in the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series as a tactical officer on the bridge.

Anyhow, here’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Amazing Grace.” I can think of no better tribute to Shabalala’s enduring musicianship, his glorious smile, his immense talent, and just the incredible joy he took in performing.

Rene Auberjonois, RIP

renecc81-auberjonois

I only got to meet Rene Auberjonois a couple of times at conventions we were both guests at. He was a sweet, engaging, fun guy. That same story is being told a lot, as he always was happy to engage with Trek fans, and was always a happy, friendly presence at a convention.

As an actor he was always a sign of quality. I first saw him in Robert Altman’s MASH, in the small role of Father “Dago Red” Mulcahy, and in Benson as Clayton Endicott III, which was probably the role he was best known for prior to being cast in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1992. In fact, I remember learning that Auberjonois would be in DS9 27 years ago and being thrilled beyond all imagining, because I knew he’d be amazing.

And he was. As he was in everything he was in, whether it was his two other Trek roles (in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and an episode of Enterprise), other genre shows (he had a delightful recurring role on Warehouse 13, and he had a particularly strong guest turn on an episode of Stargate SG-1), or in one of his many films with Altman (besides MASH, there was Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Images), or anywhere else (from Boston Legal to The Little Mermaid).

On the DS9 documentary What We Left Behind, Auberjonois said he was always grateful to be cast on a Trek TV show, because it meant that when he died, the headline wouldn’t be that the guy who played Clayton on Benson died. (The joke was on him — while pretty much every headline mentioned Trek, many also mentioned Benson, as well as MASH and/or Boston Legal.)

He was a great man — he was always using the money he made at conventions to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontièrs — and a great actor, and he will be gravely missed.

Dorothy C. Fontana, RIP

fontana

Dorothy C. Fontana has died at the age of 80.

Fontana was one of the driving creative forces behind the original Star Trek in the 1960s and was the show-runner of the animated spinoff in the 1970s. She was responsible for a lot of the character development of Spock, notably in “This Side of Paradise,” “Journey to Babel,” and “Yesteryear.” She’s probably the only person to write for four different Trek TV shows (original, animated, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine), and in a just world, she’d be considered the co-creator of TNG.

She continued to write for Trek tie-ins, including prose, comics, and role-playing game material, and for fan films, and her influence on the franchise can still be seen in the use of Spock, Sarek, and Amanda Grayson in Star Trek Discovery, which used her work as a springboard for how those characters, as well as that of Michael Burnham, were developed.

I confess to not always being the biggest fan of her writing, but that doesn’t change that she was a great person, a great writer, and a huge and influential part of the most popular science fiction story of the past five decades.

Rest in peace, great lady.

 

in memoriam on Veterans Day

veteransday

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army

Peter Mayhew, RIP

peter-mayhew-chewbacca-lucasfilm-getty-1120

Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and The Star Wars Holiday Special, and who mentored Joonas Suotamo to take over the role in The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker, has died at the age of 74.

I’ve always had a tendency to gravitate toward the sidekick more than the hero. I liked Iolaus better than Hercules, Lord Bowler better than Brisco County Jr., Methos and Richie more than Duncan, and so on.

For that and other reasons, I always gravitated toward Chewbacca. As an eight-year-old in the movie theatre, the first thing I wanted to know after Star Wars ended was why Chewie didn’t get a medal like Han and Luke did.

Chewbacca’s loyalty, friendship, dedication, and strength have been a constant throughout all those films I mentioned in the first paragraph. The single most powerful emotional moment in the entire SW saga was in Empire when they had to close the blast doors against the devastating cold of Hoth at night and Chewbacca rears his head back and screams his anguish to the ceiling because his best friend is still out there somewhere.

Rest in peace, Peter Mayhew. You made the sidekick, who didn’t even have any dialogue that the viewers could comprehend, into a passionate, compassionate, brilliant character.

 

Rabbi David M. Honigsberg and my Grandma

 

Baggot9

Twelve years ago this morning, I got a phone call informing me that my dear friend David M. Honigsberg had died.

Ninety-six years ago today, my grandmother Marianina DeBacco was born, the first of ten children Grazia DeBacco would give birth to.

The 27th of March will always be a day of sadness for me.

Grandma was always called “Annie” as she grew up in western Pennsylvania during the Depression, and by adulthood she considered her first name to be “Ann.” She met Manfred Andreassi in the 1940s when he was visiting family and they got married in 1946, with Fred taking Ann back to New York with him. They raised four kids, the oldest of whom was my mother, GraceAnne (her name a portmanteau of her mother’s and grandmother’s). Grandma moved back to Pennsylvania after her husband died in 1976, first living with her mother, then in an old-folks’ residence after Nana died in 2003.

Grandma used to babysit me when I was a kid. I was, sadly, present when Grandpa died that awful July day in ’76, with seven-year-old me barely understanding what was going on.

Of my four grandparents, she was by far the longest-lived — my paternal grandparents died in 1971 and 1988, with my maternal grandfather between them in ’76, but Grandma made it all the way to the 21st century, finally going in her sleep in April 2016. (Her funeral wound up being on my 47th birthday, which was — weird.)

David was one of my best friends. Through most of the 1990s, we were in a band together, the Don’t Quit Your Day Job Players. He wrote a Silver Surfer short story for me when I worked for Byron Preiss, Marina and I hosted his ordination party after he was made a rabbi, and he and I attended numerous conventions and went on the road for concerts together a lot between 1995 and 2001. We recorded two CDs together, and he used our work together on another CD after the band split up. We played live together more times than I can count, before, during, and after the band’s heyday. He consulted on the first-ever Klingon-Jewish wedding, in the story “Creative Couplings,” a Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers novella by Glenn Hauman & Aaron Rosenberg that I edited. He organized “WineCon,” a group gathering to the wineries on the North Fork of Long Island (before that area became hip and trendy).

He was my rabbi, which is a weird thing for this non-Jewish agnostic to say, but there it is. He and his wife Alexandra, who is a priest (yes, really), held a wonderful little gathering in Fort Tryon Park a few days after 11 September 2001 that was a big help in our collective healing process.

I’m now older than David was when he died. This will forever freak me out.

Wrenn and I didn’t get together until after he died, and I was always particularly sorry for that, as he knew Wrenn also, and I’m fairly certain he would have been very happy to see us as a couple. I wish he was still here for any number of reasons, not least being that we would have asked him to perform our wedding. (No offense, Glenn.)

Today I miss my Grandma and I miss my rabbi.

MORE WHISKEY!

199525_1966151038499_6610423_n

Top picture: me and David Honigsberg playing at the Baggot Inn in 2000 with the Don’t Quit Your Day Job Players.

Bottom picture: my mother, my grandmother, and me at Grandma’s nursing home in 2011.