Over a few posts, I’m choosing different creators or creative teams–novelist, composer, scriptwriter, comic book artist, etc–who have influenced or inspired me, and in most cases brought me a lot of enjoyment.
For each year from 1919-2018, I’ll pick someone who produced something significant or recognizable from that year–based on what year it was published or released (with comic books being considered to have been released on the cover date, although I know that’s not usually true). And of course, lifetime accomplishments beyond that year will play a big role in who is chosen and who is not. Because certain years were tricky, I’ve also allowed myself to pick people who were born or even died in certain years.
1957 – Richard Matheson
I’m not nearly as familiar with the work of Richard Matheson as I’d like to claim to be, as the man is one of those seminal science fiction, fantasy and horror writers that real aficionados of the genres know all about, and the rest of us would like to in order to build credibility. Matheson wrote all sorts of novels, short stories and television episodes, offering imaginative looks at many science fiction ideas and, according to Roger Ebert, a scientific approach to the supernatural. I am familiar with his one Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within”, and a bunch of his Twilight Zone episodes, including “The Invaders”, “Night Call”, “Death Ship” and most famously, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” In spite of all of that, the thing that put him on this list for me was writing the cerebral science fiction screenplay, The Incredible Shrinking Man, which came out in 1957, based on his own novel. It’s a little too reliant on voice-over narration, but otherwise makes for an intense little science fiction character study.
1958 – Otto Binder
Otto Binder, born in 1911, was another one of these prolific writers back in the day, credited with literally thousands of stories in both prose and comics, including half of the entire original run of all the Marvel family of comics (eg. Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, etc)–and that’s hundreds of stories alone–as well as a ton of Superman-family stuff. Indeed, for DC Comics Binder had a hand in creating Supergirl, Braniac, the bottled city of Kandor, Krypto, the Phantom Zone, Lucy Lane, Jimmy Olsen as Elastic Lad, Beppo, Titano, Bizarro, Bizarro World, and Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch. It’s an amazing legacy regarding the expanded mythology of one of comic’s most significant characters. However, if that wasn’t enough, he also did something else, which is what really drew my attention and got him on this list. In 1958, he wrote a story, drawn by Al Plastino, about Superboy meeting some teenaged super-powered beings from the future who wanted him to join their super-hero club. It was a bit lame and cheesy and certainly did not portend the great things that were to come, but it was enough–they had created my favorite comic book series of all time: the Legion of Super-Heroes. And my world would never be the same, not exactly anyway.
1959 – Henry Mancini
I promised that this guy would show up a while ago, when I talked about John Williams (1932), who apparently played the famous opening piano riff on the Peter Gunn soundtrack. That piece won a Grammy in 1959 for “Best Arrangement”, and though it’s one of Manicini’s most well known works, it is just one of many. Henry Mancini was an American composer and musician who was born in my birth city of Cleveland, Ohio, and died in what still could become my death city, Los Angeles, California (though that seems unlikely at this point). He did loads of “easy listening” songs and jazzy orchestral scores, amongst which are the music for A Touch of Evil, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (including “Moon River”), The Great Mouse Detective, The Prisoner of Zenda, and most famously, The Pink Panther and its sequels. He also did TV, including themes to shows like Remington Steele, Newhart, and What’s Happening!! With all that, probably my favorite was the jazzy Peter Gunn theme, which is quintessential of its type, but the guy was amazingly prolific.
1960 – Billy Wilder
The Austrian born, later American film director is another one of those classic forces in film making of the day, who did lots of well regarded movies. But even though I’ve seen his Stalag 17 and The Fortune Cookie, he’s really on here for two works–done in back-to-back years and both examples of the best of Hollywood filmmaking. First, in 1959, there is uproariously funny Some Like It Hot, a mesmerizingly joyful piece of cinema in which Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress up as women and join an all-girl music troupe in order to avoid being murdered by the mob. They are both enchanted by Sugar Kane, the band’s lead singer, played by Marilyn Monroe. There’s lots of fun to be had in this farce, including some memorable supporting appearances by the likes of George Raft and Joe E. Brown. And then, the following year, 1960, Wilder released The Apartment, a film I might even respect more. Jack Lemmon stars again, along with Shirley MacLaine, in an artful mix of comedy and melancholy, in which they play employees who are both participants and victims of an old boy’s club at their work, but who ultimately find a kind of hope and redemption in each other. Fred MacMurray co-stars as basically the exact opposite character as he played on the long-running My Three Sons. If Wilder had never done anything else, these two movies are enough for me to put him on this list. Incidentally, both of these films prove that if nothing else, Billy Wilder knew how to end a movie–they both conclude with one of the great lines of cinema (which obviously require context to understand): “Nobody’s perfect”, and “Shut up and deal.”
1961 – Charles Schultz
When you do something with both financial success and an overall level of creative accliam for fifty continuous years, you are bound to influence somebody. And Charles Schultz has certainly impacted me with his day-in, day-out work on Peanuts, featuring Good ‘Ol Charlie Brown. Like many, I was familiar with Peanuts from a young age through the Sunday funnies and through the regular appearance of animated television specials. And like many children, I grew to love the strip’s dry wit and the characters’ humorous antics–but what makes Peanuts special is its blend of melancholy and optimism. It doesn’t sugar-coat childhood, but neither does it wallow in cynicism. This made it into something I could unashamedly enjoy at all ages of life. The first animated special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is still a favorite of mine, and on my shelf sits a nearly complete set of The Complete Peanuts. Schultz’ 50. year commitment to the project yielded some amazing results (even if I have to admit I was less engaged with his work from the mid-80’s onward). A quick bit of research tells me that 1961, for example, features an extended story about Lucy trying to force Linus to give up his blanket, a bunch of stuff about Charlie Brown failing to fly a kite, Snoopy befriending birds (before Woodstock came along), the first appearance of Frieda with her naturally curly hair & obsession with rabbits & her boneless cat, Charlie Brown writing his “Pencil Pal”, Lucy’s psychiatrist booth, a bunch of stuff around Lucy & Schroeder & Beethoven, the return of Miss Othmar (along with Linus’ disillusionment when he learns she teaches because she’s paid to), the Great Pumpkin and his choice of the most sincere pumpkin patch, and a whole bunch of stuff about baseball. Specifically, that year featured a strip in which Lucy fails to make a baseball catch because she was having a quiet time, and another set in which she makes people like on the floor and cough and then tries to kill their germs by stomping on them. So much classic material.
1962 – Steve Ditko
According to some tellings, Jack Kirby was Stan Lee’s first pick for drawing Spider-Man, but when Kirby’s version didn’t fit the vision, things were adjusted and Steve Ditko got the job, and the world got one of the most well-regarded comic book runs that America has produced. What’s impressive about reading those early Spider-Man comics is how quickly you can see the character and premise established–easily within five issues, we get all the core elements which continue to inform the presentation of the hero to this day. And while Kirby’s Spider-Man would certainly have had its own interest, Ditko’s interpretation is what gives us both Peter Parker’s pathos and Spider-Man’s angular physicality. Ditko demonstrated a mastery at visual storytelling, even if he wasn’t actually my favorite illustrator. Steve Ditko drew other stuff, including some uninspiring Legion of Super-Heroes stories, and he basically created the Question and the Silver Age Blue Beetle, but it’s for his work on Spider-Man, a character who debuted in 1962, that he makes it onto my list.
1963 – Verity Lambert & Sydney Newman
Doctor Who was clearly more than the product of two people, but there’s no doubt that key amongst them Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. Sydney Newman was the Head of Drama for the BBC who commissioned the show to begin with, while Verity Lambert was the young producer who pulled it all together and actually made it happen. Together, they helped to set the stage with a premise that was so solid, a character who was so intriguing, and a format that was so adaptable that we are still talking about it and watching it all these years later. Certainly much of the credit for the show becoming such a sensation belongs to the Daleks, but it was the debut episode, An Unearthly Child, which established the dramatic tone for all that would follow. And anyway, it was Verity Lambert who commissioned the Dalek story anyway. The story of the contribution these two made to creating the program was nicely dramatized in the docudrama An Adventure in Time and Space from 2013 where they were played by Brian Cox and Jessica Raine. There are others who deserve recognition here for helping to put together Doctor Who in its fledgling state–including script editor David Whttaker, director Waris Hussein, writer Anthony Coburn, executive and writer Donald Wilson, writer C.E. Webber, composer Ron Grainer, musical arranger Delia Derbyshire, designer Peter Brachacki, and actors William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford–but we will let Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman stand for them all. Plus, Newman was also responsible for The Avengers (the sixties TV show, not the Marvel superheroes), which might have been enough to get him on this list even without Doctor Who.
1964 – Paul Simon
I’ve always liked Simon & Garfunkel, with their evocative lyrics and engaging harmonies, and of the two it’s clear that Paul Simon is the premier songwriter. He was the solo writer of most of their output, including their most popular songs like Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Sounds of Silence (which was released in 1964). A full list of my favorites of his work would be pretty extensive, but it also includes The Boxer, April Come She Will, America, and I am a Rock. Paul Simon also has had an extensive career beyond Simon & Garfunkel, often leaning heavily into different international musical styles, including on his signature album Graceland. Plus he was a supporting actor in Annie Hall by Woody Allen, and has done a lot of funny stuff on Saturday Night Live.
1965 – Edmond Hamilton
Ed Hamilton was another prolific science fiction author (the third on this section of the list), and in the 1920’s and 1930’s one of the pioneers of the whole sub-genre known as space opera. But I know him for his early work on the Legion of Super-Heroes. Along with Jerry Siegel (see 1938), Edmond Hamilton wrote the Legion’s original ongoing series from 1963 to 1966. His science fiction adventure storytelling mixed with Siegel’s more off-the-wall goofiness to establish the foundation for the team upon which literally every other Legion writer’s work was built. Specifically he wrote the stories that introduced Element Lad, Lightning Lass, Legion of Substitute-Heroes, the Time Trapper, the Legion of Super-Pets, the Heroes of Lallor, Timber Wolf, the Luck Lords, and more. In 1964, Hamilton wrote one of my favorite stories, The Condemned Legionnaires, and in 1965, he wrote the story in which Lightning Lad loses his arm, the tale which the fake weddings of Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl and Ultra Boy & Phantom Girl, and the story which introduced Starfinger, the Legion’s first ever two-parter.
1966 – The Beatles
I debated about whether I just list John Lennon & Paul McCartney, the band’s more prolific songwriters, but in the end I decided that it’s really the whole group that I wanted to recognize: all four Beatle wrote music and contributed to the sound of what is easily the most popular and successful musical act of all time. They have so many classic tracks amongst their 12 or so albums that it’s sort of impossible to list them all, but they include favorites of mine such as Please Please Me, Help!, Here Comes the Sun, Strawberry Fields Forever, I Will, Eleanor Rigby and A Day in the Life. And that’s just a tiny, tiny fraction of their output, which all came in the astonishing short period from 1963 to 1970. They are without a doubt the band I am most familiar with, producing many toe-tapping popular hits, as well as stepping out in a lot of technical and musical experimentation which contributed to their quickly evolving sound. In 1966, the Beatles released Revolver, which would be the many people’s pick for their best album. It includes such diverse songs as the love ballad Here, There and Everywhere, the social satire of Taxman, a melancholy look at loneliness in Eleanor Rigby, and the boldy experimental Tomorrow Never Knows. And a whole bunch more. The Beatles are certainly one of those celebrity icons who can be semi-deified by fans, which is certainly inappropriate, but their influence upon me in terms of shear hours of listening is pretty immense.
1967 – Patrick McGoohan
Patrick McGoohan was an Irish-American actor who is best known to me and the world as the co-creator and star of The Prisoner, a surrealistic science fiction spy drama with counter-cultural overtones. In the series, which debuted in 1967, McGoohan played an unnamed spy who was known only as Number Six, who found himself in a holiday-resort style prison upon his decision to resign. The seventeen episode series revolved around his efforts to escape combined with his captor’s attempts to break his will. It’s a fascinating series and McGoohan is a compelling presence in it, with the short-lived final product proving incredibly influential in science fiction pop culture. In addition to producing the show, McGoohan also wrote and directed a bunch of episodes, and did the same for a handful of episodes of Columbo, often when he was guest starring in them. McGoohan was also well known as a television leading man before The Prisoner in the spy series Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), and was approached about playing James Bond but turned it down on moral grounds!
1968 – Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is a legendarily famous film director whose entire body of work has been scrutinized endlessly with a lot of critical acclaim, and includes films that I have seen such as Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Killing and The Shining…all movies I can admire on some level, even if I hate some of them. But, the reason Kubrick shows up on this list of mine, and especially for 1968, is mainly for one film only…a little something called 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was introduced to 2001 as a child, and was drawn into it in spite of its glacially slow pacing. It’s an incredibly stylized and maybe self-indulgent work, but this just means that it became the first movie that made me start thinking about film making as a process. 2001 has beautiful and mesmerizing visuals, powerful editing and sound editing, a soundtrack that makes memorable use of classical music and characters that are bizarrely compelling even though they barely act like people. The HAL 9000 computer is one of the great movie villains of all time, and the scene where Dave Bowman is able to get back into the ship and shut him down is one of cinema’s great dramatic moments.