january 2011

Crossing Over

Max Gail, Steve Landesburg and Hal Linden on the set of Barney Miller: ‘There was a cleanness and a simplicity that he would get to,’ Gail says of Landesberg’s comedy. ‘But that doesn't mean there wasn't a whole lot of thought that went into it.’

‘Don’t Analyze It. If It’s Funny, It’s Funny.’

Steve Landesberg

November 23, 1936-December 20, 2010

Google “Steve Landesberg” and the search results offer a telling tale: the entries are heavily weighted toward “Actor Steve Landesberg of ‘Barney Miller’ dies…” but every so often one pops up identifying the late comedian as the Forgetting Sarah Marshall actor. If you were watching the great TV sitcoms of the ‘70s, you knew Landesberg as the dyspeptic but brainy Sgt. Arthur Dietrich from the quirky, classic Barney Miller cop comedy series (which many real New York City cops said was closer to the reality of precinct life than shows such as NYPD Blue and the Law & Order franchises). The children of those 20-somethings who made Barney Miller a hit know Landesberg more for his small role as Jason Segel’s pediatrician in the 2008 romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a box office hit directed by Nicholas Stoller, co-produced by Judd Apatow and starring Segel, Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis.

To Max Gail, who played Det. Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz on Barney Miller, Landesberg was "a comic's comic.

"People were drawn to him, but comedians were really drawn to him," Gail told The Hollywood Reporter. "They recognized him as the real deal.

"If there's one image I have of Steve, it was a comedian doing a guest spot on the show who was trying to ask him about comedy while we're in the make-up room. And Steve's just going, don't analyze it. If it's funny, it's funny."

The veteran actor died on December 20 at age 65. The cause of death was colon cancer.

Barney Miller: Arthur Deitrich and Yemana discuss genealogy

Landesberg appeared in dozens of TV shows, his curly haired, bespectacled face easily recognizable. Recent credits included Everybody Hates Chris, Just Jordan, That 70s Show and American Dad.

"He was a wonderful comic and superb actor who gave so much of himself in every performance," said Shirley Jones, who appeared opposite Landesberg in what was one of his final appearances, an episode of The Cleaner last year.

His most successful role was that of Dietrich on Barney Miller, which was set in a New York City police station populated by oddballs and eccentrics. It aired from 1975 to 1982.

Inspector Luger attempts to explains Thanksgiving to 'agnostic' Dietrich

Landesberg's Dietrich was noted for his endless knowledge and expertise on seemingly every obscure subject imaginable, which was coupled with a sometimes patronizing attitude. He once refused to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to a fellow officer, explaining he was an agnostic and wouldn't know who to thank.

In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he listened patiently as Marshall's former boyfriend described a sexual tryst, then revealed he was really a pediatrician.

Landesberg also played a doctor in the TV series Head Case, which aired from 2007 to 2009. Other TV credits included The Rockford Files, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, Cosby, Law and Order and The Golden Girls.

While Landesberg appeared to make the laughter—both on the show and on stage—seem effortless, there was serious work involved.

"There was a cleanness and a simplicity that he would get to," says Gail. "But that doesn't mean there wasn't a whole lot of thought that went into it."

After Barney Miller ended in 1982, Landesberg and Gail kept in touch "like stones skipping through life.

"He took everything with calmness," Gail says of Landesberg’s thoughtful nature. "He was poised right there between how funny the world was and how profound it was. He would tip towards the funny side, but the profoundness never alluded him."

‘He sounds just like Gregory Peck!’ ‘I know. I can’t help it.’

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller called Landesberg “a comedy god.  He turned a pediatrician cameo in Forgetting Sarah Marshall into one of the stand out memorable scenes.  He was amazing at improv and game to try anything, not to mention a real gentleman.  I only worked with him briefly but I always hoped we'd get to work together again.  He will be greatly missed in the comedy community.”

Landseburg is survived by his wife, Nancy Ross Landesberg and a daughter, Elizabeth.


Septucentenarian James Reeta Jones, ‘a jolly and friendly person’ (Photo:Milton Jones)

Reeta Jones

October 17, 1898-December 1, 2010

Longest-lived Knoxvillian Ever?

On December 1 Mike Blackerby, a freelance contributor to the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Reeta Jones, presumed to the oldest person in Tennessee, had died at the home of one of her three surviving sons, Ancil, in Knoxville.

Reeta, standing at center with dark hair, was born on a farm in West Knoxville that eventually became Bluegrass Road. Her 88-year-old son, Milton Jones, said his mother had suffered a stroke this past fall and her condition had progressively worsened in the succeeding weeks. “She had hospice and quit taking food and water a week ago,” Jones said. “We knew this was coming.”

Reeta Jones, standing at center with dark hair, was born on a farm in West Knoxville that eventually became Bluegrass Road. This photo was taken on the farm with her family in 1926, when she was 28. (Photo courtesy Milton Jones)

Born to James L. and Alice Dryman Green on October 17, 1898 in Knoxville, James Reeta Jones came into the world during the year of the Spanish-American War and the discovery of radium by the Curries, Marie and Pierre. The farm where she was born is now Bluegrass Road in West Knoxville. Her son Milton said his mother’s parents gave her a male Christian name because their other children were all girls and they wanted a son.

"We were raised on a work farm," Milton Jones told Blackerby. "We worked from daylight to dark. My oldest brother, Leonard, was called 'Get wood.' I was called 'Get water.'"

Reeta Jones and her husband of 70 years, Oscar D. Jones, were parents to five sons and a daughter. Oscar Jones died at age 92 in 1990. Daughter Bonnie Smith and sons Leonard and O.D. Jones predeceased her as well. Mrs. Jones is survived by her children and their spouses, Milton and Ruth Jones; Darryl and Mary Jones; Ancil and Nancie Jones; daughter-in-law, Mary Katherine Jones; 14 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.

Barbara Monty, director of the Community Action Committee's Office on Aging in Knox County, said Mrs. Jones is likely the longest-lived Knoxvillian ever.

"Nobody here remembers having anybody that old in Knox County," said Monty. "We've had someone who claimed to be 106 or 108, maybe."

Milton Jones said there was a good reason his mother lived so long. "She was a jolly and friendly person."

Mrs. Jones never learned to drive a car. Up to the age of 102 she drove herself around the neighborhood in a golf cart, becoming something of a local celebrity in the process. She attributed her longevity to a healthy living lifestyle as found in the Bible and to her faith and trust in God. The cherry pies she liked to bake couldn’t have hurt either.

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