It’s a scoobie oobie doobie scoobie doobie melody.
So if I said to you one of my favourite actors is famous for appearing in two of cinema’s best-loved celebrations of madness, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Shining (1980), you’d think Jack Nicholson right? Well you’d be wrong.
I’m actually talking about Scatman Crothers. The gentleman getting his ear burnt off by Jack’s tales of drug-addled debauchery in the photo above. Or maybe he’s explaining that some white guy will steal his name and have a hit single in the mid 1990s, Scatman finds it hilarious…
Benjamin Sherman Crothers was born in Indiana in 1910 and died of cancer at the tender age of 76. He would have been 101 last month. And the fact he died 25 years ago last month is also worthy of note and motivation for those people who only like to acknowledge people due to a big landmark. (*cough* Bob Dylan at 70 *cough*)
As with a lot of things I draw strange comparisons between things so I’ve always ended up associating Scatman Crothers with Scatman John, born John Paul Larkin.
His big hit, Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop) was an Attention Bebe (16 piece 1990s cover band I tactlessly rocked the glockenspiel in) staple for a while, and is worth a quick listen.
Now wasn’t that nice.
But I don’t really want to talk about Scatman John. That was only to lure you in. This is really about one of the finest voices of the 20th century…
Onward as we go through some hastily-compiled chunks of text about the late great Scatman Crothers!
Scatman Crothers was a ridiculously talented man. Music, acting, singing, dance, seems like he could do it all. Making his name as a multi-instrumentalist in a variety of jazz band, playing for Al Capone along the way. He played the drums, guitar and piano. A verifiable one man band. Even as he became famous for his TV and movie work, he continued to play music throughout his career, evolving from scat-singing, through jazz ballads to R&B.
If you’re not too pushed looking for any of his albums, then you can whittle away some time going through some of his favourites – Keep that Coffee (with added Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio intro), the Fats Domino classic Blueberry Hill (with added vinyl pops and hiss) and my favourite of all, his cut of the classic American blues standard St. James Infirmary Blues (hey i thought this was a White Stripes song…).
So minstrel shows or anything involving stereotyping or blackface make-up are all ridiculously racist and we shouldn’t talk about it, right? Well yes and no.
Now now, I’m not arguing the offence caused by these shows but cultural history should never be completely swept aside. You can easily make the argument that so many of these racial stereotypes have now just moved across to cable TV and Tyler Perry movies, only now for the first time maybe since the civil war, they’re being conceived and performed by black people for a black audience.
Anyway, before we turn this into a dissertation, lets’ take a look at Scatman Crothers performing (he’s the judge) in Yes Sir, Mr. Bones, the story of “a young boy who finds himself in a home for retired minstrel acts.”
Kind of uncomfortable viewing, no? The movie is obviously not a minstrel show per se but does help you imagine the challenges of being a black performer in 1950s America before some the time of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Shaft, MJ, Oprah and Obama.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Scatman Crother’s Mr. Turkle is the best thing about Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Only joking. I’m being sensationalist. His role as a night orderly is tiny and hardly pivotal to the story but he always stood out to me as one of the few balanced characters in a movie full of over the top performances.
Playing a memorable part in a film like this that sports with such a tremendous supporting cast (Hi Danny DeVito. Oh it’s you Mister Christopher Lloyd!) is no mean feat at all. Remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is only the 2nd film in history to take home the five main oscars (1934’s It Happened One Night and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs are the other two to garner Director, Picture, Screenplay, Lead Actor & Lead Actress).
Stanley Kubrick. The Shining. Here’s Johnny. Etc.
And now on to his part in what is probably my favourite movie of all time. Or certainly the one I name to avoid ridicule over non-believers in the power or enduring message of The Care Bears Movie or Rocky IV.
Crothers plays the part of the chef, Dick Hallorann, in the Overlook Hotel. He has a telepathic gift which enables him to communicate with Danny, the boy at the centre of the story. Danny’s father Jack, played by Jack Nicholson, and mother Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, have travelled to the snowy Oregon hotel to act as winter caretakers while Jack works on his book. Hilarity and insanity soon follow.
It’s easy to forget just how ridiculed The Shining was on its original release. Razzie nominations. Universal disdain from fans of Stephen King’s original novel. Rumours of huge cast disagreements and an out of control production.
And yet here we are 30 years later and it’s considered one of the preeminent horror films of the 20th century.
Crothers, while blessed with psychic powers, still comes across as a lovable everyman. It’s kind of fitting that in the very end, it’s Hallorann that is the saviour that forges the escape from the hotel.
Scatman = Scat Cat
Well anyway this under-appreciated classic sees Scatman having to really push himself by voicing a character by the name of Scat Cat. Despite the challenges of voicing a cat with a slightly different name to him, he excels in the role. He’s hilarious and quite the rogue.
It was Crothers’ break-out voice role which would lead to a lot of voice work over the next 15 years, and upped his profile to the extent that he could be considered for serious acting roles like Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.
“What is a schwinger?”
Bonus fact: Zsa Zsa Gabor’s younger sister Eva voices Duchess.
Hong Kong Phooey
Scatman Crothers was also the voice of the title-character in this Hanna-Barbera animated series from the mid-70s. It is better than The Jetsons. But not as good as The Flintstones. It was (is still?) aired on the UK/Irl retro-cartoon channel, Boomerang.
Scatman, Freddy Prinze Senior and Charlie’s Grandpa Joe
I had never heard of Chico and the Man until I started digging into the Scatman’s TV work. It ran on NBC between 1974 and 1978 and starred Jack Albert (better known as Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and Freddy Prinze (Snr) alongside Crother’s “Louie the Garbage Man”. The show was set in East Los Angeles in a small run down garage where the owner, Ed Brown, became partners in the business with a young Mexican Chico Rodriguez. Ethnic minorities a-hoy!
The show was doomed following the suicide of Freddy Prinze, who shot himself aged 22. They continued for a full season after his death, but much like Glenroe “post-Dinny”, the show never recaptured its former glory.
Long before Michael Bay got his hands on the racist twins in Transformers (2005) creating a stereotyping storm in a teacup, Crothers was actually the voice of another controversial Transformer, the autobot “Jazz”. This good-guy transformer was usually second in command to Optimus Prime, both in the original animated series and the 1986 motion picture.
Jazz may be a white Porsche, but he is also very obviously trapped inside the mind of a black man.
While it’s a well-known fact that the original Transformers movie was Orson Welles’ last ever role, less people are probably aware that it was also the final time we’d hear the inimitable voice of Scatman Crothers.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1985 and a heavy smoker for much of his adult life, he died from a malignant tumour that spread from behind his lung to his esophagus.
He’s buried beside his wife of 49 years, Helen, in Hollywood, California.
Via the magic of findagrave.com…