Len Kluge: Remembering an immense talent


There have been waves of grief in the last couple weeks, all of it understandable. We respect great talent and great effort; we respect the magic of Michael Jackson, the glow of Farrah Fawcett, the passion of Karl Malden.

Still, for me the tough thing to deal with was the loss of Len Kluge. He was one of the three great stage actors I've seen -- the others are John Peakes and Carmen Decker -- and he was brilliant.

If you're not from around Lansing, Mich., those names might not click with you; jump to my previous blog, on tonight's "So You Think You Can Dance." If you did know or see Len, please add your comments.

I first saw him in "The Championship Season," at what was then the Okemos Barn Theatre. It was a revelation -- a subtly perfect play, revolving around the complex character of a tough basketball coach. Len played the part, capturing every nuance.

In the years that followed, he would do that over and over. He could be fiercely passionate in Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller pieces, but he was also perfect as the emotionally restrained therapist in Michigan State University's "Equus." He could even be funny -- broadly so in "The Odd Couple," slyly so in a surprising little breakfast-table moment of BoarsHead Theater's "Our Town."

 Most of the great moments came at Spotlight Theatre, which he co-started and kep going for 20 years. He directed skillfully and got great performances out of young actors -- in particular, I remember a teen-aged Tricia Morshek in the Barn's "Children's Hour" and a young Jeff Magnuson in ... well, everything.

Like many great actors, Len turned out to have a great back story. He grew up as the son of a small-town grocer, a man he spoke of glowingly. He went to New York, where he drew some strong praise and an alcohol problem. He retreated to his home state -- winning the Central Michigan University acting award twice, 10 years apart -- and then reached Lansing.

He loved women and married often, the last time to a gorgeous young actress who provided, I felt, a perfect match. He loved baseball and got season tickets as soon as the Lugnuts reached town. He seemed to love life -- yet somehow could capture its depths perfectly on stage. He lived well and died at 63 -- way, way too soon.

He died at the same time as Jackson and Malden and Fawcett and more. His life and death meant something extra: It reminded us that great talent isn't just some distant thing; at times, it's in our midst.


"Dance": Try to be best AND last

Sure, there's a luck of the draw (literally) in "So You Think You Can Dance." Reaching into the hat, some people draw popular, viewer-pleasing routines; some don't. The duo that drew the quick-step last week began instantly preparing to be in the bottom three.

Still, there's also the luck of timing. It's good to have a great routine; it's better to have it near the end.

I thought the addiction number -- choreographed by Mia Michaels, danced by Kupono Aweau and Kayla Radonski -- was magnificent, one of the best moments ever on a show that's had many good ones. That routine, however, was the second of the night; before voting began, 100 minutes had elapsed and 10 more numbers had been performed.

By comparison, Janette Manrara and Brandon Bryant hit the jackpot -- a brilliant Wade Robson routine, filled with zesty humor, danced at the end of the show. They were also terrific earlier, in a zesty Argentine tango, while costumed in rich reds and blacks. They'll be around.

Here are a few of my other comments; please add yours:

1) Yes, it's been a week since my previous blog. Blame the 4th of July or Wisconsin or me. I'll get back to that now; I'll also offer some separate comments on the late Len Kluge, a great actor.

2) I liked the the interchange after that Janette-Brandon tango. "I can't contain myself," Mary Murphy said (or screamed). Added Cat Deeley: "You didn't."

3) It's too bad the current partnerships will be broken up next week; some are perfect. Evan Kasprzak and Randi Evans are ideal because they're similar, two down-sized dancers, filled with zest; Melissa Sandvig and Ade Obayomi are ideal because they're opposites, an ivory ballerina and an ebony contemporary dancer, meshing perfectly.

4) Then again, we can't be sure Evan and Randi will be back next week. Until now, they've had great luck in drawing their best forms -- uptempo numbers with a jazzy or Broadway feel. This time they did well with a hip-hop number, then had less success with a samba.

5) Melissa and Ade will definitely be around, though. Their disco number was fun; their "Natural Woman" was gorgeous.

6) You had to feel the pain of Phillip Cabeeb, when he learned he and Jeanine Mason would be doing a Russian folk dance. They did it pretty well, however, then scored with a jive piece.

7) OK, I'm stumped about who will be in the bottom three on Thursday (9 p.m., Fox). I'll say Evan and Randi, Phillip and Jeanine and -- despite some great work -- Caitlin Kinney and Jason Glover.

8) Then the judges have to cut two of them, one male and one female. Those will be the people who just miss the final 10.

9) Missing the final 10 means they'll miss the 40-city tour. Anyone eliminated now is a terrific dancer, so life is not fair.

10) I mean really, not fair at all. Or maybe you knew that already.



THAT was dance variety

There's a giant universe out there, under the title of "dance." That was especially clear in tonight's "So You Think You Can Dance."

Back-to-back, we saw pieces that may have been overthought. One had an alien woman impregnating the last Earth man; the other had a man and woman chained together, literally. The dancers (Caitlin Kinney and Jason Glover, Phillip Cabeeb and Jeanine Mason) did their best, but the pieces limited what they could do.

Then came the show's first ballet piece. Melissa Sandvig (who is a ballerina) and Ade Obayomi (who isn't) became Juliet and Romeo. It was smooth, flowing and wonderful. To the show's credit, it was the excact opposite of the pieces that preceded it.

Here are a few of my comments; please add yours:

1) If you live in the Lansing, Mich., area, please read and comment on the obituary that precedes this. Len Kluge was an astonishingly good actor and a fascinating person. I'll write more about him in a future blog.

2) Part of tonight's mixed reactions involved sub-conscious racial images. The alien piece had a blonde woman (Caitlin) taking a black man (Jason) in tattered clothes for her sexual needs; it flashed of a plantation nightmare from America's past. By comparison, the black and white of Romeo and Juliet created stunning beauty.

3) Credit goes to the costumer who came up with that final gimmick. With a flip of the hand, Karla Garcia switched from an ugly, polka-dot dress to a gorgeous red one.

4) Negative credit goes to putting Caitlin under all that cloth and Spandex. Television's best torso remained hidden.

5) My prediction for the bottom three: The two duos chained (almost literally) by imposing routines -- Caitlin and Jason, Phillip and Jeanine. Also, Evan Kasprzak and Randi Evans, who did their best with a so-so Broadway piece in the Bob Fosse style. We'll see on Thursday (9 p.m., Fox), with Kelly Clarkson as the musical guest.


Len Kluge was a great actor, fine person


Len Kluge, who died early this morning, was as fine an actor as I've ever seen. He was also a fascinating person, a guy who loved theater, baseball and life. Here's a quick obituary.

If you're reading this from outside Lansing, Mich., go on to the previous blogs. (Also, remember to savor the great actors in your town.) And if you're from Lansing, please add your own thoughts:

Len Kluge, whose intense performances
were a key part of local theater for decades, died early this

Kluge, 63, was founder of Spotlight
Theatre, which had a 20-year stay in Grand Ledge. He was also known
for work in other theaters, from a much-praised “That Championship
Season” at the Okemos Barn to “Our Town” at BoarsHead Theater.

He died at 12:20 a.m. this morning
after being hospitalized for 40 days, said Jeff Magnuson, a longtime
friend and acting colleague. “He had an amazing sense of humor, a
love of food, a love of Mexico, a love of his wife (Heather
Lenartson-Kluge) and his cats,” Magnuson said.

On stage, however, Kluge was all
business. Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New
York City, he learned and taught the Method technique, sinking deeply
into a role.

Magnuson first saw that when he was a
16-year-old Everett High student, running the spotlight for Kluge's
one-man show as crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow.

“It was something to see him so
totally in the moment,” he said. “He was so natural, so

The son of a small-town grocer, Kluge
grew up in Lakeview, a town of about 1,100, 30 miles west of Mount
Pleasant, where he went to Central Michigan University. He left early
to go to New York, where he had some success. He did a praised,
two-man play with Danny DeVito, had some TV roles and headed toward

That changed, however, when he met a
CMU professor who sensed his alcoholism and convinced him to return
to school. Kluge ended up winning the school's acting award twice, 10
years apart.

In Lansing, he turned the Ledges
Playhouse – known for light, summer shows – into a place where
people often found tough dramas by Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and
more. Magnuson recalled such shows as “The Deputy,” “A Man For
All Seasons,” “Royal Gambit” and “Long Day's Journey Into

All were done with Method-style
passion, Magnuson said. “He followed the system that he learned in
New York and became the character. It was amazing to watch him.”


Kings and queen of the jungle

The show started as sheer silliness and ended with reassuring news: Nice people can finish first ... and second ... and third, even on "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here."

Lou Diamond Phillips won, with former wrestler Torrie Wilson second and former Detroit Piston basketball player John Salley third. Here's my interview with them; scroll down and you'll find interviews with some other evictees, from Sanjaya Malakar (who is thoroughly likable) to Janice Dickinson (who, alas, is not):

When all the early commotion – the
Spencer-Heidi-Janice fuss – was gone, “I'm a Celebrity … Get Me
Out of Here” became a picture of civility.

Lou Diamond Phillips – the camp's
rock-solid leader from the beginning – was named “King of the
Jungle” in Wednesday's finale. The next day, he praised the people
who came close, including Torrie Wilson (second), John Salley
(third), Sanjaya Malakar and Patti Blagojevich.

“They are just amazing human beings,”
Phillips said by phone Thursday.

The top three lasted all 24 days in the
Costa Rican jungle, facing various amounts of displeasure. Phillips
had fierce insect bites; Salley didn't. (“I got about five bites,
total,” he said.) Wilson was somewhere between. “The flies were
what made me insane,” she said.

And what about the verbal insanity of
the week with Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag and the two-plus weeks
with Janice Dickinson? “Their behavior speaks for itself,”
Phillips said.

At first, Pratt kept stirring arguments
and announcing they were leaving. When they returned – despite the
others voting not to let them back _ they were “contrite and a
little more human,” Phillips said.

Salley got along with them (“I've already got Spence on my
Twitter”), but not with Dickinson. “All of our fights were real,”
he said.

Phillips marvelled at the excesses of Pratt and Montag, the young
reality-show stars, and recalled his earlier days with Charlie Sheen,
Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez and others. “They called us the
brat pack, but we've got nothing on them.”

Not all the young competitors
misbehaved, though. Phillips raved about Malakar, both physically –
“there's a lot of strength in that scrawny body” – and
personally. “What a sweet, wonderful kid, without a mean bone in
his body.”

In his own generation, Phillips was
impressed by Blagojevich. “She was a rock (alongside) those
ridiculously flamboyant personalities.”

Phillips now returns to a mixed career
that recently has had him singing (“Camelot,” on tour), directing
(Hallmark Channel's sweet-spirited “Love Takes Wing”) and acting.
Wilson – retired from wrestling after eight years and back surgery
– said she decided in the jungle to have a work-out video. And
Salley is doing … well, everything.

In addition to sports talk and acting
(he plays the world's tallest shopping addict in “Confessions of a
Shopaholic”), he's preparing books, a radio show and his
vegan-cooking Web site.

On “Celebrity,” cooking was his
obsession. “I know there's a so-called Hell's Kitchen, but I was in
sub-Hell's kitchen,” he said. “We were in 90-degree heat in the
jungle, but we always had the fire going.”