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Brian Cox, Vikki Carr Share Their Showbiz Life Lessons

Succession
Peter Kramer/HBO

Brian Cox

Brian Cox is Emmy-nominated for his memorable work in HBO’s “Succession” as patriarch Logan Roy, the head of a ruthless and viewer-addictive family of power-brokers.

Cox, born in Dundee, Scotland, has created many memorable characters in his six-decade career, including roles in such works as HBO’s “Deadwood,” blockbuster films such as “Braveheart” and “Troy,” and cult faves like “Rushmore,” “Zodiac,” “Super Troopers” and “Adaptation.” He was also the screen’s first Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s 1986 “Manhunter.” (The film changed Thomas Harris’ spelling of Lecter in his book.)

The actor talks about important lessons he’s learned in life, from Michael Elliott (who directed Cox in a stage adaptation of “Moby Dick,” Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party,” among others), director Lindsay Anderson (“In Celebration”), and fellow Scottish actor Fulton Mackay. But the most important piece of advice he got was from his mother.

‘It’s a journey’

“When I was much younger, two directors who were major influences in my acting life told me that it would be the long haul. It certainly has been. It’s a journey. I consider myself fortunate that I had early advice not to panic. The greatest advice came from the Scottish actor Fulton Mackay. When I was young, I was quite ambitious and he said, ‘Brian, don’t worry about being a star. Just say your prayers and be a good actor.’

“That was the best advice. Fulton was a great actor and a wonderful man; in ‘Local Hero,’ he plays the old man who owns the beach.

“Two other important people were the director Michael Elliott — Marianne Elliott’s dad — who was maybe the greatest theater director I ever worked with, a real visionary. And then director Lindsay Anderson, who gave me the best single piece of di­­rection as an actor: He said, ‘Brian, don’t just do something; stand there.’”

‘What’s for you will not go by you’

“I had a career plan, and it was going OK; I made my West End debut when I was 21, a starring role in ‘As You Like It.’ Things were going well, but when I was about 30, things began to … It was very odd.

“I remember thinking ‘I’m not ready for Hollywood.’ I felt overwhelmed by the place.

“There were a lot of episodes like that, particularly in that period. I was doing things that I thought would lead to something else. That’s been pretty true of my life. My mother, God rest her soul, gave me a great piece of advice when I was young. She said, ‘Just remember, Brian: What’s for you will not go by you.’

“That was very important. That’s Irish-Scots — or Scots-Irish — wisdom: If it’s meant to be, it will happen. If not, it won’t. And either way, that’s right.”

‘Just trust’
“I think people don’t trust the Fates enough. It makes for the Life Unexpected. So if you’re living in a crisis like COVID, you just have to say ‘We’ll come through; it’ll happen.’ Just trust.

“I’ve seen people panic. They think they’re losing something — the amount of people who’ve committed suicide — bright, smashing, wonderful people. They’ve been caught suddenly doing nothing, and feeling a sense of redundancy. It’s not that at all.

“I think COVID can be a blessing in disguise. But I know I’m lucky. There are people far worse off than me, stuck in a little room somewhere and hurting for money. And there’s been a lot of ignorance. Some people say, ‘Why wear a mask, is that supposed to save other people?’ Yes, it saves other people, but it saves you as well.

“Just wear a mask, it’s no big deal!”

‘The event was not for me, so it went by me’

“On the morning of 9/11, I was on a plane, hopefully headed for Los Angeles on United 24. There was a bit of a crisis on my plane. The crew was muttering, ‘They’re late, we have to take off.’ It was a packed plane, but when we took off, there were three empty seats. I didn’t think about it; I later heard rumors, but I dismissed them. But much, much later, it was confirmed to me that there had been another terrorist cell. They had tried to get on my plane, at a quarter to 9, but they were late, so they didn’t get on. There was one man in that group who was on the plane, but since they didn’t join him, he was on his own.

“We went down the runway, and a message came through, ‘There’s been a crash, a light aircraft has crashed into one of Twin Towers.’ They called it a light aircraft. They stopped our plane, so we pulled over. We were the first plane out, so the last one back.

“I could see smoke coming from one of the towers. Then suddenly in the distance there was the sound of pop. And you could see that the second plane had hit. My poor wife knew I was flying out that day, so she was in a terrible state. I was stuck in Long Island, and my phone didn’t work because I was with Verizon and its big transmitter was in one of the towers.

“I realized how very lucky I was.

“I lost my father when I was 8; my mom had series of nervous breakdowns and my older sister looked out for me. That was the most profound thing that happened to me, the major tragedy in my life. It affected me and affected my motivation. So I was never totally thrown by any subsequent events. With 9/11: How nearer my God to thee am I? It did shake me, to see something that hadn’t happened in this country, which was an invasion. That was a shocking event. I was blessed that day, and I realized that the 9/11 event was not for me — so it went by me.

Singer Vikki Carr in 1967 as her career was in full swing. Alamy Stock Photo

Vikki Carr

The San Gabriel Valley is only minutes from Hollywood, but for young Florencia Bisenta de Casillas-Martinez Cardona, aka Vikki Carr, it was a big journey and a bigger dream back in the 1950s, when the music charts and film and TV screens of America weren’t exactly packed with aspiring Latina pop singers.

Carr endured the indignities of the business and success was far from overnight. It was nearly another decade before she broke through with the megahit pop ballad “It Must Be Him,” and industry honors were 20 years away as she scooped up Grammy kudos for her Latin recordings of the ’80s and ’90s.

Carr just celebrated her 80th birthday, not on a nightclub or concert hall stage but sequestered at home during a global health crisis, and still reflecting on the loss of her husband, physician Pedro De Leon, who passed away in December. Vibrant and engaged in the idea of chatting about life lessons, Carr shared some insights learned both in the fresh bloom of youth and the seasoned vines of adulthood.

‘It’s now up to you.’

“My first guiding hand was my father. He wanted to sing. And he never got the opportunity. I was one of seven children and my father was very strict but he wanted me to do music. Decades after I started, the greatest compliment for me is when someone says, ‘When Vikki Carr sings we understand everything.’ It comes from the heart. I learned that from my dad. He said ‘Always sing from the heart. And when you can’t. Stop.’ I called him ‘My Mexican Omar Khayyam.’

“At the very beginning of my career, I auditioned for the Chi Chi club in Palm Springs. The bandleader was Pepe Callahan. My father never consulted with my mother. Here I was 18 years old and being thrown into the cold, cruel world. But my father was incredible. He said, ‘I have lectured you enough all your life. There’s nothing else I can do. It’s now up to you.’ So I picked myself up and went on and on for 60 years.”

Someone is listening

“It was the closing night for Nat King Cole at the Sands Hotel’s Copa Room in Las Vegas. I was playing in a lounge down the street and my friends had just come over and let me sneak into Copa to see the show. I went in with the group I was working with and we were all thrilled to see him perform. Later than night, I’m back in the lounge performing and here comes the crowd from the Copa Room, including Nat King Cole. I’m singing and singing and nobody is paying attention. On my break, I took a walk by the slots and my heart is broken. Then I hear a voice and look up and it’s Nat King Cole. He says, ‘I’d like to apologize for my friends. Maybe you thought no one was listening. I was listening. Don’t stop singing.’

“Three years later, I was invited by Nat King Cole to perform at the opening of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I was sharing the stage with Count Basie. That’s when Nat went into the hospital. He sent me a telegram. ‘I’m so sorry I can’t be there with you.’ I was a kid and here was one of the biggest stars, battling cancer, and he’s making sure I know he wishes he could be there.”

Question authority, especially male authority 

“When I started, I may as well have been 16. I was a little bit older, but I was a kid. From the beginning, I encountered the problems of being female and not being listened to. I worked my way through it and I kept going. And it wasn’t easy for any women back in the early ’60s. There was Shirley Bassey in London, Barbra Streisand in New York. They were the token female singers, the belters. Because the record executives, they never thought females would be able to sell. You never got booked on the big summer shows, where they would hire a male singer like John Gary, God bless him. For women it has been a fight for everything.

“Here’s an example: Ray Stark flew me to New York. He wasn’t happy with how Barbra Streisand was playing Fanny Brice in the show ‘Funny Girl.’ I watched the audience. She had them completely. But Stark said ‘We want someone who has more heart.’ After the show, I told him ‘Forget about it. I’m not interested. Anybody who comes in and tries to play this role will be crucified. This is Streisand’s baby.’”

“Even after I recorded ‘It Must Be Him,’ no one at the label believed in it. ‘They even asked me, ‘What do you want to promote? That song is never going to make it.’ I asked myself, ‘How can a man sitting behind a desk know what’s best, how can he be in charge of this when he’s not buying a ticket to my show?’”