MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
That quote — usually attributed to Dorothy Parker but more likely originated by Oscar Levant — might also apply to the Memphis-born, California-based actor, artist and writer Chris Ellis, but with this modification:
“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue and pencil.”
With piercing wit and pencil to match, Ellis, 67, has turned what he calls an “idle amusement” into an “avocation” and, now, a source of recognition, online and — more to the point, in this case — on the walls of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, where 56 of Ellis’ illustrated “obituaries” will be on display through Sept. 23.
A product of the oft-derided Northwest Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, a graduate of Westside High School, a longtime fixture on the local stage, a one-time habitué of the P&H Cafe and a movie and television actor who has worked with everyone from clean-cut Ron Howard (“Apollo 13”) to infected-cut Rob Zombie (“The Devil’s Rejects”), Ellis will return to his hometown Sunday for a 3 p.m. reception at the museum on the U of M campus.
The show — Ellis’ first — is titled “The Quick and the Dead: Drawing and Obituaries by Chris Honeysuckle Ellis.” The honeyed nom de plume is both a tribute to a favorite actor (Honeysuckle Weeks, star of the British detective drama “Foyle’s War”) and an evocation of his Memphis past. Said Ellis: “Sipping the delicious nectar of the honeysuckle blossom recalls to me the single happy memory I have of childhood in Frayser.”
The exhibition consists of roughly magazine cover-sized pencil caricature portraits of famous dead people, grouped by theme (music, acting, literature, civil rights and so on). Each portrait is accompanied by an Ellis-penned “obituary” that is as likely to be bilious (Nathan Bedford Forrest) as admiring (Muhammad Ali). The drawing style is very much indebted to the work of longtime political caricaturist and New York Review of Books illustrator David Levine, a fact Ellis acknowledges by including Levine (who died in 2009) in the show.
Other portraits run riot across the spectrum of fame and infamy, from Anne Frank to Anna Nicole Smith. The roll call includes Prince, Patsy Cline, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Sputnik Monroe, Henry James, Camus, Darwin, James Arness, Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne, longtime P&H proprietress Wanda Wilson and former Memphis Press-Scimitar critic Edwin Howard, to name a few.
The accompanying text is often jokey, if dark (“the prose equivalent of a caricature,” in Ellis’ words). For example, the W.C. Fields “obituary” begins: “What Christmas Day is complete without the death of W.C. Fields? Well, actually any Christmas Day except that of 1946.”
Political commentary also often is present. States one “obituary”: “16-year-old Box Top Alex Chilton needed a ticket for an aeroplane (no time to take a fast train); 59-year-old Big Star Alex Chilton needed health insurance, for the want of which he was unable to get medical help that might have prevented his early death … .”
Ellis said he has been producing drawings and “obituaries” daily for several years, posting the results on social media. He chooses people who interest him, but sometimes reacts on deadline. (He said he posted his Jerry Lewis obit by midnight of Lewis’ death day.)
Explained Ellis: “I noticed in social media … there was a tendency to observe the birthdays of literary eminences, so I thought: ‘I will observe the death days.’ There was no more to it other than the fact that you cannot slander the dead. When you draw the quick as well as the dead, the quick quickly want a face-lift or get their feelings hurt.”
Ellis said producing these daily “obituaries” is time consuming, but “I have a lot of time. I’m an actor. So what I do for a living is sit around and wait for the phone to ring.”
Art Museum director Leslie Luebbers said Ellis’ caricatures are not out of place in an institution better known for antiquities from Egypt, ceremonial ornaments from sub-Saharan Africa and apocalyptic folk art.
“Like all caricatures, good ones, they distill aspects of people into an essential portrait that invites an emotional reception,” she said. “They’re incredibly insightful.”
Ellis’ exhibit includes a portrait of Elisha Cook Jr., who was the quintessential character actor. Ellis probably can relate. Located in Greater Los Angeles since about 1990, Ellis’ impressive credits include “Days of Thunder,” ”Armageddon,” ”The X-Files,” ”That Thing You Do!” (he played the band’s original manager), Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” the penultimate episode of “Mad Men” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Most of his roles, Ellis said, have been variations on “the theme of playing Sheriff Cracker Von Peckerwood. And I’ve sort of aged out of that sheriff role and have not completely eased into ‘the elder statesman,’ ‘the senator,’ ‘the judge,’ ‘the grandpa’ … .” Until then, he states in the biography he wrote for the exhibit, he’ll continue to amuse himself and his online audiences by “slandering the dead one day at a time.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com