Nicky Blair, the actor who called himself "the most well-known unknown" because people remembered his celebrity-magnet Hollywood restaurants but not his roles in 80 or so motion pictures and about 100 television shows, has died. He was 70.
Blair died Sunday of liver cancer in Los Angeles.
His death occurred just two months after his Las Vegas Nicky Blair's closed its doors, shuttered because of Blair's failing health and disputes with partners. The troubled Las Vegas outpost, an ill-fated attempt to replicate his Sunset Boulevard success, existed less than two years.
But Nicky Blair's was a fixture in Hollywood for far longer. Prodded by celebrities who often sampled his osso bucco and linguine at Sunday dinners in his home, Blair opened his first eatery in 1971 and operated it until the restaurant burned in 1976.
He reopened the even more popular Sunset Boulevard version in 1986 and served his movie star friends and admirers until 1993. Regulars included Milton Berle, the late George Burns, Tony Curtis and Sylvester Stallone.
The reclusive Clint Eastwood chose Nicky Blair's for his post-Oscar party in 1993 after winning the Academy Awards for directing and best picture for his "Unforgiven."
"At first Clint said he didn't want a party," Blair told The Times then. "He said, 'What if I lose? I'll be embarrassed.' I told him, 'Then they're not your friends.' So we had one."
In June, Blair filmed his final acting effort, a small role in Eastwood's forthcoming film "True Crime."
Nicky Blair's also developed a reputation as what Times columnist Jeannine Stein termed "a 'bimbo bar' where pretty young women come to scope out rich older men--usually rich older agents, producers or managers," presided over by Nicky Blair in what she called "turbo schmooze mode."
Asked about the "bimbo bar" tag in 1992, Blair told The Times: "The girls are beautiful girls, they're [area code] 714 and 805 and 818, they come in limousines, six girls for dinner, one was--believe it or not--a brain surgeon, another owned four beauty parlors. Girls with beautiful jobs come to Nicky Blair's 'cause it's a wonderful way to meet nice people. They're not looking for guys, they're there to have fun 'cause it's a fun restaurant with a wonderful bar and good music."
While patrons seemed attracted by Blair's personality, his celebrity friends and the bar scene, Blair continued to stress the importance of the food. At one time, he even discussed franchising a Nicky Blair's in Milan, insisting "My Italian food is better than their Italian food."
"Actually, the food is good," evaluated former Times restaurant critic Lois Dwan after Blair set up shop on Sunset. "Not up there with the great originals, clinging a little stubbornly to 'the way my mother showed me,' not quite tuned to the siren call of the new. But it is respected food, given its dignity, not awkward or pudgy or out of place in the persnickety post-nouvelle restaurant world of Los Angeles, but probably not at all the reason for going. That is still Nicky Blair."
Born Nicholas Macario in Brooklyn, the bit-part actor played Shorty Farnsworth, Elvis Presley's sidekick in the 1964 "Viva Las Vegas," and was an usher with one line in Frank Sinatra's "Ocean's Eleven." Blair's Las Vegas restaurant had several autographed photos on the walls, including one from Sinatra signed, "To the star from his favorite bit player."
Among Blair's other film credits over 40 years were "Rogue Attack," "Operation Petticoat," "Hell to Eternity," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Diamonds Are Forever." He began playing parts close to home--maitre d's and casino hosts--in later years including in "Beaches" and "The Godfather, Part III." He also played a fight promoter in "Rocky V."