Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Godspeed Frank Vincent

Frank Vincent, who appeared in the film Goodfellas (1990) and the TV show The Sopranos, died on September 12 2017 at the age of 80. The cause was complications from heart surgery following a heart attack.

Frank Vincent was born Frank Vincent Gattuso Jr on April 15 1937 in North Adams, Massachusetts. He grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. He worked as a drummer playing in nightclubs. He also played drums on records by Paul Anka and Trini Lopez.

He made his film debut in 1976 in The Death Collector. Martin Scorsese was impressed by his performance in the film and as a result he was cast in Raging Bull (1980). In the Eighties Mr. Vincent appeared in such films as Dear Mr. Wonderful (1982), Baby It's You (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Stiffs (1985), Wise Guys (1986), Lou, Pat & Joe D (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and Goodfellas (1990). He guest starred on the TV show The Paradise Club.

In the Nineties Frank Vincent appeared in the films Jungle Fever (1991), Men Lie (1994), Federal Hill (1994), Animal Room (1995), Casino (1995), She's the One (1996), Made Men (1997), The Deli (1997), Entropy (1999), and The Crew (2000). He guest starred on such shows as Civil Wars; The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles; Walker, Texas Ranger; Cosby; New York Undercover; Law & Order; and NYPD Blue.

In the Naughts he appeared in such films as Snipes (2001), A Tale of Two Pizzas (2003), Coalition (2004), The Last Request (2006), and The Tested (2010). He provided a voice for the animated film Shark Tale (2010). On television he played Phil Leotardo on the show The Sopranos. He guest starred on Stargate: Atlantis. He provided the voice of mob boss Salvatore Leone in the series of video games Grand Theft Auto.

In the Teens he guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit He provided a voice on the animated show Mr. Pickles. He appeared in the film Spy (2011).

Throughout his career Frank Vincent played mobsters. And there can be no doubt that he was very good at playing mobsters. There should be little wonder that his best known roles are from Goodfellas and The Sopranos. That having been said, he could play other roles as well. He played a Catholic bishop in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. It wasn't the first time he played a man of the cloth either. He was Father Brice in the comedy The Last Request. In Jungle Fever he played a father who has mixed feelings (to put it mildly) about his daughter's interracial romance. Frank Vincent was certainly good at playing mobsters, but he had the talent to play other roles as well.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Late Great Harry Dean Stanton

Character actor Harry Dean Stanton died on September 15 2017 at the age of 91.

Harry Dean Stanton was born on July 14 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky. During World War II he served in the United States Navy in the Pacific Theatre. After the war he attended the University of Kentucky. He dropped out of college after three years and moved to Los Angeles, California. In California he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Harry Dean Stanton made his television debut in an episode of Inner Sanctum in 1954. He made his motion picture debut in an uncredited role in Revolt at Fort Laramie in 1956. During the Fifties he appeared in the films The Wrong Man (1956), Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), Voice in the Mirror (1958), Pork Chop Hill (1959), The Jayhawkers! (1959), and A Dog's Best Friend (1959). In the Sixties he guest starred on such TV shows as Suspicion, Panic!, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Man with a Camera, Disneyland, Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, The Man from Blackhawk, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the Sixties Harry Dean Stanton appeared a good deal on television. He guest starred on such shows as The Roaring 20s, Zane Gray Theatre, The Untouchables, The Lawless Years, Have Gun--Will Travel, Combat!, Laramie, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Fugitive, The Big Valley, The Wild Wild West, The Andy Griffith Show, The Virginian, The High Chaparral, Mannix, Gunsmoke, Daniel Boone, Adam-12, and Petticoat Junction. He appeared in the films Hero's Island (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Man from the Diners' Club (1963), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), A Time for Killing (1967), The Hostage (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Day of the Evil Gun (1968), The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968), The Rebel Rousers (1970), and Kelly's Heroes (1970).  As the Sixties progressed the size of Mr. Stanton's roles grew larger. He played the lead role in the short "Lanton Mills" (1969).

Harry Dean Stanton continued to get larger roles in the Seventies, and his career shifted from television to film. He appeared in such films as Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cisco Pike (1972), Cry for Me, Billy (1972), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Dillinger (1973), Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), Zandy's Bride (1974),  The Godfather: Part II (1974), Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), Rancho Deluxe (1975), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Wise Blood (1979), Alien (1979), The Rose (1979), Death Watch (1980), and Private Benjamin (1980). On television he had a recurring role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and guest starred on Young Maverick.

The Eighties saw Harry Dean Stanton go from supporting roles in films to more central roles, including the occasional lead. He played the lead in the cult classic Repo Man (1984) and the same year played the lead in the classic Paris, Texas (1984). He also appeared in the films Escape from New York (1981), One from the Heart (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Christine (1983), The Bear (1984), Red Dawn (1984), UFOria (1985), One Magic Christmas (1985), Fool for Love (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Slam Dance (1987), Stars and Bars (1988), Mr. North (1988), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Dream a Little Dream (1989), Twister (1989), Stranger in the House (1990), The Fourth War (1990), and Wild at Heart (1990). On television he guest starred on Laverne & Shirley, Faerie Tale Theatre, The French as Seen By (1988), The Jim Henson Hour, and Beyond the Groove.

In the Nineties Mr. Stanton appeared in the films Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Man Trouble (1992), Cruise Control (1992), Gentleman Who Fell (1993), Blue Tiger (1994), One Hundred and One Nights (1995), Never Talk to Strangers (1995), Nothing to Believe In (1996), Playback (1996), Down Periscope (1996), Midnight Blue (1997), She's So Lovely (1997), Fire Down Below (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Mighty (1998), Ballad of the Nightingale (1999), The Straight Story (1999), The Green Mile (1999), and The Man Who Cried (2000). On television he guest starred on the show Hotel Room and appeared in the mini-series Dead Man's Walk.

In the Naughts Harry Dean Stanton appeared in the films The Pledge (2001), The Animal (2001), Sonny (2002), Ginostra (2002), Anger Management (2003), Chrystal (2004), The Big Bounce (2004), The Wendell Baker Story (2005), Alpha Dog (2006), Alien Autopsy (2006), You, Me and Dupree (2006), Inland Empire (2006), The Good Life (2007), Open Road (2009), On Holiday (2010), and Athena (2010). On television he was the star of the show Big Love. He guest starred on Two and a Half Men as himself, and also guest starred on Chuck.

In the Teens Mr. Stanton was the voice of Balthazar in the animated film Rango (2011). He appeared in the films This Must Be the Place (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012), Seven Psychopaths (2012), The Last Stand (2013), 9 Full Moons (2013), Carlos Spills the Beans (2013), The Pimp and the Rose (2014), Sick of it All (2017), and Lucky (2017). On television he guest starred on Getting On. He reprised his role as Carl Rodd from the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the revival of Twin Peaks.

I was aware of Harry Dean Stanton before he attained fame in the Eighties, although into the late Sixties he was usually billed as "Dean Stanton" in order to avoid confusion with Harry Stanton (the actor who played Dr. Zenta in When Worlds Collide). He was a frequent guest star on many of the reruns I watched as a child and he could play nearly anything. He could play a hillbilly in the midst of a feud, as was the case with the Gunsmoke episode "Love Thy Neighbour". On The Lawless Years he played a mob hitman. On Adam-12 he was an abusive husband. Over the years he appeared on many TV Westerns, appearing eight times on Gunsmoke, four times on Rawhide, and twice on Bonanza alone.

The variety of roles Mr. Stanton played were also seen in his film career. Even his best known roles were a varied lot. He was the engineering technician Brett in Alien. In Escape from New York he played Brain, a genius and the advisor to the Duke. In Repo Man he played Bud, the "repo man" of the title. Perhaps the best role of his career was in Paris, Texas, in which he played an amnesiac drifter attempting to rebuild his life. Harry Dean Stanton was an extremely talented actor who could play a wide variety of roles and play all of them well. Over the years he played cowboys, military officers, preachers, doctors, and police officers. Even when he was young he had a bit of a weather beaten look that would have kept him from playing romantic leads, but was perfect for various character roles. Harry Dean Stanton was a prolific actor who continued acting until his death. His career spanned over sixty years. If he was always in demand, it was perhaps because he was just that talented.

Friday, 15 September 2017

My Margaret Lockwood Blog Posts

Margaret Lockwood is one of my all time favourite actresses. Because of that I have written several posts about her here at A Shroud of Thoughts and even a guest post on the Margaret Lockwood Society's blog. Since today would have been her 101st birthday, I thought it might be a good idea to collect all of them here for you in one place. Below are links to the various blog posts I have written about Margaret Lockwood over the years.

"A Game of Love and Death: Margaret Lockwood and The Lady Vanishes (1938)"

"Justice Starring Margaret Lockwood"

"Bank Holiday (1938)"

"The Slipper and the Rose Guest Post on The Margaret Lockwood Society's Blog"

"Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers: Two Great British Actresses"

"The Wicked Lady: The British Film Censored by Americans and How It Changed the English Language"

"Jassy (1947)"

"The 70th Anniversary of The Wicked Lady (1945)"

"The Centenary of Margaret Lockwood's Birth"

"The Man in Grey (1943)"

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The 60th Anniversary of Have Gun--Will Travel

Sixty years ago today a Western debuted on television that would be unlike any that has debuted before or since. It was a sophisticated and intellectual Western, to the point that in some ways it had more in common with the anthology shows that had proliferated only a few years before it than it did its fellow Westerns airing at the time. Its hero could handle a gun, but he was not a lawman or gunslinger, and he preferred to use his gun only when he absolutely had to. It was on September 14 1957 that Have Gun--Will Travel debuted.

Have Gun--Will Travel centred on the man known only as Paladin (played by Richard Boone). On the surface Paladin appeared to be little more than a playboy with a taste for the finer things in life. He made the luxurious Hotel Carlton in San Francisco his home. He wore only the latest fashions and had a keen appreciation for a good cigar, a well prepared meal, fine brandy, and beautiful women. Paladin was equally adept at both cards and chess. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of art, music, poetry, and literature.

Despite this Paladin was no idle man of leisure. He was also a high priced gun for hire, who advertised his services with a card that read, "Have gun--will travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco" and bore the logo of the white chess knight. Paladin was no mere assassin, however, but a man with his own personal code of honour. If Paladin learned that an employer's motives were less than noble, he would see to it that his former employer was brought to justice. On occasion Paladin would even forgo payment for his services to see that justice was served. While on a case Paladin looked very different from the playboy he appeared to be at the Hotel Carlton. He dressed entirely in black and wielded a long barrelled, hair trigger Colt .44. It is little wonder that his opponents, upon seeing Paladin, believed the Angel of Death had come for them.

Throughout the series Paladin remained a mystery, with very little revealed about his past. He was born to wealth and graduated from West Point. During the Civil War he served in the Union cavalry. At no point was his given name ever revealed. Paladin had been given his nom de guerre by a man named Smoke, whom an evil land baron had led Paladin to believe was a vile outlaw. Needless to say, when the newly dubbed Paladin learned the truth, he went after the evil land baron (this was related in the sixth season episode "Genesis").

Throughout the entire run of the show there were only two other recurring characters. For most of the show's run Kam Tong played the Hotel Carlton's bell hop Hey Boy. During the fourth season Kam Tong was working on the TV show Mr. Garland, so his place was taken by Lisa Lu as Hey Girl (explained to be Hey Boy's sister). Kam Tong returned as Hey Boy the following season, Mr. Garland having been cancelled.

Have Gun--Will Travel was developed by Sam Rolfe (who would later develop The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Herb Meadows (who would later create The Big Valley). Originally Paladin was conceived as private eye in modern day New York City. This should come as no surprise, as "private detective" is probably the best way to describe Paladin's chosen profession. Indeed, to a small degree Paladin resembles Philip Marlowe, who had his own strict code of honour. The character of Paladin may also owe a good deal to the mystery men of pulp magazines and comic books, such as The Shadow and Batman (who in turn owe a great deal to the original mystery man of the West, Zorro).  Like Paladin these heroes lived as playboys when not fighting crime, although unlike Paladin they did not charge a fee for their work.

Although Have Gun--Will Travel obviously has its roots in American pop culture, the show's creation was the subject of controversy. A rodeo performer and construction worker named Victor DeCosta filed a lawsuit against CBS asserting that he had created the character of Paladin in the Forties. According to DeCoasta, he adopted the name "Paladin" for his rodeo act after an Italian man referred to him as a "paladino"at a horse show. He even claimed that he started using the phrase "Have gun--will travel" after an individual yelled it at him at a rodeo. As "Paladin" DeCosta dressed in black and even handed out cards with the phrase printed on them.

DeCosta won his case in a federal court in 1974, only to have the decision overturned by the court of appeals the following year. The court of appeals felt that DeCosta's claim had little merit as it was unlikely DeCosta's "Paladin" (who was simply DeCosta in a costume) would be confused with the "Paladin" of Have Gun--Will Travel. DeCosta persisted in filing appeals until he was awarded a settlement of $3.5 million in 1991. That same year DeCosta died at the age of 83, before he could receive the settlement. The settlement was overturned in 1992. Whether the series was inspired by DeCosta as he alleged may never be known for certain.

At any rate it is perhaps a moot point, as Richard Boone is the man the public will always remember as Paladin. As hard as it is to believe, he was not CBS's first choice for the role. The role was originally offered to Randolph Scott, who turned it down as he did not want to do television. It was then that the producers looked to Richard Boone, perhaps then best known for the role of Dr. Konrad Styner on the groundbreaking TV series Medic.

Scheduled before Gunsmoke on Saturday nights, Have Gun--Will Travel was a success from the beginning. In its first season it ranked number 4 out of all the shows in prime time for the year. In following seasons, from 1958 to 1960, Have Gun--Will Travel ranked number 3 in the annual ratings. For its last two seasons Have Gun--Will Travel dropped in the ratings, although it still ranked a respectable number 29 for the year each of those seasons.

It was a measure of its success that Have Gun--Will Travel would be one of the few TV shows to make the transition to radio. From 1958 to 1960 a radio show based on the popular TV series aired on CBS radio. Have Gun--Will Travel also conquered other media as well. In 1959 Whitman published a young adult novel, written by Barlow Meyers and illustrated by Nichols S. Firfires, based on the series. In 1960 a novel for adults by Noel Lomis was published. This was followed by A Man Called Paladin by Frank C. Robertson in 1963. It was based on the Have Gun--Will Travel episode "Genesis", essentially Paladin's origin story. Dell Comics also published several issues of a Have Gun--Will Travel comic book. The theme song of Have Gun--Will Travel ("The Ballad of Paladin"), written by Johnny Western, Sam Rolfe, and Richard Boone and performed by Johnny Western, even made the music charts. Duane Eddy's version of "The Ballad of Paladin" reached no. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.  As might be expected, there was even a Have Gun--Will Travel lunchbox.

As shown by the ratings above, Have Gun--Will Travel was still doing well after five years on the air. It was at that point that Richard Boone wanted to leave the series. CBS convinced him to remain for one more year and Have Gun--Will Travel ended its run after six seasons on the air.

Unfortunately Have Gun--Will Travel would have a sporadic run in syndication over the years. While it did well as a syndicated rerun for much of the Sixties, the late Sixties and early Seventies would see concern grow over the effects of television violence. As a result many series considered "violent" saw their syndication revenue shrink overnight. Have Gun--Will Travel would then be seen rarely in the Seventies. Complicating matters was that, later in the Seventies, local programme directors developed a bias against shows shot in black and white. Many series previously successful in syndication (The Dick Van Dyke Show is a prime example) disappeared from local stations entirely because their entire runs were shot in monochrome. Finally, Victor DaCosta's lawsuits would keep Have Gun--Will Travel off the air for a good portion of the Seventies and Eighties. Fortunately the Nineties would see Have Gun--Will Travel once more appearing often on television screens. TV Land aired the Western that decade. It would also air on the Hallmark Channel, Encore Western, and the classic TV broadcast network ME-TV. The entire run of Have Gun--Will Travel is also out on DVD.

The level of intelligence often seen in Have Gun--Will Travel set it apart from many other Western series of the time. Through the adventures of Paladin the series explored various ethical and philosophical questions. Have Gun--Will Travel portrayed a world in which individuals and situations could not always be viewed in terms of black and white--there were always plenty of shades of grey in between. What is more, Have Gun--Will Traveli often explored issues that were very much relevant to the late Fifties and early Sixties. Over the years the show dealt with lynching, racism, prejudice, class conflict, and even the fear of modern medicine. Have Gun--Will Travel was far from a simple shoot 'em up.

The overall quality of Have Gun--Will Travel must rank it as one of the greatest Western TV series of all time. It brought to television a sophisticated Western hero with a strong sense of honour and placed him in a world where right and wrong weren't always what they seemed. Though its run it examined several important issues as well as the human condition in general. At the same time, however, there was never a shortage of excitement. Have Gun--Will Travel could be enjoyed as a straight shoot 'em up. It is perhaps for this reason that sixty years after its debut and a less than stellar syndication run that Have Gun--Will Travel is remembered. There can be little doubt that Have Gun--Will Travel will be remembered for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Just a Preview of Tomorrow

I've been busy all week, but I wanted to give you a preview of the subject of tomorrow's post. If you're familiar with this song, chances are you will know what tomorrow's post will be about...


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Carol Burnett Show

Yesterday it was 50 years ago that The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS. In many respects it can be considered the last great variety show on American television. There would be several variety shows that would debut after it, but none of them would last as long and none of them would have the impact that The Carol Burnett Show did. In total it ran for 11 seasons. For most of those 11 seasons it ranked in the top thirty shows for the year.

Carol Burnett was a well established performer by the time of The Carol Burnett Show. She was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Stanley. In 1957 she achieved a large degree of fame with the comedy song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles". From there she became a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz, and she performed on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. In 1959 she received what may have been her highest profile gig up to that point; she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show on CBS. Carol Burnett proved very popular on The Garry Moore Show, so much so that after she left the variety show in 1962 CBS signed her to a ten year contract that required she make two guest appearances a year as well as a special every year. Included in the contract was an option for Miss Burnett at any time to decide to make a variety show.

It was in 1967 that Carol Burnett called Mike Dann, head of CBS programming, and informed him that she wished to exercise her option for her own variety show. Mike Dann tried to dissuade her, maintaining that variety shows are a "man's genre". Instead Mike Dann tried talking her into a sitcom titled Here's Agnes. Miss Burnett had no interest in doing a sitcom and insisted that CBS stick by the terms of their contract. Because of the contract, CBS was obligated to put The Carol Burnett Show on the air.

The Carol Burnett Show debuted on September 11 1967. It proved somewhat successful from the beginning, ranking no. 27 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. The first guest on the show was Jim Nabors, who would be the first guest on the first show of every season. Quite simply, Carol Burnett considered him her good luck charm. As to the regulars that first season, they included a young singer named Vicki Lawrence (who had written her noting their resemblance), Harvey Korman (who had been a regular on The Danny Kaye Show), and Lyle Waggoner (who had auditioned for the lead role in the hit TV show Batman).

Ultimately The Carol Burnett Show would see very little turnover in its regulars given how long the show ran. Vicki Lawrence remained with the show for its entire run. Harvey Korman remained for ten seasons. Lyle Waggoner left after seven seasons. Tim Conway had been a very frequent guest star on The Carol Burnett Show during its first eight seasons. He joined the show as a regular in its ninth season and remained with it until its end. Dick Van Dyke was briefly a regular on the show during the first part of the eleventh season. Dick Van Dyke left the show amicably.

The format of The Carol Burnett Show never really varied over the years. It generally featured two guest stars and a musical act. Among the musical acts to appear on the show were Cass Elliot, Eydie Gorme, Mel Tormé, and many others. It would be for its comedy sketches that The Carol Burnett Show was best known. Over the years the show did several parodies of movies, including Airport, Beach Blanket Bingo, Double Indemnity, Jaws, Mildred Pierce, Showboat, and Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the most famous movie parody on the show (indeed, the most famous comedy sketch) was their parody of Gone with the Wind. Titled "Went with the Wind!", it featured Carol Burnett as Starlett, who at one point takes a curtain from a window to make a dress, not bothering to take the curtain rod out.

Over the years The Carol Burnett Show would feature several recurring sketches. Among these was "As the Stomach Turns" (a parody of As the World Turns and soap operas in general), "George and Zelda" (with Miss Burnett as nasal voiced Zelda and Harvey Korman as her husband), "The Old Folks" (with Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman as an elderly couple), and "Alice Portnoy" (which featured Carol Burnett as a  little girl who is a member of  the Fireside Girls of America). Perhaps the best known and most influential of the recurring sketches was simply called "The Family". "The Family" sketches began in the show's seventh season. They featured Carol Burnett as  Eunice Higgins, a temperamental woman given to dreams of success. Eunice's dreams of success are pretty much squashed by both a lack of any real talent and the fact that she has to take care of her mother. Mama, played by Vicki Lawrence, tends to be belligerent and easily annoyed, and is given to making sometimes unkind wisecracks. Harvey played Eunice's husband Ed, who was as ill-tempered as Eunice and not terribly bright. Both Mama and Eunice regularly attacked him for his lack of success.

"The Family" sketches proved extremely popular. Eventually they would lead to the 1982 television movie Eunice. Eunice would in turn to lead the TV series Mama's Family, starring Vicki Lawrence as Thelma "Mama" Harper. Due to various circumstances, Carol Burnett did not appear in Mama's Family beyond the show's first season.

From its very first season The Carol Burnett Show was nominated for several Emmy Awards each year. Over the years it won several off the awards, including ones for Special Classification Achievements - Individuals (Variety Performances) for Harvey Korman, Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for Ernie Flatt, Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music, Outstanding Variety Series - Musical, Outstanding Achievement by a Supporting Performer in Music or Variety for Tim Conway, and Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music for Vicki Lawrence.

While The Carol Burnett Show never ranked in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the year, it did perform consistently well in the ratings. The show reached its peak in the ratings in the 1969-1970 season, when it ranked no. 13 for the year. For its first nine seasons it always ranked in the top thirty shows for the year. It was in its tenth season that it slipped to no. 44 for the year. The following season, its eleventh and last, it slipped to no. 66.

Despite receiving respectable ratings for most of its run, CBS did move The Carol Burnett Show around its schedule over the show's run. It spent its first four seasons on Monday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central. In its fifth season it moved to Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 Central. It remained there for the following season before CBS moved it to Saturdays at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. It remained on Saturday nights for the rest of its run.

While ratings for The Carol Burnett Show had fallen from what they once were, CBS still wanted to renew the show for a 12th season. That having been said, Carol Burnett had tired of making the show each week and wanted to explore acting. The Carol Burnett Show then ended its run after eleven years. It would be revived after a fashion as the summer replacement show Carol Burnett & Company, which aired on ABC from August 18 to September 8 1979. In 1982 "The Family" sketches led to the TV movie Eunice. This in turn led to the sitcom Mama's Family. CBS revived The Carol Burnett Show in 1991. Unfortunately it failed in the ratings and lasted only nine episodes.

The Carol Burnett Show proved to be the last great variety show. Other variety shows would debut in its wake. For example, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour would prove very popular. But none of the other variety shows to debut after The Carol Burnett Show lasted nearly as long, nor did they prove nearly as memorable.  To this day people can recall many of the sketches that aired on The Carol Burnett Show. What is more, it has proven somewhat successful in syndication, a rarity for variety shows, although the syndicated shows are edited to a half hour and include only the comedy sketches. In the end, The Carol Burnett Show remains one of the most popular variety shows of all time.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Jessica Mitford's Centenary

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”--Jessica Mitford

It was 100 years ago today that journalist, author, and activist Jessica Mitford was born at Asthall Manor in Gloucestershire. In the United Kingdom she may be most famous as the author of the memoir Hons and Rebels and one of the legendary Mitford sisters, "the Communist Mitford". In North America she may be most famous for her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In fact, aside from her eldest sister, novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford, Jessica Mitford (called "Decca" by one and all) may be the most famous of the Mitford Sisters in all of the United States. Regardless, she would have a lasting impact both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

If anything else could be said about Jessica Mitford, it is that she always marched to the beat of her own drum. While most of the Mitford family tended to be politically conservative (and sisters Diana and Unity were Fascists), not only were Decca's political beliefs at the far left of the political spectrum, but she was a member of the Communist Party for much of her life. She was only 19 years old when she ran away with her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain and the two of them got married. The two of them would later emigrate to the United States. With the outbreak of World War II, Esmond Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Sadly, on November 30 1941 he went missing in action. Jessica Mitford remained in the United States and later married civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft.

In the United States, Jessica Mitford continued to be politically active. In the early Fifties she was the executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress. She was active in the civil rights movement even then and fought to prevent the execution of Willie McGee, an African American accuse of raping a white housewife. Her first bit of real writing came about through her political activity. In 1956 she published the small booklet Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man, a parody both of her sister Nancy Mitford's famous essay on "U and non-U English" as well as the many clichés used by her fellow leftists.

It was in 1960 that Jessica Mitford's first professionally published book, Hons and Rebels, came out. A memoir of her childhood and youth, the book proved to be a best seller. Among other things, it helped fuel the public's fascination with the Mitford sisters ever since. Despite the success of Hons and Rebels, Decca's future as a writer lay not in biography, but in muckraking journalism. For Esquire magazine she wrote "Whut They're Thanking Down There", an article on attitudes in the American Deep South. To research the article she travelled to Montgomery, Alabama and wound up caught in a riot when the Ku Klux Klan rushed civil rights activists. Afterwards she attended a rally led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her article was published in the May 1962 issue of Esquire.

A political cartoon from the October 27 1963 issue of
The Chicago Sun-Times referencing The American
Way of Death
and Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring
It would be another article that would lead to what would be Jessica Mitford's most successful written work. As a lawyer her husband Bob Treuhaft often worked on the estates of members of unions. Over time he noticed that the union death benefits were more often than not eaten up by funeral expenses. Decca took up the cause and ultimately wrote the article "Saint Peter Don't You Call Me", which was published in Frontier magazine. The article would result in Jessica Mitford appearing on a local television programme alongside representatives from the funeral industry. The reaction to her appearance on television led Decca to think there was enough interest for a whole book on the subject. The American Way of Death was published in 1963. It almost immediately leapt to the top of the best seller list, where it remained for months. It also sent shock waves throughout the American funeral industry, who branded Decca "public enemy number 1". Eventually the book would result in new regulations regarding the funeral industry throughout the United States.

Following The American Way of Death, Decca would continue to work as a muckraking journalist. In the article "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers", published in the 1970 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she exposed the shady business practices of the Famous Writers School. In her 1970 book The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchel Goodman, and Marcus Raskin, she wrote about the Boston Five, who, after signing the manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority", were arrested for conspiracy to violate draft laws. Her 1973 book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business dealt with the American penal system, while her 1992 book The American Way of Birth dealt with the high cost of giving birth.

Of course, Decca wrote other books beyond her muckraking exposés. Her 1977 book A Fine Old Conflict was a memoir of her life in the Communist Party that poked a good deal of fun at the Far Left. Her 1988 Grace Had an English Heart: The Story of Grace Darling, Heroine and Victorian Superstar was about Grace Darling, the legendary lighthouse keeper's daughter who rescued survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838.

Jessica Mitford was certainly not alone among the Mitford sisters in being a writer. Nancy Mitford's claim to fame is as a novelist and biographer. Her sisters Diana Mosley and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire both wrote books, although they did not see the success that Nancy and Decca did. That having been said, Jessica Mitford would do one thing that her sisters never did; she recorded songs. She was the leader of Decca and the Dectones, essentially a cowbell and kazoo band. Decca and the Dectones recorded versions of The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and 'Grace Darling". With her dear friend Maya Angelou she recorded a version of "Right, Said Fred". Decca even opened for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco.

Jessica Mitford died at age 78 from lung cancer on July 22 1996. As might be expected, her funeral was fairly cheap. It cost only  $533.31. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea, the cremation costing only $475. She left behind a legacy whose impact is still being felt to this day.

While the Mitford Industry may well have come into being without it, arguably Decca's book Hons and Rebels was key in spurring the interest that have surrounded the sisters ever since. Beyond furthering the legend of the Mitfords, it would also have a lasting influence in other ways. J. K. Rowling, the creator of "Harry Potter" and author Christopher Hitchens both count Hons and Rebels as an influence.

In many respects her book The American Way of Death would have an even greater impact. It turned the high cost of American funerals into a cause célèbre in the mid-Sixties. This would eventually lead to changes regarding the regulation of funeral costs throughout the United States. It would even have an impact on popular culture. While the film The Loved One (1965) was very loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, its treatment of the funeral industry was informed to a large degree by The American Way of Death.  Following The American Way of Death, American writers, producers, and directors were no longer hesitant about poking fun at the American funeral industry or engaging in some rather dark humour regarding death.

While none of Decca's other works would quite have the impact that The American Way of Death did, her other works of investigative journalism would have an impact. Her exposé of the Famous Writers School would eventually lead to it filing bankruptcy. Over the years Jessica Mitford set her sights on a variety of shady targets, from expensive weight loss programs to American television network censorship to over-priced tourist traps. Even if Decca's articles and books didn't always get results, she always succeeded in embarrassing the guilty.

Arguably Jessica Mitford was among the most successful investigative journalists of the 20th Century. Her success was due to the number of factors, not the least of which was a rebellious streak that had begun when she very young. Like her sisters she also happened to be highly intelligent and possessed a wicked sense of humour. Other investigative journalists were often ineffective because their works were simply dry accounts filled with statistics and testimonials. Decca's books were not only informative, but also very funny. One has to suspect that The American Way of Death was such a success because it not only addressed an issue that had long been of concern to the average American, but because it was also very entertaining. In the end Jessica Mitford would have an incredible impact that is still being felt to this day.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The 50th Anniversary of He & She

In the Eighties the USA Network reran the short-lived television series He & She. Being only four years old when it first aired, I had read about the show, but I had never seen it. I immediately fell in love with the show, which in many respects seemed as if it belonged in the early Seventies rather than the late Sixties. Indeed, while it was produced by Talent Associates (a company perhaps best known for Get Smart), if one didn't know better he or she might be convinced that it had been produced by MTM Enterprises (the company responsible for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and other Seventies classics) circa 1971. It was fifty years ago today, on September 6 1967, that He & She debuted on CBS.

He & She starred Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, then as now married in real life, as Paula and Dick Hollister. Paula was a caseworker for the Tourist Aid Society. Dick was a cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Jetman. Dick's life was complicated by the fact that Jetman had been adapted as a TV series starring Oscar North (played by Jack Cassidy). Oscar was an egotistical actor who constantly argued with Dick over his interpretation of Jetman. This probably would have been fine, save that Oscar was neither a very good actor nor was he particularly bright. The Hollisters' neighbour and best friend was fireman Harry Zarakartos (played by Kenneth Mars), who would drop by their apartment via a board between the firehouse and the apartment building. The apartment building's handyman Andrew Hummel was played by folk singer Hamilton Camp.

He & She was created by Leonard B. Stern, who already had considerable experience in television. He had written for such shows as The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show and had previously created the short-lived sitcom I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. He was one of the producers on the classic Get Smart, then still phenomenally popular. In 1953, with Roger Price, he invented the popular game Mad Libs. In an article published in newspapers around September 24 1967, Mr. Stern said of He & She, "These are characters I created for television five or six years ago. I couldn't make the series because I couldn't find the right people to play the parts." 

Leonard B. Stern very nearly sold He & She when he first pitched it to Mike Dann, then Executive Vice President of Programming at CBS. Mr. Dann told Mr. Stern that he would commit to a pilot if Paula Prentiss would star. Of course, Leonard B. Stern realised this would mean that he would have to cast her husband Richard Benjamin, as she would only do it if he was on the show. Fortunately, he was able to sign them both.

CBS scheduled He & She following the high-rated sitcom Green Acres on Wednesday night at 9:30 Eastern/8:30 Central. Given Green Acres would rank no. 15 in the over all Nielsen ratings for the year, this would have seemed like an ideal placement for the series. Unfortunately it also meant that He & She was scheduled opposite The ABC Wednesday Night Movie, this at time when movie anthologies regularly trounced  dramas and sitcoms in the ratings. Despite having Green Acres as a lead in, ratings for He & She were then not particularly impressive.

While He & She initially did not do particularly well in the ratings, it did receive positive reviews from critics over all. He & She was respected in the television industry as well. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for writers Allan Burns and Chris Hayward for the episode "The Coming Out Party". It was also nominated for the Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Richard Benjamin, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Paula Prentiss, Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy for Jack Cassidy, and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for writers Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan for their episode "The Old Man and the She." Strangely enough, it was not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

It seems possible during the 1967-1968 season that audiences eventually recognised He & She as a quality series as well. Ratings for the show gradually improved, so that late in the season He & She would regularly win its time slot. Unfortunately it was not enough to save the show. CBS seriously considered renewing He & She for a second season, but ultimately elected to cancel it instead. According to Harlan Ellison in his column in the Los Angeles Free Press (included in his compilation The Glass Teat) CBS president Mike Dann had to choose between renewing He & She or picking up a new TV series based on the comic strip Blondie. He chose the latter. Given Blondie debuted to universally hostile reviews and would prove to be one of the great ratings fiascos of the Sixties, it seems quite likely that Mr. Dann regretted cancelling He & She.

CBS reran episodes of He & She as a summer replacement from June 20 1970 to September 11 1970. It would be rerun on the USA Network from 1985 to 1987. Later TV Land would air repeats of the show in 1998. Sadly, it has rarely been seen since. He & She has not been released on DVD and is not available on any of the streaming services (not counting legally questionable uploads to YouTube).

In many respects He & She was ahead of its time. It was a very sophisticated, but at the same time sweet comedy of the sort for which MTM Enterprises would later become known. One could easily picture it airing on Saturday nights in the Seventies alongside The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. Indeed, the character of egotistical, but none too bright anchorman Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore would seem to owe a good deal to the character of egotistical, but none too bright actor Oscar North on He & She. What is more, the show was ahead of its time in other ways as well. Paula Prentiss's character of Paula Hollister was one of the first wives on television who actually had her own job outside the home. With regards to Mr. Cassidy's portrayal of Oscar North, Leonard B. Stern said that CBS was concerned about Jack Cassidy's portrayl of the character on the show. Meant by the writers to be a mama's boy, Jack Cassidy played Oscar in such a way as to strongly intimate that he was gay. This was at a time when even the suggestion of homosexuality was relatively rare on American TV shows, particularly sitcoms. In the 1967-1968 season He & She stood out as a sophisticated sitcom about young people in an urban setting, this at a time when CBS was still dominated by rural comedies.

To this day He & She maintains a cult following. It is still regarded by television historians not only as being slightly ahead of its time, but also one of the best shows to ever be cancelled after a single season. With any luck it will one day find its way to DVD and to streaming services. Both a pioneering sitcom and one of substantial quality, He & She deserves to be seen.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Hammer Horror on TCM in October 2017

If there are two things I love, it is Turner Classic Movies and the old Hammer Horrors. As if it wasn't already special enough as the month of Halloween, every October TCM shows a tonne of classic horror movies, including those produced by Hammer Films. Below I have listed the Hammer movies they are showing this October and the times they are showing. Note that all times are for the Central time zone.

For those new to Hammer Horrors, aside from the obvious Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), I would recommend checking out The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Mummy (1959), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). In my humble opinion, they number among the best films ever made by Hammer. Of course, one should try to watch all of them (even the ones that aren't that good).

October 15 2017:
7:00 PM Dracula (1958), released in the United States as Horror of Dracula
8:45 PM The Brides of Dracula (1960)

October 17 2017:
7:00 PM The Devil Rides Out (1968), released in the U.S. as The Devil's Bride
8:45 PM The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
10:15 PM The Mummy (1959)
12:00 Midnight The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
1:45 AM The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
3:30 AM The Reptile (1966)

October 22 2017
7:00 PM Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965)
9:00 PM Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1969)

October 29 2017
7:00 PM Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
9:00 PM Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Monday, 4 September 2017

TCM Party Turned Six

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of TCM Party. If you are unfamiliar with TCM Party, it is a collective live tweeting of movies airing on Turner Classic Movies using the hashtag #tcmparty. TCM Parties often, but not always, have hosts who tweet tidbits about the specific film on at the time and essentially curate the whole event. The first film that was live tweeted at that first TCM Party held on September 3 2011 was Casablanca (1942). Since that time TCM Party has become an established part of Turner Classic Movies fandom and is even recognised by Turner Classic Movies itself. Indeed, there is even an official TCM Party Twitter account, as well as a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog. Even such luminaries as actress Illeana Douglas have taken part in TCM Parties. While TCM Parties were originally scheduled for specific movies, TCM Party has evolved to the point where there it basically runs 24 hours a day. If you want to read more about TCM Party, I posted a history of the phenomenon last year on the occasion of its fifth anniversary.

I first took part in a TCM Party on December 22 2011. I am not sure why I did not participate earlier, although it is quite possible I did not hear about it until it had been around for a few months. At any rate, I had live tweeted movies on Turner Classic Movies before. Regardless, I chose a good time to begin live tweeting with TCM Party. That night as part of the TCM Party, I live tweeted The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), and Another Thin Man (1939). Turner Classic Movies was showing all of the "Thin Man" movies that night, but after Another Thin Man I was tired and had to go to bed. Regardless, the experience was so much fun that I was hooked on TCM Parties.

Indeed, I have fond memories of many of the TCM Parties that I have participated in. One of my best memories is from March 2012 when Turner Classic Movies was showing British New Wave movies every Monday. I participated in TCM Parties for many of those movies, including Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), and Billy Liar (1963). Although I don't believe I was the official host of the British New Wave movies airing in March 2012, I tweeted trivia about them and was on hand to translate the Northern accents in the films (for some reason many of my fellow Americans have difficulty understanding them). The first TCM Party I officially hosted was also a British film--Bedazzled.

Following Bedazzled I would host many TCM Parties. In fact, I believe I am the default host for A Hard Day's Night (1964). While I have fond memories of the first time I hosted it, which was also the first time Turner Classic Movies ever aired it, my favourite TCM Party for A Hard Day's Night was on the occasion that I was a Fan Favourite on TCM introducing the movie with Ben Mankiewicz. It was a bit surreal, hearing my own voice on the television while I was tweeting about the movie on Twitter!

Of course, the TCM Parties I seem to remember the best are those that I did not host. I remember that on February 1 2014 Turner Classic Movies showed Oscar nominees from 1939, widely regarded as the greatest year in the history of American cinema, as part of their 31 Days of Oscar. I spent much of the day in TCM Parties for Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind.

I also have fond memories of each October when Turner Classic Movies shows horror movies. I have been the host for TCM Parties for many of the Hammer horrors. While I love the old Universal horror movies, I must confess most of my favourite horror movies were produced by Hammer Films. It always fun live tweeting to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1960), and so on. Of course, I always love live tweeting William Castle's movies as well. They are often very goofy and a lot of fun. In fact, my all time favourite tweet is one I made last year when TCM showed Homicidal (1961). I would reveal the tweet to you, but I fear it would spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it!

While I have enjoyed every TCM Party for A Hard Day's Night and the many ones for Hammer Horrors, my all time favourite TCM Party remains one for The Loved One (1965). In May 2013 Turner Classic Movies aired a series called Second Looks on Friday nights, hosted by Illeana Douglas. They aired The Loved One on May 24. For those unfamiliar with The Loved One, it is an outrageous Sixties comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Its tagline was "the motion picture with something to offend everyone!". Quite naturally, then, The Loved One is a very fun movie to live tweet. It was made even more fun by the fact that Illeana Douglas live tweeted along with us. I do believe at one point she was sent to "Twitter jail" for tweeting too much!

Of course, beyond the many fond memories I have of the TCM Parties that I have participated in are the many dear friends I have made through TCM Party. I had several classic film buff friends before I began taking part in TCM Parties, but after TCM Party the number grew substantially. My life has then been enriched a good deal by TCM Party. I hope it continues for many more years!

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Shelley Berman Passes On

Comedian and actor Shelley Berman died on September 1 2017 at the age of 92. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease. Among many other things he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959.

Shelley Berman was born Sheldon Berman in Chicago, Illinois on February 3 1925. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Navy, but was released on a medical discharge due to his asthma. Afterwards he studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He later joined the Woodstock Players theatre company based out of Woodstock, Illinois. There he acted alongside such people as Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.

Mr. Berman and his wife Sarah then moved about the country where he worked jobs ranging from teaching at an Arthur Murray dance studio to working as a social director in a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. In New York City he worked as a  sketch writer on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. He made his television debut as an actor in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1954. He also appeared on the TV show Goodyear Playhouse and the movie Dementia in 1955. In 1956 he returned to Chicago to join the Compass Players, where he worked with the now legendary comedy team of  Mike Nicholas and Elaine May. It was in 1957 that he began his own career as a stand-up comic. He guest starred as comedian Danny Holland on the Peter Gunn episode "The Comic" in 1959 and that same year released his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman. It was followed by the comedy album Outside Shelley Berman that same year and The Edge of Shelley Berman in 1960. As a comedian he appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney, The George Gobel Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and The Jack Paar Tonight Show. In 1959 he appeared on Broadway in the revue The Girls Against the Boys.

Shelley Berman began the Sixties as one of the most popular comedians in the United States. During the decade he would record more albums, including A Personal Appearance, New Sides, and Let Me Tell You a Funny Story. He recorded the album The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) with the comedy team of Stiller and Meara and actress Lovelady Powell. He appeared on Broadway in the musical A Family Affair. He continued to appear frequently on television on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, What's My Line?, The Judy Garland Show, and The Linkletter Show. He guest starred on such shows as The Twilight Zone; Car 54, Where Are You?, Rawhide, and Breaking Point.

Unfortunately it would be a television appearance that would very nearly end his career as a comic. In 1963 NBC-TV filmed a documentary that followed his life as a comic, "Comedian Backstage", for their programme The DuPont Show of the Week. It was during his monologue "Father and Son" that a phone rang backstage and Shelley Berman lost his temper. The documentary damaged his career as a comedian and it never quite recovered. While he continued to appear as a comic on various talk shows, he turned increasingly to acting as the Sixties progressed. He guest starred on such shows as Burke's Law, Bewitched, Mister Roberts, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Mary Tyler Moore. He had a recurring role on the short lived show That's Life. He appeared in the films The Best Man (1964), Divorce American Style (1967), and Every Home Should Have One (1970). He continued to appear on various talk shows, game shows, and variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Match Game, Hollywood Squares, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Hollywood Palace.

In the Seventies Shelley Berman guest starred on such shows as Adam-12; Love, American Style; Emergency!; Police Woman; Vega$; and CHiPs. He had a recurring role on Forever Fernwood. In the Seventies he appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah!. He appeared in the movie Beware! The Blob (1972). In 1980 he appeared in his own one man show, Insideoutsideandallaround with Shelley Berman, on Broadway.

In the Eighties he guest starred on such shows as Matt Houston, Hotel, Knight Rider, St. Elsewhere, Mike Hammer, Night Court, and The Munsters Today. He appeared in the movies Rented Lips (1988), Teen Witch (1989), and Elliot Fauman, Ph.D. (1990). 

In the Nineties Mr. Berman had a recurring role on L. A. Law. He was the voice of Alderman on The Blues Brothers Animated Series. He had a regular role on the short lived show Walter & Emily. He guest starred on the shows Monsters, MacGyver, Civil Wars, Friends, Providence, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He appeared in the films Motorama (1991), In God We Trust (2000), and The Last Producer (2000).  In 1995 he released his first comedy album in years, Live Again! Recorded at the Improv.

In the Naughts Shelley Berman had recurring roles on both Boston Legal and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He guest starred on such shows as King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage, Pushing Daisies, and C.S.I.: NY. He appeared in the films Meet the Fockers (2004), The Holiday (2006), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) He provided a voice for the animated feature The Legend of Secret Pass (2010). His last appearance was on an episode of Hawaii Five-0 in 2012. Shelley Berman released two last comedy albums, To Laughter with Questions and When Jews Were Funny, both in 2013.

Shelley Berman was one of a group of revolutionary comics to emerge in the late Fifties and early Sixties, a a group that included Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, Mort Sahl, and Stiller & Meara. Rather than simply telling jokes, many of these comedians told stories, created sketches, or simply made observations on everyday life. Indeed, in many ways Shelley Berman was not really a stand-up comedian at all. He did most of his act sitting on a stool. And his act did not consist of one gag after another, but instead it consisted of monologues on the vagaries of everyday life. His monologues involved everything from a man with a hangover who is reminded by his host of all the damage he caused the night before to an airline passenger trying to alert a seemingly oblivious flight attendant that the plane's wing is on fire. Shelley Berman's monologues were not only funny, but they also expressed much of the anxiety people had about the modern day world.

Of course, before he was a comic, Shelley Berman was an actor, and he would turn to that career when his career as a comedian faltered.  He was very good as an actor, and he did drama as well as he did comedy. He was impressive in The Twilight Zone episode "The Mind and the Matter", as a man who remakes the world in his own image through the sheer power of his own mind. He also did well as Judge Robert Sanders, the somewhat senile old judge on Boston Legal. In many respects it should come as no surprise that Shelley Berman would be a good actor. As a comedian he essentially played different roles in his monologues. Indeed, it was one of the many things that made him such a good comedian.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Godspeed Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson, the actor who played Lt. Drumm on Perry Mason, District Attorney Glenn Wagner on Bus Stop, Police Chief George Utermeyer on Dan August, and Oscar Goldman on the shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, as well as appeared in movies from Scaramouche (1952) to Seven Days in May (1964), died on August 31 2017 at the age of 91.

Richard Anderson was born on August 8 1926 in Long Branch, New Jersey. His family later moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he appeared in high school plays. During World War II he served in the United States Army. Following his stint in the Army Mr. Anderson studied acting at the Actors Laboratory in Los Angeles. He eventually started appearing in summer stock productions and on radio shows such as Suspense.

Richard Anderson made his film debut in the Mexican film La perla in 1947. From the late Forties into the Fifties he appeared in several films, including the classics Scaramouche (1952) and Forbidden Planet (1956). He also appeared in such movies as The Vanishing Westerner (1950), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), I Love Melvin (1953), Give a Girl a Break (1953), The Student Prince (1954), Hit the Deck (1955), The Buster Keaton Story (1957), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960). He made his television debut in 1950 as a regular on the TV series Mama Rosa. As the Fifties progressed he began appearing more frequently on television and less frequently in films. He had a recurring role on Zorro. He guest starred on such shows as Captain Midnight, The Millionaire, Playhouse 90, Schlitz Playhouse, Zane Grey Theatre, Wagon Train, Law of the Plainsman, The Untouchables, Thriller, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.

In the Sixties Richard Anderson had both regular and recurring roles on several shows. He was one of the stars of the TV show Bus Stop and he played Lt. Steve Drumm on Perry Mason. He played Police Chief Utermeyer on Dan August. He had recurring roles on the shows The Lieutenant and 12 O' Clock High. He also made frequent guest appearances throughout the decade on such shows as The Rifleman, The Virginian, Dr. Kildare, Combat!, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Death Valley Days, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Run for Your Life, The Green Hornet, Mission: Impossible, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, Mannix, The Big Valley, Daniel Boone, Land of the Giants, The Mod Squad, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. He appeared in such movies as A Gathering of Eagles (1963), Johnny Cool (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Kitten with a Whip (1964), Seconds (1966), Ride to Hangman's Tree (1967), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

In the Seventies Richard Anderson appeared as Oscar Goldman, the  head of the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) on both the TV shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. He reprised his role as Chief Utermeyer in a series of Dan August TV movies that aired in 1980. He appeared in the mini-series Pearl. He guest stared on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones, Columbo, Longstreet, Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, The F.B.I., The New Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Ironside, and The Love Boat. He also appeared in the TV movie The Night Strangler (the sequel to the TV movie The Night Stalker that preceded the regular series Kolchak: The Night Stalker). He appeared in the films The Honkers (1972), Play It As It Lays (1972), Black Eye (1974), and Never Give Up (1978).

In the Eighties Richard Anderson was a regular on the short-lived TV series Cover Up. He had a recurring role on Dynasty. He reprised his role as Oscar Goldman in the TV movies The Return of the Six-Million-Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman and Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. He guest starred on such shows as Charlie's Angels; Nero Wolfe; Knight Rider; The Fall Guy; Fantasy Island; The A-Team; Hardcastle and McCormick; Simon & Simon; and Murder, She Wrote.

In the Nineties Richard Anderson appeared in the films The Player (1992), Gettysburg (1993), and The Glass Shield (1994). He reprised his role as Oscar Goldman in the TV movie Bionic Ever After?. He was the narrator on the syndicated TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues and made a guest appearance on the show.

Richard Anderson was an extremely prolific actor. In the Fifties and Sixties he appeared in a number of movies and guest starred on a number of TV shows, often while he had regular or recurring roles on shows.  If Richard Anderson was very much in demand throughout his career, it was perhaps because he was a very good actor. Throughout his career he played a large number of authority figures, including police officers, lawyers, military officers, and politicians. He even played historical figures from time to time, including Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1987 mini-series Hoover vs. The Kennedys: The Second Civil War and General George G. Meade in Gettysburg. While he often played authority figures, he was quite capable of playing other roles as well. In fact, he played villains in his many appearances on TV Westerns, including a criminal plotting to pirate the Cartwright's steamboat on Bonanza. He was also the villain of the TV movie The Night Stalker. Richard Anderson's appearance and impressive voice made him perfect for roles ranging from cops to bad guys. What is more, he had the talent to make any role he played convincing.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Tobe Hooper R.I.P.

Tobe  Hooper, who directed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1975) and the television mini-series Salem's Lot, died on August 26 2017 at the age of 74.

Tobe Hooper was born on January 25 1943 in Austin, Texas. He broke into film making by directing documentaries. In 1964 he wrote and directed his first narrative film, the short "The Heisters". His first feature film, Eggshells, was released in 1969. It was in 1974 that Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released. The film was made for only $300,000, but made $30.8 million at the box office. It proved extremely influential as one of the earliest slasher films. Mr. Hooper followed it with Eaten Alive (1976). He was the original director on The Dark (1979), but was replaced by John "Bud" Carlos. He directed the television mini-series Salem's Lot.

In the Eighties Mr. Hooper directed the films The Funhouse (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Lifeforce (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and Spontaneous Combustion (1990). He also worked in television during the decade. He directed episodes of the shows Amazing Stories, The Equalizer, and Freddie's Nightmares.

In the Nineties Tobe Hooper did a good deal of work in television. He directed episodes of the shows Haunted Lives: True Ghost Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Nowhere Man, Dark Skies, Perversions of Science, Prey, and The Others. He directed one of the segments of the TV movie Body Bags and the TV movies The Apartment Complex. He directed the films Night Terrors (1993) and The Mangler (1995).

From the Naughts into the Teens he directed the movies Toolbox Murders (2004), Mortuary (2005/), Destiny Express Redux (2009), and Djinn (2013). He directed episodes of the TV shows Night Visions, Taken, and Masters of Horror.

Tobe Hooper was certainly a master when it came to delivering frightening movies. The success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was due in a large part because it was a very scary movie and in part because it was more graphic than most horror films up to that time. It would certainly prove to be an influence on the cycle of slasher movies that took place during the late Seventies and early Eighties. Even his work in television could be scary. Salem's Lot remains one of the more frightening mini-series aired on television, and he directed many frightening individual episodes of shows. While he had the occasional misfire, Tobe Hooper was ultimately a director who was very talented at scaring people.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

TCM Classic Film Festival Dates Announced for 2018

Yesterday Turner Classic Movies announced the dates for next year's TCM Classic Film Festival. It will be held from April 26 to April 28 2018. Passes are set to go on sale in November. The theme this year is "Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen". According to TCM's press release, it will celebrate "the representation of the written word on the silver screen."

For more information visit the official TCM Classic Film Festival site here.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Jay Thomas's Clayton Moore Story

Sadly, actor and disc jockey Jay Thomas died earlier this week at the age of 69. Not only do I have fond memories of his many roles on various television shows, but I also have fond memories of his annual appearances on The Late Show with Dave Letterman at Christmastime. The tradition began in 1998 when Jay Thomas was a guest alongside New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. David Letterman had Mr. Testaverde try to knock a large meatball off the top of a Christmas tree with an American football. Both Messrs. Letterman and Testaverde tried and failed. Jay Thomas came out and knocked the meatball of the top of the Christmas tree on the first try. Later on that particular show Mr. Thomas told a story about a time when he was a disc jockey at WAYS in Charlotte, North Carolina and he made a promotional appearance with Clayton Moore (who was in his full Lone Ranger costume).

Jay Thomas's appearance on the Christmas edition of The Late Show with Dave Letterman went over so well that it became an annual tradition, with Mr. Thomas returning every year (except 2013, which he missed due to throat surgery) to retell his story about Clayton Moore and to try to knock a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree. It became as much a part of Dave Leterman's Christmas show as Darlene Love performing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)".

In honour of Jay Thomas and for those who have fond memories of his annual appearances on The Late Show with Dave Letterman, here is his appearance on the show from 2009. If you have never seen it, you are in for a treat.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Godspeed Jay Thomas

Jay Thomas, who starred on the sitcom Love & War and had significant recurring roles on Cheers and Murphy Brown, died today at the age of 69. He had been struggling against cancer.

Jay Thomas was born Jon Thomas Terrell on July 12 1948 in Kermit, Texas. He grew up in New Orleans. It was while he was in college that he did both sportscasting and stand-up comedy. He eventually became a DJ in New York. He later worked for KPWR in Los Angeles. Mr.Thomas was still a DJ when he was cast in a recurring role on Mork & Mindy in 1981. Later in the decade he played the recurring role of hockey player Eddie LeBec on Cheers. Still later he had a recurring role on Muprhy Brown as tabloid talk show host Jerry Gold. He was part of the cast of the short lived show Married People. He also guest starred on such shows as Love Boat, Spenser: For Hire, Family Ties, A Year in the Life, The Golden Girls, and Open House. He appeared in the movies C.H.U.D. (1984) and The Gig (1985).

In the Nineties Jay Thomas was one of the leads on the show Love & War. He played newspaper columnist Jack Stein. In the first season Jack had an on-again, off-again romance with restaurateur Wally Porter (played by Susan Dey). Susan Dey left the show at the end of the first season, after which Annie Potts joined the cast as Dana Palladino. Dana bought Wally's restaurant and became Jack's love interest not long afterwards. He later starred in the short-lived comedy Katie Joplin. Jay Thomas also continued to appear on Murphy Brown as Jerry Gold. He also guest starred on Cybill, Ink (as Jack Stein), Fantasy Island, The Simple Life, Dead Man's Gun, and Working.  He was a regular voice on the TV cartoon Hercules and a guest voice on Batman: The Animated Series, Goof Troop Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and The Wild Thornberrys. He appeared in the movies Straight Talk (1992), Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), Dirty Laundry (1996), A Smile Like Yours (1997), The Adventures of Ragtime (1998), Monkey Business (1998), Last Chance (1999), Stranger in My House (1999), and The Big Tease (1999).

In the Naughts Mr. Thomas guest starred on The Education of Max Bickford, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Run of the House, Joan of Arcadia, Boston Legal, and Cold Case. He appeared in the movies The Santa Clause 2 (2002), The Pool Boys (2009), Labor Pains (2009), and Sex Tax: Based on a True Story (2010). He was a voice in the animated film Teacher's Pet (2004).

In the Teens he had a recurring role on Ray Donovan. He guest starred on the shows Retired at 35, Hung, Shake It Up!, NCIS: New Orleans, and Bones. He appeared in the Horrorween (2011), Snatched (2011), Talker (2011), Life Tracker (2013), Underdogs (2013), and The Trials of Cate McCall (2013).

In 2005 he began a stint as the host of The Jay Thomas Show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. 

Beginning in 2001 Jay Thomas began a stint as an annual guest on the Christmastime edition of The Late Show with David Letterman. Each time he told the story of his experience with the legendary Clayton Moore when he was still a DJ.

Jay Thomas was quite simply an incredible actor. He had a particular gift for comedy, with impeccable timing. What is more, he could play a variety of roles. As Eddie LeBec he was a good natured hockey player with a superstitious streak. As Jerry Gold  he was a right-wing tabloid talk show host. As Jack Stein he was a liberal newspaper columnist. Curiously, Jay Thomas often played Jewish characters, even though his father was Catholic and his mother was Protestant. He was so convincing many people believed he was Jewish.

While he was particularly gifted at comedy, Jay Thomas could play dramatic roles just as well.  He played Mr. Holland's best friend, football coach Bill Meister in Mr. Holland's Opus. On Ray Donovan he played . Marty Grossman, owner of salacious TMZ-style website Stalker.com. Of course, Jay Thomas was also an incredible storyteller. While I loved him in nearly every role in which I saw him, my fondest memories of Mr. Thomas are not as an actor, but instead as David Letterman's guest telling his extremely funny but true story about his experience with Clayton Moore. Jay Thomas was a versatile actor with a gift for comedy, but one who could also play dramatic roles equally well. Quite simply, he was one of the best character actors to emerge in the Eighties.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Dick Gregory R.I.P.

Satirist and comedian Dick Gregory died on August 19 2017 at the age of 84. The cause was heart failure.

Dick Gregory was born on October 12 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Sumner High School in St. Louis. A track star in high school, he earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. He left college in 1954 to join the United States Army. It was his commanding officer who urged him to take up comedy, and he took part in several Army talent shows. After his service Mr. Gregory returned to Southern Illinois University, but he eventually dropped out.

It was in 1956 that he moved to Chicago in hopes of pursuing a career in comedy. During the day he worked various jobs, while at night he did stand-up comedy at various night clubs about the city. He opened his own club, the Apex Club, in 1958, but it did not last long. It was in 1961 that he received his big break. Comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey had cancelled a gig at the Playboy Club in Chicago and Dick Gregory was asked to fill in for him. It was that same year that he made his television debut on The Jack Paar Tonight Show.

Dick Gregory would appear frequently on television in the Sixties. He made appearances on The Tonight Show, The Jack Paar Program, That Regis Philbin Show, Firing Line, The Eamon Andrews Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He was a co-host on The Mike Douglas Show in 1962. In the Seventies he continued to appear frequently on television. He was a co-host again on The Mike Douglas Show. He also appeared on The David Frost Show, The Helen Reddy Show, Black Journal, and Soul Train. After the Seventies Dick Gregory's appearances on television decreased, although he appeared occasionally on such shows as Donahue, Hour Magazine, and Sharp Talk. 

Dick Gregory released a highly successful series of stand-up comedy records in his career. His first, In Living Black and White, was released in 1961. He released several albums in the Sixties, including East & West (1961), Dick Gregory Talks Turkey (1962), The Two Sides of Dick Gregory (1963), My Brother's Keeper (1963), Dick Gregory Running for President (1964), So You See... We All Have Problems (1964), Dick Gregory On: (1969), The Light Side: The Dark Side (1969), Dick Gregory's Frankenstein (1970), and Live at the Village Gate (1970). In the Seventies he released the albums At Kent State (1971), and Caught in the Act (1974). He released two more albums, 21st Century "State of the Union" and You Don't Know Dick in 2016.

Dick Gregory appeared in several films over the years, primarily as himself in concert films and documentaries. Over the years he appeared as himself in such films as It's a Revolution Mother (1969), Chicago Blues (1970), Prologue (1970), Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), In Remembrance of Martin (1986), Comic Relief (1986), The N Word (2004), The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi (2009), and Irwin & Fran (2013). He also acted in a few films as well, including Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), Panther (1995), Children of the Struggle (1999), The Hot Chick (2002), Steppin: The Movie (2009), and Ir/Reconcilable (2014). He is set to appear in the film The Leisure Seeker.

 Dick Gregory also wrote several books, including his 1964 autobiography, Write me in!, From the Back of the Bus, What's Happening?, The Shadow that Scares Me, and many others.

Dick Gregory was certainly a revolutionary comic and satirist. Among other things he was a sharp break from African American comedians earlier in the 20th Century, such as Red Foxx and Slappy White, whose humour could often be quite earthy. In contrast, Mr. Gregory's humour tended to be wry and witty. Indeed, he openly addressed race relations at a time when most comedians chose not to. He did so not by preaching at audiences about the evils of racism, but instead showed its absurdity by making mocking observations about it. Given the subject matter of his routines in the early Sixties, some today might be surprised to know that Dick Gregory was one of the first black comedians to cross over to performing in front of white audiences. He was also wildly popular in the Sixties and Seventies.

In addition to being a comedian and satirist, Dick Gregory was also a civil rights activist. In 1962 he took part in his first demonstration for voting rights in Mississippi. He spoke in Selma, Alabama on October 7 1963 as part of a voter registration drive known as "Freedom Day". Beyond being active in the civil rights movement, Mr. Gregory was also involved in activism against the Vietnam War, for economic reform, and against drugs.

Dick Gregory was truly a groundbreaking satirist and comic, addressing racial concerns just as the civil rights movement was gaining ground. What is more, he was extremely funny. With wry humour and wit he exposed the absurdity of racism in American society, all the while remaining very funny.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Godspeed Sir Bruce Forsyth

Sir Bruce Forsyth, the legendary presenter of the British variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium and many game shows over the years, died on August 18 2017 at the age of 89.

Sir Bruce Forsyth as born on February 22 1928 in Edmonton, Middlesex. He attended the Latymer School in Edmonton. When he was eight years old he became obsessed with tap dancing after seeing Fred Astaire movies at his local cinema. He then trained in dance in Tottenham and later Brixton. Mr. Forsyth began performing while still a child. He made his television debut when he was still very young, appearing on the TV show Come and Be Televised in 1939. He appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal in Bilston, billed as "Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom". He played the accordion, ukulele, and banjo.

Mr. Forsyth spent many years in music halls around the United Kingdom, interrupted only by two years of national service in the Royal Air Force. He made his first appearance as an adult on television in 1954 on Variety Parade. Over the next few years he appeared on Music-Hall, The Winifred Atwell Show, and Spectacular. It was while performing at Babbacombe in Devon in 1957 that a fellow dance act recommended Mr. Forsyth to their agent, Billy Marsh. It was through Mr. Marsh that Sir Bruce Forsyth landed an appearance on the TV show New Look. This led to Sir Bruce Forsyth becoming the host of the variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He hosted the show from 1958 to 1960. After a year-long break he returned as its host and remained until 1964.

In the Sixties Mr. Forsyth continued to host Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Along with Frankie Howard he was one of the two hosts of the show Frankie and Bruce. In 1965 he appeared in his own television special, The Bruce Forsyth Show. He appeared on such shows as That's for Me, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Showtime, Two of a Kind, and It's Lulu. He also did a bit of acting during the decade. He guest starred on Mystery and Imagination in an adaption of The Canterville Ghost. He appeared in the films Star! (1968) and Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).  He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Seventies Sir Bruce Forsyth was the host of his own show, The Bruce Forsyth Show as well as Big Night. He hosted his first game show, The Generation Game. He guest starred on such shows as Cilla, Rolf Harris Show, The Morecambe & Wise Show, and The Muppet Show. He appeared in the TV specials Frankie and Bruce and Sammy and Bruce. As an actor he appeared in the films Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971). He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Eighties Mr. Forsyth acted as a regular in the TV series Anna Pavlova and as the star in the TV series Slinger's Day. He guest starred in an episode of Magnum P. I. He hosted the game shows Play Your Cards Right, Hollywood or Bust, Hot Streak, and You Bet. He starred in the TV specials Forsyth Follies and Bruce and Ronnie. He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Nineties Sir Bruce Forsyth hosted the game shows Takeover Bid, Bruce's Price is Right, and a revival of The Generation Game. He also hosted the variety show Guest Night and Tonight at the London Palladium. He appeared in the movie House!.  From the Naughts into the Teens he was the host of Strictly Come Dancing.

For my fellow Americans it may be hard to understand the importance of Sir Bruce Forsyth in the history of British television. We simply don't have any figure that quite corresponds to him. One could describe him as a British Ed Sullivan, but Mr. Sullivan could not sing or dance and wasn't nearly as warm and friendly. One could describe him as a British Bob Barker, but Mr. Barker can not sing and dance and has never hosted variety shows. The simple fact is that Mr. Forsyth could do it all. He could sing. He could dance. He could act. He could be a comedian. None of this should come as any surprise as Sir Bruce Forsyth was one of the last music hall entertainers. Before his success on television he spent years entertaining people in music halls across the United Kingdom. And like many music hall entertainers, he developed a number of different talents.

Of course, Sir Bruce Forsyth was never a favourite with critics. Even when he became famous in the late Fifties he was a bit old-fashioned, a sharp contrast to the Angry Young Men of the era. He was first and foremost an entertainer. He was not there to educate his audience, to enlighten his audience, or to persuade them to take a stand on any particular issue. Sir Bruce Forsyth was there to make them laugh, to make them smile, to make them escape the troubles of their days for a while. This probably explains his popularity for six decades. When one watched Sir Bruce Forsyth, they were guaranteed a half hour or hour of pure escapism. It is something that is sometimes missing from entertainment today. Sir Bruce Forsyth really was one of the last of his kind.