Archive for television

Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. And lots and lots of Disney. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Martin Landau (b. 1928). Landau is one of those actors who’s worked constantly but sort of at a low profile, with periodic tent pole moments (usually one per decade) where he enjoyed greater limelight: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s been in much more of course, but these are highlights.

Space: 1999 has fallen by the wayside I feel, but at the time when it was made it was culturally crucial. It filled a void, and was transitional in aesthetics. The American science fiction series Star Trek had ceased production in 1969. The original Star Wars film came out in 1977. Space: 1999 lives at the center to connect them and draws from much else besides. It was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, best known today as the creators of The Thunderbirds, and this show proved to be the culmination of their careers. Space: 1999 was the most expensive British series ever produced up until that point. Still, despite that, with its extensive use of miniature sets and flying model rockets, one can’t help seeing it as an exercise in their patented technique of “Supermarionation”, ironically cheesy looking by modern standards.

Converting this into a toy will be an easy matter

On the other hand, the look of the sets clearly draws from the realistic technological speculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The series is set on a lunar outpost called Moonbase Alpha; scenes in the Kubrick film had been set on a similar base. The environment on the tv show is similar. But the time frame on both 2001 and Space: 1999 in retrospect proves to have been laughably optimistic. The U.S. was in the process of cancelling its lunar exploration program just as the series was getting under way. By the time 1999 rolled around, manned space exploration had consisted of nothing but brief excursions into low earth orbit for a quarter century.

The show is much closer to fantasy than science fiction, anyway. The entire premise, that an explosion causes the moon to leave the earth’s orbit intact and begin sailing around the universe on a series of adventures is so implausible that the word implausible hardly seems sufficient. The fact that the heroes constantly encounter humanoid aliens is equally fantastic. While this also happened on Star Trek and Lost in Space, those shows are set farther in the future and much farther away from earth. In Space: 1999, the heroes leave the earth’s orbit and five minutes later begin encountering weirdness. This aspect of the show, to my mind, aligns it closer to something like Dr. Who, which was still going strong at the time in its original incarnation (with its fourth Doctor, Tom Baker). Like Dr. Who, Space: 1999 seems much more about magic than science. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is more than okay. Just go with it. After all, the characters sure seem to!

Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!

To bolster American ratings, ITC’s Sir Lew Grade insisted on the casting of husband-wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both fresh off the hot U.S. show Mission: Impossible as the leads Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. But while a logical move and a laudable instinct, that gesture was hardly sufficient to make Space:1999 a smash hit in the U.S. Among other things, as a syndicated program it would never get prime time slots here nor be vigorously hyped by networks. I seem to recall it airing on Sundays, probably somewhere around 6pm. I was between the ages of ten and 13 when it ran here — of course I watched it faithfully every week. But it distinctly lacked the flash that American network tv shows had. I remember tons of excitement about The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter. But excitement was not a word I would use for how we felt about Space: 1999. It was sort of…quietly in our lives. Part of that was marketing but part was also the show itself. The idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would make an American hit show is the kind of amusing, but understandable miscalculation a British producer would make. Silly man! You can’t just hire a “recognizable, competent American acting professional” to carry your series! That’s how they do things in Britain! In America we are looking for gimmicks and phenomena. At that time the American audience was looking for the next Fonzie, the next Baretta…a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, an Incredible Hulk. By contrast, Space:1999 seemed very low-key and subdued. Lots of drab and dull people brooding and worrying all the time. Though undeniably beautiful, Bain in particular was a snooze-o-rama. Landau could occasionally get worked up and interesting. With Bain, it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of knob on your TV to turn HER up.

Hello! We’re ready for our action figures!

In their second season, the show tried to address this somewhat, replacing the mildly amusing science officer (Barry Morse) with an alien woman (Catherine Schnell) and throwing in more humor and action. But that was both inorganic and insufficient. Expensive to produce, the show was cancelled.

We were delighted to discover the other day that the whole series is available to watch on Hulu, so I looked at some episodes after an interval of four decades. And it was a gas. From the melodramatic, disco-tinged theme music, to the bell-bottomed polyester uniforms, long hair and mustaches (we just don’t see our action heroes sporting those styles any more. It looks like they’re all getting ready to go dancing). Many of the props are hilariously antiquated and were wrong for a space station environment even at the time. Drinking out of a breakable glass? Writing on pieces of paper on clipboards? Clocks with faces and hands? And science fiction set design has gotten so much better, so much more specific since then. What does that unmarked button DO? There are all these vague buttons and flashing lights all over the place and it’s obvious their only function is atmosphere.

But yet again, much of it made me nostalgic. There are video screens and electronic monitors of one sort or another all over the place on the show, yet they are SEVENTIES screens and monitors and signals. They were the height of modernity at the time; now they look like my youth, when video tech was in its infancy. In its way it’s like looking at an old radio cabinet:

Landau was very dissatisfied with Space: 1999, particularly its second season, and was only too glad to be done with it. But, really, since the next phase of his career was characterized by stuff like Meteor (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), perhaps he began to find himself a little homesick for Moonbase Alpha.

Irwin Allen: Mover of Worlds

Posted in CAMP, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by travsd

It’s shocking to me to realize that I haven’t done a proper tribute to visionary producer/ director Irwin Allen (1916-1991) prior to now. Allen’s film and television productions dominated my entire childhood, influenced and inspired the hell out of me. Though he has been virtually synonymous with the genre he brought into being, the disaster movie, since the 1970s, he actually made his mark in many genres, across both film and tv, making his mark in science fiction/ fantasy, and nature documentaries, and he even played a significant role in the later career of the Marx Brothers. He is at the center of so much that I love. He was an old school impresario, the principal heir to Cecil B. DeMille, and yet there are undeniable similarities to William Castle, Roger Corman, and even Ed Wood. Somehow he was both Big Budget and Low Budget, sometimes at the same time.

Allen’s origins are surprising, yet they make a great deal of sense. Originally, he went to City College, then transferred to the Columbia School of Journalism. Though he had to drop out due to financial difficulties (it was the Great Depression) his education allowed him to get a job editing a magazine in Los Angeles in the late 30s. This led to his making his mark in celebrity journalism, a natural springboard for the remainder of his career — stars would always be central to his oeuvre. From 1941 through 1952 he produced The Irwin Allen Show on local Hollywood radio, later renamed Hollywood Merry-Go-Round. He also had a syndicated newspaper column under the latter name, as well as a television edition, which ran from 1949 through 1951, with no less than Steve Allen as the announcer. This got him in on the ground floor of the new medium. He also ran an advertising agency, a very useful muscle for the career on which he was about to embark. He became an expert at assembling all the necessary pieces to make deals happen: signing authors, stars, and properties that could attract backers.

To break into movies he served a brief apprenticeship with a gent named Irving Cummings, first with a 1950 noir thriller called Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, and Faith Domergue. But next comes the Marx Brothers connection! For Allen was involved in Groucho’s last two starring vehicles and the last film to contain all three Marx Brothers. He co-produced Double Dynamite (1951) and A Girl in Every Port (1952) with Cummings. And he produced The Story of Mankind (1957), featuring Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and dozens of other stars — we’ll return to that one in a second.

Note the killer eel

But first — nature documentaries?! Yes, nature documentaries. Believe it or not, he won an Oscar for his 1952 adaptation of Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us. In 1956, he made The Animal World. But even in these purportedly educational films, Allen’s hacky instincts were already coming to the fore. Both films relied extensively on stock footage (hence the comparison to Ed Wood above). The Sea Around Us was full of sensationalism, including an extended bloody sequence of whales being slaughtered. And The Animal World featured a nine minute stop-motion dinosaur section animated by Ray Harryhausen. But something else is notable. The Sea Around Us establishes Allen’s fascination with the power and majesty and terror of the oceans and nature in general, a theme he would return to again and again.

We next come to the brief phase when Allen was most overtly like DeMille. As we blogged here, The Story of Mankind has echoes of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which had been released the year before with an all-star cast, including some actors in common (e..g., Vincent Price). Yet it was done on the cheap, with huge portions of the film consisting of obvious stock footage from previous Biblical and Roman epics. In 1959 he made The Big Circus, an obvious rip-off of DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Next comes his sci-fi fantasy phase (presaged by that Harryhausen section in The Animal World). In 1960 he remade the 1925 classic The Lost World (based on the Conan Doyle novel), starring Michael Rennie, Claude Rains and Jill St. John. Then came Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) with Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, Michael Ansara and Frankie Avalon (with theme song sung by Avalon). Then Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), again, loaded with stars: Red Buttons, Fabian, Eden again, Lorre again, Cedrick Hardwicke, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert. 

He next moved into television where he was able to keep old school sci-fi vital long after it had wilted at the box office. The best remembered of these shows was the classic Lost in Space (1965-1968), probably what he is best remembered for (after his disaster movies) due to its big success in syndication. But there was also the tv version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and City Beneath the Sea (1971, a pilot for an unsold series). During the sixties at least, Allen was actually a much more successful producer of tv science fiction than Gene Roddenberry.

A very tall disaster

In the 1970s, he shifted gears and enjoyed his biggest success. As I blogged here, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was the first film I ever saw in a cinema. It made a major impact on me and remains one of my favorite films. Seen from the perspective of time, Allen’s producing of this film at this juncture, and the fashion in which he did it, is not unlike William Castle’s decision to make Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. He saw that cinema was changing, and he disciplined himself to create a big-budget blockbuster that spoke to those changes (although, without a doubt 20th Century Fox had a major hand in keeping Allen to that discipline). His next film 1974’s The Towering Inferno (which I blogged about here) extended the magic yet again on an even larger scale, although it does contain some warning signs that he would revert to form as soon as was given the opportunity.

But next — a forgotten gem, but one I haven’t forgotten, because I was a big fan of it. In 1975 and 1976 he produced his next TV series The Swiss Family Robinson starring Adam 12’s Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, a young Helen Hunt, and Willie Aames (who would soon go on to bigger stardom in Eight is Enough). The Swiss Family Robinson had been the obvious inspiration for Lost in Space. The new version went back to the original children’s classic and was excellent family entertainment.  Ditto his 1978 minseries The Return of Captain Nemo, with Jose Ferrer in the title role. If Allen’s career had ended here it would have ended on a high note.

“I want the letters on the logo to resemble the cracking wall of a dam!”

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view), his career did NOT end there. The terrific financial success of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno gave Allen lots of power and influence. Not just because of his own films, but many imitations showed he was the inventor of a sure-fire genre. Earthquake (1974) rivaled Towering Inferno at the box office, and several sequels to 1970’s Airport were clearly made in response to the phenomenon. Even Roger Corman got in on the action with Avalanche (1978).

And now suddenly Allen had all of the power of DeMille, but was still imbued with many of the bottom feedings instincts of Corman, Castle and Wood. He chose to exercise his newfound power by making the campy dreck with which his name has been associated ever since. He made eight more disaster films in four years. Five of them were for television — with television budgets and production values. He may have been inspired to transfer the genre to TV by the 1974 telefilm Hurricane, which for years I assumed was an Allen production, but was not. But Allen followed its template anyway with Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-in! (1979).

And he made three more films for theatrical release. Because he had directed the action sequences of Poseidon and Inferno he made the grave error of thinking he ought to direct now as well as produce. He decided to helm The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) himself, and great sprawling, hilarious messes they are.

The Swarm was clearly a response to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but Allen was clearly out of his element. Spielberg, a cinematic genius, had now set the bar of quality impossibly high. (Although Spielberg and Allen shared one important thing in common: an appreciation for the genius of composer John Williams. Williams had written the music for Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno prior to beginning his long association with Spielberg). At all events, compared to New Hollywood mavericks like Spielberg, Allen now seemed by comparison old-fashioned, irrelevant, and quite simply, stinky. He got someone else to direct his volcano movie When Time Ran Out (1980), but that one was no less a sprawling, hilarious mess than his other two recent pictures.

Allen was not yet through, however. In 1981 and 1982, he produced the series Code Red about a family of Los Angeles fire fighters, close to the disaster genre, but also close to the procedurals (e.g., Emergency!) that were then still popular.

The Lion and the Unicorn. Beau Bridges as the latter; Ernest Borgnine as the former.

In 1985 he produced his astoundingly awful all-star mini-series version of Alice in Wonderland, a masterpiece of terribleness, not to be believed. It has about 100 recognizable names in it — some of them respected ones. Even the name “Irwin Allen’s Alice in Wonderland” makes me laugh heartily. It’s like something from SCTV. It’s a certainty that I’ll be blogging further in much more depth about this debacle and all of the Allen projects I have not yet done posts about. Maybe I’ll get to some of them later today.

Allen’s last credit was the highly uncharacteristic Outrage (1986), a tv movie about a lawyer having to defend an unsympathetic client.  After this, health problems prevented further output.

I joke, as everybody does, about Allen’s foibles and missteps, but where I may differ from most (ill-informed) others is in my level of overall respect. For he did leave a legacy. Obviously, the disaster movie has made a comeback in the last couple of decades. Frankly I don’t like any of them as much as I like Allen’s, including Allen’s bad ones, although they certainly owe him a debt. Roland Emmerich is his most obvious heir, both in terms of special effects, and in terms of cramming your vehicle with stars. I think anyone in the stunt or special effects field can tell you how groundbreaking and influential he was. They had to solve new problems to make films like Poseidon and Inferno — I’m sure they are still using solutions devised by Allen’s team. And as a promoter and producer he is to be idolized. Frankly, it’s how it’s done. I admire his ballyhoo to no end.

 

 

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Steve Franken: He’s Everywhere

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2017 by travsd

Today we honor the character comedy contribution of the late actor Steve Franken (1932-2012). The son of a Hollywood agent, Franken had an easy entree into film and tv roles, although he never flew higher than recurring and guest shots on tv, and bits parts on screens big and small. But he was instantly recognizable, almost walys showcased prominently and to advantage.

His first recurring part was as a snooty rich kid on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, although that was before my time. But I grew up watching him in other things. His smallish stature and large staring eyes made him perfect for playing callow, sheltered and privileged young men: mama’s boys, nephews, clueless heirs, and psychiatry patients.

He had a memorable and prominent turn as the drunken butler in Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968):

He played several characters in 7 different episodes of Bewitched including Cousin Henry and Bruce, the Loch Ness Monster.

He’s in five episodes of Love American Style, two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (as one of Mary’s serious boyfriends). He had a great scene in Westworld (1973) as the terrified technician Richard Benjamin encounters in the desert.

He’s in the “Chopper” episode of Kolchak: The Night StalkerHe’s a shrink in the spooky 1975 movie The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. He plays Molly Picon’s son in Murder on Flight 502He’s a perp in two episodes of Barney Miller. He’s in two Jerry Lewis movies: Which Way to the Front? (1970) and Hardly Working (1981). The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). On and on, in places expected and unexpected throughout the decades. One of his later credits was in an episodes of Angels and Demons (2009).

It’s Steve Franken’s birthday today. And to my astonishment, yes, he actually is Al Franken’s cousin.

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

Joseph Cotten: Courtliness Personified

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was born on May 15. The late year of his death surprised me. Cotten’s last film had been in 1981 and I couldn’t imagine him ever not acting. But a stroke felled him in 1981. He eventually recovered sufficiently enough to write a memoir, but he never acted again.

From an old Virginia family, Cotten seemed from another time. This gentle, courtly quality made him perfect for a part in the original Broadway production of the antebellum themed melodrama Jezebel (1933). Orson Welles loved this quality of Cotten’s; in 1934, Cotten was to become a core cast member of the Mercury Theatre as well as its radio component The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939, when Welles and company had gone out to Hollywood, Cotten remained in New York and starred in the original Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. When it was made into a movie the following year the role he had created onstage went to the far better established Cary Grant.

But Welles was to be his patron once again, giving him key roles in the Mercury’s first three (and only completed) pictures for RKO: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Journey Into Fear (1942, which Cotten also co-wrote). Then his Hollywood career began to take off.  Alfred Hitchcock liked Cotten so much he starred him in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). Among Cotten’s other memorable pictures in the ’40s were: Gaslight (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmers Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

With Welles once again in “The Third Man”

In the 50s, the magic sort of wore off, although he continued to be featured in copious movies through the middle of the decade, most notably Niagara (1953). He also made cameos in Welles’ Othello (1951) and Touch of Evil (1958). In 1953 he returned to Broadway to star in the original production of Sabrina Fair. As had happened with The Philadelphia Story, he was replaced in the 1954 film version, Sabrina. Cotten’s biggest splash in the ’50s was his tv show: The Joseph Cotten Show: On Trial, which ran from 1956 through 1959.

with de Havilland in “Sweet Charlotte”

I will talk a bit more about the next phase of Cotten’s career in another pioneering post I am working on. You can guess its topic by the film titles: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Oscar (1966), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Lady Frankenstein (1971),  The Screaming Woman (1972), Baron Blood (1972), The Devil’s Daughter (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Airport ’77, Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and The Hearse (1980). But there was also some far less schlocky movies in there: Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), A Delicate Balance (1973), and Heaven’s Gate (1980 — I don’t care what it lost at the box office, Heaven’s Gate happens to be a brilliant film, only a moron thinks otherwise). And lots and lots of other movies and tv appearances in there as well. As we say, in 1981 he had a stroke. His autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere was published in 1987.

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