Monday, September 1, 2014

Magician Harry Houdini -- Hot or Not? History Channel Takes a Chance

The History Channel gives us another opportunity to ponder the above question with its two-part miniseries Houdini starring Adrien Brody beginning tonight -- Labor Day -- and concluding tomorrow evening.  It's a query that TV and motion picture producers have always loved to answer in the affirmative.  Even back when the real Harry Houdini starred in a handful of silent movies it was essentially the same question.  Sure, all audiences love magicians -- and particularly Houdini -- for the awe and wonder they create, but the ladies in the crowd also appreciate some other qualities. It was perfect, of course, that Harry Houdini's fantastic escapes often included him appearing in skimpy loincloths to demonstrate that there was nothing up his...sleeve?

On the big screen producer George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) back in 1953 cast then-contemporary heartthrob Tony Curtis as the most famous magician of them all, with Curtis' real-life wife Janet Leigh as Harry's beloved spouse Bess.  Perfect casting -- Hollywood's Bernard Schwartz aka Tony Curtis playing Ehrich Weiss aka Harry Houdini -- and a luscious Technicolor production plus Curtis in bathing trunks added up to pure entertainment.  Hot?  Even Hollywoodized, you bet he was.

TV-loving baby boomers lived through the golden age of TV movies, when exciting concepts met agreeable television names to create highly watchable original productions.  Among them was in October 1976 with The Great Houdinis (originally The Great Houdini) starring Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini and written and director by Hollywood veteran Melville Shavelson. Glaser was riding high starring as one-half of ABC's Starsky and Hutch, the immensely popular buddy cop series which had premiered the previous year.  Glaser's streetwise, darkly handsome and slightly goofy Dave Starsky was an appealing ethnic-ish contrast to co-star David Soul's tall, blond and more traditionally heroic Ken Hutchinson.  Together they were unbeatable as they drove around in their souped-up car doing macho police work and also managed to charm the female viewers from teenagers on up through pure masculine appeal.  

Glaser was indeed a perfect choice for Harry Houdini, with both a physical resemblance and undeniable charisma that matched the legendary magician's own.  All in the Family ingenue Sally Struthers played Bess Houdini, with Ruth Gordon as Houdini's beloved mother, Vivian Vance as the Houdinis' friend, Nina Foch as a trance medium and Adrienne Barbeau as a seductress.  Glaser as Houdini was inspired casting and helped bring Houdini alive again for a younger generation many of whom probably never had never seen the Tony Curtis movie and even more who only knew Houdini as a vague historical figure. The Great Houdinis was truly a pop culture delight with exactly the right amount of levity and accurate-enough period touches to keep it engaging.  

Producers of The Great Houdinis knew exactly what they had in Glaser and weren't shy about stripping him down to his underwear or even less during the movie.  A touch of beefcake helped make the TV movie a sensation.  Even better, you can watch the movie here:

As you'll see, that famous pose of the real Houdini slightly scrunched over, in chains and clad in a thong, is one of the most popular used to demonstrate how much actors look like the man they are portraying.

In 1998 Turner Network Television made another TV movie on the life of Harry Houdini.  Houdini starred actor Johnathon Schaech as Harry and Stacy Edwards (Chicago Hope) as Bess.  Rhea Perlman played a psychic, Grace Zabriskie was Mama Weiss and David Warner was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who joined with Houdini in exposing phony mediums. Schaech was physically right for the role but like many TNT movies this one managed to suck the excitement out of the story right from the beginning, opening with a static seance sequence that made even the audience feel dead. Schaech had potential in the role but instead of charisma this Houdini unfortunately specialized in dreariness.  (I was in Programming at TNT at the time and was disappointed by the production which had much potential but simply wasn't exciting enough for good ratings.  It underwhelmed.)

Will Oscar-winner Adrien Brody succeed in bringing his version of Harry Houdini to greatness?  For one thing Brody is the tallest of the Curtis-Glaser-Schaech-Brody Houdini portrayers.  Houdini himself was about 5'6", Curtis three inches taller, Glaser one more than that, Schaech one more than Glaser, and Brody towers over all at 6'1", making him a full head taller than the real Harry.  Brody is also a lanky guy, not physically a match at all for Houdini and it will be interesting to see if this disconnect makes a difference.  Will Brody brood or cajole?  History's Houdini purports to examine more of the psychological makeup of the world greatest magician which could make the 4-hour miniseries either a fascinating adventure or a tedious and prolonged slog.  Let's hope for the former.  (Here's a link to the Variety review.)

To delve further into the world of Harry Houdini, there are some awesome resources available on the web.  Highly recommended:  John Cox's Wild About Harry -- Where Houdini Lives blog, a tremendously comprehensive site, Dean Carnegie's The Magic Detective Blog where he just finished a Houdini-thon of articles, Houdini in The New York Times, a terrific essay available here on Houdini on the internet,  and thank you to David Saltman who commented below to bring our attention to the amazing The Houdini File site! Even though the special isn't online, the transcript and ancillary materials for the PBS American Experience documentary on Houdini still are, available here.  For a unique view on the Houdini on TV situation, you will enjoy Toby O'B's Inner Toob article on the subject. The San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum had a Houdini: Art and Magic exhibit a while back.  There's a Houdini collection on Pinterest.  And...was Houdini a spy?  So much terrific material out there from dedicated Houdini scholars and enthusiasts!  Thanks to all of them for keeping Mr. Houdini the foremost name in magic!

From John Cox's Wild About Harry Blog -- be sure to visit! 

For more info on the newest production check out The History Channel official website for .Houdini.

Houdini premieres Monday, September 1st at 9pm with frequent encores.  Be sure to visit the History Channel site for all airdates.

P.S.:  Here are some other interesting clips, such as the real Houdini's voice:

Brilliant British singer/composer Kate Bush has a song "Houdini", lyrics here, interpretation here:

And because this series was always kind of fun, here's E's "Mysteries and Scandals" episode on Houdini"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #38: Ben Gazzara & "Run for Your Life"

Today we salute actor Ben Gazzara and his terrific mid-1960s NBC-TV series Run for Your Life; his 84th birthday would have been yesterday.  The acclaimed stage, TV and screen actor added his serious dramatic chops to this effective series with a dynamic premise: Gazzara was Paul Bryan, a successful young lawyer who receives a devastating medical prognosis from his doctor -- he'll be dead in just a few years.  Bryan faces the prospect of his untimely end with a resolve to start living his remaining time to the fullest . Run for Your Life started as an episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre in April of 1965 and the series started in the fall of that year.  Here is "Rapture at Two-Forty" which served as the pilot:

The series had a wonderful Emmy-nominated theme and score by composer Pete Rugolo:

Produced at a time when some of the best actors around were guest-starring on series television, Run for Your Life found Gazzara as Paul Bryan jet-setting around Europe and soon the whole world, hob-nobbing with hobos, cavorting with kidnappers, mingling with dictators, hanging out in haunted houses, and generally mixing it up with an ever-changing cast of characters.  Run for Your Life was essentially an anthology series, in the vein of  "road" shows like Route 66 or The Fugitive, with only the main character remaining the same but the setting and plot changing every week.  These roaming shows allowed the show's writers license to send Bryan out into the world with no restrictions. No family around to keep ailing Mr. Bryan grounded -- he was a free bird flapping his wings for what might be the last time.

Highly recommended for a long visit is the wonderful website The Ultimate Episode Guide to the Run for Your Life TV Series which is accessed by clicking here.  Beautifully arranged with lots of clips, inside information, and a comprehensive episode guide with special background info which delves into the series' timeline, the TUEGttRfYL site is a delight. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the impressive guest cast roster -- such great names, so many not with us anymore but also so many just on the brink of discovery. (Here's a blog -- click here -- with a nice discussion of actress Barbara Hershey's guest role on RfYL.)

For instance, how about singer/actress Claudine Longet (at the time the wife of Andy Williams, click here for a fascinating article about him and click here for a great website devoted to her) who played Paul Bryan's lover in a two-parter, serenading him:

Or Lesley Ann Warren as another of Bryan's girlfriends:

Ben Gazzara passed away in 2012, lauded as one of the most powerful actors ever, one whose overall career was less about making himself a star but instead giving outstanding performances in whatever roles he did undertake.  It's worth reading some of the excellent obituaries, such as from Time Magazine here, from the Hollywood Reporter here, People magazine here, and The Guardian here. Though evidently he later somewhat pooh-poohed his three year run as Paul Bryan in Run for Your Life as he reflected on his work with John Cassavettes and in other edgier projects, he had nothing to apologize for.  He was nominated twice for an Emmy Award for his work and stands out as a memorable TV figure of the time.

Run for Your Life ran as a weekly series from September 13, 1965 until March 26, 1968 and went into syndication but not to any stunning success.  It most recently ran on the digital channel COZI TV and though no official DVD release has happened yet there are some to be found if you look.

With its dolorous premise but exciting execution, Run for Your Life lives on in TV history as a series which managed to combine globetrotting adventure with an overall sense of mature contemplation of the inevitable.  For television, that's more than enough to make it stick.

With Joan Collins in an episode

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #37: "In Search Of" with Leonard Nimoy

In case you hadn't noticed lately, cable TV network schedules are brimming with monsters, mysteries, aliens, UFOs, bigfoots, historical conundrums and everything else fantastical that might or might not exist or have existed on Earth.  TV audiences' perpetual interest in these kinds of esoteric anomalies is nothing new, and one of the most fondly recalled series in this genre is the syndicated half-hour In Search Of which premiered in 1977.  Veteran producer/writer/creator Alan Landsburg drew upon his years of documentary television experience with shows such as The March of Time, National Geographic specials and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau to fashion this modestly budgeted but extremely effective, impeccably produced look into the unusual.

Landsburg dipped his toe into the real-life mystery genre several years before the debut of In Search Of with a quartet of specials about Ancient Astronauts, a subject that still lives on in glorious style with H2's Ancient Aliens series hosted by the enthusiastic Giorgio Tsoukalos.  Three of these were hosted/narrated by Twilight Zone and Night Gallery creator Rod Serling, a perfect choice to lend an air of erudite intensity and credibility to these out-of-this-world subjects. When the decision was made to create a weekly series with similar material, Serling was the first choice but unfortunately had passed away in 1975.

The decision to bring in former Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy was a brilliant one.  The original Star Trek series at the time was enjoying an unprecedented (in all of TV history) renaissance thanks to syndicated reruns; the first big screen motion picture wouldn't come out until 1979. Nimoy's fine reputation playing the brilliant Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock played into both the weirdness of In Search Of and also into the sense that the show would treat these subjects with seriousness and respect, which it did.  Nimoy was never less than convincing, curious, involved and absolutely the perfect choice to present this material.  His intelligent presence was the fascinating firmament which gave In Search Of its lasting pop culture gravitas.

The original unforgettable opening and closing theme segments feature Nimoy's terrific narration and set the stage for the unusual delights to come:

144 episodes over five years, a respectable output and more than respectable entertainment legacy for both Mr. Landsburg and also for Leonard Nimoy.  I wasn't a kid when these shows came on, but those who were often report that In Search Of had a deep influence on them, simultaneously frightening them and also opening up their minds to the wonders of the universe.  Click here for one account, and here's another guy's report of his Bigfoot fear fueled by ISO, and finally one here from a man who loved the show. The rest of us just thought it was immensely interesting and entertaining, often food for thought and a not-to-be-missed treat.

After it left local TV syndication In Search Of was picked up by the A&E cable networks who reworked the iconic theme song and deleted the Nimoy visual segments -- bah and just plain stupid; they made the show and were restored for a run on History Channel. (In the early 2000s there was a short revival on the Sci Fi network starring The X Files actor Mitch Pileggi.)

Let's take a look at a few example of the wide variety of segments covered on In Search Of. Some of these have the original theme, some are from other runs with less Nimoy and different theme, but at least the Nimoy narration is there --

How about the Kennedy Assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald:

How about the Ogopogo lake monster?:

The Tunguska Incident in Russia:

For the Biblically inclined, Noah's Ark:

Of course, here's Bigfoot:

The unsolved disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson Rockefeller -- this episode was always one of my favorites, seemed quite tragic for all concerned:

And Leonard Nimoy's own interest in the history of artist Vincent Van Vogh and his brother Theo brought this half-hour:

In addition to the previously mentioned productions, Alan Landsburg was also responsible for the extremely popular That's Incredible! series from the early 1980s as well as a string of popular TV movies like Adam (about the Adam Walsh murder whose aftermath led to John Walsh and America's Most Wanted), Bill (with Mickey Rooney as a mentally challenged man), The Jayne Mansfield Story (starring Loni Anderson & Arnold Schwarznegger), The Ryan White Story (about the young boy who contracted AIDS) and so many others.

Alan Landsburg passed away on August 13th of this year at the age of 81.  Read about his distinguished career by clicking here, here, and here. Renowned cryptozoologist Loren Coleman (he worked on the show with Landsburg) gives a thoughtful personal recollection here. Landsburg was also very involved in thoroughbred racing; read that world's farewell to him hereLeonard Nimoy continues to enjoy a special place in the hearts of all Star Trek fans for his portrayal of Spock and also for his thoughtful and artistic impulses which have enriched the world at large.

The entire In Search Of series and specials has been released in a complete DVD set which is sold on Amazon, among other venues.  (This set seems to restore the original theme and all Nimoy content which is exactly the way it should be seen.)

Literally all the "unexplained mystery" genre programs on TV today owe their existence to In Search Of.  The series' legacy and spirit of exploration and adventure is alive and well today after forty years!

I was at this NATPE but missed visiting the suite!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Nose-talgia #36: "Laverne & Shirley" & Cindy & Penny

For fans of physical comedy and all the hilarity that it can bring, almost no series have come along to rival all-time classic I Love Lucy's domination of that category...except Laverne & Shirley.  The series debuted on ABC in 1976, a spin-off from the popular Happy Days, and in our memories the two series are forever linked in TV history.  During the years -- from around 1976 - 1979 -- when these two shows topped the ratings charts they were literally unbeatable.  Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams -- who's celebrating her 67th birthday today -- made the show a hit.

Laverne & Shirley debuted in January of 1976 and immediately settled in as a hit, nestled comfortably behind similarly top-rated Happy Days and sharing a Garry Marshall production company ethos which made the two shows into a near-seamless one hour of bright family comedy.  Because it seldom happens these days, it's almost shocking that by the time Laverne & Shirley ended its network run in 1983 it had amassed 178 episodes.  (Happy Days similarly got up to 255 episodes; it began two years earlier and went an additional year beyond.)  Both shows have enjoyed a long life in syndication and with their release on DVD it's become clear that the affection in which they are both held is justified. (Review of Season 3 release here and also here, Season 4 release here, Season 5 release here.)

Perhaps Laverne & Shirley didn't have the political punch or menopausal mirth of Maude, nor the raucous high school smart aleck sass of Welcome Back, Kotter, nor the urban comedy flavor of The Jeffersons, but what the two titular ladies did have was impeccable comic timing, the never-ending courage to get in there and try anything, and a wonderful depiction of female friendship. Unfortunately late in the run this relationship seemed to have unraveled off-screen in real-life and ultimately led to the show's end, but while it lasted it was a true partnership of equals.  I always thought they had a better friendship than Lucy and Ethel, the latter always relegated to being the frumpy sidekick to Lucy, whereas Laverne and Shirley really did it all arm-in-arm together.  For instance, this wonderful sequence -- one of their best -- from the Season 2 episode "Guinea Pigs" where sleep and food-deprived Laverne and Shirley won't miss their fancy party:

We can't ignore the terrific supporting cast of Laverne & Shirley including Michael McKean and David Lander as Lenny and Squiggy, those two offbeat and off-kilter pals and neighbors of the girls.  Before Kramer on Seinfeld made entering a room into a tour-de-force moment to savor, Lenny and Squiggy never failed to amuse with their own trademark arrivals.  Phil Foster as Laverne's father Frank, Eddie Mekka as Shirley's sometime boyfriend Carmine and show-biz veteran Betty Garrett as the girls' landlady (and later Laverne's stepmother) Edna Babish added to the goings-on which happened around Laverne and Shirley's apartment, or Frank's pizza parlor, or the Shotz Brewery where they worked.  Listen to what Garrett had to say about Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall:

Nothing says it better than watching some Laverne & Shirley!

"Laverne & Shirley Meet Fabian" -- shades of when Lucy and Ethel broke into Cornel Wilde's hotel room but very great in its own way!  From Season 3:

From Season 4, "Supermarket Sweep" (this is in 3 segments):

"Fat City Holiday" from Season 5:

"The Diner" from Season 5, one of the favorite Laverne & Shirley episodes featuring the famous "Betty, please" bit which is discussed by Penny Marshall in this 2013 interview, click here:

How about the 1995 Laverne & Shirley Reunion special which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the series:

Fans still adore Laverne & Shirley -- like these dedicated folks at the LAVERNE & SHIRLEY place and other site which are listed there -- and you can count us in their number.  Cindy Williams reminisced about the series a couple of years ago in an interview available here and a few months ago in Parade magazine here, and here's another interview with Penny Marshall about her 2012 autobiography about her life and multifaceted Hollywood career.  (Phil Foster passed away in 1985, Betty Garrett in 2011.)

In 2012 Laverne & Shirley was honored with a TV Land Fan Favorite Award -- well deserved!

(If the 3rd video doesn't work, please click here.)

 In case your funny bone hasn't been sufficiently tickled yet, here's a compilation video of sixty or so Laverne & Shirley clips to enjoy -- it's wonderful.

Happy Birthday to Cindy Williams today, and thank goodness for Laverne & Shirley!