Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering Joan Rivers: Joan and Lucy

It takes a great comedienne to know one, as we see here from the great camaraderie between Joan Rivers and Lucille Ball, circa 1984, on these two appearances on The Tonight Show:

In 1973 Joan Rivers made a guest appearance on an episode of Here's Lucy playing Lucy's fellow juror:

Remembering Joan Rivers: "The Girl Most Likely To" from 1973

Fans of 1970's era TV movies will very fondly remember the terrific little dark comedy penned by the late Joan Rivers (and Agnes Gallin, story by Rivers) entitled The Girl Most Likely To, from November of 1973.  Starring a twenty-year old Stockard Channing in her first major movie or TV role and co-starring Ed Asner and a slew of comic (and non-) actors such as Jim Backus, Chuck McCann, Ruth McDevitt, Joe Flynn, Carl Ballantine, Larry Wilcox and Warren Berlinger, TGMLT is a classic revenge comedy played to perfection by its expert cast.

Stockard plays ugly duckling Miriam Knight and what happens after she gets into an automobile accident and undergoes restorative plastic surgery is what The Girl Most Likely To is all about.
The movie got a DVD release a few years ago though many of us already held this one in our hearts and minds all these years in a special place.  It's a favorite of many, including Christopher Laverty's Clothes on Film blog which celebrated one of Stockard's costumes in the movie and Bobby Rivers on his blog where he writes about the movie here.

For those of you who don't have the DVD, we are pleased to present The Girl Most Likely To right here.  Enjoy this terrific example of Joan Rivers' savage wit and keen perceptions about humanity:

The Last of Errol Flynn, As Seen on TV

The release of actor Kevin Kline's new biographical movie about the aging Errol Flynn (1909 - 1959) entitled The Last of Robin Hood brings to mind the charismatic matinee idol's long and entertaining career. He was heartbreakingly handsome as well as immensely talented despite a breezy exterior that may have made it seem as if he didn't take his gift seriously.  He certainly didn't take himself very seriously, living life with a gusto and perpetual wanderlust that made his off-screen antics surely as memorable as anything he played in the movies.

Those antics belied the other side of Flynn, the side that loved the sea, science, politics and lots of other things besides drink and romance.  He was a fascinating guy, a man's man and also a lover of the ladies, lots of them, right down to his final romance depicted in The Last of Robin Hood.

Here's the trailer to the new film.  Honestly, Kline is a bit too old for the role even considering Flynn's rambunctious lifestyle and slight dissipation; Flynn still looked pretty darn good even though he looked older than his actual age.  And one thing that no actor can match is the twinkle in Flynn's eyes, but Kline tries::

Towards the end of his career TV came along and provided him with a few more chances to perform, though he had surely spent the best years of his life already and looked older than he should have.  But the Flynn charm never left him and the audience goodwill he had accumulated over the past twenty years of film stardom kept his name alive, that and the scandalous aura that remained from his rape trial in the early forties.

In 1952 Flynn -- hard to believe he's only 43 years old here -- guest-starred on an episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour:

In 1956 Errol lent his name to and served as host on the dramatic anthology series The Errol Flynn Theatre which ran for 26 half-hour episodes.  (He also starred in two of the episodes):

In June of 1947 he appeared with former co-star Ann Sheridan -- they had starred together on the big screen in Dodge City, Edge of Darkness and Silver River -- John Ireland and Julie London in a Playhouse 90 western entitled "Without Incident":

In early 1957 he made a couple of appearances on variety series The Steve Allen Show, including this comedy sketch spoofing contemporary game shows:

In March 1957 he was one of the panelists on the popular game show What's My Line?:

In December 1957 he was the Mystery Guest on What's My Line?:

Errol Flynn became involved in the Cuban Revolution.  In January of 1959 he was a guest on Canada's Front Page Challenge where he was interviewed about his experiences with Fidel Castro (if the video doesn't show up please click on this link):

The plot of the new movie The Last of Robin Hood deals with this period in Flynn's life, when he took up with much younger actress -- jailbait, in fact -- Beverly Aadland and they appeared together in Flynn's last movie Cuban Rebel Girls and on TV on The Red Skelton Show (no clip available, alas!):

He also lent his presence to a documentary Cuban Story: Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution which disappeared after its Moscow premiere in 1959 and finally resurfaced in 2001,  It was his last screen appearance:

As for Flynn's very last personal appearance anywhere, here's a weird little story from Canadian TV:

I highly recommend reading about Flynn and watching his classic films -- he's magic, unlike any other movie star and simply the best of the best.

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!