Thursday, November 20, 2014

Special Happy Birthday Today to the Exceptional Estelle Parsons!

She's covered in our other November 20th birthday post, but we just have to give actress Estelle Parsons a super shout-out for being incredible for all these years!  We all know about her wonderful theater work which she started in 1961 after transitioning from a TV news career which included a stint as an on-air reporter for The Today Show. A multiple Tony Award and Drama Desk Award winner, Estelle Parsons has been giving us consistently honest, compelling and entertaining work for over fifty years.  Amazing.

In addition to her acclaimed theater work, we salute Parsons for her extensive film work including her Academy Award-winning role (Best Supporting Actress) as Blanche Barrow in the groundbreaking 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.  

She was also nominated in the same category a year later for her work in the very fine film Rachel, Racheldirected by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward.  Here's a great behind-the-scenes trailer/featurette for the movie.

Concurrent with her film and theater work, Estelle was steadily working in television, with frequent series guest star work as well as several TV movies such as the 1973 thriller Terror on the Beach costarring Dennis Weaver:

Most memorably, Estelle played opposite James Earl Jones in the TV movie telling of one of the most famous alleged alien abductions ever, 1975's unforgettable The UFO Incident:

Screen Actors Guild Conversations interview with Estelle Parsons from June of this year:

Estelle Parsons is a true national treasure.  Happy Birthday, Estelle Parsons!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Happy November 12th & 13th Birthdays!

What an interesting assortment of November 12th celebrants we have from yesterday!  Someone a little bit wild, somebody else a little bit crazy -- make that super crazy -- and a lady with class made their earthly debuts today and TV is all the better for it.

The cool patrician good looks of Grace Kelly may have helped her break into show business, but her acting ability kept her in Hollywood's top tier until she gave it all up in 1956 for an even loftier setting as Princess of Monaco.  Born on Nov. 12, 1929, Kelly's relative brief but notable big screen career -- High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, High Society, To Catch a Thief to name a few -- was preceded by a slew of television appearances beginning in 1950.  Her appearance on Studio One in Hollywood in "The Rockingham Tea Set" was broadcast on January 23, 1950:

Her royal life in Monaco as the wife of Prince Rainier was a never-ending source of interest for the world at large, and though she had retired from Hollywood her high profile as a celebrity never waned.  Her untimely death on September 14, 1982 resulting from an auto accident was a shattering experience; the funeral telecast four days later drew an audience of millions of mourners from all over the globe.

Lifetime did one of their Intimate Portrait specials on Princess Grace:

Also very interesting is the ABC network 20/20 special with an hour-long interview of Princess Grace conducted by Pierre Salinger which aired on June 22, 1982, just two months before her death.

On a decidedly different and depraved note, mass murdering mastermind Charles Manson was born on November 12th, in 1934.  Not only were the crimes and subsequent trial of he and his band of marauders front page news and TV fodder ever since that bloody summer of 1969, the gruesome story was the subject of one of the most famous TV movies ever made.  Helter Skelter, based on the Vincent Bugliosi bestseller, starred Steve Railsback as Manson, his wild-eyed portrayal capturing perfectly Manson's unforgettably disturbing mien.

The whole movie is on YouTube available by clicking here.

While Manson was a whole lot of crazy, our last November 12th birthday is a little bit wild.  Ice skater Tonya Harding was born in 1970.  Most remembered for the ongoing rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan and other skaters and ultimately the knee-bashing attack on Kerrigan prior to the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tonya and her reputation suffered irreparable damage as tawdry revelations of the involvement of her coterie of intimates in the incident came to the surface.  

Nevertheless, her strong skating style, rough-and-tumble personality and the lure of the anti-hero kept her in the public's consciousness. Tonya's continued appeal was proven earlier this year on the 20th anniversary of the Kerrigan attack -- she is a survivor, perhaps more perfectly suited to today's media world where we celebrate scrappy outsiders who live on the fringe and fight hard to keep going despite the odds.  

Everybody was all over the 20th anniversary -- here is a short segment from ABC's Good Morning America from January of this year:

Here's a full-length documentary entitled Tonya Harding:  Anything to Win:

And this is the ESPN doc from its 30 for 30 series The Price of Gold about the rivalry:

You know what...I like her.  Happy Birthday, girl!

November 13th brings some especially interesting TV birthdays for us to celebrate!  First of all we wish a very Happy 92nd Birthday to veteran actress Madeleine Sherwood!  In addition to her impressive stage and screen career -- including reprising her Broadway co-starring role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the acclaimed big screen version -- Sherwood was a frequent guest star on TV and starred in one of the most iconic sitcoms of the mid-1960s, namely The Flying Nun featuring Sally Field in the title role.

Next up we send a Happy Birthday salute to the late actor Robert Sterling, born on Nov. 13, 1917.  The always charming, utterly handsome and extremely talented Sterling had a long and successful career on stage, screen and especially on TV where his versatility made him a favorite in all genres.  His 2nd marriage in 1951 to the lovely and talented actress Anne Jeffreys was a true love match; the scintillating and all-around gorgeous couple were a success in real life as well as a performing duo.  Their biggest hit was their teaming with actor Leo G. Carroll in the 1953 TV series adaptation of Thorne Smith's popular ghostly romp Topper.  Here are a few clips and a complete episode -- several more available on YouTube, too!

In July 1957 Anne and Robert appeared as the mystery guests on the popular game show What's My Line?:

Anne and Robert also appeared together in the sitcom Love That Jill from 1958:

In 1961 Sterling starred in the TV comedy Icabod and Me with prolific character George Chandler:

He was also a frequent guest star on many other top TV series from the 1950s through the 1980s -- here he is in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1962:

Robert Sterling passed away in May of 2006 at the age of 88.  He has been greatly missed.

November 13th is also the birthday of the actor-producer-director-writer Garry Marshall, born on this date in 1934.  Marshall's career is legend; he's been associated with a laundry list of super-successful productions from the early 1960s to the present day.  Probably best known for Happy Days and The Odd Couple, Marshall's output is prodigious, with more hits than misses.  Be sure to take a look at his IMDb credits -- click here -- to see exactly how amazing his career has been.  Everybody knows the shows that worked -- here are a few clips from some of his shows that didn't fare quite as well:

1966's Hey Landlord (and boy do I really remember this theme song after all these years!):

1972 brought The Brian Keith Show:

How about Blansky's Beauties from 1977 starring Nancy Walker?:

1979's Angie starring Donna Pescow and Robert Hays:

And 1982's Joanie Loves Chachi with its almost embarrassingly earnest love song theme:

To turn to a big hit of Marshall's, how about a little The Odd Couple:

For some fascinating, insightful and entertaining stories from Garry Marshall himself talking about his long career, be sure to check out his interview at the Archive of American TV, available by clicking here.   Happy 80th Birthday, Garry Marshall!

Let's also slip in a Happy Birthday today to talented actress Frances Conroy, currently wowing us on the latest season of American Horror Story: Freak Show on FX.

This Juilliard graduate and veteran of stage, screen and television has been doing excellent work for more than thirty years, but it's probably accurate to say that she burst into prominence through her outstanding work on HBO's landmark series Six Feet Under which began in 2001.

And would it be spoiling anybody's day after all these years if we ran the transcendent end sequence of the series?  Probably not, but if you think so, please don't watch...

A very Happy Birthday to you, Frances Conroy!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Happy Birthday Norman Lloyd -- 100 Years and 3 days old today!

A milestone among milestones happened over the weekend on Saturday, November 8th for one of the entertainment world's most talented men. The brilliant, erudite, tennis-playing and wonderfully long-lived actor-producer-director Norman Lloyd turned 100 years old -- read a great article about it by clicking here! -- and he's still going strong.  What an American treasure he is!  From his start in show business as a child musical performer to his current status as genius emeritus and the world's oldest living actor, New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd has worked alongside the most creative minds in stage, motion pictures and television throughout his well over eight-decade career.

Lloyd has always been a great collaborator.  From his days collaborating with Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe on stage and on radio to his frequent work both in front of the camera and behind the camera with Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Lloyd has always worked with the best. For a true appreciation of Lloyd's vast experience in all branches of the business, be sure to take a look at his extensive listing on Film Reference which includes the best list of his stage work plus his other accomplishments; click here to access.  We also highly recommend taking a look at his IMDb listing which details his various talents; click here to access.  It's impossible to overestimate Norman Lloyd's contributions to show business; here is another excellent biography -- click here to access -- on Mr. Lloyd from Turner Classic Movies when he was a special guest at the 2013 TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Students of television will particularly appreciate Norman Lloyd's work in our favorite medium.  Interestingly enough it was as a director and not actor that Lloyd first made his mark on the small screen, with work beginning in the early 1950s on series such as Chevron Theatre and most impressively with a five-part life of Abraham Lincoln on Omnibus in 1953.

A couple of years later he began to make acting appearances on TV, and in 1956 he started a long association behind-the-scenes as both producer, executive producer and director with Alfred Hitchcock on both Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- 184 episodes! -- and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour -- 44 episodes which lasted until 1965.  Would it be surprising to learn that he also acted on a handful of the episodes?  Not unusual at all for this master of all creative trades.

Among the many certifiably classic episodes he collaborated on during his Hitchcock tenure probably the most memorable is the 1964 hour "The Jar".  Based on a Ray Bradbury short story, "The Jar" is a seriously disturbing story of a weird carnival exhibit that exerts a mystical attraction over the various inhabitants of a small Southern town. Once seen, never forgotten, truly mesmerizing.  The performances Lloyd coaxed out of the talented cast -- Pat Buttram, Colin Wilcox, William Marshall, George Lindsey, James Best, Billy Barty, Slim Pickens, Jane Darwell -- are first class.  If you've only seen Pat Buttram trying to sell trinkets to Oliver Douglas on Green Acres, you will not believe the brilliant work he does in "The Jar".  There are at least two excellent examinations of the long-lasting aftereffects of watching this episode; there's a great appreciation by Jack Seabrook on the bare bones ezine available by clicking here, and another terrific one by Miguela Holt y Roybal available by clicking here.  Both highly recommended!

 Seeing is believing, of course, and you've got to see "The Jar" -- here, now:

TV addicts will also lovingly remember Norman Lloyd's role as Dr. Daniel Auschlander on the long-running -- 132 episodes over six seasons -- medical drama St. Elsewhere, beginning in 1982.

In 2012 the ABC morning news program did a salute to St. Elsewhere with a reunion of many of the cast members, including Norman Lloyd:

In 2007 when Lloyd was a mere spring chicken of  93 the documentary director Matthew Sussman produced the fascinating film Who is Norman Lloyd?  Click here for the movie's website and watch the trailer now:

Another wonderful source for getting to know Norman Lloyd is his set of interviews from the Archive of American Television.  Over the course of three hours -- though it would take many times that many to fully capture Lloyd's awesomeness -- Lloyd gives unprecedented insight into his long career.  You can access all parts by clicking here!  You can also check out YouTube for a wide assortment of videos of appearances by Lloyd at various venues talking about his life, work and acquaintances. You will soon see that Norman Lloyd is and always has been a delightful raconteur with keen perceptions into what makes the creative world so endlessly fascinating to those both inside and outside of it.  Variety did a great 100th Birthday tribute article to him, click here to read it.  And as befits any favorite of The Flaming Nose, Lloyd sealed his place in our hearts by appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the episode "The Chase".

Happy Birthday, Norman Lloyd!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Happy November 6th Birthdays!

Everybody's wishing Happy Birthday to actress Sally Field today!  We will, too; she's been a reliable TV presence since her debut as Gidget and her days as The Flying Nun and let's not forget so many more great television moments including her riveting title role in the Sybil miniseries, either.  However, we like to feature some of the folks who may not always get the love so here we go.

First up, TV comedy wouldn't be the same if John Philip Sousa hadn't been born on November 6, 1854.  Sousa was known in his time as "The (American) March King" for his incredibly popular trademark compositions, and his 1893 march "The Liberty Bell" became the theme song for the classic British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus, clip below.  In case you've never heard the whole march you can listen to it here also, and we've also got the trailer to the highly romanticized 20th Century Fox 1952 biopic Stars and Stripes Forever starring Clifton Webb as Sousa.  Sousa passed away on March 6, 1932.

November 6, 1914 -- exactly one hundred years ago today -- saw the birth of a television legend who would become a genuine pop culture icon.  Jonathan Harris -- born Jonathan Charasuchin in the Bronx -- came from humble origins but a home where love of culture was always encouraged. His early exposure to the arts developed into an abiding love for theater.  Despite his love for performing, he studied to be a pharmacist and practiced for several years, but he had been bitten by the acting bug.  After dabbling in local repertory productions he made it to Broadway and started his dream career in the early 1940s.

Where Jonathan Harris really found his home was in the nascent medium of television.  From 1949 on Harris was a frequent performer in the live from New York dramas and later in countless Hollywood-produced series.  Primarily a character actor but often ascending to costar status, Harris and his unique persona were always memorable and as much in serious roles as in comedy.  In addition to his one-shot guest star roles he also became a regular on the 1959 espionage series The Third Man alongside star Michael Rennie and later on the sitcom The Bill Dana Show.  However, Harris got his TV Legend stripes playing Dr. Zachary Smith on the Irwin Allen space adventure turned cult classic Lost in Space which debuted in 1965.  During the three seasons of the show he brilliantly honed his portrayal of the fussy and feckless Dr. Smith -- "Oh, the pain!" -- to the eternal delight of science fiction fans everywhere.

Let's take a look at the credits from the third season of Lost in Space when John Williams' rollicking theme perfectly captured the rambunctious excitement of the show:

Jonathan Harris loved creating Dr. Smith and we all loved him for doing it.  You will definitely enjoy his one man show where he shares stories of his amazing show biz career; taped in 1994 in Australia:

Also, Jonathan Harris was the subject of an especially good edition of A&E's Biography series, full of wonderful footage, rare photos and terrific interviews.  Such a treat!

One of Harris' many wonderful guest roles was as Charles Dickens in the "A Passion for Justice" episode of Bonanza.  Here he is in a beautiful recitation:

Jonathan Harris passed away on November 3, 2002 at the age of eighty-seven.

For our second musical personality of the day, a brief Happy Birthday salute to the movie and television music arranger and popular bandleader Ray Conniff who was born on this date in 1916.  A huge talent with an enormous popular music footprint, Conniff and his troupe of singers had an iconic sound whose appeal transcends mere nostalgia.  There is an informative tribute website available by clicking here.  The Conniff legacy lives on even though Ray passed away in 2002.

Our last November 6th birthday is actor Lance Kerwin, born on this date in 1960 and remembered so fondly for playing the title role in the short-lived but memorable 1977 series James at 15/James at 16 along with countless other TV roles starting when he was a young teen.  Lance was the go-to kid actor at the time, getting plum roles and great reviews for his performances such as in Michael Landon's autobiographical 1976 TV movie The Loneliest Runner and co-starring opposite David Soul and James Mason in the acclaimed miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot from 1979.

There are lots of Lance's TV movies on YouTube and also many episodes of James at 15/James at 16.  Kerwin continued his busy career well into the 1990s but gradually eased out of the business for reasons including substance abuse problems.  He's now reportedly doing very well in his new life as a spiritual counselor/minister in Hawaii.  Kerwin's impressive acting career stands as a wonderful legacy to his talent even if he has turned to another calling.  The internet is a repository of Lance Kerwin material, including this page at Former Child Star Central, an out-of-date but still charming tribute site available by clicking here, and a great interview with him at Retrocrush from 2004, highly recommended for Kerwin's wonderful recollections.

Happy Birthday to all November 6th birthday boys and girls out there!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jon-Erik Hexum -- A Hollywood Tragedy Still Remembered

November 5, 1957 was the birthdate of actor Jon-Erik Hexum, a name perhaps that not all of you remember but many TV fans still do.  On October 12, 1984 -- a little over thirty years ago -- Hexum, on the set of his new TV series Cover Up, died from a head injury when he unknowingly shot himself with a prop gun which although not loaded still inflicted a mortal wound.  Of course it was an accidental death, not that he didn't jokingly put the gun to his head but surely an accident in that he thought the gun was not dangerous.  The seriously injured Hexum was rushed into surgery but never regained consciousness and was declared dead six days after the incident on October 18, 1984.

I very much remember hearing about this just after it happened while I was at work at KTLA.  The shooting was a big deal, a prime example of the "if it bleeds, it leads" maxim with some Hollywood glamour thrown in.  Not that Hexum was a big movie star or anything yet, but he had shown promise in his first TV series, the time-travel adventure Voyagers, and in The Making of a Male Model, a sexy TV movie with Joan Collins from the year before, and people seemed to like him.

Now he was co-starring in Cover Up opposite actress Jennifer O'Neill -- Rio Lobo, The Summer of '42 -- and ready to take a big step into bonafide TV stardom and then who knows how far he would go.

Here the personable and handsome Hexum is seen on an interview on The Merv Griffin Show show just a month before his death:

And then, on the night of October 18, 1984, this is what some of the TV news coverage looked like:

An up-and-coming young performer was dead too soon, not the first nor the last time an untimely Hollywood death of someone with so much to offer had startled the public into reassessing their own mortality.  During his short life and career Jon-Erik Hexum nevertheless made a lasting impression on many.  There is more than one tribute site dedicated to Hexum, including this one (click here), and also individual remembrances such as this one (click here) which also contains some fascinating background info on Hexum's career.  The late great E series Mysteries and Scandals did a half-hour on him in 1999, and it's great viewing still.

Jon-Erik Hexum would have turned 57 years old today.

Trekilicious! Star Trek Eye Candy!

I just came across this neat thing on Nerdist -- professional artist and illustrator Nick Acosta has worked with frames from Star Trek and Star Trek: TNG to really make them appear widescreen, and we don't mean just cutting off tops and bottoms of the frame to create a rectangle (as is often done on TV to headache-inducing results).  He unleashes the classically gorgeous cinematic quality of especially the original series, with its insanely vivid colors which are a trademark of the show.

You can see his creations for ST:TNG by clicking here, along with a great explanation of how he does it.  His work on the original series can be seen by clicking here and there are even more examples available on Nick's website by clicking here.  Nick's expertise as an artist really gives him an eye for the potential in Trek's iconic images.  Be sure to look at Acosta's other work on the site because he's a TV and movie fan who loves what we love.  Don't miss his NASA tribute ala Kubrick!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Happy November 4th Birthdays!

We haven't done birthdays in a while but we've got some great ones for today, a trio of very different but iconic television faces.

Veteran character actor Ian Wolfe was born on this date in 1886!  Wolfe, a WW I veteran, was a supporting player on stage and in movies since 1934 and became a very familiar face on TV since the start of the medium in the very early 1950s.  His list of credits runs from 1934's Mutiny on the Bounty to 1990's Dick Tracy and everything in between, for a total of around 300 separate appearances.  Astounding!  Ian Wolfe passed away in 1992 at the age of 95, leaving us an impressive legacy of talent and memorable performances.  Fans of the original Star Trek will remember him in two great guest star roles, in the episodes "Bread and Circuses" and "All Our Yesterdays".

American journalism icon Walter Cronkite was born on this date in 1916.  Synonymous with CBS and a big part of what made it deserve the nickname "The Tiffany Network", Cronkite was known as "The Most Trusted Man in America" and rightly so -- his integrity as a newsman over his long career was unimpeachable.  There is a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU which aims to teach the next generation of newspeople some of what made Cronkite a legend.  He passed away in 2009 after decades of memorable intelligent coverage.  His legacy won't ever be equalled..."and that's the way it is."

Brilliant actor Art Carney was born on this date in 1918.  The multi-talented Carney -- dramatic actor, singer, comic -- got his start in radio, rapidly becoming a frequent guest performer thanks to his musical and mimicry talents.  He soon transitioned to TV where his partnership with Jackie Gleason led to his long stint as the hilarious Ed Norton in The Honeymooners and on Gleason's variety show.   He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1974 movie Harry and Tonto and worked in all genres, but no doubt his greatest creation was sewer worker Norton, a slyly suave, adorably eccentric and unerringly loyal pal to Ralph Kramden.

Happy Birthday, Gentlemen!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Favorites!

These days it seems that every show does a Halloween episode whether it's necessary or not, but it wasn't always so.  Today Halloween has been commercialized into something bloated but still somehow enjoyable, and we're here to remember a few terrific TV outings into the Halloween holiday theme.

First up, the classic -- and best of their Halloween-themed outings -- the Happy Days episode "Haunted" from Season 2, when Happy Days was still on film and not shot in front of an audience making it a whole different animal. The first two seasons have subtlety, charm, great writing and nuanced performances, traits that mostly become lost when audience reactions took precedence.

Little House on the Prairie had several Halloween episodes over the years including the great "The Monster of Walnut Grove" which involved Mrs. Olsen getting her head cut off by Mr. Oleson.  Hilarious, spooky, imaginative -- a complete delight, the best of the Little House Halloween episodes by far.  Unfortunately not available online anywhere that I can find, but there's a nice write-up by another fan of it, available by clicking here.  We also wrote about it in 2010 because we like it that much!

Jon Hamm as James Mason on a Saturday Night Live version of an imaginary Vincent Price Halloween Special from 1959.  Nothing funnier than this skit from 2008!

I can't find it to embed, but here is a link to the skit-- click here or here-- and it's still incredibly funny.  We wrote about it here also.

No doubt you've got your own Halloween TV favorites -- let us know!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Henry Winkler -- Happy 68th Birthday!

The man behind one of the most popular TV characters ever is having a birthday today!  The multi-talented, super-nice in real life and dedicated to doing good Henry Winkler is 68 years old today.  The man who forty years ago caused a pop culture tsunami when he turned supporting character Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days into the mega-popular "The Fonz" has been a fan favorite ever since, and for good reason.  A good buy, a great character, a long and successful career -- you don't get much better than that.  Henry Winkler is genuine classic TV royalty.

In addition to his 11 seasons (1973 - 1984) as Fonzie on Happy Days and occasionally crossing-over to Laverne & Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi and in animated form on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang,  Yale acting grad Winkler starred in a number of feature films including Heroes, The One and Only, Night Shift and The Waterboy.  But he was primarily a TV guy; TV movie aficionados will remember him in the 1975 TVM Katharine co-starring Sissy Spacek as a wealthy debutante who turns into a radical activist, or as a homegrown Scrooge in An American Christmas Carol from 1979.  Many other series starring roles and guest roles have also liberally peppered his resume, including his very popular stint on the cult comedy Arrested Development.

Perhaps less known may be Winkler's output as a television producer, including serving as executive producer for the seven-season hit series MacGuyver beginning in 1985, several seasons of Hollywood Squares, and many other titles over the four decades he's been a show business figure.  All that, combined with his work helping kids overcome learning disabilities including dyslexia (which he had as a child), makes Henry Winkler a wonderful example of a that rare species of show business celebrity who is also a good human being.  (Interesting that his Happy Days co-star Ron Howard is also known as a good guy...must have been something in the water on that set.)

Here's a little selection of Henry Winkler clips showing some of his charm, versatility, pop culture chops and good heartedness.

Winkler played a precursor to Fonzie in the 1974 movie The Lord's of Flatbush:

On The Merv Griffin Show from 1977:

The Fonz is so cool:

Yes, Fonzie really did jump the shark in Happy Days' fifth season; the term has come to mean when a show turns from being good to stinking a little. Happy Days was not at that point yet though it did get a little silly sometimes, mostly because Fonzie was such a popular character that the show started to become fixated on him.

Henry Winkler did an extensive interview for the Archive of American Television and the Emmy folks.  See an excerpt here and you can watch the whole thing by clicking here:

Henry Winkler with Arsenio Hall in 1990:

Henry Winkler on the joys of reading:

The Huffington Post also did a birthday post on Henry Winkler; you can read it here.

It's comforting to know that somebody who has been in the public eye for such a long time continues to be a great person, too.

Happy Birthday, Henry Winkler!

Monday, October 27, 2014

John Cleese -- Happy 75th Birthday!

On the long list of TV series we simply couldn't imagine living without, Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers are near the top, thanks in part to the brilliant comedic sensibility of John Cleese.  He's celebrating his 75th birthday today, an impressive life milestone alongside all his professional milestones spread out over an accomplished 50 years in show business.  Cambridge-educated Cleese began his acting and comedy work at the college, his performing talent soon eclipsing his desire to study law.  Growing up in a time where anarchy was on the loose in British comedy (particularly on radio, thanks to The Goon Show and talents like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan), Cleese and his comic contemporaries were well-poised to continue the tradition and then establish their own creative beachhead the likes of which has never been equaled.

You can read about Cleese's life all over the internet, and he's got So Anyway -- an autobiography of his first thirty years -- coming out next week.  Finding out about his life is interesting and important, and you will probably quickly learn that he's maybe not the jolliest fellow or the nicest Python but possibly the smartest and definitely the most introspective, yet that in the long run means little. What he's going to remembered by are his comedic gifts, the moments he created either as a writer or as a performer, that will stay with us forever.

Here's a pre-Python TV-appearance by Cleese, alongside comedy great Marty Feldman, on At Last the 1948 Show (he was also a writer on the show) ca. 1967:

And here is a very random selection of some classic Cleese moments from Monty Python's Flying Circus:

Fans have kept the dozen episodes of John Cleese and (his wife at the time) Connie Booth's series Fawlty Towers at the top of their favorite lists since 1975, too.

There's so much more to his career, so many more clips on online, so many episodes that you must revisit!

Happy 75th Birthday to John Cleese, one of the world's most precious comedy assets!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"American Horror Story: Freak Show" -- Step Right Up, Ladies & Gentlemen for the Thrill of Your Lives!

Nothing could keep me away from the premiere tonight of FX's newest season -- the fourth -- of their excellently creepy series American Horror Story: Freak Show.  As the show has proven in its past runs, not only does American Horror Story bring on the scary in huge doses, it's also prided itself on presenting impressive and charismatic actors doing some of their best work.  Filmed with impeccable, unpredictable and lushly beautiful production values, this latest skein seems perfectly suited to creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's unique vision, as personified in the opening credits below.

Taking on the milieu of the carnival sideshow world is perhaps a natural for American Horror Story but by no means a guarantee of anything.  HBO tried valiantly a decade ago to mine the colorful and mysterious depths of Depression-era carny life in Carniv├ále, a lovely effort from producer Daniel Knauf (read a great two-part interview with him from The AV Club here) that lasted two seasons and garnered the undying love of loyal fans who still pine for a climax to the sideshow interruptus perpetrated by the network.  HBO's series was set in the 1930s; AHS: FS takes places in the early 1950s when sideshows were beginning to lose audience -- thanks a lot to TV for that -- and which should provide a gorgeous canvas for the producers to work with. At least Murphy and Falchuk know they are out of American Horror Story: Freak Show in a dozen or so episodes and can concentrate on making them the scariest, smartest, weirdest and undoubtedly mesmerizing hours on television, period.  We have no doubt they will succeed.

On a personal note, all of my life I've had a particular interest in all things sideshow, human oddities, carnival, circus and so on; American Horror Story: Freak Show is indeed the best of all worlds for somebody like me,  From what we've seen so far from advance materials, it looks like the show is going to hit all the right notes from sheer fascination (some perhaps morbid but completely genuine) to abject admiration in its treatment of the very special people (author Frederick Drimmer's term from his book of the same name) characters in AHS:FS, most of whom are played by actors with the actual conditions.

Actress Kathy Bates puts on a goatee to play a bearded woman, and Sarah Paulson plus wonderful CGI work allows her to portray dicephalic parapagus twins (two heads, one body, like well-known American twins Abby and Brittany Hensel who had their own show on TLC two years ago).  Actor Evan Peters thanks to prosthetic hand pieces plays a part clearly based on longtime real-life carnival attraction Grady Stiles and his family, Stiles being known on the circuit as "The Lobster Boy" for his ectrodactyly a.k.a. Lobster Claw syndrome. (Unfortunately Stiles was also a nasty piece of work and a convicted murderer to boot.)

Bates, Paulson and Peters are just part of the terrific cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show, a repertory company of thespians some of whom have variously appeared in all or some of the previous seasons of AHS and others who are new to the series.  The splendid Jessica Lange returns as a former famous songstress from Germany who has gathered a collection of different ones around her, Angela Bassett is a triply-endowed seductress, Frances Conroy is a well-heeled matron, Dennis O'Hare and Emma Roberts are grifters, and Gabourey Sidibe is back in a storyline that has her on the trail of her missing mother, played by AHS newcomer Patti LaBelle.  Others new to the series but coming onboard for this newest outing are the wonderful actor Michael Chiklis as a strongman, the always tremendous John Carroll Lynch as a disturbing clown named Twisty -- is there any other kind, you might ask -- and other guest stars including already announced Matt Bomer with more surely to come.  There simply is no better cast anywhere on TV.

Equally impressive and so intensely interesting because of their unique gifts are co-stars British actor/writer/musician Mat Fraser who plays Paul the tattooed seal; Rose Siggins who played Legless Suzi and was featured in a wonderful documentary about her life; actress/model and transgender crusader Erika Ervin who plays a female giantess, and Jyoti Amge, the official World's Smallest Living Woman.  I'm just going to say it -- Jyoti is the cutest thing ever, not just because she is a super-diminutive 24" tall but because she is a bubbly, giggling ball of irrepressible life.

Joyti turned eighteen two years ago --

In addition to visiting the American Horror Story: Freak Show website for great extra features and much behind-the-scenes information, be especially sure to watch the featurettes on Fraser, Siggins and Irvin.  Truly amazing.

American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres tonight at 10pm on FX.  The official show website is located here.

We'll be following up with more on American Horror Story: Freak Show as the series unfolds!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Giorgio Tsoukalos "In Search of Aliens" Season Finale Tonight!

It's not for everybody, but network H2's fascinating documentary series In Search of Aliens comes to the close of its first season tonight.  The ten-episode run which began in late July concludes with an examination of "The Alien Code" including looks at crop circles and other related phenomena.  I've always been drawn to shows of this nature, but I think that one of the chief reasons for anybody tuning in is for the enthusiastic and charismatic work of the host, Ancient Aliens spokesperson and in-and-out-of-this-world explorer extraordinaire Giorgio Tsoukalos.

Tsoukalos, he of the unique hairstyle perfect for someone who's brain is afire with unusual notions and boundless curiosity, makes an appealing guide into this world where he believes that visitors from outer space made contact with Earth eons ago.  This is far from mainstream theory, but at the very least it's intriguing and though you may deem it balderdash -- and perhaps it is -- the Ancient Aliens discipline delves into areas of study that have continued to fascinate many over the centuries.

Anybody who likes mythology, archaeology, anthropology, aviation, zoology, religion and any subject touching these could do a lot worse than coming along for the ride of In Search of Aliens.  So what if it's a little crazy?  Most importantly it's a lot of fun and never dull.

Giorgio Tsoukalos wouldn't be having such success with his Ancient Aliens series and now In Search of Aliens if he weren't a compelling personality, and he definitely is one.  Reality and documentary series rely on the hosts to provide the glue to keep audiences tuned in, and Giorgio provides plenty of staying power.  He delivers the same kind of special magic to his area of interest as the late beloved Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin used to bring to his animals, and I don't think there could be a higher compliment.  Deeply committed to his thesis, unceasingly curious, possessing powerful panache and a sense of adventure that can't help but make you enjoy going along for the ride, Giorgio Tsoukalos is what puts In Search of Aliens way above the pack.

Tsoukalos knows marketing -- his early career was working as a promoter of bodybuilders -- and that experience plus his clearly natural flair for knowing how to entice an audience keep In Search of Aliens endlessly interesting.  What we get to see in this series as opposed to his also terrific Ancient Aliens series (he's a consultant and on-air personality) is his skilled on-camera work and also his tremendously effective interaction with the people he encounters on his journeys.  He seems to get the best out of his contacts, winning them over with his honest delight in the quest at hand and the breadth of his studies.  (That, or else there's lots of unusable footage on the cutting room floor.)  Tsoukalos may be cut from the cloth of Harold Hill -- a clever and likable con man -- or maybe he's really onto something deep and historic, but either way I can't think of anybody I'd rather tag along with during the journey.

In Search of Aliens will air its season-ender tonight at 10pm, preceded and followed by more episodes of the series.  They are also available online at the In Search of Aliens official website.