Odds and Ends II

October 9, 2010

I don’t know why I feel compelled to apologize when there’s a lengthy gap between posts (hey, it’s not like you guys are paying for this stuff).  But I feel guilty in spite of myself.  Anyhow, there will be a lot of new content coming here soon, particularly in the DVD and book review categories.  In the meantime, as has become the custom when I’m busy, I’m going to vamp for time by redistributing some links.

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Like everybody else in the movie-and-TV blogosphere, I felt like the Grim Reaper was punching me in the face all last week.  Actually, it goes back a little further: First we lost Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, both on September 11.  McCarthy was one of my favorites, underrated in particular as a villain, and yet doomed to be remembered mainly for one role, his atypical starring turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Here’s a sentence from the penultimate paragraph in the Los Angeles Times obit for McCarthy: “He was a founding member of the Actors Studio.”  Talk about burying the lede.

Gould was one of those all-purpose character players who always seemed to me to be doing the same thing (which was: not very much) no matter what kind of part he was playing.  I don’t think Gould ever surprised me.  Judging from the tributes, Gould had a lot of fans, and more power to them; but every time he made an entrance, I always felt a twinge of regret that the producer hadn’t cast a more exciting actor.  We all have a few actors who make us feel that way, I’d wager.  I remember, back when I was a college student and had discovered Pauline Kael for the first time, feeling relieved by her irrational, unfair hatred of Hume Cronyn, who she singled out for ridicule every time she reviewed one of his films.  Not that I had a problem with Cronyn – I don’t – but because I’d been waiting for permission to write about actors in that way, with the gloves off.  Sorry, Harold.

Then there were Arthur Penn, one of the last of the important live television directors (more on him in a separate post to come); Tony Curtis, who did some significant television work on The Persuaders and Vega$ as his movie career began to decline; and Art Gilmore, a legendary narrator and voiceover artist who, like a lot of voice artists, enjoyed a secondary career as a character actor.  Gilmore was one of Jack Webb’s repertory company, and when I was fourteen or so, I (like all teenagers) spent a lot of time trying to distinguish him from Clark Howat and the other blandly authoritative actors who played police lieutenants or captains all the time on Dragnet and Adam-12.

Somewhere in there came (or rather went) Joe Mantell, famous for a pair of best friend roles: he was the sidekick to both Martys, Rod Steiger on television and Ernest Borgnine in the film, and then to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown.  He delivered iconic lines in both but managed to remain anonymous, as only character actors can.  A lot of people seem to remember Mantell for a tour-de-force in a Twilight Zone I always forget, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  When I sought him out for an interview around 1998, he was more like a crabby man in an Encino bungalow.  Mantell talked to me on the phone, reluctantly, for a few minutes, but clearly did not care to reminisce.  There’s a modern character actor with a similarly ferrety face named Michael Mantell, who I always took to be Joe Mantell’s son, but the obituaries seem to have disproved that hypothesis. 

Finally there was Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of all time.  I’m aware that Cannell has a few credits with some heft to them (The Rockford Files, of course, and one friend of mine swears that Wiseguy, which I’ve never seen, is a masterpiece), but basically I thought of him as Aaron Spelling with a little more of an edge.  The Los Angeles Times reports that Cannell had a “golden touch” (I would’ve said, “golden tan”) and that he produced 1,500 television episodes and wrote 450.  I’ll buy the 1,500 but can anyone point me toward a list of 450 produced Cannell teleplays?  I’m also dismayed to learn that I’ve been mispronouncing Cannell’s name for decades (it rhymes with “flannel”).  That’s going to take a long time to re-learn.  Anyway, Lee Goldberg has a short but warm reminiscence on his blog.

Lost amid all the high-wattage names was a belated report of the death of television writer-director Clyde Ware, who is probably best remembered as a prolific Gunsmoke contributor for a couple of years around the time the long-running western series shifted to color.  Ware also wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. that became the second episode to be expanded into a feature film (The Spy With My Face), and two exceptional Rawhides from the revisionist Bruce Geller-Bernard Kowalski season.  Later in his rather unpredictable career Ware did stints as a story editor on Bonanza and a producer-writer on Airwolf.  Not long after he was established in the business, Ware turned auteur, writing and directing the made-for-television movies The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, with Martin Sheen in the title role, and The Hatfields and the McCoys.  Prior to that Ware made a pair of independent feature films, both starring Sheen, that I’ve always wanted to see: No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Through.  I believe these were both released on VHS decades ago, but apart from that they’re among the many American films of the 1970s that have fallen into utter obscurity.

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The only obituary for Clyde Ware appeared in Variety, an important source for that kind of information that has fallen off the internet-aggregation site radar since it began partially firewalling its content earlier this year.  Variety ran the obit on September 16 and as of now the Internet Movie Database still hasn’t recorded Ware’s death, or updated his birthdate (to December 22, 1930; Ware had successfully subtracted six years from his age in all the reference books).

I must give a shout-out to Tom B. of the Boot Hill blog, which was the first place to reproduce the text of the Ware’s Variety obit – in violation of copyright, I suppose, but in compliance with today’s netiquette, like it or not.  For over a year now, Tom B. has been archiving death notices of anyone who ever worked on a motion picture western.  And since almost everybody who worked steadily in the movies prior to 1980 passed through a western at some point, Tom’s blog has become a handy general reference for movie fans and historians.  It’s a great example of a specialist’s narrow interest taking on a value beyond its original domain.  For instance, it’s only due to the Boot Hill site that I’ve learned today of the death of Anabel Shaw, a minor ingenue of the forties and fifties.  I only vaguely remember Shaw from a small role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it seems that she also had a key supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis’s astonishing film noir from 1949, Gun Crazy.

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CBS’s repurposing of the title of its towering sixties legal drama The Defenders to a bland-sounding new legal drama starring Jim Belushi this season made me mildly grumpy.  But since it gave Sara Fishko’s WNYC radio show an excuse to devote a program to the real The Defenders, all is forgiven.  Excerpts from Fishko’s interviews with Defenders vets David Rintels, Ernest Kinoy, and Ellen Rose (a secretary in the Defenders office who married its creator, Reginald Rose, during production) are here.

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Kliph Nesteroff, who wrote a great piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis that I linked to a while ago, is back with another amazingly well-researched story, this one on the politics of the writing staff of Laugh-In. I know even less about Laugh-In than I did about Al Lewis – I’ve only seen a few clips here and there – so this was an even more fascinating read.  Nesteroff’s argument is that, in contrast to the outspoken The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In was a totally unthreatening show, an establishment-friendly outpost that appropriated the look of the counterculture as “smoke and mirrors” to conceal its lack of political commitment or, indeed, even a covert right-wing agenda.  The evidence that Nesteroff marshals, especially regarding Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes, is jaw-dropping.

And yet Laugh-In retains a reputation as a politically relevant program.  That’s probably one of those canards that proves very obviously inaccurate whenever anyone who actually sits down and studies the facts, but remains enshrined in the historical record thanks to lazy journalists and historians.  Sort of like that nonsense about how Reagan “won” the Cold War – a lie that comes to mind because it seems particularly central to the beliefs of one idiot who litters my comments section with a litany of retrograde conservative talking points any time I write something even tangentially political.  I’m guessing this graph means we’ll be treated to another dose of the same.

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My own review copy must have gotten lost in the mail, but ever since the entire Thriller series came out on DVD last month, bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have been reviewing an episode a day in a conversational, Siskel-and-Ebert-style format.  There are sixty-seven episodes of Thriller, the terrific Boris Karloff-hosted anthology of crime and gothic horror stories that ran from 1960 to 1962, and as of this writing the pair are about halfway through.  It’s a neat idea that has drawn some overdue attention to Thriller in the pop-culture blogosphere. 

Initially, reluctantly, I wasn’t going to link to their blog because most of Enfantino’s and Scoleri’s dispatches struck me as jokey and not very insightful.  But then they had an even better idea, which was to intersperse their episode critiques with interviews with the many historians and other Thriller enthusiasts who contributed audio commentaries to the DVD set, and those posts are worth reading.  They offer some very frank examples of the minutiae of creating supplementary materials for DVDs, and of the almost insurmountable challenges that prevent these extras from being as good as they should be.  The interviewees thus far are Steve Mitchell, Gary Gerani, David J. Schow, Larry Blamire, Alan Brennert, and Lucy Chase Williams.

The extras on the Thriller set are copious and worthwhile.  But they are still limited in value, largely because only a few of the surviving participants were called upon to participate.  (They include Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, and Arthur Hiller.)  The executive producer William Frye and a key writer, Donald Sanford, are both still living but neither is in evidence on the DVDs.  Frye, who lives in Palm Springs, told me recently that he was available for interviews, but not over the phone (which is why you haven’t heard from him yet in this space).

The interviews conducted by Scoleri and Enfantino shed some light on the reasons behind the obvious omissions in the Thriller extras.  Apparently Image Entertainment, which released the DVDs, gave the extras producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani, only three weeks to get everything together.  From what I’ve heard over the years, that is a typical scenario.  If you think about this too hard, you’ll start to weep for all the priceless documentation that could’ve been added to the DVDs of your favorite shows if the corporate types at the top actually gave a damn. 

These interviews have a significance beyond Thriller.  They’re a snapshot of a fin de siecle moment, as the dominent mode for home video is shifting from DVD to internet streaming, and the whole idea of supplemental material (and for that matter, acceptable image quality) are going the way of the dodo.  Maybe I’m just projecting, but the interviewers’ comments seem suffused with awareness that they’re participating in the end of an era.

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Corrections Department, Part 5.1: Matt Zoller Seitz has a pair of articles on Salon in which he nominates the twenty best television pilots, ten dramas and ten comedies.  They’re structured as slide shows, which is irritating, but it’s worth clicking through twenty times to see Seitz’s choices.  Most of them are predictable, but Seitz’s arguments are persuasive.  Although this criterion remains implicit in the text, Seitz only showcases pilots for series that were artistically and/or commercially successful.  I’m tempted to respond, at some point, with a list of great pilots for lousy shows: things like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters or Crime Story or Flash Forward, which set up a promising premise that the producers and writers couldn’t figure out how to sustain.

I’ve praised Seitz’s work here before and so I hate to have to point out a major error in his piece.  Contrary to the headline, Seitz has come up with a list of nineteen pilots and one premiere episode.  Out of Seitz’s twenty selections, the most inspired may be Sam Peckinpah’s mournful, short-lived The Westerner, which ran for thirteen weeks in 1959.  The pilot for the series was called “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” and as was common in the days of the dramatic anthology, it was broadcast as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater in the spring prior to The Westerner’s fall debut.  But the “pilot” that Seitz describes at length is not “Trouble at Tres Cruces” but the first regular episode of The Westerner, “Jeff.”

Referring to a television show’s debut as its pilot is a kind of lazy shorthand that drives me up the wall, sort of like when a journalist attends the “taping” of a show that’s being shot on film (instead of, you know, tape).  But, as we see here, the pilot and the first episode of a series are not always one and the same.  Remarkably, Seitz’s review of the non-pilot of The Westerner has gone uncorrected on Salon’s website (and unnoticed among the more than one hundred reader comments) for more than two weeks.  Early television history has become the province of obsessives, I guess, and copy editing is even deader than DVD extras.

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