Thursday, August 6, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Acting Lessons in ELMER GANTRY

He had the most enormous head I'd ever seen. In a close-up, it filled the entire screen of the Vermont Drive-In that night in Los Angeles. Maybe his head looked so enormous because his hair seemed to be a mile high. Also, the actor's intensity filled the screen. This was what I thought of Burt Lancaster as ELMER GANTRY. Lancaster's performance would bring him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1960.
Burt Lancaster was a wonderful actor who believed -- and proved -- that movies could be entertaining and address social issues at the same time. I grew up in a Black Catholic household in South Central L.A. Mom, Dad and the three of us kids in a 2-bedroom/1 bathroom house on a cul-de-sac street. I loved that modest house and I loved growing up on 124th Street and Central Avenue. For a guy whose passion for film started quite early in his elementary school years, I was lucky to have had the parents I did. They were movies fans. Not just Hollywood movies. Foreign films too. Our frequent family outings to the drive-in movies were my favorite family pastime. Often, I was too young to grasp all the mature goings on and subtext -- such as in the movies SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, THE BEST MAN or De Sica's YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW -- but experiencing the movie was a thrill. Sometimes, the social message did get to me. I was a Catholic schoolkid when we saw ELMER GANTRY. Even at my young age then, the message of hypocrisy and religion was not over my head.

Burt Lancaster won the Oscar for Best Actor. Shirley Jones won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Moviegoers had loved her daisy-fresh image as the wholesome leading lady in musicals. She sang in OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL before taking on the role of the smart, spiteful hooker who has the goods on Gantry, a  con artist preacher man. Jean Simmons is magnificent in the lead female role as the revivalist who acquired a huge flock of faithful Christian followers. Simmons did not get a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but she should have. (Elizabeth Taylor won for BUTTERFIELD 8.) Her performance burned itself into my memory since the first time I saw the movie. Her character is conflicted. She appears as focused in her mission as Joan of Arc. However, money and sex could cause her religious career to go up in flames.

I saw ELMER GANTRY when it made its network TV debut. I've rented it from my video store a few times. Beside the social issues, it made me aware of good screen acting and the fact that every part, a leading role or a bit part, is important.

Max Showalter also burned himself into my memory with his performance. In later years, it taught me a valuable lesson in acting. Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones are stars you know. Max Showalter was not a star although his face was recognizable because he worked in many films and TV programs. You knew his face but you didn't know his name. If you're into classic films, he played the husband opposite Jean Peters who gets involved with the troubled married coupled played by Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe in NIAGARA. He's seen as one of the singing salesman on the train in the opening number of THE MUSIC MAN.
His role in ELMER GANTRY was uncredited but that doesn't mean it was unimportant. He's in the last 15 minutes of the movie, playing a deaf man at a revival meeting. Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) is preaching. Max Showalter has very few lines in his intense scene with Jean Simmons. It's a bit part. Nonetheless, he is fully committed to his character and totally absorbed in the script's overall story. His bit part sets up a huge, incendiary scene in that last act. If he is not totally committed as he delivers those few lines in his uncredited bit part, that key final scene would have less punch. His commitment adds muscle to the mystery of Sister Sharon.

Most of the on-camera acting I've done has been in TV commercials. I did two bit parts in episodes of THE SOPRANOS. My bit part in the Season 3 episode entitled EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH was influenced by Max Showalter's work in ELMER GANTRY. I had only five lines. However, I was given the entire script to read. When I did, I realized what was driving the episode and the action that led up to my brief appearance. That information told me exactly how to play the character. I didn't treat the role as "only a bit part."

ELMER GANTRY, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, was directed by Richard Brooks. Brooks also wrote the screenplay. To me, the movie was not just entertaining. It was enlightening and educational. By the way, in that script for THE SOPRANOS, the TV reporter was written as "a young, willowy blonde." The casting director had seen me months before at another audition, remembered me, and gave me the part. She said, "Forget the description of the character. I've seen your work. I know you can do it." And I did.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Tony Bennett Music Break

I mentioned in July post ("Some Music From My Youth") that Sundays were groovy music days in our house on 124th and Central Avenue in Los Angeles when I was growing up. Especially on lazy Sunday afternoons in the summer. Mom and Dad would play a variety of albums on our stereo, mostly jazz. One of our favorite vocalists -- I picked up the love from my parents -- was Tony Bennett. We had several of his albums in our family record collection.
There was one Tony Bennett cut that always got a verbal swoon from Mom when she heard it. I always giggled when she let out that appreciative sigh. She kind of sounded like Olive Oyl in the cartoons when she saw Popeye's muscles. The Tony Bennett cut was his silky rendition of the love song written for the movie, THE SANDPIPER. The movie starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The song is "The Shadow of Your Smile."

"The Shadow of Your Smile" won the Oscar for Best Song of 1965. Personally, I miss the days when songwriters gave us great title tunes and love songs for the movies.

My favorite Tony Bennett album at home was "When Lights Are Low," a jazz LP he did with the Ralph Sharon Trio. Man, I still totally dig that record! I was lucky enough to meet Tony Bennett during my VH1 years. When he showed up in our studio, I wasn't scheduled to interview him but I just had to introduce myself and tell him how I much I loved his album with the Ralph Sharon Trio.  His eyes lit up and he said, "Ralph!" I didn't know it but Mr. Sharon had come to the studio with Tony Bennett. He motioned Ralph Sharon over so I could shake his hand. I was giddy with glee. Then I made Tony Bennett laugh by doing a loving imitation of him in his Hollywood debut. Honestly, the movie laid such an egg that it was both his debut and his farewell film role.  THE OSCAR is one of those deluxe movies that's so bad it's good. Tony played the narrator/former best friend of Frankie Fane, a vain Hollywood star who used everybody he came in touch with so he could win an Oscar. Tony Bennett was Hymie Kelly, the character in that cheese-fest who said "Man, he wanted to swallow Hollywood like a cat with a canary. And he did it!"

"I've Got Just About Everything" is a swingin' cut from the Tony Bennett LP with Ralph Sharon. Treat your ears. Click onto this link:

Tony Bennett. Absolute coolness.

Sunday, August 2, 2020


With that state that the country is in nowadays, many of us need a hug. But, because of the coronavirus, there are new guidelines on how we must approaching hugging. This is a perfect time for feel-good features. They can be a great balm for our spirits as we emotionally recharge and gather up the courage merely to walk outside to mail a letter. If the postal system is still in operation. Anyway, I've got a feel-good feature for you. It's a documentary on Netflix. It lightened my heart to such an extent that I watched it twice. It's called MUCHO MUCHO AMOR: THE LEGEND OF WALTER MERCADO.
He was an international media sensation. A Puerto Rican astrologer with a Liberace-like flair in his attire. He had sort of an androgynous look and, frankly, resembled the kind of TV personality who would've been lampooned on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Perhaps he was. I don't speak Spanish but I would watch him on Spanish TV because his charisma was so arresting. Besides having an enormous Spanish-speaking viewer audience here in the U.S., Walter Mercado was also highly popular in Latin America, Brazil, Italy, Holland and the United Kingdom. Then he disappeared. He was not on TV for a few years. We'll find out why.

He's interviewed in this documentary. He is the feel-good element. He takes us back to Puerto Rico in 1932 where his story began. He knew he was different and he knew he wanted to study the fine arts. He wanted to dance and act professionally. Which he did. In a very masculine, very heterosexual, very Catholic society, he realized he was about as butch as cotton candy. However, his loving and loyal mother said "to be different is a gift."

It wasn't that Mercado was seeking fame. Fame seemed to be seeking him. Back in his old Puerto Rican community, neighbors felt he had a special spiritual gift because of his way with animals. As an adult, in his TV years, he was asked to go on the air and give astrology forecasts. He did this in flashy garb and with the spiritual quality the folks in the old neighborhood loved. He was an immediate hit.

In his interviews, it's obvious that he's older and slightly frail. He'd been doing a TV show since 1969. You'd expect him to exude a slightly out-of-touch Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD personality. Instead, he's pretty hip and engagingly pokes fun at himself and his image. One thing he was always serious about and that was the work. The work and especially his message of love and peace. Walter Mercado left a spirit of good will.

In his TV astrological forecast career, a young and clever -- and ambitious -- producer guided him to fame and fortune. He became like a son to Mercado. That same producer caused the financial and legal nightmare that took Walter Mercado off TV screens for a few years. He's interviewed and, honestly, it is a shock that he shows not one drop of guilt or remorse for what was basically identity and brand theft.

Walter Mercado could've understandably been bitter and angry in reliving that long, humiliating episode in his career. But he wasn't. There's an air of forgiveness about him. He gives off a warmth we sorely need in the world today. One of Mercado's many fans was Broadway wonder boy Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their meeting in the documentary is a heartwarming highlight.

Despite terrible things that happened to him contractually, Walter Mercado kept his spirit towards the light. He was a TV pioneer who broke through gender stereotypes, was truly committed to giving people hope and love, and he lived his life in a certain flamboyant state of grace. You'll feel like you spent 90 minutes getting to know a very dear person.

MUCHO MUCHO AMOR: THE LEGEND OF WALTER MERCADO was directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Olivia de Havilland and Black/Latinx Fans

In 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND, she played genteel Melanie Wilkes, the Southern lady of unshakeable kindness. Over the weekend, Olivia de Havilland passed away in Paris at age 104. What a life. What an actress. In addition to having won two Oscars for Best Actress, Olivia de Havilland was appointed a Dame thanks to Great Britain and she was bestowed the French Legion of Honor distinction. Olivia de Havilland won my heart when I was a little boy in Los Angeles. The 1935 adventure, CAPTAIN BLOOD, aired frequently on local KHJ TV/Channel 9. I loved the pretty lady in the movie. She was that lady in one of her several movies with Errol Flynn.
Olivia de Havilland helped me in the classroom. KHJ TV/Channel aired another of her 1935 films for Warner Brothers -- A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Mom coaxed me to watch that on TV when I was in grade school and I was glad she did. Maybe I didn't understand all the language, but the visuals were dazzling. And there was that pretty lady again -- Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. I watched that movie so many times that I could quote a few Shakespeare lines from it by the time I started middle school. Olivia de Havilland was in my first film introduction to Shakespeare.
I've been living my sister in the Minneapolis area for a couple of years. She came here for work back in the 90s and found happiness. I moved in with a few of my belongings. On her shelves, I noticed rows of DVDs. I spotted her copy of SNAKE PIT, a 1948 Fox mental health drama that brought de Havilland one of her Best Actress Oscar nominations. I'd brought with me my copy of 1949's THE HEIRESS, the 1949 Paramount costume drama that won de Havilland her second Oscar for Best Actress. Her first win came for the 1946 Paramount drama, TO EACH HIS OWN.
My sister and me -- two Black kids who grew up in South Central L.A. and, in their collections of home entertainment, possessed a classic film performance by Olivia de Havilland.

One of my favorite and most memorable party nights in Manhattan involved de Havilland. About a dozen or so of us friends got together at one's apartment in Hells Kitchen for a little birthday party with buffet dinner. Only one guest was Caucasian. They rest of us were Black or Latino. The party was early in the evening. We were all classic film fans. The host asked if we'd like to see a movie. We all agreed on one of his DVDS. We'd watch....THE HEIRESS in which her sweet character evolves from submissive to steely.

If you've seen THE HEIRESS, you will really get this: There we were, a predominantly Black/Latino audience, paying full attention to THE HEIRESS. When Olivia de Havilland, in the final scene, said "Bolt the door, Mariah," we all broke out into cheers and applause as if New York had just won the World Series. Watch this short video I did a few years ago.

Here's a trailer for William Wyler's THE HEIRESS.

My sister, my buddies at the birthday party, and me. This is why I push for more diversity and inclusion, especially on camera, in the field of film arts talk. That includes movie reviews and movie channel hosting. Would a Black film critic or movie historian be tapped to go on TV or give radio soundbites talking about Olivia de Havilland's excellent work in the films I mentioned here? Would we get the equal opportunity to talk about her wonderfulness as Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, her spirited comedy timing in THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, her brilliant underplaying of scenes in HOLD BACK THE DAWN, her sleek and subtle yet dangerous sexiness in MY COUSIN RACHEL and her strength as the disabled woman alone in Los Angeles who outwits a band of home invaders in 1964's LADY IN A CAGE?

When it comes to movies starring Olivia de Havilland, I've only seen Black film critics and historians get tapped to talk about GONE WITH THE WIND because of Hattie McDaniel's historic Oscar winning performance and Black images in the film.
Olivia de Havilland. There was diversity in her film roles. There was diversity in her fan club. Finally, as someone who served on the New York City Screen Actors Guild board for a year, we are extremely grateful to her for the De Havilland Law of 1944. She challenged the Hollywood studio system by taking a case involving labor rights for actors to court -- and she won the landmark case.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Regis Philbin Was Fun to Watch

I grew up watching Regis Philbin. He was the sidekick to Joey Bishop when the comedian got his own late night entertainment talk show on ABC. The show was shot in Los Angeles, my hometown. I was about to start high school at the time. If I didn't have to go to school the next day, if the next was a holiday, Mom would let me stay up late. I watched Regis with Joey Bishop. We viewers knew he was Catholic. In those days, he had a face like a grown-up altar boy.  Youthful, not sexy but attractive, affable. You really felt like you knew him. Like he was neighbor or a schoolteacher in your life whose occasional exasperation would make you chuckle and whose joy about something was infectious. Just being himself was the best role Regis Philbin ever had in his long television career. The Joey Bishop Show aired in the late 1960s. Regis was fun to watch. I connected to him. I'm Catholic. I was an altar boy. I'm not sexy but attractive. I left Los Angeles, graduated from a Catholic university in Milwaukee and got my first professional TV job working for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate. One day in 1984, I got to see Regis up close when he changed a young woman's career.
ABC was promoting its upcoming new season of prime time shows in a junket for the network affiliates. This was 1984. Regis was then co-host of The Morning Show airing on WABC TV in New York City. The junket was held when portions of the country were still in the clutches of winter weather. Milwaukee was one of those cities. Understandably, those of us working at ABC affiliates that were covered with frost gladly accepted the offer to defrost and work in L.A. for a couple of days. The junket was held at the Century Plaza Hotel. I'd be back home in Los Angeles. (I'm the oldest of three siblings. Mom had been divorced since I was in high school. In a life event that seemed like sitcom material for a Laverne & Shirley in reverse episode, Mom decided to relocate the family from L.A. to Milwaukee in 1979.)

Since we had to fly out of cold weather, most of us entertainment reporters and such traveled with heavy coats and sweaters. The first day of interviews was a surprise for us all -- including those in the Southern California area. That day turned out to be unseasonably hot -- even for Los Angeles. Sunny and in the upper 90s. So the ABC Network folks hurriedly rearranged the TV taping locations, moving many of the interviews slated to be taped in hotel rooms to the patio under the shade of large umbrellas. Notices were sent to all press members alerting them to please wear comfortable, lightweight clothing if they had some. Fortunately, the Century Plaza Hotel was right across the street from a mall with department stores and clothing shops. You could dash across the street and quickly purchase a Polo shirt to wear while you interviewed John Ritter or Morgan Fairchild or Craig T. Nelson.

One local TV host was in from Oklahoma City. She was unprepared for the hot weather and had sweaters to wear. In the holding area where some of us waited in between interviews, she was friendly and made you giggle a bit. Her main worry was that she would get onto the patio and perspire heavily on camera because of the heat. Her name was Ann Abernethy. Yes, with two E's.

I usually love to hang out with the production crew. I was with a few members, waiting to go on for my next interview. Ann Abernethy had just started an interview. On camera, she was also personable and charming. As we watched on a monitor, Regis Philbin walked over and watched with us. He, too, was there to do interviews for his ABC affiliate. He paid keen attention to Abernethy's interview. When it was over and she came back into the shade and air conditioning of the holding room, Regis introduced himself and said "Come with me." She mentioned that she was scheduled to do another interview in about 10 minutes. One of the ABC reps motioned for her to go with Regis. Ann Abernethy took Regis Philbin's extended hand and went with him into the lobby for a chat. One of the production crew guys said, "Regis likes her. Something good's gonna happen."

A few months later, Ann Abernethy left Oklahoma City and became Regis Philbin's new cohost in New York City on WABC's The Morning Show. She was there for a year, fell in love, got married and started a new non-TV life in a house so huge, it looked like a house you would've seen in an episode of DYNASTY. Ann Abernethy went into the real estate business.
Philbin's next cohost was a definite brunette who'd been seen doing duties on GOOD MORNING AMERICA. Her name was Kathie Lee Johnson. She married and became Kathie Lee Gifford. And she became blonde.

Regis Philbin wasn't just fun to watch. He was a good luck charm.

One more thing. Throughout the 90s, I lived in New York City. When I watched popular shows such as FRIENDS and WILL & GRACE, shows about characters who lived in my New York City neighborhoods, there were no Black characters in the weekly cast of characters. Not as lead characters. Not as supporting characters. Even a show like the original cast of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY, a show that patted itself on the back for its diversity, there was no gay Black man in the majority of its run trading quips with Carson Kressley. When ABC launched its American version of WHO WANTS TO BE MILLIONAIRE?, Regis was the game show's first host. We didn't see any Black contestants for weeks on the popular show. Then one night, Regis looked into camera and mentioned that very thing with his Everyman quality. He put out a call for Black folks to contact the show and audition to be contestants. This was years before Frances McDormand told Hollywood about inclusion riders during her 2018 Oscar acceptance speech for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and before this year's admission from folks like Jon Stewart of THE DAILY SHOW and a creator of FRIENDS that more could've been done behind the scenes to bring racial inclusion and diversity into the productions on-camera and behind the scenes. I loved Regis for doing that.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The New Perry Mason

When I was a youngster, PERRY MASON was regular Saturday night TV entertainment. Mom and Dad loved that CBS courtroom drama.  Stocky, handsome Raymond Burr had the title role as the defense attorney who never lost a case for years in prime time. Burr was one of those veteran movie actors who went to TV in the 1950s and 60s. The small screen made him more famous and a brighter star than the big screen ever had.  Lucille Ball, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Buddy Ebsen were in that same category. When I heard that a new version of PERRY MASON would premiere on HBO with actor Matthew Rhys in the lead role, I wasn't all that interested -- even though Rhys is one gifted actor.
My first thought was "How does this guy from the United Kingdom keep getting roles where he plays an American?" Remember back in 2006 when he played one of the Pasadena siblings in the ABC TV series called BROTHERS & SISTERS? Sally Field starred as the mother. Then he played one of the Russian agents posing as a Yank in THE AMERICANS on cable. On the big screen, he played Chicago native Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post, in Steven Spielberg's newspaper drama, THE POST, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Well, I watched the first four episodes of PERRY MASON on HBO. Matthew Rhys is, once again, excellent. All four episodes were excellent. I watched them twice.
This series delves into the Perry Mason backstory/ In the beginning, you think it has nothing to do with the Erle Stanley Gardner characters some of us remember from the hit CBS drama. Perry is a private investigator, a clever guy but a hot mess of a man. He's unkempt. He drinks too much. He witnessed the horrors of war when he served in World War 1 on the battlefield. He admits to having had one homosexual encounter. He's in need of money.  This story takes us back to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. People are still unemployed from the Great Depression. In L.A., there's a big news story. Newspapers report that a baby has been kidnapped and murdered. There's an arrest and some shady local politics. There's also an Aimee Semple McPherson evangelist whose hordes of followers keep her in the celebrity spotlight and bring lots of cash into her church coffers. She's a controversial character who gets tied into the kidnap/murder story. Perry Mason is a private investigator working on that case.

Let me tell you this: If you loved the classic movie CHINATOWN, I think you'll totally dig this series. That same feeling of darkness and decay dwelling underneath the relentless Southern California sunshine is at play in HBO's PERRY MASON. Guilt is a driving force in these episodes. Here's a trailer.

I've been a John Lithgow fan ever since I saw him as the egotistical, backstabbing Broadway producer in 1979's ALL THAT JAZZ. Lithgow was one of my favorite guests on my VH1 prime time celebrity talk show in 1988. He was the first celebrity guest who sent me a thank you note after our show. I still have it. John Lithgow's performance as Winston Churchill in Netflix's THE CROWN left me awestruck. He was stunning. His performance as Perry Mason's boss is just as terrific.

On the classic TV series, Barbara Hale played Della Street, Perry Mason's whip-smart and trustworthy secretary. I loved her backstory in this miniseries. I loved how she was played by Juliet Rylance. On TV, you always got the feeling that Perry Mason and Della Street were the best of friends. One of the most fascinating element about the scripts in the first four episodes is that you don't think this hot mess of man who's a private investigator will have any resemblance at all to the famous Raymond Burr portrayal. But, with each episode, you realize that you are being set up to see how these 1930s characters became the ones known from the 1950s/60s TV series. Episodes were directed by Timothy Van Patten. He directed many memorable episodes of THE SOPRANOS.

Here's some Old Hollywood history for you. Did you ever see the gorgeous, statuesque actress Gail Patrick in the classic films MY MAN GODFREY (1936), STAGE DOOR (1937) and MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)?
In the 1950s, she became a producer. She was the Executive Producer of PERRY MASON. The series ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

We Need a Bayard Rustin Biopic

His first name was pronounced BY-yard. His accomplishments were extraordinary and, during his lifetime, overlooked. Bayard Rustin was seen in the network TV news tributes to the late, great Rep. John Lewis. In the black and white archive news clip of young John Lewis giving a speech at the historic 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin can be seen standing behind him to the left, the Black man wearing the glasses.
Bayard Rustin was one of the top architects of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington.
He was one of Dr. King's most important advisors. He was an activist, a vocal and intellectual activist. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1912. He lived with his grandparents. His grandmother was a Quaker and a member of the NAACP. Rustin was a Quaker. He took on the non-violent principles from his grandmother. He was a high school athlete and played on the football team. Rustin first actively fought segregation during his high  school years. He attended college and was involved in social issues. A gifted tenor, he moved to New York City and sang on Broadway in a show with Paul Robeson. He sang in Greenwich Village clubs. He recorded.
He was a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. The late Bayard Rustin was also an openly gay man. This is why his monumental contributions to the Civil Rights movement were unjustly overlooked and downplayed. Tell Hollywood that we are in major need of a well-done Bayard Rustin biopic starring someone like Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.

I've got a couple of videos I want you to watch. The first one is trailer for a documentary that introduces you to the controversial, complicated and vital Civil Rights activist. The name of the documentary is BROTHER OUTSIDER: THE LIFE OF BAYARD RUSTIN.

Here's a promo for BROTHER OUTSIDER.

Now watch this 10 minute segment about Rustin. You will see Rep. John Lewis talk about how significant Rustin was to the March on Washington. Yet, despite his significance and input, he faced added discrimination because he was gay. Click onto the link below to see the 10 minute segment:

Finally, here's a 3 minute piece with the man who was Bayard Rustin's partner.

In 2013, Bayard Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Bayard Rustin made American history. Bring his legacy into the light.

Burt Lancaster and Acting Lessons in ELMER GANTRY

He had the most enormous head I'd ever seen. In a close-up, it filled the entire screen of the Vermont Drive-In that night in Los Angele...