Thursday, April 19, 2012

TV's "Wyatt Earp" and Me

My family owned a Kimball spinet piano thanks to help and support from Wyatt Earp.  I wish a very, very happy 87th birthday today to actor Hugh O'Brian, the actor who starred in a hit TV western series, "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."  That show goes back to when we babyboomers were kids.  My first television appearance was on a game show filmed in Hollywood at the old Goldwyn Studios.  A syndicated trivia show for classic film buffs, it was called "The Movie Game," co-hosted by Sonny Fox and the longtime Variety columnist, Army Archerd.  During my high school years, I talked my way into being the show's youngest contestant and its first black contestant.  Each contestant had two celebrity teammates.  Brawny, handsome TV star Hugh O'Brian was on my team.
My other celebrity teammate was the one...the only...comedy legend, Phyllis Diller.  She and Hugh were fabulous teammates.
There I was with a TV lawman from the wild, wild west and Fang's wife answering questions about movies made when my mother was the age I was then.  My mom and my sister were the only black folks in the entire studio audience.  I represented South Central L.A. just a few years after the fiery Watts Riots by knowing the name of the boat in the movie High Society.  The category was "Musical Remakes."
Answering the question about Cole Porter's musical version of The Philadelphia Story, I knew that Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly sang a song, "True Love," named after a honeymoon boat.  (My, she was yar!)  What was I like in high school?  Think of sitcom kids.  Remember The Bernie Mac Show? I was part Jordan on that program and part Manny from Modern Family with a dash of Sue Heck from The Middle.  I was always the courteous bookworm.  Never the popular kid.  But there I was on national TV, pressing a buzzer and proclaiming "The answer is Ann Miller!"  My tough opponent in that special teen edition of "The Movie Game" was, if I recall correctly, some blond guy from Reseda.  His teammates were Dyan Cannon and David Janssen.  That teen edition was the first show to have  a tied score near the end.  Because I knew what actor famous for playing famous figures would be starring in a new version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, I answered the tie-breaking bonus question thus becoming not only the youngest and first African-American contestant, but the youngest and first African-American winner of "The Movie Game."  I got a new stereo, art supplies and a Kimball spinet piano.  Wyatt Earp was so proud of me.  My mother beamed backstage as he shook her hand and told her so.  My sister was proud too, but not at all surprised that I aced the complete category of "Musical Remakes."

Ironically, here's how I knew who'd be doing The Bard.  The game show was shot in the summer.  I was off from school.  Mom took the day off to take me to the studio.  I felt like a young Judy Garland.  That morning, as usual, we got The Los Angeles Times.  I always went to the movie section.  On that particular morning, I read the Sports page.  The top sportswriter looked like a character out of Guys and Dolls.  There he was in a big picture on the front of the Sports section dressed in a toga but still wearing his horn-rimmed glasses and chomping a cigar.  The paper had assigned him to do a story on what it was like to work one day as a movie extra.  He was photographed during a lunch break as he worked on "...a new version of Julius Caesar starring Charlton Heston."  Can you believe it?  I won "The Movie Game" thanks to help from my celebrity teammates, my vast knowledge of movie musicals and the Sports section of The Los Angeles Times.  I am still stunned.  When my show aired, school was back in session. My teachers at my high school in Watts were ecstatic that I knew a Shakespeare tragedy and that I read a daily newspaper.  I was thrilled and not just because I won.  I wanted to prove to my divorced working mom that I was serious in my love for classic films.  They weren't merely pastime to me.  They were art.  My mother was prouder and happier than anyone.  Back then, I thought she was just proud that I won.  As I got older, I realized she took pride in the positive reflection my win had on our community's image.  I felt that in school the day after the show aired.  The big tough-looking jocks with Afros the size of radar dishes gave me that nod I knew was a "Good work" and "Thank you."  My movie nerdiness, if you will, won respect.  I'd showed a national TV audience that South Central L.A. was more than what they saw in televised images and printed photos of the 1965 Watts Riots.

My grandparents in New Jersey saw me too.  My dad couldn't get over that I actually read the Sports section one day.  He was really thrilled about that.  I think Mom was always a little hurt that my teen victory on "The Movie Game" went unnoticed by local press.  I think she felt that had I robbed a liquor store in Hollywood, local press would've written me up.  Be that as it may, I am absolutely positive that she was the only black mother driving her son home from a Hollywood studio one day who gushed "Honey, how did you know so much about Sonja Henie?  She was making movies before you were born!"  Mom didn't have to tell me how proud she was that day.  I knew it.  I felt it.  I could see it in her eyes.  And I could tell she thought Hugh O'Brian was a real hunk.  I saw that in her eyes too.


  1. That story was as inspiring as watching young Forrest Gump's leg braces fall off while he was running!

    Another Film Buff

  2. YOU SWEETHEART! Mike, thanks for reading it.


My Tom Hanks Pride Month Memory

He doesn't know it, but Tom Hanks helped me through one of the most heartbreaking, emotionally difficult mornings of my life.  Later tha...