Saturday, January 19, 2019

Docs for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

For all the irritations, disruptions and scandals happening today, we need to spend a moment and spiritually refresh by remembering the advances we've made. If, during my college years in the 1970s, anyone had said that there would be a national American holiday in order of a black man's birth and that a black man would be elected to two terms in the White House as President of the United States, that probably would've been dialogue in a sitcom as the set-up for a laugh. But President Barack Obama was elected to two terms in the White House. That achievement owed thanks to the hard-fought battle for Civil Rights peacefully led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, we honor the slain leader's birth as a national holiday in January.
There's a film critic named Owen Gleiberman. He's been in that game for over 20 years. He wrote for Entertainment Weekly, I saw him do reviews on local TV news in New York City and now he writes for Variety. The end of the year list of the year's 10 or 20 best films is an annual compilation from movie critics. Last month, former president Obama put out his list and a good one it was. He picked some of the same movies notable film critics and celebrated filmmakers picked. However, Owen Gleiberman wrote an article in which he expressed his feelings that Mr. Obama's list was "too good for its own good." Some of Mr. Obama's favorite films were ROMA, THE RIDER, BLACK PANTHER, SUPPORT THE GIRLS, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, BLACKkKLANSMAN, WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (the Mister Rogers documentary) and LEAVE NO TRACE. Films from black, Asian, Mexican and women directors. But Owen implied that Obama's list was too upscale. Owen never said that about lists from the white critics at The New York Times. His January 1, 2019 Variety article on Barack Obama's Year-End Movie List went on add that Obama's list was not "mainstream" enough and, like his presidency, never delivered a promised "audacity."

We have a former reality game show TV host, a man of no prior political experience, now sitting in the White House and determined to erase President Obama's legacy. Network news reported that Trump called Africa "a shit-hole country." He got on-camera praise from a KKK leader during the Charlottesville racial conflict. Unarmed black men shot multiple times and killed by police who claimed "I feared for my life" sparked a Black Lives Matter movement. White racist Dylann Roof walked into a church, shot and killed in black people in a prayer service and he was taken into police custody unharmed. Oh. And if I was interviewing Owen Gleiberman on a live TV news program and asked him to name five white film critics he's seen frequently on TV, he could. If I asked him to name five black film critics he's seen frequently on TV, he could not. Why? Because it's been difficult for us black broadcasters to get hired as film critics and film hosts on TV. That field on TV has been segregated for decades. So, just how audacious did Caucasian Owen Gleiberman of Variety expect Barack Obama to be as the first black person elected  President of the United States?
With all that in mind, here are some viewing tips from me to watch in honor of the MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. Day weekend. Check your HBO listings for this first one. It's gripping and gives you insight into Dr. Martin Luther King we didn't get in other specials. This one delves into the extreme emotional and psychological weight he carried in his uphill battle for Civil Rights. America is a nation that's had a history of killing black people for being "audacious" or "uppity" or educated. Tell Owen Gleiberman to watch this documentary. I'm glad he loved GREEN BOOK (not on Mr. Obama's list) but he should see this too.

It's called KING IN THE WILDERNESS. I've seen it on HBO. It's powerful. Here's a trailer.
Another feature I first saw on HBO is SING YOUR SONG. It's an informative, revealing documentary about one of Dr. King's close friends, Harry Belafonte. The singer/actor and activist is also seen in the KING IN THE WILDERNESS documentary. Belafonte can currently be seen in one of the strongest sequences of Spike Lee's BLACKkKLANSMAN.

Harry Belafonte was the first black person to guest host the TONIGHT Show for one week. That was in 1968. He booked Dr. Martin Luther King as a guest. Some footage is in KING IN THE WILDERNESS and also in SING YOUR SONG. Dr. King was assassinated a couple of months after his TONIGHT Show appearance with Mr. Belafonte.

Here's a trailer for 2011's SING YOUR SONG.

Thanks for your time and have a good, significant Dr. Martin Luther King Day.




Friday, January 18, 2019

Glenn Close is THE WIFE

I've been a Glenn Close fan ever since I saw her in 1982's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. That was her first film. I had my first TV job then and interviewed her during the press junket for the movie. She recently won a couple of Best Actress awards for her work in a drama called THE WIFE. I saw the film last night. After all these years of enjoying Glenn Close in dramas, comedies and musicals on film, TV and Broadway. here's what I have to say about her new film: Lord, have mercy! What a terrific performance! In THE WIFE, Glenn Close slams across one of the best performances of her entire film career.
When she won the Golden Globes Best Actress honor over Lady Gaga, you may not have been as familiar with THE WIFE as you are with Gaga's box office champ, the newest Warner Bros. remake of A STAR IS BORN. THE WIFE is more of an arthouse film, but don't let that scare you off. It's worth seeing, especially if you're a fellow Glenn Close fan. Also, hers is not the only good performance in the film. There's solid work from Jonathan Pryce as the pompous husband, Christian Slater as smoothly calculating biographer and there's a nice, juicy turn from brunette Elizabeth McGovern (ORDINARY PEOPLE, RAGTIME) as a wise non-best-selling novelist.

Just about everything you need to know about the renowned writer husband's personality is compactly communicated in the first five minutes of the movie. We see a senior couple of obviously comfortable living in their tastefully appointed bedroom. She's in bed. She wakes up when he enters, eating a late night snack. He gets under the covers and wants to get it on. She tells him that she was asleep. She's not really in the mood. He casually dismisses that and tells her that she just needs to "lie there" for his pleasure. Joe Castleman (Pryce) is an intellectual native New Yorker, the kind of person who loves to passive-aggressively impress you with his knowledge and loves praise-filled attention as much as he loves the sound of his own voice. He's a best-selling novelist who hopes to get a call informing him that he's won the Nobel Prize for Literature. With his accommodating wife just lying there, he begins some Caucasian NPR-like sex. Have you ever listened to National Public Radio hosts during the week? The husband starts off with a little dirty talk to get her sexually aroused. One of the words he uses is "tumescent."
He gets the call from the Nobel committee. In congratulatory celebrations at home and in receptions in Stockholm, we see Joe publicly flatter Joanie, his very charming and attractive wife. However, he really treats her like a supporting player instead of his leading lady. The visual design and costuming have a generous use of muted colors. Perfect color choices. The wife seems to have been muted by the marriage. But she needn't have been. Close shows you that, behind the muted appearance, Joanie is a woman who has wit, talent, compassion, fire and she's got the sophisticated, underplayed sexual charisma that her vain husband thinks he has.

Joe has crafted an image of the gracious. good guy intellectual in public. In private, he's an absolute prick to their adult son, himself an aspiring writer. He's also a prick to the biographer who also travels on the same flight to Stockholm. The biographer intends to write a book on the novelist. He's a manipulator who senses that getting to know the wife and the son will reveal more about the husband than the husband would ever reveal about himself. The biographer also wants to write something that will be a best-seller. Joanie is polite to the biographer and has a cocktail with him. She's also hip and, in her elegant way, can outmaneuver him like General Patton in a designer scarf. But there is that one question from the biographer about Joe that stings: "Did he encourage you to keep writing?"
Joe and Joanie met in college in the 1950s. She was a writing student of great promise. He was her married professor. Joanie became his second wife. We see this history presented in flashbacks. That portion feels a bit clich├ęd, like in a Lifetime TV movie, but it doesn't handicap the overall strength of the film. Joe becomes an acclaimed, financially successful American novelist. During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the dinner event, he gushes about how great his wife has been. This is the kind of moment that keeps his "good guy" image vibrant. But Joanie starts to unmute. She's had enough of being in his supporting cast. Joanie turns off the mute button. The resulting action is loud. It's ugly. It's strong. It's fascinating to see.  THE WIFE is a reminder to women to find independent fulfillment in their lives and it's an understanding embrace of those loving, loyal wives who didn't.
I'm positive that the producers and film company realized right off that it had Oscar contender work from Glenn Close in this film. I read a rave review of it in The Guardian in September 2017. Critic Peter Bradshaw wrote "Close gives arguably her best ever performance in an adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's novel." But the film company held off on releasing it in the U.S. that season. When the Oscar nominations were announced in January 2018, three of the five nominees for Best Actress were Saoirse Ronan for LADY BIRD, Meryl Streep for THE POST and Frances McDormand for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. McDormand was the big winner. I think it was a clever move on the film company's part to wait for a 2018 release date.

Give Glenn Close the Best Actress Oscar right now. That's how I rate her performance in THE WIFE. Starting with THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, she's been nominated for the Oscar six times. Her other Oscar nominations were received for THE BIG CHILL, THE NATURAL, FATAL ATTRACTION, DANGEROUS LIASONS and ALBERT NOBBS.  It's about time Glenn Close took home some Hollywood gold -- and she really deserves it for THE WIFE.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

She Got a Male Virgin Before Judd Apatow Did

Here's some Women In Film information that I've written before that bears repeating.  Why? Because I'm in full support of women directors and their history, a history that has often been overlooked and ignored.  Some may not even be aware of the history. Like the history of filmmaker Muriel Box.  I think successful director and writer Judd Apatow may be in the category of the "unaware."  Apatow was a happy dude in Hollywood in 2005 when the comedy he directed and co-wrote, THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, was a hit. The comedy starred Steve Carell in the title role.  Judd Apatow was a guest on ABC's daytime chat show, THE VIEW, on January 16th.
Mr. Apatow was there to tell us about a sitcom production of his that returns soon to HBO.  In addition to THE 40 YEAR OF VIRGIN, he directed KNOCKED UP starring Seth Rogen and TRAINWRECK starring Amy Schumer.  Disney is the parent company now to ABC and ABC has been giving us a rollercoaster ride of sex-related programming lately. Young women pursuing a male virgin bachelor. A look back at the sexually painful John Wayne Bobbitt story. A look back at the Monica Lewinski and Bill Clinton extra-marital sex scandal.  The current Caucasian male cutie pie to be THE BACHELOR has the hook of being a self-proclaimed virgin. At daybreak, on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, and in late night, on JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!, he's proudly promoted his virginity while plugging the network's love connection reality show.  The undeflowered beefcake bachelor, of course, has been a topic on THE VIEW.  A few minutes before he appeared on the set with the ladies, Judd Apatow looked into the camera and bellowed to us viewers that he presented a male virgin over 21 years of age long before this current season of ABC's THE BACHELOR. He was referring to his 2005 comedy starring Steve Carell.
A woman beat Judd Apatow to a 40 year old male virgin before he showed us one onscreen.  And she did it in 1964.  There's little talk about British film director Muriel Box here in America. That needs to change.  She took a large and significant step into the uninviting, sexist territory of the filmmaking boys' club.  Muriel Box and her then-husband, Sydney Box, won Oscars in the Best Original Screenplay category for the 1945 psychological drama, THE SEVENTH VEIL, starring James Mason. After winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Muriel Box turned her talents to directing. She directed her first film in 1949.  Muriel Box directed films starring Glynis Johns, Donald Pleasance, Sir Ralph Richardson, Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, Van Johnson, Peter Finch and Shelley Winters. That's an impressive group of celebrated talent right there for a woman director who gets little attention.  Here's a photo of director/screenwriter Muriel Box (left) directing Shelley Winters (right) in the 1954 comedy, CASH ON DELIVERY.
The last film directed by Muriel Box was RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN based on the popular play of the same name that entertained audiences in London and on Broadway.  In 1964's RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN, a shy guy of 40 is in London with his buddies to see a big sports match.  The fellows have a festive night out on the town and the shy guy meets a prostitute who takes him to her apartment. Diane Cilento (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for her role opposite Albert Finney in 1963's TOM JONES) played the sweet prostitute who wins his heart.
From what I've read, the late Muriel Box had a rough go of it in her 1950s career as a British director solely because she was a woman. But she persevered.  She died in 1991.
And there you have it. A little history on a Woman In Film who took a grown man's virginity years before Judd Apatow did.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Why We Miss Mr. Rogers

He was a white, Republican, ordained minister. And I loved him. So did millions of others. He led us to bring out the best in ourselves and he did this in a simple, low-budgeted, educational TV show for children.  I never knew until I watched a documentary last night that Fred Rogers was Republican and an ordained minister. Even though he was Republican, others Republicans turned on him. President Richard Nixon, no friend of the media, wanted to drastically -- if not totally -- cut the funding to the educational show.  Fox News anchors blamed him for a generation of children feeling that it was special. But he did feel that all children are special. He whole-heartedly believed in the Christian principle to "Love thy neighbor."  Trust me on this, if you want to refresh your faith in people and see the strength that it takes to keep kindness in action, if you're not afraid to let a tear or two roll down your face, take 90 minutes to watch the 2018 documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  Directed by Morgan Neville, it guides us into the legacy, lessons and life of the beloved television host.
I was a latchkey kid. Mom and Dad had fulltime jobs and had to leave for work early in the morning. I was the last to leave the house and my parents had thoroughly drilled me on how to make sure all the lights were turned off, the stove was turned off and the doors were locked before I left for my walk to St elementary school. I would leave the house at half past CAPTAIN KANGAROO.  That was 7:30 in the morning. Hosts of kids' shows were like grown-up friends who loved cartoons and puppets as much as you did.  Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis on NBC and -- locally on Los Angeles television -- Sheriff John, Engineer Bill, Skipper Frank and Hobo Kelly.
MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD, a simple and substantial children's show, premiered in that most turbulent and horrible year, 1968. I was in high school. 1968 made me afraid of my future in America. The Vietnam War, which drafted millions of black and Latino working class young men, waged on and seemed to be the lead story every weeknight on the network evening news. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later, presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. I had seen him in person just two days before when he came to campaign near our high school in Watts. The entire student body was so keyed up about his appearance that the principal dismissed classes early so we could dash to see him. I was one of many students running gleefully behind his convertible as he arrived, fueled by the hope he gave us. That hope disappeared when he was killed. From that time to right after the Sept. 11th attacks, Fred Rogers provided spiritual comfort and a soothing voice in frightening times for kids. He could also be loopy and silly and make us laugh. Behind the scenes, he could be formidable without being mean. He had regard for people and diversity. He embraced tolerance. He gently motivated you to pay attention, to be silent for a moment and go within. That is a lost art nowadays. A simple yet powerful exercise.
In the documentary, we hear from co-workers and relatives. We hear about the bawdy prank a stagehand pulled on Mr. Rogers. We hear about the heartbreak in Fred Rogers' youth that surely influenced the vulnerability of his TV persona. We see his simple lesson about racial equality and fairness in the 1960s when black people were not allowed in some public swimming pools. We learn about his friendship with a cast member who was black and gay. That's a significant section.  Their work and friendship was at a time in our American history when, if news had leaked out that the gifted and popular cast member was gay, MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD could have lost two major sponsors (which are named). It was groundbreaking just for him to be black on the show.  American TV execs were not ready for someone to be black AND gay. That attitude towards gay performers still existed in the early 80s when I started my TV career. 

Fred Rogers understood that childhood is often the blueprint for the rest of your life. Some of those early wounds in your heart have not healed when you are well into your adult years.
I fell in love with classic films when I was in grade school. When summer vacation rolled around, I could watch old movies -- especially Fred Astaire musicals -- on TV in the daytime. For me that was Heaven. I'd even asked my parents if I could take dance classes because I was so fascinated with Fred Astaire. But I think my parents were of the generation that felt dance classes were for girls, the outdoors were for boys. They asked me if I wanted to go to summer camp. 8 days in the San Bernardino mountains thanks to the local Boys' Club chapter.  I said "No."  Mom kept gently pushing. I kept saying "No." Then Dad took me aside one afternoon and said in a friendly fashion, "Your mom really wants you to go to summer camp."

The next thing I knew, I was on a bus from 120th and Central Avenue to the woods in the San Bernardino mountains.  There was not one whole day that I enjoyed because I did not want to be there. Not only that, I had a near-death experience. I almost drowned in a lake. Blessedly, I was rescued. The best day was the day we boarded the busses for the 2-hour ride back home.

I'd been gone 8 days.8 days. When the busses pulled into the Boys' Club parking lot, parents were waving and cheering and waiting by the family cars to take boys home.

Guess whose parents forget to pick him up? Over 30 minutes later, I was sitting with my little suitcase and my outdoor jacket waiting for my parents. It was heavy jacket for the camping trip. One of the club counselors asked me if I had anyone coming for me. He gave me change to use the pay phone. I called home. My aunt was babysitting my little sister. Aunt Ruby said, "Your parents went to go look at some furniture."

Mom and Dad had gone to the Wilshire district to look at new furniture. It was a Friday afternoon. It must've been like a scene in HOME ALONE when Mom gasped "Bobby!" and they remembered I was returning that day. They hit serious Friday rush hour traffic and, by the time they got to the Boys Club, I had put on the heavy jacket, picked up my little suitcase and took the half mile walk home in the summer heat. The club was right next door to my school.

My wonderful sister remembers this incident and recalls that neither Mom or Dad apologized to me when they zoomed home from the Boys' Club. They blamed the lateness on each other and said, "Why didn't you wait?"  I had waited. Nearly one hour. I was under the age of 10 and felt like I took second place to home furnishings.

I know there's a sitcom vibe to that true story. But it did hurt for a long, long time. And, to be honest, a bit of that went into my desire to work on TV. I wanted to do something that would make my parents see me and regard me as special.

Fred Rogers understood this about people. He understood that so many of us -- kids and grown-ups -- just want a hug and don't know how to ask for it. He felt that way himself. That's why, to him, all kids were special.  See WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? It's beautiful and poignant.




Sunday, January 13, 2019

I Love FRESH OFF THE BOAT

OK, I'm just going to blunt right up front. If Jennifer Aniston has several Emmy nominations for her sitcom acting on FRIENDS, then Constance Wu of ABC's FRESH OFF THE BOAT should have at least one. Constance Wu is fabulous and one of the funniest sitcom moms I've seen on a network in ages. If only ABC would give that show as much promotion during GOOD MORNING AMERICA as GMA gave trumpeting the reboot arrival of ROSEANNE until...well, you heard what happened. I was overjoyed that Ms. Wu got a Golden Globe nomination for surprise box office champ, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The success of that film put a spotlight on her that ABC should have back in 2015 when FRESH OFF THE BOAT made its debut. The sitcom is loosely based on the memoir of young hipster chef/restauranteur and COOKING CHANNEL host, Eddie Huang. Constance Wu plays the over-achiever mom of young Eddie on the sitcom. Her deadpan comic delivery is an artform.
Here's where ABC publicity has dropped the ball on FRESH OFF THE BOAT. Randall Park plays the dad on the sitcom.  I've been a fan of his for years. I always noticed him in TV commercials and in episodes of other shows like VEEP on HBO. When I read that FRESH OFF THE BOAT was in production for ABC and I read he was the lead male actor, I was thrilled. For one thing, it had been 20 years since we'd seen a sitcom about an Asian-American family. Margaret Cho broke ground with her ALL-AMERICAN GIRL on ABC in 1994. Unfortunately, execs tried to make her characters more Caucasian-like than Asian-American. It lasted a year. ABC announced FRESH OFF THE BOAT for the 2015 season.
Remember back during the Christmas season of 2014 when a Seth Rogan and James Franco comedy movie called THE INTERVIEW was making network news? In the movie, the host and producer of a TV tabloid show fly to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un. They hear he's a fan of the show. That caused some real-life friction and our network news anchors reported that North Korea threatened to attack movie theaters showing THE INTERVIEW. ABC World News Tonight reported on this several times and, each time, it was always mentioned that Seth Rogan and James Franco were the stars of the film. I saw the film. The movie really snaps to life thanks to the wildly funny and somewhat touching performance of Randall Park as Kim Jong-un. Randall Park steals the movie. But no ABC news anchor ever mentioned that Randall Park also starred in the film as Kim Jong-un and, in a few months, would be seen on ABC's new sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT. He's terrific on the sitcom and he's never been nominated for an Emmy either.
FRESH OFF THE BOAT premiered on Tuesdays. Now it's on Friday nights. Constance Wu and Randall Park break me up every single episode.  The parents, the kids, the grandmother -- I love that family. Here's a clip.
I wish ABC would realize how special and groundbreaking FRESH OFF THE BOAT is. And Constance Wu is comedy gold.
If you want to see Randall Park as Kim Jong-un, THE INTERVIEW is currently on Netflix.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

I Sat with THE SOPRANOS

The table-read. This is when all the performers in a given project, the lead actors down to the bit players who may have one to five lines, get together seated at a table and read-through the script aloud before going on to shoot it later. I was extremely lucky. I sat through two table-reads for episodes of THE SOPRANOS because I had bit parts in two episodes.  This week marked the 20th anniversary of the show's premiere on HBO. What an original, provocative, memorable, brutal and brilliant show.  It was a landmark television series. And what a cast.
I auditioned only once for THE SOPRANOS.  On my way to the audition, I had no idea what the show's real nature truly was.  An agent's trainee/assistant called me with the audition. She called me in the morning and told me the audition was happening that afternoon.  She said that the casting call was for an interviewer/narrator on a show called THE SOPRANOS for HBO.  On the phone, she said, "I bet it's something like THE THREE TENORS with the classical singers on PBS. You can handle this because you like the arts."  She added that the scripts would be at the audition.  So I made sure I'd get there extra, extra early.

I arrived. There was a card marked "Interviewer" and I picked up a copy of the script. I sat down to read it. When I turned to the second page, the page where dialogue for the Interviewer started, I saw the words "Big Pussy Speaks" written across the top of the page in bold black Magic Marker ink.  Of course, I immediately thought, "Oh, this cannot be for me at all." I was positive that agent's trainee had unwittingly booked me to audition for a porno project on cable TV.  That was...until I read the script. My character was to do a news program interview of an author who wrote about mob activity in the Tri-State area.
I didn't get the part for that episode but the casting people liked me and cast me to play a local news co-anchor for an Season 1 episode called "Nobody Knows Anything."  A real anchor from local TV's New York One cable news, very popular in Manhattan, was cast as my co-anchor. We both attended the table-read.

I remember that evening vividly. We were scheduled to start at 6:00pm on a sunny evening in Manhattan on the corner of Prince and Broadway, directly across the street from Dean & Deluca. I got to the building about 5:45 and saw a group of actors chatting outside. I assumed (correctly) that I'd be a part of their read-through group. A few of them were actors I'd seen frequently in my Chelsea neighborhood because there were casting offices in that area. I didn't know James Gandolfini's name but I recognized him from the movies ANGIE and GET SHORTY. I'd seen him in the neighborhood a lot. Edie Falco I recognized from the New York theater scene. Michael Imperioli had a side business one block down from my apartment. I'd see him opening shop just about every week in the mornings. And big Steven Schirripa was a well-known face from TV and films.  When we got downstairs, actress Nancy Marchand was at the table. She looked a bit frail and she had a portable compact oxygen device to help her breathe.

I think of that evening often because it was weeks before THE SOPRANOS premiered on HBO. Just six months later, those actors would not have been able to just mill around on the corner of Prince and Broadway in late afternoon daylight because they would have been surrounded by TV fans.

As for the table-read, as soon as we started, Nancy Marchand took the breathing device off her face and. seemingly by sheer force of will, transformed herself into the strong and formidable mother of Tony Soprano.   I was sitting right next to Annika Pergament, the news anchor playing my co-anchor. About five or six pages into the table-read, Annika and I looked at each with awe. We instantly knew what each other was thinking: "This writing is phenomenal."

Listening to that dialogue, experiencing that writing, was like hearing Jimi Hendrix play for the first time. It was amazing new music to the ears that absolutely rocked.

One thing you could tell from the actors in the group who we later saw as regulars on THE SOPRANOS. They were in it for the love of the art. They loved acting. They loved acting with each other. And they loved good writing.  It's funny about life and careers. I often think of those few minutes watching them casually chat outside on the corner before going in for the table-read. Folks just passed right by them. Within six months, that would all change. Within six months, they'd all be some of the most popular new stars on national television in one of the best shows of the last twenty years.

One last thing: When I read my first line at the read-through, it got a laugh. It was not a comedy line and I was not trying to be funny, but the news anchor's comment on the bordello story had a typical New Yorker droll vibe.  James Gandolfini turned around in his chair to see who delivered the line. He looked at me, smiled and gave me a "good work" nod."

That will always be one of the best reviews I've ever received in my career.

Friday, January 11, 2019

BLACKkKLANSMAN, a Spike Lee Classic

You know  this is true: Spike Lee is one of the most recognizable, most respected and most influential filmmakers here in the U.S. and overseas.  I have proudly spent money to see his films since the 1980s.
"With the right white man, we can do anything." That is a line from his current film, a line of dialogue that broke me up laughing in the movie theater because...well, it's true. The line was delivered by actor John David Washington who also delivers one hell of a good performance as real-life character Ron Stallworth.  My buddy Scott Simon interviewed Ron Stallworth last year on NPR's Weekend Edition. Stallworth talked about his memoir that served as the basis for BLACKkKLANSMAN from director/writer Spike Lee.
Yes. This is based on a true American story.  A black detective went undercover and joined the KKK.  To me, this film is brilliant and blistering in its timeliness.
I have an Academy Award hope for Spike Lee. And I have a few words about another filmmaker who posted a rave review on Twitter about BLACKkKLANSMAN after a preview screening. That fellow filmmaker is Barbra Streisand.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Make Time for GOOD GIRLS

Christina Hendricks was a standout as statuesque, savvy and sophisticated Joan in the MAD MEN television series. She had, what a man once wrote about Mae West, "the Big Ben of the hourglass figures." There was a sharp brain in that curvy body and we loved watching her match wits with the men.  HAP AND LEONARD, based on book characters created by Joe Lansdale, was a very smart, relevant and under-appreciated series on the Sundance TV channel. The story took place in the 1980s yet it had a socio-political grit that made it feel modern-day. Hap is the pacifist hetero white guy who did not serve in Vietnam.  Leonard is his badass, black Republican and openly gay best friend. Leonard is a Vietnam vet. They are extremely loyal to each other and have been for a long time. The action is set down South and it's all sort of swamp noir -- a crime thriller. In the opening season, there was Christina Hendricks as the femme fatale. HAP AND LEONARD gave Christina Hendricks a vastly different character to play and she knocked that role out of the park. Last year, NBC debuted a new series. Christina Hendricks is one of the stars. Again, we see her impressive range as an actress.  The series is called GOOD GIRLS. It's a crime series with laughs and pain. Three working class female friends are so financially desperate that they band together to pull off a heist.  I watched the first episode when it premiered. I was hooked within the first 10 minutes and saw every episode of Season 1. I prayed that NBC would renew it. My prayers were answered.
In addition to Christina Hendricks, I also wanted to see GOOD GIRLS because one of the other stars is Retta, the PARKS AND RECREATION sitcom regular who rose from bit player to very popular supporting castmember who had the catch phrase "Treat yo' self!"  GOOD GIRLS allows Retta to be funny as she whips out some Thelma Ritter-esque comments to the unusual situations the three friends get caught up in.  However, she also gets to show her range with some well-written drama. She's an educated woman, a wife and mother, who robs cash because her sweet little girl is hospitalized and needs kidney care. I loved seeing Retta play such a dimensional, complicated woman. She's a loving mother, a loving wife and parent nearly at wit's end trying to make ends meet.
This is what I loved most about the series. With these three typical suburban women donning masks and robbing a store, this is the kind of plot that would've been played for big laughs had it been a movie made back in the 80s and starring someone like, say, Bette Midler.  But GOOD GIRLS takes us into the drama of each woman that renders her so desperate that a one-time crime seemed the only way out.  As one who was hit hard by the Great Recession and went totally broke after using his emergency fund to take care of a parent in her 80s, I can feel the stress those three women have.
They have a boss of sorts. Rio is the name of the heavy.  He's underplayed to perfection by lean, handsome Manny Montana. He's got a smoldering look and a voice that will make many female and some male viewers moan "Oooooh, daddy."  Watch Rio with wife and mother Beth (Christina Hendricks).  At first, he intimidates her. But, as she becomes more desperate and as the situation gets more complicated, she loses fear and you see him quietly become fascinated with how her mind works. Maybe she should be his partner in crime.
It's a very good series.  Solid writing, brisk direction. One of my favorite scenes has Ruby (Retta) dealing with a bratty, young white male customer. I've waited tables and I've had customers like that dude. He gets his come-uppance from Ruby and it's fabulous to see.
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS, RETTA and MAE WHITMAN are GOOD GIRLS with Manny Montana as Rio.

You can see Season 1 of GOOD GIRLS now on Netflix.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

She Gave Us SCRUPLES

Best-selling novelist Judith Krantz. She wrote SCRUPLES, PRINCESS DAISY and DAZZLE. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, her novels drew us to the bookstores to buy the latest looks at modern women dealing with money, men and morals. I happened to have author Judith Krantz on my mind today -- then I saw that January 9th is Ms. Krantz's her birthday. It's reported that she's now 91.  I thought of her when I saw some of Trump's address to the nation last night in which he seems to want his own modern-day Iron Curtain to keep Mexicans out of America. So, why did I think of Judith Krantz? I wondered what she'd have to say about the Trump administration.
Back in the late 80s, when I was lucky enough to have my own prime time talk show on VH1, Judith Krantz was a terrific guest, gracious and candid. Writers were always some of my favorite guests on the show because they were smart, frank, funny and grateful to know I'd read some of their work. With movie and TV actors, they were often reluctant to be so honest for fear of limiting box office dollars or viewers in their audience. But writers came on with a "take no prisoners" attitude that made for interesting TV.  And I interviewed some interesting writers:  Norman Mailer, Dominick Dunne, Anne Rice, Anna Quindlen, Susan Isaacs and Fran Lebowitz.
When Judith Krantz was on my show, Dan Quayle was regularly in the headlines. He became Vice-President to George H.W. Bush. Krantz was no fan of Quayle's and flat-out said that he reminded her of the main male character in a famous book -- the good-looking, not too smart, opportunist in AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (by Theodore Dreiser) who would take the girl out in the canoe and only save himself when they both fell out into the water and she couldn't swim.

Krantz then said, "Well, I probably lost some readers with that statement."

From the way her books continued to sell, it didn't seem as though she did.
I've often wondered what she would have to say about where we are now -- with a publicity hound real estate millionaire-turned-NBC reality TV game show host who had no prior political experience yet was elected to sit in the Oval Office and is now running the country.



Monday, January 7, 2019

Carol Burnett Made Me Cry

The Golden Globes telecast on NBC. Yes, there were a few times when announced winners made me say "Are you kidding me?" but there were also moments that lit me up with joy and gave my heart a sweet flutter -- like TV legend Carol Burnett receiving a special award named in her honor. What an impact she made on the TV arts.  Tears were streaming down my face as she spoke.
My mother passed away in June of 2017. She was 94. I miss her so very, very much. If I replay many of the favorite times in my life in my mind, its human soundtrack is consistently colored with Mom's full-out, infectious laughter. So much of that laughter came from enjoying THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. When Carol Burnett's show premiered, watching TV was a family event. We didn't have social media. Families sat together and gave their full attention to a program. THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW made us laugh from when Mom and Dad were married, through their separation and divorce, to high school and college graduations. When life got unpredictable and often heartbreaking, we could always count on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW to make us laugh.  Mom and I had sort of verbal shorthand when we spoke. We both loved movies and TV and used references to describe a situation of a person. And, for a family that lived in South Central L.A. and then -- in a situation that still seems ripe for sitcom exploration -- relocated to Milwaukee in the late 1970s -- we had show biz moments in our lives.  My first TV appearance was in Hollywood. I was in high school and became the youngest and first black contestant on a classic film trivia quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME. It was a syndicated show.  I won. Mom was in the studio audience and, afterwards, she was truly in awe when she said, "You knew the name of the boat in the movie HIGH SOCIETY."

Carol Burnett attended Hollywood High School. That's where I took my SATs.  To this day, I have no idea why I had to go all the way from South Central L.A. to Hollywood to take my SATs, but I did. Like young Carol Burnett, I adored old movies and TV. I wanted to be an entertainer. I'm sure I was not the only school kid who wrote a fan letter to Carol Burnett that asked for advice. As others also did, I got a letter from Carol Burnett at Television City in Hollywood thanking me for my letter and telling me to stay in school. Mom hoped I'd pick a different profession. It wasn't that she saw me as a non-talented performer. She didn't want me to be disappointed at the lack of equal opportunities solely because of my race. But, when I got my own talk show on VH1 in the late 80s, that was like a childhood dream of mine that came true. In the years after my VH1 time, I did experience the disappointments Mom feared. Racially, the playing field in entertainment hiring and representation was not level. I loved and still love performing on TV. More important to me than stardom was making enough so I could give my single mom a nice life. I was able to help her, but I could never give her the really comfortable life that I longed to thanks to my TV career. My national TV income was …. well, moderate. If was work that I loved but the pay always left me needing a part-time gig to help make ends meet. Doing some kind of TV work that would earn a special place in people's hearts, be found significant and entertaining...that was my dream. It still is.

Mom, who arrived in Southern California for gradate school in her registered nursing career, was well-educated and loved the arts. After Mom and Dad divorced, she refused alimony and was the single working mother of three. Her weekday job was nursing. She needed some extra cash and sought a weekend job. Mom pretended to be way less educated than she was and got a job doing light domestic work for a Hollywood wife. Remember Jack Lord, TV star of the original HAWAII FIVE-O? Before he booked that show, Mom ironed his shirts. Yes. She was hired by Mrs. Jack Lord. When, during some casual chat, Mom went fan-girl on Simone Signoret, enthusiastically recommending her performance in Stanley Kramer's SHIP OF FOOLS, Mrs. Lord figured there was more to this black woman who was putting light starch in her husband's collars. They talked. Mom made cash. The Lords got a new gig and had to move to Hawaii. For the rest of Mom's life, she'd say how much she loved working for Mrs. Jack Lord who later offered Mom a more upscale position. But it would've involved moving.

In Milwaukee, where I started my TV career after graduating from Marquette University, Lena Horne brought her Tony-winning, one-woman Broadway show to town for a week. I attended her press conference. She wanted to know more about me.  Lena Horne later met with Mom and offered her a job. But, that too would've involved moving.

Mom was in an assisted living facility in her last few years. She and I drew so much closer in those years with daily or, at least, weekly phone calls. One time, she whispered "Hold on."  She couldn't speak until the nurse in her room left. When the nurse was gone, Mom squealed, "She walks just like Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins!," followed by her full-out, infectious laugh. Mom referred to and praised Carol Burnett numerous times in our conversations. The memory of those classic sketches Carol Burnett did provided Mom and me with many shared laughs.

That's why I cried. Seeing a clip of Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins brought back a rush of tender memories for me. Mom would've loved Burnett's acceptance speech.

Today's networks, despite how much money they have, would not give us another quality variety show like Carol Burnett's. What she said in her speech, she wrote in detail in this book.  It's a wise and wonderful book with sage comments on today's TV. It's worth reading.
THIS TIME TOGETHER: LAUGHTER AND REFLECTION.  Carol Burnett's show came along at just the right time for us. We wouldn't get that brilliance today. Executives would not give it a greenlight. When I think of Carol Burnett -- and when I think of my mother, one of her most ardent fans -- both those women make me quote Ms. Burnett herself: "I'm so glad we had this time together."

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Christian Bale's VICE

He's a fascinating actor. He's an Oscar-winner. If any actor should put out an exercise and weight loss book like Jane Fonda did, Christian Bale should. He has dropped and gained serious amounts of weight for film roles more than once.  Oscar voters are greatly impressed with weight loss and gain for one's film art.  Look at the Oscar nominations given to Robert De Niro for RAGING BULL, Tom Hanks for CAST AWAY and Matthew McConaughey for THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Bale packed on about 40 pounds to play former Vice President Dick Cheney in VICE directed and written by Adam McKay,  It's a good but not great movie that holds your interest mainly because you can't take your eyes off Christian Bale's Dick.  The actor's transformation and commitment to character is amazing. This is the same British-American actor we saw as Batman in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT as the yuppie AMERICAN PSYCHO and as the crack addict ex-boxer who cleans up in THE FIGHTER (Bale's Best Supporting Actor Oscar victory role). We shall see if bulking up brings Christian Bale another Oscar nomination.
Because I vote in the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards, I had to see VICE.  Otherwise, I probably would've put off viewing it for some weeks even though the cast is filled with actors I like.  But the movie focuses on two political men I have no interest in ever seeing again -- Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  Steve Carell plays Rumsfeld.  Here's Bale before (right) and during production (left).
Adam McKay has a great touch for making movies that show the light and dark of male bonding.  You wait to see if the men will grow up and get it together to do the right thing in their jobs.  You see that in his comedies, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY and you see that in the drama in which Wall Street men bond to warn us of greedy corporate weasels in THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay's film about the subprime home loan crisis of 2008.

In VICE, we see male bonding in the White House. Also, we see that when mediocrity mixed with white privilege and toxic masculinity is given extreme power, that makes for a political shit-show that will affect all our lives.  The story starts in Casper, Wyoming in 1963. (The same year and in the same territory where two young ranch hands named Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist will meet, work together and fall in love on BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.) The opening scene is rowdy. Men getting loud with dice, money and liquor in a saloon.  Then we follow a car driving too fast down a highway with a man pulled over for being drunk behind the wheel. That man is young Dick Cheney.  He's the same man who will be drunk with power in the White House and giving orders on September 11th after one of most horrible, deadly events in American history.

Amy Adams delivers another excellent performance. We saw her with Christian Bale in THE FIGHTER and AMERICAN HUSTLE. Here, she brings her character actress skills to the role of Lynne Cheney. Early in the marriage when he was behaving like an over-aged frat boy, Lynne laid down the law for him to get it together. She was as focused on power and money as a white shark on a stray seal. She elevates Dick from catfish to fellow shark. Lynne cares more about her husband getting power than she does about race/gender equality in American. And they have a lesbian daughter.  In a surprising bit of casting that paid off, Tyler Perry plays Colin Powell and he's quite good. The always dependable Sam Rockwell stars as George W. Bush, the man who chose the monotoned bureaucrat in the White House boys club as his running mate.
There is humor in this film but there are also moments that give you a sick feeling in the gut.  For instance, the scene where the new Dick Cheney guy chats with Donald Rumsfeld while President Richard Nixon is behind closed doors in a meeting. The Vietnam War rages on.  Rumsfeld casually mentions that, in their office, is the power to drop bombs and kill thousands.  You can't help but think of the thousands we lost when we were attacked on September 11th during Cheney's vice-presidency.

For as good as the acting is, the lead character is never someone you can care about. Dick Cheney comes across as a man at war with the world around him. He even seems at war with his own body. He's like Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ, hollow inside but when he gets a heart, it rejects him.  He seems to be heartless -- even after he accidentally shoots a buddy in the face with birdshot pellets during a hunting trip. The buddy recovered. Your jaw drops at the changes made under the Cheney administration that laid some groundwork for where we are now.  In a way, VICE is a cautionary tale that came too late.

Docs for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

For all the irritations, disruptions and scandals happening today, we need to spend a moment and spiritually refresh by remembering the adva...