Monday, December 26, 2011

I Love the 80s: My VH1 Years

I've worked on and in television for a long time -- and I want to do more TV work.  Three of the most fun, most fulfilling and most challenging years of my career were spent working for VH1.  I am so glad I appreciated that opportunity while I had it.  How many folks have or had a job that was as much fun as a weekend off?  That's what it felt like most of the time.  Not that it was an easy job, mind you, but the experience was that much fun.  It didn't feel like labor.  I worked on VH1 from 1987 to 1990.  By the time I got offered the VJ gig, which lead to me also becoming a VH1 talk show host, I'd had national exposure doing celebrity interview features for a syndicated show called PM Magazine.  VH1 gave me a bigger platform for my interview work and humor.  Anglo author and National Public Radio contributor Henry Alford was a VH1 host/VJ in the early '90s.  In his 2000 book of humorous essays, Big Kiss, he wrote that all VH1 VJs before him were broad stand-up comedians like Gallagher, the guy who smashed melons in his act.  Personally, I'm surprised that a NPR talent would make such a blanket generalization.  I was never nor have I ever been a stand-up comedian.  But I was the first African-American talent to get his own prime time VH1 celebrity talk show, thank you very much.  Here's a VJ pic from the VH1 years showing me with fellow VJs Roger Rose and a new addition -- a charismatic comedian/actress named Rosie O'Donnell.

That was Rosie's "Sigourney Weaver-in-Alien" hairdo.  My first talk show host assignment for VH1 was taking the helm of Celebrity Hour and chatting with such show biz icons as Liza Minnelli.
I got upgraded to my own weeknight half-hour show called Watch Bobby Rivers.  The previous show had music videos mixed into the interview hour.  My show didn't.  We talked without Rick Astley, Whitney Houston, Kenny G or Fine Young Cannibals interruptions.  I had A-List guests like Mel Gibson back when he was still charming and approachable.

To this very day, I am still proud that my VH1 work got good reviews from TV Guide and People Magazine and my talk show performance got praise in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.  I know it's ancient TV history and it happened in the 1980s but here's why I still carry that work in my heart like a medal of honor:  In the 1960s, I was a child of the Civil Rights era in South Central Los Angeles.  In that decade, the decade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the March on Washington, Black folks were still demanding the right to vote and the right to a college education.  We certainly weren't getting gigs on network TV as hosts of our own prime time entertainment talk shows.  I attended a university in Milwaukee.  After graduation, my first professional TV job was on WISN TV, Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  I got discovered by a local New York City station, WPIX, and was hired to work there in 1985.  In 1987, two years after I arrived in New York to start a new life working at WPIX, I moved up to national work on VH1.  In 1988, I was given my own talk show.  One more thing -- I did not have an agent.  I got myself from Milwaukee to New York City.  Three years after I arrived in New York, I was interviewing film icon Kirk Douglas on my own prime time national talk show.  That was just not supposed to happen to a guy who went to high school in Watts and lived in the curfew area of the Watts Riots.  In fact, our little house stood just four blocks away from one of the deadly fires of the Watts Riots.  If you want to see some of my VH1 work, go to YouTube and search Bobby Rivers VH1 Talk Show Host.  You'll see me with Kirk Douglas, Meryl Streep, Paul McCartney, Marlo Thomas, Raul Julia, Carlos Santana and several other top figures of the fine arts.  If you want to see where my high school was located, stay on YouTube and search Los Angeles Watts Riots 1965. That was the South Central L.A. of my youth.

I found those three photos today and just wanted to share them along with a few career memories.  By the way, Henry Alford has a new book out.  About Henry categorizing all VH1 veejays in the 1980s as unsophisticated, loud comedians in his earlier book, Big Kiss, well...he can big kiss me where the sun don't shine.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Reading

"...and on this day, ten years after the humble birth of our Savior, the Three Kings returned to Him in Bethlehem bearing gifts.  One king said unto Him, "We come to you again, O Prince of Peace, with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh."  The Little Lord Jesus looked at the Three Kings, smiled sweetly and thought to Himself, "Dang.  I wanted a pony."

Merry Christmas.  The mass is ended.  Go in peace.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Spielberg Film Review You Didn't See

"Loved War Horse.  I plan to love him again and again and again." Catherine the Great, Moscow on the Movies

Screen Scene by Bobby Rivers

"I wish I knew how to quit you." --Mister Ed to War Horse in my screenplay, BrokeHorseback Mountain.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Go": Merry X-mas

The 1999 crime comedy, Go, is a guilty pleasure holiday DVD rental of mine.  Doug Liman, director of the hipster hit "Swingers," followed that film with this one.  Sarah Polley has a lead role as Ronna, whose youth and vitality are leaking out of her like milk in a damaged carton at the Los Angeles supermarket where she has a drab job as a clerk.  Two cute guys at the market want to score for Ecstasy (X-TC) for Christmas Eve.  This drug deal is told from three different perspectives that, like "Swingers," take you from L.A. to Vegas.  Of course, everything that could go wrong does go wrong.  So much so that this movie could've been called "It's A Blunder-Full Life." Blonde, slim Polley is not a movie star. But her deadpan, Dorothy Parker-"What fresh hell is this?"-attitude as the overworked, underpaid, unappreciated Ronna won me over right away.  You totally understand why she'd have that lapse of logic and get involved with an X-TC sale.  On Christmas Eve, of all nights.  That's life in the low-rent section of L.A.  One minute, you're handling canned goods and coupons.  The next, you're in your bra  so men you don't know can see that you're not wearing a wire for a drug bust.

Canadian Sarah Polley fascinates me.  She's a member of a very distinguished group of Women In Film. This group started with Dorothy Arzner and her 1930 Paramount film, "Sarah and Son."  Like Dorothy Arzner, Jane Campion ("The Piano"), Patty Jenkins ("Monster"), Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone") and Nora Ephron ("Julie & Julia"), Sarah Polley directed a woman to a Best Actress Award Award nomination.  Polley directed 1965 Oscar® winner Julie Christie to her fourth Oscar nomination.  Christie played a wife whose husband is dealing with her Alzheimer's diagnosis in "Away From Her."  Polley also adapted the 2006 screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro.  In Go, I feel that her performance as Ronna sets the tone for the rest of the picture.  The cast includes Timothy Olyphant as the shirtless, sexy drug-holding party boy who could be both menacing and innocent wearing a Santa hat.  Olyphant has skills at playing guys who stride along that dangerous edge yet also seem to have a touch of screwball comedy daft about them.  In this film, there is a screwball comedy couple, of sorts.  Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf as men in search of Ecstasy.  They're also two clueless closeted gay actors who have to perform community service.  There is an extremely awkward Christmas dinner involving those two that just breaks me up laughing every time.  The background music, Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from "The Nutcracker," is just too perfect.  The angel on that fake tree of a scene.  One of the big reasons why this is a guilty pleasure holiday favorite.

Katie Holmes stars in this 1999 movie.  At the time, she was the "It" girl -- getting the big attention and the star build-up.  There's also a bit player in Go.  She had only a few lines in one brief scene as a giggly friend.  Brief but memorable.  Today, Melissa McCarthy is the "It" girl, thanks to a breakout supporting comedy performance in the hit movie, Bridesmaids,  followed by an Emmy win for the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly among her 2011 credits.  If you want to see something more naughty than nice for your yuletide movie entertainment, consider renting this.  Also, if you're working on any sort of project about Women In Film, keep Sarah Polley in mind.  More people should know about her accomplishments.  Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"

His comedy dialogue dazzled the ears.  When he won the freedom to direct his own screenplays, you were dazzled at how he could combine and balance slapstick comedy, sophisticated comedy, social satire and sentimentality -- with a little sex.  Nominated for the Best Screenplay of 1944 Academy Award, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK was written and directed by Preston Sturges.  It's a classic I dig seeing every Christmas season.  It's fast. It's funny. It's a social satire and a story of redemption.  It takes elements of the Christmas legend and relocates them to Smalltown, USA.

Betty Hutton, at her best here, is Trudy Kockenlocker, the oldest and most rambunctious of the two daughters of Officer Kockenlocker, a crusty war vet and widower played by Sturges favorite, William Demarest.  Trudy is a sweet, selfish, All-American girl.  She wants to go out and have a good time and she will manipulate others so she can go out and have a good time.  One of those others is Norval, perfectly played by Eddie Bracken.  Norval is the lovable dork who's had unrequited love for Trudy since they were kids.  Norval wants to serve his country in WWII, but he flunked the physical when he tried to enlist.  Trudy tricks Norval into letting her borrow his car so she can go to a dance with some soldiers on leave.  She feels that to "kiss the boys goodbye" is her patriotic duty.

At the dance, she has some champagne before she hits the dance floor with a G.I. to "cut a rug" to some swing music.  She gets swung into the air and konks her noggin on a rather phallic-shaped ballroom ceiling decoration.  A bit of the bubbly followed by a bump on the head lead to amnesia.  After the soldiers have all gone off to fight in WWII, she discovers that she's pregnant.  She can't remember who the G.I. dad might be.  An unwed young mother may be celebrated in the Nativity Story but not in a Christian, All-American small town.  Back then, that was the ultimate shame.  The solution?  Norval as a modern-day Joseph to Trudy's Mary.

To me, that's the basic genius of this comedy.  Hitler, like a new Caesar, and his troops had to be stopped. Our G.I.'s were fighting a good fight to rid the world of his evil.  Trudy gets pregnant by a force of good we don't see.  When Christmastime comes, the Kockenlockers have been forced to leave town due to her scandalous situation.  It's the holidays, but Trudy has lost all hope of things working out.  Officer Kockenlocker, known for his firecracker temper, tenderly tells his pregnant daughter, "You got to have more confidence in the Almighty.  Or whatever it is that makes the wheels go 'round..."  He adds, "You might be waiting for the President of the United States.  You got to have more confidence."  Even though he's not the papa, Norval wants to take on the papa role to help the woman he loves.  By doing so, he has greatness thrust upon him due to a very historic birth that local politicians can use to the town's financial benefit.  Trudy learns to love Norval and to think of someone else besides herself.

I first discovered The Miracle of Morgan's Creek when I was a Catholic school kid growing up in Los Angeles.  It aired frequently on KTLA Channel 5.  Every time I saw it, I was more and more awed by how Preston Sturges could do a send-up of the Christmas Story yet also be so...well, so Christian in his basic message.  I bet if you asked writers of such sitcoms as Modern Family or Happy Endings to name their Top 5 Classic Comedies, at least one film by Sturges would be in each list.  Sturges also gave us the golden 1942 original screenplay Sullivan's Travels starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.  In that movie, McCrea plays a young, rich, successful Hollywood producer tired of making comedies and musical comedies.  Sullivan wants to film a bleak best-selling novel about the Depression called "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?"  Sturges influenced the Coen Brothers, who made a George Clooney movie of that very title, and Clint Eastwood.  The same year The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Sturges got another Oscar® nomination in that same category for Hail the Conquering Hero, a wartime comedy also starring Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.  If you see Bracken in those two comedies, you see the template for the character Tim Robbins played in The Hudsucker Proxy by the Coen Brothers.  On CNN, Clint Eastwood told Larry King that he watched Hail the Conquering Hero for inspiration when directing his WWII drama, Flags of Our Fathers.  Both films dealt with some of the same issues.

One more thing that always tickles the heck out of me in the classic Sturges-directed Paramount comedies from the 1940s -- the brisk pace and how he could give a bit player fabulous and memorable dialogue that not only crystallized the character but made it as memorable as the leads.  Trudy Kockenlocker's boss at the music store sounds like he's ready to star in a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof."  But his name is Mr. Rafferty.  He brings the poor Kockenlockers a bird to bake for holiday dinner.  I always wait to hear Mr. Rafferty say "I brrrought you a toi-key!" I love that line.  I love that character.  I love The Miracle of Morgan's Creek -- and hope you do too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Rivers Runs Through It

This week a Facebook friend asked if I could submit a family or personal story about a pivotal life moment. I responded, "Can it be serious?"  He answered, "You can be serious?"  I knew what he meant.  For those of us television performers, folks tend to tack on our on-camera persona to the way they think we are full time off-camera.  Yes, I can be serious.  We all can be serious.  2011 has been a serious year.

This was my first and, I pray, last year living below the poverty line.

I was seen every week for six years hosting a show on Food Network.  After a job lay-off (from my next national gig) coupled with long bleak period of unemployment due to this Grim Reaper of a Recession, I went from Food Network host to being another out-of-work American who qualified for food stamps.  I lost my longtime and once-affordable studio apartment in New York City.  I got evicted.  I was forced to shed sentimentality like it was a dead layer of skin.  I simply could not keep items and memorabilia I'd owned for years.  Clothing, records, books, cookware, dinnerware ... just about all of it went to Housing Works, a few blocks away from me in Chelsea.  Odd, but I used to do segments on Housing Works -- segments asking the public to keep it in mind when there was a need to donate used items to a good non-profit organization -- when I was on WNBC and WNYW.

My new social status really didn't hit me until I saw President Obama being interviewed on the news.  He was talking about America's "new poor" and when he mentioned the amount of income that's considered "poor," it was like rough hands reaching into my body and yanking the soul out of me.  At that time, I was still lucky enough to be getting unemployment benefits.  They've since expired.  Like millions of others, I'm sure, I said "It's not supposed to be like this for me!  I studied and worked my way out of South Central Los Angeles!  I worked hard.  I paid off my parents' bills.  I did the kind of work on TV that black folks were denied when I was a kid in the 1960s."  I bet a lot of us children of the Civil Rights Era who were motivated, almost programmed, to be over-achievers in school, are feeling the same way.  We felt we were doing the right thing and now look.  If I wrote a screenplay about the last time I went shopping for clothes, it would be called "Goodwill Hunting."  I was at the Goodwill Store in the Japantown section of San Francisco.  And let me tell you, I was not the only man with a university degree looking over the racks in the Used Shoes section.  I'm now living with relatives way out in the 'burbs of Northern California.  I miss New York like it's one of the greatest loves of my life.  Well, it is. With two pieces of carry-on luggage and a free one-way plane ticket, I sadly left New York for San Francisco where a college buddy had a small spare room in his apartment. That was in March.

What have I learned from all this?  Deeper empathy, stronger faith, and the realization that I'm not the only one going through this.  If you really talked to them, you'd probably be surprised at how many of your friends and neighbors who appear to be doing pretty well have had first-hand knowledge of unemployment, eviction, foreclosure or bankruptcy.  That discovery, when talking to friends, moved me so much that I pitched this idea to local TV news producers when I was in San Francisco:  From Food Network to food stamps.  I reveal to folks that, yes, I was a national talk show host & talent also seen on VH1, CBS Late Night, HBO, LifetimeTV. I had Premiere Radio exposure working with Whoopi Goldberg on her national morning show. But I couldn't get new work after her radio show was cancelled.  That was the beginning of hard times that dropped kicked me below the poverty line.  I'd meet other folks in a similar situation, hear their stories and find ways to help.  Ways to help them find work, find clothing & food, keep emotional health together in that financial crisis, etc.  This weekly segment would also give ideas to friends & family on how to help.  Here's an example -- back in New York, a buddy of mine gave me a Metro Card.  $20 worth of subway rides.  That was like gold to me.  I had transportation for my job searches.  A 50-something Latina I met in San Francisco told me that her best friend, a hair stylist at a local beauty shop, gave her free shampoos and haircuts so she wouldn't feel raggedy going into job interviews.  Little things like that can have a big impact on somebody down and out.

No execs in San Francisco picked up my pitch.  They all liked it but no one gave it a greenlight.  San Francisco is a lovely town but, frankly, I would've had better luck there if I was a bottle of Merlot.  It's not a TV town.  It's wine country.  I applied for all kinds of jobs for nine months in San Francisco with no luck.  I still think my TV segment idea has merit.  I'm so grateful that family in the Sacramento area came to my emotional rescue.  Having endured such a rough year, it's a blessing to be with loved ones at Christmastime.  So that's where I am now as I continue to keep the faith, find a new job and take the advice Fred Astaire sang in Swing Time:  "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again."

More later.  I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...