Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bring Back the ABC Movie of the Week

I mentioned that ABC should bring back its Movie of the Week and a buddy added that airing some of those golden oldies during the summer would be totally cool.  I agree!  If ABC aired a classic Movie of the Week on Saturday nights opposite Smash, I'd watch in a heartbeat.  Some of those old made-for-TV movies were better than a couple of big new theatrical releases I paid to see last year in a cineplex.  I'm sure I'm not the only babyboomer who couldn't wait to talk about some of those TV movies the next day with his classmates.  Young guys and their dads teared up at the end of Brian's Song.  Based on a true story, James Caan and Billy Dee Williams co-starred as the NFL players who were competitive on the Chicago Bears playing field yet formed a tight friendship off the field.  And then Brian Piccolo, played by Caan, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

This was a tale of male bonding beautifully told and a big hit with viewers.  Actor Lou Gossett Jr. had the Gayle Sayers role but injured himself during rehearsal practices and had to withdraw.  This TV movie did good things for the film careers of Williams and Caan.  Billy Dee went on to do Lady Sings the Blues.  Caan did The Godfather.

Last week came Hollywood news that Lou Gossett Jr. and James Caan will team up for a boxing movie.  Long before ABC's gay male parents on the sitcom, Modern Family, there was That Certain Summer.  Hal Holbrook starred as the loving, divorced father who came out and was now living in San Francisco.  Martin Sheen played his partner.
The son lives in Southern California with his mother, played by Hope Lange.

He wants to visit his father for a few days.  Dad hasn't told his son about his new life.  This was a groundbreaking made-for-TV drama, tastefully done and very well-acted.
The only thing I questioned was...how the heck did two Anglo-looking characters played by Hal Holbrook and Hope Lange manage to have a kid who looked like the firstborn child of Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman?  Not that Scott Jacoby wasn't a good young actor in the role....but....well, look at them.  Look at him.  We've got That Certain Summer going on, next thing you know, we're casting for Meet the Fockers.

That's how my mind worked back then when I was a student.  One feature we talked about at school for days was Trilogy of Terror.  It was just too damn cool and spooky!
Karen Black as a woman alone in her apartment with a possessed voodoo doll creeped the bejeebus out of us.  Even today, it's one of Karen Black's most famous roles.

Another popular ABC movie was Duel.  Steven Spielberg, in his early 20s, directed this original TV thriller starring Dennis Weaver.  Spielberg had not yet started directing Hollywood feature films such as Sugarland Express and Jaws.  Weaver played a Southern California suburban man terrorized on the long, open road by a diesel truck.
We never see the face of the stalker trucker nor do we know why he's stalking.  This tense drama was released theatrically in Europe.  I think it's still one of Spielberg's best works.  By the way, he shot this highway death match in 13 days.

The ABC Movies introduced us to new talent.  Viewers loved Stockard Channing in the black comedy, The Girl Most Likely To... with its story and script by Joan Rivers.  (Earlier this month, I blogged about this one in my entry about Joan with actor Burt Lancaster.)  Stockard Channing was fabulous as the abused ugly duckling college girl who survives a car crash and gets a new life with a new face after plastic surgery due to disfigurements.  With that new life, her keen mind and a series of disguises, she kills each mean sorority girl and guy who made her lonely life even more miserable.

The Girl Most Likely To... still makes me laugh.  What a good revenge comedy.  The ABC Movie of the Week was a great vehicle for casting mature actors from the Hollywood Golden Era and pairing  them with new talents on the rise.  Darren McGavin was in David Lean's 1955 classic Summertime with Katharine Hepburn.  He was a hit in two Movies of the Week.  Jan-Michael Vincent was a new actor with the ultimate surfer look.

He played the long-haired rebel hippie who, surprisingly, has the right stuff be to a Marine in Tribes.  McGavin played his hippie-hating drill sergeant in this feature made during the Vietnam War years.  The drafted recruit's gentle spirit is hard to break.

McGavin also played an investigator named Kolchak, a guy on the beat of the occult in The Night Stalker.

That one was so enjoyable that it became a TV series -- a series that should've had a longer life.

Bing Crosby was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood and the pop music business.  He won the Best Actor of 1944 Oscar for playing a priest in Going My Way.  He topped that performance with his portrayal of a co-dependent alcoholic has-been actor/singer attempting a comeback in The Country Girl.  He went to the dark side in that performance and totally deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor of 1954.  His final performance was in an ABC Movie of the Week.  It was one of his strongest performances since The Country Girl.  He plays a New England M.D. with a very dark side in Dr. Cook's Garden.

This thriller paired the Hollywood legend with a new actress named Blythe Danner.

Jackie Cooper and Eleanor Parker were starring in movies before Sally Field was born.  She acted with them when she played a teen runaway who returns to the suburbs in Maybe I'll Come Home In The Spring...
...and two of them worked together again in the really fun Christmastime murder mystery, Home for the Holidays.

Bickering relatives at a family gathering are trying to not get killed before Santa Claus arrives.  The future 2-time Best Actress Academy Award winner was acting opposite Oscar-nominated Hollywood stars Eleanor Parker...

...and Julie Harris.

This yuletide murder mystery TV script was written by Joseph Stefano, the man who wrote the iconic screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho.  Here's some more trivia about that:  Did you ever see Cabaret?  This stars two women who played Sally Bowles.  Jill Haworth (seen in the black hat) played Sally Bowles in the original Broadway cast of Cabaret in the 1960s.  Julie Harris played Sally in the 1955 movie I Am a Camera, based on the Christopher Isherwood stories.

One sci-fi horror thriller that was so cheesy it became a guilty pleasure to watch starred Patty Duke...

...and former MGM musical comedy star, June Allyson.

One of them may have the power to turn into a giant bug at night in The Curse of the Black Widow.

Sid Caesar co-stars.  Anthony Franciosa is the hero who solves the mystery of macho studs being punctured and killed.  You need Margaritas and snacks to sit through this one.  And a couple of friends to laugh with you at Patty's Eastern European accent.  There were lots of ABC Movies of the Week.  They introduced us to new faces like Nick Nolte's and presented fabulous familiar faces like Fred Astaire's.  A number of TV series got their starts as a MOTW (Movie of the Week).

Each MOTW ran under 90 minutes.  We got some pretty good entertainment in the 1970s in a short amount of TV movie time.  They weren't all classics but many were highly entertaining.  The Night Stalker inspired the creator of TV's The X-Files.  I'd get big retro kicks seeing some of them repeated in prime time again.  And today's film students could learn an Old School thing or two from a solid feature like Spielberg's Duel.  Only 75 minutes long -- and it's way better than last year's big sci-fi production, Prometheus.

Did you have any favorites in the MOTW line-up?

Monday, April 29, 2013

My Date with a Gay NFL Star

I knew that headline would get your attention.  I did have a dinner date with a gay NFL star after I interviewed him on live television.  I'll tell you about that.  I thought about him when today's sports news broke.

Back in 1999, before she'd embraced my diversity, my mother and I had a tiff about my sexual orientation.  With a sort of Catholic parental stubborness, she said "Why did you decide to become gay?"  I replied, "Oh, I don't know.  I guess I wasn't having enough drama just being black in America."

Things are so much better now between Mom and me.  There's been a great change in our relationship. Today, there was a great change in sports.  NBA center Jason Collins reportedly is the first active player to come out of the closet.  He's in two groups that have met with high discrimination in America.  He's black and he's gay.  Sometimes it was even hard for black gay men to be noticed by gay white men.  Did Will & Grace have a regular gay black friend and neighbor in New York City?  Was there a black member of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy team when it was a network hit?  Just two examples.  This Jason Collins story is one brave step forward.  His story will make for a historic Sports Illustrated magazine cover.  He's a free agent.  Will he get signed again?  Let's see.  The sports culture has changed a lot in just the last five years.
This will start a whole new conversation.  One that's long overdue.  This will also have an impact on how sports news is covered and who covers it.  Thank you for your honesty, bravery and compassion, Mr. Collins.  I bet that, by the time I post this blog, you'll have already received offers to write a book.  Nike recently signed WNBA star Brittney Griner.

That was a major corporate move proving how the sports culture has changed in the last five years.  And that brings me to my dinner date with former NFL star, David Kopay.  The former running back asked me to take him to dinner one night in Milwaukee.

Of course, I said "Sure!"  This was in 1984.  I'd never had a date with anyone who'd been coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi.  I was co-host of a live hour-long afternoon show on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate, WISN TV.  Kopay had come out of the closet in his autobiography.  This was long before the changes in sports culture that we've seen this year -- like the two items mentioned above.  Kopay played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers.  He came out when his NFL career was over.  He was the first NFL player to do so when his book was published.

For May ratings, our WISN TV Vice President of Programming wanted our show to have a week of "controversial" or "sexy" guests.  In Milwaukee.  Because we were an ABC affiliate and ABC had a colossal hit with Dynasty, he told our show's little ragtag, fabulous staff to see it we could get the L.A. network publicity office to fly in any Dynasty cast member to be on our show in person.  Our show, called More, had a studio audience.  Every dealing we had with the L.A. network publicity department was a joy.  Its team tried to help us but, understandably, all Dynasty stars and supporting cast members were booked for May sweeps.  Our V.P. had also told us we could offer the guest a $2000 honorarium for the Milwaukee appearance.  I was the show's associate producer, so I'd been making calls with our excellent executive producer.

The Advocate magazine had carried a fine profile of Dave Kopay, saluting the bravery and importance of his book.  I contacted The Advocate to see if they could put me in touch with Mr. Kopay.  They did.  He had a successful business in L.A.  I told him I'm also "a member of the club" and bought his book.  I bought it, read it and felt his story and the stellar NFL career he had would change stereotypes.  He was a positive role model.  I asked him if he would consider flying in to be a guest on our show.  I wanted to pitch his appearance to my executive producer.  He said, "Yes."  I told my boss.  She loved the idea.  We took the idea to our V.P.  He wasn't too enthusiastic.  I was very passionate about this booking and my executive producer backed me up.  The V.P. gave in and told us we could have Kopay on the show.  But there was no money in the budget.  Somehow the $2000 available for Linda Evans, John James or Heather Locklear the previous afternoon had suddenly disappeared for Dave Kopay's plane ticket.

I made a flight reservation for Dave Kopay and called him.  This man could not have been kinder.  When I said, "I don't have enough to fly you out first class but I got you in business," he stopped me.  "Isn't your station picking this up?"  I told him what happened and how $2000 we had was suddenly not there for him.  I was paying for his ticket out of my own pocket because I believed in this appearance.

Dave Kopay told me to re-book him in economy.  He'd upgrade himself to first and pay the difference.  "Just take me to dinner afterwards at Karl Ratzsch's."  That would be his payment.  He loved that German-American restaurant.  It was a deal.  He wanted to help me prove a point to my narrow-minded Programming V.P.
He was a great guest.  And we had a good studio audience that asked intelligent questions.  Kopay is passionate about football.  He hoped to follow a football career by having opportunities to coach professional or college teams.  He was also very interested in being a sports commentator on network television.  Those opportunities did not come his way -- and we can safely assume he was denied those opportunities simply because of his sexual orientation.  Nor was he signed by a company like Nike.  With his great looks, he did not get to pose for sportswear ads.  His story would be so different today.

One of the best things about the Dave Kopay appearance on More occurred when the show was over.  There was a long line of guys who wanted to shake his hand, get his autograph and talk football.  They didn't care whether he was gay or not.  They just wanted to talk about the game -- and about Coach Lombardi.  THAT was the point I wanted to make.  It doesn't really matter which team you play for...it's all about the game and how you play it.  I was -- and still am -- proud of that show and proud of that day.  And I'm proud of those Milwaukee audience members and TV crew people who treated him with such respect and regard.

Early this morning I read the news about the New York Jets.  Tim Tebow was out.  Dave Kopay could talk about that dismissal on a network sports show.  Within the hour, I read the news that NBA player Jason Collins was really out.  How I'd dig hearing Dave Kopay talk about that on a network sports show too.  Let's remember this:  Way back when, Mr. Kopay bravely helped kick open the door to acceptance after he retired from the NFL.  I continue to be ever so grateful to him for his kindness.

And that guy can eat!

"To know is to understand.  To understand is to have knowledge.  To have knowledge is to tolerate, and to tolerate is to have peace." ~David Kopay

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jean Arthur vs James Dean

Allow me a film geek moment. If you saw Giant yesterday, either on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival or on TCM, this is for you.  Giant, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1956, brought George Stevens the Oscar for that year's Best Director.  Rock Hudson and the late James Dean were in the Oscar race for Best Actor. Elizabeth Taylor should have been in the race for Best Actress.  I have a great love for that film.  It's such a potent look at social class, social mobility and the barriers of race in America coupled with a wonderful love story.  Taylor is terrific as the wealthy wife in Texas who's a feminist and civil rights advocate way ahead of her time.  I've got a few words of praise for another actress who did some of finest work under the direction of George Stevens -- top screen comedienne Jean Arthur.  He directed Arthur to her one and only Oscar nomination.  Hard to believe she only got one.  Jean Arthur was peerless.  I still believe that a silent film she appeared in inspired ABC's The Bachelor.  My parents loved Jean Arthur and I picked up the love from them when her old movies played on local TV during my childhood. James Dean was hailed for a bit of movie acting busienss he did in the 1950s.  I think Jean beat him by a couple of decades doing similar business.
When it came to screwball comedy and comedy with social issues, there was just no one like her.  Look at her as the street smart and crafty ace newspaper reporter whose conscience begins to bother her in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.

Look at her as the smart, cynical Washington insider who does the right thing by helping an idealistic young senator fight corruption in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

In those two classics, Jean Arthur is exactly what Jennifer Jason Leigh as an ace newspaper reporter should have been in The Hudsucker Proxy instead of doing that imitation of Katharine Hepburn from Woman of the Year.

Ever since I was a teen and started seriously reading Hollywood history, I've read about how brilliant James Dean was when he did a spontaneous rope trick in one scene in Giant.  People raved about that inspired piece of Method acting.  Unfortunately, he didn't hear the raves because he was killed in a car collision before the movie opened.  When actor/director Rob Reiner hosted "The Essentials" on TCM back in 2001, he also brought up the brilliance of the rope trick before he presented Giant.
If you recall that James Dean scene in Giant, rent a DVD of Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936).  Watch Jean Arthur as Babe the reporter negotiate a big new assignment with her boss.  The dialogue goes back and forth like a verbal tennis match in that New York City newspaper office.  Jean Arthur tosses off her dialogue while doing...a rope trick.
Not only a rope trick.  In another section of dialogue, Babe is doing a coin trick.  While doing the coin trick, she drops it and doesn't miss a beat with the dialogue.  She looks in the chair for the 50 cent piece and keeps the scene going.  She's so in-the-moment during that scene.  The rope bit and the coin trick are perfect for the character of the manipulative but lovable reporter, Babe Bennett.  Yes, James Dean was fabulous.  But, for my money, Jean Arthur went there first.

Giant director George Stevens directed Jean Arthur in 1943's The More the Merrier.  Arthur starred in that bright World War 2 romantic comedy opposite Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn. She got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this comedy hit.

She was in her early 40s.  For an actress, that achievement is impressive even by today's standards.  In her early 50s, she starred as the peaceful frontier wife and mother who argues about gun ownership in another George Stevens classic, Shane.  Alan Ladd starred as the weary gunslinger.  Paramount wanted her to do more pictures but she made Shane the end of her film career.  She'd been making movies since the silent era.

She played a receptionist in the 1925 Buster Keaton silent film comedy,  Seven Chances.

Buster was a guy being chased by all kinds of women who want to marry him for money.

It was remade as 1999's The Bachelor with Chris O'Donnell in the Buster Keaton role.

After its theatrical run, the movie aired in prime time on ABC.  Soon, the network launched a reality show about several young, single women competing for a proposal from a guy called...The Bachelor.

Shane was Jean Arthur's last feature film.  She continued to get script offers but she turned them down.  Reportedly, Ida Lupino took the 1972 role in Junior Bonner starring Steve McQueen after Jean passed on it. However, she did try her hand at the small screen.  Did you know she had a sitcom?  The Jean Arthur Show only lasted for one season on CBS in 1966.  I remember my parents making a point to watch it so they could see what she looked like.  They both smiled and said, "She's still got that voice."  The sitcom centered on a mother and son lawyer team.  Arthur also did Jell-O commercials.

People have long held a certain affection for this shy star.  After she retired from films, she taught drama for a few years at Vassar when Meryl Streep was a student.  She's referenced warmly in the novels The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge.  Her screen persona was a muse to James L. Brooks when he wrote screenplays with characters that got Best Actress Oscar nominations for two talented women -- Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets.  Jean Arthur helped me realize that classic films could be entertaining and also continue to be relevant.  I was home from college one summer in the early 1970s and I was lucky enough to see her do a guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show.  Merv showed a strong clip from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and she pointed out how relevant Capra's film still was at the time, the time of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon Administration.  She was right.  President Nixon resigned one year after that broadcast.

A few nights ago, I watched Jean Arthur in the 1930s screwball comedy Easy Living.  Oh, man, was she good!  She's a poor office girl in Manhattan riding to work on the top of a double-decker bus.  A Wall Street millionaire arguing with his shop-aholic wife throws her new sable coat off the roof of their penthouse.  The coat lands on the poor office girl's head.  A modern day fairytale with mix-ups ensues.

Check out Jean's rope trick in  Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and let me know if it deserves the same attention that the James Dean rope bit in Giant for gotten for decades.  

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...