Friday, August 31, 2012

The Fischer Phenomenon

My father was a college professor — and when your father is a college professor, it's almost a given that he will teach you how to play chess.

Well, that's how it was in my case, anyway. Perhaps the risk of that decreases, depending on the subject your father teaches — and my father taught religion and philosophy.

It was in the stars for me, I suppose.

Most of my other friends had fathers who taught them the finer points of hitting and throwing baseballs, shooting basketballs and kicking footballs. Mine taught me to play chess.

That's nothing against my father. He was — still is — a wonderful father in many respects.

But chess wasn't cool when I learned to play. It became a little cooler because of Bobby Fischer.

I already knew how to play chess when Fischer won the world chess championship on this day in 1972. I don't remember how old I was when Dad taught me to play, but it seems to me that I must have known how to play for a year, maybe two, by the time that Fischer took the world chess championship from Russian Boris Spassky.

I always heard that cameras were on hand, but perhaps they provided closed–circuit coverage (the predecessor to pay–per–view) or filmed sequences for a movie.

I don't have any recollection of commercial TV providing coverage of any of the chess games, and my guess is that wouldn't have bothered me. I do recall seeing news accounts, with brief clips of Fischer and Spassky walking to the venue where the games were played, but, at the time, I probably couldn't have imagined anything less interesting than watching two people play a board game.

(I'm much older now, but I still can't see the appeal in something like watching people play poker. Poker isn't a board game, of course, but I was no more interested in watching people play cards.)

But the media of 1972 followed the championship, which was played in Reykjavík, Iceland, and Fischer's triumph over the supposedly unbeatable Spassky virtually made him the Tiger Woods of his day.

True, being a chess player did not make one an athlete like Woods. But Fischer's victory set off a wave of chess hysteria in the United States — not unlike the mini–explosion of interest in golf after Tiger won his first Masters.

Chess probably was more accessible to most people than golf. To play golf, one needs special clothes and a set of clubs, but all chess required was a chess set, no matter how small. My father gave me a small chess set with magnetized pieces that I carried with me everywhere, always prepared for a game.

Until Fischer came along, I guess I sort of thought I was the only one in my grade at school — except, of course, for anyone else whose father was a college professor (and there were a few of those) — who played chess.

But, astonishingly, when Fischer beat Spassky, many of my friends in school suddenly learned how to play the game, even the ones whose fathers were not professors, and some began carrying around small sets like mine.

They may have already known how to play long before Fischer's showdown with Spassky, but, like me, they remained in the closet until Fischer made chess cool.

For much of the next year, we played chess during our lunch breaks and whenever the weather was too nasty for us to play in the schoolyard at recess.

One of the best–selling books of that time was a kind of a chess workbook called "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess."

Looking back on it, it was a kind of elementary book designed to teach beginners how to play chess and provide some rudimentary instruction in strategy. Fischer apparently allowed his name to be on the book, but, from what I have heard, he had very little to do with its authorship.

That wasn't known at the time, of course. I had a copy of that book, as did most of my friends, and I was proud of it. That book was one of my most prized possessions — until I learned a ghost writer had written most of it.

I really felt let down by that. I believed Fischer was sharing strategic secrets that helped him win the chess championship. Imagine!

Even so, his victory over Spassky really was a sincere — and unique — moment of great national pride.

I wouldn't necessarily rule out the influence of the Cold War — and the sometimes friendly but mostly deadly serious rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union — nor would I overlook the Russians' basketball victory over the Americans in the 1972 Summer Olympics, even though that actually happened after Fischer wrapped up the chess title.

The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was constant in those days, and nationalism always played a role in it.

It was really unavoidable. But, somehow, it seemed there was more to it.

As Stephen Carter writes for Bloomberg, "the story of Fischer and Spassky ... captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Goodbye, William Windom

" 'To hell with the handkerchief,' said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last."

James Thurber
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Yesterday, when the world was mourning the death of Phyllis Diller, word got out that William Windom had died a few days before.

And that reminded me — as glimpses of Windom in other TV shows and movies always did — of a TV series that only lasted a single season, if that.

My World and Welcome To It.

My mother was a big fan of the show and never missed an episode, which seems ironic to me, considering that my mother resisted my family's purchase of our first TV as long as she could.

But, when I was in elementary school, we got our first one, a black–and–white portable. And not long after that, NBC premiered a sitcom based on the works of James Thurber — My World and Welcome To It.

Mom was an admirer of Thurber's work, as many people were. And Windom didn't actually play Thurber — just a character who was based on him.

Closely based on Thurber.

The show took its title from a collection of Thurber's short stories, and I often thought of the series' plot lines years later when I read Thurber's short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (which, I later discovered, was originally published in The New Yorker and later included in the collection of short stories published under the title, "My World — and Welcome To It").

Windom played a definitely Mitty–like character, frequently descending into daydreams and fantasies. The show used what I assumed were many of Thurber's original cartoons in what was a rare blend of animation and live action on commercial TV in the 1960s.

I was just a kid at the time, and that blend really appealed to me. I had seen Mom watching the show, and I began watching it with her. It wasn't long before I got hooked.

Unfortunately, as I say, the viewers of that time never really warmed up to the premise, and that was too bad.

The Emmy Awards recognized the show, naming it the Outstanding Comedy Series in 1970. Windom was honored with an Emmy Award for his work as the lead actor in a comedy series.

The series was canceled after one season, but Windom continued his portrayal of Thurber in a one–man show.

He went on to do other things, of course. Today, I suppose most people remember the decade he spent on Murder, She Wrote, or, perhaps, his appearance in the movie version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" half a century ago.

But I always think of My World and Welcome To It.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

When Elvis Died

Most of the time, it is my policy to write in my blogs about anniversaries that end in a five or a zero.

Nevertheless, I always write about the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Every year.

I'm not sure why that is so — except for the obvious reason, that Elvis truly is one of the undisputed superstars of rock 'n' roll. Even now, more than three decades after his death.

And that is clearly the case this week as his fans are gathering in Memphis to commemorate this milestone 35th anniversary of his death.

The Washington Post reports that Presley's ex, Priscilla, and their daughter, Lisa Marie, unexpectedly joined fans at the Graceland mansion for a candlelight vigil on the eve of the anniversary.

Elvis' heyday was really before my time, but his presence was constant when I was growing up, overshadowing everything else even if Elvis wasn't pushing a new record at the time. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — along with others — took over the weekly top spot in record sales, but Elvis was always there, always the standard against which others were judged.

No one — except perhaps those closest to him who knew of his dependence on drugs — could have expected him to die at the age of 42.

When he died on this day in 1977, the outpouring of grief I witnessed was unlike anything I had ever seen and was really matched by only a few celebrities since — John Lennon, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson.

(It could truthfully be said, though, that John Lennon, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson died due to the actions of others — whereas Elvis brought about his own death. It almost certainly wasn't intentional, but it is an important distinction between Elvis and those other three.)

In many ways, the grieving never stopped. Maybe it was a sense of unfulfilled potential — even though Elvis had a couple of decades to make his mark whereas people like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had only a handful of years.

There are probably people out there who make their livings impersonating Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin — but there are many, many more who impersonate Elvis and make pretty good livings at it, too.

I have often wondered, in fact, if many of those "Elvis sightings" — you know, reports of seeing Elvis in convenience stores and walking along roads — were not hallucinations but rather sightings of Elvis impersonators.

The real thing, of course, is always with us in recordings and movies — and you can see the King in some of his better movies today on Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Danger of Being Single, White, Female

Twenty years ago today, Bridget Fonda already had appeared in several movies — even if you didn't count her nonspeaking bit roles in "Easy Rider" and another movie.

I had heard of her — I had even seen some of her movies — but, honestly, I didn't recall seeing her in anything before this day in 1992. I guess I just didn't notice her in those earlier films, but the summer of 1992 was a busy time for me. I had just moved to Norman, Okla., and I was getting settled in to my apartment.

I really wasn't noticing much of anything.

I didn't really have time to go to movies in August 1992, and I just never saw "Single White Female," which premiered 20 years ago today, until awhile later, when it began showing up on cable TV.

And I learned that, far from being an excuse to parade Fonda and Leigh in front of cameras sans clothes, it was a good movie. Hitchcockian in its way.

I had certainly heard of Jennifer Jason Leigh. She had been in quite a few movies in the last decade, and she had earned a reputation for meticulously researching every role she played.

And she had also earned something of a reputation among young males for appearing nude in several movies. Those who went to "Single White Female" hoping to see Leigh in the altogether were not disappointed.

Nor were those who came hoping to catch a glimpse of Fonda. Her scenes tended to be shot more strategically and less revealingly, but nudity seekers saw plenty of both.

The story must have struck fear in the hearts of just about anyone who ever posted an advertisement anywhere — newspaper classifieds, online, grocery store bulletin board — seeking a roommate.

And when I saw it, my thoughts were immediately drawn to my female journalism students — none of whom were as beautiful as Fonda but any one of whom I could easily imagine being in a similar situation.

Leigh was a textbook nut case in "Single White Female," emulating the sophisticated and successful Fonda to the point of looking so much like her that her character was able to bed Fonda's philandering boyfriend (played by Steven Weber).

The audience learned early that Weber's character had a rather indiscriminate sexual appetite. Only hours before climbing into bed with Fonda, he had jumped into another bed with his ex–wife, something both the audience and Fonda learned by overhearing Weber's phone conversation with his ex.

So perhaps sleeping with Weber's character wasn't such a special accomplishment after all. Or maybe it was. Leigh's character had dyed her hair and cut it to the length Fonda wore it, and she had worn clothes that either belonged to Fonda's character or closely resembled clothes she would have worn. And she passed herself off as Fonda.

Weber only realized it was not Fonda after the fact.

In other films, she came across as beautiful and sexy, but, as Brian Dillard observed for AllMovie, "With her malleable looks and easily projected neediness ... Leigh is downright creepy."

One could almost imagine Leigh's character at the heart of an identity theft scam if such a film might be made today. And Fonda's character, with only a few modest adjustments, could be its victim.

The biggest obstacles to overcome, I suppose, would be technological. The plot would have to be revised significantly to accommodate a world in which cell phones and the internet were ordinary. In 1992, they were barely in use at all.

Certainly, my journalism students weren't using them at that time. Nor was I. In fact, one of my colleagues in the journalism faculty in those days devised a brand–new course to guide his students as they began their tentative journey into the "virtual world."

That virtual world was treated as some kind of exotic thing 20 years ago. It is very real now, thoroughly accessible to just about anyone and fraught with danger.

And it would alter the story considerably.

But it wouldn't change the central truth — that it can be hazardous to your health to be a single white female.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Enduring Myths of 'Bonnie and Clyde'

Faye Dunaway has played some villainous characters in her career.

But her portrayal of infamous outlaw Bonnie Parker — along with Warren Beatty's turn as her equally infamous outlaw boyfriend Clyde Barrow — was rated #32 of all the bad guys in the history of motion pictures by the American Film Institute.

AFI also rated "Bonnie and Clyde" — which premiered 45 years ago today — #42 on its list of the Top 100 movies of all time.

But, in reality, was Bonnie really that villainous?

Of the story, I guess it can be said that it was proof that truth really is stranger than fiction. You probably couldn't make up a story that was stranger than the real–life saga of Bonnie and Clyde.

And yet ...

That sure hasn't kept the media from embellishing that story and fueling its myths.

The adventures of the "Barrow Gang," as it was known, captivated the nation in the early 1930s — although the media of the time tended to exaggerate things. Based on the poems Bonnie wrote, the reality of life on the run was grittier than the popular narrative.

Bonnie was often said to have at least been present for, if not a participant in, dozens of robberies and shootings. But a member of the gang later said he didn't think she had ever fired a weapon at an officer.

The more mundane details of Bonnie and Clyde's story were left out, I suppose.

The modern media was a little more honest. Director Arthur Penn did create what came to be regarded as a landmark film, but he still relied heavily on the sometimes romantic, more often brutal stories and images that sold so many newspapers about 35 years earlier.

Ironically, movie audiences were very nearly deprived of the opportunity to see the film because Warner Bros. almost didn't make it. Beatty had to talk studio executives into financing it — and then it turned out to be Warner's second–highest grossing film.

I guess that was evidence of the ongoing fascination the public had with that story — not unlike its obsession with the sinking of the Titanic.

"Bonnie and Clyde" had something in common with film versions of "Romeo and Juliet," too. Like the lead characters in Shakespeare's play, Bonnie and Clyde were simply too young to be portrayed by most people their actual age. They were in their early 20s.

But Beatty and Dunaway didn't miss by much. Both were older, but Dunaway was 26 when the film premiered, and Beatty was 30.

Historically, it was Bonnie who gave the gang their popular appeal. Without her, I have heard it said, Clyde might well have been overlooked by the media of the day as just another punk with a gun. And I suspect that was true.

Movie trivia buffs who watch "Bonnie and Clyd" today will see Gene Wilder in his movie debut, Gene Hackman in his first Academy Award–nominated performance and Estelle Parsons in her only Oscar–winning role.

One more thing.

I have often heard it said that the scene in which Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed was the bloodiest scene ever filmed — and, in the late 1960s, I am quite sure that was so.

I never saw the movie on the big screen. I first saw it on TV about five or six years after its debut, and, in my comparison of what I remember seeing on that occasion to edited versions I have seen since that time, I believe the first version I saw was much more heavily edited.

It was a violent scene. I'll grant you that. But it really had to be — if it was going to be true to the facts. The posse that had been tracking the outlaw couple unloaded about 130 rounds.

There's no way to whitewash that, and I don't think Penn tried. I think his portrayal of that event was realistic — even if the censors of that time and years that followed had trouble with it.

'Fast Times' Launched Some Careers

There may be nothing that grows quite so tiresome quite as quickly when one gets older as a teen sex movie.

I guess it's always been part of the moviemaking landscape. I mean, "Blackboard Jungle," which premiered in 1955, wasn't a comedy, the way "Fast Times" was, but it was definitely a part of that teen angst genre. And James Dean's three–movie career was all about the teen experience.

"Blackboard Jungle" and Dean's career come to me just off the top of my head. I'm sure I could think of others if I sat down and reflected on only that for awhile.

And I'm equally certain that even moviemakers of the silent period made movies that focused on the young and their journey from childhood to adulthood. It's an enduring human theme.

But when one is older, such tales become less relevant — unless they can be applied to the experiences of one's children and/or grandchildren.

Thirty years ago, when "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" premiered, I was in that age range, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I wasn't an adolescent — I would probably have been described as being more on the opposite end of adolescence by that time — but I wasn't that far removed from it.

Today, I guess, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is kind of like a time capsule, a glimpse into life as it was in the early 1980s. I don't know what most young people do for after–school jobs these days — I mean, it's tough enough for their elders to find work in this environment — but the same things that appealed to teens then seem to appeal to teens today, just in updated forms.

In 1982, teenagers congregated at shopping malls, where they could buy clothes, eat, go to the movies, play pinball games (or video games like Pac Man). In 2012, I guess it's much the same.

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was set — mostly — in two places: The mall where the principal characters either worked or congregated, and the school most of them attended.

Of all the bad boys in all such films, Sean Penn's stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli was probably the baddest. He was the embodiment of teen rebellion at that time. The trouble was that he didn't really have any idea what he was rebelling against.

And he never really seemed to get the upper hand with his nemesis, history teacher Mr. Hand (memorably played by Ray Walston).

Penn wasn't exactly a newcomer, but he hadn't been featured enough to be pigeonholed in particular roles. He has accepted a variety of roles in the last 30 years, and he has earned the praise of the critics for his talent.

It probably didn't require much skill to play Jeff Spicoli, but it must be said that Penn got the most from what he was given. He played a very different (and, in my opinion, more demanding) bad–boy role in "Taps" the year before, but it really was "Fast Times" that launched his career.

At the heart of the story, I suppose, was Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wasn't exactly a newcomer, either, having already been in movies and TV programs for a few years.

(I suppose there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the movie that really launched Leigh's career made its debut three weeks after Leigh's father, Vic Morrow, was killed while filming a movie of his own.)

Penn and Leigh even appeared together in a TV movie (along with future "Fast Times" co–star Anthony Edwards) the year before "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" came out. And they both kind of shot to stardom when "Fast Times" made roughly six times what it cost to make.

I guess what really made "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" different from previous coming–of–age flicks was the fact that it examined both genders plotting to make a connection with the opposite sex. Leigh, for example, was seen conversing with the more worldly Phoebe Cates frequently about such things as the way to perform fellatio.

Cates also assured Leigh (who lost her virginity early in the movie) that intercourse would not be as painful in the future.

Speaking of that, an interesting angle of the story unfolded in scenes in which Leigh had sex. The camera focused on the kinds of things she would have seen from her vantage point — the ceiling tiles or light fixtures or the graffiti in the room.

I'm not sure if any movie before "Fast Times" ever did that. Previously, the emphasis was on what the male could see from his vantage point — usually the girl's breasts.

(If you could go back and talk to audiences in 1982, most probably would have predicted that Cates would be the biggest star to emerge from "Fast Times." And, to an extent, that was correct — for awhile. Cates certainly got a lot of exposure — in more ways than one — from "Fast Times." She made many more movies in the '80s, but her productivity dropped off dramatically after that.)

The approach to sex for young males was described pretty well by Robert Romanus when he told his inexperienced buddy (played by Brian Backer) of "the attitude" a man must bring to such encounters.

"The attitude dictates that you don't care whether she comes, lays, stays or prays," he said. "I mean, whatever happens, your toes are still tappin'."

Backer and Romanus appeared in other movies after "Fast Times," but their careers never really took off the way the others' did.

Other young actors made cameo appearances — Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage — and went on to enjoy greater success.

It was a successful vehicle for several aspiring stars, even if the portrayals were cartoonish at times. But in between the sometimes comic caricatures were some missed opportunities to explore social issues in some depth. Leigh's character, for example, confronted Romanus after learning she was pregnant, and she seemed to object to the idea of aborting the fetus — but she voiced her objection only to her partner's accusation that "you wanted it as much as I did."

For the younger folks in today's audience, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" offers a peek into musical tastes of the early '80s. I can't say that I remember the Go–Gos being more than one–hit wonders (largely, that hit was "We Got the Beat," which opened the movie), but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of the groups that defined that time, and performers like Led Zeppelin, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Stevie Nicks made names for themselves in the 1970s and continued to wield their influence in the 1980s.

Young viewers won't really get a feel for life in the '80s from watching this movie, but there is a particularly telling moment near the end that folks who remember that time may find amusing.

Working together in a pizza place in the Ridgemont Mall, Leigh told Cates she didn't want to have sex. "Anyone can have sex," she said.

When Cates asked her what she wanted, Leigh replied that she wanted romance.

"This is Ridgemont," Cates answered. "We can't even get cable TV here."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What We Lost When We Lost Henry Fonda

When I was growing up, I couldn't imagine a world that didn't have Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart in it.

They were always two of my favorite actors, still are even today. In fact, they were both in the first movie I can remember seeing at the movie theater in my hometown — "How the West Was Won" — which wasn't a new release when it came to my then–tiny hometown (but nothing ever was).

I guess every year has its share of deaths of irreplaceable people.

It is often said that a recently deceased person will be missed. And often, I suppose, that is true.

But I guess it was never more relevant than it was to the movie industry — and, by extension, the world — in late 1982.

In September, Grace Kelly died when she suffered a stroke while driving on the winding, hilly roads of Monaco and crashed her car. She died without regaining consciousness.

And about a month earlier, on Aug. 12, 1982 — 30 years ago today — Fonda died. His death had been anticipated — he'd been ill for awhile — but it was no less devastating.

Audiences had come to take him for granted, I guess. I know I did. He was a steady, reliable performer. You knew what you would be getting when you saw a Henry Fonda movie — well, most of the time you did. When he played against type in "Once Upon a Time in the West," it was more than some moviegoers could fathom.

When he died in 1982, he had been in Hollywood for nearly half a century, and he had just been honored by the Academy Awards with the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "On Golden Pond."

It was recognition that he had long deserved but had been denied to him. His career had been filled with exceptional performances, but only once before had he been nominated for Best Actor — in 1940, when he was nominated for "The Grapes of Wrath" (but lost to Stewart for "The Philadelphia Story").

His performances in movies like "The Lady Eve," "The Ox–Bow Incident," "Mister Roberts," "Fail–Safe" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" — and dozens of others — went unnoticed repeatedly at Oscar time.

Over the years, Oscar didn't treat Fonda so well. The American Film Institute included two of Fonda's movies on its list of the top 100 movies of all time, but the only time one of his movies was nominated for Best Picture — "12 Angry Men" in 1957 — it lost (to "The Bridge on the River Kwai").

At the time that he died, it occurred to me that the old adage about not knowing what you've got until you no longer have it may never have been more relevant than it was when applied to Fonda's life and career.

On countless occasions in my life, I have been guided by the memory of the words and actions of characters that Fonda played in his life.

In his personal life, as I understand it, Fonda was a flawed individual, perceived by many of those closest to him, especially his children, as aloof and distant. And perhaps he was.

But when he was in front of a camera, the words he was given to speak and the roles he was asked to play took on even greater meaning because Fonda brought so much strength of character to each.

I suppose that was also what made his performance in "Once Upon a Time in the West" so menacing. In the hands of another actor who didn't command the respect Fonda did, that role might have been almost laughable.

But Fonda, cast as a cold–blooded, indiscriminate killer, had a nearly immortal aura to him. He was kind of the Freddy Krueger of the spaghetti Western.

Fonda was truly a gifted actor. In most of his movies, his gift came across in an almost "aw, shucks" kind of way. On the night in 1982 when his daughter accepted his Best Actor Oscar for him because he was too ill to attend, she told the audience she was sure her father's reaction would be to praise those with whom he worked and, of his own recognition, to say, "Ain't I lucky?"

And that was how he looked at his accomplishments in his life, Jane Fonda said. He gave all the credit to those with whom he worked and paid little if any attention to his own skill.

We were the lucky ones — to have had him as long as we did.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

'Not Good But Great'

"American writers want to be not good but great; and so are neither."

Gore Vidal

Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (1970)

The death yesterday of writer Gore Vidal cannot reasonably be seen as unexpected.

He was, after all, 86 years old, and when one has reached that age, even if one has been in apparently good health, things can change quickly.

I can't honestly say that I know what the state of Vidal's health had been. His nephew said his death was caused by complications from pneumonia, which may or may not have been a long–term condition.

But one thing I can say is that his death — at any age and regardless of the circumstances — is an unexpected blow for anyone who appreciates good writing and independent thinking.

And writers who survive him are heaping praise upon him at the time of his death — even if they didn't always agree with what he said or wrote during his life.

Vidal was an "elegant, acerbic all–around man of letters," writes Charles McGrath in the New York Times.

He "was impossible to categorize," says Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times, "which was exactly the way he liked it."

He always seemed to be around in one form or another, whether it was in person (i.e., his regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) or through the mere mention of his name.

I recall once on one of my favorite TV shows, Frasier, Roz was trying to persuade Frasier to agree to be a celebrity host of a cruise in exchange for a trip to Alaska. Frasier was reluctant to, as he put it, "trade on one's good name," but he had second thoughts when Roz told him Gore Vidal had gone on two such cruises in the preceding year.

"Gore Vidal?" Frasier asked incredulously. "He hates everything!"

Maybe he didn't hate everything. But if he didn't, he did seem to make an effort to be even–handed with things and people that most of the rest of us do not like.

His career spanned parts of six decades, but it was early in Vidal's career when his novel "The City and the Pillar," made him a literary outcast because of its treatment of homosexuality.

One could say he made a career of being the devil's advocate.

He corresponded with convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and wrote an extensive defense of McVeigh for Vanity Fair. McVeigh initiated the correspondence after reading an article Vidal wrote about the erosion of the Bill of Rights in the raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

And he alienated many with his insistence that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were inside jobs.

But no matter what kind of reaction his words and writings received, he remained convinced of the rightness of his views.

"There is not one human problem," he said, "that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."

One of the things I admired about Vidal was his passion for history and politics. His book about Lincoln was and still is, in my opinion, one of the best historical novels ever written — and I minored in history in college. History has always been one of my passions, too.

Vidal knew, though, that his wasn't exactly a warm and fuzzy personality.

"I'm exactly as I appear," he said. "There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."

It's been my experience that many writers are like that. But few are as honest about it as Gore Vidal.

And that, I suppose, is what I will miss the most about Vidal — the honesty of his words.

Even if you didn't agree with him, you could not help but appreciate his candor.