Friday, January 30, 2015

Blazing the Trail for Sitcoms' Social Consciousness

Fifty years ago tonight, Gilligan's Island hosted an unusual guest.

Now, mind you, the island was always being visited, as I mentioned in this space before, by someone. But the guests were usually human. On this night 50 years ago, the guest definitely was not human.

The U.S. Air Force decided to test a new missile on an island that, as far as the Air Force was concerned, was completely uninhabited. The Air Force had announced that the missile could kill every living thing within a 100–mile radius so an uninhabited island was deliberately chosen. You guessed it. The uninhabited island was Gilligan's island, which was definitely inhabited — by the castaways.

What I am about to say never occurred to me when I was a child watching reruns of Gilligan's Island — but it did occur to me years later. The episode that aired 50 years ago tonight, "X Marks the Spot," was an early example of TV mirroring the anxiety of Americans about and assuming its role in an ongoing political discussion of the issues of the day. On this night, it was Americans' growing concerns about nuclear missiles and radiation. At the time, the United States was trying to develop smaller but higher–yield warheads to arm its missiles.

Until this night 50 years ago, TV regarded its primary function to be entertainment. Serious topics were primarily covered in newscasts and the occasional documentary. Otherwise, TV was about escapism.

The country was only a couple of years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War was really warming up. In the episode, the castaways first learned of the missile and assumed they would die when it detonated on their island. Consequently, they began acting extraordinarily nice to each other, but then the Professor (Russell Johnson) remembered that, before conducting such a test, the military sent out a plane to scout the area and be absolutely certain no people were on the intended target. The castaways then began to put together a huge mirror to use to reflect the rays of the sun to attract the pilots' attention, but Gilligan (Bob Denver) managed to break the mirror.

Thus, with no boat to carry them to safety, the castaways had no choice but to wait for the missile to come.

However, it turned out that there were technical difficulties with the missile so an unarmed missile was sent instead to test the guidance system. The castaways didn't know that so, when it failed to detonate, the Professor (Russell Johnson) grew concerned that the experimental warhead might still go off; as a result, he dispatched Gilligan (Bob Denver) to climb inside the missile and try to disarm it.

That was just one of several slapstick moments. Trusting something as sensitive as disconnecting the right wires to Gilligan was inviting disaster — but Gilligan was the only one who could fit in the missile so they had no choice. Of course, he did it wrong and caused a short circuit, which in turn ignited the missile's engines and sent it careening around the island.

There are always purists, and I have heard people complain about technical aspects of the story that were blatantly mistaken.

A ballistic missile would never land intact the way it did on Gilligan's Island, I was once told. Only the nose cone — the unmanned capsule at the tip (which carries the warhead) — would land. The other stages would fall away as they served their purposes.

OK, I concede the technical points. But adhering to the technical aspects would have robbed the story of its gags. Gilligan's Island was, after all, a sitcom, and it deserved credit for being topical — if not entirely accurate — at a time when few sitcoms were tackling current events topics. It would be several more years before sitcoms became so topical.

The castaways of Gilligan's Island were pioneers 50 years ago tonight.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On the Other Hand ...

"Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be. The gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You have performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you've already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom or the pen. As to these works, they're for you because you and the piano will always be as one."

Charles (David Ogden Stiers)

From time to time, MASH managed to enlighten its viewers. I always appreciated that, just as I appreciated the way that the West Wing did the same thing a couple of decades later.

MASH didn't do that all the time, though — which, I suppose, made those occasions when it did so much more special.

Thirty–five years ago tonight was one such occasion.

As usual, the story started with a bit of misdirection. Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was tired of the complaints he received from the surgeons about the quality of the recreational activities at the 4077th so he appointed Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and B.J. (Mike Farrell) morale officers — whereupon they discovered how challenging it can be to boost a unit's morale.

Eventually, they decided on a clambake with fresh seafood. Klinger was drafted to pick up the seafood and bring it back to camp.

Charles (David Ogden Stiers) had no problems with morale. He had just completed some rather tricky surgery on a young man who had suffered a serious wound to his leg and was pleased with the results. By taking grafts from the young man's right hand, he was able to save the leg with minimal loss of dexterity to the hand. He would be able to walk. That was the bottom line, the big picture.

Just one problem, though. The young man (James Stephens) had been a concert pianist in civilian life, and he had planned to resume his career when his military service was over. Walking was unimportant to him compared to having 10 nimble fingers to play the piano.

When music–loving Charles learned the truth, he was determined to motivate the young man to continue his career, and he gave him a composition by Maurice Ravel that had been commissioned by a man named Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated in World War I. Wittgenstein, too, was a pianist, and the pieces he commissioned were written for the left hand. Few composers would accept such a challenge, Charles told the young man — although, in fact, several of the most prominent composers of Wittgenstein's day did accept the challenge.

Charles didn't tell the young man (and the viewing audience) the whole story. Wittgenstein didn't perform every piece he received, but he retained exclusive lifetime performance rights to them; after he was dead or no longer performing publicly, he wanted the pieces to be available for others.

He died nearly eight years after the end of the Korean War so I have long wondered exactly how Charles was able to acquire the sheet music. Perhaps that is part of the Wittgenstein story with which I am not familiar. Perhaps the Ravel piece was available because Wittgenstein had performed it in public — or perhaps Ravel retained certain contractual rights on most — but not all — of the compositions he commissioned.

Personally, I find that hard to believe because Wittgenstein himself wrote to a colleague before the U.S. started sending troops to Korea, "You don't build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine. ... But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that's only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer."

That suggests to me that Wittgenstein saw to it that every piece he commissioned was exclusively his as long as he continued to perform. So the writers for MASH were mistaken. In reality, Charles could only tell the young man about the pieces. He wouldn't have been able to share the physical sheet music with him.

But that wouldn't have made the story as effective, would it?

I give the writers for MASH high marks for attempting to enlighten their audience on this night 35 years ago. They took what they probably considered poetic license in their treatment of Wittgenstein and his commissioned compositions. Ravel's name probably carried the most weight at the time, his "Bolero" having been used in the movie "10" a few months earlier.

Poetic license. That isn't how I see it. If the writers knowingly fictionalized their account, they crossed an ethical line. They should have clearly labeled the product they wished to sell.

Monday, January 26, 2015

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' Was a Memorable Swan Song

As I have written here before, my mother was a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel.

She didn't have copies of all their albums, but she had some — and she had 45 rpm singles of her favorite songs, whether she had the albums or not.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is of my mother putting Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo and playing it loud enough so she could hear it, no matter which room she was in. There weren't many activities that could prevent her from hearing the music — mostly it was the vacuum cleaner, I think, that obstructed her.

She didn't own the album that made its debut on this day in 1970, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but she did have a single of the title song, and she played that single until it was scratched and just plain worn out.

It was probably the most popular song on the album. It was Simon and Garfunkel's biggest seller, and it is probably regarded as their signature song. When my parents, my brother and I saw them during their reunion tour a couple of years after their concert in Central Park, my memory is that "Bridge Over Troubled Water" received the loudest round of applause — and we saw them in the Cotton Bowl, probably the largest venue in Dallas at the time.

It is probably the song that most of their fans would like to hear, but, when I saw them in concert, I really wanted to hear them sing another song from the album, "The Boxer."

I did hear that one during the concert, and I also heard another song from the album that I really wanted to hear, "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)."

All three were released as singles and did pretty well. That was hardly surprising, really. Simon and Garfunkel singles always sold well. The tunes were always catchy, and the lyrics were always perfect.

There were other good songs on the album that didn't get as much attention. I would include "Keep the Customer Satisfied," a song for which I have more appreciation now than I did when I was younger.

I can't prove it, not even to myself, but I suspect that my admiration for good writing stems in part from my earlier experiences with Simon and Garfunkel's lyrics.

They influenced others, too. I have heard that Paul McCartney was motivated to write "Let It Be" out of a desire to match Simon and Garfunkel.

You could certainly do worse than have people say that you inspired one of the Beatles' biggest hits.

Unfortunately, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (the album) was the last studio album ever released by Simon and Garfunkel. They split up shortly thereafter and never made another studio album together.

They did record together before the concert in Central Park. In 1972, they recorded the single "America," and, in the mid–'70s, they made a recording of a Paul Simon composition, "My Little Town," which appeared on solo albums for each performer.

Revelations While Taking Out the Trash

Fifteen years ago tonight, The West Wing took an interesting approach to the subject of hate crimes — which, as I recall, was only emerging as a social issue at the time. Another instance of The West Wing being ahead of the curve.

It also examined the practice of dumping a bunch of unappealing stories (from the White House's point of view) on the press on Friday afternoon. The timing is purely political. As Josh (Bradley Whitford) observed, "No one reads the paper on Saturday." One such story, apparently, was to be the signing of a hate crimes bill that had been inspired by the murder of a gay teen whose parents would be in attendance. C.J. the press secretary (Allison Janney) was warned that the parents might be a problem — the father, really. The mother seemed to be on board with the law, but the father was said to be uncommunicative. C.J. concluded that he was grieving for his son — until it was suggested to her that he might be embarrassed by the knowledge that his son was a homosexual.

If I hadn't been a teacher — and had to answer similar questions — I would have found it hard to believe that C.J. had the following exchange with White House reporter Danny (Timothy Busfield). But I had a conversation with one of my college students several years ago who was genuinely surprised to learn that many religious leaders — of all faiths — had so little tolerance for those who did not share their views.

C.J.: "Is it possible that a father could be embarrassed about his son being gay even after his son was murdered?"

Danny: "Yes."

C.J.: "Possible to the extent that he would be disinclined to support a law that would impose stiffer penalties on the perpetrators of hate crimes, including the ones who tied his 17–year–old son to a tree and threw rocks at his head?"

Danny: "Yes."

C.J.: "It eludes me."

Danny: "I know."

So C.J. met with the parents and tried to confront the issue — and she and the viewing audience were stunned to learn that they had misunderstood the father's response. He was angry that the government and, in particular, the president hadn't done enough for gay rights.

The West Wing was good at that — throwing you a high hanging curve like that when you were looking for a fastball.

There was also an amusing side story about a report on sex education and sexual behavior among young people and a proposed program that encouraged abstinence among young people. A more liberal slant was given the program by renaming it "Abstinence Plus," which apparently encouraged everything except activity that could lead to the conception of a baby. Sam (Rob Lowe) was said to have nicknamed it "Everything But."

There were always several stories going on in an episode of The West Wing, especially in that first season when it was building a devoted audience base; eventually, though, they were all shown to be relevant to each other.

An ongoing topic in the series in that first year was the revelation that the president's chief of staff (John Spencer) was a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser. The information had been leaked to leaders of the Republican Congress.

Turned out that a young intern had been the source of the leaked information, and Sam had her fired.

But Leo (Spencer) asked for her to be brought to his office before she left. He wanted to talk to her, to get to know her, to find out why she had leaked the information. When they were done, Leo gave her back her job — another interesting twist that probably wouldn't happen in a modern White House. I'm not so sure it would have happened then, either, but it is nice to think that there was a time in our history when people of principle still held positions of power in America.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

'M*A*S*H' Laid Foundation for TV Series

"This isn't a hospital, it's an insane asylum!"

Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman)

Forty–five years ago, it was fashionable to ridicule the armed services. Mostly in the movies. TV still had a certain reverence for the establishment in those days, but it was mostly in movies.

To be fair, the military was an easy target. The mismanaged Vietnam War had already forced a president to voluntarily withdraw from a campaign for re–election four years after winning the presidency by an historic margin. Things were going so badly for the United States in Southeast Asia that Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, "Uncle Walter" to millions, made a rare editorial comment during one of his newscasts that the war effort was a lost cause. I knew many people who were skeptical of their government and the media, but they trusted Cronkite. I couldn't tell you how many times I heard, when I was a child, someone say, "If Cronkite says it, you can take it to the bank."

At times, it was true that the military leadership resembled the Keystone Kops.

But I guess the military has frequently been an easy target. Forty–five years ago today, the movie "M*A*S*H," which was adapted from a best–selling novel by Richard Hooker, directed by Robert Altman and later inspired a long–running TV series, made its debut. Its target was the Korean War.

If all you know of "M*A*S*H" is the episodes of the TV series that you've seen, you may want to adjust your thinking a bit before watching the movie. You'll recognize the characters — Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar — but the actors who played them (except for Radar) were nowhere to be seen on the TV screen.

In that sense, I suppose, it will be like a new experience. And, in truth, I guess it is a new experience. A different one, anyway. The TV series was great in part because it didn't try to do the work of a movie in 30 minutes. And the movie was great in part because it didn't try to be like a TV episode.

That seems so simple, but if you try to pack too much into a half–hour sitcom or too little into a 90–minute movie, you're setting yourself up for failure.

Even so, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "M*A*S*H" the movie worked because "it's so desperate. ... The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don't care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane."

I never really thought of it that way, but I guess there is a lot of truth in that. There was more of a sense of desperation in the movie than there was in the TV series. The surgeons still had a flippant attitude, Hot Lips and Frank still embodied the military establishment, but both seemed more extreme in the movie than the TV series. Perhaps that was because the movie, having received an R rating, was shown to an audience that was assumed to be mature enough to handle the material. On TV, anyone of any age could be watching.

So things were toned down on TV. I suppose that was kind of problematic for the Frank–and–Hot–Lips affair.

As far as Hot Lips and Frank were concerned, their movie characters were similar to yet different from their TV characters. They were gung–ho in the TV series, but that really was mild compared to the movie. And their sexual relationship really had to be muted for the small screen — implied far more than it was actually shown.

They really were fighting a different war in the movie. And their holier–than–thou attitudes came through loud and clear.

"I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps," Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) remarked at one point about Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland).

"He was drafted," replied Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois).

For his part, Frank's religious zealotry was only hinted at in the TV series compared to his extremely overt religious behavior in the movie. The first time he was seen, Frank was teaching one of the mess hall boys how to read — using his Bible.

The next time he was seen, he was kneeling in front of his cot, reciting the Lord's Prayer, which he amended to include requests for God's blessing on the fighting men, the commanders in the field and the commander–in–chief.

"Frank, were you on this religious kick at home," Hawkeye asked, "or did you you crack up over here?"

I guess the TV series proceeded as if the movie never existed — or as if it was intended to function independently of the big–screen story. Otherwise, someone would have noticed that Frank Burns (Robert Duvall in the movie, Larry Linville in the TV series) was taken away in a straitjacket after punching Hawkeye in the movie, never to be seen again — until he showed up in the TV series. No one, not even Hot Lips, ever asked him about his time in custody.

You know, I guess Ebert wasn't far off the mark when he wrote of the frantic pace of the movie. In 1970, the makers of the movie most likely had no idea their movie would inspire a long–running TV series so the movie tried to tell viewers everything about those characters in a couple of hours — or, at least, everything that the original book told readers about them.

The makers of the hugely successful TV series expected that the bulk of their audience would know the inside jokes about everyone, even though the TV cast was almost entirely made up of people who did not appear in the movie.

A few of the characters in the TV series — notably Corporal Klinger — were nowhere to be found in the movie. He was created for the TV audience.

Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Would 'The Grapes of Wrath' Be Just As Good With Different Personnel?

"Seems like the government's got more interest in a dead man than a live one."

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda)

I am something of an amateur historian. There are times when I wish time travel was possible because there are certain events I really would like to see. Why? Because I believe it would give me a better understanding of what happened and why — but I've studied enough history to know that there are many more periods in human history that I would not want to witness. Besides, I know myself well enough to know that I might not gain as much from the experience as I like to think I would.

One period that I am glad I did not witness was the Great Depression. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression; my parents were children in the '30s and learned to be frugal by necessity. I heard plenty of stories from them about how hard life was for most folks. It was hard enough to live through the Great Recession — and lots of folks don't think it is over yet.

How would they have fared during the Great Depression, which was far worse?

"The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's brilliant novel about the Depression and the Joad family forced from their home in Oklahoma trying to find a new life in California, was brought to the screen 75 years ago today.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the novel was "arguably the most effective social document of the 1930s."

If a movie ever had every possible advantage, "The Grapes of Wrath" was that movie. Its director was the legendary John Ford. It starred Henry Fonda and a boatload of talented co–stars whose faces you will probably recognize even if you have trouble remembering their names.

Heck, it was a story by Steinbeck.

And no story ever summed up the struggles people went through in the Depression as well as "The Grapes of Wrath." I have seen pictures that illustrated the Depression pretty well, but "The Grapes of Wrath" breathed life into such pictures.

And the movie brought the whole miserable experience of the Depression to life.

Look at the faces in "The Grapes of Wrath." You will see the same kind of vacant expression that those who have lived through great pain often have. It's the same expression that could be seen on the faces of the prisoners in the concentration camps when they were liberated by the Allies. Their tattered clothes, their rickety old truck that practically had to be pushed to California, their worn out belongings all spoke of people who had lived through great hardship.

Ford did a wonderful job of coaxing realistic performances out of his cast. In 1940, of course, the experience of the Depression was still fresh in everyone's minds. It might be more challenging to try to make a new version of the movie today.

Of course, I don't think a remake would be fortunate enough to have another Henry Fonda in the starring role or another John Ford behind the camera. Consequently, I cannot imagine a remake being anywhere near as good as the original.

But did "The Grapes of Wrath" depend entirely on the talents of its cast and director? It would still be a great story with another cast. The right casting could make all the difference; as long as no one tried to improve on Steinbeck, it could be almost as good as the original (I'm still not willing to concede that either Ford or Fonda could be improved upon — even if it was possible to improve on Steinbeck ... as if).

Al (O. Z. Whitehead): Ain't you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol' place a last look?

Ma (Jane Darwell): We're goin' to California, ain't we? All right, then, let's go to California.

Al: That don't sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.

Ma: I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

And I can't think of any contemporary actress who could play Ma Joad as well as Jane Darwell did. Well, maybe Kathy Bates. That was an important role, you know, just as important as Henry Fonda's, although not as high profile. Still, she took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The only other Oscar that went to "The Grapes of Wrath" was awarded to Ford for Best Director. Fonda was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jimmy Stewart.

Clearly there was a lot of talent involved in the project.

Still, I keep coming back to the story, Steinbeck's story. If you put Ma Joad's words in some other actress' mouth, they would still be powerful words, powerful emotions set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl. True, Darwell seemed perfect for the role of Ma Joad, but everyone else seemed perfect for their roles, too. Take the preacher, for example, Jim Casy, who was played by John Carradine. The Depression had altered his perception of things.
Tom (Henry Fonda): Ain't you the preacher?

Casy (John Carradine): Used to be. Not no more. I lost the call. But, boy, I sure used to have it. Oh, I used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin' full of repentant sinners I pretty near drowned half of 'em. Not no more. I lost the spirit. I got nothin' to preach about no more, that's all. I ain't so sure of things. I asked myself, what is this here call(ed) Holy Spirit? Maybe that's love. Why, I love everybody so much, I'm fit to bust sometimes. So maybe there ain't no sin, and there ain't no virtue. There's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain't so nice. And that's all any man's got a right to say. 'Course I'll say a grace if somebody sets out the food, but my heart ain't in it.

Perhaps nothing sums up the Depression–era struggles of people who didn't understand the events that swirled about them better than Tom Joad's discourse near the end — in his parting words to Ma.
"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'where, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

It just seems to me that you couldn't go wrong with a Steinbeck story.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Comfort Food for the Soul

"It was so hot today that Burger King was singing, 'If you want it your way, cook it yourself.'"

Johnny Carson, 1977

It was 10 years ago today that Johnny Carson died.

And it's been almost 23 years since his last Tonight Show.

Time goes by too fast. Didn't I watch Carson just last night on the Tonight Show? He did another one of his hilarious Carnac the Magnificent routines, followed by a visit from George Carlin and those wonderful animals who visited from southern California zoos.

The Carson show was like the embodiment of Mother Gump's truism. It truly was like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get. The only thing you could be sure of — about 99% of the time — was that it would be satisfying in that way that comfort food is.

That's what Carson was — comfort food for the soul. If you were going through a rough patch, if you were anxious and couldn't sleep, you could switch on the Carson show, and it was like a visit from an old friend. When the show was over, your anxiety would be gone, and you could sleep through the night. Honest.

One of the things I admired most about Carson was how he interviewed the guests on his show. He understood what all great interviewers have understood — that the best interviews are the ones where the interviewer says very little.

That's easier said than done. I have conducted enough interviews in my life to know that sometimes you have to interview people who don't like to talk. I guess the assumption is that, because of the nature of their line of work, entertainers never tire of talking about themselves. I'm sure that is the case with some, perhaps many, but, in a TV career that spanned 30 years, Carson must have encountered celebrities who were reluctant to talk. Offhand I can't remember any.

That is an indication of how good Carson was. Even with the difficult interview subjects, he made it look easy — so easy that, even after you watch video clips from his Tonight Show career, you can't be sure that any of his subjects were difficult.

But there had to be some. There must have been, human nature being what it is.

Carson was always secure with himself and his talents. Each year, he tended to take off for a couple of weeks to go to England to watch the Wimbledon tournament. Whenever he went on vacation, he arranged for guest hosts to fill in for him. He never ran a repeat of an earlier show. He felt his audience deserved fresh material so, even though he wasn't there, he arranged for someone with talent to fill in for him.

He was always missed when he went on vacation, but people still tuned in because they knew Johnny would leave them in capable hands. Jay Leno was a guest host on the Carson show. So were George Carlin, David Brenner, Richard Belzer, Flip Wilson and Joan Rivers and many others.

It seemed to me that Carson filled the void that was left by the cancellation of the Ed Sullivan Show. Carson and Sullivan co–existed on network television for several years, and my impression, even though I was quite young and we didn't have a TV until I was in elementary school, was that Sullivan continued to be the guy who brought fresh, new talent to the American public. He was the one who gave America its first exposure to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Carson, meanwhile, tended to stick with the tried and true.

That changed after Sullivan's show was canceled.

Carson probably never had the same kind of impact on American culture that Sullivan did. He didn't introduce the public to anyone who became as influential as Elvis or the Fab Four, but he still did his part to give Americans that exposure to up and coming talent.

We're brought up with the knowledge — the expectation — that everything dies. Some folks decide that, for whatever reason, they will be the exception to that natural law, but we know that, when all is said and done, no one will escape death. We cannot prove that everyone will die because clearly there are billions of living people on the planet. But there must have been billions who came before us in all of human history, and we know that, with the exception of a few people who were born around the start of the 20th century, all have died. Whatever your religious beliefs may be, that is an eternal truth. It passes no judgment on whether there is an afterlife.

If there is an afterlife, though, I hope Johnny Carson is hosting some sort of program to entertain the residents of heaven. If anyone deserves the best, it's the souls in heaven.

And Carson was the best.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Gun

Gilligan's Island was only on the air for three seasons, but it almost seemed as if everyone on the planet stopped off there in those three years — and the only people who never got off the island (until a reunion episode more than a decade later) were the castaways.

The folks who stopped by the island simply refused to tell anyone where the castaways were. Something about how they could ruin people's lives and/or careers if their whereabouts were revealed and they told the authorities what they knew. To which I had to wonder — who didn't know where the castaways were?

Most of the time, I thought that threat stuff was overblown, but in the episode that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "Little Island, Big Gun," it seemed to have, well, more authenticity.

The island often seemed to attract unsavory sorts like a magnet. The usual suspects were headhunters from nearby islands, but the island's visitors often turned out to be fairly creative characters. Sometimes they were silly, but other times they had the air of plausibility — at least enough plausibility to allow the writers to explore the situation for awhile before the viewers finally gave up and labeled it too silly to be true.

The episode that first aired 50 years ago tonight featured Larry Storch as the guest star. He was actually a gangster on the run. Believe it or not, the story seemed plausible at first.

Storch, who went on to enjoy some success on another TV series the following season, at first tried to persuade the castaways that he was a doctor doing research — and that the stolen money in his possession actually was donations from benefactors. But once the castaways heard on their radio about the big bank robbery Storch and his colleagues had pulled off, his cover was blown.

The rest of the episode was fairly routine stuff, but it was generally well played by the cast and Storch. If you've ever seen Storch in the F Troop series on which he starred, you would agree that his performance in the episode of Gilligan's Island was considerably muted by comparison.

People came and went to Gilligan's Island in many ways. I suppose the assumption would be that most came to the island by boat or canoe or some such non–submersible seagoing vessel — and perhaps that was the case. I haven't gone back over the show's three seasons to find out which method was used the most.

But I do know that Storch was the first to arrive by boat. The castaways had encountered a couple of folks on the island before Storch's arrival, but one was already there and the other arrived via a submersible vehicle.

Before the castaways left the island, they were visited by people who got there by surfboard, by helicopter, by space capsule — and many came by boat. But Storch was the first.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One of the Best Episodes in Twilight Zone's First Season

By the time she appeared in "The Hitchhiker" on Twilight Zone 55 years ago tonight, Inger Stevens was an entertainment veteran, having appeared in several films and TV series — even though she was only in her mid–20s.

Her face should have been familiar, even if her name was not, and that face really was perfect for the part she played in "The Hitchhiker" — bewildered, frightened, vulnerable. Well, I guess that could describe most of the lead characters in Twilight Zone episodes. They typically found themselves cast in thoroughly illogical situations, and Stevens' character was no exception.

I am tempted to suggest that this episode really set the tone for future Twilight Zone episodes. It was, after all, the 16th episode of an anthology series that lasted for another 140 episodes. It was still evolving when this episode first aired.

But then I remember that there had already been several episodes that set the tone for the series before "The Hitchhiker" was shown. So I must conclude that it wasn't as influential on the series as I first thought. It is, I have discovered, a general favorite among Twilight Zone fans. In fact, I have a friend who watches for that episode in particular when Syfy has its New Year's and Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathons.

Stevens' character, Nan, a buyer for an East Coast department store, was making a cross–country trip and experienced a blowout when she was driving through Pennsylvania. She was unhurt and managed to get the tire replaced — she even joked with the fellow who replaced the tire. He told her she was quite lucky; with a blowout like the one she had at the speed she had been traveling, she should have been killed, but she had walked away without a scratch.

Then suddenly she began seeing the same strange little man hitchhiking at every point along her route. She began to panic. It wasn't possible that the same hitchhiker should always be ahead of her, was it? At one point, it was suggested that maybe he kept catching rides and getting dropped off just ahead of her. Nah, that seemed a little too coincidental.

Nan became progressively worried. At one point, she picked up another hitchhiker, a sailor, and offered herself to him (in the manner of early 1960s television) if he would stay with her until they reached the coast.

But the sailor couldn't see the hitchhiker and had concluded that Nan was unstable; he declined the offer. So she proceeded alone — but never completely alone. The hitchhiker was always there, just around the bend.

Finally, in need of reassurance — or perhaps just a desire to hear a friendly voice — Nan stopped and called her mother. A woman she did not know answered the phone. When Nan demanded to know who she was, the woman replied that Nan's mother had been hospitalized following a nervous breakdown she suffered when she learned her daughter had been killed when a tire blew out in Pennsylvania.

Nan walked slowly back to her car, realizing that she was, in fact, dead — and the hitchhiker, rather than wishing her ill, was the embodiment of death, waiting for her to come to the realization that she was dead. When she eased into the driver's seat, she adjusted her mirror, revealing the hitchhiker in the back seat. "I believe you're going ... my way?" he asked.

"Nan Adams, age 27," said Rod Serling at the end of the episode. "She was driving to California, to Los Angeles. She didn't make it. There was a detour … through the Twilight Zone."

I would say it was one of the best episodes of Twilight Zone's first season.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Blood on the Tracks' Was One of the Best Ever Recorded

I guess I am not going out on a limb when I declare Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," which was released on this day in 1975, one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Rolling Stone named it the 16th–best album of all time more than a decade ago and described Dylan's songwriting as "lyrically piercing, gingerly majestic." I guess you could say that or something similar about most of the songs he has written — but if it is going to be said about any of Dylan's albums, "Blood on the Tracks" is the one it should be said about.

Initially, though, critical acclaim for "Blood on the Tracks" was slow in coming. Some critics really liked it; others didn't. Personally, I always liked it.

Not that I'm a critic or anything. I just appreciate good music. And this was really good music.

When the album hit the stores, "Tangled Up in Blue" was played rather frequently on the radio. It was really the only single from the album — although, as always, there were songs that were never hits in the conventional sense — but they were hits with Dylan's fans. I guess it is that way with most bands; songs appeal to different people for different reasons. Many of my favorite songs were never commercially popular.

Rolling Stone wrote that the album was "an instant success." That isn't how I remember it. "Tangled Up in Blue" was well received, and perhaps people bought "Blood on the Tracks" in spite of the critics. I don't know. I don't think I ever did know.

I liked "Tangled Up in Blue," but I would probably pick one song, maybe two, from the album that I liked a little better — but just a little. One followed it on Side A — "Simple Twist of Fate."

Or I might pick "Shelter From the Storm" from Side B.

Really, though, it is a masterful album. I have heard it described as "flawless," which is a little absolute for my taste, but I sympathize with the sentiment. "Blood on the Tracks" is one of those rare albums where not a song seems out of place. To omit any would diminish it.

The material is gritty. Some critics have suggested that the songs on "Blood on the Tracks" were inspired by Dylan's problems with his marriage at the time. I don't know if that is true; I do know that the songs are not happy ones and if a song is not unhappy, it is, at least, anxious or has a sense of resignation to the idea that, if everything is good right now, it is only a matter of time before things go south.

I have friends who are more knowledgeable about Dylan than I, and they, I am sure, have different opinions on that subject.

Dylan, to my knowledge, has always denied that the music was inspired by his life, but his son has said that, when he listens to "Blood on the Tracks," he thinks the music is describing scenes from his parents' marriage.

Dylan has introduced "Tangled Up in Blue" in a concert by saying it took 10 years to live and two years to write — which sounds awfully autobiographical to me.

I recall, at the time the album was released, that some people told Dylan how much they enjoyed it. His response was that he couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy that kind of pain.

He was right — to an extent — and, as I see it, Dylan's observation is further proof that at least some of "Blood on the Tracks" was about his marriage. Great pain — and his lyrics do speak of great anguish — is not the sort of thing that people can rightfully say they enjoy, but it is the kind of thing that an artist — a painter, a sculptor, a composer, a writer — is compelled to use for inspiration. It is a catalyst. The artist really has no choice.

Yes, that is what artists do. The act of taking that pain and turning it into something beautiful gives the experience its meaning, its validity.

So my feeling is that there probably was at least an element of Dylan's private life that inspired the music on "Blood on the Tracks." If I am right, then Dylan took what he had experienced and used it to make something truly remarkable.

And when I say remarkable, I mean the songs that weren't publicly recognizable as well the ones that were.

Dylan had some of his most sensitive, delicate guitar work on "Blood on the Tracks""You're a Big Girl Now," "Meet Me in the Morning," "If You See Her, Say Hello," "Buckets of Rain."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Many Casualties of War

MASH was on the air for 11 years, and it was always walking the tightrope between comedy and drama.

That could be challenging enough when you were dealing with the casualties of the battlefields of war, but 35 years ago tonight, it examined a different kind of casualty.

When the episode began, Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was cranky because he had the mumps. His disposition was made worse by the fact that Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) had them, too, and the two of them would have to be quarantined together.

That created a shortage of surgeons so a request was made for a temporary surgeon, and Dr. Newsome (Edward Herrman) was quickly dispatched.

Dr. Newsome seemed to fit right in with everyone else at the 4077th, but he cracked up under pressure when the casualties started pouring in, and he just walked out of the OR.

"The blood won't come off," he said to Hawkeye and B.J. when they caught up with him in Potter's tent — but, really, he said it to no one in particular. "No matter what I do, it just stays there. See? Never gonna go away. No matter how many times I wash or how much I scrub, it's gonna stay there. Where do they come from? What do they expect me to do? I can't. I can't."

I don't recall if they were using the phrase post–traumatic stress disorder in 1980, but it has always seemed to me that that is what this was about. A more severe case than most, I would say. Modern viewers know about war veterans and the PTSD they must fight, but stories are never told about the Army surgeons who wash out under pressure.

PTSD, of course, is the same disorder whichever name you choose to use for it — and the name changes in every war. In World War I, they called it shell shock. In World War II, they called it battle fatigue. In the conflict in Korea, they called it operational exhaustion.

It was during or after America's long involvement in Vietnam that the health community began calling it post–traumatic stress disorder; I just don't remember when the use of that phrase became the widely accepted one for that condition.

I am sure the same thing happens in the civilian world on a regular basis. People who work in a big–city ER, where there is a lot of gang violence and other types of violent crime, may have a lot of medical talent, but some, perhaps many, will be discouraged from pursuing a career in the health field, perhaps because of an episode that was similar (albeit less extreme) than the one Dr. Newsome experienced.

MASH was always reminding its viewers of the human side of war. In its own way, it acknowledged that there are times when war is necessary, no matter how much we may hate it. But it is never neat and clean, and there are all kinds of casualties.

Thirty–five years ago tonight, it reminded its viewers that there are wounds that can't be seen and casualties who never spent a second on the battlefield.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Escaping a Doomed Planet

In an unidentified place and time, war was in the air, and a worker at a highly secure plant and his friend, a test pilot, were plotting to hijack an experimental spaceship to escape what looked like certain nuclear carnage.

They put two and two together, really. The plant worker had noticed that a large number of H–bombs had been produced recently, as if in anticipation of a major conflict.

I don't think anyone ever said the word "nuclear" in the episode of the Twilight Zone TV series that first aired on this night in 1960, but that was the implication. In 1960, I'm sure that was on most viewers' minds.

The big problem for the people in the episode was a security officer who appeared to have gotten wind of their plan.

Fritz Weaver played the plant worker who tried to keep everything on track and succeeded — until the very end when they had to board the ship rapidly to make their escape.

Weaver was something of a fixture on the Twilight Zone, one of the actors who made multiple appearances. In addition to this episode, he also appeared in one of Burgess Meredith's classic Twilight Zone episodes, then appeared in an episode of the revived Twilight Zone series in the 1980s.

What I always found interesting — and, sometimes, amusing — about Twilight Zone's depiction of spaceships was how roomy they were. That was necessary, I suppose, to accommodate those massive computer systems capable of navigating space — but hardly practical, given the energy that would be needed to propel it into space. So spaceships in Twilight Zone episodes always resembled the flying saucers one can see in cheap sci–fi flicks — like the ones Ed Wood used to make — but bore little actual resemblance to the real spaceships being launched by NASA.

It's a reminder of how primitive the thinking was in those days, how little ordinary people understood about space travel or computers.

I had a friend when I was a child who probably knew more than most adults about space travel. I remember once when he pointed out something to me that we saw on TV that gave what he thought was clearly a false impression of space travel. It probably wasn't as obvious to most people as he probably thought it should be, and my memory is that there were times when many adults doubted what he said. Even so, he knew what he was talking about.

Mind you, we were only about 7 years old at the time.

Given the relative naivete of most Americans when it came to outer space, it probably wasn't hard for this episode to elicit gasps from viewers — when it was revealed that Weaver and the rest of the refugees from their doomed planet were on their way to Earth, the third planet from the sun.

Hence, the title ... "Third From the Sun."

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

I'll Take a W

On this day in 1975, Wheel of Fortune premiered as part of NBC's daytime lineup.

Pat Sajak wasn't the original host; Chuck Woolery was. And Vanna White wasn't the original assistant; that was Susan Stafford. Sajak and White took over in the early '80s.

It didn't all happen at once; there was some overlap. Woolery left the show in 1981, and he was replaced by Sajak. Then Stafford left the show in 1982, and she was replaced by White.

Sajak stayed until 1989, then he was replaced, briefly, by former pro football player Rolf Benirschke, who was replaced by Bob Goen. When the network show was canceled and it was picked up for syndication, Sajak returned as host. He's still there. So is White, who has been on the show now for more than 30 years.

Otherwise, the show (a Merv Griffin creation) is virtually unchanged from the one that made its debut 40 years ago — except for the fact that it is now in syndication and typically airs at night. It is the longest–running syndicated game show in the United States.

The basic format is still the same — and people still tune in by the millions. The truly dedicated have been watching now for 40 years.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

All in the Family at its Best

The episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night 40 years ago, "Prisoner in the House," was a provocative episode, as many of All in the Family's episodes were.

It took on, as that sitcom so often did, an issue that was seldom if ever raised — in this case, the prejudice that ex–cons encounter when trying to put their lives back together.

When the subject was prejudice of any kind, there was no one better than Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) to bring it up. Archie could make you laugh — and then think.

By January 1975, everyone knew what Archie was, and everyone knew what his reactions to certain things were likely to be. In the episode that aired on this night in 1975, the Bunkers had been having problems with their plumbing so they called a plumber who came one day while Archie was at work. The plumber brought an assistant — who happened to be a prisoner (Cliff Osmond) on a work furlough.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) had no problem with that — she and the plumber bonded almost immediately when they discovered a mutual appreciation for the work of poet Edgar A. Guest — but she (and everyone else) knew how Archie would react if he knew the assistant was a convict so she encouraged everyone not to say anything.

Eventually, though, Archie did find out, and it made him uneasy. After all, there were two women in the house, and there would be times when he would be at work and his son–in–law would be at school.

Archie mouthed off at the neighborhood bar about the con who was assisting the plumber, and it affected the plumber's business. The plumber decided he would have to let the con go, and the con began to openly question whether he could make it on the outside.

But then Edith, in her understated way, quoted Guest:

"For failure comes from the inside first,
It's there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you're going to do it."

Then Edith said, "You wouldn't want to let down Edgar A. Guest."

Archie, ignorant as always, asked, "Who the hell is he, another plumber?"

When the laughter died down, the con smiled at Edith and said, "I wouldn't want to let you down, Mrs. Bunker."

The episode isn't regarded as a classic episode. It had few truly memorable lines.

But I have always felt it showed All in the Family at its best. It certainly showed Edith at her best.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Death of Elly Mae Clampett

"The only direction they ever gave me was when I started to talk. They said, 'You have to talk faster than that or won't anybody get on that camera but you in a half hour.' Coming from Baton Rouge, you talk — just — about — like — that. And they said, 'Cut, you gotta talk faster than that.' And that was the only direction. They never did have to tell me anything about Elly, how she'd behave in certain circumstances. Now, I knew her, and that's the dream of an actor, to know a character that well."

Donna Douglas

Donna Douglas is dead, a victim of pancreatic cancer.

That might not mean much to younger folks, but if you were a young male in the 1960s, it's a blow.

Douglas played Elly Mae Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies. I've heard that some CBS executives loathed the program, but it was popular with viewers. It ran for nine seasons and was the top–ranked program in the nation in two of those seasons. In all but one season, it finished in the Top 20.

It may have been silly, but it was also a hit.

And Donna Douglas — as the blonde, shapely, tomboyish Elly Mae — had a lot to do with that — at least as far as the young males in the Hillbillies' audience were concerned.

"The death of Donna Douglas froze the heart of pretty much every American boy who was a television–watching teenager in the early 1960s," wrote David Hinckley in the New York Daily News.

You didn't have to be a teenage boy to fall under Elly's spell, either.

If you were a boy of any age, primetime TV in those days had an embarrassment of riches when it came to beautiful women on display. Most, I suppose, were window dressing with the meatier roles reserved for men, but nevertheless, they were there.

My family came late to the TV party; shows like the Beverly Hillbillies were already in reruns by the time my parents bought their first TV. But I had schoolboy crushes on just about all the sexy women on TV in those days — Donna Douglas, Elizabeth Montgomery, Dawn Wells (of Gilligan's Island), Barbara Eden, Sally Field, Marlo Thomas, the Bradley girls on Petticoat Junction (a Hillbillies spinoff), Marilyn on The Munsters, Goldie Hawn on Laugh–in.

Nope, no shortage of beautiful women. Still, it was scandalous when Mary Tyler Moore wore capri pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Elly Mae was different than the rest, though; as Hinckley observed, "compared to what teenage and young–adult female characters routinely wear on TV shows today, Elly Mae looked like she was dressed for an ice cream social at the local Baptist church. But in 1963, Elly Mae was incendiary."

It was still customary in those days for women to wear dresses on TV. As far as I was concerned, any excuse to get Elly Mae into a pair of tight–fitting jeans and a form–fitting shirt (instead of the rather billowy blouses many women wore on TV) was OK. Unless she was already wearing a bathing suit and frolicking in or near the fabled cement pond behind the Clampett mansion.

She couldn't wear a bikini — it was taboo to show a woman's navel on TV — but I still thought she looked hot in a one–piece suit.

You wouldn't catch Elly Mae twerkin'.

In fact, she kissed more critters than fellahs on the Beverly Hillbillies, even though Jed and Granny were constantly trying to find a nice young man for her.

Her fondness for critters was no act, by the way. Donna Douglas was born and raised in rural Louisiana, and she had an affinity for animals since childhood.

Because it was her defining role, most people tend to think the part of Elly Mae Clampett was Douglas' first, but it wasn't. She had appeared on several TV shows before the Beverly Hillbillies came along, most notably in a second–season episode of the original Twilight Zone series, "The Eye of the Beholder."

Douglas didn't say anything in that episode. She was there for the visual effect. The lines that were attributed to her character were spoken by someone else.

She was also in a movie with Elvis Presley — "Frankie and Johnny."

As much of a bombshell as Douglas was, it might surprise some to realize that she was a very devout Christian. She often gave gifts that she had signed with biblical passages.

All of the stars of the Beverly Hillbillies are deceased now except for Max Baer Jr. (Jethro).