Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell, Father Mulcahy



"I want to tell you about two men. Each facing his own crisis. The first man you know rather well. The second is a patient here. Well, the first man thought he was facing a crisis. But what he was really doing was trying to impress someone. He was looking for recognition, encouragement, a pat on the back. And whenever that recognition seemed threatened he reacted rather childishly. Blamed everyone for his problems but himself because he was thinking only of himself. But the second man was confronted with the greatest crisis mortal man can face, the loss of his life. I think you will agree that the second man had every right to be selfish. But instead he chose to think not of himself, but of a brother. A brother! When the first man saw the dignity and the selflessness of the second man, he realized how petty and selfish he had ... I .... I ... I had been. It made me see something more clearly than I've ever seen it before. God didn't put us here for that pat on the back. He created us so he could be here himself. So he could exist in the lives of those he created, in his image."

Father Mulcahy (William Christopher)

William Christopher, who is remembered for playing Father Mulcahy on MASH but that only scratches the surface of his life's work, died today at the age of 84.

It seems, in many ways, to be the appropriate cap on a year that saw more celebrity deaths than usual. Not that the mother–daughter combo of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds wasn't dramatic enough, but losing Christopher isn't dramatic so much as final somehow. This is it. Enough. Be gone, 2016.

Christopher, as I understand it, was as soft spoken as the character he played, seldom the focus of episodes but always a moral compass and a character worthy of admiration.

When I think of him, I always think of an episode when Mulcahy was eager to make a good impression on a visiting cardinal. He sought the cooperation of those in the camp but kept running into obstacles.

Then he became involved with a crisis facing a patient at the camp, and he felt ashamed of his selfish behavior. While counseling the ailing soldier, he failed to show up on time for a special service honoring the visiting cardinal. He was summoned to the service wearing his bathrobe and apologized for not being prepared as he would have liked — or being dressed as he would have liked.

Then he proceeded to deliver the brilliant introduction to the cardinal that you can find at the top of this post.

When he was done, the cardinal stepped up to the podium — but, before addressing the congregation, he embraced Father Mulcahy warmly and said, "You're a tough act to follow."

It is truly fitting that William Christopher's should be the last celebrity death of 2016. He's a tough act to follow.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Conflicted State of Mind



Causarano (Albert Salmi): What's your pleasure, Lieutenant? How many men have to die before you're satisfied?

Katell (Dean Stockwell): Off hand, all of them. No matter who they are or where they are. If they're the enemy, they get it. First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it.

It seems to me that it is in the context of war that the great matters of human existence are addressed, and those stories are particularly soul searching in the artistic efforts in the first couple of decades after a major conflict.

The artists who take on that topic tend to fall into two camps. Both agree that the costs of war are horrific, but one camp tends to see those sacrifices as necessary for the achievement of the ultimate goal while the other tends to see the costs of war as being too high, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

In the case of World War II, that period ran from roughly 1945 to 1965, neatly including the entire run of the first incarnation of the Twilight Zone. Series creator Rod Serling fell into the latter camp, and the episodes of the series that dealt with war, be it World War II or another clash, reflected that conflicted state of mind.

World War II provided particularly fertile ground for such introspection because both camps agreed that not only are the costs of war horrific but also that defeating the Axis powers was vital. It was a conflict within a conflict. Even so there was genuine anguish, it seems to me, in the work by Serling and many of his contemporaries when it dealt with World War II.

The episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961, "A Quality of Mercy," found the remnants of a World War II U.S. infantry unit watching a cave in the Philippines from their hillside perch. Some Japanese soldiers, most of them apparently wounded, were holed up in the cave, and American shelling had done little to dislodge them.

The date was Aug. 6, 1945, the day that a nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, accelerating the end of World War II. That was unknown to anyone in the Twilight Zone episode until later, after the bomb had been dropped. In the meantime, the infantrymen on that hill found themselves under the command of a gung–ho lieutenant played by Dean Stockwell.

This lieutenant had it in mind for the unit to undertake a virtually suicidal assault on the Japanese soldiers who were holed up in that cave.

He was, as the company sergeant (Albert Salmi) said, a "Johnnie come lately" whose desire to demonstrate his efficiency as an officer repelled the war–weary members of the infantry unit.

Then one of those supernatural Twilight Zone moments occurred. The lieutenant dropped his binoculars on the ground, bent over to pick them up — and he was transformed into a Japanese officer on Corregidor in 1942. The situation was similar to the one the lieutenant had just left. Japanese soldiers were watching a cave from a hillside perch. Inside the cave were maybe two dozen American soldiers, most of them wounded.

And the lieutenant found himself having the same conversation he had been having with that sergeant — only the roles were reversed.

It was a typical Twilight Zone switcheroo — followed by a reverse switcheroo in which Stockwell was back with his infantry unit in the Philippines. As far as his comrades were concerned, no time had passed at all. They were unaware of the game–changing experience he had just had.

He was hesitant to give the order to move out — and during that hesitation word reached the unit of the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima.

In a relatively small but pivotal role, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy was the one who broke the news to the rest of them. They were told that command expected the Japanese to surrender as a result. The unit was ordered to pull back, wait for a few days and see what happened as a result.

Stockwell was in kind of a daze, and Salmi told him not to worry, that there would be other wars, "other human beings you can knock off."

And Stockwell could only say, "I hope not."

As for Nimoy, Star Trek was still about five years in the future. He had been in movies (sometimes uncredited) and made guest appearances on other TV shows, but he didn't become a household word until Star Trek and Mr. Spock.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Memories of Carrie Fisher



When I heard the news that Carrie Fisher had died today, I immediately thought of two things.

While most people may think of Fisher's performances as Princess Leia in her billowy white dress and cinnamon bun hairdo in the "Star Wars" movies, I suppose I shall always remember the metallic bikini she wore in "Return of the Jedi" in 1983. It was the first time I had ever seen her figure — that dress really hid her feminine physique in the first two movies, which, so I have heard, is why she wanted to wear something more flattering in the third film.

Mission accomplished. Of course, I was a hot–blooded young American male at the time, and I would have thought she looked sexy in a burlap sack.

The other thing I thought about was the one and only time I saw Fisher in person. That was also in 1983.

The occasion was a Simon & Garfunkel concert. The two had reunited for their concert in New York's Central Park less than two years earlier. The public response was so overwhelmingly positive that they decided to reunite and do a concert tour in 1983. One of their stops on that tour was the Cotton Bowl here in Dallas. I went to that show with my parents, who were Simon & Garfunkel fans (especially my mother), and my brother.

We enjoyed the show, but we never expected to see Carrie Fisher. The thought never crossed my mind, and I doubt it crossed the minds of my parents or my brother.

Nevertheless, she was there, and I guess she spent most of the evening backstage, but at one point she came out on stage and played the drums on a few numbers. A lot of people probably don't realize that she could play the drums. I don't think I knew that myself until that night.

But she could, and she wasn't bad.

In hindsight, that was probably something they did on every stop on that tour. Simon and Fisher had been married less than a year, but they were still newlyweds that night, being playful with each other to the delight of the audience. Even though it was probably planned well in advance, Simon gave every impression of being a doting groom making a spontaneous invitation to coax Fisher onstage, and Fisher certainly seemed to be an obliging bride.

That night in the Cotton Bowl was memorable for another thing. A hurricane slammed into the Gulf coast earlier, sending rain and strong winds north to Dallas. On the night of the concert, it was windy and a bit rainy — and the contraption that held the overhead lights above the stage was swaying with the wind.

As I recall the concert was stopped temporarily until the wind calmed down a bit, then it resumed, but Fisher's contribution was over. She went backstage, and I never saw her again — except in the movies.

It's hard to believe she's gone. Then again, this is 2016, the year that has earned a reputation for being the last year in so many celebrities' lives.

Let's hope Carrie Fisher is the last one.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Going Overboard



Gilligan (Bob Denver): Skipper, it's against the law to lock somebody up without telling them what they did.

Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.): Just a moment, Gilligan. Let's see here. Is that it? Yeah. It says here in the Criminal Law, Section 7, Paragraph 14, "Let it be known that any man who interferes with or causes in any way a rescue to be fouled up goes to jail for as long as the Skipper says."

Gilligan: There's no law like that in that book.

Skipper: There is now!

In the just–concluded presidential election campaign, both major nominees accused the other of being unfit for power. It was left, as it usually is, to the voters to decide who was fit for power, but Charles Percy Snow could have told them that "No one is fit to be trusted with power."

Perhaps that was the lesson the writers for Gilligan's Island wanted to teach 50 years ago.

On this night in 1966, Gilligan (Bob Denver) thought he witnessed a murder moments after stumbling on to what appeared to be a three–way love affair involving the Professor (Russell Johnson), Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise). They were actually rehearsing a murder scene in a play, but Gilligan was convinced it was real and went running off to fetch the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.).

In this episode of Gilligan's Island"Gilligan Goes Gung–Ho" — the Skipper had been busy harvesting phosphorescent rocks the castaways might be able to use to signal for help. The plan was to signal a search plane that was due to fly overhead shortly in a publicized response to reports of people on a deserted island.

The incident convinced the Professor that some sort of law enforcement was needed on the island — even though there had been no crimes committed on the island (at least not by the castaways) — and he decided the Skipper was the logical choice to serve as sheriff. The Skipper chose Gilligan as his deputy, which put Gilligan in charge of things when the Skipper and the Professor were searching for more of those rocks.

So Gilligan was left in charge — and with a criminal law book in his hands.

And Gilligan, in a Barney Fife–esque way, went to extremes, eventually putting all the castaways in a makeshift jail cell on too–literal interpretations of statutes. The Professor, for example, returned from the search he and the Skipper had made for those rocks and showed Gilligan the rocks they had found with the use of homemade dynamite. He had a stick of that dynamite under his shirt and pulled it out to show Gilligan — who arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon.

When the Skipper returned to find the camp empty, Gilligan explained that everyone had been arrested. The Skipper shook Gilligan until the key to the cell door fell, presumably from a hole in his pocket, to the ground. The Skipper then went to the cell to free the rest of the castaways, but Gilligan locked the door behind him, telling him that he was guilty of police brutality.

Ginger told everyone that she had been in some prison movies and suggested using scenes from those movies to escape their incarceration. Gilligan, though, had seen every movie and knew the scenes. He got so wrapped up in the re–enactments that he inadvertently locked himself in the cell with the others. They all turned on him, but then they were distracted by the sound of the search plane flying overhead.

The castaways were overjoyed. Surely the pilots would see the signal and they would be rescued, but the Professor and the Skipper had bad news for them. Unfortunately, there was no signal. No one had set up a signal. Why not?

"Because some numbskull put us in jail," the Skipper replied.

The moral? Don't trust a numbskull.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Healing the Wounds of War



If a TV show makes it to its seventh season, it is likely to be running out of material.

But the writers for All in the Family were still hitting the ball out of the park in the show's seventh season as the Christmas episode that aired on this night in 1976, "The Draft Dodger," clearly demonstrated. It may have been the most poignant episode of that groundbreaking series.

In 1976, America's recently concluded involvement in the Vietnam War was an open wound for many Americans. It had been a divisive war, sparking much social upheaval, and it was no less so once America's participation had ended. My memory is that, more than a year later, people were still being judged by others according to their positions on the war.

On this night 40 years ago, Christmas Night 1976, the Bunkers (Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton) were hosting Christmas dinner for the Stivics (Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers), Teresa (the Bunkers' boarder played by Liz Torres), Archie's buddy Pinky (character actor Eugene Roche) who was a Gold Star father, and David (Renny Temple), a friend of Mike's who, unknown to most of the people at the table on that occasion, fled to Canada to avoid the draft.

David's presence was unexpected. He just showed up on the Bunkers' doorstep. It hadn't been his original destination. He had intended to see his father, but his father wasn't ready to face his son so David went to see his old friend. It was in their conversation that the audience learned he was a draft dodger.

David agreed to join the family for Christmas dinner after being assured by both Mike and Gloria that they would not spill the beans. That was easier said than done when Archie met David and asked him questions about where he lived and why he was spending Christmas with them instead of his own family.

Gloria ran interference for David, but their objective was helped considerably when the doorbell rang, and the audience learned that it was Pinky. Before opening the door, Archie cautioned everyone that if Pinky started talking about Stevie, that was his only son who had been killed in the war.

Pinky was still in shock over that, and Archie told his family that if Pinky started talking about his son, they should steer the conversation in another direction.

During Christmas dinner Archie asked David if he had any Christmas memories to share. David's reply contradicted information Archie had been given earlier, and that led to the revelation that David was a draft dodger.

Archie found that very disturbing, and that sparked an argument between the conservative Archie and the liberal Mike, who asked Archie when he was going to admit that the war had been wrong. Archie replied that he wasn't talking about the war. He was talking about doing one's duty to one's country. That was a position with which many viewers no doubt sympathized in 1976.

Many other people in America sympathized with David. They believed the war was wrong and refused to participate in it. David wasn't the only young American who fled to Canada. There were tens of thousands of others. The conflict created a huge rip in the fabric of America.

Pinky asked Archie if he wanted to know what Pinky thought, and Archie responded enthusiastically, certain that Pinky would take his side.

But Pinky surprised Archie, everyone else at the table and the audience when he observed that both his son and David did what they thought they had to do. The difference, he said, was that his son wasn't alive to share Christmas dinner with them, and David was. If his son could be there, Pinky mused, he would want to sit down to dinner with David.

"And that's what I want to do," he said, turning to David and extending his hand as the audience burst into spontaneous, heartfelt applause. "Merry Christmas, David," Pinky said.

"Merry Christmas, sir," David replied.

Even today the memory of that moment has great emotional power. I have seen reruns of that episode from time to time. I have watched it with people who supported the war and people who opposed it. And what I have seen convinced me that, while they disagree on most things, nearly all Americans prefer peace to conflict, whether it is between nations or between people.

Given the choice and the opportunity to act on that choice, most people prefer whatever promotes healing and harmony, not whatever sows discord.

On this night 40 years ago, All in the Family took a giant step toward healing the wounds of war.

Strength in Numbers



Did you ever have a job in which you felt underpaid and unappreciated, and you deserved a raise, but you kept running into brick walls at work so you fantasized about leaving your job suddenly, but you didn't for any of a number of reasons?

If you have — and most of us probably have — you can sympathize with the situation confronting Mary Tyler Moore in the episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that aired on this night in 1976, "Look at Us, We're Walking."

Mary hadn't had a raise in three years, and she decided to approach Lou Grant (Ed Asner) about a raise when she realized she had $400 to her name. (I know that doesn't sound like much, but to put it in perspective, when you adjust that for inflation, it would have the buying power of about $1,700 in 2016 dollars.) Before she did, though, she went through all the possible reasons Lou would say prevented him from being able to give her a raise.

But she didn't anticipate the reason he gave. It was out of his hands, he told her. Such decisions were being made by the TV station's new manager.

The station manager wouldn't give either a raise, Lou said, figuring that if one quit, the other would pick up the slack on the production end. His logic was that neither could get a raise because both were good at their jobs. "If we were both incompetents," Lou told Mary, "we'd have 'em over a barrel."

This was a situation, Lou told Mary, that called for solidarity. They should go to the station manager's office and demand that both be given raises.

Mary wasn't especially keen on that idea, especially after the meeting with the station manager. He gave them two weeks to change their minds before he replaced them.

They didn't change their minds, though, and Mary was struggling to occupy the time. Lou was finding projects to keep him busy — like painting a chair for the 27th time. "I figure it will take a year and a half to dry," he said.

Mary was wavering. They had a talk and solidarity was restored.

But Mary was feeling a financial squeeze. When Ted (Ted Knight) and Georgette (Georgia Engel) came by to visit, Mary told Georgette that, for the first time in her life, she was in debt "up to my ear lobes."

"What a classy place to be in debt up to," the ever–positive Georgette replied.

She persuaded a reluctant Mary to accept money from them, then she persuaded a reluctant Ted to give Mary a blank check. ("It's better that way," she told him. "Better for who?" Ted asked.) Pretty impressive for the normally mousy Georgette.

Neither accomplishment was insignificant, but it was the last straw for Mary. She called Lou and told him she was going to renegotiate her contract.

"Don't tell me things aren't that bad yet," she said into the telephone receiver. "I just accepted money from Ted Baxter!"

In the end they came back to work for WJM — and got what must have been by 1976 standards pretty good raises.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Survivors' Guilt and Infinite Hope



"One day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season, either, but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we're gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well, that's, that's when we'll honor them."

Jack (Matthew McConaughey)

The motion picture can inspire people in ways that no other medium can.

That may never have been illustrated as well as it was in "We Are Marshall," which premiered 10 years ago today. It told the story of a school and a town shaken by tragedy — and rising from the ashes. Literally. The airplane carrying nearly all of the Marshall University football team crashed just short of the airport as the team was returning to Huntington, West Virginia, from a game.

I remember when the Marshall football team was almost entirely wiped out by that plane crash in 1970.

I was a young boy in Arkansas, a follower of the Razorbacks, and they had played a school earlier that year that had a similar tragedy befall it. One of two planes carrying the members of the Wichita State University football team to a game in Utah crashed in Colorado. The upperclassmen and the head coach were among those killed.

Wichita State resumed playing with the players who survived by virtue of the fact that they were riding on the other plane, but they went on to lose all their games in 1970, including a 62–0 loss in Little Rock to the Razorbacks about three weeks after the crash. Frank Broyles, the Arkansas coach, tried not to let things get out of hand, bringing in the second– and third–stringers fairly early in the game — but try telling young guys not to do well when they get a rare opportunity to play.

About the only way to keep that score down would have been to invoke the mercy rule — except I'm not sure if that even existed in 1970.

Anyway, when that tragedy struck Marshall, I thought I was seeing history repeat itself.

And I was — only it was worse.

At least Wichita State had some of its players left. Quite a few, actually, although most lacked much in the way of playing time.

The Marshall football team, as I say, was nearly wiped out. The remainder of the 1970 season was canceled, and the program was nearly dropped.

But the student body resisted — and insisted that the football program continue.

If you're a football fan, you have to understand that the Marshall football program of today bears little resemblance to the one in the early 1970s. Granted, Marshall did struggle this season and won't be playing in a bowl — but the team has been in bowl games in five of the last seven seasons.

In 1970, when the last couple of games were canceled, Marshall was 3–6 and had seldom won more than it lost in the previous seasons. In spite of this season's record, it can truthfully be said that the football team has risen from the ashes and is better than it was before.

Preserving the football team was not exactly an act of loyalty to a storied program at the time. For some, dropping the program was about redirecting funds to areas where they could be more productive. That is certainly a worthy goal for any college administrator, but there are other considerations.

David Strathairn, an actor whose work I have admired for many years, played the university's president who was initially inclined to suspend the program indefinitely. He had the best of intentions, not the least of which was the money that could be saved and redirected to other things.

But preserving the program was important to the students — and to the community. It wasn't about winning; for most, it was about moving on — but in an "we all move forward together" kind of way.

It was a long hard journey for Marshall, and it started with getting someone to accept the incredible challenge of taking over as the program's head coach and essentially building it from scratch. Yes, a long hard journey that was dramatized effectively in "We Are Marshall."

Everyone in Huntington was facing a challenge after that crash. The football players who survived the tragedy were dealing with plenty of issues. The father of one of the victims and his son's fiancee struggled to move on.

One of the few teammates to survive took it upon himself to carry the program forward on his shoulders. It was a burden he soon found to be impossible yet he felt a solemn duty to his deceased teammates. "They left it in my hands," he tearfully told his coach.

"No, they didn't," the coach replied. "They just left."

A surviving assistant coach (Matthew Fox) helped the new head coach (Matthew McConaughey) rebuild the team quickly, but the tragedy weighed heavily on him, and he wondered if they were disgracing the memory of his colleagues.

But that's the thing. When you've been knocked to your knees, you have to endure some difficult moments to return to what you consider normal, and some people don't possess whatever you want to call it — courage comes to mind for me — needed to persevere.

It is that courage that is inspiring, but it can be so easily manipulated in the movies. It's enough to put a viewer on the defensive from the start, isn't it? I mean, you know when you sit down to watch a movie like "We Are Marshall" that you're going to be manipulated, and you kind of brace yourself for that, don't you? I know I do. I think it's some sort of defense mechanism.

But "We Are Marshall" got away with it in large part, I believe, because it was unquestionably and demonstrably true.

Oh, sure, I know there were some things that were made up for dramatic effect, but much of it was probably dialogue (and, being a writer myself, I have to tip my hat to whoever wrote some of those lines). The events were beyond dispute — and even though you knew there had to be a moment of triumph, a time when the football team would win a game for the first time since the crash, it was no less effective when it happened on the big screen.

The sad truth about life is that not everyone who tries to rise from the ashes is successful. They don't make movies about those who, as Tennyson might have put it, are washed down by the gulfs, only about those who "touch the Happy Isles."

But, while not all who attempt to touch those Happy Isles succeed, all who try do so with the hope of success. "We must accept finite disappointment," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "but never lose infinite hope."

Anything that inspires people — a movie, a book, a song, a speech — appeals to that infinite hope, not acceptance of finite disappointment.

The story of Marshall University, its football team and the town of Huntington fed that hope by virtue of its truth.

It was not a Hollywood story strategically slated for a holiday premiere. It was the real thing.

No Way Out



The Major (William Windom): Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Who are you? What are you doing here? Is there a circus around here somewhere?

The Clown (Murray Matheson): A circus? (laughs) Yeah. Yeah, there must be a circus. A clown, a circus. An officer, a war. That's logic, isn't it? But it doesn't figure at all. Not at all.

The Major: Why not?

The Clown: Because there is no circus, and there is no war.

When I was about 15, my brother (who must have been about 12 at the time) was in a play at the college where my father was a religion professor.

It was called "Six Characters in Search of an Author," and it had a couple of children's parts — which the director filled with faculty children. My brother was one of those children. It wasn't a demanding role. He had no lines and only limited action. Mostly he was required to sit on stage — come to think of it, I suppose asking a 12–year–old to sit quietly on stage for a couple of hours is pretty demanding. I don't remember if the girl had any lines.

I saw the play several times, mostly on the campus but once when the play was chosen as a finalist in a national collegiate competition, and I accompanied my mother and brother to Fort Worth, Texas, which was where the competition was being held. My grandmother lived in Dallas, and she went with us to the competition.

The episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961 drew the inspiration for its title — "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" — from the title of that play, but it bore no other similarity.

Nevertheless I always think of that play when I see that episode, and I remember that competition well. Each college brought its costumes and sets and performed the plays at the competition. I had seen my brother's play several times, as I say, and I almost knew the script by heart. The cast did a good job at the competition, but I found it more interesting to see the plays I hadn't seen before. There was a play each morning, a play each afternoon and a play each evening.

I remember the feeling of seeing people in the audience whom I had watched perform on stage earlier that day or perhaps the day before. Everyone who wasn't performing was in the audience. I guess they all wanted to check out their competition.

My memory is that the competition went on for about three or four days. Then a winner was announced. My brother's play didn't win, but my mother and grandmother sure kicked up a fuss over how good the play had been (it was) and how proud they were of my brother. I was, too.

But I digress.

The Twilight Zone episode starred William Windom. He had no name in the episode. He was only known as The Major.

(Actually, that was something else the Twilight Zone episode borrowed from the play. The characters in the play had no names, either. They were known by what they were, not who they were.)

The Major awoke from a kind of sleep to find himself in some kind of cylindrical room with four companions — a clown, a hobo, a ballerina and a bagpipe player. He did not know who he was or how he got there, but he was determined to escape his confinement; the others, having been there longer, were more resigned to the fact that there was no way out. At least, they had not found one.

The fact that none could remember a time before they found themselves in the cylindrical room bothered them very much. So did the fact that they did not know who they were. Most of us would probably find that troubling as well.

"Perhaps we're the unloved," the Ballerina (Susan Harrison) mused.

They had also grown accustomed to an occasional loud clanging sound that tended to knock them from their feet.

Nevertheless the Major kept trying to find a way out, but he was finally forced to conclude that there was no way out.

And that led him to the conclusion that the five were in hell.

That didn't prevent him from continuing his quest for a way out. He hit upon the idea that they should form a human tower with the person at the top trying to climb over and out of the cylinder. That sounded plausible to the others so they formed such a tower — and it seemed they were about to succeed when that loud clanging sound was heard, and the human tower collapsed.

But they had been so close, and the major was more determined than ever. He fashioned a hook out of pieces of clothing and his sword, then the group re–formed the tower with the major at the top. His plan seemed to work. With the hook, he got to the rim of the cylinder and then tumbled off.

At that point, the viewer could see what had been happening outside the cylinder. A young girl picked up a doll dressed like a major. It was in a snow bank next to a barrel, part of a Christmas toy collection drive for a girls' orphanage.

That clanging sound had been the sound of a bell used by the woman who was overseeing the collection barrel. The girl told her a doll had fallen in the snow. The woman told the girl to put it in the barrel with the rest of the dolls.

Then they lamented how slow the drive had been.

Twilight Zone always did things its way.

And its Christmas episode from this night 55 years ago is a prime example.

By the time I saw it, Twilight Zone was in syndication, and I guess I had seen enough episodes to figure out the ending before I saw it.

But that didn't change the fact that I thought — and still do — that it was one of the most creative Christmas TV episodes I have ever seen. The viewer didn't even know it was a Christmas episode until the final minutes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'Rocky Balboa' Bookended the Tale of a Life



"It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone)

It was nearly 30 years ago to the day since "Rocky" premiered in U.S. theaters when "Rocky Balboa," ostensibly the final chapter in the "Rocky" story, made its theatrical debut.

I doubt that anyone who saw "Rocky" on the big screen in 1976 ever thought Sylvester Stallone would still be making movies about the Italian Stallion three decades later. Certainly I never dreamed I would be watching "Rocky" movies into the 21st century.

But I was, and I have to say I thought "Rocky Balboa," which premiered on this day in 2006, was a fitting finale for the movie series.

(And I say, with all sincerity, that I hoped it was the last movie in the series. It seemed to be — until "Creed" was in theaters a year ago, it had been almost 10 years since any additional films in the Rocky saga were in theaters. But that is another story.)

The first installment introduced audiences to a young Rocky Balboa, finally given the chance to succeed. Whether he succeeded depends upon one's definition of success, but there is no doubt the events in "Rocky" changed his life. The sequels that followed told the story of a life that often was swept along with the tide of human events. Seldom it seemed did Rocky ever have much control over the trajectory his life followed after his first fight with Apollo Creed.

The cast wasn't entirely the same as the cast in that first movie. Burgess Meredith, of course, was dead. Talia Shire was not dead — well, her character was, but that was a decision Stallone made. It was not Shire's decision; in fact, Shire was complimentary of the movie's handling of the grief process.

See, Stallone had decided that being without Adrian would be devastating for Rocky so it was decided that Adrian would be deceased, a victim of (presumably) breast or ovarian cancer, and that did add a dramatic punch to the story. It reinforced that sensation that life, as John Lennon said, is something that happens (or stops happening) while we're busy making other plans.

I am inclined to agree with Burt Young, who played Paulie, Adrian's brother. Young said Adrian had a greater influence on the story in her absence from that 2006 movie than she ever would have had by being there.

Rocky 30 years later was no longer the young man we came to know in 1976. Stallone was 60 years old, and it is fair to assume that his screen persona would have been about the same age. At that point in one's life, perspectives are different than they were. One has accumulated a lifetime's worth of experiences — and knowledge gained from those experiences.

The first movie was necessary to tell the story of that time in Rocky's life. "Rocky Balboa" was necessary to gain some perspective on that life.

And "Rocky Balboa" showed that Rocky really hadn't changed that much. He was still fundamentally the same guy we met in 1976, just three decades older and wiser and now widowed.

He had some issues with his son — which is the sort of thing that could be said of many fathers and sons — but they resolved them as Rocky prepared for an exhibition fight with the defending heavyweight champ.

Well, Rocky thought it was an exhibition — inspired by a televised computer simulation of a fight between Rocky and this reigning champ — but he discovered in the ring that the champ was taking it seriously. Folks who had been watching Rocky movies for 30 years must have instantly recognized the 180° difference between Rocky's fight with a disengaged Apollo Creed and a fully engaged Mason "The Line" Dixon.

Technically, Rocky didn't win that first fight. He didn't win the last one, either.

But that wasn't the point for Rocky — either time. The point was going the distance, and he did.

And, as always, Adrian was his inspiration. At the end of "Rocky Balboa," Rocky could be seen at Adrian's grave, saying "Yo, Adrian. We did it."

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Going Home



Billy (Gordon Pinsent): It's finding the center of your story, the beating heart of it, that's what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, what do you see? [Points at dark clouds on the horizon] Tell me the headline.

Quoyle (Kevin Spacey): Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds?

Billy: Imminent Storm Threatens Village.

Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?

Billy: Village Spared From Deadly Storm.

Some actors and actresses become typecast because they play a certain kind of role so well.

When I saw Kevin Spacey in "The Shipping News," which made its big–screen debut on this day in 2001, I kind of had that sensation about him. He is always playing dysfunctional characters, I thought to myself.

That wasn't really fair. His characters aren't always dysfunctional — but his character in "The Shipping News" sure was.

In my experience dysfunctional people generally don't owe that condition to any one person or one event. Oh, sure, there are some who do, but for most it seems to have been an ongoing process to which many people and many events contributed. So it was with Spacey's character in "The Shipping News."

Some of it was beyond his control — his emotionally abusive father, for example — but some of it was simply the outcome of the kind of bad choice that most of us make at some point in our lives — like marrying the wrong person. In Spacey's case, that was Cate Blanchett, who played the town tramp (and was virtually unrecognizable); she gave Spacey a daughter and took off.

He got an answering machine message from his father, who hinted that he and his wife would be gone soon, presumably in a murder–suicide, and, it turned out, they were. Spacey barely had time to mourn that loss when he got news about his wife. She and her, uh, friend took a plunge off a bridge and died when the car hit the water.

His aunt (Judi Dench) stopped to see him as she was en route to the family's ancestral home in Newfoundland; Spacey and his daughter wound up accompanying her. He'd been an ink setter for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and naturally gravitated to the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird — but was hired as a reporter, not an ink setter. His standing assignment was to cover the shipping news — a pretty important beat in a seaside community.

He wasn't a trained journalist, but he took the initiative to write an article he hadn't been assigned to write. When it was published, to his surprise (and to the surprise of his co–workers), his publisher (Scott Glenn) liked it well enough to make him a columnist.

He also became friendly with a young widow named Wavey (Julianne Moore).

Wavey lost her husband when his ship went down during a storm. I thought one of her most powerful lines must surely resonate with people who have lost someone to whom they were close — in other words, everyone.

"It was four years ago," she said of the loss, "and it was yesterday."

That was a realistic observation, I thought then (and still think today; my hat is off to whoever wrote that line). When you lose someone close to you, the moment you experienced the loss is always lurking just beneath the surface. No matter how much times passes, it doesn't take much to bring back the sharpness of the pain as if it were happening for the first time.

I was impressed with that — but mostly, I think, I was impressed with the portrayal of a small–town newspaper office and staff. I have worked for newspapers large and small, and the atmosphere in a small newspaper office is special. You know you aren't likely to be or work with a Pulitzer Prize winner at a small–town newspaper — after all, William Allen Whites are few and far between — but the work that is done at a small–town newspaper every day truly is the embodiment of what community journalism is all about. It may not be exciting or particularly interesting to anyone outside what may be a rather narrow circulation area, but to those readers in your newspaper's readership, local news is important to them — and there is nowhere else they can get it.

Not even in the digital age.

But there is a dark side to small–town newspapers, and Spacey encountered it in the form of the editor, who apparently made it his mission to get Spacey's character fired. If you haven't seen the movie, you'll have to watch it to find out whether he succeeded.

Well, I guess there is probably at least one sociopathic personality in every newsroom, even the small ones. I'm sure it isn't limited to newsrooms, though. Perhaps there is one in every workplace.

But it didn't stop Spacey's character.

The Neighbors From Hell



"Believe me, I know women — upside down and backwards, which is not a bad way to know 'em, huh?"

Vic (Dan Aykroyd)

Whoever you are and wherever you live or have lived, you're sure to have your share of bad neighbor stories.

Unless, of course, you are a bad neighbor.

"Neighbors," which premiered on this day in 1981, was the story of the ultimate bad neighbors, I suppose, and one man's (John Belushi) response to their intrusion into his space.

"If there's one quality that middle–class Americans have in common," wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the movie, "it's a tendency to be rigidly polite in the face of absolutely unacceptable behavior. Confronted with obnoxious rudeness, we freeze up, we get a nervous little smile, we allow our eyes to focus on the middle distance, and we cannot believe this is happening to us. It's part of our desire to avoid a scene. We'd rather choke to death in a restaurant than break a plate to attract attention."

But everyone has a breaking point, and Belushi's character reached his when Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty moved into the neighborhood.

"They are everything we dread in neighbors," Ebert observed. "They are loud. They are blatant freeloaders. The man is gung–ho macho. The woman is oversexed and underloved. They park some kind of customized truck on their front lawn. They invite themselves to dinner."

Given that nugget of information, it probably isn't hard to guess how the plot unfolded — especially since it included the team of Belushi and Aykroyd.

But what was intriguing about "Neighbors" was not the sometimes predictable dialogue. It was Belushi and Aykroyd's unexpected role reversal. In most of their work together, on the big or small screen, Belushi was the wild man and Aykroyd was the plain vanilla guy.

In "Neighbors," it was the precise opposite. Belushi played Earl, a routine kind of guy living a quiet life in his little corner of the world. Then Aykroyd and Moriarty invaded.

Sadly, Belushi died a few months after "Neighbors" made its theatrical debut.

"Neighbors" was an indication of how much we lost when we lost Belushi. With Belushi and Aykroyd taking roles that were unexpected, we got a glimpse of their versatility. All their movies would not have been "Blues Brothers" retreads. Unfortunately, we never found out.

Belushi had many irons in the fire at the time of his death. One of his planned projects was to appear in "Ghostbusters" with Aykroyd.

Makes you wonder what might have been, doesn't it?

The Spirit of the Season



"All over the world they celebrate the birth of that baby, and everybody gets time off from work. Now if that ain't proof that he's the son of God, then nothing is."

Archie (Carroll O'Connor)

The episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1971 — "Christmas Day at the Bunkers'" — was a reminder of the true spirit of the season.

Simply put, Archie made a mistake at the plant where he worked. He sent a work order to London, England instead of London, Ontario, and his Christmas bonus was withheld as a fine. Without it, he was unable to spend a lot on Christmas presents, and he was too embarrassed to admit why he didn't have the money.

Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) made jokes about Archie's Christmas gift — a box of his and hers handkerchiefs — which did nothing to improve his mood. He just got more irritable as various household service providers, such as the mailman, hinted at wanting a holiday bonus from Archie.

Things didn't improve when the Jeffersons came over for dinner, and Henry Jefferson (Mel Stewart) was dressed as Santa Claus.

A black Santa didn't exactly go over well with Archie. In fact, it reopened an old argument between Archie and Henry. The original argument had been over whether Jesus had been white or black.

"Jesus was white, and so is Santa Claus," Archie told Henry.

"Yeah, well, when I was a kid," Henry said, "the man filling my stocking was black."

It was Edith (Jean Stapleton) whose charitable spirit sought to soothe Archie. She told him she loved her "Hers" handkerchiefs.

"How did you ever get them to split a box?" she asked in complete innocence.

But Edith was not stupid. It was Edith who put two and two together and figured out why Archie didn't get a Christmas bonus. She understood — and it really didn't matter to Edith. She was one of those people who would say that if she was able to spend the holiday with those she loved, that was what mattered.

Sometimes Edith's good nature annoyed Archie — but on this night it was precisely what he needed. It gave him the courage to observe, at the end, that "I guess this ain't such a bad Christmas, after all."

God bless us every one.

In a Pickle in Mayberry



"What's small potatoes to some folks can be mighty important to others."

Andy (Andy Griffith)

In the TV town of Mayberry, which was modeled after Andy Griffith's North Carolina hometown, it was generally accepted by all that Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) was a remarkable cook.

Now, I grew up in a small Southern town, and I can tell you one thing with absolutely no fear of contradiction. When folks in a small Southern town agree that someone is a great cook, you can take it to the bank.

Southerners take food very seriously. It is around food that everything else in our lives revolves.

But as audiences discovered in the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that aired on this night in 1961 — "The Pickle Story" — Aunt Bee did have an Achilles' heel.

Her pickles were awful. Barney (Don Knotts) called them "kerosene cucumbers."

Things got started when Aunt Bee brought lunch to the courthouse one day and told Andy and Barney that she had a surprise for them. The surprise was that she had been making pickles — not one of her tasty pies or delicious Southern entrees. She had made eight quarts of pickles, and she had brought pickles for Andy and Barney that day.

Barney tried to get out of eating his pickle by telling Aunt Bee that he had had a big breakfast. "I hate to eat it when I'm so full up like this," he told her. "I'll just wait and smoke — er, eat — it later."

She didn't know they didn't like her pickles. I guess she thought everyone liked everything she made. That's the problem with being good at something. People expect you to be good at it all the time.

And I suppose if you are told repeatedly that you are good at something, you become inclined to believe that everything you do in that area is good. You may reach a point where you simply do not comprehend the idea that you are not good at something. Perhaps that was how it was with Aunt Bee.

Aunt Bee's reputation as a cook was established in the very first episode and reinforced throughout the series so the viewers knew she was a great cook, but she did have a couple of weak spots. She couldn't make pickles or marmalade (but her marmalade is a topic for another time).

When Andy and Barney learned she had been putting up pickles, they decided that, since they were duty–bound to consume the pickles, they would swap them with store pickles and dispose of the homemade pickles. That way they could eat them, and Aunt Bee would be pleased (and none the wiser).

But things didn't go quite as smoothly as that.

When Aunt Bee tried one of the pickles, she decided she was going to enter the pickle contest at the county fair after all. Previously she had decided not to enter; it was, after all, a competition that had been won for 11 straight years by her friend Clara (Hope Summers), but now Aunt Bee was convinced that she had hit upon the right recipe.

At first, Andy and Barney treated the possibility of Aunt Bee winning the competition with professionally made pickles as a joke, but then Clara paid a visit to the courthouse with some of her homemade pickles and got into a conversation with Andy, revealing how much it meant to her to know that she had a talent for something.

And fair–minded Andy realized that he and Barney had been wrong about the competition. It wouldn't be a joke if Aunt Bee won the blue ribbon with pickles she hadn't made — at the expense of someone who played by the rules and deserved to win.

So he decided that the best thing to do would be for Andy, Barney and Opie (Ron Howard) to eat up all the pickles, forcing Aunt Bee to make another batch of her kerosene cucumbers to enter at the fair.

And that's what they did.

When Aunt Bee observed that all the pickles were gone and she didn't have any to enter in the contest — after telling everyone that she would enter — Andy said, in an offhand way, "I guess there's nothing else to do except make another batch."

"I suppose not," Aunt Bee replied.

That was all Andy needed to light a spark under Aunt Bee, and she went scurrying off to get the things she would need for her pickling.

The new batch was just as bad as the others. And Aunt Bee lost — but she did so with her own pickles.

She lost to Clara, who had a 12th blue ribbon to add to her treasured scrapbook.

And Andy and Barney had 16 quarts of kerosene cucumbers that they would have to consume.

"There's only one thing to do," Andy told Barney. "It's what we should have done in the first place. Learn to love 'em."

And the episode concluded with the two munching joylessly on Aunt Bee's pickles.

A Tale of Lust



Baby Doll (Carroll Baker): I don't want to be in the same room with a man that would make me live in a house with no furniture! My daddy would turn over in his grave if he knew, he would just turn over in his grave.

Archie Lee (Karl Malden): If your daddy turned in his grave as often as you say he'd turn in his grave, that old man would plow up the graveyard.

Tennessee Williams really knew how to get to the heart of things, and there may have been no better example of that than "Baby Doll," which premiered on this day in 1956.

It was a steamy story, all right — and the fact that it was almost totally implausible seems to have had no influence on moviegoers of the day. It was erotic and titillating and all that good stuff — and there wasn't a second of nudity to be seen! That may be the most implausible part of the whole thing for modern audiences — but you have to remember that this movie was in theaters at a time when the Hays Code was still in charge of things.

Consequently, anything of that nature took place in the viewers' minds. (This is purely speculation, of course, but it seems all but certain that "Baby Doll" be a much different movie if a remake was attempted today.)

That seems to have been the state of things when the movie began, too. Too much was happening in the mind — and not elsewhere.

Archie Lee (Karl Malden) was a middle–aged bigot, alcoholic and failing cotton gin owner in Mississippi. Carroll Baker, in an Oscar–nominated performance, was Baby Doll, his 19–year–old wife. They had been married for two years, but they had never been intimate because of a promise Archie Lee had made to Baby Doll's dying father.

He had promised they would not be intimate until her 20th birthday, and he had been faithful to his promise, but now Baby Doll's 20th birthday was drawing nigh, and she was dreading it. Archie Lee, meanwhile, had been impatiently waiting for it like a child waiting for Christmas morning. Baby Doll slept in a crib and sucked her thumb, and Archie Lee watched her through a hole in the wall, lusting for her.

"Baby Doll" was about lust of all kinds.

Eli Wallach, in his big–screen debut, was Archie Lee's competitor. He ran a newer and better cotton gin that had been taking away Archie Lee's business — and Silvy wanted Archie Lee's business and his wife.

Archie Lee torched the competitor's business. Wallach's character suspected Archie Lee was behind it, and he came up with a plan to get even. He took truck loads of cotton to Archie Lee and asked him to process the cotton for him. While Archie Lee was busy with that, the competitor put the moves on Baby Doll.

It may well have been the dialogues between Baby Doll and Silva that best demonstrated Williams' flair.

"I wouldn't dream of eatin' a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth," Baby Doll said at one point.

"You've got many refinements," Silva replied.

But it wouldn't be a Williams script without one of the characters enduring great emotional pain because of the actions of another character, and Malden's character was tortured by his tantalizing tease of a wife. She and Silva flaunted their flirtations in front of him, and Archie Lee got angrier and angrier.

Then Silva confronted Archie Lee with an affidavit he had forced Baby Doll to sign that incriminated Archie Lee in the burning of Silva's cotton gin. The police were summoned, presented with the affidavit, arrested Archie Lee and took him away.

The adaptation of Williams' earlier work, a one–act play called "27 Wagons Full of Cotton," was nominated for an Oscar but lost — as did Mildred Dunnock, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Baby Doll's senile aunt who lived with the couple.

"Baby Doll" was condemned at the time of its release as amoral. Ironically, by modern standards, it is so tame it is shown frequently on cable movie channels like AMC and TCM.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Legends in a Mind



"Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?"

Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer)

As is so often the case with biographical movies, "A Beautiful Mind," which premiered 15 years ago today, was not a literal telling of the life — and mind — of John Forbes Nash Jr., who was played by Russell Crowe. Director Ron Howard and others who were behind the production readily conceded that point. Those who criticized it for being inaccurate in its portrayal of the Nobel Laureate in Economics needn't have bothered.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend the movie as source material for someone writing a term paper on schizophrenia. I haven't read the book upon which it was based so I don't know how accurate it might be — but books are almost always better (and, in the case of biographies, more accurate) than the movies that are inspired by them, anyway.

But I would recommend it for several other reasons.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you must be aware of my fondness for history and biography. And I do prefer that movie biographies not embellish the facts — but I realize that is almost impossible, even though I have long believed that if a life's story is compelling enough to be written about, it is compelling enough to be presented on its own merits without having to add to it in print or on the screen.

So I cut biopics some slack on the accuracy part if — and this is an important distinction for me — such discrepancies do not make significant differences to the story. I know that, as far as most filmmakers are concerned, these revisions are judged by their dramatic effect. I like to be entertained as much as the next guy, but the dramatic element really isn't important to me.

And, from what I know of the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., his schizophrenic episodes did involve the delusion that he was working on top secret assignments from the U.S. government. That's not the kind of detail I mean.

Let's say, for example, that the person being portrayed was, in real life, a lefthander — but the actor/actress doing the portrayal is right–handed. Unless the fact that the person was left–handed in life is a crucial point in that person's story — Babe Ruth, for example, was left–handed — I won't quibble over such a small detail. Well, not much, anyway.

But suppose the detail in question has more significance than that. Suppose it locates a character in a place and time that had no meaning for that character's life — and presents that detail as being critical in the character's timeline. Suppose the character is portrayed as having played a decisive role in an event when, in fact, that character played no role in it at all.

That is the kind of thing to which I object.

I don't think "A Beautiful Mind" was guilty of that — although, ironically I suppose, "A Beautiful Mind" was the story of a man who believed he had played roles in events in which he really had played no role at all. The events themselves may have occurred only in that beautiful mind, which clearly was brilliant but also disturbed.

It was no surprise, really, when "A Beautiful Mind" won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I thought Crowe deserved Best Actor (Denzel Washington won for "Training Day"), and Jennifer Connelly received Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Forbes' wife (I thought she should have been nominated for Best Actress). The movie also won Best Adapted Screenplay.

Christopher Plummer, who played the doctor who diagnosed Forbes' schizophrenia, was not nominated at all. Nor was Ed Harris, who played one of Forbes' hallucinations.

Oversights. Severe oversights.

Was She, or Wasn't She?



"The poor have only one advantage; they know when they are loved for themselves."

Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman)

Of all the women who have graced the silver screen, few have combined great beauty with great talent the way Ingrid Bergman did.

In the '30s and '40s, she shared billing with some of the top actors in Hollywood and was directed by some of Hollywood's top directors. Many of her movies are still regarded as being among the best ever made.

But Bergman did not always live a charmed life. From 1949 until this day in 1956, Bergman was essentially — and hypocritically — blacklisted in Hollywood for having an affair with director Roberto Rossellini — and eventually giving birth to his child — while she and Rossellini were married to other people. The fact that Bergman and Rossellini married in 1950 and had two more children together apparently made little difference.

For more than half of the '50s, Bergman collaborated with Rossellini on foreign films while living in exile after being denounced by Colorado Democrat Edwin Johnson on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Bergman made eight movies during her exile; most have been seldom seen by Western audiences.

Then Bergman made her triumphant return to the American silver screen with "Anastasia," which premiered on this day in 1956. Her performance in the title role won her an Oscar, her second.

For such an actress, only an extraordinary role would do for such a comeback, and the subject matter truly was extraordinary. It was one of history's intriguing mysteries.

History contains many mysteries. Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to Amelia Earhart? Or Jimmy Hoffa? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Did he even act at all?

And Bergman's comeback subject was — and, to an extent, remains — one of the 20th century's greatest mysteries. What became of Anastasia, the 17–year–old grand duchess of Russia who supposedly perished with the rest of the Romanov family in 1918? For years there were rumors that she escaped the executions that her family suffered after the Bolshevik revolution.

Did she?

That was the question facing some of the characters in the story, but that was not a question the movie sought to answer. "Anastasia" was about a criminal plot to collect money being held in a trust for the real Anastasia.

The ringleader of the plot, a manipulative Russian businessman, was played by Yul Brynner, and he knew Anastasia didn't have to be perfect, merely convincing. As he presented his case to his fellow conspirators, Brynner asked, "Would you recognize the smile of a girl you knew 10 years ago?"

He went on to observe, "You're examining her as if she was the real Anastasia. There is no Anastasia! She was shot to death 10 years ago by a firing squad. We're not looking for her, gentlemen. We're seeking only a reasonable facsimile."

His mission was to persuade Helen Hayes, who played the sole surviving Romanov, that Bergman was legitimate. And she wasn't easy to convince. She had known the real Anastasia as a girl, and her memory was keen.

"I like the past," she said at one point. "It's sweet and familiar."

At the Oscars, Bergman received the Best Actress award. Brynner received Best Actor that night — but for his performance in "The King and I."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

We Are Family



If you're old enough to remember TV from the '80s — or simply if you watch syndicated programs today — you may recognize Bea Arthur as one of the stars of The Golden Girls.

But Arthur first became known to American TV audiences 45 years ago today with an appearance as Edith Bunker's (Jean Stapleton) Cousin Maude on All in the Family. After establishing her character in two appearances on All in the Family, Arthur was cast as the star of her own series, aptly titled Maude, and a star was born. It was on this night in 1971 that she made the first of those appearances.

In the story, Edith (Jean Stapleton) had been running herself ragged trying to care for the rest of the family. Archie (Carroll O'Connor), Gloria (Sally Struthers) and Mike (Rob Reiner) were suffering from some kind of flu, and Edith called on her cousin Maude to come help her. As Maude frequently said of her cousin, "That sweet Edith, I'd die for her," and Maude didn't hesitate to answer Edith's call.

Edith and Maude were more than cousins. They were close, apparently had been close since at least their teen years. They both recalled when Archie and Edith met at a neighborhood ice cream parlor — but they remembered that event differently. For Edith, it was a sentimental journey. For Maude, it was a painful memory. She believed Edith had married beneath her.

Archie and Maude didn't get along. Well, that's putting it mildly.

Maude was everything Archie was not. She was progressive, a Democrat, a supporter of things like women's liberation, abortion, civil rights, racial equality and gender equality. She idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt; Archie's favorite president was Richard Nixon (he took his lumps for that a few years later when Watergate was constantly in the news and then Nixon resigned; a few years after that, he foreshadowed the future by insisting that he would vote for Ronald Reagan for president the next time around). It was a classic confrontation between liberal and conservative, the immovable object vs. the irresistible force.

No doubt there were many households that had similar divisions in their families in the just–concluded election season.

How and When Things Happen



Life does things when it does them. It doesn't consider the timing.

Besides, there are some events in life for which there are no convenient times. They always seem to happen at the most inconvenient times possible, though, don't they?

In the episode of How I Met Your Mother that aired on this night in 2006, Ted (Josh Radnor) had decided that he didn't want to spend the holidays with his mother and her boyfriend or with his father. Instead, he had opted to stay in New York with his "other family."

But the happy holidays ambiance was shattered when, while decorating the apartment, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) came across their old answering machine. She listened to the messages that were still on the machine — including one from Ted to Marshall (Jason Segel) while Marshall and Lily were apart.

In that message, Ted called Lily a "grinch." Well, he used a word that sounded like grinch, but it was really another word. As Ted's older self put it in his role as narrator, "a very, very bad word." The actual word was never specified. Just grinch. You fill in the blank with the word you think is most likely (two words come to mind for me, based on what I know of Ted and his speech patterns and word preferences).

Lily wanted to know why Ted would call her that, and he tried to explain he was being supportive of his friend. That probably is something that is difficult for many women to understand — while this may sound sexist, the truth is that males and females really do perceive and respond to many things differently, and that is simply a statement of fact — but I understand where Ted was coming from. I've been in his shoes — trying to be supportive of a broken–hearted friend — but, fortunately for me, there was no evidence with which the girl could confront me later.

It doesn't take too much imagination to visualize what the discovery of the message did to the Christmas season for the gang. For one thing, Lily packed up all the decorations and carted them away — knowing that Marshall was expecting to see them when he returned from working on the final term paper that he had to turn in before he could conclude his work for the semester.

Marshall was such a sentimentalist. He loved the holidays so much that he went around the apartment with his eyes closed so he wouldn't see even a sliver of the "winter wonderland" that he said would be his reward for finishing his school responsibilities. Lily had to know he would be crushed when he came home to an apartment stripped of its festive appearance.

But things happen when they happen.

And when friends have a falling out like that, they make up (if they do) when they make up. I have known people who let years go by because of an argument they had, and I have known people who made up quickly and didn't let something like that stand in the way of their friendship.

Ted and Lily made up rather quickly — and under rather unexpected circumstances.

That's the way things happen in life.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

'Wings Over America' Was Amazing Yet Disappointing



The buzz that preceded the release 40 years ago today of "Wings Over America," a three–record album of Paul McCartney and Wings performing live on their mid–'70s American tour, was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

It hadn't been all that long, really, since the Beatles broke up, and I guess the withdrawal from the excitement of Beatlemania was too great for many fans. The tour was the first time McCartney had performed in the United States since the Beatles toured North America in the '60s, and there was a great desire to hear what McCartney sounded like in concert.

My sense was that there was general disappointment in the album even though it reached #1 on the Billboard LP chart. That was pretty amazing for a three–record set. I guess you had to be an ex–Beatle to accomplish that feat.

Immediately after their breakup, the Beatles embarked on their individual projects. Initially, the most successful ex–Beatle had to be George Harrison with not one but two extraordinarily well–received triple albums, "Concert for Bangladesh" and "All Things Must Pass." McCartney soon surpassed him, though, with several successful albums — but his triple album did not come along until "Wings Over America" hit the stores 40 years ago today.

"Wings Over America" contained mostly songs from those albums. Today it serves as kind of a nice time capsule, reminding us of what McCartney was doing in those first few years away from the Beatles, but at the time many fans wanted to hear McCartney performing Beatles songs. There was still hope, as I recall, that the Beatles would reunite, and that hope persisted for four more years until the assassination of John Lennon. In the '70s rumors of Beatles reunions were as rampant as Elvis sightings.

McCartney did oblige his fans by including live performances of five Beatles songs — but he provided considerably more than that 14 years later in another live triple album, "Tripping the Live Fantastic."

"Maybe I'm Amazed" was the only single released from the entire album, but it was far from being McCartney's most recent studio recording. It first appeared on his 1970 album, "McCartney," an album that was regarded more at the time as McCartney's attempt to cash in on the week–old breakup of the Beatles.

That album opened some wounds among Beatles fans that fester to this day.

But "Maybe I'm Amazed" found a wider audience as a live recording than it ever did as a studio piece. For those who had been following the four Beatles since their breakup, that may have been the most amazing thing about "Wings Over America."

After all, there were more than two dozen tracks on "Wings Over America." About 80% were from albums McCartney had made in the six years since the Beatles' breakup — and many, but not all, had been hits. There was a live version, for example, of "Live and Let Die," McCartney's musical contribution to the James Bond film series. And there was a live version of "Band on the Run," which may have been McCartney's most successful solo record up to that time.

"Maybe I'm Amazed" would have been the choice of few to be the only single from the album. Yet it was — and it was a big hit.

In hindsight, I guess the only single from that three–record set had to be a song that had been out there for awhile, not a recent release. Of course, that opens the door for an argument that a Beatles song should have been the single. But I suppose that gets us into issues of ownership rights and things like that.

I don't know whose idea it was to make "Maybe I'm Amazed" the only single from the album. But whoever thought of it was spot on.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Two Faces of Gilligan



"Members of the jury, friends and relatives: The case before us is one of crime and murder. Therefore, I caution you to withhold judgment until all the facts are in. Therefore, we must assume Dr. Gilligan is innocent until proven guilty. Now, where is the filthy killer?"

Judge/Mr. Howell (Jim Backus)

I have mentioned here before that my favorite Gilligan's Island episodes were the ones in which the castaways got to play characters in spoofs of familiar fairy tales and movies.

I have heard that the episode that first aired on this night in 1966, "And Then There Were None," is Dawn Wells' favorite from the series. Wells, of course, played Mary Ann in the series, but the spoofs gave her the opportunity to get some variety.

It was as Mary Ann, though, that Wells got the episode off and running.

See, in this episode, the castaways started disappearing, one by one. Mary Ann disappeared while she and Gilligan (Bob Denver) were doing the laundry. That led to speculation that she had been taken by islanders looking for wives. Then Ginger (Tina Louise) vanished during a search of the island for Mary Ann.

The Professor (Russell Johnson) hit on the idea of dressing up Gilligan in women's clothes as bait while the Professor and the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) were close by to catch the natives before they could do anything. Nothing happened — except that Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer) also went missing.

The men went running to the lagoon, hoping to save the women, but they found nothing when they got there, and some assumed the islanders had already gone.

But then the Professor concluded he had been wrong. There were no signs of invaders anywhere in the lagoon — no footprints in the sand, no tracks left by the islanders' canoes. The Professor deduced there never had been any invaders on the island.

And that left the unpleasant option that one of the men had succumbed to island madness, snapping under the stress and becoming a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde who abducted and then killed the women.

Gilligan, of course, was very susceptible to all kinds of things, and he began worrying that he was the Jekyll/Hyde the Professor had warned them about because he had been alone with each of the women shortly before they disappeared.

But the Skipper pointed out that he had been with Gilligan and Ginger before she disappeared, and Gilligan relaxed enough to fall asleep. But each of the men disappeared, too, leaving only Gilligan. He went looking for them and stumbled near the fallen clothesline, struck his head and was knocked out. His dreams picked up where his conscious mind left off, and he dreamed about being a Jekyll/Hyde on trial in Victorian England.

And thus a spoof on that story — but it was really a spoof of all sorts of characters, both real and fictional. There were more literary/historical references in that episode than in any other single episode in the series — and possibly any such spoof episode in any other series in TV history.

Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) played the presiding judge, a character based on the famous "hanging judge" of the 19th century. Mrs. Howell's character was clearly Mary Poppins — and she was Dr. Gilligan's defense attorney. Mary Ann was a Cockney flower girl straight out of "My Fair Lady."

Ginger's character, the Lady in Red, was based on John Dillinger's — how shall I put this? — companion.

Dr. Gilligan himself indulged in a bit of literary referencing, you might say. At one point he held a lily, sniffed it and recited poetry, which was a reference to 19th–century author Oscar Wilde. (That reference may have been a bit obscure for anyone who didn't study literature in college — neither did I, for that matter, but I have done quite a bit of reading in my life.)

The title of the episode was taken directly from one of my favorite Agatha Christie books, "And Then There Were None."

The Skipper played a court bailiff, and the Professor played the prosecuting attorney. Apparently there was a bit of nepotism involved in the Professor's character's job. He called the judge Uncle Tony. He also said Dr. Gilligan was "Frankenstein, Bluebeard and Jack the Ripper, all rolled into one."

On the witness stand the Lady in Red proved that the mere mention of food turned Dr. Gilligan into a werewolf–like Mr. Hyde.

Gilligan regained consciousness. Tangled in the clothesline, he stumbled on and fell through a trap door, the very one that each of his fellow castaways had fallen through. Dangling from the clothesline, Gilligan had, without knowing it, provided his friends with a means to escape the pit.

I have heard it said that the moral of the story is, "When your imagination runs wild, don't go along for the ride." I don't know if that was the message of the episode, but it's still good advice.

On the other hand, perhaps the episode was a cautionary tale, warning against being obsessive about food.