Thursday December 31, 2020
Dawn Wells (1938-2020)
Our dreamgirl next door.
It was the great question of the second half of the 20th century. It's also a question with no wrong answer. You either went with a tall, beautiful, red-haired seductress or a supercute girl next door with a smile that brightens the room and legs to die for who somehow makes coconut cream pies on a deserted island. But if we're honest about it, the proper response is this: “They're both out of our league.”
This, however, is the answer I've tended to give: “The time Mary Ann thought she was Ginger.”
That episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (original airdate March 6, 1967, the seventh-to-last episode of “Gilligan's Island,” thank you, IMDb), knocked me for a loop when I was a kid. And for years afterward. Probably to this day. And I don't think it's because I wanted the girl next door to act like the seductress—or maybe I did, and do—it's more the scene where Mary Ann wants to make out with Gilligan but he runs away. But then he's told, by either the Professor or the Skipper, that because they're worried about Mary Ann's pyschic state he should return. So he does. He plops his head into her lap and she plants a long one of him while the soundtrack makes that mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa sound. I don't think I ever wanted to be someone as much I wanted to be Gilligan with his head in Dawn Wells' lap while she plants a long one on him and you hear mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa.
Dawn Wells, everyone's not-so-secret crush, the dreamgirl next door for several generations, died yesterday from complications with COVID.
My father went out with her. I know, I'm burying the lede. in 1979, Dawn came to Minneapolis as part of a touring company for Neil Simon's “Chapter Two,” and he did a feature on her for the Star-Tribune. He also asked if he could show her around town. Just the typical journalistic graciousness, you understand. Journalism 101 stuff, really. Dad did it with everybody.
I was a little fuzzy on the details, so I asked about it when I talked to him yesterday. He thinks he bought her lunch. He doesn't remember what sites he showed her. I cut to the chase. “Did you kiss her?” “Well, at the end, she gave me a kiss,” he said. “To thank me.” From the sound of it, it was not a romantic kiss. It wasn't mwaa mwaa. Even so, my father got to first base—or halfway there—with Mary Ann. Jealousy doesn't begin to describe it.
He might've done better if he'd given her a better lede:
Dawn Wells is an alumna of two of the most ridiculed phenomena in American culture—the “Miss America” paegent and “Gilligan's Island.”
That's actually a pretty good open. And he was only beginning with the negative to accenctuate the positive: her starring role in “Chapter Two” and other theatrical productions; her artist-in-residence position at her alma mater—Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. The idea was: Dawn Wells isn't who you think she is.
It's a good piece. I learned a lot. She was a fourth-generation Nevadan, her great-grandfather drove a stagecoach, and her father was an original stockholder in the Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas. She was an extra on the set of “The Misfits,” which was filming close to where she grew up. That was her first brush with show business. She finished her B.A. with a major in drama at the University of Washington, then became Miss Nevada. She flipped a coin whether to go to NYC or LA and LA won. After “Gilligan's Island,” she had trouble overcoming the Mary Ann image and went back to theater. She retained a warm feeling for the show and stayed in touch with most of the cast members, “particularly Natalie Schafer, who vacations with her at Wells' gulfside home near St. Petersberg, Fla.” The looks they must've gotten hanging at the beach.
The piece also mentions all of her investments: another home in Nashville, land in Vegas, three oil wells. These must've fallen through because in 2018 she announced she was broke and relied on a GoFundMe to pay medical expenses and back taxes. Articles mention “an unexpected accident” and “life-threatening surgery” but not why Medicare didn't cover it. She died in a nursing home in LA.
Dad also said she was what she seemed on the show: enthusiastic, sweet, lovely. Take us out, Leonard Cohen.
Sunday July 26, 2020
John Saxon (1935-2020)
This morning, before the news, if you'd asked me what I remembered John Saxon in, I would‘ve said a sci-fi TV movie from the 1970s in which he winds up in the future or something, in a land ruled by women, and his top is torn off as he’s auctioned off at the marketplace. But after the news, and after I looked at his credits, I realized the first big impression he made on me was in a “Six Million Dolar Man” episode called “Day of the Robot,” where he plays Steve Austin's old army buddy who gets kidnapped and replaced by a bionic robot. At one point, mid-battle, his “face” gets knocked off, revealing the machinery beneath. I know. But he made an impression. He was not necessarily imposing but the character/robot seemed imposing: stolid and blank-faced and forever pushing forward. It was an early look at what the “Terminator” movies might be.
Turns out he was on almost everything I watched as a kid in the ‘70s: “Petrocellli,” “Kung Fu,” “Wonder Woman,” and in a different role in that two-part “Six Million Dollar Man”/“Bionic Woman” episode about Big Foot. I kept turning on the TV and there he was: slightly receding hairline, strong jaw, evil eyes. Did they ever cast him with Anthony Zerbe as brothers? They should have. Even now I get them mixed up. I was like, “Wasn’t Saxon on a ‘Star Trek’ episode?” As a Klingon? Except that's not even Zerbe. It's John Colicos. But all of them should‘ve been Klingons.
Saxon also played the awful, no-nonsense corporate CEO Hunt Sears in “The Electric Horseman,” and he had a small, consequential role in Bruce Lee’s big breakthrough, “Enter the Dragon,” but he's chiefly known, per IMDb and the honors pouring in this morning, for a movie series I never saw and don't have interest in seeing: the “Nightmae on Elm Street” movies. He went on to stuff I didn't care about: “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “Murder She Wrote.” Where did I last see him? “From Dusk Till Dawn” in ‘96? Maybe. But in truth, a few times a year, I saw him in my mind’s eye as a contemporary man in a future world run by women: “Planet of the Apes” but with women. Not sure why that stayed with me.
Turns out it's called “Planet Earth” and this is IMDb's description:
A man awakens from suspended animation and finds himself in the 22nd century, where he finds that women rule the world and that men are slaves called Dinks.
Dinks? That's a little on-the-nose, isn't it? I'm not sure if it felt anti-feminist to me then or just subsequently, but the odd thing is it's a project developed by the supposedly far-sighted Gene Roddenberry. He created it, wrote it, and gave it to longtime “Star Trek” director Marc Daniels (everything from “The Naked Time” to “Mirror, Mirror” to “Spock's Brain”) to direct. Plus the clothes look like if “Trek” had continued into the 1970s. I might have to revisit one day.
Wednesday July 01, 2020
Carl Reiner (1922-2020)
When I was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s, the non-music album we played the most was probably “2000 and THIRTEEN,” by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which my father always felt was funnier than the more famous “2000 Year Old Man.” I agree. I still think it's one of the funniest things I‘ve ever heard. This is from memory so forgive all the errors:
CARL: [Somehow mentions Paul Revere]
MEL: Anti-Semitic bastard!
CARL: What? Why, we have no record of
MEL: Oh, he was scared of us. He was afraid. He was afraid we were moving into the neighborhood. I remember one night, he got on his horse, and he rode around yelling, “The Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!”
CARL: No, it was “The British are coming!”
MEL: Oy, my god!
CARL: You mean all this time...?
MEL: Oh, and I didn’t go to his funeral. ... I‘ll have to send his wife a note.
There are tributes and testimonials all over the internet and social media, of course. From Nick Kroll. From Al Franken. From Alec Berg, a “Seinfeld” writer. From Matthew Rosenberg, a comic book writer, who recounts his father’s love of “Your Show of Shows” with one sketch and one perpetual birthday dinner. Anyone who can get “Beef Straganoff” to trend on Twitter, instead of the latest Trumpian idiocies, is my friend for life. Paul Wadman simply posted a nonsense rhyme—Nog, Nog/McKellan bee bog—which I immediately recognized from “2000 and THIRTEEN” and translated. My friend Adam posted that the Reiner-directed “The Jerk” was “flat-out the funniest film ever made” and it made me recall all the bits from “The Jerk” Adam would do when we shared an office from 2005 to 2007.
Reiner was mostly straight man to hilarious men, wasn't he? To Mel. To Sid Caesar. To Steve Martin. I never regularly watched his huge breakthrough, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but I did see most of the movies he directed in the late 1970s—and in the theater: “Oh, God,” “The One and Only,” and “The Jerk.” Yes, even “The One and Only,” since it starred Henry Winkler and I was Fonz-crazed at the time. Then I was Steve Martin-crazed. Though “Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid” and “The Man with Two Brains” might have been VHS but “All of Me” was definitely theater. In the autumn of his life Reiner did lesser summer movies: “Summer Rental,” “Summer School.” Apparently he was greatly disappointed in the box-office response to “Bert Rigby, You‘re a Fool,” his 1989 working-class, British, musical comedy. He thought the star, Robert Lindsay, was another Dick Van Dyke, but “working class” and “musical” and “British” didn’t take in the summer of Tim Burton's “Batman.” (What's with “Rigby,” by the way? It's also Martin's name in “Dead Men.” Anyone know?)
He kept going. He never stopped working. He appeared with Mel on Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” He was nominated for an Emmy in his mid-90s for starring in and narrating “If You‘re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” He took potshots at Trump on Twitter. He became a toy in Pixar’s “Toy Story” world: Carl Reinerocerus.
Baseball historian John Thorn posted this trading card from the “1953 Bowman TV and Radio Stars of NBC” set—a thing I never knew existed, but you can look it up:
He made it a long way from the garment district. You look at that long, full life, full of laughter, and think, “That's the way to do it.”
Thursday January 23, 2020
Terry Jones (1942-2020)
Mr. Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson (left)
He was the member of “Monty Python's Flying Circus” that was most often overlooked. Maybe that's why I liked him. Cleese was loud, Idle cute, Palin happily nonsensical. Cleese and Palin often teamed up on the show's most famous sketches: “Dead Parrot” and “Cheese,” for example. Cleese did his silly walks and cutting voice, Palin did the “lumberjack song.” Jones? I think he did drag better than any of them. I still remember his dowdy housewife coquetteishly picking the next sketch: “Ooh, a Scotsman on a horse.” I think he was the lead granny from the granny gangs that imperiled the town.
He was often the victim—and often to Eric Idle. He was the poor man getting nudge-nudged, for example. One of my favorite sketches was Idle interviewing Jones' Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, a composer who only wanted to talk about his music but was forever doomed to be asked about his nickname. “Then you'd be Arthur ‘No Sheds’ Jackson” is one of the funniest lines I‘ve ever heard.
“Python” was on the air in Britain from 1969 to 1974 but didn’t wind up in the states until the mid-1970s. It was PBS. Was it a Sunday night ritual Chris, Dad and me? It was definitely a ritual. We seemed to agree on nothing, emotionally, but we agreed on what was funny. We knew what was funny: Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, SCTV, Reginald Perrin, and Monty Python.
The Times has a nice write-up. Jones was a Chaucer scholar. He co-directed “Holy Grail” and “Meaning of Life, and directed ”Life of Brian,“ their most controversial. His most famous character is probably Mr. Creosote, the disgustingly fat man who explodes after a ”waffer-thin“ mint in ”Meaning of Life.“ Sure. But he'll always be ”Two Sheds" to me.
Saturday August 31, 2019
Valerie Harper (1939-2019)
In Minneapolis, where it's cold, and she figured she'd keep better.
I never got why Rhoda was supposed to be the unattractive one. I always thought Valerie Harper looked great. I always thought she looked better even than Mary, who was supposed to be the pretty one. Mary was pretty, thin, and over-diplomatic (Minnesota Nice), while Rhoda stood her ground and told you what's what. I loved that.
Mary attracted the brassy ones, didn't she? Rhoda at home and Lou at work. Both were my favorites. Then Murray, the sardonic writer. At the bottom of the list was Phyllis, Cloris Leachman, who was nails on a chalkboard to me. I guess she was supposed to be. I remember reading that Leachman had been in the Miss America competition and did a mental doubletake: Wait, so she's supposed to be pretty, too? And not Rhoda? What world am I living in?
Valerie Harper had a helluva ‘70s. Emmy for best supporting actress in ’71, ‘72 and ’73; Emmy for lead actress in ‘75 now that she was back in Manhattan and running her own show. Her marriage to Joe was must-see TV before anyone coined that phrase. Carlton the Doorman was one of the decade’s standout characters even though he was unseen. Or because of it.
But did Rhoda ever find her rhythm in New York? Maybe they thought like I thought—she's too pretty to be the non-pretty one—so they set up a dynamic where she played Mary to Julie Kavner's Brenda. But beyond that? What was her job? Was it graphic design? Mary's stuff is indelible at the WJM newsroom, Rhoda's not. What do I remember about “Rhoda”? I remember Rhoda/Joe/Brenda trying to get through to Carlton the Doorman via intercom, and him, breaking into the middle of the sentence with an inebriated, “This is Carlton your doorman.” I remember Phyllis was supposed to pick her up before the wedding, didn‘t, and so she had to run around Manhattan in her wedding dress trying to flag a cab. I remember Rhoda seeing her diminuitive mother from behind, waiting for a bus or something after an argument, and Rhoda welling up and saying something like “She can break your heart with her back” ... but no, that was actually on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” before the big move. I guess I only watched so much of “Rhoda.” Maybe just up to the wedding. Once she and Joe got together, where was the drama? And once she and Joe split? Nah. My own parents had just split. That wasn’t must-see TV for me. That hurt too much. That was too ‘70s.
She wasn’t Jewish! How about that? Rhoda, yes, but not Valerie, according to the Times obit. She was European and French-Canadian. Rhoda still remains an early gateway to Jewish culture for me.
She was married to Richard Schaal! I never knew that, either. There‘s a photo on IMDb of Harper mugging with other Second City stalwarts and it’s everything you want in ‘70s sitcoms. There’s Hamilton Camp, who played a diminuitive date of Mary's in an early episode, and Paul Sand, who got his own show, “Friends and Lovers,” which didn't last, and Melinda Dillon, famously exasperated/distraught but still sexy mom in “Close Encounters” and “A Christmas Story.” And good god, Richard Libertini, tall and long-faced, who was on everything, and kept going, and who died in 2016. And then Schaal, who was also in everything: “MTM” (five episodes), “Bob Newhart” (three) and “Rhoda” (three) and “Phyllis” (all of them, a regular), as well as spots on “Partridge Family” and “Fish.” He died in 2014. Of the five, only Dillon and Sand are still with us.
Rhoda came on when TV and sitcoms were trending smart and relevant, and she went off the air when they were trending toward the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the Fonz or the jiggle TV of “Three's Company” and “Charlie's Angels.” In a way Rhoda was replaced by the real Jewish thing, Laverne from “Laverne & Shirley.” Those two were a kind of working class Mary and Rhoda. Just not funny. Not close. The show didn't have the chops. Sitcoms almost died in the ‘80s, remember? God, look at the top-rated shows of the 1975-76 season: five of the top 10 shows are women-helmed, including “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” and “Maude.” Compare it to the mid-Reagan years. Suddenly we’re just watching hourlong soaps about rich people. We used to watch us and now we watch them. And vote for them.
For Harper, after “Rhoda,” it was just TV movies I never watched. I think I didn't see Valerie again until “Blame It On Rio,” a randy mid-80s comedy in which the hot daughter of a friend of Michael Caine's makes a play for him. Valerie played Caine's wife. So it goes.
I heard the news of her passing on Twitter from Ed Asner, who offered up this perfect tribute.
A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend and with balls bigger than mine. Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon. pic.twitter.com/FicADkSAzS— Ed Asner (@TheOnlyEdAsner) August 30, 2019
Tuesday April 09, 2019
Best Thing About The Good Place is The Bad Place
What's hell? Bro-hams, Axe Body Spray and “Transformers.”
Last month, when Patricia and I were both sick with the crud, we watched the first two seasons of “The Good Place” on Netflix. First season was good; second season was better. But the third-to-last episode of the second season? Where they all try to sneak through The Bad Place? Brilliant.
How do you torture humanity? It's already being done. We‘re being tortured daily with our own crap.
You get that sense throughout the series, but it’s this episode where the show's creator Michael Schur and his writing staff really let it all hang out, with slams on IHOP, the “Pirates of the Carribean” movies, and Hawaiian pizza, as our heroes wind up in The Museum of Human Misery: Hall of Low-Grade Crappiness:
Jason: Is there a gift shop?
Michael: Jason, this is hell. Of course, there's a gift shop.
There are animatronics of douches: the first person to floss in an open-plan office; the first white man with dreadlocks; and the first man to send an unsolicited picture of his genitals.
But my favorite moment is when Michael (Ted Danson), nominal demon turned nominal good guy, arrives and consults with his superior, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson):
Shawn: (tossing a small canister of Axe Body Spray to Michael) “Welcome home. Axe up!”
Michael: (faux-excited) “Oh! New scent! ‘Transformers.’”
Shawn: “Yes. It makes you smell the way ‘Transformers’ movies make you feel.”
The kicker was when Michael later runs into the humans he's helping:
Eleanor: (making face) Ughhh! How do you smell loud and confusing?
Longtime readers will know I'm not exactly a fan. So despite the crud, I felt better after that. I felt less alone.
Saturday September 08, 2018
Bill Daily (1927-2018)
Most obit headlines mention “I Dream of Jeannie,” but I‘ll always think of him as Howard Borden, the neighbor of the Hartleys on “The Bob Newhart Show,” who did the pop-in at least once an episode. “Hey Bob, Hey Emily, what’s for supper?” He was one of my favorites on that show—the quintessential, classic, sitcom neighbor. In his case, daft sweetheart version.
Here's Bob Newhart's tribute.
Bill Daily & I go back to Chicago in the 50‘s. He and I were both trying to get into standup. Later, he joined the Bob Newhart Show. He was our bullpen guy - you could always go to him. He was one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. I will miss him dearly— Bob Newhart (@BobNewhart) September 8, 2018
Here's the bit I most remember. Howard was a bachelor, or had just become one, and he was ironing a shirt. Was it for the first time? I forget. I don't really remember the why, just the what. He had the shirt all laid out on the ironing board just so, and he picked up the iron. Wetting his finger, and almost cringing in anticipation, he tested it to see if it was hot enough. Then he tested it again, more slowly. Then again. He let his fingertip stay on the iron, then pressed his entire palm against it. Then, deadpan, he pressed the iron against his cheek.
Somewhere back there in the 1970s, on a Saturday night in a basement in south Minneapolis, my older brother and I are laughing our asses off.
Thursday March 22, 2018
The Audience is a Child
Optimus Prime in “Transformers 2.” Plot sold separately.
“The audience is a child. If you ask the audience what they want, they‘ll want dessert. They’ll say they want ice cream. They‘ll want cake. You ask them what they want the next minute, they’ll say more ice cream, more cake. You show them that they like something else. ‘You like fried chicken? Here, taste my fried chicken.’ Then the next ten things they order will be the fried chicken. ‘You like Omar?’ ‘Yeah, I love Omar. Give me more of Omar.’ No, I want to tell you a story, and the characters are going to do what they‘re supposed to do in the story, and that’s the job of the writer. That's the writer's job. That's the storyteller's job. You don't write for anybody but the story, for yourself and for your idea of what the story is. The moment you start thinking about the audience and the audience's expectation, you‘re lost. You’re just lost.”
David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” in the oral history “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams.
Thursday March 15, 2018
TV Shows Nominated Best Drama Over ‘The Wire’
“Pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick.”
I think everyone knows “The Wire” never won an Emmy but what's surprising is the few number of times it was even nominated. Just twice, and both for scripts: Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for the third season episode “Middle Ground” (the one where Stringer dies), and for the fifth season episode “—30—” (the last episode of the series).
Here, by the way, are the shows that were nominated for best drama during “The Wire”'s run:
|The West Wing||3||1|
|CSI: Crime Scene Invesgitation||2|
|Six Feet Under||2|
|Joan of Arcadia||1|
Great shows, good shows, a few head-scratchers. Almost all are mostly white shows.
I'm reading Jonathan Abrams' oral history on the series, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire.” Halfway through he quotes Lance Reddick, who played Lt. Daniels, and who recognized early on how special the show was. According to Abrams, Reddick is still upset about the lack of awards. “I'll be pissed off about it until the day I die,” he says.
Tuesday March 13, 2018
‘How to Pick Up Girls’ by Dominic West
“He has that kind of personality where he can say things and you just go, ‘How did you get away with that?’ I once stood behind him on an elevator—this was back in the early days, before he was married. We had a beautiful day player in the scene, and she was only there for the day, then she was taking the train back to New York. It was a crowded elevator, and he's only got this moment. ... You know what his pickup line was? She turned toward him and she said, ‘You know, I just broke up with my boyfriend.’ And he looked at her and went, ‘Really?’
”Later on, when she missed her train back to New York, I was like, ‘That’s all you needed? “Really?”' I think for the next two years I just kept going up to him whenever he was talking bullshit, ‘Really?’ That was my code for ‘Fuck you.’"
— David Simon, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams. Cf., Mike Nichols on Robert Redford.
Friday March 09, 2018
Quote of the Day
“Season Two, I knew I wanted to go to the death of work. Because where do these drug corners come from? They come from deindustrialization. Our economy no longer needs mass employment. The only factory in town that's still hiring and is always hiring are the corners.”
David Simon, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire,” by Jonathan Abrams
Sunday September 24, 2017
I'd Like to Hear About Jerry After Seinfeld
I laughed hard at two jokes:
- cotton balls
Otherwise “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” currently streaming on Netflix, is a mixed experience. We get a sketchy documentary of Jerry's early years intermixed with mostly old routines (the ones he supposedly discarded in “I'm Telling You for the Last Time”) about childhood, sugar cereals, laundry, etc., done by the 60-something billionaire comedian on the stage of The Comic Strip, the small comedy club where he perfected his routine in the '70s.
Does he rush through the routines now? He doesn't seem as comfortable on stage as he used to. Stage actors need to own the stage, to pause as much as they want, to know the audience will wait for them. He doesn't have that anymore. Is he afraid that he's lost it? And by being afraid, has he lost it?
Really, the bigger problem for Seinfeld is that his was observational comedy, and observational comedy doesn't work too well if you're a billionaire. Sure, he tells the one joke about the first time he got a maid, and feeling bad about not picking up after himself (“I'm sorry, I...”), but that's about it. It has to be Jerry before “Seinfeld” because Jerry after “Seinfeld” is ... what? Just a rich asshole with too many cars? What can he tell us about how the .0001% lives? He would have to go beyond his polite observations and he can't even bring himself to rag on Trump. His bit about the insanity of anyone who wants to be president is good:
Who should be the most powerful person in America, the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, the leader of the free world? You know, actually, that sounds like me.
But it leaves open the question of why/how Trump is more insane than most. He's still tiptoeing around the controversial. I guess he always will.
Plus anything new in the culture? Twitter or binge-watching or what have you? He sounds like your grandpa talking about it. He sounds dismissive since he didn't grow up with it. Maybe there's comedy to mine there but right now he's using the wrong pick-axe. The diamond-encrusted kind.