Tuesday October 17, 2023
Suzanne Somers (1946-2023)
My father and Suzanne Somers in Mexico in 1978. And no, not that way, it was just a press junket.
This is how The New York Times began its obit:
Suzanne Somers, who gained fame by playing a ditsy blonde on the hit sitcom “Three's Company” and then by getting fired when she demanded equal pay with the series' male star — and who later built a health and diet business empire, most notably with the ThighMaster — died on Sunday at herhome in ...
If she'd died in the 1990s, I think the lede would've read more like this:
Suzanne Somers, who gained fame by playing a ditsy blonde on the hit sitcom “Three's Company” and was fired after making salary demands — and later wound up selling exercise equipment on late-night TV — died on Sunday...
What's the line from “The Dark Knight”? You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain? Somers lived long enough to see herself become the hero. And a feminist icon! I don't think anyone thought Somers was a feminist icon in 1978. Particularly the feminists.
Contempating her trajectory—from walk-on eye candy, to sexy blonde TV star, to failed film star—I thought of Farrah Fawcett, and lo and behold they had the same manager, Jay Bernstein, who was apparently great at publicity, and getting actresses to leave successful TV shows, but not much else. It feels slightly shady to me, but he became a producer on their stabs at film stardom: “Sunburn” for Farrah, “Nothing Personal” for Suzanne. In the latter, Somers plays an environmental lawyer who gets entangled with a professor, Donald Sutherland, in preventing the clubbing of (yes) baby seals to make room for (yes) a missile base. That's the late '70s all wrapped into one awful storyline. My father, who, per above, had every reason to give her a pass, lambasted “Nothing Personal” in his usual manner. He quoted the publicity dept.'s take on the film and tore it apart. You call it a “modern comedy”? Neither, actually.
Here's a question: If Somers indeed demanded equal pay with John Ritter, was she right to do so, or was she more replaceable than John Ritter? Since she was in fact replaced—first by Jenilee Harrison, who didn't take, and then by Priscilla Barnes, who did, kinda—it seems like the answer is yes. But as someone who was there, and watching, off and on, the show was never the same once Suzanne Somers was gone. It was fun, and then suddenly she was calling in long distance? That didn't work. And all of her replacements never really replaced her. Chrissy Snow was a dumb blonde, but also sweet and wise. In many ways she was smarter than the others. She knew what mattered in life.
You know who thought she was worth the money? Newsweek magazine:
Look at that. She's literally bursting out of the televsion set—and her nighty. Which is the point. Newsweek was tsk-tsking about SEX AND TV but using both, and particularly the former, to sell the magazine. Suzanne Somers had to deal with that hypocrisy her entire life.
Her most memorable film role was one of her first—the blonde in the white T-bird that Richard Dreyfuss spends the night, and the movie, chasing after in “American Graffiti.” Smart boy. Oddly, I always thought she was in the backseat. Nope. He was—in the other car. She was driving. Not a bad metaphor, particularly if the posthumous accolades are correct. All the time I thought she was a passenger, she was actually in the driver's seat.
Sunday October 15, 2023
Phyllis Coates (1927-2023)
Phyllis Coates was the third woman to portray Lois Lane (after radio star Joan Alexander and Noel Neill), the second live-action Lois (after Neill), and the first non-Minnesotan (from Wichita Falls, Texas). She died last week at age 96.
Overall, Coates' Lois seemed more grown up and officious than Neill's. You feel you might get away with crossing Neill but not Coates. She was also the first actress to walk away from the role. After filming the B-movie “Superman and the Mole-Men” and the first season of the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, she gave it up and the role reverted to Neill again for the final five seasons. Looking through IMDb's photos, you get an idea why she might have done this:
OK, so the first shot is classic Lois and the third shot is from a cheapie serial. But the other two are from “Supes.” Seems a girl reporter couldn't get through a 30-minute episode without giving the fetishists something to fetish about.
Looking over these photos, what's surprising is how different Coates can look from role to role: here blonde and Teutonic for “Jungle Drums of Africa”; there, suburban housefrau for an episode of “Leave It to Beaver”; young and coquetteish for her early pinups, and leggy for low-budget Republic serials. She always seemed smarter than her roles, but I guess that wasn't hard.
Though she ditched a great character for those sad Republic serials, she was part of one of the great unheralded moments in early superherodom. It's from the “Mole-Men” movie which wasn't even much of a movie—it's barely an hour long. At one point, the “Mole-Men” are discovered in an oil-drilling Texas town, and, being Texas, a lynch mob is quickly assembled. A rabble rouser rags on “them two reporters from back east” (Lois and Clark) and tells the crowd that no strangers are going to stop them. But one stranger does. After a gun goes off, an illegal alien named Superman says the following:
Whoever fired that shot nearly hit Miss Lane. Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.
And he does.
Man, I'd love to watch this with an NRA crowd someday.
Saturday September 02, 2023
How many women have played Ginger Grant, the Marilyn Monroe-esque movie star stranded with “the rest” on Sherwood Schwartz' much-syndicated 1960s sitcom “Gilligan's Island”? I knew that for some of the subsequent TV movies another actress had been tapped, since Tina Louise had been uninterested in reprising the role; but it turns out, no, not just some: She never reprised the role, through all of its various reiterations. Which means this is our Ginger roll call:
- Tina Louise: “Gilligan's Island” (1964-67)
- Jane Webb: “The New Adventures of Gilligan” (1974-75) (Animated)
- Judith Baldwin: “Rescue from Gilligan's Island” and “The Castaways on Gilligan's Island” (1978, 1979) (TV movies)
- Constance Forsland: “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island” (1981) (TV movie)
- Dawn Wells: “Gilligan's Planet” (1982-83) (Animated) *
* Is this the ultimate revenge of Mary Ann?
But wait: Apparently there was a pilot episode, too—like Star Trek's “The Cage”—which resurfaced in the 1990s. And while Gilligan, Skipper, Thurston and Lovey were played by familar actors, the Professor was played by John Gabriel, Mary Ann was someone named Bunny and played by Nancy McCarthy, while Ginger Grant was played by yet another redhead, Kit Smythe. So:
6. Kit Smythe: “Gilligan's Island: Pilot episode” (1964)
I know she was a bit of a diva, but it's a testament to Tina Louise that no one compares.
Friday June 23, 2023
The Reason Behind TV's 'Rural Purge' in 1970
This is from Sherwood Schwartz' book “Inside Gilligan's Island” (don't judge):
In 1970 there was an important survey of the buying habits of TV viewers by an authoritative advertising publication. This survey revealed a tremendous difference in the buying power of urban viewers versus viewers in rural areas. Consumers in large metropolitan cities spent twice what their country cousins did, and were far more important for sponsors, and, therefore, to the networks who served them. As a result of that survey, Bob Wood, Programming Chief at C.B.S., cancelled all the rural situation comedies on his network, four of which were in the top twenty in the Nielsen ratings. The inside joke in the industry that year was that Bob Wood had “cancelled every show with a tree in it.”
I assume he's talking “Mayberry R.F.D.” and “Hee Haw,” among others. But yes, this is what helped lead to the diverse, urban, Norman Lear-style sitcom that dominated from 1971-74. Then we got our fantasy jiggle shows in the mid-70s. And by the end of the decade we'd come full circle, with “Dallas” and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” both on CBS, leading the way. And then we got Reagan.
I knew about the rural purge, just didn't know the rationale behind it.
Who knew this divide, rural/urban, country mouse/city mouse, would wind up being the great continuing battle of my American lifetime? And ongoing. Tune in next week for more exciting episodes.
Wednesday May 31, 2023
S4.E10: 'The Question is Why?'
“The Question is Why?” is a chapter heading in the 8th inning of Ken Burns' 1994 “Baseball” documentary (the 1960s), because it's a question a reporter asks of Sandy Koufax when he announced his retirement from baseball, at the top of his game, at age 31. Sandy repeats it before answering: The question is why. (The answer is he'd like to use his arm for the rest of his life, thank you very much.)
That's the phrase that came to mind after the final, painful episode of “Succession.” And not because Jesse Armstrong was retiring the show at the top of its game. I just couldn't fathom why Shiv (Sarah Snook), at the 11th hour, betrays her brothers, particularly heir-apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), allowing their father's company, Waystar, to pass into the hands of an Elon Musk-ish douche named Mattson (Alexander Skarsgard).
Shiv began the episode on Mattson's side, with the idea that she would become Waystar's CEO. But she's too powerful, with too many opinions, and Mattson wants a puppet. And that's her husband Tom Wambgams (Matthew Macfadyen). She was the one who suggested he needed an American CEO to allow the deal to go through, but she's going to be shut out. Tom learns this first and does nothing. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), via Google Translate, learns it second and phones Kendall in Barbados, where both he and Shiv are working to get the vote of third sibling Roman (Kieran Culkin). The knowledge bands the siblings together, and they head into New York with the board votes to squelch the sale. The Roys will maintain control with Kendall as CEO.
And then she votes against him. She votes for the men who betrayed her. She lives up to her name. She doesn't do it happily but she does it. And the question is why.
Friends who have watched one or two episodes of “Succession” and then quit, often say, “There's no one to root for. All the kids suck.” And sure, kinda sorta. But I've rooted for Kendall from very early on. Someone—and I wish I could find it—wrote that Jeremy Strong has a bone-deep sadness in his performance, a sadness that fits John Berryman's Dream Song #29, which its creators are forever culling for their season finale titles:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Wait, I found it: It's Michael Schulman in a New Yorker piece titled “Farewell, Kendall Roy.” He writes: “Strong never lost sight of Kendall's undertow of pain, his head stooped or self-consciously propped up straight. ... Other characters use the show's diamond-sharp dialogue as armor—Roman's wisecracking, Shiv's chess-playing—but Kendall seems the most dissociated from his own banter, as if his real self is wandering out of the boardroom, perhaps straight into the sea. ... More than anyone on 'Succession,' Kendall seems possessed of a soul.”
And Kendall seemed to be growing—I thought. He would never have his father's decisiveness—he held his siblings close, one felt, because he needed them to help make up his Hamlet-ish mind—but he was developing his own brand of ruthlessness. More, he had something his father never had: empathy. And he began to utilize it in a way that worked in the marketplace. When Mattson tweets a jokey Nazi reference (“”Doderick macht frei“) to try to undercut a Kendall press conference, and Kendall hears it in real time, his impulse is not to attack but to empathize: How we all say things we don't mean, things we wish we could take back. It's not only the most human response but the most devastating. It turns the tables on Mattson, at least for a day.
What he didn't do? At the 11th hour, when Shiv showed her shitty hand, he didn't make the argument he should've made. His argument became ”I.“ Me me me. I'm ready for this, I deserve this. It should've been ”we.“ If he'd stuck with ”we,“ if he'd told the board what everyone knew—that Shiv was being brushed aside by Mattson because she was too strong, and he wanted a puppet, and that was Tom, and hey, maybe the U.S. government shouldn't allow the sale because there really is no American CEO of this company—he might've won the day. There was a path but he didn't take it and he loses. He loses everything that mattered to him and shouldn't have. He just gets billions from the deal. And in the end we see Roman in a bar with a martini and a smile on his face, Shiv bereft in the backseat of a limo with her newly powerful but still sycophantic husband, while Kendall walks—is it lower Manhattan?—with his bodyguard behind him, a broken man, looking ready to walk straight into the sea. I haven't ached for a TV character this much since Jesse on ”Breaking Bad."
Saturday May 27, 2023
S4.E10: 'With Open Eyes'
I wrote about John Berryman's Dream Song #29 a year and a half ago, because “All the Bells Say” was the title of the Season 3 finale of “Succession.” What I didn't know until this year? All the season finales were from Dream Song #29:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
The creators have actually gone backwards in the poem. Season 1 (“Nobody is Ever Missing”) is Kendall's Chappaquiddick moment, when his car crash causes the death of a young man during a wedding but he gets away with it because of who he is. Season 2 (“This is Not for Tears”) ends with Kendall taking on his father, despite his father blackmailing him about the Chappaquiddick moment; and season 3 (“All the Bells Say”) is the kids banding together to prevent Dad selling the company but arriving, as all the bells say, too late. BTW, that's a great fucking line in a great fucking poem: too late, too late, ding dong, too late. Brilliant. I've loved this poem since college. I think it's true for all of us, particularly that first stanza. We all have our moment when the world parts from us. The third stanza is about guilt, seemingly unjustified, but maybe not? Maybe just nobody is paying attention? That feels real, too, even if, at age 60, it feels like too many people are missing. Not because I hacks them up but because I lets them go. I stopped paying attention.
So what will the series finale (“With Open Eyes”) be? Who succeeds Lear/Logan? What makes sense for our world? What resonates? I hope they find it. Roman is out of it. Roman rose and fell. It's just Kendall and Shiv now, and maybe none of them? Maybe it winds up with the conglomerate? The line to the top is frayed, and indistinct, and no one is accountable.
“Ghastly/With open eyes, he attends, blind.” He is blind despite the open eyes. Who is he? Kendall? Shiv? Both? No matter what, it's a bad world and it's a reflection of our world. Either the Elon Musk figure takes over Fox News (Shiv triumphant) or the Donald Trump figure blocks it (Kendall triumphant). Ghastly.
Berryman, in our backyard, with open eyes. Photo by Bob Lundegaard.
Thursday May 25, 2023
Ray Stevenson (1964-2023)
Stevenson, left, and McKidd, as Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of HBO's “Rome.”
Wasn't HBO's “Rome” built just yesterday? It feels like we were just watching new episodes. Nope, Erik, that was 20 years ago, and as of yesterday, the real yesterday, HBO is now called “Max,” just a few days after the man who played Titus Pullo, Ray Stevenson, died at the age 58.
Patricia and I had recently seen Stevenson in India's Academy Award-winning “RRR,” white-haired and white-bearded, and playing British imperial villain rather than Roman working class lovable lout, so it took me a minute. “Wait, isn't that the dude from 'Rome'?” That was a great show that never got its due; Stevenson and co-star Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus had such great chemistry as two mismatched Roman soldiers wandering through history. They were basically the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the rise and fall of the Roman empire—if HBO had let it fall. Instead they dropped it after two seasons. Too expensive. But it had a nice run. I should rewatch it.
Titus Pollo was not a nice man—rapey, not bright—but somehow Stevenson made him lovable. He seemed the big man who would protect you—unless you were on the wrong side, then he'd crushed your skull like a grape. Stevenson had charisma and a strong physical presence, and he went on to bigger roles, like Marvel's “The Punisher,” which seemed right but not quite. That character is humorless and that wasn't Stevenson. Humor shone in his eyes. After Titus, I don't think the entertainment industry quite found the right role for him. He was better than the roles he got.
Saturday April 01, 2023
Lance Reddick (1962-2023)
The first time I watched all five seasons of “The Wire,” I tended to root for the rebellious cops like Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. Particularly Lester: the intellectual as natural police. I liked the guys taking on the system even though they'd get punished for it. I was young. Well, 46.
The second time I watched all five seasons of “The Wire,” I had, in the interim, become a manager, and man did I identify with Lt. Cedric Daniels, played by Lance Reddick, the officer trapped between those fomenting for change from below and the powerful, calcified (and often corrupt) entities above. The first time through, to be honest, I was a little annoyed with Daniels. Did he care enough? Why wasn't he doing more? Didn't he know who the heroes were? Second time through, I immediately recognized what an awful position he was put in—constantly. How the demands for change made sense but why they were ignored. The people below were interested in quality and the people above were interested in quantify—the numbers game. How you tried to protect your little corner of the world; how you tried to protect your people and yourself. How it usually didn't work out and you wound up in the pawn shop unit.
This is from Jonathan Abrams' oral history of “The Wire.” It's Reddick on an early meeting with creator David Simon:
I remember him saying organizations can't be reformed, but people can. I remember being struck by it when he said it, because I knew that I had never thought of it that way, and I knew that there was something profound in the insight. Then, over time, particularly when I watched the show, I realized how we see both on the criminal side and on the police side, you see people struggling to live up to the codes of the institutions that they're a part of and seeing how it chips away at their humanity.
Reddick initially read for Bunk Moreland (three times) and then for Bubbles (he'd recently played addicts on other shows). Once he got the Lt. Daniels role, he spent a day with a cop, a narcotics lieutenant who was getting his MBA at night school at Johns Hopkins, and who told a story about busting a dirty cop that stayed with Reddick. The dirty cop lunged for a drawer, possibly a gun, and Reddick's cop thought: Please go for it. Because I'd love to blow your head away. The story made Reddick realize “that level of savagery and ferocity that you have to be able to call up in an instant and be able to tame and put away in an instant.” You'd see that ferocity flash in Daniels' eyes from time to time. But more, there was just a burden on him, a silent burden. A fan has collected scenes of Daniels' “catchphrase,” where he's asked stupid or obvious questions, or questions he can't answer, and just walks away. It's fucking great.
I also remember that episode—I think it's third season—when we finally see Daniels out of uniform. I think he gets a late call some evening, and he's standing on the landing in just pajama bottoms, and ... holy crap he's cut. He looks like a prize fighter. Not an ounce of fat on him.
That's part of what makes Reddick's recent death, “from natural causes,” so bewildering. That guy died of natural causes? At 60? My age? It's almost an argument against being in shape. If it can happen to Lance Reddick...
I've written about how great “The Wire” is, and how during its run it was only nominated for two Emmys, both writing, never for show, and it never won anything. What I like? That never bothered Simon. If the Emmys were the calcified entity above him, he was the Daniels figure. And the McNulty figure fomenting from below? That was Reddick. “I'll always be angry about [the lack of Emmy recognition],” he said. “I'll be pissed off about it until the day I die.”
Saturday January 28, 2023
Lance Kerwin (1960-2023)
Oh, man. Too soon.
He was once my jokey answer whenever I had that stupid conversation about who you’d want to play you in a movie. This was in the ’80s or ’90s, long after his Tiger Beat heyday. Friends would be picking the big movie stars of the day while I went with a semi-forgotten TV actor.
When I was just becoming a teenager, though, Lance Kerwin was one of the main teenage stars of sensitive “issue of the day” TV drama. He was on five ABC Afterschool Specials, where the plots related to school bullies, step moms, and shortness. Over the years, he played a blind kid (“Shazam!”), the younger brother of a kid who ODs (“The Death of Richie”), and the child of divorced parents (“Children of Divorce”). He kept running into Kristy McNichol and Melissa Sue Anderson, and got to hang with Lynda Carter on “Wonder Woman” (where he played a rancher’s son) and Lindsay Wagner on “Bionic Woman” (where he played, cough, an Arabian prince). And in the pilot episode of “James at 15/16,” the show that made him famous, he runs away from home and winds up hitch-hiking with and learning life lessons from a Charlie’s Angel, Kate Jackson, who got Emmy-nominated for the part.
I don’t think I really watched “James at 15/16.” Right, it was opposite “Barney Miller” in pre-VCR days, so no. But it was critically acclaimed, and, I believe, quotidian. Some issue of the day stuff—a deaf kid, teen pregnancy, teen alcoholism—but mostly just, you know, crushes and friends and trying to fit in. The episode where he turns 16 and loses his virginity was controversial, and not because his uncle tried to buy him a prostitute, or because two episodes later he worried he contracted VD, but because, per The New York Times, “the network objected to the script’s use of the word ‘responsible’ as a euphemism for birth control.” Who was the lucky girl? A Swedish cultural exchange student. Quotidian.
But the performance of his that hit home for me was the 1976 TV movie “The Loneliest Runner,” a Michael Landon production about a teen who wets the bed, as I did. IMDb’s little descriptor is actually incorrect—or misses the point:
A young boy who still wets the bed finds escapism from his abusive mother and his own embarrassment by going running after school.
Not quite. His mother was abusive because she assumed his bed-wetting was laziness, and she hoped to cure him of it by hanging the wet, stained sheet out his bedroom window to dry—and where all the neighbors could see it. That’s why, every day, after school, he’d run home to pull it up. This went on for months. We got a montage of him running and running and running. And then in gym class one day, when everyone has to run 600 yards, or a half mile, or whatever it was, he pulls away from the other students. Eventually he becomes an Olympic runner, played by Michael Landon, but that’s just at the end. The brunt of the movie is him dealing with his awful mother, hoping to grow out of his bed-wetting ways, hoping to get the girl (Melissa Sue Anderson).
He continued to act into the 1980s—he, Eric Stoltz and James Spader play brothers who break their father, Robert Mitchum, out of prison in the 1983 TV movie “A Killer in the Family”—but he struggled with sobriety and left the profession in the 1990s. Per the Times obit, he was busted for theft and falsifying documents to get food stamps in 2010, which makes it sound like he was on his last legs; but in the AP story on the incident, the apparent problem was omitting the three properties he owned on the mainland, so hardly last legs. It also seems he was already running a rehab program and being a youth pastor, so not sure of his trajectory. Plus he was returning to acting? IMDb has him fourth-billed in a 2022 movie, “The Wind & the Reckoning,” about leprosy in 19th-century Hawaii.
The cause of death isn’t mentioned. He was just 62.
Sunday January 08, 2023
Another IMDb 'Known For' Quiz
I'll show you the actual IMDb “Known For” image in a second, but it's tougher these days to cut out the character names that might give it away. So for now I'll just list off the productions this actor, per IMDb's algorithm, is KNOWN FOR.
In this order:
- The Waterboy
- Night Shift
- Arrested Development
I knew he was in 2). I also knew he was in 4) but he's not the first name I associate with that great show. I did not know he was in 1) and 3), but then I'm not a huge Adam Sandler guy. Maybe that puts me at odds with the culture and IMDb's algorithm. If the algorithm truly taps into the culture. Which I doubt.
The point is, there's a massive #1 that IMDb's algorithm is somehow missing. It's older than these others but it was seismic. And it's still part of the culture—particularly as a recent catch-phrase. And if you're like “Forget it, old is old,” and you want a recency bias, there's a current, critically acclaimed show for which this actor has won Emmys. The algorithm supposedly cares about that.
More clues? He was one of the most famous faces of the 1970s for playing this character on this TV show. He wound up starring in movies as a result. But he's mostly known for TV. For this missing TV show.
Hell, when he's introduced, people often place this character's name between the actor's first and last name: X “Y” Z. He's referenced in “Pulp Fiction.” There's a statue of him, as this character, in Milwaukee.
Want more? Ayyyyyy.
Exactamundo. It's Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who, per IMDb, is somehow not known for playing the Fonz on “Happy Days.”
I think IMDb's jumped the shark.
Saturday January 07, 2023
The Stars (Trek/Wars) Align
I've seen a few articles or posts about “Andor,” the prequel “Star Wars” TV series starring Diego Luna, which seems to appeal to people who don't like “Star Wars,” like my wife, but I haven't seen anyone mention the following.
Whenever Bix (Adria Arjona) needs to send a message to Stellan Skarsgard's Luthen Real, one of the leaders of the rebellion, she climbs a tower to do so—I guess for the privacy or protection, or because the signal goes further. This is how it looks.
I immediately flashed on the Jefferies Tube from “Star Trek”:
So is this a “Trek” homage from “Wars”? The “Star”s aligning? I thought the usual nerds would be all over this, but if they are it's elsewhere, out of my range.
Friday December 23, 2022
M*A*S*H Note, Klinger Rules
Klinger and Frank pass each other in the entrance to the Swamp. Frank gives a disgusted look.
Klinger [grandly]: I wore this with just you in mind.
Frank: You make me want to throw up!
Klinger [happily, to everyone else]: See, it pays to dress.
Season 5, Episode 4, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” the one where Hawkeye is temporarily blinded. Halfway through season 4 it began to feel a lot less funny to me, but Jamie Farr still makes me laugh.
Tuesday December 13, 2022
M*A*S*H Note: Avengers #60
What, you think people are going to notice what comic book this is? On their little black-and-white TVs? And even if they have a big color job, it just goes by in a flash. Plus it's *a comic book*. Who cares? Nobody. I'm not wasting any sleep over it.
The screenshot is from “Der Tag,” M*A*S*H, S4, Ep17, aired January 1976. It's the one where Hot Lips is away, Frank bothers everybody, so Col. Potter asks Hawkeye and B.J. to be nice to him. Frank winds up: cleaning up in poker, getting drunk, professing a romantic interest in Nurse Kellye. He also stumbles into an ambulance (with a jokey toe tag on his foot) and winds up at the front. Joe Morton guest stars.
The comic book Radar is holding is Avengers #60 from December 1968. Avengers #1 was published in Sept. 1963, or about 10 years after the end of the Korean War. But yeah, I'm sure they thought, “Close enough. Who's going to notice? And who's going to know?” Turns out, nerds. Lots and lots of nerds.
Friday November 18, 2022
M*A*S*H Note: Seinfeld Before Seinfeld
There was this thing that “Seinfeld” did pretty much throughout its run where characters would talk over each other. It wasn't in that Woody Allenish simulacrum of everyday conversation, where dialogue was a series of fender benders. No, in this, each character was involved with their own concerns, their own minidramas, and would voice them, and the other side would voice their own, and it seemed like they were having a conversation but they were actually having two separate conversations. Each was talking and neither was listening. It felt a bit like the way the solipsistic world ran. I'd never seen a TV show, or a movie for that matter, do something similar.
Turns out, “M*A*SH” did it two decades earlier.
Last night I watched the episode “Life With Father” (Season 3, Episode 8), and that's pretty much what happens throughout. There's a mail call and Father Mulcahy learns his sister, the sister, wants to leave the nunnery to have children. This upsets him. Henry's wife sends him a letter giving him permission to have an affair, and, initially buoyant, he slowly realizes, and then conclusively finds out, it's because of a guilty conscience. “An orthodontist, Lorraine?” There's a subplot about a half-Korean, half-Jewish baby needing a bris, and how Frank and Hot Lips object and try to document it. Meanwhile, our heroes Hawkeye and Trapper walk through the episode trying to find 10 presidential faces in a barnyard scene in order to win a pony. They become like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their own show.
I'd already noticed this solipsistic tendecy developing in the mess tent but it really plays out when Henry visits Father Mulcahey, each airs their own concerns, neither listens to the other, and in fact Henry thinks the Father gave him great advice he never gave him. It's totally “Seinfeld” two decades before “Seinfeld.”
The writers of the episode were Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who worked together in television for 30 years, writing episodes of “Mister Peepers,” “The Real McCoys,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and 24 episodes of “M*A*S*H,” including “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Abyssinia, Henry,” a lot of the transitional ones (Col. Potter's arrival, Margaret's marriage), as well as several other mail call episodes. In case this is ever helpful to anyone doing a history of sitcoms.
Don't know if I've mentioned this here, on my own blog, but in my run through the first few seasons of “M*A*S*H,” the actors who have consistently made me laugh out loud are: 1) McLean Stevenson and 2) Jamie Farr. Oh, and Loretta Swit does the best drunk on the show. Hands down. Overall, the show is shockingly undated for something 50 years old.
Tuesday November 15, 2022
M*A*S*H Note: Allen Jenkins and Pat O'Brien, Together Again
Delivering the POB line before they duck back inside—a la “Laugh-In.”
The other night I watched the Season 3, Episode 2 episode of “M*A*S*H” called “Rainbow Bridge,” original air date Sept. 17, 1974—or nine days after Pres. Ford pardoned former Pres. Nixon. It's the one where the Chinese let the MASH 4077th unit know they have nine wounded Americans they can't care for and could someone please pick them up at the titular Rainbow Bridge, which, our heroes find out, is 30 miles within enemy territory and only 20 miles from the Chinese border. Inevitably, Frank and Hot Lips are against going, Hawkeye and Trapper think (as doctors) they should go, and Henry has trouble making a command decision but finally comes down on the Hawkeye/Trapper side. It's still a tense mid-bridge meeting, made more so because Hot Lips convinces Frank to go along, then convinces him to bring her little pistol for protection, even though “no guns” was one of the stipulations, and even though the Chinese have plenty of them. Plus the pistol is little. It's hardly protection at all. But that turns out to be its saving grace, since, once it's discovered, once Frank in a sense unholsters it, it's good for a laugh and breaks the ice and allows the wounded to be transfered.
Throughout the episode, a lot is made of the racism of the “bad doctors” so it's a little disappointing that the Chinese man in charge on the bridge, Dr. Lin Tam, is played by Mako, who is, of course, Japanese. Nothing against Mako, he does a fine-enough job. I don't even believe you should make actors stay behind geographic lines, as some do today, particularly when racial matters are involved. But Hollywood almost never seems to land on the proper country when Asian actors are involved.
Anyway, that's not why I'm writing about the episode. I'm writing about the episode because of three jokes.
This is the first one. Frank is doing triage but, being Frank, keeps messing it up. Or he's doing it according to U.S. Army regulations rather than Hippocratic ones: U.S. first, Allies second, enemy last. On the bus, Hawkeye countermands him—putting a Chinese POW with a chest wound at the front of the pack. And we get this exchange:
- Frank: What you're doing is mutiny! I'm in command of this bus!
- Hawkeye (to Father Mulcahey as they exit): “Mutiny on the Bus.” It was a B movie. They couldn't afford a bounty. Allen Jenkins played the bus driver.
Five years ago, I wouldn't have gotten that final joke, but Allen Jenkins was a perennial Warner Bros. supporting player of the 1930s. You could see him in comedies and gangster movies, and in gangster comedies, but he was always supporting. A movie with Allen Jenkins in the lead would indeed be “B.” Mostly I was tickled to hear his name.
Later, Hawkeye says this, referencing another 1930s Warner Bros. regular:
- I think Ralph Bellamy said it best when he said, “If I can't get the girl, at least give me more money.”
Finally, before they leave for Rainbow Bridge, Father Mulcahey offers a fine benediction. Which leads to this exchange:
- Hawkeye: He's really very good, isn't he?
- Trapper: Tops.
- Hawkeye: I feel guilty. We tried to get Pat O'Brien.
The writer of the episode is Laurence Marks, who is mostly known for writing “M*A*S*H” episodes. He wrote 21 of them between 1972 and 1978. He was aided and abetted by Larry Gelbart. Not sure who decided to make the episode a Warner Bros. homage but I'm glad they did. After the last several years of movie-watching, it feels like something gift-wrapped especially for me.
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