Saturday, 28 May 2005

Two More Deaths

The past two weeks have seen more celebrities die than I can remember dying in a long time. Late this week two more celebrities passed on. One was a critically acclaimed producer, while the other was the beloved star of a classic sitcom.

Ismail Merchant was co-founder of Merchant Ivory Productions and producer of some of the best films of the past thirty years. He died Wednesday in a London hospital at age 69. Merchant was born in Bombay, India in 1927. He was educated in Bombay and New York. Merchant Ivory Productions was founded when he met James Ivory in 1961 in India, where Ivory was making a documentary about Delhi. The two founded Merchant Ivory with the goal of producing English language films in India, with an eye on having them distributed world wide.

For the first 10 years or so Merchant Ivory Productions made English language films with an Indian theme. They departed from this with both Savages (a Stone Age fantasy made in 1972) and with The Wild Party (a story about 1920s Hollywood, made in 1975). In 1979 the two entered the territory for which they would become best known: literary adaptations. That year they produced an adaptation of The Europeans, based on the work by Henry James of the same name. From then on out, Merchant Ivory has produced several literary adaptations, among them A Room With a View (based on the E. M. Forster novel, released in 1985), Howards End (based on another Forster novel, released in 1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), and Jefferson in Paris (1995).

Indeed, a crticism of Merchant Ivory Productions has always been that they simply produce non-controversial, Masterpiece Theatre type films. I have always thought this was a bit unfair myself, for two reasons. First, it seems to me that there has always been demand for Masterpiece Theatre type literary adaptations (just how long has that show been on?) and Merchant Ivory filled that demand. Second, while their films may not always deal with controversial themes, they are always entertaining and well performed. Indeed, they often possess an intellectual depth that many, more controversial films may lack. I am then saddened by Ismail Merchant's death, although pleased that his partner, James Ivory, and his company can continue making literate movies.

The second celebrity death this week was Eddie Albert, best known to audiences as Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres. Albert died at age 99 in his home of pneumonia.

Although Albert was best known for his role on Green Acres, his career spanned nearly six decades and included film, television, and the stage. He was born in Rock Island, Illinois. When only a year old, his family moved to Minneanpolis, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota, studying acting there. Joining a singing trio when he was a junior in college, he performed with them on local radio and later made a tour of St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Eventually he teamed up with singer Grace Bradt. The two even achieved thier own morning radio show on NBC, The Honeymooners (not to be confused with the classic Jackie Gleason TV show of the same name). From there he worked summer stock before being cast in the Broadway play O Evening Star. The show lasted a whole week in 1935, but Albert would return to Broadway. He played in Brother Rat on Broadway in 1936. He would perform on Broadway in Room Service in 1937 and The Boys from Syracuse (a Rodgers and Hart musical) in 1938.

It was Brother Rat that saw the beginning of Albert's film career, which included over 100 movies. In 1938 Albert once more played the role of Bing Edwards in the film version of the play. Albert's film career consisted of a number of movies now considered classics. He played Irving Radovich, Gregory Peck's wisecracking photographer friend, in Roman Holiday (for which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor). He also had roles in the film adaptation of Oklahoma and The Longest Day. Although many remember him as playing "nice guys," Albert played the role of the ruthless warden in the original version of The Longest Yard.

Albert also had a long career in television. He made his first appearance on television in The Ford Theatre Hour in 1948. Albert appeared in many of the anthology series of the Forties and Fifties, including Suspense, Studio One, and Philco Television Playhouse. He also made several guest appearances on series television, including Wagon Train, Laramie, Dr. Kildare, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. He also had three television series of his own in the Fifties. The first was a short lived sitcom called Leave It to Larry in 1952. In 1953 he was the host of both the game show Nothing but the Best and the variety show The Saturday Night Revue.

With a successful film career in the late Fifties into the Sixties, Eddie Albert gave no thought to returning to television beyond the odd guest appearance. He rejected both My Three Sons and Mister Ed because of this. In the mid-Sixties, however, a TV series came along that piqued his interest. According to his agent it was about a city slicker who moves to the country. Albert found the idea appealing and was certain it would be a success. That show was Green Acres, on which Albert played lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas, who drops his city life and moves to the country to fulfill his dream of being a farmer. Complicating things were his wife, Lisa (played by Eva Gabor) who wanted to move back to New York, and the very eccentric natives of the local town, Hooterville. The spin off of Petticoat Junction proved very successful. It ran for six years, cancelled only because CBS had decided to rid itself of all rural oriented shows. Although looked upon as low brow entertainment when it first aired, Green Acres is now seen by man as one of the wittiest satires on modern life in the history of television.

In the Seventies Albert continued his television career with the mini-series Benjamin Franklin, playing old Ben himself. He then appeared in another successful series, playing grifter Frank McBride in the TV show Switch.

In addition to the plays named above, Albert's stage career also included The Music Man, in which he replaced Robert Preston in 1960.

Beyond his career as an actor, Eddie Albert was also an activist. Beginning in the late Sixties, he became involved in the ecology movement. He not only appeared on TV talk shows to discuss the environment, but also made speeches at various universities and high schools, as well as in front of religious and industrial groups. He founded the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation and served as national conservation chairman for the Boy Scouts of America. He was also the spokesman for Meals for Millions, a project meant to bring food to the starving in the world, in 1963. He was also a special consultant for he World Hunger Conference in Rome in 1974. He was director of the U.S. Commission on Refugees for a time, a trustee of the National Recreation and Parks Association, and a consumer advisory board member of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Eddie Albert is one of those actors whose talent I think both the critics and the public sometimes underestimated. I have little doubt that much of this was because Green Acres was often seen as low brow entertainment, rather than the sly look at modern life it really is. Regardless, Albert gave many great performances over his career. In Roman Holiday he outshines even Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. And as the warden in the original The Longest Yard he was very impressive. I also have to admire Albert for not simply resting on his laurels. He was one of those actors who actually tried to do some good in the world, whether it was addressing ecological concerns or world hunger. I am sad that he is gone, but at 99 years of age, it cannot be argued that he did not live a good long, life.

Thursday, 26 May 2005

The Summer Television Season

Summer is nearly upon us, which also means the American summer television season is nearly upon us. Of course, summer is the time when the American television networks fill the air waves with summer replacement series. For those of you who may not know, summer replacements are those shows, usually short lived, which take the place of many regular shows on the networks' summer schedules. This year, as in the past few years, it seems the networks have decided that the reality show is the best genre for summer replacements.

Indeed, of the summer replacement series airing this summer, no less than twenty belong to either the reality show or talent show genres. It would appear that if it wasn't obvious before, the reality show genre is suffering from extreme exhaustion, as the formats of many of the new crop of summertime reality shows would appear to be, quite simply, lame. One need look no further than the first summer replacement series of the season, Beauty & the Geek, which debuts on the WB on June 1. The show seeks to match socially awkward but intelligent fellows (nerds in my mind, not geeks) with beautiful women. Beauty & the Geek may well be Masterpiece Theatre compred to Fire Me ... Please. Airing on CBS, the show features two people trying to get fired from their new jobs. The first one to get fired wins the grand prize (which I hope will allow them to never work again...). Meet Mister Mom, airing on NBC this August, sounds downright sexist to me. It sends stay at home moms away and leaves their husbands in charge of the household, presuming hilarity will ensue. Why, after all these years, is it assumed that men cannot keep house?

The talent shows airing this summer are at least better than the various reality shows. While I hate the title, Hit Me Baby 1 More Time could have possibilties. The show pits such former music stars as The Knack, Wang Chung, Tommy Tutone, and others against each other in a talent competition where the prizes are given to charity. I must admit it could be interesting to see various rock acts from my youth again. And while I am not that interested in watching ballroom dancing (it seems something one would rather participate in than watch), I am sure that there are many who are. Dancing with the Stars, in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers in a ballroom dancing competition, may well be of interest to those people who do enjoy watching ballroom dancing.

Of course, not every summer replacement series this season is a reality show or talent competition. For me the summer replacement show to watch this summer is Empire. Empire is a six hour miniseries, set in ancient Rome, which follows Octavius Caesar in the days following Julius Caesar's assassination. While I suspect it will depart a good deal from history, it could turn out to be entertaining and well done. Among its producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who were also among the producers of the hit movie Chicago. It will air on ABC on Tuesday nights. Fox will also be airing a summer replacement that is neither a reality show nor a talent show. The Inside centres on the LAPD's violent crimes unit. While another police drama doesn't interest me that much, at least it isn't another reality show.

I am not sure that it has to be said that the chances of survival for nearly all of these shows is slim to none. Since the early days of American television, summer replacement shows have been expected to serve only one purpose--to replace a regular show on the television schedule for the summer. In the early days, summer replacement series usually replaced the regularly scheduled variety shows that would go off the air in the summer. Even in the late Fifties and Sixites, reruns of many sitcoms and dramas would be aired in summertime. As time went by and the season runs of TV shows became shorter, even sitcoms and dramas sometimes saw a few summer replacement series in their time slots. At any rate, summer replacement shows have always been understood to be somewhat ephemeral in nature. For the most part summer replacement series have been expected to air for four to eight weeks and then go off the air. The networks have never had any delusions about producing any hits during the summer.

That is not to say that there have not been summer replacement series that have made it onto the fall television schedule. In fact, some of the most famous TV shows in history have started out as summer replacements. In 1966 ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) imported the hit ABC (Associated British Corporation) series The Avengers from the United Kingdom for use on their summer schedule as a replacement. The Avengers proved successful enough to return to American air waves on the American Broadcasting Company as a mid-season replacement in January 1967. Having proven itself here in the United States, The Avengers finally made the American Broadcasting Company's fall schedule in 1968. Ever since its debut in the United States it has been a cult favourite and, quite possibly, the most popular British show among Americans (Monty Python's Flying Circus aside).

Starting in June 1968, CBS imported another British series to air as a summer replacement, in this case Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner. Only 17 episodes of The Prisoner were ever made, so the show had no real hopes of landing on any of the American network's fall schedules, but it proved to be very popular. The series would air again on CBS in the summer of 1969. Afterwards it would pop up on PBS and even CBS's late night schedule throughout the Seventies and Eighties. And, of course, the entire series run is available on both VHS and DVD.

Lest anyone get the idea that the only successful summer replacements in America were made in Britain, there have been quite a few summer replacement series made here in the States that have caught on. One of the most unlikely series to become a hit in the summer was Hee Haw. Hee Haw was country music's answer to Laugh In. Filled with corny jokes and top country performers, it proved to be a hit when it aired on CBS in the summer of 1969. The network placed it on its fall schedule as a result. Hee Haw would be cancelled along with every other rural oriented TV show on CBS in 1971, but that did not mean the end of the series. It would air for many, many more years with new episodes in syndication. Another hit variety show of the Seventies would also emerge as a summer replacement. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour debuted on CBS in the summer of 1971. The show utilised many of the former writers of The Smothers Brothers Show, among whom numbered the soon to be famous Steve Martin. The series proved to be successful enough to gain a regular time slot on CBS.

Historically, summer seems to have been the time when the American networks would air more offbeat offerings. Both The Avengers and The Prisoner made their American debuts as summer replacement shows. It should then come as no surprise that Northern Exposure debuted on CBS in the summer of 1990. Set in Cicely, Alaska, the series followed New Yorker Dr. Joel Fleischman as he tried to adapt to life in the small and very quirky town. Although created by veterans of St. Elsewhere, CBS had serious doubts about the series. Fortunately, their doubts proved to be wrong. Northern Exposure proved to be a hit and has remained a cult series ever since. It aired five years in all.

Even more successful was another quirky series that debuted on NBC in July 1989, Seinfeld. The pilot aired that month under the title The Seinfeld Chronicles, with little notice at all. The show would not be seen again until the summer of 1990, when four episodes aired. While the seires did not do well in the ratings, NBC at least had enough faith in the show to give it a regular time slot starting as a midseason replacement in January 1991. Initially, Seinfeld did not have spectacular ratings, although they grew as time passed. Eventually, at midseason in 1993, Seinfeld would make NBC's vaunted Must See TV, Thursday night lineup. From there it became one of the network's biggest hits of the decade. It has also went onto become considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

Of course, another unlikely hit TV series to emerge from the summer was Survivor. Debuting in the summer of 2000, the show proved to be the surprise hit of that particular season. Not only did it gain a place on CBS''s fall schedule, but, for better or worse, it also single handedly started the entire reality show cycle. It is still on the air after five years.

While The Avengers, Hee Haw, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Northern Expsoure, and Seinfeld all proved to be hits, I rather doubt this will be true of any of this years summer replacements. First, history argues against it. Most summer replacements have come and gone without anyone ever noticing beyond the people who worked on the shows. How many people today remember Malibu U (1967), Where's Huddles (1970), The Ken Berry "Wow" Show (1972), or Wish You Were Here (1990)? Throughout television history, relatively few hits have emerged from among summer replacement shows. Second, as I pointed out above, the vast majority of summer replacement series this year are reality shows or talent shows. As I also pointed out above, some of these reality shows have very lame formats. Yet others have formats that are somewhat limited, making them essentially one shot series (an example is Rock Star: INXS, in which singers compete to be the new lead singer for that band). I rather suspect that if a hit is to going to emerge from American television's summer season, it will have to either be a fairly original sitcom or drama. While I doubt it will be a hit, although it might be a good show, Empire seems to me the summer replacement most likely to succeed.

Indeed, if one looks at the summer replacement shows over the years that have been successful enough to get a regular time slot on a network schedue, it seems that it has been shows that have been somehow different that have done so. While I cannot say that I liked either Hee Haw or Survivor, I must admit that they were original and quite different from anything that has aired on American television before. It then seems to me that until the American networks stop dumping reality shows (which by now have been done to death) into their summer time slots, we probaby won't see another summer replacement show break out to become a hit for some time.

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

The Blonde Mystique

I have always had a strong preference for blondes. That is not to say that I don't like brunettes (although I never have cared for red hair), but my feminine ideal has always been blonde. It seems that I am not alone in this. Throughout history it seems that blondes have been considered desirable, even in northern Europe where they weren't exactly uncommon.

Indeed, the fascination with blondes seems to go back to ancient times. In ancient Greece, the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, was thought of as being a blonde. In 350 BCE when the sculptor Praxiteles created his famous statue of Aphrodite, he concieved her as being blonde. In The Iliad Homer described Aphrodite as "golden." Strangely enough, among the ancient Greeks, among whom brunettes were much, much more common than blondes, the love goddess was a blonde. When the ancient Romans (who were also predominantly brunettes) came to identify Venus (originally a goddess of grace and the beauty of nature as ordered by man, as in gardens) with Aphrodite, she too became a blonde.

Curiously, in ancient Rome, blonde hair was identified with prostitutes. This seems to have changed once Rome came in contact with the Germanic peoples. Noticing the fair hair of Germanic women, Roman noblewomen started dyeing their hair with such things as quicklime and dyes made from saffron flowers. With the coming of Christianity, blonde hair became somewhat frowned upon, at the very least dyeing one's hair did. Both 2nd century CE theologians Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian condemned the practice of dyeing one's hair blonde and even wearing blonde wigs. Venus, by then firmly established as being blonde, was now seen as a symbol of temptation, promiscuity, and impurity.

The idea of blonde hair as a symbol of temptation, promiscuity, and wanton lust persisted well into the Middle Ages. Eve, who according to the Torah tempted Adam with fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was increasingly depicted as a blonde in 14th and 15th century paintings. Mary Magdalene, conceived of as having been a prostitute or, at the very least, a woman of very low morals, was also often depicted as a blonde. Curiously, in the Middle Ages, there does seem to have been a bit of conflict in views about blonde hair. While Venus, Eve, and Mary Magdalene were all seen as blondes, so too was the Virgin Mary! Of course, the Virign Mary was seen as being entirely "pure" and entirely lacking any sort of sexual desire. If it seems odd that the Virgin Mary should be seen as blonde at a time when the hair colour was identified with "sin," it must be considered that this conception originated with a woman who may well have been blonde herself. The 14th century, Swedish nun Bridget (later to become St. Bridget) constantly praised Mary's blonde hair in the hymns she composed. Ironically, it is highly unlikely that either Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary were blonde. Like most Jewish women of their time, they were probably brunettes! At any rate, the various Arthurian romances of the era are filled with blondes, where they are considered the feminine ideal of beauty rather than vile temptresses.

It is perhaps because of the view of the Virgin Mary as being blonde that the image of blonde hair was somewhat redeemed during the Renaissance. The number of blondes appearing in Renaissance paintings is extremely large. This is even the case with paintings coming from Italy, Spain, and other parts of the Mediterranean, where brunettes are much more common. Both Boticelli and Titian painted more than their fair share of blondes. For the next several centuries blonde hair would go in and out of fashion. And it was during this time that the images of blondes began to vary considerably. The Medieval idea of blondes as corrupt temptresses persisted, but other images emerged as well. In fairy tales the heroines were often depicted as blonde. This is most obviously the case with Goldilocks, but even Cinderella and Rapunzel were often depicted as blonde as well. In Victorian England, among other things blonde hair came to sybmolise innocence and often youth. Lewis Carroll's model for Alice in his books Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell, was a brunette, but when Lewis created his Alice, he portrayed her as a blonde. At the same time that blondes could be seen as innocent, however, they could also be seen as evil, conniving, and seductive. Many of the romances written for young women in the 19th century featured a virtuous brunette who faced an evil conniving blonde.

Society's fascination with blondes continued into the 20th century. Silent screen stars Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson were both blondes. In the early Thirties the sex symbol of the day was Jean Harlow, often dubbed "the Platinum Blonde (although I don't think it was her natural hair colour....)." As beautiful as Harlow was considered by many, I always preferred Thelma Todd myself. Dubbed the "Ice Cream Blonde," she was a comedic actress who appeared with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Harry Langdon. She even had her own series of comedy shorts which paried her with comedy legend Zazu Pitts. I've always thought she was easily one of the most beautiful actresses of the Thirties. Sadly, she was murdered in 1935 (her murder has never been solved). The characters Todd played on screen were intelligent, witty, and vivacious.

In the movies of the Thirties and Forties there were a wide variety of blondes. The Medieval view of the blonde as a seductive temptress persisted and could still be found in many movies of the day, particularly in the crime dramas and film noir of the day. The intelligent, wise cracking, and witty blonde was a staple of many screwball comedies. And, of course, there were the romantic, blonde leading ladies, such as Ingrid Bergman. Indeed, it is to be noted that many of the most famous actresses of the day were blonde. Mae West portrayed characters who were both intelligent and a bit shady. Marlene Dietrich was the seductress, although not always wicked. Doris Day portrayed characters who were intelligent and independent, yet very wholesome. Betty Grable's characters tended to be squeaky clean.

The one thing that was relatively rare in the movies of the Thirties and the Forties was the image of the "dumb blonde" so common today. Indeed, I am not absolutely sure where or when this image emerged, but it seems to have been relatively rare before the 1950s. I suppose some might lay the blame for the popularity of the "dumb blonde" at the feet of the most famous blonde of them all, Marilyn Monroe. I am not sure that this is entirely the case. It seems to me that many of the characters Marilyn played (such as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot) were dingy and almost always vulnerable, but they were very rarely outright stupid. I think the blame may instead be placed with the plethora of Marilyn Monroe imitators that arose in her wake, in particular Jane Mansfield. The characters she most often played could quite appropriately, if undiplomatically, be called stupid. Of course, the upshot of all this is that Marilyn Monroe's natural hair colour was not blonde, but light brown. I don't beleive Jane Mansfield was a real blonde either.

At any rate, perhaps due to the success of Marilyn Monroe and later Bridget Bardot, blonde hair became very popular in the Fifties and the Sixties. Of course, part of this may be due to the advertising savvy of Shirley Polykoff, an ad woman who coined the classic slogan "Is it true blondes have more fun?" for Clairol. Supposedly this ad campaign caused a 413% jump in the number of women who dyed their hair blonde. Here I should point out that I have never cared for artifically created blonde hair. I have always thought that, with a few exceptions, people look best with their natural hair colour. Too often dyed blonde hair looks exactly like that--dyed blonde hair. Even worse, many women do not insure that their eyebrows match their hair colour; I've always thought the sight of women with bleach blonde hair and coal black eyebrows to be a bit creepy. Indeed, while this gentleman prefers blondes, I would like to speak up in defence of brunettes everywhere and say that dark hair is often very beautiful. Why dye black or brown hair if it is already quite lovely?

Anyhow, despite the fact that throughout the ages society seems to have been obsessed with blondes and despite the title of Anita Loos' 1925 novel and the classic Howard Hawks film based on it, I am not quite sure that gentlemen do always prefer blondes. It seems to me that many of my friends do prefer brunettes. I even know a few who prefer redheads. Indeed, in the Eighties Samuel Juni and Michelle M. Roth conducted a study on the influence of hair colour in getting help from strangers (later published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality volume 13). Two women and two men each elicited help from various passersby. Half the time they appeared as blondes, the other half they appeared as brunettes. While women seemed to help everyone equally and men were more prone to help women than men, at no point did hair colour seem to make a difference! I am pondering if the idea that blondes are intrinsically more desirable than brunettes or redheads is simply a misconception passed down through the ages. Indeed, while there are many famous blonde actresses, there are also many famous brunette actresses too (indeed, Ava Gardner is often counted as the most beautiful movie star of all time).

As to my own preference for blondes, I have no idea how it got started. I think it may have been due to the television shows I watched as a child. Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha on Bewitched), Barbara Eden (not a natural blonde, athough she was blonde on I Dream of Jeannie), Donna Douglas (Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies), and Doris Day (both in her movies and on her TV show) were all blonde. Never mind that two of my biggest childhood crushes, Diana Rigg (the exquisite Mrs. Peel on The Avengers) and Dawn Wells (Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island) were brunettes, there were enough blondes on TV in the Sixties to skew my preferences in hair colour.

Regardless of my own preferences and regardless of what the majority of men might actually prefer, it seems to me that society has been fascinated by blondes for literally centuries. I don't know if this will necessarily change in the future or not, although I am pretty sure that there will always be gentlemen who prefer blondes (and, of course, as Anita Loos said, blondes who prefer gentlemen...).

Tuesday, 24 May 2005

In Memory of Howard Morris

Another television legend has passed on. Howard Morris was a man of many talents. He was a comedian, character actor, director, and the voice for many cartoons. He died Saturday at age 85. Although Morris played a variety of roles on television and directed many television shows, he is best known for a role which he only played six times on television. Howard Morris portrayed Ernest T. Bass, the hillbilly who recited bad poetry and threw rocks through windows any time he was angry, on The Andy Griffith Show.

Howard Morris's career has long been tied to that of another television legend, Carl Reiner. The two first met as teenagers at a radio workshop held by the National Youth Administration. The two were reunited during World War II, during which Morris was Reiner's sergeant in a unit devoted to entertaining the troops. Following the war Morris and Reiner performed on stage in the musical Call Me Mister. In 1951 both Carl Reiner and Howard Morris joined the cast of the hit series Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows was a live sketch comedy show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco, written by such future stars as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon. Among other things, it pioneered movie parodies (well before Mad Magaizne) and the use of continuing characters in sketches. Sid Caesar played such characters as Somerset Winterset and Cool Cees, while between them Imogene Coco and Casesar played the couple Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper. Morris's speciality on the show was playing ambitious everymen whose every plan and scheme would go wrong. In many respects, Your Show of Shows can be considered the direct predecessor of Saturday Night Live. Created by television legend Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (who also created Today and The Tonight Show), Your Show of Shows won two Emmys and was a smash hit with audiences of the time. Howard Morris would go on to appear in Sid Caesar's follow up to Show of Your Shows, Caesar's Hour in 1954.

Following the end of Caesar's Hour, Howard Morris became very much in demand as a guest star on TV series, ususally playing eccentric (to say the least) characters. He guest starred on such series as The Perry Como Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presesnts, The Twilight Zone, and Thriler among others. Morris was something of a fixture on sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies, guest starring on Ensign O'Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show (created by old pal Carl Reiner), Bewitched, Hogan's Herores (on which he was a guest star many, many times), and The Bob Newhart Show. Of course, his most notable guest appearances would also turn out to be his most famous role, the five guest shots in which he played Howard T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. Ernest T. was a hillbilly who was in constant movement (he was always jumping around) and who had a penchant for reciting poetry or singing while banging on a gas can. Unfortunately, for Andy and Barney, he was also very tempermental and apt to hurl rocks through the windows of those who riled him. He only appeared on The Andy Griffith Show five times and once more in the reunion movie Return to Mayberry, yet he has become one of that series' most enduring characters.

In addition to his many guest apperances on television, Morris also appeared in various movies. In the Sixties he appeared in the movies Boys Night Out, 40 Pounds of Trouble, and the Jerry Lewis films The Nutty Professor and Way... Way Out. In the Seventies he appeared in the Mel Brooks movies High Anxiety and History of the World: Part I. In the Eighties he would appear in Splash. His last apperance in a film was in Lasting Silents in 1997.

In the Sixties, starting with The Andy Griffith Show, Howard Morris turned to directing as well as acting He directed many episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Hogan's Heroes, and many other series. Most notably, he directed the pilot for Get Smart (co-created by fellow Your Show of Shows alumnus Mel Brooks). He also directed the motion pictures Who's Minding the Mint and With Six You Get Eggroll.

With a gift for strange voices and dialects, it should come as no surprise that Morris turned to voice work on cartoons in the Sixties as well. He provided additional voices on both The Flintstones and The Jetsons. In 1963 he provided the voice of Beetle Bailey in the short lived series of King Features cartoons based on the comic strip of the same name. Perhaps the most famous characters he voiced were Atom Ant, from the Hanna Barbera cartoons of the same name, and Jughead Jones in the various Archie cartoons of the late Sixties and the early to mid Seventies. Morris continued to do voice work until recent years, the latest such work being the voice for Flem for Cow and Chicken.

Like many people I first encountered Howard Morris as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. I also noticed him in his various guest apperances on Hogan's Heroes, Bewitched, and other classic sitcoms. Still later I would see his great work from Your Show of Shows on the movie compilation Ten From Your Show of Shows. As an adult I learned that he had directed many of the episodes of my favourite sitcoms of the Sixties, not to mention that he did voice work for many of the cartoons with which I grew up. I have to say that I think he was one of the best comedic character actors to appear on television. Indeed, there is no better tribute to his talent than the fact that Ernest T. Bass is still remembered to this day, even though the character only appeared five times on The Andy Griffith Show. As a director he was also extremely talented, with some of the best sitcom episodes in television's history emerging under his direction (the pilot for Get Smart is a perfect example). To tell the truth, I have trouble believing Howard Morris is gone, even though I realise he was hardly a young man. It seems like he should be somewhere out there, planing something grandiose (like the characters he played on Your Show of Shows or hurling rocks through windows and spouting bad poetry (like Ernest T.). I suppose that when it comes to the comedic character actors of television, Howard Morris is truly among the immortals.

Monday, 23 May 2005

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam....

Of late, I have been receiving more spam in my inbox than I have for some time. It seemed as if it had declined from since a year or so ago, but now it is once more on the rise. Of course, like most people who use email, I despise spam.

Interestingly enough, spam actually has a very long history as far as the Internet goes. In fact, spam even pre-dates the existence of the World Wide Web. The first internet spam email was sent in 1978 to virtually all ARPANET users on the West Coast from the computer company DEC. This spam email was essentially invitation to receptions celebrating the launch of their new computer, the DEC-20. The reacton of users was swift and largely negative. This first spam email was not referred to as "spam" at the time as the term would not come into use for some time.

Of course, most people are familiar with Spam as a propreitary name of Hormel Foods for their brand of canned luncheon meat. Most people may even be familiar that its use for mass emails or unwanted messages on USENET, mesage boards, and so on, ultimately came from a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit. In the skit a group of Vikings drown out every other sound in a diner by singing a song about Spam (one of the primary things served at the diner). Its etymology goes a bit deeper than that, however, according to the web page "Origin of the Term "Spam" to Mean Net Abuse" (it is from this web site that I got much of the information for this article), the word was born in the MUDs of the late Eighties. For those of you who don't know, the acronym MUD refers to a Multi-User-Dungeon, essentilally a text based, multi-player roleplaying game on a computer MUDs are the ancestors of MMORPGs). Like most role players (and speaking as one myself), the MUD players were very familiar with the oeuvre of Monty Python. It should then come as no surprise that they used the terms spam and spamming for a wide array of online activities, everything from flooding a computer with too much data (causing a crash) to flooding chats with text generated by a programme.

From MUDs the term spam apparently made its way to USENET. In fact, it was apparently on USENET that it was used of unwanted messages, ususally some solicitation for some business or product. It had apparently been in use for some time when in April 1994, the Phoenix law firm of Canter and Siegel used a programme to post an advertisement for their services on every single newsgroup on USENET. The message was soon labelled "spam" and the term spread more swiftly than it had before. Of course, from USENET the word came to be applied to the mass emails we know and hate today.

Indeed, it seems that for most of the nearly 8 years that I have been online, there has not been a day that I have not received spam. It seems to me that many make the biggest noise about spam advertising pornography (which is admittedly a problem), when in my exprience very little of the spam I receive actually deals with porn. At any rate, most spam deals with things in which I am not the least bit interested. I am guessing the majority of spam I have received over the past years have dealt with mortgages, home loans, and just loans in general. Now I own my own home. It is not mortgaged, nor do I intend to mortgage it. And if I did, I would not go to someone who sent me spam anyhow; I'd go to my bank. I am guessing the second biggest subject of spam I have recieved in the past few years has dealt with pharmaceutical drugs. Now I am in fairly good health and I do not take any pharmaceutical drugs regularly. When I do get sick and have to take medicine, I get it at my local drugstore. I would not get it online and definitely not from someone who sent me an email. They are less common now, but for a time I was receiving a ton of spam for various "male enhancement" products. Now I don't know about the people who send out this kind of spam, but I have never needed any kind of male enhancement product and I very seriously doubt I ever will.... As to the spam for hardcore porn, I am not interested in harcore porn whatseover.

Beyond the fact that most spam deals with things I have no interest in, it seems to me that nearly everyone (except possibly the spammers themselves) despises spam. It seems to me that even the spammers know this. Consider, why else would most spammers take such drastic measures as spoofing addresses ("spoofing" is a term for faking email addies), changing their addresses more often than they change thier underwear, using misleading subject headers on their emails, so on and so forth? Quite simply, it is because they know people do not want to receive spam. That having been said, then, I have to wonder why spammers even bother spamming? I can only guess that there are foolish individuals out there who actually respond to spam. After all, it would not seem likely to me that spammers would conitnue spamming if spamming was not worth their while.

As much as we might hate spam, then, I suppose much of the responsiblity for stopping spam rests with us. I have never responded to spam and I never will. What's more, I use spam blockers to keep as much of it out of my inbox as possible. And in many cases I have even reported the spammers to ISPs. I rather suspect if enough people took action against the spammers, then we could at least see a sharp decline in spam. Spam may always be with us, but we can at least make sure there is less of it.

Sunday, 22 May 2005

Henry Corden R.I.P.

Actor Henry Corden died at age 85 of emphysema Thursday night. To fans of the TV series The Monkees, he will probably be best remembered as The Monkees' grumpy landlord, Babbit. For others he may be best remembered as the voice of Fred Flinstone since the original voice of the character, Alan Reed, died 1977.

Corden made his screen debut in a small role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 1947. He made his film career largely from playing heavies and, having a gift for dialects, playing various ethnicities. Over his film career he appeared in such movies as Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, The Ten Commandments, and Tammy Tell Me True.

On television Corden not only played the landlord on The Monkees, but at one time was one of the stock players Jack Webb used on Dragnet. Corden made many guest appearances on television, appearing frequently on both sitcoms and dramas. He appeared in such dramas as Gunsmoke Peter Gunn, and Have Gun, Will Travel. He made guest appearancs on many sitcoms, ranging from My Favorite Martian to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Mary Tyle Moore Show.

Starting with the The Jetsons (for which he provided additional voices), Corden started doing voice work for Hanna Barbera. He provided the voice of Paw Rugg on The Hillbilly Bears, Arnie Barkley on The Barkleys, and, of course, Fred Flintstone.

Henry Corden was a gifted character actor and voice man who enhanced many movies, sitcoms, and cartoons over the years. I can think of no one who could have made a better landlord for The Monkees. His comic timing was perfect. It is sad to think that he is gone.