Saturday, July 8, 2006

Comedian Jan Murray Passes On

Comedian Jan Murray died July 2 at the age 89. He was perhaps best know as the host of the Fifties game show Treasure Hunt and for his many guest appearances.

Jan Murray was born Murray Janofsky in the Bronx on October 4, 1916. As a child he discovered his gift for comedy after watching routines at the local vaudeville theatre. By the time he was 18 he was doing stand up comedy on the vaudeville stage. He later performed at the Catskills and still later became a headliner in Las Vegas.

In 1950 he moved into television as the host of such series as Sing It Again. In 1955 he was the host of his own show, Jan Murray Time. He hosted Treasure Hunt from 1956 to 1959. On the show contestants could pick out a treasure chest--some of which contained large money prizes, while others which would contain some gag prize. After hosting several shows, Murray became a frequent guest star on several series. Among the shows on which he made appearances were The Lucy Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, Love American Style, Ellery Queen, and Hunter. He sometimes served as a guest host on The Tonight Show and a panellist on Hollywood Squares. Murray also appeared in such movies as Thunder Alley, The Angry Breed, and History of the World Part I.

I don't remember Jan Murray as a host of various TV shows and game shows, not having been born yet, but I do remember him from his many guest appearances and his stints on Hollywood Squares. Even in dramas his roles were usually comedic ones. And as might be expected of someone who had honed his art on stages in the Catskills, his timing was perfect. Although he may not be one of the best known comedians of the past fifty years, he was certainly one of the best.

Friday, July 7, 2006

The Emmys and the New Fall Season

Thursday this year's list of Emmy nominees was announced. To say that I am disappointed is putting it mildly. Lost did receive several nominations. It was nominated for Casting for a Drama Series, Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, Directing for a Drama Series, Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series, Guest Actor in a Drama Series (for Henry Ian Cusick), Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series, Special Visual Effects for a Series, and Writing for a Drama Series. But somehow Lost was passed over when it came to nominations for Best Drama Series. Indeed, Lost was passed over in favour of Grey's Anatomy, a medical drama that is about as cliched as they come. Furthermore, none of the leads for Lost were nominated in any of the actor categories, even though the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences saw fit to nominate Geena Davis for Commander in Chief, even though she was totally miscast and unconvincing. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko), Terry O'Quinn (John Locke), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), and Josh Holloway (Sawyer) all deserved to be nominated for the acting categories.

Of course, Lost was not the only series to be snubbed. HBO's Entourage, possibly the best comedy on the air, was not nominated for Best Comedy, even though the undeserving Curb Your Enthusiasm and Two and a Half Men were. Entourage was snubbed in the Best Actor in a Comedy category as well. Neither Kevin Dillon as Drama or Jeremy Piven as Ari were nominated.

While both Lost and Entourage were snubbed, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences must be convinced that Grey's Anatomy is the best thing since white bread. The show was not only nominated in the Best Drama category, but earned ten other nominatios as well. Outside of a few acting nods (I do have to admit that the cast is sincere in their performances), it deserved none of them. Grey's Anatomy is a standard soap opera disguised as a stardard medical drama. That having been said, I am happy to see House getting some recognition. It was nominated for Best Drama, Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series, Casting for a Drama Series, Music Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underscore), and Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series. Curiously, however, it did not receive any nominations for its two strongest points: its writing and Hugh Laurie as Gregory House.

While I am disappointed in the Emmys, I must say that the new fall season is shaping up well. For once the networks seem to be something different than doctor and lawyer shows (although there is Shark with James could he?!). On CBS there is Smith, a drama focusing on a team of high stakes thieves. The leader is played by Ray Liotta and it is produced by John Wells of ER and West Wing fame. It looks promising. Also on CBS is Jericho, show centred on a town of the same name which may or may not be the only city surviving a nuclear holocaust. While I must admit that the format sounds limited, it could be interesting if done correctly.

NBC also seems to be showing some originality. Its new series Heroes focusing on a diverse group of people who one day wake up with super powers and may have to save mankind. The show is created by Tim Kring, who also created Crossing Jordan. While Crossing Jordan is not my cup of tea (it's not bad, just not something I'd watch regularly), I must admit that the concept behind Heroes is intriguing. Also on NBC is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show is produced by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and is a behind the scene look at a late night sketch comedy show. Given it's produced by Sorkin, it could well be worth a look.

Earlier in the week I did a three part series on road shows. Well, it looks like there will be another one this fall. Runaway is a show in which an entire family must go on the run. While I admit it sounds a bit far fetched to me (a whole family!), there hasn't been any road shows on the networks for a while. It airs on the new CW network (it's the results of the UPN/WB merger). ABC also has an show that could be interesting called The Nine. The show centres on nine hostages in a bank robbery and their subsequent lives. I'll admit that the concept sounds somewhat limited to me, but then it could be interesting if it is done well. In other good news, ABC moved Grey's Anatomy to Thursdays, where it will be against CSI. In other words, it probably won't last another season to see any more Emmy nominations.

While the fall season could be better (they always can be), I am glad to see that there are some original series debuting. Indeed, beyond Shark there are no shows focusing on lawyers and I can think of no police procedurals debuting this fall. With any luck maybe the networks have learned that viewers don't always want the same old types of shows all the time.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Pirate Movies

Anyone who has read this blog for very long know that I have had a life long fascination with the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly the period from 1690 to 1730). As might be expected, then, I have always enjoyed a good pirate movie (indeed, it is the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest tomorrow which spurred me to make this post). Sadly, while there have literally been dozens of pirate movies released since the Silent Era of movies, there have been very few, truly good pirate movies.

As stated above, pirate movies have been around since the Silent Era. In fact, the first film version of Treasure Island was released in 1912. It is quite probable that Treasure Island is the most filmed pirate novel in the history of both literature and movies. In the Silent Era alone there would be two more versions of the classic book, one made in 1918 and another made in 1920. The advent of talkies would see the classic 1934 version directed by Victor Fleming. It featured Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins. Of course, many consider the quintessential film version of Treasure Island to be the movie released by Disney in 1950. Treasure Island was not only the first live action Disney movie ever made, but also one of the first Disney films to be shown on television (it was first shown on Disneyland in 1955). Character actor Robert Newton gave the best performance of his career and there are those who consider him to have given the best portrayal of Silver on screen. Jim Hawkins was played by Bobby Driscoll, who would later be the voice of Disney's Peter Pan (his life was cut short after his career faltered and he got into hard drugs). Of course, Disney's Treasure Island was not the last version of the novel on film. Since then there have been several more, including some TV adaptations. Perhaps the most memorable of these is the hilarious Muppet Treasure Island, featuring Tim Curry (Frank N. Furter of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) as Long John Silver and The Muppets in other key roles.

Of course, the only pirate movies made in the Silent Era were not adaptations of Treasure Island. With swashbucklers very much in vogue during the Twenties (in a large part due to Douglas Fairbanks' films), there were several other pirate movies made at that time. Perhaps the most famous was The Black Pirate, released in 1926 and featuring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The story was pure Fairbanks, in which a young man joins the pirate band who killed his father in order to avenge his father's death. Two years before the first screen adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's classic Captain Blood was released with J. Warren Kerrigan as Peter Blood. In 1924 there was also the first adaptation of another classic Rafael Sabitini novel, The Sea Hawk.

The cycle towards swashbucklers ran its course during the Twenties and as a result there would be some time before pirate movies would become fashionable again. The success of the 1934 version of treasure Island brought attention to the genre again, although it would be actor Errol Flynn who was responsible for reviving the pirate movie in the era of talkies. In 1935 Flynn received his first starring role in the first sound version of Captain Blood. Its plot is classic Flynn--after being sentenced to bondage in the Caribbean, Dr. Peter Blood became a pirate in order to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him. Captain Blood was a smash hit and Flynn would follow up his success with The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. Released in 1940, Flynn's version of The Sea Hawk was not an adaptation of Sabitini's novel, but rather a tale of an English privateer in the age of Elizabeth I.

The success of The Sea Hawk and Flynn's other films would spark a new cycle towards swashbucklers that would last into the Forties. As might be expected, some of those swashbucklers were pirate movies. Indeed, in 1942 one of the three greatest pirate movies of all time was released. The Black Swan featured Tyrone Power as pirate Jamie Waring, who goes to the aid of former pirate Henry Morgan in ridding the Caribbean of pirates when Morgan becomes governor of Jamaica. This movie has nearly everything one could want from a pirate movie: ship to ship battles, fantastic sword play, a beautiful love interest (Maureen O'Hara), and a dastardly villain (George Sanders at his best). While it departs from history (as most pirate movies do), it still great fun. Not nearly as good as The Black Swan, but still enjoyable, is Captain Kidd (1945). Charles Laughton played Kidd in this movie that dispenses with history for a plot in which Kidd schemes to rob a treasure ship. While Captain Kidd is fun but historically inaccurate, The Spanish Main from the first year is just plain bad. Paul Henried (Victor Laszlo from Casablanca is unconvincing as pirate Captain Laurent Van Horn and the plot is largely forgettable. That having been said, it does boast some impressive sword play. Of course, by 1948 the genre was ripe for parody. Released that year, The Pirate featured Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in a delightful send up of the swashbuckler genre.

While the cycle towards swashbucklers in the late Thirties and early Forties would eventually wind down, there would be renewed interest in the genre in the early Fifties. Indeed, one could say that there was actually a cycle towards pirate movies in the early Fifties, starting in 1950 and lasting until 1956. More pirate movies were released during this period than any other time in the history of Hollywood. The the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island was largely responsible for beginning the cycle. What is more, it is not the only classic pirate movie to come out at this time. Besides The Black Swan and Disney's Treasure Island, the greatest pirate movie of all time is perhaps The Crimson Pirate. It is also like no other pirate movie made before or since. Burt Lancaster played the title role and put his skill in acrobatics to good use in a plot in which Capt. Vallo (AKA the Crimson Pirate) become involved in a revolution on a small island. Not only does the film feature ship to ship battles and some incredible fight scenes, but it also incorporates technology that is rather advanced for the 18th century (high explosives, submarines, and so on)! The Crimson Pirate is an example of what I call genre melange--a work which mixes more than one genre (in this case, science fiction and pirate movies--the TV show The Wild Wild West is an other example of genre melange). Another classic pirate movie from the era was Errol Flynn's Against All Flags. Flynn played Brian Hawke, who takes up piracy off the coast of Madagascar. OF course, the success of
Treasure Island
resulted in a couple of unofficial sequels (they weren't released by Disney). Robert Newton reprised his role as Silver in 1954's Long John Silver. Unfortunately, the film is fun, but fairly unremarkable. It is at least better than Return to Treasure Island, released the same year. It was just plain bad.

Sadly, pirate movies have proven few and far between since the Fifties. Beyond a few B movies, the Sixties saw almost no films in the genre. Nineteen seventy six saw the release of Swashbuckler, a film that is not bad, but hardly remarkable either. In 1980 a very successful stage revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance very nearly saw a revival of the genre. In 1982 The Pirate Movie attempted to capitalise on the success of this new version Pirates of Penzance. Unfortunately, the film is fairly atrocious, with a forgettable cast and fairly bad songs. An adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance itself, released a year later, was much better, even though the filmmakers saw fit to play fast and loose with the source material. Although it is still roundly panned by critics to this day, the comedy Yellowbeard, released in 1983, is better than either of these films. Written by Graham Chapman and Peter Cook and featuring a cast of veteran British comic actors, I have always thought Yellowbeard was very funny myself. True, many of the bits fall flat, but for every bit that does so there are two or three that are very funny. Released in 1986, Pirates was the last of the Eighties pirate movies. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring by Walter Matthau, Pirates was attacked by critics much as Yellowbeard was. I'll admit that it has its lapses in logic and it does run a bit long, but overall it is simply a fun romp that any pirate fan will enjoy. Sadly, Yellowbeard and Pirates failed at the box office. A new cycle towards pirate movies was not in the offing.

Indeed, since the Eighties there have been only three(and come tomorrow, three, with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) major motion pictures that have dealt with pirates. The first was 1995's Cutthroat Island. Sadly, Cutthroat Island is a pirate movie done as an overblown Nineties action movie. There are more explosions than real excitement. What is worse, Geena Davis is totally miscast in the role of lady pirate Morgan Adams. Only a few good sequences and Frank Langella as the villainous Dawg Brown make it worthwhile. If the poor quality of many previous pirate movies hadn't killed the genre, it would have. Muppet Treasure Island, released a year later, was much better, but did poorly at the box office.

Fortunately, the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would redeem the genre. Against many's expectations ("it's based on a theme park ride," it's a pirate movie), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a bona fide hit. What is more, it is a genuinely good movie that actually stands up beside other classic films in the genre. Like The Crimson Pirate, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an example of genre melange. It is not just a pirate movie. It is also a ghost story, a horror movie, and a comedy. It also features the most memorable pirate in a movie since Robert Newton played Long John Silver. As Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp gave the best performance of his career.

It remains to be seen if Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest will be hit. And if it is a hit, it remains to be seen if it will start a new cycle towards pirate movies. As one who has always enjoyed watching swordfights aboard ships and the firing of cannons, I can only hope it does. There are very few film genres I enjoy as much as good pirate movies.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The Coasters

As I have said before in this blog, I have always had fairly eclectic music tastes. Indeed, among the genres of music I have always liked has been doo wop. And the doo wop group I have always loved the most has been The Coasters. The Coasters had a string of hits starting in 1956 and lasting into the Sixties.

The Coasters evolved out of a previous group called The Robins, which had been formed William and Ray Richards in 1945 as the A-Sharp Trio. The Trio became a quartet with the introduction of Bobby Nunn. They also adopted a new name--The Four Bluebirds. It was in 1949 with their first recording session that they became The Robins. It was also this year that they had their first hit on the R&B charts. It was 1954 that would see several changes with regards to The Robins. They signed to a new label, the brand new Spark Records, which had been started by legendary songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller. The Robins also picked up two new members in the form of Carl Gardner and Grady Chapman.

It was not long after the giant Atlantic Records had bought Spark Records that The Robins broke up. At the time their song "Smokey Joe's Cafe" was moving up the charts. At the suggeston of Leiber and Stoller, Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn formed The Coasters. They quickly added Billy Guy, Leon Hughes, and Adolph Jacobs. Their first single, "Down in Mexico," went top ten on the R&B charts. It was with "Searchin'" that they had their breakthrough hit. The song not only did well on the R&B charts, but crossed over to the pop charts where it became their first #1 hit.

Even though "Searchin'" was a bona fide hit, The Coasters would go sometime without a hit. It was not until "Yakety-Yak" that they would again hit the charts. "Yakety-Yak" went #1 on the pop charts in 1958. It not only re-established The Coasters as hit makers, but also established the style for which they would best be known. A song about the problems of teenagers done in a humourous style, their biggest hits from that point forward would also be played for laughs. Indeed, they followed "Yakety-Yak" with "Charlie Brown (which went to #2 on the charts in 1959)," a song about a teenage troublemaker, "Along Came Jones (my personl favourite, which went to #9 on the charts that same year)," a tribute to the old Western serials, and "Poison Ivy (which also went to #7 in 1959--the song was apparently a veiled reference to STDs...)."

The Coasters continued to chart hits (among them "Little Egypt" and "Shoppin' for Clothes" into 1960 and 1961. Unfortunately, the Sixties would prove rough for The Coasters. With changes in membership during the decade, The Coasters found themeselves unable to chart records as they once did. Their last hit came in 1971, with a remake of "Love Potion #9." The last record they ever released was "If I Had a Hammer" in 1976. Since that time various groups have used the name "The Coasters," even though Gardner owned the rights to the name. The Coasters not only tried to keep other groups from falsely calling themselves "The Coasters," but started billing themselves as "The Original Coasters." They still perform to this day, although Gardner's son, Carl Gardner Jr., took over his role as leader of the group.

I don't know that The Coasters were necessarily among the most influential groups of the Sixties, but it seems to me that they are certainly among the best remembered. Their songs are still recongisable by many and still receive their fair share of air play on oldies stations. Many of their songs would be covered by other artists, among them "Poison Ivy (covered by The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, and many other artists)," "Searchin' (by both The Hollies and The Lovin' Spoonful), "Young Blood (covered by The Beatles in their BBC sessions, Leon Russell, and Bad Company)," and "Three Cool Cats (recorded by The Beatles)." Although they have not had a hit record in over thirty years, The Coasters continue to be one of the most popular doo wop groups of all time.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Road Shows Part 3

Following the cycle of road shows (shows featuring characters who wander from place to place) in the Sixties, the Seventies saw almost no shows of that genre. When a road show did debut in 1974, it was in some respects a throwback to such Westerns as Rawhide and Wagon Train in that its travellers did so because it was their job. Movin' On followed the adventures of two long haul truckers (played by Claude Akins and Frank Converse of Coronet Blue fame). The series only lasted two seasons (which was actually a long run for the Seventies). In some respects it was ahead of its time. If it had debuted just three years later, it could have taken advantage of the trucking craze created by Smokey and the Bandit. To wit, a show which openly ripped off Smokey and the Bandit debuted in 1978: BJ and the Bear....

While road shows were largely absent from prime time, two live action road shows made for children debuted on Saturday morning in 1974. Shazam! was basead on legendary comic book character Captain Marvel. It departed from the comic books in having Billy Batson (who transformed in the Captain by uttering the magic word, "Shazam!") travel in an RV with a character named Mentor (who never appeared in the comic book). The other Saturday morning road show was Run, Joe, Run, a series with the rather ridiculous concept of a Army German shepherd forced to run after he attacked his trainer....

The best known road show of the Seventies may have been The Incredible Hulk, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The Incredible Hulk featured Bill Bixby as David Banner, who tranformed into the Hulk any time he was angered. The show departed from the comic book in that the Hulk could not talk and he never faced any supervillains. Every episode was nearly the same. Banner would encounter people who were oppressed by some villains and in the end the Hulk would give them a good thrashing. Despite the relative sameness of every episode, the show managed to last four seasons. Even several reunion movies were made in the late Eighties.

The Seventies were clearly not a good decade for road shows. The Eighties were not much of an improvement. Only a few road shows aired throughout the decade. Among those series was The Phoenix, which debuted in 1982. The Phoenix featured Judson Earney Scott as Bennu, an alien discovered in a Peruvian sarcophagus. With partial amnesia and only a vague idea that he had some mission to perform on Earth, Bennu escaped and found himself running from Peruvian and American agents who wanted to capture him for scientific study. As an alien, Bennu possessed various mental powers, which were often displayed in his travels. The Phoenix only lasted five episodes.

Nineteen eighty four may have been the best year for road shows in the Eighties, as it saw two such shows air, both on NBC. One was Hot Pursuit, another take on the idea of The Fugitive. On Hot Pursuit Kerrie Keane and Eric Pierpoint played Kate and Jim Wyler, a couple who must take to the open road when Kate is framed for murder. Hot Pursuit failed in the ratings. It lasted only twelve episodes.

The other road show of 1984 proved somewhat more successful. Highway to Heaven featured Michael Landon (Little Joe from Bonanza as angel Jonathan Smith, who is sent to Earth to help people. His sidekick was an ex-cop, MArk Gordon (played by Victor French--Agent 44 from Get Smart). Together the two travelled from place to place doing God's work. The show proved fairly successful, lasting five years. Many probably realise that the format of Highway to Heaven is very similar to the better known Touched by an Angel. Of course, it must be pointed out that Highway to Heaven was somewhat comedic in tone, while Touched by an Angel is not a road show (shows about angels not being my cup of tea, I only saw a few episodes of it, but I seem to recall that they had other means of travel than the open road....).

The last road show of the Eighties was also one of the first shows on the then fledgeling Fox network. Debuting in 1987, Werewolf featured John J. York as Eric Cord, a graduate student who unfortunately gets bitten by a werewolf (his roommate, in fact). Cord can only be cured if he kills the original werewolf who started the bloodline. Cord then sets out to find this original werewolf, all the while fleeing werewolf hunter "Alamo Joe" Rogan (Lance LeGault). Werewolf ran for a little over one season, only 28 episodes. The series was perhaps doomed from the start, being only a half hour in length (as many of Fox's early dramas were) and bearing more than a slight resemblance to The Incredible Hulk in format.

The Nineties would prove to be somewhat better than the Eighties when it came to road shows. In fact, the summer of 1993 could have been the beginning of a trend if the two road shows which debuted then had been successful. One of the two shows was a revival of Route 66. In this new version Dan Cortese as Arthur Clark and James Wilder as Nick Murdock. Nick was the son of Buzz Murdock (one of the characters from the original series), who inherited the legendary Corvette. Together the two young men take the classic Corvette on a journey across the remains of Route 66. This sequel of sorts did not see the success that the original Route 66 had. IT only lasted four episodes and was not picked up for the fall.

The other road show which debuted as a summer replacement in 1993 was Johnny Bago. The show centred on small time hood, John Francis Tenuti (Peter Dobson), who finds himself framed for murder by his cousin Vincent. Taking the alias "Johnny Bago," he then flees in Winnebago, running not only from the law, but from the mob as well. Johnny Bago was essentially an hour long comedy, parodying The Fugitive and similar series. While this certainly separated it from other road shows, it did not guarantee it ratings. Johnny Bago only ran eight episodes and was not picked up for the fall.

Perhaps the best known road show of the Nineties was also one of the first series to air on UPN. Nowhere Man centred on Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood), a documentary photographer who suddenly finds his entire life erased. His friends and family refuse to acknowledge him. His ATM cards and credit cards no longer work. Even the keys to his home and his studio work no more. Veil has little idea why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with photographs of an execution from a Third World country which went missing from his studio. Regardless of the reasons, some vast Conspiracy with a Hidden Agenda has erased all record of his existence. Worse yet, they are pursuing him, forcing Veil on a cross country journey to both escape them and uncover the truth about them. Nowhere Man essentially played as a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner and, like both of those shows, could be cerebral at times. Unfortunately, a change in the regime at UPN pretty much spelled its doom. After one season--25 episodes--Nowhere Man itself was erased.

Perhaps fittingly, the last road show that I can remember airing was a remake of The Fugitive, which debuted in 2000. The format of this new version was exactly the same as the original--Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Timothy Daly, best known from Wings)is falsely convicted of killing his wife and finds himself on the lam. Although this new version of The Fugitive was well received by critics and was even nominated for a few awards, it failed miserably in the ratings. It only ran for one season, with only 23 episodes made.

Since the new version of The Fugitive went off the air, I do not believe another road show has aired on network television. This is not unusual, as road shows have been rare since the Sixties. I think the reasons for this could well be simple. The first true road show, Route 66, debuted in the Sixties, at the height of American car culture. This was a period when Americans very nearly lived in their cars. Drive in restaurants and drive in theatres were still plentiful. Cruising was still an activity many teenagers enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights. Families still took Sunday drives. People even drove to their vacation destinations in their cars. Gasoline was cheap and it cost very little to drive even long distances. Given America's love affair with the car at the time, it was quite natural then that shows should arrive on the scene which focused on the open road.

The cycle towards road shows in the Sixties probably ended it when it did simply because the airwaves had been nearly glutted with the genre. Eight different road shows aired during the decade, not counting shows from other genres that sometimes involved travel (the spy shows of the era, various Westerns, and so on). The Seventies would see events that would severely hurt the credibility of road shows from that point on. The energy crisis of the Seventies saw gas prices rise so that it was no longer quite so economical to travel by car any longer. The country went into a recession, so that it was no longer realistic to expect someone like Richard Kimble or Jim Bronson to be able to pick odd jobs to pay for their journeys. Indeed, the fact that individuals during the bad economic times of the Eighties and the Naughts have difficulty finding work make the idea of someone going from town to town picking up odd jobs seem highly unlikely. Quite simply, the concept of travelling the open road probably has not seemed plausible to most people since the end of the Sixties.

I must admit that I find this sad myself. Like road movies, road shows were in some respects a reflection of America. By portraying inviduals travelling across the country, road shows could display a large cross section of the Unite States. Each week the shows' heroes would arrive in a different place, each with its own terrain, its own peculiar customs, its own dialects, and so on. Through the format of the road show, viewers could be introduced to different ways of life which may be unknown where they live (for instance, someone in Missouri could see how Maine fishermen live...). Road shows could also satisfy what is probably still the desire of many Americans. I have little doubt that there are many who would like to simply quit their job, take to the open road, and get away from it all the way that Buzz Murdock or Jim Bronson did.

The road shows also had a format that was very flexible, enabling them to do a large variety of sorts of episodes. One week's episode could be a screwball comedy. The next week's episode could be high adventure. A road show could explore the important issues of the day, but the next week feature a simple character study. The road shows of television's past have much to offer that today's doctor and lawyers simply do not. Sadly, I don't think we wil see too many road shows airing in the near future, especially not with today's price of gas....

Monday, July 3, 2006

Road Shows Part 2

Route 66 and The Fugitive both proved fairly successful. It was their success which started a cycle of similar road shows in the Sixties. In fact, more road shows (shows which centre on individuals who wander from place to place) aired in the Sixties than any other era.

What may be the third most famous road show debuted only two years after The Fugitive in 1965. Run for Your Life The series was created by Roy Huggins, who had also created The Fugitive. The series featured Ben Gazzarra as lawyer Paul Bryan, who is given only two years to live (although he will remain in relatively good health until the last two weeks). Rather than succumbing to depression or wallowing in self pity, Bryan instead sells everything he owns and starts travelling the world in an effort to live his remaining life to the fullest. Like the heroes of The Fugitive and Route 66, Bryan often found himself becoming embroiled in the lives of the people he met. Run For Your Life ran three years, a full year longer than Bryan had to live. While both Route 66 and The Fugitive had definite endings, Run for Your Life did not. Most likely it was feared that if they actually allowed Bryan to die in the final episode, then it could hurt the show's run in syndication.

With three different series featuring wanderers on the air, the genre of road shows perhaps seemed ripe for parody in 1966. It was that year that Run Buddy Run debuted. Run Buddy Run featured Jack Sheldon as Buddy Overstreet, an ordinary schmoe who has the misfortune of overhearing what the Syndicate (the show's version of the Mob) thinks is important information. Buddy must then begin a cross country run for his life. Bruce Gordon, who had played Frank Nitti on the classic TV series The Untouchables, played "Mr. D. (the "D" is short ofr Devere)," the head of the Syndicate. The series was created by Leonard Stern, who was executive producer on Get Smart and had worked on such series as The Phil Silvers Show and The Honeymooners. Run Buddy Run failed in the ratings and only lasted one season. One can only guess that people wanted their men on the run to be a bit more serious.

While the cycle towards road shows was well under way in the Sixties, there was also a cycle towards science fiction and fantasy series. This was the era of Bewitched, The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek, among a number of other shows. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone would fall upon the idea of combining a road show with science fiction. The Invaders featured Roy Thinnes as David Vincent, an ordinary man who has the misfortune of learning that aliens are gradually taking over the world. They had already infiltrated human society to a large degree, as there were aliens in hospitals, police departments, the media, and even the government. Vincent remained on the move so that the aliens could not capture him, while at the same time trying to convince others that this alien invasion was real. Debuting in January 1967 on ABC, The Invaders only ran a season and a half. It would prove influential, however, in setting a precedent for men on the run because of sometimes fantastic reasons.

The Invaders was created by Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame), who would also create the next road show to air in the Sixties. Debuting in the summer of 1967, Coronet Blue was another road show with a twist. The series centred on Michael Alden (played by Frank Converse). Alden had been fleeing some men when he fell into a harbour. Emerging from the water, he could only remember two things: that he had been fleeing someone and the mysterious words "coronet blue." Alden ran from place to place, attempting to escape his pursuers all the while trying to figure out the meaning of the words "coronet blue." Coronet Blue proved to be a bit of a sensation when it aired (think Twin Peaks or Lost) in the summer of 1967. Sadly, after 13 episodes the series went off the air, leaving the mystery of Coronet Blue unsolved. CBS evidently felt the series was too intellectual for its audience!

With the failure of both The Invaders and Coronet Blue, one would think that the cycle towards road shows in the Sixties would have ended immediately. It did not do so, as there were two more road shows would debut, one in 1969 and another in 1970. The more memorable of the two was Then Came Bronson. Produced by Robert H. Justman and Robert Sabaroff (both veterans of Star Trek), Then Came Bronson centred on Jim Bronson (Michael Parks), a big city reporter who takes to the road on his motorcycle following his best friend's suicide. While the guys on Route 66 just travelled for kicks and Richard Kimble on The Fugitive was on the run from the law, Bronson was searching for a meaning to his life. Then Came Bronson is one of those series that everyone seems to remember fondly. Indeed, I remember my parents (whom one would have thought a little old to enjoy a show about an outsider on a motorcycle) watched it loyally. Amazingly enough, however, Then Came Bronson only lasted one season. Only 26 episodes of the series were ever made.

The road show which debuted in 1970 has largely been forgotten. The Immortal featured Christohper George as Ben Richards, a car test driver who learns that he cannot die. It seems that his blood has unique features that make him immune to both aging and disease. Unfortunately, this knowledge falls into the hands of a millionaire named Arthur Maitland, who wants to use Richards' blood to extend his own life. For this reason, Richards must flee for his life. While Ben Richards might have been immortal, the show was not. It only lasted half a season, a mere 16 episodes.

With the demise of The Immortal, the cycle towards road shows came to an end. This would not mean that there would not be any more road shows, however, as more would follow in the next few decades. I will cover those in my next entry.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Road Shows Part One

Most characters on television series have some place that they can call home. It may be a literal home, as in the Ponderosa on which the Cartwrights lived on Bonanza, or it may be a figurative home, as in the starship Enterprise of Star Trek. At any rate, on most television shows the characters have some place where they spend most of their time and, regardless of where they may go, to which they return. This is not true of all TV shows, however, as there have been several series throughout television history on which the characters wandered from place to place, never settling (at least not until the end of the show).

These shows can in some respects be considered the television equivalent of road movies (such as the classic It Happened One Night or Easy Rider), in which the characters embark on some journey. Of course, the major difference between road movies and, for lack of a better term, road shows is that in road movies the characters usually reach their destination by the end of the movie. On road shows it might take several seasons for the characters to wind up where they belong, and in many cases they may never reach their destination. The quintessential examples of road shows are Route 66 and The Fugitive.

Although road movies have had a long history in the cinema, it took some time for the genre of road shows to evolve on television. In fact, during the Fifties there was no show set in modern times whose format consisted of its heroes wandering from place to place. That is not to say, however, that the road show was totally unknown in the Fifties. I Love Lucy could be consisered a forerunner of road shows in that it featured two story arcs in which its characters travelled from place to place. In the fourth season Ricky was offered a role in a movie. Rather than flying to Hollywood, Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred drove cross country, having adventures all the way. During the fifth season the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to Europe, where they visited England, Scotland, Paris, Switzerland, and Italy. Of course, unlike many of the later wanderers in road shows, the Ricardos and Mertzes were able to return home.

Of course, Lucy was not the only character on the road in 1950s television. While no shows set in current times featured characters wandering from place to place, there were plenty of Westerns that did so. In fact, one of the first three "adult Westerns (Westerns made for adults rather than children--Gunsmoke is an adult western, The Lone Ranger supposedly isn't), Cheyenne featured a drifter as its hero. Its hero, Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker), wandered the West, working a variety of odd jobs (from cowboy to deputy). Cheyenne proved to be a success, so that a number of Westerns featured heroes who wandered from place to place. Perhaps the most notable was Maverick which featured James Garner as gambler Bret Maverick (and occasionally brother Bart), who wandered from place to place in search of a good game (and getting into plenty of trouble doing it).

While drifters were common on Westerns in the Fifties, they were not the only ones making journeys in Westerns of the era. Some characters had a reason for making their journeys. In the case of Rawhide, it was a cattle drive. Led by trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) and ramrod Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood when he was young), the cattle drive crossed the West from San Antonio to Sedalia. On Wagon Train Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) would lead a wagon train out West from St. Joseph each season.

Of course, when most people think of road movies they think of something set in modern times and usually travelling by car, by foot, or a variety of means of transportation. Strictly speaking, then, even though many of the Westerns of the Fifties featured people travelling, they probably cannot be considered "road shows." The first true road show would not debut on American television until 1960. That show was Route 66, taking its name from the famous highway of the same name and using the classic 1946 song of the same name for its theme. It featured Martin Milner and George Maharis as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, two young men who decided to drive across America on Route 66 in a Corvette. Each week Stiles and Murdock would visit a new place where they would become embroiled in some new situation. Route 66 could be very dark in tone, sometimes dealing with such serious subjects as the Holocaust, drug addiction, and gang violence. It could also be very light hearted, as in the famous Halloween episode in which, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre guest starred.

Route 66 proved very successful. The series performed very well in the ratings and was nominated for two Emmys. During its run George Maharis had to step out of the series due to illness, whereupon he was replaced by Glenn Corbett, who played Linc Case. Route 66 ran a total of four seasons and would eventually have a sequel made in the Nineties (more on that later). The series was unique in that it was perhaps the first TV series to ever have a definite ending. In the final episode, "Where There's a Will There's a Way," Tod Stiles married and Linc Case ceased his wandering.

Route 66 proved very influential and for the remainder of the Sixties there would be many more road shows. The most famous such series is perhaps The Fugitive. The series was created by Roy Huggins, who also created Maverick, and featured David Janssen as the unfortunate Dr. Richard Kimble. Kimble found in himself in the position of being falsely convicted of his wife's murder. Fortunately for Kimble, he escaped execution when the train carrying him wrecked. Thereafter Kimble remained on the move, pursued by Lt. Gerhard (played by Barry Morse) and searching for a one armed man, whom Kimble believes is the man who really killed his wife. The Fugitive owes a good deal to the classic novel Les Miserables, in which the detective Javert hunts Jean Valjean on a cross country chase. It perhaps owed a good deal more to the Sam Shepphard case. Dr. Sheppard was an osteopath whose wife was found murdered in their Cleveland home in 1954. Sheppard maintained his innocence, but was convicted none the less. Eventually his original trial was overturned and he was acquitted.

Like Route 66, The Fugitive saw its hero travel to a new place each week, getting involved with the people there. Unlike Route 66, its hero had no choice in moving from place to place; with the law on his tail, Dr. Kimble simply could not settle down. Regardless, like Route 66 The Fugitive is one of the few series to have a definite ending. In the final episode (for a time the highest rated episode of any American TV series) Dr. Kimble and Lt. Gerhard finally catch up to the one armed man and Kimble's name is cleared on the murder of his wife

The Fugitive did very well in the ratings and ran a total of four seasons. The series was nominated three Emmys and won three Golden Globes. It was memorable enough that a major motion picture roughly based on the series with Harrison Ford as Kimble was released in 1993. A new version of the series would air in 2000 (more on that later). Like Route 66, The Fugitive would also prove very influential. Arguably, every road show that has aired since the Sixties owes their existence to the success of this series and The Fugitive inspired several imitators.

In my next entry I'll take a look at some more of the road shows that followed in the wake of Route 66 and The Fugitive.