Saturday, March 22, 2008

Two Actors Pass On

Two actors died recently, both of whom made important contributions in their respective media. One was a veteran television actor who blazed new trails in the medium. The other was a veteran of the stage who was also well known for his few appearances on film.

Ivan Dixon, best known as Sgt. James Kinchloe on Hogan's Heroes, died last Sunday at the age of 76. The cause was a brain haemorrhage resulting from kidney disease.

Ivan Dixon was born in Harlem on April 6, 1931. He was introduced to acting at Lincoln Academy, a boarding school for African Americans in Gaston County, North Carolina. In 1954 he earned a degree in drama from North Carolina Central University. He went onto study at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University and Karamu House, and at New York City's American Theatre Wing. By the late Fifties he had a career on stage, appearing in The Cave Dwellers in 1957 and A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. He made his first appearance in television on an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre. He made his first appearance on film in the movie Something of Value the same year. In 1958 he was Sidney Potier's stunt double in The Defiant Ones.

Dixon would go onto appear in such films as Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun (in which he re-created the role he originated in stage), Nothing But a Man, A Patch of Blue, and Car Wash. Despite this, his biggest impact would be on television. From the late Fifties into the Sixties, Dixon guested on such shows as Have Gun--Will Travel, The New Breed, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In 1965 Dixon began Sgt. James 'Kinch' Kinchloe on Hogan's Heroes. While Dixon said he did not enjoy the role, it was in many respects ground breaking. Kinoche was perhaps the first continuing African American character on an American sitcom who was not a stereotype, but who was portrayed as a competent, intelligent individual.

Following Hogan's Heroes, Dixon would make a few more guest appearances on TV shows ranging from The F.B.I. to The Father Dowling Mysteries, although eventually he would shift is attention to directing. He started directing with an episode of The Bill Cosby Show in 1970. Thereafter he would direct many hours of television, including episodes of Nichols, The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Magnum P.I. He also directed a few feature films, beginning with Trouble Man in 1972. Perhaps his most notable film was The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The controversial film centred on an African American CIA agent who becomes a revolutionary.

Ivan Dixon was a very talented actor who broke new ground for African Americans both on film and in television. His performances in Nothing But a Man and A Raisin in the Sun were nothing short of extraordinary. As Kinch on Hogan's Heroes he opened new doors for African American characters on sitcoms. Although he may not be the best known African American actor, Dixon was certainly one of the most pivotal.

Paul Scofield, the British actor most famous for his performance as Sir Thomas More in both the play and the movie A Man for All Seasons, died Wednesday at the ageo of 86 from leukaemia.

Scofield was born January 21, 1922 in Hurstpierpoint, Sussex. He took up acting early, performing in plays at Varndean School for Boys in Brighton. He also attended a school attached to the Croydon Repertory Theatre and the Mask School in London. Having deformed toes, Scofield was exempt from military service during World War II. He made his debut on stage in the play Desire Under the Elms at the Westminster Theatre in 1940. His big break came in 1944, when he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. With the Birmingham Repertory Theatre he performed in everything from The Seagull to She Stoops to Conquer. In 1945 director Peter Brook arrived at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Brook and Scofield would collaborate on many productions in the next many years. Scofield became one of the most respected Shakespearean actors around, playing Hamlet in 1956 and later in 1962 playing in King Lear.

It would be A Man for All Seasons that would bring Scofield lasting fame. Debuting in London in 1960, the play would debut on Broadway in 1961 (Scofield's only appearance on the Great White Way). Over the years Scofield would have several other notable performances on stage: Government Inspector in 1966, A Hotel in Amsterdam in 1968, Othello in 1980, and playing Salieri in Amadeus in 1979.

Scofield attracted the attention of Hollywood early, being offered a contract in 1946 (he turned it down in favour of the stage). He would not appear on the big screen until That Lady in 1955, playing King Philip of Spain to Ana de Mendoza, the Princess of Eboli. The film was not particularly good, but Scofield's performance was excellent. Over the next few decades Scofield's appearances on film would be infrequent at best. He played Col. von Waldheim in The Train before finally bringing his role of Sir Thomas More to the silver screen with the film version of A Man of All Seasons in 1966. Scofield won the Oscar for Best Leading Actor for the part. Despite this, Scofield would not become a movie actor, with literally years between his appearances on film. He recreated his role as Lear for the 1971 film King Lear and appeared in the movie Scorpio in 1973. He would also appear in the films Henry V, the 1990 version of Hamlet, and Quiz Show (as Charles Van Doren's father, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). He did very little television, but his last role in either film or TV would be the voice of Boxer in the TV adaptation of Animal Farm in 1999.

Paul Scofield was undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of our time. He was extremely versatile. He could just as easily play Sir Thomas More as he could a drunk in The Power and the Glory. And his roles were often difficult, ranging from the brooding Uncle Vanya in the play of the same name to the whimisical Don Quixote to the bitter Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. He was an incredible talent with an equally incredible career. He truly was one of the greats of the stage.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke R.I.P.

Well known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died yesterday at the age of 90. He is perhaps best known to the general public as the writer behind the movie 2001: a Space Odyssey.

Clarke was born December 16, 1917 in Minehead, Somerset. Even as a child Clarke was interested in science. He enjoyed looking at the stars and among his favourite toys was a a Meccano set (the British equivalent of the Erector set). He started reading American science fiction pulp magazines, such as Astounding, as a teen. He also joined the British Interplanetary Society, a small group of enthusiasts who thought that space travel would one day become reality. He attended Huish's Grammar School, Taunton. Unable to afford a university education, he took a job as an auditor in the pensions section of the Board of Education. During World War II Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist. By the end of the war he held the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

Following the war, in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke wrote one of his most important works, an article on the use of geostationary satellites in the field of communications. While Clarke did not originate the idea of artificial satellites, he may well have been the first to propose their use as relay stations for communications on Earth. The article was published in the British journal Wireless World. The following year he made his first professional sale of a work of fiction, the short story "Loophole" to Astounding Science Fiction. At the time Clarke also attended King’s College, London. He graduated in 1948 with a degree in mathematics and physics.

Over the next six decades Clarke would be one of the most prolific and successful science fiction writers of all time. His short stories would become some of the best known in the genre. "The Sentinel," which would provide the basis for the film 2001: a Space Odyssey, dealt with an artefact left on the moon millenia ago by aliens. "The Star" dealt with a Jesuit priest's crisis of faith when he learns the star of Bethlehem was a supernova which destroyed an advanced civilisation. "The Nine Billion Names of God" dealt with the efforts of a Buddhist monastery to find the true name of god.

While Clarke wrote many short stories, he was perhaps best known as a novelist. His first novel, Prelude to Space, was published in 1951. It was in 1953 that the novel which would put Clarke on the map was published. Childhood's End, which dealt with mankind's encounter with seemingly benevolent aliens. His following novels would meet with similar success, including Earthlight, The City and the Stars, and A Fall of Moondust. Among his most successful novels was Rendezvous with Rama, in which a thirty mile alien spaceship enters our solar system. Clarke would write three sequels to the novel.

Clarke also wrote a good deal of nonfiction dealing with science. Among his most popular nonfiction works were The Exploration of Space published in 1951, The Challenge of the Sea, and How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village. Clarke also worked in television. He wrote episodes of both Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Tales of Tomorrow. His short story "The Star" would serve as the basis for an episode of The New Twlight Zone in 1985.

Of course, Clarke's most famous work on film would be 2001: a Space Odyssey. Clarke met Stanley Kubrick in 1964 and the two decided to make a movie based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel." Clarke wrote the novel. Kubrick directed the movie. Both wrote the screenplay. 2001: a Space Odyssey would prove pivotal in getting greater acceptance for the genre of science fiction.

Arguably, Arthur C. Clarke may be the most famous science fiction writer of all time. And there is perhaps very good reason for this. While Clrke's characters were often underdeveloped, he made up for it with the depth of his works. Unlike many science fiction writers, Clarke was not content to examine scientific principles and technology, but their impact on humanity as well. And while the prose of many science fiction writers could be described as dry at best, Clarke often wrote prose that was almost poetry. While he may not have created fully realised characters, he more than made up for this with his examination of the effects of science on mankind and the beauty of his written words.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Director Anthony Minghella Passes On

Anthony Minghella, who directed such films as Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley died from a haemorrhage yesterday at the age of 54. His latest film, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, is set to premiere in just five days.

Anthony Minghella was born January 6, 1954 in Ryde, Isle of Wight. He attended the University of Hull, stopping short of receiving a doctorate. He started out as a playwright, with his first piece that was produced being an adaptation of Gabriel Josipovici's Mobius the Stripper in 1975. It was his 1985 play Whale Music that was his first big break. He began directing plays with two pieces by Samuel Beckett, Play and Happy Days.

In the Eighties Minghella started working in television. He wrote episodes of the series Maybury, Boon, The Storyteller, Inspector Morse, and Grange Hill (on which he was also the story editor). In 1990 he directed his first feature film, Truly, Madly, Deeply. From the Nineties into the Naughts, Minghella directed such films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Play, and Cold Mountain.

While I must confess that I never did care for The English Patient (in fact, I think it is Minghella's worst film), I have enjoyed Minghella's other films. While The Talented Mr. Ripley does depart from Patricia Highsmith's classic novel, it is still an entertaining thriller. I lso enjoyed Cold Mountain a good deal, finding it one of the better romances released in the past several years. I will not say that I think Anthony Minghella was a great director, but he was a good one. It is sad that he had to die so soon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Home is Where the Heart Is....Even on Television

It is perhaps a mark of the importance of television in the late Twentieth Century that many people can accurately describe the homes in which their favourite TV characters live. Indeed, my brother can actually tell people the location of objects in the Cartwrights' house on Bonanza without even looking at the TV screen. There was even a book, published many years ago, called TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes, which featured blueprints for the houses from Leave It to Beaver, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, and many other series. For those blueprints not included in the book, one can often find blueprints for one's favourite television homes on the World Wide Web.

The reason that people seem to remember the homes of TV characters so well perhaps goes beyond repeated viewing of TV shows or even a fondness for those shows. For much of the histories of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, house and home was central to the lives of people. This was no less true in the Fifties when television broadcasting was in its infancy. As a result the television industry was simply reflecting society in giving houses and homes a central role in various TV shows.

This may have been particularly true in the United States in the Fifties, when domestic comedies flourished on the networks. Shows such as Father Knows Best and and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet focused on families, for whom home life was very important. This is no less true of Leave It to Beaver, which featured two of the best known homes in television history. I say "two of the best known homes," because the Cleavers moved at the end of season two. Initially the lived at 485 Mapleton Drive. They moved to 211 Pine Street. Regardless, fans of the show are intimately familiar with the layout of both houses to the point that they can describe them from memory.

While the Sixties would see domestic comedies give way to what Sherwood Schwartz calls "imaginative comedies," the home will still play an important role in sitcoms. In fact, this may well have been the Golden Age for TV homes, when some of the best known houses on television appeared. The Cape Cod in which Darren and Samantha Stevens lived is probably as familiar to many viewers as their own homes. On The Andy Griffith Show, Sheriff Andy Taylor lived in a typically Southern home complete with a big front porch. It would seem that in the Sixties on American television, even bachelors could own their own homes. Astronaut Tony Nelson lived in his own home at 1137 Oak Grove, but later mysteriously given also as being at 1020 Palm Drive (maybe Cocoa Beach redid the streets...).

The Sixties also saw a greater variety in the sorts of homes featured. Unlike Tony Nelson, The Monkees did not own their beach pad at 1134 North Beechwood Drive, having to rent it from Babbit (who was constantly threatening to throw them out). The castaways on Gilligan's Island lived in simple grass huts, but at least they had no worry of anyone kicking them out! At least three families lived in mansions on 1960's American sitcoms. The Clampetts on Beverly Hillbillies lived in an exquisite mansion complete with a "Cement Pond." The exterior shots of the house were of an actual mansion, the Kirkeby mansion in Bel Air, California. The Addams family also lived in a mansion, although it boasted slightly different amenities than the Clampett Mansion. It was located at 0001 Cemetery Lane and stood right next to both a graveyard and a swamp. The exterior of the mansion was based on a house which actually stood along Addams Boulevard (talk about coincidences) in Los Angeles. The interior of the mansion boasted such furnishings as a stuffed polar bear, a suit of armour, torture instruments (ranging from a rack to a bed of nails), a moosehead, and several other odd items. Even The Munsters' mansion did not quite match the Addams' home in terms of sheer oddity.

The Seventies saw a decline in the quality of television homes, featuring less interesting homes than had been seen in the Fifties and Sixties. Much of this was perhaps due to the networks' decision to focus on primarily on city based sitcoms rather than the rural comedies and small town comedies of old. As a result sitcom characters would increasing live in apartments, The perfect example of this were the Jeffersons, who (according to the theme song) lived in "..a deluxe apartment in the sky." It still seemed a comedown from the days when the Clampetts and the Addamses lived in mansions! That is not to say that there weren't memorable homes from Seventies sitcoms. There are fans of Happy Days who know precisely the location of every object in the Cunningham's house in Milwaukee. And the home of the Bunkers at 704 Hauser Street on All in the Family is also well remembered. The junkyard home of Sanford on Sanford and Son stands as one of the more unique homes of the era, as did the junkyard home of Steptoe on Steptoe and Sons on British television many years before it.

Of course, not every memorable home on television appeared in sitcoms. On The Avengers John Steed and Emma Peel both lived in exquisite appartments at 3 Stable Mews and 4 Queen Anne's Court respectively. The Waltons' large family home is perhaps one of the most memorable houses from a family drama. One of the more memorable episodes involved the house being damaged by a fire. For myself, the most memorable house of all time on a TV show may well be the Cartwrights' house on the Ponderosa on Bonanza. It was just the sort of house that one would expect rich ranchers to live in. It had huge halls, a stone fireplace, and sturdy oak furniture. Despite its size and its exquisite furnishings, I always found the Cartwrights' house felt homier than the Cleavers' houses on Leave It to Beaver or the Bradys' house on The Brady Bunch ever did.

So far I have discussed houses in which families or other individuals have lived. It was often the case on American television, however, that some of the best remembered "homes" weren't actually homes at all. The starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek was technically a space faring vessel, and yet many Star Trek fans know it as well as their own homes. Indeed, when the ship was destroyed in Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, there were those who felt as if an actual place they loved had been burned to the ground. Another "home" that was not a home at all was the bar Cheers on the sitcom of the same name. Sam owned the bar. Diane worked there. Cliff and Norm drank there. It was technically a place of business. But as a place where friends gathered to talk and share a few laughs, it was probably more of a home for them than their own houses and apartments. Indeed, a home can be defined in terms of the lyrics of the Cheers theme song--home is "where everybody knows your name."

Of course, homes, whether a place where a family or other individuals lived or an ersatz home where people worked or gathered to have fun, were not central to all shows. In the Sixties there was the cycle of road shows began by Route 66 and continued with The Fugitive and Run for Your Life, in which individuals moved from place to place out of simple wanderlust or being on the run from the law. Still, while many of the road shows were very popular, they were still outnumbered by TV shows featuring homes.

It seems to me that since the Seventies, homes aren't as central to TV shows as they once were. There are only a few--most of them from domestic comedies such as The Cosby Show or Home Improvement--which stand out at all. Much of this may be due to changes in the United States itself. For much of the Twentieth Century people might hold the same jobs for almost their whole lives, As a result they might also live in the same home for almost their whole lives. Employment for most people tended to be relatively stable, and as a result they were able to put down roots in one place. Since then things have changed. People often change jobs after a number of years. And often such changes will not only require they move from their home, but to a completely different city entirely. In homes no longer figuring quite so prominently in American TV shows, then, American television is simply reflecting changes in the United States itself.

Of course, that is not to say hearth and home are no longer important to Americans. Most people I know want to own their own home. And I still know many people (myself included) who do. It seems to me that there is another reason that homes are not as central as they once were on American television. Quite simply, in the Seventies, in an effort to attract younger, more urban audiences, the networks made a conscious decision to focus on more city bound shows. And in many of these shows the characters' homes either do not appear at all (has anyone ever seen Grissom's home on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?) or they live in apartments (examples of which are too many to list). And while many Americans do live in apartments and while many Americans might enjoy living in apartments, I rather suspect that the average American prefers a nice residential house to an apartment any day. Indeed, as I pointed out above, the Jeffersons' "deluxe apartment in the sky" seems quite a comedown from the Addams Family's mansion.

Regardless, the homes of TV characters appear to have played an important role in viewers' enjoyment of TV shows. Whether talking about a literal home, such as the house in which the Petries lived in The Dick Van Dyke Show, or a metaphorical home, such as U.N.C.L.E. headquarters on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., people do become attached the places in which TV characters live, work, and play. This is perhaps a natural reflection of the importance of the home in the societies of the United Kingdom, Canada, and United States.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Music and Memories

It is one of the powers of music to bring to the minds of individuals memories of the past. All it takes is for a person to hear a specific song and he or she will automatically think of those things he or she was doing at the time they first heard that song or that song was popular. Perhaps more than any other medium, it would seem as if music evokes thoughts of specific times and places in people.

I know this is true of myself. The instrumental "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams was a big hit in 1968. As a result every time I hear it I tend to think back to when I was five years old. "My Sharona" by The Knack was the song of the summer of 1979. As a result I can't think of that summer, when I was all of 16 years old, without thinking of that song.

Indeed, songs can even bring up memories of specific events in one's life. In 2000 the song 'Kryptonite" by 3 Doors Down was making its way up the charts just as my mother died .For better or worse, there are times when I hear that song and I can't help but think of the passing of my mom. For me the song "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne will always be intertwined with memories of a camping trip I made in southern Missouri just as that song became a hit.

Here I must point out that a song need not be very new when it becomes tied to a certain time or place in our minds. The "Theme from A Summer Place," from the movie of the same name, was a huge hit in 1960, before I was even born. But I cannot help but think of the late Sixties any time I hear the instrumental. More specifically, I can't help but think of the old Parkade Plaza in Columbia, I swear that they constantly played that song over the intercom!

Of course, the fact that I associate The "Theme from A Summer Place" with Parkade Plaza in the late Sixties brings up another point. Often we will tend to identify specific songs with specific places. I tend to think of Iowa City, where I went to college, any time I hear "Evangeline" by Matthew Sweet. It was one of the hit songs from when I was there.

If people can come to associate specific songs with specific places, then they can quite naturally associate them with certain people as well. In fact many couples will often claim a certain tune as "our song." And there can be little doubt that they think of each other when they hear that song. I know I can't hear "Michelle" by The Beatles without thinking of a woman I know named, well, "Michelle."

For the most part when people associate a song with a specific time, place, or person, they tend to like that song. I must point out, however, that this is not always true. I have always detested the song (and the dance, for that matter) "Macarena" by Los Del Rio. Unfortunately, the song is burned into my memories of the summer and fall of 1995. I cannot hear the song without thinking of that time. I cannot think of that time without thinking of the song. Whether we like it or not, sometimes a song is played so much at a given point in our lives that it becomes intertwined with our memories of that time.

I cannot say why songs tend to evoke memories of people, places, and times more so than movies, books, TV shows, or other media. To me it is a total mystery. That having been said, it seems to me that it is a fact. Indeed, I utterly hate "Love Song" by Sara Bareilles, but I suspect it will be forever be tied to my memories of the winter of 2007-2008. It seems that even when we do not like a song, it can become etched into our memories of a specific time or place.