Saturday, September 6, 2008

Television Writer Sheldon Keller Passes On

Emmy winning television writer Sheldon Keller, who worked on Sid Caesar's variety series Caesar's Hour in the Fifties, passed on Monday at the age of 85. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Keller was born in Chicago on August 20, 1923. He attended the University of Illinois. While there, he appeared in college shows with Allan Sherman (the "Weird Al" of the Sixties, most famous for the spoof song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"). In 1942 he left school to join the United States Army, in which he served in the Signal Corps in the Pacific Theatre. Following World War II he worked in the family business (corset manufacturing). It was in 1952 that he borrowed money $500 from his family to move to New York City to start a career in comedy.

It was in 1955 that Keller was hired to write on Caesar's Hour. There he worked with such legendary writers as Gary Belkin, Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, Neil Simon, and Mel Tonkin. He would later write for The Art Carney Show and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. He reached another highpoint in his career with The Danny Kaye Show in 1963. Along with the rest of the writing staff (which included Mel Tonkin and Larry Gelbart), he was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy or Variety.

Keller wrote three episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1962 and 1963. He won his only Emmy, for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety, for An Evening with Carol Channing in 1966. The following year he was nominated for an Emmy for Special Classifications of Individual Achievements for Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music Part II. Keller would write on further TV specials for Sinatra, as well as one for Bing Crosby and Carol Burnett.

Keller would also write motion picture screenplays. His first feature film was Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lolabrigida and Shelley Winters, in 1968. In the Seventies he worked on tv series The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, Temperatures Rising, and M*A*S*H, and TV specials smf movies such as What Now, Catherine Curtis (starting Lucille Ball), The Beatles Forever, and Paul Lynde at the Movies. He co-wrote the script for Blaxploitation cult film Cleopatra Jones with Max Julien and Movie, Movie with Larry Gelbart. In the Eighties he wrote episodes of House Calls and the TV specials Women Who Rate a 10, Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abromowitz, and Side by Side.

Keller was also a composer, writing music for The Bob Hope Show, Make Room for Daddy, The Danny Kaye Show, and Hizzoner. He also produced three years' worth of Bob Hope specials, The Jonathan Winters Show, and the TV series House Calls and Hizzoner. After his career in TV and movies, Keller worked on a newsletter of jokes for pubic speakers and disc jockeys.

Sheldon Keller was certainly one of the greatest television writers of all time. He was one of the legendary group of writers who worked on Caesar's Hour, as well as The Danny Kaye Show. Keller had a natural gift for comedy. He wrote some very funny material, including the episode "It's a Shame She Married Me" of The Dick Van Dyke Show (which guest starred Robert Vaughn) and Movie, Movie. He was one of the last truly great comedy writers who had worked in television. He will certainly be missed.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bill Melendez Has Passed On

Animator Bill Melendez, best known for the animated Peanuts specials, passed Tuesday at the age of 91.

Bill Melendez was born Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez on November 15, 1916 in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. In 1928 his family moved to Arizona and later to Los Angeles. Melendez attended the Chouinard Art Institute. He started his career at Walt Disney Studios in 1939. While there he worked on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. He was one of the leaders in the animators' strike at Disney in 1941 which resulted in the unionisation of that studio.

Melendez never returned to Disney. That same year he took a job with Leon Schlesinger Productions (the studio that provided Warner Brothers with its cartoons from 1936 to 1944, where upon it was bought by the studio). He would work on such shorts as "Wabbit Twouble," "Kitty Kornered," "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," "Bowery Bugs." and "What's Up, Doc." In 1948 he moved to United Productions of America (better known as UPA). There he worked on such shorts as "Gerald McBoing-Boing," "Madeline (based on Ludwig Bemelmans' series of children's books)," "Little Boy with a Big Horn," and "Gerald McBoing-Boing's Symphony." He would move to Playhouse Pictures (a commercial studio which has produced such things as adverts for the Ford Falcon, Lanvin Arpege Perfume, and Falstaff Beer, as well as the opening to The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show) and John Sutherland Productions (who produced primarily industrial films) later in the Fifties.

It would be in 1960 that Bill Melendez would first cross paths with the Peanuts gang. He animated commercials featuring the characters advertising the 1960 Ford Falcon (the campaign would actually run for several years) and openings featuring the characters on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (Ford Motor Company was the sponsor on the show). This was the very first time the Peanuts characters had ever been animated. Melendez soon became the only animator that Charles M. Schulz would allow to animate his characters. Melendez would later animate the Peanuts characters for a series of short segments for a never finished documentary on Schulz and his characters in 1963. It was that same year that Melendez proposed a television special based on the Peanuts characters to Schulz. The result was A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired in 1965 on CBS. The special won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program.

Melendez and Schulz followed A Charlie Brown Christmas with Charlie Brown's All Stars and the highly successful It's the Great Pumpkin in 1966. In the end Melendez produced a total of 64 Peanuts specials. He also produced Peanuts feature films starting with A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1971, and followed by Snoopy Come Home, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back). He also produced the Saturday morning TV series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, which ran from 1983 to 1985. Melendez also provided the voices for both Snoopy and Woodstock.

Melendez also produced specials based on Babar the Elephant, Garfield, the comic strip character Cathy, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It is difficult imagining anyone else animating Charles M. Schulz's characters besides Bill Melendez. From the Ford Falcon commercials which he produced to the last of the specials (He's a Bully, Charlie Brown in 2006), Melendez always captured the Peanuts characters perfectly. It was not simply a matter of Melendez being a superior animator (though that he was), but that he captured the essence of Peanuts better than anyone else possibly could have. I have no doubt that Melendez and Schulz's Peanuts specials will air on television for years.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

In Memory of My Cat Precious

Generally this blog is about pop culture, but last night something happened that has changed my world forever. Last night my sister found our cat Precious dead in her closet. She had been missing all day. That was not unusual, as she was the sort of cat who liked nothing more than to find a nice cosy hiding place and go to sleep. This was especially true on chilly, rainy days like yesterday was. Precious was not a young cat. We estimate she was probably around 10 years old. And Himalayans only live to be 10 or 12 years old.

We got Precious in 2000, when she was probably around two years old. She was a purebreed Himayalan (or so we were told). The couple she came from had a habit of fighting and so she stayed hid for the first two weeks we had her. She hid under my chest of drawers. I would put food and water out for her. We had a litter pan right there. And I would take the drawer out to pet her. When she finally decided that my sister and I were not going to yell and throw things at each other, she finally came out after two weeks. For quite some time she would still run and hide anytime strangers (at least strangers to her) would come over, but to my sister and me she became a very loving cat. After about six months she stopped hiding even when "strangers" visited.

As I said Precious quickly became a very loving cat. She enjoyed sitting on people for hours and having her fur stroked. Being a longhair, she naturally loved to be combed and groomed. She had a disconcerting habit of when becoming overly affectionate of delivering "love nips," although she never bit very hard. Like most cats Precious liked to sleep with one of us when it was cold. This was nice as with her long fur and her size (she wasn't a small cat), she was almost like a small blanket! She also had one of the loudest purrs of any cat I knew. This was funny because her "meow" was so quiet one could barely hear it.

In some ways Precious was a cat of strange habits. She liked to sleep in the oddest places. She would sleep on top of cartons of soda, crates of bottled water, books, old newspapers... And she loved boxes (as the picture above shows). It didn't matter what kind of box it was or where it was in the house. Precious would find it and crawl in it. She also loved the old maple tree in the front yard. She would sometimes climb up in it and spend the better part of the day just sitting in it.

Precious also had odd tastes in food for a cat. She loved mashed potatoes and beans. but was not real crazy about milk (I guess that was the Siamese blood in her--Himalayans were created by breeding Siamese with Persians). Of course, like most cats she liked any kind of fish, especially tuna.

Precious got along well with her fellow cats for the most part. Her best friend was probably Monster (sadly gone too), who was about the same age as she was. Precious had an odd love/hate relationship with our cat Sis. She and Sis were always getting into it, but if another cat attacked Sis or another cat attacked Precious, they were the first to take it up!

Precious was an intelligent cat, too. She would come to her name, and she knew the names of all the other cats as well. When she was younger she would try to open doors until she learned she didn't have the strength to turn the knob.

Right now I am very, very sad. I will miss Precious immensely. She was one of the most loving cats I ever owned. She was the sort of cat who loved her humans immensely and was happiest when she was with us. I just hope she finds plenty of love in her afterlife.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Danger Man, AKA Secret Agent

Among my favourite TV shows of all time and one of my favourite spy series was Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent here in the States. The series debuted on September 11, 1960 on ITV in the United Kingdom and aired until February 26, 1967. It would become the first spy series to air on American network in the Sixties, as well as the first British series imported in the Sixties.

In its original, half hour format, Danger Man followed the exploits of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), a security specialist working for NATO. He travelled around the world (primarily Europe) tackling cases of international concern. He had no partners and almost always worked alone. His superior was Hardy (Richard Waits).

In the mid-Fifties Parliament finally permitted the existence of commercial television in the United Kingdom. The newly created commercial television units naturally wanted to create programming that could compete not only with the BBC (Britain's public broadcasting company), but with American products as well. Initially the commercial companies concentrated on such high brow series as Armchair Theatre and mediaeval action-adventure series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. By the late Fifties and early Sixties, however, British commercial television started to develop its own action-adventure shows set in modern times, similar to those seen on the American networks but with a distinctly British flavour.

One of the earliest such series was The Invisible Man, which was produced by ITC from 1958 to 1959. In The Invisible Man a young scientist was accidentally and permanently turned invisible during an experiment. Naturally he set to work trying to find a cure for his condition, though he also decided to put it to good use by offering his services to British intelligence. The Invisible Man proved fairly successful and even aired in America. The series' producer was Ralph Smart, a man who would see even greater success with his next action/adventure project--Danger Man.

Danger Man was an espionage series as had never been seen on either side of the Atlantic. It took its inspiration from the popular Hitchcock movies and Bond novels of the time, in which the opponents were portrayed as intelligent human beings and there was plenty of action and suspense to be found.

At the same time, however, John Drake stood apart from Bond and other spies before him as a distinctly original creation Though there were plenty of beautiful women to be seen in episodes of Danger Man, John Drake never once kissed one of them. Star Patrick McGoohan felt that if Drake kissed a girl, then he would be expected to do so every week. This he felt could teach British children that promiscuity was perfectly acceptable, so he decided that Drake would never kiss a woman in the course of his adventures. Similarly, John Drake almost never carried a gun. Again, Patrick McGoohan felt that this could teach children that violence, especially the use of lethal force, was an acceptable solution to almost any problem. Rather than risk sending the wrong message to British youth, then, McGoohan decided that Drake would almost never use firearms. The fact that Drake did not set about seducing women and that he did not use a gun set him apart from most of the other fictional spies of his times, particularly James Bond, who slept with at least one woman in nearly every novel and carried a licence to kill.

Even at a mere half hour, Danger Man featured stories that moved at a fairly rapid pace and boasted a good deal of character development. Drake's adventures also tended to be more realistic than those that would later appear on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Drake never faced a situation in which the entire free world ws threatened and gadgets very rarely appeared--when they did they were nearly always well within the means of 1960's technology. Similarly, Drake faced more realistic opponents than the would be world conquerors sometimes encountered by other spies. The end result was episodes that were exciting, but almost never melodramatic. In "The Lonely Chair" Drake's mission was simply to rescue an industrial designer's daughter whose kidnappers were demanding top secret blueprints for a government project in exchange for her release. In "The Prisoner (not to be confused with McGoohan's later TV series of the same name)," Drake must smuggle a United States citizen out of a Carribean nation which is demanding his arrest. In "The Contessa" Drake msut uncover a drug smuggling ring.

While most of Drake's adventures in the first series of Danger Man could realistically occur, that is not to say that he did not have his share of unusual adventures. In "Name, Date, and Place," John Drake faced an international ring of assassins--something similar to Muder Inc. but operating world wide. "The Relaxed Informer" found Drake investigating a security leak, only to find that the trail leads to an interpreter who has been hypnotized to reveal top secret information. In "The Leak" Drake investigates a North African nuclear power plant whose employees have been dying of radiation poisoning. "Dead Man Walks" may be the closest that Drake ever came to a Bondian situation in the first series of Danger Man. It featured a highly contagious new bacteria that could kill vegetation in a matter of hours.

Danger Man proved extremely successful, so successful that it and The Avengers (which debuted the following January), sparked a spy craze in Great Britain. Of course, this spy craze would lead to the Bond films, which would create a spy craze on American shores as well (ironically McGoohan was even offered the role of 007, but turned it down). Such success did not go unnoticed by the American networks, so that Danger Man was imported for a short run on CBS starting in April 1961. This made Danger Man the first spy drama to air on American television in the Sixties. And while it aired only for a short while on CBS, it would not be long before similar series would be filling the American airwaves.

The first series of Danger Man ended after 39 episodes in June, 1961. Ralph Smart would go on to another series (Man of the World<) in 1962, while McGoohan would assume othe roles. This did not mean that television viewers had seen the last of John Drake, however, as the series would return in an hour long format in October 1964. The hour long version of Danger Man debuted on ITV on October 13, 1964. It still followed the exploits of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), although it would see some changes as well. As before, Drake was a highly skilled agent who usually worked alone. On the hour long version, however, Drake had become an agent for M9 (a fictional branch of Her Majesty's Secret Service). His superior was now Hobbs (Peter Madden). The cover utilized by M9 and its agents was usually that of World Travel, a travel agency which serviced a good number of destinations (some of which would definitely not welcome tourists).

Danger Man was one of the most popular TV series of its time in the United Kingdom. In fact, in the years since its original run, Britain's taste for similar such material had own grown that much greater. The Avengers, which had debuted a mere four months later, had become a phenomenon in its own right. Similar action adventure series, such as the anthology series Espionage and Man of the World (produced by Danger Man's Ralph Smart), had become rather common on British television. And putting aside all doubts that a spy craze had overtaken England were the Bond films--Dr. No and From Russia with Love had been top money makers in 1962 and 1963 respectively. The time then seemed right for the return of Danger Man.

The new series would eventually find its way to the United States just as the original had. In America, however, the series was renamed Secret Agent in hopes of capitalizing on the growing spy craze. It was also given a new theme song, "Secret Agent Man," sang by Johnny Rivers, and a new title sequence. Secret Agent debuted in America on CBS in April 1965 and ran much longer than the original series had in the States--it even made the network's 1965 fall schedule and ran until September 10, 1966. No doubt CBS had noticed the new series' success in Great Britain, all the while keeping an eye on the steadily increasing ratings of NBC's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The new Danger Man series saw Ralph Smart once again at the reins as executive producer. Initially Aida Young served as the line producer, though this function would later be filled by Sidney Cole, whose previous work included The Adventures of Robin Hood and Sword of Freedom, two mid Fifties mediaeval adventure series. And, of course, Patrick McGoohan remained as superspy John Drake.

The hour long version of Danger Man differed only slightly from the original half hour version. With the series expanded to an hour, this resulted in episodes with more complicated plots, more action, and more character development (none of which Danger Man had ever lacked anyhow). Other changes involved the character of John Drake himself. As pointed out above, he no longer worked for NATO, but instead for the fictional agency M9. Drake's personality was also softened so as to emphasize his wry sense of humour. The hour long version of Danger Man also saw Drake's sense of decency emphasized. As the new series progressed it would become more and more apparent that John Drake was a man of conscience, often unhappy with the violence which sometimes occurred in his line of work and even questioning the motives of his superiors. As in the original series, Drake never indulged in frivolous affairs with the fairer sex (not even so much as a kiss) and rarely, if ever carried a gun.

Another change in the new series from that of the old was the increasing number of gadgets in episodes, whether due to a larger budget, their popularity in the Bond films and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or both. During the first season such high tech gear appeared on a somewhat irregular basis; however, the second season would see gadgets increase at such a rate that at least one usually appeared in every episode. While gadgets had become more prevalent on the hour long version Danger Man, they were still a far cry from the highly advance devices which appeared in the 007 movies or on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead the gadgets were of the realistic sort that would later be seen on Mission Impossible--devices which could conceivably be built using mid Sixties technology. Among the most popular such gadgets on the series were miniaturized tape recorders (forerunners of a sort of our modern cassette tapes); for instance, "You're Not in Any Trouble, Are You?" featured one disguised as an electric razor. Another popular device were gas guns which emitted a harmless knockout gas. Such guns were used to great effect in "A Room in the Basement." Another episode, "English Lady Takes Lodgers," featured one disguised as a tobacco pipe. Electronic gadgets of various types appeared throughout the series. In various British government offices Drake could communicate with his superiors by a hidden television screen (a video phone of some type). "A Room in the Basement" featured miniaturized walkie talkies (about the size of today's cellular phones), while various other episodes featured electronic tracking devices and surveillance equipment. Much lower tech were the pocket telescopes which Drake sometimes carried. The presence of gadgets on Secret Agent was perhaps made most obvious in "The Hunting Party," where Drake opens a briefcase to reveal an entire arsenal of them--everything from wire clippers to a tape recorder!

Despite the greater frequency of gadgets in the series, Danger Man's episodes still continued to be more realistic than those seen on The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In "Fair Exchange" Drake must find a way to stop a fellow agent (Lisa James, played by Lelia Goldoni) from killing the East German secret policeman who had tortured her years before. This episode even sheds a bit more light on Drake the man--Lisa, who obviously carries a torch for Drake, intimates that he is afraid of commitment! "Whatever Happened to George Foster?" as Drake investigating a plot to overthrow a Central American government which is being financed by a British lord. In "English Lady Takes Lodgers" Drake investigates the sale of stolen, top secret information. "Yesterday's Enemies" utilizes the time honoured device of a spy ring which our hero must infiltrate.

Other episodes of the hour long Danger Man are a bit more offbeat, foreshadowing The Prisoner. The first season episode "The Room in the Basement" could almost have been a prototype for the typical Mission: Impossible episode. In this episode a fellow agent is being held captive in an Eastern bloc embassy in Switzerland. Drake gathers together a group of highly skilled friends and together they execute a highly complex scheme to rescue him. "Colony Three" concerned a Russian village disguised as a typical English hamlet and its rather mysterious purpose. "Say It With Flowers" involved a Swiss clinic where agents are murdered and their secrets sold to various clients.

Danger Man proved extremely successful, but after playing John Drake through 39 episodes of Danger Man and 47 episodes of Secret Agent, he war ready to move onto other projects--namely, The Prisoner. Danger Man ended this second run on ITV on April 7 1966, which naturally meant it would air no longer on CBS. Following The Prisoner, however, there would be two more Danger Man episodes. Unlike the others, which had all been shot in black and white, "Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima" were shot in colour. The two episodes aired within a week of each other, the first on June 3, 1968 and the second on June 12, 1968. These episodes would also make it to the United States, though not as part of a television series. The two episodes were edited together and released theatrically in the United States under the title Koroshi.

After its initial run Danger Man (still under the title of Secret Agent) was released into American syndication. The 39 episodes of the half hour Danger Man were even retitled Secret Agent and given the new title sequence with the theme song "Secret Agent Man," so that they could be added to the package. Eventually, the final two episodes ("Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima") would be added to the package as well. Danger Man continues to be a cult series in the United States, often considered among fans to be the prequel to The Prisoner (although whether Number Six is John Drake continues to be matter of debate). Both the half hour and hour Danger Man series aired for quite a while on Encore's Mystery Channel on cable. Both the half hour and hour long series have been released on DVD.

Danger Man was both a revolutionary and influential spy series. Along with The Avengers it would spark a spy craze in the United Kingdom, which through the 007 movies, would spark a spy craze in America. It was also truly a classic, an intellectual action-adventure series for the thinkging man with three dimensional characters and quality stories. Along with The Avengers and The Prisoner, it may have been the best spy series ever produced.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In a World Where Don Lafontaine Has Passed On

Don LaFontaine, legendary voice over announcer for movie trailers, passed yesterday at the age of 68. The cause was a blood clot in his lungs. His distinctive, instantly recognisable, sonorous voice earned him the nickname "the Voice of God." His prolificness in doing voice overs for trailers resulted in him being called "That Announcer Guy from the Movies."

LaFontaine was born in Duluth, Minnesota on August 26, 1940. He enlisted in the United States Army to learn to become a recording engineer. He started his career as a recording engineer and copy writer with Floyd Peterson at National Recording Studios. It was there that he worked on the radio promos for Dr. Strangelove. Petersen and LaFontaine later formed their own company, where between them they coined many of the cliches of modern day movie trailers (with which LaFontaine would become forever identified) "In a world where...," "Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no way out," and "a one man army."

It was in 1964, when a voice over announcer did not show up for a radio promo for the movie Gunfighters of Casa Grande that he found himself doing the voice over himself. The client, the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, like his voice over and LaFontaine soon found himself in demand as a voice over announcer. He later became the head of production of trailers at Kaleidoscope Films Ltd. In 1976 he founded his own company, Don LaFontaine Associates.

From 1978 to 1981 he worked exclusively for Paramount. Afterwards he would return to being an independent. In addition to movie trailers, LaFontaine also did voice over work for television promos (he worked for NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, UPN, TNT, TBS, and the Cartoon Network), television commercials (including ones for Budweiser, Coke, Chevrolet, Ford, Pontiac, and McDonalds), and TV shows, including Entertainment Tonight, 79th Annual Academy Awards, and America's Most Wanted. At his peak LaFontaine could do as many as 60 voice overs a week. In all, he did over 5,000 movie trailers and almost 350,000 commercials. Among the movie trailers he worked upon were The Godfather II, The Elephant Man, The Terminator, The Untouchables, Batman Returns, and The Simpsons Movie (in which he parodied his own style as well).

LaFontaine's fame as a voice over announcer would also earn him cameos and guest appearances on TV shows. He appeared in the movie Time Walker, lent his voice to the IBC Promo Announcer in Scrooged, narrated A Man Called Sarge, and even parodied himself on The Family Guy, and American Dad. He made a rather famous appearance in a Geico commercial, where he was referred to as "that announcer guy from the movies."

Don LaFontaine has been called "The King of the Voice Overs," and with good reason. He is perhaps the most recognisable voice over announcer for movie trailers of all time. In fact, he is perhaps the first individual in the history of cinema to become famous for providing voice overs for trailers. It was not enough that he had a great voice and knew how to use it. LaFontaine also wrote much of his own copy, and with Floyd Petersen created many of the cliches still found in trailers today. It is no wonder when the media had to interview someone about movie trailers, he was the first one they talked to. Don LaFontaine was a legend and an influential man in his field. Going to the cinema won't be the same without hearing his voice on the big screen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Answers to the Classic Car Quiz

Here are the answers to the Classic Car Quiz of August 25.

1, In a classic 1905 song what make of car did Johnny Steele own in which he loved to spark in the dark old park with his girl?

An Oldsmobile, from the song "My Merry Oldsmobile."

2. In what colours could people buy the Ford Model T?

Any colour, as long as it was black.

3. What model did Ford follow the Model T up with?

The Model A?

4. What model of car was owned by both Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and was popular with movie stars and the wealthy?

The Dusenberg SSJ

5. What was the first Diesel powered automobile in the world?

Mercedes-Benz 260 D

6. What was the last Studebaker to have styling influenced by Raymond Loewy's studio (he designed Studebaker's modern logo and various other Studebaker models)?

The Studebaker Golden Hawk

7. What model of car was Christine in the Stephen King novel of the same name?

A 1958 Plymouth Fury

8. For what TV commercial promoting what model of Ford were the gang from the comic strip Peanuts first animated?

The 1961 Ford Falcon

9. What classic pony car did Ford first manufacture in 1964 and became one of the company's most popular models?

The Ford Mustang

10. What Plymouth model figured in the movie Duel?

A 1970 Plymouth Valiant

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Television's Violent Era

One of the common misconceptions about television violence is that it is actually greater today than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. This might be true if one takes into account the various cable channels and premium channels, but it hardly holds true of network television. In fact, it is a common misconception for many to view the Fifties and Sixties as a time when television was altogether more wholesome. This might be true of sexual content, but it was hardly true of violence.

In fact, the most violent era of American network television was not the Eighties, Nighties, or Naughts, but may well have been when the Fifties were becoming the Sixties. More hours of violence probably aired during this era on network television than any other time. It was during this period that such shows as The Untouchables, The Westerner, Cain's Hundred, and The 87th Precinct debuted.

Of course, even then violence was nothing new on television. It sometimes played a role in such anthology series as Suspense and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even shows in other genres, such as Flash Gordon. With the beginning of a cycle towards Westerns in 1955, however, violence began to appear more frequently on television. Those first Westerns of the cycle, Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne generally focused on characters rather than gunplay, although this would not hold true for other shows in the cycle. It would be in 1958, however, that violence would start to dramatically increase on television. It was that year which saw the beginning of a private eye cycle which included shows such as Peter Gunn. The cycle was mostly likely sparked by the success of a summer replacement series. Richard Diamond, Private Detective was based on the popular radio show of the same name. It debuted on July 1 1957. It was followed by Peter Gunn, which debuted in September 1958. 

Peter Gunn was a slick, jazz driven series created by Blake Edwards. The series borrowed liberally from film noir, including the occasional bursts of violence. A much more violent private eye series debuted in syndication that season, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer starring Darren McGavin. Critics often attacked the series for gratuitous violence. At the same time that detective series started debuting on American television, so too did violence increase in Westerns. An example of this is the first several episodes of The Rifleman. Its creator, future director Sam Peckinpah, insisted on gritty realism, including violence. This put him odds with Four Star Television and he eventually left.

While the cycles towards Westerns and detective shows would naturally increase violence on television, it would be in 1959 that violence saw a dramatic increase on network TV. The Untouchables debuted in October 1959, starting a cycle not only towards police series (along with The Naked City), but a cycle towards ultraviolence on television. Indeed, the show was very controversial in its day. Critics attacked the series for what they considered "excessive and senseless violence." Despite the criticism, the violence was hardly gratuitous, as Chicago's gangland of the Twenties was a place where beatings and murders were par for the course. And while The Untouchables was gritty, its violence was never graphic or gory. In contrast, The Naked City very rarely used violence and can actually be considered an early police procedural. Later that season would see the debut of what could be considered the first Untouchables imitator. 

The 1960-1961 season would see yet more ultraviolence on the small screen. That season another show that was an imitation of The Untouchables debuted. The Roaring Twenties was set in New York and followed two reporters for the fictional New York Record as they reported on crime. There was also the debut of what may have been one of the most violent private eye shows to air on network television. Michael Shayne was based on writer Brett Halliday's detective from many short stories and novels. The series was so violent that it would actually be one of the first shows to be taken off the air for complaints of excessive violence. Another violent show was another Western created by Sam Peckinpah, The Westerner. Peckinpah offered a grim and gritty portrayal of the West, with Brian Keith playing a very fallible hero. The series was critically acclaimed, but earned the dislike of both NBC and its sponsor. It was cancelled after its first episode had only aired ten minutes. It only lasted thirteen episodes.

It would be during the 1961-1962 season that the networks' love affair with ultraviolence would be in full swing. It would also be the season that it came to a screeching halt for a time. The season saw the debut of another Untouchables imitator, in this case Cain's Hundred. Cain's Hundred centred on a former mob lawyer who decides to quit after he gets engaged. It was then that a mob boss put a hit out on him, although his fiancee would be killed instead. The former lawyer then joins up with the FBI to see 100 gangsters go to jail. That same season saw the debut of 87th Precinct, based on the Ed McBain novels. Like the novels, the series was rather gritty, complete with violence.

The episode of a TV series that would generate the most controversy, however, would come from what would have been a very unexpected source at the start of the season. Bus Stop was based on the play by William Inge and the movie starring Marilyn Monroe. Its earliest episodes were of the type one might see on Love Boat fifteen years later. The very first episode dealt with a cowboy who had deserted his family. In the fourth episode a seemingly average couple turn out to have been sweepstakes winners. But by the sixth episode, the series would see a remarkable change as it delved more into violent crime. In the sixth episode both a detective and a professor became suspects in the murder of a woman who had blackmailed them both. It would be the tenth episode, "A Lion Walks Among Us," that would ultimately bring the ongoing controversy over television violence to a head and bring an end to the run of Bus Stop, not to mention possibly getting Oliver Treyz fired from his job as President of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

"A Lion Walks Among Us" was based on the novel The Judgement by Tom Wicker. It featured teen idol Fabian as psychopath Luke Freeman. In the plot, which was rather intense even for the violent era of 1961, Freeman makes robs and kills an old grocer, tried to seduce his defence attorney's wife (who's not only a drunk, but is hinted has loose morals on the witness stand), and murdered his own defence attorney. It was fairly early that ABC and Twentieth Century Fox realised they might have problems with the episode. Sponsors Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., Johnson and Johnson, and Singer Manufacturing Company (of sewing machine fame) all withdrew their advertising. The episode was then rescheduled until such time as new advertisers could be found. When the network showed the episode to its affiliates, twenty five of them, including major markets such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas, refused to air it. In the end, unable to find new sponsors, ABC finally aired the episode on December 3, 1961, with limited commercial interruption (the "commercials" were movie trailers from Warner Brothers and previews of Bus Stop episodes.

Reaction from critics was swift and immediate. Newsweek called it a "...cynical, perverted, and flacked-up opus." The Los Angeles Times called it "...a sleazy, nasty, sex-laden, slice-of-sensational trash reminiscent of the worst in drug-store fiction." Famous critic Jack Gould of The New York Times referred to it as " hour of dark and sordid ugliness." Much of the criticism came about because of the casting of Fabian, perceived as a wholesome teen idol, as a psychopathic rapist. And unfortunately the reviews caught the attention of Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut.

Senator Dodd had taken over the mantle of the Senate's crusader against TV violence from Estes Kefauver. He held his first hearings on television violence in June and July 1961, attacking such shows as The Untouchables. In January 1962 he convened TV violence hearings again, and this time the focus was on firmly on "A Lion Walks Among Us." Even though Dodd himself had never seen the episode, the reviews had invoked his ire. Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, had seen the episode. He commented of it, "I looked at it and I haven't felt clean since." During the hearing Dodd grilled ABC's president, Oliver Treyz on the episode. Oliver Treyz was unrepentant and defended the episode in the name of artistic freedom, although he admitted to the Senator that he would not allow his own children to watch such an episode. Bus Stop, a show previously well received by critics, was now a cause celebre.

The fallout from the episode would not end with Dodd's hearings. In February 1962 the Federal Communications Commission finished its investigation of network programming. During the FCC's hearings, Oliver Treyz admitted that airing "A Lion Walks Among Us" was probably a mistake. That March Oliver Treyz was fired as president of ABC. There can be little doubt that the whole matter of "A Lion Walks Among Us" was a major factor in his dismissal. Vice president in charge of television production at Twentieth Century Fox and Bus Stop's executive producer Roy Huggins (who had produced Maverick and would go onto to create The Fugitive) found Fox refusing to let him develop any new series. Huggins returned to graduate school to get his Ph.D. and created The Fugitive in 1963. As to the episode itself, "A Lion Walks Among Us" has never again aired on primetime network television. Presumably, it still languishes in Fox's vaults. Bus Stop itself was cancelled at the end of the season.

Dodd's television violence hearings in January 1962 appears to have had some impact on the 1962-1963 season. Untouchables imitators such as Cain's Hundred and Target: The Corruptors were gone, as were police shows 87th Precinct and The New Breed. While they may have been cancelled for low ratings, their ends may have also come because of the outcry over violence. Overall, the 1962-1963 season would be a less violent season for the networks. Most of the new shows were such innocuous entries as The Jetsons, McHale's Navy, and The Beverly Hillbillies. That is not to say that violence was still not to be found on the tube. The Untouchables entered its fourth season that year, while the classic World War II drama Combat made its debut.

In fact, although not at the level it had been in the period from 1958 to 1962, violence would still play a role in many television shows of the Sixties. In the summer of 1964 Senator Dodd held another hearing on television violence, this time attacking both Combat and The Outer Limits, but to little effect. In fact, the 1964-1965 season would see the beginning of the spy cycle with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In its wake would follow such spy series as I Spy and The Wild Wild West, with British imports Secret Agent (Danger Man in the UK) and The Avengers making their American debut about the same time. The violence in these series was almost always on the comic book level, although it was present in nearly every episode. The 1966-1967 season would see a new cycle towards police dramas, with the debut of Felony Squad and Hawk (an early Burt Reynolds series). The following season would see the debut of more police dramas, including N.Y.P.D. and Ironside. The 1966-1967 season would also see the debut of more action-adventure series, such as Star Trek (actually a rather violent show, when one thinks about it), Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and The Rat Patrol. Despite Senator Dodd's best efforts, violence was hardly gone from network television for most of the Sixties.

It would take the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to force the networks to finally reduce violence on television in significant numbers. By that time outcry over television violence was common even among the general public. It was that year that Peggy Charren founded Action for Children's Television over conerns about both violence and advertising in children's programming. More rounds of congressional hearings were scheduled. The Democratic Party even came close to adding a condemnation of television for its depiction of violence to the party's platform at their convention in September. Of course, by that time it was a moot point. It was for the 1968-1969 season that the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. As an example, CBS restricted the producers of their series on the use of firearms, fighting in close quarters, and even such stunts as falling off a horse. This would seriously hamper the plots of Westerns such as Gunsmoke, spy series such as The Wild Wild West, and police dramas as N.Y.P.D.. Even with the new restrictions in place, for the following 1969-1970 season the networks would go even further with regards to restricting violence on the small screen. During the 1968-1969 season CBS cancelled The Wild Wild West ostensibly because it had been attacked for excessive violence.

The networks would continue to curb violence in their shows throughout the Seventies and even into the Eighties, to the point that new Westerns were seriously impaired and believable police dramas were nearly impossible. One need only contrast Starsky and Hutch with N.Y.P.D. or The Untouchables. N.Y.P.D. and The Untouchables had their share of gunplay (The Untouchables may have had too much at times). In Starsky and Hutch the most exciting thing one might see was a car chase (usually down the same alleyway). While the Seventies would produce some quality mystery series, detective series, and sitcoms, its police dramas and Westerns were often a miserable lot, hampered by telling a good story by not being able to realistically portray their milieus. It would not be until the mid-Eighties that the networks would lighten up on the amount of violence allowed on their shows, and even then it would not be noticeable until the Nineties.

The network's violent era from 1958 to 1962 produced some quality shows. Peter Gunn, The Untouchables, and The Westerner can all quite rightfully be considered classics. The era would also cost the networks dearly in the long run. It spurred the strongest outcry against television violence yet. And while the furore would die down, it would swiftly build again in 1968 following the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Had television's violent era never taken place or at least been a bit more restrained, it is possible that the networks would not have felt forced in 1968 to become more restrictive on the portrayal of violence. While we may have have missed out on some classic shows from 1958 to 1962, perhaps the Seventies would not have been quite so dismal as they were when it came to network programming.