Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stephen J. Cannell Passes On

"In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team." (The opening of The A-Team)

Prolific television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell passed Thursday at the age of 69. The cause was melanoma.

Stephen J. Cannell was born on February 5, 1941 in Los Angeles, California. Throughout school Mr. Cannell suffered from dyslexia, which affected his performance at school and even resulted in him losing a football scholarship at the University of Oregon. Fortunately, a professor recognised his skill as a writer and encouraged him in his efforts. Stephen J. Cannell began trying to break into television writing.

Mr. Cannell made his first sale to television with a 1970 episode of Ironside. He went onto write several episodes of Adam-12, an episode of Columbo, and episodes of Toma. It was while he was writing an episode that he conceived of the character of Jim Rockford. Along with Roy Huggins (creator of such shows as Maverick and The Fugitive), Stephen J. Cannell created The Rockford Files. The series debuted in 1974 and ran for six years. Mr. Cannell would go onto create several series, including Baretta, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, Silk Stalkings, and The Commish. He also served on producer on several shows, starting with an associate producer credit on the series Chase. He was also a producer on Toma and every show which he ever created (which was a considerable number).

It was in 1996 that Mr. Cannell sold his first novel, The Plan. Over the next many years he would publish sixteen more novels. Many of them centred on Shane Scully of the Los Angeles Police Department.

There can be little doubt that Stephen J. Cannell was one of the most successful writers and creators in the history of television. Granted, many of his series bombed (Stone) and some were not of a very high quality (Renegade), but the number of shows he created which were hits that were actually quite good is matched by only a few other television writers. With The Rockford Files he turned the private eye genre on its ear, with a detective who preferred wry humour to fist fights. With The A-Team he created the perfect popcorn TV show, a series with plenty of explosions and gunfire but no deaths. While many of his shows were escapist fare, Mr. Cannell could be versatile. Indeed, one of his shows was positively revolutionary. Wiseguy was the direct ancestor of serialised dramas such as The Sopranos, Lost, and Mad Men. Along with Roy Huggins and Sam Rolfe, Stephen J. Cannell created some of my favourite shows of all time. It is very sad he left us so soon.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Director Arthur Penn Passes On

Arthur Penn, best known as the director of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), passed on September 28, 2010 at the age of 88. The cause was congestive heart failure.

Arthur Penn was born on September 27, 1922 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After his mother divorced his father, Mr. Penn moved with her and his brother, later to be famous photographer Irving Penn, to New York and later New Jersey. When he was fourteen he went back to Philadelphia to live with his father. It was there that he became interested in the theatre while in high school. In 1943 he enlisted in the United States Army. At Fort Jackson in South Carolina he and fellow soldiers formed a theatre troupe. While he was stationed in Paris, he was part of the Soldier's Show Company. Following World War II he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He would later study at the Universities of Perugia and Florence in Italy. Once back in the United States, he studied at the Actor's Studio in New York and with Michael Chekhov in Los Angeles.

After his return to New York City Mr. Penn became a floor manager at NBC's television studios. It was in 1953 that he made his directorial debut. Fred Coe, with whom he served in the Army, gave him the opportuniaty to direct an episode of The Gulf Playhouse. In all he would direct six episodes of the series. Arthur Penn would go onto direct yet more episodes of television series, including Goodyear Playhouse, Producer's Showcase, The Philo-Goodyear Playhouse, Playwrights '56, and Playhouse 90. It was in 1956 that Arthur Penn made his debut on Broadway, directing the play The Lovers. In 1958 he made his film debut, directing The Left Handed Gun.

Over the next several years Mr. Penn would direct such films as The Miracle Worker (1962--based on the teleplay and later the play, both directed by Mr. Penn), Mickey One (1965), The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice's Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Four Friends (1981), Target (1985), Dead of Winter (1987), and Penn and Teller Get Killed. He was very active on Broadway, directing such plays as Two for the Seesaw (1958), The Miracle Worker (1959), Toys in the Attic (1960), Golden Boy (1964), Wait Until Dark (1966), Golda (1977), and Fortune's Fool (2002). He directed little television after the Fifties, although he would direct the telefilms Flesh and Blood, The Portrait, and Inside. His final work was a an episode on film was an episode of the TV shows 100 Centre Street.

Arthur Penn specialised in films which centred on outsiders, whether the title outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde, Alice Brock in Alice's Restaurant, or the title character in Little Big Man. For the most part Penn's films tended to be naturalistic, intimate, and physical, with a greater emphasis on the inner workings of the individual than action or plot. In approaching film in this manner, Mr. Penn would be revolutionary in his direction of Bonnie and Clyde. The film had a greater degree of violence and was more sexually explicit than the vast majority of films made since the end of pre-Code Hollywood. Largely influenced by the French New Wave, Mr. Penn's films would have a lasting influence on directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino. While Arthur Penn's career faltered in the Seventies, with films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, and Little Big Man, he left his mark on film history.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Late,Great Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis, the star of such films as The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot, Spartacus, and Boeing Boeing, passed yesterday at the age of 85. The cause was a heart attack.

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in The Bronx on June 3, 1925. He was only eight years old when his parents decided they could not take care of their children, so that Mr. Curtis and his brother Julius were put in a state institution. Eventually Mr. Curtis returned to his old neighbourhood and attended Seward Park High School in Lower East Manhattan. During World War II Mr. Curtis served in the United States Navy.

After the war Tony Curtis returned to New York and began taking acting classes the New School for Social Research. One of his classmates was Walter Matthau. Mr. Curtis began performing in theatre in the Catskills. He was discovered by casting agent Joyce Selznick, This led to him signing a contract with Universal Pictures in 1948. It took him some time to adopt his stage name. Initially he considered James Curtis, then he settled on Anthony Curtis, later shortened to Tony Curtis. He made his film debut in How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border (1949). He would appear in such films as City Across the River (1949), Criss Cross (1949), and Francis before appearing in bigger films such as Sierra (1950), Winchester '73 (1950), and Kansas Raiders (1950). He received top billing for the first time in the movie The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951). For the next few years Mr. Curtis would star in such films as Flesh and Fury (1952), Son of Ali Baba (1952), No Room for the Groom (1952--his first comedy), Houdini (1953), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), So This is Paris (1955), Trapeze (1956), and The Midnight Story (1957). Mr. Curstis also appeared on television, on The Red Skelton Show, Schlitz Playhouse, and GE Theatre.

It was in 1958 that Tony Curtis entered the height of his career. It was that year that he appeared in the ever popular The Vikings. It was also in 1958 that he starred in The Defiant Ones (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role) and The Perfect Furlough (his first sex comedy). In 1959 Tony Curtis starred in the classic Some Like It Hot, regarded by some as the greatest comedy movie of all time. Mr. Curtis would go onto appear in Operation Petticoat (1959),  Spartacus (1960), 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Captain Newman M.D. (1962), Goodbye Charlie (1964), The Great Race (1965), Boeing Boeing (1965), Don't Make Waves (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970). He also appeared on television on The Flintstones and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In.

In the Seventies Tony Curtis shifted from movies to doing more television. He starred as Danny Wilde in the British series The Persuaders and he starred in the title role in the series McCoy. He was a regular on the show Vega$. He also guest starred on the TV show Shaft and in a television version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Mr. Curtis appeared in such films as Lepke (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), Casanova and Co. (1977), Sextette (1978),. The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978), Title Shot (1979), and Little Miss Marker (1980).

The Eighties through the Naughts saw Mr. Curtis appear in such films as Where is Parsifal (1983), Brain Waves (1985), Insignificance (1985), Balboa (1986), Midnight (1989), Prime Target (1991), The Immortals (1995),  Louis and Frank (1998), Play It to the Bone (1999), and David and Fatima (2008). He was the host on television of Hollywood Babylon and guest starred on Hope and Faith.

Tony Curtis was one of the last great stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. And while it may have been his dashing good looks which may have initially attracted Hollywood, and audiences, to him, it was his talent which would insure his success as an actor. Mr. Curtis was incredibly versatile. He could be outstanding in such dramatic roles as an escaped convict in The Defiant Ones or a serial killer in The Boston Strangler. At the same time, however, he excelled in comedy roles, such as a musician forced to dress in drag to protect his life in Some Like It Hot or a journalist juggling three different, stewardess girl friends in Boeing Boeing. Of course, he was naturally at his absolute best in those roles which relied upon his natural charm, whether in the movie The Perfect Furlough or the TV series The Persuaders. Very few actors in the history of movies possessed the charm, looks, and talent which Tony Curtis did. Quite simply, he was one of the last few true movie stars.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gloria Stuart Passes On

Gloria Stuart, an actress who appeared in such classics as The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man, passed Sunday, September 26. She was 100 years old.

Gloria Stewart was born in Santa Monica, California on July 4, 1910. She attended Santa Monica High School and the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out in her junior year to marry. She acted in the Golden Bough Theatre and wrote for a weekly newspaper in Carmel, California, where she and her husband settled.  She was appearing at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1932 when she signed a seven year contract with Universal Pictures.

Miss Stuart made her film debut in Street of Women in 1932. She would appear in the films Back Street (1932)and The All-American (1932) before appearing in one of her best known roles. In The Old Dark House Gloria Stuart played Margaret Waverton, one half of a married couple who finds themselves who find themselves stranded in an old mansion with some rather bizarre occupants. She went onto appear in the films Air Mail (1932), Laughter in Hell (1933), Private Jones (1933), and The Kiss Before the Mirro (1933). In The Girl in 419 (1933) Miss Stuart played another role, that of Mary Dolan, a mysterious woman who is a witness to murder. In 1933 that she played another notable role, that of the daughter of the sinister Robert Von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) in Secret of the Blue Room. It would be in 1934 that Gloria Stuart would play another one of her signature roles, that of Flora Cranley. the fiancée of the title character (Claude Rains)  in The Invisible Man. She then appeared in such films as Roman Scandals (1934), Beloved (1934), and The Gift of Gab (1935).

Disappointed in the roles in which she was cast at Universal, Gloria Stuart left the studio for 20th Century Fox. There she appeared in such films as Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Poor Little Rich Girl (1936),The Girl on the Front Page (1936), Girl Overboard (1937), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Time for Murder (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), and It Could Happen to You (1939). Miss Stuart took a break from acting in 1939, returning in 1943 in the film Hre Comes Elmer (1943). She appeared in the films The Whistler (1944), Enemy of Women (1944), and She Wrote the Book (1945) before retiring from acting. In her own words, she had wearied of playing a "girl reporter, girl detective, girl overboard."

In 1975 Gloria Stuart retuned to acting with a bit part in the television movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden. She made a small guest appearance on the TV show The Waltons and had a cameo in the film In the Glitter Palace (1977). By 1980 Miss Stuart was receiving more substantial roles. She guest starred on such shows as Enos, Mannimal, and Murder She Wrote. She appeared in such television movies as The Violation of Sarah McDavid, There Were Times, and She Knows Too Much. She appeared in the movies My Favourite Year (1982), Mass Appeal (1984), and Wildcats (1986). In 1997 she appeared as Rose in Titanic, a role which garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She went onto appear in the films The Love Letter (1999), The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), and Land of Plenty (2004 her last appearance on screen). She guest starred on The Invisible Man, Touched by An Angel, and Miracles.

Most obituaries of Gloria Stuart have opened with words to the effect that she was largely forgotten until her appearance in Titanic. I must state this is, quite simply, wrong. While the general public may not have remembered Gloria Stuart, there were many film buffs who remembered her quite well. Indeed, it must be pointed out that Titanic was not her comeback, as Miss Stuart had already made a comeback with her cameo in the film In the Glitter Palace, released a full sixteen years before Titanic. And while Miss Stuart did an impressive turn in Titanic (she was far superior in the film than Kate Winslet, whom I usually like, playing what was allegedly the same character), it must be pointed out that Rose was hardly Miss Stuart's most notable role.

Indeed, Miss Stuart had displayed considerable talent throughout her career, often in roles that when played by another actress might be forgettable. She was impressive in The Old Dark House, as a young and understandably rattled young wife in circumstances no one would want to find himself or herself. Miss Stuart was also impressive in The Invisible Man, adding poignancy to the movie as the tragic lead character's beloved. And while Gloria Stuart made have not cared to be typecast as girl reporters, girl detectives, and girl murder suspects, she did the role well. Indeed, she made the film Girl Overboard, in which she plays a young woman suspected of murder aboard a passenger ship, enjoyable. For much of her career Gloria Stuart played thankless roles in sometimes forgettable movies, but she also did them well. While some of the films Miss Stuart may have starred in may have been forgettable, she was always memorable.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hammer Films on TCM All October!

Fans of horror films, at least those who worth their salt, know that from 1958 to 1976 Hammer Films produced the greatest run of horror movies outside of Universal Pictures in the Thirties and Forties. Although shot on low budgets, the Hammer horror movies had a lavish look with striking colour. They also had the perfect balance of suspense, horror, violence, and even sexual tension (something the Universal classics could never capitalise upon).

This October Turner Classic Movies will be showing four classic Hammer horror movies every Friday night. It kicks off with one of the best Hammer movies of all time, their version of Dracula (1958) starring Sir Christopher Lee. Over the next several Fridays, viewers will have the opportunity to see The Devil Rides Out (1968-starring Sir Christopher Lee as a good guy for a change), The Mummy (1959), Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and many others.  While there are some notable omissions (I think they should have shown the original Quatermass Xperiment), TCM made some very good selections when it comes to the Hammer horror movies (indeed, my favourite, Brides of Dracula, is among them).

For those of you who have never seen the classic Hammer horror films, I urge to tune into TCM every Friday. The Hammer horror movies are pivotal in the history of horror. They were among the first horror movies shot in full colour. They were also among the first to actually show blood on the screen (although they tended to be very conservative in its use compared to later horror movies). Perhaps the biggest revolution they brought to the horror movie was, quite simply, sex. With films in general becoming more liberal in both the United Kingdom and the United States in the Fifties and Sixties, Hammer Films were able to endow their movies with a strong sexual undercurrent that was often lacking from many horror movies made after the revised United States Motion Picture Production Code was adopted in 1934. Most of the Hammer Films are very well made, so much so that the typical film buff who is not a horror fan can enjoy.

Below is a schedule of the movies TCM will be showing. All times are Eastern Standard.

Friday October 1st

8:00PM: Dracula (1958)

9:30PM: The Brides of Dracula (1960)

11:00PM: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

12:45AM: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)

Friday October 8th

8:00PM: Plague of the Zombies (1966)

9:45PM: The Devil Rides Out (1968)

11:30PM: The Reptile (1966)

1:15AM: The Gorgon (1964)

October 15th

8:00PM: The Mummy (1959)

9:45PM: Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)

11:15PM: The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)

1:00AM: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

October 22nd

8:00PM: X: The Unknown (1957)

9:30PM: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

11:15PM: The Damned (1963)

1:00AM: The Stranglers of Bombay (1960)

October 29th

8:00PM: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

9:30PM: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

11:15PM: Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

1:00AM: Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Singer Eddie Fisher Passes On

Eddie Fisher, the singer who was extremely popular in the Fifties, passed on Wednesday at the age of 82. The cause was complications from hip surgery.

Eddie Fisher was born on August 10, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He started singing in synagogue when young. At the age of 13 he won a talent contest held by the popular radio show The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour. It was not long before he was a regular singer on Philadelphia radio station WFIL. He sang with the Buddy Morrow band while in high school and the Charlie Ventura band. By 1949 he was touring with Eddie Cantor.

It was in 1950 that Mr. Fisher had his first hit, "Thinking of You," which reached #5 on the Billboard singles chart. It was also in 1950 that he made his television debut, as a guest on Cavalcade of Stars. In 1951 Mr. Fisher was drafted into the Army, where he sang with the Army band and toured military bases. His military service hardly curtailed his musical career. In 1951 he had five more hit records, and appeared on the TV shows Songs for Sale and The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Eddie Fisher had more hits in 1952, including "Wish You Were Here," which went to #1 on the Billboard singles chart. By 1953 he had his own show Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.The next several years he would also appear on the shows The George Jessel Show, This is Your Life, Look Up and Live, Producer's Showcase, The Martha Raye Show, Ford Star Jubilee, The Bob Hope Show, and The Steve Allen Show. He also appeared in the film Bundle of Joy (1956). From 1953 to 1957 he had several more hits, including #1 songs "I'm Walking Behind You," "Oh! My Papa," and "I Need You Now."

Unfortunately for Mr. Fisher, his career would suffer a bit with the advent of rock 'n' roll. The singles he released in 1957 only broke into the nineties on the Billboard singles chart. Coke Time with Eddie Fisher was cancelled in 1957. His new show, The Eddie Fisher Show, only lasted from 1957 to 1958. He would continue to appear on television, on such shows as Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall and The George Gobel Show. Ultimately it would not be rock 'n' roll that nearly brought Eddie Fisher's career nearly to a halt, but his personal life. In 1955 he married his Bundle of Joy co-star Debbie Reynolds. In 1960 he co-starred in Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor. He also had an affair with her, with the result that he divorced Debbie Reynolds and married Miss Taylor. The ensuing controversy had dire consequences for Mr. Fisher. Whatever career he had in movies was over. RCA Victor dropped him. He never again cracked the top forty of the Billboard singles chart.

While his career would never again be at the heights it had been in the Fifties, Mr. Fisher's career would recover. In 1962 he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In the Sixties he was once more a frequent guest on TV shows, including Here's Edie, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, and The Joey Bishop Show. Mr. Fisher also appeared on Broadway in 1962 and 1967  in his own shows. After the Sixties his career slowed down. He appeared on the TV shows Vicki and Ellen. He appeared as himself in the film Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) and as a band member in High Tide (1967). He continued to record well into the Nineties, although the days when his songs regularly hit the Billboard charts were long past.

Sadly, Mr. Fisher's somewhat controversial personal life has somewhat obscured the fact that he had considerable talent. He had an emotional delivery to his songs that particularly appealed to young girls. Between this and his boyish good looks, it was little wonder he was a teen heartthrob in the days before rock 'n' roll. Indeed, it was this combination which propelled Mr. Fisher to heights few singers reached. It is for his talent and the height of his success that he should be remembered, not for the scandal his personal life caused.