Saturday, October 9, 2010

In Honour of John Lennon's 70th Birthday

Today, at around 3 PM CDT, it will have been seventy years ago that John Lennon was born. I have probably written more about John Lennon in this blog than any other famous person. The reason for this is quite simply that, outside of those people I grew up with and knew personally (family, friends, neighbours), John Lennon had a far greater impact on me than any other individual in history.

From the sheer number of people who have honoured him the past few days it would seem I am not alone. The news is filled with stories about John Lennon, from a number of articles from news services such as Associated Press to articles in such newspapers as The Times, The Liverpool Daily Post (naturally), The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. Every major broadcast network, at least in the United Kingdom and United States, have aired tributes to him, sometimes more than one (NBC aired one on The Today Show and one on The NBC Nightly News). Even Google debuted a new John Lennon doodle for their logo. Fans have began gathering last night in Strawberry Field, that portion of Central Park in New York City, honouring John. Today in Liverpool Julian Lennon and his first wife Cynthia unveiled a new monument in his honour. In Reyjavik, Iceland today at 3:00 PM CDT, 8 PM GMT Yoko Ono will light the Imagine Peace Tower, the monument in honour of John and his vision.

It is very clear that for many, perhaps most people, John Lennon has become something greater than a mere rock star. Indeed, he has become something more than a legend. He could certainly be described as an icon, but it seems to me that John's status has surpassed even that of other icons. Even such legendary icons as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley seem to pale in comparison to the reverence in which John Lennon is held. He occupies a position shared only by prime ministers, presidents, and religious figures (indeed, in 1980 his murder was not described merely as a murder, but an assassination), but even then he seems to somehow be something much larger. I think it would be courting blasphemy to call John Lennon a god (I am not sure that many do not pray to him, however), but his position in our society seems to be something close to it. I think the only thing equivalent to John's place in our society today is that Christian saints occupied during the Middle Ages. He is certainly not a god, but he is something more than a mere man.

I do think it would be correct to describe John Lennon as a hero. In Norse myths and the Icelandic sagas it was believed that when a hero was born, the wolves would howl and the eagles would cry in acknowledgement. I am not sure any wolves howled in Liverpool that night 70 years ago and I do not believe eagles are even to be found in England, but John Lennon was certainly born to sound and fury. John Lennon was born in Liverpool Maternity Hospital on Oxford Street to Julia and Alfred Lennon just as the city was being bombed by the Germans. Many accounts have noted how his Aunt Mimi Smith was able to see her way through the darkened Liverpool streets by the light of the bomb blasts. John received his first name from his paternal grandfather, John "Jack" Lennon. He was given his middle name, Winston, in honour of then prime minister Winston Churchill.

Despite the dire circumstances of his birth, John Winston Lennon was in some respects born at a fortuitous time. In 1956 a skiffle craze erupted in England, with youths forming bands to perform the obscure American genre of folk music. Among those bands were The Quarrymen, formed by John Lennon. In 1957 a musician named Paul Mcartney joined The Quarrymen, and he and John soon became friends. In 1958 Paul invited a young school friend George Harrison to join the band. The Quarrymen grew away from the skiffle sound, which proved to be a short lived musical fad, and turned to something more lasting--rock  'n' roll. By 1960 they would become The Beatles. Initially The Beatles would be only one of many rock groups which formed in England in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Very early in their career they found themselves contracted to perform in Hamburg. It was in Germany that they would hone both their performing skill and their song writing skills. They returned to Liverpool well trained musicians. As a result their popularity grew in Liverpool, to the point that they were one of the premiere Merseyside bands. Eventually signed to EMI, they released their first single, "Love Me Do," in October 1962. It met with moderate success, as did the next single, "Please Please Me." Their next single, "From Me to You," would prove to be a bona fide hit, It would be their fourth sngle, "She Loves You," that would establish The Beatles as a new phenomenon. It became the fastest selling single in the history of the UK charts and the biggest song ever in the UK for years.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Beatles soon became the biggest selling pop act in British history, leading to the coining of the term "Beatlemania." There were those who said they were a fad, but they would be proven wrong. It was not long before The Beatles' singles conquered the charts in the United States and then The Beatles themselves conquered the nation. Contrary to the naysayers, The Beatles were not a passing phase. They built upon their success to the point they went beyond mere rock stars. They were even more than legends. They became icons in their own lifetime. Although it was disputed from time to time, John Lennon was perceived as their leader from the beginning. It was reflected in the press from 1964 onwards and in The Beatles' own movies. Even the great Sir Paul McCartney, thought by a few to be the band's leader, said,"I definitely did look up to John. We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest." It was John who was the band's spokesman, their funniest and wittiest member, and often the most outspoken.

Always opinionated and a bit of a thinker, it was while John Lennon was with The Beatles that he began to change and evolve, to form his own vision. He began to address this vision in his songs. He did it earliest in songs co-written with Paul McCartney: "The Word" and "We Can Work It Out." He later addressed it in songs he wrote alone for The Beatles: his masterwork "All You Need is Love" and "Revolution." Encouraged by his wife Yoko Ono, John Lennon would continue to shape his vision. After The Beatles he wrote such songs as "Give Peace a Chance,"  "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," and,  what some consider his signature song, "Imagine." He and Yoko held a Bed In for Peace. In connection with his single "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," he and Yoko bought billboards in eleven major cities reading, "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko." Much of John Lennon's poltical activism seemed over the top at the time, what we would now call "guerilla marketing," but it got his message across. John's message was simple, summed up in a few words, "Give peace a chance," "All you need is love," and the now current "Imagine Peace."

In his song "Imagine," John sang, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." John Lennon was far from the only dreamer and his message did resonate with his fans. Many who grew up listening to The Beatles would incorporate John's vision into their own lives. It should be no surprise that when he was murdered, his message was incorporated at the impromptu memorials held by fans in New York City and Liverpool. Throughout the years John's message has become as inseparable from his image as his status as a Beatle and a solo performer. Even before he died John had become more than a rock star. He was more than an icon. He was the voice of a whole group of people, whose lives he had touched in a way no pop star had before. Upon John's death one young New Yorker expressed what many of us felt, "I can't believe he's dead. He kept me from dying so many times before."

Of course, as much as we revere John Lennon, it is important to realise he was not perfect. He was not always a good husband to either of his wives. He was not always the best father to Julian. He could be difficult with his friends, even his fellow Beatles (particularly Paul and George). He became addicted to heroin. But for all John's faults, which were many, what showed through the most in him was that he genuinely cared about his friends, even those he was sometimes hardest upon. Indeed, John even cared about his fans. For all his status as an icon, John Lennon was always approachable. He was known to talk to fans, to express concern for them, and to sign autographs for them. It was this openness that made us love him even more. And, sadly, it would be this openness which would lead to his death.

As I have said before, John Lennon impacted me more than any other celebrity and in ways I can not even measure.Along with the other Beatles, he was the first performer in any medium of which I was aware. The Beatles' songs were ever present on the radio when I was a toddler and a young child. On Saturday morning there was The Beatles cartoon. I would watch both A Hard Day's Night and Help! on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. When The Beatles broke up, it was John who remained my favourite Beatle. His songs spoke to me in a way Paul, George, or Ringo's did not. The day of his death remains etched in my mind in a way that only the deaths of relatives and close friends are. His vision, his message, became incorporated into my own world view. I certainly am not the pacifist that John was. I can look back at history and see where war was necessary and unavoidable (case in point, World War II), but ultimately I believe war is something best avoided, an absolute last resort. Ultimately, I believe we should give peace a chance. John would influence me in other ways. If I believe in treating people decently, without regard to gender, ethnicity, nationality, or religion, it is largely because of John. True, much of my moral and ethical world view was shaped by growing up in the South where young men above the lowest stations in life were trained to be gentlemen, but much of it also attributable to John Lennon.

Like many fans, it was John's songs that first drew me to him, but, again like most fans, it was his vision that made him more than a rock star for us, more than a legend, more than an icon. John's vision was of a more perfect world, where mankind could exist in peace and harmony without regard to ethnicity, nationality, or creed. He expressed this vision in song after song. "The Word." "We Can Work It Out." "Revolution." "Give Peace a Chance." "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." For many his vision is best summed up by the song "Imagine," which has become omnipresent on the telly and the radio of late. But for me it is another song which I consider his piece de resistance, the song which best summed up his vision. It was a song which he performed with The Beatles as Britain's entry on Our World, the first globally televised television programme. The song's title summed up John's vision succinctly and precisely: "All you need is love." It is the strongest, most powerful message John ever espoused. After all, if one has love, peace is sure to follow.

Terence Towles Canote

9 October 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

Roy Ward Baker Passes at 93

Roy Ward Baker, who directed such films as Don't Bother to Knock (1952), A Night to Remember (1958), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967), passed at the age of 93 on Wednesday.

Roy Baker was born 19 December, 1916 in London. He would add his mother's married name, Ward, to his name later in his directorial career.

Mr. Baker was still very young when he talked his way into a job with Gainsborough Pictures. He started his career as a runner in 1934 on the movie Chu Chin Chow. By 1936 he was working as an assistant director Windbag the Sailor. He would serve as an assistant director on Oh, Mr. Porter (1937) and the Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes (1938). On the films A Girl Must Live (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940), he was a second unit director. During World War II he worked with the British Army Kinematograph Unit, where his superior officer was novelist Eric Ambler. The two would later collaborate on an adaptation of Ambler's novel The October Man and it was Mr. Ambler who wrote the screenplay for A Night to Remember.

Upon World War II's end Roy Baker became a full fledge director, making his debut with the film Read All About It in 1945. He would do onto direct The October Man (1947), The Weaker Sex (1948), Paper Orchid (1948), Morning Departure (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950), and The House in the Square (1951). It would be Morning Departure, starring Sir John Mills, which would draw the attention of Darryl Zanuck, who hired him for three years at 20th Century Fox.

Mr. Baker's first film for Fox was the thriller Don't Bother to Knock (1952), starring Marilyn Monroe. It was followed by the films noir Night without Sleep (1952) and Inferno (1953). He then returned to the United Kingdom where he directed such films as Passage Home (1956), Tiger in the Smoke (1956), and The One That Got Away (1957). It was in 1958 that a film was released that would be the highlight of his career. It was in 1958 that a one of the highlights of his career. Eric Ambler wrote the sceenplay and Roy Baker directed an adaptation of Walter Lord's book on the Titanic's ill fated voyage, a movie entitled A Night to Remember. The movie was as historically accurate as possible at the time (at that point we did not know the ship had broken in two) and avoided fictional romance for a fairly faithful retelling of the actual events aboard the ship. It was superior not only in its historical accuracy, but quite simply as a film to the wildly overrated Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron many years later.

While A Night to Remember received critical accolades and did well at the box office, it did not give Mr. Baker better assignments as a director. The next few years he directed such films as Flame in the Streets (1961), The Valiant (1963), and Two Left Feet (1963). It was in 1963 that he would begin directing television shows, starting off with episodes of Zero One. The next several years he directed episodes of such shows as The Human Jungle, Gideon's Way, The Baron, The Avengers, Department S, The Champions, and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). The show with which he was most closely connected was perhaps The Saint, for which he directed 18 episodes alone.

In 1967 Mr. Baker would return to film with another highlight of his career and the first film upon which he used the name "Roy Ward Baker." Quatermass and the Pit was Hammer Films' adaptation of the popular British serial, and arguably one of the best science fiction movies they ever made. It was also one of the best horror movies ever made and possibly Mr. Baker's best film. He would direct more movies for Hammer, including the space Western Moon Zero Two, The Vampire Lovers (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). He would then go to work for rival Amicus Productions, directing the horror portmanteau films Asylum (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973--based on the E.C. Comics titles), and the Gothic horror film And Now the Screaming Starts (1973). He would finish out the Seventies directing the films Mission: Monte Carlo (1973), the much maligned Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), and one last Amicus horror portmanteau film, The Monster Club (1980). He continued to direct television shows, including The Persuaders, Jason King, The Protectors, and Return of The Saint.

From the Eighties into the early Nineties Roy Ward Baker worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of  The Flame Trees of Thika, Q.E.D., Fairly Secret Army, Minder, Saracen, and The Good Guys. He also directed the telefilm Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Roy Ward Baker has been described as a technically proficient director, but not a particularly artistic one. I have to disagree with this. In his best films, such as Don't Bother to Knock, A Night to Remember, and Quatermass and the Pit, Mr. Baker utilised a naturalistic, almost documentary like directorial style that was particularly effective not only in heightening realism, but in increasing suspense. At his best, Mr. Baker was capable of producing classics (I would classify all three of the films cited above as such). At his worst Mr. Baker made good, entertaining  films. Indeed, I have trouble of thinking of any truly bad film he ever directed. Some might cite Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, but I must disagree with them. It is actually a good movie, but one saddled with a reputation no doubt created by the wretched American release The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, in which several minutes were edited (I would say "butchered") from the film. No, Roy Ward Baker is a director whose career is badly in need of reappraisal. He was a talented director with a naturalistic style that made some very fine films.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Comic Sir Norman Wisdom and Puppeteer Van Snowden

Sir Norman Wisdom

Sir Norman Wisdom, best know for his series of films featuring hapless Norman Pitkin, passed on Monday at the age of 95.

Sir Norman Wisdom was born Norman Wisden in London on 4 February 1915. His mother deserted the family when he was still young, leaving Sir Norman and his brother to be reared by his father. His father would later give up the two boys so that they were raised in a children's home. Going out on his own at 14, Sir Norman served in a number of jobs, including cabin boy, apprentice waiter, and errand boy.

During World War II he served in the 10th Royal Hussars in England and India. It was while he was in the Army that Sir Norman learned to sing and play a number of different instruments. After being demobilised in 1946, he started his career in show business in London music halls. It was at this point he took the last name Wisdom. It was not long before he played the West End. In 1948 he received his own television series, Wit and Wisdom. He made his film debut that same year in a small part in the film A Date with a Dream. In 1951 he appeared in TV show Vic's Grill. It was in 1953 that he first appeared in his signature role as Norman in the film Trouble in Store, whose surname was usually Pitkin, but sometimes bore different surnames even if he was the same character. He would go onto play Norman in twelve more films: One Good Turn (1955), Man of the Moment (1955), Up the World (1955), The Square Peg (1956), Follow a Star (1959), The Bulldog Breed (1960), On the Beat (1962), A Stitch in Time (1963), Norman Wisdom: The Early Bird (1965), and Press for Time (1966). In nearly all of the films Norman, also known as The Gump, found himself in some occupation or predicament for which he was hardly suited. The films were huge in the United Kingdom, at one point even surpassing the James Bond series in terms of box office.

Sir Norman Wisdom also appeared in the films Sink the Bismark (1960), There was a Crooked Man (1960), The Girl on the Boat (1961),The Sandwich Man (1966), The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), and What's Good For the Goose (1970). Beginning in the Seventies Sir Norman's career shifted primarily to television. He starred in the series Norman, Nobody is Norman Wisdom, A Little Bit of Wisdom, and Last of the Summer Wine. He guest starred on the shows Hudson and Halls, BBC2 Playhouse, Bergerac, Casualty , The Last Detective, and Coronation Street. He also appeared in the films Double X: The Name of the Game (1992) Five Children and It (2004), and Expresso (2007).

Sir Norman also toured for many years with his own cabaret act. He also appeared twice on Broadway, in Walking Happy (1966) and Not Now Darling (1970). He did not retire until he was 90 years old.

Sir Norman Wisdom was never a success in the United States, despite being phenomenally success in Britain. Most Americans' exposure to Sir Norman Wisdom would consist primarily of appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the movies Sink the Bismark and The Night They Raided Minsky's, and the TV show Last of the Summer Wine. This is sad, as Sir Norman Wisdom had a true gift for comedy, particularly slapstick. The character he played was invariably an everyman who finds himself over his head, only to finally emerge victorious in the end. It was a character comparable to Chaplin's Little Tramp, and one that should have had more appeal on this side of The Pond.

Van Snowden

Puppeteer Van Snowden, who brought to life characters from H. R. Pufnstuf to the Crypt Keeper on Tales from the Crypt, passed on September 22, 2010 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.

Van Snowden was born in San Francisco County, California on February 19, 1939. He grew up on a farm outside Branson, Missouri. He had wanted to become a Broadway star, but found himself sidetracked into the field of puppetry. He went to work for Sid and Marty Kroft on the movie Pufnstuf (1970), an adaptation of their TV series H. R. Pufnstuf. He would go onto work on several Sid and Mary Krofft productions, sometimes as an actor and sometimes as a puppeteer (often as both), including The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Fol-De-Rol, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Land of the Lost, and The Bay City Rollers Show.

Following his stint with Sid and Marty Krofft, Mr. Snowden worked as a puppeteer on such shows as D. C. Follies and Tales From the Crypt (where he brought to life The Crypt Keeper). He also worked on the  films Beetlejuice (1988), Child's Play 2 (1990) , Child's Play 3 (1991), Dracula (1992), Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), Casper (1996), Tales From the Crypt: Bordello of Blood (1996), and , and The X-Files (1998).

There can be little doubt that Van Snowden had a huge impact on pop culture, even if the average person does not recognise his name. He was involved in nearly every single Sid and Marty Krofft production. Indeed, Sid Krofft said, "Van Snowden was the heart and soul of our company." Mr. Snowden's career did not end with Sid and Marty Krofft, however, as he brought to life E. C. Comics' horror host The Crypt Keeper in the series Tales From the Crypt and Chucky in the Child's Play movies. Few puppeteers in the late 20th Century have had so rich a career as Van Snowden.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Trailer Announcer Art Gilmore Passes On

Art Gilmore, who provided the voice for movie trailers, television show introductions, and various other voice work, passed on September 25 at the age of 98.

Arthur Gilmore was born in Tacoma, Washington on March 18, 1912. Shortly after he was born, Mr. Gilmore's family moved to Massachusetts. He attended Washington State University where he began his career in entertainment by working at the university radio station. In 1936 he went to work for Warner Brothers' radio station KFWB in Hollywood. He later moved to the CBS radio station KNX. He served as the announcer on various radio shows, including Amos 'n' Andy, Red Ryder, and The Sears Radio Theatre. He did his first work in film for the 1941 movie Lone Wolf Takes a Chance, where he provided the voice of a newsreel announcer. It would be in the Forties that he did his first work on movie trailers. During World War II he served in the United States Navy.

It would be for his work as the announcer on movie trailers for which Art Gilmore would be best known. Over the years he would provide the voice for the trailers of such movies as Dumbo (1941), Gilda (1946), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Born Yesterday (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Shane (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Rear Window (1954), White Christmas (1954), War and Peace (1956), South Pacific (1958), Vertigo (1958), Ocean's 11 (1960), Where the Boys Are (1960), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), and Fahrenheit 451. In all he did around 3000 trailers. Mr. Gilmore also served as a the narrator on many documentaries. his voice was utilised in such films as Saboteur (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Rendezvous 24 (1946), The Big Clock (1948), Valentino (1951), and Rear Window (1954).

Mr. Gilmore would eventually move into television. He served as an announcer or narrator on such shows as Shower of  Stars, Climax, The Red Skeleton Show, Highway Patrol, and Mackenzie's Raiders. He also provided incidental voices for shows, such as the radio announcer on The Waltons.

Mr. Gilmore would also go into acting. He appeared in such films as Rendezvous 24 (1946), When Worlds Collide (1951), and Suicide Battalion (1958). He appeared in such TV Shows as Boston Blackie, The Whistler, Waterfront, The Adventures of Fu Manchu, Captain Midnight, Mary Tyler Moore, and Emergency. He was a regular on both Dragnet (the Fifties and Sixties incarnations) and Adam-12.

Art Gilmore was perhaps the most famous trailer announcer besides the legendary Don Lafontaine. And this was with good reason. Mr. Gilmore had a strong, clear voice capable of conveying just the right emotion for the movie whose trailer he announced. Indeed, he announced trailers for everything from comedies to thrillers to dramas to science fiction movies. His talents also proved useful on television, where his strong, authoritative narration of Highway Patrol would provide inspiration for generations of television narrators, down to today's Law and Order franchise. Mr. Gilmore had an enormous gift in a strong voice that could display nearly every emotion under the sun. And he put it to good use in hundreds of hours of movie trailers and TV shows.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Film Editor Sally Menke

Film editor Sally Menke, best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino, passed on September 27, 2010 at the age of 56. She had been hiking and her body appeared extremely dehydrated. No foul play was suspected.

Miss Menke was born in Mineola, New York on December 17, 1953. In 1978 she graduated from the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. She began her career as an editor with PBS and CBS Reports. She made the shift to feature films in 1983 with the film Cold Feet. Over the next few years she edited such films as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe (1992). She interviewed for Quentin Tarantino when he was looking for an editor who would work cheap on his film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Not only did Mr. Tarantino hire Sally Menke, but she would work on nearly every one of his films.

Sally Menke would go onto direct such films as Heaven and Earth (1993), Who Do You Think You're Fooling (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994), Mulholland Falls (1996), Nightwatch (1997), Jackie Brown (1997), All the Pretty Horses (2000), D.C. Smalls (2001), Daddy and Them (2001), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), Grindhouse (2007--the segment "Death Proof"), Inglourious Basterds (2009), and Peakcock (2010). She was nominated for Oscars for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Actor Joe Mantell R.I.P.

Joe Mantell, who appeared in films from The Birds to Chinatown, passed on September 29, 2010 at the age of 94. The cause was pneumonia.

Joe Mantell was born in Brooklyn on December 21, 1915. During World War II he served in the United States Army.

 He made his movie debut in Undercover Man in 1949, playing the uncredited role of a newsboy. He appeared in uncredited roles in Barbary Pirate (1949), Point of New York (1949), and And Baby Makes Three (1949). Throughout much of the Fifities Mr. Mantell appeared on television, in such shows as Out There, Suspense, Lights Out, Mister Peepers, The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Inner Sanctum, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Climax, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Wanted Dead or Alive, One Step Beyond, and The Untouchables. He appeared in the films Marty (1955--reprising the role of Angie from Philco-Goodyear Playhouse), Storm Centre (1956), The Sad Sack (1957), Onionhead (1958), and The Crowded Sky (1960).

 In the Sixties he appeared in such shows as The Roaring 20's, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, Pete and Gladys, Cain's Hundred, Combat, The Defenders, The Twilight Zone, My Three Sons, The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Mannix. He appeared in the films The Birds (1963), Mister Buddwing (1966), and Kelly's Heroes (1970). In the Seventies he appeared in the films Chinatown (1974). He appeared on such shows as Ironside, All in the Family, Maude, Lou Grant, and Hart to Hart. In the Eighties he appeared on the shows Hart to Hart and Barney Miller. He appeared in the films Blame It on the Night (1984), Mover and Shakers (1985), and The Two Jakes (1990--in which he reprised his role as Walsh from Chinatown).

Joe Mantell was an immensely talented actor who fully deserved the Oscar nomination for his role as Angie in Marty. He was capable of playing roles convincingly even when they were very small. There is no greater proof of this than the role of Walsh in Chinatown. The role was not very big, but Mr. Mantell remains memorable. Indeed, it is a mark of his skill as an actor that he delivered the most memorable lines in both Marty and Chinatown--"What do you feel like doin’ tonight?" in the former, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" in the latter. While it is true that both lines were written by the movie's respective writers, but it was Mr. Mantell's delivery that made them memorable.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Andy Griffith Show Turns 50

It was on this day on October 3, 1960 that The Andy Griffith Show debuted. Since that day the series has never left the air, lasting for eight years in its first run and ever since in syndication. To this day it airs somewhere in the United States, not simply on cable channels such as TV Land, but on many local stations as well. It is quite possible that no other show, not even I Love Lucy, has been as successful as The Andy Griffith Show has been.

The seed for what would become The Andy Griffith Show originated in the mind of Sheldon Leonard. Perhaps best known for his role as Nick the bartender on It's a Wonderful Life and a succession of heavies in various movies, in the late Fifties Mr. Leonard had established himself as a television producer, producing the hit series Make Room for Daddy (AKA The Danny Thomas Show). At the time Mr. Leonard had the idea for a show which would centre on a newspaper editor, justice of the peace, and sheriff in a small rural town. In mind for the lead Sheldon Leonard had a young, Southern actor who had already made a name for himself throughout the Fifties: Andy Griffith.

Andy Griffith was a comedian with a flair for fast delivery and Southern charm who had a hit with "What It Was, Was Football," a monologue which was a hit single in 1953. He garnered more attention when he starred in the telefilm "No Time for Sergeants" on The U.S. Steel Hour in 1955. The teleplay was successful enough to be expanded and spun off into a Broadway play. He would also appear on Broadway in the 1957 musical Destry Rides Again. In 1957 he also appeared in the role of Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, a role unlike any Mr. Griffith would play before or since. He received sterling marks from critics for his role as the self serving Rhodes. In 1958 he reprised his role as Will Stockdale in the movie version of No Time for Sergeants. A hot commodity at the time, Andy Griffith signed with the William Morris Agency. It was then that Sheldon Leonard met with the agency to discuss the possibility of the show with Andy Griffith. Mr. Griffith approved of the show.

Aware of the expense of shooting a pilot episode, Sheldon Leonard conceived of a means of saving money while still being able to shoot a pilot. Quite simply, Mr. Leonard thought of an episode of Make Room for Daddy which would also serve as a backdoor pilot for the new series. Written by Arthur Stander, in the episode Danny is pulled over for speeding in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry by Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Andy Taylor. The episode not only introduced Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, but Ron Howard as his son Opie. Frances Bavier also appeared in the episode, although as a wholly different character from Aunt Bea. The episode garnered high ratings and proved so successful that General Foods signed on immediately as a sponsor for The Andy Griffith Show.

Of course, while only Andy and Opie appeared in the backdoor pilot, "Danny Meets Andy Griffith", the show would naturally include many more characters. To a small degree Andy Griffith was responsible for the creation of one of them. Very sensibly, Mr. Griffith suggested Sheriff Taylor needed a deputy. He had in mind a friend with whom he had worked on No Time for Sergeants in all of its incarnations, Don Knotts. In the teleplay, play, and movie, Mr. Knotts had played an Air Force psychiatrist, but he was perhaps best known for the high-strung, nervous Mr. Morrison in the "man on the streets" interviews on The Steve Allen Show.It would be the character of Mr. Morrison who would provide the basis for Mr. Knotts' character on The Andy Griffith Show, Deputy Barney P. Fife.

 As Aunt Bee, Andy's aunt and live in housekeeper, Fraces Bavier was cast. Miss Bavier was a New York actress who had performed on Broadway and appeared in such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Bad Seed. While Aunt Bee was easy going and affable, Miss Bavier was the one member of the cast who did not always get along with everyone, this in a cast which generally got along very well. Both cast and crew often described working with her as "walking on eggshells." Indeed, she regularly fought with lead Andy Griffith on the show.

Once the series had begun, yet other townsfolk from Mayberry would be added to the cast. The character of Floyd Lawson, Mayberry's talkative and sometimes absent minded barber, was originally played by actor Walter Baldwin in the twelfth episode of the first season. It was in this first episode that the running joke of Floyd being unable to cut sideburns evenly was established. For whatever reason, the role would thereafter be assumed by veteran radio actor Howard McNear. Mr. McNear had appeared in such radio shows as Calling All Cars, Suspense, and The Adventures of Nero Wolfe. He originated the role of Doc on the radio version of Gunsmoke. Mr. McNear would take Floyd from a secondary character to one of the major characters on the show.

Town drunk Otis Campbell was another character introduced in the first season who would become a major character. The idea of a drunk who locks himself up when he had too much was originated in the pilot. In the pilot Frank Cady (later of Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) played drunkard  Will Hoople, who locks himself in a jail cell much as Otis did. Otis would be played by Hal Smith, a veteran actor of radio and television. Like Floyd, Otis would go from being a secondary character to a major character. Although very convincing as Otis, in truth Hal Smith had never had a drink in his life.

Another character would actually be spun off into his own show. Gomer Pyle was a kind hearted, but none too bright country boy who worked as a filling station attendant at Wally's Filling Station. The character was meant to appear in only one episode, but would go onto become major character. Gomer Pyle was cast after Andy Griffith discovered actor Jim Nabors performing at The Horn, a nightclub in Santa Monica, California. He was introduced in the show's third season. The character proved popular enough that he was spun off into his own show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was introduced in a backdoor pilot, much as The Andy Griffith Show had been, in the fourth season Andy Griffith Show episode "Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C."

Gomer's place on the show would be taken by his cousin Goober. References to Goober Pyle would be made as early as the third season episode "Man in a Hurry," but he would not appear until the fourth season episode "Fun Girls," which was also the only episode in which he appeared with Gomer. George Lindsey, who had nearly won the part of Gomer, was cast as Goober. Goober Pyle was very similar to his cousin Gomer. He was none too bright, but very good natured. Unlike Gomer he was a skilled mechanic, and this was reflected in his clothes. He wore a beanie with a scalloped, upturned brim, a workshirt whose pockets were filled with pencils and tyre gagues, and blue Dickies pants with work boots. In late seasons he actually bought Wally's Filling Station.

The Andy Griffith Show would debut to very good ratings. Despite this success, the show would undergo a change in its first season. Originally it had been planned that Sheriff Andy Taylor would be a buffoonish, but not stupid character, with Deputy Barney Fife playing his straight man. As a result Andy Griffith played Andy Taylor with the same delivery he had used in "What It Was, Was Football," and with the same wide grin of Will Stockdale of No Time for Sergeants. As the season progressed, however, it soon became apparent to Andy Griffith and the producers that the show might be funnier if Sheriff Taylor played the straight man to the comic characters around him. This would have the ultimate result of shifting much of the focus of the series from Sheriff Taylor to Mayberry itself. It would also result in Barney Fife evolving into one of the greatest comic characters of television history. From his "Man on the Street" character of The Steve Allen Show Barney inherited a nervous, high strung disposition, but to it Mr. Knotts added touches of pretentiousness, false bravado, and a tendency to be over analytical and alarmist in any given situation.

Just as Andy Taylor became a more serious character, The Andy Griffith Show became a show where the comedy grew out of the characters, not one liners or jokes. For this reason the series became much more of an ensemble comedy. Episodes did not simply centre on the core characters of Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee, and Barney, but came to centre on Floyd, Otis, Gomer, Goober, and even the occasional guest star.

The evolution of the show during its first season hardly hurt its ratings. Rated #4 in its first season, it did slip to #7 for its second season, but it rose back in the ratings by its third season. In fact, The Andy Griffith Show was one of the few television series in the history of the medium to rank in the top ten highest rated shows for the season according to the Nielsens every single year it was on. Indeed, it never ranked lower than #7.

Much of this was due to the fact that The Andy Griffith Show benefited from some of the best writers on television at the time. It also benefited from the talents of its guest stars, many of whose characters would become recurring characters on the show. Howard Morris, not only directed many episodes of the show, but appeared as one of its most memorable characters. Ernest T. Bass was a madcap hillbilly notorious for throwing rocks and often pressing his affections, almost always unwanted, on women. He remains one of the show's best known characters, despite appearing only five times. Bernard Fox, best known as Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, also guest starred on The Andy Griffith Show. He played Malcolm Merriweather, a British man bicycling through the United States. After his first appearance, Mr. Merriweather would appearer two more times on the show. Denver Pyle guest starred as Bricoe Darling Jr., the patriarch of the hillbilly Darling clan. A bit gruff, sometimes ill mannered, very superstitious, but ultimately soft hearted, Briscoe Darling and his family appeared six times on the show.

As the show progressed other characters would be added. Betty Lynn played Thelma Lou, Barney's steady girlfriend. While their relationship sometimes seemed unstable (and given Barney's flirtations with Juanita, the waitress at the Bluebird Diner it is little wonder), Thelma Lou was extremely loyal to Barney despite his faults. After several attempts on the part of the writers to introduce a girlfriend into Andy's life, one was finally found by accident in the form of teacher Helen Crump.  Played by Aneta Corsaut, Helen was one of the few characters who was not a native of Mayberry County. She originally came from Kansas. Later in the run county clerk Howard Sprague was introduced. A bit of a mama's boy, Mr. Sprague was actually very intelligent and actually quite good at such  sports as angling and bowling. He was played by Broadway actor Jack Dodson. Handyman Emmett Clark was also introduced later in the show's run. Emmett's shop became the place where the men of Mayberry hung out after Floyd's shop closed. He was played by veteran actor Paul Hartman.

As The Andy Griffith Show progressed through the years, it underwent various changes. Gomer Pyle left for the Marines and his own show. Perhaps the biggest change in the show came at the end of the fifth season. Don Knotts was under the impression from various comments from the producers over the years that The Andy Griffith Show would end after five seasons. He then sought out other work and signed a contract with Universal Pictures. By the time he learned there would be a sixth season, it was too late. Barney was written out of the show by having him join the Raleigh Police Department's detective unit. Mr. Knotts would make several more guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show until the end of its run. It was also at the end of the fifth season that the show made the change to colour.

Another change would come as a result of Howard McNear's health. It was during the third season that Mr. McNear suffered a stroke which did not affect his speech, but left him unable to walk. As a result, Floyd did not appear on the show for nearly a year and a half. Andy Griffith believed that Floyd was absolutely necessary to the show's success and so he talked Mr. McNear into returning to the series. Initially Floyd would be shown sitting, although the crew eventually figured out a way around Mr. McNear being unable to use his legs. They made a stand for him which allowed Floyd to appear to be standing while he cut hair. In one episode, through some clever camera work, it was even made to appear that Floyd was walking. Unfortunately, Mr. McNear's health would decline further, so that he had to leave the show entirely in 1967.

While Don Knotts left due to an error and Howard McNear left due to health, Hal Smith would leave the show for different reasons. By the sixth season concerns had arisen regarding the portrayal of heavy drinking. This meant that Otis Campbell could no longer appear on the show. Unlike Barney and Gomer, it was not explained why Otis no longer regularly locked himself in the jail. One can only assume he finally sobered up.

It is generally agreed by fans of the show and even Andy Griffith that The Andy Griffith Show declined in quality after its fifth season. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Don Knotts had left the show. Barney had provided so much of the show's comedy and so much a part of the show's dynamic that his absence was noticeable. The character of Otis Campbell also ceasing to appear would be another blow to the show. Although not so central to the show to Barney, Otis was a source of much of the series' humour. Finally, the loss of Howard McNear as Floyd was another event which would hurt the series. Like Barney, Floyd was one of the central characters, and one who provided much comedy for the show. Indeed, a seasoned professional like Don Knotts found it hard to do scenes with Mr McNear because he would start to laugh once Mr. McNear started playing Floyd. Another thing which may have hurt the series after its sixth season was the fact that many of its original writers had since moved onto other things through the years. The writers who came onto the show later in its seasons did not have quite as good a grasp on the special brand of character comedy intrinsic to The Andy Griffith Show.

Although The Andy Griffith Show was a very good show, it was a very unrealistic one in in one regard. Mayberry County had to be the only county in the South devoid of any African Americans. The reasons for this in the beginning were simple. The American television broadcast networks were very nervous about including black characters on shows for fears of offending audiences in the South. While there were those, according to Howard Morris in a retrospective on the series, who wanted to include African American characters, it was always vetoed. It must be stressed that The Andy Griffith Show was in no way unusual in this respect. The list of shows which aired in the Fifties and Sixties which included no African American characters is sadly a long one.  It must be noted that Sheldon Leonard, executive producer of The Andy Griffith Show, would later produce I Spy, on which Bill Cosby played the first African American lead on a drama series. It must also be noted that there would be African American characters on the continuation of The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D.

While The Andy Grifffith Show did decline in quality in its later years, it never declined so much that it was no longer still a good show. This was reflected in its ratings, which actually rose in its later years. In its penultimate season, The Andy Griffith Show ranked #3 in the Nielsen top twenty five for the year. In its final year the series ranked #1 for the 1967-1968 season. Along with I Love Lucy and Seinfeld, The Andy Griffith Show is one of only three shows which went off the air in the #1 spot.

Before the show's eight and final season, Andy Griffith wanted to leave the show to return to movies. Neither CBS nor General Foods was eager to lose a show that was #1 in the ratings. It was then decided to essentially continue The Andy Griffitih Show without Andy Griffith. Ken Berry was introduced as Sam Jones, a widower with a young son like Andy, who was elected as the head of the Mayberry city council. Several episodes during the final season centred on Sam and his young son. Andy and Helen got engaged and would marry in the first episode of the new series, and then move away from Mayberry. Most of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show made the transition to the new show, Mayberry R.F.D. Indeed, Goober, Howard, and Emmett continued to play the same roles in Sam's life as they had in Andy's life. Aunt Bee also continued to appear on the new series, taking on a job as Sam's housekeeper. As to Mayberry R.F.D., it proved to be a hit. It was cancelled in 1971 not because of its ratings (it was #15 for the year), but as part of CBS' rural purge.

Although The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968, it would continue to be popular in syndication, so much so that a reunion movie aired in 1986. Return to Mayberry. Most of the original cast returned, including Ron Howard as Opie (by then a successful movie director). The telefilm received high ratings, so much so the series might have been revived had Andy Griffith not already been committed to Matlock.

Regardless, The Andy Griffith Show has continued in syndication ever since then. Indeed, when its initial network run and syndication run are considered, it could possibly the most successful show of all time. During its network run The Andy Griffith Show never ranked below #7 for the year in the Nielsens. Its syndication run would be phenomenally successful. The show has not only aired on local stations across the United States, but on cable channels ranging from TBS to TV Land. It still airs on local stations across the nation. Indeed, it airs on at last two local stations on my cable system--KZOU in Columbia and KPLR in St. Louis. It is quite possible that The Andy Griffith Show has finally surpassed Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy in the sheer number of times it has been repeated. The show has also produced a slough of merchandise and has an active fandom to this day.

As might be expected The Andy Griffith Show has had a huge impact on pop culture. Both C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation and The Andy Griffith Show were parodied on Mad TV in the skit "C.S.I.: Mayberry." Hal Smith would appear in Mothers Against Drunk Driving adverts as Otis Campbell. The series was parodied on SCTV in the skit "The Merv Griffith Show" and Eugene Levy appeared as Floyd in several other skits. The show itself has been referenced in TV series ranging from The X-Files to Animaniacs, and in movies ranging from White Sands (1992) to Seven (1995).

Naturally the question is why The Andy Griffith Show has stood the test of time while other long time successes in syndication, such as Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy, have all but faded from local stations. The answer might lie in the nature of the show itself. Unlike many other shows, The Andy Griffith Show is not simply about a character or a family, but is centred on the entire town of Mayberry. Despite claims that the United States is an urbanised country, I suspect the exact opposite is true. Most Americans probably live in moderately sized towns and even small towns, towns very much like Mayberry. While not every small town might have a lunatic like Ernest T. Bass running around, I rather suspect most small towns have their own casts of unusual characters. Every town probably has a Barney Fife (even if he isn't a deputy), a Floyd Lawson, and even an Otis Campbell (although he probably isn't allowed to lock himself up in jail). Just as The Andy Griffith Show featured characters typical of most small towns, so too did it deal with small town problems: organising band concerts, disagreements between townsfolk, putting on school plays, and so on.

It then seems to me that the average American can probably more easily identify with the rural residents of Mayberry than the more urban residents of New York City in Seinfeld or even 30 Rock. It is the fact that The Andy Griffith Show is about a small town which has probably allowed it to outlast fellow classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and even the show that sired it, Make Room for Daddy. Although a great show, The Andy Griffith Show is not necessarily better than these shows, each of which is great in its own right. It is simply the case that the average American, even if he is not from the South, can more readily identify with the citizens of Mayberry.

Speaking as someone who grew up in the country and lives in a small Southern town (not unlike Mayberry), I always have enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show. I will not say it is my favourite sitcom of all time (that would be The Monkees) nor even the one I consider the best written (that would be The Dick Van Dyke Show), but it is the series with whose characters I can most identify. I know people like Floyd, Barney, and even Otis. The vibe, for lack of a better term,  I get from the Mayberry is the same vibe I get from my hometown, that of a quiet, friendly place where one can feel safe and secure. I suspect that many Americans also love The Andy Griffith Show  as I do. It is for that reason I hope it runs another fifty years.