Saturday, December 4, 2010

TV Producer Alfred Masini Passes On

Television producer Alfred Masini, who created and produced such first run syndication series as Solid Gold, Entertainment Tonight, and Star Search, passed on November 29, 2010 at the age of 80. The cause was complications from melanoma.

Alfred Masini was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on January 5, 1930. He graduated from Fordham University in New York City with a bachelor's degree in 1952. He served during the Korean War in the United States Air Force. In 1954 he went to work for the CBS-TV library as a film editor. Two years later he went into advertising.

It was in 1968 that he and Rich Frank, later of Disney, TeleRep, a firm which sold advertisements for television stations. It proved very successful. It was in 1976 that Alfred Masini created Operation Prime Time, a syndicated programming block sold primarily to independent stations in the United States. In its early days it produced mini-series and two part movies such as Testimony of Two Men (1977), The Bastard (1978), The Rebels (1979), Goliath Awaits (1981), and  A Woman Called Golda (1982), among others.

It was in 1979 that Alfred Masini conceived of the first regularly scheduled television series under the "Operation Prime Time" heading. Solid Gold was essentially a throwback to Your Hit Parade of radio and the early days of television, counting down the latest hit songs. It debuted in January 1980 and ran until 1988. Alfred Masini followed this success up with what may have been his most successful show of all time. Entertainment Tonight was a throwback to old Hollywood fan magazines and current magazines on the stands such as People. It debuted in 1981 and is still running to this day. It is not only the longest running entertainment news show, but the most watched as well. In 1983 he created Star Search, a talent competition which was a throw back to The Original Amateur Hour of radio and early television. It ran until 1995.

Mr. Masini retired in 1994 and moved to Hawaii.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Music to Watch Girls By" featuring Andy Williams & The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

As Niamhy pointed out in her blog, today is Andy Williams' birthday. Mr. Williams was very much a part of my childhood. When I was really little he was still hitting the charts (the Sixties weren't all Beatles and Rolling Stones) and he still had a TV show on in primetime. After his show went off the air, he still had an Christmas special on annually for many years. Quite simply, even if you were a toddler in the Sixties, there was no escaping Andy Williams.

For me the song that most brings to mind Andy Williams is not "Moon River," perhaps his most famous work, but instead his 1967 hit "Music to Watch Girls By." Here I must point out that Mr. Williams' cover of the song was not the original. In fact, it had its origins as an instrumental written for a Diet Pepsi commercial in 1967. The Bob Crewe Generation did their own version of this Pepsi instrumental, going all the way to #15 on the Billboard chart with it. Later that year Andy Williams did his own version of the song, with one major difference. Being a singer, Andy Williams' version had lyrics.

Here is a mash up someone did a while back of Andy Williams' version of "Music to Watch Girls By" and clips from one of my favourite TV shows, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Actors Who Remind Me of My Father

A while back Raquelle did a post on actors who remind her of her father. I hope Raquelle does not mind me swiping her idea, but given today is my father's birthday (he would have been 93 years old), I thought a similar post about my father would be fitting.

Indeed, much of the reason I probably love classic film is due to my father. Even if local television stations weren't still airing films made in the Thirties and Forties, I would have probably loved them simply because of my dad. My father was a child of the Depression and was alive when many of these films were released. And my father had fairly diverse tastes when it came to movies. His favourites were generally Westerns, although he also enjoyed everything from musicals to dramas. Indeed, it was my father, instead of my mother, who introduced me to musicals (probably his second favourite genre of film). My Fair Lady (1964) was on the telly one night and, being a typical boy, I did not particularly want to watch it. My father convinced me otherwise by telling me I would probably like it, which I did. To a degree, then, my father is to blame for my decades old crush on Audrey Hepburn....

Above is a photo of my mum and dad taken not long after they were married around 1938. Outside of the hairstyle (mine is obviously more modern) and the size of my father's ears, I resemble him a good deal. Of course, here I must point out a curious fact about my father's family--all of the men look alike. Anyhow, I cannot say that I believe too many actors look like my father or any other man in our family. When a particular actor reminds me of my father, it is generally because the personality of a character that actor played greatly resembled that of my father.

Of all the actors who remind me of my father, it is Andy Griffith in his role of Andy Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show that reminds me of my father the most. Oh, my father was a farmer rather than a sheriff, but they did have a lot in common. Like Sheriff Andy Taylor, my father had a mischievous side. Like Sheriff Taylor, he had a fondness for jokes and for ribbing people. Like Sheriff Taylor, my dad was also quite skilled at telling stories. Even though my father never attended high school, I then suspect much of the reason I became a writer was because of his influence. Most of all, like Sheriff Taylor, my father was very grounded with common sense, and tended to be a source of folksy wisdom. Of course, I guess I do not need to point out that both Andy Taylor and my father were Southerners! I do think my father resembled Andy Griffith to a small degree, at least when they were both younger!

Jimmy Stewart also reminds me of my father to a degree, at least in his most famous role, that of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Both were hard working men who were devoted to their families. And both were constantly helping people. Like George Bailey, my dad had so much impact on others' lives that I think if my father had never existed he would have "left an awful hole." Of course, my father also differed a good deal from George Bailey. Unlike George Bailey, he had no desire to see the world. He was happy simply raising animals and crops (we had cattle, horses, and swine). While my father did have a temper, he also lacked the anger George Bailey so often displayed, probably because George never got to fulfil his dreams, while my father had (he had bought two substantial pieces of land in his lifetime).

Okay, strictly speaking Johnny Cash was not an actor--he was a folk singer--but I do think my father physically resembled him to a small degree, at least when they were both younger. And they had a few character traits in common. Johnny Cash had a bit of a mischievous side, as shown in his appearances on TV shows and his many novelty songs. He was also a deeply spiritual man, much in the same way my father was. They were both philosophers of a sort born in the South. Of course, unlike Mr. Cash my father never drank, let alone did drugs. My grandfather had been an alcoholic, so my father avoided alcohol for his entire life.

Lastly, I do think my father looked a bit like Jack Palance, at least when they were both younger. That having been said, none of Mr. Palance's characters remind me of my father (except maybe Curly from City Slickers to a small degree).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Director Irvin Kershner R.I.P.

Irvin Kershner, who directed such films as The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), passed on November 27, 2010 at the age of 87. The cause was complications from cancer.

Irvin Kershner was born Isadore Kershner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 29, 1923. Mr. Kershner studied art and music, and played both the viola and violin. He attended the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and studied photography at the Art Centre College in Southern California. After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II as a flight engineer and mechanic, he changed his first name to Irvin. He entered film making as a documentary film maker for the United States Information Service in Iran, Greece, and Turkey.

It was in 1958 that he directed his first movie, Stakeout on Dope Street. He went onto direct The Young Captives (1959) and Hoodlum Priest (1961). He directed several episodes of the TV show The Rebel. In the early Sixties he worked mostly in television, directing episodes of Cain's Hundred, Ben Casey, Naked City, and Kraft Suspense Theatre. His first film in the Sixties was Face in the Rain (1963). He finished out the decade directing The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964), A Fine Madness (1966), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), and Loving (1970). In the Seventies he directed the movies Up the Sandbox (1972), S*P*Y*S (1974), The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976),. Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In the Eighties he directed Never Say Never Again (1983) and Robocop 2 (1990). He also directed an episode of Amazing Stories. His last work directing was in the Nineties, directing one episode of SeaQuest DSV.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Late Great Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen, who starred in such movies as Forbidden Planet (1956) and such television series as Police Squad, passed yesterday at the age of 84. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Leslie Nielsen was born on 11 February 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan. His father was one of the Royal Canadian Mounted. One of his uncles was Danish actor Jean Hersholt. His early years were spent in Fort Norman, Northwest Territories. As Leslie Nielsen grew older, his family moved to Edmonton, Alberta so that his brother Eric could attend school there. It was in Edmonton that Mr. Nielsen graduated high school.

During World War II, shortly before his 18th birthday, Mr. Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was trained as an aerial gunner, but never served overseas. Gifted with leading man good looks and an incredible voice and inspired by his uncle Jean Hersholt, Leslie Nielsen decided to pursue acting. He began his career as a Calgary radio station, as a radio engineer, announcer and, as Stay Up Sam the All-Night Record Man, a DJ. He eventually enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts, afterwards earning a scholarship at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City. He received more training at the Actor's Studio, also in New York City.

In 1950 Leslie Nielsen made his television debut in an episode of Actor's Studio. During the Fifties he would go onto appear in such shows as Stage 13, The Clock, The Magnavox Theatre, Out There, The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Lights Out, Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Web, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, The Untouchables, and Thriller. He made his film debut in 1956 in Ransom. The same year he played one of the leads, Commander John J. Adams, in the classic science fiction adaptation of The Tempest, Forbidden Planet. Mr. Nielsen's film career took off, and for the rest of the Fifties he would appear in such films as The Opposite Sex (1956), Hot Summer Night (1957), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and The Sheepman (1958). He made his only appearance on Broadway in Seagulls Over Sorrento in 1952.

In the Sixties Leslie Nielsen's career switched primarily to television. He was the lead in the short lived series The New Breed, a regular on Peyton Place, one of the leads on The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and the lead on Bracken's World.  He guest starred on such shows as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, The Defenders, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Ben Casey, The Loner, The Wild Wild West, Dr. Kildare, The Farmer's Daughter, Bonanza, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and The Virginian. He appeared in the films Night Train to Paris (1964), Harlow (1965), Dark Intruder (1965), The Plainsman (1966), Beau Geste (1966), Gunfight in Abilene (1967), Counterpoint (1967), Rosie (1967), Dayton's Devils (1968), How to Commit Marriage (1969), Change of Mind (1969), and Four Rode Out (1970).

In the Seventies Leslie Nielsen guest starred on such shows as Monty Nash, Night Gallery, Bearcats, The Mod Squad, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, Hawaii Five-O, The Manhunter, Ironside, Kojak, Kung Fu, Cannon, Columbo, and The Chisholm. Mr. Nielsen continued to appear in movies, most notably as the captain in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He also appeared in such films as The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971), Grand Jury (1976), Project Kill (1976), Sixth and Main (1977), and City of Fire (1979). It was in the Seventies that Leslie Nielsen began the shift from dramatic roles to comedic ones. In 1973 he made a rather comic guest appearance on the series M*A*S*H. In 1977 he made an uncredited appearance in Kentucky Fried Movie in the segment "Feel-O-Rama." His shift towards comedy would be complete with is appearance in the spoof Airplane, in which he played Dr. Rumack. His turn to comedy would effectively revitalise his career.

Indeed, in the Eighties he would appear for the first time as what may be his best known character, Detective Frank Drebin, in the short lived series Police Squad. The show only lasted six episodes, but garnered such a cult following that it inspired three movies: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994). He would also be one of the leads in the short lived comedy Shaping Up. He would guest star on such shows as Hotel, Ray Bradbury Theatre, 227, Murder She Wrote, Highway to Heaven, Father Dowling Mysteries, Who's the Boss, and Day by Day. He appeared in such movies as A Choice of Two (1981), Foxfire Light (1982), Wrong is Right (1982), Creepshow (1982), The Creature Wasn't Nice (1983), The Patriot (1986), Soul Man (1986), Nuts (1987), Home is Where the Hart Is (1987), Dangerous Curves (1988), and Repossessed (1990).

In the wake of the Police Squad/Naked Gun movies, Leslie Nielsen would star in a number of similar comedy movies from the Nineties onwards. He appeared in such films as All I Want for Christmas (1991), Surf Ninjas (1993), Digger (1994), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Family Plan (1997), Mr. Magoo (1997),Wrongfully Accused (1998), 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), Camaflogue (2000), Kevin of the North (2001), Men with Brooms (2002), Scary Movie 3 (2003), Scary Movie 4 (2006), Superhero Movie (2008), Stan Helsing (2009), and Stonerville (2010). He guested on such shows as The Golden Girls, Herman's Head, Evening Shade, Due South, and Robson Arms.

With a voice trained in radio, throughout his career Leslie Nielsen served as a narrator on films and TV shows. Among the movies he narrated were The Battle of Gettysburg (1955), Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience (1975), and The Homefront. Among the various TV shows on which he served as a narrator were The Explorers and National Geographic Specials.

Although today he is best know as a comedy actor, we should perhaps remember that Leslie Nielsen began his career as a dramatic leading man. He was convincing as Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet, as well as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion in the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour mini-series The Swamp Fox. Although he could easily play heroic figures or authority figures such as the Captain on The Poseidon Adventure, Mr. Nielsen's versatility went beyond such roles. Having begun his career playing leading men and heroes, he could also be a convincing villain, which he was in guest appearances on such shows as The Wild Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Leslie Nielsen could also play troubled characters, such as the Sheriff suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the Bonanza episode "The Unseen Wound."

As talented as Leslie Nielsen was in dramatic roles, he had a definite gift for comedy. It was a gift that was actually put on display relatively early in his career, in the comedy Tammy and the Bachelor, although it would certain become more noticeable in the Seventies. Even before his historic appearance in Airplane, Mr. Nielsen displayed a gift for comedy in his guest appearance on M*A*S*H as the more than slight left of centre Colonel Buzz Brighton and in his cameo in Kentucky Fried Movie. Indeed, Mr. Nielsen had such a talent for comedy that he was able to build a whole career out of it, from Police Squad to Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Much of what made Leslie Nielsen so funny that he played even the most ludicrous character, particularly Detective Drebin, serious, delivering outlandish lines deadpan. It was a feat a lesser actor could not have accomplished. Although not often recognised as such in the United States, Leslie Nielsen was one of the greatest actors to emerge from Canada, an actor with a gift for both drama and comedy. Not many men were as a versatile an actor as Leslie Nielsen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Problem with Jar Jar Binks

On May 19, 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. The majority of critics and fans alike thought the film was a disappointment. For all the film's flaws, however, there was one fatal flaw that would earn the movie the consternation of critics and fans alike:  the character of Jar Jar Binks. Meant as comedy relief, Jar Jar Binks became perhaps the most hated comic sidekick of all time.

The hatred of Jar Jar Binks began even before the movie's official release on May 19, 1999. Indeed, it began even before the movie was finished. Rob Coleman, the lead of the Industrial Light ad Magic (ILM) animation team, cautioned George Lucas that the team thought the character of Jar Jar Binks came across badly. Mr. Lucas told him that he had created the character specifically to appeal to young children. That was the end of the issue at Lucasfilm, but it was not the end of the issue for critics or fans.

Indeed, much as the animation team at ILM had warned George Lucas, hatred for the character of Jar Jar Binks emerged before the official release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in the reviews of various critics. In the May 16, 1999 issue of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Ron Weiskind stated, "The liveliest creature of the lot, an amphibian called Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), proves to be a bumbling babbler whom kids will love. Many adults will find him annoying enough to wish someone would slice him in half with a light sabre." In his review in the May 17, 1999 issue of Time, Richard Corliss bluntly wrote, "The Gungan klutz Jar Jar Binks, who talks (sometimes unintelligibly) like a Muppet Peter Lorre and walks as if he had Slinkys for legs, is more annoying than endearing." In the issue of Newsweek published the same day, David Ansen complained, "For comic relief, we get the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks, a goofy, floppy-eared, vest-wearing toy serpent with a clumsy two-legged lope and an incomprehensible Caribbean accent. (He's a kind of extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit.) Funny not he is, as Yoda would say." The following day in The Hartford Courant Malcolm Johnson wrote, "Lucas also shows his silly side. None of his previous films has put forward a more irritating character than Jar Jar Binks, the upright equine with eyes like headlights. This Gungan bumbler manages to bring down the level of every scene he appears in."

If George Lucas thought the critics were harsh, he was to learn that the fans could be much harsher. Almost from the moment the midnight showings of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace finished, fans began spewing venom towards Jar Jar Binks on the internet. Typical of the attacks on the character was the web site Jar Jar Must Die. By Thursday, May 20 1999 the web site Deja.Com had 15,000 messages posted to it regarding Jar Jar Binks, the vast majority of them criticising the character and many advocating he be killed off. A common criticism of the character was that he was created only to appeal to very young children. More common was the criticism that Jar Jar Binks was just plain annoying and not the least bit funny.

Indeed, it is a reflection of the hatred of Jar Jar Binks that in 2000 there surfaced a fan edit of The Phantom Menace called The Phantom Edit. Among the changes "Phantom Editor" Michael J. Nichols made to the film was cutting what he called "Jar Jar antics." The Phantom Edit was actually preferred by many critics and fans alike to the original film, and there can be little doubt that much of the reason for this was it had less Jar Jar Binks.

While many Star Wars despised Jar Jar Binks for being annoying and unfunny, others had a more serious criticism of the character. In his review in Newsweek, David Ansen described the characters as a "kind of extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit." He would not be the only one to see Jar Jar Binks as a racist stereotype. In the May 19, 1999 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern described Binks as a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen." Patricia Williams in the June 17, 1999 issue of The Nation, in an article entitled, "Racial Ventriloquism," wrote that aspects of the Jar Jar Binks character reminded her of stereotypes from blackface minstrelsy.

As might be expected, Lucasfilm would respond to the criticism. To fans who believed Jar Jar Binks was added simply to appeal to young children, George Lucas simply replied in July 1999 with the words, "the movies are for children but they don't want to admit that... There is a small group of fans that do not like comic sidekicks. They want the films to be tough like The Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike." To accusations that Jar Jar Binks was a racist stereotype, Lucasfilm spokesman Lynn Hale replied, "Nothing in Star Wars is racially motivated. Star Wars is a fantasy movie. I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had a direct reference to the world today is absurd. "

The uproar over Jar Jar Binks would eventually die down. He would appear in a much smaller role in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which he gives a speech advocating giving Chancellor Palpatine rather broad emergency powers, thus beginning Palpatine's path to becoming Emperor. He appeared only briefly in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Jar Jar Binks is a recurring characters in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but even there the sort of antics in which he engaged in Phantom Menace are kept to a minimum.

While the uproar over Jar Jar Binks would die down, Star Wars fans' hatred of him has never gone away. In a poll conducted by the British website, LoveFilm.Com of 5000 film buffs, Jar Jar Binks was voted the most annoying film character of all time. To this day all one needs to do is google "Jar Jar Binks" and one will receive thousands of results, most of which boil down simply to hatred of Jar Jar Binks.

Why is Jar Jar Binks so hated to this day? I rather doubt it was because he was comedy relief. As my brother, who is a much bigger Star Wars fan than I am, pointed out, the original trilogy had comedy relief in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, and to a lesser degree Han Solo and Chewbacca, characters universally loved by Star Wars fan. I think there is something to the accusation by fans that Jar Jar was created to appeal only to small children. While I do agree with George Lucas that the Star Wars films are made for children, I think if pressed on the point  George Lucas would have to agree the films are also made for adults. And sadly, Jar Jar Binks does not appeal to adults (not that he appeals to children either, but more on that later).

As to the accusation that Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype, I disagree. When I first watched Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace it did not occur to me that Jar Jar Binks was a racist stereotype. His mannerisms did not remind me of Stepin Fetchit, let alone Butterfly McQueen. As to Jar Jar's odd speech sounding like a Caribbean accent, I don't hear it. While Jar Jar's speech is hardly the Queen's English, it does not sound like any human accent or dialect to me. To drive home that Jar Jar was probably not meant as a racist stereotype is the fact that in the early criticisms of fans, which could be quite extensive, only a very few ever expressed the view that he was a racist stereotype. Indeed, the actor who provided the voice for Jar Jar, Ahmed Best, is an African American and he did not see the character as a racist stereotype. I rather suspect that those who accused Jar Jar Binks of being a racist stereotype simply read something into the character that simply was not there.

Of all the accusations made towards Jar Jar Binks, the most justifiable in my mind and the primary reason he is so hated is that he is annoying and unfunny. In the original trilogy the comedy relief provided by C-3PO and R2-D2 was primarily verbal, with only a little slapstick of the Stan Laurel type provided by C-3PO. It was certainly never intrusive and often quite funny. Unlike the two droids, however, Jar Jar Binks is too much over the top. Indeed, he reminds me of an even more spastic version of Gilligan from Gilligan's Island or Corporal Agarn from F Troop, but lacking either of those characters' intelligence. Unlike C-3PO, his antics are never subtle, and often quite broad. Jar Jar Binks might be acceptable as a character in a comedy, but not in what is essentially a boy's adventure movie. Of course, even in a comedy Jar Jar would not be lovable, he would not be funny.

Indeed, even though George Lucas stated that he created Jar Jar Binks to appeal to children, the plain fact is that I know no children who like Jar Jar. Children love C-3PO. They love R2-D2. They love all the Jedi, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Boba Fett. They even love the Ewoks, characters some adult Star Wars fans despise (I'm not among them--I think they are sort of cute). But I know of no child who loves Jar Jar Binks. They are either indifferent to him or, like most adults, they actively hate him.

In the wake of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, many fans advocated that George Lucas edit Jar Jar Binks out in the DVD, or at least minimise his time on screen. Even though Mr. Lucas had modified the original trilogy since those films first debuted, even though he has modified the films in the second trilogy to a small degree, there has been no change in the amount of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. Personally, given the hatred expressed towards the character on the film's release, I think it would be in the best interest of George Lucas and Star Wars to largely edit Jar Jar out of the film or at least recognise The Phantom Edit as the official version. Indeed, while my estimation of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had risen since I first saw it (when I thought it was a disappointment), I still cringe every second Jar Jar Binks is on the screen.