Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Late Great Ben Gazzara

Ben Gazzara, who appeared in movies from Anatomy of a Murder (1959) to The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and starred in the classic TV show Run For Your Life, passed yesterday, 3 February 2012, at the age of 81. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Ben Gazzara was born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in Manhattan, New York City on 28 August 1930. His parents were both Italian immigrants, so that Mr. Gazzara grew up speaking both Italian and English. It was a skill that would prove useful in his acting career. It was when he was 11 that he attended a play in which a friend was acting at the Madison Square Boys Club. It was this event that spurred his interest in acting. He participated in several plays at the Madison Square Boys Club afterwards. Mr. Gazzara attended Stuyvesant High School and Our Lady of Angels High School before taking classes at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School. Afterwards he joined the Actor's Studio.

Ben Gazzara made his debut on Broadway in 1953 in the play End as a Man. He would return to Broadway many times over the years. In the Fifties he appeared in the productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Hatful of Rain, and The Night Circus. In the Sixties he appeared in the play Traveller without Luggage. In the Seventies he appeared in revivals of Hughie and Duet, and a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In the Nineties he appeared in Shimada. In the Naughts he appeared in a revival of Awake and Sing.

Mr. Gazzara made his television debut in an episode of Treasury Men in Action in 1952. In the Fifties he appeared on such shows as Danger, The United States Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, Kraft Theatre, and The DuPont Show of the Week.

In the Sixties he played the lead on two different shows: Arrest and Trial and Run For Your Life. While Arrest and Trial only lasted one season, it is remembered for its format, which was a forerunner of Law and Order. The first half of each episode would centre on police detectives Nick Anderson (Ben Gazzara) and Dan Kirby (Roger Perry) as they conducted a criminal investigation. The second half of the show followed defence attorney John Egan (Chuck Connors) as he defended he person the two detectives had arrested. This meant that invariably either the detectives or the defence attorney would be proven wrong. Run For Your Life is better remembered than Arrest and Trial. In fact, it may be the one work in any medium that most people over a certain age remember Ben Gazzara from. Mr. Gazzara played lawyer Paul Bryan, who when informed by doctors that he only has eighteen months to live, decides to travel the United States. Despite being given eighteen months to live, Run For Your Life ran for three seasons and would prove successful in reruns. During the Sixties Mr. Gazzara also appeared on the shows Kraft Suspense Theatre and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

In the Seventies Mr. Gazzara appeared in several TV movies, including The Family RicoManeater, and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. He appeared in the miniseries QB VII. In the Eighties he appeared in such TV movies as A Question of Honour, A Letter to Three Wives, and People Like Us. In the Nineties he appeared in such TV movies as Blindsided, Convict Cowboy, and Protector. In the Naughts he guest starred on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and such TV movies as Hysterical Blindness, Pope John Paul II, and Empire State Building Murders.

Ben Gazzara made his film debut in 1957 in The Strange One. In the Fifties he would go onto appear in the films as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Risate di gioia (1960).  In the Sixties he appeared in such films as The Young Doctors (1961), Convicts 4 (1962), A Rage to Live (1965), If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), and Husbands (1970). In the Seventies he appeared in such films as The Neptune Factor (1973), Capone (1975), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), High Velocity (1976), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Saint Jack (1979), and Bloodline.

In the Eighties Mr. Gazzara would appear in such films as Inchon (1981), They All Laughed (1981), A Proper Scandal (1984), Don Bosco (1989), Road House (1989), and Quicker Than the Eye (1990). In the Nineties he appeared in such films as Sherwood's Travels (1994), Bandits (1995), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), Happiness (1998), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Blue Moon (1990), and The List (2000). In the Naughts he appeared in such films as Home Sweet Hoboken (2001), Bonjour Michel (2005), Looking For Palladin (2008), 13 (2010), Christopher Roth (2010), and Chez Gino (2011). His last films will be The Wait and Max Rose, both set to be released this year.

In many ways it seems impossible to me that Ben Gazzara is dead. This is not simply because he is one of my favourite actors, but also because he seemed very nearly unstoppable. All throughout his life Mr. Gazzara was a very prolific actor. For example, one can look at the year 1964. He appeared on Broadway in Traveller Without Luggage and in the TV series Arrest and Trial. What is more, 1964 is not an isolated. It seemed that most years of Ben Gazzara's life he often appeared in multiple movies and made multiple appearances on television. This is even more amazing when one considers that Mr. Gazarra's career spanned sixty years. He made his first appearance on television in 1952 and his last films will be released in 2012. He continued his hectic pace of acting right into his seventies.

Of course, the reason Ben Gazzara was so prolific was that he was gifted with a most singular talent. He was incredibly versatile. In Anatomy of a Murder he played the rather rough and boorish Lt. Manion. It was only two years later he played the earnest, clean cut Dr. Coleman in The Young Doctors. Throughout the years Mr. Gazzara played everything from a stage director dealing with a mentally unstable actress (Opening Night) to a porn director and loan shark (The Big Lebowski). Mr. Gazzara played all of these roles quite convincingly. Indeed, such was Mr. Gazzara's skill as an actor that he could convey more emotion simply with his eyes than many actors could with their whole body. He was an incredible actor and one who will surely be missed.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why the Google+ Nansayers Are Wrong

On 19 January of this year Google CEO Larry Page announced that Google's social networking site had 90 million users. This week it appears that Google+ has broken 100 million users. One would think that most in the media would then consider Google+ to be a roaring success. Amazingly enough this is not the case, as there are still a few in the media who either think Google+ has been a failure or they think it is destined to fail.

A prime example of this is an article in The Register, "Google+ funny numbers mask falling growth," in which the author claims that Google is cooking the books to prove Google+ has been successful. Gawker in an article entitled "Google Resorts to Shamelessly Whoring Out Brad Pitt for Google Plus" (I apologise for the language--their words, not mine) refers to Google+ as "the Antarctica of social networks" and claims Google+ hasn't "...turned out to be the runaway success they wanted it to be." The Gawker article even referred to Google+'s users as "weirdos (perhaps I should not mention how unprofessional that is)." An article in The Daily Mail entitled "Is Google the Next Dinosaur" claims that "Google Plus is hardly a lively place." Unlike The Register and Gawker, The Daily Mail does back its words up with an Associated Press report that stated, "About 80 percent of Plus users visit the service at least once a week, according to Google. The company is trying to increase the frequency by including recommendations about Plus accounts in its search results, a recent change that has raised questions about whether Google is abusing its position as the Internet’s leading gateway to unfairly promote its own services over its rivals."

Of course, there was a time that such articles were much more common. When Google+ first launched in June it seems most press outlets were predicting its swift demise. Indeed, the media really did have good reason to expect Google+ to fail. Google's previous social networking efforts, Google Wave and Google Buzz, were not merely failures, they were colossal flops. There was little reason for anyone to expect that Google+ would be any different. One could not really blame the various media outlets for doubting that Google+ would be successful. That having been said, by November it should have been apparent to most in the media that not only had Google+ proven successful, but it was not going to be the flop that either Google Wave or Google Buzz were.

Indeed, as someone who has been on Google+ since early July, I can say that it is a very active site, hardly the "Antarctica of social networks" the Gawker article claims. At the moment 1249 people have me circled (the Google+ equivalent of following on Twitter or subscribing on Facebook). On Facebook I only have 470 friends (I don't allow subscribers) and on Twitter I only have 426 followers. What is more, new people circle me almost every day and certainly every week. Compare this to Facebook, on which I had my first friend request this week in about three months.

Not  only do new people seem to be joining Google+ constantly,  but it seems to me that my Google+ stream is often busier than my Facebook news feed. Some might claim this is natural as I have over double the number people circled on Google+ than I have friends on Facebook, but I tend to doubt that. If that was the case one would think my Google+ stream would only be double that of my Facebook news feed. Instead, I swear at time that it is at least three times busier. Not only does it seem to me that people post to Google+ at least as much as Facebook (and I suspect much more), but  the posts on Google+ seem to receive much more in the way of comments than those on Facebook. Now part of that may be explained by the possibility that many, perhaps most, people often use Facebook passively (simply "liking" a post rather than saying anything about it), they tend to use Google+ actively (actually commenting on posts). Even if that is the case, that would seem to argue that Google+ has a greater level of interaction than Facebook, more proof that it is hardly a site that is not lively.

Of course, there is that Associated Press article cited by The Daily Mail article that states that about 80% of Google+ users visit it at least once a week. Ironically, if The Daily Mail intended this as evidence that Google+ is not active, then they sadly failed. I have to point out that the key words in the Associated Press are at least. That is, about 80% of Google+ users visit the site at least once a week. The Associated Press article says nothing about how many visit the site more than once a week or even daily. While I have no statistics right at hand, I do have my own experience on Google+, so I can say with some accuracy that a fairly large number of people I have circled visit the site each and every day.  Others may visit Google+ only a couple of times a week, while yet others may only visit once a week.  Indeed, it seems to me that this level of activity on Google+ is more or less the same level of activity that I see on Facebook as well. At any rate, neither Google+ nor Facebook are MySpace (truly and sadly the Antarctica of social networks).

Given the number of people who have me circled on Google+, a number which grows everyday, and the number of posts made to Google+ everyday, not to mention the comments on those posts, I can only conclude that anyone who insists that Google+ is not active is dead wrong. Given that Google+ is very active, it seems to me that it can also be concluded that Google+ is not a failure. If no further proof is needed of Google+'s success, one need look no further than Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, who in Facebook's initial public offering acknowledged Google+ to Facebook as a serious rival, alongside Microsoft and Twitter.

Why then are people still writing articles claiming Google+ is a failure? I suspect one reason lies in the fact that Google is one of the largest internet search service and one of the largest internet based companies in the world. Google is ubiquitous on the Web. Such overwhelming success, which in Google's case almost amounts to a monopoly on internet searches (there is Yahoo and Bing, but they are used much less often than Google), often breeds contempt in certain individuals. And such contempt often manifests itself in such individuals hoping that Google will fail at some point. I might also add that the sad fact is many media outlets believe bad press outsells good press. They (although mistakenly, in my opinion) believe that they will get more readers if they knock Google+ than if they are honest about how well it is really doing.

Another possible reason I think that people are still writing claiming that Google+ is a failure is that they simply are not doing their research. Given the claim of some that Google+ is not active, that almost no one posts to it, et. al., I have to wonder if they have even registered at Google+ and used it. Obviously, if one has not registered to Google+, then he or she has no first hand knowledge of how active Google+ really is. It would amount to me claiming that no one ever posts to Pinterest and it is destined to fail. How would I know? Why should anyone believe me? I'm not even registered at Pinterest and but rarely visit the site!

As to those who have registered at Google+ but still claim it is failing (not many I would assume), I have to wonder if they bothered circling anyone when they joind  or if they simply sat there waiting for someone to circle them? Google+ is like Twitter. If you don't follow anyone, chances are that no one will follow you. And, of course, if you're not following anyone, you won't see any tweets and you will have no idea how busy Twitter actually is. Obviously, if one has registered at Google+ and one has not circled anyone, then he or she will see no posts and will have no idea how busy the site actually is. To put it another way, it is like going on Facebook and not adding any friends! Imagine how dead one's news feed would be?

In the end I am not sure how important Google's claim that Google+ has 100 million users is, as the site seems to be busy regardless (100 million users is useless if no one is posting).  It certainly is not failing,  not unless my Google+ stream is the only one filled with posts every day.  Those who continue to insist that Google+ has failed or that it will go the way of the dinosaurs seem to me to either be intentionally ignoring the facts or simply have done so little research that they are not aware of them. Indeed,  I have to wonder that if Google+ does surpass Facebook's 845 million users if they won't still be claiming it has failed. I rather suspect that they will.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TV Director John Rich R.I.P.

John Rich, who directed television shows from Gilligan's Island to All in the Family, passed on 29 January 2012. He was 86 years old.

John Rich was born in Rockaway Beach, New York on 6 July 1925. During World War II he served as a navigator in the United States Army Air Forces, although he was never sent overseas. After the war he attended the University of Michigan, where he received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in English. It was while at the University of Michigan that he entered the entertainment industry. He worked as a disc jockey for a local radio station. After he graduated he moved to New York where he worked on the NBC radio show Wanted. Afterwards he moved into television, working as the stage manager on various NBC shows, including The Kraft Television Theatre.

It was in 1951 that John Rich broke into directing with an episode of Big Town. In the Fifties he directed such series as Colonel Humphrey Flack, I Married Joan, Where's Raymond, Our Miss Brooks, Conflict, The Rough Riders, Bat Masterson, and The Rifleman. In the Sixties he directed such series as The Twilight Zone, Mister EdThe Dick Van Dyke Show (for which he won an Emmy), Gilligan's Island, Bonanza, Hogan's Heroes, Gunsmoke, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and That Girl. He also directed the motion pictures Wives and Lovers (1963), The New Interns (1964), Roustabout (1964), and Easy Come, Easy Go (1967).

In the Seventies he directed such shows as All in the Family (for which he won another Emmy), Barney Miller, On the Rocks, and Benson. He also served as a producer on such shows as All in the Family, On the Rocks, and Benson. In the Eighties he directed such shows as Newhart, Condo, Mr. Sunshine, and Dear John. He produced the shows Condo and Mr. Sunshine. In the Nineties he directed such show as The Man in the Family, Walter & Emily, The Second Half, Murphy Brown, If Not For You, Hudson Street, and Something So Right. He produced the shows Walter & Emily and MacGyver.

There can be little doubt that John Rich was one of the best sitcom directors in the history of television. He directed some of the best known episodes of sitcoms widely regarded as classics. For The Dick Van Dyke Show he directed "Laura's Little Lie"/"Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice (a two parter in which it is revealed Laura lied about her age when they were married). For All in the Family he directed "Sammy's Visit (the episode guest starring Sammy Davis, Jr.)." For Gilligan's Island he directed the very first episode, "Two on a Raft." Of course, Mr. Rich's talents went beyond directing comedy. He also directed the classic Twilight Zone episode, "A Kind of a Stopwatch." It was a simple case that John Rich worked on some of the greatest sitcoms of all time. He also made some of the greatest episode of those sitcoms and some of the best episodes of dramas as well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ian Abercrombie R.I.P.

Ian Abercrombie passed on 26 January 2012 at the age of 77. The cause was kidney failure. He had been diagnosed with lymphoma.

Ian Abercrombie was born in Grays, Essex on 11 September 1934. He started out as a dancer and at age 17 migrated to the United States. He made his debut on stage in Stalag 17 in 1955. In 1957 he was drafted into the United States Army. He served in Special Services in Germany. After he was demobilised Mr. Abercrombie appeared on stage in the Los Angeles area. He made his feature film debut in an uncredited role in Von Ryan's Express in 1965. He made his television debut the same year in an episode of Amos Burke Secret Agent. For the remainder of the Sixties he appeared in the TV shows as Dragnet and Get Smart. He appeared in the movies Star! (1968), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1968), and The Molly Maguires (1970).

In the Seventies Ian Abercrombie guest starred on the shows O'Hara U. S. Treasury, Search, Columbo, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Battlestar Galactica, and The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. He appeared in such movies as Wicked, Wicked (1973), Young Frankenstein (1974), Sextette (1978), The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), and Blood Beach (1980).  In the Eighties he appeared in such TV shows as Quincy M.E., Knot's Landing, The Devlin Connection, Happy Days, Tucker's Witch, Three's Company, Airwolf, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hotel, L. A. Law, Dynasty, Moonlighting, Tales From the Crypt, Twin Peaks, The Flash, and Alf. Mr. Abercrombie was a regular on the soap opera Santa Barbara. He appeared in such movies as Getting Even (1981), The Ice Pirates (1984), Last Resort (1986), Flicks (1987), and Warlock (1989).

 In the Nineties he appeared in such movies as Zandalee (1991), Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge (1991), Army of Darkness (1992), Addams Family Values (1993), Mousehunt (1997), and Wild Wild West (1999). He was a semi-regular on the sitcom Seinfeld. He guest starred on such shows as Coach, The Nanny, Murphy Brown, Northern Exposure, Cybil, Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: Voyager. In the Naughts he was a regular on ChromiumBlue.Com, Birds of Prey, and The Wizards of Waverly Place. He provided the voice of Chancellor Palpatine for the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  He appeared on such shows as Crossing Jordan, The District, Nip/Tuck, Charmed, Summerland, Desperate Housewives, and How I Met Your Mother. He appeared in the films Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (2005), Inland Empire (2006),  and Based on a True Story (2008). He was the voice of Ambrose on Rango (2011).

Ian Abercrombie was the modern day equivalent of the great characters of old. He was very rarely cast in major roles in films and he was a regular on TV shows only a few times. Most of his career was spent in guest appearances on television programmes and small parts in movies. Despite this he was always memorable and his characters were memorable as a result. Although he was only on screen for a few minutes, he easily made an impression as the Wiseman in Army of Darkness. By the same token, he only appeared in seven episodes of Seinfeld as Elaine's boss Mr. Pitt, yet everyone remembers the character better than many who appeared more often on the show. Ian Abercrombie had a talent for creating believable characters in a very limited time on screen, a talent he put to good use throughout his career.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The 70th Anniversary of Desert Island Discs

It was 70 years ago today, 29 January 1942, that Desert Island Discs, debuted on BBC radio. The programme was created by Roy Plomley The concept of the programme was simple, but unique. Each week a guest (referred to as a "castaway") chooses eight works of music, a book, and a luxury item that they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. The luxury has to be an inanimate object that cannot be used for rescue from the island (such as a boat) or used for communications with the world outside the island (for instance, a satellite phone would not be allowed today). During Roy Plomley's tenure as presenter these rules were fairly strictly enforced. Today a bit more leeway is allowed with regards to the rules. At the same time the guest or castaway discusses their lives and the reason for their choices of music, book, and luxury. In the end Desert Island Discs is an odd combination of interview programme and music programme.

Despite its rather singular format or perhaps because of it, Desert Island Discs is the longest running radio programme in British history and the second longest running worldwide (surpassed only by The Grand Ole Opry). In the course of its history it has featured almost 3000 castaways, with very few castaways appearing more than once. The show's very first castaway was actor and comedian Vic Oliver. His first choice of music and hence the first music played on the show as Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor played by pianist Alfred Cortot.

Over the year's the show's format has changed very little, although it has changed presenters from time to time. The creator of Desert Island Discs, Roy Plomley, also had the longest stint as its presenter, from the show's debut in 1942 to his death in 1985. Sir Michael Parkinson, best known for his television show Parkinson, took over from Mr. Plomley and served as its presenter until 1988. Sue Lawley, who had served as the anchor of the nightly news show Tonight and an anchor on Nationwide, took over from Mr. Parkinson. She remained with Desert Island Discs until 2006. Kirsty Young, who had worked for BBC Radio Scotland, Scottish Television, and ITV, took over from Sue Lawley and has been with the show ever since.

Although relatively rarely given its 70 years, Desert Island Discs has seen controversy. Perhaps it most controversial guest was Lady Diana Mosley in 1989, who referred to Adolph Hitler as "fascinating" and, when asked by Sue Lawley, "What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis," replied with "Oh no, I don't think it was that many." The BBC received hundreds of complaints in response to the interview. In 1996 it was Sue Lawley herself who invited controversy, by questioning then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's sexuality. Other times Desert Island Discs has seen less than friendly guests. Roy Plomley made the mistake of stating to movie director Otto Preminger that in growing up in various European cities he must have led "...a rather gipsy existence." Mr. Preminger took offence and proceeded to make insults about Mr. Plomley's appearance. Mr. Plomley also had a difficult time with Lauren Bacall, who seemed to grow more agitated with each time he complimented her.

27 September 2009 was another important date in the history of Desert Island Discs. It was on that date that the BBC reached an agreement with Mr. Plomley's family to stream the programme on BBC's iPlayer online. On 30 March 2011 the BBC made 500 of the older episodes of the show available on iPlayer. It is also available through ITunes.

If Desert Island Discs has lasted seventy years, its perhaps because of its unusual format. In having guests imagine that they are on a desert island, the programme actually allows them to talk about things that they might not on a regular interview show. It was on the show that Yoko Ono revealed she had thought about aborting her son Sean. It was also on the show that TV producer Jimmy Mulville talked about his father's suicide. Of course, much of the show's appeal was also the music. On no other interview show would guests be asked to choose eight songs that they would like to have a desert island. Indeed, the choices of various guests' music was often surprising and often revealed a good deal about them. The unique format of Desert Island Discs allowed it to last seventy years. It seems likely it will last seventy more.