Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Late Great W. Watts Biggers, Co-Creator of Underdog

W. Watts "Buck" Biggers, the co-creator of Underdog, advertising man, and novelist, died 10 February 2013 at the age of 85.

William Watts Biggers was born on 2 June 1927 in Avondale Estates, Georgia. He was a member of the debate team at Avondale High School. They won the state championship. He left Avondale High before his senior year and attended North Georgia Military College instead, where he edited the school newspaper. He studied at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

Mr. Biggers was 20 years old when he moved to New York City where he tried to pursue a career as a singer, pianist, and songwriter. He took a job at the advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample as trainee in the mail room. He rose through the ranks at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, becoming an account executive and then  Account Supervisor on General Mills and Corn Products/Best Foods accounts. It was in 1959 that W. Watts Biggers, copy supervisor on the General Mills account Chester Stover, and supervisor of animation for the General Mills account Joe Harris were approached by a superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. To accomplish this Messrs. Biggers, Harris, and Stover then formed Total Television or TTV for short.

TTV entered the production of animated cartoons with King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. Debuting on NBC on 15 October 1960, it was only the network's second Saturday morning cartoon (after Hanna-Barbera's The Ruff & Reddy Show). King Leonardo and His Short Subjects proved fairly successful, running for three years on Saturday morning and many years in syndication since then. It not only paved the way for more cartoons from TTV, but also more Saturday morning cartoons. W. Watts Biggers not only produced the show, but also co-created it with Chet Stover and Joe Harris, and wrote many, perhaps, most of its episodes. He also served as producer, co-creator, and writer on TTV's next cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.  Starring Don Adams as the title character, a somewhat clever penguin, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales proved even more successful than King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. It ran for three years in its first run and many more years in syndicated reruns.

Total Televison's next cartoon would not only prove to be their most successful, but it would also prove to be W. Watts Biggers' most lasting contribution to pop culture. Underdog was co-created by Mr. Biggers, Chester Stover, Treadwell Covington, and Joe Harris. It debuted on NBC on 3 October 1964 and ran for nine years on NBC, then CBS, and then NBC again. Underdog then went into a highly successful syndication run that continues to this day. Underdog proved to be a hit from the beginning. in 1965 a balloon based on the character Underdog made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It continued to be a part of the parade until 1984. Underdog would prove to be a merchandising bonanza, producing a lunch box, games, comic books, Little Golden Books, and much more.

W. Watts Biggers would also produce, co-create, and write TTV's final cartoon, The Beagles. Centred on a rock band, The Beagles proved much less successful than TTV's previous efforts. To make matters worse, it appears that the masters have been lost, with only black and white copies of The Beagles' opening and part of an episode surviving. Unfortunately Total Television would not have a chance to produce another series. In 1969 General Mills dropped its sponsorship of TTV. Without the money from General Mills, TTV closed up shop.

While TTV was still running, W. Watts Biggers wrote his first novel, The Man Inside. It was published as an original paperback by Ballantine Books in 1968. After Total Television closed he spent several years as vice president of promotion and creative services at NBC. After his time at NBC Mr. Biggers became a freelance writer, writing for such publications as TV Guide, Family Circle, and Reader's Digest. With Chester Stover he wrote television news column, "TV Tinderbox," which was syndicated in turn by the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News, the Dallas' Tel-Aire Syndicate, and King Features Syndicate. He co-wrote the book Diabetes Without Fear with Dr. Joseph Goodman, which was published in 1979. He also wrote another novel, Hold Back the Tide, published in 2001. In 2004 he and Chester Stover published How Underdog Was Born, a book on the creation of Underdog. His final work was the screenplay for the feature film A Woman Called Job, which he co-wrote with Kurt Burk and appears in one of the roles. It is due to be released 10 March 2013.

There can be no doubt that W. Watts Biggers made a lasting contribution to popular culture with his creation of Underdog. Indeed, not only did he co-create the character and produce the show, but he wrote the scripts for the series as well. In the end Underdog has proven to be one of the most popular cartoon characters to emerge from television. References to Underdog permeate pop culture in a way few other cartoon characters do, in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to TV shows such as Scrubs and Will & Grace. Of course, it must pointed out that Underdog was not Mr. Biggers' only lasting cartoon creation. Tennessee Tuxedo, Tooter Turtle, Commander McBragg, the Go-Go Gophers, and other characters have been referenced in everything from The Matrix to The Simpsons.

While W. Watts Biggers may forever remain best known as the co-creator of Underdog, it is also important to remember that he did much more than his work at TTV. He was an account executive at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample for many years, creating several well remembered advertising campaigns for General Mills. He also wrote two novels, a feature film, articles, and a newspaper column. He was also the founder of Victory over Violence, an organisation "...dedicated to creating a positive force in the media to offset the cynicism and negativity, which create a climate of violence." Mr. Biggers not only created one of the most successful television cartoon characters of all time and founded one of the most successful cartoon television production companies of the Sixties, but he also accomplished a good deal of other things as well.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Richard Collins R.I.P.

Richard Collins, screenwriter and later producer on the TV show Bonanza, died at age 98 on 14 February 2013. The cause was pneumonia.

Richard Collins was born on 20 July 1914 in New York City. He attended Stanford University in Stanford, California briefly before returning to New York City. In 1936 while he joined the Young Communist League while taking classes at the New Theatre League. He returned to California where he took a job at Bloomingdales in Los Angeles as he sought work in the film industry.

Mr. Collins started his career in film as a script reader at Columbia Pictures. It was not long before he became a writer at Fox. His first credited screenplay was Rulers of the Sea, co-written with Frank Cavett and Talbot Jennings, in 1939. In the early Forties he wrote or co-wrote the sceenplays of the films One Crowded Night (1940), Lady Scarface (1941), Journey Into Fear (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Song of Russia (1944), and Little Giant (1946).

Unfortunately for Mr. Collins, his former Communist ties would come to light in the Forties. In 1947 he was one 19 screenwriters called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At the time he was not asked to testify before the committee, but his career stalled nonetheless. He was called before HUAC again in 1951, at which time he named more than 20 former friends and colleagues as sympathetic to Communism. It was an action that he would late regret.

Regardless, Richard Collins' career would resume in the Fifties. He wrote or co-wrote the stories or screenplays of such films as China Venture (1953), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954), Cult of the Cobra (1955), Kiss of Fire (1955), My Gun Is Quick (1957), Spanish Affair (1957), The Badlanders (1958), and Pay or Die (1960). Mr. Collins did uncredited work on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He also broke into television in the Fifties, writing episodes of Gruen Guild Playhouse, General Electric Theatre, Maverick, Wagon Train, The Third Man, The Detectives, Bat Masterson, and Route 66.

In the Sixties Richard Collins shifted to television. He wrote for such shows as The Untouchables, The Roaring Twenties, 87th Precinct, Cheyenne, Daniel Boone, and It Takes a Thief. He broke into television production in the Sixties. He produced the short lived series The Breaking Point  and two episodes of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre before becoming the line producer on Bonanza for many years. From the Seventies to the Nineties he wrote episodes of such shows as Bonanza, Remington Steele, Spenser: for Hire, Matlock, and Diagnosis Murder. He served as a producer on such shows as The Family Holvak, The Oregon Trail, and Matlock.

Richard Collins' testimony before HUAC seems unforgivable and indefensible. I must admit that it is something I find reprehensible myself. That having been said, it is easy for those of who did not live through those times to condemn those, such as Mr. Collins, as well as director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, for naming names. At that time one refusal to testify before HUAC and refusal to name names could well mean the end of one's career or even prison. As it was, some who cooperated with HUAC, however reluctantly, such as Larry Parks, found themselves blacklisted nonetheless. I then think it could be difficult for any of us would do in such a position.

Regardless of what one thinks of Richard Collins' testimony before HUAC, the fact remains that he was a good screenwriter and producer. His work in Hollywood was solid for the most part, including such films as Thousands Cheer and Journey into Fear. As a television producer he churned out several good seasons of Bonanza and, while I would not call it a classic, Matlock was an entertaining show. Regardless of what one might think of his activities during the Red Scare, Richard Collins had talent as a producer and writer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Classic Film Crushes

One disadvantage to being a male classic film buff is that one finds himself constantly falling in love, at least when he is younger and discovering the classic actresses of the Golden Age. More so than the majority of current actresses, the actresses of the Golden Age of Film tended to be exceedingly beautiful, not to mention talented and intelligent as well. This can be a lethal combination for any male, let alone one who is just discovering the opposite sex. Indeed, as a lad I found myself burdened with affection for actresses who in many cases were either dead or at least much older than myself.

Indeed, I have probably written about my very first classic film crush so often in this blog that I imagine my regular readers are probably sick of hearing about it. That having been said, I will repeat it for those who haven't read it yet. It happened when I was 8 years old. My Fair Lady came on the television that night. Being a typical boy, I really didn't want to watch it--after all, musicals were for sissies. What I did not know is that my father's favourite genre, besides Westerns, was the musical. He convinced me to watch My Fair Lady on the grounds that I might like it. And I did indeed it like it. It remains one of my favourite movies to this day. More importantly, however, I fell irrevocably, hopelessly in love with Audrey Hepburn. Afterwards I would always seek out her movies on television and eventually rent them on VHS. I've never fully recovered from falling in love with Audrey all those years ago.

My second classic film crush happened a few years later, when I was twelve years old. And if anything it would be worse than the first one. In those days before Turner Classic Movies it was a rare thing that Gone With the Wind aired on television. When it did air on television, then, everyone tuned in to it. Unlike My Fair Lady, then, I was really looking forward to Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, I was not prepared for seeing Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, even more beautiful than my beloved Audrey. It really didn't matter to me that Scarlett O'Hara wasn't a particularly nice person, I still fell hard for her. Not only would Gone with the Wind remain one of my favourite movies of all time, but Vivien Leigh would remain one of my favourite actresses of all time. I have seen the vast majority of films not only once, but multiple times. And she still has the same effect on me as that first time I watched Gone with the Wind.

After Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh I would develop a number of screen crushes over the years. Despite Anita Loos' claim that "Gentlemen prefer blondes," most of my screen crushes have been brunettes. I remember when I was about twelve (it must have been a banner year for classic film crushes for me) and Samson and Delilah was on television. I developed a powerful crush on Hedy Lamarr from which I have never quite recovered. Indeed, if anything I probably have a bigger crush on her now than I did then. When I was twelve she was just this exquisite, talented brunette beauty. About fifteen years ago I learned that with George Antheil she invented a frequency hopping technique that would lead to today's spread spectrum technology used in everything from mobile phones to GPS systems. Not only was Hedy Lamarr gorgeous, she was a genius.

Over the years I would develop crushes on other classic film actresses. I fell in love with Gene Tierney when I saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir  for the first time. I fell for Cyd Charisse when I first saw Singing in the Rain, even though she had no dialogue whatsoever. When I first saw Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes and I fell for her, it would have two effects. First, I watched her films any time I could (for a long time The Lady Vanishes and The Wicked Lady were the only two I'd seen). Second, it would lead me to watching other British films from the Thirties and Forties. I was already an Anglophile from the British Invasion bands and the Sixties, British spy TV shows, but I then became a fan of British cinema as well. It would seem, then, that a crush on a classic actress can have more impact than simply introducing one to her films. That crush can lead to other films as well.

Of course, while most of my screen crushes have been brunettes, there have been a few blondes through the years too. I was already familiar with Grace Kelly as Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco before I saw her in movies, and I already thought she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. The thought that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world would shift to the thought that she was one of the most beautiful women of all time, ever. I first saw her in To Catch a Thief and I fell head over heels for her. In fact, Grace could well be my favourite actress besides Vivien Leigh and Audrey Hepburn.

Grace Kelly would not be my the only blonde upon whom I would have a crush, as I also had a crush on Doris Day. I saw her TV show (which was reran in the Seventies and the Eighties) before  I saw any of her movies, but it was when I saw Pillow Talk for the first time that I fell for her. As a lad I actually didn't think of Doris as beautiful (something that would change when I became an adult), although I did think of her as pretty. My crush on Doris Day stemmed more from her personality on television and film--an independent woman with a strong will and a sharp wit. It helped that she is also  a great singer with a great voice. I must admit that I have always been a sucker when it comes to a woman with a beautiful voice. Grace Kelly and Doris Day would not be the only blondes on whom I had crushes. I also developed crushes on Kim Novak and Veronica Lake.

At any rate, I have never completely recovered from any of these classic film crushes. Part of me really wishes I had been bore at a proper time to where I could have married Vivien Leigh or Gene Tierney. Regardless, these classic film crushes have served a purpose. Quite simply, they helped fuel my love for classic movies when I was young and introduced me to many classic films that I might not have otherwise. I might not have seen Sabrina had it not been for my crush on Audrey Hepburn. I might not have seen Ship of Fools had not been for my crush on Vivien Leigh. And in the case of my crush on Margaret Lockwood, that led to the whole world of British cinema. It would seem, then, that boyhood crushes can be good for something.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dave Clark Bassist Rick Huxley Passes On

Rick Huxley, the bassist for The Dave Clark Five, died yesterday, 12 February 2013, at the age of 72. He had suffered from emphysema for many years. Rick Huxley was born on 5 August 1942 in Dartford, Kent. It was in 1958, when he was 16 years old, that he answered an advertisement for a guitarist in a new band being formed by drummer Dave Clark. Formerly The Dave Clark Quintet, it became The Dave Clark Five after Rick Huxley joined. Rick Huxley became the band's bassist with the departure of original bassist Chris Walls in 1959. Mike Smith joined the band as its pianist in 1960. Lenny Davidson joined the group as its lead guitarist in 1961. With its classic line up in place, The Dave Clark Five signed a contract with Pye in 1962. The band's singles on the Pye label saw little action on the carts, despite the popularity of The Dave Clark Five as a live act throughout England. It was then in 1963 that the band switched from the Pye label to EMI.

Now on EMI, The Dave Clark Five had a modest hit with their cover of The Contours' "Do You Love Me." Their next single would be their breakthrough hit. "Glad All Over" went to number one on the UK singles chart. Released in November 1963, "Glad All Over" would repeat its success in the United States, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next several years The Dave Clark Five would have hits on both sides of the Atlantic, including "Bits and Pieces (#2 in the UK, #4 in the US), "Can't You See That She's Mine" (#10 in the UK, #4 in the U.S.), "Because" (#3 in the UK, #4 in the U.S.), "Catch Us If You Can" (#5 in the UK, #4 in the U.S.), "Anyway You Want It" (#25 in the UK, #14 in the U.S.), "Over And Over" (#1 in the U.S.), and "You Got What It Takes" (#7 in the U.S.). The Dave Clark Five were popular enough to warrant their own motion picture, Catch Us if You Can (Having a Wild Weekend in the U.S.), released in 1965. It was perhaps the best of the Sixties rock musicals of the Sixties besides The Beatles' films and was directed by a young John Boorman.

Unfortunately The Dave Clark Five's fortunes would change with the changing music scene of the Sixties. In 1967 psychedelia began to dominate both the British and American charts, and The Dave Clark Five did not embrace this new subgenre of rock. While the band would have a few more top ten hits in the United Kingdom, their last top forty hit in the United States was "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby" in 1967. Despite having two top ten hits in 1969 and 1970 ("Good Old Rock 'n' Roll" and "Everybody Get Together") in the United Kingdom, the group disbanded in 1970.

Following the group's break up, Rick Huxley worked for amplifier manufacturer Vox for two years. With his friend Doug Jackson, he ran the company Music Equipment from 1973 to 1987. Afterwards he worked in the electrical wholesaling business.

The Dave Clark Five were one of the biggest bands to emerge from the United Kingdom in the Sixties. With a style that depended a good deal on rhythm, Rick Huxley was a large part of their success. Combined with Dave Clark's powerful drum playing and Mike Smith's keyboards, Rick Huxley's bass helped create style that can be described as energetic and driven. It was a style that set them apart from any other band, British or American, that existed at the time. While they may not have had the sustained success of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five will nonetheless be remembered.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Just Like Heaven" by The Cure

I'm feeling under the weather today, so I will just leave you with a video. This is the official video to the song "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure.