Friday, April 17, 2015

You Only Live Many Times: James Bond's Archenemy--Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Anthony Dawson, Donald Pleasence,
Telly Savalas, and Charles Gray as Blofeld
It sometimes seems as if every great hero has an archenemy. Sherlock Holmes has Professor Moriarty. Flash Gordon has Ming the Merciless. Batman has The Joker. And James Bond has Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Both in Ian Fleming's original novels and the feature films that followed them, Blofeld was the only major villain James Bond fought more than once. He was also the head of the criminal organisation SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), whom Bond fought on more than one occasion. What is more, while Bond's battles with other opponents are often little more than business as usual, Bond's struggles against Blofeld are uniquely personal. Indeed, Blofeld has hurt Bond in a way that few of 007's other opponents ever have.

The creation of Blofeld is generally credited to Ian Fleming, although in all fairness Ernest Cuneo,  Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham should probably be credited having a hand in his creation as well. Blofeld, as well as SPECTRE, first appeared in an unfilmed screenplay upon which all four men worked and which would provide the basis for Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Thunderball. The publication of Thunderball would ultimately result in a legal action on the part of Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham against Ian Fleming over the rights to Thunderball. In the end a settlement was reached whereby all further editions of Thunderball would have to be credited as  "based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author".  In the end, the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE would be owned in part by Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory. It was on November 15 2013 that MGM and Danjaq, LLC (the holding company responsible for the copyrights and trademarks of the James Bond franchise) announced that they had acquired the rights and interests to Blofeld and SPECTRE from the Kevin McClory's estate.

Regardless of who created him or who owned the rights to him, Blofeld made his first appearance in the novel Thunderball, published in 1961. The novel provides some background for Blofeld that never made it into the various James Bond movies. According to Thunderball Blofeld was born a father of Polish descent and a mother of Greek descent in Gdingen, Imperial Germany (now Gdynia, Poland) on May 28 1908 (which also happened to be Ian Flemng's birthday). He attended the University of Warsaw where he received degrees in Political History and Economics. He later attended the Warsaw University of Technology, where he earned degrees in Engineering and Radionics.

Anticipating Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, Blofeld fled to Sweden in 1939 and from there went on to Turkey. He set up his own intelligence network there and sold information to both the Allies and the Axis until Rommel's defeat, after which he dealt only with the Allies. Eventually Blofeld used his various resources and connection to found SPECTRE. Blofeld drew SPECTRE'S membership from such organisations as the Gestapo, Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito's secret police, the Mafia, SMERSH, and the Unione Corse. SPECTRE was essentially both a commercial enterprise and a terrorist organisation, albeit one who prefers to pit one side against the other.  The impetus for creating SPECTRE as the antagonists for the unproduced screenplay that would provide the basis for the novel Thunderball was simple. If the Cold War ended in the two years it would take to produce the film, it would look dated if it used the Soviets as villains. In the end, then, it was preferable for the screenplay to use a politically neutral enemy.

Although Blofeld first appeared in the novel Thunderball, he would not take an active role in the novel. While it was Blofeld who developed the plot in which SPECTRE captured two atomic bombs to use as tools in nuclear extortion, the actual plot was carried out by Emilio Largo (the "Number 2" of SPECTRE to Blofeld's "Number 1"). That is not to say that Blofeld did not make an impression in the novel. As pointed out above, the novel provided background for both Blofeld and SPECTRE. It also included the first physical description of Blofeld, although, much like the movies that would follow, his appearance was subject to change. In Thunderball Blofeld is described as having black hair cut in a crew cut; dark eyes with heavy lashes; a thin, cruel, mouth; and long hands and feet. He was physically impressive, weighing around 280 pounds (or as Ian Fleming puts it, "20 stone").  Blofeld's second appearance would be On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which he is the novel's central villain. His appearance had also changed greatly. Although still tall, Blofeld is no longer massive. He only weighs "12 stone" (170 pounds) and now has long, silver hair. He is also missing his earlobes and is wearing contacts that turn his eyes to a dark green colour. In Blofeld's final appearance in the novels in You Only Live Twice, his appearance has changed once more. Bond describes Blofeld as "powerfully built" and he sports both a gold capped tooth and a drooping moustache.

Just as Blofeld's appearance would change throughout the novels, so too would his appearance change through the James Bond movies. In the official James Bond movies produced by Eon Productions, Ernst Stavro Blofeld would be played by several different actors, some of who varied a good deal in appearance. In fact, in the first two movies to feature Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE was technically played by two actors. In From Russia with Love (1963) Anthony Dawson provided Blofeld's appearance, while Eric Pohlmann provided the voice. In the film we do not get to see much of Blofeld, as only the back of his head and his hands are shown, although it is enough to tell he had a full head of dark hair. Blofeld did not take an active role in the plot of the film, although he is clearly its architect.

Blofeld's second appearance in Eon Productions' James Bond films would be in Thunderball (1966). The movie Thunderball was actually fairly faithful to the novel. As a result, we do not get to see a lot of Blofeld on the screen. While he planned the plot in the film, it is the second in command of SPECTRE, Emilio Largo, who actually executes the plan. For that reason we do not get to see very much of Blofeld in the film at all. In Thunderball we only see the lower part of Blofeld's body as he pets his Turkish Angora cat. His face is obscured by a screen. Once more Anthony Dawson provided the body of Blofeld, while Eric Pohlmann provided his voice.

Regardless in both the novel and the film Thunderball Ernst Stravo Blofeld hatched one of SPECTRE's grander schemes. SPECTRE steals two atomic bombs and demands £100 million in diamonds from NATO. If they do not  receive the £100 million in diamonds, then they will use the bombs to destroy two major cities.

Blofeld would return in the next Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967). Unlike Thunderball, the plot of the original novel would be abandoned in favour of a new plot that incorporated characters and places from the novel. For You Only Live Twice Eon Productions originally cast Czech actor Jan Werich as Blofeld. After several days of shooting,  producer Albert R. Broccoli and director Lewis Gilbert decided that Jan Werich was not right for the part and it was recast with Donald Pleasence in the role. For much of the film Blofeld is off screen, but when he does appear it is clear that his appearance has dramatically changed. Blofeld is now bald and sports a duelling scar that occupies the left side of his face. Although still physically impressive, Blofeld also seems shorter. While in his first appearances Blofeld wore business suits, in You Only Live Twice, he wears something similar to a Mao suit. While Blofeld's appearance changed, one thing remained the same. He still has his white Turkish Angora cat.

While Blofeld primarily worked behind the scenes in From Russia with Love and Thunderball, in You Only Live Twice he is the primary villain. In fact, You Only Live Twice marks the first time that James Bond and Blofeld meet face to face. If anything, Blofeld's plot in You Only Live Twice is even more grandiose than the one in Thunderball. Quite simply, SPECTRE has hijacked spacecraft in an effort to provoke a war between the two superpowers (the United States and the U.S.S.R.).

Not only Blofeld's appearance changed in You Only Live Twice from it had been in his two previous appearances, but his personality seems to have changed as well. In both From Russia with Love and Thunderball, Blofeld is the consummate businessman: cold, calculating, and with no real sense of humour. In contrast, Donald Pleasence's Blofeld is much closer to such Bond villains as Dr. No and Auric Goldfinger. Indeed, not only is his secret base inside a hollowed out volcano, but he also has a pool of piranha. Donald Pleasence's Blofeld also has a bit more charm and a sense of humour than he had in previous movies. When Bond tells him, "...this is my second life," Blofeld responds, "You only live twice, Mr. Bond."  Donald Pleasence's Blofeld is also much more emotional than he had been before. Indeed, he seems nearly petulant in an exchange with SPECTRE agents Mr. Osato and Helga Brandt when he learns Brandt had failed to kill Bond.

Blofeld's appearance would change once more in the next Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Played by Telly Savalas, Blofeld seems slightly taller and certainly more physically imposing. He is still bald, but his duelling scar is gone. Most notably, Blofeld is missing his earlobes. This is part of Blofeld's attempt to lay claim of the title of  "Comte de Bleuchamp", the line of which is known for their lack of earlobes. Blofeld has also changed the way he dresses slightly, now favouring something resembling a Nehru jacket. It should come as no surprise that he still has his Turkish Angora cat.

While Blofeld still has his Turkish Angora cat , his personality has changed once again. Donald Pleasence's Blofeld was content to let his henchmen do much of the dirty work. In contrast, Telly Savalas's Blofeld takes a much more "hands on" approach. Not only does  Telly Savalas's Blofeld actually engage in hand to hand combat, he even leads the chase on skis when they pursue James Bond.  Telly Savalas's Blofeld also possesses a good deal more charm and more of a sense of humour than Donald Pleasence's Blofeld. He lacks the petulance of Donald Pleasence's Blofeld as well. Of course, that is not to say that Blofeld is still not insecure. Whereas Blofled previously seemed happy to work in the shadows, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service he now seems to want people to take notice of him. It is exceedingly important to him that he is recognised as the Count de Bleuchamp, to the point that he willing to extort the entire world to get the title.

Like You Only Live Twice, Blofeld is the chief antagonist in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Indeed, the film marks the second face to face confrontation between Blofeld and 007. And once more Blofeld's plot is truly, well, Bondian in scope. Namely, Blofeld plans to use a powerful virus that will sterilise the world's crops and hence cut off its food supply. As if there was not enough animosity between Bond and Blofeld to begin with, the movie ends with Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt doing the worst thing possible to Bond. Quite simply, they murdered his new bride Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (played by Diana Rigg).

Blofeld's final confirmed appearance in a Bond film produced by Eon Productions (at least for the time being) was in Diamonds Are Forver (1971). If anything Blofeld seems to have grown since we last saw him, actor Charles Gray standing an impressive 6 foot two inches. He is also no longer bald--Blofeld now sports a healthy head of silver hair. He has changed his tastes in fashion again, once more favouring something akin to the Mao suit. Of course, he also utilises a number of doubles throughout the film--individuals altered through plastic surgery to resemble him. While Blofeld's appearance has changed, he still has his white cat.

Diamonds Are Forever would also see Blofeld with an extravagant plot. Namely, he plans to use diamonds to create laser satellites capable of destroying a whole city. Of course, the city that Blofeld plans to destroy is Washington D.C. While Blofeld has once more hatched an extravagant scheme, however, his personality has changed once again. Although more physically formidable than ever, Charles Gray's Blofeld is once more content to let his henchmen do his work for him. Indeed, Charles Gray's Blofeld is a very ineffectual fighter, having apparently forgotten all the fighting skills that Telly Savalas's Blofeld knew. This is not to say that Charles Gray's Blofeld is entirely different from previous incarnations. He still possesses the charm and sense of humour that Telly Savalas's Blofeld had. And given his plot involves building a laser big enough to destroy cities, he also has Telly Savalas's Blofeld's need for people to take notice of him. That having been said, it would also seem that in Diamonds Are Forever Blofeld has finally gone utterly mad. Indeed, in a few exchanges with Bond it seems possible that Blofeld is not entirely sure who he is. Is he Blofeld or one of his doubles?

Diamonds Are Forever would mark Blofeld's last official appearance in Eon Productions' Bond films, at least for the time time being. The pre-credit sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981) features an anonymous, bald headed man with a white cat, shot largely from behind, who attempts to kill 007. Clues that the villain could be Blofeld are Bond's visit to Tracy's grave prior to the encounter, the villain's appearance resembling that of Blofeld in earlier films (in both You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service Blofeld was bald), the presence of the white Turkish Angora cat, and dialogue indicating he and Bond have a past history. Regardless, neither the actor nor the character are credited in the film. It seems likely that the producers meant for the character to be Blofeld, but due to the ongoing issue with the rights to the character, they could not say that it was him.

Blofeld would also appear in one of the Bond films not made by Eon Productions. Kevin McClory had retained the rights to film the novel Thunderball. Mr. McClory and others then produced another version of the novel, Never Say Never Again (1983), with Sean Connery once more assuming the role of James Bond. Like the novel Thunderball Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears in Never Say Never Again, although it is second in command Emilio Largo who executes the plot in the film. In Never Say Never Again Blofeld is played by Max von Sydow. He is tall and thin, with a full head of grey hear and a grey Van Dyke beard.

Never Say Never Again marks the last appearance of Blofeld on screen, although it seems possible he will appear in the upcoming James Bond film SPECTRE. It has been confirmed the criminal organisation will be the antagonists in the film, making it likely that Blofeld will appear. That having been said, it has not been confirmed by Eon Productions that Blofeld will appear. While there have been rumours that Christoph Waltz will be playing Blofeld, he has categorically denied this (he is listed as playing the character  Franz Oberhauser instead).

While Goldfinger probably has more name recognition than Blofeld does, arguably Blofeld is the most iconic Bond villain. Indeed, the Donald Pleasence version of Blofeld in particular has had a lasting impact on pop culture. He has provided the inspiration for several other supervillains through the years. Inspector Gadget's archenemy, Dr. Claw, is clearly inspired by Blofeld. Dr. Claw leads his own criminal organisation ("M.A.D.") and, like the original Blofeld, his full body is never seen. He also has a cat, M.A.D. Cat, whom he strokes much like Blofeld. Giovanni in Pokemon also owes a bit to Blofeld. He remained unseen for much of the first season and he also has a Persian cat. Perhaps no villain draws upon Blofeld more than Dr. Evil in the "Austin Powers" movies. Indeed, Dr. Evil is clearly a parody of Blofeld as played by Donald Pleasence. Even one Bollywood villain was inspired by Blofeld. Shakal from the 1980 movie Shaan clearly takes his inspiration from Blofeld. Blofeld's criminal organisation SPECTRE would also have a lasting impact. Groups from THRUSH on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to KAOS on Get Smart to M.A.D. on Inspector Gadget owe a good deal to SPECTRE.

Blofeld was the only major villain to face James Bond multiple times. Indeed, it is never actually clear that Bond ever killed Blofeld (if it was Blofeld at all, it was possible he survived their encounter in For Your Eyes Only). If Blofeld survived while other Bond opponents did not, it could well be because of Blofeld's adaptability. There have been other explanations for the differences in Blofeld's appearance and personality in the various Eon Productions films, but one possible explanation is that Blofeld approached his villainy much like an actor approaching a role. Quite simply, Blofeld not only changed his appearance with each new scheme, but even his behaviour.  Indeed, this might be part of the reason Blofeld seems uncertain of his own identity in Diamonds Are Forever. Not only did his constant defeats at the hands of 007 probably take a significant toll on his sanity, but Blofeld had remade himself so often that he was no longer certain who the "real" Blofeld was!

Of course, it takes more than surviving even an opponent like James Bond to make a great villain. It also takes extravagant plots. With a few exceptions no one came up with plots as grandiose as Blofeld. He masterminded the theft of two atomic bombs in an attempt at extortion. He hijacked spacecraft in order to start World War III. He threatened to sterilise the worlds food supply. And, last but certainly not least, he planned to destroy Washington D.C. with a laser satellite. When it comes to grandiose plots few villains, even in the Bond franchise, match Blofeld. Even Goldfinger's plot to detonate an atomic bomb at Fort Knox seems somehow quaint given the things Blofeld wants to do.

Unless one counts For Your Eyes Only, it has been over forty years since James Bond last faced Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Eon Productions' Bond movies. Given the title of the upcoming Bond film (SPECTRE) and its subject matter, it seems like that Bond will fight Blofeld again. And while he may only be working behind the scenes in SPECTRE, it seems likely that Blofeld and Bond will meet face to face again soon enough.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 100th Birthday of Joan Alexander: Radio's Lois Lane

It was 100 years ago today that Joan Alexander was born Louise Abrass in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today she is best known for having played Lois Lane on the long running radio show The Adventures of Superman. Joan Alexander would not be the first actress to play the role. Both  Helen Choate and Rolly Bester preceded her in the role. That having been said, she would play Lois Lane longer than other actress in any other media. Joan Alexander began playing Lois Lane in 1940 and remained with the show until it ended its run in 1951. What is more, she was the first actress to play Lois Lane in a film; quite simply, she provided the voice of Lois in the  Fleischer Studios/Paramount Pictures animated "Superman" shorts. She would provide the voice of Lois Lane one last time in the 1966 Saturday morning cartoon The New Adventures of Superman.

Of course, Joan Alexander would be more than the voice of Lois Lane on radio and in theatrical animated shorts. She was the original voice of Della Street on the radio show Perry Mason; she would be followed by Jan Miner and Gertrude Warner in the role. She also played detective Philo Vance's secretary Ellen Deering on the 1948-1950 radio show Philo Vance, and appeared on soap operas such as Against the Storm, Light of the World, Lone Journey, and This is Nora Drake. She also guest starred on the science fiction radio show Dimension X.

In tribute to Miss Alexander on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth, here she is playing her most famous role in the very first Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon, the Oscar nominated "Superman" (also known as "The Mad Scientist").

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Percy Sledge R.I.P.

R&B singer Percy Sledge, best known for the hit "When a Man Loves a Woman", died yesterday at the age of 74. The cause was liver failure due to cancer.

Percy Sledge was born on November 25 1940 in Leighton, Alabama. As a young man he worked in cotton fields in the Leighton area, and later took a job as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in nearby Sheffield. During the weekend Percy Sledge sang with a rhythm and blues group called The Esquires. Someone who had been a patient at the hospital heard him and introduced him to music producer Quin Ivy. Mr. Sledge was soon signed to a recording contract.

Percy Sledge's very first song recorded under that contract would be not only be his first hit, but his biggest hit ever.  "When a Man Loves a Women" was released on April 16 1966. It hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 28 1966. It also became the first record ever released by Atlantic Records to be certified gold. Percy Sledge would never again achieve the sort of success he had with "When a Man Loves a Woman", although he would have further hit singles in the late Sixties. In 1966 "Warm and Tender Love" reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and "It Tears Me Up" reached #20. "Take Time to Know Her" reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. Percy Sledge also released several albums in the late Sixties, including When a Man Loves a Woman (1966), Warm & Tender Soul (1966), The Percy Sledge Way (1967), and Take Time to Know Her (1968).

Percy Sledge's career faltered in the late Sixties, and by 1970 none of his singles were charting. He made a bit of a comeback in 1973 when 'Sunshine" charted on the Billboard R&B chart and again in 1974 when "I'll Be Your Everything" charted on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. He continued to play concerts throughout the world, and was particularly popular in both Europe and Africa. He released three more albums: Blue Night in 1994, Shining Through the Rain in 2004, and The Gospel of Percy Sledge in 2013.

There is little wonder why "When a Man Loves a Woman" became such a phenomenal hit. It was perhaps the perfect combination of singer and song. Written by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, "When a Man Loves a Woman" was one of the most emotional R&B ballads of all time. Percy Sledge's soulful voice gave the song even more impact, transforming it into one of the most powerful love songs ever recorded. Others would record the song, but none were ever able to capture the sheer emotion packed into Mr. Sledge's vocals. Percy Sledge's incredible voice figured in his other hits as well, although sadly none would do as well as "When a Man Loves a Woman". He was definitely one of the most gifted singers to emerge in the Sixties.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Late Great Stan Freberg

Comedian, satirist, radio personality, voice artist, and advertising man Stan Freberg died on April 7 2015 at the age of 88. He had pneumonia and various age related ailments.

Stan Freberg was born on August 7 1926 in Pasadena, California. His father, Victor Frebeg, was a Baptist minister who also sold vacuum cleaners. His uncle, a stage magician, moved in with young Stan Freberg's family when Mr. Freberg was a child, and he often helped out in his uncle's magic act. He also spent a good deal of his childhood listening to the radio. He was a fan of the radio shows of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Norman Corwin, and he would practise comedy routines in front of his the rabbits he raised for his uncle's magic show.

Stan Freberg won scholarships to both Stanford University and the University of Redlands, but turned both down in hope of pursuing a career in radio. Instead of going to college after graduating Alhambra High School, he took a bus to Los Angeles and told the driver to let him out "in Hollywood". Not long after getting off a bus he found a talent agency, who arranged an audition for him as a voice artist with the Warner Bros.animation department. He was hired immediately.

Stan Freberg's first work for Warner Bros. was the unfinished short "For He's a Jolly Good Fala", which centred on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Scottish terrier Fala. Although the voices for it were recorded, it was never filmed due to President Roosevelt's death on  April 12 1945. His first filmed work for Warner Bros. would then be the short "Kongo-Roo" in 1946. Following the death of Kent Rogers, Stan Freberg took over the voice of Junyer Bear with "What's Brewin', Bruin?" in 1948. He also provided the voice of the gopher Tosh in Warner Bros' "Goofy Gophers" cartoons and Chester the Terrier in the "Spike and Chester" cartoons, as well as assorted other characters. He did a remarkable impersonations of Peter Lorre for the short "Birth of a Notion" (1947) and Walter Winchell  in "One Meat Brawl" (1947). Stan Freberg also did voice work outside Warner Bros. He provided the voice of Charlie Horse in Bob Clampett's short "It's a Grand Old Nag" (1947).

Stan Freberg also did some work for Walt Disney, including the short "Susie and the Little Blue Coupe" and the voice of Mr. Busy the Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). Stan Freberg continued to work as a voice artist long after he had become famous as a satirist and radio personality. He provided various voices for the animated TV series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and Garfield and Friends, as well as voices in the animated TV specials The First Easter Rabbit and I Go Pogo. Not surprisingly, he would continue to provide voices for various Warner Bros. projects over the years, including the TV series Tiny Toon Adventures and Taz-Mania, and the feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action. While Stan Freberg did extensive work at Warner Bros., during the Golden Age of Animation he only received credit for one animated short, "Three Little Bops" in 1957.

In the late Forties Stan Freberg served in the United States Army in Special Services. Afterwards he did comedy routines with the band Red Fox and his Musical Hounds. In 1949 he joined animator Bob Clampett for the legendary puppet television show Time for Beany. On the show Stan Freberg provided the original voices of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent and Dishonest John. The show debuted on Los Angeles station in 1949 and was then aired nationwide in 1950 on the ill fated Paramount Television Network. Among the show's fans were Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein.

While Time for Beany proved to be a huge success, it would be another medium that would make Stan Freberg a household name in the Fifties. Quite simply, he released a series of phenomenally successful satirical recordings that skewered everything from popular TV shows to rock 'n' roll. His first comedy single was "John and Marsha", a soap opera parody in which the two title characters do nothing but repeat each other's names, their intonations varying with the mood. Released on February 10 1951, "John and Marsha" proved to be a hit. It peaked at #21 on the Billboard singles chart. Stan Freberg followed the success of "John and Marsha" up with parodies of popular songs. He spoofed Johnnie Ray's "Cry" with the parody "Try" (released in 1952). In 1953 he parodied The Chords' "Sh-Boom", Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin", and Henri Betti's "C'est Si Bon (It's So Good)". The relatively young genre of rock 'n' roll would be one of his targets, with Mr. Freberg doing send ups of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and The Platters' "Great Pretender". Even Lawrence Welk would provide fodder for Stan Freberg's song parodies. Mr. Freberg performed  Johnny Mathis' "Wonderful! Wonderful!" in the style of Lawrence Welk under the title  "Wun'erful, Wun'erful! (Sides uh-one & uh-two)". Stan Freberg was in many ways the forerunner of such song parodists as Ben Colder (the alter ego of actor and singer Sheb Wooley) and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

While Stan Freberg produced a large number of song parodies, his biggest success would be with comedy sketch records. In fact, his biggest hit was a parody of Dragnet, "St. George and the Dragonet", along with its flip side "Little Blue Riding Hood" (another Dragnet parody). "St. George and the Dragonet" blended the legend of St.  George and the dragon with the phenomenally popular radio show Dragnet; "Little Blue Riding Hood" did the same with the well known fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood". The single proved extremely popular, peaking at #1 on the Billboard singles chart in October 1953 and staying there for three weeks. Stan Freberg would follow "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Little Blue Riding Hood" up with another Dragnet parody, "Christmas Dragnet" (also known as "Yulenet") in 1955. Stan Freberg occasionally tackled topics on his records that only few would dare to in the Fifties. In 1954 he sent up Senator Joe McCarthy with "Point of Order" and in 1958 he attacked commercialism at Christmas with  "Green Chri$tma$". He spoofed The Search for Bridey Murphy (the then popular book on reincarnation) with "The Quest for Bridey Hammerschlaugen". His Christmas single from 1955  "The Night Before Christmas"/"Nuttin' for Christmas" remains popular to this day.

Stan Freberg's particular brand of satire did invite controversy. Capitol Records was very nervous about "Point of Order", but released it after a few cuts had been made. Capitol refused to release two of his comedy sketches. "That's Right, Arthur" was a send up of then popular but egoistical television and radio personality Arthur Godfrey. "That's Right, Arthur" was performed as a somewhat exaggerated Arthur Godfrey monologue, with Daws Butler (imitating Arthur Godfrey's announcer Tony Marvin) saying "That's right, Arthur" after each of Godfrey's comments. Capitol Records also refused to release Mr. Freberg's parody of Ed Sullivan's variety show Toast of the Town, "Most of the Town". Both were later released on a Rhino Records box set.

Stan Freberg also released several albums over the years. His first album, A Child's Garden of Freberg, was released in 1957. It collected many of his song parodies and sketches, including "St. George and the Dragonet". In 1959 Stan Freberg ‎– With The Original Cast was released. It also contained many of his classic song parodies and sketches. The album Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts. was the result of a request from the  the Oregon Centennial Commission for Mr. Freberg to create a musical that would celebrated the state's 100th anniversary. Fifty years later Stan Freberg would update Oregon! Oregon! for the state's sesquicentennial.

Stan Freberg's best known album also ranks as one of his biggest successes, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, released in 1961. Done in the format of musical theatre, the album parodied American history from 1491 to the end of the American Revolution in 1783.  The album peaked at #34 on the Billboard albums chart and won the Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non Classical. It was followed by Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume Two in 1996. Volume Three was planned, but was shelved due to the death of Mr. Freberg's first wife Donna and his own declining health. Among Mr. Freberg's other albums were Face the Funnies (released in 1962),  Freberg Underground! Show No. 1 (released in 1966 and done in the style of his old radio show), and Songs in the Key of Freberg (an album recorded with his second wife, Hunter) in 2010.

Stan Freberg's success as a recording artist would lead to a career in radio. On January 8 1954 the situation comedy That's Rich debuted on CBS Radio, starring Stan Freberg as Richard E. Wilk, an employee of  B.B. Hackett's Consolidated Paper Products Company in the town of Hope Springs. The radio show featured dream sequences, which allowed him to incorporate many of his more popular satires. That's Rich ran until September 23 1954.

In 1957 Stan Freberg received his own show, The Stan Freberg Show, which aired in the former time slot of his idol Jack Benny. In addition to Stan Frebeg, the cast included June Foray, Daws Butler, and Peter Leeds, all of who had worked with Mr. Freberg on his comedy records. Billy May, who had also worked with Stan Freberg, on his records, was the show's musical director. The Stan Freberg Show proved very popular, but faced problems throughout its run. Not the least of these was the lack of a sponsor. Stan Freberg refused to accept sponsorship from any tobacco companies, even though the American Tobacco Company was eager to sponsor the show.  Not surprisingly, the show also proved controversial at times. CBS's Standards and Practices were so unhappy with a sketch titled "Incident at Los Voraes", that not only sent up Las Vegas, but American/Soviet relations, the arms race, and the hydrogen bomb as well, that Stan Freberg had to re-write the sketch and re-record it before it aired. The original version of "Incident at Los Voraces" would eventually appear on the album The Best of Stan Freberg. Needless to say, "Incident at Los Voraces" was not the only time CBS was unhappy with Stan Freberg. Between the lack of a sponsor and interference from the network, The Stan Freberg Show ended after only 15 episodes.

Stan Freberg would return to radio in 1990 on  KNX (AM) in Los Angeles with a series of sketches under the title Stan Freberg Here. It lasted until 1998.

It would be Stan Freberg's radio career that would lead indirectly to his career in advertising. Lacking a sponsor for The Stan Freberg Show, Mr. Freberg inserted parodies of commercials into his show. He advertised mock products such as "Puffed Grass" and even himself. It was in 1956 adman Howard Luck Gossage talked Stan Freberg into writing commercials. In 1957 Stan Freberg, Howard Luck Gossage, and J. Joseph Weiner formed the advertising agency of Weiner & Gossage in San Francisco.

 It was not long before Stan Freberg was creating commercials, many of which would become as well known and as popular as his comedy records. His 1957 commercial for Contadina tomato paste asked, "Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?" For Butternut coffee he wrote a nine minute musical, "Omaha!", an abbreviated version of which debuted on radio in 1958. His 1958 TV commercial for Esskay Franks starred Jesse White and took a poke at cigarette smoking.

Arguably it was during the Sixties that Stan Freberg came into his own with regards to advertising. In a 1965 commercial for Jacobsen Mowers Mr. Freberg promoted the advantage of Jacobsen Mowers over sheep when it came to mowing one's lawn. In 1969 commercial for Sunsweet Prunes he depicted prunes as the food of the future, despite author and friend Ray Bradbury protesting, "I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories." In print advertisements for Pacific Airlines, Stan Freberg acknowledged the common fear of flying on aeroplanes. What might have been his greatest commercial of all time was a spot he did for Jeno's Pizza Rolls in 1968. Set at a party, the commercial was a poke at the Lark cigarettes ad at the time that used the "William Tell Overture". A cigarette smoker (played by  Barney Phillips) protested the use of the "William Tell Overture", only to have another protest registered by Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. One time when it was shown on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson commented that it was the only commercial to ever receive applause from the audience.

Stan Freberg's 1970 commercial for Heinz Great American Soups was the most expensive commercial of the time. It starred Ann Miller, whose ordinary kitchen became the setting for a big, old fashioned, Hollywood production number. Over the years Stan Freberg created humorous commercials for several products, including Chun King Chow Mein (one of his first clients), Cheerios, Jeno's Frozen Pizza, and the Encyclopædia Britannica.  Today Stan Freberg's commercials are regarded as classics by many. While Bob and Ray had pioneered the use of comedy in commercials, it was arguably Stan Freberg who not only fine tuned the use of humour in commercials, but made it acceptable.

Stan Freberg's presence on television was not just felt in his commercials. Following Beany and Cecil, Stan Freberg appeared on various variety shows and talk shows in the Fifties such as Colgate Summer Comedy Hour, The Steve Allen Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Often he appeared with his puppet Orville the Moon Man, an alien who would comment on the foibles of humanity. In the Sixties Mr. Freberg continued to appear on various talk shows and variety shows, including The Jack Paar Programme, Frost on Saturday, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He made rare guest appearances as an actor on The Monkees and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. In 1962 he had his own TV special, The Chun King Chow Mein Hour. In the Seventies Stan Freburg appeared on The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In the Nineties he had a recurring role on Roseanne, and on The Weird Al Show he played J.B. Toppersmith and provided the voice of the puppet Papa Boolie.

Stan Freberg also made a few appearances in feature films. He made his feature film debut in 1951 in Callaway Went Thataway, and he had a major role in the 1953 comedy Geradine. He had a non-speaking cameo as a Deputy Sheriff in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and also provided the voice of a dispatcher. He provided the voice of a race announcer in Stuart Little (1999).

It is difficult to summarise Stan Freberg's career in a single blog post. Quite simply, the man worked in so many different media and excelled in nearly all of them. What is more, he was very prolific in several different media. Unless it happens to be the length of a book (and a large book at that), it is simply impossible to include every single thing Stan Freberg did in his career. He was a legendary voice actor. He had a phenomenally successful career releasing comedy records. He created several of the funniest commercials ever made. And he was one of the greatest satirists of the late 20th Century. Stan Freberg did so many things in his life that it was enough to fill three or four other individual's careers.

It is a mark of Stan Freberg's success in the various media in which he worked that his impact on popular culture is still felt to this day. Through the years "John" and "Marsha" have persisted as the names of couples, to the point that they are familiar even to youngsters who have never heard of Stan Freberg. The phrase "Just the facts, ma'am", forever associated with Dragnet, was never actually spoken on the show. Instead the phrase is a truncated form of a line from Stan Freberg's Dragnet parody "Little Blue Riding Hood", ""I just want to get the facts, ma'am." The line "Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" from Stan Freberg's Heinz Great American Soups commercial has remained in circulation  long after Heinz stopped making Great American Soups. Song parodist Weird Al Yankovic acknowledged Stan Freberg as a major influence on his career. Artists as diverse as Sir Paul McCartney and David Mamet have also said that Mr. Freberg was an influence upon them.

Of course, the reason that Stan Freberg was so successful, not to mention so influential, was that he was outrageously funny.What is more, Mr. Freberg was absolutely fearless in his satire. No one was safe from the his razor sharp wit. He satirised McCarthyism, but he took pokes at liberals as well. He took aim at such popular celebrities as Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan. Stan Freberg's brand of comedy was irreverent, acerbic, and offbeat. Often when one thinks he or she has reached the punchline of one Mr. Freberg's sketches, Mr. Freberg often tops it with something even funnier. Few men were ever  as funny or as brilliant as Stan Freberg, and few ever will be.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Richard Dysart R.I.P.

Richard Dysart, who played Leland McKEnzie on L.A. Law and appeared in films from The Hospital (1971) to Wall Street (1987), died on April 5 2015 at the age of 86. The cause was cancer.

Richard Dysart was born on March 29 1929 outside Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Skowhegan and Augusta, Maine. It was while he was ill as a child that he became fascinated by radio shows. He attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts before serving in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. Following his stint in the military he returned to Emerson College where he earned a a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in speech communication. While at Emerson College he performed in various plays. He moved to New York City in the late Fifties and worked in the box office at the Off Broadway Circle in the Square Theatre. Eventually he found himself on stage at the Circle in the Square, appearing in such plays as Our Town. He worked for a time for William Ball,  founder of the American Conservatory Theatre.

Richard Dysart made his television debut in 1953 in an episode of You Are There, playing Benedict Arnold. In the Sixties he guest starred on such television shows as East Side/West Side, Mr. Broadway, The Nurses, and The Defenders. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in Love with the Proper Stranger in 1963. In the Sixties he appeared in the films Petulia (1968) and The Lost Man (1969). Mr. Dysart made his debut on Broadway in 1965 in All in Good Time.  He appeared on Broadway three more times, in the productions The Little Foxes (1967-1968), A Place Without Doors (1970-1971), and That Championship Season (1972-1974).

In the Seventies Richard Dysart played Judge David Davis in the mini-series Lincoln. He guest starred on such TV shows as All in the Family, BarettaMaude, Cannon, Columbo, and Lou Grant. He appeared in the TV movies The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, It Happened One Christmas (the notorious television remake of It's a Wonderful Life), and The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd. He appeared in such films as The Sporting Club (1971), The Hospital (1971), The Terminal Man (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), An Enemy of the People (1978), Prophecy (1979), Meteor (1979), and Being There (1979).

It in 1986 that Richard Dysart began playing the role of Leland McKenzie on L.A. Law. He remained with the show for the entirety of its run. For the role he was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and won the award in 1992. Mr. Dysart reprised the role of Leland McKenzie in the television reunion movie L.A. Law: The Movie in 2002, which was also his last appearance on screen. He appeared in such TV movies as Churchill and the Generals, Bitter Harvest, Norma Rae, and Day One. He appeared as Harry S. Truman in the mini-series War and Remembrance. He appeared in the films John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Mask (1985), Pale Rider (1985), Warning Sign (1985), Wall Street (1987), and Back to the Future Part III (1990). He provided the voice of Uncle Pom in Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky (1986).

Following L.A. Law Richard Dysart was the voice of Dr. Bartholomew on Batman: the Animated Series and the voice of Cogliostro on the animated series Spawn. He appeared as the Captain in the TV series My Secret Summer. He appeared in the TV movie Truman and the feature films Panther (1995) and Hard Rain (1998).

Leland McKenzie, the stern and somewhat ruthless senior partner of the law firm McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak was just one of many authority figures that Richard Dysart played over the years. Throughout his career he played a number of doctors, lawyers, judges, and executives. That having been said, there was a good deal of variety in those sort of roles he played. He played both Harry Truman and J. Edgar Hoover twice, two men who could not be more different from each other. During his career he also played such diverse historical figures as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Louis B. Mayer.

Even among the many doctors he played there was a good deal of variety. He was the kindly  Dr. Robert Allenby in Being There and the rather less kindly Dr. Ellis in The Terminal Man. While many of Richard Dysart's role were very serious, he was capable of comedy. He played the sympathetic barbwire salesman in Back to the Future III. He was also quite capable of playing villains, playing ruthless mining company owner Coy LaHood in Pale Rider. While he generally played authority figures, Richard Dysart still played a wide variety of characters throughout his career, and did all of them very well.