Friday, April 7, 2017

The Late Great Don Rickles

Don Rickles, the famous insult comic who appeared in such films as  Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) , various entries in the "Beach Party" series, and Kelly's Heroes (1970), died yesterday at the age of 90. The cause was kidney failure.

Don Rickles was born on May 8 1926 in Queens, New York. He grew up in Jackson Heights, New York. During World War II he served in the United States Navy. After he was honourably discharged in 1946, he followed his father into the insurance business. Meeting with little success in the insurance industry, he decided to go into acting. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Finding it difficult to get acting jobs, he took up stand up comedy. He performed in the Catskills and at nightclubs in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. He became an insult comedian as a response to hecklers.

Don Rickles made his television debut as an announcer on an episode of Stage 7 in 1955. He also appeared as an announcer on episodes of Four Star Playhouse and Chevron Hall of Stars. As a comic he appeared on The Eddie Fisher Show. As an actor he appeared in an episode of The Thin Man. He made his film debut in Run Silent, Run Deep in 1958 and then appeared in the films The Rabbit Trap (1959) and The Rat Race (1960).

It was during the Sixties that Don Rickles's career really began to take off. He guest starred on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, Hennessey, The Addams Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Burke's Law, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., F Troop, The Wild Wild West, The Lucy Show, I Spy, and Get Smart. He frequently appeared on variety shows and talk shows doing his insult routine, including such shows as The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Joey Bishop Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. During the 1968-1969 season he had his own variety show, The Don Rickles Show.

During the Sixties Don Rickles also had a thriving movie career. He appeared in several entries in the "Beach Party" series, as well as related films, including Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pyjama Party (1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). He also appeared in the films X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Enter Laughing (1967), The Money Jungle (1967), Where It's At (1969), and Kelly's Heroes (1970).

In the Seventies Don Rickles had a short-lived sitcom, The Don Rickles Show, that ran during the 1971-1972 season. He saw more success with CPO Sharkey, a service comedy centred around the Naval noncom of the same name, that ran for two seasons from 1976 to 1978. He guest starred on the shows Sanford and Son and Medical Centre. He continued to appear on such talk shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Dinah!, and The Mike Douglas Show.He had a small role in the film The Love Machine (1971) as an announcer.

In the Eighties Don Rickles guest starred on Archie Bunker's Place, Gimme a Break!, George Burns Comedy Week, Newhart, and Tales from the Crypt. He appeared in the film Keaton's Cop (1990).

In the Nineties Don Rickles starred in the short-lived sitcom Daddy Dearest. He guest starred on the shows Hunter, The Larry Sanders Show, The Single Guy, and Murphy Brown. He appeared in the films Innocent Blood (1992), Casino (1995), and Dirty Work (1998). He was the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the films Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). He was also a voice in the film Quest for Camelot (1998).

In the Naughts Don Rickles guest starred on The Bernie Mac Show and The Unit. He reprised the voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 3 (2010). In the Teens he guest starred on Hot in Cleveland. He was the voice of frog in the film Zookeeper (2011).

I cannot say that I was a huge fan of Don Rickles's routine, but there can be no doubt that it was groundbreaking. There were insult comics before Don Rickles (Jack E. Leonard being the prime example of such), but he was the one that popularised the form. As a comedian he was hugely popular in the Sixties and Seventies, and he remained popular in the Eighties and Nineties and into the 21st Century.

While I was not necessarily a big fan of Don Rickles's comedy routine, I loved him as an actor. Indeed, I cannot think of the "Beach Party" movies without thinking of Don Rickles. In most of the films his characters were called "Big (fill in the blank), whether he was playing a Martian ("Big Bang" in Bikini Beach) or the operator of a skydiving business ("Big Drop" in Beach Blanket Bingo). While one would expect the characters he played to be a bit prickly, he actually played a wide variety of different characters. On Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. he played one of Sgt. Carter's old war buddies, who credited Carter as being a war hero even as Carter credited him. On The Addams Family he played one of a pair of hold-up men who has the misfortune of meeting the Addamses on what is their favourite holiday. In Casino he played Billy Sherbert, a casino manager. During his acting career Don Rickles played everything from con men to a ventriloquist to a vacuum cleaner salesman. And he did all of them fairly well.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Underdog Character Designer Joe Harris Passes On

Joe Harris, who served as the character designer and storyboard artist at television animation studio Total Television (better known simply as TTV), died on March 26 at the age of 89. TTV produced such classic animated series as King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Underdog, and The Beagles. Wile at advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample Mr. Harris also created Trix cereal's advertising mascot the Trix Rabbit.

Joseph Benjamin Harris III was born on January 5 1928 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He served in both the United States Navy and the United States Marines. He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and after graduation joined Dancer Fitzgerald Sample as an illustrator. He worked on accounts ranging from Bounty paper towels to General Mills cereal.

It was in the late Fifties that Joe Harris created the Trix Rabbit to sell Trix cereal. He not only drew the storyboard for the animated commercial, but also created the cereal's tagline that would last for decades: "Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids!" The Trix Rabbit was introduced in television commercials in 1959.

It was also in 1959 that Dancer Fitzgerald Sample employees W. Watts Bigger, Account Supervisor on General Mills and Corn Products/Best Foods accounts, Chet Stover, copy supervisor on the General Mills account, and Joe Harris, who was then supervisor of animation for the General Mills account, were approached by a superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. The three men, along with Treadwell Covington (who worked at a direct mail agency) then founded Total Television, known simply as TTV for short.

Joe Harris would serve as the character designer, a storyboard artist, and a producer on all of TTV's programmes. TTV entered the production of animated cartoons with King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. Debuting on NBC on October 15 1960, it was only the network's second Saturday morning cartoon (after Hanna-Barbera's The Ruff & Reddy Show). It was followed in 1963 by Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales and then in 1964 by TTV's most successful cartoon Underdog. Underdog proved to be a phenomenal success. It ran for nine seasons on NBC and CBS and went onto a very successful syndication run. In 1965 an Underdog balloon was introduced to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, where it was flown annually for literally years. A good deal of Underdog merchandise has been produced to this day, including a lunch box, games, comic books, Little Golden Books, and much more.

TTV's final cartoon would be The Beagles, which was centred around a rock band made up of two anthropomorphic dogs. Sadly, it would prove less successful than TTV's previous efforts. The Beagles lasted for only a single season on Saturday morning, from 1965 to 1966. It was in 1969 that General Mills dropped its sponsorship of TTV. Without the money from General Mills, TTV closed up shop.

After TTV closed down, Joe Harris returned to the advertising industry. Still later he illustrated and wrote the children's book, The Belly Book.

Joe Harris certainly made lasting contributions to American pop culture. The Trix Rabbit is not only still featured prominently on boxes of Trix, but he still appears in commercials to this day. The characters he designed at TTV may have had an even more lasting impact on popular culture. Klondike Kat, Tennessee Tuxedo, Commander McBragg, and, particularly, Underdog would all figure prominently in the childhoods of multiple generations of Americans. To this day Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog remain two of the most famous characters to emerge from American broadcast network Saturday morning cartoons. As character designer and storyboard artist at TTV, Joe Harris had a good deal to do with their success.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

My Picks for the 2017 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival

It is a sad fact of my life that I have never gotten the chance to attend the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. What is more, I will not be attending TCMFF this year either. That having been said, I always look forward to it every year. I know that I can see plenty of photos and blog posts from my many TCM fan friends, and Turner Classic Movies always offers a good deal of coverage of the event. Of course, like many fans who are unable to attend I also like to play armchair quarterback and decide what I would go see if I could attend. Here then are my choices of what I would watch if I were attending this years Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.

Thursday, April 5
12:30 PM At the Chinese Multiplex House 1 Remembering Robert Osborne: As I am sure all of you already know, Robert Osborne died earlier this year. For that reason this year's TCMFF is dedicated to his memory. It is then that they will be celebrating Robert's life at the Festival. I am sure that this is the one event that every single TCM fan will want to attend. Robert Osborne was pivotal to the success of TCM, and important to all of us. This is one of the primary reasons I really wish I could have made it to the festival this year.

7:00 PM Poolside Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: This is one of those instances where it was hard to make a choice. Some Like It Hot is at 6:00 PM, while In the Heat of the Night is at 6:30 PM. That having been said, I have seen Some Like It Hot and In the Heat of the Night on the big screen. I have never seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory any place but on television. An added bonus is that cast members Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt herself), Rusty Goffe (the head Oompa Loompa), and Paris Themmen (Mike Tee Vee himself) will be attendance, as well at the illustrious Illeana Douglas (actress, director, author, and the granddaughter of screen legend Melvyn Douglas).

9:30 at the Egyptian Theatre The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): I have no idea how far apart the various venues are, so I don't know if I could make it from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I would certainly try! This is one of my favourite Hitchcock films and I much prefer it to the Fifties remake. It is opposite Harold and Maude, but in the end I cannot resist a classic Hitchcock film made while he was still in England!

Friday, April 7
10:30 AM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX Hand and Footprint Ceremony--Carl and Rob Reiner: Okay, I would hate missing The Maltese Falcon and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but I am a huge fan of Carl Reiner, as well as his son Rob. If I were at TCMFF there is almost no way that I would miss this.

2:00 PM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX The Princess Bride: As far as recent films go, The Princess Bride is one of my favourites. What is more, Rob Reiner is going to be in attendance.

7:30 PM Poolside What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is the film that introduced to me to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (and for those who are wondering, I am #TeamBette). I have seen it many times over the years, but I have never seen it on the big screen. Sadly, it would mean I would miss Laura and Twentieth Century. A long time ago I concluded that conflicts in what one wants to see are par for the course at TCMFF!

Saturday, April 8
9:00 AM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX The Court Jester:  Okay, this was a hard choice. The Court Jester is showing opposite another one of my favourite films, Arsenic and Old Lace. That having been said, I have seen Arsenic and Old Lace on the big screen, while I have never seen The Court Jester in a theatre. I must also point out that Illeana Douglas and Fred Willard, two of my favourite people, will be at the showing of The Court Jester.

12:30 PM at the Egyptian Theatre Rear Window: This is showing opposite The Great Dictator, but for me Hitchcock trumps Chaplin (I know many of you will disagree with me on that). And Rear Window is one of my favourite films that Alfred Hitchcock ever made.

2:45 PM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX The Jerk: For me this comes down to one name: Carl Reiner. I have been a huge fan of Mr. Reiner since childhood, so there is no way I would miss a showing of The Jerk with him in attendance!

7:30 PM Poolside Planet of the Apes: This is another instance where I will miss another movie I would really like to see, Theodora Goes Wild. That having been said, I have been a fan of Planet of the Apes since childhood and I have never seen it on the big screen. I really wish they had shown Planet of the Apes at midnight instead so I could go ahead and see Theodora Goes Wild!

9:30 PM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX The Graduate: This is the one movie I would have to see at TCMFF. The Graduate is one of my all time favourite films and, what is more, Buck Henry will be in attendance. I really would not want to miss it.

Sunday, April 9:
9:00 AM at the Chinese Theatre Multiplex House 1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Dr. Strangelove is one of my all time favourite movies. In fact, it is in my top ten. I have seen it on the big screen, but I really would not want to miss it at TCMFF.

12:30 PM at Club TCM at the Hotel Roosevelt Ask Leonard Maltin: Leonard Maltin is one of my favourite critics and film historians and I would really love to see him in person. I also have a lot of questions about classic animation I would like to ask him (he's one of the world's foremost experts in the field)!

1:30 PM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX The Palm Beach Story: I don't know if I could make it in time from the Leonard Maltin Q&A, but I would certainly try! The Palm Beach Story is my all time favourite Preston Sturges movie and it stars local girl Mary Astor!  I've never seen it on the big screen. I would really hate to miss it.

4:30  PM at the Chinese Theatre IMAX Singin' in the Rain: Have I ever mentioned I  have had a crush on Ruta Lee since childhood? Even if Singin' in the Rain wasn't my third favourite musical (after The Wizard of Oz and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Miss Lee's presence would guarantee I would show up! Of course, Todd Fisher will also be there, so it would be a treat to hear him talk about his mother's memories in making the film (Debbie Reynolds, another one of my childhood crushes).

Of course, more than seeing any films or even people I admire, for me the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival would be a chance for me to meet my many classic film buddies, most of whom I have known for literally years, but whom I have never met in person. I am closer to many of my fellow classic film buffs than I am people I do know in person, and I consider many of them dear friends. I have no doubt that much of my time would be spent visiting with them.

Anyway, I am looking forward to the various photos and blog posts that emerge from this year's festival!