Saturday, August 26, 2017

Jay Thomas's Clayton Moore Story

Sadly, actor and disc jockey Jay Thomas died earlier this week at the age of 69. Not only do I have fond memories of his many roles on various television shows, but I also have fond memories of his annual appearances on The Late Show with Dave Letterman at Christmastime. The tradition began in 1998 when Jay Thomas was a guest alongside New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. David Letterman had Mr. Testaverde try to knock a large meatball off the top of a Christmas tree with an American football. Both Messrs. Letterman and Testaverde tried and failed. Jay Thomas came out and knocked the meatball of the top of the Christmas tree on the first try. Later on that particular show Mr. Thomas told a story about a time when he was a disc jockey at WAYS in Charlotte, North Carolina and he made a promotional appearance with Clayton Moore (who was in his full Lone Ranger costume).

Jay Thomas's appearance on the Christmas edition of The Late Show with Dave Letterman went over so well that it became an annual tradition, with Mr. Thomas returning every year (except 2013, which he missed due to throat surgery) to retell his story about Clayton Moore and to try to knock a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree. It became as much a part of Dave Leterman's Christmas show as Darlene Love performing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)".

In honour of Jay Thomas and for those who have fond memories of his annual appearances on The Late Show with Dave Letterman, here is his appearance on the show from 2009. If you have never seen it, you are in for a treat.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Godspeed Jay Thomas

Jay Thomas, who starred on the sitcom Love & War and had significant recurring roles on Cheers and Murphy Brown, died today at the age of 69. He had been struggling against cancer.

Jay Thomas was born Jon Thomas Terrell on July 12 1948 in Kermit, Texas. He grew up in New Orleans. It was while he was in college that he did both sportscasting and stand-up comedy. He eventually became a DJ in New York. He later worked for KPWR in Los Angeles. Mr.Thomas was still a DJ when he was cast in a recurring role on Mork & Mindy in 1981. Later in the decade he played the recurring role of hockey player Eddie LeBec on Cheers. Still later he had a recurring role on Muprhy Brown as tabloid talk show host Jerry Gold. He was part of the cast of the short lived show Married People. He also guest starred on such shows as Love Boat, Spenser: For Hire, Family Ties, A Year in the Life, The Golden Girls, and Open House. He appeared in the movies C.H.U.D. (1984) and The Gig (1985).

In the Nineties Jay Thomas was one of the leads on the show Love & War. He played newspaper columnist Jack Stein. In the first season Jack had an on-again, off-again romance with restaurateur Wally Porter (played by Susan Dey). Susan Dey left the show at the end of the first season, after which Annie Potts joined the cast as Dana Palladino. Dana bought Wally's restaurant and became Jack's love interest not long afterwards. He later starred in the short-lived comedy Katie Joplin. Jay Thomas also continued to appear on Murphy Brown as Jerry Gold. He also guest starred on Cybill, Ink (as Jack Stein), Fantasy Island, The Simple Life, Dead Man's Gun, and Working.  He was a regular voice on the TV cartoon Hercules and a guest voice on Batman: The Animated Series, Goof Troop Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and The Wild Thornberrys. He appeared in the movies Straight Talk (1992), Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), Dirty Laundry (1996), A Smile Like Yours (1997), The Adventures of Ragtime (1998), Monkey Business (1998), Last Chance (1999), Stranger in My House (1999), and The Big Tease (1999).

In the Naughts Mr. Thomas guest starred on The Education of Max Bickford, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Run of the House, Joan of Arcadia, Boston Legal, and Cold Case. He appeared in the movies The Santa Clause 2 (2002), The Pool Boys (2009), Labor Pains (2009), and Sex Tax: Based on a True Story (2010). He was a voice in the animated film Teacher's Pet (2004).

In the Teens he had a recurring role on Ray Donovan. He guest starred on the shows Retired at 35, Hung, Shake It Up!, NCIS: New Orleans, and Bones. He appeared in the Horrorween (2011), Snatched (2011), Talker (2011), Life Tracker (2013), Underdogs (2013), and The Trials of Cate McCall (2013).

In 2005 he began a stint as the host of The Jay Thomas Show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. 

Beginning in 2001 Jay Thomas began a stint as an annual guest on the Christmastime edition of The Late Show with David Letterman. Each time he told the story of his experience with the legendary Clayton Moore when he was still a DJ.

Jay Thomas was quite simply an incredible actor. He had a particular gift for comedy, with impeccable timing. What is more, he could play a variety of roles. As Eddie LeBec he was a good natured hockey player with a superstitious streak. As Jerry Gold  he was a right-wing tabloid talk show host. As Jack Stein he was a liberal newspaper columnist. Curiously, Jay Thomas often played Jewish characters, even though his father was Catholic and his mother was Protestant. He was so convincing many people believed he was Jewish.

While he was particularly gifted at comedy, Jay Thomas could play dramatic roles just as well.  He played Mr. Holland's best friend, football coach Bill Meister in Mr. Holland's Opus. On Ray Donovan he played . Marty Grossman, owner of salacious TMZ-style website Of course, Jay Thomas was also an incredible storyteller. While I loved him in nearly every role in which I saw him, my fondest memories of Mr. Thomas are not as an actor, but instead as David Letterman's guest telling his extremely funny but true story about his experience with Clayton Moore. Jay Thomas was a versatile actor with a gift for comedy, but one who could also play dramatic roles equally well. Quite simply, he was one of the best character actors to emerge in the Eighties.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dick Gregory R.I.P.

Satirist and comedian Dick Gregory died on August 19 2017 at the age of 84. The cause was heart failure.

Dick Gregory was born on October 12 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Sumner High School in St. Louis. A track star in high school, he earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. He left college in 1954 to join the United States Army. It was his commanding officer who urged him to take up comedy, and he took part in several Army talent shows. After his service Mr. Gregory returned to Southern Illinois University, but he eventually dropped out.

It was in 1956 that he moved to Chicago in hopes of pursuing a career in comedy. During the day he worked various jobs, while at night he did stand-up comedy at various night clubs about the city. He opened his own club, the Apex Club, in 1958, but it did not last long. It was in 1961 that he received his big break. Comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey had cancelled a gig at the Playboy Club in Chicago and Dick Gregory was asked to fill in for him. It was that same year that he made his television debut on The Jack Paar Tonight Show.

Dick Gregory would appear frequently on television in the Sixties. He made appearances on The Tonight Show, The Jack Paar Program, That Regis Philbin Show, Firing Line, The Eamon Andrews Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Ed Sullivan Show. He was a co-host on The Mike Douglas Show in 1962. In the Seventies he continued to appear frequently on television. He was a co-host again on The Mike Douglas Show. He also appeared on The David Frost Show, The Helen Reddy Show, Black Journal, and Soul Train. After the Seventies Dick Gregory's appearances on television decreased, although he appeared occasionally on such shows as Donahue, Hour Magazine, and Sharp Talk. 

Dick Gregory released a highly successful series of stand-up comedy records in his career. His first, In Living Black and White, was released in 1961. He released several albums in the Sixties, including East & West (1961), Dick Gregory Talks Turkey (1962), The Two Sides of Dick Gregory (1963), My Brother's Keeper (1963), Dick Gregory Running for President (1964), So You See... We All Have Problems (1964), Dick Gregory On: (1969), The Light Side: The Dark Side (1969), Dick Gregory's Frankenstein (1970), and Live at the Village Gate (1970). In the Seventies he released the albums At Kent State (1971), and Caught in the Act (1974). He released two more albums, 21st Century "State of the Union" and You Don't Know Dick in 2016.

Dick Gregory appeared in several films over the years, primarily as himself in concert films and documentaries. Over the years he appeared as himself in such films as It's a Revolution Mother (1969), Chicago Blues (1970), Prologue (1970), Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), In Remembrance of Martin (1986), Comic Relief (1986), The N Word (2004), The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi (2009), and Irwin & Fran (2013). He also acted in a few films as well, including Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), Panther (1995), Children of the Struggle (1999), The Hot Chick (2002), Steppin: The Movie (2009), and Ir/Reconcilable (2014). He is set to appear in the film The Leisure Seeker.

 Dick Gregory also wrote several books, including his 1964 autobiography, Write me in!, From the Back of the Bus, What's Happening?, The Shadow that Scares Me, and many others.

Dick Gregory was certainly a revolutionary comic and satirist. Among other things he was a sharp break from African American comedians earlier in the 20th Century, such as Red Foxx and Slappy White, whose humour could often be quite earthy. In contrast, Mr. Gregory's humour tended to be wry and witty. Indeed, he openly addressed race relations at a time when most comedians chose not to. He did so not by preaching at audiences about the evils of racism, but instead showed its absurdity by making mocking observations about it. Given the subject matter of his routines in the early Sixties, some today might be surprised to know that Dick Gregory was one of the first black comedians to cross over to performing in front of white audiences. He was also wildly popular in the Sixties and Seventies.

In addition to being a comedian and satirist, Dick Gregory was also a civil rights activist. In 1962 he took part in his first demonstration for voting rights in Mississippi. He spoke in Selma, Alabama on October 7 1963 as part of a voter registration drive known as "Freedom Day". Beyond being active in the civil rights movement, Mr. Gregory was also involved in activism against the Vietnam War, for economic reform, and against drugs.

Dick Gregory was truly a groundbreaking satirist and comic, addressing racial concerns just as the civil rights movement was gaining ground. What is more, he was extremely funny. With wry humour and wit he exposed the absurdity of racism in American society, all the while remaining very funny.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Godspeed Sir Bruce Forsyth

Sir Bruce Forsyth, the legendary presenter of the British variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium and many game shows over the years, died on August 18 2017 at the age of 89.

Sir Bruce Forsyth as born on February 22 1928 in Edmonton, Middlesex. He attended the Latymer School in Edmonton. When he was eight years old he became obsessed with tap dancing after seeing Fred Astaire movies at his local cinema. He then trained in dance in Tottenham and later Brixton. Mr. Forsyth began performing while still a child. He made his television debut when he was still very young, appearing on the TV show Come and Be Televised in 1939. He appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal in Bilston, billed as "Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom". He played the accordion, ukulele, and banjo.

Mr. Forsyth spent many years in music halls around the United Kingdom, interrupted only by two years of national service in the Royal Air Force. He made his first appearance as an adult on television in 1954 on Variety Parade. Over the next few years he appeared on Music-Hall, The Winifred Atwell Show, and Spectacular. It was while performing at Babbacombe in Devon in 1957 that a fellow dance act recommended Mr. Forsyth to their agent, Billy Marsh. It was through Mr. Marsh that Sir Bruce Forsyth landed an appearance on the TV show New Look. This led to Sir Bruce Forsyth becoming the host of the variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He hosted the show from 1958 to 1960. After a year-long break he returned as its host and remained until 1964.

In the Sixties Mr. Forsyth continued to host Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Along with Frankie Howard he was one of the two hosts of the show Frankie and Bruce. In 1965 he appeared in his own television special, The Bruce Forsyth Show. He appeared on such shows as That's for Me, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Showtime, Two of a Kind, and It's Lulu. He also did a bit of acting during the decade. He guest starred on Mystery and Imagination in an adaption of The Canterville Ghost. He appeared in the films Star! (1968) and Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).  He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Seventies Sir Bruce Forsyth was the host of his own show, The Bruce Forsyth Show as well as Big Night. He hosted his first game show, The Generation Game. He guest starred on such shows as Cilla, Rolf Harris Show, The Morecambe & Wise Show, and The Muppet Show. He appeared in the TV specials Frankie and Bruce and Sammy and Bruce. As an actor he appeared in the films Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971). He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Eighties Mr. Forsyth acted as a regular in the TV series Anna Pavlova and as the star in the TV series Slinger's Day. He guest starred in an episode of Magnum P. I. He hosted the game shows Play Your Cards Right, Hollywood or Bust, Hot Streak, and You Bet. He starred in the TV specials Forsyth Follies and Bruce and Ronnie. He also appeared in Royal Variety Performances.

In the Nineties Sir Bruce Forsyth hosted the game shows Takeover Bid, Bruce's Price is Right, and a revival of The Generation Game. He also hosted the variety show Guest Night and Tonight at the London Palladium. He appeared in the movie House!.  From the Naughts into the Teens he was the host of Strictly Come Dancing.

For my fellow Americans it may be hard to understand the importance of Sir Bruce Forsyth in the history of British television. We simply don't have any figure that quite corresponds to him. One could describe him as a British Ed Sullivan, but Mr. Sullivan could not sing or dance and wasn't nearly as warm and friendly. One could describe him as a British Bob Barker, but Mr. Barker can not sing and dance and has never hosted variety shows. The simple fact is that Mr. Forsyth could do it all. He could sing. He could dance. He could act. He could be a comedian. None of this should come as any surprise as Sir Bruce Forsyth was one of the last music hall entertainers. Before his success on television he spent years entertaining people in music halls across the United Kingdom. And like many music hall entertainers, he developed a number of different talents.

Of course, Sir Bruce Forsyth was never a favourite with critics. Even when he became famous in the late Fifties he was a bit old-fashioned, a sharp contrast to the Angry Young Men of the era. He was first and foremost an entertainer. He was not there to educate his audience, to enlighten his audience, or to persuade them to take a stand on any particular issue. Sir Bruce Forsyth was there to make them laugh, to make them smile, to make them escape the troubles of their days for a while. This probably explains his popularity for six decades. When one watched Sir Bruce Forsyth, they were guaranteed a half hour or hour of pure escapism. It is something that is sometimes missing from entertainment today. Sir Bruce Forsyth really was one of the last of his kind.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jerry Lewis R.I.P.

Legendary comedian, actor, and director Jerry Lewis died today at the age of 91.

Jerry Lewis was born Jerry Levitch on March 16 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer who used the stage name of Daniel Lewis. His mother, Rachael Levitch, played the piano for a local radio station. Jerry Lewis began performing while very young, starting at age five alongside his parents at various Catskills resorts. By the time he was 15 he had already developed a routine called "the Record Act", whereby he would mime to various records.

Jerry Lewis dropped out of high school in tenth grade. He tried enlisting in the United States Army during World War II, but was classified 4-F due to a heart murmur. It was in 1945 that Jerry Lewis teamed up with singer Dean Martin. The two of them were performing at the Glass Hat Club in New York City. The two hit it off and decided to form a comedy team. Martin and Lewis made their debut as a team on July 25 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Their debut did not go over particularly well, and as a result they totally redid their act. Martin and Lewis threw out most of their scripted gags and relied more upon improvisation. It was not long before were performing at clubs all along the East Coast.  It was on June 20 1948 that they made their television debut. It would be historic not simply as the first time that Martin and Lewis were on national television, but also because it was the very first edition of the variety show Toast of the Town, later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show.

Martin and Lewis would be very busy from the late Forties into the Fifties. In 1949 they not only received their own radio show on NBC, but they also made their feature film debut in My Friend Irma. In 1950 they began a stint as two of the hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. Martin and Lewis would make several guest appearances on various television shows, including, The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter, The Jack Benny Program, and Texaco Star Theatre. Martin and Lewis had a highly successful run of movies made at Paramount, including My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), At War with the Army (1950), That's My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1952), Jumping Jacks (1952), The Stooge (1953), Scared Stiff (1953), The Caddy (1953), Money from Home (1953), Living It Up (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954), You're Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955), Pardners (1956), and Hollywood or Bust (1956). They also had a cameo in the Hope and Crosby movie Road to Bali (1952).

While Martin and Lewis were enormously successful, the team would eventually come to an end. Tensions between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis reached the point where they were constantly arguing. On July 25 1956, ten years exactly after their debut as a comedy team, Dean Martin split with Jerry Lewis. Each of them would go onto highly successful solo careers.

Indeed, Jerry Lewis saw a good deal of success on his own in films in the late Fifties. He starred in The Delicate Delinquent (1957), The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), Don't Give Up the Ship (1959), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), The Bellboy (1960), and Cinderfella (1960). The Bellboy marked his directorial debut and he also wrote the screenplay.  He guest starred on the anthology series Startime in an adaptation of The Jazz Singer. He also appeared on the TV shows The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and The Eddie Fisher Show. In 1958 he appeared in his own television special on NBC.

Jerry Lewis's success on film continued through a large part of the Sixties. He starred in the films The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), It's Only Money (1962), The Nutty Professor (1963), Who's Minding the Store? (1963), The Patsy (1964), The Disorderly Orderly (1964), Family Jewels (1965), and Boeing, Boeing (1965). Of these he directed The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, and Family Jewels. While The Nutty Professor would prove to be an enormous success, unfortunately some of his other films in the mid-Sixties were not. Paramount then elected not to renew his contract. Jerry Lewis's last several films in the Sixties would be for different studios. They included Three on a Couch (1966), Way... Way Out (1966), Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969), and Which Way to the Front? (1970). He directed Three on a Couch (1966), The Big Mouth (1967), and One More Time (1970).

Jerry Lewis also continued to frequently appear on television in the Sixties. He was a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He had his own short-lived variety show, The Jerry Lewis Show, that aired on ABC in 1963. He had another variety show later on NBC. The Jerry Lewis Show on NBC debuted on September 12 1967 and lasted for two seasons. He was a guest or guest host on several variety and talk shows during the decade, including The Andy Williams Show, Hullabaloo, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, What's My Line?, Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, and The Hollywood Palace. In 1970 a Saturday morning cartoon, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down, aired on ABC. Jerry Lewis contributed some scripts to the cartoon, although the character of Jerry Lewis was voiced by David Lander.  He also guest starred in an episode of Ben Casey and had a cameo on the TV show Batman.

It was in the Sixties that Jerry Lewis began hosting Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon each Labour Day. Mr. Lewis had been active in raising money for research into treating muscular dystrophy as early as the Fifties. He hosted local telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association from 1952 to 1959. It was in 1966 that he hosted the first nationally televised Jerry MDA Telethon. He continued to do so until 2010.

The Seventies would not be particularly kind to Jerry Lewis in some respects. He directed and starred in the unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried (1972). He starred in the film Hardly Working (1980) and directed the films That's Life (1979) and Hardly Working. He continued to appear on television, on such shows as NBC Follies, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie, Dinah, and The Mike Douglas Show.

The Eighties saw Jerry Lewis star in one of his best known roles, that of comedy Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). He also starred in the films Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), Cracking Up (1983), To Catch a Cop (1984), How Did You Get In? We Didn't See You Leave (1984), and Cookie (1989). He had a recurring role in a story arc of the TV show Wiseguy. He starred in the TV movie Fight for Life (1987). He directed the movie Cracking Up and episodes of Brothers and Super Force.

In the Nineties Mr. Lewis appeared in the films Mr. Saturday Night (1992), Arizona Dream (1993), and Funny Bones (1995). He guest starred on the TV show Mad About You. He directed an episode of the show Good Grief and a segment of the film How Are the Kids? (1992). In the Naughts he guest starred on The Simpsons and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. He appeared in the TV movie Miss Castaway and the Island Girls (2004).  He provided the voice of the Stationmaster in the animated film
Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey! (2009) . In the Teens he appeared in the films Max Rose (2013), Till Luck Do Us Part 2 (2013), and The Trust (2016).

I have to confess that I have never been a huge Jerry Lewis fan. I liked him best as Dean Martin's partner in the many films they made together. That having been said, I did like some of the films he made on his own. I still think of The Nutty Professor as one of the best comedies to emerge from the Sixties. And I also enjoyed seeing him each year on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Of course, ultimately it doesn't matter if I was a big fan of Jerry Lewis or not. The fact remains that when it came to the late 20th Century Jerry Lewis was a comedy giant.

Indeed, starting with his debut in My Friend Irma in 1949 alongside Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis would appear in a number of highly successful comedies as one half of Martin and Lewis. After the act broke up he continued to have a good deal of success through the mid-Sixties. Movies such as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor proved very successful. Not only did Jerry Lewis number among the most successful comedic actors of the late 20th Century, I think he did have a good deal of talent as an actor over all. In Boeing Boeing he played a very different character from what he usually did, that of journalist Robert Reed, who plots to take over his friend Bernard's apartment, his girlfriends, and pretty much his entire life. In The King of Comedy he played egotistical comedian and talk show host Jerry Langford, who is about as far as from Stanley the bellboy or Professor Julius Kelp as one can get.

Of course, Jerry Lewis was not simply a highly successful comedian, actor, and director, he was also a humanitarian. He was national chairman of and spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association for literally decades. In almost fifty years of being associated with MDA he raised over $2.6 billion in donations. While best known for his association with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he also supported such charities as the Friars Foundation, the March of Dimes, and St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters.

For decades it has been a bit of a running joke that Jerry Lewis was wildly popular in France, but the truth is he was wildly popular across the world. He was responsible for making many people laugh and his films are still very popular to this day. Only a very few comedic actors ever had the kind of success that Jerry Lewis had. I seriously doubt we will see to many reach the heights that he did in the future.