Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Late Great Peter Fonda

Peter Fonda, son of legendary actor Henry Fonda and star of such films as Easy Rider (1969), The Hired Hand (1971), and Ulee's Gold (1997), died yesterday, August 16 2019, at the age of 79. The cause was lung cancer.

Peter Fonda was born on February 23 1940 in New York City. He attended college in his father's home state at the University of Nebraska Omaha. While there he joined the Omaha Community Playhouse. He made his only appearance on Broadway in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole in 1961.

Peter Fonda made his film debut in Tammy and the Doctor in 1963, but his career would soon take him away from such mainstream films. After appearing in The Victors (1963), Lilith (1964), and The Young Lovers (1964), he appeared in the first of American International Pictures' outlaw biker films, The Wild Angels in 1966. He followed it with Roger Corman's psychedelic film The Trip (1967) and Histoires extraordinaires (1968), a portmanteau film directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. He appeared in Roger Vadim's segment "Metzengerstein" alongside his sister Jane. Of course, his greatest claim to fame would come with Easy Rider (1969). Not only did Peter Fonda play Wyatt (AKA "Captain America") in the film, but he also co-wrote the screenplay Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. Its screenplay was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Even as his film career was unfolding in the Sixties, Peter Fonda appeared on television. He made his television debut on the acclaimed series Naked City in the episode "The Night the Saints Lost Their Halos" in 1962. He also guest starred on such shows as The New Breed, Wagon Train, The Defenders, Channing, Arrest and Trial, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 12 O'Clock High, Insight, and The Red Skelton Show. He appeared in the TV movies High Noon: The Clock Strikes Noon Again and Certain Honorable Men.

Peter Fonda began the Seventies with what would become one of his most respected films, the Western The Hired Hand (1971). During the decade he appeared in such films as The Last Movie (1971), Two People (1973), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Open Season (1974), Race with the Devil (1975),  92 in the Shade (1975), Killer Force (1976), Fighting Mad (1976), Futureworld (1976), Outlaw Blues (1977), High Ballin' (1978), and Wanda Nevada (1979). His only appearance on television during the Seventies was the TV movie The Hostage Tower in 1980. In the Seventies Mr. Fonda also took to directing. He directed The Hired Hand, Idaho Transfer (1973), and Wanda Nevada.

In the Eighties Peter Fonda appeared in such films as The Cannonball Run (1981), Split Image (1982), Daijôbu, mai furendo (1983), Dance of the Dwarfs (1983), Peppermint-Frieden (1983), Spasms (1983), Certain Fury (1985), Mercenary Fighters (1988), Hawken's Breed (1988), The Rose Garden (1989), and Fatal Mission (1990). He also contributed to the script of the film Fatal Mission. On television he appeared in the TV movies A Reason to Live and Sound.

It was in the Nineties that Peter Fonda once more received critical recognition, this time for the movie Ulee's Gold (1997). For the lead role of Ulee Jackson in the film he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Lead Role and the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. He also appeared in such films as Family Express (1991), Bodies, Rest & Motion (1993), South Beach (1993), Deadfall (1993), Molly & Gina (1994), Love and a .45 (1994), Nadja (1994), Escape from LA (1996), Painted Hero (1997), Welcome to Hollywood (1998), The Limey (1999), South of Heaven, West of Hell (2000), Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000), and Second Skin (2000). On television he guest starred in a two part episode of the TV series In the Heat of the Night and appeared in the TV movies Don't Look Back, The Tempest, and The Passion of Ayn Rand.

In the Naughts Peter Fonda appeared in the films Wooly Boys (2001), The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), Cobrador: In God We Trust (2006), Ghost Rider (2007), Ghost Rider (2007), Wild Hogs (2007), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Japan (2008), The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll (2009), and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009).  On television he appeared in such TV movies as The Laramie Project, The Maldonado Miracle, A Thief of Time, Supernova, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He appeared in the mini-series The Gathering. He guest starred on the show ER.

In the Teens Peter Fonda appeared in the films The Trouble with Bliss (2011), Smitty (2012), Harodim (2012), House of Bodies (2013), As Cool as I Am (2013), Copperhead (2013), The Ultimate Life (2013), The Harvest (2013), Jesse James: Lawman (2015), The Runner (2015), The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017), The Most Hated Woman in America (2017), You Can't Say No (2018), and Boundaries (2018). On television he guest starred on the shows CSI: NY, Hawaii Five-0, The Blacklist, HR, and Milo Murphy's Law.

Peter Fonda was not simply the son of an acting legend, but he was a legend himself. Easy Rider was not only one of the films that ushered in the New Hollywood era of the late Sixties and the Seventies, but the film that placed independent cinema on somewhat equal footing as Hollywood, both with regards to critical acclaim and the box office. It was the third highest grossing film of 1969. Throughout his career Peter Fonda would continue to appear in independent films, from Dirty Mary Crazy Larry to Ulee's Gold.

Peter Fonda was extremely prolific, and over the years he appeared in many films that did not necessarily receive a good deal of critical acclaim, but even when a particular movie wasn't very good, Mr. Fonda always was. Over the years he gave a number of impressive performances. He was Wyatt, the freewheeling biker in Easy Rider. He was the saddle tramp Harry Collings in The Hired Hand. Arguably his best role was in Ulee's Gold, playing a beekeeper who is trying to put his family back together. He was motorcycle dealer battling Satanists in Race with the Devil and a Pinkerton agent hunting a dangerous outlaw in 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

While as the son of Henry Fonda,  Peter Fonda was Hollywood royalty, he never behaved like royalty. I have never heard of anyone recount a bad encounter with him. Mr. Fonda was known for being friendly and down to earth. On Facebook Scott McGee of TCM told how he was writing and producing a remembrance of Henry Fonda on the cable channel and he made a pre-interview phone call to Peter Fonda, who along with his sister would narrate the remembrance. Mr. Fonda turned out to be warm and candid and easily talked for an hour. Whenever he attended the TCM Classic Film Festival he was known for being warm and cordial with fans. When his family announced his death, they described him as a "sweet and gracious man," something both those who worked with him in Hollywood and his many fans would agree. Peter Fonda always went his own way and in doing so he revolutionised Hollywood, all the while remaining a true gentleman throughout his career.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of Woodstock

I have to admit that I really don't remember the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (also known as the Bethel Rock Festival and the Aquarian Music Festival and more simply known as "Woodstock"). In August 1969 I was only 6 years old and my parents were of an age that they would take little interest in a rock music festival. At best I vaguely remember some murmurings from older adults about "hippies" and "New York," but those memories may be of something else entirely. Regardless, it was fifty years ago yesterday that Woodstock began. I have already written an in-depth, two part post on the festival on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary (you can read it here--please forgive the lack of images, as something wiped the images on my posts several years ago). Here I will discuss some of the festival's impact on pop culture.

While neither children nor older adults took  much interest in Woodstock at the time it took place, there can be no doubt that it was a seminal event for Baby Boomers (sometimes called "the Woodstock Generation") and rock music. Many of the acts that performed at Woodstock would become legends, including Ritchie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix. The event was also remarkable in the sheer number of young people gathered in one area with no reported incidents of violence. Not only have there been a number of documentaries on the festival (beginning with the official documentary Woodstock in 1970), but Woodstock has played a role in the plots of several movies and TV show episodes.

What is more, the impact of Woodstock on pop culture was felt almost immediately. The character of Woodstock in the comic strip Peanuts had first appeared in 1966, but remained unnamed until Charles Schulz named him "Woodstock" after the festival. The festival was naturally parodied in Mad magazine in 1970 with a poem by Frank Jacobs and illustrated by Sergio Aragonés titled "I Remember, I Remember The Wondrous Woodstock Music Fair" that references the traffic jam on the way to the festival and the difficulty of getting close enough to actually hear the music. National Lampoon would also parody Woodstock in their 1973 stage show Lemmings. Among the show's sketches were "Welcome to the Woodshuck Festival: Three Days of Peace, Love, and Death; plus band introductions throughout." A live album of the show would be released in 1973 and a video recording of one of the shows would be released years later. The Simpsons episode "D'oh in the Wind" featured Abe Simpson, his wife Mona, and young Homer at the festival.

Woodstock would also be remembered in song. The most famous song about the festival may be "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell. What might be the most famous version of the song was released by Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1970. That same year Melanie, who performed at the festival, released , "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," based on her experience of the event.

Like the Apollo 11 moon landing earlier in 1969, Woodstock would not be referenced in many movies and TV shows in the Seventies and Eighties. Among the earliest was the movie The Omega Man (1971). In the film the protagonist, Neville, watches the documentary Woodstock in a theatre. While there would be several documentaries about the festival over the years, the festival would not be referenced in many narrative movies and TV shows until the Nineties.

Perhaps because it was the year of the festival's thirtieth anniversary, 1999 would see the festival referenced both in a film and on television. Not only does the Apollo 11 moon landing play a role in the movie A Walk in the Moon (1999), but so does Woodstock. In the film Pearl Kantrowitz's husband Marty (who has been working away from home) cannot return home because of the traffic jam caused by the festival. As to Pearl herself, she goes to the festival, as do her children (without her knowledge).

It was also in 1999 that Woodstock played a role in two TV movies. A portion of the TV movies The '60s followed a family through important events of the decade, including Woodstock. VH1 aired a biographical film on the band Sweetwater, who played at Woodstock. As might be expected the movie covered the events of the festival.

A 2010 episode of the TV show Cold Case departed from history in homicide detective and cold case expert Lilly Rush investigating the murder of a GI at Woodstock (as noted earlier, there were no violent incidents reported at the festival). That same year the Canadian film Frisson des collines  (2010) was released. The film followed a twelve year old boy as he tried to travel from his small town in Quebec to Woodstock in order to see his idol Jimi Hendrix. More recently the DC's Legends of Tomorrow episode "The Virgin Gary" had the Legends travelling in time back to Woodstock to deal with a historical anomaly there.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was one of the pivotal event of the 20th Century and it has been referenced in many more movies and TV shows, even when its events are not pivotal in the plot. As time passes there can be no doubt that its impact on pop culture will only grow.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

There are those films that proved to be a failure at the box office only to become cult films after their initial release. Among those films is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Upon its initial release it bombed at the box office, only to find new life on VHS. Since then it has developed a loyal cult following. As to why The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension has developed a cult following, much of it might have to do with the cast, which included such luminaries as Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, and others. Much of it might have to do with the film itself, which features a strange plot that cannot be summarised easily.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension centres on Buckaroo Banzai, a neurosurgeon, physicist, rock star, and test pilot who faces a group of aliens from the 8th dimension known as Red Lectroids from Planet 10. Here I have to point out that this rather simplistic synopsis doesn't begin to explain The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, which simply has to be seen to be believed.

The origins of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension go all the way back to 1974 when screenwriter and director W. D. Richter's wife read the novel Dirty Pictures from the Prom by Earl Mac Rauch. She recommended the novel to Mr. Richter, who then got in touch with Mr. Rauch. The two stayed in touch, and Earl Mac Rauch eventually moved to Los Angeles where the two began discussions about a character called Buckaroo Bandy that Mr. Rauch had created and was considering as the main character in a screenplay. W. D. Richter gave Earl Mac Rauch $1500 to develop a screenplay. Mr. Rauch began several attempts at stories about Buckaroo before finishing a treatment. In the process the character was renamed "Buckaroo Banzai." Ultimately, the finished screenplay would be written by Earl Mac Rauch and Neil Canton, who with Frank Marshall was brought on to produce the project.

According to Earl Mac Rauch in an interview in the July 1984 issue of Starlog, he was inspired by "all those out-and-out, press-the-accelerator-to-the-floor, non-stop kung fu movies of the early '70s." That having been said, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension also seems to owe a lot to old time movie serials, pulp magazines, and science fiction movies. Indeed, Buckaroo Banzai himself could be included in the tradition of such pulp heroes as Doc Savage, who boast a vast array of knowledge while being assisted by a number of highly skilled aides.

Buckaroo Banzai certainly has no shortage of highly skilled aides. He is the leader of the rock band The Hong Kong Cavaliers, who also assist Buckaroo on his various adventures. The Hong Kong Cavaliers are a diverse group. Perfect Tommy (played by Lewis Smith) is handsome and vain, and has a diverse number of skills. Reno Nevada (played by Pepe Serna) is a dangerous, but highly intelligent saxophonist with The Hong Kong Cavaliers. Rawhide (played by Clancy Brown) obviously comes from the American West and is the most grounded of the Cavaliers. Perhaps the most interesting of Buckaroo's various aides is New Jersey, whose given name is Dr. Sidney Zweibel (played by Jeff Goldblum). A surgeon like Buckaroo, he dresses like a cowboy and has knowledge of other fields as well. While it seems clear New Jersey has assisted Buckaroo Banzai on earlier adventures, he is not yet a member of The Hong Kong Cavaliers at the start of the movie. Buckaroo Banzai asks New Jersey if he has considered joining him full-time, to which New Jersey asks if there is an opening. Buckaroo replies positively and then asks if he can sing. New Jersey tells him that he can sing a little and dance.  Needless to say, well before the end of the film he is part of the group.

Of course, these are not the only Hong Kong Cavaliers, nor are The Hong Kong Cavaliers the only ones who assist Buckaroo Banzai. There are also the Blue Blazer Irregulars, a large number of ordinary people including both children and adults, and then there is Buckaroo's research organisation the Banzai Institute. All of these together compose Team Banzai.

It is perhaps because of how unusual The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is that 20th Century Fox made no effort at the sort of promotion movies usually receive, beyond some licensing and magazine advertising.  Word about the film was spread through science fiction conventions in 1984, including free Buckaroo Banzai headbands distributed at Star Trek conventions. 20th Century Fox made no real effort to promote the film to a mainstream audience.

Given the lack of promotion, it should have surprised no one that it failed at the box office. Ultimately it earned only $6.2 million in North America and earned back only half of its production costs. That having been said, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension did earn a few positive reviews from notable critics, including Vincent Canby, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. While The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension bombed at the box office, it would find new life on premium cable channels and particularly on home video. It has since become a cult film.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was clearly meant to be the beginning of a franchise. The closing credits even tease Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. Of course, given the movie's meagre box office, the sequel would never be made. Over the years, however, a "Buckaroo Banzai" franchise has emerged. In 1984 there was a novelisation published by Pocket Books and a Marvel Comics adaptation. Beginning in 2006 Moonstone Books began publishing comic books featuring adventures of Buckaroo Banzai both before and after the 1984 film. There have been two attempts to launch a "Buckaroo Banzai" TV series. The first was in 1998 when the TV network Fox announced the development of a series to be titled Buckaroo Banzai: Ancient Secrets and New Mysteries. The series never came to fruition. In 2016 director Kevin Smith announced a "Buckaroo Banzai" TV series he would make through MGM Television. Plans for this proposed television series ended when Kevin Smith left the project due to MGM suing Earl Mac Rauch and W. D. Richter, the creators of Buckaroo Banzai, over the rights to the character.

A bomb upon its initial release, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension has since become a cult film. In some circles it is even regarded as a classic. That is quite an achievement for a film that seems impossible to adequately describe.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar

Bob Bailey, who played Johnny Dollar
Among the many radio shows produced during the era of Old Time Radio, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar has an honour that it shares with Suspense alone. Quite simply, on September 30 1962 Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense would become the last radio dramas from the Golden Age of Radio to air new episodes. For enthusiasts, this date is considered the end of Old Time Radio.

The best known format of the show centred on Johnny Dollar, a freelance insurance investigator characterised as "the man with the action-packed expense account." He usually worked for the Universal Adjustment Bureau, who would send him on a variety of cases, from stolen art to acting as a bodyguard for a rich man whose life had been threatened. Each episode would end with Johnny totalling his expense account. He would end it, "End of report. Yours truly, Johnny Dollar."

While Johnny Dollar is best remembered as a freelance insurance investigator, he did not start out that way. In fact, he wasn't even "Johnny Dollar." The show was originally to be called Yours Truly, Lloyd London. Why the name was changed remains a bit of a mystery, but it seems possible that it was to avoid possible legal action from famous insurance company Lloyd's of London. The 1948 audition show (the radio equivalent of a television pilot) featured Dick Powell in the role of Johnny Dollar. Mr. Powell passed on the series to do Rouge's Gallery and Richard Diamond, Private Detective instead. Charles Russell was then cast in the role. As originally conceived, Johnny Dollar was not an insurance investigator and there was actually very little to differentiate him from other private eyes on radio. He was simply another wisecracking, tough as nails detective, with the only thing to differentiate him from other private detectives being his habit of tipping waiters, bellhops, et. al. with silver dollars.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar received some fairly negative reviews upon its debut, but it turned out to be a success regardless. That having been said, it would go through changes in its leading man. Charles Russell remained with the show until January 1950, after which Edmund O'Brien took over. Mr. O'Brien would remain until September 1952. He would be followed by John Lund who remained with the show until the end of its initial run in September 1954.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar would remain off the air for over a year. In 1955 an audition show was made that totally revamped the format of the show. No longer a private detective, Johnny Dollar was now the familiar freelance insurance investigator with the "action-packed expense account." Gerald Mohr played Johnny Dollar in the audition show, but it would be Bob Bailey who would play him in the regular series. Bob Bailey would remain with the show for several years, becoming arguably the most popular actor in the role. While during the original series Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had been a once a week show, the revival was a five day a week serial. In 1956 it would become a once a week show again. Curiously, for most of its run the revival of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a sustaining program on CBS. That is, it aired without a sponsor.

Bob Bailey remained with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar until November 1960. It was then that the show moved to New York City. Unwilling to move, Mr. Bailey left the show and Bob Readick took over. He remained until June 1961, after which Mandel Kramer took over. He remained until the show went off the air.

During most of its run, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar did not feature much in the way of a supporting cast. In the mid-Fifties Virginia Gregg played Johnny's girlfriend Betty Lewis. That having been said, there were some fairly big name actors who regularly appeared on the show, including Parley Baer, Ed Begley, William Conrad, John Denher, Jack Kruschen, Howard McNear, and yet others.

As with many radio shows, CBS would attempt to bring Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to television. In late 1949 CBS made a pilot with Charles Russell, then the voice of Johnny on the radio, in the role. It would have aired live on the West Coast and then through kinescope in the rest of the country. CBS did not pick up the show. It was in 1956, following the radio show's revival in 1955, that CBS prepared another pilot, this one based on a script by E. Jack Newman (who had written for the radio show). This attempt seems to have gotten no further than the discussion stage. In 1959 Screen Gems was working on a television pilot for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, but it apparently never made it beyond the discussion stage as well.

It would be in either late 1961 or early 1962 that MGM-TV and Project III Enterprises made a pilot for a half hour Johnny Dollar series that would have debuted in the 1962-1963 season. The pilot starred William Bryant and Blake Edwards served as executive producer. The music was even composed by Henry Mancini. Unfortunately, CBS passed on the pilot.

While Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar aired one last time on September 30 1962, it would not be forgotten. Reruns of the show have aired on various radio stations through the years, and episodes are widely available on CD and MP3s. In 2003 Moonstone Books published a graphic novel based on the radio show. Since then it has published further Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar books.

In total, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar would run twelve years. And while it is not remembered among the general population beyond those of a certain age, it remains a favourite among Old Time Radio enthusiasts. In an era when more recent properties are constantly being rebooted and re-imagined, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar seems ripe for revival. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

"Baby Love" by The Supremes

It was fifty-five years ago today that The Supremes recorded "Baby Love." The song was written by the songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, who had written the group's previous hit, "Where Did Our Love Go." It was produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. In the United States, it would be the second (after "Where Did Our Love Go") of five consecutive no. 1 singles for The Supremes. In the United Kingdom "Baby Love" would be their first no. 1 record there.

Without further ado, here is "Baby Love" by The Supremes

Monday, August 12, 2019

Production Designer Sy Tomashoff Passes On

Sy Tomashoff, who served as a production designer on various soap operas, died on August 1 2019 at the age of 96.

Sy Tomasonhoff was born on September 11 1922 in New York City. He attended City College in New York City before he attended the Engineering Officer Training Program at Carnegie Tech at the start of World War II. During the war he served under General George S. Patton as a rifleman. He received the he Combat Infantryman Badge and a Bronze Star for valour. Following the war Mr. Tomashoff attended Carnegie Tech, where he received a  bachelor's degree in 1950.

His career in television began as a set decorator on the anthology series Armstrong Circle Theatre. He also served as a set decorator on The Edge of Night. He served as an art director on the primetime shows East Side/West Side and For the People. It was in 1966 that he began his stint as production director on Dark Shadows. He also served as an associate producer on the show. Over the years he served as a production director on Ryan's Hope, as well as The Bold and the Beautiful, on which he was a production designer for 13 years.

While I cannot say anything about Mr. Tomashoff's work on other soap operas, his work on Dark Shadows was incredible, particularly given the show's limited budget. This was particularly true of Collinwood Mansion, which was all carved wood, stained glass, and shadowy areas. If Dark Shadows was particularly spooky, it was largely due to Sy Tomashoff's production design.