Friday, April 30, 2021

Godspeed Johnny Crawford

Johnny Crawford, the actor and singer best known  for playing Mark McCain on the classic Western television series The Rifleman, died yesterday, April 29 2021, at the age of 75. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2019. More recently, he had contracted COVID-19 and still later pneumonia.

Johnny Crawford was born on March 26 1946 in Los Angeles, California. His father was television editor Robert Crawford Sr. His older brother, Bobby Crawford, would also go into acting. Johnny Crawford appeared on television while still very young. He made his television debut in 1950 on The Pinky Lee Show. In 1951 he sang on The Steve Allen Show. It was in 1955 that he became one of the first 24 Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. Johnny Crawford would only last on The Mickey Mouse Club for its first season. At the end of that season it was decided to reduce the number of Mosueketeers on the show to 12 and so he was released from his contract.

While he was no longer on The Mickey Mouse Club, Johnny Crawford was not without work. He guest starred on such shows as Chevron Hall of Stars, Lux Video Theatre, The Lone Ranger, Cavalcade of America, The Count of Monte Cristo, Climax!, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Sheriff of Cochise, Telephone, Crossroads, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Millionaire, The Loretta Young Show, Mr. Adams and Eve, Have Gun--Will Travel, Make Room for Daddy, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Whirlybirds, Zane Grey Theatre, Wagon Train, Playhouse 90, Trackdown, Matinee Theatre, The Restless Gun, and Tales of Wells Fargo. He appeared in the movies Courage of Black Beauty (1957) and The Space Children (1958).

It was in 1959 that he began playing Mark McCain on The Rifleman. Mark McCain was the son of the title character, Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors), and the two of them lived on a homestead outside North Fork, New Mexico Territory. The show was historic as it was the first American television series ever to feature a single parent raising a child. It also differed from previous Westerns on American television up to that time as it was as much a family drama as it was a Western. The Rifleman was well received critically and did very well in the ratings. In 1959 Johnny Crawford was nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series for his role as Mark McCain.

In the Sixties Johnny Crawford guest starred on the shows The Donna Reed Show, and The Dick Powell Show. In 1965 he guest starred on the TV show Branded, which starred his former Rifleman co-star Chuck Connors. During the decade he also guest starred on the shows Mr. Novak, Mister Ed, Rawhide, Lancer, Hawaii Five-O, and The Big Valley. In the mid-Sixties he served in the United States Army. He appeared in the movies Indian Point (1965), Village of the Giants (1965), The Restless Ones (1965), and El Dorado (1966). He played the title role in the movie short "The Resurrection of Bronco Billy."

Early in the Sixties, Johnny Crawford also had a successful recording career. His first single, "Daydreams," was released in 1961 and went to no. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100. From 1961 to 1968 he released 16 singles, four of which entered the top forty. His single "Cindy's Birthday" went to no. 8. He released the albums The Captivating Johnny Crawford, Young Man's Fancy, and Rumors, in addition to two greatest hits collections.

In the Seventies Johnny Crawford guest starred on the shows Cade's County and Little House on the Prairie. He appeared in the movies The Naked Ape (1973), The Inbreaker (1974), and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976). In the Eighties Johnny Crawford played the recurring role of Prince Ignatius on the TV show Crossbow. He guest starred on Movie Macabre; Murder, She Wrote; and Paradise. He also began a career as a crooner. Late in the Eighties, Johnny Crawford was the lead vocalist for Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. In 1990 he formed Crawford Music Services, which provided music for live events.

It was in 1992 that he formed the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, a vintage dance orchestra that played at special events. The Orchestra released a live album in 2008, Sweepin' the Clouds Away. In the Nineties he reprised his role as Mark McCain in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw. He also appeared in the TV movie Rupert Patterson Wants to Be a Super Hero.He appeared in the movie The Thirteenth Floor (1999). His final appearance on film was in the movie Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws (2019), playing silent screen Western star William S. Hart.

While chances are good that Johnny Crawford will always be remembered as Mark McCain on The Rifleman, he was a man of multiple talents. He gave solid performances not only on The Rifleman and Crossbow, but in multiple guest appearances on TV shows and movies as well. He was a pastor's son who becomes involved with a disturbed young girl in The Restless Ones. In the Big Valley episode "The Other Side of Justice," on which Stockton's former sheriff went on a killing spree, he played a young deputy. Of course, Johnny Crawford wasn't just an actor, but a talented singer as well. While many young actors developed singing careers in the early sixties, Johnny Crawford was actually good at it. He was impressive as the leader of the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra. Johnny Crawford may always be remembered as Mark McCain, but he did so much more.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Late Great Michael Collins

Apollo 11, the NASA mission that landed men on the moon, was one of the greatest achievements in the history of humanity. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin. Of the three astronauts who formed the crew of Apollo 11, one would never set foot on the moon. Michael Collins was the pilot of the command module Columbia. Major General Collins achievement in taking Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and then bring them back to Earth was impressive. He circled the moon alone and went through a list of 117 contingencies should anything go wrong. For docking with the lunar module Eagle Michael Collins had a notebook with 18 different scenarios. Michael Collins executed the docking procedure perfectly. After his work with NASA, Michael Collins would continue to be an advocate for space exploration. Sadly, Michael Collins died yesterday, April 28 2021, at the age of 90. The cause was cancer.

Michael Collins was born on October 31 1930 in Rome. His father was Major General James Lawton Collins, who was then a U.S. military attaché in Rome. As his father was in the United States Army, Michael Collins spent his childhood in a variety of places. It was following the start of World War II that his family moved to Washington, D.C. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated with Bachelor of Science degree. Due to his interest in aeronautics and wanting to avoid any accusations of nepotism if he joined the United States Army, following his graduation he enlisted in the United States Air Force.

Michael Collins trained as a fighter pilot and aircraft maintenance officer before becoming a test pilot. He was inspired by NASA's Mercury Atlas 6 mission, in which John Glenn circled the Earth three times, on February 20 1962 to become an astronaut. He applied for the second group of astronauts, but he was not accepted. When NASA later called for a third group of astronauts, Michael Collins applied to become an astronaut and was accepted. He served as the back up pilot for Gemini 7 and the pilot on Gemini 10, the latter of which was his first space flight. He was assigned to the backup crew for Apollo 2, but the mission was ultimately cancelled.

In 1968 Michael Collins had to have surgery for a slipped disc. He served on Apollo 8 as a capsule commander, an astronaut at Mission Control who communicates directly with the crew. By the time of Apollo 11, Michael Collins had completely recovered from his surgery. He not only served as the pilot of the Command Module Columbia, but also designed the mission patch for Apollo 11.

Michael Collins elected not to venture into space following Apollo 11, even though NASA's rotation of crew would have made him commander of both Apollo 14 and Apollo 17. He did not wish to go undergo three more years of rigorous training and he wanted to spend more time with his family. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from January 6 1970 to April 11 1971. Afterwards he served as Director of National Air and Space Museum. He later became a vice president of LTV Aerospace and then founded his own consulting firm, Michael Collins Associates.

Throughout it all Michael Collins remained a tireless advocate for space exploration. In 1974 his autobiography Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys was published. He also wrote the books Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places (1976) and Mission to Mars (1990).

Michael Collins never thought of himself as a hero. He once said, "Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don’t count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. . . . Celebrities? What nonsense." I have to think many Americans would disagree with him. Major General Collins did things that not only took highly specialized skills, but an extraordinary amount of courage. He did things only a very few of us could do. What is more, he made history. He took astronauts to the Moon and brought them home and he did it for the very first time. Any number of things could have gone wrong, any number of mistakes could have been made, but Michael Collins did it without error. After his career as an astronaut, Michael Collins continued to support space exploration and was instrumental in the establishment of the National Air and Space Museum. Thee can be no doubt that many of today's astronauts owe their careers to him, and many young people who have gone into careers in science probably do as well.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The 93rd Academy Awards

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, last night's Academy Awards ceremony was a bit different. Opinion seems to be divided with regards to the scaled down, streamlined ceremony, with some people hating it and others loving it. As for myself, I am a bit divided on it myself. On the one hand, it was nice not having to sit through insufferable dance numbers and unfunny comedy sketches for a change. On the other hand, I really miss having an Oscars host and I don't see where it would have hurt for them to have a few movie clips. I have missed the presence of a host for the last few years and I missed the film clips this year.

One thing I did not like is that this year's Oscars were presented out of order. Traditionally, Best Picture is always the last award presented of the night, with Best Director being the penultimate award given. For whatever reason, last night the Best Director award was given early in the evening, while the Lead Actor and Actress awards were given after Best Picture. Aside from the fact that his breaks with tradition, to me it made the whole end of the ceremony anti-climactic. Best Picture has always been acknowledged as the biggest award of the night. For me, at least, my interest in the awards were not as strong as it is prior to Best Picture being presented. I suspect that is true of many people.

Of course, I thought the presentation of Best Actor was handled very badly. Joaquin Phoenix couldn't have made his disappointment at Anthony Hopkins's winning the award for The Father over Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom more obvious. Worse yet, Mr. Phoenix simply accepted the award on Anthony Hopkins's behalf when, according to The Guardian, Mr. Hopkins's co-star Olivia Colman was in the audience and prepared to accept the award on his behalf should he win. Regardless of who he wanted to win, Joaquin Phoenix's behaviour was unacceptable in an Oscar presenter. Of course, here I have to note that Mr. Phoenix was not the only one who was disappointed that Chadwick Boseman did not win. As for myself, I have seen neither The Father nor Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, so I don't have an opinion. I do have friends who think Mr. Hopkins entirely deserved to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

While Joaquin Phoenix's behaviour and the abrupt ending to the ceremony were definitely among the Academy Awards' low points last night, the night did have some very fine moments. Like many, I was touched by director Thomas Vinterberg's acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for Another Round. For those who don't know, Mr. Vinterberg's daughter, Ida, died in an automobile when Another Round was only a few days in production. Of her death and the film, he said, "Before her death it was an ambition to make a life-affirming film; that became a necessity. I wanted to celebrate the life that we lose so easily." Mr. Vinterberg's acceptance speech was then not merely an acceptance speech, but a beautiful tribute to his daughter Ida.

This year the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was given to both the Motion Picture & Television Fund and Tyler Perry. Both awards were well deserved, and both presentations were inspiring. The Motion Picture & Television Fund is the first organization to win the award. For those unfamiliar with The Motion Picture & Television Fund, they are a charity that cares for those in the movie and television industries who have no families or limited income. Of course, Tyler Perry is well known for his humanitarianism. His acceptance speech last night called on people to "refuse hate."

Another highlight for me last night night was Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as Soon-ja in the movie Minari.  From the very beginning she was both charming and funny. Despite being a film and television legend in Korea, Yuh-jung Youn behaved as many of us would upon meeting actor Brad Pitt, a bit starstruck. If a Korean icon being starstruck at meeting Brad Pitt was not enough, Yuh-jung Youn was genuinely happy at winning Best Supporting Actress, while exhibiting a high degree of humility. She mentioned every single one of her fellow nominees. Her speech was easily the funniest and most charming acceptance speech of the night. Here it must be pointed out that Yuh-jung Youn's win was historic. She is the first Korean actress to win an acting award and only the second Asian to win the Best Supporting Actress Award.

Yet another highlight for me was Rita Moreno presenting the Best Picture award. Miss Moreno was beautiful, charming, and funny, as always. Of course, as a matter of full disclosure I have to admit that I have had a crush on Miss Moreno since I was eight years old, so that for me she is always beautiful, charming, and funny.

Here I have to say this year's Academy Awards were much more inclusive than past years have been. Many more people of colour were nominated in categories and even won. Chloé Zhao was both nominated for and won the Best Director award for Nomadland. Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, and Steven Yeun were nominated for Best Actor. Viola Davis and Andra Day were nominated for Best Actress. Daniel Kaluuya and Yuh-jung Youn won Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. While there is still room for progress, the Academy Awards were much better this year in acknowledging the contributions of people in colour.

While the 93rd Academy Awards had some high points last night, the In Memoriam segment was one of its low points. I have to admit that last night the Academy included many more beloved stars than they have in In Memoriam segments the past several years. In the past several years they have excluded such big names as Andy Griffith, Polly Bergen,Robert Vaughn, and Tim Conway, among many others. In 2019 they even excluded my dearest friend Vanessa Marquez, despite an online petition that exceeded 12,000 signatures.

Fortunately, this year's In Memoriam included actors that I suspect they would have excluded in prior years, including Cicely Tyson, Cloris Leachman, Yapht Kotto, Paula Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Marge Champion, and Dame Diana Rigg. That having been said, they did exclude three people who should have absolutely been included in the In Memoriam segment. While Honor Blackman may be best remembered as Mrs. Cathy Gale on The Avengers, she also made several movies, including a turn as Hera in Jason and the Argonauts (1964). Like Honor Blackman, Jessica Walter may have been best known for her work in television, but she appeared in several movies, including Grand Prix (1966), Play Misty for Me (1971), and The Flamingo Kid (1984). They also excluded composer Adam Schesinger. While many of will best remember him for his work with power pop band Fountains of Wayne, he worked a good deal in motion pictures. He even wrote an Oscar nominated song, "That Thing You Do!," for the movie of the same name. Adam Schlesinger's omission is particularly galling given Angela Bassett in her introduction to the In Memoriam mentioned the many COVID-19 deaths last year. Mr. Schlesinger died from COVID-19 on April 1 2020.

While last night's In Memoriam included more beloved actors than most, it also proved to be one of the worst In Memoriam segments the Academy Awards ever produced. It seemed to move forward at warp speed, with each person shown for only microseconds. Given we lost such big names as Olivia de Havilland, Cloris Leachman, Sean Connery, and yet others this past year, the speed at which the Academy rushed through the In Memoriam segment seemed downright disrespectful. Their choice of song to accompany the In Memoriam segment only made matters worse. Don't get me wrong. I love "As" by Stevie Wonder. I also love "Got to Get You into My Life" by The Beatles, but I wouldn't want it played during an In Memoriam segment! The problem with "As" is that it much too upbeat for something as solemn as an In Memoriam segment.

Anyway, I think the Academy has to face some facts with regards to the In Memoriam segment. First, it is one of the highlights of the night for the viewing audience at home. It is a chance for them to acknowledge the stars they love. For that reason, it should not be rushed and it should be accompanied by a suitable song. Second, beloved stars should be included in the In Memoriam segment, regardless of how much time that adds to the segment. When the audience wants to see Andy Griffith, Vanessa Marquez, or Honor Blackman during the In Memoriam segment, you had damn well better include them. In the end the In Memoriam segment should not be made for the Academy, it should be made for the audience at home.

Over all I cannot say I was as unhappy with the 93rd Academy Awards as I have been some others. I did like the scaled-down ceremony in that it was free of the dance numbers and unfunny comedy routines that have bogged down some ceremonies the past few years. On the other hand, I really did not like that the awards were presented out of their traditional order. Best Picture had been the final award since 1927 for a reason. I also wish that for once the Academy would do the In Memoriam justice. They really need to take care that the stars audiences love, like Jessica Walter and Honor Blackman, are included, even if it makes the In Memoriam longer. And the In Memoriam should not be rushed through. If it last four minutes and a half (the average length of a TCM Remembers segment), then so be it. The Academy Awards are a chance for the movie industry to show off. It is a chance to thank movie fans for their continued patronage of movies in the past year. Sadly, the past many years, the Academy has missed their mark in both showing off and making sure that they are grateful for movie audiences.