Saturday, October 22, 2022

Seinfeld: The Cheever Letters

Vanessa Marquez in the Seinfeld episode "The Cheever Letters"
Vanessa Marquez
This coming Friday it will have been thirty years since the Seinfeld episode "The Cheever Letters" first aired. The episode aired on Wednesday, October 28 on NBC. While not as well known as such Seinfeld episodes as "The Contest," "The Soup Nazi," "The Merv Griffin Show," or "The Calzone," "The Cheever Letters" was in many ways a pivotal episode for the show. It is an important episode to me because it marked the only guest appearance of my dearest Vanessa Marquez on the show. It was also the first time she played an adult role after playing juvenile roles in film and TV shows. It was also one of her earliest guest appearances on television.

"The Cheever Letters" was written by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, Elaine Pope, and Tom Leopold. Like many episodes of the show, "The Cheever Letters" featured multiple subplots, some of which carried over from earlier episodes. One of these subplots that carried over from earlier episodes was Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander) continuing work on the television sitcom pilot they are developing for NBC. Two other subplots carry over from the previous episode, "The Bubble Boy," in which Kramer (Michael Richards) is careless with a cigar and as a result burns down the cabin owned by the parents of George's girlfriend Susan (Heidi Swedberg).

The first of these subplots resulting from the cabin burning down is the fact that George and Susan must break the bad news to her parents (Warren Frost and Grace Zabriskie). They do so at a dinner with her parents, and her father takes it very badly. He goes into another room sobbing. It is later, when Jerry and George visit Susan's parents to return her sunglasses, that a doorman (David Blackwood) delivers a metal box, the only thing that survived the fire at the cabin. As it turns out the metal box contains letters between novelist John Cheever and Susan's father detailing their rather torrid affair.

The second subplot that grew out of the burning of the cabin in "The Bubble Boy" is the loss of Kramer's source for Cuban cigars. As a cigar connoisseur who prefers Cubans, Kramer is distraught about the cigars having burned up, and requests that George ask Susan's father for more of them. When George fails to do so, Kramer decides to find a new source on his own and visits the Cuban diplomatic mission at the United Nations. There he strikes a deal with the diplomats in which he trades his jacket to one of them for more Cuban cigars. This is the subplot in which my dearest Vanessa Marquez appears. She plays the receptionist at the Cuban diplomatic mission.

Finally, a fourth subplot deals with Jerry complaining about Elaine's assistant Sandra (Lisa Malkiewicz) being overly chatty. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) then asks Sandra to not be so talkative with Jerry, whereupon Sandra quits. Elaine asks Jerry to call Sandra and take back what he had said by claiming that Elaine misconstrued his comments. It was while Jerry and Sandra are on the phone that Sandra asks him out. Jerry agrees to a date, which goes badly after Jerry says something to her that, to paraphrase George, is "not offensive" but is "abnormal." This subplot ends with what might be the best line in "The Cheever Letters," a zinger delivered by Elaine towards Jerry. This particular subplot was based on an actual experience by writer Tom Leopold, in which he said the exact same thing to a date that Jerry had, with a similar reaction from his date.

"The Cheever Letters" was shot on September 22 1992 in front of a live studio audience at CBS Studio Center in Los Angeles. When it first aired, it received a Nielsen rating of 11.1 with an audience share of 17.

Here I should point out that the John Cheever who gives "The Cheever Letters" its title was an actual novelist, who lived from 1913 to 1982. He was known for writing four novels: The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer (which George is reading at the end of the episode). He also wrote the novella Oh What a Paradise It Seems and several short stories. It was following his death that his daughter Susan Cheever revealed in her memoirs (Home Before Dark) that her father had affairs with both women and men. This would be confirmed by John Cheever's own journals and letters. The idea that Susan's father had an affair with John Cheever is then not very far-fetched.

As I mentioned earlier, while not as well known as some other Seinfeld episodes, "The Cheever Letters" is significant to the show for several reasons. "The Cheever Letters" would mark the very first time that Susan's parents appeared on the show. Strangely enough they would not appear again until the seventh season episode "The Rye," their marriage apparently having survived the revelation that Mr. Ross had an affair with John Cheever.

"The Cheever Letters" would also mark the first credited guest appearance of actor Timothy Omundson, who played Susan's brother Ricky. Timothy Onmundson would go on to have regular and recurring roles on the TV shows Judging Amy, Psych, Galavant. and This is Us. Curiously, this was the only time that Susan's brother Ricky ever appeared on the show. He was absent even for major plot lines.

Lisa Malkiewicz was not the only actress considered for the role of Elaine's assistant Sandra. Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle Pfeiffer's sister, later a regular on Cybill and currently a regular on the show Big Sky) and Kim Gillingham (earlier a regular on the short-lived show One Big Family) also auditioned for the part. Both actresses would later appear in Seinfeld episodes, Dedee Pfeiffer in the fifth season episode "The Opposite" and  Kim Gillingham in the fifth season episode "The Puffy Shirt."

"The Cheever Letters" was Vanessa Marquez's second guest appearance on a TV show, following an appearance on the short-lived Tequila and Bonetti earlier in the year. While Vanessa was Mexican in descent, it was the second time she played a character of Cuban descent. She was set to have a recurring role as Consuelo Burns, the niece of the new lead character Michael Santana (Steven Bauer), on the TV show Wiseguy, but the show was cancelled before her episodes and never aired. They would be seen in syndication and would be released on the fourth season DVD set of Wiseguy in 2009. Both Michael Santana and hence Vanessa's character were Cuban in descent.

Vanessa never related any memories of her guest appearance on Seinfeld, other than saying it was one of the more pleasant experiences in her career. Given how briefly she appears on the episode (she appears for around a minute or two and has only a few lines), I have to think she did not spend much time on the Seinfeld set. Vanessa did say that out of everything she had ever done, "The Cheever Letters" was the most consistent in delivering residuals to her, even beating out Stand and Deliver (1988). This should be no surprise, given how often it has aired since Seinfeld entered syndication.  Here I have to once more point out that "The Cheever Letters" was the first time that Vanessa Marquez played an adult character. Before the episode, she had played teenagers in the movies Stand and Deliver and Night Children, the TV movies Sweet 15 and Locked Up: A Mother's Rage, and on the TV shows Wiseguy and Tequila and Bonetti.

"The Cheever Letters" was the eighth episode of the fourth season of Seinfeld, the season in which the show finally broke into the mainstream. It was during the season that NBC moved Seinfeld from Wednesday to Thursday night, which resulted in a rise in the show's ratings. For the first time since it debuted, Seinfeld ranked in the top 30, coming in at no. 25 for the year. It was also the year that several of the show's best known episodes aired, including "The Bubble Boy," "The Contest," "The Outing," and "The Junior Mint."

"The Cheever Letters" may not be as well known as any of those episodes, but, as pointed out above, it was a pivotal episode for the show. It marked the first appearance of Susan's parents. It also gave Timothy Onmundson the first credit of what has been a very successful career. It would only be a few years later that he appeared on Judging Amy and Psych. And while Vanessa Marquez only appears briefly in the episode, it marked the first time she played an adult role and gave her more exposure than she had since Stand and Deliver. It would only be two years later that she would return to NBC on Thursday nights as Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER.

On a personal level, I also think it is one of the all-tme funniest Seinfeld episodes. There are some truly hilarious bits here, from George delivering the bad news about the cabin to Susan's parents to Kramer at the Cuban Diplomatic Mission at the UN to the revelation that Susan's father had an affair with John Cheever. And the zinger Elaine directs at Jerry at the end of the show is one of the best closes to an episode of the entire run. Indeed, the line received such an enthusiastic and prolonged response from the audience that it had to be buffered and truncated  when the episode was edited. During its fourth season Seinfeld truly came into its own, and "The Cheever Letters" is proof of that.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Donald Pleasence as Prince John on The Adventures of Robin Hood

(This post is part of the Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasance Blogathon Hosted by Realweedgiemidget Reviewsand Cinematic Catharsis)

Today Donald Pleasence may be best known as Blythe, "The Forger," in The Great Escape (1963) and Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967). Not many people may remember that he played the villainous Prince John on the 1950s ITV television series The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was Donald Pleasence who originated the role on the series, and he would appear four times as Prince John on the show.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Adventures of Robin Hood, it was set in England at the time King Richard the Lionheart was away on the Crusades and Prince John was ruling in his stead. It centred on the legendary outlaw Robin Hood (Richard Greene) and his band of merry men as they opposed the machinations of the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Wheatley) in Sherwood Forest and the surrounding area. Although it was not the first British television show to air in the United States, it was the first to be a major hit there, paving the way for Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, and many others to come. It debuted in the United Kingdom on September 25 1955. In the United States it aired on CBS and debuted on September 26 1955. The Adventures of Robin Hood proved incredibly successful, inspiring such similar series as The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers, and The Adventures of William Tell. It also produced a great deal of merchandise on both sides of the Pond. Ultimately, it ran for four seasons and has persisted as a syndicated rerun ever since.

Throughout the series, the Sheriff of Nottingham was often acting on the orders of Prince John, but Prince John would not appear until the final episode of the first season. In "The Prisoner" a rumour has spread that King Richard has died in the Crusades. Taking advantage of the rumour, Prince John imprisons a courier who has arrived with news that Richard is alive, and then sets to have himself crowned King of England. Fortunately, Robin Hood gets wind of the plot. In the episode Prince John makes for a sharp contrast to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Although scheming and villainous, Prince John is a coward at heart and would rather hide than face Robin in combat.

Not only was Prince John on The Adventures of Robin Hood dishonestly and cowardly, he also apparently lacks other morals as well. In the second season episode "Isabella," John plots to set his current wife, Princess Avice (Helen Cherry), aside and marry the French princess Isabella (Zena Walker). John's hope is that once he does so, the French king will recognize him as the rightful King of England. Fortunately, Princess Avice alerts Robin Hood to the plot.

What might have been Prince John's most sinister plot occurs later in the second season. In "Ambush" Prince John plots for Prince Arthur (Peter Asher, later of Peter & Gordon fame), the son of Prince John and King Richard's brother Geoffrey whom Richard had designated as the heir to the throne, to die in an "accident." As might be expected, Robin Hood learns of the plot and takes action to protect the young prince. Here I have to point out that historically Arthur I, Duke of Brittany, was indeed the son of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, and King Richard the Lionheart did appoint him as his heir apparent. What eventually happened to Duke Arthur remains a mystery to this day, but there are historians who think Prince John had a hand in it.

Donald Pleasence appeared one final time as Prince John on The Adventures of Robin Hood in the third season episode "Marian's Prize." In "Marian's Prize," while the Sheriff of Nottingham is away, Prince John is in Nottingham and arranges for an archery contest in order to trap Robin Hood. As it turns out, Robin Hood and Little John (Archie Duncan) are off on a hunting trip. The merry men then set up their own archery contest, to see which of their number should compete in Prince John's contest in Robin's stead. They let Marian (Patricia Driscoll) compete in their contest and, as it turns out, she is the best archer among them. She then competes in Prince John's archery contest disguised as a boy. "Marian's Prize" differs a bit from the earlier episodes featuring Prince John, which play out almost like medieval spy dramas. "Marian's Prize" is a bit more straight forward and, in fact, the episode could have easily been done with the Sheriff of Nottingham as the villain.

Donald Pleasence was not the only actor to play Prince John on The Adventures of Robin Hood. Hubert Gregg played Prince John in two third season episodes. He had earlier played the character in the 1952 movie The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. Brian Haines played Prince John in a single, third season episode. While others played the role on the show, it was Donald Pleasance who originated the role and he was the one who played it the most.

Aside from his guest appearances as Prince John, Donald Pleasence also made one other guest appearance on The Adventures of Robin Hood.  In "A Village Wooing," Robin and the merry men seek to help Wat Longfellow (Leslie Phillips), win the hand of the Widow Winifred (Betty Impey). Unfortunately for Wat, Bailiff Baldwin, played by Donald Pleasance, also has his eye on the widow. Baliliff Baldwin is a very different character from Prince John. Although a stickler for the rules and more than a bit superstitious and a little underhanded, Baldwin was not evil in the way John was.

Donald Pleasence did an extraordinary job of playing Prince John, and it is easy to see how he would later become a movie star. He is barely recognizable as John, having a full head of hair and a beard. Of course, once Donald Pleasence as Prince John speaks in any given episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, it is no mistaking him for anyone but Donald Pleasence. To Prince John, Donald Pleasence brought just the right amount of knavery, conceit, and cowardice. Prince John lacks the Sheriff of Nottingham's bravery, but he more than makes up for it in the depths to which he will stoop to get the throne. While both Hubert Gregg and Brian Haines made for acceptable Prince Johns, neither of them were as good as Donald Pleasence. If Donald Pleasence excelled in playing such villains as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed (1976), it is perhaps because he got plenty of practice on The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Godspeed Robbie Coltrane

Robbie Coltrane, best known for playing Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" movies and the caustic Dr. Fitzgerald on the British television series Cracker, died on October 14 2022 at the age of 72. No cause was given. He had suffered from osteoarthritis later in his life.

Robbie Coltrane was born Anthony Robert McMillan on March 30 1950 in Rutherglen, South Lancashire. His father was a physician, who also served as a forensic surgeon with the police, while his mother was a pianist and teacher.  He attended Belmont House School in Newton Mearns and then  Glenalmond College in Perthsire. He attended the Glasgow School of Art, where he studied painting. He continued studying art at Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh.

He would not prove successful as an artist, and as a result began performing stand-up comedy in clubs around Edinburgh. For his stage name he took the last name "Coltrane" in honour of jazz legend John Coltrane.

Robbie Coltrane made his television debut in an episode of Play for Today in 1979. The following year he made movie debut in a bit part in La mort en direct (1980).  That same year he appeared in a small part in the movie Flash Gordon (1980), the mini-series The Lost Tribe, and the TV movie The House with the Green Shutters.

In the Eighties Robbie Coltrane was a regular and recurring cast member on the shows A Kick Up the Eighties, Alfresco, Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee, and The Lenny Henry Show. He guest starred on the shows Metal Mickey, Keep It in the Family, The Comic Strip Presents, Luna, Are You Being Served?, The Young Ones, Minder, Girls on Top, Black Adder the Third, Saturday Live, French and Saunders, and Thompson. He appeared in the mini-series Tutti Frutti and the television special Blackadder's Christmas Carol. He appeared in the movies Subway Riders (1981), Britannia Hospital (1982), Scrubbers (1982), Krull (1983), Ghost Dance (1983), Loose Connections (1983), Chinese Boxes (1984), National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Defence of the Realm (1985), The Supergrass (1985), Revolution (1985), Caravaggio (1986), Absolute Beginners (1986), Mona Lisa (1986), Eat the Rich (1987), The Fruit Machine (1988), Slipstream (1988), Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (1989), Let It Ride (1989), Henry V (1989), Nuns on the Run (1990), Perfectly Normal (1990), and Midnight Breaks (1990).

In the Nineties Robbie Coltrane played Dr. Eward "Fitz" Fitzgerald on the TV show Cracker. He guest starred on the TV series Screen One, ABC Weekend Specials, and Screenplay. He appeared in the movies Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (1991), The Pope Must Die (1991), Oh, What a Night (1992), The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993), GoldenEye (1995), Buddy (1997), Montana (1998), Frogs for Snakes (1998), Message in a Bottle (1999), and The World is Not Enough (1999).

In the Naughts Robbie Coltrane began playing Rubeus Hagrid, the groundskeeper and gamekeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in the "Harry Potter" movies starting with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001. He appeared in all eight movies, throughout the Naughts and into the early Teens. He also appeared in the movies From Hell (2001), On the Nose (2001), Van Helsing (2004), Ocean's Twelve (2004), Provoked: A True Story (2006), Stormbreaker (2006), and The Brother's Bloom (2008). He was the voice of Gregory in The Tale of Despereaux (2008) and the title character in Gooby (2009). On television he guest starred on the TV shows Frasier and Still Game. He appeared in the mini-series Murderland. He also reprised his role as Fitz in the final Cracker special in 2006.

In the Teens Robbie Coltrane played Hagrid in the final "Harry Potter" movie,  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011). He appeared in the movies Great Expectations (2012) and Effie Gray (2014). He was the voice of the lead elf in Arthur Christmas (2011) Lord Dingwall in Brave (2012). He guest starred on the TV shows Yes, Prime Minister and Urban Myths. He appeared in the mini-series National Treasure.

Robbie Coltrane was a talented and versatile actor. This can be demonstrated by looking at his two best known roles. Fitz on Cracker was cranky, caustic, and foul-mouthed, and tended to smoke, drink, and gamble far too much. Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" movies was about as far removed from Fitz as one could get. Hagrid was soft-hearted, loved animals (both magical and otherwise), friendly, and loyal to his friends. Ftiz and Hagrid were not isolated cases either, as he often played characters who were dramatically different from each other. In Henry V (1989) he played John Flastaff, the vain, overly boastful knight who spend much of his time drinking. In Nuns on the Run, he played small-time hood Charlie McManus who goes on the run disguised as a nun with his buddy Brian Hope (Eric Idle). In two "James Bond" movies he played Russian gangster and former KGB Valentin Zukovsky. Robbie Coltrane was an incredible actor who portrayed a wide variety of characters. What is more, he always gave a good performance.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Turner Classic Movies Announces the Dates for the 14th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival

Yesterday Turner Classic Movies announced the dates for the 14th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. It is set to unfold from Thursday, April 13 to Sunday, April 16 2023. As usual, it will take place in Hollywood, with the legendary Roosevelt Hotel serving as both the festival's central gathering point and its official hotel. The Roosevelt will offer special rates for those attending the festival. Passes for the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival will go on sale this December.

This year's theme is "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet: Celebrating Film Legacies. This year's festival will be held in conjunction of Warner Bros.' 100th anniversary next year. The studio was founded on April 9 1923.