Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Late Great Topol

Topol, who played milkman Tevye in both the stage and film versions of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Dr. Hans Zarkov in the movie Flash Gordon (1980), died on March 8 2023 at the age of 87 after a long illness.

Chaim Topol was born on September 9 1935 in Tel Aviv, Mandatory Palestine. It was his elementary teacher, acclaimed children's author Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz, who discovered his theatrical side and encouraged him to pursue the performing arts. As a teenager he worked at the newspaper Davar while taking high school classes at night. After graduating high school he lived in Kibbutz Geva. Afterwards he enlisted in the Israeli army, where he became a member of the Nahal entertainment troupe. Once his service was over, Topol performed throughout Israel with a kibbutz theatre group founded by he and his friends in 1957.

It was in 1964 that Topol made his film debut in I Like Mike in 1961. In the Sixties he appeared in the movies El Dorado (1963), Sallah Shabati (1964), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Ervinka (1967), and Before Winter Comes (1968). It was in 1966 that he first played Tevye the Dairyman in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof. In 1967 he played the role on the West End of London. He would play the role several more times in his career.

In the Seventies Topol produced the Broadway play Ipi-Tombi. He appeared in the films Ha-Tarnegol (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Follow Me (1972), A Talent for Loving (1973), Galileo (1975), and Flash Gordon (1980). In the Eighties he appeared on television in the mini-series The Winds of War, Queenie, and War and Remembrance. He guest starred on the show Tales of Remembrance. He appeared in the movies For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Roman Behemshechim (1985). He reprised his role as Tevye in a West End production of Fiddler on the Roof and a touring production of the musical in the United States.

In the Nineties he appeared several times in Fiddler on the Roof, on Broadway, in a touring production in the United States, and at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne. He guest starred on the show SeaQuest DSV and appeared in the film Left Luggage (1998). He continued to appear in productions of Fiddler on the Roof in the Naughts.

Topol also illustrated several books in both Hebrew and English, and produced drawings of important Israeli figures. He wrote his autobiography, Topol on Topol, and the books To Life! and Topol's Treasury of Jewish Humour.

Topol was an incredible talent. He was a relatively young man when he played Tevye in the Sixties and in the 1971 film version, but he was utterly convincing as the middle-aged milkman. What is more he was versatile. The eccentric Dr. Zarkov in Flash Gordon (1980) couldn't have been more different from Tevye. He was also convincing as the legendary scientist Galileo Galilei in Galileo (1975). In Follow Me (1972), he played detective Julian Cristoforou, who refuses to give up on a case even after the person he is tailing realizes he is doing so. While there can be no doubt that Topol will be best remembered as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he played a wide variety of roles in his career and gave great performances in all of them.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The 25th Anniversary of Netflix Sending Out Its First DVD

Today is my birthday. It was also on March 10 1998 that Netflix sent out its first DVD. For those of you who think of Netflix as a streaming service, it originated as a company that rented DVDs through the mail. It was a good time for such a company. DVD player ownership was growing in the late Nineties and would continue to do so in the Naughts.

Netflix was founded on August 29 1997 by Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings. As mentioned above, it sent out its first DVD on March 10 1998. As to what that DVD was, it was Beetlejuice (1998). The person who rented that first historic DVD is unknown. It was in 1999 that Netflix introduced monthly subscriptions, whereby one could rent several DVDs for a low monthly fee. Netflix grew very quickly in the Naughts. By February 2007 it had sent out its billionth DVD (the movie Babel from 2006).

It was also in 2007 that Netflix launched its streaming service. In fact, it was announced on January 15. Originally, if one was subscribed to the DVD service, then one was also subscribed to the streaming service. This changed in the mid-Teens, when the two services were finally separated, although both retained the Netflix name. Netflix still sends DVDs through the mail, through their site

While I no longer subscribe to Netflix's DVD service, I was a subscriber for well over a decade. Through its DVD service I was able to watch the entire run of the obscure TVseries Nowhere Man and re-watch the TV series Crime Story. I am not sure how many movies I discovered through Netflix, but it was quite a few. There are those who keep announcing the death of physical media, although I personally think such pronouncements are greatly exaggerated. Aside from myself, I know many who still use physical media. In fact, if I made more money I would probably still subscribe to Netflix DVD. The plain fact is that any streaming service is somewhat limited in what it has to offer, but Netflix DVD still has thousands of DVDs available. What is more, while most streaming services will offer only mainstream movies, one can get very obscure movies through Netflix DVD. It is then my hope that Netflix will still continue sending out DVDs for another 25 years and more.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Godspeed Bert I. Gordon, Mr. B.I.G.

Producer and director Bert I. Gordon, nicknamed "Mr. B.I.G." by sci-fi legend Forrest Ackerman both due to his initials and the frequent subject matter of his movies, died on March 8 2023 at the age of 100. Throughout his career he produced, wrote, and directed such low-budget sci-fi films as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958).

Bert I. Gordon was born on September 24 2022 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was given his first camera when he was only nine years old and became fascinated with visual effects. His aunt gave him a 16mm movie camera when he was 13 and he was soon making his own amateur films. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin.

Bert I. Gordon made television commercials before producing the movie Serpent Island (1954). The first film produced, written, and directed by Bert I. Gordon was King Dinosaur (1955). The film only had a budget of $18,000 and its "dinosaur" was merely an iguana. In the Fifties Bert I. Gordon would produce, write, and direct other low budget movies, including Beginning of the End (1957), The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Earth vs. the Spider (1958), The Boy and the Pirates (1960), and Tormented (1960).

The Sixties saw Bert I. Gordon produce and direct two television pilots: Famous Ghost Stories and Take Me to Your Leader. He made the movies The Magic Sword (1962), Village of the Giants (1965), Picture Mommy Dead (1966), and How to Succeed with Sex (1970). In the Seventies he made the movies Necromancy (1972), The Mad Bomber (1973), The Food of the Gods (1976), and Empire of the Ants (1977). In the Eighties he made the films Burned at the Stake (1982), Let's Do It! (1982), The Big Bet (1987), and Satan's Princess (1989). His final film was Secrets of a Psychopath in 2015.

Many directors are called "auteurs," but Bert I. Gordon truly was one. He not only produce, directed, and often wrote his movies, but he even provided the special effects on many of them. What is more, his movies were often a family affair. His wife Flora often helped him with the visual effects. His daughter, actress Susan Gordon, appeared in this films Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Boy and the Pirates (1960), Tormented (1960), and Picture Mommy Dead (1966). Although he was best known for his giant animal movies, Bert I. Gordon actually directed movies in a variety of genres, including supernatural horror, fantasy, psychological thriller, action, and even sex comedy. What is more, he was responsive to trend. In the Fifties, when the fear of nuclear annihilation resulted in a slough of movies about giant monsters, he made movies featuring oversized critters. In the Sixties, when fantasy movies were popular he directed The Magic Sword. The Seventies saw Satanic horror and action movies were all the rage, he directed the films Necromancy and The Mad Bomber. Bert I.Gordon's films weren't known for their quality--the budgets were tiny and the special effects were often cheesy--but they were nearly always entertaining.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Actress Sara Lane Passes On

Sara Lane, who played one of the two prank callers on William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965) and Elizabeth Grainger on the TV series The Virginian, died on March 3 2023 from breast cancer.

Sara Lane was born on March 12 1949 in New York City. Her parents were actor Russell "Rusty" Lane, who appeared in the boxing movie The Harder They Fall (1956), and actor Sara Anderson, who appeared on several TV shows as well as I Saw What You Did (1965) along with her daughter. The family moved to California when Sara Lane was 12 and she graduated from Santa Monica High School.

Sara Lane's career in entertainment began early. She was a baby when she appeared in a soap commercial for television. When she was 12 she appeared in a vitamin commercial. She was cast in the movie I Saw What You Did (1965) when producer/director William Castle saw her picture in a newspaper as one of the Miss Los Angeles contestants. The following year she was cast as Elizabeth Grainger on The Virginian. Elizabeth was the granddaughter of the Shiloh Ranch's new owner, John Grainger (Charles Bickford). She remained on the show until 1970, when The Virginian was revamped. Using the stage name "Russell Lane" (Russell was her middle name), she appeared in the movies Schoolgirls in Chains (1973), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977).

She retired from acting in the late Seventies. In 1984 she and her husband John Scott were among the founders of Havens Winery 1984.

Sara Lane's career was brief and her appearances in film and television were few, but she displayed a good deal of talent. She was convincing as Kit Austin, one of the two prank callers whose calls get them in trouble in I Saw What You Did (1965). She also did quite a good job as Elizabeth on The Virginian, who loved life on the ranch and horses (something which was true of Miss Lane in real life--she had two horses when she was cast on The Virginian). Her career may not have been long, she gave performances that will be remembered.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

One of the biggest hits of the Eighties in the United States was "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. What many Americans do not realize is that it was a cover originally recorded by a British band.

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker of the band Arrows. Arrows were a glam rock band in the United Kingdom active from 1974 to 1977. They would have two hits, "Touch Too Much" in 1974 and "My Last Night with You" in 1975. They also had their own television show, Arrows, which aired in 1976 and 1977 on Granada Television.

The inspiration for "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" came from The Rolling Stones' song "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)." Alan Merrill later said in an interview, "The Stones had just released ‘It’s Only Rock ’n Roll,’ which sounded a bit apologetic to me. I wanted to say it loud and clear." "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was originally recorded as the B-side of their single, "Broken Down Heart," but was made the A-side. Strangely enough, given the success of Joan Jett's cover of the song, Arrows' original version of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" did make the UK singles chart.

It was while Joan Jett was on a tour of the United Kingdom with The Runaways that she saw Arrows perform"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" on their television show. In 1979 she recorded her first version of the song with Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook as a B-side of her cover of "You Don't Own Me." It was in 1981 that she recorded a new version of the song with her band The Blackhearts. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for seven weeks.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Godspeed Ted Donaldson, Widely Adored Veteran of Old Hollywood

As a child actor Ted Donaldson appeared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and the series of film centred upon the German Shepherd named Rusty. While most classic film buffs were familiar with Ted Donaldson's work, for Turner Classic Movies fans Ted Donaldson was something special. Mr. Donaldson attended multiple TCM Classic Film Festivals, so many TCM fans got to meet him. Some even became close friends with him. Ted Donaldson was known not only for his knowledge of Hollywood during its Golden Age, but his affability and warmth. Everyone who met him noted that he was a perfect gentleman. Sadly, Ted Donaldson died on March 1 2023 at the age of 89 from complications from a fall.

Ted Donaldson was born on April 20 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was composer Will Donaldson. His mother, Jo, died when he was only a few months old. His father later remarried, marrying composer and radio organist Muriel Pollack. Ted Donaldson attended the Professional Children's School in New York City. It was in 1941 that he joined the Broadway production Life With Father, playing the youngest son Harlan. That same year he appeared on radio in a week-long, serialized adaptation of A Christmas Carol, playing Tiny Tim. In 1943 he was back on Broadway, appearing in Sons and Soldiers, directed by Max Reinhardt.

It was his appearance in Sons and Soldiers that led to an audition with Columbia head Harry Cohn for the role of Arthur "Pinky" Thompson in Once Upon a Time (1944). Ted Donaldson then made his film debut in Once Upon a Time, in which his character taught his pet caterpillar to dance to "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." He appeared in the movies Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and A Guy, a Gal and a Paul (1945) before starring as Danny Mitchell, the boy who befriends the German Shepherd Rusty in The Adventures of Rusty (1945). He would appear as Danny Mitchell in seven more "Rusty" movies: The Return of Rusty (1946), For the Love of Rusty (1947), The Son of Rusty (1947), My Dog Rusty (1948), Rusty Lead the Way (1948), Rusty Saves a Life (1949), and Rusty's Birthday (1949). In the late Forties he also appeared in the films Personality Kid (1946), The Red Stallion (1947), The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948), and The Green Promise (1949). He also appeared in two shorts, "My Pal" (1947) and "Pal's Adventure" (1948). In 1949 he began playing the role of Bud Anderson on the radio show Father Knows Best. He continued to play the role until 1954. He was offered the role of Bud in the television version of Father Knows Best, but turned it down because, as he said in the book Growing Up on the Set, "I didn’t want to be a 21-year-old playing a 15- or 16-year-old kid."

In the Fifties he appeared in the films Phone Call from a Stranger (!952) and Flight Nurse (1953). He spent most of the decade on television, appearing on the shows Front Row Center, Matinee Theatre, and The Silent Service.

As an adult Ted Donaldson taught acting and also worked at a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard.

Ted Donaldson was a remarkable child actor. His performances were always sincere. He was never overly cloying nor overly precocious. He was also quite versatile. He played Neeley, the fun-loving but ultimately responsible younger brother in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. He later played a boy caught in the middle of a divorce, the title character in The Decision of Christopher Blake. He played another child troubled by his parents' behaviour in Phone Call from a Stranger. Ted Donaldson certainly seemed to have a gift for working with animals. Aside from the "Rusty" series, he also worked with a burro in Personality Kid and a horse in The Red Stallion. Ultimately, Ted Donaldson was one of the best child actors of all time.

As mentioned above, Ted Donaldson appeared many TCM Classic Film Festivals. He also granted many interviews over the years about his career. While I never interacted with Mr. Donaldson, I know people who got to meet him and even those who counted him among their close friends. All of them have spoken of his approachability and kindness. It is not unusual to hear the words "darling" and "sweetheart" when TCM fans speak of Ted Donaldson. Ted Donaldson was a total gentleman, and TCM fans adored him for it.

Sadly, Ted Donaldson died with little in the way of possessions or money. His friends Thomas and Heidi Bruno have set a GoFundMe page for his burial expenses. They hope to bury him in Hollywood Forever Cemetery alongside so many of his co-stars.