Saturday, May 6, 2023

Guy Lee, One of the Actors Who Played Charlie Wong on Dobie Gillis

Guy Lee, Dwayne Hickman,
and Shelia James from Dobie Gillis 
Guy Lee is not among the best known Asian American actors, but he is remembered by many for playing ice cream parlour owner Charlie Wong on the classic sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Guy Lee more or less shared the role with fellow actor James Yagi, and it was not unusual for Guy Lee play Charlie in one episode and then James Yagi to appear as Charlie in the next. Guy Lee was the first of the two play the part, in the episode "Maynard's Farewell to Arms." In the next episode in which Charlie appeared, "The Old Goat," it was James Yagi who played the role. Guy Lee ultimately played Charlie the most, appearing in five episodes. He last appeared in "A Taste for Lobster," episode 38 of the first season. As to James Yagi, he appeared in four episodes as Charlie Wong, last appearing in "The Flying Millicans," episode 18 of the first season. Charlie Wong no longer appeared on the show after the first season.

Aside from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Guy Lee made two guest appearances on Bonanza (playing a different role each time), and also guest starred on episodes of Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Death Valley Days; Honey West; Ironside; and others. He also appeared in such movies as Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) and One More Train to Rob (1971).

Guy Lee's biggest impact may have been as an agent who represented such Asian American actors as B. D. Wong and John Lone, as well as an activist. He took over The Bessie Loo Talent Agency, which represented Asian American actors, from Bessie Loo, who had been an actress, when she retired. Guy Lee & Associates was still in operation as of 2019. Guy Lee was a co-founder and board member of the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists, which was founded in 1976 to right stereotyping and promote a more realistic portrayal of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in movies and television. He was among the many Asian Americans who protested the casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce as the engineer in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon rather than an Asian  actor.

Guy Lee died on November 22 1993 at the age of 66 from cancer. While it is likely he will always be best remembered as Charlie Wong on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, he did so much more.

Friday, May 5, 2023

The Late Great Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot, the legendary singer/songwriter who had such hits as "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," died on May 1 2023 at the age of 84.

Gordon Lightfoot was born on November 7 1938 in Orillia, Ontario. His mother encouraged his musical talent and he started performing while still young. He sang in the choir of St. Paul's United Church in Orillia and he performed from time to time on local radio in Orillia. When he was twelve years old he appeared at Massey Hall in Toronto for the first time. In high school he was competed in track-and-field, and even set school records for for shot-put and pole vault. He studied music at the University of Toronto. He was twenty years old when he moved to Los Angeles and studied jazz composition at the Westlake College of Music in Hollywood.

After two years Gordon Lightfoot returned to Toronto. He performed on the CBC television program Country Hoedown as part of the  Singin' Swingin' Eight. He also performed as the various coffee houses around Toronto, both as a soloist and as a part of folk ensembles. His first single, "(Remember Me) I'm the One," was released in 1962. It went to no. 3 on the Canadian singles chart. It was followed by "It's Too Late, He Wins" and "Adios, Adios" that same year. In 1963 he moved to the United Kingdom where he hosted the BBC's  Country and Western Show. He returned to Canada in 1964. His first album, Lightfoot!, was released in 1966. In 1967 he was commissioned by the CBC to write the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" for the television special One Hundred Years Young, celebrating Canada's centennial. He also performed the song in the special. In 1970 he appeared on the CBC's The Wayne & Shuster Comedy Special.

It was also in 1970 that he signed with Warner Bros./Reprise. This would result in Gordon Lightfoot's first hit in the United States. His single "If You Could Read My Mind" went to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 1 on the Canadian singles chart. That same year his album Sit Down Young Stranger (from which "If You Could Read My Mind' was from) went to no. 12 on both the Billboard album chart and the Canadian album chart.

The Seventies would see Gordon Lightfoot release several successful albums. He would also have some of his biggest hits during the decade. His song "Sundown" went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974. That same year "Carefree Highway" went to no. 10 on the chart. The following year "Rainy Day People" reached 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. The year 1976 produced his second biggest hit, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Seventies marked the peak of Gordon Lightfoot's popular success, but he recorded seven more albums from 1982 to 2020. He also continued to perform and appear on television. Mr. Lightfoot wold also have two acting roles. He appeared in Western Harry Tracy, Desperado (1982) and a 1988 episode of the TV series Hotel.

Gordon Lightfoot was an incredible talent. He was gifted with a rich baritone with which he could convey any emotion. More importantly, he was an incredible songwriter. Mr. Lightfoot told stories with his songs. "If You Could Read My Mind" addressed the failure of a romantic relationship. With "Don Quixote" he dealt with the famous character from Cervantes's novel. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" told the story of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10 1975. Gordon Lightfoot was a skilled lyricist who told compelling stories capable of moving his listeners.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The 30th Anniversary of Blood In Blood Out (1993)

It was on this date in 1993 that Blood In Blood Out, under the title Bound by Honor, was released nationally.  Walt Disney Studios, which released the film under their production label Hollywood Pictures, offered the film little in the way of support. Critics gave the movie mixed reviews. The film ultimately did poorly at the box office. Despite this, Blood In Blood Out would go onto become a cult film, particularly among Chicanos and especially in Los Angeles County.

For those who have never seen Blood In Blood Out, it centres on three related Chicanos as they navigate their lives from 1972 to 1984. While all three begin as part of an East Los Angeles street gang, their lives ultimately take very different paths.

The origins of Blood In Blood Out (1993) go back to 1982. Producer Jerry Gershwin, who had produced Harper (1966) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), hired novelist Ross Thomas to write the screenplay. It went into development at New Visions Pictures under director Harold Becker, who had directed such films as The Ragman's Daughter (1972), The Onion Field (1979), and Taps (1981).  The August 7 1988 issue of The Los Angeles Times reported that Blood In Blood Out would mark the directorial debut of Edward James Olmos, and that Andy Garcia and Lou Diamond Phillips were set to star in the film. Ultimately, Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Andy Garcia would not be a part of Blood In Blood Out.

In the meantime New Vision Pictures folded, after which Edward James Olmos took the project to Taylor Hackford. Taylor Hackford had directed the film An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and both produced and directed the films Against All Odds (1984) and White Nights (1985). Taylor Hackford had been a producer on La Bamba (1987), the biopic about Chicano rock 'n' roll legend Ritchie Valens.  While Mr. Hackford liked the format of Blood In Blood Out, he thought the text of the screenplay did not ring true. He had grown up in Santa Barbara, California around the Mexican American community there, and as a reporter for KCET had covered East Los Angeles with his fellow reporter Jesus Treviño.

Ultimately, Edward James Olmos and Taylor Hackford would part ways, with Olmos citing creative differences. He would go onto produce and direct American Me (1992), a film about similar subject matter. It was then that Taylor Hackford decided he would direct Blood In Blood Out himself. As to the screenplay, it would be rewritten by Floyd Mutux, who also contributed to American Me (1992). Jeremy Iacone would also rewrote the script.

It was famous playwright Luis Valdez, best known for the play Zoot Suit, who directed Taylor Hackford to poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. At the time Jimmy Santiago Baca was not particularly interested in working in the film industry. It took Taylor Hackford visiting the poet in New Orleans to convince him to work on Blood In Blood Out. Jimmy Santiago Baca then moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Los Angeles to absorb the Chicano culture of East Los Angeles. Jimmy Santiago Baca also drew upon his own life experiences in working on the screenplay (he had spent five years in prison for drug possession), with characters based on the sorts of people he had known in prison. Taylor Hackford has said that Jimmy Santiago Baca came up with most of the final plot of Blood In Blood Out.

Blood In Blood Out attracted the attention of Ricardo Mestres, president of production for Hollywood Pictures. Hollywood Pictures had been founded by then Disney CEO Michael Eisner and then Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, and was meant to release movies with more mature themes than those released by Disney and Touchstone Pictures. Michael Eisner had been at Paramount when Taylor Hackford had directed An Officer and a Gentleman for that studio. It was then that Disney, then as now best known for family films came to produce Blood In Blood Out.

The first of the three leads to be cast was Jesse Borrego, who played artist Cruz Candelara in the movie. At the time he may have been best known as Jesse Velasquez on the TV show Fame. Benjamin Bratt was the second lead to be cast. He played Paco Aguilar in the film, who eventually joins the LAPD. Benjamin Bratt had appeared in two short lived shows, Knightwatch and Nasty Boys. The last of the leads to be cast was Damian Chapa, who played the all important role of Miklo Velka, around whom much of the movie revolves. Like Miklo, Damian Chapa was the child of mixed heritage: he was the son of a Mexican father and an Irish mother.

None of the three leads were from Los Angeles, so to insure authenticity director Taylor Hackford had them move into a house near Hazard Park so they could immerse themselves in the culture of the area. Each night Jesse Borrego would go over the script with Benjamin Bratt and Damian Chapa in what were referred to as "Vatos Locos Tutorials," in which they went over the particulars of Chicano jargon.

Beyond the three leads, Blood In Blood Out featured several cast members who would soon be famous. It was an early credit for Billy Bob Thornton, who may have been best known as Billy Bob Davis on the sitcom Hearts Afire when the movie came out. It was also an early credit for Danny Trejo, who had actually served time in San Quentin State Prison. Ving Rhames had already appeared in such movies as Native Son (1989) and  Jacob's Ladder (1990). The year following the release of Blood In Blood Out (1993), he appeared in Pulp Fiction (1994). The cast also included Latino actors who were already well established. Enrique Castillo, who played gang leader Montana, was a founding member of The Latino Theater Company and had guest starred on such shows as The Waltons and The Incredible Hulk. Lupe Ontiveros was already a legend in Latino film, with a career going back to the Seventies. Also among the cast was my dear friend Vanessa Marquez, who had already appeared in the classic Stand and Deliver (1988) and in unaired episodes of the TV show Wiseguy.

The paintings by Jesse Borrego's character Cruz Candelara in Blood In Blood Out were by Chicano artist Adan Hernandez. A native of San Antonio, his art would be displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the San Antonio Museum Art.

Blood In Blood Out
(1993) was filmed from May 6 1991 to October 4 1991. Perhaps the most famous shooting location in the film is San Quentin State Prison. Director Taylor Hackford got a copy of the script to then warden Dan Vasquez, who was impressed by its authenticity. He then gave permission for Blood In Blood Out to be filmed in the prison. Several of San Quentin's inmates at the time served as extras in the film. Even warden Dan Vasquez appeared as the warden in the movie.

Blood In Blood Out was also filmed at several locations in Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. Among the best known of these is the southwest corner of Folsom Street and N. Indiana Street in East Los Angeles, where the bunya pine known as El Pino is located. The tree appears extensively in the film. Another famous location in the film is the restaurant Los 5 Puntos, located at what was then Brooklyn Avenue and is now East Chavez Avenue. Other locations included St. Mary's Catholic Church on Chicago Street in Los Angeles and Evergreen Cemetery on North Evergreen Avenue in Los Angeles.

The original cut of Blood In Blood Out turned out to be over five hours long. Much too long for theatrical release, the film was then edited down to three hours. The five hour version has never been released and it cannot definitively be said that it even still exists.

It was as Blood In Blood Out was being edited that riots erupted in Los Angeles in late April and early May of 1992 following the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, grew concerned that following the riots, the release of Blood In Blood Out could then generate bad press for the studio. Because of this, the film's release was delayed. On February 5 1993, test screenings were held in Rochester, New York, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

It was at a screening in Las Vegas that a fist fight broke out during the film in which no one was injured. According to director Taylor Hackford recalled, the incident was enough to convince Michael Eisner that the film would result in violence. It was Frank Wells, then president of The Walt Disney Company, who would see to it that Blood In Blood Out would be released, although under a new title. After years of being known as Blood In Blood Out, the movie was retitled Bound by Honor. As  result, the studio's entire marketing campaign for the film had to be redone, from the trailers to the posters.

It was then on April 30 1993 that Bound by Honor was released in thirty cities across the nation. Before the test screenings in Rochester, Tucson, and Las Vegas, when it was still known as Blood In Blood Out, Disney projected the movie to make $40 million. Instead as Bound by Honor, only made a meagre $4.5 million.

Bound by Honor was not well received by critics either. Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times gave it a negative review, ending his review with "Apparently in love with East L.A., this film succeeds only in getting lost in it." Jonathan Rosenbaum in The Chicago Reader also gave Bound by Honor a negative review, writing that it was an "....ugly three-hour snoozefest is apparently supposed to do for East Los Angeles Chicanos what the Godfather movies did for New York mafiosi…" Roger Ebert's review of Bound by Honor was decidedly mixed. He wrote, "Bound by Honor contains some effective performances, some moments of deeply felt truth, and a portrait of prison life that I assume is accurate. What seems to be missing is a clear idea of why the movie was made, and what the director, Taylor Hackford, wanted to say with it." As might be expected, many reviews compared it to the previous year's American Me (1992).

For its release on home video, the original title of Blood In Blood Out was restored. It was also released under the title Blood In Blood Out...Bound by Honor to such premium cable channels as Showtime and The Movie Channel. Slowly but surely, Blood In Blood Out developed a following. Eventually it became a cult film. A slightly longer "director's cut" would be released on DVD, although the five hour version remains unavailable.

Vanessa Marquez in Blood In Blood Out
Here I want to digress for a moment to discuss Vanessa Marquez in Blood Out Blood Out given it remains one of her best known movies. Vanessa played the daughter of Montana, the leader of the gang La Onda in the film. Earlier in the movies pictures of Vanessa when she was younger can be seen in Montana's cell. Later in the film she appears briefly when Montana's daughter is going to visit him. She is only on for a minute and then she really has nothing in the way of lines. It may be possible that Vanessa received more screen time in the five hour version. I have never been able to confirm it, but I have seen claims (including on IMDB) that one of the subplots involved a grown up Montana's daughter. If this is the case, Vanessa Marquez may have originally had much more screen time in the film. I cannot say for certain, as Vanessa and I never discussed Blood In Blood Out.

First conceived in 1982, Blood In Blood Out took many years to reach the screen. Once it did, it was all but abandoned by the studio that had released it. Regardless, through its release on VHS and being shown on various premium cable channels, Blood In Blood Out developed a following. Today it is a cult classic, particularly in the Chicano community. It is safe to say that it will be remembered for years to come.