Friday, May 31, 2013

Back From the Brink

Robert Downey Jr.'s birth certificate reads that he was given life on April 4, 1965. That should come with an asterisk.

They say a cat has nine lives. But no feline has anything on RDJ, as he is known in this Internet world of abbreviations and acronyms.

Downey may be working on damn near that ninth life by now, but the good news is that he doesn't seem to be in need of any more leases.

Downey is on top of the world now, riding the crest of a wave portraying multi-billionaire Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. The third Iron Man movie was released this spring, to rave reviews. In between all the Iron Man movies was 2012's The Avengers, which was a meeting of the minds, brawn and good looks of Marvel Superheros Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Downey wowed them in The Avengers, too.

But what's fascinating about Downey isn't how he combines dashing good looks, borderline cockiness and a little boy's vulnerability in his Tony Stark character. It's that he's around to have a chance to do it, period.

You couldn't have gotten a plugged nickel for Downey's life, once upon a time. And we're not even talking that long ago.

It was a cautionary tale of drugs, rehab stints, more drugs, and more rehab stints---all failed.

Of course, Hollywood is filled with so many cautionary tales, you could compile them into a read that would have the thickness of a New York City telephone book.

But Downey's tale also gets categorized as one that had a happy ending---and that book is much, much thinner.

It started out promising enough. Downey made a ton of movies in the 1980s and was one of the so-called "Brat Pack" of 20-something movie stars who were young, attractive and making coming-of-age films that connected with audiences. Some of those Brat Packers could even act a little.

Then it all went south in the 1990s.

Throughout the history of celebrity, stars simply don't come from where Downey came and make anything of themselves. Those types usually have more mug shots than head shots.

I've written it before---that if I was Charlie Sheen, I'd ring up Bob Downey and ask him how the hell he pulled himself from the edge of oblivion.

Sheen's crazy, mixed up life, though, doesn't come anywhere near the self-mutilation that Downey perpetrated on himself in his thirties.

It got so bad---all the arrests, all the drugs, all the failed attempts at rehab, all the blown second chances---that Downey himself laid it bare in front of a judge in 1999.

"It's like I've got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal," Downey said in court, in shackles and wearing an orange jumper. He was 34 at the time and you'd have gotten even money as to whether he'd see 35.

The addiction, Downey said, had roots at the age of eight, when his father, a film director and also a drug addict, began plying the younger Downey with dope.

What's the opposite of Father Knows Best?

Throughout his thirties, Downey careened out of control, unable to kick the drugs and fast cars. A .357 Magnum was even in the mix one time, as he sped down Sunset Boulevard like something from a movie that he wasn't being asked to star in.

Downey was toxic, literally and figuratively. No producer or director would touch him with a 10-foot pole. It wasn't about making movies anymore---it was about living to see another day. He kept doing drugs and he kept getting arrested for it. It was amazing that no one was killed, most notably Downey himself.

Then one day in 2000, they let Downey out of jail and he marched onto the cast of TV's Ally McBeal, playing star Calista Flockhart's new love interest.

It looked like things were clicking. Downey rediscovered his acting chops. He won some awards. Working on perhaps life no. 6 at that point, the Downey story looked to be heading for a happily ever after ending.

But Downey wasn't through getting arrested.

In 2000 and 2001, Downey got handcuffed a few more times, and hauled in front of judges again. The behavior was erratic, to say the least. On parole in April 2001, Downey was noticed wandering barefoot in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was suspected of being under the influence of drugs yet again.

Downey was now burning through extra lives that no typical man has.



Enter Downey's longtime friend, the actor/director Mel Gibson.

Yes, Mel Gibson---who's had his share of strange incidents that always seemed to be recorded by someone, somewhere.

Gibson paid Downey's insurance bond---a binder that scared off many producers and casting directors because of the risk that Downey would actually need it---so Downey could return to movies in The Singing Detective in 2003.

Things started to get better, and stay that way.

The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, and then things really skyrocketed for the former addict who liked the taste of gun metal.

Downey is 48 now, happily married since 2005. He's been drug-free, he says, since 2003. It hasn't been easy. He's used family, therapy, meditation, 12-step recovery programs and even yoga to kick his addiction.

Downey has gone from cautionary tale to fairy tale, which doesn't happen in Hollywood everyday.

"It's hard to get out of the barrel," he once said. "It's slippery around the edges and people are happy to see you fall back in."

Downey fell back in a lot. But he got out of the barrel.

Consider it an inspiration.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Legs Benedict

First, if Benedict Cumberbatch existed in a different era, we wouldn't know him as Benedict Cumberbatch.

He'd be Peter Lawford, or Gary Cooper, or Cary Grant.

Any Hollywood producer or press agent worth his salt would never let Cumberbatch, yet another British invader who is captivating female Americans, keep his given name. At the very least, the movie folks would have Cumberbatch use his two middle names---Timothy Carlton---as they Frankensteined another star.

Timothy Carlton---now THAT'S a movie star's name, right?

But this is a different time. Actors don't use stage names so much anymore. Even if you're Benedict Cumberbatch, which actually sounds like a villain from a Dickens Christmas novel.

No matter what you call him---and his overwhelmingly female fans (notably my wife and daughter) have a boatload of cutesy nicknames for him---Cumberbatch will likely be known as something else before long: one of the world's greatest actors.

I've given Johnny Depp that honor, and I am sticking to that. But Cumberbatch, currently wowing moviegoers in Star Trek: Into Darkness, will at the very least be known as one of the 21st century's greatest movie villains, should he pursue those roles.

This isn't to say that Cumberbatch only plays bad, good. His turn as BBC's Sherlock is proof of that.

Cumberbatch is 36 (he turns 37 in July). There's no telling where he can go from here.


Benedict Cumberbatch

He has the good looks, number one---albeit decidedly British in nature, with the high cheekbones and the tall, gangly flair. He's got the thinness of Cary Grant, the hair of a young Michael Caine, the legs of John Cleese and the eyes of, well, he may be the first one to have eyes like that.

Cumberbatch's eyes are almost another actor within the actor. I'm male and even I acknowledge that one can get lost in Benedict's eyes like a waywardchild in a forest. The eyes can be cold and calculating. They can be introspective and even vulnerable. What they always are, are engaging.

Cumberbatch, in Star Trek, plays John Harrison, an apparent rogue Starfleet agent who has some sort of vendetta against his former employers. It's a vendetta he displays with lots and lots of weaponry and ruthlessness.

Harrison is a driven, focused, determined man. Cumberbatch delivers Harrison's lines with an ample serving of impending doom. With Harrison, the next atrocity is just around the corner, and you're powerless to stop it.

By the way, there's irony in the Harrison character, as it pertains to Cumberbatch, because there's a funny name thing going on with Harrison in Star Trek that I won't spoil.

Cumberbatch steals the show in Star Trek, and that's starting to become commonplace for him.

He'd been acting in almost total anonymity in the states until American viewers found him on their BBC America channel of their local cable or satellite provider, playing Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, modern style.

As Holmes, Cumberbatch is quirky, gangly again, incredibly smart and completely unaware of his attractiveness. All he wants to do is solve crimes. To do so, it's almost as if his Sherlock needs to divorce himself from normal human emotion. But yet it's there, in subtle scenes---Sherlock's human side. It's just not there all that often. More accurately, it's only there when Cumberbatch wants it to be there.

That's part of the greatness of Cumberbatch, the actor. All great actors have it---the ability to call on different emotions, or emotions, period, in order to make any particular scene believable. In Cumberbatch's case, it's also his ability to call on lack of emotion---that cold, calculated stuff---to stop the audience in their tracks.

In Star Trek, we see a villain who'd just as soon cut out your heart and eat it than crack even a slight grin. John Harrison isn't one of those bad guys who giggles and smirks and taunts his prey. He's not the guy who looks like he belongs in a straitjacket. Rather, Cumberbatch's Harrison has the concentration and focus of a heart surgeon, only he's not there to fix your ticker, he's there to suck it up to your throat.

Cumberbatch has lots of stuff in the works. His Wiki page lists four other projects all due out in 2013. I like that. The only thing better, for a moviegoer, than a good actor is a good actor who works a lot. Again, I point to Sir Michael Caine (whose real name is Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, by the way).

Keep your good eye on Benedict Cumberbatch. Lots of the media in the states like to think of him as "that actor with the funny name" (he gets asked about it ad nauseam). But those who have followed his career---so far it's mainly been the ladies---know that this is the next big star in the making.

Soon the men will realize it, too. And the press will have a lot more to talk about than Cumberbatch's name.

There'll be his legacy, for one.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bing-Go

As a basketball player, David Bing arrived in Detroit at just the right time.

A skinny guard out of Syracuse, Bing was the Pistons' sloppy seconds of the 1966 NBA Draft. The Pistons heartily preferred Cazzie Russell, the dazzling forward from the University of Michigan, some 45 minutes from Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit.

But the Pistons lost a coin flip for the first overall pick, and Russell was snatched up by the New York Knicks. The Pistons then "settled" for Bing with the second overall choice.

"Don't worry," former Pistons player Earl Lloyd told team brass after the draft. "You just got the best player in the country."

Indeed.

Bing revived a moribund franchise with his smooth passing and dynamic moves to the basket. There was reason to come to Cobo and watch the Pistons. Crowds that had been in the 2-3,000 range inched up over 5,000 per night.

In his second season, Bing led the NBA in scoring average and the Pistons made the playoffs.

In 1970, Bing was joined by big man Bob Lanier, drafted out of St. Bonaventure. The pair formed one of the best inside/outside tandems in the league. And both would be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bing, along with Lanier, helped save pro basketball in Detroit.

Sadly, Bing didn't have the same fait accompli timing in his role as Detroit's mayor.

Bing, 69, won't seek re-election this fall. He has bailed, perhaps maybe with a bigger nut to crack in mind---that of being Wayne County Executive. That election happens in 2014. Certainly the incumbent there is vulnerable.

Bing ran for mayor too late, it says here. As a result, he was doomed and was never able to really put his brand on the city that he loves so much.

I would have liked to see Bing run for mayor back in 1993, though that would have meant going up against Dennis Archer in the primary. Coleman Young's last term ran from 1989-93. A Bing-Archer match-up would have presented a clear choice to voters: Do you want a lawyer (Archer) or a businessman (Bing) to be your next mayor?

Bing was 49 in 1993, a perfect age to launch a potentially long run as mayor. Calls for his running began as early as 1989, as some folks urged him to challenge the incumbent Young.

Of course, Bing had his steel company in full force in those days, which might have dissuaded him from running for mayor.

Regardless, by the time Bing finally decided to get into the fray, it was 2008 and the city was still stinking from the Kwame Kilpatrick stench. The finances were a mess and city services were practically non-existent. The city was hemorrhaging citizenry and thus, property tax money. The population had dipped below one million, which at one time was considered unthinkable. Unemployment was through the roof.

Bing won his election, but would soon find that victories would be few and far between, once he took office.



Bing, nearing age 70 by the time he became mayor, seemed to spend most of his time and energy putting out fires and replacing staff. He was like a guy playing the arcade game Whack-a-Mole, in which you pound on the heads of "moles" that pop up with a mallet. The heads come, one after the other. As soon as you whack one, here comes another.

Bing never really governed as mayor. He was bogged down with whacking moles.

That the city is under an Emergency Financial Manager isn't really Bing's fault, but it's there, on his record. Perhaps history will be kind.

Had Bing run for mayor 20 years ago, he might have had a different legacy. But, for him, the time must not have been right.

Dave Bing had great timing as an incoming NBA player in Detroit, but lousy timing in becoming the city's mayor.

He ran too late, but at least he gave it a shot. It just rimmed out. Twenty years prior, he might have sunk it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

My Dinner with the Family

If there's anything I am proud of as a husband and a father, it's that we still manage to eat dinner together at the same table on most nights.

No TV trays (remember those?), no scurrying off into the front room or the bedroom. Just plunk your butts down at the dining room table and share in the food bounty.

It's a nice time.

The audience is captive, number one---and I am specifically referring to our 20-year-old daughter. Dinner time gives me at least a 15-minute window with which to work.

It's when I can get caught up on her college studies (though she is now done until Fall term), ask about her Internet life (she's addicted to Tumblr and YouTube), and various and sundry other topics.

It's rather old fashioned---my wife literally calls people to dinner. She doesn't use a metal rod and a triangle, like in the Old West, but the premise is the same.

"TIME TO EAT!!"

Which, to me, are three of the loveliest strung-together words in the English language, just ahead of its four-word cousin, "You can finish mine."

So we wash up and traipse to the dining room table. Everyone has "their" spot. No one has changed seats in years. It would be too weird.

The food is on the table, the place settings are ready to go. I say the prayer (culled from my grandfather's, though my version is a bit truncated because I can't remember all the words) and we dig in.

But it's not just the food that attracts me to dinner time, though Lord knows the vittles are always scrumptious.

It's the quiet time when we are all together, eating and talking---about each other's day, about politics (we're all Democrats so that's never a touchy subject), how cute the dog is, etc. It's not even so much about the topics---it's the idea that we're all together, talking.

Of course, after dinner, all bets are off. I might commandeer the TV for a Tigers or Red Wings game, or go into the bedroom and let the ladies have the big screen. My wife is into needlepoint now, and she and my daughter are hooked on "Supernatural" on NetFlix.

I walk the dog in the evening (usually twice) and play my tabletop sports games, like a little boy. My mother-in-law reads or works on crossword puzzles, or the jigsaw puzzle she's been whittling away at for the past year or so.

So after dinner, it's back to everyone doing their own thing. Which is fine.

On occasion we might eat dinner in the front room, or outside if it's nice, depending on the type of meal that's been prepared. And yes, sometimes we opt for that great American tradition of ordering the Italian pizza pie. Friday nights we go out or get take-out.

But mostly it's at the table, enjoying the food and, better yet, the company.

Amen!