Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Voice of 1,000 Places

Tim Allen isn't the second coming of Mel Blanc. He isn't the next "Man of 1,000 Voices," as Blanc was known.

But Allen is the "Man of 1,000 Places," as in, his voice seems to be everywhere.

You can't escape Allen these days.

He's in your car, voicing "Pure Michigan" ads. And he's certainly all over your television, lending his voice to Chevrolet and Campbell's Soup ads. He's in your DVD cases, as Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movie franchise.

And, I am happy to report, Allen's face is on TV now, too, and has been, as Mike Baxter in ABC's Last Man Standing, a sitcom heading into its third season this fall. Good for Allen; readers of this blog may remember this piece I did on that show when it was set to debut, hoping for its success as Allen returned to the small screen after a 14-year absence.

But it's Allen's voice that goes to show that there's a lot of money in reading copy into a microphone in a sterile studio---where you don't need a makeup person or even to get out of your pajamas.

The voice over as a source of income is nothing new, of course, to high profile actors. For decades, really since TV's inception, the nameless studio voices employed by the networks have been joined by the distinctive vocal tones of leading actors of the day, usually as pitchmen (and women).

If you're sharp of ear, you know who's out there these days, making some extra dough with their pipes.

But Allen seems to be the most omnipresent.

His work as Buzz Lightyear, the toy spaceman who famously charges "To infinity...and BEYOND!" will go down in Hollyowood history, along with Tom Hanks as cowboy Woody, as perhaps the most iconic voice work ever.

Allen must have a voice advertisers love.

The products he espouses---Michigan tourism, soup and Chevy vehicles---couldn't be more different, when you think about it. Yet Allen doesn't really change his voice for any of them. They all carry his soothing, credible tone.

It's almost like if you get Tim Allen to voice your ads, it's a status symbol.

I mentioned Blanc, but while most of Mel's work was for the big screen and cartoons, it was Paul Winchell who made a lot of hay on television and through advertising for the medium.

Winchell, who died in 2005 at age 82, practically was a card-carrying pioneer of television. He started as a ventriloquist and his career zoomed from there, all involving his voice(s). Remember Dow's Scrubbing Bubbles? That was Winchell voicing the lead bubble, whose "We work hard so you don't have toooooooooo" as the bubbles washed down the drain became a 1970s staple.

But Winchell, like Blanc, was a cornucopia of voices. Tim Allen---who may be making more money than any voice actor working today---has one voice. But that one voice is all over the place.

Allen's tag line for Campbell's is "It's amazing what soup can do."

If Allen had a tag line for himself, it might be, "It's amazing what my voice can earn."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I KNOW That Guy!

Dennis Farina was one of the few in Hollywood history who could say, "I AM a cop...AND I play one on TV." And in the movies.

Farina's name may not have been on the tip of everyone's tongue when they saw him on their screen---small or silver---but his face sure was. He was among the elite in the "I know that face but can't place the name" category of screen actors.

Farina, the ex-cop turned actor who often played a cop, is gone. He passed away Monday at the age of 69 due to a pulmonary embolism.

Farina was Chicago through and through. He was born there and for a time did Old Style beer commercials, which was another Chicago favorite.

"It's our great beer and they can't have it," was Farina's tag line.

But of course Farina was much more than a pitch man. He left the police business in his late-30s to give acting a shot, after he functioned as a consultant on the Michael Mann film Thief, which came out in 1981. Mann gave Farina a bit role in the movie, and a character actor was born.

Now, a word about the term "character actor." It can both be deadly accurate, but at the same time can trivialize an actor's impact on the industry.

Yes, Farina was a character actor. He was, by definition if you use the process of elimination, that. Farina wasn't a leading man, per se, so that by default makes him a character actor.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Farina had a face of a cop because he was a cop. But he also had a face that fit so many other roles, ranging from a mob boss in Midnight Run to an Army lieutenant in Saving Private Ryan.

Farina's face was distinctly Italian (his parents were Sicilian) but also had the rugged, worn look of someone who's been around the block a few times---even if that block was filled with illegalities and unsavory activities.

He had the familiar Chicagoan dialect---imagine him saying "Da Bears." He could play the put upon, the exasperated, the tormented. And he could also be cuddly, warm and sensitive.

Farina had some comedic chops as well, usually as the foil. Farina showed that a straight man is never funnier than when he looks like he could summon a group of thugs to take you out, out of frustration.

Farina made his mark mostly on television, whether as Det. Joe Fontana in Law and Order or as the "guy who hosted Unsolved Mysteries after Robert Stack died." People knew Stack by name. Farina? Not as much.

Farina's first impact on the world of television drama was his role as Lt. Mike Torello in Crime Story. The part wasn't much of a stretch---he played a Chicago cop, which he had been just months prior---but the quirky police drama was warmly received by critics and carved a cult niche.

Once word got out that Farina was a cop-turned-actor, his cult following grew.

But Farina was no Gil Hill, the real-life Detroit cop who did a few turns as Eddie Murphy's beleaguered boss in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. Hill remained a cop, even when he was on Detroit's City Council.

Farina put his police career on hold, then eventually left it altogether, so he could live the acting dream.

Farina was a cop for 18 years, and an actor for over 30. By the time of his death, he was simply an actor---not a cop who became an actor.

A character actor? Sure. But one of the best. Even if you couldn't come up with his name right away.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gonna See My Poutin' Face...

Perhaps the biggest irony in Rolling Stone magazine's botched cover of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is their use of the word "thoughtful" in their official statement, in response to the overwhelming negative reaction from everyone from loyal subscribers to vendors.

"The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone's long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day," the statement read in part.

Thoughtful? I would submit that whatever was going on inside the magazine's offices while coming up with the rock star-like photo of Tsarnaev, thinking wasn't really among the activities.

I have no problem with the story itself. I think good journalism does indeed seek to find out how someone like the young Tsarnaev went awry, leading to the atrocities he committed in April.

But the cover photo was anything but thoughtful.

Clearly, there was no thought given to the victims, their families, or to plain old common decency. The story itself could have been teased on the cover with text, and maybe a thumbnail photo of Tsarnaev---preferably in custody or otherwise disheveled.

But to display Tsarnaev on the cover like so many rockers who have adorned Rolling Stone---with sexily tousled hair, pouting lips and looking like the second coming of The Doors' Jim Morrison (as was suggested by a Facebook friend), well that was just plain wrong and irresponsible.

The magazine also invoked the "two wrongs must make a right" defense, pointing to its controversial cover shot of Charles Manson over 40 years ago as justification for aggrandizing Tsarnaev.

But the comparison to the Manson cover is disingenuous. The photos don't look anything alike. And Manson wasn't a terrorist; he was a deranged man whose cult killed several people but didn't injure and maim a bunch others.

I don't see the merits of the comparison---do you?

How about now?

Again, the story of how Tsarnaev went off the rails ought to be written. That makes sense. Why the magazine decided to portray him in the manner that they did will probably never really be known.

Rolling Stone's statement was feeble in many ways, such as this sentence: "The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens."

Good job, guys and gals---you've managed to lump your demographic in with this bombing monster. The fact that Tsarnaev is "in the same age group" as many of the magazine's readers is as irrelevant as it is flawed reasoning. Does that mean AARP Magazine should have put Osama bin Laden on its cover, because he was over 50?

I'm not going to pile on. Just about everything that's been said about this boneheaded decision of Rolling Stone's has been said, and rightly so.

It's one thing to make the egregious mistake in the first place. It's quite another to weakly defend it---and worse, to subtly patronize those who are decrying it with flimsy reasoning and almost a cavalier attitude.

Shame on Rolling Stone. Not that they care.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thinking Inside the Box

Adam Sandler just can't shake his infatuation with kids, being a kid, and remembering what it was like being a kid---along with adults acting like, well, kids.

Sandler is currently starring in "Grown Ups 2" and this is not a review of that film. Not that I could give you a review of "Grown Ups," either, because like the sequel, I didn't see that flick.

This isn't about whether "Grown Ups 2" is a good movie or not; cinematic beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Rather, this is about Sandler, and why I just can't shake the feeling that there could be so much more from him.

Not in terms of quantity, but in quality.

I look at Sandler and I see an actor who has never really spread his wings. He hasn't tackled material outside of his comfort zone. There are flashes of a warmer, more introspective side in each of his films, and there's a hint that he could take on heavier, more layered characters. Yet he doesn't.

I'm not saying Sandler should be Will Smith, another actor who got started playing adolescent characters but who turned into an action/adventure guy, along with being quite able to do comedy and drama. But why doesn't Sandler try something a little more edgy? Maybe something that might make our eyes get a little moist?

It's in there. I know it is. I just wish we could see it.

Sandler connects with his audience, but only on one level---the child in all of us. That's fine, but it frustrates me to see an actor who I think can give us so much more, yet seemingly refuses.

I also don't think Sandler should be Johnny Depp---the world's greatest actor, by the way---but what is the harm in trying?

Sandler makes movies with his band of brothers, and that's OK too. You're likely to see David Spade or Kevin Nealon or Nick Swardson show up. You'll always see Allen Covert, who is literally in every Sandler film, and looking totally different in every one. There are other character actors who frequently turn up in any movie made by Sandler's Happy Madison production company.

That's all fine and dandy. This isn't about Sandler's movie cronies. It's about Sandler, who is one of so many who made the successful transition from small screen to silver screen via the Saturday Night Live route.

Sandler hasn't changed much, physically, which is appropriate because he hasn't changed much, artistically.

The aforementioned Smith seemed to not be able to wait to try juicier roles. He's played everything from an imperfect super hero to one of the Men in Black to Muhammad Ali.

Sandler, on the other hand, seems content to stay inside his sandbox.

The comparison between Smith and Sandler is apt because of their ages. Smith is 44; Sandler is 46. Neither has changed much physically; both have aged rather well. But the former has lapped the latter in terms of acting diversity so many times, it's unreal.

This might appear to be a knock on Sandler but it's more of an intervention. He's made a boatload of dough in the movies, so it's not about financial success. It's about professional and artistic fulfillment. It's about giving us more than what we've seen.

Happy Madison Productions is a combination of Sandler film titles Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996). Those movies are almost 20 years old. And still Sandler is making films that appeal to our inner child, which has been explored again and again.

Oh, how I wish he was more adventurous.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cast Iron Courage

David Brenner, the wildly popular stand-up comedian of the 1970s and '80s, was on The Tonight Show one evening. His guest segment had already happened, so he was on the couch as Johnny Carson chatted up somebody else.

Carson noticed that Brenner seemed to be daydreaming. Now, whether the following was planned or not, I don't know.

"David? Something on your mind?"

The camera switched to Brenner right away (which leads me to believe this was a staged bit) and the comedian said, "Actually, Johnny, I was just wondering who the bravest person in the world was."

Dutifully, Johnny said, "Oh? What do you mean?"

Brenner said, "Well, I think it was the first person to drink milk from a cow."

Carson giggled as only Johnny could, while Brenner continued.

"Somebody saw the cow, right? And he or she saw the udders dangling from the bottom of the cow. And that person is the bravest person, because that person said, 'See those things hanging from that cow? I'm going to squeeze them, and the first thing that comes out of them, I'm gonna drink it!'"

Carson, and the crowd, broke up.

It's hard to argue with Brenner's logic.

I think about that exchange whenever I think about how food was discovered in general.

Think about the stuff we consume on a daily basis. David Brenner is right---someone had to be the first to shove it down their gullet.

Take horseradish, for example.

I love horseradish. I spoon it on beef and sandwiches, probably with too much vigor. So much so, it makes my nose run, my eyes water and a searing pain zooms up my sinus cavity.

But I would NEVER think to use a root as a food, nor would I think of mashing it up and pickling it.

Horseradish root, before it is "prepared"

Who comes up with this stuff?

Who discovered that eggs could be fried, scrambled, boiled and poached?

Who was the first person to hazard beef tripe? If you don't know what it is, I don't have the stomach to tell you. Google it.

On and on---the foods we eat today without so much as a thought otherwise, had to have been "discovered" somehow.

And, as David Brenner said that night on The Tonight Show, those food pioneers are indeed among the bravest among us.

I don't even want to know about the stuff that was tried just once.

Note: I found Brenner's recounting of that "Tonight Show" appearance. You can read it HERE. Scroll down a little, to where it says 7 p.m., Saturday, June 20, The Finale Show, expectant in Norfolk

Friday, July 5, 2013

Passing the (Fake) Buck

I have never, as far as I know, come into possession of a counterfeit bill. I likely wouldn't know it even if I had.

I'm not an expert on American currency, beyond that George Washington is on the dollar bill, U.S. Grant is on the fifty, and Ben Franklin adorns the hundred, among a few others.

But apparently at every retail outlet, I am a potential passer of bad bills---"funny money."

I'm sure it's happened to you. The cashier takes your twenty or fifty or one hundred dollar bill, holds it up to the light, and/or strikes it with a magic counterfeit detector pen.

Every time, my money has passed the test.

But I always get the same thought when the cashier does his/her thing: What in the world would I do if I was told the bill I was trying to use was fake?

Would bells and sirens go off in the store? Would the house lights go out and a spotlight rain down on me? Would a cop jump from behind the counter? Would the cashier take an ax and strike a piece of glass, alarming the Secret Service?

Seriously---what would you say to a cashier who told you, "Sorry sir/ma'am, but I'm afraid this is a counterfeit bill"?

How many of us know the origin of the bills we carry in our wallet? Unless you come straight from the bank, the paper currency in your possession right now probably came from several different retail outlets over the course of several days.

How could any of us say, with any certainty, "Oh, THAT bad $50? I got that back in change at Target."

Come on.

So what would happen if confronted with phony money we were trying to use?

Would we be on the hook for it? After all, we are the ones trying to use it?

How do you plead innocence? The cashier has, in a way, caught you red (or should I say, green) handed.

Would the police listen to your pleas of ignorance?

I also wonder if the cashiers themselves have been trained on what to do if the bills they hold up to the light and strike with the magic pen turn out to be fake.

Maybe they're just as terrified as we are of finding phony dough.

I used to work in a drug store in college back in the 1980s, and the closest I ever came to seeing anything counterfeit was when a man tried to pass off a prescription for Dilaudid---a very powerful pain killer---that was proven to be fake.

He was led out of the store in handcuffs.

But then again, I didn't have a magic pen for dollar bills, nor was I trained on how to hold paper currency up to light and look for telltale things.

Now clearly, counterfeiting will always be one of the biggest cat-and-mouse games that is played in this country. The U.S. Treasury continues to come up with more sophisticated ways of minting money, and criminals keep doing their best to keep up.

It's kind of like car theft.

I always thought counterfeiting---really good counterfeiting---was done in order to pass large sums of fake money off as real. I never looked at it as a nickel-and-dime, Joe-Shmoe type of criminal activity.

I just think that if a bill I tried to use didn't pass the magic pen or light test, you'd have one startled cashier and one clue-free customer staring at each other in wonderment.

I wonder if either of us would know what to do.

ADDENDUM: Someone pointed me to this article. Read it and weep. I did.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


What is it about being in a position of leadership in Detroit that causes one to lose one's head?

Charles Pugh is the latest to exhibit strange, disturbing, and perhaps, illegal behavior.

Pugh, the now former City Council President, is in a firestorm of controversy, from the way he vanished from the face of the Earth recently to his alleged "inappropriate" relationship with a teenage boy.

Text messages were uncovered that show Pugh's frantic and panicked efforts to get the boy's mother to drop plans to take the relationship public.

The mother alleges that in addition to Pugh giving her son, who attended the Frederick Douglass Academy, gifts, there was an additional "incident" that supposedly occurred in Madison Heights recently.

In texts uncovered by the Detroit News, Pugh is clearly distraught over potential media coverage that would ensue if the boy's mother went public.

“I feel like I’ve run out of options to even have a normal life. Or even live,” a text message sent from Pugh’s phone on June 18 said.

Pretty intense stuff. The text suggests that Pugh may be suicidal.

In another text, Pugh says, I’ve ended the program at (Frederick Douglass Academy). I’ll do anything else you want me to do. Please don’t allow them to move forward with your interview. This would DESTROY me.”

Other texts show more angst by Pugh over the field day that he knows will occur if the boy's mother proceeds with her dalliance with the media.

This would seem to be bad enough, but this is in addition to Pugh's vanishing act last week, when no one knew where the Council President was, and even Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr had to issue a public ultimatum to Pugh: show up to work tomorrow or be stripped of all powers.

The only thing that showed up to work that next day was Pugh's city-issued car, driven to City Hall by someone else.

So Pugh was indeed stripped of his President title, duties, salary and benefits. Yet another bizarre, stranger-than-life tale of abuse of power to come from Detroit. Maybe I should say the latest.

Last Tuesday, with Pugh still AWOL, Councilman Andre Spivey, who's also a man of the cloth, said, "“I hope the president is OK, but as a council we are here to be accountable to the people of the City of Detroit and we need to move forward as soon as possible with new leadership. At this point, we don’t know that the president is coming back. I wish he would have come back and made a statement by now. But to keep our citizens in limbo as to how we move forward, it’s not fair to them.”

How come the ones who speak logically and with sanity and reason in Detroit, are usually the ones who aren't carrying the big stick?

As for the alleged inappropriateness of the contact between Pugh and the now 18-year-old boy---who Pugh mentored at the FDA---Madison Heights Police Lt. Robert Anderson has said the report alleges “inappropriate contact” between Pugh and the teen in a parking lot within the city between May 29 and 31, when the boy was 17. 

Pugh is no longer in a position of power, but his actions while holding such a position look to be potentially reverberating for quite some time.

Sick of it yet?