Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar's Weiners

The distinctly debonair, razor-thin, legendary British actor was in the middle of his scripted bit of monologue when suddenly the crowd was in an uproar.

It was 1974, in the middle of an American craze that inexplicably had caught on ever-so-briefly, as so many other American crazes seem to do----inexplicably.

This particular craze was called "streaking," or running naked through a very public place. The nation's ballparks and football stadiums, to name just a couple venues, were being overrun by those sans clothing, making their mad dashes.

And now the Academy Awards show was being interrupted by a streaker. He was male, even if just barely.

David Niven, startled by the sudden burst of hoots and howls from the audience, turned and looked to see what the commotion was all about. A streaker was moving behind him, across the stage, flashing the "peace" sign with his fingers.

Straying off script, Niven commented with spot-on---as they say in his country---comedic timing.

With typical British cool among chaos, Niven quipped, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... But isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"


The Academy Awards---better known as The Oscars---are on this Sunday. Niven's streaker incident was hardly the first time that the Awards were used to showcase one's, ahem, views. Nor would it be the last.

Actors have used their acceptance speeches to push political agendas. Marlon Brando sent a supposed Native American (it's been widely suspected that she was merely another actor, ironically) to refuse to accept his Best Actor Award for "Godfather", purportedly in protest of the country's treatment of American Indians.

George C. Scott declined his Best Actor Oscar for "Patton" because he didn't like the political machinations of the Awards themselves. So he stayed home and watched a hockey game. True story.

Woody Allen made news by deliberately declining to attend the Oscars when "Annie Hall" was up for Best Picture, so he could keep a weekly clarinet-playing date in a New York club.

Those are just a few examples.

Others have put their foot in their mouths accidentally in acceptance of their awards, blurting out curse words or other untoward, awkward things. 

And who can forget Sally Field's, "You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!"?

Personally, I enjoy watching the Oscars, but mainly to pick them apart. I guess I'm masochistic that way.

I hope to be entertained and laugh along the way, however. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting this year, the odds of that happening are good.

I also look forward to the montage of those in the film industry who we lost since the last Oscars. Invariably there's someone about who my wife and I will look at each other and say, "(Fill in the blank) DIED? I didn't know that!"

Even the montage has angered me in the past. The omission of Farrah Fawcett several years ago still rankles me.

Yes, the ceremony is notorious for running long and some of the speeches are boring and still others will make you squirm a little, but there are also some kick-ass ones as well.

Watching the Oscars is probably like sitting in the kitchen and eating ice cream right out of the carton, but it only comes once a year, so view with impunity.

Now...if they could only move it to Saturday night. The damn thing goes past midnight and people have to work the next day, don't you know!

Oh, and here's the famous Niven clip.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Second City's First Man of Comedy

There's a certain delicate symmetry when a person's birth city and death city are the same.

Harold Ramis has such a line on his biography.

Born: November 21, 1944; Chicago, IL.

Died: February 24, 2014; Chicago, IL.

Ramis, the comedic actor/director who passed away Monday from a rare and painful vascular disease, was as Chicago as wind, deep dish pizza and crooked elections. If you cracked him open you'd have found a Cubs cap and a megaphone.

Ramis was always smirking. He had that twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something you didn't. When it came to movie making and laugh making, he did.

Ramis was one of the leaders of a band of merry men and women who yukked it up at the original Second City improvisational theater group in Chicago, starting in the late-1960s. He was hardly alone when it came to finding fame later, but his imprint on American filmmaking puts him near the head of the class.

Ramis's first role on the big screen saw him smirking all the way through 1981's "Stripes," the comedy he co-wrote and starred in with Bill Murray, directed by Ivan Reitman. Three years later, Ramis again took to the typewriter---this time with co-star Dan Aykroyd---and wrote "Ghostbusters."

As the years went on, Ramis found more fortune staying behind the scenes, writing killer dialogue, physical comedy and directing the same.

Ramis's body of work as a writer and/or director reads like so many film critics' Top 25 lists of comedy vehicles.

"Caddyshack"; "National Lampoon's Vacation"; "Groundhog Day"; "Analyze This"; "Analyze That"; "Meatballs"; "Stripes"; "Ghostbusters"; "The Office" (TV); "National Lampoon's Animal House."

That's some serious comedy, right there. Iconic stuff.

And, of course, there was the transformation of Second City's magic of improv from stage to small screen, when Ramis was a lead writer in the 1970s and '80s on "SCTV," produced out of Canada, when Toronto joined Chicago as a major contributor of raw talent that would go on to bigger and better things.

You've heard of John Candy, right?

Ramis spun his work off "SCTV" and made his foray into film, and we laughed and laughed.

Harold Ramis: 1944-2014

In the "I am not making this up" department, Ramis once worked in a mental institution in St. Louis for seven months.

"(The experience) prepared me well for when I went out towork with actors," Ramis once said. "People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It's knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that's connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors."

Sadly, the man who brought us to tears of laughter and split our sides so often, had a painful and debilitating end as he battled his rare vascular disease.

Vasculitis develops when the body's immune system turns on its network of veins and arteries. Blood vessels become inflamed, restricting the flow of blood or cutting it off entirely, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Ramis was first diagnosed a few years ago.

Coming from someone who should know, having worn both hats, Harold Ramis once gave his analysis of the roles of writer and director.

"I always claim that the writer has done 90 percent of the director's work."

However you choose to slice it, there's no number crunching needed with this: Harold Ramis made people laugh. 

Today, Chicago is a little less windy, the deep dish pizza a little colder. Even the Cubs are worse off.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

More Progress = Nothing is Easy

A few weeks ago, hurried and on my lunch break, I stepped into the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Royal Oak. My goal was simple: purchase a newspaper.

Every Friday I cash my paycheck in Royal Oak and then take in lunch somewhere in town. But I'm one of these people who can't eat alone if I don't have something to read. Hence the newspaper.

My usual provider, the gas station by the bank, was out of papers, so I remembered B&N.

The bank took longer than usual, so the sands in the hourglass were dwindling. But hey, it's only a newspaper, right?

The newspapers at B&N are located behind the cashier's counter. They're not self-serve.

So first I had to wait for a cashier, which knocked off precious seconds from my meal time. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part came when I voiced my request.

"Detroit News," please, I said to the college-aged cashier.

He retrieved it. I had my dollar ready, eager to pay, leave, and look for sustenance to jam down my throat.

He needed to scan the newspaper, and that took a few tries before it beeped.

"Are you a Rewards member?" he asked.

No, I am not, I told him, as I jabbed the dollar toward him.

"E-mail please?" he asked.

My jaw dropped.

"For a newspaper?"

He gave me a sheepish look. "I just want to see if you're in the system."

Again, I said, "For a newspaper?" although with much more irritation in my voice.

By this time I sort of tossed the dollar toward him. But he still clutched my newspaper, holding it hostage.

He could see that I was not a happy camper---my annoyance was hardly subtle---and he looked at his co-worker, as if unsure of what to do with a man who just wanted to buy a newspaper and who wasn't a Rewards member and who didn't want to provide his e-mail address in order to purchase said newspaper.

I had had enough.

"I'm in a hurry. Can I just please have my newspaper?" I said.

Finally he relinquished it.

Now, this entire exchange obviously took less time than it did for you to read about it, but when you're in a hurry and all you want to do is buy a newspaper for one dollar and you can't do it without being asked about memberships and e-mails, your stomach grumbling, each second translates to ten times its length.

Thankfully, my normal newspaper provider (gas station) hasn't run out of papers since. And if they do, I'll be damned if I wander into B&N to purchase one. I'll do without, or try to find a box dispenser.

I love the gas station, by the way. I grab a paper, give the attendant a dollar, and walk away. If there is someone ahead of me in line who is buying cigarettes or lottery tickets (don't get me started), I just put the dollar on the counter, wave my newspaper so it is seen, then walk away. The attendant has my back.

At the gas station they don't need to scan the paper. At the gas station they don't ask me any questions. All they do is take my dollar and tell me to have a nice day. I love the gas station.

But this inconvenience, such as displayed at B&N, is happening all over. The ability to make simple purchases without being asked to present membership cards or provide phone numbers and e-mail addresses is slipping away from us. K-mart asks if you want a paper receipt or one e-mailed to you---even if all you're buying is a gallon of milk. And the answer you give can't be verbal---it has to be registered on their debit card thingy.

But hey, this is progress, right?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hail Caesar

Television was pretty much an extension of the theater when Sid Caesar first started showing up in the living rooms of America in the late-1940s.

The performances were shown to audiences much like you would see something live on stage---few if any close-ups, archaic blocking, everything horizontal. Not that you couldn't deliver the goods shooting that way---just look at any "Honeymooners" episode.

But it was the work ethic that also translated from theater to early television. The shows may have been in front of cameras, but the players performed like it was Broadway---live and often.

Sid Caesar is gone. The year, just 43 days old, has already been unkind. We've lost legendary animator Arthur Rankin, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, on Monday, Shirley Temple Black.

Caesar was 91 when he slipped away today in California after a short illness.

Caesar lit it up every week, for 90 minutes no less, in "Your Show of Shows," which was basically television's first foray into sketch comedy.

Every Saturday night, from 9:00-10:30, Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris---plus several regular guest stars, put on what was essentially was a live variety show---39 weeks a year.

It was, truthfully, the original "Saturday Night Live."

"YSOS" won a couple of Emmy Awards along the way, but its lasting imprint has nothing to do with hardware. The early-1950s was a great time to be on television if you had any bit of pioneer in you and cared to blaze some trails. And Caesar and his band of merry men (and women) did plenty of blazing in the four years that "YSOS" was on the air.

Writing for Sid Caesar was as important as performing with him. If you wanted a career in TV as a writer, you wanted to write for Caesar. He was television's doorman for aspiring writers.

Reiner called upon his years of writing and performing on "YSOS" as inspiration for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which set many scenes in the writing office of Buddy Sorrell, Sally Rogers and Rob Petrie, who wrote for the bombastic, hard-to-please TV star Alan Brady (Reiner).

Sid Caesar was widely known in the 1950s as the best comedian in the world---TV, radio, movies, you name it. He had the rubber face, the gangly body and the New York-soaked voice that always went well with comedy.

It was Caesar and fellow comic Ernie Kovacs who looked at television as a block of clay with which to play, like children in a sandbox. Maybe the better analogy is pigs in slop, for the comedy of Caesar and Kovacs was hardly spic and span---in terms of props, physicality and creativity.

In "YSOS," Caesar and Coca could be anyone from a squabbling married couple to an artist and his muse to two bums on the street. Always, they were scenery chewers but most importantly, always they were funny.

“Television had its share of comedy geniuses,” Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote in 1994. “Yet arguably none has been as uniquely gifted and inventive as Caesar. Watching him perform, you just know light bulbs are popping continuously in his brain.”

Caesar wasn't as prolific on the big screen, though he did do memorable turns in films such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I." 

But movies weren't Caesar's milieu. He was a performer who needed the rush of going in front of a live audience, being beamed live into people's homes, eschewing multiple takes, cue cards and TelePrompTers, which weren't even around when Caesar came on the scene---not that he would have used them anyway.

It truly was the Golden Age of Television in Sid Caesar's day. Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Reiner and Kovacs were lock step with Caesar when it came to television comedy---all pioneers in their own way and all making their mark in this new medium that supplanted radio as the family's watering hole of entertainment.

Caesar's shtick included his famous "double talk" bits, in which he'd shamelessly combine languages, dialects and jargon with hilarious results. Thankfully, YouTube functions as our own personal Museum of Broadcasting History, so we can fire up a Caesar sketch 24/7.

There's great irony in one of Sid Caesar's quotes, coming as it did from a pioneering genius such as himself.

"The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot," he once said. "The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius."

That makes for some laughs, but Caesar invented the first wheel of sketch comedy. There was nothing idiotic about that.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley She'll Never Die

In today's world, an entertainer who peaks at the age of 10 has a good chance of being on the police blotter before he or she is able to legally vote.

Shirley Temple spent her childhood under hot lights, in front of cameras and in the hearts of American movie goers across the country. Yet she didn't spend her adult life in debt, on drugs or behind bars.

Shirley Temple was everyone's sweetheart. She had the entire country in the palm of her tiny hand. Her hair was more curly than a corkscrew. She had dimples as deep as the Grand Canyon, a smile as bright as all the lights on Broadway put together. 

They named a drink after her---non-alcoholic, of course. She was intoxicating all by herself.

It's almost unfathomable to imagine a girl of Shirley Temple's prepubescent age today, captivating America and being able to stay on the straight and narrow once the audiences stopped paying attention. 

Few child stars, if any, exited show business as gracefully as Shirley Temple. She retired officially in 1950, at the age of 22, and eased into private life without any drama. Her work was done, her imprint on our hearts indelible. She made a few films past adolescence, but it was clear that audiences preferred the child Shirley to the young woman Shirley. So she got out, without a hint of bitterness or resentment.

Temple even survived being married at age 17, which is another life-changing moment that many young stars today wouldn't have been able to negotiate at such a young age. But Temple managed to stay hitched to Army Air Corps sergeant John Agar for five years, even birthing a child. Her next marriage lasted 55 years.

Temple, who became known as Shirley Temple Black after her second marriage, passed away Monday at 85. It was a good life.

She got interested in politics in the 1960s, and while she wasn't able to ascend to any elected office, Temple Black did serve five total years as the United States' ambassador to Ghana (1974-76) and Czechoslovakia (1989-92). 

There were also numerous corporate boards of directors that Temple Black served on, including The Walt Disney Company, Del Monte, Bank of America and Fireman's Fund Insurance.

But while her life as a big girl was one lived in dignity and distinction, it is as a child that Shirley Temple lives forever in our minds. 

Who among us can't close our eyes and imagine Shirley belting out "On the Good Ship Lollipop," her signature song? 

Shirley Temple's obituary may say that she was 85 years old at her death, but she never grew up. To us, she'll always be that little girl with the curly, blonde hair, melting hearts left and right. 

She was the child star who kept it together. Temple saw the curtain close on her career at 22 and she simply moved on. She was a woman of many interests and of high intelligence. There was plenty more that she wanted to do, and she did it.

She moved on after show business, having had her time and secure with the realization that nothing can last forever, especially a career in movies that began at the tender age of three.

But therein lies the irony. Her career really did last forever, thanks to celluloid, reruns and our eagerness to keep her as a little girl forever in our minds.

Shirley Temple blew through movies for about six mega years like a tornado, but instead of leaving destruction in her wake, she left smiles and melted hearts.

You can put a Shirley Temple flick on today and it's impossible not to smile. 

With all due respect to her work in Ghana and Czechoslovakia, Shirley Temple was, in fact, America's Ambassador of Cuteness.

Her legacy is one not stained by eventual juvenile delinquency, immaturity or drugs and alcohol. She wasn't Judy Garland.

Shirley Temple was a star as a child, and a success as an adult. She lived the good life for 85 years.

She was one of those entertainers who won't ever truly die. Her curls and dimples simply won't allow it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jay's Walking

How will TV historians judge Jay Leno?

The legacy of Johnny Carson was already filed and ready for perusal long before the amateur magician from Nebraska hung up his microphone in May, 1992 after nearly 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show.

Carson's imprint on television history---forget just Tonight---was plainly indelible about 10 years into his run, when the show moved from New York to Burbank. So the next 20 years were spent building on a legacy that saw the unofficial launch of countless stand-up comedians' careers and the cementing of various other entertainers into the public's consciousness.

That, plus Carson's own star grew so bright that we were blinded by it when he walked away from the studio and into retirement.

But what about Leno, whose final show as Tonight's host for 22 years was recorded on Thursday?

When Carson took the mantle in 1962, the show was eight years old and had been hosted by Steve Allen (1954-57) and Jack Paar (1957-62). Television was still in the midst of carving a swathe in pop culture. It was more than a year before the medium grew up fully with its hour-by-hour coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

Carson had the advantage of being able to use the show as his own piece of modeling clay, because when Allen and Paar hosted it, not nearly as many people were watching.

This was not the case with Leno, who took over in 1992 in a much stickier fashion, having been the winner in a two-horse race for the show's reins with David Letterman.

So there were more than a few crossed eyes watching Tonight when Leno took over. Many viewers were in one of two camps---Leno's or Letterman's. Those in the latter, no doubt, wouldn't have been unhappy if Leno crashed and burned.

Carson's fingerprints were all over everything when he hosted Tonight, from the opening monologue to the iconic interview moments to the Mighty Carson Art Players and to the audience participation games.

Leno's iconic guest moments were far fewer, and it's uncertain how many stand-up careers he truly launched. Leno's imprint pretty much was reduced to the jokes in the monologue, but some of that wasn't his fault, because Carson's team were like gold miners who didn't leave Leno's people much to discover.

Still, hosting a show for 22 years is nothing to sneeze at. The ratings may have dipped at times, but to be fair, the viewing pie was sliced into many more pieces during Leno's run than when Carson ruled late night.

Sadly, Leno will be largely remembered for two things when it comes to Tonight: the mini-controversy in the way he took over (the tiff with Letterman) and the way he regained the show from Conan O'Brien after a brief foray into the 10:00 p.m. time slot.

It's unfortunate, because those who had long moved on from the way Leno's run started, were either moved to be against him yet again when the O'Brien mess happened, or if they were too young to recall the bumpy beginning, framed O'Brien as victim.

Neither cast Leno in a good light, obviously.

If the body of Leno's work on Tonight is to be judged solely on what happened on camera, then he acquitted himself well, even if his humor was hardly cutting edge. If the off-camera nonsense is taken into account as well, then Jay Leno will be forever known as a polarizing character whose agenda was perhaps less than gracious at times---an opportunist who should never have come back once O'Brien was given Tonight.

Regardless, Jimmy Fallon is on the clock. It's unlikely that he'll do the show for anywhere near Leno's 22 years. And that, in of itself, is at least one feather in Jay's cap.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Caught Dead---After 23 Years

Heroin chased Philip Seymour Hoffman down for over 20 years. The tireless drug finally caught him.

Drug addiction, like alcoholism, cancer and other terminal diseases, is patient. It'll wait you out. If you think your body is in the Addict Protection Program, you're sorely mistaken.

Once you've shown yourself to partake in its vice, you're on the list.

Can you beat it? Can you stay ahead of it? Sure---but addiction's won/loss record is stellar.

Heroin beat Hoffman, the actor/director who was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Sunday at the age of 46, reportedly with a syringe still stuck in his arm.

The news of the death of an artist before his or her time comes in stages.

First is, of course, shock.

I came home from one of my daily walks with our pooch yesterday when our daughter broke the news.

"Philip Seymour Hoffman died," she said plainly.

I reacted the way I'm sure millions did.

"WHAT?" was all I said.

That's Stage One.

In Stage Two, details---real and imagined---dribble out and are spread onto social media. The key in this stage is to separate the facts from the rumors and speculation.

In Stage Three, reports become confirmed and the information has been run through the proper filtration system, leaving the cold hard facts. Rumors are debunked and facts become crystallized.

So we know this. Hoffman was last seen alive on Saturday night around 8:00 p.m. When he failed to show up the next morning to pick up his children, red flags were raised. Then, Hoffman was found on the floor of his bathroom, dead of an apparent drug overdose and stuck with the needle, presumably self-inflicted.

It's not unlike how edgy and often profane comedian Lenny Bruce was found. Bruce was 40 when he too was discovered on a bathroom floor, dead and with shooting up paraphernalia nearby.

It was the great columnist Dick Schaap---normally known for his sportswriting---who said it all about Bruce's death in a much-publicized obituary.

"Here's one more four-letter word for you, Lenny," Schaap wrote. "D-E-A-D, at age 40."

Hoffman tried to outrun heroin and other substance abuse and addiction. He was able to keep ahead of it for 23 years. But then a relapse a couple years ago sent him into rehab. Hoffman got tired; heroin was as fresh as a daisy. Police reports say that between 50 and 70 packets of heroin were found in Hoffman's apartment, after they cleared his body out.

If that's true, then it was only a matter of time before heroin put another in the W column.

For a terrific take on Hoffman the actor, I urge you to read this piece by my friend and pop culture writer Ian Casselberry, who nails Hoffman's eclectic career and who astutely points out that while Hoffman may not have had that "signature role," his career was no less magnificent.

The worst part of losing someone like Hoffman at 46---whether it was self-inflicted or not--- is the life sentence we have been saddled with of wondering "What if?" about his career.

It's Heath Ledger-ish.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: 1967-2014

The greatest actor of our time, Johnny Depp, is approximately Hoffman's age. And, like Hoffman, when you think of Depp you realize that he has never looked the same way twice on the screen. The range and the versatility are mind-boggling.

It was the same with Hoffman. As Ian Casselberry wrote, "Where do you begin with Hoffman and his career? Did he have a signature role or was he just the classic working actor, willing to try just about anything?"

There actually was something signature about Philip Seymour Hoffman---that there wasn't anything signature about his acting. His dizzying array of roles, accumulated in relatively short order, is his legacy.

But Hoffman was also a junkie. Let's face it. He ran from it, ran for over two decades. 

He left everything he had on the screen, and maybe that's why there wasn't much left for anything else---like staying off blow.

To paraphrase Dick Schaap: Philip Seymour Hoffman---D-E-A-D at age 46.

How profane indeed.