Friday, April 24, 2015

Another Untimely, Tragic Wrap

As if suicide isn't rotten enough, it invariably raises more questions than it answers. That's because suicide often doesn't answer any questions at all.

Even a note left behind won't necessarily satisfy all the curiosity. In fact, suicide notes are likely to create more questions than they answer, as well.

A suicide note is like a press conference where a statement is issued and the issuer scrambles away, without taking any queries.

Sawyer Sweeten is dead. Apparently it's suicide.

Sawyer, on the verge of turning 20, was one-half of the identical twin actors who played Ray and Debra Barone's twin boys on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (1996-2005). Sawyer played Geoffrey and Sullivan Sweeten played Michael. The twins' older sister Madylin played older sister Ally on the TV show.

According to reports, Sawyer was visiting family in Texas when he apparently shot himself on the front porch of the house where he was staying.

In the early years of "Raymond," star Ray Romano would say in the open that the show "is not really about the kids," and he was right. The Barone children were often not seen at all in episodes. Not making kids foils or smart alecks was one of many ways in which "Raymond" was refreshing.

The Sweeten kids weren't fed rapid fire one-liners by the writers. Their characters rarely acted out, and only on occasion was a "Raymond" storyline built around the children.

But today, it IS about the kids. One, in particular.

No word yet if Sawyer left a note. Not that it helps if he did.

Throughout entertainment history, the travails of the child actor after he/she is no longer an adolescent have been widely documented. I don't know if studies have been made, so it's anyone's guess as to whether former child stars are, statistically, prone to big people-type problems more than "normal" kids. But certainly their issues are higher in profile.

I would imagine that some of the emotional/psychological problems that child actors face start with a question that we have all asked about said stars, either to ourselves or of others.

"Whatever happened to...?"

That may be the crux of a lot of this stuff.

Whatever happened to the kid actors after they grew up and their shows ended up in syndication?

But maybe the kid actors are asking themselves, "What do I do now, now that the spotlights have been turned off and the acting jobs have dried up?"


Sawyer and Madylin Sweeten


Some of the kid stars turned to drugs. Some turned to alcohol. Some turned to both. Others followed their lives on set with a life of crime, almost immediately.

With or without a suicide note, the questions surrounding Sawyer Sweeten's apparent suicide will never truly be answered, because the only person who possesses the answers and who can expound is gone.

And it might be that Sawyer's demise had absolutely nothing to do with his having been a child actor.

Romano, who reminded us back in the day that his show wasn't about the kids, reversed that course upon learning of Sawyer's tragic death.

"I'm shocked, and terribly saddened, by the news about Sawyer," Romano said in a statement.
"(Sawyer) was a wonderful and sweet kid to be around. Just a great energy whenever he was there. My heart breaks for him, his family, and his friends during this very difficult time."

Big sister Madylin Sweeten told us to do something that shouldn't take an untimely death to get us to do.

"At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you."


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ebb and Flo

They were television advertising icons who resided on the banks of our cultural consciousness.

Mr. Whipple (Charmin bathroom tissue). Madge the manicurist (Palmolive dish detergent). The Maytag Repair Man. Even the Qantas koala bear.

Those were just a few commercial characters who invaded our living rooms in the 1970s and '80s. Their ads---usually 60 seconds in length or even longer---were rarely the same. The format might have been nearly identical, and of course the tag lines were ("DON'T squeeze the Charmin!"), but each appearance by Mr. Whipple or Madge usually had them interacting with different customers.

The actors behind the characters were often nameless, as it should have been, but I'm sure their paychecks weren't nameless---or paltry.

The pitchman on TV these days is usually a local litigator or a voice-over hawking prescription meds.

There isn't really any character that is iconic---no one who, when they appear on the screen, instantly lets us know what product is being advertised.

Except for Flo, the Progressive Insurance Girl.

Played by Stephanie Courtney (we only know that because this is the Internet age), Flo first started appearing on TV in the late-2000s. Her cheery attitude, dark hair, blood red lipstick and ridiculously long eyelashes, all packaged in an all-white uniform, screams insurance at the moment of seeing her.

To Progressive's credit, the Flo ads are kept fresher than most other TV spots, which can gag you with their repetitiveness and lack of variety (i.e. those same three Liberty Mutual Insurance ads that are rotated).

Progressive has put Flo in all sorts of situations, from riding motorcycles to consoling a man in a locker room to being tied to a stake (in an ad that puts Flo in different eras in world history).

But unlike the advertising characters from days gone by, who were mostly universally liked (or, at the very least, tolerated rather easily), Flo, for whatever reason, is a polarizing sort.

My mother, for example, can't stand Flo. I, on the other hand, find Flo attractive in an odd way.

Trolling the Internet, this polarization is acute.

There are Flo-hating websites and forums, as well as those that are visited by men who make no bones that they would like to do some things (sexually) to Flo that are unfit to print here. Other comments on Facebook et al have been from females who like Flo just because they think she's likable.

Courtney, for her part, has never understood the allure of Flo, sexually.

"The GEICO gecko puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does," Courtney has been quoted as saying.



Regardless of where you stand on the Flo issue, one thing can't be disputed: She's a throwback to a time when TV advertising was flush with identifiable characters and mascots. Back when TV hawked more than just insurance, beer, cars and drugs.

Flo's Facebook page has nearly 5 million likes, though that number has been dipping in recent years from its peak of 5.4 million.

Like them or not, the Flo spots at least are freshened up rather frequently. Her character, these days, is seen less in that all-white, fantasy Progressive Insurance "store" and more in various situations and venues.

And, no doubt, Flo has made Stephanie Courtney's wallet fatter than it likely would have been had she been forced to stick to more traditional bit parts on TV and in the movies, as she was doing prior to Flo.

You pretty much love Flo or you hate her; it's hard to be on the fence with her. She's the Howard Cosell of modern television that way.

The GEICO gecko, by the way, should get props for its popularity and freshness of new spots.

Who would have thought that the world of insurance would take over TV advertising?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Still Rockin', Still Rollin'?

The Rolling Stones are coming! The Rolling Stones are coming!

How much rolling they do nowadays, it's anyone's guess. They're all in their 70s now.

The iconic rock group is touring this summer, and Detroit is on the travelogue, with the Stones playing Comerica Park on July 8.

This isn't ageism, but one can only wonder how strong the voices are, how powerful the guitar riffs are and how much energy is in the tank for the Mick Jagger-led group, who can all order off the seniors menu at every restaurant in the country.

I've been listening to a lot of 1960s-era rock lately, thanks to a nifty little mobile app called Milk Music. The tunes (sans commercials) come in handy while walking the pooch.

The Rolling Stones are part of that, of course, but sprinkled in with the bands I am listening to are performers like Jim Morrison (The Doors), Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliot (the Mamas and the Papas) and others who died before their time.

So the question begs: what would have become of those artists had they lived as long as Jagger, Richards, Wyman, Watt et al?

The argument could be made that each of the aforementioned music artists, who all died in their 20s (except Elliot, who was 32 when she passed), were trailblazers for acts who came behind them.

But would their acts have stood the test of time?

We'll never know, of course, but it's still fun to imagine what kind of music The Doors would be pumping out in 2015, or if Croce's ballads would have evolved over time or if Hendrix would still be wailing on the electric guitar some 45 years after he died.

Then again, there are many bands and individual artists from the British Invasion years that have pretty much vanished from the public eye---all while remaining alive and kicking.

The Rolling Stones are still a draw because they, like The Who, Paul McCartney and others who've been at this rock-and-roll thing for 50-plus years, pumped out so many hits in their prime that it never gets old for their fan base---many of whom are also in their senior years---to hear those hits performed live, no matter the age of the performers.



The bodies of work of Morrison, Croce, Hendrix, Joplin and Elliot, combined, averaged about four years at their peak. If it seems like it was longer, then that's both a testament to their music's influence and to the fact that they died young. James Dean only made four movies, believe it or not. Yet a prevailing belief is that Dean's filmography is more voluminous than that.

Elvis Presley would have turned 80 in January. But forget The King's music; how would those hips have held up?