Sunday, January 14, 2018

I Remember Donnelly Rhodes

It was always a joy interviewing the Canadian TV star Donnelly Rhodes.
The Canadian TV star died Monday after a brave battle with pancreatic cancer.
We first met up  in 1973 when I was TV critic for The Spectator on the set of a fine but short lived CBC cop show  titled Sidestreet --Rhodes starred opposite a friend of mine Jonathan Welsh.
But there he was back in Canada because "I like to eat and I'm still bullish on Canadian TV. One of these days we'll get it right."
But  Rhodes and Welsh only lasted the first year--in typical CBC fashion the series got monthly makeovers before expiring two seasons later.
Rhodes was already a TV veteran--in the Sixties he'd been what he termed "a male starlet" on the Universal lot where he guested on such hit series as Marcus Welby, The New Perry Mason, Here Come The Brides.
"I even had a bit in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, blink and you miss me," he jokingly told me.
Rhodes, born in Winnipeg in 1937, had started his acting career at Canada's National Theatre School where he met and married the actress Martha Kathleen Buhs who took Rhodes' last name Henry.
"I then decided to use my middle name name Rhodes to further complicate matters. My brother Tim Henry is also an actor but he kept the original name..
Rhodes' biggest hit show was Danger Bay which ran for 122 episodes over five seasons (1985-1990).
"I enjoyed it tremendously. Loved those kids --Christopher Crabb and Ocean Helman. And we taught valuable ecological lessons. And it was always the number one rated series on the Disney channel."
There are rumors from time to time that the series may be rebooted as The New Danger Bay.
Other shows Rhodes starred in include The Heights (1992), Street Legal (as R.J. Williams), Da Vinci's Inquest (as Leo Shannon), Battlestar Galactica (Dr. Sherman Cottle).
The last credit I have for Rhodes is the TV series Legends Of Tomorrow in 2016.
 I remember Rhodes once telling me: "I prefer working in my own country.  But sometimes this is not possible. I deliberately left The Young And The Restless because I feared I'd get lazy playing the same character day after day.
In recent years Rhodes battled cancer and died at Baillie Hospice in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.
"To be a working actor you must accept a lot of inferior assignments.," he told me. "But I treated each assignment with the same enthusiasm and intensity.  Then along will come a Danger Bay or a Soap and everything seems worthwhile again. I never courted stardom. To be part of an successful ensemble cast was always my goal."

Friday, January 12, 2018

Canadian TV Is Alive And Thriving: The Caregivers' Club

"There have been several touching documentaries on Alzheimer's victims," filmmaker Cynthia Banks is telling me on the phone.
But she wanted to look at the people who have to look after them often for long periods of time.
"My mother, Phyllis, started the ball rolling in 2016 when she phoned me for help. When I got to the hospital my dad was tied down to the bed and extremely agitated. And for the first time I watched this strong woman crying. She'd always been the most resilient in my family."
Thus began the journey that filmmaker Banks turned into the remarkable personal account The Caregivers' Club which premieres on CBC-TV POV Sunday night at 9pm.
Says Banks "We live in an increasingly aged population. More and more of us will wind up needing care but there just isn't the support system available.And the funding? Where will to come from?"
I first met Banks when she was a producer at The Journal.
And later she series produced that fine CBC-TV series Life And Times which I wish were still running, it was a fine piece of Canadiana.
Her last TV documentary was one of the year's best: 2015's Reefer Riches which accurately forecast the current Canadian debate over the legal marijuana issue.
"We should have sold that everywhere but documentaries about marijuana were a glut on the market right then. but people still want to talk to me about it."
Now comes the long anticipated The Caregivers' Club.
"You know I got frustrated thinking I'll have to get another mortgage on my house to finance it," she laughs. "But that's the harsh reality of the system."
As Banks studied the situation she found there are 25,000 new cases of dementia reported each year--there'll be a 66 per cent increase over the next decade or so.
"I know I was completely unprepared for my new role as caregiver. How mom had coped for a decade I simply do not know --she was amazingly resilient."
And Banks like all caregivers had to learn there was no turning back --the course of the illness is slow and resilient.
I'm not giving away too much by saying one of the primary caregivers dies during a much needed vacation.
That scene affected me most because until then there was hope in that particular story line.
Banks said it took her a long time to film the varying story lines. "I certainly didn't want to be intrusive. But the more I explored the topic the more I felt the need to continue filming.
"I can't think of a moment when I was asked to turn the camera off. Because by then the people I was profiling trusted me to do the right thing."
In The Caregivers Club we become friends with three outstanding caregivers--Dominic. Karen and Barbara.
"All three are connected to Baycrest Health Services in Toronto and the outstanding occupational therapist Nira Rittenberg is always there to offer her professional support. It's a remarkable program but not available to the many dementia cases in rural areas.
"My idea was to profile these stories over a year so I never knew what was going to happen. I was the observer--I simply hoped these people would mostly forget I was there.
The story of Welland caregiver Karen Gillespie and her husband Jack is remarkable--he was diagnosed with dementia in 2009--but it was Karen's resiliency that I found outstanding.
"I'm not sure this is the best one I've done. That's for you critics to decide, but it was the most personal and emotional.
"It was important to respect all these families and show their collective courage. And I hope I've done that."
And I want to add this personal plea from Banks: "Why aren't the political decision makers listening to the constituents and professionals who know that money has to be put into home care relief? We are in a caregiving crisis in this country. We must demand public policy that makes politicians listen to what is needed."
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ice Bridge Is Worth Watching

"I suppose more people will be watching," laughs veteran director Robin Bicknell whose compelling new documentary Ice Bridge premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Sunday night at 8.
Bicknell spent 25 days over a longer period filming on location veteran archeologists trying to determine whether Ice Age peoples came to North America from Europe via a land bridge.
I watched the hour just before controversy enveloped the project via an incendiary story in The National Post.
"Actually. it's not very controversial at all," says Bicknell whose recent credits include the 2015 series
 Battle Factory and the 2012 documentary Curse Of The Axe.
With Ice Bridge Bicknell merely follows the archeological evidence that highly trained Ice Age hunters termed Solutreans may well have migrated across a gigantic ice bridge from Europe to North America.
Solutrean tribes inhabited much of France and Spain 20,000 years ago and were responsible for the daring cave paintings that documented their way of life.
Whether or not they were an advanced sea faring people who could traverse the northern Atlantic  with its gigantic storm situations is another problem altogether.
"We show both sides of the argument," says Bicknell. Indeed, she gives the dissenters ample time to argue impassionately.
The thesis has been advanced for 20 years by American anthropologists Bruce Bradley and Dennis  Stanford.
We visit them on a monumental dig at Chesapeake Bay --nothing they've so far discovered has been demonstrated to the entire satisfaction of the academic community.
On this particular day we see them finding implements that could only have been made by Solutreans --the cure of the blade and the thinness are remarkably similar.
The archeological community has long been incensed by these rogue researchers ---we all know that there was a migration from Asia across a land/ice bridge during the last Ice Age of about 14,000 years ago.
Does that mean that Solutreans couldn't have reached North America's eastern shores?
"We cover those who are proper skeptic," Bicknell tells me. "Their opposition remains the dominant position.
She very deliberately did not give any time to any white racist theories emanating from the Solutrean theory.  She says the issue of racism is completely ignored which belongs to another documentary.
Bicknell's story is an developing detective saga --there's the discovery of charcoal fragments in the top soil which is carbon dated to about 20.000 years ago.
"We got there just in time as a big chunk of the cliff goes into the sea. Soon erosion will have entirely wiped out this important site."
Bicknell says the idea Solutreans were European is in itself flawed --their ancestors came from the Middle East.
One highlight has an elder in the Huron-Wendat people who brings 40 teeth to be analyzed and the marker haplogroup X was found in three of 40 samples.
Whether this proves they have Solutrean ancestors as against those who crossed the Bering Srrait  remains open for more debate.
Bicknell's documentary is filled with beautiful and dynamic images and has already caused robust debate. ahead of its premiere.
It may have provoked more controversy than she could ever have imagined.
But within the space of a TV hour it's jam packed with  enough human drama and academic passion to keep us all watching--and wondering.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

2017: I Remember, I Remember

We lost a lot of great talents I'd interviewed in 2017. Here's my personal salute to some of them:
MARY TYLER MOORE I first encountered at the MTM Studios in 1972 during a rehearsal break on her award winning CBS sitcom. She said I could interview her as long as I did the ballet stretching exercises she did every lunch break! She died after decades of battling diabetes at 80.
RICHARD HATCH I first met on his series Streets Of San Francisco. And later I re-interviewed him on the set of Battlestar Galactica. He was 71.
BARBARA HALE I met in Toronto when she and co-star were making the first Perry Mason TV movie. She was 89.
RONY ROSATO I first knew in his SCTV days and later on Saturday Night Live. He was 62.
ADAM WEST I knew from TV guest appearances. He was far more than Batman, a great comedic actor, He was 89.
DELLA REESE I knew from various TV appearances. She said her life threatening aneurysm had been successfully operated on in London, Ontario. She was 86.
HEATHER MENZIES I knew from her TV series work but also as the wife of Robert Urich. She was 67.
MONTY HALL I met every time he came to Toronto for his Variety Village telethons but also at his Beverly Hills home. He was 96.
PEGGY CUMMINS I interviewed over the phone to promote the DVD rerelease of her terrific film noir classic Gun Crazy. She was 92.
ROSE MARIE I first met up at CFTO studios when she was a contestant on Definition. She was 94.
BRUCE GRAY I interviewed often--he was terrific in Traders and also Queer As Folk. He was 81.
JOHN HILLERMAN I met on a CBS press tour where he was promoting his star turn on Magnum PI. He was 81.
JIM NABORS I met at a winery in St. Catharines- he was headlining a variety show at Hamilton Place. He was 87.
ROBERT GUILLAUME I met on the terrific sitcom Sports Night. He was 89.
JOHN DUNSWORTH I interviewed for his terrific comedic turn on Trailer Park Boys. He was 71.
HUGH HEFNER I met and interviewed at the Playboy mansion where he showed me his vault of old movie classics. He was 91.
ANNE JEFFREYS I saw at an L.A.  party dancing with Cesar Romero when both were over 80. The star of Topper was 94.
I interviewed master character HARRY DEAN STANTON several times. He was 91.
DON OLMEYER I several times in his NBC production office where he showed TV critics the first preview of Seinfeld. He was 92.
JERRY LEWIS I interviewed at the CNE in 1971. He was 91.
DICK GEGORY I interviewed in 1970 as a summer student for The Globe And Mail while he was on a starvation campaign fighting racism. He was 84.
GLEN CAMPBELL I met on the set of The Tommy Hunter Show in 1972. He was 81.
EOBERT HARDY I interviewed several times most notably at CFTO STudios where he was starring in a drama about Winston Churchill.  He claimed he loved being in Agincourt. He was 91.
STEPHEN FURST I interviewed on the set of St. Elsewhere. He died at 63 of complications from diabetes.
ROGER MOORE I met when he was starring in the TV series The Persuaders. He was 89.
SKIP HOMEIER I met on a CBS drama and told him of his brilliance aged 12 in starring in the 1944 firilm Tomorrow THe World. He was 86.
MARTIN LANDAU I first met on the set of Mission: Impossible. He was 89.
I first  ROBERT OSBORNE. TCM host,  at an L.A. and we talked old movies on the phone several times. He was 84.
And I remember interviewing Shelley Berman on the set of a CHCH game show way back in 1971. He was 92.


Friday, December 29, 2017

I Remember Heather Menzies

I first met the wonderful movie and TV actress Heather Menzies on an American Air flight from Toronto to Los Angeles.
I was proceeding to the annual TV Critics convention and she was accompanying her husband actor Bob Urich as he flew down to speak to the TCA on behalf of his latest series  Gavilan.
That would be in the summer of 1982 and Urich was his usual suave self before the TV critics.
But Gavilan folded quickly --a mere 10 episodes as I remember.
It became a standing joke with Heather that she'd bump into me as we boarded flights to L.A.
On one return trip around that time she was with Urich and seating was scarce so their little boy sat beside me.
It was in August but he was all excited about going to Toronto and their cottage in Muskoka because the last time he'd been there it was snowing.
So Heather had to patiently exclaim this was not possible in August.
I  met the Urichs again in Toronto in 1987 when Bob was co-starring in the miniseries Amerika.
Then he really scored in the series Spenser: For Hire which ran for three seasons
Spenser was revived as a series of TV flicks beginning in 1994--it was shot in Toronto..
I was on the set one day to chat with my friend Wendy Crewson and Urich invited me to stay over and chew the fat at lunch.
Urich was always working while Heather had put her acting career on hold to look after the children.
I think the last time I met her was at 20th Century Fox and she was with Robert Wagner and Lew Ayres in a quickly cancelled series titled Lime Street (1985) --but that series was  quickly cancelled and her episode never aired.
The thing is Heather put her career on hold for long periods.
I remember kidding her that she was born in Toronto (in 1949) and Bob was also born in Toronto --Toronto, Ohio.
Her family moved to the U.S. in 1960 when she was 11 and she attended Hollywood High School.
She auditioned for and got the role of Louisa von Trapp in the 1965 classic The Sound Of Music and she dutifully attended all the subsequent reunions.
Then came a change of pace when she romped in the nude in a 1973 Playboy pictorial.
Also in 1973 she was in the trash classic SSssssssss as Strother Martin's daughter.
I was on the set of the 1977 MGM TV series Logan's Run but I have no recollection of meeting her although she was the co-star.
She met Urich when both were making a TV commercial and she appeared in most of his series including Vegas and Spenser For Hire.
When Urich announced in 1996 he had been diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer attacking soft tissue, Menzies stood  by him and he was declared cancer free in 1998.
But he succumbed in 2002 and his ashes were buried on the family farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
By this time Heather was battling ovarian cancer and she died on Christmas Eve  2017 surrounded by the three Urich children.
I should have kept in better touch in recent years. But I didn't.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Best Xmas Present: Ron James On CBC-TV

When I told a dear neighbor of mine that Ron James was soon coming back in a new New Year's Eve CBC-TV special she clapped her hands.
She's the one who once suggested to me James was the  Canadian equivalent of Will Rogers.
And she's right except that James is still alive and growing in stature.
Just check out his new hourlong special  on CBC-TV New Year's Eve At 9 p.m.
"It's been a great year for comics," grouses James on the phone. Of course he's kidding. Or is he?
He's talking about the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump whose daily mishaps have given late night TV comics their highest ratings in years.
"His petulance is magnificent," James chuckles but adds :"It has really gone too far. There are gaffes by the hour."
About the difference between President Jimmy Carter and President Trump James tells his audience "One grew nuts instead of the one who is nuts."
That doesn't mean James is any kinder about Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
"Justin does 600 selfies a day!" jokes James who also comments on those designer suits Trudeau sports.
And about the new Tory leader Andrew Schneer? "His autobiography should be titled 50 Shades Of Beige."
It's been a rough personal year for James whose dad died in Niova Scotia aged 85.
"My Maritime roots are deep," he tells me. But these days his stage is the whole of Canada.
"I had a great 18-city stop in the west at the beginning of the year,." he chuckles.
He drives himself from venue to venue and finds Canadians everywhere supportive of his comedic talents.
"In the hotel room after the show I'll look for Canadian TV but even the Canadian stations run mostly U.S. programs except for those  talk shows in the afternoon where all they do is comment on American entertainment."
After graduation from Acadia University James jumped to Second City in Toronto --his is a craft that has to be learned in front of a demanding audience.,
'Every show is just a little different, James says. "I get to know the audience and I play off them."
After the show they all want to take selfies which takes another hour. It's when they stop asking for selfies that I'll be scared.
These days the legalization of marijuana is one dicey topic.
James snorts Canadians' biggest question these days is "When can we smoke weed legally."
James agrees with me there's a rhythm to his performances. This hour was taped in Guelph before an appreciative audience.
When he had his weekly half hour skit series James says "I had to stay away from political humor because we were taping months in advance. Now it's no holds barred."
Like many would-be stars James drifted down to L.A. and got some work but nothing he couldn't do better back home.
"It's all about me, really," he laughs. "It's what bugs me, what scares me in this life. And brother there's a lot of that pit there. And I find the audience tends to agree with me."
Some of the reasons this hour works so well: executive producers James, Lynn Harvey and Paul Pogue, writers James, Pogue and Scott Montgomery, director Michael Watt,technical director Curt Fuglewicz, lighting designer James Downey.
Too bad we'll have to wait another yerar for the next James special.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dr. Keri: Prairie Vet Is Worth Catching

What's the hottest trend in TV Reality shows these days?
I say it's the slew of series focused on friendly but helpful vets.
It all started with National Geographic's The Incredible Dr. POl which stars a seventysomething  vet way out in the Wisconsin countryside.
Then there's the one I like titled Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet.
And there's one on an Aussie group of vets I've recently  been watching on CBC.
And then there's one on a female vet who specializes in exotic a:Dr. K's Exotic Animal ER.
But I'll still have time in my viewing schedule for Dr. Keri: Prairie Vet which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Animal Planet.
This vet is Canadian and she practices out on the lone prairie in Ashern Manitoba.
I talked to her on the phone the other night --she rang in after a typically hectic day and she's not at all sure she wants to be a TV star.
But she has the personality and the way she carefully explains each procedure makes the show highly watchable.
She also seems to care about each and every patient and that's highly important.
These kind of shows can't be set up in advance --we first see Dr. Keri answering the phone at 3:30 a.m. as a distraught farmer says a heiffer is experiencing poroblems in labor.
DR. Keri Hudson travels in a mobile fashion and she's soon at the farm helping induce labor to save the calf and her mother.
Excellent camerawork helps drive the dramatic tension --obviously one can't as the animal participants for a second take.
Dr. Keri mentions she inherited her talents from her dad, also a vet.
And she lives with husband Calvin on a 600-head cattle ranch so she's in the thick of it always.
Her high-tech mobile clinic is shown to advantage in another segment where a gruff little dog has eaten chocolate and seems out of it --she explains what is probably happening and gets to work saving another life.
We get to know the farmers in the area as well as the animals and they all seem taken with her skills.
And as far as Canadian content goes this is right up there with the best of family TV viewing.
Winnipeg's Merit Pictures made this one --another recent Merit production I admired was Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
Dr. Keri shows there's room for another Canadian vet on the Canadian landscape.
"I thought of it as an adventure," she says of her newfound TV experience. "I think it rings true because vets are always on call. Ashern is a small community so I have to do a little bit of everything. And there is no down time believe me."
If the series gets a second season pickup Dr. Keri says "I'm looking forward to it. Nothing much was planned --that's the nature of the job you see."
Looks like the Incredible Dr. Pol will have even more TV competition in the future.
MY RATING: ***1/2.