Wednesday, December 23, 2015

I Remember, I Remember

I lost a lot of friends in the entertainment business in 2015.
Here's my personal tribute to some of my favorites:
I remember spending an afternoon on the 1987 set of TV's Masquerade which cast Rod Taylor in a spy caper thing he cheerfully described as "very silly but it pays well."
Hard to believe he was 84 when he passed in January.
I met the great redhead Maureen O'Hara on the set of a TV movie remake of The Red Pony filmed north of Toronto in 1971.
At 51 she remained a red haired beauty with great anecdotes of starring in such classics as How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.

She was 95when she died in her sleep in October.
I met Alex Rocco on the set of the 1975 CBS adventure series Three For The Road which only lasted 13 episodes.
"Did you really kill a man," a gal reporter from Pittsburgh asked him and he nodded creepily.
He died in July, aged 79.
"I hate that movie Gigi," grinned Louis Jourdan when we lunched in Century City in 1971.
"People think it's the only thing worthwhile I've ever done."
Jourdan died in February, aged 93.
I met Coleen Gray in 1971when she was making an episode of The Bold Ones as a guest star and she laughed "I used to work with Stanley Kubrick. Now this."
She died in August aged 92.
I always enjoyed visiting the set of Eight Is Enough and meeting up with the warm and wonderful Dick Van Patten who was full of stories of toiling on live TV on the series I Remember Mama.
He died at 86 in June.
I remember watching Christopher Lee shooting additional scenes for Airport 1977 --needed because the fim wasn't long enough to be sold to NBC in a two-hour slot. And I told him he didn't look at all like Dracula.
He died in June aged 93.

I enjoyed a lunch in 1974 in Hollywood with a gaggle of famous RKO leading ladies including the queen of film noir Lizabeth Scott long retired from acting to become a successful L.A. realtor.
Scott died in January at 92.
I remember a long lunch at thje Universal Hilton hotel with the quiet, unpretentious producer Harve Bennett whose TV credits included Mod Squad and the Star Trek films.
That day he was peddling a 1991 sci fi series Time Trax with Dale Midkiff who was also present.
Retired since 1998, Bennett died in February at 84.
I first met actress Elizabeth Wilson in a New York hotel in 1972 where she was promoting her new sitcom Doc which lasted two seasons on CBS.
Always busy on stage and in films this wonderful character actress died in May aged 94.
I remember being on the set of Gilmore Girls and complimenting Edward Herrmann on how great was as the very rich father.
He died actually in December of last year at 71.
I met Kevin Corcoran at one of the Disney press launch parties --he'd spent his career working on the Disney lot.
He died in October at 66.

Richard Dysart I surely remember from the times I was on the set of L.A. Law which ran from 1986 through 1994.
He died in April aged 86.
I shared a great high tea with Joan Leslie at the Pasadena Ritz Carlton hotel in 1992 --and the great star of Yankee Doodle Dandy and High Sierra did not disappoint with great anecdotes about working with Cagney and Bogey.
She died in October aged 90.
Of course I can't forget Leonard Nimoy who was bright and scholarly and took time to answer each question thoughtfully.
He died in February aged 83.
The only time I met Jackie Collins I was surprised she was a fan of Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood.
She died in September at 77.
I had breakfast in the posh Polo Lounge with Anne Meara when she was starring in the short lived 1975 CBS legal series Kate McShane.
She died in May aged 85.

Canadians? I'll start with filmmaker Paul Almond who made a greatish black and white TV version in 1961 of Macbeth starring a young unknown Sean Connery.
He died in April aged 83.

And then there was the fine actress Alberta Watson who I first met on the set of In Praise Of Older Women (1969).
She died in March at 60.
I first interviewed Don Harron in 1977 as he began a five year tenure as host of CBC Radio's Morningside.
He died in September aged 90.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Murdoch Mysteries: A Christmas Celebration

I remember the first time I visited the set of Murdoch Mysteries.
It was in the summer of 2008 and what had originally been three two hour TV mysteries starring Peter Outerbridge (and shot in Winnipeg).
Then the concept went to weekly hours with a new Murdoch in the person of Yannick Bisson who I'd first interviewed when he was the 15-year old star of the CBC-TV flick Hockey Night.
By that time Outerbridge was making another series for Shaftesbury Films --ReGenesis.
Years later City dumped the series not because it wasn't doing well but because Rogers was about to gorge on NHL hockey and no longer needed MM as Canadian content.
City's loss was CBC-TV's gain and the pleasant Victorian era thriller has been thriving ever since.
Monday night at 8 there's a n elongated two-hour edition called A Merry Murdoch Christmas.
The guest stars include Kelly Rowan from The O.C. and Ed Asner and Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle.
Watching it was a pleasure and a reminder we sometimes take this fine Canadian show for granted.
Certainly Outerbridge played the lead with a lot more anguish --0Bisson comes across as a suave leading man rather than the Catholic trapped in a Protestant city.
The women may seem a trifle too pretty for Victorian ladies --makeup and lipstick back  then was not allowed unless one wanted to be seen as a brazen hussy.
But the show has done an awful lot of hunting for original Victorian exteriors and interiors --when I was visiting I was told Hamilton often subbed as an appropriate historical location.
Tonight's installment A Merry Murdoch Mystery is a bit on the ghoulish side for this time of year --the sighting of a mad monster with horns might give younger viewers nightmares.
But Michael McGowan's direction is sprightly enough and most of the bases are covered as Yultide entertainment including a look at what were deemed appropriate gifts for children in those days.
Asner is in fine form as Kris Kringle who may or may not have actually stolen a cache of children's presents to give out as his own.
Rowan is the suddenly widowed wife of a large magnate apparently murdered with a host of suspects as he was universally hated.
One oddity has a little girl named Mary Pickford entertaining an audience and while it is true "little Mary" was born in Toronto in 1892 and lived on University Avenue I'm not so sure she'd still have been in the city after 1900.
But it's a good touch, I can't actually argue with that.
The amalgamation of murder mystery and Christmas celebration is an uneasy blend but fans of the show should keep watching until the end.
The amount of snow in the outdoor scenes leads me to believe it must have been filmed last winter --we've hardly seen the white stuff this year as yet. Am I right.
When one thinks about it the fact that Murdoch Mysteries has been Shaftesbury Films's longest running hit is a bit odd.
After all Shaftesbury also made TV's Joanne Kilbourne mystery movies with Wendy Crewson which one would have thought might have been easily transferred to weekly TV but nothing ever happened.
And as Crewson told me the last time we spoke:"That train has left the station."
So let's continue to celebrate Murdoch as an example of a well made home grown series on all fronts in an era when quality Canadian fare is fast disappearing from Canadian TV.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ron James Shines In His Latest CBC-TV Special

 Speaking about his latest New Year's Eve Special (on CBC-TV (December 31 at 9 p.m.), Ron James chuckles that "it certainly was the hardest to write."
When he sat down with his writers in July NDP leader Tom Mulclair was way ahead in the polls.
"But then Prime Minister Harper took the lead. And then Canadians wound up with Justin Trudeau as our new PM."
Says James: "We had to write three different beginnings. Because anything could have happened --and it did!"
And then there's the matter of Donald Trump.
"He started out as the clown, then morphed into something far more deadly, it was difficult mocking him as he sank into the dark side."
Other firsts for James: Alberta turned orange after four decades of Toryisms, Bruce Jenner turned into a woman and captured every moment on his reality series, and the loonie began falling.
Says James "There is comedy in everything but our Canadian sense of comedy is very different from American.
"For one thing we're 33 million and they're 375 million. It's a matter of proportions, it really is."
Last year's CBC special was taped at Niagara Falls but this year "it was Peterborough's turn, specifically Showplace Performance Centre. A fine city with a great cross of working class, intellectuals, young kids, the audiences were special."
And as he always does James taped two sold out shows (Oct. 25 and 26)  "in a venue that's a bit more intimate which really helps my kind of comedy. And as usual there was certainly a full script but I went off on my riffs as the audience warmed to some of my themes."
Think of it --an hour of TV with a guy just standing there making jokes.
But James is an accomplished veteran at assessing the mood of an audience and playing off them.

I think he's right on in the brutal new practice of  "internet shaming".
And then there was the summer rafting expedition in the Beaufort Sea.
"This was something David Suzuki told me to do and a decade later I took his advice and went with my daughter and we were forever grateful."
But --and I'm pressing him --doesn't he miss his wonderful weekly comedy series cancelled by a previous CBC management who were, in turn, cancelled.
"What I miss are the days in the writer's room when we were building scripts. The talent I met on those occasions was awesome."
In fact James says "This year I had enough material for two more shows."
And the appearance of a Canadian comedy show on Canadian TV is so unusual you may want to tape  this one for future viewings.
James says being born in the Maritimes is one reason why he always sees the funny side of life. "Some times it's bitterly funny. It's a way of thinking and I'm lucky I never lost that."
Few of his fans realize it but he did the obligatory stint in Hollywood guesting on such series as Wings and Get A Life.
These life experiences he rolled into the brilliant stand up TV special Up And Down And Shaky Town.
James is momentarily silent when I tell him a Grade Six class was watching his classic 2001 Global comedy TV series  Blackfly and loving every minute of it.
"I think I'll be back in another series, I really do. You learn from all life experiences."
These days he's still out on the road for 35 to 40 gigs a year which will include Caesars in Windsor and many smaller cities "where audiences are hungry for Canadian comedy. Life on the road, it's been a blessing for me."
In fact James says he's already beginning collecting stuff for next New Year.
"It's never too late to begin thinking about the next one, I can tell you that."
MY RATING: ****.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Is This The End For Hamilton's CHCH-TV?

I remember it was the day after Labor day, 1971, that a scared, introverted 25-year old boarded the Grey Coach express on Elizabeth Street for Hamilton.
I was that scared kid --the day before I'd said farewell to my friends in the M&D department at The Globe And Mail where I'd toiled for several summers as a utility critic taking all the assignments nobody else wanted.
Just days before I'd taken tea with the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who autographed a copy of his memoirs for me --I have it right here.
Another day I got to interview the new, unknown star of the blazing Canadian film hit Goin' Down The Road and every time I've seen Jayne Eastwood since she still shouts "We're still here!"
But at summer's end I had no permanent job just a vague promise from the editor Donn Downey he'd be using me as much as he could, budget permitting.
And then I got as telephone call from Paul Warnick, feisty ME of the Hamilton Spectator who had just lost TV critic Jack Miller to The Toronto Star.
He'd been reading my stuff, asked me if I liked TV and over drinks at the Toronto Press Club offered me a great future.
I took it and boy was I lucky.
A few months later The Telegram collapsed and one day in the Spec newsroom over 40 Tely types lined up to get jobs --I think two reporters were finally hired.
And, of course,  as the newly installed TV critic of The Spec I had to cover TV in my own backyard.
That meant CHCH-TV, Hamilton's sole TV station.
In those days it was a cocky independent servicing a huge swathe of southern Ontario.
In 1971 southern Ontario viewers had their choices of a CBC station in Toronto (CBLT), a CTV affiliate (CFTO), and CHCH and that was about it.
TVOntario was just about ready to start.
If you had a powerful enough antenna you could also reach CBC's Barrie affiliate CKVR and CTV's Kitchener affiliate CKCO-TV.
And then there were the Buffalo stations: CBS's WBEN-TV, Channel 4, NBC's WGR-TV, Channel 2, and ABC's WKBW-TV, Channel 7 plus a wobbly PBS affiliate, Channel 17.
That was it.
There were no cable specialty channels, no DVD, a few people had VHS but the cost of buying a movie was about $29.95.
I guess I'm the only TV critic around who can boast about actually going on the set of such CHCH classics as Party Game, Ein Prosit, Junior Hockey, The Palace , and, of course, Tiny Talent Time.
 CHCH didn't have much money but it took its Canadian content requirements very seriously indeed
The thing is in the Seventies Hamilton was booming.
There was Stelco, Dofasco, Westinghouse, General Electric.
Hamilton factories were operating at peak capacity and the city even had an energetic downtown with five huge movie palaces: Capitol, Palace, Hyland, Century, Tivoli plus twinned theaters at Jackson Square.
The Spec at over 140,000 was booming, too, it asked more for a full page ad than did the mighty Toronto Star.
I remember interviewing Bill Shatner on the set of Party Game. Captain Kirk reduced to doing Party Game?
"I need money for alimony," he said.
CHCH also bankrolled Pierre Berton's nightly half hour interview --Berton was so adept he'd do up to eight half hour interviews in one taping session.
And then I met the man responsible for all of CHCH's success.
His name was Sam Hebscher and he bought the movies that ensured the station's ratings domination for decades.
He'd started out running movie theaters in Ottawa, switched to Hamilton where he ran both the Palace and Capital theaters.
Hebscher remembered one matinee in 1942 when the Palace was running Mrs. Miniver.
"I had to stop a couple in the back row who were petting heavily and getting quite frisky. It was Evelyn Dick and her latest boy friend."
Originally Hebscher bought hundreds of old Warners titles and stored the cans of films in the Barton Street ice arena which he also ran.
When newer releases became available he made sure CHCH got them first.
"What I did," he told me" was to read the movie ads every day in the Toronto papers. When a movie hit the drive-ins I knew it was time to pounce."
Thus CHCH had the world premieres of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Gone with The Wind, every blockbuster one could name.
I remember telling Sam that at an NBC press conference in Burbank I was attended the president announced the world premiere on TV of Gone with The Wind and I had to tell him CHCH had run it the week before.
So with such a ratings domination why did CHCH sink like a stone?
I think in the late Seventies it was a decision to move away from movies --CHCH bought the entire new series of Lorimar Productions (outside of Dallas which CBC owned up here). True, there were some block busters like Knots Landing but also many stinkers.
The station lost ratings points quickly and never recovered. Competition from new cable networks really hurt. Hebscher retired and soon there was nothing left but stuff nobody else wanted to  buy.
And now it could be game over for CHCH which made many promises asout promoting local news.
Now many of the newscasters have been dismissed and we could be watching a first: a local TV station folding.
I was in on the glory days but I'm not liking what I'm seeing--the slow, inevitable disintegration of an important part of Hamilton's cultural heritage.



Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Curse Of Clara: A Christmas Treat

 Christmas on TV has always been a very strange time.
The American networks foist on us animated specials which are decades old and feature the singing talents of such delightful but deceased stars as Burl Ives, Jimmy Durante and Bing Crosby.
So may I suggest something new this Yuletide.
It's the simply smashing Canadian animated featurette The Curse Of Clara which premieres on CBC-TV Monday December 14 at 7 p.m. Got that?
Instead of Crosby and Ives how about some genuine Canadian superstars in the presence of Phil Esposito, Hockey Night In Canada's Bob Cole and Karen Kain along with E.N.G.'s Sara Botsford and talented Saara Chaudry (Degrassi) as Vickie/Clara.

To get the proper historical perspective I phoned up  writer/producer Vickie Fagan who fessed up that "The story is indeed partly autobiographical
"It starts in the summer of 1972. I was from a small town in Ontario and I wanted to study ballet. And I was a student at the National Ballet school (1972-77).
"I did indeed get an offer to dance Clara in The Nutcracker. And I was told the story of the curse --that Claras never get to do ballet as adults."
Interpolated is the stirring saga of the Canada-Russia hockey series.
I must add here that as the very young TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator I got the only one-on-one interview with the late/great announcer Foster Hewitt at his radio station CKFH as he prepared to leave for Moscow.
Fagan thought she had the making of a true TV classic and proved it when she went out and got Veronica Tennant as producer.
Fagan wrote the TV script with Jeremy Diamond "which was tough because everything has to happen in just 22 minutes."
Then came the choice of animators and she chose well in directors M.R. Horhagher (I hate You Red Light) and Mike Valiquette (Captain Canuck).
Smiley Guy Studios has produced outstanding animation --the characters drawn completely reflect the personalities.
Fagan enjoyed the trip backward. "I was there until I was 17 and I sort of burned out on ballet.I wanted a more normal life and that included other forms of dance."
She agrees the dance mistress "is a compilation of many ballet teachers from that era. Discipline was the key word. I'm not so sure it's like that these days.
"But I still say ballet is part of my DNA."
When told the story "absolutely must be animated, her first thought was to pitch it to CBC "and we were accepted!"
Then came her stint at Smiley Guy "with 30 animators. And the way they got right the dance steps --it was perfect.
Then came time in the recording studio with such stars as Esposito who was very nervous, it's not his thing. And we were all nervous about meeting this larger than life personality. I asked him if he ever missed hockey and he said 'I miss it every day.'"
My fearless prediction is that The Curse Of Clara is going to be TV's next big Christmas perennial.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Thread: Must See Documentary on TVOntario

What a surprise --director Greg Barker's new documentary on the Boston bombings, titled The Thread, comes in the month when TV usually showcases reruns of old Christmas specials.
That makes The Thread easier to catch, I'm guessing.
It premieres on TVOntario on Wednesday December 9 at 9 p.m. Got that?
As one who worked for four decades within the "old journalism" --newspapers to you older folk --I was astonished at the impact of internet users as the bombing unfolded live on TV.
In ye olden times people would be turning to live coverage on 24/7 news channels.
No longer.
By 2013 many younger people turned instead to the internet and resorted to a sort of "vigilante justice" as they debated among themselves who the killers might be.
They were trying to aid the police, of course, but in several instances managed to tar innocent people.
On such services as Reddit they corresponded among themselves and formed a sort of electronic village council not bound by the usual standards of libel --in effect they became part of the event and drove the rumors and stories in several wild directions.
Now The Thread would not work so brilliantly without the access Greg Baker enjoyed among key access among the leading protagonists.
My first reaction: these are well spoken young people who were soon leading a whole phalanx of bloggers and writers and they scarcely understood how powerful they were for the first few days after the bombings.
There's the shy, introverted screenwriter living in a modest basement apartment who got the job of directing the traffic on Reddit and was completely surprised by the hate speech accusations he tried to delete.
Superb editing gets us right into the chase and we see how wrong conclusions can have a devastating impact.
Of course we also know who had done the killings --but in real time this electronic detective tale winds all over the place.
The tension builds and builds as the amateur detectives spout out theories, point fingers, speculate on people based on media pictures --a burly guy with a giant back pat is quickly spotted in one news clipbut it is a false lead.
One high profile suspect is twentysomething Sunit Tripathi because he has gone missing, his family is worried, and he has ethnic features --but as it turns out he committed suicide before the bombing took place.
After such a barrage of unfavorable publicity the Tripathi family is devastated.
The race for scoops makes for many ill informed leads leaking out and becoming accepted as fact.
Barker does an exceptional job of stitching together the interviews with participants who were making up a new form of journalism as the news unfolded.
Baker won an Emmy for his documentary Manhunt  on the CIA's attempts to capture Osama bin Laden.
I fearlessly predict The Thread should win him a second.
MY RATING: ****.