Thursday, December 29, 2016

Funny Times With Ron James







Here I go again --every Christmas season I get to interview Ron James who has a quirky end-of-year TV special that's been a staple of CBC New Year's Eve.
This year I had to telephone James in Halifax where he was tending to the needs of an ailing father.
And as usual the subject started with the simple question : why is James considered such a delightful comic.
"It's the way I see things, I'm guessing," he says with a nervous laugh. "There's a lot of lightness in my comedy but also some very dark stuff. It's where I come from."
Born in Glace Bay, James is rightly proud of his heritage and he says his "Canadianess" plays well wherever he finds himself across this sprawling country.
"I'm about the same I always was," he jokes. "But certainly there's a lot more political issues discussed these days. These politicians are sure targets."
I haven't see the whole hour but James artfully dices and slices  in his usual hilarious monologue..
Donald Trump is a great target and James has one nugget of advice: "Get rid of the tweets."
Says James to the captivated audience: "How else can you figure he wound up in the White House?"
Explaining the Canadian election James says of course the winner would be Justin Trudeau as opposed to Thomas Mulcair :"Looking badly in need of a rabies shot."
Other targets of James's comedic wrath: Samsung 7, Pokemon, Stephen Harper, North Korea.
These days James tells me he plays some 40 dates across Canada every year.
"The smaller town audiences are so enjoyable. They're delighted just to be included, they know what it really means to be a Canadian."
One place James won't want to revisit: comedy clubs. "I honed my talents there but no more. I like bigger audiences and there are some great theaters across Canada. We did this one in Kingston. I like to go some place different every year."
James first came to attention as a member of Toronto's Second City troupe. He learned how to texture routines for the audience and how to play off them. And he finally got the courager to try Hollywood.
There were guest spots on such TV hits as Wings as well as busted pilots before he realized Canada was his home.
For five seasons James reigned supreme on his own CBC TV comedy show which artfully mixed stand up with sketches.
"The sketches got better. I tried at first to do them as part of the running show. When we filmed them separately they became more fluid and funnier, that's all."
His great 1994 docu-comedy Down And Out In Shaky Town is still a delight when viewed on YouTube.
"At the end I discovered Canada is where it's at for me."
Anyone doubting James' acting skills should search out his outstanding dramatic turn in the series Made In Canada which is now out in a boxed set.
And there's also his first TV sitcom the wild and wonderful Blackfly (2001) which initially ran on Global TV.
When I tell James a video store manager said it was one of the most requested items not yet on DVD he's momentarily stunned.
But I have a new role for James and I'd like CBC to seriously consider this.
Apparently CBC is going to get a cash infusion from the admiring Liberal federal government.
Some of that dough should be used to mount a late night talk show.
CBC once had a late nighter starring Peter Gzowski and later Comedy had one with Mike Bullard.
James has the smarts to front such a Canadian TV effort --in university he was a history major--and if you watch this new special you'll see he's a comedic mesmerist who can captivate a very demanding audience for the better part of an hour with his standup genius.
So how about it CBC?
RON JAMES TRUE NORTH SPECIAL PREMIERES ON CBC-TV FRIDAY DECEMBER 30 AT 9 P.M,REPEATED JANUARY 1 AT 9 P.M.





I Remember Debbie Reynolds





I was lucky to interview the late great Debbie Reynolds twice at length in Toronto when she was in the afterglow of a long career.
The first time was on the set of the CBS TV Movie  Sadie And Son in 1987, a crazy sort of pilot that had Debbie co-starred as a New York city cop with her son (played by Brian McNamara) also on staff.
It was a great stretch to think of our Debbie as a cop because she was petite and far below the normal height requirements.
"Don't worry kid," she laughed in her trailer as she awaited for the shooting call. "This is show biz, we fake everything!"
At the time she was an energetic and bouncy 55-year old and she was still bouncing around at 2 a.m. when director John Llewellyn Moxey was filming deep in the Toronto subway system on the Queen street station which has never been used.
The second time was in 2000 when Deb was then 68 and she suddenly looked older and plumper and she stayed shivering in her trailer waiting to go on the set of a TV movie Virtual Mom.
Here are a few highlights from our chats:
JB: How did you break into the biz?
DR: Well, I'd wanted to be a gym instructor but I didn't have enough money to go to college.  we lived in Burbank where dad was a carpenter worker for the railway. And I somehow got a standard contract at Warner Brothers just a few blocks away which paid me $50 a week. I took lots of lessons --in one class we were even shown the proper way to use a fork and spoon. And I had an extra bit in June Bride (1948) which starred Miss Bette Davis. Eight years later I played her daughter in the movie The Catered Affair and she pretended to remember me. In The Daughter Of Rosie O'Grady I was June Haver's kid sister and then my option was dropped like that.
JB: Then what?
DR: I got another starlet contract at MGM and in my first movie there I sang the Abba Dabba song in Three Little Words(1950) with Carleton Carpenter as my partner.
JB: Your fourth movie at MGM was Singin' In The Rain (1952)?
DR: I was forced on Gene Kelly. He wanted to hire outside the studio but my mentor Louis B. Mayer said no. And for three months we rehearsed those numbers until my feet started to bleed. I was at my wit's end and crying in an alley way when Fred Astaire came by and stopped. He'd been the star of Three Little Words. And he arranged to secretly train me in the next sounstage. We went through all of the moves hundreds of times. When I came to film the scene where we must jump over the sofa Gene was so pleased he put his tongue in my mouth!
JB: That made you?
DR: I did stupid little things like I Love Melvin, The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis, Give A Girl A Break. At RKO I was in my first big comedy opposite Dick Powell who was 50 and I was the girl pursuing him and I was 22.That was Susan Slept Here.
JB: But you survived whereas Jane Powell did not.
DR: We made two films in a row --Athena and Hit The Deck--and then her contract lapsed. Musicals were no longer the rage so I did The Tender Trap opposite Frank Sinatra and I had a whole new career as a comedienne including Tammy And The Bachelor and The Mating Game.
JB: Then came some very big years.
'DFR: When my husband Eddie Fisher left me! It gave my career a weird boost. And I made It Started With A Kiss, The Gazebo and my favorite comedy The Pleasure Of His Company with Mr. Astaire and Lilli Palmer as my parents.
JB: You did go back to MGM for The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964.
DFR: That was me. I'm unsinkable. I got the character right away.
JB: Why did your TV series The Debbie Reynolds Show )1964) bomb.
DR: Because they wanted me to be Lucy instead of just Debbie. So It was an imitation kind of show. And The next one Aloha Paradise (1981) that was just a big stinker.
JB: You just stopped making movies around that time?
DR: Because I didn't fit in at all. It was Mr. Mayer who told me "Never show your ass." Best advice I ever got. What he meant was leave something to the imagination of the audience. Today everything is so sordid. I stay at home and watch old movies.
JB: You're also a collector.
DR: I go top all the auctions of movie props. I have a warehouse filled with stuff and someday I'll open my own museum.
JB: Future plans:
I go on the road 20 weeks a year. They loved me in Australia. I do Vegas, many dates with the local symphonies. I'm a brand. Goodness had everything to do with my success.
Then the bells rang and Reynolds ran out dressed as a very tiny New York city cop and just to wake up the sleepy crew she launched into a refrain of "Singin In The Rain."
.






Tuesday, December 27, 2016

I Remember, I Remember




I lost a lot of friends in the entertainment industry in 2016.
Here's my personal list of the ones I remember most fondly:
Earl Hamner Jr: I met the personable writer on the set of The Waltons at Warner Bros. studios before the series had premiered on CBS.
Doris Roberts: I interviewed the great TV comedienne when she was in Toronto tub thumping for her hit Everyone Loves Raymond.
Robert Vaughan: My interview with the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E took place in his limo parked in North York --he was making a TV movie with Karen Black that never aired.
Florence Henderson: She was as sweet as her image the day we met on the L.A. set of The Brady Brides.
Agnes Nixon: I had lunch with the soap opera maven at New York city's Hotel Carlyle before going on the set of her greatest soap hit Another World.
Zsa Zsa Gabor: I had to go out to Toronto's Pearson Airport to meet the Hungarian extrovert who was flying back from Switzerland after co-starring in the "Canadian" series George.
Hugh O'Brian: The former Wyatt Earp was as nice as his image when I interviewed him in Toronto.
George Kennedy: I met him on the set of one of those Airport disaster movies where he confessed his fear of flying.
Morley Safer: I met him in his CBS office in New York city and we watched the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.
Alan Young: The Canadian actor was well into his Eighties and co-starring with Glynis Johns in a new CBS sitcom when I shared a lunch in the Universal commissary.
Alan Thicke: A constant source of interviews for my TV column he was as multi-talented as they get,
Brian Befords: I met BB up at Canada's Stratford where he was a constant jewel.
Marnie Nixon: She warbled the songs in such movie hits as The King And I and My Fair Lady but never got a movie hit of her own,
Arthur Hiuller: I Met the great Canadian director in the Academy Awards library--he was researching his next movie hit.
Garry Marshall: I was first introduced to GM on the set of  Happy Days --he was as likable as they come.
Ken Howard: I met him on the set of The White Shadow and he kept in touch even after his kidney transplant.
Gordie Tapp: I had many conversations with this Canadian great and I treasure his friendship.
Dave Broadfoot: A sort of Canadian Will Rogers his humor was uniquely Canadian.
Grant Tinker: Interviews in his MTM corner office were among the best I ever conducted.
Gordie Howe: Met him at Alan Thicke's home in L.A. And he was wry and humble,the greatest of the hockey greats.
Don Francks:I met him in Toronto's Hollywood Canteen.What a surprise!
'





Sunday, December 25, 2016

I Remember Dave Broadfoot




I wasn't entirely surprised to learn of the passing of Canadian comic icon Dacve Broadfoot.
For years he'd been declining luncheon invitations saying he just wasn;'t up to it.
But his passing in November saddened me immensely.
Starting in 1973 he was the steady comedic rock for 15 seasons of CBC's Royal Canadian Air Face.
'I first met him in person in 1975 when RCAF was performing two radio specials taped at Hamilton Place --I was then The Spectator's TV/Radio Critic.
The other cast members --Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan and Luba Goy clearly revered this great figure and in rehearsals he was meticulous in his craftsmanship.
Just a year or two later I met Broadfoot on King Street in Hamilton --dressed as the honorable member for Kicking Horse Pass--he was headed to the Royal Connaught hotel to address a luncheon convention.
One old lady had already accosted him on the street shouting "You're a sorry example of a member of Parliament"--and Broadfoot was grinning from ear to ear.
Other famed characters included Sergeant Renfrew of the RCMP and hockey player Big Bobby Clobber.
Broadent got his start on CBC Radio on such favorites as the Big Revue and Wayne And Shuster.
"Everything I knew about TV comedy I learned from Wayne and Shuster," he once told me.
 "They simply assumed a degree of intelligence among the audience and their comedy skits were glacially paced compared with today. They put characterization first."
I remember interviewing him in 1995 for his CBC TV special.
 He said at one point in the show "What is our culture? It's gathering up every useless thing you've acquired throughout your life, putting it on tables on your front lawn and making other people pay for it."
I would have though CBC would dig out that TV special and show it as a testament to Broadfoot's comedic genius.
One of the gems from that show had Broadfoot contemplating on the peace and tranquility he always found on Canada Day in Quebec.
He was born in Vancouver in 1925 and served in the Royal Canadian navy during World War II.
He looked startled when I told him as a teenager in the early 1960s I'd saved up my allowance and got into a cabaret performance given by Broadfoot and his equally talented wife comedienne Jean Templeton.
When he joined Air Farce in 1973 "I was considered the old geezer of the bunch. I'd say during rehearsals 'Mo--that won't work. We tried that in 1955 on stage.'"
One of his biggest admirers was British legend John Cleese who had seen Broadfoot in Britain in the 1950s in a revue titled Clap Hands.
'Other revues he starred in during his toronto years: Take A Beaver To Lunch and, of course, Spring Thaw.
"I was on Ed Sullivan as early as 1955," he smiled.' "But I never wanted to ditch my country for American stardom. Never!"
His wonderful autobiography Old Enough To Say What I want was published in 2003. I treasure my copy.
He was named to the order of Canada in 1983 and in 2003 was presented with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award.
One of his biggest thrills he told me was appearing at a gala Royal Benefit in Winnipeg as the honorable member for Kicking Horse Pass and looking up to the box seats to find both Prince Philip and Her Majesty doubled over with laughter.
And I miss him already.

'



Thursday, December 22, 2016

I Remember Gordie Tapp







What a thrill it was meeting Gordie Tapp on the set of the CBC TV series The Tommy Hunter in 1972.
My dad was an original fan when Tapp was headlining Main Street Jamboree out of radio station CHML in beautiful, downtown Hamilton.
'"When I told Gordie he laughed and said 'Your dad has great taste, son!'"
After Hamilton stardom he moved over to CBC-TV and nine seasons of the live country series Country Hoedown.
Two youngsters Tapp mentored on CBC-TV were Tommy Junter and Tommy Common.
As Tapp told me "When CBC had to chose one for a new hourlong variety series Hunter was chosen although Common was better looking and had the greater voice. Tommy Hunter was chosen because of his great personality and the way he connected with TV viewers."
Tapp then ventured south to co-star for CBS in a new country music series Hee Haw.
"It was number one in ratings but CBS cancelled it after two seasons (in 1971). It then went on for 20 more years in syndication. CBS cancelled all those corn pone series like Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Jim Nabors.
"Sure the show was pure corn. We'd tape a full series in a couple of weeks working nonstop in Nashville TV studios. Then the blackout sketches, comedy routines and songs would be pieced together in the editing suites.
Two great Canadian producers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth were the creators and our cast included Buck Owens, Roy Clark and such staples as Junior Samples, Jeannine Riley,  Minnie Pearl and even Barbi Benton."
Tapp wasn't the only Canadian present: Don Harron was also onboard as Charlie Farquarhson.
That day on the CBC set I noticed how pleasant Tapp was --he blended right in and never asked for special favors because of his star status. The crews even laughed at his bad jokes.
And Hee Haw finally faded in 1992 but I'm sure somewhere out there somebody is watching the boxed DVD set even as I write this.
As For Tapp he retired to his farm in North Burlington although he made TV commercials for Ultrasonic Beds and tub thumped for the March of Dimes and Ester Seals Society.
'I can only report that he completely lived up to his image as one of country music's ace gentlemen.



Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I Remember Alan Thicke





I started interviewing Alan Thicke way back in the 1970s when I was the TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator.
He was always a character --very much into self promotion with a degree of self assurance I rarely met in an entertainer.
And that's because he was multi faceted --he was a superb producer of TV specials featuring the likes of Anne Murray.
He always wanted a breakfast interview at Toronto's King Edward hotel and would select a table in the middle of the dining room where he could be seen by everyone/
And he wrote the opening jingles for many hit TV shows.
When I first met him he was hosting a daily afternoon talk show on CTV although he lived in Los Angeles.
Thicke would fly into Vancouver every other weekend and tape 10 shows in two days which was an arduous task but hard work never bothered him.
Later we re-met in Hollywood when he was jump starting his own syndicated U.S. talk show and he took me on a tour of the studios.
But he never got traction because he had to tape several shows a day and competition for guests against Johnny Carson simply proved too much.
Later I interviewed him when he was in his element ---starring as one of the great TV dads in the vastly popular ABC sitcom Growing Pains.
He co-starred as psychiatrist Jason Seaver and the series ran for seven seasons from 1985 to 1992.
But TV stardom never morphed into a big movie career and Thicke seemed unsettled to me when we later met and he was show-less.
I remember one time when he phoned to confirm an L.A. lunch date and said he was bringing along his house guests --Gordie and Colleen Howe.
The lunch was hilarious with Allan fondly teasing Colleen and getting some laughter out of the normally taciturn Gordie.
It's entirely appropriate that Thicke died after playing hockey --he was after all 69 and told me he was fighting the inroads of old age with everything he had.
He openly admitted he had his haire tinted auburn and used techniques to soften the wrinkles on his face.
Most of all I'll remember Allan for his great delight in bering Canadian.
"There's always a lot of Kirkland Lake in me," he joked of his birthplace.
And in a terribly savage and competitive business what I liked most about Thicke was his sheer niceness --his most endearing Canadian trait of all.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Welcome Back RCAF!






Best news of the festive season is the return of Royal Canadian Air Farce for the annual New Year's hour long special.
But since New Year's Eve falls on a Saturday this year you can catch the special a day earlier on Friday December 30 at 8 p.m.
Then the repeat will be on Saturday night following the love NHL game at around 10 p.m.
And there's a third time to catch it Sunday January 1 at 7 p.m. Got all that?
I even got to attend last Friday's taping of the "hour" which took three hours at CBC's Toronto studios because skits had to be repeated and sets had to be dismantled and others nailed into place.
The audience took all these delays with good humor --the audience was an older one although I noticed a smattering of kids and teens as well.
I've been covering RCAF since the gang first appeared at Hamilton Place in 1976 for tapings for their CBC Radio show.
And the passage of time means Dave Broadfoot, Roger Abbott and John Morgan have all passed.
Only Don Ferguson and Luba Goy are still around from those days.
Well, times change and there were decades when Goy was the only female comic present.
This time out Jessica Holmes is present along with Emma Hunter and Aisha Alfa (The Beaverton), Craig Lauzon, and Darryl Hinds (Little House On The Prairie).
Meaning for the first time in RCAF history the gals outnumber the guys, am I right?
I'm not giving anything away by stating there are such special guest stars as Peter Mansbridge, Yannick Bisson, Ron MacLean,  plus politicos Tom Mulcair, Elizabeth May and Scott Brison.
There was a first taping Thursday night and some of the skits were taped then.
I never know what will get in and what must be excised for time --an hour on CBC these days runs 48 minutes.
First up was a jolly skit featuring the likes of Laura Secord, Nellie McClung, Mary Pickford and it got big laughs I can report.
But the gang did it all over again with the quip "Welcome to the Re-enactors Club." In between skits the gang intermingled with audience members in the front row.
"I'm about to do my Celine Dion" was one quip that got a huge ovation.
In between Farce Films ran selected spoofs of TV commercials. Captain Obvious got his due knocks. A Loblaws commercial was first class. I also liked Craig's parody of Justin Trudeau.
A Putin meet with Trump was well written.
Also neat was something called Census Jail and a spook of Brexit had Kate trying to get rid of aged Queen Liz.
And the F-Bomb reigned supreme--I could tell you the targets but I won't.
I thought all the skits I previewed were fast and funny but not all can be included in the edited TV version.
A few days later I talked to Emma Hunter on the phone--I've become a nig fan of her rambunctious comedy style..
I'm a big fan having seen her on episodes of Pop Quiz and her hilarious efforts to get under the skin of resolute quizmaster Devon Soltendieck.
"We taped five episodes a day for a total of 60 half hours and they're still playing to high ratings."
First of all she's from Etobicoke which explains a lot although there are traces of an English accent courtesy of her parents. She's also been in the series The Beaverton and Mr. D and last year was in a NBC comedy pilot that didn't sell.
This year she can't go down to L.A. for the annual pilot season because as she announced to the startled audience "I'm pregnant" and she pointed to her husband who was sitting directly in front of me.
I think Hunter, Holmes and Alfa would be great additions with the older regulars should CBC ever decide to remount RCAF as a weekly half hour series.
One big problem: the costume and prop departments had a fire sale and have ceased to exist.
"But there will be a summer special to mark Canada's 1250th Anniversary," Hunter assures me. "We're already thinking of ideas for that."
RCAF NEW YEAR'S EVE SPECIAL: PREMIERES ON  CBC FRIDAY DECEMBER 30 AT 8 P.M.
THE FITRS REPEAT IS ON SAT. DECEMBER 1 AT 10 P.M. WITH A SECOND REPEAT SUN. JANUARY 1 AT 7 P.M.



Sunday, December 4, 2016

I Remember Earl Hammer Jr.





So there I was in Los Angeles in July 1972 and the chief publicist for CBS Mary Lamm was driving me to the set of a new series titled The Waltons.
"Hasn't premiered yet," she told me as her car zoomed through the back lot at Warner Bros.
We stopped at an imposing soundstage and inside the interiors of the Walton family home had been laid out. It was lunch break so there were no actors present.
Then we walked over to an administrative building and into the offices of creator Earl Hamner Jr. Hamner died in March 2016 but I haven;t had time until now to salute this kind and courageous man.
First reaction: he sure was homespun as he related true tales of his life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hamner had recounted childhood memories in the 1963 novel Spencer's Mountain which Warners had made into a 1963 flick with Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara "which I positively loathed."
I immediately typed him as a courtly Southern gentleman but this day there were tears in his eyes.
His pet turtle was sick, he confessed. Or was it his secretary's?
We talked about many things that afternoon particularly his thesis that Canadians were lost Southerners --or rather Tories loyal to the British crown who had to emigrated to Canada but never lost their heritage.
Hamner was born in 1923 in Schuyler, Vermont, the oldest of eight children --three girls, five boys and "all tow heads".
"Dad was a machine operator  in Waynesboro who lived away from the family but walked home on weekends the entire six miles and "this was the inspiration for the 1971 special introducing the family to TV viewers."
CBS snapped it up as a potential series to star Richard Thomas.
"It broke my heart when they said our original actors Pat Neal and Andrew Duggan were too old to play the parents in the series. But the network had full casting rights. And the substitutes were Michael Learned and Ralph Waite. Then Edgar Bergen said he wouldn't do a series and he was replaced by Will Geer."
Hamner once said --but not to me --that Richard Thomas made a better John Boy "than I ever could."
But here's the catch: CBS scheduled the new series Thursdays at 8 directly opposite NBC's Flip Wilson then the number one U.S. series.
Hamner showed me the letter from the CBS president which merely stated "Make us proud."
And CBS then forked over $4 million dollars for set contruction and casting.
By the second season Flip Wilson had been destroyed and The Waltons was number two in the national ratings although it always underperformed in the great cities.
Hamner opened and closed every episode with his narration and each episode famously closed with the siblings saying goodnight to each other.
Over the years The Waltons garnered 39 Emmy nominations including 13 wins and in 1873 was names best drama series.
In  1981 The Waltons closed and Hamner's second show went into production for Lorimar: Falcon Crest.
Again I was back in his office as he explained this one: _The Waltons was about a family with no money. Falcon Crest is about a family with too much money."
Hamner wanted to cast Barbara Stranwyck as the imposing matriarch but wound up with Jane Wyman.
Both invited me to a press screening that was a disaster.
The pilot was titled The Vintage Years and had Wyman in a white wig with a crazy daughter up in the tower.
As the lights came on Wyman took over, ordered several cast members fired and virtually produced a new pilot that was a hit.
The series lasted nine seasons but Hamner quit after the fifth season because "it's really not my kind of show." THe reality was it made more money for him as creator than The Waltons.
Hamner was drafted in 1943 and later attended the University of Cincinnati  where he wrote his first script --for the Dr. Christian series, He worked as a staff writer for NBC Radio in New York.
He later wrote eight scripts for CBS's The Twilight Zone and later wrote for such series as Gentle Ben, Nanny And The Professor and Apple's Way another series he created.
His wife Jane was an editor at Harper's Bazaar and they had two children Scott and Carole.
But I'll always remember that first time in his office in 1972 and his fearless prediction The Waltons "just might last a season or two."







Friday, December 2, 2016

I Remember Grant Tinker







I haven't thought of TV icon Grant Tinker in some time.
But the news that he had died at his Beverly Hills home aged 90 hit me hard and I'm still trying to digest it.
I was lucky to get two long interviews with Tinker, the unassuming TV genius who changed the face of American television.
I remember a huge party hosted by Tinker and his then wife Mary Tyler Moore  at Chasens eatery in Beverly Hills--it was on the second floor and there were 100 U.S. TV critics present.
At each table sat an MTM star.
MTM studios was then (in 1977) the premiere TV studio churning out such hits as Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, Phyllis.
"I get more requests for the tapes of Texas Wheelers," Tinker told me with a laugh. "It's one that failed because it was in the wrong time slot.
Originally an advertising executive, Tinker later became head of Universal TV and was responsible for such hits as Marcus Welby before going out on his own.
His first creation was The Mary Tyler Moore Show  (1970) starring wife Moore and stocked with a gaggle of scene stealers including Asner, Harper and Leachman --later Betty White would join the cast.
The show had a run of seven years and as Tinker told me "We should have tried for a few more years."
Spinoffs included Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant and the easy going Tinker said he merely rounded together the best available writing talent including Jim Brooks and  Allan Burns.
It was a formula replicated in such later quality series as The White Shadow and Hill Street Blues.
"Rhoda was a big hit at first," Tinker said. "Phyllis bombed because she was too outrageous a character to be front billed. Lou Grant was a completely different challenge --a sitcom co-star who was changed into a dramatic figure."
When I first visited Tinker he had the corner office in MTM Studios which had started out as Republic studios. It wasn't a huge, imposing place but comfy with a lot of sofas because Tinker spent his days working with his writers and producers.
Later I met him again when he was president of ailing NBC which he turned around with such quality series as Cheers and Hill Street Blues.
When cable came in and the big networks started leaking viewers Tinker told me "I guess I  miss the days of the Big Three networks but I admit there were too many cookie cutter shows. We should have tackled more cultural shows instead of madly dashing for ratings with sometimes inferior series."
Betty White once told me "When Grant and Mary separated in 1980 I was floored. My husband and I went out to dinner with them that very night and they were completely civil and I wanted to cry. An era was ending that night."
When I later asked Tinker at a press conference what he thought of Moore's decision to return to sitcoms in 1985 he quipped : "She'd better hurry at her age is all I can say."
Then he immediately said "Don't print that. I was being very catty."
Later I interviewed his son John Tinker on the set of his series St. Elsewhere and thought how much he resembled his father in his insistence on quality.
MTM Studios no longer exists. The studio was sold off, but MTM Productions can still be seen in reruns.
But the Tinker touch of magic is still being practised in a handful of shows that focus on quality and highlight fine writing anmd casting.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Discovery's Frontier Is Sheer Fun




I remember in my august history classes at the University of Toronto we were always taught what a peaceable kingdom Canada was --and is.
But all that gets dispelled with merry abandonment in the rollicking new six-part series from Allan Hawco titled Frontier and currently running on Discovery Sunday nights at 9.
The scripted series has already been renewed for a second season and the premiere attracted almost 600,000 hearty Canadian viewers which is a new high for a cable drama.
And in an unique programming partnership Frontier will soon be seen on Netflix as well.
For me this one is a guilty pleasure just as much fun as Reign.
Characters snarl at each other, brawl, kill with glee and the scenery is threatening in all its savage beauty.
Filming of the second season is now underway in St,. John's (Newfoundland), Cape Breton Island and Cornwall (U.K.).
Starring are Landon Linoiron (Hemlock Grove), Alun  Armstrong (Braveheart), Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Allan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle), Jessica Matten (Red Girl's Reasoning), Shawn Doyle (House Ofd Cards).
The saga is the fur trade and the early days of the Hudson's Bay Fur Trading Company.
Does anybody out there remember the terrible 1941 Hollywood saga with  Paul Muni as Radisson? If you don't you're truly lucky it was that awful.
Declan Harp (Momoa) is the Irish-native outlaw who trying to wrest control of the lucrative trade.
Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) must travel to the frontier of James Bay to try and teach this upstart a lesson.
A stoway on his voyage Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) is conned into getting close with Harp and help Lord Benton's side.
Then there's Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) who wants to get in on the lucrative business.
The Blackie brothers have created a rollicking saga and like Reign it might be too historically correct but it sure is fun.
And those of you with very long memories swill recall a CBC series from 1958 titled Radisson --the last time I lcontacted at the CBC archives I was told no copiers exist at all!


e


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vital Bonds Will Challenge You






I had just about determined I would not watch Vital Bonds, CBC-TV's new documentary on organ donors.
That's because I had a dear friend who did not long survive his heart transplant and after a decade ago  memory is still painful to me.
Then curiosity got the best of me and I thought I'd watch the first 10 minutes.
Well, the next thing I realized was I'd watched the entire hour --it's that well made, an often brilliant pastiche of interviews with survivors and donors' families stitched in with min-profiles of the doctors and nurses who seem to toil around the clock.
You can check it out on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Hey, I go way back with NOT and I remember a similarly riveting documentary at least a decade ago directed by David Tucker that looked at the inner workings of a big city heart and stroke unit.
Now it's director Niobe Thompson's chance  to weave threads of true stories into one cohesive whole and keep us watching through all those disparate themes.
I knew in advance Thompson might be up to it based on such docus he'd made like Tipping Point: Age Of The Oil Sands and The Perfect Runner.
Thompson has the ability to personalize a subject and here he concentrates on intense close-ups of the faces of people desperately needing transplants or they will surely die.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Instead we are instantly engrossed in the study of Lee whose every gasp of air is difficult.
And there is a distressed baby Harlow, a mere two-year old, whose young parents understand if she doesn't get a heart transplant very quickly she will expire.
And surely one theme is how many patients die before an organ becomes available.
And what about 28-year old Matthew who is brain dead after a terrible accident and now his parents must decide whether to permit his organs to be harvested.
The excruciatingly painful decisions by the parents is captured here in all its awfulness--they are certainly brave.
And we learn one donor can save up to eight lives and enhance 75 lives.
And we're told 246 Canadians died waiting for that elusive transplant.
Set mostly at an Alberta hospital, it shows how transplants east of Quebec cannot be accepted simply because the time of air transport is over five hours.
The strangest scenes are those of hope and we see if science can truly clone organs --the answer is not yet but the research is fascinating.
At the Texas Heart Institute we see researchers "washing" cadavers of their living cells
and using stem cells to fill the matrix of connective tissue.
And clinical trials with human patients using the re-grown human hearts may be just five years in the future.
At the end we see who gets heart transplants and how they have fared --I can't reveal names here.
In other words Vital Bonds takes us all on a vital journey of growth and renewal.
VITAL BONDS PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S THE NATURE OF THINGS THURSDAY NOVEMBER 17 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****/

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

How To Prepare For Prison Is A Must See





Of course I immediately wanted to watch How To Prepare For Prison as I soon as I spotted the brilliant title.
 But when I popped in the preview DVD there was a space of about 10 minutes when the sound went off.
I kept watching anyway because of the terrific images which are riveting --most TV documentaries are shot in a flat, unimpressive style.
Here the images are muted, sometimes in silhouette as the camera lingers over eyes filled with tears, lonely figures on the landscape and sometimes grit and determination.
That's because director Matt Gallagher also functions as cinematographer.
Check it out Wednesday night at 9 on TVOntario (available the next day on tvo.org).
Gallagher has produced a real winner, the kind of challenging premise one used to find all the time on CBC but here it's TVOntario.
I was once accused at university of a crime which I never committed --it was somebody else with a similar name!
But it took me weeks and a high priced lawyer to clear my name so I know all about that creeping feeling of sickness in the stomach and night sweats and trembling.
This is the real reality TV --we come to know these accused as caring, feeling people trapped in a system they do not full comprehend.
What astonished me was Gallagher's compassion,his refusal to pass judgment and his constant search for the humanity of each of these accused subjects.
Are they innocent or guilty? Or is it the system which does not seem to always work.
Some viewers may wonder why Gallagher has selected both American and Canadian accused subjects.
And I think I know the reason : with the Americans we get to go into the courtroom and watch how justice is meted out.
But cameras are not allowed in Canadian courtrooms which I think reduces the degree of tension in tv storytelling.
Gallagher shows the judicial system is a competitive race of retribution versus rehabilitation.
And here we meet Lee Burrell, a Dallas man sentenced to four decades in jail after a botch armed robbery --he was shot in his legs and these days gets around legless in a wheel chair.
The tension of watching these people wait around for their sentencing is palpable --I simply couldn't turn away.
Gallagher who is also a skilled interviewer spent three years talking to judges, lawyers, family members and even the police.
What these accused have to go through as they await their future is, I submit, a form of cruelty in itself.
We meet the three accused and we feel for them as caring people.
There's Joe who was arrested for marijuana production --he says he rented out a facility --and traffickers were growing marijuana and he never knew what was going on.
The toll on his wife and little children is unbelievable.
Then there's Detroit based Demarco who is accused of striking a female which he denies --he is coming out as gay and feels intense pressure from this charge.
And there's Alberta's Christy accused of embezzlement --she says she lost her baby because of the ongoing tension and her husband left her.
Then she hires a prison consultant who coaches her on what to expect if she is indeed sentenced to a jail term.
I won't give away the three endings but viewers will surely suffer along with the accused.
I think viewers will surely wonder how they'd react in similar circumstances.
And I think that emotion makes How To Prepare For Prison a TV documentary to be remembered.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR PRISON PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 16 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Black Watch Snipers: Must See TV





The best way to observe Remembrance Day ? Reserve time to watch the brilliant new documentary Black Watch Snipers which premieres Friday night at 9 on History.
Look, I thought I knew a fair bit about Canada's role in World War II But Black Watch Snipers opens up a whole new perspective.
It's a docudrama finely directed by Robin Bicknell (for Yap Films) that profiles four young Canadians from Montreal's Black Watch regiment who operated behind German lines.
The four survivors interviewed here are Jimmy Bennett, Jim"Hook" Wilkinson, Russell "Sandy" Sanderson and Mike Brunner.
"They were very young men then," Bicknell says. "And now they are very aged, at the ends of their lives. And the stories just came pouring out, Many of these harrowing details they had never even told to their families."
The story has texture and substance through their shared experiences of working under a charismatic leader --Ontario's Dale Sharpe and I'm not giving anything away by saying he died in battle aged just 27.
Says Bicknell :"His family never knew much of this story, they never knew his truly heroic characteristics. He led his men brilliantly."
Certainly the most heart wrenching moment comes when his son comes to the simple graveyard in Holland and begins talking to the dead father he barely knew.
"That just came out," Bicknell says. "And it tried everything together, the young father who died heroically, his son now old himself.
 And he had never been there--perhaps he felt it would be too much. But it becomes a sort of tieing up of the story."
Over 5,000 Canadians served in the Black Watch but time has taken most of them and less than 20 are still alive.
"We ended up traveling across Canada and interviewing just eight survivors. We use four of these stories here --we may do another film on the others."
The four she chose were all fast friends back then and have stayed in touch at reunions.
"Their memories were so strong. They could describe every minute of their heroic encounters. They operated behind the German lines collecting information on troop movements and causing disruption."
And here's where this film becomes particularly important although in a macabre way.
"We got to two of them just in time. Two have died --Sanderson and Wilkinson. This is their bequest  because they tell a story few know anything about."
Because so much of the work of the snipers was done undercover very little actual footage exists.
Bicknell brilliantly uses dramatic recreations  shot at Elora, Ontario  with actors and period weapons and uniforms to show the utter confusion of these battles.
In one true scene a large number of German soldiers were rounded up and captured by just one Canadian sniper who pretended to have other Canadians hidden in the nearby woods.
"In one new scene I bring them together except Bennett who could not fly and we took them to a rifle range and their sharp shooting was still completely accurate!
"In some Dutch towns I found old people who were children when the Canadians liberated them and it's a touching moment because they can recall every thing vividly. It's an example of living history jumping out at you."
BLACK WATCH SNIPERS PREMIERES ON HISTORY FRIDAY NOVEMBER 11 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING ****.
An hour earlier comes an equally fascinating new documentary War Story in which veterans of conflicts in Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Vietnam talk to each other and director Barry Stevens and find they have the same problems despite different distances from their wars.



Saturday, November 5, 2016

Questions, I Get Questions





I was invited to be questioned by a local Grade 6 class near my home in Riverdale, Toronto
My first surprise was to learn these kids watch almost no "regular" TV.
Instead they watch their programs in groups on their cell phones no matter that these screens are terribly small.
Another surpriser unlike their older siblings they are completely uninterested in computers using the cell phone for all means of communication.
When I was growing up we all collected stuff from comics to stamps,These kids don't do anything like that.
One girl down the street told me she graduated from high school without reading a single boo. When her class studied Wuthering Heights she simply
They seem to tweet all day --I heard the story of one 11-year old who had a twitter addiction --she was tweeting 134,000 times a month until her parents intervened and took her to twitter addiction camp.
Here's a sampling of what I was asked:
Q: What Canadian TV series are you watching these days.
ME: Motive, Murdoch Mysteries, Saving Hope are among the new Canadian series I look for. But I'm also watching on cable reruns of Cold Case which is a dandy show. And I'm even revisiting Due South when I can find it.
Q: Why isn't there a Canadian TV section in the DVD stores like HMV?
ME: Most CBC shows are locked up in the archives in Mississauga. CBC says it has no rights to put them out on DVD as opposed to BBC which has a huge inventory out there and making money. I asked the clerk what Canadian show he's most asked for and he said CBC's Beachcombers.
Q: How rich are these archives.
ME: THere are hundreds of great hours locked up. Including the best ever black and white TV dramatic special: a CBC version of Pale Pale Rider starring Joan Hackett and Keir Dullea, directed by Eric Till. Another gem: the only TV version of The Importance Of Being Earnest starring Dame Edith Evans.
Q: Has a Canadian show ever been remade for the U.S. market?
ME: Well, The Plouffe Family was later turned into the series about Latinos titled Viva Valdez. More recently Love It Or LIst It moved south for some episodes and so did Property Virgins. And Love It Or List It spawned a British spinoff which I think is a first.
Q: Is there a big new Canadian TV hit this season?
ME: Yes, Kim's Convenience --it could be the first breakout sitcom smash since Gas Cafe. TV critics used to write all the time how sketch comedy shows were flourishing but right now only This Hour Has 30 Minutes is left of that genre.
Q: What was the biggest Canadian blooper of the new season?
ME: CTV cancelled its flagship series Canada AM and the replacement is a silly compendium of reality shows which has lost half the audience.
Q: When the CRTC allows subscribers to pick and choose cable networks which ones will disappear?
ME: I've never met anyone to watched Outdoor Life Network  But I  like Slice, HGTV.  I watch BBC Canada all the time, Discovery Canada, MLB network, Friends down the street watch baseball and football channels all the time.
Q: Why can't I find on DVD my favorite Canadian series Party Game?
ME: Because tapes no longer exist on that one. Made at CHC with such great funsters as Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie the tapes of the show were bicycled across the country --small stations found it an inexpensive source of Canadian content. At the end of the season producer Randy Dandy Markowitz would recycle them for next year's episodes --he wiped them because he never saw them as potential future revenue. But panelist Billy Van swiped five of those tapes and they exist today on bootleg DVDs which I've seen.









Monday, October 31, 2016

I Remember Hugh O'Brian




Hugh O' Brian died at his Beverly Hills home on September 5 2016 aged 91 --I guess he was most famous as TV's Wyatt Earp.
But when I interviewed him in his Toronto hotel suite in 1972 he was tub thumping for a new series Search which only lasted two seasons (it also ran on CTV)..
I found O'Brian to be warm and ingratiating as he welcomed me and fellow TV critic Jack Miller (who I had just replaced at The Hamilton Spectator).
"Wyatt Earp is my signature, always will be and I'm at ease with that," he laughed. "Better to be associated with a quality series than something like Charlie's Angels I guess."
O'Brian was familiar already with Toronto because "I was born in Rochester in 1925. My real name is Hugh Krampe and after the war I decided to try acting. Instead of going to Yale as my mother wanted I headed for L.A. and made my debut in a stage production of Somerset Maugham's Home And The Beauty --that was in 1947 Ida told me to chose a new name and I picked O'Brian which was my mother's maiden name.
"My first picture came in 1948 in a bit in Kidnapped and then Ida gave me some speaking lines in the 1949 movie Never Fear. Then I was one of the juvenile leads aged 25 iun the sci fi flicxk Rocjetship X-M."
Lupino told him he needed a lot of seasoning and he joined Universal International as a contract player.
"I was a male ingenue. Took any part offered by the studio. The other unknown male starlets were Rock Judson, Tony Curtis, George Nader and Jeff Chandler. Female starlets included Piper Laurie, Julia Adams and Amanda Blake who later co-starred on TV's Gunsmoke as Miss Kitty."
I told O'Brian I had not seen many of these movies.
"What!" he joked. "You haven't seen Son Of Ali Baba (1952)? Or Back To God's Country (1953)?  Or  The Twinkle In God's Eye? (1955)?"
He also did a lot of TV.
"It paid the bills. I was on Loretta Young, Climax. The Millionaire, Make Room For Daddy. I never turned down an assignment. I was unknown and needed all the exposure I could get."
In 1955 O'Brian signed for the TV series The LIfe And Legend Of Wyatt Earp for a total of 227 episodes.
"We simply ran out of stories to tell. Everybody was watching westerns in those days. We had to bid competitively for the horses, the wagons and hire our own designer to make the period costumes. After six years I was simply pooped."
O'Brian returned twice to the character in  the 1991 TV flick The Gambler Returns with Kenny Rogers and the 1994 TV flick Wyatt Earp: Return To Tombstone.
O'Brian then jumped into movies  but this time as star.
"I loathed working with Lana Turner (in 1963's Love Has Many Faces).  But Ten Little Indians (1965) was a superb version of the Agatha Christie thriller. I made The Shootist (1976) with Duke Wayne in his last movie and he was every bit the superstar."
O'Brian was noted for his philanthropy. He told me it started when he visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his clinic in Africa in 1959.
"I had already founded the Hugh O'Brian Youth leadership program to develop future leaders and it continues to thrive to this day.
On one point O'Brian was adamant.
"I will never marry. I don't want to wind up with five ex-wives and buckets of alimony."
But O'Brian did marry his longtime companion Virginia Bareger in June 2006 at the age of 2006 --he was then a hearty 91 --and he lived another decade!
I talked to him on the phone several times over the years and he remembered me and said "I'm grateful to this business. It gave me all that I have these days."




Monday, October 24, 2016

The Brain's Way Of Healing: TV For The Mind





It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a TV documentary as challenging as The Brain's Way Of Healing.
This hourlong edition of The Nature Of Things premieres Thursday night at 8 on CBC.
As TV networks multiply and fight for ratings dominance any program that  assumes viewers are intelligent and demanding becomes ever more of a rarity.
The Brain's Way Of Healing is the third documentary made by veteran director Andrew Gregg and Dr. Norman Doidge (for 90th Parallel Productions) and may well be the best so far.
Using cases from his book of the same title Dr. Doidge visits with people who have battled various brain ailments to make remarkable progress.
When I chatted on the phone with Dr. Doidge I remarked how relaxed his subjects seemed and how confident they seemed in describing their conditions.
"I've been listening to people for a long time," Dr. Doidge laughed.  And having known and worked with these people for his book was undoubtedly a huge plus.
"Plus they wanted to talk about the journeys they had made. That was very important to them."
In today's TV world an hour documentary only runs 42 minutes. And yet this "hour" doesn't seem at all rushed.
I have an idea it may even make viewers want to read the book to get a longer version of the stories told here.
Of course one of the requisites of a TV documentary is suitable visuals. And this one is not a succession of talking heads.
"I went to South Africa to interview John," Dr. Doidge reports. "But it was also to see the penguins."
John is a feisty senior fighting back from Parkinson's and we see the unique way he is using his brain to exercise in a full way and avoid the shuffling gait of many Parkinson's patients.
And one of the delightful shots shows him down at the beach walking sturdily among a flock of surprised penguins. Really, it's the perfect visual for his robust personality of fighting back.
Archival footage was needed to demonstrate the plight of John who is seen as an autistic child in terrible screaming pain.
You'd never guess this is the same Jordan as we see today, a youth with a wry comedy sense and one who is so relaxed and open.
We also meet Gabrielle whose tumor required surgery that damaged her brain and how non-invasive treatments of light have so very much improved her condition.
And there's Elizabeth who was born missing a third of her cerebellum.
Archival footage shows how as a baby she was challenged  and helped immeasurably by invasive treatments of sound and exercise.
Dr. Doidge is a sympathetic interviewer with the ability to draw these people out and encourage them to tell their amazing stories.
And that is what great TV is all about --the ability to personalize such stories so we can relate and be educated at the same time.
And having veteran filmmaker Andrew Gregg onboard is an immense help --this the third collaboration between Doidge and Gregg so far.
The Brain's Way Of Healing is so well put together I'd even like to see the longer version which certainly deserves a theatrical release.
THE BRAIN'S WAY OF HEALING PREMIERES ON THE NATURE OF THINGS ON CBC-TV THURSDAY OCTOBER 27 AT 8 P.M.
'MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Shomi Couldn't Show Me





Hot flashes and cool conclusions from the messy desk of a veteran TV critic:
At the recent block party in my neighborhood I asked friends who if any subscribed to shomi or CraveTV.
Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.
Well, the online Canadian TVservice Shomi fades to black in November after intense competition with Netflix.
Shomi had claimed 900,000 subscribers which I always believed was wildly exaggerated.
Netflix boasts an estimated Canadian audience of over five million paying Canadian customers.
Metflix is seem by more people than any individual Canadian YV network. And it does not have to obey any CRTC Canadian content rules.
From the start shomi which was an uneasy union of Shaw and Rogers seemed on shakey ground.
People were understandably reluctant to subscribe to a service with so many reruns and few hit series like Netflix.
Yes, Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards were welcome but there were such stinkers as Stranger Things and Narcos.
Energetic promotion for the service was nonexistent.
I could never get a preview copy of anything new out of this weblet.
In truth there was fierce resistance from subscribers from the beginning.
And that resistance will surely translate to other Canadian cable networks once the CRTC mandates the freedom of the subscriber to pick and choose what we want to watch.
I've never met anyone who watched OLN --Outdoor Life Network.
Have you?
DYI seems like leftovers from HGTV.
Mystery TV? I can't even get it.
And what about A&E which stands for Arts and Entertainment?
It was set up as a high end cultural channel but these days has stuff like Dog the Bounty Hunter.
I'm fearlessly predicting a whole lot of "Canadian" cable channels will bite the dust as soon as the CRTC orders the three cable giants to give subscribers free choice in what they want and what they'll drop.
********
Is it just me or is that Kiefer Sutherland voicing those Blue Jays playoffs spots?
It sure sounds like him --and he is Canadian.
Last year when the Jays were still a mediocre team the games had a huge number of public service announcements.
This year with ratings at an all time high?
There are luxury car ads at every commercial break and I'm told the asking price for a one minute spot has hit an all time high for a Canadian TV event.
So maybe the Jays could afford a Kiefer Sutherland as spot announcer?
**********
The most exciting event on TV these days?
I say it's the American election.
With Ronald Reagan the U.S.A got its first Grade B movie actor as president.
Remember mogul Jack Warner's comment?
"No! Jimmy Stewart for president. With Ronald Reagan as best friend."
Now Donald Trump of The Apprentice is getting down and dirty.
The big problems facing this great nation are never discussed.
Instead we turn in to see Trump's temper erupt live on TV.
It's a great show but what does it mean for the future of our neighbor to the south?
**********
With all these revivals of American shows why doesn't CBC try a revival of an olds staple?
Like Quentin Durgens, MP which the great Gordon Pinsent once starred in as a backbencher Canadian member of Parliament.
CBC ran it for four years and 41 episodes from 1965 through 1969.
I'd call the TV movie The Return Of Quentin Durgens and the plot has Quentin retired and his daughter has taken over his seat.
Pinsent's real life daughter Leah Pinsent would be perfect as Jane Durgens.
She gets into political troubles and Quentin has to come pout of retirement and solve the complicated murder mystery and restore honor to the family name.
And I won't even take credit as the TV movie originator.





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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bugs On The Menu: A Tasty TV Treat





I made sure I had my breakfast before clicking on the preview DVD of Bugs On The Menu.
I was afraid the subject matter might put me off food for the rest of the day --the increasing substitution of grilled insects for steak and chicken.
But I didn't have to worry. This 75-minute documentary will have you convinced the future of protein is grilled bugs as tasty treats.
You can check it all out on CBC's Documentary Channel  Tuesday October 11 at 9 p.m.
I'd give this sassy production a five cricket rating, yes I would.
Now I'm not sure I'd ever want to much on grilled crickets but in a powdered form covered with a great sauce who knows?
The Canadian film (from 291 Film Company) has already played to packed houses in Victoria and Edmonton with additional showings scheduled in Indiana and Australia.
I remember once interviewing the bug rangler on the TV series Amazon and he insisted every one of God's six legged critters came equipped with a heart and soul.
The way he patted his tarantulas was heart warming.
I'm not sure how he would react to the scenes of bugs being stir fried or boiled in olive oil.
The thesis of this amazing film is that everything old is new again.
Our cavemen ancestors feasted on insects to survive and today many people from South Africa to Cambodia devour bugs--we see them out on the hunt or in fancier cafes munching away.
Today moving away from a diet of steak and chicken to one that includes bugs seems sensible considering the fact that the world's population might hit 9 trillion within the next 25 years.
All of a sudden insect farms seem to be flourishing. The little critters need very little water compared to cattle and can be farmed in any number of situations --in South Africa we see villagers gathering them from the savannah.
And bug farming has become a big business.
One Louisiana family controlled enterprise has been at it for 60 years --originally the insects were farmed as bait  for fishermen --gradually the business turned over to today's insect farming for human consumption.
Director Ian Toews has discovered some great characters to illustrate his true story.
Like Entomo Farm's Goldin brothers Darren, Jarrod and Ryan who raise cricket protein for human consumption and business is booming.
Like the female entrepreneurs in charge of the insect chip company Six Foods (named after the six legs on a cricket).
Like the wonderfully likable insect chef David George Gordon author of Eat A Bug Cookbook as he prepares dishes for a thiousand hearty souls at New York city's Explorers Club.
And the historical anecdotes ring true --like the Salt Lake City story of the Mormon crickets who saved the first Mormon settlers from certain starvation.
We see future bug entrepreneurs being schooled at Montana State University and Harvard Business School.
And not everything is upbeat --a virus recently decimated the cricket population being farmed and could pose problems for sustainability in the future.
I have mixed feelings about eating insects I must admit. The huge farms growing up are based on the assumption  more and more people will gravitate to insect munching.
But there are signs the big food companies are poised to take over if they see the business flourishing.
Best thing about Bugs On The Menu? I say the 75-minute length lets us sink into the subject and get a real feeling for all sides of the story.
BUGS ON THE MENU PREMIERES ON CBC'S DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL TUESDAY OCTOBER 11 AT 9 P.M. (REPEATED SUNDAY OCTOBER 16 AT 9 P.M.)
MY RATING: ****.





Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Road To Mercy: Must-See TV






I have to admit I kept postponing watching my screener of the new CBC-TV documentary Road To Mercy.
The subject is mercy killing and I'd lost a dear friend last year  (journalist Eric McGuinness) who fought two bouts of colon cancer and then was told it had spread to his pancreas.
After enduring great pain for months he arranged a termination in Switzerland because under Canadian law any sort of assisted death was illegal.
In a piece written for Canadian newspapers Eric argued persuasively that we deny to humans what we routinely do to terminally ill pets.
But when I finally watched Road To Mercy I was struck by its absolute compassion and balance.
You can check for yourself: Road To Mercy premiers on CBC-TV's FirstHand Thursday October 6 at 9 p.m.
And this was not surprising because I've regularly reviewed the fine documentaries of veteran film maker Nadine Pequeneza of Toronto's Hit Play Productions.
After much debate medically assisted death has been pronounced legal after a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court .
"It remains controversial,"Pequenza tells me on the phone. "And the challenge was to give everybody fair time within the 44 minutes of today's TV hour."
Pequeneza wisely chose to chronicle three cases and give a human face to the issue.
"I wanted to touch all the bases. And there was the actual problem of filming them and respecting the boundaries. I knew when to turn off the camera."
By far the most heart rendering case is that of John Tuckwell of Edmonton who was a vigorous physical fitness buff  until he came down with ALS in 2012 --it;s also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
We watch his grim determination merely to breathe and share the grief of his aged parents and the devotion of sister Cathy.
His ALS physician Dr. Wendy Johnston is deeply sympathetic but can't personally offer such a solution --like many physicians dedicated to saving life instead of snuffing it out.
By contrast Dr. Louis Roy of Quebec City wants to help his terminally ill patient Danielle Lacroix--the Quebec legislature permits physician assisted deaths but only for terminal patients.
In Belgium we meet a brilliant 29-year old woman Amy De Schutter --Belgium is "progressive" in this area and grants certificates for degenerative diseases.
A university graduate, Amy has battled depression and suicide attempts since her teens. Her talks with her mother are particularly sad.
And there's advocate Maureen Taylor who argues for the right to die with dignity and understands the reservations of many people with deep religious beliefs.
Pequeneza has brilliantly captured the essence of each individual with pertinent questioning and tight editing.
"I wanted to show that in Belgium the criteria has expanded.But it was the human element that interested me, how these people were coping."
An hour that I hesitated to watch instead became for me a deeply compassionate study of how society is treating those dangerously ill.
"There is a more comprehensive 80-minute version", Pequeneza says. "And it will be shown and perhaps even get a TV berth someday."
For now this version will do quite well. Here is one hour I want to watch again down the road.
And in a new TV season where Canadian shows seem on life support along comes a Canadian made documentary that is first class all the way.
ROAD TO MERCY PREMIERES ON CBC-TV's FIRSTHAND THURSDAY OCTOBER 6 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.












Thursday, September 29, 2016

I Remember Agnes Nixon





Agnes Nixon, one of the most powerful women in American TV, has just died, aged 93.
There will bow be a moment for you to ask "Who was Agnes Nixon?"
She was so big it took me months to negotiate an exclusive interview with her when I was in Manhattan in 1974 for a week devoted to visiting the daily soaps.
Let's see I started on the set of the CBS soap Love Of Life which came on at 11:30 on CBS every morning.
I remember interviewing the Canadian actress Tudi Wiggins who had a big part and she introduced me to the unknown actor then making his TV debut --Christopher Reeve.
I visited the sets of Another World, The Guiding Light, Search For Tomorrow. 0n Another World they were testing a new actor --Julia Roberts' brother Eric.
And then came an afternoon tea with Mrs. Nixon in her fancy all white suite at the Carlyle hotel.
Nixon had written As The World Turns for years and she honed all the skills and then helped restructure Another World for NBC.
"My father got me an interview with Irna Phillips in 1951 --Irna created the first soap operas in Chicago for radio --The Brighter Day and The Guiding Light. I had sent her some samples and she simply looked up and said 'Why not come and work with me?' And a few weeks later I was the key writer on Search For Tomorrow."
Nixon told me the world of radio soaps was vastly different from the TV offspring.
"Oh, there was a huge dosage of morality back then. The star of The Brighter Day was a Protestant pastor. We wrote in broad strokes. There were bad girls and good girls. The women heroines stayed at home."
Once she moved to her own soaps --One Life To Live  and All My Children--Nixon injected huge doses of reality. I introduced black characters over the objection of the network. I dramatized AIDS at a time when it wasn't even talked about on the newscasts. I dramatized teen prostitution and the dilemma of a wife who discovered she was a lesbian."
Nixon helped Phillips launch As The World Turns on CBS in 1956,
"It was the first half hour show and later the first to go to tape. The Guiding Light was still 15 minutes and live. I'll tell you Another World's heroine one day was supposed to be taking a cake out of the oven and the buzzer wouldn't stop and she had never actually used the oven and started sobbing on camera."
On another Another World episode in 1063 while still a live show --CBS interrupted with Walter Crpkite telling audiences President Kennedy had been assassinated. The actors kept on for several more scenes unaware the show was no longer running."
In 1968 Nixon was asked by ABC to create One Life To Live and she asked her husband Robert to form a production company and syndicate it to other countries.
"Canadian networks get into a bidding war to get our shows I'm proud to report."
When her husband died in 1996 Nixon took over the writing of All My Children which she said was her therapy. In her den she showed me she had the story line she had blocked out for the next year.
"Now all I have to do is write it!"she laughed.
In 1970 Nixon created All My Children "and I hired Susan Lucci as the vixen" --the daily soap ran until 2011.
I last talked to her about 10 years ago and she was saddened by the decline of the popularity of soaps and predicted a swift decline for most of them.
"I guess women these days are too busy to suffer every afternoon," she joked.
 "There are so many networks out there these days that the huge audiences of the past have simply disappeared."


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Undercover In ISIS: Great "Canadian" TV


I just knew I had to get a preview copy of the new Canadian made TV documentary Undercover In ISIS when I spotted the filmmaker's name: Martin Himel.
I remember him way back in 1983 when I was TV critic at the Toronto Star and he was CTV's man in the Middle East.
I remember meeting him at one CTV news launch in those days when CTV was fully competitive with CBC and the big American TV networks.
And I so watched Undercover In ISIS in one sitting totally amazed at this must-see production.
You can see for yourself Sunday September 25 at 8 p.m. on Documentary Channel.
This one plays like a Hollywood spy flick but it's all true.
The effect is like watching an entire season of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier Spy at one sitting.
TV is often and truthfully accused of trivializing the big events of our world and nowhere is this better illustrated in the  ongoing TV network coverage of ISIS.
I'll wager most of us who get our news from TV are completely ignorant about what ISIS is and how it operates.
If you're feeling this in the same way I am then Undercover In ISIS comes as a huge revelation.
I'm sick of the network coverages of the latest bombing. massacres and atrocities.
And I simply want to reset my lack of knowledge.
Filmed between March 2015 through June 2016 the approach is simplicity itself.
First Himel hires two young people who are will go undercover as ISIS recruiters and entice sympathizers to share their experiences with them.
It sounds dangerous and it is and it's inconceivable that nothing could happen. I have to be very careful here in not giving away too much of the story.
We first meet the two operatives "Theo" and "Sarah" and as the true story envelopes what really surprises me is how ISIS operatives truly understand the modern means of communications and how they can quickly bond with sympathizers.
This for me truly explains how ISIS can operate over such wide fields. In the old days of cumbersome long distance telephoning and perhaps FAX ISIS would never have been able to spread its network  of supporters across many continents.
"Theo" gets a meeting with a terrorist cell in Belgium on the pretense he wants to join up as a fighter --remember this is six months before actual attacks in Belgium.
And "Sara"begins a long distance conversation with a Swedish recruiter turned ISIS supporter and her son-in-law, also Swedish via Facebook. Twitter and eventually into such encrypted audio apps as Skype and Wickr.
She is soon asked to join the Swedish boy in Syria to become his second wife and gets detailed instructions how to hide her intentions from Swedish authorities and go to Turkey ostensibly on a vacation and slip over the Turkish border and into ISIS territory.
Almost 300 Swedes havce become ISIS supporters which is surely a shocker.
And then comes the kicker as Himel locates the original ISIS recruiter who has slipped out of Syria and returned to Sweden. Using a hidden camera we get to see the small apartment where she hides out and her defiant rejection of the terrorist label.
Getting inside the heads of these ISIS activists is a fascinating but scary journey. So much of their daily lives remain mundane but the fanaticism once turned on is dangerous for those opposing them.
Himel has sticked this all together with meticulous care.
Undercover In Isis was made by Vigilance Productions and is shining example that in the documentary field Canadian TV still leads the way.
UNDERCOVER IN ISIS PREMIERES ON DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 25 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.







Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Migrant Dreams: What Canadian TV Is All About







The new Canadian TV season really kicks off Wednesday night  at 9 with the TVOntario premiere of Min Sook Lee's brilliant and deeply disturbing documentary Migrant Dreams.
It also debuts Thursday on tv.org. Got that?
This is what Canadian TV is really all about at its best --the film challenges our basic conceptions about the kind of nation we live in.
And it shows the dark underbelly of racism that permits the exploitation of migrant works in such a way that robs them of their basic dignity.
I was completely ignorant of this scandal ---the only migrant workers I ever met way back in the 1960s toiled in the apple orchards of Simcoe for a month or so during the harvest and then went back to Mexico.
These days migrants work all year long in the huge greenhouses of Leamington where the labor is backbreaking, the pay minimal and the changes of getting ripped off by unscrupulous employees are abundant.
I knew as soon as I spotted the name of the director Min Sook Lee that I had to watch this one.
She's a mesmerist all right --her look at gay and lesbian Toronto police in the documentary Badge Of Pride was outstanding and she earlier documented the plight of migrant workers in the documentary El Contrato.
"At first nobody wanted to be on camera," she tells me on the phone. "Their situation is so precarious they feared retaliation by their employers. I had to gain their trust and that took time."
The system set up by the Liberal governments and vastly extended by the Harper government is at its core fundamentally corrupt --it demeans the workers and allows them to be ripped off at so many levels.
"I got these workers to talk about their plight because they were near breaking point," she says. "They had very little to lose by then. The fear of deportation was ever nearer. "
I was staggered by the statistic there are a half million workers now in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
"The program has been expanded as so-called normal immigration has been slowed down," explains Lee.
Exploitation? Twenty-six laborers are seen living stacked up in a converted garage.
At another location the cockroaches slither all over the bleak kitchenette.
One valiant mother who is on a four-year permit talks plaintively to her children back in Indonesia --she needs money to get them into schools but is being ripped off by unscrupulous employment services.
One individual known here only as "The Recruiter" scams the system by demanding paybacks every month for services not even provided.
The workers shop in bulk stores for the soiled food no ordinary Canadian would want.
We listen in to a Leamington radio talk show where local callers demean the workers in racially offensive terms.
"Their humanity comes under question," lee says. "And that's so wrong."
Lee is such a persuasive interviewer she does get some of these frightened people to come on camera and talk about their fears for the future.
It turns out they have the same dreams as all of us --to see their kids get ahead and have that brighter future denied to them.
And a wedding of a transgender couple turns into a celebration of life that is both poignant and deeply emotional.
Migrant Dreams plays like a living nightmare. I had no idea greenhouse food production is now a billion dollar industry in Canada. Employers ruthlessly manipulate the system--seizing passports, imposing curfews, adding a housing tax even when housing is not provided.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Some workers are fighting back determined to seize their basic human rights.
"Yes, I was honored they trusted me," Lee says. "Some cases are going to court. All they really want is the chance to succeed as immigrants, that's all."
MIGRANT DREAMS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO ON WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBNER 14 AT 9 P.M. AND MIDNIGHT.
MY RATING: ****.









Thursday, September 8, 2016

Peter Mansbridge: Hail And Farewell





I started out as the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 and jumped to the Toronto Star in 1980.
So I knew Peter Mansbridge before he actually became Peter Mansbridge.
I mean before he became a TV anchor he was a bright and aspiring TV reporter.
Let's see-- the first CBC TV anchor I interviewed was Earl Cameron.  He wasn't allowed to change a comma on the scripts which were written by others.
And he was forbidden by labor regulations from interviewing anyone at all. He was a news reader and that was that.
And I was in the audience of TV critics in 1977 at the CBC fall launch when Knowlton Nash stood up and said "I've lost my Mr. Clean."
Knowlton was referring to the defection that day of Lloyd Robertson to CTV to co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
Lloyd --who I still talk to--died CBC anchors a huge favor. He was tired of being just a talking head and when he left the rules changed to make the anchor a true news reporter.
Peter Kent stepped in and later left for NBC before turning up again on Global TV.
And then Nash --then head of CBC news and current affairs--virtually chose himself as Kent's replacement.
And then --28 years ago--it was Mansbridge's turn --he was threatening to jump to the CBS Morning News until Nash graciously stepped aside.
That run of almost three decades will never be surpassed I'm willing to bet.
And I hail Mansbridge as a wily survivor of the CBC--the bureaucratic wranglings behind-the-scenes defeated many another CBC reporter.
Whj will replace Mansbridge?
Well, CBC did have two hot contenders a year ago but both Amanda Lang and Evcan Solomon jumped ship after controversies.
I'm hearing CTV's Kevin Newman is in the mix as is CBC veteran Ian Hanomansing.
Some of the departing notices were downright rude --The Globe And Mail's  TV writer  John Doyle was particularly nasty.
I had some notable run ins with Mansbridge.
I hated CBC's The Journal when it debuted and a phalanx of CBC vice-presidents visited star Managing Editror Ray Timson to have me fired.
He kept them waiting for an hour and then sent the message:"I don't talk to flacks."
But when I retired in 2008 Mansbridge attended my farewell and said some very nice things. Because at heart I always was a CBC supporter.
The biggest mistake in those years was the change of times --CBC TV News debuted in 1952 at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film from Washington and Ottawa could be air freighted to the Toronto headquarters.
When CBC moved it to 10 p.m. it disrupted the TV viewing habits of millions and ratings suffered,
Also, at 10 p.m. all the big hourlong dramas on U.S. TV were on --it was far too competitive an hour for CBC News to survive.
For years Mansbridge had to share his hour with the likes of Pam Wallin and Hana Gartner who told me he was hardly a collegial co-host.
In recent years he's done it all with startling professionalism.
Ratings have shrunk as the number of TV channels expanded.
But I have to say I never ever heard Mansbridge flub a line or name.
Who will replace him?Ian Hanomansin
Mansbridge says he'll stick around for other chores as Nash remained for years afterward.
Mansbridge has survived a lot --he has been the face of The National for 28 years during some very trying times.
When I started covering CBC in 1970 there were 10 channels and no cable competitors.
So hail and farewell!



Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Remember Arthur Hiller




So there I was in the Academy Awards library in July 1980 getting material on some of the personalities I was going to interview on the annual Television Critics Association press tour.
And the man sitting beside me saw my Toronto Star notebook and tapped me on the shoulder and said "I'm a Canadian too."
It was director Arthur Hiller best known for the blockbuster Love Story.
Shot for just $2 million the weepie saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy and took in more than $130 million on its first release making potent movie stars out of Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw.
"I know the exact amount because I took a percentage," he told me over coffee in a cafe on Wilshire Boulevard. "I got a best director nomination. I'd been in the business for a long time but Love Story made me."
Arthur Hiller was part of a small but influential group of Canadian directors who mostly worked abroad.
Others in that category include Norman Jewison, Alvin Rakoff and Daniel Petrie.
Hiller was born in Edmonton "of Jewish parents" and served with distinction as a navigator aboard the famed Halifax bombers over missions against Germany.
He then studied at the University of Toronto and got a M.A. in psychology before turning to directing on CBS Radio.
When TV came to CBC in 1952 he jumped with zest directing many hours of live drama.
"I wish I had a list of all those hours but even CBC says their lists are incomplete. Eventually NBC asked me to submit samples which I did --these were kinescopes. It was Bill Shatner who I had frequently directed who talked me up and so I jumped. I wanted to make movies and there was no Canadian movie business in those days."
Hiller directed hours on Gunsmoke, the first Addams Family TV pilot and key epiusodes of The Naked City shot on film on New York city streets.
"I did the first ever TV actng assignment of a young guy named Robert Redford and the last ever acting job of Errol Flynn who was so drunk I had to feed him lines."
In 1957 he made his first feature about wayward teens titled The Careless Years starring a very young Dean Stockwell.
"Then Disney hired me for Miracle Of The White Stallions which starred Robert Taylor the first big movie star I worked with."
His best film, he maintained was ":The Americanization Of Emily: Julie Andrews, Jim Garner and a great script from Paddy Chayefsky. Paddy liked me so much he gave me another script to direct: The Hospital."
His worst?
"I'd say Man Of La Mancha. Peter O'Toole was not always sober and was badly miscast. He hated Sophia Loren and the feeling was mutual. It was an absolute train wreck."
Hiller blamed the box office failure of Making Love on his rapid descent as a front line director.. His last big hit was Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler asnd Shelley Long.
From 1989 to 1993 he served as head of the Directors Guild of America and subsequently was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A few years ago when back in L.A. I phoned him for lunch and he politely turned me down saying macular degeneration had turned him into a recluse.
"My biggest regret is I never came back to Canada and made a personal film about growing up Jewish in Alberta. I have a partial script but it can never be made now."
Arthur Hiller died on August 17 v2016.,aged 92.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TV Chatter: The Summer Edition
























Here it is a sweltering August day. I should really be home enjoying the AC but here I am up on the Danforth in a friendly Greek restaurant with three best friends: a veteran actress, a producer who is always busy and a long serving PR type.
Let's listen in to our conversation:
ME: I still can't believe CTV has cancelled one of its most recognizable brands: Canada AM. I was on the set in 1972 just weeks after it started --the first two morning anchors were Carole Taylor and Percy Saltzman and boy were they feuding.
Anyway this was Canada;s first morning TV show. It took CBC years to play catch up. And it meant Canadians no longer had to watch Today or The CBS Morning News every day as we'd done for over a decade.
ACTRESS: CTV has so few brands one wonders why the network is doing this. When I ask friends their favorite CTV show they have to search a bit because the network carries so many American imports over which they have no artistic control.
PR: City recently let Gord Martineau go. Their most recognizable face. Had he proved too expensive? Not sure. Gord had been there forever and a day.
PRODUCER: So little Canadian content gets on Canadian TV these days. One of my favorite Canadian drama series was Combat Hospital shot out in Etobicoke. A big hit here on Global but when ABC cancelled it so did Global. Without that American sale it quickly became dead meat.
ACTRESS: And yet CTV kept both The Listener and Saving Hope going after NBC cancelled both. These are two quality shows.
ME: Dial diddling I caught a rerun of that short lived Canadian series King --it was pretty good. But they never found an American sale which is all important these days. So there was only one season.
PR: Despite the drama drought these days Canadian TV has produced some recognizable stars: Nicholas Campbell, Art Hindle, Wendy Crewson, Sonja Smits, Gord Pinsent. All are accomplished actors who've worked both in the U.S. and Canada but prefer working here.
ME: I have a friend who wrote a book on Canadian TV drama and spent years in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. She says it is chock full of great material CBC claims can't be shown these days because of copyright problems. In One column for The Star I caused a real stink by saying the problem with Canadian TV was the lack of solid rerun material. I still believe that.
ACTRESS: I was searching for a certain Canadian series and just assumed it had come out  in a boxed set. So there I was in HMV and they have a huge section on British TV but no separate section on Canadian TV. The show I wanted was ENG and it has never been out on DVD. Go Figure that out.
ME: I found a boxed set of Twitch City in a second hand book store at Danforth and Coxwell. I'd never seen that one before on DVD so I snapped it up. Great Don McKellar series.
PR: I've been told CBC expects more production once the new Liberal government ups the budget but that may be wishful thinking.
ME: At the CBC fall launch I told all the new incoming team they should revive a CBC series from the Seventies. At that time CBC had a similar budget deficiency so they opened the vaults for a culture series fronted by Veronica Tennant and showed old spectaculars like Sean Connery in a 1960 production of Macbeth opposite Zoe Caldwell, a ballet with Nureyev and Kain, old episodes of Telescope. And I thought Front Page Challenge could be revived with new panelists like Martin Short. How about all that?
ACTRESS: Well, this summer I'm almost booked solid because there's so much runaway U.S. production in town because of our lowly dollar.
PRODUCER: A friend of mine says he'll only make shows that can be pre-sold to the U.S. market-- that means making sure all Canadianisms are washed out including our accents.
ACTRESS: Talking to Americans they say the old line networks are crumbling away fast. I wonder how many Canadian speciality channels will survive when consumers have a choice.
MEL I've never met anybody who watched OLN-Outdoors Life Network.
ACTRESS: But I do! I love Dog The Bounty Hunter, it's a secret passion.
PRODUCER: Before I got to sleep I watch trash like Flip Or Flop or Love It Or List It. Then I feel soothed enough to sleep.
ME: I like watching bad old movies on TCM. They lull me to sleep.
PR: You know what bugs me these days? I can remember at CBC's fall launches 30 years ago we'd get 35 visiting TV newspaper critics coming to Toronto to tour the fall product. At the last CBC launch there were only five critics left. Networks may be crumbling but newspapers are dead meat, not a single one making any money at all.
ME: And I don't see the web making that shortage up --most of the internet sites are trash. Only a few sites are worth reading and there are mistakes everywhere.
ACTRESS: Hey, I gotta goy. Working nights on this American TV drama. Last night I said "oooot' during a take instead of "out"and I really got it from the U.S. director. we all laughed like hell but that's the state of TV in Toronto these days.