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.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Remembrance Of TV Critics Junkets Past

I was pleasantly surprised to read on the wires then other day that the Television Critics Association convention is once again in full swing in Los Angeles.
I thought it might have been ditched by now because TV critics are a threatened species rapidly facing extinction.
When I joined TCA in 1971 over a hundred TV critics from American newspapers would meet in Los Angeles twice a year.
And there I was the cocky kid critic from the Hamilton Spectator --the only Canadian representative allowed on by the networks.
How did I do it?
I simply phoned the Buffalo affiliates of NBC (WGR-TV0, CBS (WBEN-TV) and ABC (WKBW-TVC) and got them to sign the appropriate documents stating Hamilton was part of their TV market.
In those days the networks paid the way for most of these American scribes including representatives from the ultra fancy New York Times and Boston Globe.
On the last day of the nine-day hoopla the network PR types went around giving out wads of greenbacks to departing critics to help them get home in one piece.
Some critics brought their wives who went out on sopping sprees to Bulloch's and Saks in the afternoons with all expenses paid by the webs.
One critic had lavish wine and cheese parties in his hotel suite every night and signed the chits to the networks.
When I asked one press rep she said "Oh, it's OK. That way we keep the receipts and if he ever dares write something unfortunate over the next year we simply phone him up and remind him of our largesse."
When I landed in LAX the first time an NBC press guy was waiting to whisk me to Julie London's home in Thousand Oaks for a catered lunch.
My bags were sent by taxi to the Century Plaza hotel and every night there were lavish star studded parties in the Grand Ballroom.
Evita was playing across the street at the Shubert theater and networks bought up rows of expensive seats for nights out entertainment.
Each network had three days to strut their wares --screenings of all new series were held in the Grand Ballroom. Doors were locked shut and lunches served but nobody was allowed to leave least they leak news to the competition.
Days would start with news conferences and then we'd all get personalized schedules that plopped us on TV sets all over town.
I remember in 1972 I started out one day on the set of Mission: Impossible, lunched on the set of The Brady Bunch and that afternoon was driven out to the L.A. Aquarium to interview Mike Connors of Mannix.
One day I had lunch with Loretta Swit of M*A*S*H, then visited The Waltons set and had dinner with Bill Macy on the Maude set.
And none of these three series was even on the air --as yet.
Where were all the other networks?
Cable networks did not exist in 1971 and PBS would hold furtive press conferences during the lunch breaks--that's how I met and interviewed Anthony Hopkins who was playing Kean on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.
There were no computers back then so critics filed their typed copy in the press suite --these went out via FAX.
I once saw an NBC PR type reading one critic's the copy in advance and blacking out text she considered offensive to NBC.
When I asked her about it she huffed "I'm paying for all this. Of course I have that right."
All this was mercilessly reported by Gary Deeb of The Chicago Tribune in his piece for Variety titled "TV's Hack Pack" which was responsible for TV critics seizing the convention and insisting everyone pay his own way.
These days with only a few TV critics still around the ranks are swelled with scribes from the .com universe.
At one recent TCA press conference Sting asked a youngster who he represented and he said "".
And I just bet these days "" has a high circulation than The New Yorkb Times.