Friday, September 4, 2015

TCR on Television: A Salute to Two Great TV Stalwarts: Dick Van Patten and Anne Meara

Meara plays a big part in husband Jerry
Stiller's autobiography.
In recent months, American television lost two of its most familiar faces: Dick Van Patten and Anne Meara. The careers of these hard-working performers began in television's earliest years. Their passing takes us farther away from the days of huge audience broadcast TV, when even flop shows (and both Van Patten and Meara had their share of failures) drew more viewers than the biggest hits of today.

Van Patten, who died on June 23 at age 86, is best remembered as the father on Eight is Enough, a comedy-drama that ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981. However, those four years were just a short chapter in a remarkably busy career in theater, television, and film that spanned more than seven decades.

Meara, who died on May 23 at age 85, rose to fame in the early 1960s as partner to her husband Jerry Stiller in the comedy team Stiller and Meara. However, she always considered herself an actress, not a comedienne. Meara made numerous appearances in both comedic and dramatic acting roles mainly on television but also on film and stage from the early 1950s onward.

In his breezy autobiography, Eighty is Not Enough: One Actor's Journey Through American Entertainment (2009), the upbeat Van Patten shares happy memories of being one of Broadway's top juvenile actors of the 1930s and 1940s. Billed as Dickie Van Patten and sporting a great shock of blond hair, Van Patten made his Broadway debut at age seven in a play called Tapestry in Grey. While still a boy Van Patten appeared the original productions of the classics On Borrowed Time by Paul Osborn and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. As a teenager Van Patten spent three years on Broadway and on tour with the legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Terence Rattigan's O Mistress Mine and became one of the many young actors over the years, including Montgomery Clift, who the Lunts took under their wing.

18-year old Van Patten with  Lunt and Fontanne, 1947.
(AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
"I enjoyed my life as a child actor," Van Patten writes in Eighty is Not Enough, adding that his employment provided his family with a comfortable existence while others were suffering through the Depression and gave him the opportunity to work with legendary stars of the era. He points out that while many child actors, including some of those who played his children on Eight is Enough, fall prey to drug addiction and other misfortunes, such problems are also widespread among people with supposedly normal childhoods.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

TCR on Film: An Interview with Edward Z. Epstein, author of "Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden"

In Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, just published by Running Press, veteran film journalist Edward Z. Epstein creatively uses the personal relationship between Hepburn and Holden as a starting point for a wider look at how these two very big stars of the 1950s maneuvered through the changes that came to their lives and to the film industry in the 1960s and beyond.

"Both stars are charismatic screen personalities, favorites of mine, and I’d thought for a long time about writing a book on the largely untold story of their romance," Epstein, who is the author of numerous books on film subjects including Paul Newman, Clara Bow, and Marlon Brando, told The Committee Room. "As New York press contact for MCA/Universal, I worked with many people, over the years, who knew both Audrey and Bill, and who were familiar with the problems they faced and the pressures of the business they were in."

Today Hepburn is an icon recognizable even to those not so familiar with her film work. Holden, though he had a much longer career than Hepburn and his once tremendous box-office clout earned him the nickname "Golden Holden," has not been so well remembered.

Bogart, Audrey and Bill in publicity shot for Sabrina (1954).
Bogie seems left out.
"Hepburn’s iconic stature, to a large degree, is a result of the revolutionary impact she’s had on the world of fashion," Epstein told TCR. "Young women still strive for her 'look' in Sabrina, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Combined with her radiance on screen, her talent as an actress (although she never thought she was a good actress!), and her lilting, unique speaking voice, her appeal has stood the test of time  It’s tougher for a man to achieve iconic stature. Those that attained it -- Wayne, Bogart, Cagney among them -- were archetypes of their age, projecting an appeal that went beyond their looks and their films. Holden was the ideal All-American man [and] every bit the superstar that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Bradley Cooper are today."

Friday, May 1, 2015

TCR on Television: An Interview with Mike Thomas, author of "You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman"

In the recently published You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, journalist Mike Thomas examines the life of a major figure in American comedy. This engrossing read is at once a knowledgeable show biz biography and, considering Hartman's violent death, a sensitively put together true crime story.

Phil Hartman was all over American television in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably as a pivotal cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1986 to 1994. He also appeared on the sitcom News Radio, the children's show Pee Wee's Playhouse, and voiced numerous characters on The Simpsons.

The book's tentatively worded title -- taken from a line spouted by one of Hartman's Simpsons characters, a has-been actor named Troy McClure -- reflects the fact that Hartman, even at the height of his career, was more of a reliably humorous presence than a big name comedy celebrity.

"Even though Phil never became a huge star, he still looms large — as is immediately apparent if you plug his name into Google, Twitter or any number of online portals — in the consciousness of countless fans," Mike Thomas told The Committee Room.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TCR on Films -- "Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters" by Kirk Douglas

In Life Could Be Verse, a brief and often affecting volume, actor Kirk Douglas, who recently turned ninety-eight years old, shares poems he has written over the course of his long life and recounts the experiences that inspired the verses.

Kirk wrote his first poem -- about a sailing ship, though he had never seen the ocean -- for an English class assignment as a high school student in upstate New York back when he was still Issur Danielovitch, the child of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants. He discovered that versifying helped him better understand his thoughts. "Throughout my life I have written poems that express my true feelings," Kirk explains in the book's acknowledgments.

The poems are simple but perceptive reflections set in singsong rhyme and might be called wise doggerel. Here are the opening lines from "Luck" -- They call it 'luck'/It can't be taught/It can't be borrowed/It can't be bought'. Kirk's movie stardom, though discussed in the book, takes a back seat to his roles of son, husband, father, and grandfather.
Kirk Douglas now (photo/Dan MacMedan/USA TODAY)
Kirk Douglas is among the few classic studio-era stars still with us in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Olivia de Havilland, Maureen O'Hara, and Doris Day are others. His trademark thick blond hair has turned thin and white and is worn in a ponytail.

In Life Could Be Verse Kirk quickly runs through the highlights of his acting career which began on the New York stage in the late 1930s. There were a few years of struggle and a stint in the Navy during World War II. The big break came in 1945 when producer Hal Wallis (following a tip from young Lauren Bacall, who Kirk had briefly dated when she was a Manhattan teenager named Betty) caught Douglas's performance in the play The Wind is Ninety and lured him to Hollywood.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TCR on Films: "Watch Me: A Memoir" by Anjelica Huston

In the recently published Watch Me: A Memoir, actress and sometime director Anjelica Huston picks up where she left off in her first book, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York (discussed in TCR in April 2014).

At the start of this second volume Huston is in her early twenties and has just arrived in Los Angeles. She has been a successful fashion model in Europe and New York but is eager to commence a new life in sunny SoCal after finally extrapolating herself from a difficult relationship with a mentally ill photographer old enough to be her father.

Anjelica is a new girl in town but, being the daughter of legendary film director and bon vivant John Huston, she is an extremely well-connected one. It isn't long before she meets rising star Jack Nicholson and they begin a lengthy reign as Hollywood's coolest couple. Woody Allen immortalized their partnership in Annie Hall in which Annie's acceptance by the in-crowd is represented by her being invited to a party at Jack and Anjelica's.

Jack and Anjelica are an unequal pair. Nicholson essentially replaces John Huston as the charismatic, energetic and famous man dominating over Anjelica's life. As Jack ascends to superstardom in Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Shining, Anjelica hangs around and smokes -- sometimes on Jack's movie locations, sometimes back home at Jack's house on Mulholland, sometimes at the homes of friends in Paris, London, New York, and Aspen.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TCR on Broadway: Interview with Author Peter Filichia on Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award

In the recently published Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award author and theater critic Peter Filichia takes a vibrant and extremely well-informed look into why so many classic shows failed to win Broadway's biggest prize. The book's title refers to three especially admired non-winners -- Gypsy (strippers), Follies (showgirls) and West Side Story (Sharks, a street gang).

The Tony Awards are given out by the American Theatre Wing, a service organization founded during World War II to oversee Broadway's contribution to the war effort. The Wing ran the famous Stage Door Canteen. After the war, the Wing remained in existence, shifting its mission to supporting the theater generally and bringing theater resources to communities. The Tony Awards -- named in honor of the Wing's co-founder, director and actress Antoinette Perry -- began in 1947. The first awards ceremony was a relatively modest affair in a hotel ballroom. Only a handful awards, many of them honorary, were presented.

Peter Filichia
Over the years more competitive categories were added along with the practice of selecting winners from a list of nominees. In 1949, the first best musical award went to Kiss Me, Kate, veteran composer Cole Porter's take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. By the mid-1950s, the Tony Awards ceremony had become a larger, more formal event broadcast live on local New York television.

Filichia, a theater blogger and columnist who was for many years the theater critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, points out that it was nationwide television exposure, beginning in 1967, that truly boosted the Tony above other theater accolades. "Looking at print ads for Broadway in the 1950s and early 1960s prove that shows that had won prizes used to advertise first and foremost 'Pulitzer Prize Winner!' or 'New York Drama Critics Circle Winner!' much more often that 'Tony-winner!'" Filichia told The Committee Room. "Now no other theatrical award can touch the power of the Tony, because of that two-hour television infomercial that runs on a Sunday in June. And while ratings are a fraction of what they used to be (which, to be fair, is true of every network television show), the broadcast still reaches millions of people who say, 'Hmm, that show looks good' and reach for their telephones to call Telecharge."

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave" (Interview with biographer Dan Callahan)

At the opening of his superb new biography Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, author Dan Callahan takes readers back to 1997 when he was a drama student in New York. From a discount-price, obstructed view seat the young Callahan watched the great Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. At the end of the performance, a matinee at the Public Theater, Redgrave solemnly informed the audience that she had just received word of the death of Fred Zinnemann who had directed her Oscar winning performance in Julia two decades earlier. Redgrave praised Zinnemann's Western film classic High Noon, citing it as a brave statement against the obsessive anti-Communism that pervaded American society in the early 1950s. Then, in her soft British accent, Redgrave astonished the audience by launching into a rendition of the theme to High Noon, a twangy ballad ("Do not forsake me, oh my darling!...") originally sung by Tex Ritter.

The crowd drifted out of the theater as Redgrave continued through the verses of the song but Callahan was transfixed. Nearly twenty years later, his fascination with Redgrave has not diminished.

"I just can’t get enough of watching her. I think that there is something very special going on when she acts, and I wanted to celebrate that," Callahan told The Committee Room.