Monday, July 30, 2012
Based on the novel by Patrick Anderson, The President’s Mistress was shot in a week and a half on location in Washington, D.C. As you can deduce from the title, the President’s mistress plays a big part in a story revolving around governmental intrigue and misguided intelligence, which eventually leads to her death. The novel’s protagonist is an ex-lover who tries to solve the mystery; in the movie it’s the woman’s brother, played by Beau Bridges. He’s a likable low-level government employee who has a good, but somewhat distant relationship with is sister. When she says she’s seeing someone she refuses to divulge any more information, but she’s left enough clues to uncover the truth behind her death.
Mistress was a bit of a surprise. I decided to watch it on a whim, thinking it would be more romance than thriller - I was thinking along the lines of Danielle Steel, not Mary Higgins Clark. What I got was an extremely engaging and well-plotted mystery, which unfolded quite nicely – until the end. Unfortunately, the final reveal of what happened and why is a bit of shoulder shrug, but the rest of the film is so absorbing and thoughtful, that I'll call the finale a minor quibble. Oh yeah, and there's gratuitous Larry Hagman. I'm sold.
Mistress, which originally aired on February 10th, 1978 on CBS, was fairly well received when it originally aired, and has enjoyed a home video release on both VHS and DVD. Yet, it strangely seems to have fallen by the wayside. I had not heard of it until I stumbled across it on Netflix and I’m so glad I did. Political intrigue movies usually leave me a little cold, but Mistress concentrates on characters over political espionage and it works on a more relatable level. Bridges is delightful and draws you in. Karen Grassle is gorgeous as the mistress and instead of making her ultra-cool and aloof, she seems like any other kept woman, both flawed and human. We only see the leader of our country through an amusing “President-cam” and he becomes a lesser element in the story, concentrating instead on Bridges’ attempts to bring justice to his sister. He does have a cute little romance though, so I still got my Danielle Steel. And all was right with the world.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
It is with the utmost sadness that I am writing about Sherman Hemsley today, who passed away at the age of 74. Most of us probably grew up with George Jefferson dancing on Bentley’s back, giving Weezy grief or calling Mr. Willis “honkey.” Sherman’s comedic timing and gift for physical humor was impeccable, and by all accounts he was a generous actor and man. I have never had anything but love for him, because he always made my day a little better.
Sherman was born in Philadelphia where his aunt, a Pentecostal preacher raised him and he says the adults in his life found him “destructively creative.” As a young man he worked for the postal service while honing his craft in small theaters. He was discovered by Robert Hooks and worked for the Negro Ensemble for many years. His big break was on Broadway in Purlie, which is a modern take on “a sly, scheming house slave.” It was there that Norman Lear saw Sherman and a few years later asked him to play George Jefferson, the cantankerous and strong black business owner who moves next door to Archie Bunker on All in the Family.
George and his wife, Weezy (the great Isabel Sanford) were a hit and they got their own series, The Jeffersons in 1975. Sherman was uncomfortable with fame and in a great TV Guide article from 1987, it was reported that during this time his shyness was mistakenly considered “aloof” or “rude.” Marla Gibbs was initially worried about how to play off of Sherman but said that when the audience came in, "that child came alive." He was indeed quite unlike his argumentative counterpart, and he was a bold actor to take on such a potentially unlikable character, turning humor onto intense social issues. After eleven wonderful seasons, The Jeffersons was cancelled and he moved on to other projects, although he was told he shouldn’t be surprised if television didn’t come calling again. To the world, he was George Jefferson.
Then came Amen.
Just a couple of years ago I was able to rediscover Amen, thanks to TV One, who plays it in the morning. I had wanted to see it again because I remembered so little about it. Much to my surprise, although I knew it would be fun, I was floored with how completely hysterical Amen was. Sherman said he enjoyed playing Deacon Frye because “the deacon is more educated, he’s not slamming doors in people’s faces and calling them honkies.” In the same interview with TV Guide his castmates noted how good he was to the cast and crew, making sure everyone was fed and little things like that. And while he was fiercely private about his personal life, he was also a known animal lover (and apparently a huge fan of prog rock, according to this article).
The cast seemed to really enjoy working with Sherman and he told the Archive of American Television that he needed to work on the physical aspects of a scene before he could memorize the dialog. His gift was definitely in movement, and that’s what I loved most about Amen. The series lasted five seasons, and each year it got wackier and more ambitious with the stunts. Some of my favorite episodes included Sherman dancing with a giant snake, Sherman dressing in drag to visit his daughter Thelma (the hysterical Anna Maria Horsford) who had just joined the army, and then eventually getting in an incredible fight with her drill sergeant (played by Richard Roundtree!), or when he had a run in with several cats while hiding in a potential girlfriend’s closet. He had a tremendous ability to make us laugh and Amen was an uplifting show. While I would not consider myself a religious person, I thought the series really spun the most positive aspects of family and community in a church setting. I was won over immediately and watched every episode at least four times. I actually recall watching the show not so long ago and thinking to myself, “I hope Sherman is here for a long time.”
Although he made many appearances on television after Amen (often reprising his Jeffersons role with his onscreen wife Weezy), Sherman relocated to Texas where he lived pretty quietly. He gave the world a look at how shy and reticent he was when he appeared on a season of the Surreal Life in 2006. He was an odd but interesting choice and I remember Marla Gibbs came on the show to do an act with him and he just lit up the room. Sherman was a performer, a comedian, and just a wonderful presence in my life. He often made me laugh when I thought nothing could. I already miss him.
Sherman also had an almost-career as a musician. Watch him cut a rug here:
Friday, July 20, 2012
Hey everyone, I'll be stopping by the Movies About Girls podcast tomorrow night (7/21/2012) at 6 PM EST to chime in on the daddy of all roller disco movies, Skatetown USA! It is simply the wackiest thing on four wheels and it even features Patrick Swayze in an early performance (in fact, IMDb credits it as his first!). He plays the leader of an evil skate gang.
You cannot make this stuff up, kiddos.
So, stop by tomorrow night to catch all the disco ball glamour you can handle!
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
I haven’t really posted anything in the way of what’s streaming lately, most likely because Netflix removed their TV Movie tag from their Instant Watch playlist. I get so frickin’ frustrated trying to find stuff on there and so I sort of dropped off (after I passed along the big middle finger). But since I have a cold… or a flu… who knows, I’m coughing constantly and it sucks, and I'm sleeping only a few hours a night, so I’ve entrusted myself to Netflix’s Instant Stream once again and through some detective work I stumbled across two pretty great tele-films.
The first is Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean, which stars Suzanne Pleshette as our favorite scary real estate mogul. The magnetic magnate made headlines when she was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion. While Leona is infamous for how horribly she treated many of her employees, the Queen of Mean also shows a softer side to Leona, one that I was not expecting to see in this film. Her love affair with her third husband Harry (Lloyd Bridges) is wonderfully told, and even heartbreaking. I’m not saying Leona deserves our sympathy but I do like how the filmmakers set out to make her a lot more complex than some gave her credit for. Pleshette was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe and if I didn’t already love her, I would have fallen in love with her. This is simply a knock out performance.
The other movie streaming on Netflix is called Double Standard and it’s based on the life of William Beer, who was a lawyer turned circuit court judge that lead a double life with two wives and a total of 12 children (10 in the movie) living not that far apart! The first wife had no idea the second wife existed, but the second wife was fine with his dual roles as husband and father. While not as good as The Queen of Mean, Robert Foxworth is fantastic in the role. He plays it very calm and collected, but just when you think he’s a total sociopath you see the wonderful relationship he carried with his disabled son from his first marriage. According to the movie, he maintained a close relationship with all of his kids after he was exposed (so to speak).
Double Standard is also of note because I love movies that feature cover versions of current popular songs. I spotted a faux I Want a New Drug and also a fake Karma Chameleon, among others. I don’t know why, but I kind of love these weird, somewhat soulless covers. Plus, the sounds tie in well to the Judge’s insensitive life choices. I’m reading too much into it, but there you go.
Both of these fine films are streaming on Netflix and well worth a look.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Original Air Date: January 8th, 1974
Patty Duke and Richard Crenna might be two of the most friendly faces on television. Many of us grew up watching Patty and who doesn’t like Richard Crenna? Seriously. The two were also an interesting duo on television, appearing in three projects together, one in the 70s (Nightmare), one in the 80s (the sitcom It Takes Two) and finally reuniting one more time in the 90s (another TV movie titled Race Against Time: The Search for Sarah). These two actors certainly shared chemistry and first showed it off in the underrated thriller Nightmare, which pits Crenna and Duke against a sniper!
Richard Crenna is the straight-laced Howard, a guy who takes everything a little too seriously. He lives in a comfortable apartment in chic Manhattan and and balances out his priggish nature by dating his kooky neighbor Jan (Duke) who is an actress and someone who takes the world far less seriously than Howard. On the evening of a small dinner party, Howard thinks he hears gunfire from a building across the way. He also sees a flashing light, allowing him to pinpoint the apartment. When he hears news that a sniper has killed two people in his neighborhood, he calls the police and is promptly visited by the no nonsense and utterly humorless Detective Rausch (Vic Morrow) who only takes Howard half-seriously. Undeterred by Rausch’s patronizing shove-off, Howard begins to conduct his own investigation. Unfortunately, as he’s peering through binoculars into the sniper’s apartment he is spied back through the crosshairs of the shooter’s rifle!
Many tele-films have riffed on Rear Window, including Someone’s Watching Me!, Through Naked Eyes and even a small screen remake of Rear Window, which starred Christopher Reeve. Honestly, the set-up definitely works on the small screen, as many TV movies played well with the claustrophobic setting. Director William Hale does tend to keep the setting confined and sparse, and the short 74-minute running span is somewhat brisk, and thankfully bereft of subplots. Things open up a bit at the end though with a pretty great chase through the streets of New York. There are marquees, lights and people and yet no one will help Howard.
Nightmare is never really pulse pounding, but it has quite a few tense moments. Once we see the killer has spotted Howard, the film concentrates on suspenseful set pieces as Howard and Jan attempt to find any kind of clue that will bust the killer, before he busts them! This film is a welcome and breezy tele-film that features both Henry Winkler and John Travolta in small (and uncredited!) roles.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Original Air Date: November 25th, 1975
Confession: I take my TV movies very seriously, sometimes too seriously. Many years ago I watched Danielle Steel’s Daddy, which featured Kate Mulgrew as Patrick Duffy’s ice princess wife. Her character is supposed to just abandon Duffy so the audience can see how he struggles to raise his family and find a new love, but Mulgrew really hit that one out of the park because from that moment on I hated her. I dislike her enough that I cheer whenever she is uncovered as the killer on Murder, She Wrote, because it only reassures the idea I have of her as a heartless bitch. Well, fast-forward to today and I have to say now I think I adore Kate Mulgrew. I know I’m certainly mad about Alien Lover and her performance in this offbeat film. So I guess I have to tear up my hater card and move on. Life is funny sometimes.
Mulgrew is Susan, a pretty but somewhat disturbed teenager who understandably went a little bonkers after her parent’s death. She’s just been released from the sanatorium and her Aunt Marian (Susan Brown) takes her in. However, it looks like Marian’s husband, Mike (Pernell Roberts) is less interested in his niece’s mental health and more concerned with her hefty inheritance. Their son Jude (Steven Earl Tanner) is a boy genius who has gained early entry into college. He’s coming home to greet Susan and he brings along his hottie roommate Richard (Harry Moses) who develops a crush on her. Jude has converted his attic into a makeshift lab where he works on all kinds of electronics. Susan uncovers Jude’s homemade TV and also finds a little man living inside of it. He's handsome, likes poetry and he tells Susan she is beautiful as he attempts to satiate her deep-seated loneliness, but everyone else outside of the television set thinks Susan is one tube short of full frequency.
Taking its cue from Twilight Zone, Alien Lover is pretty weird stuff. Most of the film follows Susan and her possible dissent into madness. The first half of the film proficiently casts suspicion on Susan’s potential lunacy, tossing the viewer’s sympathies back and forth. The second half makes it all even weirder, although we are pretty sure we know what’s going on. While the ending might not be a total surprise, those last few frames are a doozy! The small stage-like sets create a palpable sense of claustrophobia, as Susan's mind closes in on her, and the shot on video quality makes the whole event even more surreal, in that way only the 1970s could handle.
Alien Lover makes an interesting comment on the phenomenon of finding solace on the small screen. Susan has a hunky love interest, but she constantly turns to the man in the TV because he claims to understand the lack of wholeness within her. He recites poetry with her and plies her with compliments, creating the fantasy of the perfect man, while making himself seem unthreatening because the television screen holds him back from initiating physical contact. The natural awkwardness and fear of going into a first romantic relationship after the loss of a great love is captured rather nicely, while still delivering a sweet late night creepfest that can be enjoyed without all the critical theory!
The only other credit Mulgrew had when she did Alien Lover was as Mary Ryan, on Ryan’s Hope, a part she played for about 14 years! But probably the most interesting soap casting was that of Susan Brown and David Lewis, who would both become stars on General Hospital. I’ve said this before, but I think soap actors were such a good choice for the more surreal of television movies because they could manipulate melodrama into something tangible and interesting. Also, they could work on the shortest of time schedules, which only benefited the lower budgeted productions of late night TV. And again, as I’ve said before, I’m a pretty big Pernell Roberts fan, but his part here is only to serve as a voice against Susan. He’s given little depth, although he does make the selfish bad guy role into a truly unlikable character without a lot to work with.
ABC’s Wide World: Mystery is, well, a mystery to me. It featured many original films and some reused episodes of the classic British series Thriller and, for the most part, has lingered as a small historical footnote as far as documentation goes. Non-talk show late night programming had its heyday in the 70s and 80s during the reign of the made for television movie and both ABC and CBS tried their hand at this kind of line up. The CBS Late Movie featured the greatest programming title in the world, Crimetime after Primetime (oh, yeah) and they were both a sort of a hodgepodge of movies and reruns of popular shows. It was a great venue for the tele-film but most likely because it was littered with a lot of previously available material, it faded into obscurity. Since then, ABC Wide World: Mystery remains a distant boob tube memory of some fantastic films. Alien Lover is one of the more well known (and as far as I know, sought after) titles from this program.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Sometimes surfing the net brings great rewards. Well, it almost always does if you know how to search for the awesome. Case in point, I was looking for some info on William Link, who, along with his late partner Richard Levinson, created some of the finest television that ever aired. I was hoping to find a few tidbits on one of his movies and I discovered he now has his own website!
I think the word we would use here is overjoyed.
I'm not sure how new the site is, but I'm fairly positive that I didn't see it in 2010 when I was Link-googling-crazy after the release of his book The Columbo Collection. And what can I say, except it's about time that one of the greatest small screen filmmakers has an online place of his own. But that's not all folks, there is also a Facebook page dedicated to The Columbo Collection book (which is a wonderful read, by the way). Like this page and join the discussion.
Also, if you are as big of a Columbo fan as I am, you will probably want to check out The Ultimate Columbo Site, which is overflowing with tasty trivia!
And if you haven't had your fill of Mr. Link (like anyone could ever have enough of this awesome man), you can watch a short interview where he discusses Ellery Queen here.
Today is indeed a good day!
Monday, July 9, 2012
I have to give a big shout out to my friend Meep at Cinema Du Meep for letting me know that Killdozer is available on DVD through the Universal Vault Series! This is big news, my friends, because this weird little man vs. machine potboiler has developed quite the cult following over the years. Also, Killdozer, which originally aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on February 2nd, 1974 features an early performance by a young (and oh-so-handsome) Robert Urich. And who could forget the manly Clint Walker in a hardhat? Good times, people. Good times.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
This has been a hard week for retro TV fans. The loss of Andy Griffith has had an effect on different people for different reasons. Some think of Andy Taylor, while others wax poetic about Griffith's cantankerous Ben Matlock (or if you are me, you think about his awesome TV movies). My friend, Marcella Cara Lester who I will lovingly refer to as an uber-Griffith fan, and an especially devout devotee of Matlock had this to say about Griffith's passing:
The news of Andy Griffith's passing was devastating. Watching Matlock with my Mother, even during her 1-month bedridden post-surgery recovery, we would make sure alarms were set in time for the 8am re runs, and with coffee in hand we would sit down and get lost together in the magic. Growing up without knowing my grandfathers, it was very easy to fantasize that Andy Griffith was someone I could see in the capacity of a grandfather role with a mutual love we shared of education, gospel music, singing, acting, etc. Being able to meet Andy Griffith to share my story and thank him was an item on my bucket list I treasured for years. Sharing my story now will not remove the dream from a list of goals, however it does slightly appease the sadness of his passing in knowing that a love of an actor is a unifying factor in keeping a legacy spanned over six decades alive.
Well said, Marcella!
I'm not as well versed in Matlock-mania but I wanted to contribute and I found these ten fun factoids about the show:
Brandon Tartikoff, the then-head of NBC programming, liked Griffith’s performance as a lawyer in Fatal Vision so much he recommended that producer Fred Silverman build a show around the actor as a lawyer.
Ben Matlock was a southern gent with a Harvard education.
Matlock’s middle name is Layton.
The series was cancelled by NBC in 1992 and promptly picked up by ABC.
The episode The Hunting Party was shot in Griffith’s hometown, Manteo, NC. He asked some of his friends to be extras.
Jake and the Fatman was a spinoff of Matlock.
Don Knotts guest starred as Les ‘Ace’ Calhoun in 16 episodes of the series, including the two-parters The Ambassador, The Picture, and The Assassination.
Ben Matlock made his last appearance in 1997 on a two part episode of Diagnosis Murder from season 4 titled Murder Two. Diagnosis Murder was a CBS program, which means the Matlock character has appeared all three major networks, NBC, ABC and CBS.
George Peppard made his final TV appearance on Matlock in an episode titled The P.I., which was actually a hopeful pilot for a spin-off. Griffith only appeared briefly and the episode aired on March 3rd, 1994. Peppard died on May 8th, 1994 before any of the series could be filmed.
Griffith had this to say about playing Ben Matlock: “It’s a wonderfully conceived part. You are almost unlimited in what you can do in the part. The courtroom scenes are fun to do because they have a theatrical quality to them… This character can go more directions than any I’ve done before.”
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Some personalities are such a staple in your life that you take them for granted, knowing they are just a remote control click or DVD away from you. I felt that way about Andy Griffith who died today at the age of 86. He was there for me, day and night, all I had to do was turn on the TV and it seemed The Andy Griffith Show or Matlock was somewhere on the tube, filtering its way to my happiness. Andy will be remembered most for those series, and it’s that kind of programming that I miss in modern television. Laid back and light-hearted, his shows were simply great entertainment.
That was on his television series though. While I would argue that Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock are awesome in their own ways, it was his TV movies where he was nothing short of a badass. I tend to reflect on the actresses of the 70s who made television films that offered a departure from their nice girl personas, but I haven’t really given credit to the guys who used the TV movie format to flex some actor muscle.
Griffith did it with effen aplomb.
I know he really revealed his dark side to us quite early in A Face in the Crowd, but these little TVMs allowed him another arena to showcase his immense talent. He could be mean and nasty, or pathetic or he could infuse a little Mayberry charm into his roles. He was a chameleon in his films, and he never ever let me down. When I read he passed away today, my heart lurched into my throat and I flashed on those many hours of entertainment he’s given me. I wanted to reflect on his work in the 70s tele-film and the following is a selected list those films:
The Strangers in 7A (CBS, 11/14/1972): Griffith plays a down on his luck building super (married to the bitchy Ida Lupino!) who is unwillingly wrangled into helping thieves pull off a bank heist. It’s a little by the numbers, but it also features a couple of interesting set pieces, and of course some knock out performances, Griffith included. There is a bizarre and fascinating seduction scene featuring the schlumpy Griffith falling for a young woman’s false charms. This scene is so vibrantly 70s (immensely helped by Morton Steven’s excellent score), I remember it clearly, even though I haven’t seen the movie for at least 5 years.
Go Ask Alice (ABC, 1/24/1973): Based on the popular novel by Beatrice Sparks (written under the guise of a real teenager’s diary), Griffith shows up as the hip preacher looking to help Alice come out of her rabbit hole. Alice also features William Shatner, who would team up again with Griffith in Pray for the Wildcats, and despite the fact that LSD is not an addictive drug, the pill popping and frank sexuality sent this movie straight over to the cult classic section of our hearts. The Miami News’ one word summation of the film: Bold.
Pray for the Wildcats (ABC, 1/23,1974): A favorite. Click on the title for my review.
Savages (ABC, 9/11/1974): Griffith plays a tough as nails attorney on a desert trek who designs his own version of The Most Dangerous Game as he hunts down his guide (played by Sam Bottoms). The film was shot in the Mojave Desert and Griffith quipped during an on-location interview that “The heat’s bad enough, but eating lunch with the wind blowing sand in your teeth is something I can do without.” What resulted from those sun stroked days was a fantastic man-against-man thriller and Griffith put in a dark and terrifying performance as the bloodthirsty hunter.
Street Killing (ABC, 9/12/1976): Like Winter Kill, Killing was an attempt to get Griffith into another television series. He was cast against type as a the chief-prosecutor in the NYC District Attorney’s office. Judith Crist reviewed this rare pilot movie for TV Guide. She wrote, “Griffith seems as alien to it as scriptwriter Bill Driskell… Griffith, gangling and drawling is just plain dull.” Wow, Judith. Was Griffith ever dull? I think not. This movie also starred Bradford Dillman, Robert Loggia and Harry Guardino as the bad guys.
The Girl in the Empty Grave (NBC 9/20/1977): Also like Winter Kill, Girl was another pilot movie (and was also shot in the same location of Big Bear). Griffith plays Abel Marsh, the likable, whip smart sheriff who keeps his suspects' guard down with his affable manner. The mystery surrounds a young woman who returns to Marsh’s sleepy town. She is supposed to be dead, so the question remains, just who is in that grave? Thoroughly light and wonderfully entertaining fare with Griffith making a little bit of a return to Mayberry, if the town had more of an edge.
Salvage (ABC, 1/20/1974): Salvage was actually a pilot that led to a series for Andy, although it tends to be forgotten. This TVM featured Griffith as a millionaire who builds a rocket ship out of junk! And he’s able to get it to the moon where he and his cohorts salvage junk! He’s a 21st century Fred Sanford! While critics were a little slack-jawed and surprised it was made into a series, Griffith replied “What makes it work is what makes so many things not work: You have that freak thing, the magic combination of minds and attitudes and a lot of luck.”
While doing promotion for The Girl in the Empty Grave a reporter jokingly asked Griffith if was actually interested in doing another series, to which the southern charmer replied, “[A]ll actors, when they’re working real hard, don’t want to work. But when they’re not working, they want to work. We’all that way.” Of course, time would tell and Griffith would land another hugely successful series when he took the part of Matlock, and the show ran from 1986 – 1995. Ben Matlock was a quirky, crabby lawyer in a slightly crumpled gray suit and he wooed an audience interested in all-star mysteries along the lines of Murder, She Wrote and then Diagnosis Murder (i.e. me). Frankly, those shows were wonderful. It’s amazing how light-hearted shows about murder can be, but the friendly faces and magnificent performers kept us glued to our seats.
Griffith possessed a very specific charisma that was captivating even when he dove into the dark villainous roles. While television if often said to currently be in the midst of a golden age thanks to the new made for cable series boon, it would be a disservice to discount shows like Matlock, and especially The Andy Griffith Show, which made us all feel welcome into the small, quiet lives of Sheriff Andy Taylor and the folks of Mayberry. However, it’s most likely it’s his television movie work that will fall by the wayside, and that would truly be a shame because much of it is nothing short of splendid, just like the man himself.
Rest in Peace Andy, you are already missed.