Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Meeting Some Real Characters

Granted, I'm a little behind on my reading, since Scott Voisin's Character Kings: Hollywood's Familiar Faces Discuss the Art and Business of Acting (BearManor Media) came out a few years ago. But I enjoyed this opportunity to "meet," through full-length interviews, several actors whose work I've appreciated over the years.

I tend to prefer an earlier era of filmmaking, and perhaps different genres, but I certainly know the achievements of performers like Ronny Cox and Robert Forster, to name two. Voisin's familiarity with his interviewees' films allows him to ask meaningful questions. He elicits intriguing revelations that remind us how much goes on behind the scenes that affects the finished product we see. I was struck by the candor of Martin Kove, who said of one of his early roles, "I hate the movie like I hate bleeding," and surprised to hear Ronny Cox, whose work I've always respected, say, "I'm not really a well-trained actor."

Happily, there's a follow-up volume, Character Kings II, with another strong lineup of interviews. So many of the terrific character actors who enriched vintage Hollywood movies are no longer available to question, and in many cases their memories went largely unrecorded. I'm glad writers like Voisin are stepping up to capture the experiences of these gentlemen before the opportunity passes us by.

NOTE: I was furnished a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sing Out, Florence!

Finally got around to seeing Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, a few days ago. My interest in what Variety used to call "longhair" music is pretty limited. But there was something intriguing about this woman who made it all the way to Carnegie Hall as a singer, despite every indication of lacking the requisite talent.

The part of me that relates things to classic comedy couldn't help envisioning what Carol Burnett in her prime could have made of this as a skit. Watching the film, I was picturing Harvey Korman in the Hugh Grant role, with Tim Conway taking Simon Helberg's place as the hapless accompanist.

But even if Florence Foster Jenkins was, as one memorable character declared in the film, "the worst (expletive) singer I ever heard," the filmmakers, with Streep's considerable assistance, find something touchingly human in her story. Many of us, in our younger years, had big dreams, whether they involved a concert hall or some completely different arena. When we reach middle age, or beyond, what will we do if they haven't quite come true? Do we adjust our expectations? Resign ourselves to disappointment? Or do we do as this woman seemingly did, and forge ahead undaunted? As she purportedly said, "They may say I can't sing, but they can't say I didn't sing!"

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: The Daniels Playbill

Closing in on his 90th birthday, actor William Daniels looks back on a long and varied career in There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, and Many Others (Potomac Books). As the book's subtitle acknowledges, many readers will know him best for his work on popular television shows such as St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World. But as he reveals here, there was much more to his life and career.

I was somewhat familiar with his Broadway career as an adult, including his starring role in 1776. But I didn't know about his start as a child actor, playing one of the Day kids in Life with Father, or about his role in his family's dancing act. Though he nicely satisfies the curiosity of readers who want to know about Dr. Craig and Mr. Feeny, some of this book's best anecdotes relate to other aspects of his career. He reminisces about a film actress of the 1940s who went totally blank during a live television performance, leaving him as her co-star holding the bag. His stories of working with the legendary Jerome Robbins are also noteworthy.

On TV, at least, Daniels often played characters who weren't immediately forthcoming, or likable. In these pages, he gives us an idea how much that persona reflects the real William Daniels, and it's intriguing. He also writes with great love about his wife of more than 65 years, actress Bonnie Bartlett. The result is a book well worth the time of readers interested in 20th century theater, film, and television.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Eerie Miss Eaton

Marjorie Eaton (1901-1986), born February 5, made a strong and last impression on me some years ago, playing character roles in two rather schlocky horror movies. In The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), she was the heroine's aunt, living on a spooky estate populated by the undead creatures of the title. In Monstrosity (1963), which often played TV back then as The Atomic Brain, she played a cruel, sickly old woman using her wealth to have her mind implanted in a fresh, nubile body.

Her deep voice and stern face made Miss Eaton's characters ominous and foreboding, even in a movie as irresistibly silly as the latter. Somehow I like to imagine that, off-camera, she was a hip, fun-loving lady with a rollicking sense of humor.

I hope she was.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Remembering Barbara

It's been a tough week for classic TV and movie fans, with the losses of beloved performers Mary Tyler Moore, Mike Connors, and now Barbara Hale, who passed away at the age of 94.

Barbara's iconic role as the loyal, smart, and beautiful secretary Della Street on CBS' Perry Mason (1957-66) sometimes threatened to overshadow her many other career accomplishments. Before that show came along, she graced the casts of some top-notch films, including The Window (1949) and A Lion Is In The Streets (1953). But if Della proved to be her chief claim to fame, she apparently didn't mind. She enjoyed a warm friendship with series star Raymond Burr, and successfully juggled a career with a rich and satisfying personal life as wife and mother.

Rest in peace, Miss Hale, and congratulations on a life well-lived.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Working Woman

Happy birthday (in memoriam) to gorgeously talented Ann Sothern (1909-2001), one of the Women Who Made Television Funny commemorated in my first book. Was there much of anything she couldn't do? An actress equally at home in comedy or drama, as well as a fine singer, she had a long and varied career that encompassed film, radio, television, and the stage. Off-camera, she was an astute businesswoman who knew how to get things done, and was often the driving force behind her professional success.

By nature, she confessed in a late 1950s interview, she was "the laziest gal in town." But somehow work always called, and Ann Sothern always responded. Aren't we glad she did?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Reader Alert!

It's that time again. My publisher, McFarland, has released its semi-annual catalog of new titles. And while you won't find my name in it, there are plenty of intriguing-sounding books on performing arts and other topics. Here's the one I may be most anxious to read:

On the other hand, Richard Irvin's Film Stars' Television Projects sounds interesting, too. And then there's...

Oh, go ahead. Have fun doing your own shopping. Go here to browse the full catalog.