Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"And Agnes Moorehead as ... Marilly?"

Earlier this week, I was excited to see Axel Nissen's new book Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television under the Christmas tree. (Granted, I'd dropped a few hints!) Nissen's earlier book The Films of Agnes Moorehead gave us a thorough and knowlegeable overview of the actress' motion picture career. This new volume complements that work by focusing on an area Hollywood biographers often fail to adequately cover -- performances in media other than film.

Although Miss Moorehead's greatest claim to fame with modern viewers is still the role of Endora on Bewitched, Nissen wisely resists the temptation to let that classic characterization overwhelm the rest of his book. Instead, he covers Bewitched (making some interesting and insightful observations) alongside some two dozen other performances by this always-intriguing and versatile actress. I especially appreciated his chapter devoted to Mayor of the Town, a long-running radio series of the 1940s in which Moorehead played the opinionated housekeeper of Lionel Barrymore's lead character. While some of the TV roles he covers here are the expected ones -- a beleagured woman valiantly battling "aliens" on The Twilight Zone, as well as her Emmy-winning turn on The Wild, Wild West -- other chapters shine light on performances you probably haven't seen, ranging from The Revlon Mirror Theater (her television debut) to her "deliciously camp" turn as leader of a band of pirates on Adventures in Paradise. 

Given the ephemeral nature of actors' work in media like the stage and radio, some of Agnes Moorehead's creative output is no longer available for us to experience first-hand. But Nissen's enjoyable and valuable book is, as the saying goes, the next best thing to being there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"A Terrific Writer"

I'm honored that Classic Images and reviewer Laura Wagner have named my book on Martha Raye to their "Best Books of the Year" list. Congratulations to the other authors with whom I share this accolade -- Candace Hilligoss, Michael Gregg Michaud, Scott O'Brien, and Tom Weaver. My friend Derek Sculthorpe also received some much-deserved praise for his excellent book on Brian Donlevy.

Here's hoping for more good reading in 2018!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A December Deal

There's still time to take advantage of my publisher's terrific Holiday Sale. Buy two or more books, use the coupon code HOLIDAY17, and get 30% off your order. You can browse the entire catalog here.

I'll even understand if you buy a book by one of my fellow McFarland authors instead of mine. I think...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Paging Mr. Picerni

Born 95 years ago today, actor Paul Picerni (1922-2011) was one of those journeyman actors who was always working. He needed to -- he and wife Marie had eight kids.

Probably best-known for playing Agent Lee Hobson on The Untouchables, Picerni could be found all over the place -- in movies (House of Wax, Marjorie Morningstar), daytime soaps (The Young Marrieds), and practically every prime time series you could name. When I was researching my book on Gale Storm, darned if he didn't turn up on both of her hit sitcoms of the 1950s.

I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Picerni, but I feel that I got to know him through his interviews with author Tom Weaver. His startling stories about making House of Wax are captured in I Was a Monster Movie Maker, and he reminisces about his Western films in Wild Wild Westerners. He also collaborated with Weaver on a career memoir, Steps to Stardom, which I haven't yet read. I think I'll remedy that oversight.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ackerman Anniversary

Ever noticed how many fondly remembered 60s sitcoms sport the credit line, "Executive Producer, Harry Ackerman"? Born 105 years ago, Mr. Ackerman's successful career hit its peak when he served as Vice-President of Production for Screen Gems, the TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. During that fertile period, Screen Gems boasted a multitude of hit shows, including Bewitched, Hazel, The Flying Nun, and Bachelor Father. 

Not every Ackerman show rang the ratings bell -- in Lost Laughs of 50s and 60s Television, I covered two that never saw a second season -- Grindl, starring Imogene Coca, and the romantic comedy Love on a Rooftop. But, overall, his batting average was one most other producers would envy. Off-screen, he raised a family during his long marriage to actress Elinor Donahue.

Though he passed away in 1991, Mr. Ackerman left behind an impressive body of work that pays tribute to his taste, intellect, creativity, and tenacity. And whenever you find yourself reading this, you can be pretty sure that, somewhere in the world, a Harry Ackerman show is making someone laugh.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Music to Remember ... and Remember ...

You know how it is when you get a piece of music stuck in your head? For more than a week now, the seemingly unlikely object of my brain's affection has been the theme from the 1970s sitcom The Tony Randall Show, as composed and conducted by Patrick Williams.

Even TV buffs may not remember much about this relatively short-lived series from the prolific folks at MTM. But something about Williams' lovely, graceful music seems to have taken up short-term residence in my mind. If you don't mind risking the same, have a listen in this YouTube clip.

As I learned from a little quick-and-dirty Googling, Dr. Williams (the possessor of at least two honorary doctorates) has racked up multiple Emmy and Grammy awards in a career spanning several decades. His multitudinous accomplishments are fully documented at his official website. That made me feel a little better about my predicament. Turns out my brain has better taste in music than I gave it credit for.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Hi, Gale!

I'm delighted to unveil the beautiful cover art for my seventh book, Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record, due out in early 2018. It's already available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble, and should be up on other sites shortly.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing Gale's story.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: Ludden's Life

As I mentioned awhile back, I greatly enjoyed Adam Nedeff's well-done biography of Match Game star Gene Rayburn. So I'm delighted that the author has now given another top MC his turn in the spotlight with It's More Than 'Password'! The Life (and Wife) of Allen Ludden (BearManor Media).

I was interested to learn from Nedeff's thoroughly researched account that Ludden, who hosted multiple versions of Password over a twenty-year period, didn't necessarily intend to have a career as an on-camera performer. He embraced the opportunity in part to manage the substantial medical bills of his first wife Margaret, who died of cancer at a young age. His second wife, as most readers will already know, was Betty White. Since she also became a fixture on TV game shows, it's fitting that the author gives her quite a bit of space here as well. Nedeff's account of widower Ludden's successful campaign to win White's hand is interesting, and offers details beyond what she recorded in her own books.

Nedeff's book is an absorbing account of Ludden's life and career that also serves as a history of one of TV's smartest and most enduring game shows.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Price Break

Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown is now available at a new, lower price of $29.95. But you still get all the stories, all the films, all the photos ... all the husbands!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Farewell, Anne

RIP to the beautifully talented Anne Jeffreys, who passed away yesterday at the age of 94. In the 1970s, she became one of my first TV crushes when I discovered reruns of her 1950s sitcom Topper. Some three decades later, it was my pleasure to devote a chapter to her life and career in The Women Who Made Television Funny.

She lived a long and rich life, but I am still saddened by her passing.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mason at 60

"The Case of the Restless Redhead" introduced TV viewers to Perry Mason in 1957. Pictured (l.-r.) are Barbara Hale (Della), Raymond Burr (Perry), and Whitney Blake as his redheaded client.
Perry Mason, the classic TV courtroom drama, is looking awfully good at the age of sixty. Although readers had been thrilling to the escapades of Erle Stanley Gardner's fictional lawyer for more than 20 years, it was on September 21, 1957 that the weekly series made its bow. For the next nine years, Perry Mason would be a staple of CBS' prime time schedule, and star Raymond Burr -- previously better known for his movie bad guys -- became most fans' definitive portrayer of the lawyer-hero. Burr even reprised the role for a series of popular made-for-TV movies (starting with 1985's Perry Mason Returns), and the release of the complete series on DVD makes it possible for fans old and new to continue savoring the show's intricate plots and fine performances.

Many happy returns, Mr. Mason and company!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Book Review: Going to the Castle

I wish I'd had the idea to write a book-length study of the 56 films directed by William Castle (1914-1977). But it's probably just as well that I didn't. I doubt I could done it as well as author Joe Jordan does in Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle (BearManor Media).

While many, if not most, of Castle's admirers know him for his horror films of the 50s and 60s (House on Haunted Hill, Strait-Jacket, Homicidal), he first took the director's reins at Columbia Pictures in 1943, when he directed Chester Morris as Boston Blackie in the series programmer The Chance of a Lifetime. For me, one of this book's strengths is the author's decision to look at all of the films Castle directed, rather than just the ones movie fans know best. This approach lends depth and context that pay off when it's time to analyze the canonical horror films.

Jordan's reading of the films are intelligent and informed without being pedantic, pointing out themes and recurrent motifs without drowning in minutiea. I also appreciated his interviews with Castle players like Pat Cardi (Let's Kill Uncle) and Joyce Meadows (I Saw What You Did). This is a fine contribution to film scholarship.

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

A "Very Special" Issue

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit how much I used to look forward to TV Guide's Fall Preview Issue back in the 70s. Long before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web, back when there were three major channels in most cities, this was big stuff. Page after page of details, with full-color photos, of all the new shows waiting to be sampled. A big grid showing the entire prime-time schedule.

For many of us old-timers, TV Guide died the day it gave up the interior pages of local program listings, and converted from digest size into a glossy, slender magazine that looked like a hundred others. I don't buy it anymore. But I still remember a time when one of the highlights of Labor Day Weekend was getting this once-a-year issue into my hot little hands.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Let's Drink to Hal's Birthday!

Born on this date 101 years ago, talented character actor Hal Smith (1916-1994) is probably best-known for his recurring role as the perpetually tipsy Otis Campbell on The Andy Griffith Show. But he won one of his first career breaks when he was cast as next-door neighbor Charlie Henderson* on I Married Joan. Less frequently seen than his wife Mabel (played by Geraldine Carr), he nonetheless turned up in some of the series' best episodes, including "Changing Houses" and "Mabel's Dress" ("You know your orange cake is dynamite!")

For more about I Married Joan, one of the funniest sitcoms of the 1950s, go here.

*Or Charlie Harrison. The writers couldn't seem to make up their minds.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Rose Marie's Turn

Wishing a very happy 94th birthday today to multi-talented Rose Marie, who's been entertaining us since she first stepped on stage as a toddler.

Did you know that there's a new feature-length documentary chronicling her life and work? Go here to read all about it, and find out how you can see it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Grumpy Old Guy at the Movies

Last night I tried for the first time in a couple of months or more to watch a contemporary movie. I made it about halfway through.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the grouchy gripes I noted before throwing in the towel:

1. The movie was over two hours long, and needlessly so. It wasn't that complicated a story! Was it Harry Cohn who said, "When my ass gets tired, the picture's too long!"?

2. The "naturalistic" acting was so "natural" that I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what one mushmouth was saying.

3. Yes, I realize people have medical procedures done that involve intense pain. Doesn't mean I want to see two of them in 45 minutes, acted out in excruciating detail. Call me squeamish.

4. Put the damn credits at the beginning. I want to know who's in the movie, and who directed it. And speaking of credits, five production companies (each with its own logo, of course) to make one modestly budgeted film? Really?

If this is modern moviemaking at its finest, I'll take the 1940s any day.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Five From the Archive

So, Warner Archive was having this sale a couple of weeks ago, and almost as if by magic, five new (old) DVDs showed up in my mailbox.

Above are the two films I've watched thus far -- the mystery thriller Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), and the comedy-drama Tish (1942). They don't have a great deal in common except I'd wanted to see both for some time now -- and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Interestingly, neither won universally effusive reviews, either upon their first release, or with latter-day classic movie fans. But they suited me fine.

Hey, Warners, how about another sale?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Catalog Capers

It's here! The McFarland Fall catalog of new releases -- or, as we call it in my household, "David's Christmas Shopping List." Naturally, the Performing Arts section is my top destination, and this time around there are books I can't wait to read on page 17 ... and page 20 ... not to mention page 21 ...

You get the idea. Jump here to start browsing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: Second Generation Sterling

If you're looking for a light, fun summer read, this isn't it.

Tisha Sterling, daughter of actors Ann Sothern and Robert Sterling, started life with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Growing up a beautiful young woman in the 1960s, she had a promising career as an actress. Her memoir, Why I Failed Charm School: My Mother, Actress Ann Sothern, and Our Lives Together (Bookstand Publishing), tells a troubling story of a life that proved anything but carefree and joyful.

The picture Tisha paints of her mother is not particularly flattering. But neither does it seem vindictive. Tisha writes, "Mother always seemed deeply perplexed that I was not a carbon copy of her, and [wondered] why I wasn't living up to her expectations." Indeed, both women come across as real, flawed human beings. By her daughter's account, Miss Sothern had an eating disorder that she was unable to curb, as well as an unwillingness to live within her means as she aged. For her part, Tisha, something of a Sixties wild child, had addiction issues that, as she acknowledges, strained the patience and understanding of those who loved her. Of the well-known people of whom Miss Sterling writes, it's probably her stepmother Anne Jeffreys who comes off best, though her part in the story is minor. It's certainly not Tisha's dad, Sterling, who is depicted as largely distant and uncommunicative. All in all, readers who have found themselves caught on either side of a parent-child contretemps may find this more interesting than those who want to know about Tisha's career, or those of her famous parents, about which relatively little is said.

Sterling's book would have benefited from tighter editing; her style is a bit rough in places. But the story itself, like the author's candor, is compelling. It's one that she has earned her right to tell.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gale Comes Closer

I'm coming into the home stretch on my Gale Storm book, which should be out early next year. (Incidentally, that's only a working title for the book, and is likely to change).

Right now, it's proofreading, proofreading, and more proofreading, as you can see from the supply of red pens I've laid in. Hope four will be enough!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Miss Davis' Birthday

The one and only Joan Davis was born 105 years ago today. In her short life (she was only in her late forties at the time of her death in 1961), she produced a substantial body of work as a comedienne. She was successful in multiple media -- movies, radio, and television.

It was a labor of love to research Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy, published in 2014. I was pleased to be able to build on what was already known about her life and career, putting into print new information about her birthdate and family background, as well as the most detailed logs ever compiled of her radio and TV comedy shows.

If you don't already know her work, take a look. She's worth your attention.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Happily Backward

It may be a sign of the times that, lately, I've been immersing myself in the 1940s and 1950s. I've long been a fan of singers from that era -- Doris Day, Peggy Lee -- but nowadays I find myself choosing to watch 1940s movies, read 1940s books, and otherwise transport myself to the mid-20th century.

As a rule, I'm not inclined to sigh nostalgically over a bygone era -- especially one that I didn't personally experience. If these forays into vintage pop culture are soothing in many ways, they can certainly be disturbing in others. I recently read a vintage mystery (fresh off the 25-cent rack at my local used bookstore) that was well-written and, for the most part, enjoyable. But the author's casual racism pervaded the story. Even allowing for the way social attitudes change over time, I found it distasteful enough to conclude that, in some cases, the past may be better left in the past.

But research for my two most recent book projects has led me to find real enjoyment in some of the most unassuming, escapist B movies. There's something to be said for films in which the world is put right in 70 minutes or less, thanks to the best efforts of good people. I'll just leave it at that.

Friday, June 16, 2017

That's My Little Margie!

Sixty-five years ago tonight, Americans had their first look at a television comedy series called My Little Margie. Airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. (EST), it was the summer replacement for TV's Number One show, I Love Lucy.

TV critics were not impressed, and predicted a hasty -- and well-deserved -- demise. But as one observer later said, "Nobody liked it but the people." The show caught on immediately, making leading lady Gale Storm a full-fledged television star. The series lasted four seasons, and played in reruns for decades afterwards.

Be on the lookout next spring for my book on the life and career of Gale Storm.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Curti on Freda

Congratulations to my friend and colleague Roberto Curti on the publication of his newest book, Riccardo Freda: The Life and Films of a Born Filmmaker (McFarland). His knowledge of and appreciation for the Italian motion picture industry would be difficult to match. I had the privilege of giving him a small assist in preparing this book, for which he kindly acknowledged me in print. It was my pleasure to do so.

Roberto is that rare author who does excellent work while being prolific enough to make me feel like a real slacker. He also imparts a tremendous amount of valuable information and commentary without sacrificing readability. 

I'm eager to see what he produces next.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

An Encouraging Word

After a long week of researching and writing  (I'm actually working on two books simultaneously), this was a sight for weary eyes. Thank you, Classic Images and Laura Wagner! My fellow McFarland author Derek Sculthorpe, whose books I've spotlighted in reviews on this blog, gets a well-deserved shout-out in the same column.

Keep this sort of thing up, and I just might write more books!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Memorable Miss Lee

"It's a Good Day" to remember one of my favorite singers, Miss Peggy Lee, born on this date in 1920.

Peggy Lee was both popular with listeners, and respected by critics, winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Among the peers who admired her work were Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra, who said, “Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm.”

Her career lasted from her early days with the Benny Goodman orchestra in the 1940s through the 1990s, when she sometimes performed from a wheelchair — and still charmed audiences. In her later years, she successfully sued Disney for her share of the profits from the video releases of Lady and the Tramp, the hit 1955 animated film for which she contributed not only her vocal but her songwriting skills. (Remember “The Siamese Cat Song”?) She passed away in 2002.

I listen to her almost every day.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mr. Burr's Birthday

One of television's finest actors, Raymond Burr, was born 100 years ago today. Although he'd enjoyed a successful film career in the 1940s and early 1950s, he reached his pinnacle of fame during his nine-year run as Erle Stanley Gardner's lawyer hero Perry Mason in the popular CBS series (1957-66). No one-hit wonder, he came back in 1967 to star in NBC's Ironside, which kept him busy for another eight years. Until shortly before his death in 1993, Burr continued to reprise his most famous character in highly rated TV-movies, the proceeds from which often went to fund one of his many charitable interests.

Burr deserved a better biography than the one he got in 2008, whose author wasted quite a bit of space and energy making disparaging remarks about the actor's weight, and treating his sexual orientation with minimal respect. But Burr still has plenty of fans who respect both the man and his work. Which is as it should be.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Miss Crawford"s Legacy

Joan Crawford, the epitome of a movie star, died 40 years ago today. Though interest in her life and career has remained steady over the years, there's been a heightened awareness this spring, thanks to the television miniseries Feud. Her two memoirs are back in print, and a younger generation is becoming aware of her.

I'm all for that. I just hope those lured in by the gossipy fun of the TV show go past that to discover the fine body of work she left behind, and appreciate the achievements of a woman from a disadvantaged background who reached the top not only through talent and opportunity, but through sheer force of will.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Three Times a Star

This trade-paper ad gives us a good sense just how important Gale Storm was to the success of Monogram Pictures in the mid-1940s. There were supposedly "eight good reasons" why the Poverty Row studio expected to reap healthy profits in 1945; Gale starred in three of them.

That year in particular demonstrated what a versatile player Gale had become after only five years as a professional actress. In short order, she would be presented to moviegoers as the star of three markedly different films -- a drama (They Shall Have Faith, ultimately released as Forever Yours), a Gay 90s musical revue (Sunbonnet Sue), and a fast-paced contemporary comedy (G.I. Honeymoon).

My favorite of the three is Honeymoon, a clear precursor to the kind of comedy she would do as TV's My Little Margie. But they're all well worth a look, and deserve to be better-known than they are today. Let's change that.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review: Produced by Pivar

Some of the most devoted classic movie lovers never get much past the biggest names and the best-known films -- the Hitchcocks, the Gone with the Winds, the Cary Grants. This book is not for them. Stop Yellin': Ben Pivar and the Horror, Mystery and Action - Adventure Films of His Universal B-Unit, by Thomas Reeder (BearManor Media), devotes its 500+ pages to movies like House of Horrors, Escape from Hong Kong, and Eyes of the Underworld -- movies made purely to entertain viewers for an hour or so, and generally completed on a tight budget and a brief shooting schedule. Because my appreciation for B movies has grown in recent years, I found it fascinating.

The author's research was extensive, and he had the active cooperation of Pivar's children in telling the story. The illustrations, including some one-of-a-kind family photos, are plentiful and eye-catching. Reeder strikes a healthy balance in outlining his subject's career, and evaluating his films. He doesn't make inflated claims for Pivar's output, nor does he disparage it unduly. When directors, actors, or technicians do unusually good work under trying circumstances, Reeder says so; he's equally honest (without being insulting) when the rear projection screen, or the spliced-in stock footage, is a bit too obvious. Fans of the 1940s Universal Inner Sanctum, Mummy, and Creeper movies will definitely want to get this, as they are covered in great detail.

This is a worthy addition to movie history, covering an area too often ignored.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Miss Donahue at 80

Here's wishing a very happy 80th birthday to actress Elinor Donahue, born April 19, 1937. Whether you know her as Betty 'Princess' Anderson on Father Knows Best, Ellie Walker on The Andy Griffith Show, or any of her other hundreds of TV and film credits, there's no question she's built a successful and enduring career.

If you're a fan of her work, check out her memoir/cookbook In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. Recipes aside, it offers some charming and funny recollections of her many roles and co-stars, as well as a look at her life with longtime husband Harry Ackerman, the veteran TV producer and executive. There's a lengthy, meaty interview with her in Eddie Lucas' Close-Ups: Conversations with Our TV Favorites.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Too Shocking for TV (1954 TV, That Is)!

The cover line caught my attention. "TABOO! What You Can't See on TV." No, the answer wasn't Liberace, whose smiling face occupied the cover of TV Guide's February 26, 1954 issue. Considering that Lucy Ricardo couldn't say she was pregnant on I Love Lucy a year or so earlier, obviously there were plenty of things you couldn't say or do on the airwaves at the time. But I was curious to see what else was on the list.

As TV Guide reported, NBC's Continuity Acceptance Department was responsible for vetoing anything dicey before it aired on that network. This included not only current programs, but also old movies making their broadcast debut. Here, as quoted in the article, is a summary of one month's transgressions:

"There were numerous deletions in comedy films of men losing their pants and such items as dogs spitting, a fat woman doing a shake dance, kids sticking their tongues out at each other incessantly, an animated tuba spitting, a cruel portraiture of an Old Ladies Home and the inmates of an insane asylum, some scantily clad harem girls..." Among the dialogue deemed unacceptable was, "Who in the flaming hell do you think you are?"

Well, there you have it. Check out today's TV, and see how much the world has changed in 63 years. Whether for better or for worse may be in the eyes of the beholder.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

April Storm

Born 95 years ago today, Josephine Owaissa Cottle, better-known to fans as Gale Storm, parlayed her considerable talent and charm, along with a lucky break on a radio talent contest, into a career as an actress and singer that lasted nearly 50 years.

For more than a year, I've been working on a book about Gale's life and career, which will be published by McFarland and Company in early 2018. Along the way, I've had the opportunity to interview colleagues and family members who contributed greatly to my understanding of a woman who captivated movie and TV audiences. I look forward to sharing the results with readers.

Although Gale passed away in 2009, I hope the book may encourage readers to seek out her performances, and enjoy what they see as much as I have.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Good Day

Wishing a very happy 95th birthday to multi-talented Doris Day, born April 3, 1922. I'm a great admirer of her work as a singer and actress, but I also appreciate her lifelong interest in animal welfare. Rock on, Doris!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Nixon's Life to Live

I'm glad Agnes Nixon, who died last September at the age of 93, wrote her memoirs. She's an important figure in television history, and it's good to have her memories recorded in her own voice. I just wish I could have found the book more satisfying.

What I found most bothersome was the way this book skims the surface, studiously avoiding controversy and unpleasantness. Ms. Nixon once again relates proudly how One Life to Live, in 1968, did what was a groundbreaking story for its day: the tale of Carla Benari, a light-skinned African-American woman trying to find her way in a bigoted society. Ms. Nixon recalls the difficulty she and her colleagues had in casting the role, and the excitement she felt when they found Ellen Holly, who played Carla so beautifully. Included in the book's photo section is a picture of Tony-winning actress Lillian Hayman, who appeared as Carla's mother, Sadie.

What's missing is any acknowledgment of the poor treatment Ms. Holly says she received from producers at One Life, the low pay she received compared to her Caucasian colleagues, and the nasty way she and Ms. Hayman were fired when bigwigs decided the actresses, and their characters, were no longer useful. Whether all of Ms. Holly's allegations, which she made in her own memoirs and in Jeff Giles' excellent oral history of One Life, are true is open to speculation. But I was disappointed, as a reader, that Ms. Nixon utterly ignores the controversy, of which she was certainly aware. In fact, One Life receives little attention here, compared to All My Children, and Ms. Nixon's third ABC serial, the less-successful Loving, is absent altogether.

I also hoped to learn more about the somewhat enigmatic Irna Phillips, often called "Queen of the Soaps," who largely invented the genre, and was Ms. Nixon's mentor. Others have depicted her as a complex, demanding woman, without probing much beneath the surface, and I wanted to hear from someone who knew her perhaps as well as anyone did. Ms. Nixon's brief discussion of Phillips is disappointingly bland and superficial.

Ms. Nixon was elderly and apparently in shaky health when she completed this book, and that may explain some of its shortcomings (including some odd factual errors about her own shows and characters). Still, she does offer an interesting account of her personal life, and the ways in which her father and others were reflected in her TV characters. It's just a pity that, for once, the story stops before she's finished telling it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The 95-Year-Old Man

Here's wishing a very happy 95th birthday to the comedic genius Carl Reiner, born March 20, 1922. He can take great pride in creating and producing The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom classic that is still fresh and funny more than 50 years after its debut. What a legacy -- and he's not through yet!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Lightner on Lightner

I'm always predisposed to like a show business biography covering someone who hasn't already been the subject of a dozen books. On that score alone, Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies (University Press of Mississippi) starts with an advantage. In fact, author David L. Lightner, a history professor, says that one of the book's goals is to alleviate the "public amnesia" that has left Lightner, a popular star of stage and screen in her day, largely forgotten today.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lightner was a musical comedy star at Warner Brothers, often cast as a fun-loving golddigger. But her film success was short-lived. As the grim realities of the Great Depression (not to mention the Motion Picture Production Code) set in, Lightner's best opportunities began to slip away. She was soon demoted to supporting roles, usually as the heroine's best friend, and by 1934 she threw in the towel altogether, saying she "never gave a hang for fame" anyway.

Lightner (the author) does a fine job of bringing out his subject's personality, as well as the life she lived before, during, and after her film career. Her relationship with film director Roy Del Ruth (with whom she had a son) is covered in detail. This book is well worth a look for film buffs.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Your Sister Did WHAT?

That look you reserve for your sister-in-law. The one played by Joan Crawford. The one who's coming to live with you. The one who was just released from a mental institution after twenty years. For committing axe murders...

Happy birthday, Rochelle Hudson! Born March 6, 1916, she became a movie ingenue in the 1930s, named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931. Some thirty years later, having paused along the way to play Natalie Wood's mother in Rebel Without a Cause, she made the acquaintance of flamboyant director William Castle. He gave her two of her last movie roles, in his shockers Strait-Jacket (pictured above) and The Night Walker. Miss Hudson died in 1972.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Gale Alert

Yesterday I signed a contract with McFarland & Co. to publish my seventh book, which covers the life and career of actress/singer Gale Storm. I've been working hard on this book for nearly a year, and have uncovered some intriguing new information, both professional and personal, that I'm eager to share with her many admirers.

Look for a Gale headed your way in early 2018!

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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Celia Rubenstein Loved All Mankind..."

Happy birthday (in memoriam) to the great character actress Amzie Strickland (1919-2006), who appeared in practically every classic show you could shake a stick at. Even when she didn't have a recurring character to play, most shows liked her work enough to call her back multiple times.

Here's one of my favorite Strickland moments, from The Golden Girls, playing an unexpected mourner at the funeral of a woman no one liked.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Life of Brian

Author Derek Sculthorpe, who last year gave us a fine book about Van Heflin, makes it two-for-two with Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy (McFarland). It's a thoroughly readable and comprehensive look at the life and career of an oft-underappreciated actor who lent his name and talent to some genuine Hollywood classics (Destry Rides Again, The Great McGinty, Kiss of Death) in the course of a long and productive career.

Sculthorpe's book is subtitled "A Bio-Filmography," which aptly describes the author's skillful melding of the personal and the professional in one compact volume. As a writer, Sculthorpe has the gift of brevity -- he gives the reader a strong sense of who Donlevy was, and what was distinctive about his performances, without wasting words, repeating himself, or gushing. We get a thoughtful look at the women Donlevy married, including one who wanted to give him a makeover, and one who made him an ideal companion in his later years. Attention is also paid to the star's beginnings on Broadway, as well as his collaboration with the great Preston Sturges. Arresting film stills grace the text throughout.

Sculthorpe has quickly established himself as a compelling new voice in the world of film studies. I, for one, hope he has many more books in him.

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