This has been an awful year for character actors. Since February, we’ve lost George Kennedy, Doris Roberts, William Schallert, Ann Morgan Guilbert, David Huddleston, Jack Riley, and now, Marvin Kaplan. And that’s just a partial list!!
It’s no secret that I love the character actors and actresses that have filled the big and small screens over the last 100 years. Amazingly, I now know a number of them well enough to call or e-mail them. I consider that a great privilege and while I don’t like to make generalizations, I’m very comfortable in saying that nearly every single character actor/actress I have ever met, spoken to, or interviewed has been an incredibly kind and accommodating individual. There is a certain humility built in to the people who are supporting players. On the surface, it seems like a natural trait since their names are not what’s going to sell a producer of a financial backer on a project. That said, we’ve all met a multitude of people throughout our lives who like to exaggerate their own importance. In Hollywood, it’s easy to get a swelled head over the most minor turns at celebrity and yet these actors/actresses do not. My guess would be that the professionalism and humility of these great performers is often what keeps them in front of the cameras for years on end.
I first interviewed Sal Viscuso (SOAP, M*A*S*H, Barney Miller) years ago for an article I was writing and as we were discussing various roles and actors, we came to a certain actor who had enjoyed some substantial popularity over the years and I said, “I never warmed to him. I just always got the feelings that behind the scenes he was probably a jerk.” Sal chuckled and said, “You’ve got good instincts.” He went on to explain that even the greatest actors can’t help but have some of their own personality seep into whatever role they’re playing. That would explain why, as I wrote of Jack Riley earlier this week, even though he played a rather miserable character in Elliot Carlin, you couldn’t help but love the guy. There must have been something in Elliot Carlin that signaled Jack Riley’s humanity to the audience. The same can be said for Marvin Kaplan.
Kaplan often played the nebbish, a mild-mannered little guy who couldn’t get out of his own way and yet, he always made you smile and laugh with him as opposed to laughing at him. He exuded a certain warmth that made you just want to hug the guy! And then there was the voice, oh what a voice! It’s not surprising I should have a soft spot for Marvin Kaplan since one of my earliest cartoon favorites was the series Top Cat. Marvin Kaplan provided the voice of Choo Choo for the Hanna-Barbera classic and he, and that entire cast, are indelibly etched into my mental scrapbook of fond childhood memories.
Kaplan’s longest running role was probably as Henry in the TV show Alice (1978-1985). He was also a regular on a TV show called Meet Millie, (1952-1955), but it was such an early show that few people, including this writer, have ever heard of it. Length of time notwithstanding, I think the role, or just the scene, for which Marvin Kaplan will always be remembered comes from the 1963 film classic, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Marvin and his partner Arnold Stang are the proprietors of a service station out in the middle of the California desert. It’s a clean, friendly little place until one day Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters come into their life and turn their dreams, and their station, upside down. If you are familiar with the movie you’re probably smiling or laughing to yourself right now. If you’ve NEVER seen the movie, you’re out of luck here because the scene is not on YouTube. However, now you have the added incentive to go out and find, buy, or rent a copy of the movie and watch it in its entirety. In addition to boasting some of the funniest scenes and performances ever, it is essentially a “Who’s Who” of comedy from the first 50 years of Hollywood up to the time this movie was produced, 1913-1963.
Like Jack Riley, Marvin Kaplan seems to have been one of those guys who was loved and respected by all who knew him. The only frustration for fans of the great character actors like myself, is you can’t easily type in the name of one of these giants and find material highlighting their best work on YouTube or similar sites. Nevertheless, let’s enjoy this brief bit of storytelling from Mr. Kaplan about how he landed the role in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and how he survived it.
We learned last week of the passing of another truly great character actor, Jack Riley. He was most famous to my generation as Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show which ran on CBS from 1972 – 1978. It was one of the quirkier, and most hilarious, characterizations on network TV during the 1970s and that’s really saying something!
Mr. Carlin was neurotic beyond compare. He could have invented the concept of “low self-esteem.” However, the aspect of his personality that was refreshingly different from his own self-loathing was his contempt for almost everyone with whom he came in contact. Who can forget his torture of the other members of Dr. Hartley’s group counseling session. Ultimately though, you had to like, or at least sympathize, with Mr. Carlin because he was the living embodiment of the phrase, “you can’t like others until you like yourself.”
Most of the actors/actresses who were favorites of mine from my childhood are known only to my children through their watching DVDs with me of classic TV shows. Jack Riley, however, was different. He was an integral part of one of my kids favorite shows from their own childhood, Rugrats, (1991 – 2005). For that matter, Rugrats was probably my favorite of their shows to watch with them. Many of the kid’s shows of that time were pretty dumbed down. Rugrats, on the other hand, was unusually clever and funny while still being age appropriate for the little ones. Riley was the voice of Stu Pickles. He was a dreamer. He stayed at home working on his inventions and taking care of the kids. He was a loving but goofy father. In other words, every kid’s dream dad.
Riley was one another one of those people in Hollywood whose life was full of friends and admirers. Those who knew him intimately or casually all described him as a warm, funny, and loyal human being. Sadly, I never got to know Mr. Riley but his work brought me a great deal of happiness. He can go to his rest secure in the knowledge that his brilliance in front of the camera will continue to delight viewers for decades to come.
Today marks the 90th birthday of the quintessential lounge singer Armando “Buddy” Greco.
Greco is one of those guys who I knew very little about when I began my radio show 16 years ago. Originally, my show was “a celebration of the Italian American influence on the Great American Songbook.” Which basically means I was desperate to find Italian American singers and musicians whose music I could play. The husband of one of my mom’s friends asked me early in the run why I didn’t play more Buddy Greco. I had bought a CD of Greco’s music which was terrible. I mean it was the worst of the 1970s. I was to learn that it was the proverbial “bad apple” that I allowed to ruin “the barrel” of my opinion. It was a misguided ’70s experiment. The bulk of Greco’s output genuinely swings.
I gave it another try and bought a CD compilation of some of Greco’s music from the late 1950s and early 1960s and enjoyed it very much. It did have a lounge lizard feel to it but there was little doubt that the guy had something. The “something” he had was real musical ability. After I’d played some of his vocals on the air someone asked me if I had any of his piano music and yet another layer was peeled away. Who knew he was such a fine jazz piano player too?
I was watching some of Greco’s videos on YouTube the other day and my son said, “It sounds like he’s ripping off Bobby Darin.” I told him that his assessment was understandable as their styles were/are quite similar. However, the truth is that Buddy Greco was on the scene at least ten years before Bobby Darin.
In the end, music is totally objective. I love some quirky musical talents that many people do not like and there are many, many popular musical acts that I have just never appreciated. Say what you will about Buddy Greco but he knows how to swing!
Happy 90th Buddy. May you enjoy many, many more!
I’d like to point out just one thing before you watch this next clip – Greco is 82 years old as he tickles the ivories on this Harnick/Bock classic, “She Loves Me.”
I am thrilled to find these clips from 1966. Not only do they feature Buddy and Andy Williams but also one of my dad’s favorite performers – Trini Lopez! Andy and Buddy are clearly out of their element in the Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” number but it hardly matters. This is just wonderful stuff!!
If you want to hear more from Buddy, tune into The Sunday Music Festa this afternoon, Sunday, August 14, 2016 at 12:00 noon until 2:00 p.m. on Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, New York. Not in Rochester, you say? No big deal, you can pick up our live webstream HERE. Come join the fun!
Just as we learned of the passing of the great character actor, David Huddleston, my friend Dr. Tim also discovered that another great character actor, John McMartin, passed away last month on July 6, 2016. You may not immediately know their names but if you watched any film or television in the last 50 years, you will recognize both men.
John McMartin always played a professional man: a doctor, a corporate lawyer, something along those lines. He worked in every genre from soap opera to comedy which, come to think of it, is basically the same thing. One of my clearest memories of McMartin was in the role of Reverend Daniel Bradford in an episode of The Bob Newhart Show. Reverend Bradford went to psychologist Bob Hartley to talk about his misgivings about his chosen profession. He liked his work but didn’t like the fact that everyone treated him differently once they learned what he did for a living. As with all great comedy, it was treated with seriousness and a dry, deliberate delivery which made it all the funnier.
McMartin also appeared on two more of my favorite programs of the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Rockford Files. Like all of the best character actors, McMartin seemed to be everywhere, all the time. He leaves behind an impressive resume of work.
As for David Huddleston, like McMartin, he was a ubiquitous Hollywood player. He played everything from a cowboy to a CEO and a Senator to Santa Claus. Huddleston appeared multiple times on such TV classics as Bewitched, Ironside, Gunsmoke, and The Waltons. It seems only fitting that he would work in a couple of The Waltons‘ episodes since he was in the TV movie that inspired the series, 1971’s The Homecoming. Coincidentally, he appeared in another huge TV movie event of 1971, the film Brian’s Song based on the friendship between Chicago Bears football players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. Brian’s Song remains famous as one of the first movies in which men felt comfortable crying.
Huddleston also appeared as “The Big Man himself, no not God – the other one, Santa Claus, in the 1985 film of the same name. It received less than stellar reviews on its initial release but like so many other Christmas movies, has found a second life in repeated seasonal showings. I’ve actually never seen it so I may have to order a copy.
Finally, I doubt Huddleston would have considered it his greatest role but it might be his most memorable, he played Olsen Johnson in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles (1973). His character’s name is actually an inside show biz joke in a series of jokes about the “Johnson” name in the film. In this scene, Huddleston stands up for authentic frontier gibberish.
And here’s a memorable turn from John McMartin as a smarmy doctor on Cheers.
I love show business and it’s history and there is truly nothing I love more than the innumerable character players that are the seasoning to all our favorite TV and movie dishes. The great thing about entertainment of the last century is that so much of it is preserved on film so that all of these great actors and actresses that we come to think of as “friends,” never truly leave us. Their spirits live on in countless memorable performances.
In this incredible clip, which I have to assume comes from the set of Rio Lobo (1970), David Huddleston explains the five stages of an actor’s life much to the delight of the Duke, John Wayne.
In keeping with our celebration of Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday this week, I thought we’d kick off the weekend with Tony and some friends singing and swinging!!
Here’s a great clip from a Dean Martin Show in the 1960s.
I have no idea who this young guy is introducing Tony Bennett and Billy Joel. Hah!
Here’s one from the “Fashionable” 70s! This one is especially for my pal, Dr. Tim.
Finally, we finish with Tony Bennett and the great Michel Legrand from 1982. Hard to believe this was 34 years ago and Big T. is still going strong!
Today we wish a very Happy 90th Birthday to Tony Bennett. He has achieved the impossible. In a society that increasingly worships youth, inexperience and banality, Tony Bennett continues to stem the tide and collect new fans, accolades and honors for his continued good taste and artistry.
Tony Bennett was born Anthony Benedetto in Astoria, Queens 90 years ago today. He started out in art school but quit to go to work and help his family. He was drafted into the army in WW II and his experiences in the fire of battle would forever after make him a pacifist. He attended the American Theater Wing under the GI Bill before being heard and appreciated by singer Pearl Bailey. She introduced him to comedian Bob Hope who shortened Benedetto’s name to Bennett and took him on the road. In short order, Bennett signed with Columbia Records and by the early 1950s he was racking up hits with songs like “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Tony Bennett was a working singer throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He recorded albums, performed live all over the world and was thought of as a talented singer but never really classified as truly great or special. Even his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” only reached #19 on the Billboard charts in 1962. Then in a 1965 profile in Life Magazine, an interviewer asked Frank Sinatra about some of the other singers who were currently working. In a quote that Bennett has always asserted changed his life, Sinatra said, “But for my money Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. [He] gets across what the composer had in mind, and probably a little more.” The Chairman had spoken. After that, Bennett’s bookings were a little better, the crowds were just a bit larger. It seemed that after 20 years of hard work, he’d finally “arrived.”
Unfortunately, nothing Sinatra or anyone else had to say could turn back the clock on musical tastes. The popular music of the day was turning away from the classic standards by the Porters, Berlins and Kerns and moving towards a more raucous and simplistic beat. Rock and Roll had been around since the 1950s but with the British Invasion of the mid-1960s, and the civil unrest over Vietnam and Equal Rights for African Americans and Women, the music was headed into darker, angrier territories. By 1972 Tony Bennett and Columbia Records parted company after 21 years. Many of the recording companies were urging their artists to go where the money was and perform the material that the record buyers wanted. Tony Bennett balked at that philosophy. Bennett felt that when a song is good, it’s good and there was nothing better than the standards of the Great American Songbook.
Just like his idol, Mr. Sinatra, had done before him, Bennett decided to start his own recording company entitled Improv Records. He only recorded about three or four albums but they were all solid efforts. Then for a period of about 10 years, he recorded nothing. He continued to perform at venues all over the country but put nothing down in the studio. In 1986, he returned to Columbia for the album “The Art of Excellence.” That was the album that finally earned my respect. I had never been a big Tony Bennett fan prior to that 1986 album but “The Art of Excellence” was the beginning of a whole new career for Tony Bennett. Under the management of his son Danny, Tony Bennett would go after a new and youthful audience by introducing them to his music and not vice versa.
By the time he made his appearance on one of Johnny Carson’s last shows in May of 1992*, Tony Bennett was riding a wave of success that would make him an MTV star, garner him 15 Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award and a Kennedy Center Honoree.
Perhaps Tony Bennett’s greatest achievement is being a living example that one’s professional life doesn’t have to end at a certain age. He has given hope to millions of “mature adults” that if you have integrity, the right attitude, and the work ethic, than perhaps the old song is right – The Best Is Yet to Come!
- * I’ve always loved that Carson appearance because Bennett sang “I’ll Be Seeing You” which is a song I love so much, I made it my sign-off when I began my radio show 16 years ago. I use a Sinatra recording but the song is great and I love Bennett’s version from the Carson show because he also sings the rarely heard verse! And if you’re interested, you can hear my shows – The Sunday Music Festa and Sinatra & Company every week on Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, New York or via our live stream at www.jazz901.org. Every Sunday from 12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m.
Happy Birthday Mr. B. – We wish you many more happy, healthy ones ahead!
I was in the mood for a good, hard-boiled, 1970s detective story Friday night. I considered heading to the basement to dig out my “Rockford Files” DVDs but instead went perusing my DVR list and found Paul Newman’s 1975 return as private detective Lew Harper in “The Drowning Pool.” Newman’s work as Lew Harper has always been a character of whom I was aware but knew little about. I’m not sure if I ever saw the entire “Harper” or “The Drowning Pool,” prior to this evening’s viewing. It feels as though most of what I remembered was just bits and pieces. I’d read that “The Drowning Pool” wasn’t considered as good a film by many critics as the original “Harper” but I didn’t have “Harper” at my fingertips and I did have “The Drowning Pool” so I forged ahead.
The cast of “The Drowning Pool” is a good one featuring familiar character faces of the period such as Murray Hamilton, Richard Jaeckel and Paul Koslo. It also boasts some beautiful women of the decade in Joanne Woodward, Gail Strickland and a very young Melanie Griffith. The star, Paul Newman, is one of those actors who I never paid a great deal of attention to when I started my education in film. I was far more obsessed with the generation of tough, stoic leading men who came before him: Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, to name just a few. However, in the last 10-20 years, my admiration for Newman’s work has continued to grow. He was unquestionably a worthy successor to the Bogart’s, Mitchum’s, and Cooper’s of Hollywood. He had that certain sense of style and cool that can’t be taught. You’re either born with it or you’re not. He was also similar to the likes of Bogart and Tracy whose characterizations seemed to grow more impactful and impressive the older they got.
The plot of “The Drowning Pool” is not necessarily unique. It’s based on a Ross MacDonald novel but Harper and his case obviously draws quite a bit of inspiration from the Dashiell Hammetts and Raymond Chandlers of Hollywood history. However, the older I get, the more I draw a certain comfort from the grittiness and realism of the films of the 1970s. As much as I love the black and white classics from the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s, the films of the 1970s are the films of my youth. I didn’t necessarily see too many of them at the theater as I was only six years old when the decade began but some of the decade’s very best were some of my first theater experiences: “The Bad News Bears,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “What’s Up Doc?” That said, the closest I came to seeing a detective story in the theater in the 1970s were the Neil Simon comedies, “Murder By Death,” and “The Cheap Detective.”
There was, of course, the TV showings of films like “The Godfather” or “Serpico” but that didn’t really count because besides being constantly interrupted by commercials, they were sanitized versions of the actual film. Even so, “the look” of a 1970s thriller was always recognizable. It communicated a certain darkness and sense of foreboding that, I guess, was just naturally a part of my youth. I was born just a few weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. By the time I was ten years old, the country had experienced the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the horrors of Vietnam, and the corruption of Watergate. It would have been nearly impossible for the jaded cynicism prevalent in the society-at-large not to have shown up in our movies.
The highlight of “The Drowning Pool” is definitely the sequence of events in the “hydrotherapy room” of an abandoned insane asylum. Even though I could easily figure out how it would end, it was a wonderfully clever climax to a private detective’s quandary, the type of which is inevitable in all films of this type. In terms of the performances, Joanne Woodward is sadly affecting in the role of the film’s most tragic personality, a woman in a loveless charade of a marriage whose daughter is, at best, a dangerously deceitful narcissist. Murray Hamilton’s “bad guy” never quite scares me as much as Woodward’s daughter played by Melanie Griffith. Hamilton’s oil baron with the killer dogs and beautiful wife he treats like a child was too cartoonish to elicit genuine fear. In the end, the film belongs to Paul Newman, not because it’s an Academy Award worthy performance but just because he’s so damn cool. All in all, a worthy diversion for a Friday night.
This is a really tough one. I think Garry Marshall was one of the most talented comedy minds of the last 50 years. In addition to his talents as a writer, producer and actor, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, I’ve ever read about him points to the fact that he was an even better human being than he was an entertainer. When you read about Garry Marshall you come across phrases like “what you see is what you get,” or “down to earth,” or even “family-oriented.”
In truth, I didn’t necessarily like all the TV shows or films that Garry Marshall produced. I felt that “Happy Days was really funny for maybe 2-3 years before it turned the sublime into the ridiculous. It was a good show but somewhere in the 3rd or 4th season it became more like a comic-hero superhero with Fonzie dominating the show. “Laverne & Shirley” also had its moments of humor but eventually it reminded me too much of Lucy and Ethel and I lost interest. “Mork & Mindy?” Well, it was important for giving Robin Williams his start but the show was a little too silly for me. There is sophisticated silly and school kid silly and this was the latter. His feature film “Beaches,” with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey remains, to this day, the only movie I have ever fallen asleep on in a movie theater. Well, actually, that’s not exactly true. It’s the only film I ever fell asleep on SOBER in a movie theater.
Some may be asking at this point, “Geesh, what exactly did you LIKE about Garry Marshall?” The truth is Garry Marshall was prolific and too many people remember him just for “Happy Days” or “Mork & Mindy” without realizing all the other funny projects with which he was involved.
Unfortunately, none of Marshall’s Dick Van Dyke episodes are on YouTube. Some of my favorite DVD episodes were written by Marshall and his partner Jerry Belson: “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” “Talk to the Snail,” “Odd But True,” and “Pink Pills and Purple Parents,” to name just a few. Marshall & Belson wrote 18 episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and since I consider “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to be one of the 3-5 best sitcoms in the history of the medium, that alone earns Marshall a place among the gods in the hierarchy of TV/Film comedy as far as I’m concerned.
One of Marshall and Belson’s lesser known projects came in the form of a made-for-TV movie in 1972 entitled “Evil Roy Slade.” It should be noted that it was a comic western made at least a year before “Blazing Saddles” and Marshall/Belson had been shopping it around for a while. It’s odd and downwright quirky but at certain moments it ascends to hilarity.
For me, the cherry on top of the Garry Marshall sundae is “The Odd Couple.” Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson were responsible for bringing Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” to television and it was an absolutely brilliant show. It’s not easy to take a property that was a monster hit in another medium (Broadway) and make it an even bigger hit in a new medium. The truth is, “The Odd Couple” was not a monster hit on TV although in the years since it went off the air, it has become one of the most beloved sitcoms of all-time. The way you judge a show is to watch it 25-50 years after it’s initial run and if it still makes you laugh, then that means it was special. “The Odd Couple” was special. They had other writers but Marshall was essentially the show runner of that program and had a lot to do with the scripts according to Tony Randall’s and Jack Klugman’s recollections over the years.
If you don’t want to listen to the entire half-hour of this clip, you can hear Randall’s assessment of Garry Marshall at the 12:10 – 15:25 section of the piece.
I love this clip with Jack Klugman as he tells the story of Garry Marshall’s definition of a “good actor.”
Felix and Oscar ended up in court at least four times during the run of the TV series. This clip comes from the episode entitled “My Strife In Court.” Hilarious is the only word to describe this piece of film and it is owed to the brilliance of Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, and Garry Marshall. Everyone in show business seems to agree that among his many talents, Garry Marshall was a master of casting and you see evidence of this talent in the work of people like Al Molinaro (Murray the Cop) and Curt Conway (the judge) in this scene. By the way, in the four court episodes available on YouTube, Curt Conway was the judge and/or magistrate in three of them. The fourth was played by comedy writing legend Bill Idelson, known better to some as Herman Glimscher.
And here in the words or Garry Marshall and other cast members, is the story of how “Happy Days” came to be. For what it was, it was certainly a great show. I just don’t feel it stacks up among the really great sitcoms in the medium like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” Barney Miller,” “All in the Family,” and “Mary Tyler Moore.” I think “The Odd Couple” comes much closer to greatness in terms of laugh-out-loud funny than “Happy Days” does.
After he conquered the TV industry, Marshall moved on to movies writing and directing films like “The Flamingo Kid.” He was listed as just the director on films such as “Pretty Woman,” “Frankie and Johnny,” and “The Princess Diaries,” but I highly doubt he didn’t add little comedic touches to every project he directed. The bottom line of Garry Marshall’s career in film and television was “He knew comedy.”
The one aspect of his career that, in my opinion, is NEVER given enough attention is his acting. He was a hilarious comic actor. He appeared to great comic effect in series like “The Odd Couple” and “Father of the Pride” and although they were minor roles they were usually very funny. However, he killed as Stan Lansing on “Murphy Brown.” For me, it was the funniest characterization in the 10 years of that show. He may be best remembered for this one scene in Albert Brooks’ classic “Lost In America.”
All the obituaries and remembrances on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites also point to a man who was loved and respected as much for the human being he was as for the mogul he became. It’s hard to find people in show business who are universally loved. All the evidence points to the fact that Garry Marshall was universally loved. He will most definitely be missed.
I just finished watching the MLB Presents . . . special one hour documentary on the life of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the right handed pitcher who took the baseball world by storm in the summer of 1976. That was quite a year: America was celebrating her Bicentennial, Apple Computers was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Frank Sinatra reunited the feuding Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon and America officially put the Watergate years behind them when Governor James Earl Carter of Georgia defeated Gerald R. Ford on November 2nd becoming the 39th President of the United States. In the midst of all that, a young, gangly, curly-haired rookie pitcher made the Detroit Tigers team out of spring training. No one noticed until he filled in for an injured starter in May and won eight out of nine decisions before the All-Star game in July. At the start of the baseball season in April, no one in Detroit knew or cared about who Mark Fidrych was. By the Midsummer Classic in Philadelphia, he was the starting pitcher for the American League and the entire nation was discovering the excitement surrounding “The Bird.”
I must admit by the end of the special on Fidrych’s unprecedented rise and fall, I was in tears. I cried for his daughter who lost her dad when she was only 22 years old, I cried for Fidrych whose life was cut too short at the age of 54 and I cried for myself and for the memory of 1976.
My dad died in March of 1976 at the age of 51; I was 12 years old. I had discovered baseball during the 1971 World Series and my love for the game and its history grew quickly in those first few years. My father was not a sports fan. He and I shared a love for TV and movies. He would occasionally take me to see games at Silver Stadium, the home of our minor league Triple A Rochester Red Wings but as much as he tried to indulge my interest in the game, his heart wasn’t in it. He was much happier buying us a big box of Jujy Fruits candy at the concession counter of the movie theater as we prepared to watch a Disney film or some other family friendly comedy.
After his death in March of 1976, I used both movies and baseball to alleviate the pain. My dad and I had gotten into the routine of watching old Warner Bros. movies on our local PBS station on Friday nights. It was during these movie sessions that I first discovered Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Pat O’Brien and Edward G. Robinson. They would remain lifelong “friends.” As important as the old movies were to me, 1976 would turn out to be my ultimate baseball summer.
I started playing Little League Baseball in 1973 and my first manager was Frank U., the father of the two guys who lived across the street from me. There was, and is, no nicer guy in the world than Frank. Before my father died he was always good to me but after my father was gone, Frank was a surrogate father. It just happened that Frank had lost his own father when he was only seven years old so he understood the pain but we never talked about those things then. Frank was a positive person and he kept it happy and light. Frank, Kevin & Dean (his two sons) and I went to an awful lot of Red Wing games that summer. I went to more games in the summer of ’76 than any other summer of my life. The old Silver Stadium had a walkway up on top of the stadium behind the very last row of seats. At some point in the game, I’d excuse myself to go get a soda or popcorn or something and I’d go to the top of the grandstand and look out over the stadium illuminated against the dark night sky. It was such an awe-inspiring sight. I hesitate to get too ridiculous and liken it to a religious experience but there’s no denying the comfort I got from going up there and looking out over the perfectly-manicured diamond. While I’m hesitant to attach any religious significance to it, I am willing to practice some amateur psychology and say that perhaps my attraction to the sight of that very ordered space was an appreciation for an order and continuity that had been blown up in the chaos that surrounded my life that spring.
In today’s world of cable TV and sports, my kids and I can watch every game on the schedule if we choose to. All it takes is money and time. However, in 1976, we were still a year or two away from cable in my town. Baseball for us was Saturday afternoons and Monday nights. It was on one of those nationally televised Monday night ball games that Mark “The Bird” Fidrych became a national treasure.
The announcers on that broadcast were Bob Uecker, Warner Wolf and Bob Prince – that’s a trivia question in and of itself!
I can’t honestly say I remember everything about that game but I know I watched it. I remember my buddies and I talking about it before and after the fact. As kids who were huge baseball fans we knew who Fidrych was from the sports pages but we didn’t really have any idea of WHO HE WAS until that game. I will admit that I had forgotten that the Yankees were Fidrych’s opponents that night. I was raised by my oldest brother to be a Yankee-Hater and 1976 was the seminal year when my tendency to root against the Yankees turned into a passionate, lifelong mission. For example, I seem to remember throwing a chair later that season when Chris Chambliss hit the home run against the Royals to advance the Yanks to the world Series for the first time since the year I was born.
1976 was also my ultimate year of baseball card collecting. I bought a lot of packs of cards in 1976. Unfortunately, because Fidrych was an anonymous entity at the start of the season, there is no 1976 card for him. This was Topps baseball card of 1977.
I have three strong memories of my baseball youth that I feel belong to me: Hank Aaron’s 715th home run (also on Monday Night Baseball) on April 8, 1974 off of Al Downing of the Dodgers, the phenom that was Mark Fidrych in the summer of 1976 and the phenom that was Fernando Valenzuela in the summer of 1981. I didn’t see DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson or Warren Spahn play but I saw Aaron and Fidrych and Valenzuela, and the thrills they provided were a tonic for the soul. The memories they provided were happy, fun, and, dare I say, innocent. The excitement of a Mark Fidrych was the kind of joy that all sports should inspire. I’ve no doubt that’s why we still want to look back forty years later to remember, to smile, and yes, even to cry just a little.
Here’s a John Wayne picture that I haven’t seen is a very long time . . .
. . . that was until Saturday when TCM ran it. I watched. It was a diverting entertainment but not much more than that.
The Train Robbers was number seven in a line of eight westerns in a row that John Wayne starred in from 1969 to 1973. His Academy Award winning role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) was the first of the string of eight. True Grit was definitely one of the Duke’s best with a wonderful supporting performance by Kim Darby. As for the rest of the eight films, Big Jake (1971) and The Cowboys (1972) are the other two standouts. Chisum (1970) and Rio Lobo (1970) were very formulaic but reliably fun John Wayne westerns. All the others leave something to be desired. The Undefeated fails for me because there was no chemistry between Wayne and co-star Rock Hudson. The teaming of the two Hollywood stars just didn’t work. Cahill – U.S. Marshall (1973) is a story of a neglectful dad in the Old West, a plausible storyline, no doubt, but again, it just doesn’t work.
The Train Robbers, while not as bad as something like Cahill – U.S. Marshall, is still a fairly dismal affair. It is slow moving and you’re never quite sure as the movie moves along if it is supposed to be a comedy, an adventure or perhaps, just perhaps, a love story. In the end, it’s a little of each which, in this case, means it fails on all accounts.
As for chemistry, the trio of Wayne, Rod Taylor and Ben Johnson works nicely. It should be noted that Ben Johnson was in three of the eight westerns mentioned in this five year period so I think we can assume Mr. Wayne enjoyed working with Big Ben. However, Ann Margret, always a pleasant diversion on screen, just doesn’t sparkle in this tale of the old West. She seems and acts horribly out of place. Her performance is not bad, it’s just dull which, in motion picture terms, is actually a greater sin than that of bad acting. If a performance is awful due to scenery-chewing melodramatics than at least it provides some entertainment, however unintentional it is. But dull screen time is dead screen time. If the audience is bored, the film has failed. It may be because Ann Margret is usually such a dynamic performer and this role just doesn’t call for the kind of manic energy for which she was so well-known. Whatever the reason, she was miscast.
In the end, a John Wayne western is always a pleasant diversion back to a time when right and wrong seemed so easily defined. Even so, by the late 1960s America was starting to grow up and some people, at least, were starting to realize and accept that maybe right and wrong isn’t always a black and white proposition. It is interesting to note that all of the eight westerns that Wayne made from 1969 – 1973 have little to do with the American Indian. It would seem that the truth of our deceitful policies and destruction of so many Indian nations had finally hit home and screenwriters and producers found a way to make a western without it being strictly about our “war against the native peoples.”
The other quality that exists to recommend this feature is the beauty of countryside. It seems that the film was shot primarily in Durango and Sonora, Mexico although Yuma, Arizona is also listed. Whatever the case, I wondered as I watched this filmed historical document just how much of that land remains untouched and untainted as it was 43 years ago?
By the way, the greatest western that John Wayne made in the last ten years of his career is probably the very last, The Shootist (1976). Wayne was dying as he made this stark and somber tale of a dying gunfighter. It was, and still is, a great film.