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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

Happy Birthday to one of the most talented men in the history of American entertainment! I love Carl Reiner for numerous reasons and projects that he has given the world. Nevertheless, he could have invented the light bulb and I still wouldn’t have been as grateful for that daily necessity as I am for his invention of “Alan Brady,” one of my all-time favorite TV characters. Also notable is the creation of The Dick Van Dyke Show itself, one of the top 5 greatest sitcoms ever. The original Dick Van Dyke Show was called Head of the Family with Carl Reiner playing the “Rob Petrie” character. The show was based on Carl Reiner’s experiences with Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows in the early 1950s. The original pilot of Head of the Family was not picked up but when Sheldon Leonard saw it, he thought it had potential. Reiner initially balked because he didn’t want to do it again and fail again but Leonard, in essence, told him, “We’ll get a better you.” That “better Carl” turned out to be Dick Van Dyke and the rest is history. Here’s the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show singing praises to their boss, Alan Brady. I add my own voice to the chorus of adoration.

Carl Reiner is 95 today. That, in and of itself, is impressive enough. You want to be REALLY impressed? Watch this clip from Reiner’s appearance last week with Conan O’Brien. Just incredible.

And speaking of all-time favorites, here is my favorite few minutes from one of the greatest TV shows ever. Mary Tyler Moore is brilliant in this scene. Carl Reiner is brilliant in this scene. The styrofoam heads are brilliant in this scene. It is perfect. “Fellas, here’s the guy who’s given us 60+ years of laughter and joy.” Thank you Carl Reiner, thank you Alan Brady. May you have many, many happy, healthy birthdays to come!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you read through posts on this site it will quickly become obvious that I love character actors and actresses. As of late, I’ve taken to recording birthdays of thespians, musicians, comedians, etc. to salute here on this site, on my Sinatra and Company Facebook page, and on my weekly radio show. Today is a jackpot day with AT LEAST five wonderful character actors who were all born on this day.

PAUL FIX: Paul Fix is one of those guys whose face is more familiar than his name. In fact, with the possible exception of just one of the March 13th celebrants, this is true for all of the actors we’ll salute today. Fix became a fixture (pardon the pun) in Western films and TV shows starting back in the earliest days of talking films. His IMDB list well over 300 credits! And while IMDB may not always be the most reliable source, it usually errs on the side of not having all of an actor’s credits as opposed to listing more than the actor deserves. Fix was probably best known for his role of Marshall Micah Torrance on the series The Rifleman, (1958-1963) with Chuck Connors. According to IMDB, he was also a friend of John Wayne’s which seems likely since he appeared in well over 15 films with the Duke. It’s undeniable that he always seemed to show up in the wild west as a man of respect – judge, doctor, or sheriff. However, as you look through his incredible list of credits you’ll note that he also crops up in films that are far from the old west, particularly in the first half of his career: After the Thin Man (1936), Black Friday (1940), The Ghost Breakers (1940), Alias Boston Blackie (1942), and The Bad Seed (1956). Still don’t know who he is? You will once you see his face. Paul Fix was born March 13, 1901.

 

FRANK WILCOX: Next up for our birthday salute is Frank Wilcox. He is another character actor with an amazing list of credits numbering in the 300s! Like Fix, Wilcox was known for primarily respectable characters like judges, doctors, bankers, and big businessmen. However, he could also play the occasional bad guy, usually one who was a shyster of sorts or perhaps just a little unethical. Wilcox was also adept at comedy. He made numerous appearances on both The Jack Benny Program (1954-1963) and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1953-1957). For Baby-Boomers like myself, he’s probably best remembered as Mr. Brewster from The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1966). He played a rather sophisticated oil man who indulged the Clampetts as best he could because Jed had a hell of a lot of oil! I haven’t seen a Beverly Hillbillies episode in quite a while but I seem to remember that Jed’s sister played by Bea Benaderet (aka Betty Rubble) always “had a thing” for Mr. Brewster. Like Fix, Wilcox had a long film career before becoming a staple on television. He appeared in such films as They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), Cass Timberlane (1947), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). He also showed up over a half dozen times as a judge on Perry Mason (1957 – 1966). Frank Wilcox was born on March 13, 1907.

 

PAUL STEWART: This may be my favorite of the actors celebrating March 13th birthdays. Paul Stewart had a long and distinguished career. He began on radio as a member of Orson Welles Mercury Theater Players and was involved in the famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast. He made his featured film debut in Citizen Kane (1941). He went on to a long career in films and television usually playing a dark, sinister character of some sort or another. More often than not, he portrayed gangsters or members of a crime syndicate. He was a prolific artist with a deep, mysterious voice that no doubt explains his success on radio. In researching this little tribute, I learned that in the 1950s and 1960s, Stewart tried his hand at directing. He worked as a director on  episodes of M Squad, Michael Shayne, and Checkmate. He even helmed an episode of The Twilight Zone, “Little Girl Lost” (S3, Ep.26). I recently caught Stewart on an episode of Perry Mason. When I tend to think of Paul Stewart, I think of a Rockford Files episode from 1977 entitled “Irving the Explainer.” Rockford Files was a favorite show of mine as a kid so perhaps that explains why I think of that role first when I think of Stewart. As I remember it, the character was multi-dimensional – he was a good guy who’d done some bad things. I can tell you this – very little, if anything, Paul Stewart ever did on radio, films or TV was anything but top-notch. Paul Stewart was born on March 13, 1908.

 

PETER BRECK: I have two words for Peter Breck – “Nick Barkley.” Hands down, if you recognize Peter Breck, you recognize him as Barbara Stanwyck’s #2 son, Nick Barkley, on the popular series Big Valley (1965-1969). He also appeared in a long-forgotten frontier series called Black Saddle (1959-1960). The series was cancelled after two seasons but it got him a contract at Warner Brothers which led to his appearance in a number of TV series shot at the studio during the 1960s including Maverick starring James Garner. Breck turned up throughout the series as the legendary Doc Holiday. Again, in reading about Breck today I learned that he grew up in my hometown of Rochester, New York and attended John Marshall High School. Peter Breck was born on March 13, 1929.

 

LESLIE PARRISH: Ms. Parrish is the only one of our celebrants who is still with us. She turns 82 today. She was a familiar presence on TV during the 1960s with roles in such popular shows as Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and The Wild, Wild West. She may have logged fewer appearances in feature films than television but the roles she landed were memorable. She was Daisy Mae in the 1959 feature L’il Abner and she co-starred with Vic Morrow and fellow March 13th birthday pal Peter Breck in Portrait of a Mobster, (1961). However, her most important film may have been The Manchurian Candidate (1962), where she played ill-fated Senator Jordan’s (played by John McGiver) daughter Jocelyn. She was also married for 20 years to Richard Bach, author of the ’70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Leslie Parrish was born on March 13, 1935.

Happy Birthday to all the above thespians. I thank them for lifetimes full of entertainment!

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In honor of Harry Belafonte’s 90th birthday, we celebrate the great entertainer and political activist with a favorite song of mine and Dr. Tim’s!!

Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York City in 1927 but spent about eight years of his childhood in Jamaica.

Here’s another catchy tune I’ve always liked. This features Harry with just a touch of support from the wonderful Julie Andrews.

And then there’s a whole other side, a totally separate reason to love and admire Harry Belafonte. It is not just for the views he expresses in this next clip but for the fact that he’s spent his life standing up and fighting for the ideals he believes in. If only this clip weren’t as meaningful and relevant today as it was 50 years ago!

Finally, I dare you to watch this clip without ending up with a big smile on your face as I did. Happy Birthday Mr. Belafonte!

 

 

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Thanks to an e-mail from my friend, “Dr. Tim,” I now have this song stuck in my head like a ’74 Chevy sinking in the mud. I believe this was a deliberate attack on his part to purposely deposit it in my brain so it would keep playing over and over and over, as it now indeed is. Thanks Tim. Thanks a lot.

By the way, it’s not a bad song. It’s just sad. Very, very sad. Thanks again Timmy.

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I remember seeing Tin Men in the theater many years ago and liking it but I honestly didn’t remember it being this funny. Then again, when I saw it in the theater back in 1987, I was a 23-year-old kid who’d never been married or had children and who just recently had become part of the daily work force. In other words, the years of life experience I’ve gained since my initial viewing of this film have almost certainly added to my enjoyment of it. This is a brilliantly funny and affecting film.

The film revolves around the lives of two Baltimore aluminum siding salesmen, aka “Tin Men,” in 1963. The plot is set into motion when BB (Richard Dreyfuss) is pulling his brand new Cadillac out of the dealership and is immediately hit by a passing Cadillac driven by Tilley (Danny DeVito). The accident sets into motion a feud of epic proportions between the two men that ultimately resorts in vandalism, assault and battery, and divorce. Sounds serious and yet, while there is a certain poignancy inherent within the story, it proves to be an extremely funny movie.

This is character driven comedy at its best. The humor comes from the portraits that writer/director Barry Levinson provides of the main characters and their cohorts who are in the business of selling aluminum siding, as well as dreams, to unsuspecting homeowners. Tilley (DeVito) and BB (Dreyfuss) work for different companies but the salad days of their business may be drawing to a close as there is a home improvement commission that has been established to look into claims of fraudulent sales practices being employed within their industry. Both of their lives are headed for big changes that are only propelled by their “accidental meeting” and subsequent hatred for one another.

The supporting cast of this film is one of the best you will find in any movie of the 1980s or any decade for that matter. BB’s team consists of John Mahoney, Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow and Michael Tucker. Mahoney is best known for playing Martin Crane on the long running sitcom Frasier but as wonderful as that show was, it doesn’t do justice to the brilliant acting abilities of Mahoney. Years ago I saw him in an American Playhouse production on PBS of The House of Blue Leaves and was absolutely blown away. I think Mahoney is one of the very best of his generation. When I think of Seymour Cassel, I think of John Cassavetes. Cassel appeared in no less than half a dozen Cassavetes projects through the years including Minnie and Moskowitz and The Killing of A Chinese Bookie. His one one of the more ubiquitous faces of the last 50 years of film and television production. Portnow has one of the great ethnic character actor faces and is still was one the busiest actors in Hollywood. Michael Tucker is best remembered for his portrayal of Stuart Markowitz on the popular drama, L.A. Law.

Tilley’s “team” consists of Bruno Kirby, Stanley Brock, Jackie Gayle and J.T. Walsh. Stanley Brock is a personal favorite because I have fond memories of a recurring character he played on Barney Miller for many years named Bruno Bender. He was a busy character actor for three decades but one that found too few parts that truly took advantage of his comedic talents. He fits perfectly into the milieu of Tin Men. Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh were two of the very best character actors of the 1980s and 1990s. Kirby, although younger than Walsh, had a longer film and TV resume stretching all the way back to the 1970s on projects like Room 222 and Kojak and, most famously, as the young Clemenza in The Godfather, Part II. He later went on to co-star in comedy classics like When Harry Met Sally and The Freshman. J.T. Walsh seemed to be everywhere in the late 1980s throughout the 1990s. He captured roles in popular films such as Good Morning Vietnam, Backdraft, Hoffa, Slingblade and many others. Walsh died in 1998 at the age of 54 and Kirby left us in 2006 at the age of 57 – two great talents who exited the stage much too soon.

As brilliant as both Dreyfus and De Vito are in this film, the comic prize goes to Jackie Gayle as De Vito’s pal Sam. I don’t know if it’s because I remember Gayle from his appearances on the old Dean Martin Roasts when I was a kid or if it’s just my appreciation for his character’s obsession with Bonanza but he had me rolling on the floor just about any time he was in the scene. His acting resume is a short one but it’s all worth it for his characterization in Tin Men.

I seem to remember that Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon, were all part of a Barry Levinson trilogy. They all somehow reflect Levinson’s formative years in Baltimore. Diner and Tin Men are much more comedic with Avalon being a more serious drama but they are all solid winners. I haven’t seen Avalon in many years but I remember it being a really great film. That said, of the three, I think it’s safe to say that Tin Men is the funniest.

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Oh what a tremendous service Turner Classic Movies provides for the civilized of this nation! Earlier this week TCM ran The Magnificent Yankee, an MGM production from 1950 starring Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Ann Harding as his wife of 57 years, Fanny Bowditch Holmes. I had never seen this rather obscure film before and can’t imagine where else I might have seen it other than TCM. Like many historical biopics of the mid-twentieth century, I imagine it probably takes liberties with the true history of Justice Holmes and his career but it’s certainly a more charming and engaging film than most of its kind. Calhern remains Calhern and yet, he seems to capture the spirit of what you would imagine Oliver Wendell Holmes to be like.

The greatest praise I can give to the film is that upon its completion, I made my way to the computer to order a book on Justice Holmes in the hopes of learning more about him. It made me think about the power of film and TV to actually encourage research and learning. We are always anxious to point out the most dreadful product that Hollywood has to offer and with good reason. Film and television production is always good for some truly awful trash whether it be an inane 22 minute situation comedy, a graphically and unnecessarily violent police procedural or a poorly researched news or documentary piece. That said, the truly well done entertainments in those areas are just as worthy of our praise as the flotsam is of our disposing.

Whenever I see Louis Calhern I always think of him as Uncle Willie in the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, MGM’s delightful 1956 musical, High Society, starring Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He was the most charming dirty old man ever on film. Sadly, it was his last film as he died at the age of 61 following the completion of High Society. Throughout his career he played more than a few historical figures including not only Justice Holmes but men like Julius Caesar and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He made his mark in classic comedies like Heaven Can Wait, (1943) with Don Ameche, Blonde Crazy, (1931) with Jimmy Cagney, and as Groucho’s nemesis, Ambassador Trentino, in the classic Marx Brothers comedy, Duck Soup, (1933). He could also play a menacing and imposing heavy when it was called for, as he did in the noir classic, The Asphalt Jungle, (1950).

The Magnificent Yankee includes a long roster of familiar faces of some of the best of Hollywood’s character actors. Any black and white classic of the silver screen is, for me, like looking through an old family photo album. An old movie filled with familiar character actors and actresses fills me with warmth and nostalgia for a youth well spent watching hours of classic films and television. Ann Harding is most recognizable for her role as Mary O’Connor is the holiday favorite, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, (1947) although she worked in films going back to the 1920s and appeared in a number of television programs in the 1950s until retiring sometime in the mid-1960s. Eduard Franz plays Louis Brandeis while Ian Wolfe plays a descendant of the Presidents Adams. Finally, familiar TV faces Richard Anderson and Philip Ober also adorn the festivities.

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Costume Design and one for Mr. Calhern as Best Actor in a Leading Role. Calhern lost out to Jose Ferrer for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. It should be noted that Calhern’s physical resemblance to Justice Holmes was quite remarkable.

And the real Justice Holmes.

Jack Carter had a reputation as being one of the more miserable men in show business. He was, what you might call, a chronic complainer. He never felt he was as appreciated as he should be. According to Mr. Carter, he could do it all! Here’s a clip that I think confirms that indeed he could do it all. The question is, exactly what is it that he’s doing? He’s not really funny and he certainly can’t sing. I will give him this – he moved very well. Seriously, I’ve always marveled at the fact that most of the old comics were so light on their feet. Watch the old clips – even Jack E. Leonard, nicknamed “Fat Jack,” could move like a dancer.

In this clip, Carter seems to float along the stage. Impressive, but gliding around the stage is not much of an act unless you’re a ballerina or an ice skater.

Not too long ago, a gentleman named Kliph Nesteroff published a book called The Comedians. It is a great book. If you love old-time show biz, especially the comics, you really should read the book.  However, before Nesteroff wrote the book, he had a website filled with interviews he conducted with many old actors, comics, nightclub entertainers, etc., called “Classic Showbiz.” He’s interviewed many wonderful people but perhaps some of his most interesting conversations were with Jack Carter. I can’t do the interviews justice in words so click on the link and get started. They’re a little like a car accident – you don’t want to stop and stare but you just can’t look away. Click HERE.

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Comedian George Burns was born 121 years ago today. It seems unfathomable to me that I can have so many distinct memories of a guy who was born well over a century ago but that’s what happens if you live to be 100 years old as Burns did – you transcend multiple generations.

Like most of the old stars, I remember George Burns primarily from the variety shows and talk shows of the 1960s – 1980s. However, George Burns, who had been working as a performer since the first decade of the twentieth century, also became a full-fledged movie star in the seventh decade of the century with movies like The Sunshine Boys, Oh God!, and Just You and Me, Kid. By that time, I was entering my teenage years and so I was able to see all of his movies at the theater or on television.

It’s a well-known story by now but George Burns’ best friend Jack Benny had been cast in the part of Al Lewis for the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys. They had started preliminary work on the film when Benny fell sick. He died soon after of stomach cancer. Burns was distraught over his friend’s death. For many years, Irving Fein had been an agent with one client – Jack Benny. Then, no doubt because of their close relationship, Fein took on George Burns as well. When Benny died, Fein suggested Burns for the role of Al Lewis despite the fact that Burns hadn’t appeared in a film in over 30 years. Burns won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Sunshine Boys and  a whole new career opened up for him.

In this clip from a Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1989, George Burns comes on to plug his new book, All My Best Friends. I have stated on more than one occasion that this is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it through every year or two just to brighten my spirits. It is filled with anecdotes of Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, and more. It is one of the great histories of our early show biz giants.

Happy Birthday Georgie. I hope you’re enjoying a cigar and a martini right now.

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. . . that people actually paid to see these guys at some point? Just when you thought Jerry Lewis was the most annoying, arrogant man in show biz, someone had the bright idea to team him up with Jack Carter. Oy.

Trust me, this is hard to watch all the way through. Go ahead and try. I dare you.

By the way, I can’t wait to get the e-mail from Dr. Tim saying, “You disappear from the blog for two months and come back with Jerry Lewis and Jack Carter?!?!

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Ron Glass died over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at the age of 71. He was best known for his luminous portrayal of Det. Sgt. Ron Harris of the 12th Precinct on the classic 1970s/1980s ABC sitcom, Barney Miller. He was also known for his role in the Sci-fi cult hit Firefly as Shepherd Book.

Glass was born in Evansville, Indiana and graduated from the University of Evansville with a double major in drama and literature. He made his professional theatrical debut at the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the early 1970s he made the move to Hollywood and was soon appearing in hit shows such as All in the Family, Hawaii Five-O, and Maude.

Producer Danny Arnold cast him as Det. Ron Harris in the second version of his pilot for what would become Barney Miller. In fact, Ron Glass would be one of only three cast members who were a part of the Barney Miller ensemble continuously from the start until the end of the eight season run. The other two were Hal Linden as Barney Miller and Max Gail as Stan Wojciehowicz.

Ron Harris was a pioneering African American character for 1970s television. He was intelligent, sophisticated, articulate, and real. He expressed anger, joy, frustration, and hope in equal measure. He was a strong character as opposed to a caricature. Watching Barney Miller today it would be difficult to imagine anyone else besides Glass infusing the same energy and nuance to Ron Harris. His formal training was the foundation of his art and he could perform Shakespeare as easily as a Norman Lear sitcom but he will forever be remembered as a member of the 12th Precinct in Greenwich Village.

Barney Miller was a character study of a diverse group of officers in the middle of a diverse neighborhood in what is probably the most diverse city in the world. The show focused on the interaction between the officers as much as their interaction with the criminals and victims that passed through the station house every week. It provided a stage for comedic lunacy as well as social commentary.

In a Season Five episode entitled “The Harris Incident,” Det. Harris is apprehending a fleeing criminal on the streets of New York when two uniform officers come upon the scene. Assuming Harris is the criminal, they fire upon him. Back at the precinct, Harris is enraged at the fact that he has nearly been killed due to the racial profiling of fellow NYPD officers. Capt. Miller tries to calm Harris down and tells him that the inquiry needs to go through the proper channels to be resolved. Harris storms out of the office to take an early lunch. The scene leaves his fellow officers shaken. As originally written, Harris was supposed to return to the squad room and apologize to his fellow officers for his outburst. During the filming, Ron Glass asked producer Danny Arnold why Harris was apologizing? Glass told Danny Arnold that personally, he would not apologize for Harris’ reaction. Danny Arnold asked him “What WOULD you do?” The discussion that ensued led to this more complex resolution.

The above clip illustrates perfectly Barney Miller‘s ability to make important and insightful social observations while still making the storytelling funny. It’s a more dangerous road to tread but few ever did it better than Danny Arnold and the cast and crew of Barney Miller.

Glass was a private and gentle man. There were only a few people who knew he was in failing health over the last few months. USA Today quoted his longtime agent and friend Jeffrey Leavitt: “Ron was a private, gentle and caring man. He was an absolute delight to watch on screen. Words cannot adequately express my sorrow.”

The members of the Barney Miller cast, as well and the numerous guest stars who appeared on the show, all remembered Ron Glass as a very talented and very generous soul. It’s a gift when an actor can be remembered for a character so richly layered as that of Det. Sgt. Ron N. Harris. It’s only fair since he so graciously shared so many of his gifts with us.

***Ron Glass was also actively involved in his community. Please read this inspiring remembrance of the actor at The Wooten Center homepage, a group that helps inner city youths get an education and become positive role models in their community. Ron Glass volunteered and assisted the center for over 20 years. http://www.wootencenter.org/ronglass

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