Monday, August 18, 2014

Don't Drive Here: Must See TV


The scariest TV I've watched this year?
It's the series Don't Drive Here which returns for Season 2 on Discovery  Monday August 18 at 10 p.m.
I sat down to watch the first new episode after a frustrating day commuting around Toronto and getting stuck nearly everywhere.
Then I watched Don't Drive Here and I felt , well, safe.
Host-creator Andrew Younghusband literally outs his life on the line in the first hour which shows us the hazards of being a driver in Nairobi, Kenya.
"I felt scared a whole lot," he explains. Several times he seems to be close to serious injury.
"And yet it's the kind of situation where the people there accept it and go about their business."
The statistics are startling: 10,000 deaths a year from traffic accidents, most of these  could be preventable.

It's simply something about the culture of the place and the gritty determination of the city inhabitants  to survive.
One thing I instantly noticed: there are few female drivers in Nairobi which Younghusband chalks up to cultural differences. "Look at the crowds of pedestrians everywhere and there are plenty of women. But you are correct: there are few women drivers."
Younghusband isn't just the host, he's an active participant in all forms of transportation in the over crowded city.
He starts by showing how virtually everybody jaywalks --between speeding trucks, around buses in motion or delivery boys on bikes.
"It's beyond scary," he says. "But it's the only way for many people to get around."
And he tries every form of transportation before he's done. One turn on a bicycle has him matched against a one legged cyclist courier who lost a leg when he was just a kid.
Yet, he seems to have no ill will, he just accepts his condition and gets on with it --and he's the fastest cyclist around.
As I watched this consistently exciting hour I kept wondering about the camera crew who must record every exploit of Younghusband.
"They were in even more danger than I was," he laughs nervously. "We have two  cameramen, a producer who also films, a sound guy and a researcher and a fixer who sets scenes up. They focus on what I'm doing which makes them extremely vulnerable."
As crazy as it looks there wasn't a set up shot in the whole hour.
"It's so exciting out there we have no reason to create more excitement. It's all happening as you watch."
In other episodes Younghusband ventures to Sao Paulo, Brazil, "where the delivery boys have 10 fatalities a week.
"In Rome they allow kids of 14 to drive, now that is frightening."
In Ho Chi Minh City there are bikes fitted up for up to six riders".
In Bolivia's La Plaz  a new cable car system is the largest in the world.
Says Younghusband :"I thought we might run out of cities after about 18 hours. I think we can easily hit 36 hours because every city is different. It's a subject that fascinates everyone. We all think we live in a city with bad transportation --then look at this series !
"I've had some mighty close calls. I just get caught up in the situations. We have insurance but I don't want to know anything about that. I've taken a lot of risks, an awful lot."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Remember Lauren Bacall

It's funny but I almost do not count Lauren Bacall as a Golden Age movie star.
She's not in the same category as the truly Goldens I've interviewed including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart.
Many were at least a decade older and they started out in the Thirties.
No, Bacall belonged to the Forties and after and her death the other day at 89 truly rattled me.
Among the survivors only Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both 98, and Luise Rainer who is 103  still persist.
True, Doris Day just celebrated her 92nd birthday but I count her as a Fifties survivor.
In fact until yesterday a good trick question was to name the three surviving stars of a 1950 classic.
The movie title was Young Man With A Horn and the stars were Douglas, Day and Bacall.
A few years back I wrote an appreciation of Douglas and he wrote back in vigorous prose: "To my new best friend!"
Wow! He'd survived a stroke and was still out there promoting his image.
Yet, at Douglas's AFI tribute few of the actors he'd worked with bothered to show up. Jane Wyman declined, so did Day and Mitzi Gatynor, Gena Rowlands, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker,  Jan Sterling --all were alive at the time.
Bacall attended because she was loyal --she consistently refused to diss her contemporaries.
Bacall I only met once and peripherally.
I was in L.A. doing a profile of James Garner and he suggested I stroll down the block at Universal to gab with Bacall who was in preproduction for a guest spot on his series The Rockford Files.
Why the heck was she doing a TV series, I innocently asked.
"Because Jimmy phoned and here I am," she snapped. "I could sit around or do the best job I can in a medium I'm not too sure about."
Loyalty then was the key ingredient in the Bacall personality.
Garner later repaid the favor when he jumped into a particularly bad horror flick titled The Fan (1981) that she was starring in as a good will gesture to his old pal.
In her snappish tone Bacall was lots of fun.
Two doors down her co-star for the week Dana Wynter criticized everything about her dressing room and even asked me why I wasn't wearing a tie.
But Bacall warmed as she chatted.
When I moved to get up and leave she said "Sit down and shut up. I'm trying to give you the story of my life and you keep interrupting me."
She'd moved back to New York city decades ago, she said, and never much liked Hollywood to begin with.
I asked her if the anecdote about Marlene Dietrich claiming she'd stolen Dietrich's act was correct.
"Sort of. She was great pals with director Howard Hawks and after he showed her the first cut of To Have And Have Not the lights came up and she said 'She's playing me, right?'
"Well, I wasn't but that was Marlene's marvelous egotism for you."
Only a couple of days earlier I'd taken tea with Joan Caulfield who told me she was rushed in from Paramount to fill in after Bacall exited the 1947 film The Unsuspected. True?
"In those days Jack Warner would only let me play opposite Bogey. Then they put me in this suspense film with Claude Rains and in rehearsals he made mince meat out of me and Bogey told me to quit and run and I did both."
The subject of discussing Garner went out the window and I asked her if she understood the Marilyn Monroe myth that had grown up?
"Nope. She was a scared kid who thought becoming a big star would fix all her problems. Instead she got a whole new range of problems.
"Do you know who was the funny one on How To Marry A Millionaire? Betty Grable. Great gal, constantly had us in stitches. We waited a lot of hours for Marilyn to simply show up."
Bacall said by the Sixties Hollywood had given up on her "I was so starved for funds I even did TV game shows like Match Game and Password."
She had great hits on Broadway "but Goodbye, Charlie went to Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman snatched up Cactus Flowerr --that's after coming to my Broadway dressing room and asking me how I thought she'd fare in comedy!"
Sadly, Canadians never had a chance to see her in musical hits Applause and Woman Of The Year when she went on tour because :"The Canadian dollar sank like a stone and I wasn't going to perform for 60 per cent of the American dollar."
In recent months I heard Bacall had been depressed by the sad ending of pal James Garner, aged 86.
And now it's our turn to feel sad at her disappearance after an amazing 70 years in the spotlight.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I Remember Robin Williams

I'm greatly distressed over the apparent suicide of clown extraordinaire Robin Williams.
But am I surprised? Well, no.
I interviewed him early in his remarkable career --in 1978, in fact, as he shot to fame as the funny alien in the hit series Mork And Mindy.
There were a few random encounters after that but to me he always remained an elusive personality to write about.
I remember first encountering him at an ABC press party in Los Angeles for visiting TV critics.
First up there was Jonathan Winters who breezed through 20 minutes of stand up in various disguises before sitting down to an ovation from the critics.
Williams who was then guesting as Mork on Happy Days out did the character comedian he idolized with manic moves that lasted a half hour and left him totally exhausted.
"I want whatever he's smoking" said Winters in an audible stage whisper.
Winters frequently guested on Mork And Mindy and the two would match each other with improvised gags until the cameraman ran out of film.
Off camera Williams was contemplative and not funny a bit.
He was born into a politically influential family that had a lot of wealth--his father was an executive with the Ford motor company.
He studied political science at university before jumping to Julliard for an acting career.
He first tackled stand up comedy as performance art on the streets of San Francisco where his style was decidedly raunchy.
ABC talent scouts cleaned him up and he shone in the four seasons of Mork and Mindy.
Like other comics I've interviewed he was soft spoken in real life.
I interviewed Bob Hope several times who approached comedy like a business executive --Hope showed me the miles of cabinets where he had every joke he'd ever cracked cross referenced on index cards.
Lucille Ball said she lacked a funny bone --"mine has dollar signs on it" --and she showed that side by becoming the first female head of a major L.A. studio (Desilu).
Johnny Carson warned he'd walk out if I asked anything personal.
Red Skelton said he'd had years of fighting the demons of depression.
For Williams it started with cocaine addiction which made him very high followed by incredible lows.
I thought of another gifted comic I'd interviewed in those days: Freddie Prinze who shot himself in his ABC dressing room in 1977.
Like so many comics Williams proved an amazingly deft dramatic actor in such movies as Moscow On The Hudson (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990)
, Good Will Hunting (1997).
But people loved him best in those years as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) --he had planned on reprising his role in a sequel.
Last season CBS put him in a shaky comedy The Crazy Ones (2013) which lasted but a year --Williams looked desperate as he battled predictable situations.
He has three new movies awaiting release but in recent months was battling alcoholism.
In recent years Williams battled serious illnesses including a heart operation in 2013 to replace his aortic valve.
His publicist said he had been battling severe depression in recent months.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TV Critics: An Endangered Species?

When I started out as a young and callow TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator in 1971 every self respecting newspaper had at least one TV critic.
I knew from the get-go that I just had to get on the Television Critics tour organized twice yearly by the Big Three U.S. networks.
But that was in the days when the American webs catered only to American scribes --so I cagily got the three Buffalo TV affiliates to wrote me letters of introduction saying Hamilton was part of their coverage.
And presto I was in --the only Canuck on the tour for almost the next decade.
In June of that year I boarded a flight for L.A. An NBC press rep met me at the airport, sent my bags directly to the Century Plaza hotel and drove me at break neck speed to Thousand Oaks where I enjoyed a catered lunch with Julie London at her home --she was then starring in the series Emergency.
In those days the TV dial consisted of just 10 channels --nobody had cable as yet.
So the tour consisted of nine days --three devoted to each major network.
PBS was so poor I remember a guy from Masterpiece Theater organizing a "secret" press interview with Anthony Hopkins to promote his PBS special Kean --it was done during a writing break so the three networks never knew about it.
My biggest surprise was to discover almost all the 100 TV critics were on the network tit --they willingly let the webs pay their hotel bills, entertainment expenses.
Some even brought their wives who were bussed out to the luxury shopping malls every afternoon with prepaid charge cards given them by the networks.
When the scribe from a Pittsburgh paper brought his drapes and then had them cleaned by the hotel and then charged the network, why, that was going too far --he was never asked back.
One night early on CBS bussed 100 critics to the Malibu home of Larry Hagman whose living room was a gigantic hot tub.
Scribes had to jump in to get the interview but later in the night Hagman went upstairs to his bedroom to discover a New York critic counting the boxer shorts in his drawers.
Enraged, Hagman kicked him out and that particular writer also disappeared from the trip.
The second year I remember one night CBS PR was near tears --CBS had organized an optional dinner at Lucy Ball's but nobody had signed on-- Lucy's series was faltering in the ratings and writers wanted younger, sexier subjects to write about.
I dutifully attended as did Kay Gardella from the New York News and Lucy retained us regally in her gazebo and at one point neighbor Jimmy Stewart poked his head over to say hi.
The very next year I was at Stewart's home and noticed his beloved dogs had scratched up all his furniture. A second session five years later merely disclosed how badly he'd aged.
I took tea with Roz Russell at her swank Hombly Hills home in 1972. One day that year I spent the morning on the set of Mission: Impossible and the afternoon on the set of Mannix. These two CBS ratings winners shot on the same Paramount backlot --in the middle was a small soundstage for The Brady Bunch.
In those days long before computers we had to file our stories by FAX.
One afternoon I went up to the press department and saw NBC flack Virginia Holden blacking out lines in some copy because she disagreed with the writers' opinions.
When I asked her about it she snapped "After all we're paying for it."
Perhaps networks and critics had become too cozy?
We took an extended trip of several days to San Diego with ABC footing the bill and critics were so frustrated by being cooped up that fisticuffs broke out.
During one interview session battle axe Marilyn Beck accused producer Jimmy Komack of giving Freddie Prinze drugs and he jumped on

top of  her and they rolled out the door.
Also, by the late Seventies the Big three's virtual monopoly was eroding. Cable webs were sprouting up everywhere and eventually  took pride of pace. And younger TV critics incensed by the payola organized the Television Critics Association.
These days TV critics no longer rule.
Because there are so very few of us left on the old legitimate papers which are shedding circulation.
The bloggers now rule TCA and their comments have become so nasty some networks are threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing.
These days the antics at Comic-Con which closely follows from San Diego get bigger headlines than the pallid antics of TCA.
I was glad to be there during the Glory Days when I could meet and greet with the likes of Bette Davis,  Irene Dunne, George Cukor and even Robert Young.
And I met such youngsters as John Travolta, Brad Pitt (on the Dallas set), Michele Pfeiffer (On the set of San Pedro Beach Bums).
It was a pretty good way to cover the TV beat as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Remember James Garner

It was very early in the morning, June 1976, and I was dashing into my hotel room at the Century Plaza hotel.
I could hear the phone ringing and on the line was the determined publicist for MCA, his name was Zane Bair,  that I remember.
"You have a luncheon date with Jim Garner on the set of Rockford Files, on the Universal lot at 1 p.m. Please be on time. I'm sending down a pass for you to get in through the main gate."
I'd been trying for an interview with Garner but always got turned down with the added message "Please try next time you're in L.A."
This time it worked and precisely at 1:05 I arrived at his massive trailer to find Garner and producer Meta Rosenberg already munching on their salmon salad sandwiches.
At the same time a studio nurse was dressing a bruised knee. Garner loved to do his own stunts --later he had to have both knees replaced and underwent quintuple bypass surgery after decades as a chain smoker.
That lunch marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Because Garner approved of the first story I got to interview him again --this time in the Toronto Star news room where he was filming the 1984 CBS TV movie Heartsounds co-starring Mary Tyer Moore.
"Hey, Mare, you come over here and meet this young chap," Garner yelled when Moore got skittish.
In fact as I recall she agreed to be photographed opposite The Star's managing editor Lou Clancy. And the front page headline the next day was right on: "Mary? Lou?"
In 1985 Garner and I hid out on a vast soundstage for the press party for the TV series Space. "I did agree to be interviewed but I never said how many reporter that entailed," he quipped.
And in 1993 I interviewed him on the phone for the last time for his latest TV flick Barbarians At The Gate.
Yes, Garner could be very open and amiable --just so long as you didn't cross him. Then his famous temper would explode and how.
After Rockford Files went off the air in 1980 Garner discovered to his intense annoyance the series was listed in the studio books as having made no profit because every possible service was downloaded as expenses including garbage delivery.
He never talked to Rosenberg again just as he broke off with Mariette Hartley although they had made a series of pleasing commercials for Polaroid.
Garner's big claim to fame was his position as one of the first TV super stars to jump successfully into movies.
That day in his star trailer he reflected on the theory that "I was told a TV star cannot become a movie star. Vince Edwards didn't make it. Mary Tyler Moore tried and failed. Richard Chamberlain is a wonderful actor but not a movie name. Then along came Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and yours truly and that barrier got broken down."
Garner's first claim to fame was the western TV hit Maverick --he made 60 hour episodes between 1957 and 1960. "Each took so long they had to bring in other actors. Sometimes they'd be shooting three episodes at once. Jack Kelly played my brother and for awhile Roger Moore was the English cousin Beau. I started out at $400 weekly and eventually made $800. Chicken feed but I was learning the ropes."
During his summer hiatus Garner made modestly budgeted actioners for theatrical release: Darby's Rangers (1958), Up Periscope (1959), and Cash McCall (1960) opposite Natalie Wood.
What changed his status? "The Great Escape in '63. A huge hit. Then I did two with Doris Day (The Thrill Of It All and Move OIver, Darling) --she did her own pratfalls, we had a blast. Then came my favorite picture The Americanization Of Emily. "
In 1971 he jumped back to TV with the western Nichols. "Oh, so you're the one person who watched it. I thought it was great but we only lasted 24 episodes."
The Rockford Files lasted 1974-1980 or 122 episodes although Garner reluctantly returned to the character in six TV flicks made in the 1990s.
Then came more TV series: Bret Maverick (1981-82), Man Of The People (1991-92), God, The Devil And Bob (2000-01), First Monday (2002) and his last-- 8 Simple Rules (2003-05).
I happen to think his best performance came in Murphy's Romance (1995) but he also shone in The Notebook (2004).
His strangest credit? He made half a movie in Canada in the 1980s and then departed when financing ran out telling me years later "It's been so long I don't even look like that anymore so it can't be finished."
Asked how he'd like to be remembered Garner grinned and said "As an actor who loved to work with smart people I could learn from. On the other hand Sally Field says to this day I'm her favorite kisser and that's quite a compliment."
In later years Garner battled back after a stroke and arthritis attacks. He died at his L.A. home July 19 2014 aged 86 leaving behind wife Lois and one daughter.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Kim Cattrall Excels In Sensitive Skin

Kim Cattrall was supposed to phone me to chat about her new HBO Canada series Sensitive Skin.
But she was momentarily lost for words when I explained I'd interviewed her once before.
"It was in 1979 and you were co-starring with Brent Carver in the CBC TV movie Crossbar, a wonderful film for adolescents about a teenager who loses a leg but still wants to be a high jumper.
"I remember the day I was on set also chatting up Kate Reid and John Ireland and director John Trent who I'd first met on the set of Jalna."
There was another awkward moment of stillness and then Cattrall said "Fine. Thanks. Now let's talk about Sensitive Skin."
In the six-part miniseries Sensitive Skin Cattrall is still out there shining away in a brilliant piece of Canadiana.
"It only took me nine years to get to this TV premiere," she says with a nervous laugh.
Nine years ago Cattrall was co-starring in a London play when she met British screen writer Hugo Blick who had written Sensitive Skin as a British TV vehicle for Joanna Lumley and Jonathan Miller.
"We talked about me doing something of his. I kept going back to this very dark series which I thought could translate to North America very well.
"But the way things proceeded it took this long."
To shepherd the Canadian production veteran Don McKellar stepped in both as director and co-star and his frequent writing partner Bob Martin rewrote the scripts (for Rhombus Media).
"It's considerably changed," Cattrall says. "Friends who have seen it call it a dramady. I'm skeptical. There's too much comedy. But it's certainly not a sitcom either."
Everyone in SS is slightly disfunctional but in a comedic way. Cattrall, 57, is Davina who has been married for 30 years to steadfast hypochondriac Al who writes a trivial sort of column for the Toronto Reporter.
Feeling hemmed in they have sold their comfortable Forest Hill home for a brand new condo in downtown Toronto --the interior is all spanking white and Davina's first purchase is the most uncomfortable white sofa anybody can imagine.
In March 2011 Cattrall made headlines when she lashed out at a New York Post reporter at the premiere of her new film Meet Monica Velours.
"Ask me what it's like to be 54 and marginalized. It doesn't get easier as you get older."
Cattrall praises the Toronto centricity of the series --for once T.O. does not stand in for some vague American city.
"People have told me they feel like this couple. They moved downtown because Toronto is all condos these days. And it's not what they imagined. Transportation is iffy, there's noise, street people, it can be dangerous at nights."
All this gets dramatized in Sensitive Skin and Cattrall reports "It was truly satisfying being Davina. She has a lot of layers."
Cattrall says "It's not like we had a ton of money to spend. Don keeps the same crew and they work on a sort of short hand. I'd break for tea and they were all ready for the next set up. We'd do a few takes and then move on again. It's all on film --that explains the sheen.
"And yet the look is luxurious. Their apartment was the only big set, it is a character in itself. No wait! The couch is truly a real character."
Other characters include their 30-year old son who remains a perpetual adolescent and blames his low sperm count on his impending divorce.
Then there's brother-in-paw Rogers (Colm Feore), impossibly successful at high finance until he seems to begin flirting with Davina.
Davina plays out her midlife crisis with a piano teacher cum amateur archaeologist Grey (Marc-Andre Grodin).
In one episode both Davina and Al have encounters with friends from long ago.
Davina meets a girl who hero worshipped her in high school and always thought she's emerge as a big movie star. Turns out the ugly high school friend has morphed into one of Toronto's top neurologists.
Al meets an old flame wonderfully overplayed by Mary Walsh who invites him on her radio program where he over prepares and winds up berating her on air.
In several sessions Al is both comforted and teased by his neurotic doctor played wonderfully by Elliott Gould.
"In the original it was  Jonathan Miller and he was far more dark and menacing."
Also outstanding: Joanne Gleason as Davina's older sister Veronica and Cle bennett as erudite drug dealer Theodore.
Cattrall says "We felt at the end we'd made the equivalent of several feature films."
To economize block shooting was used --all the scenes in the apartment were shot one after the other --it was the same with the visits to Davina's art gallery or the doctor's office.
"You had to be on your toes," is the way Cattrall sums it up.
"We wanted the characters to be entirely recognizable. The humor comes through in the brilliant writing."
Cattrall is right in thinking Sensitive Skin is so different it takes some time to get used to its gentleness and sense of perspective.
But the full season will be available to subscribers following the broadcast premiere --a first for Canadian TV.
Subscribers will also be able to watch Season 1 of Sensitive Skin on TMN GO, Shaw Go Movie Central app, Bell TV app, Telus Optik on the go and via on demand platforms.
MY RATING: ****.