Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Alex Loves Ellen…and Billy Vera and the Beaters

It was a romance that lasted a season on television but until death do us part in real life – and it had the song to match.

It was the romance between Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) and Ellen Reed (played by Tracy Pollan) that bloomed in the fall of 1985 on “Family Ties”. A year later the song that punctuated their relationship topped the Billboard charts.

The episode “Alex Loves Ellen” and the song “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters were like nothing witnessed before that time, a cross-pollination of TV and music.

Alex falls in love
The 1985-1986 season of “Family Ties” opened with a two-part episode that turned poor Alex P. Keaton’s world on its ear. In his quest to romance a beautiful freshman, who returns his affection, everything seems to be going perfectly for Alex except for one thing: he finds himself attracted to her mousey roommate Ellen.

He comes to this realization near the end of part one. He dances with Ellen, then kisses her. They linger for a second, but she leaves. As Alex comes to terms with his feelings, he daydreams during an exam, failing it because he did not write a single word before the time was up.

He vows to tell Ellen, only to discover she has left. She is taking an all-night train to meet her boyfriend, who she plans to marry. Ultimately he does tell her, and they begin a relationship that lasts the rest of the season – a first for Alex.

At this moment
What gave the two-parter more emotional impact was the use of a song recorded five years earlier by an unknown California band called Billy Vera and the Beaters.

We first hear the song at the dance with Alex and Ellen kissing at its climax. It is then the soundtrack for Alex’s daydream scene during his exam, playing while images of Alex and Ellen flash on the screen. It was the perfect song for the occasion.

Back then there was little inter-play between TV and music. What I mean is if you heard a song on a TV show, your only chance to hear it again was by recording the song off TV. That had begun to change a bit in the late-70s and early-80s with “Believe it or Not” by Joey Scarbury from “The Greatest American Hero”, The Rockford Files Theme” by Mike Post, and “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian from “Welcome Back, Kotter”. But these songs were the exceptions. As the 80s progressed there would be more and more, such as “Moonlighting” by Al Jarreau, “As Long as We Got Each Other” by B.J. Thomas and Jennifer Warnes from “Growing Pains”.

What really hastened that shift was the meteoric rise of “At This Moment” up the charts.

Climbing the charts
“At this Moment” was originally recorded in 1981, and charted on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at number 79. After its appearance on “Family Ties”, it was re-released and began a climb that eventually landed the single on top of the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts in January of 1987.

Tonight’s the Night and beyond
While "At This Moment" was climbing up the charts, Billy Vera was in production for a TV movie called "Tonight's the Night". He and the Beaters  initially had a small part as the house band for the bar the movie takes place in. As the single kept climbing, the network executives kept pushing for a bigger role. It was kind of neat to see. I found some of Billy Vera and the Beaters' other music from "Tonight's the Night" and have embedded it here.

The last time I heard of Billy Vera was back in the early 1990s when he was the house band for Rick Dees' short-lived late-night show "Into the Night".

Parting thoughts
The reason that "Alex Loves Ellen" and "At This Moment" stick with me is simple: the boy gets the girl in the end. What made it even more powerful was the way the creators used a video montage sequence set to stirring music. Every time I hear "At This Moment" it conjures up images of Alex and Ellen kissing on the dance floor. That is the power of music.

And their love for each other seemed so real – because it was. It still is. Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan got married after that. They remain together to this day, raising several children and sticking together through Fox's heroic and very public battle with Parkinson's Disease.

How can you not love Alex and Ellen, and Billy Vera and the Beaters, and Michael and Tracy.

The Black Hole: Disney gets terrifying

Maximilian Schell as the haunting and terrifying
Dr. Hans Reinhardt in "The Black Hole".
It may have been when Disney went dark. When it went from sunshine and light, to the blackness of space. It was the dawn of the 1980s. I was 10 years old and still pretty impressionable, when I saw a movie in the theatre that really disturbed me. That was the first time that ever happened to me, and I will never forget.

Maximilian Schell died a few weeks ago, and his picture reminded me of that time, so long ago, at the College Centre Mall theatre in Lethbridge, or as we called it, the Woolco Mall. He played the villain in that movie that so bothered me as a 10 year old. That movie, was “The Black Hole”.

Going to the movies
 A movie poster for "The Black Hole",
“The Black Hole” was not at all what I expected. I should have known it would have a dark side because my cousin Carl wanted to go see it. I was spending a few days visiting his family in Lethbridge when they suggested we go see a movie. I had seen a preview of “The Black Hole” one Sunday night on the “Wonderful World of Disney”. Joseph Bottoms, one of the movie’s stars, narrated the segment and made it sound pretty cool. He was par of the crew of a spaceship called the Palomino, and I thought that was the coolest name. (At school my friend Dave said it sounded too “horsey”). They happen upon a space station, and that’s where things get spooky.

Schell plays the leader of the space station who seems very accommodating and welcoming – at first. Then, various crew members of the Palomino observe some off things. The station seems to be serviced by robots. One day, one of the Palomino crew members sees a robot walk with a limp. Ultimately, they discover Schell took over the station and enslaved the station’s crew as robots, lobotomising them in the process. It gets more disturbing, suspenseful, and even a bit terrifying from there.

Parting thoughts
“The Black Hole” was the only movie in the 80s in which I saw Maximilian Schell, but it left a lasting impression. I can understand why he was such a revered actor, because he scared the crap out of me.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Going to see E.T.: A man and his dog

The poster featuring ET
making Elliot's bike fly.
The poster symbolizing not only ET's
healing touch, but his friendship with
Elliot, and he bridging of two cultures.
It was the strangest thing. Me and my cousin Henry are sitting in the theatre, maybe 20 minutes into the movie when the usher comes up to me and whispers in my ear, “Excuse me, can you and your friend move over two seats.”

“Why?” I thought.

Before I could get the words out of my mouth, she said, “For this gentleman and his dog.”

“His dog?” I thought. “WTF?” (or at least the 1982 version of that).

For about the next 10 minutes, the man, his female companion, and that dog occupied my attention way more than the movie itself.

It was too bad too, because the movie we were watching at the Woodward’s Mall was considered by many to be one of the best of the ‘80s.

I can’t believe I almost lost the flow of “ET: The Extraterrestrial”, but it turned out to be for a very good reason.

A man and his dog
There had been a lot of hype about “ET”. By then, Steven Spielberg had become one of the premiere filmmakers and everything he touched turned to gold. There were cups, shirts, posters, and Atari even made an “ET” video game.

The premise was simple, and the execution was appealing. An alien crash lands on Earth, a boy finds him, and helps him get home. The cast was stellar. Dee Wallace Stone played the mother, a very young Drew Barrymore played the baby sister, and Henry Thomas played Elliott, who befriends ET.

Thomas had been known best up to that point for a movie he played in 1981, called “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid”, based on a Coke commercial. The commercial featured “Mean” Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers limping down a tunnel, obviously hurt after a game. A boy comes up to him and offers him his Coke. Joe takes it and the boy walks away. Joe calls out, “Hey kid, catch!” and tosses him his jersey. The movie Thomas starred in follows what happens after the boy’s encounter with Greene. He hit it big soon after when he landed the role of Elliot.

The movie was all right, and I am glad I saw it, but I can’t say it left a lasting impression on me, except for the music, which really does resonate and if I think about it, I can still hear it in my head.

As for the man with the dog in the theatre, it turned out we had to move because the man was blind and needed room for his seeing-eye dog. His female companion was describing what was happening on the screen. Looking back, she was quite discreet about that. So much so, I never really noticed, until my sister pointed it out.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Phil Collins: Losing Against All Odds

Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward in the movie "Against All Odds"
It was the biggest travesty in Oscar history, if you ask me. It was a blatant example of homerism, and showed you don't have to be the best, you just had to be American.

It was the 1984 Oscars (which were actually awarded in March of 1985) when Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” beat out Phil Collins “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”.

It was an outrage on many levels, because “Against All Odds” was not only one of the best power ballads ever, it was a presumptive front runner for the Oscar, and just a much better, richer, more textured song.

Take a look at me now
I first heard “Against All Odds” back in 1984 and it really stuck with me. It was from a movie by the same name, featuring Jeff Bridges, James Woods, and Rachel Ward, who had just come off tours in the movie "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and the blockbuster TV mini-series "The Thorn Birds". Soon after, I saw the video for the song on a CBC show airing after school every couple days called “Coming Attractions – Video”. It soon would be re-branded “Video Hits” hosted by Samantha Taylor.

The video was directed by Taylor Hackford who also directed the movie "Against All Odds". He had earlier success with music in movies in his production "An Officer and a Gentleman" and the song "Up Where We Belong"by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. "Against All Odds" was one of the first videos to string together clips from the movie in a meaningful way that matched the lyrics of the song. I just loved the tempo and pacing as well, especially when pounding drums are heard over top scenes of collision and violence.

"Against All Odds" was my favourite song, and remains one of my favourites to this day.

I was so excited to discover it had been nominated for an Oscar. I thought for sure it was a shoo-in, because it was head and shoulders above the other nominees: “Footloose”, by Kenny Loggins; “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, and also from “Footloose”; “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Junior; and “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, by Stevie Wonder, from “The Lady in Red”.

Never in a million years did I think “Against All Odds” would not win, or lose to the song it did.

Oscar snub, times two
It was the first time I watched the Oscars for the best song nominees. The 1980s saw an explosion of movie soundtracks. Top-level, chart-topping performers were being recruited to sing movie soundtracks, and solid songwriters were providing the material.

The nominees for best original song were sung throughout the Oscar broadcast. When it came time for “Against All Odds”, Phil Collins was still sitting in the audience. Instead, Ann Reinking sang the song – and it was absolutely terrible. The only positive thing I could take from it was that I was able to understand two verses I could never decipher when Collins sang them.

To make matters worse, I later discovered that Phil Collins had actually offered to perform his song, yet he was refused. Every other nominee was on air and present to sing their songs. It was appalling.

The second, and more disheartening snub came when the winner was announced.

Instead of choosing the song many thought would win, the academy chose Stevie Wonder’s song. The slight still enrages me to this day.

What is amazing is that “Against All Odds” could not beat “I Just Called to Say I Love you” at the Oscars, but the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and Phil Collins bested every single male singer in music, including Stevie Wonder and Kenny Loggins, on his way to the Grammy for best pop vocal male performance in 1985.

Parting thoughts
The whole episode just illustrated for me how politics can play into awards. It was like the figure skating of music. The decision to use a second-rate performance by Ann Reinking to sing “Against All Odds” just makes me suspect the academy knew it had made the wrong choice, but decided to demean the rightful winner in the only way it could. Maybe I've just read too many conspiracy theories in my life.

It was sad, and tarnished the Oscars as a whole – for anyone who gave it any credibility at all at that point.

The Oscars are this Sunday, so keep this in mind when you see this year’s winners announced.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Before "Glee" there was "Rags to Riches"

The cast of the TV series
"Rags to Riches" which ran in 1987-1988.
“Rags to Riches” was a musical like “Glee” long before Finn Hudson and Rachel Berry came along. The show followed the life of Nick Foley (Joseph Bologna), a billionaire who adopts a group of teenage girls in the 1960s. They have a sense of style, constantly breaking out in song, all music from the 1960s. Often the lyrics were changed to suit the situation going on in the episode.

It may not be very well known, but it was a unique show with an interesting style. People may not remember it, but I will always remember the show “Rags to Riches” for one episode that touched my heart.

"Rags to Riches" aired on Channel 7 on the peasant vision dial at the tail end of my Grade 12 year in 1987.

Nick wanted to portray a sense of family to close a business deal, and dispel his image as a playboy. When he reads about this group of orphaned girls who refuse to be separated from each other, he takes them. It was never meant to be permanent, but he truly becomes attached to them and adopts them, and the show goes on from there.

In one episode, Nick’s brother Frankie, played by Joe Cortese comes to visit. They never got along, and the show goes to its first commercial with the brothers grudgingly posing for a photo. Although they have their arms around each other and they are smiling, it is forced and grudging. Things get worse as Frankie offers advice to one of the girls which makes matters worse. Eventually, Nick and Frankie have it out and a deadly secret is revealed: Frankie is dying.

The brothers patch things up, due in part to efforts by the girls, and the episode ends with Nick and Frankie posing for another photo. It is exactly the same picture – except this time the smiles are genuine and loving.

Parting thoughts
"Rags to Riches" only lasted 20 episodes, but it did leave a lasting impression on me with this episode, which Internet Movie Database reveals is titled, "Bad Blood". I even taped it on VHS and have that kicking around somewhere.

"Rags to Riches" also was a pioneer in its own right with the musical interludes. Have a look at the embedded video, although the voice-over narration gets in the way a bit, and see for yourself: it really was "Glee" in the 1980s.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Canada Cup 1987: Best tournament ever

This is Team Canada 1987, champions of the Canada Cup, the best international tournament ever.
For every generation of Canadian hockey fan, there is a magical moment, a special goal. For some it is Paul Henderson in 1972, for others Sidney Crosby in 2010. I was two years old when Henderson beat the Soviets, and just turned 40 when Crosby beat the Americans in overtime. For me, the goal I will always remember, and recall exactly where I was, is Mario Lemieux in 1987.

It was the last Cold War showdown. Not too long after the Iron Curtain fell, the Russians started playing in the NHL, and there was no more mystery. There was no more fear, no more suspicion. Just hockey. It would never be about a clash of our different ways of life. It would be just about a game. And maybe that’s the way it should have always been.

September, 1987
September of 1987 was a period of change for me. It was my first year of university, and I had been on my own, away from home, for just a few weeks. To be honest, the last thing on my mind was the Canada Cup. Instead, I was having the crap kicked out of me by English 200, a first-year honours English course. The only reason I took it was because it was the prerequisite for a playwriting course I wanted to take. You see, back then I had aspirations of being a playwright. Those would soon dissolve in a pool of beer, testosterone, and reality.

The tournament started and I didn’t even notice. My best friend and roommate, Chris Vining, was into it, watching every game. Meanwhile, I laboured away trying to understand “Beowulf”, “Henry IV”, and “The Canterbury Tales”. I do recall one night Vining coming back to our room dejected because Canada had tied a game he thought they should have won, and he was down – really down.

Pretty soon I made the decision to drop English 200. I didn’t want to be a playwright that badly, and quite frankly, I was not enjoying all that classic literature. And I was missing out on stuff like the Canada Cup.

Now, I could turn my full attention to the task at hand.

Canada was the defending Canada Cup champion from 1984. They started the tournament with a tie against Czechoslovakia, then wins over Finland, Sweden, and the United States. Their round-robin finale would be against their old nemesis – the Soviet Union. The two teams would settle nothing skating to a tie.

In the semi-finals, Canada defeated Czechoslovakia while the Soviets beat Sweden, who had defeated the Russians in the round robin. Those results set up the showdown everyone had expected and was waiting for: Canada-USSR for the first time since the 1981 Canada Cup final. That was a one-game, sudden-death affair. This time around it was a best-of-three series – and the teams would need all three games and more.

Game 1 had my full attention, but just one play is burned in my memory. The Canadians and Russians had played hard, back and forth hockey that settled nothing in regulation time. The teams were tied 5-5 going into overtime. Then tragedy struck. Alexander Semak came in on the left side and ripped a shot that eluded Canadian goaltender Grant Fuhr. The Soviets had won 6-5, taking a 1-0 lead in the series, and just needing one more win to break Canada’s heart for the second time in three Canada Cups.

For whatever reason, I was unable to see Game 2, which was probably for the best because I probably would have been a wreck. If memory serves, I think that was the weekend we went out to Vining’s dad’s place up at Cherhill north of Edmonton.

I do recall discovering Canada had won – 6-5 – and we were off to a sudden-death, winner-take-all Game 3 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.

I don’t have a lot of memories about seeing that game live as it happened. I do remember Mario Lemieux scoring that game winner, set up by Wayne Gretzky, and Mylnikov, the Soviet goalie falling back against the crossbar dejected.

After the game, I recall Dennis Reid, who lived at the end of our wing coming into the lounge. He said he could tell Canada had scored because he could hear the cheers ripple up the entire building (we lived on the 10th floor of a 10-storey building).

A few months later, I was emotionally drained and really tired from living on four hours of sleep a night for a few months. The life of a student you know. I was at University Health Services waiting to see a doctor, when I picked up an old issue of Maclean’s magazine in the waiting room. I started to read it, and that’s when I re-lived the Canada Cup.

The story focused on the stirring comeback by Canada. They fell behind 3-0 then 4-1, when they decided their only chance was to start hitting. The line featuring Brent Sutter and Rick Tocchet hit everything in sight. They even hit each other at one point when a Soviet ducked and they collided. Dale Hawerchuk, who may have been the third best player in the NHL behind Gretzky and Lemieux, had been asked to take on a checking role by coach Mike Keenan, which he did. That was what made Hawerchuk one of my all-time favourites – he would take on whatever role asked of him.

Dale Hawerchuk, accepted a checking role, and was
a big part of the big comeback in Game 3 of the final.
It paid off too. Late in the game, with the score tied 5-5, and the two-on-one developing with Gretzky and Lemieux, Hawerchuk knocked down a Soviet defender, allowing defenceman Larry Murphy to jump into the play and make it a three-on-one.

The other thing this story paid particular attention to was Normand Rochefort. He had played in relative obscurity in the NHL, but Keenan saw something in him. In turn, Rochefort responded, playing the best hockey of his career and was Canada’s best defensive defenceman.

Reading that article with my emotions raw from girl troubles, exam stress, and teen angst, I was moved to tears. But it really was that kind of a game.

The years after
It was another nine years before I truly appreciated how great that game was. It was the summer of 1996. I had left the university after nine years. My friend Mark had told me one day that he had rented Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup at the Edmonton Public Library. I couldn’t believe it, it just seemed too esoteric to me. I wanted to get to know the library better anyway, so Mark took me to the downtown branch ad showed me the ropes – including how to order that game on tape.

A few days later it arrived. I was living in Garneau Walk-ups on campus (because they let non-students live there in the summer). My friend Kevin was a big hockey fan, and we were gearing up for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, the first one of its kind, and the successor to the Canada Cup. I invited him over and we watched the game.

It was awesome. Uninterrupted, with one of my best friends, I finally had the chance to appreciate that game. It looked bleak when Canada went down 3-0 then 4-1. But the Canadians kept coming, and it was the leadership of Sutter, Tocchet and Hawerchuk that brought Canada back. There was also something uniquely thrilling about knowing how it would end.

“This is it,” I remember Kevin saying as that fateful play turned from a two-on-one to a three-on-one.

We were both thrilled all over again.

Another 10 years passed when all of Canada’s games from that 1987 Canada Cup were released on DVD. I am waiting for a special time to watch them. I’m not sure when that will be though.

Parting thoughts
Canada won the gold medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics just over a day ago, and the media is already calling them the best team ever, after the 1972 Summit Series team. In a recent TSN top 10 list, Lemieux’s goal was pushed down below Henderson’s and Crosby’s.

Still, I believe that 1987 tournament was the best one ever. It has been the only time ever that all the best players in the world participated. It was a convergence of timing and players staying injury free. Every other major tournament has had glaring absences. Even this year in Sochi, Sweden was missing their best three centres. That alone precludes the 2014 Olympics from being a tournament of the best.

Beyond that, the sheer drama and political overtones made it something special. It was the last tournament of its kind ever, and it could not have gone any better.

The Road Warrior: Remembering the video party

The movie poster for the
1979 movie "Mad Max"
The movie poster for the
1981 movie "The Road Warrior"
Every time I see Mel Gibson, I am taken back to another place and another time, to the first instance that I saw him. It was a long time ago, close to 30 years, at a relic of the past known as – the video party.

Happy birthday, Shawn
Getting together with your family, or a bunch of friends, to watch a movie is still pretty common. But, back in the early 1980s, it was still a big deal. As the decade opened, VCRs (or video cassette recorders) had just come out, and were still very expensive, coming in at more than $1,000 for the first ones. Movies were not as easily accessible as they are now either. They played in the theatre then, a year or more later, they made it to network TV. Later, they began to appear on tape but that was a slow process at first – until the industry realized how much money they could make. Look at how quickly you can see them now from first run, to second-run theatres, to DVD or online in a matter of months.

Most people first used VCRs by renting them, which you could do at the increasing number of video stores, and later from convenience stores like 7-11, and Red Rooster in beautiful, downtown Coaldale, Alberta.

My friend Shawn was having a birthday party and invited me and a couple other guys. His mom made the best pizza, then the birthday boy opened his presents. He loved science fiction, so I got him a brand new copy of Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” from Coles Books in the Woodward’s Mall in Lethbridge. After that, we migrated to their basement for the main feature: a movie.

We had all heard about “The Road Warrior”, this post-apocalyptic revenge flick from Australia, but none of us had seen it. Shawn’s mom brought down tons of popcorn while his dad set up the VCR. It was the size of a suitcase, and as a heavy as one full of clothes. It was still early days, before you could just slide the tape in and press play, so you had to load the tape from the top and push it down.

The movie was awesome, and I was really impressed with Mel Gibson. A while later I was riding the school bus with my friend Mat when he told me “The Road Warrior” was the sequel to another movie: “Mad Max”. It sure would be cool to see that, I thought.

I would get my chance.

The rest of the story – or so I thought
About a year later, Mat was celebrating a birthday too. On the menu this time was a double feature: “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior”. And there was more pizza and presents.

Now, it all made sense to me. Max had been a highway patrolman who first saw his partner burned up, then his wife and child killed, by a motorcycle gang. That sent him into a rage where he exacted revenge by hunting down the gang’s leaders. “Mad Max” ends with the title character driving off into the Australian Outback.

We pick up his trail in post-apocalyptic Australia where he encounters a settlement in the Outback being harassed by marauders. Again, Max intervenes. Now it all made sense.

A sequel came out when I was in Grade 11, hyped up by Tina Turner’s song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero”. Oddly, after seeing the first two movies and enjoying them as I did, I never saw “Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome”, not to this day. Apparently there is another sequel planned for 2015. Maybe then I’ll do a “Mad Max” marathon.

However, what “Mad Max” did do, was cement my interest in Mel Gibson. He would go on to a lot of great movies, starting in the 1980s with “The Year of Living Dangerously” in 1982; “The Bounty”, “The River”, and “Mrs. Soffel”, all in 1984; “Lethal Weapon” in 1987, and its first sequel in 1989; and “Tequila Sunrise” in 1988.

Parting thoughts
Every time I see “The Road Warrior” I am reminded of a much different time.  Those video parties were a chance to experience technology, the grandparents of the DVDs, high definition, and PVRs we take for granted today. Thinking back to those clunky VCRs, noisy tape decks, and limited movie selection, it makes me appreciate what we have today.

However, those video parties were not just about the movies and the pizza, they were a chance to escape the isolation of the farm and hang out with my friends. And that’s something I should never take for granted.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Ralph Waite: From Pa Walton to Father Matt

Linda Miller, Ralph Waite, and Stan Shaw, the main actors on "The Mississippi".
It was another case of “I recognize that face…and that voice”, but it seemed kind of hard to believe. I was home for lunch one day watching “Days Of Our Lives”, and this old priest came on screen. He looked so familiar, but I just could not place him.

Then it clicked. It had been a long time, a really long time ago. I was surprised he was still alive. Staring me in the face, through the magic of television, was Ralph Waite, the man best known for playing John Walton Sr. in “The Waltons” which ran from 1972 to 1981. Wikipedia revealed he is pushing 85 years of age, which is so impressive.

From Walton’s Mountain to the Mississippi River
As the ‘80s opened, "The Waltons" was running its course. It had become a victim of the same malady as all family-centred, long-running TV series. The children had grown up and moved on, so where do you go? Ultimately into cancellation and the world of follow-up TV movies.

Ralph Waite opened the 1980s
in the role of John "Pa" Walton.
Still, through it all, there was Ralph Waite playing the patriarch of the Walton family – owner of a sawmill during the Depression, father of six, and wise giver of advice. It was an archetypical role, one that would define him as an actor.

Yet, what I remember most in the 1980s about Ralph Waite was another show he did. Simply titled, “The Mississippi” he played a southern lawyer who drove a boat along the fabled Mississippi River. I first read about the show as one of a package of mid-season replacement series CBS was unveiling. Of course, on peasant vision it did not air on Channel 13 for a few more months.

Again I recall Waite’s character being very similar to John Walton – wise, calm, and measured in his response to everything that came at him. I also remember his co-star, African-American actor Stan Shaw who played his sidekick Lafe Tate. However, like so much peasant vision, only a few episodes aired before “The Mississippi” disappeared into the ether. It was too bad, because the reason the show interested me was Ralph Waite.

Ralph Waite in his final recurring role on
television, Father Matt on "Days Of Our Lives"
The years after
The next time I saw Ralph Waite was playing Kevin Costner’s character Frank Farmer’s father in “The Bodyguard”. Again, he played the calm yet confident and stern father figure.

Parting thoughts
Playing a priest on “Days Of Our Lives” is the next logical step in a lifetime of roles as sage paternal figures. He truly has gone from “Pa” Walton to “Father” Matt. Some would call it typecasting, but Ralph Waite’s longevity proves it is more than that. It is a style that makes him an actor that directors want to hire, and viewers want to see. How many other actors are still working at 85?

Post script
After I first posted this entry, Ralph Waite died. Still, who can claim, especially actors, that they worked until their last day on Earth. Ralph Waite can.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Neil Patrick Harris: Doogie Howser re-invents himself

Could you believe this cute face could end up on
the body of Barney Stinson?
It’s not often an actor has a chance to successfully re-invent himself. There are some examples such as Buddy Ebsen going from Jed Clampett to Barnaby Jones, Raymond Burr from Perry Mason to Ironside, even Lee Majors from Steve Austin (The Six Million Dollar Man) to Colt Seavers (The Fall Guy), and even Tom Selleck from Thomas Magnum to Frank Reagan (Blue Bloods).

Perhaps the most striking example is Neil Patrick Harris. Once known exclusively as Doogie Howser, he will likely go down in history now as Barnie Stinson. That’s an amazing feat for an actor who could easily have been typecast the rest of his life as a genius, teenage doctor.

Worth the wait
Doogie Howser, M.D. debuted in 1989 with an unlikely premise: a boy genius becomes a doctor. On the surface, the premise seemed goofy bordering on ludicrous. However, it was created by Steven Bochco who was one of the best writers on television. He had already won critical acclaim for shows such as "Hillstreet Blues" and "L.A. Law", so his name lent credibility to the show.

Yet, I did not start watching until the summer of 1991. I was home from university for the summer and had no one really to hang out with. Consequently, I spent every night watching reruns of shows I had no time to watch during the school year. That’s when I decided to give "Doogie Howser, M.D." a shot – and I was not disappointed.

Classic Bochco
The show was classic Bochco in a couple ways. He had a stable of actors and drew from that for every one of his productions. In this case, James B. Sikking, who had played Howard Hunter in "Hillstreet Blues", played Doogie’s father David Howser (just as Dennis Franz had been in "Hillstreet Blues", "Bay City Blues" and "NYPD Blue", and Jimmy Smits was in "LA Law" and "NYPD Blue"). It also addressed social issues head on such as AIDS, ageism, teenage sexuality, racism, and homophobia.
What made the show compelling was Harris’ portrayal of a boy in an adult world who knew on paper exactly what to do, but struggled with the fact he was dealing with human beings. His best friend was his next door neighbour Vinnie Delpino, who was your average teenager. Vinnie kept Doogie grounded, usually by climbing through his bedroom window to visit him. His parents, David, and Katherine (played by Belinda Montgomery) also provided conventional wisdom to an exceptional teenager. And then there was Wanda, Doogie’s girlfriend who kept him grounded only the way a girlfriend can.

"Doogie Howser, M.D." ran its score and was cancelled in 1993 after four seasons. I never saw the final episode but heard Doogie left the hospital and headed to Europe.

The years after
Neil Patrick Harris disappeared from network television for a time. He returned in 1999, co-starring for a season with Tony Shalhoub in "Stark Raving Mad". Then, in 2005, he assumed the role of Barney Stinson in "How I Met Your Mother". It has been on the air twice as long as "Doogie Howser, M.D.", spanning more than 200 episodes, and garnered Harris four Emmy nominations, from 2007 to 2010, for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series.

He will go down on history as Barney Stinson. Neil Patrick Harris has definitely left Doogie Howser behind.

Amos: Focusing on the plight of the elderly

Some of the cast of "Amos".
It was one of the first movies I ever saw that focused on seniors issues – aging, elder abuse, independence . “Amos” used a brilliant cast, ultimately earning Kirk Douglas an Emmy nomination.

A minute that changes everything
Amos Lasher is a one-time baseball manager who loses his wife and home in an accident, confining home to a state-run nursing home. That’s when the fun really begins.

The home is a sterile place where everyone lives in fear of Daisy Daws, the nurse who runs the place with an iron fist. Elizabeth Montgomery turns in a brilliant performance as the wicked, ruthless, condescending nurse who does whatever she wants to keep the residents in line and, if memory serves, bilk them out of their estates. If they are really uncontrollable, somehow they always end up dead too. Her performance is a complete about face from her long-time role as Samantha Stevens, the kind, sweet, charming witch on Bewitched. Here, she’s more like the wicked step-sister.
The caption for the photo above.

Game, set, and match
Nurse Daisy, however, will meet her match in Amos Lasher, whose indomitable spirit will not be squashed. He is assigned to a room with Ray Walston, who gives Amos the name Chuck. It is the same name he gives all his roommates, after his very first one. Chuck died but his name lives on in all who come after him. No use getting to know them when they’ll be gone in no time. He also meets Tommy Tanaka, played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, fresh off his Academy Award nominated turn in “The Karate Kid”. Tommy has a love for gardening, but he has to hide his plants from the staff. When they discover one, they take it away. The home is very much a police state. Soon, Amos meets Hester Farrell, played by movie starlet Dorothy McGuire, who eventually falls in love with him.

Parting thoughts
Blockbuster calls this movie melodramatic, but I whole-heartedly disagree. The ending is anything but predictable or melodramatic, although I won’t spoil it for you because I have embedded the movie in its entirety in this post.

Beyond its dramatic quality, “Amos” shines a light on the plight of the elderly. We are all destined to get old, but not at the expense of our dignity, self-respect, or grace. “Amos” showed just how we, as society, abdicate our responsibility to care for those who once cared for us. It shows that instead of helping people age gracefully, we warehouse them, and treat them as a burden or an expense to the bottom line of life. But it also shows that, just because we age, we don’t die. We have the same desires, needs, and expectations we always did. And you try to take those away, we won’t go down without a fight. Long before concepts like “aging in place” became the vogue, we needed movies to show us what happens when we stop respecting our elders.

Not many people will remember “Amos”, but it did its part to change the world and, maybe just maybe, it opened a few eyes along the way.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Murder Can Hurt You: A classic spoof

An ad for "Murder Can Hurt You" showing exactly who starred in the movie. You can guess who they were spoofing.

The spoof has become a lost art on television. The idea of parodying television shows or movies seems to have been relegated to sketch comedies and late-night talk shows.

Back in 1980, ABC and by extension CTV Channel 13 on the peasant vision dial, aired one of the more all-encompassing spoofs. It was a send-up of television crime dramas and spoofed no less than eight different television series. It was more cheese than comedy, but certainly left a lasting impression.

It was called “Murder Can Hurt You”, and it featured a who’s who of television actors from the 1970s and 1980s. The plot was simple: someone is murdering all the great detectives and cops, and it is up to the surviving ones to find the murderer and stop him (or her).

The characters were:
• “Chief Ironbottom”, played by Victor Buono, spoofing “Ironside”;
• “Pony Lambretta”, played by Tony Danza, spoofing “Baretta”;
• “Studsky”, played by Jamie Farr, and “Len ‘Hatch’ Hatchington”, played by John Byner, spoofing “Starsky and Hutch”;
• “Lt. Nojack”, played by Gavin MacLeod, spoofing “Kojak”;
• “Sheriff Tim MacSkye”, played by Buck Owens, spoofing “McCloud”;
• “Sgt. Salty Sanderson”, played by Connie Stevens, spoofing “Police Woman” and the lead character Pepper Anderson;
• “Lt. Palumbo”, played by Burt Young, spoofing “Columbo”;
• “Mrs. Palumbo”, played by Liz Torres, spoofing “Mrs. Columbo”.

The narrator was Don Adams, who had played secret agent Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart”, itself a spoof of spy movies.

“Murder Can Hurt You” is a TV version of Neil Simon’s 1976 movie “Murder by Death”, which spoofed literary detectives and their theatrical equivalents.

Parting thoughts
I missed the first fifteen minutes or so of this movie, so I never did see the set up. What I found interesting, beyond the mystery of who was really behind all the murders, was trying to identify the characters being spoofed. Some of them did such a good job, it was like they actually were the characters they were parodying.

I cannot really think of another example of a parody this broad, and that’s too bad, because “Murder Can Hurt You” and even “Murder by Death”, offer a window to the pop culture of the time they come from.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Requiem for Zellers

This is the most recent Zellers location, which turned
out to be the last, in Lethbridge. Back in the 1980s, it
was located on Mayor Magrath Drive, the current

home  of The Movie Mill and Value Village.
This past Christmas was the first in more than 80 years without Zellers. Last year, a cloud of death hovered over the store, with a flurry of closing-out sales and announcements that everything must go. If you visited a store, it looked like a scene out of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, when angry hyenas pick clean the carcass of a zebra. But Zellers was still there.

Not so this Christmas. U.S.-based Target, which bought up the Zellers chain, began opening its own stores to replace Zellers in what it deemed to be profitable centres. Lethbridge wasn’t one of the lucky spots. Instead, there was ghostly silence where yet another retail fixture in the community went into that good night – following in the same path as Woodward’s, Woolco, Woolworth’s, and Eaton’s.

Those were all part of the route of stores we frequented when we made our weekly trek Saturday mornings to go shopping in the city. Zellers was not part of that route, located in a place off our very narrow beaten path. Yet, every so often we ventured down Mayor Magrath Drive and checked out what Zellers had to offer.

Even if we were not regulars, there was something comforting in knowing there was another store – a Canadian one – to visit if we needed something the other stores just may not have had.

Now, yet another option has disappeared, and without any fanfare. Just like those other stores.