Friday, 26 September 2014

J.C. Watts: A lasting first impression

J.C. Watts in his number six jersey with the Ottawa
Rough Riders, at his mobile, scrambling best.
The career of Julius Caesar Watts took an unexpected turn when he came north to the only league that would let him play quarterback – The Canadian Football League. He would make an immediate mark and almost engineered one of the most shocking upsets in history.

Coming north
When we left you, J.C. Watts had played his last game in college, the thrilling 1981 Orange Bowl. As it turned out, J.C. attracted some interest from NFL teams, but not to play quarterback. I recall in an interview on CFCN Calgary’s “Sports Hotseat” a few years after he came to Canada he said the New York Jets had contacted him, but to play some other position such as receiver or defensive back. He was not interested.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Rough Riders were not doing so well in the CFL’s Eastern Conference. They were having quarterbacking troubles. Head coach George Brancato had become renowned for remaking his team late in the season, taking advantage of NFL cuts to refurbish his team and make a run at the playoffs. The year 1981 would be the best example of that.

Throughout my time on the farm I never had access to a lot of sports news beyond the nightly news. We had no newspaper or cable TV. That’s why I was thrilled to read the sports pages of the Lethbridge Herald any time we were visiting relatives in the city. It was on one of those Saturdays I read in the transactions section that Ottawa had signed J.C. Watts. I was so excited.

Back then, all the CFL games were still being televised on CTV and CBC. The Ottawa quarterbacking situation had been troubled, with Jordan Case taking a majority of the snaps. I anxiously awaited the next Ottawa game to see J.C. Oh, Ottawa did trot out a new quarterback, but it was Kevin Starkey, not J.C. Watts. It would be a few more games before J.C. made his CFL debut.

Regular season debut
Eventually he did play, scoring his first CFL touchdown in a 17-7 upset win of the B.C. Lions on Sept. 4, Week 10 of the season. That victory was just Ottawa’s third of the year, as their record improved to 3-6. They would win just two more games in the regular season. One was on Oct. 18 when Watts and Starkey combined to beat Calgary 21-10 in front of the smallest crowd in the history of Landsdowne Park in Ottawa. That raised the Rough Riders’ record to 5-10. They would lose their final regular season game to finish the regular season at 5-11.

Watts ended the season completing 77 of 141 passes for 957 yards, with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Semi-final win
Incredibly, that 5-11 record was good enough for second place in the East. Hamilton finished first with an 11-4-1 record to earn the first-round bye and host the East Final at Ivor Wynne Stadium. Meanwhile, the Montreal Allouettes had new ownership under Nelson Skalbania. He signed a bunch of free agents from the NFL, including quarterback Vince Ferragamo who had taken the L.A. Rams to the Super Bowl. None of that worked, as Montreal finished third in the East with a 3-13 record and would travel to Landsdowne for the East semi-final on Nov. 8.

Montreal led 15-10 at halftime and 16-10 after three quarters. However, Ottawa hung around, scoring 10 points to lead 20-16 late in the game. Montreal quarterback Ken Johnson, who had supplanted Ferragamo by this point as the Alouette starter, drove the team deep into Ottawa territory. With 36 seconds left, Montreal had the ball on Ottawa’s nine-yard line but Johnson’s pass in the end zone to Chuck McMann was knocked down by Larry Brune and Rick Sowieta to preserve the Rough Riders’ 20-16 victory. Bring on the Tiger-Cats.

Eastern Final shocker
The two teams met in the East final on Nov. 15 in Hamilton. It was a low-scoring affair that Hamilton led 13-10 late in the game. Ti-cat quarterback Tom Clements did not have his best game, throwing three interceptions including one in the Ottawa endzone by Glenn Cook with Hamilton up 13-7, but he still had them in position to win.

Enter rookie quarterback J.C. Watts. Hamilton backed up Ottawa deep in their own end. Watts dropped back to pass in his own endzone, scrambled away from Ti-cat pressure and threw a bomb to Pat Stoqua. When the dust settled, Stoqua was standing in the Hamilon endzone. They had connected on a 108-yard pass-and-run play, propelling Ottawa to a shocking 17-13 upset, and a date in the Grey Cup in Montreal on Nov. 22.

Watts finished the game completing 19 of 39 passes for 311 yards. However, it was his legs that made the difference, as he avoided the tough Ti-cat pas rush and rushed six times for 46 yards.

Watts against the Edmonton Eskimos.
Grey Cup stunner
Awaiting Ottawa in the Grey Cup were the 14-1-1 Edmonton Eskimos, winners of the previous three Grey Cups. On paper, the game seemed to be a monumental mismatch. Edmonton had nine more wins than Ottawa, and had lost just one game all season. The Eskimos entered the game 22.5-point favourites, while many considered Ottawa the worst team to ever qualify for the Grey Cup.

Someone forgot to tell Ottawa they weren’t supposed to get blown out. Watts moved Ottawa crisply, taking them into field-goal range twice. Kicker Gerry Organ made no mistake, connecting on field goals of 34 and 37 yards in the first 10 minutes to give the Rough Riders an early 6-0 lead.

What became apparent early was Ottawa’s defence was ready for Edmonton and their star quarterback Warren Moon. Late in the first quarter Sowieta intercepted a badly-thrown Moon pass, helping set up a one-yard touchdown run by Jim Reid. The Organ convert made the score 13-0. The defence continued to dog the Eskimos in the second quarter. John Glassford intercepted another Moon passing, setting up a 14-yard touchdown run by Sam Platt. I remember that run well, because he dragged Edmonton defenders with him into the endzone. (Coincidentally, on New Year’s Day Platt had lined up opposite Watts in the Orange Bowl when his Florida State Seminoles played Watts’ Oklahoma Sooners). Organ added another convert to make the score 20-0. The Eskimos’ lone point in the first half came off the toe of Edmonton kicker Dave Cutler when he missed a 24-yard field goal. Watts and the Rough Riders went into the dressing room poised to engineer one of the greatest upsets in CFL history.

The Eskimos had other ideas. After all they were the three-time defending Grey Cup champions. Coach Hugh Campbell had pulled Moon in favour of wily veteran Tom Wilkinson, who settled the offence down and  moved the ball, allowing Moon to re-gain his composure before going back in. The third quarter was a mirror image of the first. Jim Germany scored on a two-yard run to close the gap to 20-7, before Cutler’s convert made it 20-8. Ottawa showed signs of fatigue and nerves. Watts fumbled deep in his own end, and Edmonton’s Dale Potter recovered. That turnover set up a one-yard Moon quarterback sneak, closing the gap to 20-14, and even further with Cutler’s convert. Ottawa 20-Edmonton 15 after three quarters complete.

The fourth quarter would be one for the books. Ottawa’s defence rose up again, recovering a Moon fumble, setting up a 28-yard field goal by Organ to extend the Rough Riders’ lead to 23-15. Moon rebounded, taking his team down the field, capping the drive off with another one-yard touchdown plunge, cutting the deficit to 23-21. On the ensuing convert attempt, Coach Campbell decided to go for two. Moon proceeded to find Marco Cyncar in the endzone for the two-point convert, tying the game at 23-23.

Then controversy struck. With about four minutes remaining, Watts completed a 20-yard pass to Tony Gabriel for a crucial first down. Eskimo defender Gary Hayes was hanging all over Gabriel, and there was a flag down. Inexplicably, the official called pass interference on Hayes and Gabriel. Ottawa ultimately had to give up the ball. It was the opening Moon needed, taking the ball into field-goal range where Cutler made no mistake on a 27-yarder with three seconds left. Edmonton had their first lead of the game, 26-23.

However, Watts was not done yet. Instead of taking a kick off, Ottawa took the ball on their own 35-yard line, giving J.C. one last chance with the ball. He danced all over the pocket, and took off. It looked like he might break free, but he just had too far to go. He was tackled and the final whistle blew. Edmonton had come all the way back for their fourth consecutive Grey Cup – barely.

Watts was named offensive most valuable player for the game, while John Glassford was named defensive most valuable player. It was also the last game for Gabriel and Wilkinson, who both closed out hall-of-fame careers.

Parting thoughts
The future looked so bright for J.C. and the eastern Riders. Just a couple plays away from winning the Grey Cup, they had a good defence, some young talent – and the reigning Grey Cup most valuable player. Yet the future would not unfold as anyone expected.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Nate Burleson: Proud Canadian

Nate Burleson with the Detroit Lions.
The other day I heard that receiver Nate Burleson was one of the Canadians playing in the NFL. Better yet, he was proud of his Canadian heritage and even has a tattoo of the maple leaf on his right leg just above the ankle, proclaiming his pride in being Canadian.

So I could not help but wonder, is he Al Burleson’s son? Turns out he is, and it reminded me of a time long ago, when I first started watching football.

Who’s Al Burleson?
It was back in the late 1970s that I started watching football. I immediately fell in love with the Calgary Stampeders and particularly their defence. It was full of talented players such as Reggie Lewis, Lyall Woznesensky, and Ed McAleney up front, Bernie Morrison at linebacker, and my favourites – the guys in the secondary. Leading the group was Ray “The Blade” Odums, who played corner with Terry Irvin. The best defensive halfback was Merv Walker and playing rover was…Al Burleson.

Football card featuring Al Burleson,
put out by Red Rooster, a convenience
store similar to Mac's or 7-11.
They flourished under coach Jack Gotta, making it to a couple Western Conference Finals, before losing to that dynasty from Edmonton. Gotta was replaced by Ardell Wiegandt, who dismantled that club thoroughly in his short but destructive tenure. He traded Lewis and Walker, and released Burleson. I was enraged.

Burleson would catch on with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League in 1983 for a year, where he had four interceptions and a quarterback sack, before retiring due to injury. Hugh Campbell, the coach of the Edmonton Eskimos through those five straight Grey Cup championships was the coach for the Express. I imagine Burleson had caught Campbell’s eyes in all those Labour Day bouts.

By the numbers
Al Burleson was captain and most valuable player for the Washington Huskies in 1975, his last year of college. The highlight of his season was a 93-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Huskies’ 28-27 win over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. He went on to play for the Calgary Stampeders from 1976 to 1981. His best seasons were 1978 and 1979 when he had seven and nine interceptions respectively, finishing second in the West in both seasons. He was named a West all-star in 1978 and 1979, and a CFL all-star in 1979.

Lasting legacy
Al Burleson’s legacy could be measured in interceptions and tackles, but his greatest contribution to football is probably his son Nate.

Nate was born in 1981 in Calgary when his dad was playing for the Stampeders. They re-located back to the United States when Al signed with the Express for their inaugural season. Nate ultimately grew up in Seattle, attended the University of Nevada where he played wide receiver, and was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2003 NFL draft. He played there three seasons before moving on to the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. He stayed there until the end of the 2009 season, when he moved on to Detroit as a free agent. He was released after the 2013 season. He was picked up by the Cleveland Browns, released, and as far as I can see is still a free agent.

As of the end of the 2013 season, Burleson’s career stats are 457 receptions for 5,630 yards and 39 touchdowns.

Parting thoughts
It’s always interesting to see how deeply attached to our roots we are. According to this article, Nate Burleson is immensely proud of his Canadian heritage. He even said if there was ever any sort of World Cup of football, he’d suit up for Canada.

Given the Canadian Football League’s requirement that each team have a certain number of Canadian players, the fact Nate Burleson is considered a non-import (that is Canadian), and the fact he’s a free agent, it would be so cool if Nate Burleson wound up his career in the CFL, and even better if it was the Stampeders.

Then the circle would be complete.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lauren Bacall: Remembering an actress and a song

“We had it all
Just like Bogie and Bacall
Starring in our own late late show
Sailin’ away to Key Largo
Here’s lookin’ at you kid”

~“Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins

The name Lauren Bacall conjures up memories of more than classic movies. For a kid growing up in the 1980s, hearing the name brings back memories of junior high dances, slow songs, and gallons of teen angst.

Little action
Lauren Bacall was a prolific actor, but by the 1980s had not been in too much. Internet Movie Data Base reveals a few productions, but nothing I had seen. All her best work in movies had been done in the 1940s and 1950s. Instead, what I remember more is not her acting, but her name mentioned in a song – “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins.

The junior high dance
“Key Largo” was released in 1982 and made it all the way to number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. More importantly, it was one of the slow songs we danced to at St. Joe’s junior high in Coaldale.

There was nothing like a junior high dance. Sounds Unlimited provided the sound, and it was all the popular stuff of the time – “The Kid Is Hot Tonight” by Loverboy, “Innocence” by Harlequin, “Your Daddy Don’t Know” by Toronto, and much, much more.

You had all the guys sitting huddled on one side of the gym, and all the girls on the other side. Guys would walk across the great divide and ask girls to dance. Hopefully they said yes. If not, they made the slow walk back to their side. Then, the boys stood across from the girls on the dance floor, moving awkwardly from side to side in some sort of rudimentary dance.

Then there was the slow dance. That was reserved for a girl you really liked. For shy guys like me, it was a long walk to ask a girl to dance, and an even longer walk of shame to my seat if she said no. The soundtrack included, “Straight from the Heart” by Bryan Adams, “Ball and Chain” by Aldo Nova, and of course “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins. These dances were like sweaty hugs where we moved slow, and turned even more slowly.

That was when I began to dream of finding my dream girl, a dream I have still not seen come true.

What St. Joseph's School in Coaldale looks like today. It is really not that much different from 30 years ago
when I graduated from there.
Parting thoughts
Oddly, I would see Lauren Bacall in the decade that followed – “All I Want for Christmas” in 1991; “Ready to Wear” in 1994; “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996; and “My Fellow Americans”, also in 1996.

Yet, whenever I hear the name Lauren Bacall as I did when she recently passed away, it reminds me not of any role she played. Instead, it’s that song “Key Largo” that transports me back to a simpler time, when I first discovered girls and how frightening it could be to ask them out, or even just to a dance.

Here’s lookin’ at you kid.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

John Mayberry: Father and son Blue Jays

Two generations of this family have played for the Toronto Blue Jays. At left Is John Mayberry, who starred with the Jays from 1978 to 1982, while at right is his on John Jr. who was recently acquired by Toronto.
The minute I saw the name I knew it had to be. It was too much of a coincidence to be one. The Toronto Blue Jays, struggling to stay in the American League baseball playoff race and in need of a run, sent a young player they just acquired to the plate to pinch hit. He delivered too, ripping a double down the third base line. Sadly, the Blue Jays would find a way to blow a two-run lead in the bottom of the 10th inning. That made it even more poetic.

The man’s name was John Mayberry, and seeing his name reminded me of another Blue Jay named John Mayberry who played on a Blue Jay team that vexed me as much in the 1980s as this team does today.

First base power
When the decade opened, John Mayberry was occupying first base for the Toronto Blue Jays, and was one of the team’s leaders, and one of its most productive hitters.

He broke into the majors with Houston in 1968, playing parts of three seasons with the Astros with little success. Before the 1971 season, he was dealt to the Kansas City Royals where he would have his most productive years. (Interestingly, one of the first baseball cards I ever owned was John Mayberry’s 1977 card with the Royals).

In his first year with Kansas City, the left-handed power-hitting first baseman hit 25 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He followed that up in 1974 with 26 home runs and 100 RBIs again. He hit 34 home runs in 1975, which was a team record at the time, and drove in 106  runs, which were both career highs. His production tailed off after that. He hit 13 home runs in 1976 and 23 home runs in 1977, although that tied him for the team lead with Al Cowens. After some spotty play that upset manager Whitey Herzog in the 1977 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, Mayberry was sold to the lowly Toronto Blue Jays before the 1978 season began.

One of the first baseball cards I ever owned.
Blue Jay leader
According to Wikipedia, Mayberry never had the same success in Toronto he had in Kanasas City. That was due in part to the fact he went from a competitive, first-place team to the worst team in the American League East. It should be noted, the Blue Jays were an expansion team who played their first season in 1977, so Mayberry joined a team that was still virtually in its infancy. In 1978, Mayberry hit 22 home runs and drove in 70 runs, which are good numbers given he had no protection in the line up. The Blue jays finished last in their division too, with a record of 59-102.

The next year, 1979, Mayberry numbers were almost identical, with 21 home runs and 74 runs batted in, as was his team’s record, as the Jays finished last again with a record of 53-109. That spelled the end of Roy Hartsfield’s tenure as manager, replaced by Bobby Mattick for the 1980 season. That year was Mayberry’s best as a Blue Jay, hammering 30 home runs and driving in 80 runs to help propel the Blue Jays to their best record to date at 67-95. The big milestone was losing less than 100 games for the first time in franchise history, and winning more than 60 games. Still, they finished last in the American League East yet again.

That would be the last full season for John Mayberry as a Blue Jay. The 1981 season was marred by a strike, so the season was split in two halves. The Jays were 16-42 in the first half, good enough for last place again, but rebounded to go 21-27 in the second half and finish sixth. Mayberry’s numbers for the year had dropped off dramatically, partly because Toronto played 56 fewer games than a regular season.
Mayberry started the 1982 season in Toronto but, after playing just 17 games, hitting two home runs and driving in three runs, the worst possible thing could happen – in my eyes. He was traded to the much despised New York Yankees, where he retired at the end of that season. In return, the Blue Jays received Jeff Reynolds, Tom Dodd, and Dave Revering.

What Mayberry brought to the Blue Jays, especially in his later years, were the intangible skills of leadership and mentorship. The Blue Jays had started out as a team made up, almost completely, of castoffs and retreads. That’s how they stocked expansion teams back then. However, general manager Pat Gillick began to find young talent to improve his ball club and stock his system. Mayberry was the perfect fit for the team, bringing experience and guidance.

I remember the way he hit towering home runs, and loomed over first base which seemed so small when he stood on the bag.

Even after his trade to the Yankees, he would inquire how the young guys like Lloyd Moseby and Willie Upshaw were doing.

I was sad to see him go generally, and almost heartbroken it was to the Yankees who were the best team in the American League. It was like the rich got richer and the poor Jays suffered. Little did I know that trade was part of the renaissance that was to emerge.

John Mayberry,
Toronto's great first baseman.
It’s a small world
The most intriguing part of the John Mayberry story for me is that his trade directly led to the Blue Jays success in the 1990s, including their two World Series championships. When Toronto traded Mayberry to New York, they received three players. Dave Revering was released later that same season and Jeff Reynolds never panned out, spending the rest of his career in the minors. However, Tom Dodd was traded back to the Yankees along with reliever Dale Murray later in 1982. In exchange, the Blue Jays received Dave Collins, Mike Morgan, and a prospect named…Fred McGriff. Before the start of the 1991 season, the Blue Jays traded McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar who would be two of the cornerstones of those championship teams.

Parting thoughts
John Mayberry may have been the first Blue Jay I ever really liked, he may have even been my first favourite. He seemed to have this larger than life presence out there. He was intense, but could smile, and it was obvious he was one of the team’s leaders.

Even if his numbers declined in Toronto, and he never had the same success he had in Kansas City, his impact with the Jays was great. This was a team that routinely lost 100 games a year. They offered their hitters no protection in the line-up. Hitting 30 home runs and driving in 82 runs in Toronto was like hitting 40 home runs and driving 100 on a non-expansion team.

Hopefully his son will make his mark with the Blue Jays, because his dad sure did.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Joan Rivers: Breaking ground in the 1980s

Joan Rivers in 1987. Getty Images.

The recent death of Joan Rivers has brought to light the contribution she has made to the cause of women in entertainment – and she did it in her own way and she did it in the ‘80s.

Tonight show regular
My first introduction to Joan Rivers was on “Entertainment Tonight” where it seemed they regularly talked about her appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. By the mid-80s she had become a regular guest host, especially when Carson was on a break. That would all change with one fateful decision.

Experiment with Fox
It was 1986 when 20th Century Fox was planning to launch a new television network, America’s fourth, in 1987. They approached Rivers to do a late-night talk show, obviously based on the success she had achieved on “The Tonight Show”. She would become the first woman to have her own talk show on a major network. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell Carson.

“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted in 1987 with the launch of the new network, and it was directly opposite “The Tonight Show”. By then, Carson had banned Rivers from “The Tonight Show”, something that was honoured by Carson’s next two successors Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Worse yet, it was a short-lived experiment. After challenging Fox executives, she and her husband who was the show’s producer, were both fired in May of 1987.

She would rebound before the end of the decade with a daytime talk-show entry called “The Joan Rivers Show”, which won her an Emmy soon after.

Book ‘em
The other outstanding thing from the 1980s was a best seller she penned called “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz”, which was a book about her fictional stand-up character of the same name. It went on to become a best seller that was eventually made into a TV special. Again, I heard about much of this on “Entertainment Tonight”, because we rarely got any of this stuff on peasant vision.

Still, Joan Rivers was a well-known commodity, and we did get to see her in action during our summer holidays when she guest hosted “The Tonight Show”.

The years after
She went on to do more TV, some of it with her daughter Melissa, more stand-up, and she hosted pre-awards shows for the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The last few times I saw her, she was guest hosting on The Shopping Channel, selling her own lines of cosmetics, clothing, and jewellery. The day after her death, one of the TSC hosts dedicated his show to her memory.

Parting thoughts
Although I did not really hear a lot of Joan Rivers in the 1980s, and actually saw her more the past decade or so, I was left with one lasting impression: she said whatever was on her mind and really was not afraid to offend anyone. It may have got her in trouble – and even fired – but it also made her a leader and a trailblazer.

Much has been written about the talk show wars, revolving around personalities such as Carson, Leno, David Letterman, and more. Since then there have been others such as Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and the like. Absent from all these conversations, and the lists of hosts, are any notable women.

Joan Rivers was the first to have her own late-night show on a major network. Sadly, she remains one of the only, and maybe the only. Yet her legacy in this arena is unmistakable. She set the stage, and for that all aspiring women in the entertainment industry should be thankful.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Two years of RobVogt80s

Yesterday was the second anniversary of this blog, RobVogt80s, and it never ceases to amaze me how much I have learned.

Time flies
It is hard to believe it has been two years now. Somehow, I thought I would be much further along in the process. By that I mean I thought I would have a lot more entries posted than I do. Yet, so far I have a total of 166 posts and that’s actually pretty good, I think.

Out to the world and beyond
I cannot believe how the blog has filtered out into cyberspace. Pieces of my posts have been copied and pasted in other blogs and even on Facebook, and those are only the ones that people attribute to me. I am sure there are uncredited bits and pieces floating around too.

Permission impossible
I think I have drawn attention to some untoward material on the Internet. By that I mean several videos I embedded from YouTube have been taken down due to complaints of third-party copyright infringement. Two of particular note were the entire movie “Amos” and the entire album “Chicago 17”. It could be a coincidence, but deep down a part of me suspects I have increased traffic to those videos, which has led to complaints and subsequently the removal of that material.

What’s the inspiration?
I find it interesting what inspires posts. When I first started, I thought it would just be reflections on the 1980s. I never gave more thought than that to it. There were tons of memories and I would just share those. When the rubber hit the road and it came time to try and contribute regularly, the question became where to start? That has evolved into a lot of entries being inspired by events in the news, most notably birthdays, deaths, and anniversaries. When I watched the in memoriam part of the most recent Emmys, I counted the number of people I had eulogized on my blog in some manner. There was: James Garner; Robin Williams; Eli Wallach; Mickey Rooney; Ralph Waite; and more.

Harder than it seemed
Each post takes a lot of work, much more than I thought. Part of that comes from being a perfectionist, but moreso from being a journalist who wants to be accurate. So that means checking facts, spell checking, proofreading, and editing.

Good, but more importantly good enough
At the same time as being a perfectionist, there is actually publishing material regularly. Instead of fussing and fussing and delaying and stalling and procrastinating, there comes a time to just say enough is enough, ignore the internal editor, and publish. I have never been happy with even a single one of the 166 entries floating around the web. At the same time, reading them over a month or two after they were published, they were much better than I thought. The best part is that I can always go back and change them any time I want.

Worth a 1,000 words
Illustrations are important too, be it photos or video. As I do more and more posting, I realize I am using similar principles of design that are used in newspapers. Photos break up text, and are positioned in certain ways to achieve different effects.

Unrealistic expectations
It is ludicrous to try and set goals that are too lofty. The idea I could write 100, 200, or 300 posts in a calendar year, given everything else going on in my life is just not attainable. So far, I have averaged 83 posts a year, which is about one every four days. I have had moments, two in particular, where I came close to posting every day for a solid month. However, the lesson there is that I had to do a lot of advance preparation in order to publish 30 posts in a month. I wrote or started an entry every night on Microsoft Word hen when I had an Internet connection, added photos and/or video. The conversion from raw text to finished post requires editing and the addition of visual elements, but it can go quickly. The key is to keep a lot of grist in the mill. The ideal situation is finishing one entry and starting another daily but, again, that requires neglecting some of the other activities in my private time.

Parting thoughts
Time flies when you’re having fun, and I have thoroughly enjoyed publishing this blog. I am ambivalent about the amount of exposure it has and the number of people who read it. More exposure means more scrutiny, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

However, it has provided the outlet to write about the ‘80s and all those experiences I had, and how pop culture fits into them. I do not foresee winding up this blog any time soon. Instead, I envision reflecting again further when I reach 20,000 hits.

See you then.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Robin Williams: Coming of age as an actor

As the world continues to mourn the death of Robin Williams, and everyone gets a chance to look at his contribution to entertainment over the past five decades, it was in the 1980s that he came of age as an actor. As the decade opened, he was starring in his own situation comedy, and about to portray a popular cartoon character. As the 1980s ended, he had one Oscar nomination under his belt and was about to earn another. It set the stage for a career that would see two more nominations and a win in the late 1990s.

Mork calling Hollywood
Robin Williams as Popeye with
Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl.
Robin Williams first came to prominence as the alien Mork from Ork, first in a guest spot on “Happy Days” then in his own series “Mork and Mindy” starring opposite Pam Dawber. It follows the journey of Mork, an alien who crash lands outside Boulder, Colorado, and is soon adopted by Mindy. What follows is the first vehicle for Williams to bring his stand-up comedy routine to the world. Each episode ended with Mork contacting his boss on Ork to report what he has learned. Each week he closes his eyes and chants, “Mork calling Orson.” As 1980 began, “Mork and Mindy” was in the middle of its second of what would be a four-season run.

Things would change for Williams by the end of 1980. In December, Williams made his big screen debut as “Popeye” in a live action rendition of the popular comic. I had read about “Popeye” in one of the magazines you got free at the theatre. It looked surreal, seeing cartoon characters Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, Wimpy and the others in real life, and seeing Williams as a blonde. In the movie poster, Popeye was holding a can of spinach, but it was just a tin can, not the impressive tin Popeye squeezed open to get his source of strength.

The movie had a decent box office, but some critics labeled it a bomb. Personally, I think it was doomed from the outset, because the audience likely saw the cartoon, and it could never translate properly into live action, not with the technology of the time. Not to meet the expectations of movie goers anyway. I actually did not see it until it came out on TV, so it had been cut up by commercials and station breaks, diluting it even more.

Robin Williams as T.S. Garp in
"The World According to Garp".
Williams’ career changed forever in 1982. In May, the final episode of “Mork and Mindy” aired, ending that chapter of his career. Two months later, “The World According to Garp”, his second film, premiered. It was another adaptation, this time of the best-selling John Irving novel of the same name, about writer T.S. Garp and the relationship he has with his mother.

The movie was generally well received, and garnered Oscar nominations for Glenn Close for best supporting actress, as Garp’s mother, and John Lithgow for best supporting actor, as a transsexual ex-football player. Again, I saw it on Channel 13 of peasant vision and, to be honest, I was too young to understand it. I should watch it now, because I have read a biography of John Irving and, from what I have read about Garp, it seems Irving includes some of his own life experiences, such as wrestling and writing, in the story.

More movies, little success
Three more movies followed in the next four years for Robin Williams, as he continued to find his legs as an actor, especially the star of a major motion picture.

Robin Williams co-starring with
Walter Matthau in "The Survivors"
Next up was “The Survivors” in 1983, the tale of two men who get caught up with a hit man and take refuge in a camp of survivalists. He co-stars with Walter Matthau.

It was not well received and not that good, although it showed signs of Williams’ comic improvisation skills. I watched it the summer of 1984 in Brooks, at my cousin Fred’s friend’s place. My outstanding memory was a scene where Matthau approaches the camp, and is greeted by Williams, who is decked out in a winter parka with a fur-lined hood.

“I feel like King Kong’s gynaecologist,” he says. That’s something only Williams could come up with. Unfortunately there was not enough of that to save the movie.

By then, ads had already come out advertising another Robin Williams’ movie, this one called “Moscow on the Hudson”. By this time, I really only wanted to see the movie because I was a completist – I wanted to see all Robin Williams’ movies. Oddly, I never have seen this one, which focuses on Williams as a Russian musician who defects. It was a moderate success, fairing better than “The Survivors”.

When 1986 dawned, there would be three more movies featuring Robin Williams..

The “Best of Times” has Williams’ character obsessing over a game-winning pass he dropped in high school, so much so he recreates the game 20 years later. Kurt Russell is his co-star as the one-time high school quarterback. The film was made by Ron Shelton who would go on to much bigger sports movie success with “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup”. “The Best of Times” was another moderate success, but I never saw this one either, except in bits and pieces on pay TV in res when I went off to university.

“Club Paradise” revolves around a firefighter who helps the owner of a beach resort save and re-model his operation. This movie features several SCTV comedians including Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, and Joe Flaherty, but none of them could seem to save it. On first glance, it looks as if this movie did not even break even.

In “Seize the Day”, Williams plays a salesman who has lost his job and his girlfriend, and tries to pick up the pieces. I had never heard of this movie before I just saw it on Internet Movie DataBase, and discovered on Wikipedia it is based on a Saul Bellow novel of the same name. This movie may be forgettable, but keep that title in mind.

Robin Williams as radio announcer Adrian
Cronauer in "Good Morning, Vietnam".
So, by the end of 1986, it seemed to be quantity over quality for Robin Williams, as he had made seven movies in the 1980s, and none had blown audiences away. Things did not look that promising for Robin Williams the screen actor.

Break out
That all changed when he accepted the role of Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Williams plays a radio deejay for the Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The movie went on to gross more than $120 million, earning Williams a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role.

It came out during my first year of university, and a buddy from my hometown raved about it when he came up for orientation in February. One of my floormates in res used to rent a VCR and watch movies in his room, usually Friday or Saturday nights. The first one I watched in there was “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Unfortunately, the movie is kind of dark visually, so it was hard to follow in a pitch black room. Sadly, I have not seen it since.

Robin Williams as English instructor
John Keating in "Dead Poets Society".
Closing out with another hit
After bit parts in two movies the following year, Williams hit another home run with “Dead Poets Society” in 1989. He plays an unorthodox English teacher in a conservative private boys’ school who encourages his students to “seize the day” (remember 1986). His performance is as understated, calm, and reserved as it was bombastic and energetic in “Good Morning, Vietnam”.

The movie has many outstanding moments, but none more so than the final scene. After being fired for his methods and their effect on students, the boys show one final sign of support and approval during his last appearance in the classroom. It still gives me goose bumps, “Oh captain, my captain”.

This movie I saw as a sneak preview in the summer of 1989 with my good friend KJ who was visiting in Edmonton for the night. I would see it again in the fall in the Meyer Horowitz Theatre in the Students’ Union Building on the campus of the University of Alberta, with all my new floormates, sitting beside my good friend Bruce.

“Dead Poets Society” went to become one of the iconic movies of the decade, grossing more than $235 million, earning an Oscar for best original screenplay, and a second nomination for Williams for best actor in a leading role. It remains one of my favourite movies and that final scene one of my favourite movie moments – ever.

The years after
Robin Williams as Sean Maguire
in "Good Will Hunting".
Robin Williams would continue with a string of amazing performances starting with “Awakenings” in 1990. That was followed in 1991 by “The Fisher King” where he played opposite Jeff Bridges and garnered his third Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role. “Hook” followed in 1991, then “Aladdin” in 1992, “Mrs. Doubtfire” in 1993, “Jumanji” in 1995, and “The Birdcage” in 1996. He finally won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting”, another of my all-time favourite movies. The wait for the Oscar was worth it, because Robin Williams was absolutely amazing as psychologist Sean Maguire.

Parting thoughts
It is rare that a comedian can make the transition to drama. By the end of the 1980s, Robin Williams had not only bridged that divide, he set the stage to meld the two together.

Robin Williams had always been a hyper-kinetic, free-associating comedian. However, it was not until the late 1980s that everyone began to take him seriously as an actor. The role of Adrian Cronauer was a bridge from that hyperactive comic to the roles of John Keating, and ultimately Sean Maguire, the role that won him an Oscar close to a decade later. He did pay his dues though, in a lot of movies of varying quality and success to do that.

It was well worth it, and there was nothing more enjoyable than watching the evolution of an actor. I am only sad we won’t see what the next evolution will be, or the one after that, because he certainly was an artist who did not rest on his laurels. God bless you Robin Williams and rest in peace.

So long Jim Rockford

A classic Jim Rockford pose – saying so much by saying nothing.

He taught me everything I ever wanted to know about being a private eye. With those checkered suit jackets, that answering machine as big as his desk, that trailer on the beach, and the gun in the cookie jar, Jim Rockford had his share of quirks. Yet, he always did the right thing for the right reasons, with a wise crack and a wink at the camera along the way.

There was only one Jim Rockford and sadly, the man who played him just passed away. Although James Garner may be gone, he left his mark on generations of TV viewers. Every time that signature theme came on, it was obvious Jim Rockford was on the case.

Dawn of a decade, end of the line
“The Rockford Files” chronicled the exploits of Jim Rockford, a private investigator who had been in prison, accused of a crime he did not commit, until he was pardoned by the governor of California. He lived in a trailer on the beach and handled cases no one else would. Not married, but never afraid to date, his best friend was his father, Rocky, who always worried about “Jimmy” but was not afraid to get involved in a case if his son needed him. Rockford’s other friends, if you could call them that, were Dennis Becker, the police detective he always got in the way of and needled for information, and Angel Martin, Jim’s cellmate in prison and a bonified con man. These were the ingredients that made a show that lasted six seasons.

It debuted as a 90-minute movie, “Backlash of the Hunter” in March of 1974, and started as a weekly series on Sept. 13, 1974. “The Rockford Files” achieved its greatest success in 1978, when it won the primetime Emmy for most outstanding drama series, a year after Garner had won an Emmy as most outstanding lead actor in a drama series. The show won three more acting Emmys: Rita Moreno won in 1978 for outstanding lead actress for a single appearance in a drama or comedy series for her role as Rita Capkovic a one-time call girl; and Stuart Margolin won the outstanding supporting actor in a drama series in 1979 and 1980, for his role as Angel Martin.

By the time the 1980s dawned, Rockford was wrapping up. It was in its sixth season, and had gone on hiatus. Garner had developed problems with his knees and back, primarily from doing his own stunts. Initially, it had been reported he walked away from the series in 1980, causing its cancellation, but later it was revealed these health issues were the reason. Still, he would get embroiled in a legal suit over “The Rockford Files” that lasted more than a decade.

The last first-run, original episode of “The Rockford Files” aired on Jan. 10, 1980, just as the decade was beginning.

Reruns, a sign from God, and closure
I can barely remember watching “The Rockford Files” on Friday nights when it originally aired. I came to know the show better in reruns. In the mid-1980s, during the summers, my cousin Fred was visiting us for a few weeks, and CBC aired Rockford after midnight. We continued watching when I returned the favour, visiting Brooks for a couple weeks.

That’s when I got to know the show, and had a chance to see one of my favourie episodes. It was a two-parter called “Never Send a Boy King to do a Man’s Job”. Dennis Dugan guest stars as Rockford’s old friend Richie Brockelman, a college-educated private eye. Richie’s dad owns a printing shop, and is blackmailed and intimidated into selling it for way less than it is worth to a crook named Harold Jack Coombs. Richie wants to get the money his dad is owed by conning Coombs, so he approaches Rockford. In classic Rockford fashion, he declines initially, because it’s way too dangerous, but his conscience gets the better of him. He has to help Richie’s dad. It doesn’t help that Rocky encourages him too.

What unfolds is an elaborate sting where Rockford plays the role of southern scoundrel Jimmy Joe Meeker. It is a homage to “The Sting”, which is one of my favourite movies of all time, with Rockford taking on the same role as the Paul Newman character Henry Gondorff.

“The Rockford Files” was back on A&E in the 1990s. I recall watching it Christmas time of 1992, when I was on a trip home with my old friend Chris Vining. That got me interested for the rest of the year, at university in res. My parents had moved to the city by then, but their cable package of the day did not include A&E, so that summer I went without. Then, I was in Edmonton for a wedding, contemplating what to do with my life, and I got a sign from God. My roommate was at work, and I was dozing on the couch with A&E on in the background. Suddenly, I heard the signature Rockford theme music. The episode was, “Never Send a Boy King to do a Man’s Job”! Jim Rockford was telling me to stay in Edmonton – which I did, and I ended up having a great time.

“The Rockford Files” re-surfaced again on WGN when I was in Claresholm, but it was a channel that was really fuzzy in the day, and pretty clear at night. I only mention it because that was when I saw another of my favourite episodes, “The Trees, The Bees, and T.T. Flowers”. It was a two-parter, but I never saw part two when it first aired except for the last minute. It revolved around T.T. Flowers, an eccentric old man and friend of Rocky’s played by Strother Martin. Part one ends with Rockford helping Flowers escape from the hospital. The final scene of part two has Flowers throwing rocks at someone. I wanted to fill in the hour of episode that I missed, and I did, 30 years later.
Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), Jim Rockford
(James Garner), and Angel Martin
(Stuart Margolin) in the 1990s.

Rockford returns
In 1994 I had taken a job where I was not around too much TV. However, I read the Edmonton Journal religiously and discovered the impossible: Jim Rockford was returning to primetime television. It would be a TV movie on Sunday night, entitled “The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A.”

One of my friends and co-workers actually had cable TV in her room, and opened her home to me. If memory serves, I actually traded shifts strictly so I could watch the movie. I also got a blank video tape and recorded it for posterity.

It was the first time in more than 14 years we saw Jim Rockford, and a lot had happened. Sadly Rocky had passed away, but Rockford still lived in the trailer on the beach, although his answering machine was much smaller now. The show opens with Rockford phoned by Kit, a lawyer, played by Joanna Cassidy, to help her with a case involving two of her clients, a brother and sister, involved in a murder. She invites him to breakfast to discuss the case. As he delves deeper into it, something does not sit right. He asks more questions, upsetting Kit. She finally lashes out, saying she should never have called him and the meeting was over. He responds by saying she did offer him breakfast. She throws the menu at him, tells him to order, then drops the bomb – exclaiming why she ever married him. He slowly sinks behind the menu as the scene fades to the first commercial break.

“I Still Love L.A.” won its time slot and was the number four most watched show of the week. Seven more “Rockford Files” TV movies would follow, the last guest starring Hal Linden and airing in 1998.

Parting thoughts
I read a story about a poll TV Guide did around the time “I Still Love LA” aired on CBS. Jim Rockford was voted the favourite TV private eye of all time (Thomas Magnum was number six). It showed the staying power Rockford had.

What made him so engaging for me was that he was not a glamorous or idealistic private eye. Instead, he was just a regular guy who reacted to situations the way many of us would. That meant demanding to get paid, something never mentioned in other shows, and quitting if he wasn’t. He got beat up, lied to, ran away from impossible situations, and sometimes did things that were unethical. But, in the end, he always did what was right, often to his own detriment, taking cases no one else would.

Jim Rockford, deep in thought.
He never carried a gun, preferring to talk his way out of situations. In fact, that was part of that Rockford charm. He always had a wise crack, and could say so much without saying a word. His facial expressions were priceless and conveyed so much meaning, especially when Angel was vexing him.

Beyond all that, family was extremely important to Jim Rockford. The bond he had with his father was obvious, and it was one of the most endearing parts of the show. Rocky would alternate between putting up with his son’s antics and condemning them, but in the end he was always there for Jim. They laughed as much as anything, and that was another hallmark of the show – it never took itself too seriously.

We don’t really have that many private investigators on television right now. The only one I can think of is “The Republic of Doyle” on CBC. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, but it was inspired by “The Rockford Files”.

So thank you James Garner for bringing us Jim Rockford. I don’t think we’ll ever see someone in our living rooms quite like him. Rest in peace, both of you.