Tuesday, 3 February 2015

So long Miss Elly: Recalling the “fish out of water” story

The recent passing of Donna Douglas, brought back several memories of her seminal role, Miss Elly in “The Beverly Hillbillies”. It was perhaps the most successful “fish out water” story ever, where a group of people from the hills moved to hills of another – Beverly Hills – after striking it rich.

Word of mouth
“The Beverly Hillbillies” had been off the air for years, long before I started watching television. Yet my mother always pointed to “The Beverly Hillbillies” when she talked about how there used to be good, clean comedies on TV. She tried to explain the show to me, how a hillbilly discovered oil on his property and became a millionaire, precipitating a move to Beverly Hills.

It was hard for me to imagine the show, especially because she said the head of the family, Jed Clampett, was played by Buddy Ebsen. My only image of Buddy Ebsen was as the straight-laced professional private investigator Barnaby Jones. I had difficulty seeing him as either a hillbilly or a comedian.

Mom also talked about Jethro, Jed’s dim-witted nephew, and Elly May, his daughter. Mom got a good laugh out of the time Elly May did the cooking. It was so bad, Jed did not want to say anything to her, but buried it in the backyard. Her cooking became an on-going joke.

One day, I’m not sure if I heard it first on “Entertainment Tonight” or read it in “TV Guide”, but a Beverly Hillbillies reunion movie was coming to TV. Over the years, my mom had told me a couple other things about the show. One thing, was that Donna Douglas, who played Miss Ellie, had gone on to sell real estate after the show ended. The other thing, was that Irene Ryan, who played Granny, had died. So I wondered how they would account for all that in the reunion.

It aired on a school night in 1981, so I had to stay up late, but I was so excited. It turned out Jed Clampett had returned to Bug Tussle where he had lived, and where he found oil. Granny was dead, but her mother, Jed’s actual grandma, was living there. Oddly, he called her “Ma”, which was even stranger because he called his mother “Granny”. “Ma” was played by Imogene Coca, and she fit the bill perfectly.

The federal government was looking to deal with the energy crisis by harnessing Granny’s moonshine. The representative they sent out from the department of energy was none other than Jane Hathaway, the lady from the bank, played by Nancy Kulp, who was part of the original cast. Meanwhile, Jethro had become a movie producer.

Donna Douglas had returned too, but I don’t think Max Baer played Jethro. Instead, he was played by Ray Young who really just was not the same.

Back on TV
Channel 2&7 was celebrating some sort of anniversary, and aired a bunch of old shows. One of them, which they took to airing every day after school, was “The Beverly Hillbillies”. I finally had my chance to see what my mother was talking about.

Donna Douglas in the role she is best known for,
Elly May Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies"
Parting thoughts
I did not find the show as funny as my mother did, but that’s natural. It was odd seeing Buddy Ebsen dressed up as a hillbilly, when I was used to seeing him in a suit. The show was a bit too slapstick and cornball for me, so I lost interest after awhile.

One thing that did fascinate me was the hillbilly lifestyle and culture. Beyond “The Beverly Hillbillies”, I was interested in the Hatfields and McCoys and their family feud, moonshine, and the other trappings of life in the hills. I even thought about making a short film, with my cousin Fred, about the Hatfields and McCoys. We would animate it, with Fred doing the art and me writing the script.

Still, what “The Beverly Hillbillies” did if not first, at least more successfully than its predecessors, was make the “fish out of water” story into a hit. “Pettitcoat Junction” and “Green Acres”, which were actual spin-offs, would follow, as would many others, but nothing else was as successful.

And a big part of that was the pretty, charming, and innocent daughter of the hills, Elly May Clampett.

Snow hits Pasadena: Michigan State's last Rose Bowl

Michigan State linebacker Percy Snow was
the best player on the field in the 1988 Rose Bowl.
When Michigan State beat Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, it marked the Spartans’ first appearance in the game since the 1980s – 1988 to be exact.

In 1988 it had been 22 years since Michigan State last appeared in the festival of roses, way back in 1966. The Spartans made the most of their experience too, led by a young, talented linebacker named Percy Snow.

The bowl game, 80s style
The 1987 season was highlighted by a battle between Oklahoma and Miami for college football supremacy. Beyond national championship aspirations, some teams also had the opportunity to participate in bowl games

The climate of college bowls was much different in 1987. Back then it meant something to qualify for a bowl game. Unlike today, where there are dozens and dozens of games named after the sponsoring companies, back then there was a handful of meaningful games, all played on New Year’s Day. It is funny though, that even back then we made fun of the fact there were all these other bowls, like the Holiday, Independence, Florida Citrus, Liberty, and Gator Bowls. Even the Fiesta Bowl, which wormed its way into the spotlight, was considered a bit of an outsider.

The main bowl games of the time were the Cotton, Rose, Orange, and Sugar Bowls. By 1988, the Fiesta Bowl had joined the party as well. Back then, some of the teams for these games were determined by their conference. The Big-8 Conference champion (pre-cursor to the Big 12) qualified for the Orange Bowl, while the Pac-10 (now called the Pac-12) and Big-10 champions met every year in the Rose Bowl.

The 1988 Rose Bowl
The Michigan State Spartans qualified for the Rose Bowl on the strength of victories over Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana. They were led on defence by linebacker Percy Snow and on offence by quarterback Bobby McAllister, runningback Lorenzo White, and receiver Andre Rison. This trip to the Rose Bowl was the Spartans’ first since the 1965 season.

Meanwhile, the USC Trojans would start their domination of the Pac-10 conference, as this appearance was the first of three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. They were led by quarterback Rodney Peete, a personal favourite of mine, who would go on to a successful pro career with Detroit and Dallas.

The teams had actually met in the season opener, with Michigan State winning 27-13.

The game would be dominated by defence, as the Spartan defence forced four Trojan turnovers. USC tied the game 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, then Michigan State moved the ball down the field, setting up a field goal by Spartan kicker John Langeloh with four minutes left to play to make the score 20-17 for the Spartans. The key play of the drive turned out to be on third down when McAllister eluded the Trojan pressure, scrambled and hit Rison for a first down keeping the drive alive.

The Trojans had time to come back. Peete drove the Trojans to the Spartan 29-yard line with two minutes to go, but he fumbled the next snap. The Spartans recovered the ball and ran out the clock.

Runningback Lorenzo White, who would go on to play for the Houston Oilers, finished the game rushing the ball 35 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Snow had 17 unassisted tackles and was named the game’s most valuable player for his efforts.

Parting thoughts
The 1988 Rose Bowl symbolized many changes. It was the last Rose Bowl broadcast by NBC Sports. I had grown up watching CTV’s feed of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen calling the Rose Bowl. The next year ABC would start broadcasting the game.

It seemed like a bigger deal at the time, but got quickly lost in the other things going on in my life. That 1988 Rose Bowl was the last one I watched on the farm I grew up on. The next year I went back to university early, and watched all the bowl games in res. The years after that, I returned to university before new year’s eve, then my parents retired and moved into the city.

The game would be just a sign of things to come for Percy Snow. He played two more years of college football, winning the Butkus Award for top linebacker, and the Lombardi Award for top linebacker or lineman, both in 1989, becoming one of just four players to win both awards. He was taken in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft, 13th overall, by the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, his college success did not translate to the pro level. He had a great rookie season, but injuries cut his career short. He played a total of just 40 games, retiring in 1993.

But on New Year’s Day, 1988, Percy Snow was the best player on the field. He made a lasting impression, which the Spartans needed because it would be another 26 years before Michigan State returned to Pasadena. This time there was no Snow though.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Peter O’Toole: Bringing his talents to television

Peter O'Toole in his Emmy-nominated role as
General Cornelius Flavius Silva in the 1981 mini-series "Masada"
It was just about a year ago that Peter O’Toole died (He died Monday, December 14, 2013), and I made a note to eulogize him. He was a great actor, best known for his role in “Lawrence of Arabia”, but in the 1980s he made his mark on television.

Mini-series success
It all started with Masada with Peter Strauss in 1981. It was at a time when the television mini-series was a major television event. This one followed the journey of 900 Jews, led by Eleazar ben Yair (Peter Strauss), who are under siege and hold out on the mountaintop of Masada, against a Roman Legion five times their size, led by General Cornelius Flavius Silva (O’Toole). By the time they enter Masada, the rebels had committed mass suicide knowing what their fate otherwise would be.

O’Toole was nominated for an Emmy for his role.

TV movie madness
What followed “Masada” was a string of TV movies. O’Toole played an old singer coaching a younger one in "Svengali" in 1983. Later that same year he played Henry Higgins in a television adaptation of “Pygmalion”. In 1984, he played Lama in “Kim”, where a young Indian man is trained to be a spy by the British.

He rounded out the decade playing Silas Ruthyn in the 1989 TV mini-series “Uncle Silas”.

Back in the theatres
A movie I watched him in during that period was the theatrical release “Supergirl” in 1984, where Helen Slater played the super hero and cousin of Superman. O’Toole played a forgettable role as a Kryptonian whose actions lead to Supergirl having to come to Earth. O’Toole was panned for the role, and was even nominated for a Rassie award for worst actor.

He was back in 1985 with “Creator”, where he plays a scientist who is looking for a way to clone his dead wife. Then in 1986 he was in “Club Paradise” where he starred alongside Robin Williams. He finished up the decade playing R.J. Johnston in “The Last Emperor”, a movie about the last emperor of China.

Parting thoughts
It just proves that good actors are good actors, no matter where they act. Although Peter O’Toole was best known for his work in motion pictures and the theatre, he still chose roles to showcase his talents on television.

The result was such stellar work as “Masada”. His talent will be sorely missed.