Sunday, 28 August 2016

Wendy Crewson: Walking with legends

Actor Wendy Crewson after being inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2015 for a storied career in film and television, in Canada and abroad.
Actor Wendy Crewson was recently inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, for a career that spans several decades.

I recall her earliest start, with the CBC, on a Sunday night series called “Home Fires”. From there, she would catapult into a storied career playing strong Canadian women, but also venture south of the border where she played opposite heavyweights such as Tom Selleck and Harrison Ford.

All that effort led her to her recent induction, where she now walks with the legends.

A review of the CBC Sunday night drama "Home Fires" from a 1982 edition
of Cinema Canada. A young Wendy Crewson is in the back row on the right.
It was the start of a lot of great things to come for the Canadian actor.
Keeping the “Home Fires” burning
The decade opened with CBC debuting a new drama focusing on a Toronto family during the Second World War. The father was played by Gerard Parkes, a doctor who ran a medical clinic in a working class neighbourhood. He was married to wife Hannah, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and had two children, son Sidney, played by Peter Spence, and daughter Terry, played by Wendy Crewson.

Terry had an eventful four seasons, marrying her boyfriend Graeme, played by Jeff Wincott, only to see him killed in action at Dieppe. She joined the women’s army corps, worked in a factory, and met another man, this one a journalist played by Booth Savage.

After four seasons, "Home Fires" had run ts course and was not renewed, not before Crewson won an ACTRA award in 1984 for best actress in a drama series for the final season of “Home Fires”.

Prolific TV career
The 1980s saw Wendy Crewson do a lot of other TV work, on series as well as TV movies. She opened with guest starring roles in Canadian classics such as “The Littlest Hobo” and “Hangin’ In”. She would reunite with Jeff Wincott in “Night Heat”, a guest spot in “Adderly”, and another guest role in “Hard Copy”. These three shows were produced in Canada by CBS and CTV, and aired on CBS late night and prime time on CTV.

Crewson in the movie with Canadian actor Chris Makepeace,
at left, and Tom Hanks, at right, in one of his first TV roles.
She also was in several TV movies of note. There was “Mazes and Monsters”, which features four young people acting out a Dungeon and Dragons-like role-playing game. CTV aired this movie a couple times, most notable for being one of Tom Hanks’ earliest roles. There was “Heartsounds”, starring James Garner telling the story of  a renowned surgeon who becomes a patient himself, facing his own mortality and an unfeeling medical system. There was “Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star”, one of the 30 TV movies featuring the famous defence attorney made between 1985 and 1995.

And there was “Murder In Space”, a science fiction murder mystery set on a space ship. It was initially made for Canadian pay TV back in the days when that existed. I had heard and read about this movie, but it was awhile before it was aired on CTV. I recall being enthralled by this movie, because it kept me in suspense until the end.

One other movie, filmed in the late 1980s but airing in 1990, holds a special place in my heart. It was called “Getting Married in Buffalo Jump” and features Crewson as a young woman returning to her home town after her father dies to live with her mom and run the family ranch. As she tries to cope, her ranch hand offers to marry her out of convenience. Alex Bresnyachuk is played by a young, unknown Canadian actor of the time named – Paul Gross. What made it special was it aired the summer of 1991, my first summer living with my parents in Lethbridge when I did not have much of a life outside TV. It was a pretty endearing movie too. I saw it again the same time the next summer. I recall hearing it had been filmed at Cowley and Pincher Creek, and kept looking to see if I recognized anything. It was obvious Crewson and Gross had chemistry, and were both destined for bigger things.

The years after
Wendy Crewson would catapult into a series of major roles in theatrical movies. She played a doctor in “The Doctor”; the ex-wife in all three “The Santa Clause” movies, the first lady opposite Harrison Ford in “Air Fore One”; and much, much more.

On TV she was in everything from Canadian favourites such as “ Street Legal”, “Black Harbour”, and “Due South”, to U.S. network shows such as “24”, “Flashpoint”, “Rookie Blue”, and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. Over the last few years she has been in “Revenge”, “Murdoch Mysteries”, “Working the Engels”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and has had a recurring role since 2012 in the Canadian medical drama “Saving Hope”.

She was also in “Ascension”, a TV miniseries created by the Syfy Channel and later aired on CBC, about a spaceship sent into space in the 1960s to preserve a part of humanity and colonize a far-off planet.

And she has played Regina detective Joanne Kilbourn in a series of movies based on the novels by Canadian writer Gail Bowen, all aired on CTV.

Perhaps her most remarkable roles were in movies based on real life people, primarily strong Canadian women. She played in “The Matthew Shepard Story” about a gay man tortured and beaten to death in Wyoming for his sexuality in 1998. Soon after, she played the lead in several biopics of Canadian women.

In 1998, she played the title role in “At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story”, about a courageous Canadian woman suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease who put up a spirited battle in support of medical-assisted dying, eventually dying with the assistance of a doctor. In 2005, she played Canadian judge and war crimes crusader Louise Arbour. Later that same year, Crewson played Lorraine Evanshen, the loyal and resilient wife of Canadian football legend Terry Evanshen, who lost his memory in a motor vehicle collision and never got it back in “The Stranger I Married”, also called “The Man Who Lost Himself”. Then, in 2013, in the aftermath of the death of federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, Crewson played Anne McGrath, Layton’s chief of staff and friend of Layton’s in the movie on Layton, fittingly called, “Jack.”

Amid all that, she also appeared in two movies with Tom Selleck, “Folks!”, a theatrical release in 1992, and “Twelve Mile Road”, 11 years later in 2003.

Hence, there were tributes by Harrison Ford and Tom Selleck at Crewson’s induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame. Both were glowing in their praise of Crewson's work.

Parting thoughts
To be honest, as the decade began I had a bit of a crush on Wendy Crewson, watching her every Sunday night on “Home Fires”. She seemed pretty, and smart, and strong.

Little did I know that more than 35 years later, I would still be watching her on TV. Wendy Crewson may be one of Canada’s most prolific actors, having appeared in virtually every major Canadian TV series, dozens of TV movies, and almost as many theatrical movies.

But what I really appreciate about her is that she has never strayed too far from Canada. Sure, she has pursued projects in the States, but continues to do Canadian television and movies. On top of that, and the most impressive part for me, is she has chosen to play some of the strongest women in Canadian history over the past few decades.

She may have walked with legends doing all that, but she did not look out of place at all.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Harry Morgan: More than M*A*S*H

The three principle characters in After M*A*S*H,
William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy;
Harry Morgan, who played Sherman T. Potter;
and Jamie Farr, who played Max Klinger.
He will go down in television history as the man who played Colonel Sherman T. Potter in "M*A*S*H", but Harry Morgan did more in the 1980s once that iconic role ended.

Harry Morgan died recently, at the age of 96, and I will always remember what came after "M*A*S*H", right through the 1980s with more recurring roles in TV series.

By the 1980s though, his career was reaching its zenith.

After M*A*S*H
The decade opened with Harry Morgan winning an Emmy for his role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter in "M*A*S*H". Oddly, he had appeared as a guest star in "M*A*S*H", before joining the cast full time in 1975, replacing McLean Stevenson, who had played commanding officer Henry Blake. It was one of the most popular sitcoms in history, and its series finale is still one of the most-watched events in television history.

As M*A*S*H was winding down, most of the actors were ready to move on to other things. However, there were three cast members who wanted to keep on going once the show ended in 1983. Those three actors were William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy, Jamie Farr, who played Maxwell Q. Klinger, and Harry Morgan, who played the Colonel, Sherman T. Potter.

The result was a spinoff featuring these three characters, fittingly called, “After M*A*S*H”. It was set in a veterans’ army hospital, and it debuted on Channel 7 of peasant vision in the fall of 1983. It did well in its first season, finishing 10th in the Nielsen’s series ratings, when it was in the same time slot as M*A*S*H was. However, in the second season it was put up against “The A-Team” which was a ratings juggernaut at that time on Tuesday nights, and lasted just nine episodes before it was cancelled.

There were some references to M*A*S*H, including Radar making an appearance as well as the mysterious Colonel Flagg. There were also some new characters, such as Gene Pfeiffer, a resident surgeon, played by Jay O. Sanders; secretary Bonnie Hornbeck, played by Wendy Schaal; and joining the cast part way through the first season was Dr. Boyer, played by David Ackroyd, who was a bitter doctor who lost a leg in the Korean Conflict.

To be honest, I was interested in the show just to see how the characters carried on. After that novelty wore off, it really wasn’t that interesting. After all, it featured probably the three least interesting and compelling characters from M*A*S*H.

So, by the middle of 1985, Harry Morgan’s turn as Sherman T. Potter, had finally come to an end.

He would not be out of work long.

Harry Morgan, at left, and
Hal Linden, in "Blacke's Magic".
Turning to the dark side: Blacke’s Magic
While M*A*S*H was winding down on CBS, over on ABC a year earlier another iconic sitcom had come to an end – “Barney Miller”. Hal Linden had played the title character for eight seasons, and had become synonymous with the role.

I was in Grade 11, second semester, when I saw the trailer for a new TV show, from the creators of “Murder, She Wrote”. It was called “Blacke’s Magic”, and starred Linden as professional magician Alexander Blacke. Playing his con man father Leonard was none other than Harry Morgan. Unlike the upstanding and law abiding Sherman Potter, Leonard Blacke was a little shadier and much looser with the law.

I thought with these two stars, and the creative team of Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter Fischer, “Blacke’s Magic” would be a hit for sure. However, that was not to be the case. After just 13 episodes, “Blacke’s Magic” was cancelled, and Harry Morgan was done with network TV.

The stars of the 1987 movie "Dragnet". From left are
Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks, and Harry Morgan.
Deja vu and after
Morgan had achieved acclaim with a revived version of "Dragnet" which ran from 1967 to 1970, were he played Bill Gannon, Joe Friday's partner. In 1987, a new "Dragnet" movie was released featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. Morgan reprised his role as Bill Gannon, who by this time had been promoted.

He would continue to act until the end of the 1990s, capping off a long career that began in the 1940s.

Parting thoughts
M*A*S*H was one of the most iconic TV shows of the 1980s. It evolved over time from a slapstick comedy, centering on the slapstick antics of Trapper John, Hawkeye Pierce and their hapless victim Frank Burns. It evolved into a comedy that would delve regularly into dramatic, and sometimes quite dark, situations.

About the time it became more serious coincided with the arrival of a new commanding officer, Colonel Sherman T. Potter, played by Harry Morgan. He would provide the anchor for the show, playing a fatherly figure for everyone else, and was rewarded for his efforts with an Emmy in 1980.

His work in the 1980s peaked with M*A*S*H. He gave the same character another turn in a new setting, but it was just not the same. Without strong, dynamic characters around him, he just was not the same Sherman Potter in peace time as he was in war time. Even venturing out into new territory, playing an elderly con man with a golden heart, was just not the same.

Colonel Potter is what I will always remember about Harry Morgan, that portrayal of the wise, father figure who remained calm in times of crisis and always provided sage advice. He could also take a joke, and surprisingly give it back, playing one or two of his own.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Sam Waterston: Once a journalist, always a journalist

The movie poster for
the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields"
It has been off the air for about a year and a half, but I just recently watched the series finale of “The Newsroom”. The final major storyline revolved around Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, who was the news director for the fictional Atlantis Cable Network. As the show ended, I was reminded of a simple thought: Sam Waterston has been playing journalists since the 1980s.

Once a journalist, always a journalist.

The Killing Fields
The year 1984 was not that far removed from the years of tragedy, strife, and brutality in Cambodia, or Kampuchea, as its despotic rulers had renamed it. The evil regime of Pol Pot had laid waste to the country, butchering thousands in its quest to reshape the country in its own twisted image.

Through it all, journalists were risking their lives to report on the events going on in Cambodia. One such journalist was Sydney Schanberg, played by Schanberg, who worked closely with a journalist, guide and interpreter named Dith Pran, played by Haing S. Ngor, who stayed behind to cover the fall of the capital to the Khmer Rouge.

It was Grade 10, and I was always up for a movie.

Sam Waterston, as Sydney Schanberg, and Haing S. Ngor
as Dith Pran in their seminal roles in "The Killing Fields"
It was another one of those movies I watched with my sister. This one too was at the College Cinema, or Woolco as it was known.

It was a pretty incredible movie, which I have seen only once, but it was still incredibly powerful. It documented the journey of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, who had very different experiences. Schanberg would get out in time, while Dith Pran was nowhere near so lucky, experiencing first hand the regime of the Khmer Rouge.

The Killing Fields would go on to win three Academy awards, best supporting actor for Ngor as well as best editing and best cinematography. It was also nominated for best picture, best director, for Roland Joffe, best actor, for Waterston, and best adapted screenplay, for Bruce Robinson based on the real Sydney Schanberg’s article, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.”

Haing S. Ngor brought a special sensibility to the role of Dith Pran because in real life he had been a doctor when the Khmer Rouge seized power. Ngor had to deny his identity as a doctor and served time in a concentration camp. He is one of only two non-actors in history who won an Oscar. However, he would go on to further acting roles before tragedy would strike.

The years after
Haing S. Ngor was scheduled to have a guest spot in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, in which he was to play a Vietnamese soldier in a remake of the Ambrose Bierce short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” but that never came to pass. He also had guest spots in “Hotel”, “Highway to Heaven”, “China Beach” and “Miami Vice”, as well as various movies. However, before he could do much more, he was murdered in 1996 outside his home in Los Angeles.

Waterston would have a prolific career, including roles in the TV series “I’ll Fly Away” and “Law and Order”. He also appeared in a lot of movies, including, “Hannah and her Sisters”, “Lincoln”, “Crimes and Misdemeanours”, and “Nixon”.

Of course, one of his most recent television roles has been on “The Newsroom”.

Parting thoughts
Sam Waterston may be best remembered so far for his role in “Law and Order”, and lately in “The Newsroom”.

However, for me, I will always remember his role, as a passionate, bearded journalist covering a period in American history the country would rather forget.

There really are not a lot of movies I can think of about the Cambodian component of the Vietnam War, and even fewer from the perspective of the Cambodian people tormented by the tyranny of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. “The Killing Fields” shines a light and that dark conflict that had so much bloodshed, both during the war and afterwards, under the regime of the Khmer Rouge.

It reminded me of the late Haing S. Ngor who would have every right to just put his experiences under the Khmer Rouge behind him and begin a new life. Instead, he took on an acting role, even though he wasn’t an actor yet, to bring attention to the conflict in Cambodia. It is obvious his own experiences informed his role in “The Killing Fields”, a role so powerful it won him an Oscar. Pretty good for a doctor who came to acting later in life.

What is interesting is you could almost draw a line from Sydney Schanberg in the 1970s to Charlie Skinner in 2014. When you watch “The Newsroom”, Charlie Skinner is portrayed as an experienced journalist who actually covered the Vietnam War. He could easily have been Sydney Schanberg.

That’s what makes this so neat. Once a journalist, always a journalist.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Here’s to 30,000 hits

It is amazing how life can get in the way. I was on quite a roll with this blog, when life got busy. Not too much after “Robvogt80s” passed 30,000 hits, I stopped posting for six months. Now, I am back – in a new place, and a new commitment to post in this blog.

Reaching 30,000
Once word spreads, even just a little, we can reach these milestones faster and faster. I could not believe how quickly 30,000 hits came on the heels of three years. There was way more time between one year and 10,000 hits, and two years and 20,000 hits.

Another observation I have made over these 30,000 hits is how addictive receiving comments can be. It is the classic phenomenon of random reinforcement. Once I periodically started receiving comments on this blog, I started actively looking for the next comment. It is strangely addictive.

I likely would think otherwise if the comments were not, for the most part, positive.

The other thing about receiving comments is the tacit realization people are actually reading what has been posted and valuing it enough to take the time to respond.

Even without posting for as long as I did, the number of hits kept piling up. It shows there is progression on this blog. Moreover, once I started posting again, the number of posts exploded again. So, what I learned here is that the blog will still receive some hits, no matter how dormant – or allegedly abandoned – it is.

Parting thoughts
The truth is, I started this post so long ago that 30,000 hits was a new milestone. Besides that, I stopped posting for so long, most of the momentum, and observations, are long gone.

Instead, as I have said before, I am now re-committing to posting in this blog regularly.

When I hit 40,000 hits, maybe I will have some more salient observations.

Until then, the overriding feeling I have is this: it is good to be back!

Friday, 12 August 2016

1984 Olympic memories: Boxing's silver success

Shawn O'Sullivan, at right, one of Canada's greatest Olympic boxers.
A few days ago I got a message from my cousin. He was watching the Olympics in Rio and asked me which ones we watched together as kids: was it 1980 or 1984? It was in fact 1984 when they were held in Los Angeles. What made it extra special was my cousin, along with another cousin, had just returned from a church trip to – Los Angeles.

That simple message brought a whole cascade of memories of that magical summer of 1984.

One of the sports I remember most was boxing. It showed that with grit and determination, a bunch of tough Canadians, coming from varying backgrounds, but united in
their quest to be the best, could bring honour and glory, to their country.

Undercard to the Olympics
It was a Saturday afternoon back in the days when CBC Sportsweekend was a weekend staple. They were airing an amateur boxing bout featuring two light-middlewights. The focus of attention was Shawn O’Sullivan of Toronto, who had won the 1981 amateur world championship and the 1982 Commonwealth Games gold medal. He easily won that fight and would be featured several times leading up to the 1984 Olympics. He was favoured to win gold in Los Angeles, especially with the looming spectre of a boycott of the Olympics by Communist countries including boxing powerhouse Cuba.
Willie de Wit, at right, another great Canadian Olympic boxer.
At about the same time, in the heavyweight division, another Canadian was making his mark, winning the 1982 Commonwealth Games gold medal and 1983 world championship. He was mentioned in that first bout I saw of O’Sullivan’s, because he too was an amateur world champion. His name was Willie de Wit and he was from Grande Prairie, Alberta. Like O’Sullivan, he was favoured to win gold at the upcoming Olympics.

As the Olympics got closer, Sportsweekend was showing the fights of another boxer –bantamweight Dale Walters of B.C. He was so much smaller than de Wit and O’Sullivan, but was so tenacious. He went straight after his opponent, and never left him alone. He was pegged as having an outside chance at a medal, but nowhere near good enough to challenge for gold.

So there was reason for optimism Canada could win three boxing medals, with a good chance of two of those being gold.

Dale Walters, at left, won Canada's first Olympic boxing medal in 52 years.
Ending the drought
I was a traveller that few weeks in 1984. I was on the farm when the Olympics started, spent some time in Brooks, back to the farm, then a weekend at my brother’s in Calgary, and back home where I saw the closing ceremonies from the comfort of our couch.

The first medal was earned by Walters. He drew a first round bye then won his first three fights. He looked good, but the best fighters were yet to come. Walters, using that bulldog style, had advanced to the bantamweight semi-final guaranteeing himself a bronze medal. The organizers felt there was not enough time to hold bronze-medal matches so both losers of the semi-finals in each division were awarded a bronze medal. That was good, because Walters lost his semi-final to Mexican boxer Hector Lopez. Still, Canada had its first medal in boxing in 52 years.

Silver tears of sorrow turn to joy
It was in Calgary when the two gold-medal finals happened. Willie de Wit was fighting in the afternoon while we were doing some shopping. O’Sullivan was set to fight in the later afternoon, or early evening, and I made sure to be in front of the TV in my brother’s basement to watch.

Anyway, as I settled in, my brother came downstairs to get something, and broke the news.

“De Wit won silver eh?” he said.

At that point, I didn’t know he had even fought yet, so part of me didn’t believe him. Yet, in the lead up to the O’Sullivan fight, they mentioned de Wit had lost to American Henry Tillman who claimed gold for the U.S.

I was disappointed.

Yet, there was still O’Sullivan. Every time I had watched him fight, he was impressive. He seemed to be able to take a punch as well as he gave one, and never seemed to panic.

Awaiting him in the gold medal final was another American, Frank Tate. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. De Wit had lost, proving there were no sure things. O’Sullivan did not look that impressive in the first round of the gold medal final either.

Then he rebounded in the second round. He went after Tate, landing enough punches to force Tate into two standing eight counts. A third was imminent when the round ended. Things looked good for O’Sullivan, and Tate seemed to be reeling a little bit.

Yet, after a third round that went back and forth, the judges gave a unanimous decision to Tate. Unanimous. Even after that dominating middle round by O’Sullivan, they said Tate won all three rounds. A lot of fans booed the decision.

After so much promise of gold, Canada settled for silver twice.

However, my initial disappointment soon turned to pride. Canada had won two silver medals, and a bronze. That was incredible given we had won no medals in boxing since 1932.

Wayne Gordon, at left, gave the best amateur in the world all he could handle.
Courageous in defeat
There were other notable boxing moments in the Olympics.

Welterweight Wayne Gordon was another solid competitor with the worst possible luck. I actually caught a few of his fights on Sportsweekend too, and he looked like a medal possibility.

He had been elected captain of the team by his peers, only to discover he had drawn Mark Breland, the world’s best amateur fighter. Breland had won more than 100 fights and was considered a heavy favourite to win gold.

I missed this fight while I was in Brooks, but Gordon came out and gave Breland all he could handle. At one point he got in a couple shots and forced Breland to take a standing eight count. I just watched it on YouTube and Gordon was tough.

However, Breland was the best for a reason. He rebounded and took control in the third round to win the match on points. Not only was Gordon a winner too for going the distance with Breland, but he actually put a scare into the champ. They were still talking about his fight days later when I started tuning into boxing.

Lennnox Lewis fought in 1984, but his best was yet to come.
Another memory comes from an 18-year-old fighter competing in his first Olympics as a super heavyweight. He gave it all he could but came up against Tyrell Biggs, the eventual Olympic champion, in the quarter-finals. This young Canadian fighter's best years were yet to come though. He would stay amateur and win Olympic gold in 1988, then have a distinguished professional career retiring as undisputed heavyweight champion. His name was Lennox Lewis.

Finally, there was someone close to home. Lethbridge boxer Rick Duff, whose career we followed on peasant vision's Channel 7 and 13, represented Canada in the middleweight division. He won his first fight then lost in the second round to the eventual gold medal winner from South Korea. Duff still lives and coaches boxing in Lethbridge. He even coached a friend of mine recently.
Rick Duff, at right, was from Lethbridge, boxing as a middleweight. 

The years after
Most of these boxers turned pro. I followed the exploits of O’Sullivan and de Wit, who had differing degrees of success as professionals.

I saw a lot of O’Sullivan's fights on Sportsweekend and later TSN, I think. He won his first 11 fights, but then lost to Simon Brown, who would go on to win the IBF welterweight title. I recall seeing that fight and being so disappointed. O’Sullivan also injured his hand and was never quite the same. The last O’Sullivan fight I saw was in my first year of university in 1987, which he won. By then, Sugar “Ray” Leonard had joined his team to coach him. One of my friends even joked it was one of the few times when the coach could tell the student what to do, and actually do it better. O'Sullivan would go on to lose fights to Luis Santana and Donovan Boucher, and retired soon after in 1988.

De Wit had a much different career. What I recall most was him winning some pro fights, including a defeat of one-time Canadian champion Ken Lakusta, and winning the Canadian heavyweight title.

Then he faced a killer in “Smoking” Bert Cooper. One of my classmates, named Mike, loved Cooper and said he could be the next heavyweight champion. He would go on to destroy de Wit. The night of that fight, I went to a basketball game at Kate Andrews and my principal was there. He lamented de Wit’s loss, describing one punch he took as “making his nose explode.” Cooper had already defeated gold medallist Henry Tillman, now adding a win over the silver medallist. In an interview I saw later where the interviewer mentioned that, Cooper said he wanted to win the “world medal” alluding to the heavyweight championship. He would later be touted as a legitimate threat to Mike Tyson who was laying waste to every heavyweight in his path. Yet Cooper never did win that championship.

Meanwhile, de Wit would re-group, winning his last six pro fights, including another win over Lakusta. De Wit’s last pro fight, fittingly, was against Henry Tillman. He exacted a bit of revenge for the Olympic loss by winning the fight in a decision. He retired soon after that.

Parting thoughts
In the years after, I sort of met Willie de Wit. After his boxing career ended, he went to law school at the University of Alberta. My friend Shane Saunders was in his class. As second semester ended in the 1991-1992 school year, the law students all went to a pub called “The Library”, which we also frequented. When we got there, the place was packed, but the figure of Willie de Wit was unmistakable, towering over everyone. He was a foot taller than most people, and his head looked like it floated over the crowd. I actually said hello to him on my way to the washroom. That was my brush with greatness.

The last time I saw him was when I was in journalism school in Lethbridge in 2000. We went to the courthouse as part of our unit on court reporting. Sure enough, who comes out of the courtroom in full black robes – Willie de Wit. He was just as big and imposing as ever.

It was obvious he had moved on. So often athletes live in the past, trying to relive their glory days. Often they stay connected to their sport either coaching, managing or organizing. Willie de Wit did the opposite. He seemed to have his sights set on the future and his new career.

In the end, Shawn O'Sullivan Willie de Wit, Dale Walters, Wayne Gordon, Rick Duff, and Lennox Lewis epitomize the true spirit of Canadian sport. O'Sullivan and de Wit were both gracious in defeat, and carried themselves with class. Walters restored Canada's pride in the ring, winning the nation's first medal in 52 years. Gordon showed that against insurmountable odds, and a daunting opponent, all you can do is your best. Duff came from the same part of the world as me, proving the Olympics weren't some far off dream, but something within reach of anyone who just works hard enough. And Lewis showed that even if you don't win, if you press on and persevere you will be rewarded.

What is more Canadian than that?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Hoop memories: Remembering “The White Shadow”

Ken Howard in a classic pose as basketball coach
Ken Reeves in "The White Shadow".
What kind of impact can a teacher or coach have on his students? If he wants to do the right thing, he can change lives and have a lifetime effect, long after the final buzzer sounds and the game is won or lost.

For three years, I tuned in every Monday night to see what a white high school basketball coach was doing to help his predominantly black players at Carver High in Los Angeles.

His name was Ken Reeves and he literally acted like a “white shadow”. One of his players even gave him that nickname in the show’s first episode.

Ken Howard played the white shadow, and I was reminded of so many great memories when I heard he passed away.

In the beginning
Although “The White Shadow” debuted in 1978, it was still going strong when the 1980s began. I just happened to see the pilot on CBC, and was hooked immediately. It became my favourite show.

Ken Reeves had played professionally for the Chicago Bulls but, as is illustrated in the opening credits, he suffers a knee injury that ends his playing career.

Enter his old friend Jim Willis, principal at Carver High, who offers him a job coaching basketball. However, not everyone is a Reeves fan. Vice-principal Sybil Buchanan was against Reeves’ hiring and frequently clashed with him.

Initially, Howard wants to win, but he discovers quickly that standing in the way of his players accomplishing anything is often the lives they live away from school and the basketball court.

In the pilot, he discovers Thomas Hayward, who is the smartest player on the team but is often in trouble with the law, has a complicated home life. He is essentially trying to provide for and raise a littler brother. Reeves quickly sees if Hayward can stay in school, he will likely get a scholarship and get out of the ghetto he lives in. Reeves convinces his sister and her husband, who he is living with at first, to babysit. They quickly fall in love with Hayward’s brother, and Thomas begins to achieve in school and on the basketball court.

That was just the first player whose life Reeves influenced.
The original Carver High basketball team coached by Ken Reeves, played by Ken Howard, in "The White Shadow". In back from left are Thomas Hayward; Warren Coolidge; Abner Goldstein; Milton Reese; and Reeves; while in front from left are Ricky Gomez; Morris Thorpe; Thomas Hayward; and Mario "Salami" Pettrino.

The team
Hayward was always my favourite, because he was so smart and the natural leader of the group. I always thought he should be the captain of the team, but for whatever reason Reeves gave that title to Salami. He was one of the only white players on the team, which turned some heads initially, especially because he really was not a leader like Hayward.

Coolidge was the star of the team, a big force in the middle, seven feet if memory serves, who was gifted athletically but could barely read, if at all. Still, Reeves had a soft spot for him, partly because he was so talented.

Thorpe was another player who had some leadership skills, but was just as much a con man. He was not the most talented player, but for whatever reason he thought he could play college and maybe even pro ball. He thought so, his parents did, and at one point Reeves tried to help him by giving him extra weights to wear on his arms while he practised.

Jackson was the epitome of cool, wearing mirror shades whether inside or outside, and a kind of tam hat. He walked like he was dancing, and always acted cool. He would battle a drinking problem in the first season, then get killed in a liquor store hold-up in the second season. He probably had the most eventful time on the show.

Reese was another player who I liked, always sporting a head band during games, and one of the leaders in the shower when they sang. I always remember the episode where he was recruited by a rival high school, although that was illegal. That was actually the theme of the show, a commentary on recruiting. He would go on to play college ball, which we discovered when he returned for an alumni game.

There were two other white players, Goldstein who was Jewish, and Gomez, who was Hispanic, to round out the diversity on the team. One episode I recall had Gomez being recruited by a gang, while in another Goldstein contemplated joining the armed forces and being deployed to Greece.

Tackling the tough stuff
The first season of “The White Shadow” was only 15 episodes, but it already showed signs of tackling tough issues. In one show, they tackled the theme of teenage drinking as Thomas Jackson had a drinking problem. He eventually would be killed in a liquor store robbery in the second season. In another episode, there was a gay player, and a hearing-impaired player in another episode.

“The White Shadow” would go on to tackle a lot of other issues – race relations, death, drug use.

The lighter side
It also tackled the lighter side of sports. The team was on a winning streak, and the players were getting more and more cocky. So Reeves set up an exhibition game with a group of players. These guys show up in mismatched uniforms and shorts. They don’t look like much of a team. Seven-foot centre Warren Coolidge even makes fun of the other centre who is bent down on one knee tying his shoe. Then he stands up and is taller than Coolidge. This is the first indication the fix is in – courtesy of Coach Reeves. That centre wins the tip and Carver High has no idea what hits them as they get schooled by this group of mismatched ball players in the first half. They lick their wounds in the dressing room, and Reeves talks to them about humility. When they emerge, the ragtag team they were playing are in uniform now – they are the Harlem Globe Trotters.

It was inspired.

We used to get the TV Guide every week. There were a few covers, for whatever reason, that I always remember. One was a picture of Ken Howard and Blythe Danner posing for their new show back in the 1970s called “Adam’s Rib”.

It turns out that was where Howard met Bruce Paltrow, who was married to Blythe Danner. It was Paltrow who cast Howard in “The White Shadow”. It can be such a small world.

A few years after “The White Shadow” went off the air, I noticed the guy who played Coolidge was in the show “St. Elsewhere”. I paid a little closer attention, and it was not only the same actor but he was actually playing the same character. Warren Coolidge had re-located to Boston and was working at St. Eligius. That was confirmed by a little blurb in TV Guide.

Not much of a surprise really. Bruce Paltrow was behind “St. Elsewhere” too.

The bouncing ball
One of the odd things I recall was the closing credits. The show was made by MTM Productions who had a cat meowing to end their shows. For “Newhart”, the cat meowed in Bob Newhart’s voice. In “Remington Steele”, a pipe Sherlock Holmes would use fell out of the cat’s mouth.

And for “The White Shadow”, the cat dribbled a basketball.

Parting thoughts
I could honestly say “The White Shadow” was my favourite show. I lived to see it Monday nights, and saw all but a handful of episodes. One year I played floor hockey, so I missed a few episodes during the season, but saw all of them in summer re-runs. The only episode I never saw, was when I fell asleep and was so tired my mom could not wake me, then just let me sleep and sleep. They talked about it on the bus then at school the next day, but I never did see it, not even in re-runs. Maybe on DVD.

The show was so well-written, I recall so many episodes, which explored issues and ideas.

The fact it was about basketball, my favourite sport to play, was almost secondary. Besides, I did not get into the sport until “The White Shadow” went off the air.

Ken Reeves was the first character I encountered who tried to change the lives of the people around him for the better.

I always remember feeling good at the end of each episode. They did not always end happily, and the conflict wasn’t always resolved, but it was such a good show. The only thing that made me sad was seeing the cat dribbling the basketball, because that meant the show was over.

And what a great show it was.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Wayne Rogers: From Trapper John to Doctor Charlie and beyond

Wayne Rogers at left with Alan Alda in M*A*S*H.
His most iconic, and best remembered role was in M*A*S*H, as the irreverent practical joker “Trapper John” McIntire. However, Wayne Rogers left a much bigger legacy, starring as another doctor in an acclaimed sitcom, replacing Larry Hagman in another iconic role, starring in a three-part mini-series, and entertaining audiences throughout the 1980s.

I was sad to hear Wayne Rogers passed away at the age of 82.

After M*A*S*H
Wayne Rogers left M*A*S*H just as it was beginning to take off as a series. He left for “City of Angels”  a series of his own, which he starred in, that lasted barely a season. I don’t recall too much about it, other than it was on CBC on Saturday nights and was set in the 1920s.

That was in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when Rogers became prolific again.

Wayne Rogers with Lynn Redgrave in "House Calls".
The Medical profession calls again
Wayne Rogers was back on TV playing Charlie Michaels, a doctor in the sitcom “House Calls”,
starring opposite Lynn Redgrave. I recall the show being quite funny. Rogers had great comedic timing. In the third season, Redgrave had a baby, and left as a result of a dispute. She was replaced by Sharon Gless, who assumed the role as Charlie’s love interest. The show was cancelled in 1982, amid a bit of controversy because the ratings were still strong. Stronger than other shows that were renewed, that’s for sure.

Reunion of a different kind
Rogers never made another appearance on M*A*S*H, but he did play a role in another iconic sitcom – this one from the 1960s.

For years growing up, I heard how funny “I Dream of Jeannie” was from my mom and my sister. In the era of three channels, “I Dream of Jeannie” was too old to be played in re-runs. Ironically, we saw re-runs of M*A*S*H all the time.

Yet, I was always intrigued by this show.

Wayne Rogers with the cast of
"I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later".
So, I was quite excited to read in TV Guide one day that airing the next week would be a reunion movie, “I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later”.

Barbara Eden is still playing Jeannie, and still looking very good. However, it was in one of the first scenes that we all see Larry Hagman is no longer playing Jeannie’s master cum husband Tony Nelson. Hagman was too busy filming his latest show, the primetime soap opera “Dallas”. Instead, that role has been assumed by – Wayne Rogers.

It really did not seem odd to me, because I had never seen “I Dream of Jeannie”, so I had nothing to compare it to.

I do recall liking the movie, as did my mother, who had seen the original.

Wayne Rogers in the acclaimed mini-series "Chiefs".
A mini-series to remember
The 1980s was the golden age for TV miniseries, and I have to say one of my favourites was a three parter called “Chiefs”. I liked it so much, I watched it in its entirety twice.

Charlton Heston plays Hugh Holmes, the patriarch of the town of Delano, which has grown big enough to warrant having its own sheriff. The man they hire to be the first chief of police is Will Henry Lee, played by Wayne Rogers.

It was a fantastic mini-series. Part one ends with Lee investigating the disappearance of some young boys. Before he can make much progress, he is killed by a delirious man who was actually a friend of Will Henry’s. That was how part one ended – and Rogers’ role in it.

The last two parts would each focus on a different sheriff, with the continued disappearance of boys, in the back drop. It was very good.

With that, I don’t recall seeing Wayne Rogers again except in re-runs, and doing the odd guest spot in a show such as “Murder, She Wrote”.

Parting thoughts

Wayne Rogers is another one of those actors who is part of the tapestry of growing up. He had really good comic timing, which I remember just as much from “House Calls” as “M*A*S*H”. Like so many other actors of that era, he just seemed to disappear. Yet, when he was on TV he was well worth watching.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Cheap Trick: A successful flame in the ‘80s

Their biggest commercial success came late in the decade with a powerful ballad that topped the charts, but Cheap Trick was already established as an outstanding live act that proved to have staying power. So much so they are the only act inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year who is still performing.

The album cover for Cheap Trick's live album that
really put them on the map.
First impression
Once I got my first ghetto blaster, I used to listen to a lot of music and music shows on LA-107 FM broadcasting from Lethbridge.

One night, one of the shows featured an American band and an album who really had more success performing live and away from home.

It was “Cheap Trick at Budokan”, which they recorded in Japan on one of their tours. They had some commercial success with singles such as “I Want You to Want Me”. Yet, it was this album that sat at or near the top of the all-time top live albums of all time.

It was on “Good Rockin’ Tonite” where I first actually saw Cheap Trick. They were interviewing Robin Zander, the lead singer, and Rick Nielsen, who was the guitar player. What I recall about that was the fact he always wore a baseball cap, and they talked about how that was his trademark.

They were promoting Cheap Trick’s newest album, “Standing on the Edge”. The first single, “Tonight It’s You”, still remains one of my favourite Cheap Trick songs of all time. I absolutely loved the song.

I would see it again in an odd spot. One Saturday night, at 11:30 p.m., I was flipping channels – which is easy when there are only three – and came upon this music video show. “Tonight It’s You” was one of the songs that played. I don’t recall what it was called, or where it was broadcast from either.

The next time I really heard about Cheap Trick was on “Entertainment Tonight”. They had a video, the first one that was closed caption for the hearing impaired. Rick Nielsen was in the bottom right hand corner communicating in sign language while they played. The song was called “It’s Only Love” and off the album ‘The Doctor”.

Oddly, a group representing people with epilepsy, complained about the video because it negatively affected their condition.

In the movies
It was the summer of 1985, I think. I was staying with my cousins in Brooks, and we rented this movie we wanted to see from the video store. It was called “Up the Creek” and featured Tim Matheson, a Canadian actor best known to that point for his role as Otter in “Animal House”. He would go on to play vice-president John Hoynes in The West Wing for years.

It was a good movie for what it was, a romp like Porky’s or Meatballs.

And the theme song, “Up the Creek”, was done by Cheap Trick. I recall my cousin Fred noticing that.

I never heard the song again, but it did go to number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A couple years later, I was at the tail end of Grade 12, and the sound track from “Top Gun” had been on the charts for months, first with “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, then “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, and finally “Heaven in Your Eyes” by Loverboy. I was sitting in my best friend Chris Vining’s driveway, in our friend Dave’s truck waiting for Chris. Something was jabbing me in the leg. It was a tape – the soundtrack to “Top Gun”. I always found it interesting to read the backs of soundtracks to see what was there beyond what we heard on the radio.

Sitting there were a few songs by notable artists, most notably “Mighty Wings” by Cheap Trick. I have probably listened to that song maybe a half a dozen times. It really never stuck with me, but it did make me think Cheap Trick was still out there performing and making music.

Oddly, after thinking that, they would have their biggest single to date.

Live at the Budokan
When I was in Grade 12, my brother began to record tapes for me. All I had to do was buy a box of TDK blank tapes, which he said were the best, and he would record whatever I liked on them.

One of the albums was “Cheap Trick at Budokan”. That was my real foray into the band, because it was essentially a greatest hits album of their music to that point. I used to listen to it on my ghetto blaster before school, and again before bed.

The album cover for "Lap of Luxury", the Cheap Trick album
hat yielded the band's most successful single to date.
The Flame of 1988
To be honest, I thought I had not heard the radio properly. I was working at Gergeley’s Greenhouse the summer of 1988 after my first year of university. We always had the radio playing in the background, whether in the main greenhouse or in the huge building we built a couple years earlier.

I was in that building, working with a girl named Shiela who had been one grade ahead of me in high school at Kate Andrews, when I heard this fantastic ballad on LA-107.

I asked her what it was. She didn’t know.

A couple hours later I heard it again, and thought they said it was by Cheap Trick.

That must be something else, I thought. Cheap Trick is old. They’re not putting out any more new music, especially something this good. Couldn’t be.

I ran into Shiela right after that.

“You know who sings that song you were asking about?”

“Ya,” I responded slowly.

“It’s Cheap Trick,” she said. “The song is called ‘The Flame’.”

I still could not believe it.

Vining, my best friend, and university roommate the entire preceding year was up at his dad’s, so I couldn’t ask him, and he always was on top of these things.

The other thing I always did was listen to the radio. It was actually on the drive home that I heard it again.

Yes, indeed, Cheap Trick had a new single out, and it was the beautiful ballad I had heard earlier that day.
It was a bit surreal.

That single, “The Flame” would strike a chord with a lot of people. It went all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the only number one single they would ever have.

Personally it remains one of my favourite love songs of all time. Robin Zander’s voice is just so powerful and soulful.

“The Flame” was on an album called “Lap of Luxury” and it would produce a few more notable singles – a remake of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and a single called “Ghost Town”.

With that, the decade was over – and it had been a memorable one for Cheap Trick.

Parting thoughts
Cheap Trick holds a special place in my heart, something that came after the close of the 1980s. The last year I was at the University of Alberta, I had a highly stressful job. Almost every Friday night I would meet two close friends at the lounge upstairs of Boston Pizza on Whyte Avenue, and we would indulge in a team pitcher or two, depending on the level of stress we all had. That entire year, from September of 1995 until May of 1996, when no one was plugging change into the juke box, the machine automatically played a few albums.

One of the albums that played every night was a greatest hits album by Cheap Trick. That, well past the 1980s, was when I really fell in love with Cheap Trick. After all, now I had the best of all worlds.

They were a comfort in a year that was pretty tumultuous for me. Even now, when I hear, “If You Want my Love, You Got It”: or “The Dream Police”; “Tonight It’s You”; “The Flame”; or “I want You to Want me”, it brings me fond memories of the only part of a year that was not stressful.

For that, I will be eternally grateful.