Sunday, 8 October 2017

The adventure continues … : Star Wars in the 1980s

The 1980 movie poster for "The Empire Strikes Back",
in an era where movie posters were iconic.
No one will ever forget that ending: the Death Star explodes, the evil Darth Vader goes reeling off into space, and the band of rogue heroes – Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca the Wookie – are decorated with medals of honour by Leia Organa, Princess of the now destroyed planet of Alderaan in an elaborate ceremony.

When audiences left the theatre in 1977, they were left to wonder: What’s next?

It would take three years, and the dawn of a new decade for that question to be answered. The final resolution would not come for three more years after that, with the final act in a three-piece drama that captivated the world, and left no one disappointed.

The 1970s may have ended with “Star Wars”, but it was the 1980s that saw “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”, the next two parts in the saga created by George Lucas, take over pop culture.

Not quite yet
One day, I was watching TV and I saw this commercial for a science fiction movie, that was just coming to theatres. I honestly thought it was the much-awaited sequel to “Star Wars”, but it in fact was not.

It was “Battlestar Galactica”.

The waiting continued.

The Empire Strikes Back
Finally, there was no mistake about it. The sequel to “Star Wars” was coming to Lethbridge, and we were going. It was such a big deal that my sister and I got together with our cousins Carl, Nina, and Doris and all went to see it at the beautiful Paramount Theatre in downtown Lethbridge.

The movie did not disappoint. It resumed the story a few months after the destruction of the Death Star, with the Rebel forces on the ice planet of Hoth. Ultimately, they would make it off that space ice cube, and re-group to battle the Empire, but not before Han Solo was captured and encased in carbon, and Luke pursued his training as a Jedi Knight with Yoda, his newly-discovered Jedi Master. The crescendo was a showdown with Darth Vader, where he cuts off Luke’s hand and reveals the darkest of secrets – Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

The end is not very hopeful, as Luke is outfitted with a prosthetic hand, and they try to figure out not only how to defeat the Empire, but rescue Han Solo. And Luke is left wondering if what Vader told him is actually true.

At one point it is also said “there is another” and my sister and I thought that naturally referred to Luke’s son, because that always seemed to be the case back then. The father always left a legacy.

It’s in the cards
One of the things I remember most after “The Empire Strikes Back” came out was that trading cards soon followed. It was Grade 6 and every week when my Dad took me to church, we would stop at the Red Rooster convenience store in Coaldale where he would buy himself cigarettes and buy me hockey cards or in this case “Empire Strikes Back” cards.

My good friend David Perlich also bought them, and we often traded. He completed his set first and put them all in one of those photo albums with the sticky page covered by a clear plastic sheet. I too completed the set and wanted to do something similar to what Dave did. However, I was worried that sticky page would damage the cards. My mom had that happen with one of the school pictures of my brother. So, she suggested using black picture corners, which had no adhesive that touched the cards. She also got some thick cardboard matting that we cut into 8.5-by-11-inch sheets and punched three holes in to put in a blue three-ring binder I had. It looked pretty cool.

They would release three different series of cards, and we collected and completed all three.

I used to also trade cards with my cousin. We would get together and play this game where we would flick cards at the bottom of her closet door. The one of us with the card closest to the door, without going under, got to keep both cards. It was a lot of fun, and tended to even out over time, as we won and lost each other’s cards. There was one I needed to complete one set, but she would never flip that card. I suspected it was because she did not want me to complete my set.

The 1983 movie poster for "Return of the Jedi" at a time when movie posters
were pivotal in marketing and promoting movies.
What's in a name?
Eventually, word began to leak out the third and final part of the Star wars trilogy was going to come out. Dave was really into science fiction and I think read in “Star Log” magazine that it was coming out in 1983. Initially, he heard the name of the movie was going to be, “Revenge of the Jedi”. However, we later heard it was changed to “Return of the Jedi” because Jedis do not seek revenge.

Return of the Jedi
Finally, it had arrived and my sister and I went on opening night. We had learned from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and other movies about how much it sucked to wait in line outside. So, we got there early and we waited in line at the Paramount, but we were at the front, almost first in line. It was awesome.

Again, the movie did not disappoint. Luke Skywalker is now a fully trained Jedi and uses his powers to free Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hut. Meanwhile, the Empire is building a new, deadlier death star. The Emperor himself goes to it, intent on luring Luke into a trap so he can turn him to the dark side, as he had done with Luke’s father. It is then revealed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father.

Once Han Solo and Princess Leia are rescued and back in the Rebel camp, they plan an assault on that new death star. The giant space weapon is surrounded by a shield emanating from the forest moon of Endor, so the Rebels journey to Endor’s surface to knock out that shield. They are aided in their efforts by the Ewoks, inhabitants of Endor who resemble living teddy bears.

At the same time this battle is raging on below, Luke confronts the Emperor and Darth Vader on the death star. The Emperor has Luke on the verge of giving into his anger and beginning a descent to the dark side, when Darth Vader intervenes, ultimately saving Luke’s soul. When the Emperor realizes he will never turn Luke, he tries to kill him. Again, Vader intervenes, killing the Emperor but suffering fatal injuries in the process. Luke removes Vader’s mask, so Vader can see his son with his own eyes. He had saved his own soul in the end.

The shield is disabled and the Rebels, led by Lando Calrissian, destroy the death star.

The movie, and seemingly at the time we thought the series, ended with a celebration on Endor. Leia tells Han Solo that Luke is her brother, and she is in fact "the other". One of the closing moments sees Luke greet the spirits of Ben “Obi Wan” Kenobi and Yoda, and have his father now join them, not as Darth Vader, but as Anakin Skywalker, wearing his Jedi robes.

So everyone lives happily ever after – or so we thought.

The years after
When I entered the University of Alberta in 1987, I lived on the 10th floor of Kelsey Hall. Every floor had a common area, or lounge, with a TV and cable. We also got pay TV and one of the movies that was always on was “The Return of the Jedi”. I may not have seen it in its entirety, but I saw bits and pieces playing in the lounge for a couple months.

Parting thoughts
There really is nothing like the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It had an unparallelled effect on the culture of the 1980s and beyond. From the special effects pioneered by George Lucas’ “Industrial Light and Magic”, to the onset of merchandising to the very words and phrases entering the English language, the trilogy’s influence is profound.

However, at the end of the day the special effects, and the seemingly endless action figures, cups, cards, pens, shirts and on and on, are not what make the Star Wars movies so special. It is the story George Lucas tells and the engaging, compelling performances by Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and the others.

The power of Star Wars is evident in the fact these three original movies were re-mastered and re-released a decade later and still attracted mass audiences. They spawned a second trilogy, which actually takes place before the original movies, and were also hugely successful, although they did disappoint a lot of die hard fans.

Finally, it is evident in the fact a new set of movies has been released, with the next instalment coming out shortly.

I find it interesting, and ironic, that the same questions I had in Grade 6 in 1980 about what was going to happen in the next “Star Wars” movie are the same ones being asked today. We are all left to wonder: What’s next?

So, unlike so much other stuff from the 1980s, for Star Wars the adventure actually continues in 2017.

May the force be with you.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The future is now: Remembering “Back to the Future"

The original 1985 movie poster
for "Back to the Future"
The 21st Century seemed so far away when Marty McFly took Doc Brown in his silver DeLorean to the future, and back again, to the past, and back again.

Awhile back, the exact moment in the future that Marty and Doc travelled so far into the future, actually came to pass. A lot was made about how correct some predictions were, and how others were quite off.

For me, it just brought back a lot of memories of one movie I liked, that spawned two sequels that at times I have thought would have been better left unmade.

The summer of 1985
There are two things that made me want to see “Back to the Future” when it came to Lethbridge in 1985.

One was that Michael J. Fox was playing the lead in it. I had heard about this movie on “Entertainment Tonight”, where they said Eric Stoltz had been originally cast as Marty McFly, but was unable to continue and Fox replaced him. That was due in part to a recommendation by Gary David Goldberg, who was responsible for Fox’s success on the television comedy “Family Ties”.

The other was that I heard Huey Lewis and the News were doing the soundtrack. They were already one of my favourite bands, thanks to the influence of my cousin Fred, who played Huey Lewis’ album “Sports” the whole time I visited during the summer of 1984.

From left are Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, and Marty McFly,
played by Michael J. Fox, the two main characters in "Back to the Future"
So, I was primed to see the movie, when I talked to my friend Dave about going to see it. He wanted to go, I wanted to go, and so did a third friend at the time named Craig. I got a lift to Dave’s where Craig already was, and Dave’s mom took us to the College Village Mall, also known as Woolco, to see the movie. They had seen the band Tears for Fears earlier that month, and were still talking about that. They had phoned to see if I wanted to go to that concert, but I was in Brooks visiting my cousin Fred.

I was not disappointed in the movie.

“Back to the Future” was an awesome movie. It tells the story of Marty McFly, not one of the most popular kids in school, who hangs out with a reclusive scientist named Doc Brown. One day, Marty is thrown back in time 30 years to 1955 by a machine Doc Brown invented. Marty meets his parents as teenagers, and helps them meet, as he struggles to get back to his own time.

I absolutely love Michael J. Fox and that perfect blend of physical comedy, great timing, and irony he brings to every role. As the hyperkinetic Marty McFly, he carries the movie, but not without solid support from Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, Lea Thompson as Marty’s mom, and Crispin Glover as his dad.

Huey Lewis’ song “The Power of Love” opens the movie, and helps set the tone for the movie. It would go to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 because it was one of the best songs of the year. It would also receive an Oscar nomination, losing out to Lionel Richie's "Say You, Say Me" from the movie "White Nights". Huey Lewis even has a cameo in "Back to the Future" as the school administrator who tells Marty his band is, “just too loud.”

“Back to the Future” was one of the best movies of the year because it is the perfect blend of comedy, action, and suspense.

I sometimes think they should have left it alone.

To be continued…twice
The story would continue with two sequels. “Back to the Future Part II” came out at the end of 1989 and told the story of how Biff, the bully, changed history and not only made a fortune, but altered the future into this dystopic mess. Marty and Doc have to travel to the future, and back again, to fix the damage Biff had done.

This is the movie where they postulate what 2015 would look like. When the real-life calendar actually turned to the year 2015 and to the specific day Marty McFly was to have travelled to the future, various observers thought it would be interesting to see how much of what they foretold came true.

It really never occurred to me, other than the movie predicted a professional Major League Baseball team in Miami, which has come to pass.

A year later, in 1990, “Back to the Future Part III” was released, catapulting Marty and Doc back to the wild west and 1885, where they again change history and have to repair it.

I recall hearing or reading somewhere that the producers had made both sequels at the same time, so they could be released relatively close together.

Truth is, I probably need to see them both again.

When I initially saw them in the theatre, I was intrigued, but I can’t say the first sequel resonated with me. I never really liked Biff even as a villain, or the story line that much.

The second sequel was better, and I liked that wild west backdrop, but it seemed like the series had run its course.

So, by the end of the three movies I had mixed feelings.

Parting thoughts
It is always fun when time catches up with movies set so far in the future. So it was interesting to see “Back to the Future” commemorated when it actually was 2015.

However, that was not part of the original movie, which was strictly a story about travelling back in time.

That original movie remains one of my favourites of all time. It told a good story, had great music, and was the right blend of comedy, adventure and suspense.

It stands as a classic all on its own.

The true test for me is that I would love to see the first one again and again. The sequels? Maybe once to refresh my memory, but they never really stuck with me.

Sometimes just because you can make a sequel doesn’t mean you should.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Harvey Atken: Success Stateside

Canadian actor Harvey Atkin in his breakout role as camp director
Morty Melnick in "Meatballs", a role that earned him a Genie nomination
It was a movie that always seemed to be on TV when I was growing up in the ‘80s. Maybe it was because it satisfied Canadian content requirements, maybe because it was the highest grossing Canadian movie for a long time, or maybe a combination of both.

The images of “Meatballs” are burned in my mind, and I was thinking about that movie last month when I heard that Harvey Atkin, one of the main actors in “Meatballs” had passed away at age 74.

But there was more to Harvey Atkin then playing a camp counsellor. He would act at home and go Stateside where he became a mainstay on one of the most durable police dramas of the 1980s.

“Meatballs” was a coming of age movie that, along with “Caddy Shack”, really introduced the world to the comic genius of Bill Murray. It was a coming of age movie set at a summer camp, and there are still quotes from it that ring through my memory.

The foil for Murray’s comedic hijinks in the movie was Morty Melnick, played by Harvey Atkin. He would go on to earn a Genie nomination for the role.

Although the movie came out in 1979, I saw it on CTV during the 1980s.

Canadian content
Harvey Atkin was one of those Canadian actors you saw guest starring in virtually every Canadian show that aired on CTV and CBC in the 1980s. His Internet Movie Data Base listing is a who’s who of Canadian television shows – “King of Kensington”; “Hangin’ In”; “The Littlest Hobo”; “Night Heat”; “Check it Out”; “Danger Bay”; “Seeing Things”; “Street Legal”; “My Secret Identity”; and “E.N.G.”

Harvey Atkin at far right, in his most prominent role as Sergeant Ronald Coleman
in "Cagney and Lacey". Atkin appeared in 95 episodes of the police drama.
Going south
When “Cagney and Lacey” went from being a television movie to becoming a full-fledged series, I was surprised to see that Canadian actor Al Waxman was playing the man in charge of the station the two female detectives were stationed at.

I was equally surprised to see that Sergeant Ronald Coleman, one of the only uniformed police officers in a squad room of plain clothes detectives, was played by another actor familiar to Canadian audiences – Harvey Atkin.

He would go on to appear in 95 episodes of “Cagney and Lacey”, running from 1982 to 1988.

He would go on, in the years to follow, to play a recurring role as a judge in “Law and Order”; “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”; and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”.

He had made his mark as a guest star in American network television.

Parting thoughts
There are so many Canadian actors, in the 1980s in particular, who were known in their native land for work they did on the few Canadian shows that existed. So many of them remained hidden gems, who either never ventured to Hollywood, or just never caught on.

Harvey Atkin, like his fellow Canadian actor Al Waxman, was one of the exceptions. After a breakout role in "Meatballs", one of the most successful Canadian movies of the decade, and a productive career on Canadian television, he found his niche in Hollywood.

With that trademark Groucho Marx look, he was part of a talented ensemble cast on “Cagney and Lacey”, which proved to be one of the most durable police dramas of the decade.

It is nice to see Canadians break into the U.S. market, and Harvey Atkin may have been one of the first.

That makes him, if not a pioneer, at least a trailblazer of some measure.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Harry Dean Stanton: Angel and single dad

Harry Dean Stanton as the angel Gideon in "One Magic Christmas"
He had a storied career that included roles in movies directed by some of the best directors of the 1980s, but I will always remember Harry Dean Stanton for two roles that restored hope: as an angel restoring the magic of Christmas then a year later as a single dad restoring his daughter’s faith in humanity.

Harry Dean Stanton had a long, distinguished career, but upon learning of his death two months ago at age 91, my thoughts went to “One Magic Christmas” and “Pretty in Pink”.

“One Magic Christmas”
In the fall of 1990, I started reading old issues of “The Edmonton Journal” on microfiche at the Rutherford North library on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton. I was doing what I called research for a play I was writing set in the 1980s. That in part ended up being research for other projects including this very blog.

Anyway, one of the movies I read about was called “One Magic Christmas”, and it really intrigued me. Back then, it was not as easy to find an old movie, even one five years old, as it is today. Your choices were: the video store; the pay TV movie channel; or the most old-fashioned of methods, the re-run on network TV.

I did not give it much thought until I went home that Christmas of 1990, only to see a commercial on the anchor of peasant vision, the CBC. One of the Christmas movies they planned to air during the season was – “One Magic Christmas”.

So on a Sunday night in December, in what would be my last Christmas on our family farm, I watched “One Magic Christmas” with my mom.

In it, Harry Dean Stanton plays the angel Gideon, who restores the true meaning of Christmas for a woman who had stopped believing. In the end she learned the main lesson – to celebrate what you have and not what you want.

It was a heart-warming movie that came at the perfect time.

Harry Dean Stanton, at right, as Jack Walsh in
"Pretty in Pink", consoling his daughter Andie, played by Molly Ringwald
“Pretty in Pink”
It was maybe a year later, that I went to a movie in the theatre that also got to me.

“Pretty in Pink” resonated for me in an entirely different way than “One Magic Christmas”.

It was the third movie in John Hughes’ teen angst tetralogy, so I knew I would like it because Hughes was one of my heroes. My friend Dave took me to “Pretty in Pink” for my 16th birthday, and I was not disappointed.

Molly Ringwald, who was also in the first two John Hughes movies, plays a teenager battling cliques and expectations as her high school prom approaches, who meets the boy of her dreams. She lives with her dad after her mom left them, and he struggles to support his family.

However, throughout he remains supportive and at the end of the movie, buys her a pink dress for her prom. She combines that with a pink prom dress she borrowed from an older friend to make a dress for her own prom.

Jack Walsh, with the pink dress he bought
for his daughter Andie's prom in "Pretty in Pink"
So, she goes to her prom and gets the guy in the end, partly because she is pretty in pink.

Parting thoughts
Virtually all the eulogies and retrospectives that have come out since Harry Dean Stanton died have focused on his long film career and roles in such films as “Paris, Texas”, “Escape from New York”, “Repo Man”, and “Red Dawn”, among others.

However, for me, Harry Dean Stanton will always be the actor who brought those two inspiring roles to life: an angel who restored the true meaning of Christmas, and a supportive dad who helps his daughter become “pretty in pink”.

What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Tom Petty: Eating a human cake and other oddities

The album cover for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' iconic
album "Damn The Torpedoes", released in late 1979
but heard on the radio for much of the '80s.
It was one of the strangest music videos I've ever seen. This guy was wearing a top hat and singing. Suddenly this girl who was essentially Alice in Wonderland, became a cake, and people started to eat pieces of her as the words, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” played. This was my introduction to the artistry and genius of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

When I heard Tom Petty passed away a few weeks ago, I was reminded of how much of his music I really knew and loved.

“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
When I was in Grade 10, I started listening to music on LA-107 FM and got my first ghetto blaster that Christmas of 1984. LA-107 was an album-oriented rock station, so they focused as much on albums as singles.

It was in March of 1985 that I started hearing this single that sounded a bit like a whine, but was also pretty catchy. It was “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. A few weeks later, I was watching “Good Rockin’ Tonite” on a Friday night and host Terry David Mulligan was doing his album countdown and mentioned “Southern Accents”, the album that contained “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. A few weeks after that, I went swimming in Phys Ed class and one of my classmates named Bill Anhel told me about the video.

That was my initial exposure to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that was it.

Listen to the radio
The gaps got filled in by the radio after that, most notably a singles-oriented AM station in Lethbridge called 1090 CHEC. I realized how prolific Tom Petty was. I heard the songs, “Break Down” and “American Girl”, which were both off their self-titled debut album. Then there were “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “Here Comes My Girl”, and “Refugee”. It turns out all three of those singles were off Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album entitled, “Damn the Torpedoes.” I actually first encountered that album when I joined Columbia House and kept seeing it listed in the catalogue’s discount album listings.

They would perform at Live Aid in the summer of 1985, then put out another album in 1987 called “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” which featured the single “Jammin’ Me.”

After hours
As the decade came to a close, Tom Petty released a solo album in 1989 called “Full Moon Fever” that may have been his biggest effort yet. It contained the singles “I Won’t Back Down”, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’”.

We used to go to this student pub right in res call The Ship, and we would end up at my buddy François’ afterwards. Invariably, we would all mellow out to “Free Fallin’” which he always played.

It takes two
Tom Petty also teamed up with other musicians to achieve musical success. The first big hit was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet he sang with Stevie Nicks, best known as the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac. The single was the first release off “Bella Donna,” Nicks’ debut solo album. The song would peak at number three on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, and stay at that spot for six weeks.

It would not be the last time Tom Petty collaborated with other musicians to produce hit music.

Super Group
Near the end of the decade, Tom Petty was part of another collaboration, this time with three legendary musicians. It was 1988 when he teamed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison to form The Travelling Wilburys. They released the single, “Handle with Care”, that went to number two on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and number 45 on the Hot 100.

It was part of the album, “Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1”, which was nominated for several awards and won the Grammy for best rock performance by a duo or group in 1989.

Orbison died in December of 1988. When I heard they not only released another single called, “End of the Line”, but had a video to go with it, I wondered how they would handle Orbison’s death. I was living in student residence then and had actually gone shopping at West Edmonton Mall with a floormate named Mike Field. He had every intention of buying the Traveling Wilburys album, but changed his mind at the last minute. Well, a few weeks later, it was Mike who told me he had seen the new video. I asked how they handled Orbison’s death. Mike said it was with the utmost of class. They had Orbison’s guitar leaning up against a rocking chair, then showed his picture. That was very classy, I thought.

The Traveling Wilburys would release a second, and final, album in 1990, but it did not have the same level of success.

The years after
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would put out another album in 1991 called,  “Into the Great Wide Open”, featuring the title track and another catchy tune entitled, “Learning to Fly”. Two year later in 1993, he released a greatest hits album with the original track, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” which was another hit. He would keep producing music until his unexpected death at age 66 about a month ago on Oct. 2, 2017.

Parting thoughts
It has become cliché to say, but Tom Petty was another part of the soundtrack of the 1980s for me. Whether it was with his band the Heartbreakers, in a duet with Stevie Nicks, part of the Traveling Wilburys or on his own, his music was always around. Even last week, when I was making the hour-log drive from Lethbridge back home to Claresholm, not one but two Tom Petty songs were on the radio.

The music just made you tap your toe to the beat, learn the lyrics, and just get up and move. He told good stories and his ballads, especially “Free Fallin’” and later “Learning to Fly” stirred the soul.

It is kind of ironic his band was called the “Heartbreakers” because his music was full of heart.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Gene Wilder: At his best in the 1980s with Richard Pryor

Gene Wilder, at left, and Richard Pryor in "Stir Crazy"
Whenever I think of Gene Wilder, I think comic genius, and usually he was making audiences laugh
with Richard Pryor. They appeared together in three movies in the 1980s, bracketing the decade, and all of them made me laugh.

Wilder passed away last year, but he leaves a legacy of laughs, and some tears, in more than four decades of work.

Dynamic duo
To be honest, I think most of the Gene Wilder movies I saw in the '80s co-starred Richard Pryor.

The first was actually still in the 1970s. “Silver Streak”, released in 1976, was the story of a murder on a train travelling from Los Angeles to Chicago. The first time I saw it was in the 1980s though. I was staying over at my friend Mike Hartman’s place in Coaldale. He made some money babysitting for a couple, and we watched it on their cable TV while we babysat. Parts of the film were shot in Lethbridge so, as we watched, we kept looking for signs of Southern Alberta. The most obvious was the High Level Bridge, which was perfect for a movie set on a train. One scene has Wilder disguised as a black man. Pryor puts shoe polish on is face, and teaches him to jive to the music coming from a radio he held to his left ear.

The second pairing of Wilder and Pryor is a movie I remember vividly. “Stir Crazy”, released in 1980, was set in prison, where Wilder and Pryor are two men wrongly convicted of robbing a bank, who end up making friends with the other prisoners. There are some absolutely hilarious moments. In one, the warden is trying to torture Wilder into submission. He puts him in the hot box for what should be an unbearable time. When Wilder emerges drenched in sweat, he rejoices that the hot box has helped him immensely, and he begs to go back in for just one more day. He is also hung in the air with chains strapped to both ankles and wrists. When they finally cut him loose, he rejoices again. This time, hanging in the air fixed his back, so he thanked the guards. He finally capitulated when he was in the infirmary talking to a man who was accidentally castrated. When Wilder is told which doctor he is there to see, the castrated man said that was the one who worked on him. Wilder relented at that point. It was just hilarious.

Pryor and Wilder in the 1989 comedy, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil",
where Wilder's character is deaf and Pryor's character is blind.
The final time they appeared together in the decade was in 1989 for “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” I went to see that as part of the summer of 1989 when I saw a ton of movies in my first summer living in Edmonton. Wilder plays a deaf man while Pryor plays a blind man. Together they thwart a ring of thieves. The movie also featured a very young Joan Severance and Kevin Spacey.

The rest of the decade
Wilder also appeared in other movies, such as “Haunted Honeymoon” and “The Woman in Red”, but I never saw either of them. “The Woman in Red” did feature the song, “I Just Called to Say I Love” by Stevie Wonder which beat out Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” for an Oscar for best original song. I saw tons of commercials that focused more on Wilder’s co-star Kelly Le Brock than him. Wilder also directed “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon”.

As the 1980s closed, the sun was beginning to set on Gene Wilder’s career.

Parting thoughts
Gene Wilder really was a comic genius. His best work came in the 1970s with a pile of great comedies such as, “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein”, “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”, “Silver Streak”, and “The Frisco Kid”. They all showcased his great blend of facial gestures – especially those big eyes; physical comedy; and comedic timing. He would peak in the 1980s with “Stir Crazy”, which was a great movie that even spawned a short-lived TV series of the same name.

Like everything, he eventually faded away as the good roles became fewer and fewer and he concentrated on directing, writing, and caring for his wife Gilda Radner, who was stricken with ovarian cancer. She would die in 1989. He would continue to work during her treatments, but after she died he devoted his energy to raising funds and awareness for cancer through a cancer detection centre and support group, both named in her memory.

In a way it is kind of ironic that a man who made a name for himself by making people laugh, would suffer such sadness.

Yet, he found love again, remarried and spent the rest of his time painting with water colours, writing, and doing charity work.

It seemed to be a life well lived.

He could always make me laugh. When he teamed up with Richard Pryor, they had this chemistry that made me just want to keep watching. They played off each other so well, taking turns as the straight man, and the laughs just kept on coming.

They were the perfect comedy team.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Gordie Howe: Ageless wonder

Among the many records hockey legend Gordie Howe held or still holds is that he touched
six decades. His intersection with the 1980s was brief, but I honestly can say I watched him play – maybe not in his prime – but actually play a meaningful game in the National Hockey League.

That intersection of history not only represents what Howe was as a player, but also represents a unique time in the history of the game.

I was thinking about these things when I heard Gordie Howe had passed away at the age of 88.

The legend of Gordie Howe is well known. He was an all-star, leader, Stanley Cup champion, and the most dominant force in the National Hockey League when he played with the Detroit Red Wings, starting in 1946. By the time he retired, he was the league’s all-time leading scorer, and considered by most the greatest player of all time.

What just increased his stature, and legend, was when he came out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty for the Houston Aeros in the fledgling World Hockey Association. His arrival, along with another legend in Bobby Hull, gave the league instant credibility.

He played four seasons, from 1973 to 1977, with the Houstone Aeros, leading them to consecutive WHA AVCO Cup championships in 1973-1974 and 1974-1975. All three of the Howes would join the New England Whalers in 1977 and play two seasons there, 1977-1978 and 1978-1979.

Instead of being just another pretender, the World Hockey Association was enough of a contender for fans of the game that it precipitated a merger with the National Hockey League.

The Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers now renamed the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets would be joining the NHL while the rest of the players would be dispersed. Gordie Howe, and his sons Mark and Marty, were allowed to stay with the Whalers.

Gordie Howe would be returning to the NHL.

Given that I had never seen a WHA game, I really did not understand the true impact of the merger until much later. It meant, for the most part, that more teams meant more hockey cards.

The other thing I did notice, was how the New England Whalers of the WHA, and their logo and uniforms, were transformed into the Hartford Whalers of the NHL. The first time I saw both the old jerseys and the new ones was in reading the “Hockey News” by Scotiabank.

One last year in the son
Gordie Howe, at age 51, would play one more season in the NHL, that landmark 1979-1980 year with the four new teams, expanding the league to 21 teams. One of his teammates, another legend returning to the NHL was Dave Keon, who had starred with the Toronto Maple Leafs before going to the WHA.

It was a landmark season for several years. Howe, who would turn 52 during the season, played in all 80 games that season notching 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points.

The all-star game that season was in Detroit, site of so much of Howe’s glory, and coach Scotty Bowman chose Howe to play in the game. It would make five decades of all-star games Howe played in. This was extra special. In addition to it being in his fifth decade and Howe being in his 50s, he would play with the second youngest all-star in history, 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Howe twice got a standing ovation at that game at the Joe Louis Arena. For good measure, Howe earned an assist in the Wales Conference’s 6-3 win.

Another highlight was that late in the season the Whalers acquired Bobby Hull, so Hull, Howe and Keon, three legends, played on the same line in the NHL.

The Whalers finished with 27 wins, 34 losses and 19 ties for 73 points, good enough for fourth in the Norris Division, and the best record among the four former WHA teams. They qualified for the playoffs, facing the mighty Montreal Canadiens in a first-round, best-of-five series.

The first two games were in Montreal. The Canadiens won Game 1 by a score of 6-1. The Canadiens led 4-0 part way through the second period of Game 2 when Howe and his son Marty set up Ray Neufeld for a goal to make it 4-1. Gordie Howe would score in the third period, but it was nowhere near enough to keep Hartford from losing 8-4. It was Gordie Howe’s final goal in the NHL.

Two days later, Howe would play his final NHL game. It was in front of his home fans in Hartford, as the Whalers put up a valiant fight, taking the Habs to overtime before losing 4-3 on a game and series-winning goal by Yvan Lambert.

With that, Gordie Howe skated off into the sunset.

Parting thoughts
There really are not enough words to describe the remarkable career of Gordie Howe. Incredibly, most of his NHL glory occurred before I was born in 1970. However, he re-ignited his career in the World Hockey Association, where he won two championships and had the pleasure of playing with his two sons. Then, by a quirk of history, he was able to rejoin the NHL for one last season, where he was not only productive, but helped lead his team to the playoffs.

It was that brief intersection with the 1980s, that I finally got to see Gordie Howe play. It was April 9, 1980, and I was staying over night at my Uncle Ed’s in Lethbridge. I was watching Game 2 of the Whalers-Canadiens series when my cousin wanted to watch something else. I went upstairs to the living room and watched the third period. My uncle was up there, dozing in front of the TV. I told him how excited I was to finally see Gordie Howe after all I had read about him. Suddenly, this Whaler's arms went in the air. Obviously Hartford had scored, but I could not see who.

At that exact moment, my Uncle Ed said, “Your friend scored, eh.”

In fact, Gordie Howe had scored. The replay showed he beat goaltender Denis Herron with a long backhand shot. The Montreal fans gave him a standing ovation in response.

I had finally seen him score a goal, and it was the last chance I ever had.

It just showed that, at 52, playing against players half his age and more, that he was the ageless wonder.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Muhammad Ali: Shadow of a boxer

Muhammad Ali, at right, taking a jab from heavyweight
champion Larry Holmes in the 1r 1980 fight
He may have floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but by the time the 1980s rolled around Muhammad Ali was just a shadow of the champion he once was.

When I heard he had passed away, I was saddened by his loss, but reminded of the last, sad years of his career.

Opening bell
The first time I saw Ali fight was back in 1978, in an era when fights were still on regular TV. He was defending his heavyweight championship against Leon Spinks. My outstanding memory of Ali was how he was extremely defensive, holding his gloves to cover his face while Spinks was clearly the aggressor.

I was cheering for Ali at the time, because he was the champion I guess, but he was clearly not the better fighter. He lost that fight by decision, and with it his heavyweight championship.

We watched “Eight is Enough” right after that, because the fight went late. That’s what I remember – Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, and Dick Van Patten.

There was a rematch but I never saw it. I think it was televised, but I was doing something else. I was glad to hear Ali had learned his lesson. He came out swinging and took back his heavyweight championship.

It was all downhill from there.

Holmes is were the heart is
Ali retired after winning the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time. In the meantime, Larry Holmes beat Ken Norton for the title, and established himself as champion.

Motivated, in part by money, Ali launched a title challenge, coming out of retirement to face Holmes for the heavyweight championship.

The three-time champ and current challenger had nothing left. Holmes completely took over the fight, winning every round on every scorecard, when Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the 11th round. It was Oct. 2, 1980, and the decade had not started well for Ali.

Muhammad Ali, at right, taking a shot from Canadian and Commonwealth
heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick in 1981.
It was Ali's last fight, a 10-round loss by unanimous decision
With a whimper, not a bang
Still unable to come to terms with retirement, and dreaming he could become the first four-time heavyweight champion, Ali fought one last time, and it was not the way to conclude such a storied career.

He travelled to Nassau, the Bahamas to fight Canadian and Commonwealth heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick, who was ranked fourth by the World Boxing Association and would go on to be a World Boxing Council heavyweight champion. It was Dec. 11, 1981 and Ali came in not in the best shape, 18 pounds heavier and 12 years older than his 28-year-old opponent. Berbick went the distance with the former three-time champion and beat him in a 10-round unanimous decision one month short of Ali's 40th birthday.

Muhammad Ali said afterwards that was it – and it was. He had fought his last fight.

Parting thoughts
It is unfortunate Muhammad Ali even made it to the 1980s. He had such a storied career – epic struggles with the best boxers of his generation such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Sonny Liston. He had beaten them all, taken a beating from many of them, and provided countless memorable moments for boxing fans.

He could have easily rode off into the sunset after regaining his title from Leon Spinks. There is no better crowning achievement to a career than doing something no one else had.

Ali had just become the first ever three-time heavyweight champion. What a way to end it.

Instead, he felt the need to come back. When he did, he was not the same fighter, and lost all the fights he had in the 1980s.

It is unfortunate. He was a shadow of the boxer he once was.