James Garner: The Inside Story of a TV Superstar. In Garner's Two Most Famous Series, the 'Situation Was Always Hopeless, But Never Serious'
During the 1950s, when television was first sweeping the country and putting a serious dent in movie going, there were not a lot of actors who became big stars primarily because of their association with scripted programming -- as opposed to variety shows -- on the small screen.
Lucille Ball became one, and Jack Webb another. They were the stars of “I Love Lucy” and “Dragnet,” respectively. Raymond Burr became a household name as the title character in “Perry Mason.” James Arness became familiar to millions in “Gunsmoke.”
And James Garner, who died this past Saturday night, July 19, 2014 at age 86, became a TV superstar by playing, twice, a character its creator once told Newsweek was “a happy existentialist. His motives all derive from himself, never from others or from ‘the community.’ These motives are profit, curiosity, anger, sex and self-preservation.”
These two roles that fit Garner like a well-worn favorite sweatshirt were Bret Maverick in the late 1950s and Jim Rockford in the mid-1970s.
Roy Huggins, who was the creator of “Maverick” and the co-creator (with Stephen J. Cannell) of “The Rockford Files,” is quoted in Raymond Strait’s 1985 biography “James Garner” (a book with which Garner did not participate), saying: “ ‘The Rockford Files’ was simply ‘Maverick’ as a modern-day private eye. That’s all. Played by the same character. [The main character in both shows] was a guy who didn’t like to put himself in danger. Didn’t like to work too hard … somewhat cowardly. Was not a superman or superhero. When he hit the villain with his fist he would wince and go ‘Oww!,’ which is what Maverick did.
Previously Huggins had said about "Maverick": "In the traditional Western story the situation is always serious, but never hopeless. In a 'Maverick' story the situation is always hopeless but never serious."
Now, talking about the Rockford character really being an incarnation of Bret Maverick, Huggins said, “Doing ‘Maverick’ in modern-day circumstances meant that I had to have a guy who is kind of an outsider, which is why I made him a former convict. As an ex-con, he was an outsider because of his background, whereas Maverick had been an outsider by choice. In both he maintained a certain sense of humor. Garner humor -- and that’s the difference.”
In his own 2011 memoir, “The Garner Files,” (co-written by Jon Winokur), Garner writes: “If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy. One is a gambler and one is a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”
Of course, like most folks, in the case of “Maverick” I pretty much thought I was just watching a Western that was different because its main character had such a great sense of humor and was a gambling card player with the fastest verbal jab in town, compensating for a lack of quickness in the draw.
Similarly, like most viewers, what I enjoyed so much about “The Rockford Files” was its wry sensibility and the panache with which Garner and the show’s terrific ensemble played off one another.
And do you remember how each “Rockford” episode started with an answering machine joke, such as "Jim, it's Eddie. You were right about Sweet Talk in the seventh. He breezed in, paid $72.50. But I didn't get your bet down." Just that bit alone every week I thought was a hilarious send-up of “Mission: Impossible,” with its oh-so-serious beginning of each episode having the tape intoning “Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it …”
Garner became a TV star virtually within weeks of “Maverick’s” premiere on Sept. 22, 1957. Even Garner's becoming an actor to begin with is storybook. Here’s how Garner, who was born and spent his childhood in Oklahoma, told the story, from an article by Pete Martin that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on Oct. 11, 1958:
“When I was 16 I went into the merchant marine. It was 1944 and every boy my age wanted to get himself a piece of the war. We didn’t have much sense. My father signed a letter so I could join up. I stayed in the service over a year, then came home and stayed with my father in Los Angeles. I intended to ship out again, but dad talked me into going back to school. I enrolled in Hollywood High.”
Garner went there for about a year and then says a model agency called the school looking for 10 fellows to model bathing suits. The phys-ed teacher picked Garner as one of the 10.
Garner picks up the story: “When I quit Hollywood High, I worked at a service station on Hollywood Boulevard, and Paul [Gregory] worked across the street as a soda jerk. … [H]e was trying to be a theatrical agent, and he thought maybe I should be an actor, but I wanted no part of it. I had read stories about actors in the fan magazines and I didn’t like what I’d read. Some of these stories were so maudlin they were stomach-turning. I don’t care for nightclubs, and it seemed to me that all those people did was nightclub crawling. I didn’t like those multiple love affairs, either.”
Flash forward seven or eight years later. By this time Garner has served in the Korean War and is back in Los Angeles with his dad. He had read that Paul Gregory had become a theatrical agent. He sees Gregory’s name on a building and decides to stop in and say hello to his old friend. “He not only talked me into being an actor, he also signed me to a contract,” Garner said.
After a non-speaking part in a play in New York, “I came back to California and waited," Garner says. "Bill Orr, a TV executive producer at Warners, hired me for ‘Cheyenne.’ It was my first show. ... I was terrible. After that I don’t know why they hired me again. I quite honestly thought it was poor judgment on their part. Then Warners screen-tested me and signed me. I’ve been there ever since.”
He was in a few movies, including “Sayonara” in 1957, which starred Marlon Brando. It was filmed in Japan. Garner says, “I don’t know what their thought processes were, but the studio cabled Japan, ‘When you finish with Jim in “Sayonara,” send him back here.’ I have no idea what the link was between [the character I played in ‘Sayonara,’ Captain] Bailey and Maverick, other than in both of them I was a carefree guy always having a ball. There was some humor in my scenes in ‘Sayonara.’ Maybe that did it.” Garner was 29 years old.
Tim Brooks, in the book he co-wrote, “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” notes that when “Cheyenne” and “Gunsmoke” debuted in September 1955, it started a huge trend in TV to adult Westerns. Only four adult Westerns were on the prime-time network schedule a year later, in the fall of 1956. A year after that, in 1957, the three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, had 14 Westerns on their prime-time schedule. By the fall of 1958, “Twenty–one Westerns are being put on film,” reported Look magazine.
Writes Brooks: “By 1958-1959, seven out of the top ten series [in the ratings] were Westerns -- a dominance seldom achieved by any program type.” The ten top-rated shows for the 1958-‘59 season were, in order from 1 to 10: “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Rifleman,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “Maverick,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “The Real McCoys,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” Another Western, “Bonanza,” which would become a ratings juggernaut, would not premiere until the next season.
The year before “Maverick” went on the air, the No. 1-rated show on TV was “I Love Lucy,” with an average weekly rating of 43.7. No. 2 that year was “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with an average weekly rating of 38.4. Sullivan was already long a staple of CBS’s Sunday prime-time schedule when, in 1956, Steve Allen, the first host of “The Tonight Show,” had quit that program to challenge Sullivan with Allen’s own variety show. Allen had some ratings success against Sullivan, but not a lot.
The hour-long shows of both Sullivan and Allen started at 8 p.m. on Sundays. Helping Sullivan’s show was the fact that it was on immediately after the popular “Jack Benny Show.”
Remarkably, “Maverick,” starring the then unknown Garner, had an almost immediate impact in the ratings. So dramatic and unexpected was this that Allen sent Garner the following note, according to a Time magazine article on Dec. 30, 1957: “Somebody told me you carry a .45 and I got pretty scared, I thought it was your rating.” Added Time, “It darn near was. Maverick Garner was giving Allen and his fellow TV Titan Ed Sullivan plenty to worry about in the Sunday-at-8 spot. Last week, for the fifth time, ‘Maverick’ (on 7:30 to 8:30) outrode both of them in the Trendex [ratings] derby -- for what that is worth (and to TV and ad moguls it still seems to be worth millions). Also, ‘Maverick’ for the first time kicked dust into the face of the almost peerless Jack Benny.”
By the end of "Maverick's" first season, Sullivan's program was down by more than 10 reatings points.
Despite the fact that Roy Huggins, who passed away 12 years ago at age 87, was so pleased with Garner’s performance as Maverick that he wanted him almost 20 years later to play the lead in “The Rockford Files,” Garner wrote in his 2011 memoir, “Roy did have a great line about me: ‘Jim Garner and I have a love/hate relationship: I love him and he hates me.’ It wasn’t true. Roy didn’t love me at all.
“But I may not be an impartial witness. I knew more than I should about Roy because [one of my friends] was his brother-in-law. More than that I can’t say.”
Whoa! What a curveball. Garner and the man most responsible for his signature roles didn’t get along. Huggins was a huge TV talent. Besides “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” he created “77 Sunset Strip,” “The Fugitive” and “Baretta.”
Raymond Strait, in his bio about Garner, says one dispute between the two men stems from the 1958 Emmys. “Maverick” won for Best Western, and Huggins went up to receive the Emmy. But instead of giving the traditional speech thanking people connected with the show, he just said “Thank You” and sat down. Huggins later explained to a number of people on the show -- but not Garner -- that the Emmy broadcast was running late and he was asked by the Emmy folks not to give a speech.
Later on “Rockford,” Garner, in his memoir, claims he finally fired Huggins from the show. Huggins claimed he was leaving anyway.
Ed Robertson, an author who has written books about both “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” is also quoted in Garner’s memoir. Robertson says, “Talk to anyone who worked with Jim, and the word 'family' will emerge almost immediately. In many cases, their association with Jim lasted several decades. No wonder they consider him, and he considers them, family.
“Roy Huggins was never part of that extended family -- which seems odd at first, considering how integral Roy was to Jim’s two greatest successes.”
After explaining that Huggins worked odd hours, so he had actually little contact with Garner, Robertson says, “I respect and admire both men. Whatever personal differences kept them apart, their professional collaborations changed the face of television in two genres. Along the way, they each left their own distinctive mark, for which we should all be grateful.”
James Garner also made almost 50 movies for the big screen. I love “The Great Escape,” but Garner’s just an ensemble player in that. Garner’s favorite movie was “The Americanization of Emily,” from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. It’s easily his best film.
But it was on TV that Garner was a superstar. Not only are Maverick and Rockford his signature roles, he made some absolutely outstanding TV movies, including “Heartsounds,” “Promise,” “My Name Is Bill W” and “Barbarians at the Gate.” I highly recommend all of these TV movies, especially HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate” from 1993. It’s based on a well-known book -- a non-fiction business book -- about RJR Nabisco being bought out. I know that sounds like it might make a decent documentary, but not a very engrossing regular movie.
In fact, Garner won a Golden Globe for “Barbarians” as best actor in a TV movie. The movie also won the Golden Globe and Emmy as the best TV movie of the year. That’s primarily because of Larry Gelbart’s script. It’s a must-see that hasn’t lost any of its satirical bite.
In his memoir -- which I urge you to read in its entirety -- Garner says, “If anybody asks how do you want to be remembered, I tell them ‘With a smile.’"
I also like this, from Garner’s readers note at the beginning of his memoir:
Above all, I want you to know I have no regrets. Here’s this dumb kid from Oklahoma, raised during the Depression, comes to Hollywood, gets a career, becomes famous, makes some money, has a wonderful family … what would I change? Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing.
“I write as slow as mud,” said Vince Gilligan, in explaining the delay of the highly anticipated series “Better Call Saul” -- a companion piece to the vaunted “Breaking Bad” -- now set to air next year on AMC after being moved back from its original premiere set for this fall.
Gilligan’s discussion of his meticulous creative process with writing/producing partner Peter Gould was just one of the highlights of the cable and digital portion of the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour, which began July 8 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
A slew of cable networks including National Geographic, Ovation, Al Jazeera America, Discovery, WGN America, BBC, Turner Networks, El Rey Network, HBO, VH1, MTV, Pivot, Starz, WE tv, Sundance and AMC presented panels with executives, creators and talent from new and returning programs who showed clips and fielded questions from television reporters.
Digital platforms DirecTV, Amazon Studios and Hulu also presented programming. Other cable networks, including Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, Esquire, ABC Family, Showtime and FX are presenting this week into next at TCA.
Here are some of the highlights:
National Geographic Channels
“American War Generals” (September)
From Vietnam to the Cold War to Desert Storm to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the film features new interviews with 10 of America’s most noteworthy generals in a look back at 50 years of military battles and the transformation of the U.S. military. The politics of war always generates heated debate, and their expertise will offer fresh insight into current foreign policy.
“We tried to institute a modern democratic state on top of a culture that was ill disposed to it,” Gen. Barry McCaffrey told reporters about the Iraq war. “We’re seeing faultlines develop on World War I boundaries. In 10 to 25 years, the Middle East will rearrange itself in unpredictable, bloody ways. The same thing will happen in Afghanistan.”
“Sleepless in America” (November)
This thought-provoking and potentially life-changing piece examines the science of sleep, and how the lack of it -- which is epidemic in our society -- affects health, well-being and safety. Through its portrayal of cutting-edge research and compelling stories, it will illustrate the consequences of not getting enough sleep and explain what we can do to get a better night’s rest.
“The philosophy of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ actually makes the quality of life worse,” said Matthew Walker, the director of the sleep and neuroimaging lab at UC Berkeley. “Humans are the only animals that willfully deprive themselves of sleep.”
“Eat: The Story of Food” (November)
Eating is the most important thing you do every day, even more so than sleeping -- unless you asked the previous panel. This six-part miniseries explores the evolution of how food has defined human civilization and tells the unexpected stories of the trials and tribulations behind every morsel of food on your plate.
One of the segments is “Eric Greenspan is Hungry,” hosted by the well-known chef, who owns Los Angeles eateries The Foundry, The Roof and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese. Greenspan goes across the country, traveling off road into unexpected places to find the most mouthwatering recipes around.
“If we all ate together more often, the world would be a much better place,” said Andrew Smith, a food historian who appears in the program.
“Urban Jungle” (August)
Guided by big cat tracker Boone Smith, “Urban Jungle” (to be simulcast on Nat Geo Wild as part of Big Cats Week on Aug. 3) takes a closer look at cities including New York, Mumbai, Las Vegas, Chicago and Bangkok that humans consider their own but are now overrun with wildlife. Viewers will see animals living in our cities, suburbs and the outskirts of town, even walking down city streets and entering buildings.
“These animals have us figured out,” said Smith. “It’s a whole new environment.”
"Manhattan" (July 27)
Set against the backdrop of the race against time to build the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, the one hour drama follows a group of brilliant scientists and their families as they navigate a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every part of their lives. Once inside "The Hill," a neighborhood enclave in the foothills outside of a town that is so secret it's not even on the map, the characters realize the scope of deception in working on the first nuclear bomb.
"The Game" (Fall)
This early 1970s-era spy drama tells the story of how the British intelligence agency MI5 battled to protect the UK from the threats of the Cold War after a KGB defector reveals this existence of a devastating Soviet plot called Operation Glass. The charismatic but paranoid MI5 chief, played by Brian Cox and known as Daddy, assembles a secret group to investigate and uncover traitors in their midst.
"A Poet in New York" (Fall)
Marking the 100th anniversary of poet Dylan Thomas' birth, the telefilm explores his final days before his premature death in 1953 at the age of 39. Already a world-renowned poet in the era depicted, Thomas, who is portrayed by Tom Hollander, penned some of the most famous verses in the English language. Flashing back to Thomas' past in Wales, the drama explores how his destructive personality contributed to his demise.
"Intruders" (August 23)
Set in the Pacific Northwest, this paranormal thriller focuses on a secret society devoted to chasing immortality by seeking refuge in the bodies of others. It's based on a bestselling novel and stars Mira Sorvino and John Simm. The eight-parter entwines strange, unrelated events across multiple storylines, including a missing wife, an assassin and a runaway child.
"Legends" (August 13)
Actor Sean Bean -- famously beheaded in "Game of Thrones" -- comes to life as an undercover FBI agent who has the ability to transform himself into a completely different person for each job. As the drama builds, he begins to question his own identity when a mysterious stranger appears and suggests he is not who he believes himself to be.
Bean was asked about his favorite of his on-screen deaths. "I liked ‘Lord of the Rings.’ That death. Big death.”
“Matador” (premiered July 15)
A spy story in a soccer setting, this second original series from Robert Rodriguez’s network -- already renewed for a second season -- stars Gabriel Luna as Tony “Matador” Bravo, an undercover agent who infiltrates a team whose billionaire owner is an international bad guy (Alfred Molina) involved in many nefarious activities. In balancing dual roles as a spy and a soccer player, Matador confronts questions of his true identity as he embarks on a dangerous mission.
“It fits right in with our network. It’s kickass, the characters are really engaging -- it’s your dream kind of show to do,” said Rodriguez.
"Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways" (October)
The eight-part miniseries follows Dave Grohl to cities across the U.S. as each location serves as the locale for a song to be on the next Foo Fighters album. Each is inspired by the history and heritage of the music of each respective city: New Orleans, Austin, Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, Washington and New York.
"Olive Kitteridge" (Fall)
Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star in this miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a placid New England town wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, told from the point of view of the title character. Her sharp wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart.
"The Comeback" (Fall)
Lisa Kudrow is back as B-list TV personality Valerie Cherish, a pioneer in the reality genre. Ten years later, she wants back in to the biz. But what has she learned in a decade? Desperate to stay in the spotlight, she may be repeating mistakes of the past -- to great comic effect.
"The Knick" (August 8)
A period psychological drama set in a hospital called the Knickerbocker at the turn of the 20th century, it stars Clive Owen as a brilliant doctor who's a cocaine addict and leads a staff of nurses and surgeons who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of high mortality rates and no antibiotics.
"Finding Carter" (premiered July 8)
The unconventional family drama centers on a teenage girl who lives with her single mom until a police bust at a high school party reveals she was in fact kidnapped by the woman as a toddler. The show follows her quest to rejoin her family of origin, and to keep the person she thought was her mom from being arrested for her abduction.
"LeAnn & Eddie" (July 17)
The new reality skein follows LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian, a couple who have been famous for years, but whose fame blew up when they became a couple -- and the tabloids became enamored of their every move.
Showing their public and private lives, the couple pokes fun at what it's like to be a high-profile pairing with a lot of misinformation surrounding them.
"Survivor's Remorse" (Fall)
The half-hour series follows the exploits of Cam Calloway, with Jessie T. Usher portraying the basketball star in his early 20s suddenly thrust into the limelight after signing a huge contract with a pro team in Atlanta. He and his family confront the challenges driven by his newfound success, including their ties from the impoverished community they're from.
"The Chair" (Fall)
From producer Chris Moore, of "Project Greenlight," this docuseries pits two aspiring filmmakers in competition with each other as they each make a version of the same screenplay with the same budget (about $900,000). Through multi-platform voting, the audience will determine which is awarded a $250,000 prize.
"The Divide" (July 16)
This drama, the network’s first scripted, explores morality, ambition, ethics, politics and race in today's justice system through the eyes of a caseworker with the Innocence Initiative and an equally passionate district attorney. They both face questions of one man's guilt or innocence and struggle between right and wrong in a quest for justice.
“Every life affected by a violent crime is extraordinary,” said Tony Goldwyn, writer and EP with Richard LaGravenese. “The ripple effect on all those lives is extraordinary. It’s a great milieu for a provocative TV series.”
"The Honorable Woman" (July 31)
The miniseries depicts a wrenching tale of deception and betrayal against a backdrop of international espionage. The thriller stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a character who as a child witnessed the assassination of her father, an arms dealer. Her appointment to the House of Lords creates a political maelstrom.
“I was attracted to the whole spectrum of what was available to the character -- being childish, hungry and desperate,” Gyllenhaal said. “I don't buy just being a powerful woman.”
"Better Call Saul" (early 2015)
A spinoff of "Breaking Bad" set in 2002 and utilizing nonlinear storytelling, the series focuses on flashy, smarmy attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he became Walter White's lawyer. Michael McKean will play Goodman’s brother, Chuck. Other cast members include Jonathan Banks as Mike Erhmantraut, the fixer from “Breaking Bad,” Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian and Michael Mando. Ten episodes will make up Season 1; AMC has already ordered a second season of 13.
"We’re trying to make something that stands on its own that has an entertainment value that is not just about seeing a series of old favorites," co-creator Peter Gould said. "It's not the series equivalent of a clip show. We're trying to balance these things out."
Added Vince Gilligan, “It's a leap of faith or stupidity into the unknown.”
“Living With the Jacksons” (November 18)
This six-part series follows the saga of Michael Jackson’s nieces and nephews, one adopted, the rest fathered by two of his brothers by the same mother, Alejandra. Viewers will get to know her and her kids, Jaafar, Donte, Genevieve, Jermajesty and Randy, as they move out of the Jackson Hayvenhurst estate in Encino into a beachfront home and pursue life out of the blazing spotlight that surrounded Michael.
Based on Michael Connelly's best-selling Harry Bosch series, “Bosch” follows a relentless LAPD homicide detective (Titus Welliver) as he pursues the killer of a 13-year-old boy while standing trial in federal court on accusations that he murdered a suspected serial killer in cold blood.
“The After” (2015)
From “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter, the upcoming series focuses on eight strangers thrown together by mysterious forces who must help each other survive in a violent world. Carter said the concept for the post-apocalyptic drama came to him years ago after a construction worker dropped a box of nails in the Sepulveda Pass that practically brought Los Angeles to a standstill, making him realize how quickly chaos could ensue from something as low-tech as nails.
“The Hotwives of Orlando” (July 15)
A parody of the “Real Housewives” franchise, “The Hotwives of Orlando” promises to take viewers inside the uber-exclusive and glamorous world of six hot housewives livin’ large in Central Florida's sexiest city, Orlando. The show follows a cast including Casey Wilson, Kristen Schaal and Angela Kinsey as they fight over pretty much everything except their love of shoes, plastic surgery, and the pursuit of spending all of their husbands’ money.
“South Park” (streaming)
For its final act, Hulu announced that 244 episodes of "South Park" will now be streaming on the platform. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in the house as surprise guests for the announcement, reflected on when they started the animated comedy 18 years ago with a 5-minute short, “The Spirit of Christmas,” which became viral before there was viral video -- in the days when people made copies of VHS tapes.
“We had very few options after Fox said no -- either MTV or Comedy Central,” said Parker. “If we would have had the ability then to launch as an Internet show, it would have been even crazier.”
My first exposure to jazz was the records my dad played while I was growing up. They were primarily of female vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
Of all these recordings, there was one that stood out: A live performance of Billie Holiday from Carnegie Hall recorded during a concert on Saturday, Nov. 10, 1956.
What was most striking about this LP is that after several tracks of Holiday singing, a narrator with a most mellifluous voice would read the most horrible things about Holiday’s knockabout life, taken from her autobiography, co-written by William Dufty, titled “Lady Sings the Blues.” (This book was also the source material for the 1972 movie with the same title, starring Diana Ross.)
Below is an excerpt from the liner notes for that LP, in an edition released in 1961, two years after Holiday died, much too early, at age 44, on July 17, 1959. At the end, her tough life was punctuated by cirrhosis of the liver due to her drinking, but clearly her heart and other essential organs, such as her kidneys, were in bad shape as well, according to various accounts at the time. She also had been a heroin addict for years.
The writer of the liner notes is Gilbert Millstein, who was a writer and reviewer for The New York Times at the time. He was later a news editor on “NBC Nightly News.” He was also the narrator of the Holiday concert:
I was called on to narrate, between groups of songs, portions of Miss Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” that, in their way, would exemplify what it was she was singing about. The narration began with the ironic account of her birth in Baltimore -- “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three” -- and ended, very nearly shyly, with her hope for love and a long life with “my man” at her side.
It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years, and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal was desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not soon forget her metamorphosis at night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration ended, she sang -- with strength undiminished -- with all of the art that was hers. I was very moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes [word missing in the liner notes … my guess is that the missing word is “teared”]. I recall only one other thing. I smiled.
Nat Hentoff wrote a review of the Holiday concert at Carnegie Hall in Downbeat magazine. It said, in part: The audience was hers from before she sang, greeting her … with heavy long applause. And at one time, the musicians too applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive.
The recording of the concert quickly became one of my favorite records. I found Billie Holiday’s warm voice unique by being, simultaneously, worldly-wise and world-weary, bitter and sweet, with a woman’s maturity and a girl’s hopefulness.
My favorite singer on the records that my dad played when I was growing up was Frank Sinatra, so no surprise that I loved Billie Holiday as well; Sinatra used to say that the two singers who influenced him the most were Bing Crosby and Holiday.
One of Sinatra’s hallmarks was how he phrased lyrics. He said he learned how to do that by listening to Billie Holiday.
Holiday herself, in an often repeated self-assessment, is quoted in the book “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro as saying, “I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know."
Here’s how the jazz critic Gary Giddins once characterized the kind of singing Holiday performed during her later years, such as that night at Carnegie Hall: Holiday’s “later records are built entirely around the singer. The tempo is slower, the ambience more conversational. But her alterations remain provocative and full of surprise; her enunciation is, if anything, more compelling, the emotions urgent. …
“[W]hereas once she transcended silly lyrics with the intensity of her rhythmic and melodic skills, now she makes them work for her. Every stanza seems autobiographical.”
The aforementioned Lester Young was one of the best jazz saxophone players ever. He and Holiday were contemporaries, and for many years close friends. In Donald Clark’s “Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon,” Clark writes, “[A]s Franklin D. Roosevelt was the biggest man around, and as Lester was the president of the saxophone, Billie called him Prez for short. He thought that she must be the First Lady, and named her Lady Day. ... [Both of] the nicknames stuck for the rest of their lives.”
In a cruel twist of fate, Young, an alcoholic, died just four months before Holiday did. He was only 49.
But before Prez and Lady Day both left us in 1959, they left us a remarkable gift. “At the end of 1957 came the last truly great experience we have of Lady Day on record,” writes Clark in his book. By record he doesn’t mean another vinyl LP, but a TV show. It was the “Sound of Jazz,” he writes, “sponsored by Timex, in the [CBS] series ‘Seven Lively Arts,’ produced by John Houseman.”
According to Wikipedia, “The one-hour program aired on Sunday, December 8, 1957, at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, live from CBS Studio 58, the Town Theater at 851 Ninth Ave. in New York City.”
Besides Lester Young, Holiday was accompanied by an all-star collection of musicians performing Holiday's classic blues number "Fine and Mellow." Here’s Clark again: “The live broadcast was preceded by a recording of Lady’s voice, as the camera followed her walking in among the musicians, everybody smiling at each other, the room full of love: ‘… There’s two kinds of blues -- there’s happy blues and sad blues … I don’t know, the blues is sort of a mixed up thing, you just have to feel it. …”
Again, Holiday reiterating how essential it is to her to “feel” what she is singing.
Clark continues, “[Doc] Cheatham [on trumpet] blew a muted obbligato during [Holiday’s] first chorus, then [Ben] Webster [on sax] soloed, followed by Prez. Both Lady and Prez sounded more tired than at rehearsal [three days before] but on the television recording you can see them watching each other, listening, smiling, and we are reminded that jazz is a live art. The performance ran for over eight minutes; there’s room for a [sax] solo from [Gerry] Mulligan, and [Roy] Eldridge’s [trumpet] solo is almost angry: ‘Hey, where have you guys been? Why can‘t we do this more often?’
“There were a few other, similar jazz programs on American television in that era, and that was it. All were memorable, but one short segment of [this one] is special, because of Lady, and because of the way she smiled to herself during Prez’s solo.” Critic Nat Hentoff later said of that solo, Young “blew the sparest, purest blues I had ever heard.”
Julia Blackburn, in her book “With Billie,” also focuses on Holiday’s singing of “Fine and Mellow” on this TV show. She writes that about two-thirds into the song “Billie no longer seems to be aware of her musicians -- she is staring inwards, lost in some private world of thought and memory. It is as if she is not singing about a particular man she has loved, but about love itself and her own driving need to love and be loved, no matter what the consequences might be.”
At the end of the song, Blackburn says Holiday emerges from her private thoughts and “with solemn authority” explains that “ ‘Love is just like a faucet, it turns off and on’ and then she faces the camera a second time. She stares straight into the lens and with a wistful smile and a little shrug of her shoulders she explains, ‘Sometimes when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.’ With that the story is told in its entirety.”
You can watch the performance in the video clip at the end of this essay, below.
Exactly 2 weeks before the 11th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s death, in July 1970, Audra Ann McDonald was born in Berlin, Germany. She was raised in Fresno, Calif., and attended the Juilliard School performance arts conservatory in the early 1990s.
In 1994, a year after graduating Juilliard, McDonald was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a revival of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center. It was the re-staging of a production that had been done by Nicholas Hytner at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain two years earlier.
The show received rave reviews and my wife and I, who lived in New York at the time, were very eager to see it. We did, and McDonald’s character, who marries the herring fisherman Mr. Snow, practically stole the show. McDonald won that year’s Tony Award for, essentially, best supporting actress. It was her first Tony. McDonald was 24.
Frank Rich, the former theater critic for The New York Times, wrote this in the liner notes to McDonald’s 1999 album “How Glory Goes”: “If the American musical didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented for Audra McDonald.
“The musical was dreamed up by artists eager to break free, to honor the old-world cultural past and yet transcend it, to create a new form as varied and exciting and of-the-moment as their new, melting-pot country. In McDonald, the form has found a singer whose voice, history and still-young career embody all its contradictory joys. She’s a product of Juilliard who is as comfortable on the legitimate stage and in a tiny nightclub as she is singing before an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.”
By the time Rich had written those words, McDonald had won two more Tonys -- another one for best supporting actress in a musical (for “Ragtime”) and one for best supporting actress in a non-musical (for “Master Class”).
In 2004 she picked up another Tony for best supporting actress in a non-musical, this time for “A Raisin in the Sun.” Two years ago she won a Tony for best leading actress in a musical for “Porgy and Bess.”
And then, just a few weeks ago, McDonald picked up her record-breaking sixth Tony, this one for best lead actress in a play.
The Tony Awards have been given out since 1947. McDonald is the ONLY performer to win Tony Awards in both leading and supporting roles in both musicals and non-musicals.
I think the Tony she picked up a few weeks ago is for her best work yet.
McDonald won it for playing Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” by Lanie Robertson. The play was first performed in 1986, in Atlanta and then in New York, off-Broadway. For all intents and purposes it’s a one-woman show. In it McDonald, as Holiday, sings 15 songs.
I am a big fan of McDonald’s. Besides seeing her in several Broadway shows, I own several of her albums.
So here’s the thing: Usually, when McDonald sings, she sounds nothing like Billie Holiday. Not even close. As McDonald herself told Playbill, “When most people heard I was doing this, I’m sure a lot of them thought, ‘Well, what is she going to do? Sing it all an octave higher?’”
Magically -- miraculously -- McDonald pulls it off. I saw the show last week, and I’m still reeling, overwhelmed by McDonald’s talent and virtuosity. McDonald disappears and Holiday appears. I had always thought that Holiday's singing voice -- in her later years especially -- was so complicatedly multi-layered that it couldn't be duplicated. I was wrong.
I’m telling you folks, for 90 minutes last Tuesday night, on 50th Street, between Broadway and Eighth, I was in a nightclub being entertained by Billie Holiday.
In the show, McDonald, who is almost 44 years old, plays a Holiday who is almost 44 years old.
The conceit of Robertson’s play is that instead of having a narrator tell Holiday’s story while she sings songs in between, as she did in her famous 1956 Carnegie Hall concert, in this nightclub appearance Holiday tells her story herself, between songs. It takes place four months before Holiday dies, and during this nightclub performance Holiday is clearly hyped up on booze and heroin.
The New York Times’ estimable reviewer Charles Isherwood, while loving McDonald’s performance, wrote that “The play’s conceit is, frankly, artificial and a bit hoary.” I don’t totally agree. While Robertson’s device is familiar, I found it just right for this show. Many of today’s theatergoers are not particularly familiar with Holiday’s travails.
McDonald’s artistry in pulling this off defies description. The show’s director, Lonny Price, is the person who suggested McDonald tackle this play. He’s worked with McDonald before, and he tells Playbill, “More than anything else, I feel Audra’s an actress. I know she has that incredible voice, but the reason I respond is what’s behind it. I’ve always thought her a great actress. We’d be talking and working, and she’d been studying Billie, then one day, honest to God, Billie showed up. It was magic.”
It really is incredible. During the show, McDonald, as Holiday, sings two songs I’ve heard literally hundreds of times, and in various versions. They are two of Holiday’s signature pieces, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.”
Just thinking about them now, a week later, still brings me a chill. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m telling you -- it was Billie Holiday singing those songs, hyped up on booze and drugs, yet reaching a clarity and the truth of those lyrics as I’d never heard before, filtered through a lifetime of her particular pain. She sang -- with strength undiminished -- with all of the art that was hers. I was very moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes teared. I recall only one other thing. I smiled.
And this I know: If Billie Holiday is Lady Day, Audra McDonald is Lady Broadway.
Billie Holiday on CBS's "The Sound of Jazz," December 1957
Long gone, it seems, are the days when summer was a television wasteland filled with repeats. In fact, the small screen is beginning to rival the big screen with one potential blockbuster after another hitting the airwaves.
Just this month alone, big-budget, heavily marketed new shows including Starz’ “Power,” TNT’s “Murder in the First” and “The Last Ship,” ABC’s “Rising Star,” Syfy’s “Dominion” and BBC America’s “The Musketeers” have already bowed.
Tuesday night sees the premiere of two more new programs on opposite ends of the viewing spectrum that will appeal to different audiences. Both come from highly experienced producers in their respective genres: FX’s “Tyrant” and truTV’s “Motor City Masters,” both slated in the 10 p.m. ET/PT timeslot on their respective cable networks.
“Tyrant” is from acclaimed writer/producers Howard Gordon (“24,” “Homeland”) and Gideon Raff. It tells the story of an American family thrown into the political power plays of a dictator-ruled, fictionalized Middle East nation, echoing themes from “The Godfather” of a son being forced into a brutal family business.
The dictator’s son, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, played by Adam Rayner, is a California pediatrician who left his homeland as a young man and comes back 20 years later with his American wife and two teenage children for his nephew’s wedding. The homecoming reveals a dramatic culture clash as he is uncomfortably thrown into the midst of dysfunctional family dynamics and violent political rivalries he left.
Particularly difficult is Barry’s relationship with his heir-apparent brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), a trigger-happy hothead who flaunts his enormous wealth and power and appears to be modeled on Uday Hussein.
“Tyrant’s” backstory is nearly as dramatic as its plot. A bidding war for the material broke out, with FX claiming victory over HBO. (Showtime recused itself because it already had a Middle East-themed drama in “Homeland.”) Gordon and Raff reportedly had a falling out over creative direction. Oscar-winning Ang Lee was originally on board to direct but changed his mind before production started. The pilot was shot in Morocco but production had to move to Israel because of a lack of infrastructure.
The show’s depictions of its Arab characters have already drawn the ire of the Council on American-Islamic Relations regarding potential stereotyping.
“In the pilot of FX's 'Tyrant,' Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires and powerless female victims," said CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper. "In 'Tyrant,' even the 'good' Arab Muslims are bad."
Gordon and the writing staff have consulted with two other groups, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muslims on Screen and Television, as well as with historians, experts and scholars on the Middle East.
Back to the show and its inherent drama. Killing off characters has become quite fashionable of late. No spoilers here, but two, yes two, major players do not make it past the closing credits of the first episode. And one spectacular and shocking scene involves a very hot car.
That brings us to “Motor City Masters,” a reality competition show in the vein of “Project Runway,” which aims to find America’s next great automotive designer by pitting 10 contestants against each other in testing their design expertise and creativity in timed tasks.
Like “Project Runway,” it is produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, one of the top marques in the reality biz often credited with creating the genre with the hit MTV series, “The Real World.” The show is hosted by Brooke Burns. In each episode, the contestants vie to create new concept cars based upon Chevrolet bodies with a different theme each week.
In addition to Chevy, there’s more product integration. One of the challenges involves a theme tied in to the release of the upcoming film “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Another revolves around a Mattel Hot Wheels tie-in. The design elements include the interior and exterior of the vehicles, paint jobs, technology, functionality, body trim and even tires.
The designs will be judged by Jean Jennings, former editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, and renowned car designer Harald Belker, known for his vehicle design in films including “Minority Report” and “Batman and Robin.”
The competition narrows until it’s down to two competitors who face off in front of Chevy’s top design experts. The winner receives a 2014 Camaro Z28, $100,000 and becomes a brand ambassador with the opportunity to showcase their designs at major auto shows.
“I think it will be exciting to everyone,” said Jennings. “In every one of the 10 episodes, we were always excited to see what the designers had done, under pressure, whether they would rise to the challenge or come apart at the seams.”
A different celebrity judge will join her and Belker each week, a group that includes actor Jesse Metcalfe, actress Melissa Joan Hart, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, baseball great David Justice and former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon.
So ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
What a difference a year makes for the Critics’ Choice Television Awards, the 4th annual edition of which was held June 19 at the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer.
It was the first time in its short history that the awardscast was televised, broadcast live on the East Coast on the CW Network and tape-delayed on the West at 8 p.m.
That meant that instead of last year’s 2½-hour-long freewheeling ceremony -- also held at the Hilton -- the 2014 version had to fit into a two-hour time slot with commercials. Acceptance speeches were extremely tight for fear of the dreaded play-off music, which only happened once.
Awards are voted on by members of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Last year there were three ties, this year just one -- for best supporting actress in a comedy series which went to Kate Mulgrew (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) and Allison Janney for CBS’s “Mom.”
It was a landmark night for Janney, who was a double winner after taking the trophy for guest performer in a drama series for Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” “Orange Is the New Black” also had a big night, picking up two other trophies, for best comedy series and best guest performer in a comedy series for Uzo Aduba.
Alluding to the subject matter of “Masters,” Janney accepted her award by saying, “I just came.” She went on to compliment co-stars Beau Bridges and Teddy Sears as the best on-screen lovers she’s ever had.
“I’m stunned and amazed,” said Aduba. “Jenji Kohan is such an amazing writer and the cast and crew is right up there.”
The wins for “OitNB” are more feathers in the cap of Netflix, whose recent foray into original programming and practice of releasing all episodes of a series at once has changed the television landscape.
The other big multi-award winner was FX’s “Fargo,” which took the prize for best miniseries, best actor in a miniseries or movie (Billy Bob Thornton) and best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie, Allison Tolman.
“Noah Hawley called me and changed my life,” said Tolman, who played police chief Molly Solverson in the ten-part series inspired by the Coen brothers' 1996 movie of the same name. Her character was modeled on the film’s Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for the role.
Thornton also gave Hawley and Joel and Ethan Coen shout-outs when he accepted his award. “This is a nice little soiree. Thanks for inviting me,” he said. “I won’t lie. It was cold -- and crazy to adapt the movie, but MGM and FX were a dream team and that was the award.”
Like Emmy Award voters, BTJA has its favorites -- this year anointing several two-years-in-a-row winners: Tatiana Maslany as best drama series actress for BBC America’s “Orphan Black,” Julia Louis Dreyfus as best comedy series actress for HBO’s “Veep” and FX’s “Archer” as best animated series.
And if you include last year’s tie with “Game of Thrones,” this year AMC’s “Breaking Bad” also took the vaunted best drama series trophy, besting “GoT,” "The Americans," “The Good Wife,” “Masters of Sex” and “True Detective.”
Yet it was no surprise that "True Detective" star Matthew McConaughey continued his 2014 awards streak by winning best actor in a drama -- and an Emmy nomination is surely guaranteed.
“HBO broke convention with this and has been first class,” he said in his speech, and also acknowledged co-star Woody Harrelson. “I’ve done film, film, film and people ask, ‘Why did you go to TV?’ Quality. That introduction to character that so patiently unfolds becomes watercooler conversation and anticipation of the next episode -- that’s what TV is giving audiences.”
Another frequent trophy recipient, Jim Parsons, won for his lead comedy role in “The Big Bang Theory,” topping last year’s winner Louie C.K. in the field of contenders, which also included Chris Messina, Thomas Middleditch, Adam Scott and Robin Williams.
HBO added more gold with the win for best movie for “The Normal Heart,” based on Larry Kramer’s play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.
“It took 30 years to get this made,” said producer Ryan Murphy, who was also the recipient of the Louis XIII Genius Award for his work on “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and “Nip/Tuck.” “I realized that we were part of something bigger than ourselves. Loving another is what makes each heart normal. Larry Kramer, this is for you.”
The 1996 Coen brothers film “Fargo” made about $60 million at the box office -- its production budget was $7 million -- and won two Academy Awards, for best original screenplay and best actress for its star, Frances McDormand. Over the years, its cult status has become more and more entrenched. So much so that the film was used as the inspiration for FX’s just-concluded 10-part series using the same title, with the filmmakers’ blessing.
Joel and Ethan Coen acted as executive producers -- the entire series was written by Noah Hawley -- and the spirit of their iconic movie about a female Minnesota police chief investigating local homicides infused the series, which stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and Allison Tolman.
Thornton plays hitman Lorne Malvo, the stranger who comes to the town of Bemidji, Minn., and wreaks unspeakable havoc and fear among the populace, beginning in the first few minutes and continuing through the bloody end.
He sat down with television reporters recently with the understanding that any discussion of the finale would not be revealed until after it aired.
Here is an edited version of the conversation:
Q: You could say that Malvo is as sinister as he is mysterious. You don’t know where he came from; you don’t know what he did before. Can you just talk about your approach in playing a guy like that, what his wants are? Can you give him a back story, and what do you think makes him tick?
Billy Bob Thornton: I think it’s probably the only character I’ve ever played, frankly, that has no conscience, but he has no back story in the story. So I chose to not think about that because Malvo, he’s an animal and animals are eating machines. I thought if I come up with a back story and it’s like his father locked him in a shed when he was little or something, that might cause too much emotion for the character. It might give me too many reasons to do things and I didn’t want to do that, so it’s the first time I’ve ever not had a back story, in my head or otherwise.
Malvo is all about he has a job to do and whatever he has to do to do it, that’s what he does and he has supreme confidence. He doesn’t think about failure and he’s not afraid of anything, and I was afraid that a back story might mess with that a little bit.
Q: Throughout the series Malvo has killed a lot of people and you’ve had a lot of shooting scenes and blood and all that to work with. Can you talk about the logistics of doing those kinds of scenes?
BBT: First of all I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, so you get used to it, although this time I’m the giver rather than the receiver most of the time, but we have really good technical people. The crew up there in Calgary was very good and the stunt people, everybody, they were really, really terrific, so we couldn’t have asked for more help.
What you want to do is you want to try to stay in a world of reality as much as possible, so you don’t try to ever think of it as fake blood or anything like that. You just want to stay inside the scene as if you’re really doing this stuff, and I guess that’s the main trick is just keeping your head on straight and never getting outside of the scene. It’s just like having a camera in front of you; you’re supposed to not know it’s there. And that’s why I never quite understood when actors don’t want someone in their eyeline because if you’re really in the scene, you’ve already got a camera operator, a boom guy, and a camera assistant and all these people in front of you. So I’ve never understood the difference between 5 or 6 people in front of you and 13 people in front of you. I think the main thing as an actor is you just have to try to ignore anything else and just do things as if you’re doing it.
Q: If Lester had walked away, do you think Malvo would have left him alone, or do you think he would eventually come after him anyway?
BBT: I think Malvo is kind of like a cat with a mouse. I’m not sure -- I think the temptation would have probably been too great. I’m not sure he could have left him alone. It is, “Are you kidding me here? We are in the same place in Las Vegas; I’ve got to do something about this.” Plus this whole thing is more like a -- Malvo is almost like God and the devil wrapped into one and I think these things were just going to happen. Do you know what I mean? I think a lot of this is about faith. You always think about if I’d only gotten on my motorcycle two minutes later, then I wouldn’t have hit that deer or whatever it is. Malvo is kind of the spirit that makes all those things happen, sort of lines up people’s faith for them.
Q: Billy Bob, were you satisfied with the ending of the finale and the end of the story arc for Malvo?
BBT: In terms of the arc of not only my character, but everyone’s, I think people will be very satisfied. I think Noah [Hawley] wrote a terrific ten-hour movie. It really has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that was one of the things that appealed to me about it. It’s just very well thought out and I was very happy with it. I haven’t seen the last episode myself. I watch them the way the public watches them. Every Tuesday night I just watch it, so the thing is ... since it’s an ensemble cast like it is, you’re not always there when the other people are doing their thing, so it’s kind of like watching it fresh for me.
We shot it like a movie, so we shot it in two-episode blocks, so you might be doing episode six and seven or whatever it is, five and six, whatever. You may shoot two scenes from five on one day and one from six on the same day; so it’s shot kind of like a movie in that sense. Things were out of order enough to where I can’t remember it all, so it’s really nice to be able to watch it just as an audience member each week.
Q: When you read it, were you surprised by the ending? Was it something you saw coming? Or was it completely out of left field for you?
BBT: It’s not tricky so much. We kind of have known all along that I’m the devil in it and it’s kind of the way Hitchcock did things. He always thought it was scarier when you knew from the opening frame that’s the bad guy; that way the audience is afraid every time he’s around, so it’s not like the butler did it or something like that. I’ll just say it’s a very well thought-out series and very well-rounded and I think each character does have an arc and an A, B, and C.
Q: There’s been lots of chatter about a second season. Would you like to see that even if you weren’t necessarily involved? Would you like to see this tone continue on for another series of episodes?
BBT: Oh sure. As an audience member I’d love to see it. Our particular ten hours was designed as one story, so it does have a beginning, middle and an end. And if they did do another one, it would be a new story with some new characters and that kind of thing. But absolutely, I would love to see it.
I’ve really enjoyed watching it, frankly, and it’s kind of hard to watch things you’re in normally. But this was pretty easy to watch because after you’ve done ten episodes of something, you can’t really remember everything that you’ve already done, so it’s been very fresh for me.
Q: As a fan of the series, we fell in love with the “Fargo” characters and as critics we often use the term chemistry or say things like, “Brilliant performance! Billy Bob Thornton plays his most complex character yet.” I’m wondering in your opinion as an actor are words and terms like those to describe performances overused, or do you actually feel a sense of something going on while you’re filming it compared with maybe something else you may have filmed?
BBT: I think you generally get a sense when you’re filming something if you’re doing a good job or if the thing is good; I think you do get a sense of that. What you don’t get a sense of is how people are going to react to it. So in other words, I’ve done things before that I thought were OK and people think they’re amazing. And I’ve done things that I thought were amazing and people don’t get it. So you don’t always know how people are going to react to it.
But I think you do get a pretty good sense of if you’ve done your job and if it’s got that vibe. It would probably be comparable to ... being in a band or something and you’re doing a concert and some nights you’re on and some nights you’re not.
This show in particular really felt like we were on, so yes, we could tell. It was, I don’t want to say easy, but I think the writing was so good and it’s based on such a classic thing and that tone had already been set by the Coen brothers. We all had a groove to fall into, so yes, I think we really felt we were up to something.
In terms of what people use in the press, all the words and compliments and everything, one of the ones that bothers me is when they always say something is award-worthy, because that sounds like they’re saying other people’s stuff wasn’t worthy. It’s kind of -- I don’t know, sounds a little dehumanizing or something like that. I think in terms of when people are picked out for awards and they start talking, that depends on the machine behind you. You can make a movie for $2 million that doesn’t get a distributor; nobody sees it. Those don’t have a chance and maybe they’re just as good as the one that had a machine behind it and got all the right things lined up, all the right press lined up or whatever.
I guess the most you can hope for is that you get to be in good quality projects and know that you did your job and then after that, you decide to leave it up to fate or whatever and just see what happens. This one felt good during the process.
Q: Regarding Malvo’s physicality, in some shots he reminds me more than anything of the film character Nosferatu. I don’t know if that’s his code or how you’re holding yourself when you play him. Is that something you thought about? To me, it’s a big part of his menace is how he appears when he’s not talking.
BBT: That’s a very good question -- and no one else has compared Malvo to Nosferatu, but that’s pretty good. I like that. I think a lot of that is just because after years and years of injuries and weighing 140 pounds, I look like Homer Simpson’s boss to start with, my physicality, so some of it is just natural. But I did choose to be very sort of slinky and sort of -- I just sort of appear from places.
I did choose to be very quiet, but not like purposely menacing like the guy who twirls his mustache. Malvo even acts like he’s a pal to people sometimes, especially Lester. That was conscious, to make him not the typical bad guy who screams a lot and grits his teeth and grabs people by the collar. That was a conscious choice.
Q: You’ve done some amazing writing work for the screen. Did you ever have the urge to get in there with Noah in the creative process, or were you glad to turn that over to someone else for this project? Would you maybe consider trying to write a short-run TV series in the future after this experience?
BBT: First of all it was so well-written; it was just like when I’ve worked with the Coen brothers in the past. I tend to be kind of an improvisational actor, but in this case it was so well-written that I pretty much stuck to what Noah wrote. I had ideas every now and then, but they were generally less about dialog and things like that and more about how about I don’t go in a room right away or just little things like that here and there. Actors always have some kind of suggestion, so little stuff like that. But for the most part I just stuck to what Noah wrote.
I think something that’s been overlooked a little bit throughout our press for this show, there’s been a lot of talk about how we’ve created a whole new animal, even though it’s based on the movie. The Coen brothers didn’t write any of it. It’s been just our thing and its own show and all we took from “Fargo” was the snow and the general idea. But something that I think has been overlooked a little bit and not talked about enough is that if it weren’t for Joel and Ethan Coen, we wouldn’t be here. They created a whole new genre practically for movies. It’s not that nobody else had that dark sense of humor and nobody else had thought about these kinds of things in their mind before. Otherwise the Coen brothers wouldn’t have any fans, but all those people who had that sensibility, they hadn’t done it yet. The Coen brothers are the first to do it.
It’s like there might not be a Will Ferrell without a Steve Martin, if you know what I’m saying, so I think more credit needs to be given to Joel and Ethan for starting this ball rolling. They’re the ones who really created this world and I just have to say that because I think sometimes that’s overlooked, that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. They set this tone and deserve the credit for us even having this show.
In terms of writing ... myself, I don’t know. I’ve never written anything over movie length, so I don’t know if I’d be any good at it or not, but I certainly think that’s the future. I think this short-run television thing, whether it’s a three-episode mini-series like Costner did with “Hatfields & McCoys,” or a ten-episode thing like ours -- these are like movies, extended movies, and I think it’s a great world to be in and I certainly have thought about it. Whether I’d be any good at creating one or writing it, I don’t know, but I certainly would love to be involved in another one if it’s of this quality.
Q: How was it working up in Calgary? I don’t know if you were there for the entire six months it was shot. How did you cope with the extreme cold conditions and did you go anyplace afterward to defrost?
BBT: I live in Los Angeles, so yes, I definitely came home and defrosted, there’s no question about it. We really loved shooting in Calgary. It’s a great city and the people are terrific there. The crew was great and the people in western Canada really remind me of home folks a lot, so it’s very comfortable.
The weather, however, was miserable. Even the Canadian crew said that was the worst winter they’d had in years and years. What was funny about it sometimes is the fact that the Canadian crew sometimes when we’d get to work and they would all be happy because it was 4. And we said no, no, you don’t understand something, that’s winter to us, so 4 [degrees] doesn’t mean anything to us.
But I really enjoyed shooting up there and I was there off and on. We all had some time off because we weren’t in each other’s scenes, so you’d work ten days and be off for seven and come home, so I got to fly home quite a bit. When you have sinus and allergy trouble like I do, sometimes that’s a problem because you go from one extreme to the other and you end up having a cold all the time. A lot of us were sick.
Q: What was your favorite scene or moment from the series?
BBT: I really enjoyed the scenes that I did with Martin [Freeman]. There’s a scene in a little cafe where I tell him about how he needs to be a man and step up and realize that we were once apes. I like the opening scene where he and I meet each other in the lobby of the waiting room of the hospital, the scene with myself and Colin Hanks at the end of the pilot where we first meet each other in the car. I remember those as particularly good moments. I remember feeling completely lost in them, that we were really there, but I have to say all the stuff we did just felt really good.
I’ve particularly enjoyed working with Keith Carradine in the one scene we’ve had so far in his diner. I’ve always wanted to work with Keith and it was just a real -- you could feel two actors disappearing into their characters in that scene. I remember coming out of it as if I’d actually been through something; it was really, really easy working with Keith and just looking at him as this guy.
Q: What was your take on the rain of fish scene? Was it more kind of just a surrealistic kind of play on what was happening?
BBT: I thought it was pretty great and it obviously had the sort of symbolic, biblical thing, I guess. I think the one thing in terms of fish that I was pretty disappointed about was nobody told me they were going to do a photo shoot with all these girls in bikinis holding fish. I wasn’t warned about that, so I didn’t get to go over and watch. I always miss out on all the good stuff.
I think that’s one of those things that at the end of the day it kind of doesn’t matter and it’s up to interpretation by each person. Myself, I probably felt, yes it’s more of a surreal kind of thing, that’s more the way I take it. That’s a great thing about stories -- it’s why books are so great, because you read a book and you’re the only one there, you and that book, and you can interpret these things any way you want to. You can envision the characters as looking like or being like anything you want.
So I think sometimes you just have your visceral reaction to something and let it live in some place in you where it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not real, you know what I mean?
Q: I wondered if you could comment on what you see as the meaning of Malvo’s journey.
BBT: I think Malvo, in a way, I’ve said before, people say he’s like the devil. I think he’s more like God and the devil. I think it’s almost as if whether he knows it or not, Malvo is there to facilitate people’s true selves. It’s like he brings out in people who they really are. He’s very impatient with people who are stupid or if they’re ridiculous. Malvo likes to get to the root of what everything is about and sometimes he has to mess with people in order to do that. But I think Malvo symbolizes that sort of spirit in the world that ultimately brings to the surface who people really are, and I think that’s probably the best way I could put it.
Q: When an actor plays a very dark role or there are dark forces at work, is there any point at which you really have to protect yourself from it?
BBT: I think it depends on the actor and I think it depends on how fragile that actor’s constitution is. I’ve never had a real problem with it, I don’t think. I’m pretty able to just go home and have an omelet. I’m not really the type to let it permeate my life. Maybe when I was doing “Bad Santa” to a degree, I think maybe I probably drank a little more beer during that time than I normally have in my life, because I’m kind of a lightweight.
For the most part I don’t let it creep into my regular life. It was really interesting playing a character like this who had no conscience, though. I’ve never done that. When I played odd characters or whatever, they usually had their softer side, but Malvo is pretty straight ahead. He just kicks ass and takes names. He’s not worried about the consequences.
Q: One of the lines that really stuck out with me through the course of the show is the line Malvo says to Gus about shade the green and it comes full circle in the finale. Everybody wants to survive and people will do sinister things to survive, and can you relate to that line or idea at all in your career or otherwise?
BBT: It’s certainly hard to survive in Hollywood, so that’s one place where I’d probably put that as a practice. Also, I grew up poor and in a rough way, so I think I’ve had to be a chameleon at some points in my life, both in my career and as a person. I always had a knack for if I’m hanging around English people, I think I probably get a little fancier. If I’m hanging out with the folks back home, it’s easier to fall in with that vibe. So I’ve always been very aware of who I need to be in a certain situation and it’ll get you out of a knifing sometimes. I’ll tell you that much.
Q: Your character was almost like a hummingbird going from scene to scene and having so many different interactions with probably more characters than anybody else, besides Lester. Can you compare this with being able to work with another actor throughout a whole project?
BBT: Because my guy doesn’t really know any of these people, I think that made it seem very realistic for me that I just stepped into the lives of different people throughout the series. I think you do have a different feeling than you would have if you were playing, say, the husband of one of the lead actresses or something, or you’re the guy who’s lived in the town forever. You then have to think about your relationship and your history with these people, but my guy, he’s from nowhere. It’s kind of like Clint Eastwood in the old spaghetti westerns, like he was the man with no name. Malvo is kind of the man from nowhere. I found it very interesting to be able to do that and I didn’t have to know anything about these people, and I could look at them as if I just met them all the time. ... I enjoyed that aspect of it.
Q: Malvo the character is very meticulous and economical in everything that he does. He just does enough to get by and not go out of his way, but he did have a little fun terrorizing those kids who moved into Lester’s old home. Do you want to talk a little bit about, was that just for fun for Malvo, or was that on purpose?
BBT: Malvo does have fun messing with people, and more than messing with the kids he was really messing with the father. I think Malvo was probably pretty pissed that he didn’t find Lester yet, so who’s the nearest person I can poke with a stick? It’s like Lester is not here, so you bought Lester’s house. You’re not the guy I wanted, but let me just leave you with this little tidbit.
Malvo definitely likes to mess with people and I think particularly people that are too cheery, and that guy was just a little too friendly in the beginning and he thought he’d leave him a little something more serious to think about.
Q: Usually there’s a long history of TV adaptations of great classic movies that falls a little short. This one is obviously just as good as the classic. Were you bothered by the possibility that it won’t be as good?
BBT: When I read the pilot script, I could see how good it was. I think if I had just heard about the idea without having read it, I think maybe I would have been a little more worried about it. But as it turns out, when they met with me and offered me the role, I read it right away. That dispelled any concerns I might have because it almost looked like it was written by the Coen brothers to me. It was very, very much like the movie in that way. ... I thought Noah really hit the mark. I didn’t worry about it so much; but if I hadn’t read it right away, I probably would have been concerned.
Q: Just like the movie, the TV series used the initial words, “This is a real story.” This seems to give the audience the right motivation to somehow look to this fictional universe in a different way. Do you think this is an element that will appeal to the story?
BBT: Yes, definitely. Obviously it’s not a real story, but it falls in the category of a true crime story, meaning that you get to see the crime unfold in real time. I think that’s a cool thing for the audience. Even though they know intellectually it’s not a real story, I think it helps you get into it more and helps the audience think of it as being real, because at the end of the day whatever movie or TV show you’re doing, you want the audience to feel that. So yes, I definitely think it helps.
Q: The show certainly had a lot of press coverage, recaps and things like that after every episode. Do you read that? Do you have to be selective or how do you deal with all that feedback?
BBT: I don’t really read the stuff. I hear it from other people. I think I’d rather do it that way. Like friends call up and say people love the show and I’ve heard that it’s even a big hit in England, which is great. So I hear those things. If you put any given thousand people together and have them start a conversation back and forth with each other, some of them are going to love you; some of them are going to hate you, and I don’t know why you’d want to subject yourself to the ones who say he’s ugly, we don’t like him. It’s like I don’t need to read that stuff.
In terms of legitimate publications, my publicist will send me the reviews and stuff like that and I’ll read those sometimes. It depends on the source. In other words I don’t get on the Internet and read chat rooms or stuff like that about what people think about it, because if people tell me that there’s a good reaction to the show, that’s enough for me without reading the particulars. But as I said, newspapers, magazines, different things like that that do legitimate reviews of it, I’ll read those sometimes. I’ve been so happy and grateful that people have embraced the show the way they have. It’s been a real thrill for all of us.
Q: You have an amazing body of work and I’m wondering what drives you and gets you excited each time you take on a new role. Did you approach anything differently going from film to TV?
BBT: These days TV and film are so closely connected in terms of where they’re done that I didn’t really approach it any differently. I think it probably depends on what type of TV show you’re doing. Like for instance if you were doing a sitcom, I think you would have to rethink the way you prepare yourself or something. But I think in this case it was like doing a ten-hour independent film, so I didn’t really approach it any different. And these days really great work is being done on TV and it seems like it’s the future for people who want to watch movies for adults. Because that Renaissance that we had in the ‘90s of independent film ... those days are kind of over, and the medium-budget studio films, too, which is my other wheelhouse, that’s not being done as much.
So TV is a great place to do these things. Now TV is not looked at as TV anymore. It’s just another way to watch movies in a lot of ways, especially on premium cable and all that kind of thing. It’s just there’s not much difference. I guess if you’re doing a big action movie I guess you need the big screen. But so many people watch even movies today on computers or whatever or at home on Netflix or whatever, the two are coming together, I think, in a lot more ways than before. I think you just try to not think about the differences. There’s not much of one.
It Is Beauty, It Is Art and It Will Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat. It's Flat-Out the Most Exciting Show You Can Watch on TV This Afternoon and Tonight. Guaranteed
Mikhail Baryshnikov, in his prime, could fly. He could defy gravity and soar, twisting and turning in mid-air in spectacular ways. He was Mary Martin as Peter Pan, exhibiting all her exuberance and exhilaration about being able to fly, but without the cables.
Bobby Orr, in his prime, was as athletic as Gene Kelly, as inventive as Fred Astaire and could soar with as much superhuman strength and beauty as Baryshnikov. But unlike these other ubermortals, Orr did them one better -- he danced on ice. But no figure skater was he. He never executed a triple Lutz to the pluck of a classical violin or jazz guitar; what Orr did was blast a puck into a goal while executing a beautifully grotesque arabesque to avoid colliding with someone like Gordie Howe.
It was as if Orr’s every move on ice was choreographed by Agnes De Mille and Muhammad Ali. Orr would speed across the ice as fast as Bob Hayes or the Flash, all the while protecting the puck like a Canadian Pit Bull, inevitably smashing the hard rubber into the goal with a sleight of hand that would impress Houdini.
I know this because I saw Orr do this. In person. Once. At the first hockey game I ever attended. It was against the Los Angeles Kings here in L.A. on Thursday, March 11, 1971. The Kings were terrible that year. Orr and the Boston Bruins were terrific -- they just missed repeating as Stanley Cup champions that year. Orr himself, at age 23, had one of his best years ever. I was 19.
Watching Orr was 60 minutes of pure bliss. Orr was so good that night that I truly felt that he could have beaten the Kings singlehandedly. He almost did. He assisted in the scoring of three goals that night and scored a fourth one himself in Boston’s 7-2 rout of the Kings.
I was so impressed, so awestruck, that it was more than two decades later before I attended my second hockey game. I figured, quite honestly, what was the point? I had already seen the hockey player who, it seemed to me, was the best who ever played the game.
Another thing that made Orr so remarkable was that his primary responsibility on his team was defense. Yet he was one of the best offensive players the game has ever seen.
When Orr was 13 years old, in 1961, Joseph Heller published his now-classic comic novel “Catch-22.”
I mention it because it’s the only book I’ve ever read with a character named Orr in it. Prognosticatively, Orr is a pivotal character in the book as he is the only character in the novel who knows how to solve the paradox of Catch-22, which, or course, is the best catch that there has even been.
I won’t spoil for you what happens to Heller’s Orr, but let’s have a little fun by applying Heller’s Catch-22 (as written by Heller) to Bobby Orr (in some additions written by me):
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that being a defenseman and not scoring a lot of goals was the process of a rational mind. Since Orr went out of his way to score a lot of goals despite being a defenseman, it could be argued that Orr was crazy and could be pulled out of any game. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to play more games. Orr would be crazy to try and score lots of goals and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to try and score more goals. If he scored them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Andrew Cohen, writing last fall in The Atlantic, said this about Bobby Orr: “He was so much better than the other players around him, and played with such artistic majesty, that he could take your breath away.”
Exactly. And what made Orr’s art so majestic was the result of two other characteristics: Bobby was nimble and Bobby was quick.
And like Orr’s Bruins, who won two Stanley Cup championships in three years in the early 1970s, the once hapless Kings of almost half a century ago are on the verge of duplicating that feat.
While neither the Kings nor their opponents in their quest for the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers, have another Bobby Orr, the Kings do have someone who reminds me of Orr’s nimbleness and quickness. He also has Orr’s passion for the game and, like Orr, is a risk-taker.
He’s Jonathan Quick, and, of all things, he’s the Kings’ goalie.
Quick’s brilliance got me to watch the Kings two years ago, and he’s been at it again during this playoff season.
When I was a kid, watching hockey on TV was a joke. Trying to follow the game on our small family black and white TV was nearly impossible.
But today, on our big 55-inch rectangle, in sharp, colorful images, hockey’s a blast to watch on TV.
The Kings’ popularity here in L.A. should be greater, given the excellence of the team. If you want to see some really exciting TV today, tune in to the Kings-Rangers game this afternoon. It’s on NBC and starts at 5 p.m. here in L.A. (8 p.m. ET).
Last year Orr, now 66, penned his autobiography, “My Story.” He is still very much involved in hockey, as the co-owner of an agency representing hockey players.
My guess is that Orr will be watching the Kings and Rangers tonight. Of winning the Stanley Cup, Orr wrote in “My Story”: “It’s difficult to put on paper what it feels like at the moment you suddenly realize that you did just win it. I can tell you that it was a mixture of excitement and relief, and winning it the first time only made me want to repeat the experience again and again. Regardless of your profession, when you get to the top of your chosen field, however you measure that, it is a thrill you’ll never forget. In the world of hockey, the top of the mountain was, and always will be, a Stanley Cup Championship.”
My all-time favorite story about Orr is this one, about how one can never take the boy out of the man. It was told by the wonderful writer about sports, Frank Deford, in his 2012 memoir “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.”
As it happened, Deford was in Boston at a dinner honoring Boston Celtics basketball great Larry Bird. Orr attended the dinner as well, and sat next to Deford.
When Bird got up to speak, he stared talking about what it was like to play in Boston Garden, and about how, before every game, he would look up at all the championship banners hanging from the ceiling. And, Larry said, he always focused on one. There was a pause. “Number four,” he said. Everybody is trying to remember what great retired Celtic was number four, when Bird paused, perfectly … then added, “Bobby Orr.”
Even before he said the name, Orr caught on. His face had frozen in shock. The two players had hardly met, and Bird had never told anyone this before. And when he pronounced the name and started talking about how he idolized Orr, this guy from a different sport, Bobby’s hand reached over on the table, and he almost involuntarily grabbed mine, stunned, his fingers tightening over the back of my hand. “Oh my God, Frank,” he whispered. “Oh my God.”
TV Actress Who 'Blew the Box Wide Open' Honored for Her Achievements, Along With Other Exceptional Women
Exceptional. That was the theme of the Women in Film 2014 Crystal + Lucy Awards on June 11, held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza’s California Ballroom.
Hosted by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, the gala event raised funds for WIF’s educational and philanthropic programs and honored Kerry Washington with the prestigious Lucy Award for Excellence in Television and Cate Blanchett with the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film.
They shared the spotlight with some of the industry’s other exceptional women: director/writer Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”), who received the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award; Rose Byrne, recognized with the Max Mara Face of the Future Award; and Eva Longoria, who was honored with the Norma Zarky Humanitarian Award.
The proceedings got started with someone who was perhaps a little unexpected under the circumstances: actor Fred Willard. In a taped piece, later revealed to be a Funny or Die production, he uttered platitudes like, “100% of all blockbusters are directed by men.”
“Thanks for the sad plight,” said Ross, who appeared on stage before a sold-out crowd just after she entered the video with Willard at its conclusion. “But what really brings us together is our passion for gift bags. Last year, WIF turned 40, but it’s 34 on IMDb.”
All joking aside, Washington has been thrilling audiences and racking up awards and nominations (BET, Image, Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG among them) for her role as Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.”
“In her three years as Olivia Pope, she’s been brilliant and her chameleon-like quality had taken off on a new level,” said showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who presented Washington with her latest honor.
The Lucy Award for Excellence in Television was first handed out in 1994 -- joining its sister, the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film, which was instituted in 1977. It is named after Lucille Ball and is presented in conjunction with her estate to those whose creative works follow in the footsteps of Ball’s extraordinary accomplishments, particularly in enhancing the perception of women through the medium of television.
Washington has achieved an additional accomplishment -- she is the first African-American woman around whom a television show revolves in 40 years.
“A lot has been made of that, and that is something,” Rhimes said. “The business has started to catch up with reality, but there are a lot of requirements placed on her as Olivia and as Kerry. Being a trailblazer has challenged her but she’s courageously leaned into playing not an idol, not an icon, but a human. All the scrutiny and pressure -- she blew the box wide open. She’s smart, funny, goofy, a thinker.”
Cue clip of Washington from when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” last November, playing roles of multiple black women (just before the show added one to its cast), rushing to change costumes from being Michelle Obama to portraying Oprah Winfrey.
“The writer you are has changed me as an artist,” Washington said to Rhimes as she accepted the Lucy Award. “It’s thrilling to be in this group.”
It was Washington’s first public outing as a new mom to daughter Isabelle, born in April. Her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, proudly watched from the audience with other guests who included Diahann Carroll, Florence Henderson, Gabrielle Carteris, Joely Fisher, John Lasseter, Jon Tenney, Kate Flannery, Sharon Lawrence and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Actress Laura Dern referred to her daughter as she presented two-time Oscar winner Blanchett with the Crystal Award.
“I think often how I would want a woman to inspire my daughter, like Shelley Winters, a dame, did for me,” Dern said. “Cate Blanchett is the dame of my generation. She’s sassy, sexy, a goddess, a lover of fashion, gifted, graceful and versatile.”
“I’m old, blind and unprepared,” Blanchett retorted, after hugging Dern and putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I hate to write something, but I shan’t subject you to interpretive dance. This is a big deal. Female achievement is still discussed as being niche. I don’t accept this without acknowledging women like Lucille Ball, Thelma Schoonmaker, Ida Lupino, Megan Ellison and my agent, Hylda Queally, who’s been a mentor. When risks are taken, rewards are reaped. If a misstep is made by women, it’s feared as a career killer -- but it shouldn’t lessen our desire to take risks.”
“Good things come in small packages,” said actress Lake Bell in honoring Longoria’s philanthropic work, which includes an eponymous foundation and Eva’s Heroes, which assists special needs young people to integrate and flourish in society.
“I wish I had an accent,” Longoria began, referring to Blanchett and Byrne, both Australians. “Norma Zarky was an amazing advocate, but I hate being honored for philanthropy -- which is hard to believe in this room full of egotistical actors. It started at the age of 10 because of my special needs sister Lisa and seeing what she went through. I learned compassion. To quote Maya Angelou, people may not remember what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel.”
Lee’s path to becoming the first woman to direct a film for Walt Disney Animation began when she was an executive at a publishing house and left to enter film school, Kristen Bell, the voice of Anna from “Frozen,” told the crowd.
“Frozen,” directed by Lee and Chris Buck with a screenplay written by Lee based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story, has grossed $1.25 billion worldwide since its release last year, becoming the highest-grossing animated film ever.
“I feel very blessed,” Lee said, and praised Lasseter for his faith in her and believing she could direct “Frozen” as her first feature. “Animation reaches the new generation first, and we’re seeing authentic, inspiring female characters.”
Two days of panels, pitch sessions, parties and a poolside awards show marked the sixth annual Realscreen West 2014 conference, which set up shop at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel June 4 and 5.
Nearly 1,100 attendees -- a 22% increase over last year, according to organizers -- took part in the confab, which also included luncheon roundtables, "30 Minutes With" sessions plus "Meet an Expert" and "Meet a Mentor" sessions with television network and production company executives in the booming unscripted business.
Things got off to a rousing start with “Refreshing Reality,” a panel discussion on the future of the business, which included executives from TLC, Lifetime, Bunim/Murray Productions, World of Wonder and CAA.
“Right now it’s a great time in reality,” said CAA agent Alan Braun, even while warning that too strong a focus on the bottom line does not encourage the kind of risk-taking that leads to trendsetting programs. “When profits come first and creativity comes second, that hurts,” he noted.
Panels on creating a great sizzle reel, digital programming, reinventing brands and real-time reality also brought thought-provoking discussions on generational shifts in viewing patterns, the disconnect between social media buzz and ratings, taking risks and looking for characters that bring something fresh and special.
The first day’s sessions were capped with a panel titled “Multiple Realities: Producing Celebreality," moderated by World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato. On hand were CeeLo Green and Andrew Jameson of the upcoming TBS series “CeeLo Green’s The Good Life,” Deirdre Gurney, executive producer of “Duck Dynasty,” and Eli Lehrer, SVP of nonfiction development for Lifetime.
A montage of the history of the genre included clips featuring Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, the Osbournes and of course, the Kardashians.
Green said it reminded him of the rich history of celebreality, and that he would like to see such a show featuring Prince.
Lehrer said if he could do a show with any celebrity right now it would be Miley Cyrus, while Jameson said his dream subject would be George Clooney. Gurney didn’t specify a most-wanted celebrity but has a VH1 show coming up with LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian called -- what else? -- “LeAnn & Eddie.”
If you were looking for behind the scenes info, this was the place to be as tales were told about “True Tori,” featuring Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, and “Hey Paula,” Paula Abdul’s failed reality outing, which Lehrer said sputtered because she didn’t grant producers the access they were promised.
Lifetime’s “True Tori” got much attention due to its darker subject matter, dealing with a troubled marriage and the steady stream of tabloid stories about it. “It’s the most unusual experience I’ve had in TV,” Lehrer said, adding, “It got really real.”
Green’s show is partially scripted and closed-ended, shot during a residency in Las Vegas with his Atlanta homies from decades ago, the Goodie Mob.
“It was inspired by ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ -- the Atlanta version of it,” Jameson said, while Green noted that he found other talents within himself after being a coach on “The Voice.” “Honesty is also a brand,” he said.
Gurney discussed how the hugely popular “Duck Dynasty” -- spawned from a fishing show -- was a hard sell at the beginning because it didn’t have negativity and conflict.
“We kept being asked, what’s the show? We had to convince them it was a feel-good show, but that it could be entertaining,” she said.
Day 2 brought more lively sessions including one called “Raised on Reality: Next Gen Talk Unscripted.” It centered on producer Charlie Ebersol’s opinion that the way of the future for unscripted producers is through “backdoor” ancillary businesses that can come out of television properties.
Ebersol, co-founder of The Company, said he had invested $100,000 in a prospective talent’s fly fishing business in a bid to maximize his stake when negotiating other revenue streams with a network.
“The biggest thing facing us is that unscripted departments had two execs with buying power. Now they have 17 and the other 15 don’t have buying power. They have ‘maybe’ power. You have to figure out a way around it,” said Ebersol. “What this has created is something else. I don’t take out a television show unless I can spin three businesses out of it.”
The session on global format hot spots identified China, Ireland, Israel, Denmark, Turkey and Japan as among the top territories buyers are looking at to find the next big unscripted formats.
In China, regulators have limited the number of international formats a channel can buy to one per year, but that limit has stimulated national creativity in China.
As the conference drew to a close, it was time for “Reality Check: Women in Unscripted.” The panel, moderated by Nicole Page, featured Lori York, a partner and alternative packaging agent at ICM, Sharon Levy, EVP of original series at Spike TV, Marissa Ronca, SVP of original programming at truTV, Pam Healey, GM of Shed Media U.S., Allison Page, GM of HGTV, DIY and Great American Country, and Jenny Daley, president of T-Group Productions.
Many expressed the opinion that being female in a male-dominated industry has been a benefit while others gave credit to tremendous support and mentorship given to them by other women in the business. Each insisted there is no pay disparity in their respective organizations.
“I can create the best male-skewing show,” said Healey. “It’s a crazy job. There’s a uniqueness of being female,” she said, to which Daly interjected, “We’re not all assholes.”
“When you act like the other gender, it’s unnatural,” said Levy, adding that “talent is crazy and women are better at dealing with it. As a woman, one of our strengths could be that we’re more empathetic.”
They all seemed to agree that in unscripted -- it may be sad but true -- crazy is entertaining.
Jane Fonda has been called many things. The daughter of Hollywood royalty. A complete sexpot. A trailblazer, an activist, an award-winning actress and, gulp, a traitor.
The breadth and depth of Fonda’s career was vividly outlined as the American Film Institute feted her with its 42nd Life Achievement Award in a gala ceremony June 5 at the Dolby Theatre, an edited version of which will air on TNT.
And it will need editing, because the stories told about the two-time Oscar winner were seemingly endless -- in a good way.
Starting off with Meryl Streep, who reflected back on meeting Fonda during shooting of 1977’s “Julia,” reminiscing about her mentorship and guidance.
“Jane has a feral alertness. She made me feel lumpy and from New Jersey, which I am,” Streep said, as Fonda looked on, laughing. “You told me about how to stand on my mark, staying in the light, and made me, a day player, feel special. Jane, you also helped me lose weight after each child.”
The parade of participants including Cameron Diaz, Lily Tomlin, Eva Longoria, Sally Field, Peter Fonda, Jeff Daniels, Ron Kovic and Sandra Bullock was interspersed with clips of Fonda discussing a range of subjects including life -- and work -- with her famous father Henry, acting classes, living in France with director Roger Vadim, the workout craze and coming back into the business in rom-coms and most recently, as a Ted Turner-like media owner in “The Newsroom” and as Nancy Reagan in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
And then there were the movie clips of some of her most memorable and impactful roles. “Klute.” “Coming Home.” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “On Golden Pond.” “Nine to Five.” And, yes, “Barbarella.”
That 1968 kitschy but sexy showcase for Fonda -- based on a French comic book -- was a big topic of conversation throughout the evening. Wanda Sykes even came out in a Barbarella-inspired costume, and made some profane comments that provoked groans from the audience, which included Diane Lane, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Waterston.
In the parade of A-list stars to the stage, two especially stood out, Ron Kovic, the partially paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who inspired “Coming Home,” and Fonda’s son with former husband Tom Hayden, Troy Garity.
“If my mother thinks it was difficult being the daughter of Henry Fonda, she should try being the son of Hanoi Jane,” Garity said. “My first 13 birthday parties were fundraisers. My mother never hired a nanny to watch out for me. That’s what the FBI was for. I was sent to school in leg warmers. We took holidays in conflict zones,” he recounted, to raucous laughter from the house.
Kovic, taking the stage in his wheelchair, received a standing ovation and told the crowd how he met Fonda during a rally at Claremont College. “I told the crowd I was a Vietnam vet, shot at, that men were crying out for help at VA hospitals, and that I couldn’t support the war. I may have lost my body, but not my mind. It would lead to ‘Coming Home,’ and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have contributed in a small way.”
The other anecdotes told by Fonda’s friends and colleagues recognized the scope of her career, her portrayals of strong female characters, her political activism -- most with a strong dose of comedy thrown in.
Daniels came out with a guitar and performed a song with the chorus “Did I mention she’s fit? Abs, buns and thighs.”
“We all find her annoying,” said Bullock. “She’s better than us. Everything she does is better -- and she’s proved it’s never too late to start over.”
Continuing the humor right up to the end was Michael Douglas, who said Fonda’s career came down to one thing.
“Her body,” he said, before quickly interjecting, “of work.” Douglas, there with wife Catherine Zeta Jones, was the one who got the honor of actually presenting Fonda with her AFI Award.
“It’s not easy being the kid of a legend,” he continued. “Jane and I grew up in the shadows of giants but had to come into our own identity. On ‘The China Syndrome,’ I realized she was one-of-a-kind. She left her chosen field and came back. She is that rare combination of movie star and great actress.” As Fonda smiled at him, he told her, “You are true film royalty.”
“AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda” airs on TNT Saturday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, with encores scheduled on TCM.