Sunday, December 4, 2016

I Remember Earl Hammer Jr.

So there I was in Los Angeles in July 1972 and the chief publicist for CBS Mary Lamm was driving me to the set of a new series titled The Waltons.
"Hasn't premiered yet," she told me as her car zoomed through the back lot at Warner Bros.
We stopped at an imposing soundstage and inside the interiors of the Walton family home had been laid out. It was lunch break so there were no actors present.
Then we walked over to an administrative building and into the offices of creator Earl Hamner Jr. Hamner died in March 2016 but I haven;t had time until now to salute this kind and courageous man.
First reaction: he sure was homespun as he related true tales of his life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hamner had recounted childhood memories in the 1963 novel Spencer's Mountain which Warners had made into a 1963 flick with Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara "which I positively loathed."
I immediately typed him as a courtly Southern gentleman but this day there were tears in his eyes.
His pet turtle was sick, he confessed. Or was it his secretary's?
We talked about many things that afternoon particularly his thesis that Canadians were lost Southerners --or rather Tories loyal to the British crown who had to emigrated to Canada but never lost their heritage.
Hamner was born in 1923 in Schuyler, Vermont, the oldest of eight children --three girls, five boys and "all tow heads".
"Dad was a machine operator  in Waynesboro who lived away from the family but walked home on weekends the entire six miles and "this was the inspiration for the 1971 special introducing the family to TV viewers."
CBS snapped it up as a potential series to star Richard Thomas.
"It broke my heart when they said our original actors Pat Neal and Andrew Duggan were too old to play the parents in the series. But the network had full casting rights. And the substitutes were Michael Learned and Ralph Waite. Then Edgar Bergen said he wouldn't do a series and he was replaced by Will Geer."
Hamner once said --but not to me --that Richard Thomas made a better John Boy "than I ever could."
But here's the catch: CBS scheduled the new series Thursdays at 8 directly opposite NBC's Flip Wilson then the number one U.S. series.
Hamner showed me the letter from the CBS president which merely stated "Make us proud."
And CBS then forked over $4 million dollars for set contruction and casting.
By the second season Flip Wilson had been destroyed and The Waltons was number two in the national ratings although it always underperformed in the great cities.
Hamner opened and closed every episode with his narration and each episode famously closed with the siblings saying goodnight to each other.
Over the years The Waltons garnered 39 Emmy nominations including 13 wins and in 1873 was names best drama series.
In  1981 The Waltons closed and Hamner's second show went into production for Lorimar: Falcon Crest.
Again I was back in his office as he explained this one: _The Waltons was about a family with no money. Falcon Crest is about a family with too much money."
Hamner wanted to cast Barbara Stranwyck as the imposing matriarch but wound up with Jane Wyman.
Both invited me to a press screening that was a disaster.
The pilot was titled The Vintage Years and had Wyman in a white wig with a crazy daughter up in the tower.
As the lights came on Wyman took over, ordered several cast members fired and virtually produced a new pilot that was a hit.
The series lasted nine seasons but Hamner quit after the fifth season because "it's really not my kind of show." THe reality was it made more money for him as creator than The Waltons.
Hamner was drafted in 1943 and later attended the University of Cincinnati  where he wrote his first script --for the Dr. Christian series, He worked as a staff writer for NBC Radio in New York.
He later wrote eight scripts for CBS's The Twilight Zone and later wrote for such series as Gentle Ben, Nanny And The Professor and Apple's Way another series he created.
His wife Jane was an editor at Harper's Bazaar and they had two children Scott and Carole.
But I'll always remember that first time in his office in 1972 and his fearless prediction The Waltons "just might last a season or two."

Friday, December 2, 2016

I Remember Grant Tinker

I haven't thought of TV icon Grant Tinker in some time.
But the news that he had died at his Beverly Hills home aged 90 hit me hard and I'm still trying to digest it.
I was lucky to get two long interviews with Tinker, the unassuming TV genius who changed the face of American television.
I remember a huge party hosted by Tinker and his then wife Mary Tyler Moore  at Chasens eatery in Beverly Hills--it was on the second floor and there were 100 U.S. TV critics present.
At each table sat an MTM star.
MTM studios was then (in 1977) the premiere TV studio churning out such hits as Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, Phyllis.
"I get more requests for the tapes of Texas Wheelers," Tinker told me with a laugh. "It's one that failed because it was in the wrong time slot.
Originally an advertising executive, Tinker later became head of Universal TV and was responsible for such hits as Marcus Welby before going out on his own.
His first creation was The Mary Tyler Moore Show  (1970) starring wife Moore and stocked with a gaggle of scene stealers including Asner, Harper and Leachman --later Betty White would join the cast.
The show had a run of seven years and as Tinker told me "We should have tried for a few more years."
Spinoffs included Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant and the easy going Tinker said he merely rounded together the best available writing talent including Jim Brooks and  Allan Burns.
It was a formula replicated in such later quality series as The White Shadow and Hill Street Blues.
"Rhoda was a big hit at first," Tinker said. "Phyllis bombed because she was too outrageous a character to be front billed. Lou Grant was a completely different challenge --a sitcom co-star who was changed into a dramatic figure."
When I first visited Tinker he had the corner office in MTM Studios which had started out as Republic studios. It wasn't a huge, imposing place but comfy with a lot of sofas because Tinker spent his days working with his writers and producers.
Later I met him again when he was president of ailing NBC which he turned around with such quality series as Cheers and Hill Street Blues.
When cable came in and the big networks started leaking viewers Tinker told me "I guess I  miss the days of the Big Three networks but I admit there were too many cookie cutter shows. We should have tackled more cultural shows instead of madly dashing for ratings with sometimes inferior series."
Betty White once told me "When Grant and Mary separated in 1980 I was floored. My husband and I went out to dinner with them that very night and they were completely civil and I wanted to cry. An era was ending that night."
When I later asked Tinker at a press conference what he thought of Moore's decision to return to sitcoms in 1985 he quipped : "She'd better hurry at her age is all I can say."
Then he immediately said "Don't print that. I was being very catty."
Later I interviewed his son John Tinker on the set of his series St. Elsewhere and thought how much he resembled his father in his insistence on quality.
MTM Studios no longer exists. The studio was sold off, but MTM Productions can still be seen in reruns.
But the Tinker touch of magic is still being practised in a handful of shows that focus on quality and highlight fine writing anmd casting.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Discovery's Frontier Is Sheer Fun

I remember in my august history classes at the University of Toronto we were always taught what a peaceable kingdom Canada was --and is.
But all that gets dispelled with merry abandonment in the rollicking new six-part series from Allan Hawco titled Frontier and currently running on Discovery Sunday nights at 9.
The scripted series has already been renewed for a second season and the premiere attracted almost 600,000 hearty Canadian viewers which is a new high for a cable drama.
And in an unique programming partnership Frontier will soon be seen on Netflix as well.
For me this one is a guilty pleasure just as much fun as Reign.
Characters snarl at each other, brawl, kill with glee and the scenery is threatening in all its savage beauty.
Filming of the second season is now underway in St,. John's (Newfoundland), Cape Breton Island and Cornwall (U.K.).
Starring are Landon Linoiron (Hemlock Grove), Alun  Armstrong (Braveheart), Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Allan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle), Jessica Matten (Red Girl's Reasoning), Shawn Doyle (House Ofd Cards).
The saga is the fur trade and the early days of the Hudson's Bay Fur Trading Company.
Does anybody out there remember the terrible 1941 Hollywood saga with  Paul Muni as Radisson? If you don't you're truly lucky it was that awful.
Declan Harp (Momoa) is the Irish-native outlaw who trying to wrest control of the lucrative trade.
Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) must travel to the frontier of James Bay to try and teach this upstart a lesson.
A stoway on his voyage Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) is conned into getting close with Harp and help Lord Benton's side.
Then there's Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) who wants to get in on the lucrative business.
The Blackie brothers have created a rollicking saga and like Reign it might be too historically correct but it sure is fun.
And those of you with very long memories swill recall a CBC series from 1958 titled Radisson --the last time I lcontacted at the CBC archives I was told no copiers exist at all!


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vital Bonds Will Challenge You

I had just about determined I would not watch Vital Bonds, CBC-TV's new documentary on organ donors.
That's because I had a dear friend who did not long survive his heart transplant and after a decade ago  memory is still painful to me.
Then curiosity got the best of me and I thought I'd watch the first 10 minutes.
Well, the next thing I realized was I'd watched the entire hour --it's that well made, an often brilliant pastiche of interviews with survivors and donors' families stitched in with min-profiles of the doctors and nurses who seem to toil around the clock.
You can check it out on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Hey, I go way back with NOT and I remember a similarly riveting documentary at least a decade ago directed by David Tucker that looked at the inner workings of a big city heart and stroke unit.
Now it's director Niobe Thompson's chance  to weave threads of true stories into one cohesive whole and keep us watching through all those disparate themes.
I knew in advance Thompson might be up to it based on such docus he'd made like Tipping Point: Age Of The Oil Sands and The Perfect Runner.
Thompson has the ability to personalize a subject and here he concentrates on intense close-ups of the faces of people desperately needing transplants or they will surely die.
This one could have degenerated into a welter of statistics.
Instead we are instantly engrossed in the study of Lee whose every gasp of air is difficult.
And there is a distressed baby Harlow, a mere two-year old, whose young parents understand if she doesn't get a heart transplant very quickly she will expire.
And surely one theme is how many patients die before an organ becomes available.
And what about 28-year old Matthew who is brain dead after a terrible accident and now his parents must decide whether to permit his organs to be harvested.
The excruciatingly painful decisions by the parents is captured here in all its awfulness--they are certainly brave.
And we learn one donor can save up to eight lives and enhance 75 lives.
And we're told 246 Canadians died waiting for that elusive transplant.
Set mostly at an Alberta hospital, it shows how transplants east of Quebec cannot be accepted simply because the time of air transport is over five hours.
The strangest scenes are those of hope and we see if science can truly clone organs --the answer is not yet but the research is fascinating.
At the Texas Heart Institute we see researchers "washing" cadavers of their living cells
and using stem cells to fill the matrix of connective tissue.
And clinical trials with human patients using the re-grown human hearts may be just five years in the future.
At the end we see who gets heart transplants and how they have fared --I can't reveal names here.
In other words Vital Bonds takes us all on a vital journey of growth and renewal.
MY RATING: ****/

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

How To Prepare For Prison Is A Must See

Of course I immediately wanted to watch How To Prepare For Prison as I soon as I spotted the brilliant title.
 But when I popped in the preview DVD there was a space of about 10 minutes when the sound went off.
I kept watching anyway because of the terrific images which are riveting --most TV documentaries are shot in a flat, unimpressive style.
Here the images are muted, sometimes in silhouette as the camera lingers over eyes filled with tears, lonely figures on the landscape and sometimes grit and determination.
That's because director Matt Gallagher also functions as cinematographer.
Check it out Wednesday night at 9 on TVOntario (available the next day on
Gallagher has produced a real winner, the kind of challenging premise one used to find all the time on CBC but here it's TVOntario.
I was once accused at university of a crime which I never committed --it was somebody else with a similar name!
But it took me weeks and a high priced lawyer to clear my name so I know all about that creeping feeling of sickness in the stomach and night sweats and trembling.
This is the real reality TV --we come to know these accused as caring, feeling people trapped in a system they do not full comprehend.
What astonished me was Gallagher's compassion,his refusal to pass judgment and his constant search for the humanity of each of these accused subjects.
Are they innocent or guilty? Or is it the system which does not seem to always work.
Some viewers may wonder why Gallagher has selected both American and Canadian accused subjects.
And I think I know the reason : with the Americans we get to go into the courtroom and watch how justice is meted out.
But cameras are not allowed in Canadian courtrooms which I think reduces the degree of tension in tv storytelling.
Gallagher shows the judicial system is a competitive race of retribution versus rehabilitation.
And here we meet Lee Burrell, a Dallas man sentenced to four decades in jail after a botch armed robbery --he was shot in his legs and these days gets around legless in a wheel chair.
The tension of watching these people wait around for their sentencing is palpable --I simply couldn't turn away.
Gallagher who is also a skilled interviewer spent three years talking to judges, lawyers, family members and even the police.
What these accused have to go through as they await their future is, I submit, a form of cruelty in itself.
We meet the three accused and we feel for them as caring people.
There's Joe who was arrested for marijuana production --he says he rented out a facility --and traffickers were growing marijuana and he never knew what was going on.
The toll on his wife and little children is unbelievable.
Then there's Detroit based Demarco who is accused of striking a female which he denies --he is coming out as gay and feels intense pressure from this charge.
And there's Alberta's Christy accused of embezzlement --she says she lost her baby because of the ongoing tension and her husband left her.
Then she hires a prison consultant who coaches her on what to expect if she is indeed sentenced to a jail term.
I won't give away the three endings but viewers will surely suffer along with the accused.
I think viewers will surely wonder how they'd react in similar circumstances.
And I think that emotion makes How To Prepare For Prison a TV documentary to be remembered.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Black Watch Snipers: Must See TV

The best way to observe Remembrance Day ? Reserve time to watch the brilliant new documentary Black Watch Snipers which premieres Friday night at 9 on History.
Look, I thought I knew a fair bit about Canada's role in World War II But Black Watch Snipers opens up a whole new perspective.
It's a docudrama finely directed by Robin Bicknell (for Yap Films) that profiles four young Canadians from Montreal's Black Watch regiment who operated behind German lines.
The four survivors interviewed here are Jimmy Bennett, Jim"Hook" Wilkinson, Russell "Sandy" Sanderson and Mike Brunner.
"They were very young men then," Bicknell says. "And now they are very aged, at the ends of their lives. And the stories just came pouring out, Many of these harrowing details they had never even told to their families."
The story has texture and substance through their shared experiences of working under a charismatic leader --Ontario's Dale Sharpe and I'm not giving anything away by saying he died in battle aged just 27.
Says Bicknell :"His family never knew much of this story, they never knew his truly heroic characteristics. He led his men brilliantly."
Certainly the most heart wrenching moment comes when his son comes to the simple graveyard in Holland and begins talking to the dead father he barely knew.
"That just came out," Bicknell says. "And it tried everything together, the young father who died heroically, his son now old himself.
 And he had never been there--perhaps he felt it would be too much. But it becomes a sort of tieing up of the story."
Over 5,000 Canadians served in the Black Watch but time has taken most of them and less than 20 are still alive.
"We ended up traveling across Canada and interviewing just eight survivors. We use four of these stories here --we may do another film on the others."
The four she chose were all fast friends back then and have stayed in touch at reunions.
"Their memories were so strong. They could describe every minute of their heroic encounters. They operated behind the German lines collecting information on troop movements and causing disruption."
And here's where this film becomes particularly important although in a macabre way.
"We got to two of them just in time. Two have died --Sanderson and Wilkinson. This is their bequest  because they tell a story few know anything about."
Because so much of the work of the snipers was done undercover very little actual footage exists.
Bicknell brilliantly uses dramatic recreations  shot at Elora, Ontario  with actors and period weapons and uniforms to show the utter confusion of these battles.
In one true scene a large number of German soldiers were rounded up and captured by just one Canadian sniper who pretended to have other Canadians hidden in the nearby woods.
"In one new scene I bring them together except Bennett who could not fly and we took them to a rifle range and their sharp shooting was still completely accurate!
"In some Dutch towns I found old people who were children when the Canadians liberated them and it's a touching moment because they can recall every thing vividly. It's an example of living history jumping out at you."
An hour earlier comes an equally fascinating new documentary War Story in which veterans of conflicts in Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Vietnam talk to each other and director Barry Stevens and find they have the same problems despite different distances from their wars.