Sunday, August 21, 2016
So there I was in the Academy Awards library in July 1980 getting material on some of the personalities I was going to interview on the annual Television Critics Association press tour.
And the man sitting beside me saw my Toronto Star notebook and tapped me on the shoulder and said "I'm a Canadian too."
It was director Arthur Hiller best known for the blockbuster Love Story.
Shot for just $2 million the weepie saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy and took in more than $130 million on its first release making potent movie stars out of Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw.
"I know the exact amount because I took a percentage," he told me over coffee in a cafe on Wilshire Boulevard. "I got a best director nomination. I'd been in the business for a long time but Love Story made me."
Arthur Hiller was part of a small but influential group of Canadian directors who mostly worked abroad.
Others in that category include Norman Jewison, Alvin Rakoff and Daniel Petrie.
Hiller was born in Edmonton "of Jewish parents" and served with distinction as a navigator aboard the famed Halifax bombers over missions against Germany.
He then studied at the University of Toronto and got a M.A. in psychology before turning to directing on CBS Radio.
When TV came to CBC in 1952 he jumped with zest directing many hours of live drama.
"I wish I had a list of all those hours but even CBC says their lists are incomplete. Eventually NBC asked me to submit samples which I did --these were kinescopes. It was Bill Shatner who I had frequently directed who talked me up and so I jumped. I wanted to make movies and there was no Canadian movie business in those days."
Hiller directed hours on Gunsmoke, the first Addams Family TV pilot and key epiusodes of The Naked City shot on film on New York city streets.
"I did the first ever TV actng assignment of a young guy named Robert Redford and the last ever acting job of Errol Flynn who was so drunk I had to feed him lines."
In 1957 he made his first feature about wayward teens titled The Careless Years starring a very young Dean Stockwell.
"Then Disney hired me for Miracle Of The White Stallions which starred Robert Taylor the first big movie star I worked with."
His best film, he maintained was ":The Americanization Of Emily: Julie Andrews, Jim Garner and a great script from Paddy Chayefsky. Paddy liked me so much he gave me another script to direct: The Hospital."
"I'd say Man Of La Mancha. Peter O'Toole was not always sober and was badly miscast. He hated Sophia Loren and the feeling was mutual. It was an absolute train wreck."
Hiller blamed the box office failure of Making Love on his rapid descent as a front line director.. His last big hit was Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler asnd Shelley Long.
From 1989 to 1993 he served as head of the Directors Guild of America and subsequently was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A few years ago when back in L.A. I phoned him for lunch and he politely turned me down saying macular degeneration had turned him into a recluse.
"My biggest regret is I never came back to Canada and made a personal film about growing up Jewish in Alberta. I have a partial script but it can never be made now."
Arthur Hiller died on August 17 v2016.,aged 92.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Here it is a sweltering August day. I should really be home enjoying the AC but here I am up on the Danforth in a friendly Greek restaurant with three best friends: a veteran actress, a producer who is always busy and a long serving PR type.
Let's listen in to our conversation:
ME: I still can't believe CTV has cancelled one of its most recognizable brands: Canada AM. I was on the set in 1972 just weeks after it started --the first two morning anchors were Carole Taylor and Percy Saltzman and boy were they feuding.
Anyway this was Canada;s first morning TV show. It took CBC years to play catch up. And it meant Canadians no longer had to watch Today or The CBS Morning News every day as we'd done for over a decade.
ACTRESS: CTV has so few brands one wonders why the network is doing this. When I ask friends their favorite CTV show they have to search a bit because the network carries so many American imports over which they have no artistic control.
PR: City recently let Gord Martineau go. Their most recognizable face. Had he proved too expensive? Not sure. Gord had been there forever and a day.
PRODUCER: So little Canadian content gets on Canadian TV these days. One of my favorite Canadian drama series was Combat Hospital shot out in Etobicoke. A big hit here on Global but when ABC cancelled it so did Global. Without that American sale it quickly became dead meat.
ACTRESS: And yet CTV kept both The Listener and Saving Hope going after NBC cancelled both. These are two quality shows.
ME: Dial diddling I caught a rerun of that short lived Canadian series King --it was pretty good. But they never found an American sale which is all important these days. So there was only one season.
PR: Despite the drama drought these days Canadian TV has produced some recognizable stars: Nicholas Campbell, Art Hindle, Wendy Crewson, Sonja Smits, Gord Pinsent. All are accomplished actors who've worked both in the U.S. and Canada but prefer working here.
ME: I have a friend who wrote a book on Canadian TV drama and spent years in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. She says it is chock full of great material CBC claims can't be shown these days because of copyright problems. In One column for The Star I caused a real stink by saying the problem with Canadian TV was the lack of solid rerun material. I still believe that.
ACTRESS: I was searching for a certain Canadian series and just assumed it had come out in a boxed set. So there I was in HMV and they have a huge section on British TV but no separate section on Canadian TV. The show I wanted was ENG and it has never been out on DVD. Go Figure that out.
ME: I found a boxed set of Twitch City in a second hand book store at Danforth and Coxwell. I'd never seen that one before on DVD so I snapped it up. Great Don McKellar series.
PR: I've been told CBC expects more production once the new Liberal government ups the budget but that may be wishful thinking.
ME: At the CBC fall launch I told all the new incoming team they should revive a CBC series from the Seventies. At that time CBC had a similar budget deficiency so they opened the vaults for a culture series fronted by Veronica Tennant and showed old spectaculars like Sean Connery in a 1960 production of Macbeth opposite Zoe Caldwell, a ballet with Nureyev and Kain, old episodes of Telescope. And I thought Front Page Challenge could be revived with new panelists like Martin Short. How about all that?
ACTRESS: Well, this summer I'm almost booked solid because there's so much runaway U.S. production in town because of our lowly dollar.
PRODUCER: A friend of mine says he'll only make shows that can be pre-sold to the U.S. market-- that means making sure all Canadianisms are washed out including our accents.
ACTRESS: Talking to Americans they say the old line networks are crumbling away fast. I wonder how many Canadian speciality channels will survive when consumers have a choice.
MEL I've never met anybody who watched OLN-Outdoors Life Network.
ACTRESS: But I do! I love Dog The Bounty Hunter, it's a secret passion.
PRODUCER: Before I got to sleep I watch trash like Flip Or Flop or Love It Or List It. Then I feel soothed enough to sleep.
ME: I like watching bad old movies on TCM. They lull me to sleep.
PR: You know what bugs me these days? I can remember at CBC's fall launches 30 years ago we'd get 35 visiting TV newspaper critics coming to Toronto to tour the fall product. At the last CBC launch there were only five critics left. Networks may be crumbling but newspapers are dead meat, not a single one making any money at all.
ME: And I don't see the web making that shortage up --most of the internet sites are trash. Only a few sites are worth reading and there are mistakes everywhere.
ACTRESS: Hey, I gotta goy. Working nights on this American TV drama. Last night I said "oooot' during a take instead of "out"and I really got it from the U.S. director. we all laughed like hell but that's the state of TV in Toronto these days.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
I was pleasantly surprised to read on the wires then other day that the Television Critics Association convention is once again in full swing in Los Angeles.
I thought it might have been ditched by now because TV critics are a threatened species rapidly facing extinction.
When I joined TCA in 1971 over a hundred TV critics from American newspapers would meet in Los Angeles twice a year.
And there I was the cocky kid critic from the Hamilton Spectator --the only Canadian representative allowed on by the networks.
How did I do it?
I simply phoned the Buffalo affiliates of NBC (WGR-TV0, CBS (WBEN-TV) and ABC (WKBW-TVC) and got them to sign the appropriate documents stating Hamilton was part of their TV market.
In those days the networks paid the way for most of these American scribes including representatives from the ultra fancy New York Times and Boston Globe.
On the last day of the nine-day hoopla the network PR types went around giving out wads of greenbacks to departing critics to help them get home in one piece.
Some critics brought their wives who went out on sopping sprees to Bulloch's and Saks in the afternoons with all expenses paid by the webs.
One critic had lavish wine and cheese parties in his hotel suite every night and signed the chits to the networks.
When I asked one press rep she said "Oh, it's OK. That way we keep the receipts and if he ever dares write something unfortunate over the next year we simply phone him up and remind him of our largesse."
When I landed in LAX the first time an NBC press guy was waiting to whisk me to Julie London's home in Thousand Oaks for a catered lunch.
My bags were sent by taxi to the Century Plaza hotel and every night there were lavish star studded parties in the Grand Ballroom.
Evita was playing across the street at the Shubert theater and networks bought up rows of expensive seats for nights out entertainment.
Each network had three days to strut their wares --screenings of all new series were held in the Grand Ballroom. Doors were locked shut and lunches served but nobody was allowed to leave least they leak news to the competition.
Days would start with news conferences and then we'd all get personalized schedules that plopped us on TV sets all over town.
I remember in 1972 I started out one day on the set of Mission: Impossible, lunched on the set of The Brady Bunch and that afternoon was driven out to the L.A. Aquarium to interview Mike Connors of Mannix.
One day I had lunch with Loretta Swit of M*A*S*H, then visited The Waltons set and had dinner with Bill Macy on the Maude set.
And none of these three series was even on the air --as yet.
Where were all the other networks?
Cable networks did not exist in 1971 and PBS would hold furtive press conferences during the lunch breaks--that's how I met and interviewed Anthony Hopkins who was playing Kean on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.
There were no computers back then so critics filed their typed copy in the press suite --these went out via FAX.
I once saw an NBC PR type reading one critic's the copy in advance and blacking out text she considered offensive to NBC.
When I asked her about it she huffed "I'm paying for all this. Of course I have that right."
All this was mercilessly reported by Gary Deeb of The Chicago Tribune in his piece for Variety titled "TV's Hack Pack" which was responsible for TV critics seizing the convention and insisting everyone pay his own way.
These days with only a few TV critics still around the ranks are swelled with scribes from the .com universe.
At one recent TCA press conference Sting asked a youngster who he represented and he said "Unclebarky.com".
And I just bet these days "Unclebarkey.com" has a high circulation than The New Yorkb Times.
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Movie icon Olivia de Havilland has turned 100.
But she's not the oldest movie star I know.
Patricia Morison is 101 and you can catch her singing her Kiss Me Kate hits on a new Facebook posting.
But back to Miss Olivia who met with TV critics when peddling her TV flick Screaming Woman way back in 1972.
It was a High Tea at the Century Plaza hotel and she was coy but chatty telling critics she'd arranged to have "that horrible title" changed.
But ABC was unbending and in true Olivia fashion she never talked to that network again.
Of course the subject of her 40-year feud came up with sister Joan Fontaine and Olivia bristled but then said "I talk to everyone. I'll still talk to Joan if she's civil."
Olivia mentioned she'd made four movies with the combustible super star Bette Davis.
"And we talk all the time. I'm a very friendly person."
De Havilland said she was a "mere 23-year old" when chosen to play Melanie in the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind.
"I never wanted to play Scarlett. Too flashy with me. I wanted Melanie because she was the backbone of that book. She has a baby during the burning of Atlanta. She convinces Rhett to bury his dead daughter. And she forgives her husband's adultery with Scarlett. A tough, tenacious woman.
De Havilland was nominated for a supporting actress but lost to Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy.
"I went home in a snit. Thought about it all night. And realized how great an honor this was for Hattie, the first black actress to win. She had to have her dinner in the hotel kitchen that night --the actual affair was segregated you see.
"So I got up the next morning drove to a flower store and bought 100 roses and drove to Hattie's house where I gave them to her and begged her forgiveness. And we later worked together several more times."
In 1943 Olivia informed Jack Warner her seven year contract was over and she would not renew it.
"He said he had added all the times I was suspended so I owned him one more picture. I refused and we battled it out in court for three years during which I could not work. I won and I never worked for Jack Warner again. I even turned down A Streetcar Named Desire to stay away from him."
In 1946 she returned to movies and won her first Oscar for To Each His Own and won a second three years later for The Heiress.
But in 1953 she moved to Paris when she married publisher PIerre Gallant.
"I returned from time to time for pictures but the business had changed completely. The old studios were slowly fading away."
The tea was over and Miss Olivia waved pesky reporters out of her suite saying it was time to take her afternoon nap.
"Keeps me young," she quipped.
So young she has just turned 100 with only Kirk Douglas in her own age range as a lasting superstar.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Film makers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their new documentary Where The Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey Of Lawren Harris.
Harris, a Group of Seven Artist died in 1970 aged 85 and all the contemporaries who knew him have died as well.
Harris's grandchildren are interviewed but even they are elderly.
Still, Harris's remarkable journey springs alive and his odyssey is both dramatic and poignant.
You can see for yourself: Where The Universe Sings premieres on TVOntario Saturday June 25 at 9 p.m.
Lang is a first time director while veteran Raymont won an Emmy for another documentary Shake Hands With The Devil.
The beautifully made portrait is only the latest example of the commitment to quality documentaries TVO is making as compared to the startling drop off at CBC.
Last month TVO's My Millennial Life was the best Canadian made documentary of the month.
This June that mantle passes again to TVO for Where The Universe Sings.
Over 130 of his paintings get showcased here but there are also Harris family home movies including the majestic scenes shot by Harris during his seminal ocean voyage into the High Arctic.
"The film coincides with an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario," Lang says. "But he has always been appreciated here at home."
The story begins with the recent sale of a Harris work and the adulation of comic Steve Martin who mistakenly thought he was discovering a long lost Canadian master.
"He came from a very wealthy Toronto family --they owned Massey Harris," explains Raymont.
Early paintings show what kind of a city Toronto was at the turn of the century --there are even figures seen on the streets --he didn't just paint landscapes.
A 1913 trip to a Buffalo art exhibit showed him how to move past contemporary constraints of society.
The portrait of Harris is of an inward painter striving to find himself.
Trips to Algoma starting in 1916 opened up his art and together with other Seven artists he threw off the shackles of nineteen century attitudes.
"No doubt about it he communed with Nature," Lang says. "The trips to northern Ontario opened up his perspective."
Harris was wealthy enough to live in Forest Hill. He had three children but his treatment of his first wife was sexist by our standards. And later he divorced her and married soul mate Bess Housser.
The first Mrs. Harris "lived on in an apartment in north Toronto and never remarried," Lang reports.
The epochal sea trip through Arctic waters produced many stunning canvases. These are triumphs of loneliness and austerity but have incredible emotional power.
I like the way his friendship with Emily Carr is depicted.
Harris's own letters and writings are voiced by Colm Feore and Eric Peterson voices A.Y. Jackson, one of Harris's staunchest supporters.
Also interviewed: AGO's Andrew Hunter, Vancouver Art Gallery's Ian Thom, curator Sarah Milroy, biographer Peter Larisey, author Dennis Reid.
TVO gets the first window and this brilliant portrait will later be seen on Documentary.
Am I the only one who found Harris's later foray into abstract art underwhelming.
"It's not what makes him famous," laughs Lang. "And he did it when he was at Dartmouth College and later when he was at Santa Fe, He never completely left his mountains behind. him."
There are even extracts from some TV conversations when Harris was white haired and shaky, still searching in his art and continuing his spiritual journey.
Raymont says there's a longer theatrical version he hopes will be shown at TIFF.
This tightly edited hour is satisfying on several levels, a must-see slice of Canadiana.
I see it as a companion documentary to Raymont and Lang's equally propelling documentary West Wind, a 2011 documentary on Tom Thomson.
WHERE THE UNIVERSE SINGS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO SATURDAY JUNE 25 at 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
As a little kid I'd watch Gordie Howe on Hockey Night In Canada in the dear departed Fifties.
Hockey coverage in those days was in black and white and the hockey game only came on at 8 p.m. because the Toronto Maple Leafs feared telecasting a whole game would result in faltering attendance.
Occasionally I'd get to actually go to the Gardens --I was there in 1959 for the very last time Rocket Richard scored a goal on Toronto ice.
Flash forward three decades later --actually it was 1986 --and I'm in Los Angeles at the Century Plaza hotel for the semi-annual Television Critics Association meetings.
That was in the day when newspapers still had TV critics.
And there I was in the vast ballroom during ABC's presentation and it was arranged that for .lunch I'd meet that great Canadian Alan Thicke.
We'd been pals since I interviewed him at the King Edward hotel for his daily CTV interview show.
I saw Thicke waiting at the back and he said he had two house guests who would join us.
And out of the shadows stepped Gordie Howe and his beautiful wife Colleen.
In all the TV tributes to Howe the wonderful Colleen was barely mentioned.
That day we walked across the courtyard and went into the coffee shop.
Gordie Howe was very nice and very shy.
And I noticed Colleen ordered for him.
"I know exactly what Gord wants," she said with a titter.
And when the steak sandwich arrived Colleen cut it into tiny pieces.
"It looks a bit tough," Thicke teased her. "You could chew it a bit for him, too?"
And Colleen laughed again,.
Any question I directed to Gord Colleen answered.
She was the keeper of the statistics and she did all the deals, kept the books, everything so Gord could concentrate on the game.
At one point Thicke asked Howe how many stitches he'd had on his face.
And Colleen answered right away --I forget the exact figure but it was well over 200.
But she did mention she gave up driving recently and she seemed unsure of herself when we left the restaurant.
She asked where we were going.
Gord was everything I expected a super star to be and Colleen was definitely his full prtmer in every facet of life.
When she died of Alzheimer's in 2009 I'm sure that was a gut wrenching moment for Gordi.
Howe's death days after Muhammad Ali's passing merely reflects the reality that our athletic stars are mortals after all.
Which means we should embrace their extraordinary exploits all the more.
Friday, June 10, 2016
Rogers TV has announced a 2016 fall TV schedule full of American imports but low on quality homegrown scripted series.
But is this really news?
Basically the three Canadian networks hustle down to Hollywood in early June and buy virtually all the returning and new U.S. series.
These series are then simulcast with the U.S. networks and any spaces left in the schedules fall to the Canadian entries.
City has a huge block of American returning shows including Scorpion, 2 Broke Girls, Modern Family, Mom, Black-ish, Brooklyn, Hell's Kitchen, New Girl, The Middle and The Mindy Project.
CTV is so mighty it can grab any U..S. series it wants.
Then Global jumps in and finally it's Citytv's turn --meaning Citytv often gets the break out shows as CTV prefers to play ultra safe.
New shows to City include The Odd Couple, Lethal Weapon, Son Of Zorn with such titles as Shots Fired, The Mick and Making History coming on in midseason.
There are no Canadian shows scripted or otherwise I can see until Saturday night rolls around and then it's Hockey Night In Canada yanked from CBC.
Don't forget an hour of Canadian content counts as 90 minutes in the weird world of CRTC calculations.
And then there are the Blue Jays which run on Rogers sports channels to surging ratings.
That huge chunk of Canadian sports must be paid for and that huge expense not only means big profits from Rogers it also means there's no room left for Canadian drama or quality at this time.
The old Citytv did have a proud tradition of making quality home grown scripted dramas including Godiva's and Murdoch Mysteries which has found a new home on CBC.