Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering The TV Critics' Press Tour

A bunch of snapshots fell out of an old book of press clippings.
I couldn't resist looking and remembering the days when I was on the annual TV Critrics' Press Tour.
I started as a child of 24 in 1970 and ended in 2008 but what a lot of memories there are over those 38 years!
For many years I was the only Canadian allowed on the tour --in those days the Big Three networks ran the whole shebang and even paid the way of most critics.
The reason: the first paper I worked at, the Hamilton Spectator, was considered to be part of the territory of the Buffalo affiliates. Hence I was in and bigger papers like the Toronto Star were out.
At first I was ordered to do all my interviews on a 1-to-1 basis! What a treat that was! On my first tour of duty here I was hanging out on the set of The Brady Bunch in the morning and walking to the next sound stage to interview Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible in the afternoon.
One afternoon an NBC limo took me out to have lunch at Julie London's and she was so warm and wonderful that we kept in touch until her passing.
NBC shut down Disneyland early one night for a candlelight dinner with its stars and I was wedged in between Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello.
In 1974 I remember dinner at Lucy Ball's --in her gazebo, catered by Chasen's. Only two of us had wanted to go out and meet the late, great Miss Ball. This was the last year her faltering sitcom was on and she was considered yesterday's news!
I surprised her by saying I wanted her not to be Lucy but Lucille, the first female head of a major studio (Desilu) and she obliged by giving us as precise a critique of the TV industry as ever I've heard.
On one of those early tours (1972) I went out to Norma Shearer's house and gave her the door nob to the house she'd been born at in Montreal.
She said it was the wrong door nob but let me stay for tea anyway.
Set visits were a real thrill. Every year a bunch of us would sneak out of lunch at the Century Plaza hotel to get through the back studio gates of Twentieth Century Fox and onto the soundstage housing M*A*S*H.
I must have done that ten times in a row. I had an intimate lunch with Loretta Swit in July 1972 --months before the actual series went on the air.
One day we tiptoed out to watch the filming of a key scene on the disaster epic The Towering Inferno. Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones were dancing away and after the director bawled "Cut" Fred towed Jennifer over to say hello.
Told we were critics she turned and fled to her dressing room. Fred stayed to chat a bit before departing with a wave.
Another big thrill was being on the huge set of Battlestar Galactica and lunching with Toronto's Lorne Greene. "I thought the Ponderosa was huge but now I own the universe!" he joked.
Another big set visit was to The Thorn Birds where I got to sit next to Jean Simmons. It was suggested the only way I could interview Barbara Stanwyck was to sit with her in her limousine as it took her home that afternoon. Hers was a truly intimidating personality but at one point she snapped "Stop shaking like a leaf! You're doing quite nicely with your questions!"
Another great set visit was to the Simi Valley and Roots 2. At lunch I asked Henry Fonda about his recent American Film Institute tribute and he teared right up.
To get Jimmy Stewart I had to go to the set with shooting that day at Harold Lloyd's fabulous Beverly Hills estate. Jimmy had just spotted an autographed picture he'd given Lloyd way back in 1936 and cracked "I don't remember being so young."
I remember the huge part at ABC's Century City headquarters to introduce the cast of Charlie's Angels. I arrived quite late and luckily ate none of the shrimp which seemed flaccid to me. The critics who did had to rush to the Century Plaza hotel to get their stomachs pumped out.
Anther night we all went out to Larry Hagman's Malibu pad for a cook out. His mom, Broadway legend, Mary Martin was welcoming us at the door. She whispered to me "Larry as J.R. is a phenomenon. But ,me, I'm the legend."
Today's press tour, severely truncated because there are so few genuine print critics left, can't compete with the old days, believe you me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Another New Canadian TV Network Arrives

One of CTV's best and most profitable networks is The Comedy Network.
So why did it take all this time for CTV to figure out the sequel titled Comedy Gold?
The Comedy Rerun Network should be the real title.
Such cable nets as TVTropolis and TVLand specialize in bringing back the big hit TV series of the past.
Comedy Gold does the same with TV comedy, mainly TV sitcoms.
The new network revs up Monday August 2 at 2 by presenting the very first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show which ran from 1970 to 1977 on CBS.
At 5 p.m.Comedy Gold switches to episodes of Murphy Brown, another CBC sitcom which ran on CBS from 1988 to 1998.
And at 7p.m. its the first episodes of Designing Women which also ran on CBS from 1986 to 1993.
Perhaps the network should be renamed CBS Comedy Gold?Comedy Gold sent over a disc of the first episodes of Mary and Bob Newhart and Newhart and all really stand the test of time.
Why can't anybody make such classy sitcoms these days?
I was in the audience in 1972 to watch MTM go through her paces during show taping night. And she and her cast were amazing for the support they gave each other.
I always thought Newhart's first sitcom the better one but on this disc the first episode of Newhart in 1982 certainly is pure gold. It made me wonder what happened to the gifted (Canadian) actor Steven Kampmann who only lasted the first season as the ibcredibly egotistical Kirk.
And why the character of Leslie Vanderkellen (Jennifer Holmes) morphed into Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) the next year?
I interviewed Duffy on that set and really liked her --she later went on to join Designing Women.
And I must admit to being on the set of Full House twice, the first was to catch the demure Bob Saget who played the very nice father before he came an incredibly funny R-rated stand up comic.
And I came back years later to interview co-star Dave Coulier who hasn't done much since then.
Other sitcoms being revived from the dead include The fresh Prince Of Bel Air Night Court and two U.S. shows I'd hardly consider comedic: Fantasy Island and Hart To Hart.
Since CTV runs this network it's hardly surprising there are so few Canadian comedies present. CTV shows in that era included Littlest Hobo and Police Surgeon.
And some CTV comedic efforts that I covered are not present including Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour and Pat Paulsen's show which was taped at CFTO.
But CTV has resuscitated Check It Out with Don Adams, and Bizarre also made at CTV.
Kids In The Hall which originally ran on CBC is here along with Red Green and SCTV both of which ran on CBC.
But some CBC jewels are not --the biggest loss is Wayne And Shuster. For decades they were Canadian comedy at its best.
Other CBC "treasures" including Material World, Delilah and Not My Department remain missing.
I can think of one series that should be included but can't be simply because the tapes no longer exist. Of course I refer to CHCH's Party Game --the producer would wipe clean the videos at the end of each season to save on storage.
I'm wondering if the CRTC has made any requirement about new productions to be started up in the future.
However if it's a choice between watching a classic episode of Mary Tyler Moore or something current like Entourage I might be half pressed for a few seconds.
But I'd still go with Mary.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remembering Maury Chaykin

I remember once telling Maury Chaykin he ressembled a permantly unmade bed.
And he laughed heartily and agreed with me.
The talented Canadian actor died Tuesday (ob his 61st birthday) and it's hard to remember a performance in which he wasn't less than great.
Once on the set of a Nero Wolfe TV movie (shot in Toronto) he told me he had basically taken the role because "I get to dress up". Wearing immaculate suits and sipping vintage wines --it was a far different type of role than Chaykin was used to.
But he was great in it just the same and co-star Timothy Hutton said Chaykin was fantastic to work with.
I first talked to him when he was promoting the 1985 TV movie Canada's Sweetheart, the life of Hal Banks and Chaykin had the guy down to a T.
I told him I'd phoned Banks' home and somebody listened as I asked to speak to Banks --then hung up:the next day Banks was dead.
Chaykin could do it all: he excelled in character parts in big U.S. movies like War Games (1983), Mrs. Soffel (1984) (shot in Toronto) with Mel Gibson and Turk 182! (1985) also with Hutton, Stars And Bars (1988) with Daniel Day-Lewis, Dances With Wolves (1990) with Kevin Costner.
But he also specialized in Canadian material --he could jump from a Night Heat episode to a Diamonds guest spot to Street Legal and always catch one's eye.
We always got around to the subject of his weight which disturbed him. But his appearance was also one of the reasons he worked so much --he could ease into many different kinds of people.
He won a Gemini award (finally) in 2006 for the series At The Hotel and had a semi-recurring role in HBO's Entourage. More recently he was deeply moving in the HBO Canada series Less Than Kind.
Make no mistake he was one of the best. And I miss him already.
NOTE: Bravo! salutes Chaykin Thursday at 9 p.m. with a showing of his 1994 performance in Whale Music which won him a Genie.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On TV Everything Old Is New Again

On American TV the great age of recycling is upon us.
Networks in trouble try to reinvent old favorites and see if the franchises are still worth anything.
The new season which starts in September will have a newly minted version of Hawaii 5-0.
Jack Lord has died and sidekick James MacArthur is into scientific projects these days so the new cast will be headed by Aussie import Alexi O'Loughlin who already has a few CBS flops under his belt.
Well. sometimes revivals work but mostly they do not. the world has moved on. If the original stars are back it's a shock to see how much they've aged.
NBC had two big misses with Knight Rider and Bionic Woman but this season will have no revised series coming our way.
But it's the British who are now big into revivals.
ITV says it will revive its hit All Creatures great And Small. Stars Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy are still out there but the focus of the show will now be on the earlier years of veterinarian James Herriot's career.
ITV is saying it may possibly prove the successor to the long running Heartbeat which has been cancelled.
And then there's BBC's latest riff on Sherlock Holmes. The definitive TV Holmes was certainly Jeremy Brett but he has passed.
But BBC has decided to go back to the future. The new Sherlock will be in his twenties and played by Benedict Cumberpatch with Martin Freeman (The Office) as Dr. Watson. And remember there will probably be a sequel to the recent film with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
The pilot has already aired on BBC and beat out Tom Cruise's appearance along with Cameron Diaz on the series Top Gear on ITV.
So why doesn't CBC get into the game or CTV.
I think a modern rendering of Wojeck would be in order --it could concern the coroner's son --because star John Vernon has passed.
CBC already tried to restart The Beachcombers but with remnants of the original cast in a clumsily made TV movie starring Dave Thomas that went nowhere.
CBC had better luck with the reunion of the Kids In the Hall --how about another miniseries from these guys?
But CTV? Come on! Do you really want to see Littlest Hobo back? Or Police Surgeon?
And Global? Did you even see Global's Loving Friends And Perfect Couples the first time around?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Just What Is Canadian TV?

In a terse but fair review of the new police saga Rookie Blue The Boston Globe's TV critic Matthew Gilbert wonders "why Rookie Blue would use the word 'blue' in the title,begging comparisons to NYPD Blue. This is a Canadian production filmed in Toronto and the nameless city in which it's set feels as blandly generic as the characters.There is absolutely no texture in the world of Rookie Blue."
And so it has taken a perceptive American TV critic to spot one of the key problems of the Canadian TV world.
Let's start with the stats: Canada has only one tenth the population of the mighty U.S.A.
Any Canadian TV series has to be sold to the American market or it just won't make much of a profit.
It's an eternal quest --to make it on American TV.
Yes, Rookie Blue is a disguised Canadian show. The police force are never named (but remember Hill Street Blues never named its location). In the backdrop one can spot key Toronto locations but these are never actually named. The actors do not chase around in Toronto police cars but in generic cars.
And it's the same situation on Flashpoint, another generic cop series made for both CTV and CBS.
But it's always been like this.My first assignment as a kid TV critic was to cover the premiere of CBC's first big TV miniseries --Jalna (1971), a sprawling saga starring Kate Reid and dozens of others including Blair Brown.
The producer was the respected Fletcher Markle and he told me he was off to New York to peddle the show to the Americans.
First up was Masterpiece Theater's producer Joan Wilson who watched in a darkened screening room beside Markle and then passed.
She didn't think her viewers would warm to a Canadian epic, she told him. And that was the same reaction at the Big Three TV networks. Jalna was deemed too Canadian.
In the ensuing decades Canadian producers became TV chameleons.
A miniseries like I'll Take Manhattan (1987) was made almost entirely in Toronto with name U.S. actors in the leads and Canadians in support.
And this was the way of Canadian TV right up to the point TV movies disappeared because of increasingly high costs. I remember being on a Liberty ship on Lake Ontario on the set of the minidseries Haven (2001) watching such fine imported talent as Natasha Richardson and Anne Bancroft dramatically battle it out while such Canadian talents as Colm Feore quietly stole scene after scene.
Canadian made series from A Gift To Last (1976) to This Is Wonderland (2004) never made it to American TV because of their unique Canadian qualities.
There were exceptions: Road To Avolea (1989) thrived on the Disney channel as teatime family drama. And Queer as Folk thrived because it was pinpointed to a specific audience.
The wonder to me is that Flashpoint and Rookie Blue have even made it to prime time U.S. TV --albeit in summer time schedules. And that ABC quickly picked up Rookie Blue for a second season.
Canadian producers will continue to make generic shows because they sell to the U.S. and specifically Canadian series do not make it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Talk Is Cheap

One of the craziest decisions in CBC history was to jettison the daily talk show Take 30.
Similarly, CTV made a few bloopers of its own in canceling its daily Canadian talkers --Dini Petty and Vancouver-based Vicki Gabereau.
Because, you see, talk is all of a sudden daily TV's hottest commodity.
I well remember being one of the first TV critics on the set of the new Barbara Walters show The View which at its inception was carried in Canada by lowly CHCH-TV in Hamilton.
It was something different for American TV: a network-run talk show whereas all the others from Regis And Kathy Lee to Ellen have been syndicated efforts.
But the success of The View and its startling ratings are propelling rivals to get in on the act.
At CTV Marilyn Dennis will debut in September in a new talk sjow format similar to the one she peddled so successfully for 19 years on Citytv.
But the bigger news has CBS filling inits cancelled As The World Turns with a new View-like talk show to be co-hosted by Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert, Sharon Osbourne, Holly Robinson Peete, Leah Remini and Marissa Jaret Whew! Just getting them all onstage together will be some feat
Gilbert will serve as executive producer as well as co-host and not all these gals will be around every day although the View has five co-hosts on a full day.
CBS considered and then rejected an offer from Paramount for a similar themed talk show to feature Valerie Bertinelli.
Also considered and then rejected were revivals of Password and Pyramid --instead an updated Let's Make A Deal was chosen.
My solution for ratings-starved CBC in the afternoon is to develop its own Canadian centric talk show. Take 30 was the first step in a long career for Adrienne Clarkson so why not a modern themed revival?
I'd suggest somebody with brains like Hana Gartner or Wendy Mesley. Or why not both together?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

See I Told Ya!

The Canadian TV world was all a-twitter a few weeks back with the story that a new conservative news channel was going to be founded to replace the ratings lethargic Sun TV.
I told loyal viewers at the time it would never happen because the Canadian TV dial is already overcrowded with dozens of priority home grown cable channels nobody particularly wants to watch.
And for once the CRTC has agreed with me.
In a letter the CRTC very quietly torched the idea that the new channel would get priority coverage on the cable dial and thus be eligible for buckets of cash courtesy of your friendly, neighborhood cable company.
Already there are dozens of these channels out there raking in big bucks from the mandatory payments the cable companies must fork out every month.
That's why your cable TV bill is swelling although surveys indicate few of these channels get many viewers at all.
Don't get me wrong I watch such Canadian cable channels as Discovery, Animal Planet, the various sports channels, BBC Canada and a few others.
But the CRTC obviously is worried about the number of disconnects as viewers switch to other, cheaper means. Guys down the street have just bought a new antenna and now get the basics without any monthly cable fee at all.
I've also heard of some people installing illegal satellite receivers to circumvent the CRTC but this is just hearsay.
In March the CRTC announced it was suspending all applications for the "Category A" channels --meaning mandatory coverage across the country.
But Quebecor tried anyway and has been turned down.Quebecor can still go ahead with an application for a "Category B" cable TV license which distributors might or might not pick up. But there'd be no steady cable fees from the carriers.
Or it could continue with Sun TV's current position as an over-the-air carrier (on Channel 52).
Channel 52 was the last conventional TV channel left for Toronto and was the subject of a furious bidding war at the CRTC applications hearings. The Toronto Star proposed a quality local service with coverage of such events as the Kiwanis music festival but this was turned down by the CRTC in favor of Calgary-based Craig Communications.
In little over a year all the bold promises to the CRTC were broken and Craig sold out to Sun TV (now owned by Quebecor).
Now Sun TV wants another make over but the CRTC has passed at the proposal to charge the cable viewers a compulsory service fee.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Late Night Talk Shows Are In Big Trouble

Are the lights going out for TV's Late Night talk shows?
What Lights you may ask.
Readers have been telling me for years they watch their late talk shows while firmly ensconsed in bed with only a night light on.
But ratings are steadily dripping away and the days of power may be over for the Late Night comics who front these shows.
At NBC Jay Leno is averaging four million viewers a night in the U.S., down almost a million from what Conan O'Brien was getting.
And remember Conan got bounced from NBC because of his low numbers.
Over at CBS Letterman's numbers are off seven per cent from 2009 to 3.3 million.
Jimmy Fallon at ABC at midnight has dipped from two million to a current average of 1.64 million while CBS's Craig Ferguson a half hour later is in the same range.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are holding their own but not building on their base.
now I have a friend down my street who now watches soaps late at night. She tapes her favorite two afternoon soaps and after CTV News settles down tp two hours of organ music and tears.
Another acquaintance just bough the entire first season of West wing on sale in a DVD package and is going through the 22 episodes which leaves her no time for comedy.
In truth the plethora of options is dimming the once mighty popularity of the talk shows.
There'll never be another era like the one dominated by Johnny Carson whose opening monologue was much discussed the next day around office water coolers.
I'm more inclined to be dipping into a new movie just out on DVD (I'm watching Remember Me) right now or catch a classic on TCM.
Late night is feeling the changes of technology just as much as the afternoon soap operas which are fast dwindling away.
Also in trouble are the regularly scheduled network newscasts --24/7 news networks are slowly eating away at a once firm audience base.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Global TV Has A New Anchor

"I sort of feel I'm on a blind date."
That's what Globa TV's Kevin Newman said on air as he introduced his successor Dawna Friesen. She revs up as the new anchor on Global (and also as executive editor) in September.
"We've had similar paths," Newman interjected meaning he had to go away from Canada to establish his name.
As had Friesen who has spent the past decade mainly in Europe covering stories for NBC news.
Her selection just days after CTV announced Lisa Laflamme would be succeeding CTV's Lloyd Robertson next year means there'll now be two female national anchors with only CBC's Peter Mansbridge left on the former all male anchoring front.
Returning to Canada after years away doesn't always work.
J.D. Roberts left Citytvfor U.S. newscasts and then returned as staid John Roberts as co-anchor of CTV's Canada AM. He never really found his footing and finally returned to the U.S. (he's now with CNN).
And in the 1980s CBC imported Hilary Brown as its Toronto anchor and she seemed unsure of herself after a decade of solid international reporting--and she, too, left.
But announcing Dawna Friesen as Global's first national anchor would not be correct. And remember Anne Mroczowski currently co-hosts Global Toronto's late night feed.
Sorry, Donna, but Jan Tennant beat you to it when she co-anchored Global's national news in the 1980s alongside Peter Trueman. Before that she was the first woman to read CBC's National news in 1974.
The feminization of national newscasts started on American TV when Katie Couric replaced Dan Rather on and Diane Sawyer took over for Charlie Gibson on ABC.
Canadian TV is only playing catch up.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Fond Farewell For Lloyd Robertson

In the end Lloyd Robertson did it his way, the way of a gentleman.
Quietly and without ostentation he announced at the end of Thursday night's CTV telecast that he was stepping down as anchor after an unprecedented reign of 35 years at CTV.
And I remember the day it all started.
I was at the CBC fall TV launch in 1976 when CBC news chief Knowlton Nash announced to startled critics that :"I've lost my Mr. Clean!"
I'd been hearing the buzz that Robertson was about to defect to CTV and then it was true.
Most of us called cabs and deserted the CBC fete in a flash as publicity chief Cec Smith stood at the curb shouting "Stop! We're paying for all this."
Remember that Robertson started at CBC in 1954. But he was increasingly vexed by union regulations that forbade him touching his copy --he was no more than an announcer at CBC because of these restrictions.
But up at CTV's Charles St. that momentous day headquarters pandemonium reigned supreme.
CTV President Murray Chercover was chortling "We're now Number One in news!"
But just as Lloyd was about to begin his press conference in rushed CTV's Harvey Kirck --Kirk had been on a tour of western affiliates when told the news the night before.
He boarded the first plane to Toronto and told me he was anxious sharing the CTV platform with Robertson.
Fireworks were predicted. Instead they got along very well for the next 10 years until Kirck's retirement.
Now --35 years later --people will be asking of Robertson did he jump or was he pushed?
CTV's 11 p.m. news ratings remain high so Robertson --who after all is now 76 --could have picked any date to retire.
But one thing about Robertson --he's outlasted all challengers.
For a time media watchers had predicted Keith Morison would be the successor. But trouble ensued when Morison began openly speculating. Very soon he was out at CTV.
Another challenger was Pam Wallin but she eventually defected the other way --to CBC. These days she's a Tory senator.
So who was the choice?
Lisa LaFlamme, 45, is the surprise choice.
True, she has served a dutiful apprentice going right back to Kitchener's CKCO-TV.
But her stay on Canada AM wasn't very successful. Ratings were slumping and she seemed to take pot shots every day at Rod Black.
My choice would have been Tom Clark but maybe he has just been around CTV too long.
However both ABC and CBS chose women when their geezer anchors left. The trouble is both ABC's Diane Sawyer and CBS's Katie Couric now preside over newscasts considerably diminished in the ratings.
Robertson told viewers last night he'll stay on with his successor into 2011. He'll remain a network fixture as host of W5 and other news specials.
At CTV he's enjoyed great fame and fortune.
It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
In one of my profiles of Lloyd I openly asked how he and Harvey (who towered over him) seemed to be the same size when sharing that CTV desk.
Lloyd was so tickled by it he commissioned a CTV artist to draw a caricature of bulking Harvey sitting beside Lloyd on a pile of phonebooks.
Both guys autographed it and send it to me.
Today that caricature is a prized possession.
And a side glance at Murray Chercover who died Saturday of pneumonia at 80. Chercover kept CTV going through some pretty rough times and with a skeleton staff. In truth CTV was a conglomerate of private stations and the leader was always CFTO's Baton Broadcasting.
But Chercover also had a sense of humor. When I once asked him why CTV never had a fall TV launch he sputtered "My big Canadian show is Littlest Hobo. You want me to have a press conference for a dog?"

The Emmy Nominations Are Out

Big news about the Emmy nominations is the NBC press statements congratulating Conan O'Brien on snagging a nomination over Jay Leno.
Hey, guys, you dumped the redhead in January and paid him off to the tune of $45 million and in the fall he's joining the opposition with a new talk show on TBS.
And Jay Leno who returned to his Tonight gig after a disastrous period nightly at 10 got nothing. Also, Leno's ratings are now lower than Conan's ever were.
Bigger news was Glee's rapid ascent to must-see status with 19 nominations.
Modern Family took 14 nominations but series star Ed O'Neill was overlooked (I'm hearing he placed his name in the supporting and not the lead actor category).
Also nominated heavily was CBS's new drama series The Good Wife.
And a nice farewell present wen to to Lost with seven nominations.
But other departing series including Law & Order and 24 got shut out which is a real shock. Or maybe these shows stayed around too long.
And ABC's ratings hot duo of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice both got shut out.
One big surprise? The nominations of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights in the best actor category--they'd been snubbed for their first three seasons. the others? Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Hugh Laurie (House), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad).
Best series actress nominations include Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), Glenn Close (Damages), Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order), January Jones (Mad Men), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife).
But remember this: the Emmys don't mean diddley squat.
Stars (like Barbara Stanwyck) have won after their series got cancelled because of anemic ratings. An Emy doesn't necessarily increase a winner's pay packet either.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Should Steve Carell Quit The Office?

It must be a quiet week --the entertainment blogs are filled with stories about Steve Carell deciding to leave The Office.
NBC sources are saying there still might be a way to save the series and install a new number one personality. The strangest story so far has Ricky Gervais jumping in as a wholly new character.
remember he originally created The Office for British TV and then sold the rights to NBC. But TV's history seems to indicate the otherwise can sometimes happen.
And I remember way back...
When Shelley Long packed it in on Cheers in 1987 she'd already enjoyed five big seasons at the top.
TV columns were filled with dire predictions but Cheers not only survived it thrived with a new leading lady in Kirstie Alley and lasted another six seasons at the top.
Not much was heard from Shelley Long, however, she bombed out in several short lived TV series and some dreadful movies.
Much the same thing happened several times on M*A*S*H.
McLean Stevenson departed the show in 1975 after three seasons on top but failed to find sitcom fame of his own on several dreadful shows.
Also departing that year was Wayne Rogers who never again found TV sitcom fame despite repeated efforts.
M*A*S*H recast Stevenson with Harry Morgan and Rogers was replaced as sidekick with Mike Farrell and the newcomers lasted an additional eight years.
But when star Alan Alda decided he'd had enough in 1983 and quit CBS attempted to keep the concept going with something called AfterMASH.
I remember being on the set and telling creator Larry Gelbart that it might not go because viewers would be forever looking at the door, hoping to see Alda saunter in. And I was right.
Sometimes series try to go on after the star has left. When Michael J. Fox exited Sin City in 2001 (and 103 episodes) Charlie Sheen was plopped in but the series never really got its momentum back.
With Chico And The Man Freddie Prinze's suicide in 1977 should have ended the show. But NBC persevered and wiseacres were saying it would be retitled And The Man.
However a new Chico was added in the person of a cute 12-year old runaway(played by Gabriel Melgar). But viewers didn't buy it.
Another time I was on the set of a TV movie shooting in Toronto and star Valerie Harper said she wasn't going back to the shoe named after her for various reasons.
That was in the summer of 1987 but Harper did return --for one more episode before deciding she couldn't take it any more (she felt the kids on the series starting with Jason Bateman were being showcased at her expense).
NBC renamed the series Valerie's Family and killed off her character bringing in Sandy Duncan for a rocky four-years that saw the series never quite regain its steam.
In a bizarre note CBS then signed Harper for another sitcom called The City.
It even ran in the same timeslot (Mondays at 8:30) against Valerie's Family (subsequently renamed The Hogan Family).
Danny Ponce had played one of Valerie's kids on Valerie but on The City his sister LuAnne Ponce played Valerie's new daughter. Confusing, what?
Some departures are all for the better.
When George Clooney left ER for movies there was the predictable chatter about it ruining the show. Instead it thrived by changing cast members almost annually.
But CSI nosedived in the ratings when Bill Peterson handed in his notice and is only now beginning to pick up steam again.
My prediction about The Office: Carell is so integral to the series I'm hoping NBC will let this one die with some dignity.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Brian Linehan Is Back (Sort Of)

So there I was talking to a group of high school media students about the terrible current condition of Canadian TV.
And I mentioned some Canadian hits from the past: Brian Linehan, Take 30, This Land, ENG.
The teens had heard of none of them and why should they?
There are all kinds of American TV fare available on DVD but almost nothing Canadian.
Linehan was the master of the long form of TV entertainment interviewing.
His City Lights TV interview series ran on citytv from 1973 through 1989. I know all about it because not only was I a constant viewer but as TV critic for The Spectator and then The Toronto Star I covered Linehan's comings and goings with some regularity.
But the shows have long been unavailable unless one caught them in reruns in the afternoons on the old citytv --Brian was paid $50 a rerun for these.
But thanks to You Tube some of Linehan's finer moments are up and running and worth the effort at searching them out.
I've been watching portions of Linehan's encounters with Sidney Lumet, Patty Duke, John Kobal, Maggie Smith and Clint Eastwood and found Brian still fascinating.
Remember he worked in the pre-Internet era. To gather his research he'd spend days at the Toronto Reference Library thumbing through yellowed clippings for that exact quote. He was passionate about the art of interviewing but his ratings were always low.
In 1989 he quarreled with management and departed, thinking CTV or CBC would pick him up but it never happened. He never again had a long-running series. I found him at times difficult, bitchy, but always enthusiastic and right on when it came to profiling a guest.
Linehan was surprised by his swift decline but I was not. There are no TV interview shows of depth anymore outside of Inside The Actor's Studio --and Linehan never used a clip board.
Hopefully the day will come when Linehan's best will be out on DVD, too (he died in 2007).
Meanwhile there's You Tube.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Remembering Ronald Neame

The obituaries for greatish film director Ronald Neame were muted at best.
Look, I know the guy who died at 99 was inactive in recent years.
But consider his output: he photographed such classics as Major Barbara (1941), One Of Our Aircraft Was Missing (1942) (Oscar nominated), This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945).
Then he produced great films still watched today: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).
When he turned to directing he made such memorable fare as The Horse's Mouth (1958), Tunes Of Glory (1960), I Could Go On Singing (1963), The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
When I first met up with him in 1984 over lunch in Los Angeles he cheerfully said he was living off the proceeds of his 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure --he was given 5% of the box office in return for rescuing the film after other directors had departed.
Here are a few choice remarks I recorded:
On Major Barbara: "We shot it during the height of the Blitz then pulverizing London. One day Rex Harrison had Wendy Hiller in his arms and the air raid sirens started blaring. Rex simply dropped her and ran for cover as fast as he could. Poor Wendy was left dazed and confused --she thought she was making a Shavian comedy of wit and here we're being bombed by the Nazis.
On Blithe Spirit : "At one point (director) David Lean wanted Myrna Loy as the wife but Constance Cummings did just fine. Noel Coward told Rex Harrison he was only fit to be a used car salesman but Rex didn't care, he had that certain wicked charm. But the film was stolen by Kay Hammond as Elvira and by Margaret Rutherford. I shot it in what I called muted Technicolor. Anything more garish and it would have seemed absurd."
On Great Expectations: "I produced it and every day David Lean would plead for just one more day to wrap up some scene that added to his masterpiece. But very little of the Dickens novel is actually used. We had to be brutal. David and I had seen it done as an abridged play and knew we had to film it. Among the stage players were Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and both were hired for the film."
On Tunes Of Glory: "Alec Guinness and John Mills were signed and then exchanged parts. And then told me. Alec was suprisingly supreme as the Scottish. lackadaisical colonel and Johnny was superb as the martinet. It was a real actor's feast down to the wire. Who won? I considered it an acting tie."
On The Poseidon Adventure: "Pure tosh but I loved doing it. I simply gathered together as many character actors as possible and let them go at it. When Shelley Winters dives underwater she did it like a gigantic orca complete with belly flop. The set all had to be built upside down to show the liner had completely overturned. People flocked to it like I could not believe. And it made me a very rich man."
On The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie: "Vanessa Redgrave phoned me up and said 'I absolutely refuse to play that proto-fascist on the screen.' She'd done so on the stage and was too predictable, I felt. I was so relieved. I didn't like her mannered performance. I had to have Maggie Smith and she was predictably wonderful and got the Oscar that year and it was richly deserved. So there, Vanessa."