Thursday, July 21, 2011

Elwy Yost Passes: End Of An Era

"You've created a monster!" snapped Elwy Yost during one of our annual lunches.
The erstwhile star of TVOntario's Saturday Night At The Movies was talking about my interviews with Yost that began appearing first in The Hamilton Spectator and later in The Toronto Star.
I'd carefully quote Yost complete with his assortment of lines: "Golly gee" or "Gloriously golden" and especially his boast "I never saw a movie I didn't like."
Elwy protested he was nothing like the overly enthusiastic host who simply loved old movies no matter how bad they might be. But he certainly was and that's why viewers adored him.
Yost who passed Thursday at his B.C. home at the age of 86 was one of a small band who put TVOntario on the map.
In 1977 his weekly old movie show was drawing 500,000 viewers across Southern Ontario., and only CBC's NHL hockey was bettering it.
Don't forget in those days it was a 10-channel TV universe. There were no specialty channels like Turner Classic Movies and VHS was only beginning to appear. There was no pay TV, no regularly scheduled old movie palaces such as exist today at the Toronto Film Festival site.
As far as old movies go Elwy was it. And his huge success startled the competition.
CBC had employees tracking the show to make sure every installment included the obligatory educationalist talking about the movie while CFTO president John Bassett publicly complained to the CRTC about the sheer effrontery of a public TV outlet showing old films..
Finally rival stations started buying up packages of old movies just to make sure Yost did not get his hands on them.
Yost kept fans watching despite his bumbling ways.
He came across like the ex-high school teacher he really was. He'd talk about movies in a matter-of-fact way that wasn't academic. And he let his enthusiasms run riot in the yearly excursions to Los Angeles to interview his gloriously golden stars of another era.
"We started in 1974," remembers Bruce Pittman who was Yost's first director. TVO head programmer Jim Hanley had a block of Ingmar Bergman movies he wanted to show and selected Yost as the host. Later on RKO titles were added but Yost never was able to get any of those juicy Warners titles he so coveted --the price was too high.
Other stations had dropped old black and white movies as no longer economically viable but Yost showed otherwise.
"Our studio was in the basement of TVO at Yonge and Eglinton," remembers Pittman. "Right over the subway line which we felt every time a train passed by."
"With Yost what you saw was what you got. People just liked him."
Pittman and Yost would travel to L.A. for a week every summer to gather material. "The people we sought out would be in the movies we'd picked for the next season. They were delighted to be treated this way. But it was all on the cheap. We stayed with friends. I'd go a week early to start scouting talent. The only cost was the film stock."
"One thing about those interviews. I never filmed Elwy's reaction shots. I didn't want him to become another Brian Linehan where Linehan's interjections became more important than the subjects he was interviewing."
Born in Weston he was the son of Elwy Honderich Yost --and a cousin of Beland Honderich, the once powerful publisher of the Toronto Star.
"I first flunked out of engineering at University of Toronto," he once told me, "before switching to sociology and graduating in 1923. At one point I wanted to become a movie critic but I worked at the Star in the circulation department where I met my future wife Lila. We then toured Europe and I can be glimpsed as an extra in the 1952 John Huston movie Toronto in Foliles Bergere. Then I worked At Avro Arrow until it folded in 1959. I also taught English at Burnamthorpe Collegiate."
As an English teacher he'd dress up like Sherlock Hol;mes when teaching The Hound Of The Baskervilles.
Yost's effusive personality charmed all his subjects but he could get quite sentimental.
When scheduled to meet actress Patricia Medina in Los Angeles for an interview he was pleasantly surprised to see she was accompanied by her husband Joseph Cotten star of Yost's favorite ever film Citizen Kane.
'"Kane...Kane!" blubbered Yost as Cotten took his hankerchief and dried Yost's watery eyes.
I was at the Academy Awards library one day when the Yost crew came in for filming. I told him he'd missed by minutes the elusive silent screen star Mary Miles Minter and he was thoroughly miffed.
Yost took early retirement from TVO in 1987 passing the baton to his producer Risa Shuman who began selecting the films. But he returned several times a year from his new Vancouver base to tape his introductions. After his final retirement in 1999 he jumped to Book TV and did a year of introducing old movies --a neighbor loaned his library as the perfect site.
Yost also hosted a daily series Magic Shadows as well as a weekly show Passport To Adventure. In 2003 he wrote a mystery novel White Shadows and completed another huge manuscript he was never able to sell.
In 2005 he told me he was recovering from surgery but was "making progress".
He leaves wife Lila as well as sons Graham,an L.A. screen writer (Speed) and Christopher. Graham once told me he remembered skipping public school one day to attend a screening of Citizen Kane with his father and having Yost write a letter of explanation to his teacheer.
In 1999 he was made a member of the Order Of Canada.
And Yost's interviews have been repackaged for the TVO series Film 101. He can still be heard going on and on about his faves from the Golden Age.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Remembering James Arness

Requests to go the set of Gunsmoke were usually meant with stoney silence from the CBS PR staff.
The set was usually closed. On the orders of the shy and reclusive star James Arness.
But despite such admonitions I found myself strolling down that familiar street in 1972 when I was still new at the game of TV criticism.
How did I get there?
It was easy. I was pals with the executive producer, Britisher Philip Leacock. I'd interviewed him the year before and told him my favorite movie as a kid had been 1954's The Little Kidnappers which he directed.
"You've made a friend for life!" Leacock laughed and said the next time I was in L.A. I should visit him on the Gunsmoke set where he was running interference as executive producer. He was also directing a 1972 episode titled The Judgment and I got to see how he carefully crafted scenes and motivated such actors as Arness who had been playing the same character for decades.
Arness ambled over and gave me a quote to use in my Leacock profile and then ambled off. He wasn't aloof mainly very shy and besides he'd already answered the same questions hundreds of time.
Arness who died on June3 was a one character star. For 20 years he essayed the role of Matt Dillon. He did have careers before and after but they have been largely disregarded by the public.
One talking to Loretta Young I asked her about the three unknown she had chosen to play her brothers in the 1947 classic The Farmer's Daughter which deservedly won her an Academy Award.
"Jim Areness became Masrshall Dillon, Lex Barker became Tarzan and Keith Andes had a long career," she joked. "Could I pick them or what?"
She believed Arness was quiet and shy because of his towering height of six feet seven inches.
Born James Aurness he had grown up in Minneapolis and after graduating from high school in 1942 he joined the U.S. Army, landing on the Anzio beachhead in 1944. He'd wanted to be an aviator but his height was against him.
He began his career as a radio announcer in Minnesota in and then became a protege of John Wayne who used him in such Wayne flicks as Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island In The Sky and The Sea Chase Arness's biggest role in movies was in the sci fi classic The Thing --he was chosen to play the hulking monster because of his size.
In 1955 Wayne heard CBS was adapting its radio serial Gunsmoke to TV and recommended Arness who tested and won the part. And Wayne even introduced him on the first episode.
The story that Wayne had been first choice for the part was "rubbish" to quote the Duke in the only interview I ever had with him.
Arness had to dye his blond hair darker to get the part and remained at the helm for a remarkable 20-year run. The first five years the series was only a half hour But Arness was an instant hit as the marshall who was on the side of justice and only used violence as a last measure.
Co-star Amanda Blake who played saloon gal Kitty once disclosed she had to stand on a box during their love scenes.
The star of the radio series was burly William Conrad and when I asked him how it felt to get turned down by CBS he snapped "It felt damned bad. They said I was too stocky. They meant I was fat."
And days after I'd met Arness there I was on the set of Mission:Impossible interviewing his younger brother Peter Graves. He smiled when I described our brief encounter and said I'd been lucky to get that much out of Arness.
After Gunsmoke Arness starred in TV movies collectively titled How The West Was Won and then made a few Gunsmoke TV movies.
He did tackle one other role in a very short lived 1981 series McClain's Law but he seemed ill at ease in the modern world and was complaining about the long speeches he had to memorize.
I finally got to interview him then and he was amiable enough. Already he was talking about retiring to his ranch and finally ending the agony of acting.
Did he mind being remembered as Matt Dillon?
"To be remembered at all is something. And Matt was my kind of character."
Arness last acted in 1988 in a TV movie remake of Red River --he took John Wayne's part as a salute to the Duke.
James Arness died aged 88 in Los Angeles on June 3.
Arness only once ever disappointed a fan: Lady Bird Johnson said she was shocked her favorite actor was a Republican.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sherwood Schwarz Created Iconic TV

It was my first visit to Los Angeles, the summer of 1971, and there I was on the set of Mission:Impossible.
But the gang I was talking to were The Brady Bunch.
Both shows shot side by side on the gigantic Paramount back lot along Melrose Avenue.
And I had time to kill until star Peter Graves was available to talk so I looked up and saw Ann B. Davis emerging from a sargophagus. It was a key prop on the MI set that day and as a gag Davis had stashed inside and popped out when Graves opened the gigantic tomb. Graves was not amused because he'd have to do it again.
But all those Brady kids were lined up right there behind the cameras laughing up a storm.
I'm telling my Brady Bunch anecdote because series creator Sherwood Schartz just died at 94.
We became instant pals when I told him later that day as I'd finally hit The Brady Bunch set that I adored Gilligan's Island which he also created.
"We thought we had a stinker on that one," he laughed. "Nobody could understand the premise until I sat down and wrote the theme song which explained everything that had happened including the shipwreck and who the survivors were."
Gilligan's Island lasted a mere three seasons --although it's been in reruns ever since. But Schwartz told me where I could still find the lagoon --it was on the MTM lot. Remember this was 1971. Years later it was all paved over to make way for a new soundstage.
With The Brady Bunch Schwartz said he took a chance hiring Florence Henderson as Carol Brady "because she was a big musical star. But I saw in her the needed warmth and also the humor."
"Robert Reed had been a terrifically talented young dramatic actor on The Defenders. He was astounded to be in such a huge hit."
Born in 1916 in Passaic, New Jersey, Sherwood had his first TV hit as chief writer on the 1963 sitcom I Married Joan starring Joan Davis. Then for eight seasons (1954-62) Schwartz was chief writer for The Red Skelton Show.
Gilligan's Island came next. Schwartz wrote and produced it for 77 episodes (1964-67).
The Brady Bunch originally ran 92 episodes from 1970 through 1974.
Then came some flops Schwartz cherished: 1973's Dusty's Trail and 1976's Big Kohn, Little John.
But Schwartz was not through with The Brady Bunch. In 1976 he roared back with The Brady Bunch Hour and in 1981 there came the inevitable sequel The Brady Brides. I remember having a lunch interview with him on that last one and he was as nice and unpretentious as ever. Then in 1991 came yet another series The Bradys.
If death had not intervened a possible future series would surely have been The Brady Seniors.
There was one last sitcom Harper Valley P.T.A. with Barbara Eden in 1981.
And last year I heard he was up for a movie remake of Gilligan's Island with Michael Cera in the lead.
Sherwood Schwartz long ago figured out how to survive in the cutthroat TV business: keep 'em laughing and laughing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

This TV Series Should Be Re-Titled The Cat Whisperer!

Had a chance to briefly chat up the incredibly named Jackson Galaxy whose short run series My Cat From Hell continues on Animal Planet Tuesd. July 12 at 7 p.m.
It's a three-episode "starter" series and Galaxy reports based on audience response for the first episode Animal Planet has ordered a six-episode arc that will be filmed shortly.
Described in the notes as a "cat behavioralist" Galaxy spends much of his time making house calls to evaluate odd behavior from a wide variety of cats.
And he seemed to accept my criticism that the series should really be titled "The Cat Whisperer" which is exactly what he is.
"My Cat From Hell just got Animal Planet's attention," he laughs. "And viewer, too, because apparently it's a common expression."
But Galaxy adds most cats aren't from hell at all.
"They're just being cats. I don't want to train your cat to pee onto the toilet or not to jump up on the kitchen table. That's not what this show is all about."
It's about analyzing why situations go bad for cats and their owners. And it evolves educating both cats and humans.
"Cats have bad days, they do. they can experience mental health issues. Only these days I'm making my rounds with a camera crew following me. That's extra strain on the cat --bright TV lights, sometimes 12 people milling around. And Animal Planet was right;y sceptical I could make it work."
A pilot was shot a year ago just to prove kitty cat could be as appealing as a dog.
"We shoot lots and lots of footage. Cats don't do things on demand you see. It boils down to technique. And every once in a while I'd just call a break for a few hours with the cat hiding under the bed."
Galaxy says he uses no tricks." It can get very frustrating.for our subjects. Must be stressing them out like heck. But you know we are getting at it."
He looks like such a tough dude with his shaved pate and goatee. But he talks a good line with the cats. And sometimes it seems the owners need more help than their furry pets. In many cases it's the humans who must adjust by setting up cat play stations. One dude is even pressed into taking his fiancee's cat out on a leash for walks.
Galaxy says growing up "I was a dog guy" and only switched when a college girl friend brought home a kitty. Seven years later he was volunteering at an animal shelter and from there started developing empathy for cats.
"Look, respect the animal. That's the biggest rule."
My alloted time is just about up. No time to tell Galaxy about the troubles I'm facing with my cat, Bear, who seems to think the house is hers and I'm simply the valet. Or maybe I should simply invite Galaxy over to make an episode right here?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On TV You Can't Go Home Again

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I've just read they're trying to resuscitate Dallas. Again.
Every year or so somebody comes forth with a lame brained attempt to bring back an old show in new glory.
Well, it didn't work when CBS revived The Fugitive in 2000 with Tim Daly now cast as Dr. Richard Kimble.
Fans of the original series may have glanced but quickly shrugged and tuned out. The world had changed. And just as important that story was all used up.
It was the same this season when PBS's Masterpiece THeater unveiled a perfectly dreadful sequel to the legendary Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75).
It had the same title and the same address: 165 Eaton Place but something was missing.
Like the original cast --most of the actors had died off and only series co-creator Jean Marsh was back as bland and boring Rose.
Now set in 1936, the show no longer made sense as the oncoming war had seriously dented the whole aura of the British aristocracy.
I well remember the excitement in 2000 when it was announced Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper would be reunited in a TV movie called Mary And Rhoda, the proposed pilot for a "new" series.
Airing as a TV movie on NBC this was awful stuff.
I've tried to block it out but I do remember Mary's daughter's name was Rhoda and Rhoda's daughter was named --you guessed it --Mary.
Viewer response was so tepid the proposed reunion series was cancelled.
Then there was the 1978 TV movie The New Maverick with Charles Frank as Ben Maverick and James Garner back as Bret.
Garner would then star in a full scale TV series comeback in Bret Maverick (1981) which freely borrowed from his hit 1957 TV series but in all ways was a pale copy. It lasted 18 episodes.
Bret had always been a drifter but here he had settled down, a key mistake that original creator Roy Huggins claimed doomed the new show from the start.
I could go on. The new Bionic Woman was terrible. This upcoming season there'll be yet another attempt to revive Charlie's Angels --there have been two failed TV attempts so far.
The only Canadian attempt to revive the dead was the series of Beachcombers movies a few years back which flopped because star Bruno Gerussi was long dead.
Now over to Dallas. For years a movie version starring John Travolta was touted.
But TNT has now signed for a 10-episode series to run next summer.
Former stars Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray will return in their original roles but the plot focuses on the next generation
Cynthia Cidre (The Mambo Kings) has written the pilot script and Josh Henderson (90210) and Jesse Metcalfe have the leads and Jprdana Brewster is the love triangle gal.
Originally Dallas ran from 1978 through 1991.
But 20 years later does anybody really care?
Haven't we all moved on --and on.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey Anthony, TV Star!

And the biggest summertime TV star according to the ratings is --Casey Anthony!
Dubbed "tot mom" by TV pundit Nancy Grace, the accused murderer (who was judged innocent by a jury of her peers) has dominated the American TV ratings for the past month.
Nancy Grace's relatively obscure HLN show jumped a whopping 86 per cent in the ratings to the day of the verdict when viewership hit an astounding 982,000.
Could it ever happen like this in Canada?
Well,no because we don't even get Court TV anymore.
And all of our juicy murder trials are convened behind closed doors --open to print reporters but not to TV scribes.
The whole Anthony trial resembled a circus with Grace and her competitors stationed on the lawn outside the Orlando.
Of course I watched like millions of others as GRace and her experts panelists weighed in on every piece of evidence.
Yes, it reminded me an awful lot of O.J. Simpson. I'm pretty convinced lawyers for both sides played to the TV cameras.
There was a near riot every morning as gawking spectators rushed the courtroom for the few remaining chairs.
And as HLN's rating swelled MSNBC and even the evening anchors got involved. Even Anderson Cooper started dishing the dirt.
But this was a rather obscure murder trial until hyped by Grace.
Why were we all watching so intentl?
Was Anthony so plainly guilty? Well, she was a congenital liar and she did behave poorly after her daughter went missing.
Tabloid TV --that's the present state of TV news. There are all these additional news channels and not enough news to keep viewers tuned in unless anchors resort to exploitation.
After watching for hours I'm none the wiser.
Little Callie died and nobody has yet been named as the killer.
In a word I feel I've been "had". This whole experience makes me believe cameras should be permanently barred from all U.S. courtrooms as they already are in Canada.
And remember Larry King's huge ratings dive bombed after the O.J. Simpson trial.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Torchwood Is Finally Back, Sort Of

The fourth and probably last season of Torchwood is about to begin.
The final 10-part miniseries was filmed in the U.S. while the first three seasons were made by BBC Wales.
I can't think of another British dramatic series that was directly transported to America for an entire season. Can you?
Russell T. Davies, the creator, persuaded the U.S. pay TV weblet Starz to finance a fourth year after BBC declined.
Then he killed of everybody save charismatic hero Captain Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and plopped them into a new storyline set smack dab in America.
Oh, I'm not thinking of American versions of British hits (like All In The Family or Beacon Hill).
In fact Davies' Queer As Folk wound up in a newly instant U.S. remake but that one was filmed in Toronto.
Come to think of it why wasn't the all new Torchwood filmed in T.O.?
Wait! Another example Ijust came to me and it's the six-part BBC 2006 miniseries The State Within filmed almost entirely in Canada with Toronto substituting (very shakily) for Washington D.C.
In last year's shortened five-episode Torchwood arc Captain Jack not only lost his lover Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) but he also had to sacrifice his grandson Steven Carter (Bear McCausland).
Last year's story was all out scary as a master race monster plotted to abduct all the earth's children. Gulp!
This time out it's called Miracle Day and simply stated nobody in the whole world is going to die for the time being.
And the reason we know is from the first startling scene as a convicted killer and pedophile (Bill Pullman) gets his expected execution dose of lethal poisons only to surprisingly survive.
If that sounds a bit overly familiar wasn't that the premise of The classic sci fier The Day The Earth Stood Still? Nobody dies?
These days it means a lot of fuss and bother. Bodies start piling up in hospitals with the desperate ill --people who want to expire but can't.
The kicker is Western civilization needs death to cull its population --without natural ends our whole society quickly gets gummed up.
In short everybody's immortal. Everybody's a Captain Jack except the good Captain who discovers in his first few scenes that he now is mortal.
Have I given away too much story? Sorry but I don't think so. But I was sad to bid farewell to Wales and that wonderfully atmospheric set where the forces of good worked.
The locations in Miracle Day so far seem rather humdrum. And Jack is almost a peripheral figure in the first new hour. Eve Myles has more to do because she and her long suffering husband now have a baby. Can she go back to fighting crime or should she stay holed up in her little Welsh cottage?
Judging from the spoilers I've seen Captain Jack's sex life will be unchanged --and that has to be a gamble with vast throngs of right wing Americans currently on the warpath and fighting for family values.
So far Torchwood 4 doesn't quite have the style and panache of its predecessors. Hopefully that will change as the story unfolds and the jittery Brit actors get over their fears of working at Warner Brothers in Burbank.
I know I'll keep watching and rooting for Captain Jack.
But I wonder if a summer run instead of a fall prime time berth indicated some nervousness at Starz over the American public's response to material outside their confort zone?

Friday, July 1, 2011

War In The Mind Is Totally Compelling

Summertime TV is supposed to be a sea of insufferable reruns mixed with a dash of trivial reality shows. Right?
Not if you consider the compelling new Canadian documentary War In The Mind which premieres on TVOntario Wed. July 6 at 9 p.m.
Director Judy Jackson has taken a tough journey emotionally in this often penetrating study of the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and she has brilliantly personalized the illness so we come to care about a bunch of distressed young soldiers.
And if you can watch to the end without tearing up occasionally then you're made of sterner stuff than I am.
She starts with quick responses to the standard questions, slowly drawing us into the world of young soldiers who have served their time in bloody battlefront conditions.
There's Tim. There's Dan. There's Richard. There's Chris. All so startlingly young. Many signed up for war in Afghanistan when they were still teenagers. All having the darkest thoughts since being discharged back into civilian life.
They describe comrades who died in front of them. They talk about killing the enemy and then realizing everyone has a face, a family, a history.
And one then one famous veteran who himself still suffers from combat fatigue appears --it is General Romeo Dallaire and the genoicide he witnessed in Rwanda will never leave him.
The statistics are startling --some 15 per cent of soldiers are affected to some extent with PTSD. The governmernt statisticians say it's five to six percent. Which could be one reason so many distreessed soldiers are slipping through the cracks and not getting the help they deserve.
Coming home only seems to exacerbate the pain. A profound sense of loneliness seems to engulf many veterans. They shun friends and family "You don't really fit in anymore," grips one veteran.
They no longer feel safe going out. Flashbacks to terrifying incidents begin haunting them. "It stays digitally clear" is how the nightmares are described. And then comes aggression, outbursts at anybody who is near.
There's the stigma of a male trying to find answers and desperately needing medical help. Without help many try to commit suicide.
Jackson found a bold new course, a UBC/Canadian Legion program helping soldiers to confront their fears and search for answers with others who have been suffering. And, astonishingly, in one session veterans from as far back as World War II say the pain never goes away --one veteran in his 80s still has the same screaming nightmare every night.
Jackson does a wonderful job in threading everything together and keeping us watching although some sequences are undeniably sad.
She expands her horizon by adding Dallaire's profound thoughts and then jumping to British General Richard Dannatt who says not enough has been done to help recovering soldiers.
One British case, that of Andrew Watson, who suicided after he descended into deep depression shows the system failed him and hundreds of others. And we see how a Canadian family tries to get some sense of satisfaction after the suicide of Stuart Langridge.
Jackson tells this reporter her partner was diagnosed with brain cancer (and subsequently died) just as she was beginning to film this documentary. So she brought a sense of purpose to the story which does have a positive spin --we can note the improvement in the attitides of the comparatively few soldiers who have taken the counseling program.
Jackson's 1999 documentary on Louise Arbour (The Toughest Job In The World) showed how she could tackle difficult subjects and still find the human thread. And she's done so again here with this often brilliant look at young soldiers who volunteered to serve their country and now need support in their darkest hours.
MY RATING: ****.