Monday, October 31, 2016

I Remember Hugh O'Brian

Hugh O' Brian died at his Beverly Hills home on September 5 2016 aged 91 --I guess he was most famous as TV's Wyatt Earp.
But when I interviewed him in his Toronto hotel suite in 1972 he was tub thumping for a new series Search which only lasted two seasons (it also ran on CTV)..
I found O'Brian to be warm and ingratiating as he welcomed me and fellow TV critic Jack Miller (who I had just replaced at The Hamilton Spectator).
"Wyatt Earp is my signature, always will be and I'm at ease with that," he laughed. "Better to be associated with a quality series than something like Charlie's Angels I guess."
O'Brian was familiar already with Toronto because "I was born in Rochester in 1925. My real name is Hugh Krampe and after the war I decided to try acting. Instead of going to Yale as my mother wanted I headed for L.A. and made my debut in a stage production of Somerset Maugham's Home And The Beauty --that was in 1947 Ida told me to chose a new name and I picked O'Brian which was my mother's maiden name.
"My first picture came in 1948 in a bit in Kidnapped and then Ida gave me some speaking lines in the 1949 movie Never Fear. Then I was one of the juvenile leads aged 25 iun the sci fi flicxk Rocjetship X-M."
Lupino told him he needed a lot of seasoning and he joined Universal International as a contract player.
"I was a male ingenue. Took any part offered by the studio. The other unknown male starlets were Rock Judson, Tony Curtis, George Nader and Jeff Chandler. Female starlets included Piper Laurie, Julia Adams and Amanda Blake who later co-starred on TV's Gunsmoke as Miss Kitty."
I told O'Brian I had not seen many of these movies.
"What!" he joked. "You haven't seen Son Of Ali Baba (1952)? Or Back To God's Country (1953)?  Or  The Twinkle In God's Eye? (1955)?"
He also did a lot of TV.
"It paid the bills. I was on Loretta Young, Climax. The Millionaire, Make Room For Daddy. I never turned down an assignment. I was unknown and needed all the exposure I could get."
In 1955 O'Brian signed for the TV series The LIfe And Legend Of Wyatt Earp for a total of 227 episodes.
"We simply ran out of stories to tell. Everybody was watching westerns in those days. We had to bid competitively for the horses, the wagons and hire our own designer to make the period costumes. After six years I was simply pooped."
O'Brian returned twice to the character in  the 1991 TV flick The Gambler Returns with Kenny Rogers and the 1994 TV flick Wyatt Earp: Return To Tombstone.
O'Brian then jumped into movies  but this time as star.
"I loathed working with Lana Turner (in 1963's Love Has Many Faces).  But Ten Little Indians (1965) was a superb version of the Agatha Christie thriller. I made The Shootist (1976) with Duke Wayne in his last movie and he was every bit the superstar."
O'Brian was noted for his philanthropy. He told me it started when he visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his clinic in Africa in 1959.
"I had already founded the Hugh O'Brian Youth leadership program to develop future leaders and it continues to thrive to this day.
On one point O'Brian was adamant.
"I will never marry. I don't want to wind up with five ex-wives and buckets of alimony."
But O'Brian did marry his longtime companion Virginia Bareger in June 2006 at the age of 2006 --he was then a hearty 91 --and he lived another decade!
I talked to him on the phone several times over the years and he remembered me and said "I'm grateful to this business. It gave me all that I have these days."

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Brain's Way Of Healing: TV For The Mind

It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a TV documentary as challenging as The Brain's Way Of Healing.
This hourlong edition of The Nature Of Things premieres Thursday night at 8 on CBC.
As TV networks multiply and fight for ratings dominance any program that  assumes viewers are intelligent and demanding becomes ever more of a rarity.
The Brain's Way Of Healing is the third documentary made by veteran director Andrew Gregg and Dr. Norman Doidge (for 90th Parallel Productions) and may well be the best so far.
Using cases from his book of the same title Dr. Doidge visits with people who have battled various brain ailments to make remarkable progress.
When I chatted on the phone with Dr. Doidge I remarked how relaxed his subjects seemed and how confident they seemed in describing their conditions.
"I've been listening to people for a long time," Dr. Doidge laughed.  And having known and worked with these people for his book was undoubtedly a huge plus.
"Plus they wanted to talk about the journeys they had made. That was very important to them."
In today's TV world an hour documentary only runs 42 minutes. And yet this "hour" doesn't seem at all rushed.
I have an idea it may even make viewers want to read the book to get a longer version of the stories told here.
Of course one of the requisites of a TV documentary is suitable visuals. And this one is not a succession of talking heads.
"I went to South Africa to interview John," Dr. Doidge reports. "But it was also to see the penguins."
John is a feisty senior fighting back from Parkinson's and we see the unique way he is using his brain to exercise in a full way and avoid the shuffling gait of many Parkinson's patients.
And one of the delightful shots shows him down at the beach walking sturdily among a flock of surprised penguins. Really, it's the perfect visual for his robust personality of fighting back.
Archival footage was needed to demonstrate the plight of John who is seen as an autistic child in terrible screaming pain.
You'd never guess this is the same Jordan as we see today, a youth with a wry comedy sense and one who is so relaxed and open.
We also meet Gabrielle whose tumor required surgery that damaged her brain and how non-invasive treatments of light have so very much improved her condition.
And there's Elizabeth who was born missing a third of her cerebellum.
Archival footage shows how as a baby she was challenged  and helped immeasurably by invasive treatments of sound and exercise.
Dr. Doidge is a sympathetic interviewer with the ability to draw these people out and encourage them to tell their amazing stories.
And that is what great TV is all about --the ability to personalize such stories so we can relate and be educated at the same time.
And having veteran filmmaker Andrew Gregg onboard is an immense help --this the third collaboration between Doidge and Gregg so far.
The Brain's Way Of Healing is so well put together I'd even like to see the longer version which certainly deserves a theatrical release.
'MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Shomi Couldn't Show Me

Hot flashes and cool conclusions from the messy desk of a veteran TV critic:
At the recent block party in my neighborhood I asked friends who if any subscribed to shomi or CraveTV.
Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.
Well, the online Canadian TVservice Shomi fades to black in November after intense competition with Netflix.
Shomi had claimed 900,000 subscribers which I always believed was wildly exaggerated.
Netflix boasts an estimated Canadian audience of over five million paying Canadian customers.
Metflix is seem by more people than any individual Canadian YV network. And it does not have to obey any CRTC Canadian content rules.
From the start shomi which was an uneasy union of Shaw and Rogers seemed on shakey ground.
People were understandably reluctant to subscribe to a service with so many reruns and few hit series like Netflix.
Yes, Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards were welcome but there were such stinkers as Stranger Things and Narcos.
Energetic promotion for the service was nonexistent.
I could never get a preview copy of anything new out of this weblet.
In truth there was fierce resistance from subscribers from the beginning.
And that resistance will surely translate to other Canadian cable networks once the CRTC mandates the freedom of the subscriber to pick and choose what we want to watch.
I've never met anyone who watched OLN --Outdoor Life Network.
Have you?
DYI seems like leftovers from HGTV.
Mystery TV? I can't even get it.
And what about A&E which stands for Arts and Entertainment?
It was set up as a high end cultural channel but these days has stuff like Dog the Bounty Hunter.
I'm fearlessly predicting a whole lot of "Canadian" cable channels will bite the dust as soon as the CRTC orders the three cable giants to give subscribers free choice in what they want and what they'll drop.
Is it just me or is that Kiefer Sutherland voicing those Blue Jays playoffs spots?
It sure sounds like him --and he is Canadian.
Last year when the Jays were still a mediocre team the games had a huge number of public service announcements.
This year with ratings at an all time high?
There are luxury car ads at every commercial break and I'm told the asking price for a one minute spot has hit an all time high for a Canadian TV event.
So maybe the Jays could afford a Kiefer Sutherland as spot announcer?
The most exciting event on TV these days?
I say it's the American election.
With Ronald Reagan the U.S.A got its first Grade B movie actor as president.
Remember mogul Jack Warner's comment?
"No! Jimmy Stewart for president. With Ronald Reagan as best friend."
Now Donald Trump of The Apprentice is getting down and dirty.
The big problems facing this great nation are never discussed.
Instead we turn in to see Trump's temper erupt live on TV.
It's a great show but what does it mean for the future of our neighbor to the south?
With all these revivals of American shows why doesn't CBC try a revival of an olds staple?
Like Quentin Durgens, MP which the great Gordon Pinsent once starred in as a backbencher Canadian member of Parliament.
CBC ran it for four years and 41 episodes from 1965 through 1969.
I'd call the TV movie The Return Of Quentin Durgens and the plot has Quentin retired and his daughter has taken over his seat.
Pinsent's real life daughter Leah Pinsent would be perfect as Jane Durgens.
She gets into political troubles and Quentin has to come pout of retirement and solve the complicated murder mystery and restore honor to the family name.
And I won't even take credit as the TV movie originator.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bugs On The Menu: A Tasty TV Treat

I made sure I had my breakfast before clicking on the preview DVD of Bugs On The Menu.
I was afraid the subject matter might put me off food for the rest of the day --the increasing substitution of grilled insects for steak and chicken.
But I didn't have to worry. This 75-minute documentary will have you convinced the future of protein is grilled bugs as tasty treats.
You can check it all out on CBC's Documentary Channel  Tuesday October 11 at 9 p.m.
I'd give this sassy production a five cricket rating, yes I would.
Now I'm not sure I'd ever want to much on grilled crickets but in a powdered form covered with a great sauce who knows?
The Canadian film (from 291 Film Company) has already played to packed houses in Victoria and Edmonton with additional showings scheduled in Indiana and Australia.
I remember once interviewing the bug rangler on the TV series Amazon and he insisted every one of God's six legged critters came equipped with a heart and soul.
The way he patted his tarantulas was heart warming.
I'm not sure how he would react to the scenes of bugs being stir fried or boiled in olive oil.
The thesis of this amazing film is that everything old is new again.
Our cavemen ancestors feasted on insects to survive and today many people from South Africa to Cambodia devour bugs--we see them out on the hunt or in fancier cafes munching away.
Today moving away from a diet of steak and chicken to one that includes bugs seems sensible considering the fact that the world's population might hit 9 trillion within the next 25 years.
All of a sudden insect farms seem to be flourishing. The little critters need very little water compared to cattle and can be farmed in any number of situations --in South Africa we see villagers gathering them from the savannah.
And bug farming has become a big business.
One Louisiana family controlled enterprise has been at it for 60 years --originally the insects were farmed as bait  for fishermen --gradually the business turned over to today's insect farming for human consumption.
Director Ian Toews has discovered some great characters to illustrate his true story.
Like Entomo Farm's Goldin brothers Darren, Jarrod and Ryan who raise cricket protein for human consumption and business is booming.
Like the female entrepreneurs in charge of the insect chip company Six Foods (named after the six legs on a cricket).
Like the wonderfully likable insect chef David George Gordon author of Eat A Bug Cookbook as he prepares dishes for a thiousand hearty souls at New York city's Explorers Club.
And the historical anecdotes ring true --like the Salt Lake City story of the Mormon crickets who saved the first Mormon settlers from certain starvation.
We see future bug entrepreneurs being schooled at Montana State University and Harvard Business School.
And not everything is upbeat --a virus recently decimated the cricket population being farmed and could pose problems for sustainability in the future.
I have mixed feelings about eating insects I must admit. The huge farms growing up are based on the assumption  more and more people will gravitate to insect munching.
But there are signs the big food companies are poised to take over if they see the business flourishing.
Best thing about Bugs On The Menu? I say the 75-minute length lets us sink into the subject and get a real feeling for all sides of the story.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Road To Mercy: Must-See TV

I have to admit I kept postponing watching my screener of the new CBC-TV documentary Road To Mercy.
The subject is mercy killing and I'd lost a dear friend last year  (journalist Eric McGuinness) who fought two bouts of colon cancer and then was told it had spread to his pancreas.
After enduring great pain for months he arranged a termination in Switzerland because under Canadian law any sort of assisted death was illegal.
In a piece written for Canadian newspapers Eric argued persuasively that we deny to humans what we routinely do to terminally ill pets.
But when I finally watched Road To Mercy I was struck by its absolute compassion and balance.
You can check for yourself: Road To Mercy premiers on CBC-TV's FirstHand Thursday October 6 at 9 p.m.
And this was not surprising because I've regularly reviewed the fine documentaries of veteran film maker Nadine Pequeneza of Toronto's Hit Play Productions.
After much debate medically assisted death has been pronounced legal after a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court .
"It remains controversial,"Pequenza tells me on the phone. "And the challenge was to give everybody fair time within the 44 minutes of today's TV hour."
Pequeneza wisely chose to chronicle three cases and give a human face to the issue.
"I wanted to touch all the bases. And there was the actual problem of filming them and respecting the boundaries. I knew when to turn off the camera."
By far the most heart rendering case is that of John Tuckwell of Edmonton who was a vigorous physical fitness buff  until he came down with ALS in 2012 --it;s also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
We watch his grim determination merely to breathe and share the grief of his aged parents and the devotion of sister Cathy.
His ALS physician Dr. Wendy Johnston is deeply sympathetic but can't personally offer such a solution --like many physicians dedicated to saving life instead of snuffing it out.
By contrast Dr. Louis Roy of Quebec City wants to help his terminally ill patient Danielle Lacroix--the Quebec legislature permits physician assisted deaths but only for terminal patients.
In Belgium we meet a brilliant 29-year old woman Amy De Schutter --Belgium is "progressive" in this area and grants certificates for degenerative diseases.
A university graduate, Amy has battled depression and suicide attempts since her teens. Her talks with her mother are particularly sad.
And there's advocate Maureen Taylor who argues for the right to die with dignity and understands the reservations of many people with deep religious beliefs.
Pequeneza has brilliantly captured the essence of each individual with pertinent questioning and tight editing.
"I wanted to show that in Belgium the criteria has expanded.But it was the human element that interested me, how these people were coping."
An hour that I hesitated to watch instead became for me a deeply compassionate study of how society is treating those dangerously ill.
"There is a more comprehensive 80-minute version", Pequeneza says. "And it will be shown and perhaps even get a TV berth someday."
For now this version will do quite well. Here is one hour I want to watch again down the road.
And in a new TV season where Canadian shows seem on life support along comes a Canadian made documentary that is first class all the way.
MY RATING: ****.