Tag Archives: TV

Happy birthday today



Like lots of people, I like to stroll through the internet, and today while looking up some biographical material, I got caught up in what happened on April 4. Among other things, many cool writerly type people were born.

Robert_Downey_JrFor those who like action films, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor, singer, producer, and screenwriter, was born in 1965.

For those who like television shows (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law), writer David E. Kelley was born in 1956.

Kitty_Kelley_Photo_by_Raymond_BoydIf you like to read about scandal, another Kelley, this time Kitty Kelley, was born in 1942. She’s the author of many best-selling, unauthorized biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Reagan, among others. Called “the consummate gossip monger,” she claimed to be an “unabashed admirer of transparency.” However, when critics scrutinized her work more carefully, many of her “facts” were found to be unsubstantiated. Readers might not have cared.

MayaAngelouMaya Angelou was born on this day in 1928. To know her life story is to wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. She was a supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and professor. She was friends with Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her international recognition and acclaim. Some cities have tried to ban her books from public libraries, but her works, based on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel, are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Robert_E__SherwoodFinally, in 1896, Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was born. One of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, and at six feet eight inches, was the tallest among them. He co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Best wishes to all.


On this day in history: the movie


China SyndromeToday was a pretty uneventful day for me. I ran a free promotion on Amazon, which did okay. I went to the pharmacy and picked up some generic pain relievers, went to the bank, came home, worked, saw a friend. Pretty typical. Not exactly the stuff of an action-adventure film. Or a romantic comedy. Or even an indie literary adaptation.

But I got to wondering what else had happened on March 28 in years gone by. I like history. So I looked it up.

As it happened, a lot has happened at the end of March. On March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry occurred. At the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, a pressure valve didn’t close, contaminated cooling water drained away, and the core overheated. Then human operators, misreading confusing and contradictory readings, shut off the emergency cooling pumps. Within four hours, the core had heated to more than 4,000 degrees, just 1,000 degrees shy of meltdown, which would have released radiation across the country. As it was, the plant itself was contaminated.

One hour short of total meltdown, operators got the emergency cooling pumps working and the core temperature dropped. However, an explosion of hydrogen gas resulted in a radiation leak, and the Pennsylvania governor recommended a limited five-mile evacuation. As a consequence, 100,000 people fled the area. President Jimmy Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, had helped dismantle a damaged Canadian nuclear reactor while serving in the U.S. Navy. His visit to the plant calmed fears.

The unharmed Unit-1 reactor at Three Mile Island, which was shut down during the crisis, did not resume operation until 1985. Cleanup continued on Unit-2 until 1990, but it was too damaged to be used again. In the time since the accident at Three Mile Island, not a single new nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States, although four new reactors at existing nuclear power plants have been commissioned but not completed.

So that was a big day for everybody in the country, really. In a life-imitates-art moment, the film China Syndrome, a thriller about the cover-up of safety violations at a nuclear power plant, was released on March 16, 1979, just 12 days before the accident. In one scene, a character says that a nuclear meltdown would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. Spooky.

Other big days in March? On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. And on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot president Ronald Reagan. Of course there have been a million movies about the Vietnam War, but even Hinkley’s assassination attempt has a film tie-in—his defense claimed that Hinkley was obsessed with the film Taxi Driver and tried to re-enact portions of the movie in his own life. The film, starring Jodie Foster, has a scene with an attempted shooting of a senator.

But those are stories for another day.



Not just another pretty face


While I was sick last fall and then over the holiday break I caught up on old TV shows. Well, “catching up” is the nice way to put it. I was glued to the set. One of my all-time favorites: Perry Mason. This show has run seemingly continuously with different actors from the 1930s (in movies back then, starring first Warren William and then Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods), and then in the 1960s TV series with Raymond Burr playing Perry, and then the 1970s, with Monte Markham, then back to Raymond Burr in the 1980s and 1990s again.

The show often featured well-known guest stars (Bette Davis, Jackie Coogan, Dick Clarke, Cloris Leachman, Fay Wray, and many others), which is always fun. Another thing I like about the show is that although all the lead actors are attractive, most of the supporting cast is…not necessarily. Maybe the casting falls into stereotypes sometimes. You’ve got a Rancher, an Insurance Agent, a Shopkeeper, a Businessman, a Housewife. They all look like people you might know. Usually none of them is anything remarkable in the looks department.

Only when the plot calls for a “pretty girl” (you can practically hear them call Central Casting: “Hey, Joe! We need a looker on the set!”) do you actually get a conventionally attractive young woman on the screen. And she might be a Good Girl or a Bad Girl, but her looks often have something to do with the plot. The character’s looks often helped propel her into the action for one reason or another, good or bad.

This is also true for another show I watched: Police Story, which originally ran for six years from 1973 through 1978 and starred at least briefly at least every working actor in Hollywood. In the case of Police Story, it’s less about pretty girls than good-looking guys: some of them are, but plenty of them–maybe most of them–aren’t. The show is gritty. Watching these tough, tired guys at work, you feel like you’re watching real cops, which is not something I think when I watch the current batch of police shows.

Perry Mason was a character that the lawyer and crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner created. Gardner wrote many books before the movies or TV ever beckoned. Police Story was created by Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles police department, who wrote crime fiction and nonfiction before he became involved with television and wrote 95 episodes for the show and consulted on its development.

Perhaps it was a consequence of my feverish flu, but I’ve been wondering why these old shows didn’t employ more drop-dead handsome actors. Hollywood certainly had plenty of them. Today, you can’t turn on the tube without finding zillions of shows full of people who, despite their many professional acting talents, could also win beauty pageants by the score. Some of these new shows I like to watch, because the writing is good and the acting is fun. But many times I find these shows really depressing. Whose lives look like that? Who knows these people? It seems like the producers look for two or five pretty faces and think, Let’s put on a show! And the story can come afterwards.

Maybe I like Perry Mason and Police Story so much because with these shows, the writing came first. The writers created those characters, and those characters didn’t have to be gorgeous to get you to watch. They just had to be interesting.