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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Sunday, September 18, 2005
By The Way...
...does anyone actually give a damn to read essays about 25-year-old TV shows that nobody watched the first time they were on? My Comments file is not exactly overflowing with praise.

Posted by Marty at 10:55 PM CDT
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The World's Greatest Living Actor
Now Playing: 2005 Emmys
All hail the great William Shatner, an Emmy winner tonight for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, BOSTON LEGAL. This is his second consecutive Emmy; he won one for playing the same character, eccentric attorney Denny Crane, on THE PRACTICE last year. He was nominated once before a few years ago for a guest shot on 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN.

The Emmy show was very dull and uninspired, beginning with an insipid musical performance by Earth, Wind & Fire and the Black-Eyed Peas and including the first "Emmy Idol" competition, where celebrities sang TV theme songs so viewers could vote which was the best. The choice of celebrities and songs was bizarre, to say the least (including Donald Trump and Megan Mullally doing GREEN ACRES and Shatner teaming with an opera star to do STAR TREK), and who gives a damn about voting on stars practicing their karaoke skills? Seriously, who's actually picking up their phone and voting?

What a shock to see the reclusive David Letterman show up to present a tribute to the great Johnny Carson. That clip of Carson performing that magic trick for the little boy is still amazing; when is the last time you saw something that sweet on a late-night talk show? Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather took the stage in a tribute to their retirements and the passing of Peter Jennings. And the "In Memoriam" segment was anchored by an emotional clip of Jerry Orbach's last appearance on LAW & ORDER.

I thought LOST's win as Best Dramatic Series was a surprise. I seem to be in the minority when I say the show isn't very good, despite some expensive production values and a sharp cast, but even so, it's unusual for a series to win after its first year. I also thought DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, which I've never seen, but dominates the mass media, was a lock to win Best Comedy Series, but lost to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.

A few other winners off the top of my head: Felicity Huffman, THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, James Spader, Patricia Arquette, Tony Shalhoub, Hugh Jackman, Blythe Danner, Jane Alexander, Geoffrey Rush, THE AMAZING RACE, Paul Newman and others I'm forgetting.

I've said this before, but can we please have fewer teenage flavors-of-the-month like Adrian Grenier, Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson doing the presenting and more familiar faces? Every year, the Emmys' ratings go down, and I'm convinced that if the show brought on more performers that the world has actually heard of, it would help. I can't be the only person more interested in seeing Jane Alexander than Jennifer Love Hewitt, am I?

Denny Crane.

Posted by Marty at 10:50 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, September 18, 2005 10:52 PM CDT
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Last Week To Doomsday
Gobby gets married in less than a week, so last night was the bachelor party. It was pretty tame as these things go; only five of us partook (my brother remained in St. Louis), and there were no nude body parts of any kind. It was still a late night and a good time, and who knows when we'll get together like that again.

The festivities began around 5:30 at my place with an array of meat, cheeses, chips, snacks, beer and soft drinks. We chattered while one of my homemade compilations of trash movie trailers played on the Cyberhome. Talk about current musical acts, cars and idiots we went to school with in Mansfiend was frequently interrupted by comments inspired by the trailers, such as "Why do people continue to fuck with Charles Bronson? Don't they watch Charles Bronson movies?" and jokes about Chuck Norris Super Karate Action Jeans.

A little after 7:00, we went to Neil Street to meet our 7:30 reservations at Alexander's Steakhouse. For $20, you pick your own steak and grill it yourself, along with baked potatoes and buttery Texas toast. It's some of the best beef in town, and I don't mind the alleged inconvenience of grilling it. I like the sense of community...and the chance to snack on that grilled toast.

After pounding our 18-ouncers, we cruised through the U of I campus for a few minutes. I often go down there, but it had been years since the rest of the group traveled down there. Campustown has changed a lot in the last ten years, and certainly in the last 20 or so since we first started going down there. Almost everything from our high school years is gone--the movie theater, the arcade, the fast-food places.

We ventured over to the Rose Bowl in Urbana, a bar I'd never been to before. It has been around for decades; my dad told me he hadn't been in there in 45 years. I doubt it has changed much. Even the formica furniture has "1963 kitchen" written all over it. The clientele was very white with men favoring cowboy hats and Harley Davidson T-shirts and the women in hoop earrings, big hair and shirts that didn't go all the way to the waist, no matter how much they weighed. The average age of the band, which was pretty good and played covers by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, etc., was about 53. Everybody seemed to be happy, and it really was not a bad little place to be.

Two pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Fuck Heineken!"), and time to head back to my place to continue gorging on beer, flaming Cheetos, meat and cheese. I couldn't eat anything after the giant steak I had; I have no idea how those guys could eat.

Gobby had already picked out the first Crappy Movie of the night, a favorite of ours: KING FRAT. There's no way I can possibly defend liking this movie...I just do. It's a low-budget, filmed-in-Florida ANIMAL HOUSE ripoff, and your admiration for it will depend upon how many jokes about beer, farts, vomiting and all-around tastelessness you can take.

KING FRAT is about a fraternity at Yellowsprings College (yes, there's a urination joke there) populated with misfits, drunks, reprobates and party animals that is constantly battling with a fellow frat manned by uptight preppies, tormenting the dean and spying on sorority girls in various stages of undress. There's a corpse-napping, a costume party featuring a girl dressed as Lady Godiva, an inflatable doll, some offensive Native American stereotyping, a fart contest for money ("Holy shit! Fart contest!"), a guy in a gorilla suit and lots of beer-drinking. It's completely unoriginal and predictable, the students are at least a decade too old, the acting is mostly broad and sometimes amateurish, but there's a certain cheekiness in the proceedings that's easy to admire. Actor John DiSanti makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his fat, crude character of "Grossout" blatantly rips off John Belushi. He also wears a Howard the Duck T-shirt throughout the movie. I highly doubt Marvel Comics gave permission to use it.

After KING FRAT, it was REVENGE OF THE NINJA, a favorite of mine that attracted a lot of "ooohs" and "aahhhs" when we saw the trailer earlier. It's an incredible Golan-Globus production starring Sho Kosugi as a ninja who moves with his young son to Los Angeles after evil ninja graphically murder his entire family. He discovers his L.A. business partner and so-called friend Braden is using Sho to smuggle heroin into the country, and that Braden is also an evil ninja. This movie is about 90 minutes of nearly non-stop martial arts action, grippingly directed by Cannon regular Sam Firstenberg and choreographed by Kosugi. Some of the stuntwork looks very dangerous, like Kosugi being dragged behind a van, and even the little boy gets involved in the action scenes. MGM (accidentally?) put the original X-rated cut on the R-rated DVD, meaning there's more gore here than you saw on HBO in 1984.

Some of the party broke up at this point, but a few of us held on for one more: HOLLYWOOD COP, more insanity from the inept Iranian director of SAMURAI COP. And like that picture, HOLLYWOOD COP's entertainment value is hard to describe. It's just as incompetent as SAMURAI COP, but with some slumming stars and not quite as much hilarity. The wretchedness of the film is evident from the first fucking shot, which begins a bit too soon with the actors standing motionless waiting for the director to call "Action!"

Mobster Jim Mitchum (TRACKDOWN) wants back the $6 million a guy named Joe Fresno stole from him, so he kidnaps Fresno's son to hold for ransom. Fresno's ex-wife goes to a cop improbably named Johnny Turquoise (David Goss), or "Turk" or "Turkey" for short, to get the boy back. The investigation takes several ridiculous turns, such as stopping so Turk's partner Jaguar (a mugging Lincoln Kilpatrick) can make some bread oil-wrestling with two hot women. The script, filled with illogic and laughable dialogue (Turk tells a grieving husband whose wife has been raped in front of him, "Look, I know that guy fucked your wife and all, but..."), is matched in its incompetence by the inappropriate sound effects and photography.

It was about 3:30am by the time HOLLYWOOD COP mercifully ended, and sleep came quickly to those of us still standing. Gob's wedding is on Saturday. At least I'll get to have another steak.

Happy 30th to Shark Hunter. Hope your birthday party last night was at least as merry as ours.

Posted by Marty at 4:17 PM CDT
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Saturday, September 17, 2005
The Man With The Pyrite Gut

When NBC lured ABC president Fred Silverman over to take over their third-place (out of three, at the time) network, it expected big things. After all, in his three years at ABC, he made the Alphabet network a money-making machine, launching shows like STARSKY & HUTCH, THE LOVE BOAT, FANTASY ISLAND, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, THREE’S COMPANY, ROOTS and CHARLIE’S ANGELS.

Magic didn’t strike twice, as Silverman’s Midas touch turned to stone. Some of the programs developed by NBC during his reign from 1978 to 1981 rank among television’s most notorious flops. TV buffs know well what a laughing stock NBC became while pushing shows like HELLO, LARRY, SUPERTRAIN, THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO, B.J. AND THE BEAR and C.P.O. SHARKEY onto the television audience. NBC’s few hits were in late-night, where THE TONIGHT SHOW and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, which ripped Silverman a new one in an Al Franken-written sketch called “Limo for a Lamo”, in which John Belushi portrayed Silverman, were the network’s main source of advertising income.

Another Silverman-bred series that didn’t work was A MAN CALLED SLOANE, which was originally created by writer Cliff Gould (THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO) as a light spy adventure like the James Bond movies. The original pilot, titled T.R. SLOANE, starred Robert Logan (77 SUNSET STRIP) as Thomas Remington Sloane, an agent of UNIT battling a megalomaniac who plans to cause havoc with a massive death ray. The villain’s henchman was Torque (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a 6’5” bald, black man with a mechanical hand who was clearly modeled after Richard Kiel’s Jaws character in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

NBC liked the idea and the Torque character, but not Logan, sending Gould and executive producer Philip Saltzman on a hunt for a new leading man. Silverman suggested Robert Conrad, one of television’s all-time most popular stars, who had hit it big in the 1950’s on HAWAIIAN EYE and in the ‘60s on THE WILD WILD WEST. Conrad was ubiquitous during the 1970’s, starring in several shortlived adventure series like THE D.A., ASSIGNMENT: VIENNA and BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, as well as a ton of TV-movies and pilots. Saltzman reportedly argued that Conrad couldn’t possibly do A MAN CALLED SLOANE, because he was already starring as an ex-boxer in the NBC series THE DUKE. “No problem,” replied Silverman, “I’ll just cancel THE DUKE.” He did, and Conrad became Thomas Remington Sloane.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE was the first television series produced by Quinn Martin Productions after Martin sold his company to Taft Broadcasting. Martin was one of television’s great producers, shepherding successful shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, THE F.B.I., BARNABY JONES and THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Part of Martin’s deal with Taft, however, was that he had to relinquish hands-on involvement with QM shows, and SLOANE likely suffered as a result of his absence.

Thomas Sloane worked for a government agency called UNIT, which was based out of the back room of a Los Angeles toy store. There he and Torque, now a UNIT agent and Sloane’s sidekick, took orders from The Director (Dan O’Herlihy, held over from the unaired pilot movie) and used gadgetry designed by cute lab assistant Kelly (Karen Purcill). They also received constant field information and advice from “Effie”, a talking computer with the voice of Michele Carey (Elvis’ leading lady in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE).

Like Conrad’s previous series, THE WILD WILD WEST, Sloane tackled a wide range of kinky baddies, including Roddy McDowall as a terrorist with a robot army, Robert Culp as a cosmetics entrepreneur plotting to take over the world by sending out gorgeous models to murder prominent men with their “kisses of death”, Richard Lynch as a master of disguise and Dennis Cole as a 100-year-old Nazi meddling with cloning. Nearly every episode featured at least one prominent guest star--Eric Braeden, Edie Adams, Monte Markham, Clive Revill (the villain in T.R. SLOANE), Michael Pataki--as well as several sexy women for Conrad to canoodle with. Jo Ann Harris, the striking star of the Quinn Martin series MOST WANTED, appeared in the final episode, “The Shangri-La Syndrome”, which was directed by Conrad and is probably SLOANE’s weakest hour.

It was all pretty silly, of course, but definitely watchable. Conrad’s physicality led to plenty of nifty stunts, chases and fights, and QM spared few expenses in whittling together colorful if cliched plots, sets, guest stars and location shootings. The camera loved Cumbuka, who purportedly didn’t get along with Conrad, but was certainly a striking figure blessed with the neat gimmick of a steel hand that could wield various tools and weapons like a radio transmitter, laser, saw, drill or screwdriver. Some felt Conrad, a rugged man of action, was miscast as a suave secret agent, but I think he’s just fine and has pretty good rapport with Cumbuka.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE began the 1979 fall season with decent ratings, knocking CBS’ PARIS, a Steven Bochco cop show starring James Earl Jones, off the air and spurring ABC to shift HART TO HART to another night. But when ABC shifted FANTASY ISLAND from Friday to anchor its hit Saturday lineup, which included THE LOVE BOAT, SLOANE’s number was up. NBC cancelled the series after just twelve episodes. Conrad continued to star regularly in TV-movies throughout the 1980’s, although he may be as quickly remembered today for his notorious temper tantrum on the first BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS, which led to him getting smoked in a 100-yard dash by none other than Gabriel Kaplan!

By the way, NBC eventually dusted off that T.R. SLOANE pilot and aired it in 1981, more than a year after A MAN CALLED SLOANE’s cancellation, as DEATH RAY 2000. This young 13-year-old couldn’t have been the only viewer that night who was confused to see Robert Logan in Conrad’s old role opposite Dan O’Herlihy…and Torque as the heavy!

Posted by Marty at 4:52 PM CDT
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Friday, September 16, 2005
Trees Made Of Glass
Now Playing: THRESHOLD
So far, the new fall television season has been surprisingly good. I've sampled three new series so far, and I enjoyed all three. I've already written about PRISON BREAK in this previous post, which continues to slowly piece together its intricate puzzle of a plot. Unlike LOST, which has garnered inexplicable acclaim, PRISON BREAK's story is actually going someplace, as each episode finds its hero making progress towards his goal of rescuing his brother from death row and escaping from the penitentiary.

THRESHOLD premiered tonight with a two-hour pilot on CBS. Its expensive production values and name cast made it look almost like a feature film; in fact, its action scenes and visual effects put it on about the same level as a decently produced direct-to-video thriller, although its script was tighter than exploitation movies tend to have.

The networks are covered in genre shows this fall, jumping on the supernatural bandwagon started by LOST's success. For some reason, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES hasn't spawned a gaggle of shows about bitchy middle-aged women, but every network has at least a couple of shows about spooks, monsters, space aliens or paranormal phenomena. THRESHOLD may well turn out to be the best of them.

Carla Gugino, the sexy actress who sparkled as the lead in ABC's late, lamented KAREN SISCO and brought an adult sensuality to the juvenile comic-book fantasy SIN CITY, stars in THRESHOLD as Molly Caffrey, a government contingency expert who concocts emergency plans for nearly any catastrophic event, from the melting of the polar ice caps to an alien invasion. Turns out that last one may have actually happened when a Navy ship is bombarded with unusual sounds and lights from a four-dimensional spacecraft that turns its crew first mad and then dead. Only the first mate (William Mapother, last seen as a psychopath on LOST) survives, and he's not exactly himself, shrugging off several bullets and a fall into the drink 80 miles from shore.

Deputy National Security Advisor Baylock (Charles S. Dutton) rounds up Molly and her crew, which includes Cavanaugh (Brian Van Holt), a soldier; forensic scientist and '60s radical Fenway (Brent Spiner from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION); lingustics expert Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf; and nerdy physicist Pegg (Rob Benedict). The supporting cast is what makes THRESHOLD really stand out so far. Instead of filling the screen with young hotties, CBS has assembled a cast of actors who not only look unlike almost every other show that makes its police squadrooms look like a GQ shoot, but who also actually look as though they can do their characters' jobs. No one believed Rachel Nichols as an FBI agent and serial killer chaser in Fox's ridiculous THE INSIDE or Evangeline Lilly as LOST's improbably able bank robber and fugitive, but there's no question that Brent Spiner, for one, inhabits his fussy doctor entirely. For that matter, Gugino, beautiful though she is, proved in KAREN SISCO that she can project vulnerability, intelligence and strength, as well as sex appeal, and is entirely convincing commanding her band of government-sponsored alien hunters.

The premiere contained plenty of shocks, special effects, chases and gun battles to complement its intriguing story, which opens the door to future THRESHOLD adventures. One interesting twist is that Caffrey's bunch are essentially prisoners of the U.S. government, or at the very least material witnesses. In order to keep a lid on the possible extraterrestrial sightings, Baylock orders that the Threshold group be under surveillance at all times, to the point of having their phones bugged, and prevents them from rejoining the outside world as much as possible. This leads to understandable fear and frustration, particularly from Fenway, whose presumed experience with civil unrest during the late 1960's makes him not particularly trustful of Baylock.

I also appreciated that THRESHOLD put the title of the episode, "Trees Made of Glass" on-screen at the beginning of the show, a practice that used to be ubiquitous, but is now rarely done.

The other series that premiered this week that I really thought was fun is SUPERNATURAL, which represents the first WB series I've ever seen in that network's history. It's basically THE X-FILES Meets ROUTE 66, as two brothers cruise around the country in a classic sports car pursuing monsters and ghosts.

The opener, directed by David Nutter, the networks' go-to guy when making pilots (MILLENNIUM, TARZAN, JACK & BOBBY, WITHOUT A TRACE and many more), casts Jared Padalecki (GILMORE GIRLS) as Sam Winchester, a bright young Stanford student with an improbably hot girlfriend and a free ride to law school. That is, until his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles from DAWSON'S CREEK and SMALLVILLE) breaks into his house one night with the news that their father is missing. This doesn't surprise or worry Sam very much at first, considering the Winchesters' interesting backstory.

When they were very young, their father heard their mother screaming, dashed up to baby Sam's room, and found her contorted body attached to the ceiling, where she burst into spontaneous combustion, burning the house to the ground. Suspecting some sort of evil supernatural force, the Winchester men went on the run, becoming experts in tracking, weaponry and monster-fighting. In an attempt to discover what happened to their mother, Sam and Dean spent their childhood following their father all over the country, investigating mysterious deaths and paranormal sightings. The interesting conceit is that Sam and Dean know ghosts and monsters are for real, and even though Sam has left the fold to tackle a normal life, concern for his father's safety, as well as an ingrained sense of adventure, lure him to a small California town, where the Winchester patriarch disappeared while apparently investigating the murders of several men by a sexy apparition in a white wedding dress.

The pilot ended on a note as downbeat as it was suspenseful, providing Sam with a believable incentive to chuck law school and accompany Dean to Colorado, their father's destination. Presumably, the brothers won't find Pop for awhile, as they drive around helping strangers FUGITIVE-style and singeing a few creatures in the process.

The dialogue occasionally stooped to tiring, ironic BUFFY-style cracks, and the two leads are too distractingly cute (par for the WB's course), but Ackles and Padalecki are certainly convincing as brothers, and Nutter packed enough style and shocks into the opener to lure me back for the next episode.

INVASION, SURFACE, THE NIGHT STALKER and GHOST WHISPERER are other new fall series with a basis in science fiction and horror, but they'll have to be pretty darn good to stack up next to SUPERNATURAL and THRESHOLD.

Posted by Marty at 11:29 PM CDT
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Thursday, September 15, 2005
A Futuristic Playground

If you think QUARK was a shortlived science fiction series, you should know about BEYOND WESTWORLD. This CBS sequel to MGM’s hit film WESTWORLD lasted just three episodes before it was cancelled in March 1980. Only five hour-long episodes were filmed; I’m don‘t believe the other two have ever been seen publicly.

The 1973 film WESTWORLD was based on a novel by its director, Michael Crichton. Still a well-known author with books like JURASSIC PARK and CONGO under his belt, in the early 1970’s, Crichton gained awareness among film fans when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based on one of his books, became a hit movie. Crichton was not particularly pleased with the way Hollywood treated his work, so he demanded a chance to direct. His directorial debut was a made-for-television offering called PURSUIT (1972), a thriller based on a novel he penned under the name “John Lange”, which starred Ben Gazzara as a government agent who has only a few hours to find a homemade nerve gas bomb built by paranoiac E.G. Marshall and dismantle it in time.

MGM must have liked PURSUIT, because they then allowed Crichton to adapt his WESTWORLD for the screen. A forerunner to JURASSIC PARK, WESTWORLD is also about an amusement park gone berserk. In Westworld, visitors dress up in costumes and live out their western fantasies with incredibly realistic robot gunfighters, bartenders, prostitutes, etc. The robots are designed to serve the customer's every whim, but a black-clad robot gunfighter (Yul Brynner) goes haywire and attempts to kill city boys James Brolin and Richard Benjamin for real. The budget was low, but the level of imagination was high, and WESTWORLD was successful enough at the box office to warrant a 1976 sequel titled FUTUREWORLD. Crichton had nothing to do with this American International Pictures release, which starred Peter Fonda as a nosy reporter investigating a plot by evil scientist John P. Ryan (IT’S ALIVE) to use robot duplicates of prominent officials to conquer the world.

BEYOND WESTWORLD’s pilot opens mere hours after the climax of WESTWORLD. Even though the events of FUTUREWORLD are ignored in the series, its premise of a madman using the robots as doubles in an effort to rule the world was recycled by series creator and executive producer Lou Shaw (QUINCY, M.E.). In “Westworld Destroyed”, the Delos Corporation, the conglomerate that built Westworld, calls in its security chief, John Moore (Jim McMullan), to investigate the mechanical catastrophe with the gunfighter and other robots that led to several deaths. McMullan was a reasonably familiar TV leading man who had starred as a helicopter cop with Dirk Benedict in the shortlived 1974 series CHOPPER ONE.

His nemesis in BEYOND WESTWORLD was portrayed by James Wainwright, another TV actor who had played the lead in a detective series, JIGSAW, but specialized in playing rough-around-the-edges heavies. Simon Quaid (Wainwright) is the genius who created Westworld’s robots, but when he discovered Delos was using his creations as expensive theme-park toys, he caused the western ‘bots to malfunction and stole hundreds of them to use as loyal assistants in his bid to make the Earth a better place by destroying it. In the pilot, he even builds a robot rattlesnake (!) that he uses in a clever attempt to destroy Moore.

This scene illustrates one of BEYOND WESTWORLD’s biggest flaws: the robots are too easy to kill. Director Ted Post does a pretty nice job with the scene, which is set in an isolated desert cabin where Quaid has taken the captured Moore to find out how much he knows about Quaid’s operation. He leaves Moore alone with the mechanical reptile, which is loaded with venom and is many times stronger and faster than a real snake. Moore manages to dodge it a few times, but one strike is so forceful that it smashes partially through the cabin wall, where Moore is able to grab it and shove it into a light bulb socket, causing the robot snake to electrocute itself. Even though the robots are supposed to be much stronger and heavier than humans, Moore routinely beats them up and pushes them off great heights.

In “My Brother’s Keeper”, the second episode (which may also be the show’s best), lovely Connie Sellecca joins the regular cast as Pamela Williams, Moore’s sidekick. Sellecca was just coming off a shortlived (there’s that word again) CBS series called FLYING HIGH, where she, Kathryn Witt and Pat Klous played stewardesses who got into all kinds of wild adventures. It’s good for her that BEYOND WESTWORLD was also a failure, as a year later she was co-starring with William Katt and Robert Culp in THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, likely the show she’s best known for today. William Jordan, who starred in the unusual Jack Webb series PROJECT UFO, was another regular, playing Dr. Oppenheimer, Quaid’s partner in creating the Delos robots.

The series never did nail down one other regular role, that of Quaid’s chief assistant. Three different characters and actors played this role in the five episodes, and it was never explained what happened to each of them. Stewart Moss, who starred in THE BAT PEOPLE, a bad horror film produced by Lou Shaw, played Quaid’s number-one guy in the pilot, but Second City veteran Severn Darden showed up in “My Brother’s Keeper” and the last show to be telecast, “Sound of Terror”. It was cool to see Russell Johnson--the beloved Professor from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND--by Wainwright’s side in the final two episodes; unfortunately, CBS cancelled the series before they could air.

With STAR TREK alumni Fred Freiberger and John Meredyth Lucas wearing producer hats on BEYOND WESTWORLD, you might expect it to live up to that SF classic, but it never does. Thankfully, it does boast CBS’ typically high production values with plenty of location shooting, sharp cinematography, decent special effects and guest stars from TV’s A-list. Actors appearing in the five shows include Denny Miller, Christopher Connelly, Jack Carter, Rene Auberjonois, Ronee Blakely, Monte Markham, Hari Rhodes, Judy Pace, Martin Kove, Julie Sommars, Christine Belford, Michael Pataki, Robert Alda, George Takei and Michael Cole. That’s a helluva lot of talent for a television series with scripts that weren’t up to the level of its actors. In just the second episode, Shaw and director Rod Holcomb had Sellecca both dressed as a cheerleader and meeting her evil robot twin, two tried-and-true TV cliches. “Sound of Terror”, the last to air, found Moore and Pamela digging into which member of a hit rock band (which, of course, sounded lousy) was a robot double planning to blow up a nuclear power plant. “The Lion” put Moore behind the wheel of a racecar after his NASCAR legend buddy (THE MOD SQUAD’s Michael Cole) became paralyzed in a crash caused by one of Quaid’s robots. The formula was already getting stale by the fifth show, “Takeover”, which starred Monte Markham as a police lieutenant who is given a robot chip during a cranial operation and is brainwashed into becoming an assassin for Quaid.

CBS cancelled the series so quickly that, obviously, no finale was produced. That means Simon Quaid and his robots are still out there, orchestrating the takedown of society for Quaid’s own selfish purposes. Let’s hope Delos and John Moore are still interfering.

Posted by Marty at 11:22 PM CDT
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005
May The Source Be With You
Now Playing: QUARK

Here’s a show you may not have heard of. No one does it anymore, but it used to be that the major television networks used the summer season to burn off their busted pilots. These were shows that the networks had paid for, but decided not to turn into a series. So, among a sea of reruns, movies, specials and MONDAY NIGHT BASEBALL on ABC, it wouldn’t be that unusual to see one episode of a show that you would never see again. Since these were pilots the networks chose not to buy, it isn’t surprising that most of them weren’t very good, but every once in awhile, you’d see something not quite like anything else on the schedule.

On May 7, 1977, NBC filled a half-hour with a pilot called QUARK. It was a situation comedy shot with a single camera, unusual since most sitcoms of the era, like HAPPY DAYS and ALL IN THE FAMILY, were filmed with three cameras before a live studio audience. I don’t know what the ratings were for QUARK that night, but it undoubtedly wouldn’t have mattered to NBC anyway. They were just burning off inventory in a dead 30-minute time slot.

Eighteen days later, STAR WARS opened theatrically across the United States, and Hollywood would forever be changed. And among the more insignificant changes was QUARK’s status of busted pilot to regular series.

There can be little doubt that QUARK never would have become a series if not for STAR WARS’ unprecedented box-office success. Science fiction had long been regarded as a dead genre; there had been few successful SF film or television projects in many years, as hard as it may be to believe today. But after the summer of ‘77, sci-fi was everywhere--major studio blockbusters, low-budget independents, even TV shows. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1978, was the most obvious TV benefactor of STAR WARS’ success, but QUARK got there first.

STAR TREK meets GET SMART is a good way to describe QUARK. The pilot, as written by noted humorist Buck Henry (who also co-created GET SMART with Mel Brooks) and directed by 1776 helmer Peter H. Hunt, cast Richard Benjamin, a talented comic actor (THE SUNSHINE BOYS) whose previous TV experience had been with his wife Paula Prentiss in the critically acclaimed but low-rated sitcom HE & SHE (1967-68), as Adam Quark, the commander of a small spaceship belonging to the United Galactic Sanitation Patrol. Yep, a garbage scow. Among his crew were Gene/Jean, a “transmute” with both male and female chromosomes, portrayed by up-and-coming comic Tim Thomerson (now a very familiar face to fans of exploitation movies); Betty and Betty (Cyb and Tricia Barnstable), a pair of sexy engineers, one of whom was a clone, although neither would cop to it; and Andy (Bobby Porter), a clunky-looking, cowardly robot that would turn on the crew in a second in order to save his metal hide. When QUARK returned to NBC as a weekly series in February 1978, there was a new crew member: Ficus, the “Spock” of the cast, an unemotional plant prone to pontification and long-winded explanations. The crew received its garbage pickup assignments from Quark’s boss, Otto Palindrome (heh), played by Conrad Janis, and his boss, a giant floating cranium known only as The Head (Alan Caillou).

The pilot that aired in 1977 really isn’t very good. It’s less spoofy and less manic than the series that followed, despite its Buck Henry teleplay. Henry appears to have not been involved in the series, which received much acclaim from critics who adored its mixture of slapstick and wit, but few viewers in its Friday night timeslot just before C.P.O. SHARKEY, a mildly successful sitcom starring Don Rickles as a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. The writing staff obviously boned up on STAR TREK reruns, drawing many of their plots from that ‘60s series. In “The Old and the Beautiful”, Quark is stricken with a disease that prematurely ages him, much as the U.S.S. Enterprise crew did in the TREK episode “The Deadly Years”. TREK’s “Shore Leave” inspired “Goodbye, Palombus” (a spoof of Benjamin’s movie GOODBYE, COLUMBUS), where Quark and his crew investigate a paradise planet where whatever you wish for comes true.

The best episode is the first shot and aired after the pilot, “May the Source Be With You”. It ran one hour and managed to pack a bit of adventure into its comedy package. The universe is threatened by an evil race known as the Gorgon, and only Quark and his intergalactic garbagemen can stop them. Quark’s secret weapon is “The Source”, an omnipotent force with the voice of Hans Conried that imbues him with mysterious powers. The problem is that the Source only works if Quark fully believes in it, but the Source’s absentmindedness and bumbling doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The Head Gorgon was portrayed by the great Henry Silva, a charismatic actor who played hundreds of heavies in Hollywood, but I don’t recall him ever appearing in another sitcom. Projecting a perfect note of comic menace, Silva threatens the galaxy’s safety while wearing a silly helmet that may have gotten him the gig a year later as Killer Kane, Princess Ardala’s sinister chief of staff in BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY. “May the Source Be With You”, directed by veteran Hy Averback from a clever teleplay by Bruce Zacharias (REVENGE OF THE NERDS), is full of funny quips and nifty sight gags, like the scene in which a blinded Quark must rely on the Source’s guidance to rescue Ficus from a pair of Gorgon torturers.

Another good episode is “All the Emperor’s Quasi-Norms”, a two-parter in which Ross Martin (THE WILD WILD WEST) guest-stars as Zargon the Malevolent, another evil dictator searching for a super-weapon with which to destroy the galaxy. His beautiful daughter (a pre-KNOTS LANDING Joan Van Ark) falls for Ficus, who schools her in an alien method of lovemaking (“Beebeebeebeeebeeeeebeeeee…”), and Gene and Andy disguise themselves as scientific lecturers.

The numbers weren’t there for QUARK, and NBC cancelled it after just nine episodes were shot. Except for occasional airings on the defunct Ha! cable network, which eventually merged with The Comedy Channel to form Comedy Central in the early 1990’s, QUARK has not been seen since. A DVD release of these episodes would be welcome, though you can’t really say it’s likely. Sony would appear to be the owners of the show, since it swallowed Columbia/Tri-Star, which has put out a few dramas on DVD, like CHARLIE’S ANGELS and T.J. HOOKER, but I don’t know if they’ve done any sitcoms. QUARK would be perfect for a DVD release, and if there’s a market for obscure ‘70s sitcoms like THAT’S MY MAMA and WHAT’S HAPPENING, it seems as though an audience for QUARK could be out there too.

Posted by Marty at 10:13 PM CDT
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Sunday, September 11, 2005
Late Night With...
Had a couple of late nights this weekend. The Drakes came into town Friday night on their way to Carbondale. A bunch of former WCIL-FM'ers were getting together in C'dale this weekend, but with my next two weekends booked up and expenses to accompany them, I decided it would be prudent for me to not make the trip. Still, I got to see Di and Young Will Friday night over at Marge's. Pearce was also in the house, and it was just a nice, quiet night of sitting outside by the hot tub and chatting 'til about 1:30am. The unfortunate side effect were the mosquito bites around my ankles making my feet all itchy the rest of the weekend.

Saturday I did some laundry and was still pondering what to do that night when Stiner called and demanded that I show her movies with "vampires and zombies". So we started with VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971), which is a very good Hammer movie about a 19th century Eastern European village that is victimized by a curse after the townspeople burn down the castle of Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman). While VAMPIRE CIRCUS contains enough crosses, wooden stakes and vampire bats to please purists, the next generation of horror fans certainly will find much to like. These vamps can float through the air, transform into cat creatures and, of course, mesmerize the beautiful young women of the village. Dripping with unusual touches (like a very sexy dance involving a naked woman painted in tiger makeup), period style and enough heavy dollops of sensuality and raw violence to push the "R" rating of the day, VAMPIRE CIRCUS makes Hammer's Dracula series appear almost quaint; even the films (such as THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) that were made later seem old-fashioned compared to this audacious entry.

Then came NIGHT HUNTER (1996), a Roger Corman production starring pro kickboxer Don "The Dragon" Wilson as a vampire hunter tracking a quartet of immortal Eurotrash bloodsuckers led by Christopher Guest's brother Nicholas. Not one of Don's best, but it delivers 90 minutes of chases and kung fu.

The NIGHT HUNTER tape contained a trailer for ELECTRA (1996), which I had, but had never seen. Stiner suggested we watch it, and I'm glad we did. It's pretty bad, but not boring and is easy to mock. A crippled billionaire named Roach with a pair of sexy, leather-clad, kung-fu-fighting sidekicks wants a secret serum that will allow him to walk again. It provides its subject with super-strength and -stamina, but the scientist who created it is dead, and the only person who knows anything about it is his son, a muscle-bound, long-haired wuss named Billy who lives with his widowed stepmother Lorna, played by late-night-Cinemax staple Shannon Tweed. The only way the serum can be transmitted to another human is through sexual contact (why?), which is why teenaged Billy has so far refused to give in to his horny girlfriend Mary Ann's desires. Lorna also has the hots for Billy, so when Roach eventually captures her and convinces her to seduce her son, she doesn't put up much resistance. And, stepmom or not, if you're Billy and strapped to a table and Shannon Tweed strides in, clad in an eyepopping leather ensemble, and straddles you, there's no way you're not going to perform. He does, and Shannon is transformed into an evil superpowered minx named Electra. Mary Ann, who has one of Billy's power pills in her possession, pops it and receives the same powers as Electra. She kicks the shit out of the two sexy sidekicks, pulling the heart out of one of them and feeding it to the other. She also has a battle with Tweed where the two shoot lightning out of their fingers like Dr. Doom. The sad part is that Shannon only gets naked once briefly and doesn't even disrobe for her on-top sex scene with hunky Billy.

Grady made it over for the night's closer, 1990's I COME IN PEACE. I first saw this theatrically and thought it was a lot of fun. Where's the Special Edition DVD of this? Dolph Lundgren is a Houston cop who is reluctantly teamed with a square FBI agent (Brian Benben, shortly before starring in DREAM ON) to investigate some mysteriously brutal cop killings. An albino alien with a long mullet (Matthias Hues) is struting around the city killing people, either with a high-propulsion CD with a razor-sharp edge that shoots around the room lopping off heads and ricocheting off walls or by pumping them full of stolen heroin and then sucking the adrenaline juices out of their brains with a sharp spike to the forehead. Director Craig R. Baxley, who also made the equally entertaining ACTION JACKSON (with Carl Weathers) and STONE COLD (with Brian Bosworth), blows up dozens of cars in this fast-paced action movie.

Posted by Marty at 10:52 PM CDT
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Saturday, September 10, 2005
Republicans Continue To Demonstrate That They Are Fucking Assholes
If there is a larger bunch of morally bankrupt humans on the planet, it would surprise me. I think there's more honor among prison inmates than there is in the Republican party, which never stops showing the world how insensitive, foolish, corrupt and out-of-touch it is.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, while touring the Astrodome, told some little kids that it was like being at summer camp and asked them, "Now, tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?" Um, no. "Gee, Tom, living without food and water for several days, sloshing through water over my head. being surrounded by gun-toting soldiers, having everything my family and I have ever had or known completely destroyed...yeah, it's fucking awesome. We're having a great time. Of course, since one of Trent Lott's mansions was also destroyed, I'm sure you can identify, Tom."

Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, who is bought and paid for by several private weather services, publically blamed the National Weather Service for the Gulf Coast deaths. This is perhaps the biggest lie yet told this month by a Republican. The National Weather Service, in fact, did a stupendous job, predicting Katrina's path and strength with about a 90% accuracy. It is probably the only government agency--local, state or federal--which has performed at an above-average level.

Right-wing radio host Glenn Beck says the refugees in the Astrodome are "scumbags" who he hates even "faster" than the victims of the World Trade Center bombing.

Another Republican radio host, Mark Williams, says that the Gulf Coast victims are too stupid to live anyway: "They didn't have the necessary brains and common sense to get out of the way of a Cat 5 Hurricane and then when it hit them- stood on the side of the Convention Center expiring while reporters were coming and going."

I blogged this before, but it bears repeating, because it's a perfect indication of where the President received his learned attitudes towards minorities and the poor. Former First Lady Barbara Bush said, "What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this is working very well for them."

I've heard right-wingers blast Kanye West for proclaiming that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," but when you hear his mother say something like that, combined with the President's abysmal record on civil rights and unemployment and his administration's bungling on rescue operations in Louisiana, well, what else is West to think?

And just in case you have forgotten, Mrs. Bush had this to say two days before her son invaded Iraq, ripping news media for doing their jobs: "Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? It's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

And, finally, Michael Brown, whom President Bush has still not fired from his position as head of FEMA, had this to say at his confirmation hearing:

"State and local governments are looking to us for leadership. They are looking to FEMA to tell them where are the holes in response plans? Where are the holes in our mutual aid agreements? What incentives can you provide us to fill those holes? I think my role is a very serious one. I think the agency's role is a very serious one, that we should not just wait for someone to petition or request that we evaluate, that those types of plans should be evaluated (plans regarding evacuations) on an ongoing basis. It would be my intent to somehow implement the ongoing evaluation so we do not have to look in hindsight and say, gosh, we wish we had looked at that. We should be looking at that all the time to make sure they (plans) are adequate, and I will pledge to you that we will certainly do that."

Looks like his golf game kinda got in the way of doing his job.

Posted by Marty at 3:12 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, September 10, 2005 3:16 PM CDT
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Wednesday, September 7, 2005
Rest Well, Little Buddy
Bob Denver passed away this week at the age of 70. He had been in poor health for awhile. He underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery earlier this year, and finally succumbed to cancer near his West Virginia home with his wife and children by his side.

Denver was, as we know, the star of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, and was likely the first celebrity that I was a fan of. When I was a little kid growing up in the 1970's, I was a huge fan of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. In fact, it was my favorite TV series. This is when I was between, say, five and nine years old. I used to watch the reruns every afternoon on WICD Channel 15 after school. They rotated somewhat, but usually in there someplace were GILLIGAN, THE BRADY BUNCH and THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. I remember others in there too--I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, BEWITCHED, THE ODD COUPLE, I DREAM OF JEANNIE--and later MCHALE'S NAVY, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and BATMAN were added to the lineup, but GILLIGAN was almost always on. It rarely was unavailable to after-school TV watchers during the 1970's, which were the days before tabloid talk shows and infomercials took over the airwaves. I sometimes watched THE EARLY SHOW over on WCIA Channel 3, which had a massive library of movies. In fact, THE EARLY SHOW and the weekend LATE SHOW were as much an influence on my current love of film than anything else.

On a tangent here: I also was a big fan of GENTLE BEN, which ran every morning before school, I think on Channel 3. I remember seeing GENTLE BEN, the Abbott and Costello cartoon, TENNESSEE TUXEDO, UNDERDOG, BULLWINKLE, stuff like that. On the days when Bob Denver wasn't my favorite actor, Dennis Weaver was. Weaver was a forest ranger on GENTLE BEN who had a wife (Beth Brickell), a son (Clint Howard) and a pet bear named Ben. The Animal Planet actually remade GENTLE BEN recently with Dean Cain in the Weaver role. I really liked the show when I was a kid, and liked Weaver also because he was starring in new episodes of MCCLOUD on Sunday nights.

But back to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I was such a fan that I remember "writing" a play version of the series and putting it on in the playground during recess. I also remember the series actually holding me in suspense--would today be the day that the castaways finally get off the island? I actually believed that, eventually, Gilligan would not fuck up, and everyone would be rescued. They did get off the island once, but only to another island where a mad scientist switched everybody's brains around. Don't you miss plots like that in sitcoms? Now everyone sits around the living room and complains that they can't get laid. Wouldn't you love to just once see Ray Romano deal with a jungle boy or witness Kevin James fighting a giant spider or find out how Charlie Sheen deals with being captured by a Japanese soldier who thinks World War II is still going on?

I also remember taping episodes on my cassette recorder and listening to them over and over again. The shows were just as funny, but more importantly, I think I learned a lot about comedy and TV production by listening to them. I certainly became very familiar with the mid-'60s laugh track and started recognizing it in other shows like I DREAM OF JEANNIE.

Denver starred in another series I watched as a kid: a Saturday-morning live-action show called FAR OUT SPACE NUTS. It was basically GILLIGAN'S ISLAND IN SPACE with Denver playing another lovable klutz and Chuck McCann doing the slow-burning Skipper part. Since Alan Hale, Jr. basically played the Skipper as Oliver Hardy, and McCann had done a famous Hardy impression in commercials, FAR OUT SPACE NUTS was a perfect vehicle for the kind of comedy that Denver and Hale did on GILLIGAN. I think it ran for only a season, but was pretty fun to this kid's eyes.

FAR OUT SPACE NUTS wasn't Denver's only turn on Saturday mornings. There was also an animated GILLIGAN spinoff called THE NEW ADVENTURES OF GILLIGAN (my brother and I played the board game) and a later SF spinoff called GILLIGAN'S PLANET. You can guess what the premise was.

Denver's other famous TV role was one I didn't see until I was in college. That was Maynard G. Krebs, the ahead-of-his-time beatnik best friend of Dwayne Hickman's title character on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS. DOBIE was a Nick at Nite standby for a long time, and I wish it was still airing instead of same-ol'-same-ol' stuff like FAMILY TIES and THE COSBY SHOW. DOBIE had really good writing, a funny cast and was about as close to real teenagers as TV sitcoms got during the Eisenhower/Kennedy years. It wasn't until THE MONKEES that we really got "real" teenagers, but DOBIE was pretty close.

This has nothing to do with TV, but I went to the post office today after work to pick up a package that was waiting for me. I parked in the small lot on the south side of the Neil Street facility; there's only room for six or seven cars there. As I was walking around the edge of the building, I looked down, and there was a shot glass setting on the curb. It was empty and looked clean. I have no idea how it got there, but it sure looked odd there.

Posted by Marty at 10:26 PM CDT
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