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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Look Out! Bronson's Loose!
The DEATH WISH franchise is one of genre cinema’s most schizophrenic. Over a 20-year period beginning in 1974, five DEATH WISH movies were theatrically released by four different studios. Even though most of them were set in New York City, filming occurred in three different countries on two continents. And whereas the original film was a serious drama about urban crime and its effects on decent, law-abiding citizens, later entries could hardly have been more cartoonish if their hero had fallen off a cliff and been banged on the head with an anvil. About the only thing all five DEATH WISHes have in common is their star: the venerable Charles Bronson, who finally became a major Hollywood leading man at age 52 after two decades as a character actor and international star.

Paul Talbot, a film historian who has written articles for esteemed genre publications such as PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO and VIDEO WATCHDOG (the current issue has Talbot’s breezy look at AMITYVILLE 3-D, of all things), has documented the origin, production, history and aftermath of the DEATH WISH saga in a new trade paperback from iUniverse titled BRONSON'S LOOSE!: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS. Talbot has a conversational writing style that appeals to me. In BRONSON’S LOOSE, he manages to sift through decades’ worth of books, magazines, reviews, screenplays and other reference materials, including several personal interviews with filmmakers involved with DEATH WISH, and distilled all of his research into just over 160 clean, precise pages.

DEATH WISH was produced independently by Dino de Laurentiis and released by Paramount in 1974, when it became a major box-office smash. More than just a movie, its story about a liberal New York architect, Paul Kersey (Bronson), who transforms into a gun-toting vigilante after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in their home, became a hot topic in the news and on talk shows. Bronson, a recognizable actor from big features like THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, became a household name in the United States (he already was one in many European countries, where he had acted in several action movies that went mostly unnoticed in the U.S.) that was synonymous with “tough guy.” Strangely, considering its popularity, DEATH WISH was not sequelized until 1982, when Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the notorious “Go-Go Boys” who owned The Cannon Group, bought the rights and made three follow-ups during the 1980’s, including the preposterous DEATH WISH 3, which turned the middle-aged Kersey into an urban Rambo who used automatic weapons almost as large as he to wipe out over a hundred rampaging street punks. Trimark (barely) released the final installment, 1994’s DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH. Bronson was 72 then.

Consider it a compliment when I say that virtually everything you want to know about the DEATH WISH movies--that can be known--is reported in Talbot’s book. That caveat marks BRONSON’S LOOSE’s biggest problem, which is that most of the major names involved with the movies are either dead or presumably too “important” to talk about these movies. For instance, Jeff Goldblum, who made his film debut in DEATH WISH with a freaky, intense performance, isn’t represented. Nor are Laurence Fishburne, who played a heavy in DEATH WISH II, or Jimmy Page, the rock star who composed its score. Bronson is, of course, dead (not that the notoriously press-shy star would have spoken with Talbot anyway), as are fellow actors Vincent Gardenia, Hope Lange, Steven Keats, J.D. Cannon, Martin Balsam and Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife), director J. Lee Thompson and screenwriter Wendell Mayes. Obviously, Talbot can’t be blamed for these omissions, but I can’t help feeling that a lot of vital film history went to the grave with these talented filmmakers.

On the bright side, Talbot did conduct informative interviews with the hyperbolic Michael Winner, who directed the first three DEATH WISH films and knew Bronson about as well as any of the star’s professional colleagues (the two did six films together). The talkative director, who should write a book of his own, shares many happy and not-so-happy memories of shooting with Bronson, a mercurial homebody who didn’t suffer fools at all and had difficulty feeling comfortable unless his beloved wife Ireland were around. Other interview subjects include novelist Brian Garfield, whose DEATH WISH was adapted for the screen by Mayes; director Steve Carver, who was supposed to helm DEATH WISH V; Allan A. Goldstein, who did; and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman (a man, by the way). Goldstein has some fascinating insight, as he appears to have formed a close friendship with Bronson; not many people can say that. The book is introduced by an amusing foreword by actor Andrew Stevens, who acted twice with Bronson, but never in a DEATH WISH movie.

One more pitfall is a lack of decent photos. Considering Talbot had access to press kits, I’m surprised the book isn’t illustrated with plenty of stills, and I wish some of his interview subjects had lent him some personal behind-the-scenes photos. The only images Talbot features are hazy black-and-white scans of book covers, DVD box art, ad mattes, videocassette covers, a few lobby cards, and other not-so-rare artifacts. I appreciate Talbot’s substantive reporting and writing, but the warmth and personality that well-chosen photographs can convey are sorely missed. I must say, however, that I was surprised to learn from an image of the box that a DEATH WISH 3 videogame exists. Hell, yeah, I’d like to play it!

BRONSON’S LOOSE!: THE MAKING OF THE DEATH WISH FILMS is a quick, easy read, but an entertaining and informative one, despite my criticisms. As an unabashed Charles Bronson fan, even his ‘80s Cannon period, which kept him on movie screens as an action leading man at a time when most of his contemporaries had either died, retired or settled into character roles, I appreciate Talbot’s tightly written chronicle of one of the most unusual and least known aspects of the star’s career.

Posted by Marty at 10:33 PM CST
Updated: Sunday, March 12, 2006 10:35 PM CST
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The First Monster Horror Musical
It came billed as “The First Monster Horror Musical,” and it damn well might be. It’s got boys and girls in swimsuits frugging on a beach while a band of nerdy-looking white dudes in striped shirts play three-chord rock-’n’-roll. It also has an infestation of man-sized “sea zombies” that creep out of the ocean to munch on nubile female flesh. Add some bikers, a fistfight, wretched one-liners and a romantic triangle, and you have THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, which remains, 40 years later, a unique cult oddity.

Dull Hank (John Scott) fights with his alcoholic girlfriend Tina (Marilyn Clarke) on their way to a beach party. “You ain’t seen livin’ ‘til you’ve seen Tina swing,” she says, as she leaps into the fray and shakes her moneymaker at leather-jacketed tough Mike (Agustin Mayor), who fights with Hank over the cheap little tease. Meanwhile, some boaters dump a barrel of radioactive waste into the ocean, which pops open upon hitting the bottom and soaks a skull buried there. Via clumsy time-lapse photography, the skull transforms into…well, it’s hard to describe. Something like a slimy green sea monster with bulbous eyes and a dozen frankfurters sticking out of its throat. Whatever it is, it’s ahead of its time, because fifteen years before slasher movies established the rules for screen killing, the monster attacks the slutty girl first, ripping Tina to a bloody shred.

Director Del Tenney mixes lowbrow humor with the shocks, contributing groaners such as two boys watching a girl in a bikini shaking her pert ass, and one of them saying to the other, “That reminds me. Did anyone bring hot dog buns?” That night, the monsters attack a slumber party where 22 girls wear nighties and have a pillow fight. Best. Movie. Ever. Unfortunately for them, my dream bash turns into a hootenanny, which causes the monsters to slaughter all the girls. Lesson #1: sea zombies hate folk music.

With the local police befuddled (“You think it might be a wild shark?), Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel), who pushes his daughter Elaine (Alice Lyon) to pursue Hank now that his girlfriend is out of the picture, works to discover a method of destroying the monster horde. The Gavins’ superstitious black maid Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore) even gets into the matchmaking act, scolding Elaine for lying around the house moping the day after 22 of her friends were murdered and pushing her to get out of the house to have some fun.

With the Del-Aires thumping their Fender Jaguars and the ridiculous-looking “sea zombies” stalking the Eastern seaboard, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH remains a memorable movie, spawning an episode of MST3K and a 1964 Warren comic book assembled by Russ Jones and comics legend Wally Wood.

It may also have influenced THE BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER. Jon Hall, whose acting career began in the 1930's and included several starring roles opposite Maria Montez in Technicolor B-movies, served as director, cinematographer and star of this cheap laugh riot. He plays famous oceanographer Otto Lindsay, who's frustrated by Vicky (Sue Casey), his teasing harlot of a trophy wife, and his son Richard (Richard Lessing), a basically good kid who has forsaken his days of helping Dad in the lab to party his nights away on the beach. Richard, meanwhile, feels guilty about an auto accident that crippled his pal Mark (Walker Edmiston), even inviting Mark, a sculptor, to move into the Lindsays' spacious beach pad.

Those nights of swimming and grilling wieners on the beach are rudely interrupted when a girl is murdered by what appears to be a sea monster. A ridiculous one too, with a pointed head, bulging eyes, a squishy face and sharp "claws" that strangely bend like rubber. As the killings continue, no one seems very concerned except Richard, who finds himself investigating when Mark becomes a murder suspect.

Bless its heart, BEACH GIRLS is a ridiculous and often hilarious monster movie that also throws in lame comedy and guitar-happy surf music by Frank Sinatra, Jr. to go along with its thrills. Hall is just barely able to construct enough material to reach feature length, but only by splicing in several minutes of extraneous surfing footage that has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. The final revelation appears to be a copout, but it actually contains some interesting generational subtext if you choose to look at it that way (and Joan Gardner's screenplay is so inept that you have to wonder whether it’s accidental). Edmiston, later a popular character actor and voice artist who also wrote the songs, at least appears to be a professional thespian, which is more than can be said for the rest of the decidedly mature teen cast.

BEACH GIRLS was the end of Jon Hall’s 30-year Hollywood career, while Del Tenney directed two other films in 1964 and swiftly fell off the radar as well. I wouldn’t blame these films though. Whatever they may have lacked in “depth”, they made up for in fun.

Posted by Marty at 1:08 AM CST
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Wednesday, March 8, 2006
They Called It God's Country
Here's a trashy action movie produced not by Roger Corman, but by his brother Gene, who was also a prolific Hollywood producer whose projects were usually a little classier and budgets a little higher than Roger's.

VIGILANTE FORCE is an exciting though implausible actioner written and directed by George Armitage, an interesting and unfortunately sporadic filmmaker who got his start working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. He wrote GAS-S-S-S! and NIGHT CALL NURSES and directed PRIVATE DUTY NURSES before going to MGM to direct HIT MAN for Gene Corman. VIGILANTE FORCE was Armitage's third feature as a director, and strangely also his last for 14 years: 1990's MIAMI BLUES. That is a terrifically offbeat crime comedy, but Armitage's best film came out seven years after that: the wild black comedy GROSSE POINTE BLANK, which cast John Cusack as a hitman attending his suburban high school reunion. It's an excellent comedy that did little for Armitage's career for some reason I can't fathom. His next movie was the 2004 flop THE BIG BOUNCE, and who knows if he'll get another shot. If so, it won't be 'til 2011, so we've got time to prepare.

VIGILANTE FORCE casts Jan-Michael Vincent as a tractor salesman in a rural Southern California community that has been overrun by rowdy oil riggers that have brought violence, drunkenness, disorder, gambling and murder to the formerly quiet town. The police--at least the ones who haven't been killed by bank robbers--aren't equipped to handle the situation, so the town enlists Vincent to recruit his brother Kris Kristofferson, a Vietnam War veteran, to keep the peace.

Kris agrees to come home and brings his war posse with him, including Shelly Novack (THE F.B.I.), Charles Cyphers (HALLOWEEN) and Carmen Argenziano (THE HOT BOX). Soon, Kris discovers that being a cop is chump change, and decides to take over the town for himself. Oh, he does his job alright. There's little crime left in town...that is, aside from his own major crime ring. After Kris murders his brother's girlfriend (a scrumptious Victoria Principal) and the sheriff, it's up to Jan to end the violence.

VIGILANTE FORCE is a good movie, very well paced with plentiful action sequences and explosions. Both Kristofferson and Vincent were major Hollywood players at the time, and they perform believably as brothers. They're also often shirtless, and it's a nice change from today's movies to see action heroes built like normal human beings. If you pay attention, you'll see a pre-WKRP Loni Anderson in the cast as "Peaches", along with Andrew Stevens, Brad Dexter from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, David "Bosley" Doyle (CHARLIE'S ANGELS), Paul "You're mine for two months, Bender" Gleason (THE BREAKFAST CLUB), Antony Carbone and Bernadette Peters.

It's an unassuming, straightforward action movie with not much more to say about it, except that it's crafted very well and worth watching. Also worth noting is the kickass theatrical trailer for this PG movie, which features a great Ernie Anderson narration.

Posted by Marty at 10:34 PM CST
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Monday, March 6, 2006
Angels Of The Apocalypse
2001's CRIMSON RIVERS is a very good French crime drama that could easily be compared to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SEVEN, I suppose because on the surface it's about two detectives--one young, the other older--pursuing a serial killer who mutilates his victims and displays them in a gruesome manner. That CRIMSON RIVERS really isn't any more similar to those American hits than that does not mean that it isn't worth watching. It definitely is. Columbia/Tri-Star chose to release it directly to video in the U.S., which is a shame, because I think it could have attracted a healthy box office similar to that of, for instance, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. I'm surprised there hasn't been an American remake of it, like Hollywood did with INSOMNIA.

Tonight I saw the sequel, CRIMSON RIVERS II: ANGELS OF THE APOCALYPSE. It's also a good movie, not as good as the original, but still worthwhile. Jean Reno returns as Parisian detective Niemans, who investigates the strange murder of a man found entombed Poe-style behind the concrete wall of a monastery. Later, a customs agent is murdered by a robed figure who uses a nailgun to crucify his victim.

Meanwhile, a younger detective (Benoit Magimel) runs over (literally--with his car!) a raving man who bears resemblance to Jesus Christ and rants about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The two detectives join forces when they learn their cases are connected, and a third detective (Camille Natta), a religion expert, discovers that the victims all bear the same names and occupations as the real Jesus' twelve apostles.

Christopher Lee is the main villain, an ex-Nazi, but the subordinate villains are a lot of fun. They're sorta like ninja priests. Faceless assassins dressed in brown priest robes, these guys confound the cops with amazing physical agility and strength. The movie's best setpiece has Magimel chasing one of these guys on foot halfway across Paris, bouncing off of buildings, leaping through glass windows, jumping on and off of trains, and climbing into an abandoned steel mill. It's an amazing foot chase, even better than the witty one in the original CRIMSON RIVERS.

In fact, director Olivier Dahan makes wonderful use of interesting locations in addition to the mill, including the famous Maginot Line, which includes hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and waterways built to fortify the French border against the Germans in World War II. Dahan stages some intriguing, creative killings and boosts the bad guys' credibility by having them thwart Reno and Magimel's opposition at every turn.

Luc Besson's script suffers somewhat from its implausible premise, although I was mostly able to swallow it fine. The story is ridiculous, but Dahan's stylish direction keeps it from flagging. The leads have no chemistry together, and their characters are thinly developed to the point where it didn't really matter who the detectives were on the case. It could just as easily have been Starsky and Hutch on the job. I still recommend CRIMSON RIVERS II on the basis of its taut action scenes, slick visuals, catchy score and Christopher Lee.

Meanwhile, 24 continues to be the best show on television with a two-hour broadcast tonight. Not a false step to be seen with the exception of Elisha Cuthbert's robotic turn as Jack Bauer's bitchy daughter Kim, who accepted her father's Phoenician return with what I think was a glare. It's kind of hard to tell what emotions Cuthbert was trying to express. But, damn, she's cute.

Also rising from the ashes is C. Thomas Howell's acting career. He and star Kiefer Sutherland are presumably friends who have appeared in at least two films together, which can be the only explanation as to how Howell ended up guesting on a hit TV series. To be fair to the guy, he works all the time in DTV features and occasionally on television, even though he's never been much of an actor and has lost whatever good looks he had as a young man. He and Sutherland are the same age, but you wouldn't know it to see them together.

Also guest-starring on 24 for the first time tonight were JoBeth Williams, who was a very good and very attractive leading lady in '80s films like THE BIG CHILL and TEACHERS, and Ray Wise, who was in ROBOCOP with another 24 guest star, Peter Weller. Too bad Kurtwood Smith is busy on THAT '70S SHOW. He would kick ass as a dickhead CTU boss (okay, 24 producers, get to work on that for next season!).

8404 songs on iTunes now:
"Crimson and Clover"--Tommy James & the Shondells
"Celebration"--Kool and the Gang
End Titles of THE TERROR--Ronald Stein
"Love Will Find A Way, Part II"--The Electronic Hole
"It Was A Very Good Year"--William Shatner!
"Won't You Try Saturday Afternoon"--Jefferson Airplane
"Studio di Colore"--Ennio Morricone
"My Name Is Nobody"--Ennio Morricone
"I Can Show You"--Rupert's People
"A Child's Smile"--Clear Light
Theme from COOL MCCOOL
"The Flying Machine"--The Flying Machine
"One More Drink"--Mason
"I've Just Seen You"--Act of Creation

Posted by Marty at 10:44 PM CST
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Sunday, March 5, 2006
I Got 17
Now Playing: 2006 Academy Awards
I think picking 17 Oscars correctly is my new record, although I think I was helped by a bunch of no-brainers among this year's nominations. The only major shock of the night was the Original Song award to HUSTLE AND FLOW, and I don't think CRASH was expected to overcome BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN for Best Picture. I don't know why the Independent Spirit Awards continue to exist, since the same films nearly always make up the Academy Award nominations.

Thanks to everyone who came out to my Oscar party. Chicken was the big winner of the pool, picking 12 winners (I disqualified myself from my own contest) and earning the new 2-disc DOG DAY AFTERNOON DVD. Grady was 2nd (Steven Seagal double feature), Darcy 3rd (Stallone double feature) and Roger Dale 4th (Chuck Norris in LOGAN'S WAR).

Jon Stewart was superb, the best Oscar host in many years, except perhaps for Steve Martin. Pencil Stewart in for next year if he wants it. I think George Clooney would be an excellent host too.

Salma Hayek: hot!

Posted by Marty at 11:33 PM CST
Updated: Monday, March 6, 2006 8:00 AM CST
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Win One For The Zipper
Now Playing: AIRPLANE!
Paramount did something interesting with its latest AIRPLANE! DVD. Not only did the studio port over the audio commentary (with writer/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker) from the original disc, but it has also added what it calls the "Long Haul" edition. The DVD contains a lot of new interview segments and a few deleted scenes, but instead of placing them in its own supplemental section, they are "inserted" into the movie using branching technology.

Basically, while you're watching the movie, at intervals a logo will pop up on the screen, and then you'll be taken away from the film for a few minutes to watch a newly produced interview clip pertaining to the scene you're watching. For instance, while the Hare Krishnas are pestering people in the airport, the film cuts away to a minute or so with actor David Leisure (EMPTY NEST), who played one of the Hare Krishnas and talks about his experience. Or, as the stewardess played by Lorna Patterson (PRIVATE BENJAMIN) demonstrates the duck life vest, the disc cuts away to the present-day Patterson (looking very beautiful 25 years later) telling a story about how the prop worked.

It's all very interesting, and with the exception of Julie Hagerty, Paramount rounded up just about every important living participant, including Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker, Robert Hays, Peter Graves, the two black jive guys, Leslie Nielsen, the special effects supervisor, even the kid to whom Graves asks, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?"

The Long Haul edition is as advertised--make sure you set aside three hours or so if you want to watch it straight through. Obviously, this isn't recommended if you've never seen the movie before, because rarely do more than a couple of minutes go by before we are whisked away to a new segment. The downside of this is that the Long Haul edition is the only way to see these extras. They aren't located anywhere else on the DVD. So if you want to see one of the deleted scenes, you have to find the spot in the film where the extra is placed and be branched off to it.

That's a drag, but I still think the Long Haul version is an innovative way to present DVD extras. It works with a movie like AIRPLANE!, because of the movie's quick pace and fragmented structure, but I don't know how well the process would work with a more standard feature.

It's still kinda funny to see Peter Graves' perplexed acceptance of the movie's success. It's no secret that Graves was very apprehensive about doing AIRPLANE! He thought the humor was tasteless and didn't understand why the three directors wanted him, an actor known for playing very straight action and dramatic roles, to be in it. All the way through shooting, Graves didn't get the humor, and really winced at all the "ever been to a Turkish bath" stuff. It wasn't until the first screening, which his wife dragged him to, that he realized, from listening to the audience's loud laughter, that the movie genuinely was funny.

On the other hand, Robert Stack, also not known for his wild sense of humor, understood the movie completely. Lloyd Bridges sort of did, but once asked Stack just before shooting a scene, "What's the joke here?" Stack told him, "Lloyd, we're the joke," which is exactly right.

One aspect of AIRPLANE! not often noted (although Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker do in one of the interview segments) is Elmer Bernstein's terrific score that perfectly hits the proper parodic notes. It also opened up, along with ANIMAL HOUSE, a new direction for Bernstein's composing career, as he started scoring lots of comedies, like STRIPES (very good) and GHOSTBUSTERS, whereas I don't think he had ever done a big comedy prior to ANIMAL HOUSE two years before AIRPLANE! (which doesn't contain a typical "comedy" underscore).

The new DVD is officially called the Don't Call Me Shirley Edition, and since AIRPLANE! really should be in everyone's movie library, you might as well pick it up.

Posted by Marty at 12:12 AM CST
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Friday, March 3, 2006
8 Years, 4 Months
Fuck Duke Cunningham.

Now let's throw the book at Scooter and Bob Ney and Tom DeLay.

And then Rove, Cheney and Bush. Well, a man can wish, can't he?

Speaking of Bush, the stupid bastard thinks Pakistan is an Arab country.

“I believe that a prosperous, democratic Pakistan will be a steadfast partner for America, a peaceful neighbor for India and a force for freedom and moderation in the Arab world,” the president added.

Later, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Bush meant to say Pakistan would be a force in the Muslim world. Pakistan is not an Arab country.

Yeah, just like he didn't mean to say “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” even though he was specifically briefed that the levees were in danger of breaching.

Even Fox News has Bush polling at less than 40%. If I was the president, I'd be doing better than 39%.

Posted by Marty at 11:56 PM CST
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Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Attaboy, Luther!
I remembered this week that I have a personalized autograph signed by the late Don Knotts. It's on the inside cover of his autobiography.

As cool as it is, I have to admit that I never met the man. My good friend Dave Crome acquired it for me several years back. He was covering a Kansas City Royals game for a KC TV station, and was riding up the elevator to the press box, when the lift stopped and two men got on: actors Norman Fell and Don Knotts. That's right--both THREE'S COMPANY landlords! They were in town doing a stage production of THE ODD COUPLE (I believe). Dave chatted with them, got tickets, saw the show, and later got the book and had Don sign it to me. A very cool gift and something I treasure. At least on the same level as the Deacon Jones autograph Chris Dowell got for me!

After five seasons and five Emmy Awards, Knotts left THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW in 1965 for a feature-film contract with Universal. He did a movie a year for the remainder of the 1960's, as well as several guest appearances as Barney Fife on the Griffith show and MAYBERRY R.F.D. He ended up getting back into television with the shortlived DON KNOTTS SHOW in 1970 and many more guest shots and Disney movies.

But THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is, I think, Knotts' best film. Set in rural Rachel, Kansas, Don plays Luther Heggs, a meek, excitable typesetter at the local newspaper with dreams of being a reporter. He isn't taken seriously by his editor (Dick Sargent, later the Fake Darrin) or his reporter rival (Skip Homeier). That is, until he accepts a dare to spend the night in the creepy Simmons mansion, an abandoned old house rumored to be haunted since Old Man Simmons murdered his wife there 20 years previously and then committed suicide. That night, Luther encounters hidden staircases, a pipe organ that plays by itself, and a bloody portrait of the late Mrs. Simmons. His article in the newspaper wins him great notoriety; he even gets to speak at the Chamber of Commerce picnic and court Alma Parker (Joan Staley), apparently Rachel's only female under the age of 60.

THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is Knotts at his wound-up best, a corucopia of fidgets and shakes, pushing his physical comedy skills to the brink. He was a unique comic talent, and just watching him in this movie, even when he isn't saying anything, is a delight. Knotts played it safe in his first film out of the box, bringing along ANDY GRIFFITH veterans Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum to craft the very funny screenplay and Alan Rafkin, another GRIFFITH vet, to direct. However, the movie's secret weapon is the amazing jazz score by Vic Mizzy, whose jaunty main theme is later rearranged as the spooky organ tune Luther hears in the mansion. It's hard to get the tune out of your head once you've heard it.

Actually, for some of us, the 26-year-old Joan Staley may be a secret weapon. Blessed with the sweet look of a Girl Scout and the curves of a showgirl, the stacked Staley was a PLAYBOY Playmate at age 18, but exhibited a downhome sexiness that made you almost believe that you had a chance with her. Or that Don Knotts could have one.

As its nutty title indicates, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is one of the most quotable comedies of its era. From as far back as my initial viewings of it (usually as part of Don Knotts Week on the Channel 3 EARLY SHOW), I remember lines like, "Bang! Right on the head!", "Mister Boob. That's me. B-Double-O-B. Boob," "When you work with words, your words are your work," and especially, "Attaboy, Luther!" Almost everybody of a certain age, when you say, "Attaboy, Luther!", they know what you're talking about.

Attaboy, Don. Thanks for the memories.

Posted by Marty at 11:33 PM CST
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Monday, February 27, 2006
You Can't Catch Me On The Grade
Goddammit. Would someone please stop killing all of our badass 80-year-old actors? Whoever took the quickenings of Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver is a helluva lot stronger...and cooler...tonight, that's for sure.

Dennis Weaver died of cancer this weekend at the age of 81. Weaver was one of my first "favorite actors". When I was a kid, he was starring in two of my favorite TV series: MCCLOUD and GENTLE BEN, which was then in morning syndication and a show I watched every morning before walking to school.

MCCLOUD is likely the show Weaver is best known for. Premiering on NBC in 1970. it was loosely based on the Clint Eastwood film COOGAN'S BLUFF and starred Weaver as Sam McCloud, a laconic detective from Taos, New Mexico and frustrates his high-strung boss (the late J.D. Cannon) with his unusual approach to fighting big-city crime. Originally part of the FOUR-IN-ONE umbrella series and then folded into the enormously successful NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE (in which several different series, including COLUMBO, rotated in the same time slot), MCCLOUD lasted for seven seasons and was good fun, mixing action, mystery and light humor. The first season is out on DVD, so check it out if you're interested.

Weaver starred in, I believe, eight different TV series, including the early years of GUNSMOKE as lame deputy Chester, KENTUCKY JONES as a kindly veterinarian and the currently running WILDFIRE on ABC Family. I was a big fan of GENTLE BEN, in which Weaver played an Everglades park ranger with a son named Mark (Clint Howard) who had a pet bear named Ben. It has recently be remade with Dean Cain in the Weaver role, but I'd like to see the original '60s series in reruns.

Weaver also appeared in several movies, his most notable obviously being DUEL, which was Steven Spielberg's first film (made for television) and a thriller masterpiece that benefits from Spielberg's expert direction, Richard Matheson's taut teleplay, Billy Goldenberg's jangly score, and Weaver's marvelously tense performance. It takes a lot of effort for a TV leading man to portray a wimp, but Weaver was smart enough to check his ego at the door and turn in a strong performance in a monumental film. He sort of recycled the role in the later TERROR ON THE BEACH, in which Weaver and his family are stalked on their camping trip by teenage hooligans (THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY's Susan Dey plays his nubile daughter). If you'd like to remember Dennis Weaver this week, you might do so with DUEL (also on DVD), which also remains one of the best films of Spielberg's canon.

Posted by Marty at 10:51 PM CST
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Sunday, February 26, 2006
More R.I.P.
We're having lovely weather in Champaign, but the skies are still darker after the deaths this weekend of two wonderful actors: Don Knotts and Darren McGavin.

Here's an image I cribbed from the Internet of Knotts winning one of the five Emmy Awards he earned for playing one of television's seminal sitcom sidekicks: deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (also in the photograph are fellow Emmy winners Carl Reiner of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and Peter Falk of THE DICK POWELL SHOW).

You can read more about Knotts here if you like. We all know about Barney Fife and Mr. Furley, the sleazy, twitchy landlord he played on THREE'S COMPANY, but let's not forget his pre-Fife appearances as one of Steve Allen's comic repertory on THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW or from the many movies he starred in for Universal in the late 1960's (after leaving the Griffith show) and for Disney in the 1970's. I have great memories of going to the theater as a kid (usually the Lyric in Monticello or the Widescreen Drive-In in Urbana) to see Knotts in THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, HOT LEAD & COLD FEET, NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN and, my favorite, GUS about the donkey that kicks field goals. Knotts also starred with his APPLE DUMPLING partner Tim Conway in two other films that I also saw theatrically, THE PRIZE FIGHTER and THE PRIVATE EYES.

I can't imagine growing up without Don Knotts on television or at the movies, and I'm glad we have DVDs to remind us of how funny he was. Attaboy, Luther!

Darren McGavin was also a television favorite, whether you remember him from playing Mike Hammer in the 1950's, a down-and-out private eye in THE OUTSIDER (which may have been an influence on THE ROCKFORD FILES) in the 1960's, many made-for-TV movies and guest appearances in the '70s and '80s, or for his memorable guest shots on THE X-FILES (as former FBI agent Arthur Dales) and MILLENNIUM (as Lance Henriksen's father in the terrific episode "The Curse of Frank Black") in the '90s. Chances are, you associate McGavin with his greatest role: the charming and doggedly determined monster-hunting journalist Carl Kolchak in the highly rated TV-movies THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER, as well as the TV series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, which ran 20 episodes on ABC during the 1974-75 season.

It's not an exaggeration to say that everyone has been affected by a McGavin performance, particularly that of the taste-challenged, gruff, but loving father in A CHRISTMAS STORY, which will be viewed by families during the holiday season for the next century. He bounced between TV, films and the stage since the 1940's, appearing in hundreds of productions as a leading man or character actor. He starred in seven TV series, including RIVERBOAT, where he shared a contentious relationship with young co-star Burt Reynolds, and several miniseries, including a six-hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES that I was drawn to as a lad. Not long ago, I watched him being outsmarted by a seductive Barbara Bain and the rest of the Impossible Missions Force in "The Seal", a memorable MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episode in which the IMF uses a trained cat to help steal the McGuffin.

Coincidentally, Knotts and McGavin worked together in two films for Walt Disney: HOT LEAD & COLD FEET and NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN.

Posted by Marty at 2:42 PM CST
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