Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).
We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.
Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.
Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.
Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.
This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.
As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.
Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).
As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like Kojak, Hawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.
I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.
This is a memorial post about an actress and comedienne whose legacy should not be diminished, marginalized and misunderstood by the claim that what she accomplished helped others; in particular, women. This is the least of her achievements to me, anyway, and not only because I’m a man. Mary Tyler Moore was foremost an artist of impeccable ability, whose skills ranged from drama to dance in a variety of formats over decades.
This is a real achievement. Ms. Moore was not merely a type. She did not merely have “class”. She was not a feminist icon. She was singularly outstanding in the whole scope of her work, performing with everyone from playwright Neil Simon on stage and Robert Redford on 1980’s best movie, Ordinary People, to superstar Ben Vereen on TV and Elvis in his last motion picture. MTM played a cancer patient, a first lady, a housewife, a nun and a journalist. In a role I am sorry to have missed seeing her perform, she played the lead, a paraplegic who demands the right to die, on Broadway in Brian Clark’s thoughtful, moving Whose Life is it, Anyway? Like Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and many great Americans of superior ability, Mary Tyler Moore, whatever her legendary success, tried, failed and flopped time and again. In so doing, she ran a company with her late ex-husband, Grant Tinker, and variously launched The Bob Newhart Show, David Letterman and Michael Keaton, among many other talented artists and wonderful shows.
MTM as Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980)
If you’ve read this far, you probably already know her career in three main acts: playing perky, modern housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 on CBS), playing modern, liberated producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, also on CBS) and playing repressed, angry and obstinate wife and mother Beth Jarrett in Mr. Redford’s magnificent 1980 adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel about a fractured family on Chicago’s North Shore. That film is very personal for me, because it helped me sort through extreme confusion before I’d read Ayn Rand. As the villain, she was nurturing and nuanced, cleaning her home and fixing her broken family and simultaneously evading what tears it apart, exacerbating the fracture and worsening the sickness. It is an underappreciated film because its complex psychology is layered and multi-dimensional, so MTM’s Beth is neither a caricature nor is the ending distinctly happy or unhappy. Instead it ends on a cold, pink morning glimmer, which begins in earnest with the sound of a taxi door closing as her character makes a quiet exit that’s as liberating for the nuclear family as was her Mary Richards for the rational, productive woman.
MTM on cover of 1977 issue of TV Guide
This takes depth, courage and seriousness and Mary Tyler Moore pushed herself as an artist and made everything look easy, which she rarely gets credit for. Yes, her Mary at WJM was a serious-minded, goal-oriented career woman, not a catty social climber or golddigger, and she had friends of both sexes, all types and all ages. But Mary was also feminine, whether in smart slacks (not that any assistant producer at a third-rate station could have afforded those outfits) or evening gowns, and she tried new hairstyles, clothes and efforts to make herself attractive to men. Mary was private, not showy and ostentatious or self-centered. She was always interested, even if mildly, in what her friends and colleagues were doing, always from a distance and never sacrificing her own interests. And she really was interested in her friends and co-workers, not merely for the sake of ingratiating herself to them.
Mary put work first. As in her Dick Van Dyke role as her husband’s helpmate in those earlier five seasons, in her seven seasons as a professional broadcast news producer, Mary made an effort to make her productiveness matter; she strived to improve the broadcast. She made an effort to encourage colleagues. She wasn’t some insecure, neurotic freak constantly rambling on about what she did last night. She played tennis, dated younger and older men, kissed on the first date, struggled with ethics, stood on principle—Mary went to jail rather than reveal a source—examined her flaws, and took pride in her work. Certainly, she was attractive and relatable. But she was also willing to stand alone and be controversial; she never lived through others and Mary Richards was, in practice, neither a deranged hedonist like today’s TV characters nor a simpering altruist like many female characters of her time—Mary was an all-American egoist.
Personally, MTM’s life was full of tragedy, despair and passion. She’d been raised as a Catholic in Los Angeles, attending Immaculate Heart in Los Feliz, the daughter of an alcoholic who would be preceded in death by her siblings, one of whom she helped in assisted suicide when he became terminal, another whose death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose. MTM checked herself at one point into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism. Her only son shot and killed himself with a sawed off shotgun in an act which was ruled an accident. Politically, MTM went from campaigning for a Democrat for president to watching Fox News and describing herself as a “libertarian centrist”. She believed animals have rights, supported embryonic stem cell and diabetes research and, though she once met with the pope, she married a doctor, who survives her.
I already own the whole MTM series on DVD (one of the few, besides The Twilight Zone and Frasier) and I’ve seen Ordinary People more times than I can count. In all the flops and misses, the best episodes, funniest lines and greatest roles and performances, from the newlywed in Danville or the sexy mom in Capri pants in New Rochelle to the corn-fed, Twin Cities single lady and dysfunction source in Lake Forest, Illinois, it turns out after all that Mary Tyler Moore could do it all—and, in reality, she did.
The cast of the gritty, Greenwich Village police comedy, Barney Miller (1975-1982), was anchored by Hal Linden in the lead. He played the 12th precinct’s rational police captain, who was practical, balanced and optimistic. The show’s uniquely dry, humorous pathos stemmed from shuttling between cynicism and idealism, almost always with a dash of the ridiculous. A multicultural cast avoided tokenism in the writing, which twists stereotypes every which way with cop and criminal characters that are old, Puerto Rican, black, female, Polish, gay, etc. The most intellectual character was a police detective who’s a writer named Harris.
Ron Glass (seated, far left) as Det. Harris on ‘Barney Miller’
Detective Harris was played by Ron Glass, who died last week. Glass played Harris with perfection for all eight seasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, which isn’t easy to find in syndication, and longer since I watched with my dad as a kid while it aired on ABC. I remember Detective Harris as clever and discriminating in spending his wit and intelligence on his work in the precinct; Harris did his job and did it well and was often called upon for his writing skills. What was distinctive, besides his being black in an era in which most black TV characters were poor, uneducated or criminal, is that Harris was both intellectual and debonair; he was handsome and was always the best dressed without being a dandy.
Det. Harris was also the only one with a steady, long-term career goal outside of law enforcement. He was usually relaxed, driven and disciplined. Harris always held himself a bit removed from his co-workers. He was proud, even a bit arrogant, yet affable and he never sought to be just one of the guys. Harris had higher aims. As I recall, the sophisticated detective was also the least prone to suffering, guilt and self-pity. Harris was an egoistic, happy policeman.
I can’t think of too many writer characters in Seventies television, let alone writers portrayed as positive and efficacious, as against fundamentally flawed and neurotic, and in mostly male work environments. I noticed this as a boy and, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, I found myself looking to Harris as a character every week, watching how he held and handled himself, checked himself, disciplined himself, withdrew or spoke up and worked within the precinct as a means to an end. That Harris, who eventually wrote and published a book, happened to be black was less integral to his identity than that he wanted to write. I noticed this, too. I think that’s thanks to Ron Glass, who took biting lines and deadpan looks, gave the character depth—not merely sass—and created an indelible cop-writer.
Last week, a decrepit dictator died who should be remembered for mass enslavement, misery and death and, as a warning, for glorifying thuggishness in TV, media and culture. TV also lost an amicable and talented entertainer, Florence Henderson, who played a cheerful housewife and mother for five seasons on another ABC comedy. Seeing the glorified thug on TV taught me early in life that something was terribly wrong with the world. Watching an idealized parent on TV gave me some guidance in the form of an often artificial and silly situation. I gained the most value from watching an actor playing an intellectual policeman who chooses to become a writer. For eight seasons on Barney Miller, Ron Glass made projecting a goal into the future seem possible and enjoyable. He did it with a sense of hard, grueling work as a rare and rewarding achievement. For this reason, I think it’s Ron Glass, the least likely of these three to be known, grieved and remembered, whose work will have—and ought to have—the greatest impact in the future.
Mr. Funny Face, the great actor, comedian and writer Gene Wilder died today. The star of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (which he also wrote) and Silver Streak was 83 years old. And, though he is associated with a streak of absurdist comedy brought forth chiefly by his frequent creative partner Mel Brooks, a wonderful source of silliness grounded in seriousness has been lost.
Gene Wilder in ‘The World’s Greatest Lover’
The screenwriter Wilder supposedly took his name from writers, too, blending a character from Look Homeward, Angel and the name of an American playwright, which suggests his thoughtful nature. The literary tie-in was apparent throughout his remarkable career, which was remarkable for its many failures, which he constantly overcame.
Gene Wilder broke out at the peak of the counterculture in 1971’s weirdly brazen yet reassuring adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Paramount’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though he had made an impression in smaller roles, too, such as an innocent victim in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Wilder played Wonka, of course, in the box office musical flop, one of many of his commercial failures that nevertheless influenced movies, ideas and culture. I think it was the first motion picture of his that I saw in a movie theater. I was transfixed, not by his weirdness, which forged a path for movie stars such as Johnny Depp.
I was captivated by his oddly severe benevolence. This unique quality, Wilder’s strange seriousness gilded with kindness, is his defining and most enduring screen persona. He displayed it, too, in his triumphant 1980 movie with director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and another famous comedian, Stir Crazy. I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard in a movie as when I watched his pairing with the late comic genius Richard Pryor (and, oddly enough, that movie was my first experience of seeing a movie being filmed; it was at the Tucson, Arizona hotel where I was vacationing with my family).
Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo. The hilarious pair made four movies together. A look, a squeal, a facial expression, a line, a gesture, everything they did was comic chemistry on screen as they mined an audience and story for wonder, laughter and satire in everything they did. Though it’s not perfect, 1976’s Silver Streak teamed the Pryor-Wilder pair again, this time with liberated woman Jill Clayburgh in one of the rare madcap comedy capers of the 1970s to successfully integrate drama, suspense and humor with something semi-serious at stake. I know that many remember Wilder best for his roles in two 1974 Mel Brooks movies, which I never cared for, though Wilder is brilliant in Young Frankenstein. I prefer his other movies.
Gene Wilder made me laugh in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Pryor, Wilder’s last movie I think I paid to see in a theater. Who can forget 1986’s silly Haunted Honeymoon with his then-wife, the late Gilda Radner, who preceded Wilder in death by ovarian cancer, and the late Dom DeLuise in drag? I think his best role was as innocent convict Skip in Stir Crazy, which still makes me laugh when I think about it. Gene Wilder went on to play in a television movie of Alice in Wonderland and his own TV series. He could play characters that were in turns biting, cruel and vapid. He was an amazing writer and actor of ability whose rubbery or stone face could fill a movie with enough humor to make it seem funnier than it was and, while it turns out that his legacy is to have been lampooning a world gone mad, Gene Wilder somehow managed to do it without sneering at the good.
His seriousness made it easier to take the silly less seriously. As Willy Wonka, his silliness made it easier to take goodness more seriously.
Gene Wilder is for this reason alone already sorely, deeply missed. He is survived by his friends, family and wife, Karen, and, I know, childlike people everywhere who cherish his depiction of a strange, kind industrialist who, with “pure imagination”, dramatized that it is possible to be good in a world going bad.
Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.
The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.
Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.
Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.
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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.
He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.
Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.
If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.
It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.
Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.