Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I'll take "Has It Come to This?" for $50, Art

As a kid I watched a lot of game shows. Couldn't get enough of 'em. "Concentration" with Hugh Downs. "Jeopardy!" with Art Fleming. "What's My Line?" with Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen and, of course, the urbane host, John Charles Daly. And many more. All of them entertaining shows featuring people -- hosts, celebrities and "civilian" contestants -- who were polite and upbeat and left you with a good feeling.

And for years now, Alex Trebek has been doing an excellent job on "Jeopardy!" Same with Meredith Vieira (and Regis before her) on "Millionaire." And Drew Carey comes across well, too.

But geez...

Here I am the other night watching a thing called "Duel." (To be fair, I could only get through the first half-hour.) Two contestants face off. A man and a woman. The woman had chosen the guy as her opponent and said she did so because he was from "the hood," and therefore, apparently, couldn't know very much. Well, that's a great start: Everyone loves to root for a snob.

Then she beats the guy, who reacts by putting his head down for an ungodly long time, making me almost wonder whether there was a bad edit in the tape and we didn't see the part where he was told his house had just burned to the ground and his family and pet dog were now toast. People who have been sentenced to death by a combination of hanging, drawing and quartering, electrocution and being fed through a Mixmaster have taken that news with more equanimity.

Aside from this, you have a set that is so garishly lit that you could get a headache by glancing at your TV screen from the rooftop of your uncle's house in the next county; you have a host who moves things along nicely but doesn't seem to be enjoying himself much, as if the show were being taped in his dentist's waiting room shortly before his root canal appointment; and you have me feeling very much like the very young Brandon de Wilde:

"John Charles! Come back, John Charles!"

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas mystery

A couple of years ago, I wrote a holiday story titled "The Afternoon Before Christmas." It's only about 1,500 words -- the right length, I hope, for a quick read between wrapping presents and writing cards. I hope you'll enjoy it, and you can find it here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The six-guns of October

“While Pravda editorials attacked decadent Hollywood, Soviet leaders couldn't resist a good western. … Leonid Brezhnev ... had a crush on Chuck Connors, a B-movie actor who starred in a 1960s TV series, The Rifleman. At a party hosted by President Nixon, Connors presented a delighted Brezhnev with a pair of Colt .45 revolvers. The general secretary returned the favour by allowing the American series to be shown on Soviet TV."

-- Lucy Ash
The New Statesman

Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, was criticized recently after she appeared on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and said she knew nothing 
about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I suspect that Ms. Perino – and many other otherwise well-informed Americans -- are unaware of another, hitherto unrevealed, crisis that nearly brought down the United States of America.

I am referring, of course, to the Cuban Missive Crisis, as detailed in the following, recently released documents….


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: You’ll never believe what that guy did to me today!


KENNEDY: What guy?! Oh, for God’s sake, who do you think I mean, especially after these last two weeks? Pinky Lee? Just take a wild guess!


KENNEDY: Bingo. Good old Nikita. Isn’t enough that he has to scare the world to death – not to mention me – but now guess what he sends me in the mail? A chain letter!

RUSK: Chain letter?

KENNEDY: Yep! Can’t believe the guy! Says I have to make 10 copies and send them to 10 friends. Says Stalin got the same letter many years ago, ignored it, and had the runs for two straight weeks.

JOHNSON: Maybe it wasn’t the chain letter. Maybe it was some lousy borscht. I keep tellin’ those Russkies that Texas chili is so much more healthful.

RUSK: So what did you do, Mr. President?

KENNEDY: I told him to stick it – phrasing it in the most diplomatic of ways, of course…


Pause. A knock at the door.

MESSENGER: This just came in, sir.

JOHNSON: I’ll take it … hmm … well, Jack, you really went and did it this time.

KENNEDY: Did what?

JOHNSON: This cable says Khrushchev, in response to your “most diplomatic of ways,” has dispatched 5,000 typists to Cuba with the assignment to type as many copies of that letter as possible and mail them to the United States.

KENNEDY: So? Who cares?

RUSK: Mr. President, with all due respect, I don’t think you appreciate the gravity of this situation. Our intelligence has in the past informed us that Soviet typists are among the fastest in the world.

JOHNSON: I know that for a fact – not a hunter and pecker among them.

RUSK: So even if each typist types only 20 copies each, that amounts to 100,000 copies flooding the U.S. mail system.

KENNEDY: So? We’ll threaten to retaliate, match them letter for letter and flood THEIR system.

RUSK: There might be a problem with that, sir.

KENNEDY: What do you mean?

JOHNSON: What Mr. Pussyfooter is trying to say is that in addition to the thousands and thousands of retaliatory letters we’d be sending, you have to remember all the numb nuts here who’ll be responding to the letters THEY get from Cuba.

RUSK: It would put us at risk of MPD.


RUSK: Mutual Postal Destruction.

KENNEDY: Hmm.... Maybe we could threaten them with our missiles again. Then again, we just did that. Might be overkill. Hey – overkill – I made a funny! That Kennedy wit strikes again!

JOHNSON (Clearing his throat): If I might pose a suggestion, sirs… In my days on the Senate Armed Services Committee, I learned something very interesting about the Soviets.

KENNEDY: And what’s that?

JOHNSON: They LOVE our westerns. One of my sources from those days even told me that this guy they got, Brezhnev, has a thing for this guy Chuck Connors.

KENNEDY: That TV guy? So what?

JOHNSON: So this: I propose a show of force. We get people like Jim Arness, that guy who used to be on Wanted: Dead or Alive – Steve McQueen – those guys from Bonanza, and, last but not least, Duke Wayne. We tell the Soviets that unless they back down, all these guys will be headed for the Kremlin with six-guns a-blazin’….

KENNEDY: Yeah, just might work. After all, what’ve we got to lose, aside from at least a huge chunk of Western civilization?

RUSK: I see one problem, sir. A rather ticklish situation.

KENNEDY: One of those pesky matters of diplomacy?

RUSK: In a way, sir. More specifically, I mean the problem of billing. From what I’ve heard of McQueen, he’s going to want top billing.

JOHNSON: That little pipsqueak? No way the Duke’s gonna stand for that!

KENNEDY: The solution is simple. Get Wasserman at MCA, tell him what we’re doing, tell him to explain it to everyone, and tell him to tell them that the billing’s going to be in alphabetical order.

JOHNSON: Alphabetical order? Hmm. … Arness, Blocker, Connors, Greene, Landon, Roberts … why, that would put the Duke dead last!

KENNEDY: Yes – but with emphasis. Like this: “So and so, so and so, Pernell Roberts … and JOHN WAYNE!” Ellipses! All caps! Exclamation point! Two exclamation points! Or would that be (chuckle) overkill again?

RUSK: You’ve done it again, sir.


RUSK: It’s official, sir – they’ve backed down.

KENNEDY: What did I tell you? Old Nikita blinked again! He keeps blinkin’ like that, they’re gonna send him to an eye specialist in Siberia. Neat idea, Lyndon. I never knew that about the Russians and our westerns. They’ve always been that way?

JOHNSON: Pretty near. (Lowers voice.) I’m not supposed to know this, and I’ll deny it if either of you repeat it, but do you remember when Leon Trotsky got icepicked to death in Mexico back in ’40? Well, among his personal effects…

RUSK: Yes?

JOHNSON: Was a document. His official certification….

KENNEDY: Yes, come on, Lyndon, you big tease!

JOHNSON: … as a charter member of the Hopalong Cassidy Fan Club.

KENNEDY: Wow! Shazam!

RUSK: One never knows.

KENNEDY: I’m really shocked by that! I mean, from all I’ve read and heard about him, I always figured Trotsky as more of a Gene Autry guy.

RUSK: One never knows.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

For the well-dressed heavy breather

A commercial for a chain of men's clothing stores is advertising a deal in which a guy can get a


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Maybe it was looking for a one-armed gator

DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Officials in Ukraine recaptured a crocodile on Wednesday which had escaped from a travelling circus six months previously and repeatedly eluded search teams.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

One of the best of the last of a breed

My friend Ed French was part of a world that no longer exists, a world that now seems as far away as the days of the horse and buggy, although it came to an end only within the last 40 years.

Ed, who died last weekend, was a newspaper printer for 44 years, a period that included the days when hot type was set by Linotype operators, the days when anyone visiting a newspaper would be greeted by the caressing aroma of ink and paper, the olfactory equivalent of a siren song to those who were susceptible to the charms of newspapering, charms I willingly surrendered to as a high school student interested in journalism.

By the time I entered the business a few years later, computers had turned the Linotype into a museum piece. Hot type had bowed to "cold type," which was either set by an editor pushing a button on a newsroom computer or scanned into the system by a printer using hard copy. Ed and his remaining colleagues were at the other end of this process, pasting up stories after they came out of a machine in the composing room.

I often had to work in the composing room, troubleshooting problems under the always cocked trigger of the deadline gun. Some of the folks in the composing room were good at paste-up. Others were not so good. A couple of them could put a piece of type in straight only if an earthquake struck on deadline, and it had better be at least a 7.0 on the Richter scale.

But Ed French was pretty near perfect. I can still see him tilting his head this way and that, his omnipresent pipe in his bearded mouth, checking the completed page from seemingly every conceivable angle before turning it in to the technicians who would use it to make the printing plate.

After hours Ed and I would get a jump on the next day's paper, all the while discussing old movies. The composing room was hardly Gertrude Stein's salon, but if you had to be somewhere other than your own home at 2:30 in the morning, Ed French was very good company.

Many times, earlier in a shift, we'd have an exchange like this:

"Hey, Ed, we've lost another one!"


"Greer Garson died! Just came over the wire!"

He'd puff his pipe, shake his head. "They're droppin' like flies!"

Other quotes from Chairman Ed:

Upon noting that an editor has sent out a story that's way too long for the assigned space: "You can't get 10 pounds of (expletive deleted) in a five-pound bag!"

Upon examining a graphic or a layout plan that he deemed too arty: "Yeh, this'll sell a lot of papers!"

And he'd bitch, and he'd grumble, and he'd groan -- and then he'd get the job done, making that crazy graphic or layout work, getting it done better than just about anyone else.

No one does paste-up anymore, at least not by hand. It's all computerized; someone in the newsroom presses a button, and a fully formed plate comes out at the other end of the building, ready for the presses. It's streamlined and efficient, and people like me no longer have to go to the composing room and garner more gray hairs on deadline.

Heck, there isn't even a composing room anymore, not that I miss it.

Mr. French retired many years ago. I ran into him once or twice at company clambakes. Now that I, too, am retired, I had hoped to talk to him again.

We've lost another one, Ed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blues for Mr. Whipple

I fear that his life was a lonely one;
Just consider, if you please:
That stuff with which we rub our butts
Was apparently his main squeeze.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's the name of their shortstop?

I can't help wondering if the people who think up the names of those, um, male enhancement drugs are fans of Abbott and Costello...

Lou: Gee, Bud, you sure look chipper today!

Bud: I feel great! My wife and I made love last night, and it went exceptionally well!

Lou: And why was that?

Bud: Because of what my doctor recommended!

Lou: And what was that?

Bud: Cialis!

Lou (after a pause): See Alice?

Bud: Yep!

Lou: What? You go to a doctor, tell him you and your wife are having problems, and he says, "See Alice"?

Bud: Yep!

Lou: And your wife went along with it?

Bud: Of course! She only wants what's best for me.

Lou: I can't believe it! But you must have had to talk her into it!

Bud: Quite the contrary! She insisted on it! Otherwise she said it might mean the end of our marriage!

Lou: So the doctor tells you this, and you come home, and --

Bud: Not straight home! I went to the drugstore first!

Lou: Why?

Bud: I just told you! It's what the doctor said! Cialis!

Lou: See Alice? At the drugstore?

Bud: Yep!

Lou: And the guy who runs the drugstore is OK with this?

Bud: Of course! That's getting to be a big part of his business, he tells me!

Lou: You mean you went in a back room and...

Bud: No! Over the counter!

Lou: Over the counter?! With everybody watching?

Bud: Of course!

Lou: I must be going to the wrong drugstore!

Bud: No, I could have gone to any drugstore!

Lou: See Alice at any drugstore? (To himself) Girl gets around! (To Bud) Well, I'm glad things worked out!

Bud: Thanks! And even if it hadn't worked, the doctor had another idea!

Lou: Really? What?

Bud: Viagra!


Bud: Sure I'm sure! Why do you ask?

Lou: Cause Vi Agra told me I'M the only guy in her life!

(Cue rimshot.)

As long as it's faitful to the orignal...

Page 2 of next Sunday's New York Times Book Review contains a full-page ad for "The nationwide bestseller and literary event of the fall."

The ad also shows the book and its cover:







To be fair, I should note that this is apparently an artist's rendering of the book and its cover; at my local Borders, the misspelled word is correctly spelled on the book's cover.

But still...

Friday, November 2, 2007

I won't spend it all at once

I received an e-mail with the following subject line:

Mark, You've Earned $0.00 in Borders Bucks!

The body of the e-mail is a coupon for that exact amount.

Among other things, the coupon says, "Cashier must validate Borders Bucks balance at register."

Well. they do have to protect themselves against counterfeiters....

Update: Borders later sent me a corrected e-mail.

Do blogs get results, or what?

(The correct amount, by the way, is $5, which I suspect I will be spending all at once after all....)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Book report: "Blackmailer"

George Axelrod isn't exactly a household name these days. And perhaps he wasn't exactly a household name in the 1950s and 1960s either, but that's when he was at the top of his form. For quite a while he was hot stuff in the entertainment world. And you would have been hot stuff, too, and deservedly so, if you had written "The Seven Year Itch" for Broadway and the screenplays for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the original film version of "The Manchurian Candidate." He also directed a couple of movies.

Axelrod's stock-in-trade was sophisticated satire, and though his work was mostly limited to plays and screenplays, in the early 1950s he tried his hand at a crime novel. "Blackmailer," recently republished by Hard Case Crime, was the result.

The book begins as a mysterious woman comes to the offices of Conrad, Sherman, Inc., Publishers, and says she has only copy of the book that literary lion Charles Anstruther (think Hemingway) finished before he died. (We later learn that Anstruther, like Hemingway, died of a gunshot wound -- perhaps a case of Life Later Imitating Art, or, perhaps, Art Taking a Lucky Guess.)

Our hero, Dick Sherman, has trouble understanding why the woman would bring such a literary bonanza to Conrad, Sherman, considering that the company mostly publishes textbooks and puzzle books.

And so begins what might be described as a literary version of "The Maltese Falcon," though the plot of "Blackmailer" is so dizzying, what with double and triple crosses and one or two developments that might make The Long Arm of Coincidence say "Uncle," that Dashiell Hammett's story by comparison seems as complex as a robust game of tic-tac-toe. Even as I was reading the story, I didn't always believe it, any more than I always believe a cabbie in a strange town who says he knows the quickest way from the airport to the hotel. But this didn't matter much to me, because despite this, "Blackmailer" was a fast, enjoyable ride.

The book is particularly notable for what we now call Attitude and its portrait of a bygone literary-entertainment scene.

As for Attitude, here is Sherman discussing one of his firm's top money makers, whom he unwillingly has to take to lunch:

"Lorraine Carstairs is the middle-aged alcoholic who is the author, or inventor, or whatever you call it, of the Triple-Cross-O-Gram. Triple Cross-O-Grams are a combination crossword puzzle and twenty-question game. I have never been able to solve one. I have never desired to be able to solve one."

This seems like a barely veiled reference to Elizabeth S. Kingsley and her Double Crostics, which were long a mainstay of the Saturday Review. I have no way of knowing whether Ms. Kingsley was actually a "middle-aged alcoholic," or whether she had a legal staff that was well-versed in libel. (Or whether Axelrod's original publishers also had good lawyers.)

Another character is either based on Truman Capote or on the person Capote would eventually become. (Another well-taken guess?)

Given Axelrod's background in playwriting and movies, it's not surprising that "Blackmailer" seems to want to be a movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if some filmmaker optioned it. It's too bad that Axelrod, who died in 2003, isn't around to direct it himself.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case of the Regurgitated Reruns

If you wait long enough, every show that was ever on TV will show up on DVD. (One possible exception: that old standby, "Please Stand By," which unexpectedly popped up on the schedule many times when I was a kid. It never did have much of a plot, but it always offered plenty of nail-biting suspense.)

The people who sell such DVDs are asking you to pay good money for stuff -- good and otherwise -- that you've seen already, perhaps many times.

I admit it: I've taken the bait a number of times. SCTV. Sgt. Bilko. Groucho's quiz show. And some shows I hadn't seen, Sid Caesar, Steve McQueen in "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Wally Cox in "Mr. Peepers" among them.

And I'll confess that I've also been tempted by the Perry Mason DVDs, the ones with early episodes of the original series starring Raymond Burr. But a voice in my head keeps saying to me, "You've seen them. And seen them. And seen them. And seen them...."

Sad but true.

It all began, your honor, when I was a kid. Saturday night at 7:30 was Perry Mason time. I'd watch the first few minutes, and then I would be summoned -- not to superior court, but to the bathtub. I'd usually be bailed out just before the end of the episode, so I could see who did it.

Years later, the episodes were on five days a week in syndication. And years later still, TBS, the Superstation, showed them during the noon hour -- which was when I used to get up after another graveyard shift.

The result of all this -- and I'm not necessarily proud of it -- is that if you show me just a few frames from any Mason episode, I can usually name the episode, who the defendant is, who the killer is, whether it was based on one of the Erle Stanley Gardner books, etc. (Hey, at least I don't show up at Perry Mason fan conventions dressed as Paul Drake. For one thing, they don't have Perry Mason fan conventions, and for another, just try finding one of those hound's-tooth jackets that Paul seemed to love so much.)

I also know that of all the actors who appeared on the show, only two have achieved what I call the Perry Mason Hat Trick, playing, in various episodes, the defendant, the victim and the murderer: the late, lovely Mala Powers and the late and not quite so lovely (though pleasant enough) Denver Pyle. (Update, 11/7/07: It turns out that 11 actors achieved this feat, according to another Web page: So I stand corrected -- not an unusual posture for me....)

Over the years I also read many of the Mason books -- my dad was a member of the Detective Book Club, which usually featured the latest Gardner novel. I've often wondered, by the way, why so many of the TV episodes based on the books stray so far from the original plot. Or in some cases the plot is similar, but the murderer is a different person. Given the caprices of Hollywood, I normally wouldn't wonder about this much, but Gardner had control over the TV show. Unfortunately, most of the people involved in the production of the show don't seem to be around anymore, so this is one mystery that might well go unsolved.

In one of my favorite moments from the show (and oddly enough for once I can't recall which episode), Burr almost certainly comes close to blowing a line but saves himself (and some production costs) at the last moment. It's during a cross-examination, and Perry is really hammering the poor schlub, and Burr comes out with something like: "And when did you see the defendant -- or, better yet, how could you know...." Burr's very smooth as always, but no writer would have written that dialogue that way. (I hope.)

The regulars were particularly well-cast. Barbara Hale was Della Street, smart but discreet; if the director goofed and there was a problem in the cutting room, the editors always seemed to have a fallback: cut to Della and one of her Knowing Glances. Never mind if it was from several episodes ago, or from her days as an ingenue at RKO.

William Hopper was Paul Drake, who always seemed to be described in the books as "dyspeptic." In each file cabinet in each casting office in L.A., there must have been a manila folder labeled "dyspeptic," and it must have contained just one picture, that of Mr. H.

In the 1950s Jimmy Stewart made a big splash as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's "The Spirit of St. Louis." William Hopper would have been just as big a star if a director with Wilder's clout had opted to make "The Man Who Invented Maalox."

William Talman was nearly perfect as Hamilton Burger. I say "nearly" because in the Mason books (at least early on) Burger is described as being "barrel-chested." I'm sorry to say that Talman fell somewhat short of a full keg. But this is a small point; Talman more than made up for this as an actor by having a range that no performer before or after him has ever equaled. Like one of those souped-up cars that can go from 0 to 100 mph in 10 seconds, Talman, within the same scene, could go from unctuousness to abject apoplexy at a speed that would have left Chuck Yaeger gasping for breath.

Ray Collins' Lt. Tragg was smart, sly, funny and kind of likable. As Collins got older and more frail, he was replaced by Lt. "Andy" Anderson (Wesley Lau), whose sense of humor wasn't readily apparent and who was fond of saying that someone had "just bought a one-way ticket to the gas chamber!" (As if a round-trip ticket would have done anyone much good.)

I've always remembered the last Mason episode, where, in the last scene, the judge was portrayed by Gardner and the murderer was revealed to be (spoiler alert!) Dick Clark! If America's Oldest Teenager could murder not one but two people (one of them -- whaddya know! -- Denver Pyle) in the course of one hour, it was clear that this country was going to hell in a handbasket. (Wonder where that cliche came from, anyway. And would Yogi Bear go to hell in a pick-a-nick basket?)

Anyway, it was clear that the country's values were changing, and it was time for Perry and Della and Paul to pack up and make way for courtroom dramas with more complex themes, like "Judd for the Defense," in which Carl Betz spent two years in front of juries, trying to prove conclusively that I'm Not Just Donna Reed's Husband, See?

In the 1980s Burr and Hale began a series of Mason TV movies. Hale's real-life son, William Katt, played Paul Drake's make-believe son, with better taste in clothes and vastly improved digestion. But somehow it wasn't the same. (And what was it with that beard, Perry?)

Who knows? Perhaps someday I'll weaken and buy the Mason DVDs. Then again, I haven't begun to watch those "Rockford Files" episodes I got a few months ago...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

No prizes, but plenty of e-glory

Recently a couple of friends and I tried to see if we could come up with synopses of famous movies -- limiting ourselves to words of up to four letters.

Here are a few examples. Can you name the movies? Better yet, can you suggest other examples?

1. A man with a gun and a dark past aids a boy and his mom and dad, then goes. Come back, guy!

2. Sexy? I'll say she was.

So when she said, "I wish my mate were dead," it came to me all at once:

A plan to kill him, bilk my firm and make us rich.

"Let me help you," I said.

Oy, if only I'd kept my trap shut....

3. Time and tide do not wait for Deb and Burt.

Friday, October 19, 2007

From 'Son of a Gun' to Eternity

I used to see Joey Bishop a lot on TV when I was a kid. Bishop, who died this week, was a game show panelist, talk show host, member of the fabled Rat Pack.

I remember him being funny in a deadpan, acerbic way. But somehow the only shtick of his I can remember is his catchphrase, "Son of a gun." Boy, did I think that was funny. Don't ask me why. Sometimes he'd roll his eyes, too. I liked that, too. Boy, did I have a subtle sense of humor.

He had a sitcom for a few years, featuring Abby Dalton and the woman who later played Aunt Harriet on "Batman." On the sitcom he had a second banana played by a guy with the unlikely moniker of Corbett Monica. But I don't remember much else about the show.

In the late '60s, Bishop unsuccessfully went up against Johnny Carson. If "The Tonight Show" sometimes seemed too buttoned-down, Bishop's show seemed a bit too loose without being particularly funny. Bishop's announcer was a young Regis Philbin, who I thought was too overbearing for a young second banana. Years later, Regis is doing pretty much the same shtick, but it's somehow much easier to take now that he's grown into the persona of Cantankerous Broadcasting Pioneer With a Heart of Gold.

Why didn't Bishop beat Carson? One example:

It's the night of Aug. 29, 1967. ABC (Bishop's network) airs the final episode of "The Fugitive." Later that night, Bishop, who hasn't seen the episode, has "Fugitive" star David Janssen, who played Dr. Richard Kimble, on the show. Bishop wants to guess the identity of the person who really killed Kimble's wife.

Janssen seems uncomfortable with this, but Bishop insists on guessing.

Carson, I suspect, would have known enough to pull back. ...

I'm sorry to say I haven't seen very many movies starring Deborah Kerr, who also died this week. I've seen parts of "Black Narcissus" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison." I'm happy to say I've seen all of "From Here to Eternity" and less happy to say I once sat through "Beloved Infidel," in which Kerr is Sheilah Graham, Gregory Peck is F. Scott Fitzgerald and the audience is hornswoggled.

I heartily recommend one of her very early films, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," which is much, much better than that title might make it sound.

Kerr always gave the impression of being an elegant lady who, given certain circumstances, might stray from what "society" might consider "acceptable behavior."

It's true that she, like Greer Garson, could be a Goody Two-Shoes. But in Kerr's case, those shoes weren't welded to her feet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This message won't self-destruct (sorry)

The American Life cable TV channel, whose slogan might as well be "All the TV Shows You Can't Believe You Watched When You Were a Kid," has been showing episodes from the first season of "Mission: Impossible."

If you ask people to name the star of "Mission: Impossible," they'll probably say it was Peter Graves, who took the helm as Jim Phelps in the second season and kept the job throughout the rest of the series.

But Graves' predecessor was Steven Hill, who portrayed Dan Briggs. Yep, that's the same Steven Hill who played District Attorney Adam Schiff on "Law & Order." On the "Mission: Impossible" episodes he's a lot younger, of course, and handsome and tough-looking, though you still sometimes see traces of the other Steven Hill -- particularly that minuscule smile that comes and goes in an instant, like a painful tic that he never did get around to having a doctor look at.

After Phelps took over, Briggs' departure was never explained. Was he killed? Was he fired? Did he give some of our secrets to The Other Side? So far, in keeping with the series' stated policy, the Secretary has so far disavowed any knowledge. (A personnel matter, y'know.)

But when you think about it (and I did, for a nanosecond or two) the solution is simple:

Dan Briggs and Adam Schiff are the same person.

Put yourself in the guy's shoes:

It's the mid-'60s, the James Bond era, and the government has tapped you to head the Impossible Missions Force. You're going to be so powerful that you can arrange to have the crap beaten out of anyone who dares to ask why there is no hyphen between "Impossible" and "Missions." And you'll be engaging in feats of derring-do that will make you a magnet for all those babes who are turned on by the thrill of danger, the virility of a hero who knows no fear, and the smell of rapidly disintegrating audiotape.

There's only one problem. Your name.

Adam Schiff.

Hardly a Manly Man kind of name. Adam Schiff sounds more like an accountant, the type of guy who would pick up a copy of Playboy only if Miss December also happened to be the world's foremost expert on debentures.

So you cast about for another name, and, after many trials and errors, finally come up with one that's perfect: Dan Briggs.

Short vowels, hard consonants. You run with it.

As Dan, you run the IMF for a year, but fatigue and burnout soon set in. You wonder why, every week, you have to be shown looking through the portfolio of available IMF agents when there don't seem to be all that many of them and your memory isn't quite that bad. But more to the point, there's the issue of justice. Week in and week out you do the same type of thing -- like tricking a dictator, usually played by Lloyd Bridges, to set foot in a country from which the U.S. can extradite him -- only to see the bad guy beat the rap on some technicality.

The system's flawed, you think, and there's nothing I can do to fix it as the head of the IMF.

So you quit and go to law school. And after years of careful apprenticeship you find yourself in a position where, with the proper amount of pluck and luck, you might someday have a shot at the New York DA's office and be able to really make a difference.

There's only one problem. Your name.

All any reporter has to do is to run a check on "Dan Briggs" and you're toast. It'll all come out somehow: your involvement in clandestine missions, your employment by a secret organization of the government, your seeming inability to remember the names and faces of the handful of people who work for you.

You come up with the perfect solution: Go back to your real name, Adam Schiff.

As Schiff, you are elected DA with no trouble. No one suspects a thing.

But there's a problem. For years you've been working within the legal system, helping to patch the holes that let some of the world's worst offenders walk free. But you find that there's more to it than that.

You find that some vicious killers beat the rap because they have Influence, and it's amazing how many of them have fathers who look a lot like Robert Vaughn.

Also, after all these years, your old friends Cinnamon, Rollin, Barney and the rest are still spending nearly every week tricking Lloyd Bridges into stumbling into the wrong country -- but when he comes to trial he still beats the rap because, well, Lloyd is such a charismatic guy, and when his two handsome sons, Beau and Jeff, walk into the courtroom with their pianos in tow and play a few riffs from "The Fabulous Baker Boys," well, the show's over. The jurors vote unanimously to acquit Lloyd and send Willy the Strong Man to Attica instead.

And you spend the rest of your career engaging in grumpy badinage with the likes of Jack McCoy:

"Adam! We've got to prosecute! The guy's a serial killer! He murdered 30 people, several of them in St. Peter's Square! The pope saw him do it! And he's willing to testify!"

"Nah! Two popes as witnesses, maybe, but just one? Won't fly. Take a plea -- driving with a faulty muffler!"

Take my blood alcohol level - please!

A law firm in town has a big sign that trumpets the firm's name and, below it, these words:

Serious DWI Defense.

Hmm, thinks I, who have been paid over the course of lo so many years (and not in lo mein, either) to ponder punctuation and other linguistic niceties, did these legal eagles forget to insert a hyphen somewhere?

For it could be that what they actually mean is:

Serious-DWI Defense.

Then again, one might argue, aren't all cases of DWI serious? Don't they all involve people who have imbibed too indiscreetly and could endanger other drivers and pedestrians, not to mention themselves?

Then still again, I suppose there could theoretically be such a thing as a "nonserious" DWI case with little if any potential for bodily harm:

"Police said the suspect was alone in his garage, putting his car in forward, then reverse, then forward, and so on, having a high old time...."

Or it could well be (considering that I don't get out all that much) that there are special raceways where drunken drivers can wheel about to their hearts' content, where instead of a concrete wall they are encircled by a barrier formed by the fusion of 1,573,889 Nerf balls. (By the way, is the Whamo toy company still around? And remember how, even in the '60s, its commercials boasted that the company had been around "since 1949"? -- "Yes, son, when you're looking for the best in whoopie cushions, always go with the old, established firm.")

Then even yet again, perhaps the "serious" pertains not to the DWI, but to the defense. After all, one would hardly want a Facetious DWI Defense:

Judge: Is the defense ready?

Defense lawyer: Yes, your honor, and may I say that a funny thing happened to me on the way to the courthouse today. A lawyer came up to me on the street and said, "I haven't had a subpoena duces tecum in three days!" So I gave him a subpoena duces wild! Say, what is this, a panel of prospective jurors or an oil painting?

At this point the defense should rest. Me too.

But one final thought: If Mel Torme had forsaken singing to become a shyster, would he now be remembered as The Velvet Pettifog?

(Update, 1/17/2008: It turns out that the name of the company referred to above is Wham-O and that it was started in 1948. I learned this after learning of the death of company co-founder Richard Knerr. So if I wind up spending eternity dodging continuous downpours of Super Balls, I'll know why.)