Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nora Ephron

Dick Cavett introduced me to Nora Ephron.

No, not in person -- but thanks for the thought.

Ephron appeared on Cavett's ABC show, back in the '60s, I think. She had just published "Wallflower at the Orgy."

Although I was perhaps too young and unsophisticated to understand all the humor, I was smart enough to realize that this deadpan, low-key lady was someone special, someone who was trying to be amusing without, well, trying to be amusing.

I heard more about her on and off within the next decade as she published two more books, both collections of articles: "Crazy Salad" and "Scribble Scribble." I used to own a copy of "Scribble Scribble," and it was one of the few books I could pick up and enjoy every few years. It was impossible for her to write badly about anything -- I could follow her style anywhere.

I liked her essay on Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker" the best. Gill's pompous book -- his ego alone would have given Macy's balloon handlers the challenge of their lives -- was made-to-order for her.

When she became a successful movie director and screenwriter, I was happy for her but not for me -- Hollywood's gain was a nonfiction lover's loss.

(Her parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, were also screenwriters, and when I heard that Nora Ephron was gravely ill I couldn't help remembering that she once wrote about being at her mother's deathbed and that her mother told her to take notes, on the theory that "everything is copy.")

In recent years I was happy to see that Ephron was writing books again, and her parody of Stieg Larsson in The New Yorker a couple of years ago did me the considerable favor of being so hilarious that I could no longer feel guilty about not finishing "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

For that, and so many other things, I will always be grateful to her.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dick and Mickey and Mike

I suspect that many folks who have spent as much time in journalism as I did can boast that they’ve met a lot of famous people.

I can’t make this boast.

I suspect this is mostly because I was a copy editor, working indoors, as opposed to a reporter working out on the street and meeting a variety of famous and not-so-famous people.

At most, I can say that I saw – but didn’t talk to – two celebrities who happened to be at my newspaper.

One day, for example, someone pointed out a guy who was visiting the sports department. He was sitting way off in a corner, chatting with some sports guys. (And in those days they all were “guys.”)

The visitor didn’t look very impressive. He was maybe in his forties of fifties, with black hair and glasses. He looked like the accountant who lives next door to you and is always conscientious about returning your lawn mower.

He was Dick Smothers.

It turned out that Dick was into car racing. Apparently there was some racing event in the area. I know that brother Tom was not with him, more’s the pity.

My second semi-brush with greatness came during a slow day at the newspaper. It might have been a Sunday, but I suspect it was one of those holidays that practically everyone has off.

Because it was a slow day, I ambled into the break room and noticed that our veteran entertainment reporter was seated at a table with an older guy.

It was the guy’s apparel that gave him away. He wore a suit and fedora, like some guy out of a 1940s film noir.

Or, more to the point, like someone in a beer commercial.

I returned to the newsroom and went up to one of my colleagues who, like me, knew a lot about mystery stories.

I said, “I think Joanie is interviewing Mickey Spillane."

My colleague, nowhere near as shy as I was at the time (this was before I’d had a few mystery short stories published), went out, introduced himself and came back with an autograph from the great man, who at that time was among a number of celebrities who appeared in a series of beer commercials.

I thought about Mickey recently after I bought a set of DVDs of the Mike Hammer TV show that was broadcast during the 1950s and starred Darren McGavin. I’d never seen the show, but I’d heard about it, and the DVD set was selling at a 50 percent discount.

I’ve watched quite a few of the episodes. I’d read they were more violent than the usual 1950s fare, and I guess by those standards they are, though the violence is a bloodless as it is plentiful. Then again, Hammer, as played by McGavin, occasionally really seems to enjoy throwing punches.

Of course, Hammer as played on TV isn’t the Mike Hammer of the books. And neither, really, was Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer. You couldn’t really do that character on TV.

I’ve read that McGavin insisted on playing the part with tongue in cheek, and he was probably right. As played by McGavin, Mike Hammer is more like a test run for Carl Kolchak, the character whom McGavin played (or rather overplayed, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way) years later in “The Night Stalker.”

(In retrospect, I marvel at how McGavin stayed so trim over the years, given his diet; I suspect that if you broke into Universal’s warehouse and took a close look at the “Night Stalker” sets, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find McGavin’s bite marks. Then again, if McGavin had ever underplayed anything, I would have worried that he was sick. And boy, how perfect he was as the father in “A Christmas Story.”)

I’ve also read that McGavin not only insisted that his approach to playing Hammer was the right one, but he also went toe-to-toe with Lew Wasserman, who ran Universal (and, some would say, all of Hollywood) over the matter. But this doesn’t surprise me, given that Burt Reynolds, who had an unhappy work experience with McGavin on a series called “Riverboat” (from which this photo of McGavin is taken), once said that on the Easter after Darren McGavin died, McGavin would be a very disappointed man.

The Hammer episodes are generally not bad; so far, a couple of the ones I’ve seen have been based on stories by Ed McBain under his Curt Cannon pseudonym. (McBain was, in turn, the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, whose birth name was Salvatore Lombino. Yes, I know, I should have embedded a scorecard.)

The show’s production values aren’t bad; I suspect Revue/Universal spent a little more than usual, and they did take the time to film some exteriors in New York City, though I’m guessing the indoor stuff was done in Hollywood.

And as often happens with old TV shows, part of the fun is keeping an eye out for performers who later became famous. So far, Mike Hammer's femme fatales have included Angie Dickinson and -- heaven forfend -- Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross!

One amusing thing (to me, at least): The show begins with a shot of McGavin in New York City, over which McGavin’s name is superimposed in big letters. Then Mickey Spillane’s name is shown in big letters. Then comes “Mike Hammer” in big letters. Fine. But in one of the episodes (so far) the execs, apparently believing that Mickey Spillane’s fans can’t really read, insist on having an announcer intone all this information, in case we can’t quite make it out.

In all the episodes that have followed (or the ones I’ve viewed, at least) the announcer is nowhere to be heard.

I can’t help thinking that one night this announcer was out walking when he made a wrong turn into a very dark alley and met up with a certain tough guy.

And I keep imagining the aftermath of this encounter -- the battered broadcaster lying helplessly on the ground, rubbing his throat and saying, “You – you’ve ruined my voice! How could you?”

His assailant’s response:

“It was easy.”