Sunday, July 22, 2012

William Asher

Among people of my generation, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that "Bewitched" was on my family's must-watch list.

This was the era of shows that had outlandish or otherworldly gimmicks -- "I Dream of Jeannie," "My Mother the Car" and one that I suspect few remember, "My Living Doll," which starred Julie Newmar as an amazingly lifelike (OK, I really mean "sexy") robot named Rhoda. (I think she had on and off buttons on her back that were disguised as moles.)

The first few seasons of "Bewitched" were quite good. One key reason was Bernard Slade, who was the script consultant early on and later wrote "Same Time, Next Year. " Slade wrote one of my favorite early episodes, featuring two old pros: Marion Lorne, as Aunt Clara, and the incomparable Charlie Ruggles, as an old flame of hers who was trying to hide the fact that his skills as a warlock weren't anywhere near what they used to be. (You've probably guessed by now that Aunt Clara had similar concerns about her own powers.)

As someone who paid a lot of attention to TV credits when I was a kid (this being long before the phrase "Get a life" was coined), I noticed that many episodes of "Bewitched" were directed by someone named William Asher, who for some years also served as the show's producer. Mr. Asher, who died this month, was also the husband of the show's star, Elizabeth Montgomery, who was the main reason I watched the show.

Yes, I admit it: As a red-blooded preteen I had a crush on Ms. Montgomery. A big one. I also was not immune to the charms of Meredith MacRae and Diana Rigg. And if Ms. Rigg was anything like her character, Emma Peel, on "The Avengers," she could also protect me from evildoers.

(Hey, I said I was red-blooded. I didn't say I wasn't a wuss.)

Around this time, CBS began showing repeats of "I Love Lucy" on weekday mornings, and I eventually noticed that Mr. Asher also directed many of these shows, including the one in which Lucy and Harpo Marx re-enact the mirror scene from "Duck Soup."

(This episode also featured Lucy's "frenemy," Carolyn Appleby, played by Doris Singleton, who also died recently. )

And then the Saturday night late show began showing the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, and guess who directed those? (OK, so they weren't great works of art, but they weren't meant to be, and they did provide work for folks like Buster Keaton.)

Mr. Asher also somehow found the time to direct a gangster movie called "Johnny Cool," with Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. -- and Ms. Montgomery.

I get tired just thinking about his output.

His career eventually slowed and he wound up directing things like "The Dukes of Hazzard," which I did try to watch once. Perhaps I was tired that night, but boy did it seem like slow going, though I was glad to see that it provided character actors like Denver Pyle and Sorrell Booke with steady paychecks.

But I am grateful to Mr. Asher for providing me with many enjoyable hours.

And while I'm at it, another pioneer TV director died earlier this year.

I mostly associate John Rich with "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "All in the Family," but during his long career he also worked on "I Married Joan," "The Brady Bunch," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and even "The Twilight Zone."


And somehow I can't help thinking that when RCA first telecast that famous test pattern, the one that so many of us baby boomers remember, it was Mr. Rich's voice that could be heard saying "OK ... stand by ... cue the Indian!"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown

The Encyclopedia Brown tales weren't the first mystery stories I ever read, but they might have been the first that I could completely understand.

I had tried to read the Perry Mason books because I liked the TV show, but I was too young to understand the plots. (During the show's later years, Raymond Burr acknowledged that the story lines were sometimes too complex even for him.)

But the Encyclopedia Brown stories, written by Donald J. Sobol, who died this month, were fairly -- but not insultingly -- simple. And although I remember them as being clever, more than 40 years later I can't remember any of the telltale clues. Instead I remember Encyclopedia himself -- a nerd (before the term was invented) who lived in the town of Idaville and was quietly competent and fearless. I liked how he stood up to Bugs Meany, the neighborhood tough kid, and defeated him with logic. (Then again, Bugs was not exactly the Napoleon of Crime.)

While Encyclopedia was fearless, he wasn't foolhardy. One of the few details I remember from the Brown canon is the time he prepared for an interview with a suspect who had an intimidating dog by sticking some doggie treats in his pocket so he could surreptitiously slip a couple to the animal and in effect neutralize him. (When it came to paying to get information, Paul Drake was merely Encyclopedia Brown with a bigger allowance.)

You might have (correctly) guessed by now that although I lacked his probity, I did identify with Encyclopedia Brown, whose real name, by the way, was Leroy. And how could I not, being someone who, on a visit to the beach, was the kind of kid who was likely to have sand -- or even entire hourglasses -- kicked in his face?

I could never be a Schwarzenegger, let alone a Chicago gangsta.

But I could easily settle for being as "bad bad" as Leroy Brown of Idaville.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

At the (old) movies: 'G Men'

Notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society....

A guy walks into a nightclub where a female singer he knows is performing a fairly elaborate number with the help of a singing and dancing chorus line.

A master shot shows the guy, the singer, the chorus line and the patrons, who are waving party favors and tossing what look like small Styrofoam balls at each other.

Cut to the singer, who playfully tosses a few of these spheres at the guy.

Cut to the guy, who smilingly tries to fends off this attack and gives the woman a shy little wave before he eventually leaves....

I've seen a lot of movies and read a lot (maybe too much) about movies, so when I watch a scene like this it often occurs to me that the shot of the singer tossing the little balls at the guy and the shot of the guy's reaction might well have been done at different times.

So that a) when the balls were tossed at the guy they might well have been tossed by a prop man and b) the guy might well have been smiling back and waving at the prop man, a stand-in -- or maybe nobody at all.

The fact that none of these thoughts occurred to me as I was watching this scene from "G Men" is a testament to the genius of James Cagney.

(And, of course, the brilliance -- and beauty -- of Ann Dvorak, at right, who plays Cagney's singing friend.)

In this 1935 Warner Bros. film, directed by William Keighley, Cagney plays Brick Davis, a lawyer who decides to join the Department of Justice as an agent after a friend, also a government agent, is gunned down.

One complication (from the Department of Foreshadowing) is that Brick's law school education was paid for by an older mobster named McKay in hopes that Brick would stay on the straight and narrow. (Yep, mob bosses do that sort of thing every day.)

You can pretty much write the rest of the movie yourself. Brick's boss, played by a post-Kong Robert Armstrong, is wary of him.

And Robert, of course, has a sister, played by Margaret Lindsay, whose ostensible opinion of Brick is, of course, at least as low as her brother's, though you know that deep down she Really Likes Brick. (And you know this partially because so many of the characters Lindsay was saddled with playing had all the depth of a wading pool.)

At one point Brick is teamed with a young agent played by Lloyd Nolan, making his film debut. But you sense right off that this character has the life expectancy of anyone who ever worked alongside Dirty Harry Callahan, and sure enough, Nolan is gone before too many reels have slipped through the projector, the victim of a gang led by a boss played by Barton MacLane, who would re-emerge years later as the general on "I Dream of Jeannie."

And who is MacLane's girlfriend? Yup, Ann Dvorak. (Sound of one shoe dropping.)

The plot builds to the climatic scene where the gang has kidnapped Lindsay and is holding her at a hotel run by (cue that other shoe) McKay, who doesn't want anything to do with the gang and winds up getting killed -- as does Dvorak.

Cagney winds up with Lindsay in what is supposed to be a happy ending -- but heck, we all know, don't we, that Dvorak would have been a much better match for him, or at least a lot more fun.

Although I've been kidding the plot, I don't mean to put this movie down. This kind of plot might have been fresh back then. Or maybe, to the people making it, it was already at least a little old-hat.

But there are just so many ways to do a genre movie, just as there are just so many ways to play football or baseball or some other sport. The enjoyment -- the thrill, even -- is in the execution, and the team behind "G Men" racks up a very respectable score.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Wile E. and me: Two kindred souls

I feel a certain kinship with Wile E. Coyote.

OK, so I've never been blown up by one of my own inventions.

When it comes to mail -- electronic or snail -- I'm not on Acme Products' sucker list.

And I've never run 20 feet off the edge of a cliff before realizing that, as Ms. Stein might put it, there's no more there there, and I've never waved goodbye just before the gravity kicks in, sending me to the ground with an impact that produces a muted sound effect and mucho broken bones.

Nope -- never been there, never done that.

But I have tried out for "Jeopardy!"


At least four times.

I would have tried out for the show 50 years ago, back when the great Art Fleming (at left) was the "star," but I was only a kid.

(My family had most of the editions of the "Jeopardy!" home games. I usually served as host. My siblings were fond of referring to me as "Art Phlegm." Ah well. As the Bible sayeth, "An emcee is without honor only in his living room.")

My most recent attempts have been made online, through the show's annual test.

My second attempt was at a Native American casino in a nearby town. I went with two other newspaper staffers. We and the other would-be contestants were given a 10-question test. All three of us flunked, but it wasn't a total loss: One of my colleagues treated us to lunch after visiting the gaming room and finding that, at least on this day, the House was a lot more merciful than Merv Griffin Productions.

But I especially remember the first time I tried out for "Jeopardy!" on a Friday afternoon in 1987 after working late the night before.

I was then assigned to my newspaper's news desk and had Fridays off. My desk handled national and international news, along with whatever local stories were deemed worthy of the A section.

And on this particular Thursday night we had a doozy.

One of the city's ex-mayors had been indicted in a kickback scheme.

Not only that -- he was a major ex-mayor, having once served as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

As for his overall popularity, I'm sure he had fresh charisma flown in every day.

So it was a particularly long Thursday night with a lot of page proofs for me to read.

But despite my fatigue after such a long shift, I still showed up around 1 p.m. the next day at the suburban hotel where the test was to be given.

I was far from alone. At least 50 other people stood around nervously before we were led inside a ballroom where card tables had been set up, one for each would-be contestant.

The test consisted of 50 answers. The good news: Our responses didn't have to be in the form of a question. The bad news: We had only 12 minutes to complete the test. No points were taken off for wrong answers, so even a semi-educated guess would be better than a blank space.

As I recall, I knew a few answers immediately. The others? Here's an example: "What 80 and a grand slam have in common."

Give up? Four score.

(Don't feel bad -- I didn't figure it out until I was more than halfway home.)

The answer: "We're whipped!"

The correct response: What was the collective sentiment in the room after those 12 minutes had passed?

As the papers were collected, a TV at the front of the room was turned on and one of the show's staffers said something like:

"And now, while we're scoring your papers, you can watch your favorite show!"

Most of us, I think, just wanted to slink out of the room, holding our coats and hats up to our face in case any photographers were waiting outside to record our shame.

Instead we commiserated about how badly we'd surely done, only to be shushed at one point by a nerdy guy who was sitting near the front and wanted to hear his "favorite show."

"If he doesn't make it," the guy next to me said, "it will have been worth it."

Finally the show's staffers came out to announce the names of those who had made the cut and who would the go on to the next round, in which they would play a pretend "Jeopardy!" game.

A name was announced.


Another name was announced.

More applause.

"And that's it! Thank you for coming!"

Only two?

I don't know whether it's physically possible for a group of people to gasp in unison, but I'm sure we at least deserved an E for effort.

And I'm pretty sure that Mr. Shusher was sent packing along with the rest of us.

The ex-mayor went to prison, eventually returned home and wound up as a greeter at a downtown restaurant. He died one Christmas Day, leaving me with no one else to blame for any future "Jeopardy!" failures.

But I still take the online test each year, and I'm sure that someday I'll be right up on that stage with Alex Trebek.

Just as Wile E. is sure that he'll be having that long-awaited Road Runner repast any day now -- just as soon as that brand-new, atomic-powered slingshot arrives from those ever-innovative geniuses at Acme. What will they think of next?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Am I really all that sweet?

Something odd has been happening to me lately.

It doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough.

And, who knows, maybe it isn't happening just to me.

Maybe it's rampant, almost like a virus, but no one else wants to talk about it.

And if so, I can see why, because it is kind of embarrassing.

Or maybe it's not a viral thing.

Maybe it's something that's almost as bad.

Specifically, a conspiracy.

A customer-service conspiracy.

Because I keep noticing that more and more, if I go to a restaurant or coffee shop, if a woman waits on me -- and it doesn't matter whether she's a table-side server or behind a counter -- she spews an epithet at me.

An epithet that, I will admit, has been applied to me before.

But in the far distant past.

Like when I was a little kid.

It's something that nobody has regularly called me in years.

It's a five-letter word.

It's H-O-N-E-Y.

What's even more disconcerting is that many of the women who call me this are young enough to be my kids.

Or (big sigh) grandkids.

I remember a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode in which Rhoda was taken aback when a younger woman who was waiting on her called her "Ma'am."

So I wonder:

Is "Honey" the male "Ma'am"?

Of course, my gray hairs may have something to do with this.

OK, OK, maybe more than something.

Although I'm not quite 60, perhaps I'm perceived as a helpless older guy who is still (thank God) a few bricks shy of "doddering."

If I am perceived this way, I suppose there's nothing I can do about it

So I suppose that the next time some sweet or semi-sweet young thing calls me "honey" or "hon," I'll take it in stride.

As long as she remembers to give me the senior discount.