Friday, June 26, 2015

Farewell to an ever-faithful Steed

“An old enemy lures Emma to a deserted house for a deadly game of cards.”

That’s how the Internet Movie Database describes the setup for “The Joker,” my favorite episode of “The Avengers.”

And for our purposes, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

Except, maybe, that the enemy is deadly, crazy and, in an odd way, pathetic.

And very weird.

Emma Peel figures this out pretty quickly when, while alone in the house, and not having seen her host, she finds a picture of herself cut up. And someone is playing an old phonograph record of a German song that is sweet and haunting – think “Lili Marlene” – yet somehow threatening.

I admit that when I watch the episode these days on YouTube I mainly watch the last few minutes, which epitomize the show and the relationship between Emma Peel and John Steed. (And you might successfully argue that this relationship was the show.)

The villain has revealed himself, and he comes after Emma as an organ on the sound track frantically covers the action. Emma can usually take care of herself very well, thank you, but this time the bad guy gets the upper hand, and the hand is holding a knife, and he has every intention of doing to her what he’s done to her picture when….

From out of nowhere, that song starts playing again; someone – who? – has turned on the phonograph.

The bad guy gets up and then sees, coming toward him, a giant playing card that, as it approaches, is swaying in rhythm to the eerie song. I’m still not sure whether the giant card hits the villain or if he just faints, but it doesn’t matter – he is disposed of.

Emma, now armed, points her gun warily at the giant card.

Then the card falls to the floor and the gentleman who was behind the card looks down at the villain.

“Oh dear,” says the dapper gent in the bowler hat. “I hope I didn’t frighten him.”

“Steed!” Emma says, her voice and face showing her relief – and great affection.

If anyone who wasn’t around in the 1960s and has read the tributes to the late Patrick Macnee and “The Avengers” ever asks you what all the fuss was about, just show those last few minutes of “The Joker.”

It’s almost amazing that “The Avengers” caught on in the U.S. It’s everything that most American TV shows of that era weren’t – subtle, classy, made for viewers who, it was assumed, were smart enough to get the humor.

You might have noticed that I said it was “almost” amazing that it played well here. I think the main reason it did was the chemistry between John Steed and the character that he almost always called “Mrs. Peel.”

Or, if you want to put it another way (and I sure won’t argue with you), it was the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.

I suppose there are still fans today who debate the all-important issue of “Did they or didn’t they?” I like to think they didn’t; I like to think that Steed was too much a gentleman to do more than playfully flirt with a woman who, as far as everyone knew, was still married, even if her husband was missing somewhere.

And in Rigg’s last episode, he did turn up, and that was the only time that Steed, saying his final goodbye to her, called her “Emma.” Whereupon he watched from an upstairs window as she got into a car that was occupied by her husband – whom we couldn’t really see, though he was wearing (you guessed it) a bowler hat.

Aside from the sterling work of Macnee and Rigg, I think two other key reasons for show’s success were the scripts by Brian Clemens (he seemed to write most of the episodes) and the music of Laurie Johnson. The two of them also collaborated on that eerie German song.

One thing that I have found truly amazing about “The Avengers” is how the show developed. I read many years ago that in the original version, not shown in the U.S. in the 1960s, Steed was a guy who helped a doctor avenge the death of his fiancée. After that was accomplished, the doc disappeared from the show (an extended house call, I assume) and Steed, who in those days dressed more casually, went on to fight crime with a series of partners before settling on Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman of “Goldfinger” fame.

I always figured these episodes would be great to see. I mean, John Steed and James Bond’s Pussy Galore? How could they miss?

It turns out that they could and they did – by several country kilometres.

Because some years ago, A&E announced it would be running the original Avengers episodes, and I eagerly awaited them.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I don’t mean that the show was awful -- it’s just that, well, it wasn’t “The Avengers.” It was typical hardboiled stuff that wasn’t helped by being shot on videotape, which meant that, given the technology of the times, you wound up with a lot more indoor scenes compared with the later, more expansive version. I couldn’t fault Macnee and Blackman, but I couldn’t get excited about their characters, either.

I don’t know what led the producers to totally make over the show, but they somehow took a run-of-the-mill thriller and turned it into something that’s at least pretty near a classic.

I suspect that most of the credit goes to Brian Clemens, who had written episodes of the original version. Maybe he saw the show’s special potential, and Macnee and Rigg were only too happy (or just needed money enough) to go along with it.

By all accounts, Macnee was as classy as his most famous character.

And I suspect he was the main reason that I was allowed to watch “The Avengers.”

Because I don’t think my mother liked Emma Peel very much. But I do think she had a little crush on Steed.

And though I’m saddened to hear about Macnee, I’m glad that for at least a few days, any young people who do a Google search for “The Avengers” might learn that marvels don’t always start with Marvel.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Always a father, but not quite a dad

The death of Dick Van Patten reminded me of an episode of “To Tell the Truth” that I saw in the early 1980s.

This was a later episode of what aficionados call “TTTT” – years after Bud Collyer and Garry Moore hosted the show. The host for this episode was a guy named Robin Ward, whom I had never heard of and don’t think I’ve seen since.

This episode included a segment featuring Tom Braden, the journalist who wrote the book on which “Eight Is Enough” was based and whom Van Patten played on TV, though the name was changed to Tom Bradford.

Braden later became the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” where he sparred with Patrick Buchanan every night.

I wonder whether Braden would have been offered the job if he hadn’t been famous for “Eight Is Enough.” I say this because although I’m sure he was a capable journalist, he had all the TV charisma of a baked potato that had been left in the rain for two days. He always seemed tired and sometimes dyspeptic, like a guy who gets up in the middle of the night and wishes he hadn’t had that fourth burrito.

But Braden wasn’t the only TV host of that era who always seemed tired. Around the time that Braden was glumly holding forth on “Crossfire,” Charlie Rose was burning the 2 a.m. oil as host of “CBS News Nightwatch,” which I often watched after getting home from my late shift at the newspaper.

Rose had good guests and was an excellent interviewer. But his eyes always seemed droopy, to the point where I was sure that he wasn’t the real host of “Nightwatch” – the real host, I figured, was some guy who never showed up for work because he was sozzled or otherwise indisposed, and every night a production assistant with a key to Rose’s home would rush into Rose’s bedroom and jostle him: “Charlie1 You gotta do the show! The dirty so-and-so stiffed us again!”

And every night, after he signed off the show and the floor manager gave him the “all clear,” Charlie would collapse on the floor, and when it came time to do CBS’ morning show, folks such as Bill Kurtis, Diane Sawyer and Charles Osgood would considerately tiptoe around him until he finally woke up and quietly went home.

I can’t recall whether Tom Braden seemed sleepy on “To Tell the Truth” because the main thing I remember about that segment was one of the impostors – No. 3, to be exact.

No. 3 looked awfully familiar. I was sure I recognized him. But no, it can’t be, I told myself, but the resemblance is way too uncanny….

Finally the real Tom Braden, asked to “please stand up,” did so, and it was time to meet the fakers.

And it turned out that No. 3, one of the two guys pretending to be the father of eight kids, was indeed the guy I thought he was.

He was a former president of my alma mater.

And a Jesuit priest.

Translation: It would make a bomb squad weep

On Facebook this week, a friend and former colleague reported that she was awaiting the delivery of an item that, according to its description, "Ships in Certified Frustration-Free Packaging."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Obviously a mistake -- it only felt like 104 years

Julie M. Mah, a sharp-eyed copy editor for The Wichita Eagle, was editing an AP story about the death of "Eight Is Enough" star Dick Van Patten when she came to this sentence:

"The ABC comedy-drama aired from 1877-1981."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Yo, Hayley: Let's get together and compare gray hairs

Today marks the 54th anniversary of the release of the original version of “The Parent Trap,” starring Hayley Mills.

I found this out a few hours ago and would have written about it sooner if I had been able to do so, but you might say that I was indisposed. You might also say that the next time I go through my medicine cabinet I should make sure that the expiration date on my bottle of smelling salts is reasonably well within the current century.

As you might have gathered by now, the 1961 version of “The Parent Trap” has a special significance for me. For it marks the first time that I fell in love – or whatever passes for love when you’re 6 going on 7.

For quite some time I was fascinated by Hayley Mills, and I’m not ashamed to own up to that. And I hasten to point out that I wasn’t an obsessive fan – I didn’t keep a scrapbook, cut out pictures of her, or anything borderline creepy.

Then again, I did put my life on the line for dear Hayley. There was a song from the movie, “Let’s Get Together,” sung by the two identical Hayleys, and yes, I had the record, and yes, I played it a lot. Probably too much. More than probably too much.

Nowadays, despite my erstwhile affection for Hayley, I doubt I could stand to listen to more than a couple of bars of the thing. And when I say that I put my life on the line, I mean that no jury in the world would have jailed my parents for breaking the record – and the record player – over my silly little head. (And if a migraine-inducing arrangement isn't a mitigating factor, what is?)

Not that I blame Hayley for any of this. She was merely a marketing tool. And over the years I have retained a fond memory of her, even though we have both moved on. (Well, at least I have. I can’t speak for her. Well OK, in this case I probably can.)

And no, I have never seen, nor do I ever intend to see, the Lindsay Lohan version.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Who's the plaintiff.... What's the defendant....

Two guys enter the stage from opposite sides. One of them is carrying a suitcase.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking my case to court!”

Later, the same two guys again enter the stage, again from opposite ends. The guy who was carrying the suitcase is now carrying a ladder.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m taking my case to a higher court!”

I was reminded of this old routine when I read the other day that the heirs of Abbott and Costello have filed a lawsuit against the producers of a Broadway play because it includes part of Bud and Lou’s most famous routine, Who’s on First? The play, “Hand to God,” was nominated for five Tonys.

I like Abbott and Costello in short doses. If I do sit through one of their features, I mainly bide my time until I come to the parts where they do a classic routine. (If you look at most of their Universal features, you’ll usually find John Grant's name among the writing credits; he had an encyclopedic memory for burlesque and vaudeville routines, and it was his job to work them into the scripts.)

Bud and Lou deserve a lot of credit for preserving these old routines, both in their movies but especially in their TV show – The Lemon Table, Pack and Unpack, The Mustard Routine, Niagara Falls and, last but certainly not least, Flugel Street – in addition to Who’s on First?

Thing is, from what I’ve read and heard over the years, these routines didn’t begin with Bud and Lou. The two of them reportedly weren’t even the first to do “Who’s on First?”

“The lawsuit is baseless; the material in question is in the public domain, and the show’s producer carefully vetted” it with the show’s lawyers, a spokesman for the production told The New York Times.

I’m no lawyer, let alone a copyright lawyer, but I do know that it’s possible for material that was in the public domain to be copyrighted again – I’m particularly thinking of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which for years was out of copyright and mainly available in crappy VHS and DVD versions that had been duped so often that when you watched them on TV you could almost see right through them to the back of your TV, your living-room wall and the house next door.

So I suppose it’s possible that the heirs could have had “Who’s on First?” copyrighted.

And I don’t mean to seem unsympathetic to the Abbott and Costello estates. I’ve often thought that when Abbott, in his later years, ran into serious tax troubles, the government should have given him a break, considering that during World War II, Bud and Lou raised millions (as much as $85 million, some sources say) for the war effort.

But as far as the current lawsuit is concerned, I can’t help thinking that their descendants may well be out of luck.

Or as Chief Brody from “Jaws” might tell them:

“You’re gonna need a bigger ladder!”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Betsy Palmer

Part of me is annoyed that many people probably remember her only as the killer in the “Friday the 13th” movie.

Then again, I suppose that if it weren’t for that slasher film, the same people wouldn’t know of her at all.

And like so many of her contemporaries, she deserves to be remembered.

I am of that generation that mainly thinks of her as one of the four panelists on “I’ve Got a Secret,” the others being Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Bess Myerson. And Ms. Myerson herself died last year. (I sadly remember editing many stories about her during my time on the wire desk during the 1980s. She was embroiled – as journalists like to say – in a scandal in New York City that was called “The Bess Mess.” Memo to celebs: If you want to avoid being ensnarled in a catchy phrase like “The Bess Mess,” get yourself embroiled in some other community that is far, far from Manhattan’s creative scribes – another word journalists like to use.)

I should add that before I started watching the show, the original panelists included Jayne Meadows and Faye Emerson. I’ve seen kinescopes of some of those shows, though, and Ms. Emerson often annoys me for some reason. Maybe it’s because she sometimes seems to come across as a know-it-all who is at best a know-it-some.

And I remember how, during a visit to my hometown many moons ago, Ms. Emerson very much annoyed the manager of the local summer playhouse when she insisted that he turn off the air-conditioning system during her play. To the surprise of absolutely no one who knew this producer (who many years later got away with not paying for a tetanus shot after my sister, working as an unpaid apprentice, stepped on a nail) easily prevailed.

I should also note the recent passing of Ms. Meadows, whom I did find to be charming, savvy and intelligent, even if she did sometimes seem overly appreciative of whatever her husband, Steve Allen, happened to be saying or doing. (Can't help wondering if whoever performed their marriage ceremony concluded it by saying "I now pronounce you man and laugh track.")

Betsy Palmer had a telegenic sweetness that was perfect for television, and a friend of mine who interviewed her for his radio show says that what you saw was what she was.

Yet there was a certain, infrequent slyness about her on-air naivete. She would once in a while, and seemingly inadvertently, say something that was a little risqué, apparently not realizing exactly what she had said, but I think I knew what she was doing all the time, and because she didn’t do it often, and because she wasn’t annoying about this sort of thing (memo to Carol Channing and Charo: Yes, I do mean you), I was apt to look the other way.

A few days ago I watched a segment of “I’ve Got a Secret” that involved three women. As she was questioning them on live TV, Betsy Palmer’s zipper broke, and Cullen and Morgan rushed to her aid.

This could have happened to any woman on live TV.

But what made Betsy Palmer unique was that as this on-air embarrassment was playing itself out, she thought it necessary to apologize to the three women.

That shows a genuineness, and a class, that I fear we don’t find often these days, and not just on TV.