In Praise of Barney Miller

A few days ago, we lost another one. Comedian and actor Steve Landesburg passed away. Sadly underused and underrated, he made his most lasting impact as the fact-filled Lt. Arthur Dietrich on ABC’s Barney Miller, the great sitcom of the 70s.

I’ve always had a special affection for that show. When it originally aired, I was too young to “get” its droll sensibilities. So much of its comedy was derived from pondering, pauses and outright silence, that I hadn’t a clue what could be inspiring so much laughter from the studio audience. Still, I faithfully watched it by my Pop’s side (it was one of his favorites). He’d sit there laughing and laughing, and I’d be saying in my pipsqueak voice, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it? There’s nothing going on! They’re not even talking! Why are you laughing?!” I started to catch on when I was around 11 (aka Barney Miller’s 7th season).

I could go on and on about show’s many accomplishments/merits:
        -its depiction of bankrupt New York City in the 70s and the impact that had on crime and the city’s mentality
        -its theme song, arguably the most-sung bassline of all time, giving air-bassists a weekly workout


-its principle cast (don’t get me started!)





        -its supporting cast, a rotation of character actors, which made the show virtually a weekly Preston Sturges film; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore Flicker fearlessly reused actors season and season, always in different roles, like a stock company. (For example, the crumpled Phil Leeds appeared 7 times in 8 seasons, each time playing a different victim or perpetrator.)


But that praise will have to come another time. Until then, here’s a clip that sums up the show’s strengths. It’s the conclusion of season 3’s 4th episode (“Bus Stop”), which aired October 14, 1976, but that’s all irrelevant. Lt. Dietrich is doing what he usually does—espousing fact after fact—to his fellow detectives, Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). It’s a beautiful example of comic timing.

Who could imagine so much laughter could be derived by simply watching two homely men chew doughnuts?

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Filed under Comedy, R.I.P.

Meeting Spalding Gray, Pt 2, or My Adventures in Blurbing

Last post I recounted the good fortune I had to meet Spalding Gray in 1989. Our paths crossed again in the summer of 1994. By then I was fresh out of film school and hustling around NYC as a location scout, editor, AP, you name it. A new hobby of mine was giving away VHS copies of In Person, my short documentary about fans of Frank Sinatra; I’d mail it to anyone who’d ever accomplished anything and who might then say something nice (and quotable) about my film. I began with some filmmakers I’d had direct contact with via film school, such as documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and soon learned that I was ensconced in the World of Blurbing. I was unaware of all the permutations of the word “blurb” beyond a noun, but my shucking-and-jiving was apparently a common practice.

I’m loathe to do the whole “Y’know, kids, before there was the internet…” rap, but there was something incredibly homespun about self-promotion in the last century that’s different nowadays. I think this story has an old-timey blend of happenstance, legwork and luck.

Understandably, Spalding was high on my list of craftsmen/celebrities that I hoped would blurb my film. (In Person is composed entirely of people telling stories.) After some research, I sent him a tape, through his agent, a package which also included my standard cover letter (equal parts fawning and begging, as humbly as possible). Months passed, until one night, in the midst of a terrible date, I checked my answering machine…

I’d call that a keeper.

A couple of months of phone tag ensued. I’d call him, apologize, reintroduce myself, remind him of my film—and all the while, on the other end, he’d be apologizing back, explaining his delays in writing the blurb, and encouraging me to keep calling him. When Kathie Russo, his wife, would answer the phone, she’d promise to hound him on my behalf. Eventually, during one of these calls, she invited me to a benefit performance of Gray’s Anatomy, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Wooster Group.

The event was in late November, at Washington Irving High School in the city, in their auditorium. I was always thrilled to get free tickets and/or food (I still get that way). Just before Spalding took the stage, looked across the aisle to see John Waters sitting a few feet from me! (On the way out, I timed it so we’d be side-by-side. I introduced myself and handed him the VHS of my film [naturally I had a copy with me]. He gushed over the cover photo and said he couldn’t wait to see the film—but then quickly added, “But I won’t blurb it!” Damn!)

At the reception afterwards, I gingerly approached Spalding, who was standing with three other people. He remembered me and introduced me to Kathie. (Even though she wasn’t new in his life, she was unknown to the general public. She told me that she’d be arriving “in a few monologues.”) She teased him about dragging his heels on writing something for me (it had been almost five months since his phone call). The other couple standing there asked, “What film?” Before I could speak up, Spalding and Kathie spoke at length about my short documentary. I didn’t have to do anything. They did all the hyping for me! I felt like the belle of the ball. A dream. I love this town! During my giddiness, I looked over my shoulder and there was Steve Buscemi, standing solo, nursing a cocktail! Holy smokes! (And I had just given out my last VHS! Double damn!)

The night ended with Spalding reiterating that I should keep nagging him. A week or so later, I called. Once more, Spalding offered sincere apologies. “Call me back in 10 minutes, with a pen and paper ready.”

I did and he told me to write down everything he said. He spoke slowly and specifically about my film: “A delightful implosion. What a nice surprise to see not-so-ordinary people become the stars simply by talking about THE STAR.” He clarified every period and hyphen and stressed that the last two words “should be all capital letters.”

And that’s the story. Hardly Swimming to Cambodia, but memorable nevertheless (especially for a 25-year-old kid). Based on Spalding’s generosity every time I had contact with him, I’m inclined to believe others had similar experiences: friendly, a tad neurotic, and definitely “New York.” If you have any of your own, I encourage you to visit SpaldingGray.com and share them on the Brushes with Spalding page. There’s a lot of great stories already there.

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New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”

 

We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…

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“Home” for the Holidays: Christmas in South Jersey

I’m proud and happy to announce the launch of a new website, exclusively for the holiday season. Christmas in South Jersey is the online version of a photo album I made 18 years ago.

I don’t know if the rural and suburban areas of Southern New Jersey are unique, but back in 1992, it was all I knew. And every December, the lawns become cluttered with lights and ornaments, a mishmash of Nativity scenes and North Pole motifs. Jesus and Santa Claus would be side-by-side. The Virgin Mary strangely close to a plastic snowman. Angels sharing porch space with reindeer. (Trust me, my Jewish friends, it was as confounding to me as it would be to you!) And in the harsh daylight sun, it was clear that these seasonal trophies were dreadfully old, weather-beaten and tethered to a dozen feet of orange extension cords.


And the faces of South Jersey are equally fascinating…

A few days after I graduated film school, I spent ten days combing the backwoods of my home state, taking about 800 photographs, and making a 45-page photo album, which has been seen by very few people since.

So, when you have a few minutes during your crazy December, check it out. I’d like to think being 18 years old gives the album nostalgic value, but I bet most of these Christmas ornaments are still in service.

(I made this website in iWeb and am still tweaking it. It looks the way I want it to, but, frankly, the program’s pretty unpredictable. It’s possible I’ll pull it down and relaunch another way. Until then, I welcome feedback of any kind, especially suggestions for alternatives to iWeb.)

And, please, in the spirit of giving, share this link with your friends!

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Woody Allen, David Lynch and the Craziest of Double Features

In October, 1980, my mother took me to London for a week. I was 11 years old. As much as I was enjoying myself, I was hopelessly “American” and going out of my head after a few days. I may have loved the Beatles and Monty Python, but I was pining for things like baseball and commercial interruptions on TV. By the end of the week, my mother admitted that she, too, was missing the good ol’ U S of A, and we decided to see an American film in Picadilly Circus. One theater was showing Annie Hall—what could be more American than Woody Allen, right? And it was a double feature, with another American film that neither of us had heard of it. Understandably, we figured that if it was paired off with Annie Hall, it must therefore be a comedy in a similar vein. It even had a funny title: Eraserhead.

Ultimately, we passed on both films and it was a few years before I saw David Lynch’s first feature, the entire time saying, “This?! This?! The Brits thought this played well with the Best Picture of 1977?!”

Admittedly, it is a dazzling combo—but that’s the revisionist in me talking. (For example, Annie Hall’s tagline is “A Nervous Romance,” which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be such a bad tagline for Eraserhead.) But from a commercial standpoint—for a broad and mainstream  audience—it’s quite the mismatch.

Revisiting London in 1998, I went looking for some exciting film posters. I found this beaut and snagged it for a mere ten pounds…

OK, it’s not as insane as combining Diane Keaton and Jack Nance, but it’s definitely unusual. For those unfamiliar with the films, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician forced to protect himself and his wife by killing a band of marauding, raping English villagers; while Bert Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1975), loosely based on the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, is exactly as the poster appears: giant rats, worms and wasps eat and kill their way through a lot of faded stars and b-movie regulars. (Its American tagline was “For a taste of Hell…”)

I’ve never seen these films consecutively, though I expect the sheer intensity of Straw Dogs would make The Food of the Gods even more of a snooze than it already is. But as far as pure magnetic advertising goes—something to entice you to shell out your hard-earned pounds—it’s genius. Barum-esque. This poster was in my bedroom for years, over my desk, and I used to stare it endlessly, wondering why it was so damn fascinating. Was it..



…the brutality associated with Straw Dogs’s director OR the terror associated with The Food of the Gods’s author?









The image of a blonde being raped by a man OR a brunette being eaten by a ginormous, feral rodent?










The steely gaze of Dustin Hoffman sporting a rifle OR the razor-sharp fangs of enormous rat?









The extreme close-up of a sweatered-but-braless chest OR the heaving, negligee’d cleavage?






No matter how you slice it, there’s something to disturb, offend and/or entertain everybody: Dogs…rats. Guns…fangs. Nipples…cleavage. What a night on the town!

Please, if anyone reading this has seen other exciting and highly imaginative British Double Features, let us know in the Comments section.

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On a personal front, I’ve cherished this Peckinpah-Wells poster for years, though the only people to see have been a few roommates, some friends and a few “lucky” girlfriends. Since getting married—and losing most of my apartment’s poster real estate in the process—this awesome artifact has languished in the basement. To liberate it for this post—and share it with all of you wonderful people—the 20”x 30” poster had to be scanned in 40 pieces and stitched together in Photoshop. Honestly, if I knew it would require that much damn work, you’d be looking at a blank post right now.

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Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity

I Knew It Was You: The Sixth John Cazale Film

A few months ago, when Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale aired on HBO, I wrote a post about it, going on and on (and on). Well, today the DVD of that doc hits the stores. (Inexplicably, it’s not yet available via Netflix, but if you add it to your queue, they’ll get the idea!)

The DVD’s bonus features include 40 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Al Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz; all of “The American Way,” a 1962 short film featuring Cazale (only clips are shown in the doc); and an audio commentary by Shepard. I’m a fan of Richard’s other commentaries (i.e. The Matador) as they are funny and informative, real How To’s for independent filmmaking.

OK, I’m biased. I’ve known Richard for a dozen years. I’ve worked for him, played poker with him, and, hell, he even recorded one of his commentaries in my living room. One of our favorite pastimes was hanging out with Adam Lichtenstein (the documentary’s editor) and talking endlessly about 70s cinema.

Recently, Richard gave me some time to talk about the film and its effect on him as a filmmaker…
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Richard Shepard: I am really happy the doc is even getting out on DVD. Y’know, for a forty minute short to come out on DVD is not an every day occurrence.

Stephen Altobello: A forty minute doc barely has a market in the first place, much less on DVD. It was awesome that BAM did a Cazale festival last year [screening all five of his films] and screened your doc a couple of times with it. I can imagine for a revival house that a Cazale festival is a license to print money.

Richard: That is so true. You would think they would do this all the time. There was just a screening of Dog Day Afternoon up in San Francisco where they showed the documentary, and I can imagine going forward in my life showing this movie in various film revival places, whenever they show those movies. Because it is a perfect companion to them. I kept joking that I was interested to see the Netflix demands for these movies after its aired on HBO. I think any Film Lover who sees one second of so many of those movies gets that Film Lover Erection.

Stephen: Sure. I’m picturing people having double feature nights, where they show your film and, say, The Godfather. It would be also awesome if it lives, like you said, in a revival house capacity. That it becomes known as the sixth Cazale film.

Richard: That would be insane if that was the case.

Stephen: Have actors and directors come up to you after seeing the film?

Richard: Well, it’s an unintended positive consequence of this documentary in that it is so actor packed that if you’re sending out a script, trying to get an actor attached to it, sending this documentary with it, it’s like people see this and they suddenly believe, truthfully or not–and I would like to believe its truthfully–that I love actors and the craft of acting and understand its importance. So in some strange way, it’s like this incredible catnip for actors for me getting them into other projects. Which is not what I intended, obviously, but I certainly don’t mind that consequence, and certainly every actor that has seen it has been extraordinarily moved and positive about it. It’s not like I’m getting phone calls from Brad Pitt, but it is strange how many meetings I go to and parties and whatever, and people are like, “Oh my God, you made that movie, I loved it!”

Stephen: I guess the big question is, since you’ve immersed yourself for so long in this project, do you feel you have been directing actors differently, better, more intuitively? How has it paid off for you in that sense?

Richard: Well, yesterday we were auditioning actors and this actress was really good, but she just wasn’t listening at all, and it was this weird moment where I am like, “She really can say her lines great, but she is not really listening to the other lines and not really reacting in any organic away.” And while everyone in the room was like, “She was great,” I’m like, “She was great, but let’s watch the tape of her because you’re going to see she is not acting because she’s not reacting, and thus we’re going to die moving forward because there is no real heartbeat there.” And that realization came from what I learned from Cazale, and I was like, “Wow.” I think I have a different eye than I might have even had a year ago, and I would like to see how that extends to actual work, as opposed to an audition process.

Stephen: Right. I suppose if you were an asshole, you might have a stack of those DVDs at your auditions and that would be your way of saying they didn’t get the role: “Here, take a copy on your way out.”

Richard: Or pay for one and maybe you’ll get a role! [laughs]

Stephen: About your interviewing process for the film, I heard you explain you’re not an interviewer but just very, very curious, which is a real difference. I hadn’t seen that many interviews with Pacino, but I was surprised at how generous and sincere he seemed. Were you similarly surprised during the interview?

Richard: Yes. I felt that when that interview was done that we didn’t need to do any other interviews and we would still have a documentary. He really came into that room wanting to talk. It was almost as if when we finished, he was upset that we were leaving. Which, by the way, is a great place to be if you’re doing a documentary, because it’s like, he was just ready…he came very thoughtful and passionate and emotional. I think that Pacino appreciates that we were coming at it from a place of love, and he didn’t think we were being disingenuous. He really came in there and said, “I’m giving you myself. This is all I’m doing today. I’m going to do this. I’m going to eat a dinner and have a glass of wine, and that’s my day.“

Stephen: I was so amazed. Everything you just said, by the way, reads in the film. What vibe you got while doing the interview, is on the screen. Sometimes a great interview doesn’t necessarily mean it will be great in the doc. And you lucked out there. I had a similar lucky experience interviewing Scorsese about The Last Waltz. Nobody would ever talk to him about that film more than what it would take to get from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. It would get, like, a paragraph. And he gave me ninety minutes on The Last Waltz when his assistant assured me I wouldn’t get even an hour with him.

Richard: And he was probably thrilled about it, because, a) he doesn’t talk about it a lot and b) he is sitting next to someone who loves the movie and is smart about it. There is nothing better than giving an interview to someone who knows what they’re talking about. When I was promoting The Matador…my God, there was one day at the Toronto Film Festival when we did a three straight press junket and it came right after three straight days in France doing the same thing. It was six straight days, every fifteen minutes a different interviewer. And it was mind numbing on a level that you can’t even imagine. I was, like, this is the hardest work I have ever done! Trying to make these answers seem fresh. Trying to remain enthusiastic. Trying not to punch someone in the face. And so I know there’s nothing better than talking to someone who is passionate about your film and doesn’t feel like, “I am just a piece of the process as well,” or, “I have to do twelve interviews today,” but instead is like, ”I want to sit down with you and talk about your movie in a real way.” Those are the best interviews because you’re like, “Oh, I am totally connected to this person.”

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So, this holiday season, what could be a better gift for the Film Lover in your life than a DVD of one of Cazale’s films, coupled with I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale?

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The Thin Man and the Little Erection, or How to Imagine Myrna Loy Talkin’ Dirty

I’ve been intimate with the Thin Man films since I was 13. And “intimate” is a good way to put it: it’s easy to feel close to such a hip couple as Nick and Nora Charles, as vividly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. They’re funny, smart and incredibly sexy (especially Ms. Loy. Whoa). The series of films is considered to be one of Hollywood’s strongest and most consistently entertaining. Still I’m surprised how few people I’ve met who’ve also read the book, written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1934 (a mere five months before the first Thin Man film was released).

The book was Hammett’s fifth crime novel in as many years and was an instant bestseller (more below on the reasons why). There are many similarities between the book and the film, although mainstream literature of the day was even spicier than pre-code cinema. For example, although Nick and Nora drink heavily in the film, it’s a drop in the (ice) bucket compared to the book: with over 20 references to cocktails in the first 7 pages alone, Hammett’s prose is enough to make Don Draper order a Shirley Temple.

The book is more of a mystery with comic undertones, whereas the film plays more like a comedy with a mystery attached to it. (Well, not exactly, but I’m always surprised how The Thin Man tends to be referred to as one of the great screwball comedies of the 30s.) Like the film, the witty repartee between Nick and Nora is the key to its charm. 1   Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich take that sexy banter as written by Hammett and run with it. For example, here’s Nick and Nora’s first conversation in the book…

Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She…patted the dog’s head and left us.
        We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
        “If you like them like that.”
        She grinned at me. “You got types?”
        “Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
        “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
        “That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”

Which Hackett and Goodrich stretched out to this…


And this is why I urge fans of the Thin Man films to read the book: thanks to the wonderful chemistry between its lead actors, when you read the book, you can hear Powell and Loy saying the lines, even the racier ones that were removed or watered down for the film. Here some examples of the book’s more unusual exchanges, most the kind you wouldn’t hear even in pre-code films:

NICK: How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
NORA: Why don’t you stay sober today?
NICK: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?
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NORA: (tasting a speakeasy drink and shuddering) Do you suppose this could be the ‘bitter vetch’ they used to put in cross-word puzzles? [Google it.]
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NICK: Do you mind putting the gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m pregnant and I don’t want the child to be born with—(he gets interrupted)
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NORA: Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
NICK: Oh, a little.
NORA: (laughing) If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher.

Even with a broad-minded reading public, this last exchange was over the top. The attention it received helped the book become a bestseller. To fan those flames, publisher Alfred Knopf placed this ad in the New York Times, on January 30, 1934, even signing it:

(It also helped the book get banned in Canada.) Most subsequent editions—those not published by Knopf–altered the passage to “…when you were wrestling Mimi, didn’t you get excited?” 2

Do I think these risqué passages make Hammett’s final novel worth reading? Not exactly. (Though it makes for a hell of blog post title!) But I think the book as a whole is an excellent compliment to the film, we’ll say the R-rated version to the film’s PG-13. Nick and Nora in print-form are a little looser, a littler drunker, and a little dirtier.

So if you ever pick up a copy of the book—and I highly recommend any and all Hammett—you should first check out the conclusion to Chapter 25. If it makes you blush then you know you’re holding something Hammett-approved.

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BACK TO POST 1 Hammett supposedly based Nick and Nora on himself and his lover, author Lillian Hellman. He dedicated the book to her and told her she was Nora. “It was nice to be Nora,” Hellman wrote in 1965, “married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”

BACK TO POST 2 As I’ve only read the Knopf edition, this alteration was news to me. Once I met someone who’d recently read the book; I said, “How about that ‘erection’ line?’ which created much confusion in the ensuing conversation.

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Filed under Books, Film, Humor

R.I.P. Joe Mantell: “Forget it, Marty. It’s Chinatown.”

I was still reeling from the news of the passing of two Hollywood luminaries—Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis—when I heard that wonderful character actor Joe Mantell had also passed on within the last 24 hours.

Although Mantell is nowhere near as familiar as Penn or Curtis—by name or by a lengthy and distinguished resumé—Mantell nevertheless holds a special place in our collective heart: He’s the one who tells Jake Gittes to “forget it.”

Since this very famous line (#74 on AFI’s 100 Most Memorable Movie Quotes) is part of the final scene of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), I’m unwilling to include it here as a video clip. So, instead, here’s a still from that scene and if you’d like to here Mr. Mantell (playing Walsh) utter the famous line, simply click the picture.

In truth, Mantell was doubly lucky, at least so far as having secured a place in the Lexicon of Film Quotes. Not only did he get that fantastic line from Chinatown, he also originated the character of Angie in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, first on live TV in 1953 and again in the 1955 film version (he’s the only principal actor to appear in bother versions). Therefore, Mantell is also responsible for half of this famous and oft-quoted exchange:

Angie: So, what do you feel like doin’, tonight?

Marty: I don’t know, Ang’…What do you feel like doin’?

Here’s the clip from Delbert Mann’s film:

It may not be as famous in most circles as “Forget it, Jake,” but it is where I come from. I was stunned when I made that connection that Mantell originated both lines. (I hadn’t been that shocked by a piece of film trivia since I heard that the cute, 13-year-old chick from National Lampoon’s Animal House and Maggie, the Scottish girlfriend from Caddyshack, were one and the same.)

And so it goes: it will be a long couple of days in my world, full of wonderful quotes from Bonnie and Clyde, Some Like It Hot, Chinatown, and Marty.

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The Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Quiz

Two weeks I did a post that was in part about pop culture references on 30 Rock. I certainly enjoy their frequent nods to all-things-geeky, but my heart belongs to Seinfeld. While 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tends to be meta in her approach, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David just love using their favorite films and TV shows as punchlines, especially references to old comedians, which makes perfect sense when you think, well, the show is about a stand-up comic.

While re-watching several seasons’ worth of Seinfeld recently, I was struck by how high-end their lowbrow was. Some of their references seemed beyond the reach of the average primetime TV viewer of the mid-90s (a point typically driven home by the use of a laugh track to “sweeten” those jokes that failed to get a large response from the studio audience). Ozzie Nelson’s fashion sense, the lyrics to the theme song of The Patty Duke Show, and Kris Kringle speaking Dutch in Miracle on 34th St were all referenced without explanation. Either you got it or you didn’t.

This 3-and-a-half minute quiz has 7 clips from Seinfeld, each punctuated by a joke that banks on your knowledge of popular culture of the last 80 years. When you’re done, click “Keep reading” at the bottom of the page to see the answers. (Hey, at the very least you get to see a few minutes of great gags from Jerry and the Gang!)

Continue reading

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Filed under Humor, TV

She Could Turn the World on with Her…

Did you ever notice that Mary Richards (the heroine of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) rarely dated a man for more than a single episode? Oh, sure, that’s the way TV was back then in the 70s, with self-contained episodes, before sitcoms and dramas had on-going storylines, but still, you had to wonder…Just how loose was Mary? Was she a heartbreaker? Afraid of commitment?

I feel neither qualified nor compelled to write at length about the depiction of feminism on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—it’s also too broad and important a topic to shortchange in a blog post. However, while watching on DVD the first three seasons of the show, I became sensitive to this recurring motif (we see how her relationships begin but rarely how they end) and wondered if all involved were subversively telling me something. Finally I saw a moment—a single joke—where all my suspicions were addressed.

I’ve always known that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970-77, was classic TV, even when I was watching them as first run episodes. (Of course, as a kid, I would have been happier if it were simply The Ted Baxter Show.) As an adult, without having re-watched many episodes in syndication, I would have assessed the show as such:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more progressive than its immediate predecessor, Marlo Thomas’s That Girl (1966-71), where the central character’s independence was hampered by her inbred sense of settling down and marrying her boyfriend Donald; and the show was definitely the beginning of career-focused women in TV, paving the way for the likes of Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon.

While recently watching the show on DVD, I found that my assessment wasn’t that far off. But it was Mary Richards’s sex life that I hadn’t considered. I guess I thought she had one but didn’t know the show implied it so strongly.

I would have assumed any episode dealing Mary’s sex life would have been clichéd TV: a lengthy set up and an extended scene or two of soul searching on Mary’s part, with a touch of humor here and there. (You know the kind of sitcom episodes I’m talking about, right? The anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Stokes comes to mind. Also, when Edith Bunker enters menopause on All in the Family. Big problems, moral dilemmas, laugh-track free scenes—stuff like that. When I was a kid, you’d always know when these episodes were coming because they’d get a “Close Up” in the TV Guide.)

But, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore and creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, the issue of Mary Richards’s sex life is quite the contrary. There’s a complete lack of judgment or concern. It’s presented matter-of-factly.

A crucial episode of season 3 has Mary’s retired parents moving to Minneapolis, to be near their daughter (“Just Around the Corner,” airdate October 28, 1972). This puts them in direct contact with her day-to-day life, with her mother being overly inquisitive about Mary’s dating habits. We see Mary dressing for a date one night, and the next scene begins the following day, with her entering her apartment—dressed as she was the night before. (I made a genuine WTF?! face when I realized what she was wearing. Nothing like this had ever happened in the show before.)

And that pretty much sums up the attitude. Later, when confronted by her parents, Mary never apologizes for her behavior nor says where she was all night.

But that isn’t the moment I’m referring to. The moment that inspired this post happens a few episodes later and also involves her parents (“You’ve Got a Friend,” airdate November 25, 1972). Here’s the set up, though it’s incidental, trust me: Mary and her father have a difficult, strained relationship, and Mary’s compelled to face him head-on, inviting him to dinner and asking her mother to leave them alone. Since her mother dotes on both of them and acts as perpetual mediator, it’s disarming that Mary asks her to leave.


Not being an expert on early 70s TV, I don’t know how scandalous dialog like this was, but the audience’s reaction is an indication that it was uncommon. What’s key here is that the reveal that Mary is on the Pill not only passes without judgment, it also passes without verbal comment. What I expected would have been the source of a whole episode—Will Mary take the Pill? What does that mean about her loose morals? Is she ready for this?—is simply a joke. And the brilliance of the joke—it’s timing, the performances, its ability to address everything I’ve just written about and still be funny—is what makes this Perfect TV. Perfect.

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While it’s somewhat off-topic, this is the best place to show the impact The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s has had on my life:



-A lifelong dream of mine is to have a job where my name will be on the door, Lou Grant-style!




-My wife and I wanted to put our son’s initials on his bedroom door, but I refused to until I could find the right font. (And there’s only one font that will suffice for a wooden initial.)


-As long as I’ve been food shopping, I always put my meat in the cart like this:

Doesn’t everyone?

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Filed under Comedy, TV