Monday, September 22, 2014

How I have always wanted to quit a job

Mind you, I would never have the audacity to say this during an actual live broadcast. (For one thing, I doubt I could handle the FCC fine.) But maybe on my way out the office door...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Before there was Left Behind there was... Left Behind

While watching The Remaining -- a fitfully exciting indie thriller best described as a Christian horror flick -- I couldn't help thinking about Left Behind. No, not the upcoming Nicolas Cage movie due in theaters Oct. 3. Rather, I mean an earlier film drawn from the same source material -- a series of popular books by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins -- but produced on a significantly smaller budget.

As I wrote in my original 2001 review:

Kirk Cameron, all grown up since his days on TV’s Growing Pains, plays Buck Williams, a TV news reporter who always manages to be where the action is. In the opening scenes, he just happens to be in Israel, interviewing a scientist who has found a way to grow food in arid land, when Iraqi fighter jets suddenly darken the sky.

Fortunately – well, OK, miraculously – the invaders are blasted to kingdom come even before the Israeli air force can launch a counterattack. Later, our hero is aboard a commercial airliner piloted by workaholic captain Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) when the long-awaited, Biblically-prophesized “rapture” occurs. Dozens of passengers (including every child on board) simply vanish from the plane, leaving behind clothing, frantic parents and discombobulated fellow flyers. Tens of millions of similar vanishings occur throughout the world, though Left Behind -- obviously hampered by budgetary restraints -– can offer only fleeting glimpses of the collateral damage caused by this phenomenon.

Steele returns to his Chicago home to find his deeply religious wife and their young son are among the missing, and his college-age daughter, Chloe (Janaya Stephens), is terribly upset. Slowly, reluctantly, Steele begins to suspect that his wife, their son and millions of other folks have been brought to heaven by God to avoid the horrors of “end days.” (Not to be confused with End of Days, which millions of people managed to avoid without God’s help.) Williams takes a different route to solving the mystery of the missing millions. But he reaches the same conclusion after he links a couple of international bankers and a possible Antichrist to that notorious hotbed of ungodly and one-worldly activity, the United Nations.

Aimed squarely at that segment of the Christian community that eagerly (perhaps impatiently) awaits the Final Judgment, Left Behind is a pulpy melodrama that does a reasonably efficient job of preaching to the converted. (To damn it with faint praise: It’s much better crafted than The Omega Code, a similar doomsday drama about the emergence of the Antichrist.) Trouble is, it’s no great shakes as secular entertainment.

As it turned out, the 2001 Left Behind proved to be a career game-changer for Cameron, who has gone on to star in several other Christian-skewing dramas -- including Fireproof, which, no joke, was one of the highest-grossing indie releases of 2008. Will the new Left Behind have a similarly salutary effect on Nicholas Cage's career? Well, the Lord does work in mysterious ways...

Here's what The Rapture looked like back in the 2001 Left Behind:

And here's a glimpse at what the new Left Behind has in store for us:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Simon Pegg is smokin' in Kill Me Three Times

OK, I admit: I was leaning toward seeing Kill Me Three Times next week at the Toronto International Film Festival even before I got a look at this animated poster, since Simon Pegg is a personal fave. But the poster has more or less sealed the deal. Yes, I'm that easy.

 So what's it all about? Well, according to the TIFF catalog:

KILL ME THREE TIMES is a darkly comedic thriller from rising star director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog). Simon Pegg plays the mercurial assassin, Charlie Wofle, who discovers he isn't the only person trying to kill the siren of a sun drenched surfing town (Alice Braga). Charlie quickly finds himself at the center of three tales of murder, mayhem, blackmail and revenge. With an original screenplay by James McFarland, the film also stars Sullivan Stapleton (as a gambling addict that attempts to pay off his debts through a risky life insurance scam), Teresa Palmer (as a small town Lady Macbeth), Callan Mulvey (as a wealthy beach club owner simmering with jealousy), Luke Hemsworth (as a local surfer fighting for the woman he loves) and Bryan Brown (as a corrupt cop who demands the juiciest cut). Kill Me Three Times was produced by Laurence Malkin and Share Stallings (the team behind Death At A Funeral and A Few Best Men) and Tania Chambers.

Just one question: Wouldn't it be more gramatically correct to describe Sullivan Stapleton's character as "a gambling addict who attempts to pay off his debts..."?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Hail and farewell to Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

Today I received my advance copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide, and I’ve been paging through it with profoundly mixed emotions.

Once again, I am unreasonably proud of my humble contributions to the enterprise. (Leonard asked me to come on board as a member of Team Maltin during preparations for the 2009 edition – an honor I rank alongside Peter Bart’s invitation to be a Variety contributor back in 1990.) At the same time, however, I am unspeakably sad, because this is the end of the line: The 2015 Movie Guide will be the last.

Originally known as TV Movies, Leonard’s invaluable paperback resource first appeared in 1969, and has been published annually since 1988. Long, long before I was a contributor, I was a faithful fan, dutifully purchasing each new edition – and always keeping a copy close at hand. No kidding: For decades, to paraphrase the old tagline for American Express Travelers Cheques, I didn’t leave home without it. And when it wasn’t in my suitcase during my travels for movie junkets and film festivals, you could always find it on a short shelf of absolutely essential reference books, either by my desk at The Houston Post or in my home office.

(I can see a copy of the 2014 edition right now, within easy reach. You'll have to take my word for that, however, because taking a photo would reveal what a shamelessly cluttered and chaotic workplace I have made for myself. Remember: I am a college instructor, and I don't want to set a bad example for my students.)

Unfortunately, as Leonard notes in the latest (and last) edition’s forward, “With ready access to information on the Internet, our readership has diminished at an alarming rate.

“The book’s loyal followers know that we strive to offer something one can’t easily find online: curated information that is accurate and user-friendly, along with our own reviews and ratings.

“But when a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors.”

And so another one bites the dust…

By the way: I can't help noting that Leonard is only two years older than me. Meaning that when he and I were both college boys, he had the savvy and resourcefulness to kick off his Movie Guide franchise, while I was still scrounging for movie passes so I could write reviews for my campus paper. Well, it's nice to see that youthful hustling paid off for one of us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jeffrey Wells: The gift that keeps on giving

This is kinda-sorta hilarious. Once again, Jeffrey Wells has gotten mad at me, and banished me from his site -- this time, because I dared to suggest he might be, ahem, racially insensitive. But here's the funny part: He also decided to delete all my comments from today's thread. Except: He neglected to delete a comment he made in response to one of my comments. So now he appears to be talking to someone who isn't there -- like Clint Eastwood conversing with an empty chair. You know, you'd think someone as terrified of aging as Jeffrey would not want anything out there that might indicate dementia on his part...


Friday, August 15, 2014

Les Chats Ninjas

Funnily enough, this film is not in the lineup for next month's Toronto International Film Festival. At least, not yet.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lauren Bacall was -- and forever will be -- one hot babe

OK, let me just throw a shamelessly non-P.C. admission right out on the table: I nursed a serious crush on the late, great Lauren Bacall for more years of Late Show viewing and home-video re-viewing than I would want to admit in polite company. Loved her impudent wit and sleek sultriness in The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo -- and, of course, To Have and Have Not.

Sure, I also enjoyed her graceful comic turn in How to Marry a Millionaire, her intensely dramatic performance in Written on the Wind, her campy villainy in Shock Treatment, and her dryly amusing cameos in Harper and Murder on the Orient Express. I even endured the wretched excess of The Fan because of the sporadic sparks she set off with co-star James Garner. But back in her 1940s heyday... well, let me put it like this: Even Bugs Bunny was not immune to her intoxicating charms. (Look around the 1:23 mark.)

Farewell, good lady. Hope you find Bogie waiting for you on the other side. I suspect you won't even have to whistle to beckon him.

Remembering Robin Williams

I have two vivid memories of Robin Williams – one funny, one less so.

The funny one: Very early in my TV junketing, back when I did segments for The Ron Stone Show in Houston, I got to do a sit-down with Williams. It was the typical set-up – I walked into the suite where he was already seated, eased into a chair opposite him, and started chatting while one videographer focused on him, and the other focused on me. 

Except that it was anything but typical when he started riffing – manically, hilariously – as soon as I asked my first question. I managed to ask, oh, I dunno, maybe three or four other questions, but it didn’t really matter – he was in inspired free-form mode, and maybe he felt even less inhibited than usual by my willingness to just go with his flow. (At one point, he encouraged one of the videographers to zoom in my embroidered sweater vest – “Look! It’s a test pattern!”) I kept getting all sorts of signals from the off-camera personnel – finger-twirling, palms swiped across necks, etc. – to cut it short. 

But, really, it wasn’t my fault that a 6-minute interview expanded to a quarter-hour. Indeed, it might have gone on even longer had I not simply looked into the camera and, in my most serious Walter Cronkite-type voice, asked: “At what point did I lose all control of this interview?” While Williams paused to laugh, the videographers grabbed their chance to stop taping.

The not-so-funny memory: At the San Francisco junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, I had the opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with Williams in his hotel suite. He was appreciably more serious – maybe he got the vibe that I wasn’t expecting him to perform for me? – and we veered off to a discussion of parental responsibility.

 Specifically: I told him that I had recently read an article that detailed how some new fathers – including guys who had never before cared much about firearms – felt the need to buy a handgun to “protect their families” after the arrival of a first child. (My son wasn’t yet two years old at the time.) And then I told him about a guy in Texas who had gunned down a martial arts instructor who had molested the guy’s naïve son.

 “And you know what?” I told Williams, speaking as one dad to another. “That motherfucker isn’t going to prison! That motherfucker is gonna walk!” (Which, as it turned out, is pretty much what happened.) Williams replied: “Damn right!” He wasn’t joking. He was approving. So both of us bleeding-heart liberals slapped palms – and then continued talking.


Robin Williams reportedly took his own life Monday, after years of struggling with depression and knowing the true color of darkness. During the coming days, weeks and years, we likely will be offered various and sundry “explanations” for his suicide. But, really, will anyone who hasn’t ever plumbed the depths he did – who  hasn’t, say, pressed the barrel of a gun to his forehead while fingering the trigger, or gazed at an oncoming subway train and considered tossing herself onto the tracks – ever know why he did what he did?

I feel wholly ill-equipped to offer easy explanations. Instead, I offer these snippets from a 1991 piece I wrote after interviewing Williams for Awakenings.


Some mornings, Robin Williams would walk into the Brooklyn mental hospital where he filmed Awakenings, take a long look and an even longer listen as he observed the patients on the first two floors, and think, ''Yeah, there but for the grace of God . . . ''

Williams has spoken freely of the alcohol and drugs he once abused and which he uses no more. He is only slightly less forthcoming when he speaks of a darkness that needs no chemical stimuli, of a rage that fueled so many of his stand-up comedy routines before, during and after his first mainstream success on television's Mork and Mindy.

When I spoke with him in 1988 during a junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, he admitted to a certain pride in ''my darker side,'' the aggressiveness that enabled him to deal with unruly crowds when the comedy wasn't working. Or even when it was. ''Performing stand-up,'' he said, ''is like being in the Roman arena. And the lion has had two beers.

''Sometimes, the audience is hostile. And I respond to that...''

But things are calmer, less frenetic, these days. Comparatively speaking.

Even now, Williams remains the Salvador Dali of stand-up comics when he takes over a stage. And his amazing gift for free-association comic riffs is every bit as impressive, even awe-inspiring, as ever. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling author whose experiments inspired Awakenings, served as the movie's technical adviser, and had ample opportunity to witness Williams' free-wheeling routines between takes. As Sacks describes it: ''There are things that other people might think, deep down in their subconscious, that they would never say. But with
Robin, there's all these wild things. They suddenly explode in him, these fantastic associations . . .

''There's something like these strange, surreal explosions in some people with Tourette's syndrome. There's an aspect of creativity in Robin that, in a strange way, is very much like the compulsiveness in people with Tourette's.''

But there's a big difference: These days, at least, Williams can turn off the compulsiveness when he wants to. If it's Tourette's, he and Sacks agree, then it's a self-willed Tourette's.

''Yes,'' Williams said during a recent Manhattan interview, ''when I met Shane, one of Sacks' patients, who really has Tourette's -- I felt a certain kinship. Sometimes, I, too, have the ability to kind of override the gland, or whatever it is, that would normally censor you. I drop that, the way Tourette's people do. I understand that. And I understand the same exhilaration they sometimes do.

''It's kind of like -- hah! -- like a comic savant. You know, all of a sudden, flashes of idiocy flash through me, and I don't censor it.

''But I can hold back sometimes. Shane can't.''

This self-control, Williams admits, is only recently acquired.  ''I do feel better about myself, more comfortable about who I am and what am I. Why? Well, I didn't go through heavy psychoanalysis, but, yeah, therapy, I talked to someone.

''And I have a good relationship,'' with his second wife, Marsha, a painter and sculptor with an academic background. (They have an infant daughter, Zelda.) ''It's a wonderful relationship, where I have freedom.  And when you have that as a baseline, you're all right.

''Especially,'' Williams added with a grin as he raised his thick, hairy arms, ''if you have someone who doesn't mind that you have Quest for Fire gloves on all the time.''

That's when you feel safe, Williams said -- safe enough to not be on all the time. Now, his cartwheeling comedy ''is not an aggressive thing anymore. Now, it's like a playful thing.

''There's much less of a mandatory feeling about it. It's not like it's a necessity -- I don't have to keep doing it to keep the world at bay. I can do it when I want, and then pull back, and talk about intimate things.''

Moviegoers got their first glimpse at the new and improved (and more self-controlled) Robin Williams last year in Dead Poets Society. Despite a few moments of inspired mimicry -- like, when he offered us John Wayne as Macbeth -- he played it mostly straight, and earned an Oscar nomination, as an iconoclastic teacher at a straight-laced prep school.

Actor-turned-director Penny Marshall was greatly impressed by Williams' performance. So much so, in fact, that she began to think of Williams for the role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a character based on Sacks, in a film based on Sacks' best-selling book, Awakenings.

''Someone sent me a clue,'' Williams said. ''They said, 'You'll be getting something very special in the mail.' And I said, 'Like what? Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes?'''

What it was, was the script for Awakenings, which offers a fictionalized gloss on Sacks' real-life attempts to ''reawaken'' patients who can neither move nor communicate by giving them an experimental drug. (Robert De Niro co-stars in the film as the most prominent of the patients.) Williams read the script during a long airplane trip. The second time he found himself weeping out loud, he knew he wanted to do the film.

And, better still, he knew Marshall wanted him to do it, to bring a warmly human dimension to the story.

''It's like, when she directed Big, she worked against the comedy,'' Williams said. ''With this, she played against the drama. There's something pretty instinctual about that, when you know that from the beginning, in order to make something as potentially depressing as this, you're going to have to, if possible, make it somewhat funny. In order to capture those moments in the hospital. In order to bring you into this world -- and then hit you with this world.

''I don't mean using me as a comedian, riffing on patients, like, 'Hi, there, welcome to Club Medicaid.' No. But to slowly unveil this world to people, and suck them into the story.''

Williams often is extremely funny in Awakenings. But the humor grows out of his character, a painfully shy, often absent-minded fellow who, when his patients are concerned, has a will of tempered steel. It's a beautifully restrained yet full-bodied performance, the work of an actor who has learned that, yes, sometimes, less really is more.

Surprisingly -- or, come to think of it, maybe not so surprisingly -- Williams did not find it at all difficult to convey the tongue-tied, introverted side of his role.

''Basically,'' he said, ''I was able to tap into the fact that, for the first 18 years of my life, I was like that. All the way up to my junior year of high school, I was pretty isolated. So I know that.

''People ask me, 'How did you get into this?' Well, I just remembered what it was like from 16 onward, being an only child, growing up in a huge house, all that stuff. With all that, you get a little shy, you get a little awkward about dealing with people.''

As a stand-up comic, of course, Williams discovered how to compensate for that childhood shyness. It took him a lot longer to discover how to stop compensating.

And when he talks about that, he recalls once again the days in the hospital where Awakenings was shot.

''And I knew, looking around me there, that there have been times in my life when I've been near that edge,'' Williams said. ''That point where, if you went a little bit more, just a tad, just slightly more unglued -- yeah, I'd be here.''


Postscript: One year later, during the junket for Toys – a film that I evidently liked much more than most of my critical brethren – Williams shared with me his concern about violent video games.

 ''What frightens me about video games, and television and computer games -- and, yes, I'm addicted to computers, I have a floppy disc and a hard drive -- but sometimes, I think they steal your dreams. If you play video games long enough, when you go to bed at night, you replay the game rather than dream. It denies you the access to something that's quite wonderful, and quite primal, the ability to dream.''

Worse, Williams says, some of the video games seem like high-tech nightmares.

''Have you seen some of these things? Especially the shoot-'em-up ones? There's one in the arcades that's called Hostage, where you have to pick off people in doorways. There's a lot of them like that, where, literally, the gun is there, and you learn to shoot it.

''I know you get negative points if you hit, like, a woman with a baby in her arms by mistake. But after a while, I'm sure there must be a temptation to just turn the gun and go wham!

''So I try to filter what games my kids play. Or at least make them more aware of what shooting and blowing up things really means. Like my father did with me. See, I used to collect toy soldiers as a kid. And at a certain point, my father sat me down and explained the horror of it to me, having been in the Navy on a carrier. He told me there's nothing glorious about war, there's nothing fun about it, nothing exciting about it.

''I disarmed after that day.''

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stanley Kubrick: Persistence of Vision

Thank you ever so much, Vivian Kubrick, for sharing...

With all due respect, ma'am: You're much too hard on yourself.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

When James Brown met Alfred Hitchcock... and Frankie Avalon

Because of an embargo on early reviews, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed Get on Up, or whether I think Chadwick Boseman is a Best Actor contender for his get-the-funk-outta-da-trunk portrayal of James Brown. What I can say, I think, is that I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the film's re-creations of events and performances documented in The T.A.M.I. Show and The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

And, yes, I was amused by the allusion to Ski Party, a 1965 teen-skewing romp starring Frankie Avalon (who gets a none-too-complimentary shout-out in Get On Up) and showcasing James Brown (and The Famous Flames) in an on-camera rendition of "I Feel Good."

But I really wish the filmmakers also had made room for a re-creation of this surreal showbiz moment -- which, as I have said before, only serves to reinforce my long-held suspicion that, back in the day, The Mike Douglas Show had the most eclectic guest lineup of any talk show, at any time, anywhere on TV.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pia Zadora: The legend continues

There are guilty pleasures, and then there are guilty pleasures. Houston QFest programmer and board president Kristian Salinas is not ashamed to admit his fixation on the notorious Pia Zadora -- a fixation that drove him to track down the exuberantly campy Voyage of the Rock Aliens for a special festival screening. You can read all about it here in my Houstonia Magazine report. And just in case you want a taste of the film itself:

Monday, July 21, 2014

And the hits just keep on coming: More responses to my review of D'Souza's America

Dinesh D'Souza's America: Imagine the World Without Her may be fading at the boxoffice, but the passion of its champions remains unabated. A couple weeks back, I offered a sampling of the responses posted online at to my less-than-favorable review of the film. Here are a few more postings -- once again, reprinted verbatim via cut and paste.

Joe Leydon demonstrates with epitome of the Leftists who hate America and are contemptuous of our great founding and the United States of America’s contribution to the world and mankind. Joe Leydon is a bitter, deluded man who has imbued his life and himself with hostility and resentment towards what is good. His hostility prevents him from viewing America, this country, and the movie, as a celebration of the ideals and the values that make America a beacon and a land of hope and opportunity. Joe Leydon should live in socialist countries that by their very nature, do not have our values, freedoms as embodied in our Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and our Constitution. I have traveled the world and there is no better country than America. Joe Leydon and those like him ARE what is WRONG with America today because they would seek to destroy that which is the great hope and life’s breath to the citizens. To put this bluntly, Joe Leydon is an ignoble pig who does not deserve the freedoms this country affords him. Let him live elsewhere because he pollutes this great nation with his self-righteous ignorant hatred.

We all know what side of the argument you are on since you show so well…what do you have to offer this awesome country. You are a fool if you do not see the “good” in the country you live in. Go make fun in some other land.

It’s amazing how hard it is for people like you to appreciate America. You should go live somewhere else.

Bitch Hilliary and her lying piece of sorry shit husband should be in prison for having political opponents murdered. Start with Vince Foster who was about to spill the beans on both of them. They are almost as evil as Obama if that is possible. Anyone that supports either is an enemy if the USA.

What an unmitigated fool you are. I suggest you speak of your Marxist, left-wing credentials before you try to write of something you clearly don’t understand. Not only are you a propagandist that Goebbels would have been proud of your writing is sophomoric at best. YOU ARE THE ENEMY and we know it now more than ever.

It was refreshing to have a person that came LEGALLY from another country TELL the regular Joe HOW GREAT OUR LAND IS. I am sick of the wah wah people crying about crap. The only thing that needs to be cried about is the Fundamental Transformation of our Nation we love but this Jerk uneducated voters voted for. SMOKE AND MIRRORS vote smarter next time.

Joe Leydon sounds like a rocket scientist.

To that final comment, I can only reply: Well, comparatively speaking...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

When the blurb bespeaks desperation

You know, there was a time when you wouldn't see a pull-quote like this in a movie ad. It was a time when shame had not yet become an antiquated concept. (And before you ask: Yes, I reviewed it, too. But I guess I failed to give them a quote worth pulling. Or blurbing. Or whatever.)

Remembering James Garner, a maverick on and off screen

Sometimes, an interview just clicks. James Garner and I communicated directly only once, during an extended conversation for a 2004 cover-story profile I wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. But right from the start, I felt like I was conversing with an old friend who was forthcoming and unfiltered.

Maybe it was because we discovered we had something in common – each of us lost his mother at an early age, dealt with an abusive stepmother, and remained forever shaped by those tragedies. Or maybe, just maybe, Garner turned on his irresistible charm for anyone and everyone he ever met. Whatever the reason, he was an exceptionally gracious gentleman, and an absolute dream of an interview subject, while we chatted.

It my custom to celebrate lives, not mourn deaths. On the occasion of James Garner’s passing at age 86, I would like to recall the man and his work by sharing this interview.

James Garner would have you believe that he simply lucked into acting more than 50 years ago, and has been coasting along ever since. Which, he insists, is perfectly all right by him. The work isn’t terribly demanding – well, except for the busted knees, sprained legs and other on-the-set injuries – and the pay is great. Better still, there’s no mandatory retirement age.

“Back when I turned 55,” he says during a leisurely lunch, “somebody told me I was middle-aged. I said, ‘Fifty-five ain’t the middle of nothing. That’s getting on with it.’

“And now,” he adds with a wry chuckle, “I’m 76. So I’m not middle. I’m late.”

But that doesn’t mean the man still known to millions of fans as Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford is ready to ride off into the sunset. Even now, a half-century after his acting debut in the premiere Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Garner is too busy adding credits to his lengthy resume to think much about moseying off to The Old Actors' Home.

Consider this: He recently joined the cast of  8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter, his seventh TV series gig. (His eighth, really, if you count his temporary employment in the final episodes of Chicago Hope.) And he’s currently visible in megaplexes as a prominently-billed co-star of The Notebook, a sentimental drama which he unstintingly praises as an old-fashioned tear-jerker. (“When you see it,” he says, “bring a box of Kleenex. That’s my only advice.”) The years have taken their toll: He required a quintuple-bypass in 1988, and endured knee-replacement surgery in 2000 to repair damage dating back to The RockfordFiles (1974-80). And yet, despite his best efforts to affect an image of nonchalance,  Garner’s can-do determination and rigorous work ethic remain undiminished. “I just hope,” he says, “that I keep finding good material.”

Almost in the same breath, however, he insists that he has never thought of himself as a workaholic, or even as especially ambitious. To hear him talk, he has never – repeat, never – been stressed for success.

“Actually,” Garner says, “I don’t take success very well, because I know it’s fleeting. And the next day, it can all fall apart. I know that, too. So I don’t get too high – and I don’t get too low. You get through the world a lot easier that way.

“I’m never that disappointed when something bad happens. Naturally, I don’t like it. But I don’t get seriously disappointed. Because I don’t expect that much. I’m sure some psychiatrist would jump all over that. But that’s their job. I have mine. And I do mine the best I can.”

A hard-scrabble childhood during the Depression Era and a close brush with death during the Korean War did much to shape James Garner’s sense of perspective. Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, he was four years old when his mother passed away. Her death, he admits, profoundly influenced his view of this world as a place where nothing can be taken for granted. “I’ve always put women on pedestals,” he says. “But I’ve also known that they can leave you in a heartbeat. I learned that a little early, I think.”

By the age of eight, he already was working at odd jobs -- mowing lawns, mopping floors – to provide his share of income for his Depression-strapped family. Later, as the Bumgarners moved West, young Jim toiled in the oil fields of Texas, then laid carpet with his father in Los Angeles. In the ’40s, he says, “I met this guy,  Paul Gregory, who was a soda jerk at the Gotham Drug Store on Hollywood Boulevard while I was working in a Shell service station a block away. I used to eat my lunches over at the drug store, and he always thought I should be an actor. But I didn’t want to have any part of it. At any rate, he said he was going to be a producer, and blah, blah, blah, blah.

“Well, we go ten years down the line, and the next thing you know, he is a producer. And I ran into him just before I was going to Korea. He’s driving a big Cadillac convertible, and he’s all dressed to the nines. And he said, ‘Jim, I still think you should be an actor.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but I got to fight a war now.’”

Garner was wounded in action, and earned a Purple Heart. All of which, he says only half-jokingly, fully prepared him for the rough-and-tumble world of showbiz. He didn’t flinch during the high-stakes legal wrangling when, in 1960, he walked away from his Maverick TV series over a salary dispute. And he didn’t back down when, years later, he waged a more protracted legal battle to free himself from the debilitating wear and tear of The Rockford Files.

“I always have been very independent. I’m not going to let anybody intimidate me. Because they can’t. Some of the toughest have tried. But, look, in Korea, they were shooting at me. They even hit me a couple of times. After that – what else can do they do to me?

“It’s the same way now, too. I’m not worried about anything. Hey, I’m not going to make it that much longer anyway.”

After returning to Los Angeles from Korea, Garner sought work with an oil company hiring for new enterprises in Saudi Arabia. “But they didn’t want roughnecks, they wanted geologists. I thought, ‘Well, I got to stick with laying carpets,’ which I didn’t want to do.

“So I was driving up La Cienega Boulevard, and I went past this building that I’d already passed a couple of times. And that’s when I saw his name – ‘Paul Gregory and Associates’ – up on the building. And you know what? Just while I was driving there, a lady pulled out of a parking place right in front of the building. So I pulled in. Why? I don’t know. But I sat there for a couple of minutes, thinking, ‘Maybe I can talk to him and see if I can give that acting thing a try.’”

Gregory, a talent agent as well as a producer, signed his friend to a contract on the spot. After a couple of false starts – “He got me an audition over at Columbia, which I was just awful at!” – and a professional name change, James Garner got an enormous break by being cast in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which Herman Wouk himself adapted from a portion of his own novel.

Mind you, Garner had a non-speaking role, as one six attentive members of a Court of Inquiry. But that placed him in the perfect position to closely observe Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan in lead roles during months of performances in Los Angeles and New York.  “I learned a lot about acting just sitting there night after night,” Garner says. He proved to be such an apt pupil that director Charles Laughton – yes, that Charles Laughton, the infamous Capt. Bligh of 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty – cast Garner as the defense counsel, one of the play’s key roles, in the national touring company. The earning-while-learning process continued apace.

“One day during rehearsals,” Garner recalls, “Laughton told me, ‘James, I wish you’d come to lunch with me. I need to talk with you.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to get it here.’ Because I knew I was terrible.

“But to boil it all down, he said to me, ‘James, your problem is, you are afraid to be bad.’ And he was absolutely correct. I didn’t care if you liked me – just don’t dislike me. Therefore, there was nothing in the performance but what was there. What was obvious, I did. I didn’t put anything else into it. And it was very dull. So he said, ‘Just let it go, let it all out. Let the director bring you down. It’s hard to bring an actor up. But you can bring him down.’ So I learned a valuable lesson from him. Probably the best lesson I ever had as far as acting goes.”

By the time he was offered Maverick in 1957, Garner felt ready to handle the challenge of sustaining a colorful character – Bret Maverick, rogue extraordinaire -- in a weekly TV series. There remained some doubt, however, as to whether TV viewers were ready for a Western in which the central character was a smooth-talking, self-absorbed gambler who went out of his way to avoid gunfights, fisticuffs and other heroic pursuits

“The thing to remember,” Garner says, “is that when I did the original Maverick series, there were already 16 or 17 Westerns on television. Now that’s a lot of Westerns. They were the whole basis for television at the time. But we came along and put our tongues in our cheeks and laughed at them. Everything on these other shows were clichés – they’d already done it all – so they were easy to make fun of.

“And if you look at it, after the Westerns came the detective shows. So we went in with The Rockford Files  years later, and did the same thing with them we did with Maverick.”

Garner looks back on Maverick with a reasonable degree of pride, but relatively little nostalgia. In subsequent years, he would reprise the raffish gambler in Bret Maverick (1981-82), a sort-lived series revival. And he eventually played a smartly-conceived supporting part in a 1994 movie spin-off starring Mel Gibson. But for a long time after he departed the original series -- co-star Jack Kelly continued on as the equally devious Bart Maverick for the show’s final season – Garner took great pains to distance himself from the role that had made him famous.

“I thought – I hoped – I was going to have a longer career than that. So I didn’t want to ride on Maverick. As a matter of fact, the first thing I was offered was the role of a gambler in the West, in The Comancheros. And I turned it down, so Stuart Whitman got the part.”

No big deal: Garner has found steady employment ever since in scads of other films, ranging from playful satires (The Thrill of It All, Support Your Local Sheriff) and romantic comedies (How Sweet It Is, Murphy’s Romance) to gritty action dramas (Duel at Diablo, Hour of the Gun) to brawny adventure epics (The Great Escape, Grand Prix). And while the majority of his roles have been modern-day characters – in The Notebook, he plays a World War II vet with close ties to a nursing home resident (Gena Rowlands) who’s stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease -- he continues to be closely identified with the Western genre.

Indeed, he enjoyed the best of both worlds when Clint Eastwood – who appeared in a long-ago episode of Maverick before riding taller in Rawhide – cast Garner as an aging astronaut in Space Cowboys (2000). “I had only a small guest shot on his show,” Eastwood remembers, “and he was very gracious and down to earth, and we got along right away. He's a great guy and a wonderful actor. And even though it took a few decades, I’m glad we were finally able to work together again.”

To be sure, Garner doesn’t have nice things to say about every Western on his resume. Mention A Man Called Sledge, a 1970 Spaghetti Western in which he co-starred with Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins, and he’ll admit that, even during production, he and others already were calling it A Man Called Sludge.

And then there was Sunset, the 1988 Blake Edwards film in which he played an aging Wyatt Earp to Bruce Willis’ Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix.

“I hated that movie,” Garner bluntly admits. “Let me tell you something: Blake Edwards wanted to do that picture with Robert Duvall and I. Now just think about that – wouldn’t that have been a whole different picture?

“But Bruce Willis was not my idea of a Western star by any means. He didn’t even know how to wear a hat. He’d pull it way down over his ears. I told him, ‘Bruce, no cowboy does that unless he’s riding a bronco.’ But he didn’t listen. He’d just pull the hat down even more, until his ears stuck out on the sides. And I figured, ‘OK, I’m only going to tell him once…’

“Bruce really didn’t take his work that seriously at the time. He thought he was a better writer ad-libbing off the top of his head than the writers were. He didn’t pay that much attention to the script.”

Despite that unpleasant experience, Garner sounds wistful as he bemoans the current scarcity of Western movies and TV shows. “I hate that they’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” he says. “They don’t have many of them on television, I suppose, because they appeal to older viewers. And the networks aren’t interested in the older viewers – even though we’ve got more of them than we have younger ones.

“I did watch this thing they have on now called Deadwood. But I was embarrassed. I never heard such foul language in all my life in the movies. I mean, not since Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. Nobody in the West talked like that.”

What are the values that of a true Western hero? Garner pauses to consider the question, then thoughtfully replies: “Well, there’s good and evil. Right and wrong. You know the difference. And your word is your bond.”

And that, James Garner concedes, is why most of the rascals he has played in Westerns and contemporary dramas qualify as anti-heroes. He has no problem with that. “The anti-hero is the best character to play, I think. That’s what Bret Maverick was, and that’s what Jim Rockford was. And look how popular they’ve been.”

In the view of many critics and fans, Garner gave his greatest performance as an anti-hero in The Americanization of Emily, the acclaimed 1964 dramedy – written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller – about a cynical Navy lieutenant commander who’s exploited as an extremely reluctant hero during World War II. Despite the marque allure of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews, Emily was something less than a boffo box-office success in its time. During the decades since its theatrical release, however, it has gained legions of admirers.

The Americanization of Emily actually made money – though not much,” Garner says. “But that’s my favorite film. In fact, it’s mine, it’s Julie’s -- and I think it’s the favorite of more than a few other people who were involved with it.

“If you look at it, it’s very much like stuff that’s in the news today. But it was very daring back then. I mean, you start talking anti-war when they’re already involved in Vietnam and everything like that – you’re daring. But there were a lot of people out there who thought our way.

“[Producer] Marty Ransohoff was a little concerned about it. In fact, that’s how I got to star in it. Bill Holden was originally going to star in it, and I was going to do the role Jim Coburn did. And Holden was doing his banking in Hong Kong at the time. And there was a lot of press about it. You know, ‘He’s un-American, blah, blah, blah.’ Mind you, he wasn’t breaking any laws. He just saw it as a better deal for him financially. But people were getting all over him for being ‘un-American.’ Well, if he comes out and does an anti-war movie at that time, there’s going to be a lot more of that talk. And Marty Ransohoff got scared. So he bought Holden out, and put me in it. And he probably saved money, because my salary wasn’t all that great.”

Does Garner consider this another example of the good luck he claims has guided his career? Maybe. He chuckles as he considers the question, then replies:

“Some things are just meant to be. We think we have total control over them. Well, not necessarily...”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trailer Park: Ouija

Yeah, I know: This looks like it could be as hokey as hell. But come on: How can you possibly not want to see a scary movie in which someone actually says "I don't think this is a good idea" before doing something that is, well, a very bad idea? (Ouija opens Oct. 24 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.)

Hangin' with the man himself: Mr. Robert Duvall

My Cowboys & Indians cover story piece on the great Robert Duvall is now available for your on-line reading pleasure.