Monday, April 20, 2015

Women I love

At a newsstand once I saw an Esquire magazine with the headline “Women We Love.” I eagerly leafed through the magazine, figuring I was going to see great glossy photos of hot women. Instead, the women they loved were like Golda Meir and Madeline Albright. Still, it was a great feature and very effectively made the point that the women we love don’t have to be hot. So I’m stealing the concept. Here are some women I love (and to me they all are hot).  NOTE:  These are only SOME of the women.  There are many others. 

EDEN SHER – She plays Sue on THE MIDDLE and is far and away the funniest girl on television. Why she doesn’t have five Emmys is beyond me. While most kids in sitcoms are stereotypes, Eden’s portrayal of a gawky teenager is 100% real and 200% hilarious.

CONSTANCE WU – Second funniest lady on TV. But you know that. I gushed about her a couple of weeks ago.

VIOLA DAVIS – The very definition of a television star. She lights up the screen. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Writers can get away with murder with Viola as their lead.

PAM FRYMAN -- In a predominantly male industry, she's one of the best sitcom directors in the business.  Among her many credits -- all of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  I'm a director, but when I had a pilot a few years ago I still hired Pam Fryman over myself.  And it was a wise choice.  

TATIANA MASLANY -- See my post on ORPHAN BLACK.  She's the five best actresses in North America.

MICHELE TAFOYA – Best sideline reporter ever – man or woman. Maybe the only smart thing NBC has done in recent years is not replacing her because she stopped being 22. Besides, half the time she’s in a parka or under an umbrella anyway.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON – NPR Ghana correspondent. Very thorough and okay, I just love that someone uses that name on the radio. In my day she’d be Sally Adams.

ILANA GLAZER & ABBI JACOBSON – The Romy & Michele of Millennials.

KELLI O’HARA – When is she going to win a damn Tony already?

ROBIN ROBERTS – The gold standard in class and grace.

AMANDA SCHULL – Can play deliciously evil. Loved her in SUITS. She’s now in 12 MONKEYS.

NAHNATCHKA KHAN – A comedy writer/showrunner not afraid to go for laughs instead of mild detached irony. Created FRESH OFF THE BOAT and the underrated B____ IN APARTMENT 23.

TARAJI P. HENSON – Viola Davis with more bling. With all the good things going for EMPIRE, she’s the best thing.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY – Okay, so I have a crush on her. But she’s a damn good actress… isn’t she?

AUDRA MCDONALD – Broadway royalty who understands you don’t have to belt every song (like some “Frozen” diva I know).

WENDY LIEBMAN – A comedienne with her own unique rhythms and style. And she’s very funny.

OLIVIA MUNN – See Keira Knightley.

MAGGIE SMITH – The only reason to still watch DOWNTON ABBEY.

VALERIE GELLER – Radio consultant who believes listeners want entertaining, informative compelling personalities and not soulless voice tracked generic drones. So she’s an industry maverick.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG – The hottest Supreme Court Justice ever.

MARGO MARTINDALE – As long as there’s this list, she will be on it.
Who are some of your favorite women?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Character actors

My heart goes out to character actors.

When you read casting breakdowns there are a lot more productions seeking, “Male, 30’s, handsome, charming” than “Overweight, 50’s, Italian/Russian mix, unibrow”.

And the few character actors that are successful enough that they don’t have to be service managers at Jiffy Lube ultimately get trapped by their own success. Producers will glance at their headshots or see them read and say, “Him again? Jesus. This guy’s been on a million shows. Can’t we find any new overweight Italian/Russians? “

When you walk into a room and the producers go, “Hey, it’s the ‘can you hear me’ guy!” or “I’ve seen that big white head before. Aren’t you Jack from Jack in the Box?” you’re dead.

Or if a production is to be filmed on location in say, Houston. They’ll cast from the local pool there. Yes, that Nazi soldier might speak with a drawl but it’s cheaper to over-dub him than fly a real Nazi halfway across the country.

And time is never a friend. They get too old to play the cute waitress, the ballplayer, or Julia Roberts’ best friend (although Julia Roberts miraculously never ages herself).

If a character actor isn’t hot agents often lose interest. There’s always some Chihuahua who’s easier to book.

The most heartbreaking casting session I ever held was on MASH. We had a USO subplot in an episode and needed an accordion player. One by one, ten accordion players came in to audition. They all looked right, they all could play “Lady of Spain”. We had to choose one, which we did. But I felt so terrible for the others. How many calls do they get from their agent saying “MASH needs an accordion player”? How many of them kissed their wives goodbye on the way to the casting session saying, “I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

So the next time you’re in Jiffy Lube or Wal-Mart or Staples be nice to the clerk. He may be one hell of an accordion player.

This is a re-post from four years ago, but really, do you remember it? 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

ORPHAN BLACK returns tonight!

Here in the States, ORPHAN BLACK returns tonight for it’s third season. This is the TV equivalent of pitchers and catchers report. I’ve been waiting for months.

For those who are not familiar with ORPHAN BLACK (like TV Academy members obviously), it is a show on BBC America that is part science-fiction/part thriller about cloning. It’s well written and stylish but what elevates it to must-see status is Tatiana Maslany who plays at least five clones. Each character is well drawn, and that’s just for starters. There are scenes where several of the clones are in the same scene interacting with each other. And other scenes where one of the clones tries to pass for another and Tatiana deftly portrays two distinct characters at once. Sound confusing? It’s really not. You pick up on it very quickly.   And you're in awe. 

(This is in contrast to Debra Messing who can play five characters different and make them all seem the same.)

What is confusing is the plot. It’s filled with conspiracies and double agents, but you know what? Forget all that. Sarah is the main character. Just assume that everyone is a bad guy and out to get her. Then just go with it. You’ll be fine, even if you’ve never seen the show.

And this year there will be two clones. Ari Millen will be a boy clone. The mating possibilities are infinite!

The fact that Tatiana Maslany has not won an Emmy is a travesty.   Jessica Lange can't carry her make-up case.  

For all I know the season has already aired in the U.K. and Canada, but here in America season three premieres tonight at 9:00 on BBC-America. I can’t wait to see it… them.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Questions

Time for more of your FQ’s and my FA’s.

Eric E. Durnan starts us off:

I've read on here where there have been complaints/comments about the color on MASH. Now that all the episodes save the finale are on Netflix, have you seen the quality presented there? I think the color is very good on Netflix. The episode where everyone dyes their hair and wear red for Hawkeye really stands out compared to syndication.

On a side note, have you ever had MASH scripts rejected, and if so, what were they about? 

That episode where everyone dyes their hair is called "Peace on Us" from season 7 (written by me and David Isaacs) and stemmed from an actual incident we found in the research.   But to your question...

I haven’t watched MASH on Netflix. But I will say this, the color on the DVD’s is considerably better than when the show originally aired.

Don’t know if it’s like that now (haven’t paid much attention) but back in the ‘70s you could tell which network a show was on just by looking at it. NBC was warmer. ABC was a little brighter. And CBS was a tad muted. I think the CBS signal had a touch of red in it.

At the time, we filmed the show in 35 mm. We delivered a 35 mm print and a 16 mm print that CBS would run as a back up. When it left us the color was brilliant. Then we’d see the same episode on the air it never looked great.

It really wasn’t until I saw the DVD’s that I said, “Yes, that’s the print I remember delivering.” I suspect that’s the version Netflix is showing.

On a couple of occasions I complained to CBS about the color and they said I was crazy.

In this digital age it’s hard to imagine that back in those days a network would take a 35 mm print and 16 mm print, physically cut in the commercials, and run both simultaneously off a special projector called a “film chain” just in case the film broke.

As for rejecting scripts, yes. There was usually money in the budget for us to eat one script a year. I don't recall the specifics, but usually it was because we just couldn't get the story to work.  It wasn't the writer's fault.  It was ours for developing a story that just wouldn't come together. 

From blog regular, Hamid:

You often mention Steven Spielberg, notably in your Oscar reviews. So I have to ask the inevitable: have you met Spielberg? And if you have, what did you talk about?

I met him once and he was delightful. It was at an industry charity picnic. Jim Brooks introduced us. I was way nervous to just walk up and introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t really remember what we talked about. I do recall he said he liked CHEERS. I probably said something stupid like, “And I like SCHINDLER’S LIST.” But we must’ve chatted for five minutes. He was actually very approachable and gracious. Of course I didn’t ask him to sign anything and this was before selfies.

Steely Dan (one of my favorite groups) has a question.

Can you explain the difference between an agent and a manager? Are they interchangeable? If not, do they work together? Do you need both?

Also, I've read that Bill Murray does not have an agent. How common is that for someone of his stature in the industry?

Managers can’t negotiate contracts. Agents do that.  In theory, managers have smaller lists of clients and are there to really guide your career, provide more personal attention, and see that your agent is giving you the proper attention and service.

I think a manager is more useful for an actor. Several of my actor friends complain that they’re just “types” to their agent. They’ll be sent out on things along with ten of their other clients who are similar “types.” A manager focuses on you and your needs and desires.

If you’re a big enough star to where you just get offers, then no, you really don’t need an agent. An attorney can negotiate contracts.

And finally, from Jim S:

With Coach returning, Boy Meets World becoming Girl Meets World, the X-Files returning, and Full House Returns rumors hitting the net, what show would you like to see come back, and which show of yours would you like to work on again. If the answer is none, why?

They're also redoing BEWITCHED for the ninth time.  

I understand why the networks do this. It’s the same reason there are movie and theatrical versions of TV shows – because in this era of so much product, any franchise or project with name recognition going in gives you a leg up. That said, as a viewer I would prefer new shows rather than retreads. We really need another version of FULL HOUSE?

I'd I had to pick a show from the past I'd like to see again I'd have to say SHINDIG. 

If I could reboot one of my series I would do ALMOST PERFECT again. I would not want to reboot CHEERS, MASH, or FRASIER for the same reason I would not want to make a hip hop version of “Rhapsody In Blue.”

In general I like to move on, not go back and redo things I've done.

What’s your FQ? Leave it the CS (comments section). T (Thanks).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The real suspense this pilot season

Most people in television are either underpaid or overpaid.

When actors sign on to pilots they commit to the series for five to seven years. If the show becomes a huge hit in season two, the network and studio (often they’re the same) makes a shitload while the actor works for his agreed upon price, usually based on what he made on a failed series or two busted previous pilots.

So it stands to reason that should the series go long enough that the actor’s contract is up he will ask for the moon to stay with it. And many times get it. (This is the plot of my comic novel, MUST KILL TV, which you should have already but if you don’t, go here immediately and order it.) Many times stars have the production company and network over a barrel. Remember the FRIENDS negotiations? Or MODERN FAMILY? Actors go from underpaid to overpaid in a blink.

But networks do have options in most cases. They can continue the series without the star. LAW & ORDER is just a revolving door. THE OFFICE survived "Michael's" departure.   But usually this ploy does not sit well with viewers. NBC lost both Sanford and son and changed the show to THE SANFORD ARMS. As someone said, “they just renewed the set.”

A lot depends on how integral the star is to the show’s success. When CSI’s Jorja Fox and George Eads tried to play hardball they were temporarily fired from the show.

I’m reminded of the story of Ralph Kiner, a once great power hitter, who socked over fifty home runs one year for the Pittsburgh Pirates although they wound up in the cellar. When he wanted to renegotiate his contract, team president Branch Rickey said no raise. Kiner reminded him of his fifty home run feat and Rickey said, “Ralph, we can finish last without you.”

Obviously you need Nathan Fillion on CASTLE since he is Castle. (His contract is up for grabs.) But if one of the guys in the squad wants to hold out for a big payday, good luck to him.

How successful a show is also determines whether the network will back up the Brinks truck to the star’s garage. CSI, for example. Star Ted Danson’s deal is up. I’m sure he makes more than pocket change, especially since his joining CSI turned it around and saved it. But now, after either 15 or 60 years on the air (I forget which), the numbers are dwindling. Is it worth it to CBS to pay Danson what he justifiably deserves to keep the show going another couple of years, or is it time to just pull the plug? They sure have enough episodes for syndication.

So as the next couple of weeks unfold and networks decide on their upcoming Fall schedules, they’ll have lots to consider. Are returning stars worth the big bucks they’re demanding? Are the pilots good enough that it’s worth replacing some of these old franchises? Will the void left by one show hurt the shows around it? Can the series survive without the star in question?

And for the actor – is it worth walking away from a big existing hit? How many of them are there? Is it worth holding out? One thing is for sure – networks won’t give you what you deserve unless you demand it and back them into a corner. Don’t ever expect benevolence.

So it’s game on. Shows that were locks for renewal might not get on. Shows that were on the bubble will live or die based on negotiations with other shows. Shows that were once dead will suddenly find themselves on Thursday night. Boy, to me, all of this seems much more fun and suspenseful than the shows the networks put on air.

UPDATE:  It was just reported that Nathan Fillion has signed so the announcement says CASTLE is virtually assured of continuing.   However, Stana Katic is still unsigned.  What does it say about her leverage when ABC is essentially saying we can do the show without her?   Expect her to sign real soon. 

UPDATE 2:  I will performing at Sit n' Spin tonight -- it's a fun night of storytelling. 8 PM at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood. For reservations: 323-960-5519. Warning though: it's free.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Montgomery

I will get to Liz.  Read on. 

At first I was very excited about nostalgia channels. How cool to be able to watch shows I loved as a kid again. But then I discovered some problems.

A lot of these shows don’t hold up. Kojak seemed really cutting edge at the time. But compared to shows like THE WIRE or THE SHIELD, he sounds as street and authentic as Inspector Gadget.

The old DANNY THOMAS SHOW used to make me laugh. Now, Danny Thomas’ character just comes off as a bombastic misogynistic asshole. How did grown-ups back in the day not see this at the time? I was a kid. I had an excuse.

A lot of the comedies don’t hold up, which makes you appreciate even more the ones that do – like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. But in fairness, even as a kid, a lot of the sitcoms of the day didn’t wow me. I never thought GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was remotely amusing. Nor did I laugh once at I DREAM OF JEANNIE. BEWITCHED was funny the first season but I continued to watch because I was in love with Elizabeth Montgomery (today would have been her 82nd birthday, by the way). Same with PETTICOAT JUNCTION. When you have three hot babes Sean Hannity could write the comedy. Milk has a longer expiration date than BATMAN jokes had. And neither character Patty Duke played in THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was funny (but Patty was less unfunny than Cathy). Still, I watched every week – and I think you can surmise why.

On the other hand, DOBIE GILLIS and CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? still provide some genuine laughs. Shows that had a certain anarchy seemed to age better.

Once you get into the ‘70s things improve considerably. BARNEY MILLER, the MTM shows, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH. But the ‘70s create another problem. Shows of mine are on it. I’m way too young to have shows on the fucking nostalgia channel! It’s bad enough I have shows on TV LAND.

The other depressing thing is the commercials. GIDGET, a show about fun loving teenagers who surf and hang out at the beach is now sponsored by Depends and drugs to prevent strokes. Where are the Pepsi: For Those Who Think Young commercials? With all the girls running around in bikinis at least advertise Viagra.

You wonder whether there will be nostalgia channels for today’s fare. You wonder whether there will be channels period. But with so many niche shows on so many platforms and all episodes being so readily available on streaming services or DVD I suspect there will be no equivalent in thirty years. And if there is, with whatever technical advances they will have then, since no one will watch commercials, they might just digitally include products into the body of shows. They’ll give Liz Lemon a walker. Raylan Givens will be wearing Depends when he takes his pants off for a sex scene. Oh, for the good old days when the shows were originally aired… with seventeen banners, network logos, animated promos, storm warnings on the screen...

And BEWITCHED still on four times a day.   God bless nostalgia channels.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

HBO's Sinatra

Who’s seen the four hour HBO documentary on Sinatra? Who under the age of 50 has seen the four hour HBO documentary on Sinatra? Who under the age of 20 has even heard of Sinatra?

You really should see it. I’m sure they’ll replay it a gazillion times. It’s chock full of great footage and does a pretty good job of giving you a portrait of this extremely gifted and complex man.

As in all Sinatra bios, it’s somewhat slanted in one direction or the other – in this case, favorably. Little surprise there because the family sanctioned it and gave them access to lots of unseen stuff. On the other hand, you can pick up Kitty Kelly’s bio of Frank, open to any page and he’s either having someone roughed up or he’s sleeping with Bacall while Bogie is on his deathbed. A book by his longtime valet reveals that in the early ‘50s when the clock reached 1:00 AM and none of Sinatra’s girlfriends or high-priced hookers were available, he’d call neighbor Peggy Lee and go over to her place to bang her. (That must’ve been lovely for Peggy Lee’s family to read.)

The impossible task is to determine truth from myth. I’m sure some of the stories about him aren’t true, while other, even more outlandish stories, are.

From the valet’s bio: When Sinatra was considering going out with Mia Farrow he was concerned she was still a teenager. Would he have anything to talk about with her? Would he feel like a dirty old man? So his cronies arranged for him to sleep with a few teenagers to, y’know, take ‘em for a test drive. This was not in the documentary. But was it even true? Did Joseph Kennedy and JFK spend weekends at Sinatra’s Palm Springs pad just passing around girls? Again, not in the doc. (But probably definitely true.)

The documentary was very selective. It referenced his father’s death but said nothing about his mother, who died in a plane crash. It talks about the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping but doesn’t tell you how they caught the idiots who pulled it. There’s a section about Frank Jr.’s career as a singer but nothing about Nancy’s – and she was successful.

But to its credit, the documentary does not completely whitewash. It practically states that Sinatra got Kennedy elected thanks to the mob fixing the Illinois election. And although Sinatra was truly a champion in the fight for Civil Rights, the movie does show him making horribly offensive racist jokes at the expense of Sammy Davis Jr.   Face it, the man was an enigma.

But he was also a remarkable singer. And the documentary really celebrates that. You see snippets of many performances and get glimpses into his process. He learned a breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey that allowed him to pause in songs based on story points, not the normal breaks. He originated the theme album, chose all his material, and had strong input on his arrangements. For six weeks before recording an album he quit smoking and drinking. In the valet’s book, he said Sinatra also sang opera to prepare his voice. He recorded all of his songs with the orchestra live in the studio. No headphones, no glass booth, no singing over pre-recorded tracks.

Personally, I think his Capitol Records period in the ‘50s was remarkable. He was at the absolute height of his powers at a time when that kind of music was in vogue. To this day I marvel at those albums. No one could sing a torch song like Sinatra. When I was nine they made me cry and I had no idea what he was singing about. Check out this song from 1957. Your heart positively breaks for him even though you know that any girl you ever loved would leave you in a second for him.

His swinging repertoire, masterfully arranged by Nelson Riddle, remains in a class by itself. Sorry, Michael Buble, you’re a cover band.

The fact that Sinatra seemed to record every single song written between 1935-1980, there is a huge body of work. Lots will be forgotten but I feel some of his Capitol tunes will be heard for the next hundred years. The only surviving art of the 20th Century will be I LOVE LUCY and Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely” album.

But then came the ‘60s and his ultimate downfall. I blame it on the Rat Pack. Yes, they were entertaining and put Vegas on the map, but it spawned the Sinatra “ring a ding ding” persona and as the music scene moved on he became more entrenched as this anachronistic hipster and became a joke. He was completely out of touch with rock music, and when he attempted to sing it (with his special “spin”) it was laughable. Listen to his appalling version of Mrs. Robinson. “Jilly” loves you more than you will know. How’s your bird, Mrs. Robinson? Wouldn’t you have loved to be in the room with Paul Simon when he first heard that?

The documentary does show a clip of Sinatra on a Fifth Dimension special wearing a sequenced Nehru jacket and looking like a clown and then later a two-shot of him with Michael Jackson where it’s hard to tell who’s more creeped-out.

But ultimately Ol' Blue Eyes redeems himself, has one last hurrah with “New York/New York, and goes out on a high note.

I saw Sinatra in concert once. It was towards the end of his career. He was bloated, couldn’t hit most of the notes, the toupee was a little crooked, and his jokes were lame. (Quick aside: His jokes were always lame. He thought he was hilarious but never was. If he tried to make a living as a comedian instead of a singer, Peggy Lee would have said, “Stop calling me in the middle of the night! Get lost!”) But it was an unmistakable thrill. Just seeing him, just hearing him sing – and by that time he went back to familiar standards; no massacring Jim Croce songs – I felt I was in the presence of greatness. And how often do you experience that?

SINATRA, the four-hour HBO documentary ultimately focused on that, which is what I wanted. Being at the Universal Amphitheater that summer night, grooving to “Fly Me to the Moon,” I wasn’t thinking that he probably had Marilyn Monroe before Kennedy, or that he should be in prison on fifty counts of aggravated assault – I just reveled in the fact that I would never hear a better singer in my lifetime… and before every song he acknowledged the writers. I loved the guy.