Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Character Actor Heaven: Hollywood Collectors Show, Feb 2005

Hollywood Collectors' Show, February 18/19, 2005

Character actors are the building blocks of cinematic life. And like a lot of important foundations (architectural or otherwise), they get little credit from the outside world for their contributions. Fortunately, there's the bi-monthly Hollywood Collectors' Show, where fans of all stripes can show these hard-working but underappreciated fixtures of film and TV some serious love, and even get some love back.

Expect to make a bit of an investment for that love. Daily admission is $15 ($25 for a two-day pass), and all of the celebrities in attendance charge for their autographs (more on that later). But for a real film (or TV) nut, a Hollywood Collector's Show is absolute manna from heaven, and totally worth the extra change. Imagine a Star Trek convention stripped to its absolute essentials--ample celebrity guests and heaps of cool merchandise--and you get the idea.

My wife and I saved our pennies for several months and took the Collectors' Show plunge for the second time in our lives in February. Our first HCS in October 2003 yielded much joy, but the February 18/19 Collectors' Show at the Hilton Burbank Convention Center truly delivered the goods. Nearly 100 guest celebrities attended the shindig, and contrary to conventional Fan Convention wisdom, not everyone who appeared at the show was old, out-of-work, or past their prime. The celebs in attendance ranged from up-and-comers (Efran Ramirez from Napoleon Dynamite), to still-busy veterans (Karen Black and Clint Howard), to Hollywood legends (Jane Russell), to TV icons (Robert Culp and Catherine 'Daisy Duke' Bach), to erstwhile pop stars (Tiffany), to every strata in between.

One of the holy grails of our trek to Burbank was the prospect of meeting Reb Brown. Blond and muscular, Reb appeared in several memorable roles throughout the '70's and 80's, usually showcasing his beefy good looks and physicality in hero roles. He was Captain America in two TV flicks in the late '70's, appeared in John Milius' surf epic Big Wednesday, and more than held his own opposite Gene Hackman and Fred Ward in the underrated Vietnam-revisited action drama Uncommon Valor. But the principal source of Rita's and my Reb worship was the 1983 sci-fi classic Yor, the Hunter from the Future. Yor takes the crown as the most delirious, insane, action-packed, and fun sword-and-sandal epic to follow in the wake of 1982's Conan the Barbarian (in a future Petri Dish entry, Yor's abundant dinosaurs, apemen, lepers, spaceships, lasers, Darth Vader clones, and insidious Eurotrash theme song shall all receive due homage).

In recent years, the former action star had maintained a very low profile, working at a movie production company in an administrative capacity and seemingly vanishing from the spotlight. We wondered what he'd be like today.

In person, the action icon possessed the same massive and muscled physique that won him steady work in the '80's. Even sitting down he loomed, large and imposing. And maybe he even scared me some.

To our great delight, however, Brown proved to be a boisterous, friendly bear of a guy. He laughed gleefully, instead of getting frightened, when we pulled out the Yor mini-poster...and out-of-print soundtrack LP...and presskit...and lobby card set...and stills... TV's Captain America regaled us with lots of great stories about the rigors of filming Yor, and about working with a lot of cinema greats and near-greats. Whenever we passed his table, he was always quick to say hi and ask how Rita and I were. No airs, no attempts to get us to buy more merch; he was just being friendly.

Likewise, the magnificent Clint Howard was quick with some great anecdotes. The prolific brother of director Ron Howard may work most frequently in his older sibling's directorial efforts, but it's in his full-throttle roles as put-upon nerds on the brink (take a look at his intense work in the trash-horror classic Evilspeak) and outright psychos (like The Ice Cream Man) that he shines most brightly. He spoke with good-natured candor about working with Russell Crowe on Cinderella Man, and on becoming a figure of high-school cool as Eaglebauer in Rock and Roll High School. In 1998, Clint won the MTV Movie Awards Life Achievement Award, and his acceptance speech that night warmed this jaded movie geek's heart; what started out as an amusing goof became an honestly moving paean to all of the great character actors toiling in the trenches. And Rita and I got to pose for a picture of Clint with his MTV Movie Award. Lifetime highlight central.

Robert Quarry worked in Hollywood since the '50's, but saw his greatest fame in the 1970's as a major horror star in Count Yorga, Vampire, The Return of Count Yorga, Madhouse, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Like a lot of horror movie geeks, Rita and I'd always admired Quarry, whose dapper charisma and piercing eyes seemed to portend a big career that never quite blossomed. Meeting the one-time Count Yorga was a major eye-opener--his direct, no-bull, loveably cranky demeanor couldn't be further removed from his onscreen persona, and his humorously curmudgeony repartee with my dear wife was so natural that watching the two of them interact was like viewing some subtle, sharply-observed movie comedy. Quarry also shared thoughtful, candid, and sometimes caustic reminiscinces about his friendship with James Dean, working with Vincent Price, and his on-set travails with Robert Fuest, the Briton who directed Dr. Phibes Rises Again.

Fans of the Planet of the Apes films remember the first Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and its tribe of telekinetic, bomb-worshiping mutants living in the subterranean ruins of what was once New York. One scene in particular reverberated in my head from childhood on: the heroic astronauts overpower one of their captors--a tall, formidable-looking black man--and kill him. Before he dies, the African man pulls off his 'normal' face (a mask) revealing a hideously scarred visage underneath, and an array of emotions--pain, horror, anguish, and ultimately relief and comfort in revealing his true face to the world--flit across his countenance before he expires. It's one of those memorable film moments that etches itself in your cortex forever, and the man who created it--character actor Don Pedro Colley--was a joy to talk to. In addition to reminiscing about his contributions to the Apes sequel, he also related his adventures working with George Lucas on THX-1138 (big surprise; Lucas was all thumbs with actors back then, too), on the low-budget blaxploitation opus Sugar Hill, and as a deputy on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Most of Maxwell Caulfield's notoriety came as the blown-dry lead of Grease 2, but he excelled in against-type turns as an emotionally numb killer and a conceited rock star in The Boys Next Door and Empire Records, respectively. He was delighted to talk at length about both, and gave Rita and I a witty account of the dog-and-pony show that is TV pilot season in Hollywood.


Jovial film and TV vet Hank Garrett (late of the original Car 54, Where Are You?) has one of those amiable mugs that invariably lead to him being cast as someone's nice-guy next door neighbor. Director Sydney Pollack cannily subverted Garrett's working class nice guy exterior in the excellent paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. Hank regaled us with memories of Pollack, and of working with John Carradine on the '77 horror flick, The Sentinel. (Carradine would recite Shakespeare at random on-set, much to Hank's delight).

Of all of the attendees, Karen Black probably sported the most impressive resume, with starring gigs in some of the greatest (Five Easy Pieces, Nashville) and splashiest (Airport '75, Burnt Offerings) films of the '70's and '80's. She's worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Tobe Hooper to Robert Altman, and garnered an Oscar nod for her work in Five Easy Pieces. In person she was classy, intelligent, and earthy. She painted a vivid picture of suspense maestro Hitchcock (on the set of his final film, Family Plot)as a sardonic little boy at play, and discussed her work in Five Easy Pieces and the Rob Zombie horror flick House of 1000 Corpses (one of that spotty thriller's unquestionable highlights) with an artisan's attention to detail.

Seinfeld fans were in hog heaven, as some of that show's most memorable guest stars attended. Ian Abercrombie, the series' sophisticated-but-spoiled Mr. Pitt, was a perfect British gentleman, humbly praising the show's writers for tailoring such great material specifically for him. Phil Morris (left) likewise chatted amiably about crafting one of the show's most hilarious recurring characters, cutthroat attorney Jackie Chiles. We missed talking to Danny Woodburn (Kramer's golf pal Mickey) and Brian George (Babu), but they seemed ill-at-ease and were packing attitudes anyway, so no great loss.

At the opposite end of the pretentiousness spectrum was the refreshingly down-to-earth Mako (right), whose intense charisma enriched scores of action and martial arts flicks over the last 40 years. He arrived late (his car broke down on the way to the Show), but he was jovial, good-natured, and appreciative of his fans. When I asked him what his next project would be, he replied with a chuckle, "Getting my car fixed!".

Despite the fun Rita and I had, a sense of the bittersweet occasionally suffused things. Many of the guests in attendance had committed the unpardonable sin of getting older in an industry (and town) where youth is an all-consuming dictatorial Monarch, and many of these actors spoke (some humorously) about the dearth of work in recent years. None of the vets we talked to displayed any self-pity. Some have gracefully and comfortably retired; Octegenarian House Peters Jr. (TV's first Mr. Clean, and a veteran of numerous Republic serials and B westerns, right) reflected on his glory years with nary a hint of regret, and told stories with the humor and clarity of someone half his age. Some, like Mako and the great character actor James Hong (of Blade Runner and Big Trouble in Little China fame), have really never stopped working. Others, like Caulfield, continue to charge onto the breach time and again through career highs and lows, not for fame and glory, but to make a living.

Yeah, everyone charges for their signature, usually between $10 and $20, though some top out at more. And Rita and I drew the line at paying 20 to 25 smackers just to get our picture taken with Jane Russell or Catherine "Daisy Duke" Bach. But few of the celebs in attendance see any of the financial windfall from VHS, DVD, syndication royalties, or residuals; as such, these Collectors' Shows provide a steady (sometimes their only) income between gigs.

One encounter in particular cemented the worth of these conventions. William Smith, one of my favorite overlooked tough guys of film and TV, starred in the western series Laredo, and played the evil Falconetti in the blockbuster miniseries Rich Man Poor Man. He also logged in numerous leads in biker and B horror flicks like Angels Die Hard, Invasion of the Bee Girls, and The Losers, and lent his presence to supporting roles in everything from Red Dawn to The Frisco Kid. In addition to his film and television work, Smith was awarded the Purple Heart as a soldier in the Korean War, boxed, skied, and motocrossed semi-professionally, set a Guinness World Record for weightlifting, graduated Cum Laude from UCLA, speaks five languages fluently, and taught Russian language at his alma mater in the fifties. Talk about a life well-lived. Smith still sports his rock-solid physique despite recent health problems; in classic old-school macho-man style, he exhorted Rita and I to feel his bicep for proof, and for the record, the damn thing felt like a cannonball. Smith is one of the last of a dying breed; a real, honest-to-God, no-bull, square-jawed tough guy. No method acting, no pretentious searching for motivation or meaning; being an actor in his heyday meant doing whatever had to be done--emoting on-camera, riding a Harley, hurling yourself through a plate-glass window--then clocking off and living as hard as you worked.

He shared stories gladly and even gave me an impromptu lesson in getting beat up onscreen. And when Rita and I told him how much his work onscreen meant to us, this mountain of a man got as verklempt as a little kid. Getting a cool autographed photo for twenty bucks was one thing; listening to Big Bill Smith talk about his life and work in a now-bygone era of Hollywood was, to paraphrase that blasted Mastercard commercial, priceless.

17 comments:

Teri said...

Tony--

What a great article! How amazing to meet some of the best actors who've made (and "made") many, many of the movies and tv shows I grew up with! I have always had the biggest crush on William Smith--and Mako, wow! He's been in everything!

This must've been an amazing trip for you and Rita--can I please come on your next one? I'll just stand in a corner and drool........

Thanks, Rita--for sharing this wonderful blog!

JennyB. said...

Okay, first of all, you are the coolest guy I know. I am in a complete fit of jealousy for all you saw at this show!

Secondly, I'm in a complete fit of jealousy of Rita because I adore Phil Morris! I remember when he was on 'The Young and the Restless' and posed as a white guy! And of course there's his famous father...

And Clint Howard! And Karen Black! And Mako (who I'm amazed is still alive!) And lots of people I didn't know, but how cool is it that you have pictures of them?!

If Frank Langella had been there and you'd gotten a picture with him, I think I would have passed out.

Yours in fannish glee,
Jenny B.

Dave J. said...

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your convention report. The writing was just fine, and the pics were a lotta fun too.
I have 40 years experience as a professional journalist, so I feel qualified to comment.
I hope you'll post some more on your trip. Where did you stay? What sort of things were for sale, and what all did you buy, etc.

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signaturefan said...

Weird you mentioned a few of the other Seinfeld guests packed an attitude and Phil Morris didn't.

I met him not too long ago and asked if I could take his photo by himself like I had with a few other stars. He was behind his table with nobody coming up to him. I know if you want your photo with the star it usually costs $10 or it is free if you buy their signature for $20-$25, and totally get that. I usually have whatever film the star is in signed, and happily pay them for their time and signature, then I get my photo snapped with them with my camera. Fair and fine with me ;)

Once in a while, I just want my photo with them, so I pay the $10 (lately $15, which is pushing it) Again fair and understandable.

Morris said, "I will have to charge you $10 to take my photo".

I have never heard of a celebrity (even one who is not so famous any longer) try to pull that. I mean charge to just snap their photo in public? He is delusional as to his importance and it was a turn off.

Nobody else wanted $$$ just to snap their pic of them sitting down or standing behind their table but him. Even the real big stars. Which he is not.

I heard Loretta Switt once chased a fan around a convention room because she took a photo of Miss Switt sitting behind her table as she was walking by. Switt said that will cost you $20. The lady kept walking and Switt literally chased her around saying she wanted $20 or the film.

Ridiculous.

If they POSE with you, sure. But a photo taken from afar with your camera? Are they on drugs?

Morris doing that to me made him look like a major jerk.