Friday, February 10, 2006

Hooray for Hollyweird Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

If you haven't read the last entry already, you might wanna do so, just to get caught up.

Done? Good.

Some of the best stories came from some of the most unexpected sources. Bug-eyed character fixture Don Calfa contributed engaging bits in everything from Scorsese's New York, New York to the eighties comedy, Weekend at Bernie's. But he enthused most amusingly about the role that's insured him eternal horror movie cultdom, Ernie the Mortician in Dan O' Bannon's zombie spoof, Return of the Living Dead. A real salt-of-the-earth New York guy, Calfa genially chatted about what a tyrant O'Bannon was (though Calfa himself enjoyed a good working relationship with the volatile writer/director), and the folicular decline of good friend and fellow character actor Frank Sivero.

Boyish-looking Kenny Miller enjoyed a career that spanned fifty years, and shoulder-rubbing with some real giants. In typical six-degrees-of-horror-movie-separation fashion, I only knew Miller from brief-but-entertaining turns in the fun 50's shockers I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Attack of the Puppet People. But the curly-haired character actor appeared in Cecil B. DeMille-directed The Buccaneer opposite Charlton Heston (Miller was General Jackson's young scout in the film), and was one of the thugs who menaced Janet Leigh in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Miller talked of joining Welles on casting calls for the film, and painted a portrait of a brilliant but beaten-down man who transcended the simplistic notion of Artist-as-Tyrant. Miller recently wrote an autobiography, and I'll bet it's a pip.

Miller said that he was going to be attending the Monster Bash Convention in June 2006, and then blew my mind when he said that Bert I. Gordon--director of Attack of the Puppet People and many, many other beloved B classics--would be a guest of honor. Very impressive, since more than a few sources (including Entertainment Weekly) listed Gordon as deceased about two years ago. Talk about rumors of one's death being greatly exaggerated.

Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White made one hell of an impression on the world as the two jive talking passengers in Airplane, and like Don Calfa they were a surprising fount of great stories. White's had a good run of character roles in movies like Red Scorpion (opposite Dolph Lundgren, "a nice guy," according to White) and Russkies, and he also appeared onstage opposite Lawrence Fishburne and Roscoe Lee Browne in August Wilson's Two Trains Running in 1992. Gibbs, for his own part, has worked bit parts in Fatal Vision and Runaway Train, among others, and most recently found success in the catering business. Second death-greatly-exaggerated revelation; White was just a day away from going to visit Browne, another actor reported as deceased in recent press sources.

Like Richard Chamberlain and Joanna Cassidy, Dean Stockwell wasn't much of a talker. Unlike the former two thespians, however, the David Lynch favorite (check out his sublime bits in Blue Velvet and Dune)and Quantum Leap scene-stealer just seemed genuinely shy in person. After a minute or two of talking (and some sincere flattery on Rita's and my part), Stockwell's guarded demeanor thawed some; he even cracked a smile by the end of our encounter (too bad Rita missed capturing it on camera).

Speaking of David Lynch, try this surreal connection on for size; Charlotte Stewart was playing Miss Beadle, the quaint and caring school teacher in the TV series Little House on the Prairie, by day--at the same time that she was portraying the spastic Mary X in David Lynch's bizarre feature debut Eraserhead at night. Friendly and open, Stewart admitted that she didn't 'get' Lynch's twisted vision (filmed in pieces over a period of several years) until she saw the film for the first time, and she obviously enjoyed the challenges entailed with playing these polar-opposite characters.

Shortly after talking to Stewart, Rita headed back to the lobby for a quick break, and I went to talk to Candy Clark. When I first approached her table, Clark was living a unique form of Celebrity Convention Guest Hell, as a security guard regaled her--in excruciating detail--with stories of how his relative invented Post-It glue. She was a terrific sport, though, and I'm sure my showbiz-related questions were just as inane.

Clark lent a sunny unpretentiousness to her many roles in the '70's. Her character for the ages: sweet-natured party girl Debbie from George Lucas' American Graffiti. Clark spoke with justifiable pride about the role, and the movie's lasting place in screen history. She also registered strongly in the '78 remake of The Big Sleep (opposite Robert Mitchum), and as David Bowie's leading lady in Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. She was just wrapping up insights on Bowie's intense focus and concentration as an actor, when my cel phone unceremoniously buzzed. I ignored the damned thing for several seconds, then finally gave in, and picked it up.

"Hello?"

"Hon, it's me," My wife announced on the other end. "What are you doing?"

"Um, talking to Candy Clark about David Bowie," I replied. There's no way, I reasoned, that Rita--a huge Bowie fan herself--would interrupt me now, unless it was something really good.

"Well, you really should get over here. NOW," My wife stated in poised-but-urgent tones before she hung up.

Ever-courteous guy that I was, I dovetailed my conversation with Candy Clark to a quick but graceful conclusion, getting a picture with her, then heading in Rita's direction. What the hell was up, I pondered? Was Rita witnessing a bank robbery in progress? Had Jesus Christ shown up in a yellow silk jogging suit?

The answer came to me with another vibration of my cel phone. Again, Rita: this time, a text message--just two words:

Ron Jeremy.

Needless to say, adult filmdom's most famous male star was not on the card as a guest. But I rendevoused with the missus at the opposite end of the massive convention hall and there the man was, just walking around and checking out memorabilia like any of us regular schlubs with normal-sized tackle equipment.

Rita actually greeted the hirsute adult-film star just before I got there, reporting him as pleasant and happy to sign autographs (she obtained the guy's John Hancock for a friend of ours). She also overheard him telling another guy, "Follow me into the bathroom, I've gotta show you something." Was he about to put a skeptic's doubts to rest by dropping trou? Come to think of it, let's not speculate too much.

Surreal Life appearance aside, I'm no authority on Jeremy's filmic output, but he represents a fascinating pop-culture icon: the closest thing to a character actor that the appearance-obsessed adult film genre will likely ever see. I decided to ask him for an autograph myself.

In real life, Ron Jeremy looked much as he did on The Surreal Life, down to the non-descript black T-shirt. He was talking to two kids in their early twenties--a guy and a girl, both of whom were gifted with alabaster skin and dyed jet-black goth hair--when I arrived. The porn vet was extolling the praises of a mutual director acquaintance of theirs. "She's a total sweetie," he stated in his distinctive New York clip. "She just won an Adult Video Award for Best Big T**ty Video." Only in Hollywood would you hear such small talk.

I was stymied as to a good conversation opener ("Gee, Mr. Jeremy, you were great in 21 Hump Street,", maybe?), so all I could think to say to him was (Christ in a ketchup bottle, this is embarrassing), "You the man!" like some Bud-chugging frat boy. Hell, he probably thought I was some Bud-chugging frat boy. Despite my utter idiocy, Ron Jeremy smiled politely, signed a note card for me, and even posed for a picture.

Thus marked the end of my summit with the Ernest Borgnine of hardcore, but not the end of Rita's and my adventures. Not by a long shot.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hooray for Hollyweird: A Winter Sojourn to Tinseltown, Part 1

This last weekend (January 27 and 28, to be exact) marked my fifth trip to the LA/Hollywood area in the last three years.

Dismiss the area all you want, seen-it-alls; call it an aesthetically unexceptional 'burg planted squatly into a smoggy, dry, sun-crisped semi-desert. Call it nothing more than a dirty, ugly little industrial town. All of the above could effectively be argued, but I could give a spit less. Hollywood's still utter magic to these unjaded movie-geek eyes.

The big draw for Rita and I was yet another Hollywood Collectors' Show. Since I covered my February 2005 Collectors' Show adventures in an earlier Blog, I'll spare you the exposition and leap straight into the highlights, which are as strange as they are abundant.

Tinseltown is one gloriously weird place; it socks away surrealism like a squirrel socks away nuts. For one thing, Barry White greeted us as we boarded the Avis shuttle to get to our rental vehicle. OK, maybe it wasn't really Barry White behind the wheel of the bus, but his barrel-chested build and slicked-back long hair provided the closest physical fascimile I'd borne witness to in awhile. Best of all, when he opened his mouth to announce stops, his voice--a melifluous boudoir basso-profundo--hammered the resemblance out of the park.

But I diverge. Most of the characters Rita and I bumped into were of the celebrity variety; and, as before, the money spent was more than justified by the stories told, the quirks unveiled, and--more than once--the childlike joy of the Hollywood experience captured in person-to-person form.

Actor Bo Svenson rose to fame playing real-life asskicking lawman Buford Pusser in the final two '70's Walking Tall movies, but in person he was as warm and gracious as he was towering (talk about literally walking tall). Svenson enthused about working with Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, and told a very amusing story about paying through the nose for sequel rights to Walking Tall for seven years, then dropping those rights just a year before a big studio snapped up the property. It's all in the timing, I guess.

Colleen Gray shared screen time with Tyrone Power, one of the most blindingly handsome men in cinema, in 1947's classic Nightmare Alley. She also more than held her own in the magnificent noir, Kiss of Death (opposite Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo, one of the pre-eminent psychos of the silver screen). Reflecting very fondly on Power, her still-lovely and expressive eyes twinkled a bit; the self-confessed girlhood crush she had on him years before they worked together professionally had obviously never dimmed. And when I asked her about her excellent (no lie) work in the title role of the silly-but-fun sci-fi opus, The Leech Woman, she related with great good humor the challenges of remaining grounded in character through all manner of absurdity. Gray demonstrated an unaffected humility about her considerable talents, paying much more credit to her good fortune than to her skills as an actress. She's wrong on that count, as anyone who's seen any of the above three movies could attest.

Of all of the more recent/modern actresses there, Joanna Cassidy always struck me (onscreen, at least) as a real successor to the Colleen Grays of yore, a pretty-but-tough cookie who was always the sharpest tool in the shed, a survivor of a dame with a brain to match her packaging. Sadly, a lot of that appears to be acting. Cassidy was pleasant enough in person, but flighty as all get out, and resolutely uninterested in talking(or maybe, um, unable to talk) to anyone. A real shame; some insight on her work in the underrated political thriller Under Fire (opposite Nick Nolte)woulda been welcome.

Besides Cassidy, the other big disappointment for us was meeting Richard Chamberlain, one of those rare TV stars (in the late '50's/early '60's, as Dr. Kildare) who successfully forged a respectable acting career long after his hit series left the airwaves. I've always enjoyed the man's work, though Chamberlain's never been the warmest onscreen presence (his chilly aloofness was actually used to sublime effect as the haughty Aramis in Richard Lester's wonderful Three Musketeers films of the '70's), and his lack of warmth in person echoed his screen persona. No, I don't expect every celebrity I attempt to chat with at one of these shows to be breaking out tea and crumpets, but Chamberlain's civil, disinterested and chilly behavior left me a bit bummed. Rita did extract a few reminiscinces about the great Oliver Reed, whom Chamberlain described as a weird guy who behaved perfectly well on-set but was pretty frightening in his off-time. We acquired his John Hancock for a couple of our friends who confessed crushes on the guy; I'm glad neither of them actually met him--it might've disappointed the hell out of them.

Fortunately, most objects of childhood crushing attending the Collectors' Show met or exceeded all swoony expectations. Fifties teen idol/surprise John Waters farceur Tab Hunter looked good, his boyishly handsome features well-weathered into maturity. And he was a jovial, warm, good-natured, and funny guy. He signed an original Dot LP, Young Love, for us, and took the time to chat with us about his storied tenure as a pop music star. If his line weren't already so long, I'd have loved to chat with him at much greater length (from Damn Yankees to Divine's leading man in Polyester? What a career!). The great part was, he really seemed like he would've enjoyed it as much as Rita and I would have.

Speaking of crushes, five members of the original TV Batman cast--Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Yvonne Craig, and Julie Newmar--provided the biggest draw(and the longest lines)of the entire weekend. It's a measure of Rita's and my massive dorkiness that we'd already met three of the five (Ward, Craig, and Meriwether) at past functions over the years. Coming face-to-face with the original Batman and Catwoman, however, was a huge thrill. West was a real hoot, self-deprecatingly witty and sociable. Rita won major bonus points with him by bringing up The Relentless Four, a fun spaghetti western he shot in Spain in the mid-60's; it obviously delighted him to reminisce about something besides Batman. Fun as West was, though, I had (have) stars in my eyes for Julie Newmar.

Who did NOT have a crush on this woman? Of all of the (great) actresses who played Catwoman on TV and film, none proved to be so serendipitous a marriage of character and actor as Catwoman and Newmar. Her feline body language and sharp eyes always captivated, partly because (like a cat) you never knew exactly what she was thinking--whether she'd kiss you or kill you.

In person, she was--despite being well into her seventies--a willowy specimen of four-alarm fatal charm, and an intense flirt who had me damn near tongue-tied. When I confessed (like every other male in that long line, I'm sure) my enormous crush on her, Newmar stared deeply into my eyes and purred, "...I was thinking of you the entire time, darling." She took my hand and remarked how warm it was, her gaze never once leaving mine. I'm certain she lent just as much attention to every other guy she signed an autograph for, but that didn't shelter me from what could only be described as a serious bit of involuntary cardiovascular fluttering. Cue sigh...

Every Hollywood Collectors' Show has at least one guest--a really terrific actor who's still actively working--who induces a 'What the hell is HE doing here?' reaction. This show, it was the great Michael Madsen, one of modern cinema's finest tough guys (exhibits A and B, your honor: Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill). Meeting him was one of the show's absolute highlights. Madsen really strikes me as the genuine article: Utterly no-bull, straight-shooting, honest and caustically witty .

He was an unaffected and amiable talker. Rita asked him about working with Johnny Depp on Donnie Brasco and Madsen remarked about Depp's quiet and isolated on-set behavior. "I actually became pretty good pals with Al Pacino, but Johnny...He was a nice guy, but he would give you the shortest possible answer to any given question." He said with a chuckle. "Maybe it was some sort of Method thing."

"I take it you don't have much regard for method acting?" I asked.

"Method acting?" Madsen said with a bemused smile. "I don't know what the hell it is! I just try to remember my lines, hope the cameraman makes me look good, and get the job done."

There aren't a lot of actors with the cajones to actively slag their latest, currently-in-theaters movie in front of fans, but Madsen did so--hilariously--when I asked him about his latest movie, the reputedly-less-than-stellar vampire flick Bloodrayne. "Don't waste your time," he said with his trademark sidelong grin. "No, wait, on second thought, rent it on DVD when it comes out, and watch it while you get really drunk with a bunch of friends." He also admitted that he and Sir Ben Kingsley (Madsen's co-star in Species as well as Bloodrayne) didn't exactly get along famously. "Kingsley asked for a stunt double for our big duel [in Bloodrayne]; I think he thought I was gonna kill him or something..."

With his jet-black hair, six-foot-two frame, and rugged good looks, Michael Madsen certainly cut a riveting figure. And my wife was damn near dumbstruck into silence in his presence (trust me, this doesn't happen often). I'm sure she wasn't the only girl to react in that fashion that weekend, either. Look up 'man's man' in the Dictionary, and you'll probably find Madsen's picture staring back at you.

All this, and I've only scratched the first few hours of our first day there. There's still a lot more to go, not the least of which includes a porn star, and a red-carpet bum rush. Like I said, Hollywood is a weird--but wonderful place. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Um, yeah...go Seahawks, I guess.

I'm a traitor to my gender. Or at least a traitor to my hometown, maybe.

The beleaguered Seattle Seahawks have finally fought their way to the Super Bowl after nearly four decades of mediocre showings, and all of a sudden, even locals who don't know pigskin from pomegranates are dancing in the streets like Pee Wee Herman on crystal meth. Me, I don't really care.

Mind you, I hold no ill will whatsoever for the legions of fans who'll be crowding living rooms and sports bars to watch the big game. Nor do I wish anything less than the best for this buncha Northwest gridiron underdogs as they slug it out with the Pittsburg Steelers on Sunday. And my dear old Dad--a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool sports freak if ever there was one--will have even more of an excuse to meld gleefully with the easy chair Howard-Hughes-style while radio and TV Bowl coverage bombards him, which makes me happy for him.

But truth be told, I'm just not a football fan. As a spectator sport it lacks soccer or basketball's frenetic pace. And baseball has it beat to hell in the historic-weight-as-an-institution department. Them's just my opinions.

The expensive and ballyhooed Super Bowl commercials previewing on news outlets hold a bit more interest for me; gotta admit that the Diddy/Jay Mohr Diet Pepsi spot gave me a chuckle. It'll never make me buy a Diet Pepsi (and I can't wrap my head around the disproportionate amount of money and creativity funneled into said spot), but I did laugh.

So, no, I probably won't be watching the game, or placing any bets. Now the Oscars...THAT'S a different story.

Yes, I am a candy-ass. Sorry, Dad.