Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Video Killed The Radio Star."

Happy Thanksgiving, folks.  The new volume of Perry Mason finally arrived, Season 5, Volume 2.  First episode from January 1, 1962, entitled "The Case of the Shapely Shadow."  Still stuck in all this nostalgia.  Just started Season 2 of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  And how about that recent announcement that George Clooney will play Napoleon Solo in a feature remake of the series?  I think George Clooney should play Perry Mason.  He compared himself to Raymond Burr once.  Maybe he's not as heavy as Raymond Burr, but he certainly isn't as thin as Robert Vaughn.  Anyway, "...Shapely Shadow" reminds me of one of my other on-and-off obsessions: The Shadow. 

As a kid, I was a fan of The Shadow radio show, pulp magazines, paperback reprints and early comics.  Who didn't love radio and not enjoy The Shadow?  When Space Pirate Radio began in 1974, despite my love for the original shows, he was still a great character to poke fun at ("C'mon Margo...let me cloud your mind!").  One of the funniest of the early Mad comic parodies was of the Shadow.  After unclouding the mind of Margo Lane, the Shadow is revealed to be about 2 feet tall in slouch hat and cloak, with nose a foot long.  I even named one of my cats in my teenage years after the Mad Magazine character, Lamont Shadowskeedeeboomboom.

So my early born passion for The Shadow motivated me to get involved with the Universal production starring Alec Baldwin  Fans of The Shadow have always had to put up with the contradictions in the character in its various formats.  The pulp Shadow is not invisible; does not cloud minds.  The radio Shadow does.  Orson Welles wasn't the first to play The Shadow, but he was the first to develop it as a character rather than a radio host.  Previous film attempts have all been a batch of mixed blessings, so fans of Walter Gibson's pulp character have never seen a true interpretation.  Throughout the years, the character had been in film development hell with various starts and stops. Many actors were considered and possibly attached to a production: Ben Cross, for one; Liam Neeson, for another (his Darkman had certainly covered similar ground).  So now Alec Baldwin, deprived of the Tom Clancy franchise, is attached, hoping there might be a success similar to Batman (which of course was inspired by The Shadow).

So at this time in my life, I've acquired a small collection of Shadow paraphernalia (second only to my collection on Peter Sellers, and all of them outdistanced by my esoteric music collection).  My love for the subject prompted my to consider publishing a new history of The Shadow entitled "Who Knows What Evil?"  This gets me in contact with Universal and the producers of the film, who invite me to contribute research on the project.  So in January of 1994, I'm back on the Universal Studios lot where I last had spent 3 days filming the prison finale on 1980's The Blues Brothers.  The studio has always been kind of a funny place for me.  I would write an article trashing its assembly line schedule of productions, and then within a month, be working in one of their films.  I was going to mention in my previous blog about jobs, how Universal had once offered me an opportunity to screenwrite for the Incredible Hulk TV series.  But being the purist snob that I was, since I wasn't a fan of Marvel Comics, I turned it down.  Probably blew the best chance for career advancement there, but, hey...can't stop being eccentric. 

But back to The Shadow.  I was fortunate enough to be on the set of The Shadow's private sanctum.  This is the scene where Lamont Cranston is invaded by his arch enemy, Shiwan Khan, played by actor John Lone.  The production staff is treating me with fine hospitality and I am introduced to director, Russell Mulcahy.  He is well known for directing Highlander.  But because of my music background, he is also known to me as the director of The Buggles video that inaugurated MTV (not to mention, his films for Duran Duran).  I told you not to mention that.  So upon introduction, I hum the little ditty and surprisingly he doesn't punch me out. We are friends for the day.  He is courteous and accomodating to me on his set, and even invites me to take his photograph in the director's chair. 

It is a wonderfully relaxed and open set, moreso than others I've either worked on or visited.  Alec Baldwin is extremely friendly, although he smokes like a fiend.  The set is enclosed and Russell directs from outside on a monitor.  He doesn't find it necessary to be that close to the action and viewing this style of directing at the time seems unique to me.  I am witnessing the change in production techniques.  John Lone is very friendly and enjoys talking about his work on Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and Alan Rudolph's The Moderns.  He seems a little uncomfortable in the wig.  Penelope Ann Miller is on the set, though not in this scene.  She is really friendly to me and invites me to stay another day (which will be her final day on set) to interview her.  We talk about the character of Margo Lane, which she seems to find helpful.  I put forth my theory that Margo Lane was inspired by actress Myrna Loy and this perks her up.  Later she will mention this in some interviews, which will bug other Shadow historians who feel Margo Lane had nothing to do with Myrna Loy.  It's fun to see your influence at work. 

Also on the set was Jim Brown, entertainment editor for NBC's The Today Show.  He's putting together a piece for the program.  And down the line, I will get a call from him and an invite to the NBC Studios to bring myself and examples of my Shadow collection for his feature on the film.  Groovy.  I will be a part of one of those discarded DVD extras, where I, along with the principal actors, will comment on aspects of the film.  I suggest to Jim Brown the inclusion of Jonathan Winters, who's in the film and happens to be in the NBC Studios on the day we are filming.  Of course, my producer/director's side creates a suggestion that will minimize my performer's amount of screen time.  Why don't I think of these things at the time?  Either way, the program did air on The Today Show and was seen in most of the U.S., except I think in Los Angeles where it got pre-empted for the O.J. Simpson decision.  Damn you O.J.! 

Also on that day at Universal, I met author James Luceno, who was there seeping up the mood as he had been given the job of writing the paperback novelization of The Shadow film.  A very friendly guy, typical of the spirit of sci-fi authors, he had previously written a Young Indiana Jones novel.  At the time, his ambition was to do Star Wars books, and I am happy to say that he has succeeded admirably in this area.  During the time of his writing The Shadow adaptation, we were in contact.  I sent him all of the background information on the character that I felt would help his book.  Copies of comics and things like that.  He sent me privileged information regarding the character from his side and he was very kind to acknowledge my assistance in his book.  Unfortunately, my own literary effort never saw the light of day. 

All in all, despite the film's shortcomings, it was an extremely delightful connection into a world long gone by.  A mysterious figure, shrouded in fog on a roof somewhere in 1930s Chinatown.  Marvelous!  Who is this figure?  The mystery deepens.  We do know this...if Lamont Cranston was a Man About Town, the best that I can do is be a Man About Blocks. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

"No man is free who has to work for a living. But I'm available."

I have a problem with the fine line between work and pleasure.  Somewhere along life's journey, I gave up on the concept that you work at something you hate in an attempt to deceive your fellow humankind into parting with valuable commodities in exchange for your useless goods.  This might explain why my CV is so abbreviated.  Based upon some early antiquated philosophy, my utopian vision (which might be fancy-speak for being delusional) embodied the rugged, outdated model that work should be of universal benefit--not personal profit.  Now let me tell you folks, this will not work in a job interview.  So if you're starting out in the workforce now, stop reading here. 

Anybody left?  Ask any madman, but the real pleasure in life is turning your own personal obsession into an occupation.  This can be really tough at the beginning.  Certainly, my early attempts at interacting within the real world were minor trainwrecks of embarrassment.  Being a box boy at Alpha Beta with my much too long Illya Kuryakin haircut was my first experience with deceit used as financial incentive.  "Oh, I just love those strawberries," sez the overweight checker to the elderly woman purchasing said fruit product, with yours truly placing them in the extra-sturdy paperbag.  The happy pensioner leaving the store, pleased that her purchase has been validated by the friendly cashier, the hostess turns to me and says "I can't stand those strawberries, they make me sick."  Why am I stunned into a shocked silence of horror?  You lying bitch.  Who do you trust?  Is this to teach me to question the comments made from people that are you paying currency to?  A minor event, you say?  Perhaps.  But if this event had such a profound effect that I remember it 44 years later, how then could I find myself in phone sales, using my talents as a gifted actor to entice unseen, new residents into subscribing to the Los Angeles Times?  It's all true.  From the entrails of a decrepit building in Whittier, CA, I would dial newly connected phone numbers (received in Langley-like fashion from unspoken connections in the phone company) and greet the unsuspecting recipient with the words "Hello, this is David Hemmings from the Los Angeles Times.  How are you today?  I have good news for you.  The Los Angeles Time has opened up a BRAND NEW office in your area!"  (This area included all of Southern California--we were the office.)  "And for a limited time only, if you have the Los Angeles Times delivered to your home, you will receive a special free gift."  (The gift was a collection of reprints of famous Los Angeles Times covers.  Suitable for framing.)  "I don't want to subscribe to the newspaper," the doubting customer might hastily insert into my fast-paced spiel.  "Oh, this is not a subscription," David Hemmings or Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing would say to the customer, "but only a TRIAL OFFER.  You can cancel at any time."  But of course it really was a subscription, and the point was to get them to keep the paper for at least a month so yours truly, Terence Stamp, could get his commission.  What a dreadful business.  I was actually very good at it and was sent to new urban areas of development simply to call recent homeowners and get that valuable, first time, daily paper subscription.  Like a field operator, I was removed from HQ in Whittier and phoning out of a distribution office in Claremont.  Besides the good pay for a young man, the perks of the job included getting my Sunday paper on Wednesday because the Calendar, comics, magazine and non-newsy sections were delivered early, and the fact that the little mini-mart around the corner thought I was overage and sold me beer with my lunch every day. 

(Footnote for underage drinkers:  I'm not condoning this, but remembering the fact that the store assumed I was older and I took advantage of it.  I should also point out that if you are underage, an effect that will really work is putting baby powder in your hair, giving you that greying temples look.  A slight limp can be added for extra effect.  It works.  Trust me.)

So the paper thing was pretty depressing.  Soul diminishing.  For years I hated the L.A. Times.  Wouldn't buy the paper.  Then later I decided why should I sell the crap that's in the paper when I can actually write it?  Sorry friends, I went off on a Tangent here (a much smoother ride...better than going off in a Huff).  So anyway, I liked music.  Thought I had an ear for it.  Wanted to play it.  Maybe get paid for it.  Do what you like.  Do what you love.  If you can make it profitable, you're blessed.  Of course, this also has its dark side.  Which explains how Dick Cheney exists.  Which is why I often say to people when they talk about sex and violence: "I'm a lover, not a fighter.  But I'll fight for love."

"Illya, are you free?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

"When fashion dictates..."

"'re living in, a Fashion State."

While watching the Desert Fox News Network, on Fox Und Freunde, I saw an interview with former first Fuhrer George W. Putsch.  He was there to promote his new autobiography, "Stories Told Round Mein Kampfire."  A collection of memoirs of a man's burning struggle to rewrite his memories.  Regain his memories?  Rogaine his memories?  Herr loss?  Not sure, but powerful stuff nonetheless.  As the metal union workers would say, this is riveting stuff.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an excess of free time and not much else motivating your daily existence.  It is hard to pick out a a favourite part of the book over another.  Every bit of detail sears itself upon the memory and, uhm...I.  Sorry, what was I saying?  The many challenges that faced this eloquent leader.  I was particularly moved by his agonizing predecision and former predecision after the previous former predecision to invade Poland.  Despite left-leaning criticism that his only desire to invade Poland was to take over its famous sausage industry (after rumours of his early failed Austin Sausage explorations and with some aid from the Saudi sausage faction), his firm conviction that the Polish leader had hidden stores of mustard gas remains convincing.  Even though after the invasion, no condiments of mass destruction were found.  Mustard, yes.  Gas, no.  Only in combination and with heavy beer consumption.  Great reading anyway. 

And who among us will not feel the pain of something internal coming up when we hear in his own words from someone else his feeling on the day of the Reichstag burning; forcing down his own emotions while reading Meine Pet Scapegoat to the Bavarian kindergarten.  It will choke you up.  And speaking of choking up, don't forget his passage on his near-death sexual asphyxiation while chomping on an oversized Viennese pretzel.  Exciting stuff.  Even though some have claimed that he was just trying to emulate his father, former Fuhrer, George Herbert Walker Putsch's famous rainbow sushi barf on Emperor Hirohito.  A cry of help from a neurotic son to his tyrant father?  Or just the inability to swallow correctly?  It will be up to the reading public to determine just how much you can swallow. 

So there is much to recommend in this book.  It's thick enough to press some Edelweiss.  And it's not all serious and somber moments.  A collection of Tex-Naz recipes are also included.  You'll want to whip up an armadillo strudel, I can guarantee.  Mouth-watering.  So add this book to your library.  Make sure you place it in the fiction section.  Right next to the Warren Report.  Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Open Channel D."

Bob's your U.N.C.L.E. (Part 1)

Hello folks.  How are you, folks?  The wife and I just finished watching a Columbo episode from the 5th season starring Robert Vaughn and directed by Patrick McGoohan.  Wow, Napoleon Solo directed by John Drake, Number 6, Danger Man, Secret Agent and the Prisoner.  A pretty amazing meeting of '60s spy icons.  And what a week it has been for swinging '60s spy nostalgia.  I bought myself a toy: the complete set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Among my early obsessions in 1964 was a love for that black and white, NBC TV series.  I was hooked from the initial airing of the first show and was a fan from day one.  Like today's loons in love with Lost, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the hipster, cool show of the early '60s.  Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo was the American's identification with the James Bond-type, but for us Beatle-bred, iconoclastic teenagers, David McCallum's avant-garde Russian, Illya Kuryakin, was the one to identify with.  As I think I've mentioned before, my insistence on wearing black turtlenecks with coats and refusing to cut my hair over my ears and behind the back caused suspension at my uber-fascist high school, John A. Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, CA--the upper armpit of the City of Industry, near the garden spot community of La Puente (hmmm...can heaven exist anywhere else on earth?). 

Anyway, big fan of the show.  Stayed with it through its first, great, black and white season, although I was torn apart when the show was moved to Monday nights, which was the night that I would go into Hollywood and work on the KCOP TV Channel 13 horror program, Jeepers Creepers.  More about this later, but I do remember being in the make-up room at Channel 13 and watching the monitor being tuned to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  But I digress.  It was my involvement with Rowland High School that got me invited to the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1966.  I wrote for the high school newspaper and at the time there was a magazine called Scene which was primarily a teen-based publication made up of contributions from  various high school literary staffs.  The show, wishing to increase its popularity with a younger audience, invited one writer from each high school to attend a Saturday get-together on the MGM Studios lot.  The invitation included the opportunity to visit all of the sets for the show, watch a preview of the next week's unaired episode, and finally, to meet and interview stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.  This is terrific!  The only problem was that I was not the number one writer at the paper.  So the invitation went to a more credentialed lady contributor, who casually showed me the invitation she had received.  I freaked.  But my intense spy training kept it cool and unnoticeable.  Was anyone looking?  Could I club her over the head and stick her into the multi-purpose room?  Would anyone notice?  I'd seen how this was done.  It could look like an accident.  They wouldn't find her.  At least not until after lunch period.  I coolly eyed my surroundings.  But suddenly, my plot took a strange direction...she said "I can't go, do you want to?"  How fine is that line between life and death?  Amazing, really.  "Oh, thanks, yes, I'd love to."  And so the violence factor was removed.  All was well. 

Well, anyway, to make a long story longer, I got up far too early on Saturday morning and took a series of buses to Culver City to wind up at the front of the world famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.  Wow.  And it was all so casual.  Very relaxed.  What a time.  You probably can't see it in the photograph, but the marquee on top of the studios promotes the release of their latest mega-motion picture, Doctor Zhivago.  But I was not there for that.  I was there to enter Del Floria's Tailor Shop and travel through the halls of United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.  U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.  And we saw it all: the spinning table, the round globe, Alexander Waverly's communications center, those U.N.C.L.E. hallways.  The deep innards of that mysterious organization revealed.  A fan's delight. 

In the MGM screening room, we watched "The Foreign Legion Affair," which I expected as U.N.C.L.E. had been broadcast the night before (now on Friday evenings) and the preview for next week's show was the one we were now watching.  We are now in Season 2, all in colour, and the camp is rising considerably, while the serious espionage level is dropping.  Although I am not aware of the showbiz politics at the time, I believe this is due to the exit of original producer, Sam Rolfe, and the entrance of new producer, David Victor.  I noticed on my original U.N.C.L.E. membership cards (which you would get if you wrote NBC saying you were a fan of the show) that David Victor had replaced Sam Rolfe.  Ironically, I have kept the David Victor card in my wallet since I received it in the mid-60s.  I see that I was promoted.

So after the viewing, stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum come out and chat with the peanut gallery of writers.  Vaughn wore a Tyrolean-styled hat, which he referred to as his "weekend hat."  McCallum said he was wearing it because he didn't have his toupee on.  I don't think those two really got along very well.  I was dressed in my mock-Illya style turtleneck and coat.  McCallum looked at me with a dazed, surrealistic glance, which suggested "what the hell are you dressed like?"  I whipped out my classic Kodak and snapped the rare Access Hollywood exclusive you now see.

As I have mentioned before, although I admired Robert Vaughn for his politics (he was a Kennedy-style Democrat, and at one time was considered to run for the California Senate...but I think some spooky types may have scared him away from it), I narcissistically identified with David McCallum.  I was quite disappointed to discover that David McCallum was extremely, ultra-conservative.  In the past, I always took his side thinking how he had been wronged by his ex-wife Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson.  After all, in every episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the supposedly single Illya Kuryakin is seen wearing his wedding band.  And he and his wife, Jill, appeared in two episodes in the first season.  They were a picture-perfect couple, these two blonds who had met in England in the J. Arthur Rank period.  But as I always frequently discover, you can be surprised and you may have to rethink things.  For me, I have to find what is consistent.  It's the irregularities that disturb me.  So I'm not naive to be fooled by the performance, but in the case of David McCallum, he was closer to the spy that he portrayed in one fact: he never revealed anything about himself.  At the time, he hung out in the hip circles, released cool musical albums, appeared on Hullabaloo, acted as if he was sincerely a part of the counter-culture.  It surprised me in later interviews how conservative and socialist-paranoid he was.  Is it just the cliche of the tightwad Scotsman?  Or is it something else?  After all, the CIA has props from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in Langley.  They use the show as a recruiting tool.  "Hey kids, come to Langley!  We'll give you an exploding pen!  It's got gas!"  So it makes you question everything.  I remember accidentally running into Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in Del Mar, CA.  They owned a timeshare in the hotel I was staying at.  Charles Bronson.  The star of those Death Wish movies directed by Michael Winner, who it's been listed was once a boyfriend of Jill Ireland.  I'm confused.  I'm petting my cats now.  Thank god they're not in show business.

Thank god I got out of this spy obsession.  For a while, I thought "what the hell is wrong with me?  U.N.C.L.E.'s the CIA."  Then on later re-thought, I considered that perhaps U.N.C.L.E. represented the United Nations or Interpol.  After all, they did show the UN building in early episodes.  And as the announcer said "U.N.C.L.E. was made up of multi-nationalities."  So perhaps this police force was more utopian than fascist.  Perhaps Thrush was closer to the CIA with its new world order agenda.

So what did we learn here?  Anything of importance?  Deep, sociological insight?  Or just pop culture?  Conspiracies and cover-up?  Or cool hairstyles and turtlenecks?  Light fiction or deeper meaning?  Life imitating art?  Didn't G. Gordon Liddy think he was the real James Bond?  Food for thought.  Be seeing you.