All About Mel
October 14, 2022
I finally finished Mel Brooks' memoir All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business (Ballantine Books). At 460 pages, it's a long book but then again at 96 Brooks has led a long life, and his telling of his journey from his humble upbringing in Brooklyn to becoming one of the all-time great comics and filmmakers is a terrific read.
From almost as early as I can remember, I was a Mel Brooks fan (Young Frankenstein was one of the first films I ever saw in a theater). Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and grew up in the Williamsburg section. His father died from tuberculosis at 34 when Brooks was just two years old. His three older brothers took on the role of father figure.
Brooks joined the Army at age 18 in 1943, serving as a combat engineer in Germany in World War II. His time in the service had a huge impact on his life, and Brooks writes about this period extensively, but perhaps a little too extensively. This part of the book could have used some editing. He also quotes long passages of dialogue from his movies, which, if you are a Mel Brooks fan, you likely already know by heart. Again, some tightening would have benefitted the book. I also found a number of stories about Gene Wilder to conflict with Wilder's own telling of the same incidents, so one of them obviously got their facts a little blurry.
But those critiques aside, once Brooks gets into his time working with Sid Caesar, befriending Carl Reiner, falling in love with Anne Bancroft, and then becoming an Oscar-winning writer, producer, and director, the pages fly by. Brooks' voice is clear throughout, as is his love of food, especially Jewish soul food (a.k.a. Chinese), reminiscent of another great memoir of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who made it big, Woody Allen's Apropos of Nothing from two years ago. Brooks has always made a point of having weekly lunches with various friends, and even devotes one chapter to a New York City group in the 1960s that included Mario Puzo who proclaimed themselves The Chinese Gourmet Society. These memories are particularly heartwarming.
Brooks is also is a wine connoisseur, something he credits Gene Wilder for. Brooks was having dinner at Wilder's Manhattan apartment in the early 1970s when Wilder served him a French pinot noir called Nuit-Saint-Georges. "Up until then I thought wine was made by Manischewitz..." Brooks writes. "I had no idea what was in my mouth when Gene poured me a glass of wine at that fateful dinner. All I knew was that it was NOT Manischewitz, and that it was sublime."
He details every single film, TV, and later Broadway production, giving ample attention to his truly great films and less so to disappointments like Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). He also explains his decision to form his own production company to make more serious films, most notably The Elephant Man (1980).
There is a definite element of sadness among all the laughter, as Brooks has lost many loved ones over the years, most significantly his beloved wife Anne Bancroft and best friend of 70 years Carl Reiner. Until Reiner's death in 2020, Brooks and Reiner would have dinner every night at Reiner's house in front of the TV as they watched and played along to Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Brooks writes lovingly about Bancroft, his wife of 40 years who died in 2005 at age 73 from uterine cancer. Brooks desperately misses her but but resists getting maudlin as he praises her as a "gift from God" and dedicated mother to their son Max, now 50, a successful writer.
Mel Brooks appreciates the acclaim he has received over the years (he quotes a number of positive movie reviews) and does not try to coyly be humble about how proud he is of his many awards (he is in that elite class known as EGOTs). He was especially honored to be among the Kennedy Center honorees for lifetime achievement in 2009 and to be invited to the White House where President Barack Obama presented him with his medal.
All About Me! is great fun and a reminder of what a national treasure Mel Brooks is.
Interview with Nutmeg Chatter's Phil Hall
August 14, 2022
Thanks to author and broadcaster Phil Hall, who interviewed me a few months back about Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad on
his radio show Nutmeg Chatter. We had a good talk about Gene's life and career. The interview airs today at 3:00 p.m. EDT on Connecticut radio station WAPJ Torrington Community Radio and
tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. EDT on the entire Robin Hood Radio network.
Click here to listen.
Paul Sorvino: 1949 - 2022
August 1, 2022
RIP Paul Sorvino. You were so great and I was once cute.
Houston, We Have a Problem
July 1, 2022
For decades, Tom Hanks has had a reputation for being one of the true stand-up guys in Hollywood. Decent, real, innately funny. He crashes strangers' weddings, much to their delight. You can always count on him to be witty and amusing in interviews. He's used his fame to support worthy social causes such as gay rights, veterans' issues, and the environment. He's been a doting husband to Rita Wilson, his wife of 34 years - and not once has there been even the slightest suggestion of infidelity. He always makes time for fans. He has been called the modern day Jimmy Stewart. Yes, Tom Hanks is a genuinely nice guy. Maybe too nice, though.
In this sad age of "wokeness" and cancel culture, I'm afraid Tom Hanks has jumped on the PC bandwagon. While promoting his new film Elvis, Hanks told The New York Times Magazine that had he been offered Philadelphia (1993) today, he would turn it down. In that film Hanks played a gay lawyer who is fired from his job when his firm discovers he has AIDS. Hanks received much acclaim for his performance and won the first of his two Best Actor Oscars for the role. But he says there is "no way a straight actor would be cast" in that part today.
"There's nothing you can do about that," Hanks said, "but let's address 'Could a straight man do what I did in Philadelphia now?' No, and rightly so. The whole point of Philadelphia was don't be afraid. One of the reasons people weren't afraid of that movie is that I was playing a gay man. We're beyond that now, and I don't think people would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy."
He added, "It's not a crime, it's not boohoo that someone would say we are going to demand more of a movie in the modern realm of authenticity. Do I sound like I'm preaching? I don't mean to."
See, even when saying something boneheaded, Hanks still remains humble and hard to dislike. But his comments are disturbing on a number of levels. When Philadelphia was made, there were few big name male actors who were openly gay, and even today, can you name a leading man who can guarantee big box office who is out? Would Philadelphia now star Sean Hayes or Neil Patrick Harris merely out of necessity?
Acting is pretend. The best actor should get the part based on their talent and suitability for the role, not anything that is inherent to them as a person. When See No Evil, Hear No Evil came out in 1989, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor received little criticism for playing deaf and blind, respectively. They even prepared for their roles by studying at the New York League for the Hard and Hearing and Braille Institute. But deaf actress Phyllis Frelich insisted the roles should have been played by people with actual disabilities. Absurd! It was a buddy comedy meant as a vehicle for two specific actors who had a proven chemistry.
This kind of oversensitivity, coming from one of the most respected actors of our time, is dangerous. Is Hanks suggesting competent actors should be denied roles in favor of actors who are just like the role? Joanne Woodward, Patty Duke, Cliff Robertson, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Foxx, Julianne Moore, and Eddie Redmayne all won Oscars for career-definining roles as disabled people.
Sean Penn and Christopher Plummer, both straight, won Oscars for playing gay characters in Milk (2008) and Beginners (2010), respectively, years after Hanks did. I doubt they regretted their accomplishments, and I don't believe Ian McKellen organized protests outside their homes.
How about this one? James Coco, who was gay in real life but never came out publicly, was nominated for an Oscar playing a gay man in Only When I Laugh (1981). How do we handle this conundrum, Tom? Or Brits who play Americans, like Michael Caine, who won his second Oscar for The Cider House Rules (1999)?
I think you can see the folly here. The reason I consider Hanks' remarks dangerous is because he has enormous influence in Hollywood. When he talks, people listen. And if the possibility that this kind of biased casting becomes a reality, it's an unfortunate comment on the already pathetic state of American movies. To quote Mel Brooks, who did not originally cast Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974) because he thought Wilder looked "too Jewish": "Gene taught me a great lesson - typecasting stinks. Just go for a good actor."
Worth the Price of Admission
June 12, 2022
It was a drizzly late spring Saturday afternoon in Central Harlem, of all places. The streets were unusually desolate as the gray skies loomed over, their threat of rain imminent. The occasional breeze that cut the humidity brought... Okay, wait. If this sounds like the opening of a short story or novel, maybe it's because I spent yesterday in sparkling literary company.
Richard Price, the acclaimed author and screenwriter, and his wife Lorraine Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist, hosted an open-to-the-public conversation and reading at the Harlem Rose Garden, a beautiful nook located on East 129th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues.
Price was nominated for an Oscar for writing the screenplay adapatation for one my favorite films of the 1980s, Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986), a sequel of sorts to The Hustler (1961), with Paul Newman reprising his role as "Fast Eddie" Felson. Price has a knack for writing crackling dialogue in seedy settings, as readers of his bestselling novels The Wanderers (1974), Clockers (1992), and Lush Life (2008) know.
Adams shared the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for her coverage of police corruption and miconduct in Texas for The Dallas Morning News. Her novels are Harbor (2005) and The Room and the Chair (2010).
Price read exceprts from a novel he's currently working on set in the Harlem neighborhood he and Adams have called home since they married in 2008, while Adams read from a still unfinished project of hers about a 90-year-old neighbor, who was there in attendance with her daughter. They also asked each other questions, and as Adams continually tried to help the endearingly crotchety Price juggle his papers and microphone, you could see this is the kind of couple whose playful bickering makes for memorable dinner parties. The pair told us they have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when they are writing, so, like us, they heard each other's excerpts for the first time. It was touching to see Price mouth "gorgeous" to Adams each time she finished her readings.
I was particularly taken with Price's description of the emotional commitment of writing a novel. He said you better know that your subject is one you want to write about because you don't want to face a "creative divorce" from the work after two years. Now 72, Price confesses most of the time he would rather chat with his wife or watch Netflix while eating something that’s bad for him instead of writing. But he writes because he’s a writer. That’s what he does. It's refreshing to hear a successful author admit that he doesn’t need to prove himself like when he was younger and doesn't have the same burning desire to crank out material. If he doesn’t write one day and it’s a good day, he doesn’t beat himself up because it was still a good day.
The drizzle eventually let up, and after they finished, Price and Adams both schmoozed with some of the approximately two dozen people in attendance. I had brought my two fiction books, Drinking Games and Unnecessary Headaches, to give to Price, originally not signing them as I felt that to be a bit presumptive (after all, who am I to sign a book to him?). But Adams was so nice before the talk began, introducing herself to everyone, I thought, hey, why not sign them to both of them?
I approached Price and gave him the books, and he seemed genuinely appreciative. I brought a friend with me who, like Price, grew up in the Bronx. They talked about the old neighborhood, and when Price saw me holding a copy of his Lush Life, he asked if I wanted him to sign it. He wrote, "To Brian, Thank you 4 your books today, Richard Price." I may have mentioned that I loved The Color of Money, and I wanted to ask him for advice about trying to sell the film rights to Unnecessary Headaches, but I didn't want to take up more of his time.
We said good-bye to Adams as we left, and I told her that two of the stories in Drinking Games deal with some issues of race that she often writes about. She remarked about the less than ideal weather, but I said it actually added to the experience.
In this post-literate world, it was nice to spend time with educated, mature, liberal minded individuals whose interests expand beyond their iPhone screens.
Ray Liotta: 1954 - 2022
May 27, 2022
What a shock to hear of the sudden passing of Ray Liotta yesterday. The intense actor, forever ingrained in film lover's hearts and minds as gangster Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990), died in his sleep while on location in the Dominican Republic. He was 67 and the exact cause of death is not yet known.
Liotta first gained attention as Joey Perrini on the soap opera Another World from 1978 - 1981. His big screen break came with a volatile supporting role in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986) as Melanie Griffith's ex-con husband. His performance earned him raves from critics and a Golden Globe nomination. The moving Dominick and Eugene (1988) and elegiac Field of Dreams (1989) came next before Martin Scorsese cast him in his career-defining role in Goodfellas. The film is widely considered one of the best American films of the last several decades, and joins the first two Godfather films as the greatest mob movie ever made.
Goodfellas received six Oscar nominations, including supporting nods for Lorraine Bracco and Joe Pesci (who won), but Liotta's pivotal leading performance was overlooked.
Upon hearing of Liotta's death, tributes from his Goodfellas director and co-stars began pouring in.
"I'm absolutely shocked and devastated by the sudden, unexpected death of Ray Liotta," Martin Scorsese said. "He was so uniquely gifted, so adventurous, so courageous as an actor."
"I was very saddened to learn of Ray's passing," said Robert De Niro. "He is way too young to have left us."
Lorraine Bracco, who played his wife Karen in the film, tweeted that she was "utterly shattered to hear this terrible news about my Ray. I can be anywhere in the world & people will come up & tell me their favorite movie is Goodfellas. Then they always ask what was the best part of making that movie. My response has always been the same...Ray Liotta."
Debi Mazar, who had a small part in Goodfellas, wrote on Instagram, "Goodbye Ray..Thankyou for the memories,your generosity at work,your wicked sense of humor,your raw grit&lazer stare. You had me at 'Dominick & Eugene' One of a kind. .."
Though parts of the caliber of Goodfellas alluded Liotta for the rest of his career, he worked steadily. In 2005, he won an Emmy for guest actor in a drama series for ER, and had something of a career resurgence in the last few yearss, having appeared in the acclaimed Marriage Story (2019) and in a dual role as the Moltisanti twins in last year's Sopranos feature The Many Saints of Newark. At the time of his death, he had six projects either completed, filming or in post-production.
Liotta, a New Jersey native, is survived by a daughter, Karsen, 23, with ex-wife Michelle Grace. He was engaged to fiancée Jacy Nittolo, who was with him at the time of his passing. By all accounts, onscreen and off, Ray Liotta seemed to be a goodfella indeed.
Kudos to Karen
April 30, 2022
In the years following Gene Wilder's death, his widow Karen has been active in advocating for a cure for Alzheimer's, raising money for
research, and sharing Gene's story to bring awareness of the disease to others, as well as her own story about the impact the disease has on caregivers.
For her work, Karen was honored last night by the San Diego-Imperial chapter of the Alzheimer's Association with the Hope Award at the Alzheimer's Association Gala. Karen has relocated from the Stamford, Conn., home that she and Gene lived in during their 25-year marriage to Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., in San Diego County.
Karen, who turns 80 on May 25th, is a retired speech pathologist who met Gene in 1988 when she coached him for his deaf role in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. After Gilda died on May 20, 1989, Gene and Karen reconnected when she reached out to him for help on a public service video about the hard of hearing. They met at Gene's favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Karen brought a tape recorder and during their meal tried to show Gene some common problems people who are hard of hearing regularly encounter. Shortly afterwards, they had a second meeting at the same restaurant. The next time, Gene told Karen not to bring the recorder. Gene considered this their first real date. "Pretty soon those feelings started to become feelings of love on both sides,” he said. “It was like spring, seeing the buds after a winter."
On September 8, 1991, Gene and Karen were married in the backyard of the Connecticut home Gilda left Gene in her will. The couple
honeymooned in England.
Karen was by Gene's side during his battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999, and she cared for him in his final years as he struggled with Alzheimer's. "You want her in your lifeboat," said one close friend of the couple at the time.
"I'm happier now than I’ve ever been in my life..." Gene told interviewer Ernie Manouse in 2007. "I didn’t think I'd ever get married again. And I didn't believe in fate either. I always felt you make your own life and then call it fate. With Karen..." Gene began to tear up. "I do believe in fate."
Karen is on the board of directors of the non-profit theater company North Coast Rep in Solana Beach, near her Rancho Santa Fe home. She is a great lady who is preserving Gene's legacy and advocating in his memory for a cure for Alzheimer's. She made Gene a very happy man.
Click here to see this moving interview with her from the local San Diego NBC news affiliate.
William Hurt: 1950 - 2022
March 19, 2022
My last posting was about Broadcast News. Last week came the news that William Hurt, the film's star and one of the great leading men of the 1980s, died on March 13th, one week shy of his 72nd birthday. Hurt died at his home in Portland, Ore., having been diagnosed in 2018 with terminal prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones.
As someone who grew up addicted to the movies in the 1980s, William Hurt was Hollywood gold. A handsome, charismatic, and thoughtful actor, he appeared in one first-rate film after another. He made his feature debut in 1980’s Altered States before appearing in such key films as Body Heat (1981) and The Big Chill (1983), ultimately winning an Oscar for Best Actor for 1985’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman. He would go on to receive two more Oscar nominations for Children of a Lesser God (1986) and (my personal favorite) Broadcast News (1987), making him one of an elite group of men to receive three consecutive lead actor nominations, joining Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Russell Crowe. He was robbed of a fourth for his heart-wrenching performance in The Accidental Tourist (1988).
Despite his success in the 1980s, Hurt’s career started to decline in the 1990s (although he received deserved praise for his complex performance in 1991's The Doctor, which reunited him with Children of a Lesser God director Randa Haines). He had a tumultuous personal life and problems with alcohol. His first marriage to actress Mary Beth Hurt ended in divorce in 1982. He was involved with his Children of a Lesser God co-star Marlee Matlin when she was 19 and he was 35. In her 2009 memoir, Matlin characterized the relationship as abusive and claimed a drunken Hurt raped her. He was involved with Sandra Jennings, with whom he had two children, and was married to Heidi Henderson, daughter of former Tonight Show conductor Skitch Henderson, from 1989 - 1992. He also had one child with French actress Sandrine Bonnaire.
Donna Kaz, an author who was involved with Hurt for three years starting in 1977, revealed he was physically abusive to her during their time together. In her 2016 memoir, Kaz writes, "Bill would snap, physically shove, punch and beat me, followed by tears, apologies and him offering me expensive gifts."
Hurt made a career resurgence as a supporting actor, most notably in 2005’s A History of Violence, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
According to DailyMail.com, Hurt's final days were marked by "excruciating pain" because he refused to be given opiates due to his decades of sobriety. He agreed to hospice care in his final week when the pain became too unbearable.
William Hurt was sadly typical of many great actors who project strength and likeability on-screen but are weak, abusive, and horribly flawed in real life. His final years of suffering are unfortunate. His work will nonetheless remain a significant part of that great decade of cinema, the 1980s.
The Big Broadcast of 1987
January 28, 2022
"Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"
- Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman in Broadcast News
I just wrote my first essay in five years for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. I chose one of my favorite films of the 1980s, James L. Brooks' exhilarating, classy, and deeply human Broadcast News. Watched it again a few weeks ago and revisited many great scenes - after 34 years, the film still holds up. Thank you to Stacie Seifrit-Griffin at the National Film Preservation Board for her help and feedback. Click here to read.
Sidney Poitier: 1927 - 2022
January 8, 2022
Sad to hear about the passing of the great Sidney Poitier, who died on January 6th at 94.
The term barrier breaker is often freely used, but Poitier truly was the definition of one. A gifted actor, director, and civil rights activist, he achieved a multitude of firsts: first black box office draw, first black Best Actor Oscar winner, director of the highest-grossing film (Stir Crazy) helmed by a black filmmaker in 1980.
Poitier's work in the 1960s include a number of films that were not only great entertainment but that touched on race at a tumultuous time in America: Lilies of the Field, A Patch of Blue, In the Heat of the Night, To Sir...With Love, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. All classics that continue to be watched today.
Poitier turned to directing in the 1970s and 1980s. He was friends with Gene Wilder, whom he directed in Stir Crazy and Hanky Panky. Most of the prison scenes in Stir Crazy were shot in the Arizona State Penitentiary in Florence, near Tucson, while other scenes were filmed on a soundstage in Burbank. Both Wilder and Pryor, along with the rest of the cast and crew, were required to sign forms which stated, "I understand that in the event I should be taken hostage or involved in a disturbance, institution authorities will not be expected to make extraordinary or unusual effort to effect my release."
Only once did Gene feel uneasy during the shoot. "There's a little scene in the movie where I was put into a metal hut for
punishment..." Gene recalled. "We were shooting just below Death Row in a maximum security section, and the inmates were shouting the worst obscenities I've ever heard in my life. But
they weren't shouting them at me, they were shouting them at Sidney; and when I heard the things directed at blacks coming from them, I started to shake a little bit. And Sidney [grabbed] me
and said, 'Don't let that get to you, you just go about your business. You know who you are, you know who I am, and you know what we have to do!' And that gave me a lot of confidence in
him, because he’d been through it before. I'd been through it in other ways, but not like that; not from people who had nothing to lose and just went crazy. They were already on Death
Row, what else could they do to them."
I think that story demonstrates not only what a leader he was on the film set, but the character that defined him his whole life. He was a strong and dignified role model for so many.
Betty White: 1922 - 2021
January 1, 2022
If 2021 wasn't a horrible enough, it had to pull one last cruel move on us just before we entered the new year. The world was in shock by the sudden death of Betty White yesterday, just 18 days before her 100th birthday. Plans were made to celebrate her birthday with live streams and parties. A really lousy way to close out the year.
I can think of few stars who were as deservedly beloved as Betty White. Her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls was unmatched. The latter is one of my favorite sitcoms, and I still find comfort in regularly watching the reruns, almost like putting on a favorite old sweater. Betty's Rose Nylund is one of TV's great female characters, up there with Edith Bunker, Maude, and White's three Golden Girls co-stars. The show had one of the best ensembles ever put together (and some of the best writing), and it's sad to have to now live in a world where all four of them are gone.
Betty White was, to paraphrase an expression she used to describe herself, the last of the great old broads.
December 30, 2021
My essay on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that I wrote for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry was just translated into Italian for the online cultural magazine Fucine Mute. I'll never be able to walk the streets of Rome anonymously again. Click here to read.
Eddie Mekka: 1952 - 2021
December 5, 2021
Very saddened to learn of the death of Eddie Mekka, who died on November 27th at his home in the Newhall area of Santa Clarita, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. He was only 69 years old. According to his family, he died peacefully but no specific cause of death was given.
I was friends with Eddie in the early '90s when I produced a radio show where we interviewed soap stars. Eddie was on Guiding
Light at the time. He was one of the nicest, most down to earth people I met during the three years I did the radio show. Very fond memories of hanging out with him at events and
seeing him in a regional production of Fiddler on the Roof, a show he toured with often over the years. He was seriously one of the best Tevye's I've ever seen. After the
performance, I went to his dressing room, where he was enjoying shots of Absolut (yes, he offered me some, even though I was not quite yet 21). "I need this to come down," he said, referring to
the exhilarating emotional high he got from playing Tevye.
At one event, for some reason, he asked me to hold his wallet. I, of course, couldn't resist snooping around. I saw his driver's license said Edward R. Mekjian (his family was Armenian) - he never legally changed his name to Mekka, something that I found intriguing at the time. I now understand many stars never legally change their name.
Eddie was, of course, best known for playing Carmine Ragusa on Laverne & Shirley from 1976 - 1983. But he
was a theater actor at heart, having starred on Broadway in The Liutenant (1975), for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. In addition to
Fiddler, he also appeared in the leading roles in regional productions of The Music Man, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Little Shop of
Horrors. His film credits include small roles in Beaches (1988), A League of Their Own (1992), and Dreamgirls (2006).
He is survived by his second wife and their daughter. Thoughts go out to his family and friends. RIP Big Ragoo.
40 Years After Dinner
October 11, 2021
Forty years ago today, My Dinner with André opened. It was a small film - a really small film - with, at the time, a
quite astonishing premise. Two friends, both in the theater, meet for dinner after having not seen each other for quite some time. Over dinner, they talk. That's it. No huge
boulders threatening to run down Indiana Jones. No spaceships landing at Devils Tower. Just two New York Jewish intellectuals talking.
The film was an arthouse megahit, in part due to the enthusiastic support it got from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who championed the
film on numerous occasions, with Ebert naming it the best film of 1981 and Siskel ranking it number two.
The film got the Criterion Collection treatment twelve years ago, and the film still remains totally enchanting. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), My Dinner with André was not a film I took to right away. Frankly, I was bored by it. It was after seeing it again on PBS that I realized there was more to the film than just two guys talking. I have probably seen the film about twenty times, and probably the nicest thing about it is that it celebrates the art of the conversation. I squirm these days when I am in a restaurant and see two people at the same table both transfixed on their cellphones instead of looking each other in the eye and speaking.
André does most of the talking, and while I can understand some considering him self-absorbed and pompous, he is a fascinating individual
with some amazing life stories starting when he decided to drop out of the theater in 1975. He traveled the world, ate sand with a Buddhist monk in the Sahara, was buried alive in Montauk,
L.I., improvised until the morning hours in a forest in Poland with forty women who didn't speak a word of English.
In between all this gabbing they manage to actually eat some (but not much) food. The film's restaurant interior was actually filmed in an empty hotel ballroom in Virginia. It's a very elegant eatery replete with tuxedoed waiters and a live orchestra. The menu is all in French, which leads Wally to randomly ask the old-world waiter what one of the appetizers is. "It's a potato soup," the waiter says with a nervous twitch. "It's quite delicious." Wally orders it. André seems quite familiar with the menu and orders terrine de poisson (fish pâté) for his starter and cailles aux raisins (roasted quail with raisins) for his main course. For Wally's benefit, André says after ordering his entree that it's quail, so Wally opts for that too. When the two tiny birds arrive on a plate with a little bit of rice and a round orange thing that I still cannot figure out, Wally comments, "I didn't know they were so small."
My mother did not get the film at all and referred to it as Dinner with Henry. I don't know why, but she did.
I have a weird sorta connection to the film. When I was in college, I was looking to take an acting class. I came across an
ad for a class that André was teaching. I called and was told to meet André at his his home, a vintage townhouse on Perry Street in the West Village. I got there and André graciously
welcomed me into his kitchen. He asked if I wanted tea. I accepted. I drank the tea plain because André, for whatever reason, did not have sugar in the house. We spoke, and I
told him I was an admirer of his and that I had once written him and he sent me a very nice autographed photo. I asked him if all the stories he told in My Dinner with André were
true. He said yes. "You're sitting here with a maniac," he said with a laugh. The class André was going to be teaching was - surprise! - very experimental. He thought a more
rudimentary acting class would be better for me. I agreed. He said it's always nice to meet a fan, and we said good-bye.
Cut to about eight years later. I was working for the now defunct but groundbreaking independent film company Shooting Gallery. I got a call one day from someone asking to speak to my boss. I asked who was calling and the voice on the other end of the phone said, "Nick Gregory." "Nick Gregory the actor, the son of André Gregory?" He said yes. Wow! I told him that I loved his father and met him, etc. Nick said he was having a reading of a screenplay he had written and if my boss would want to come. Knowing my boss, I told him likely not, but I definitely would. He was very appreciative and I was excited to meet him.
I went to the reading (Wallace Shawn was one of the actors). It was for a naughty comic thriller called Love Thy Neighbor. After the reading, Nick and I talked for a while and we agreed to have lunch soon after. We had a series of lunches near his Soho loft at a very good sandwich place. We talked about his father, his sister Marina, his late mother Chiquita, and film and acting. I brought him to the Shooting Gallery offices and introduced him to one of the guys in the acquisitions department, who agreed to read Nick's script.
Nick decided to film a scene from the script set at a tennis court. He asked me to help with the script reading at his loft and we
then filmed the scene on a warm day in Brooklyn. There were several other crew members. For lunch, Nick got us sandwiches from Junior's. I remember actually being quite down during
the shoot because I was not where I wanted to be in my film career and was not happy just being part of a crew and not the director. I do not regret ever working on a professional film or TV
location - the days are long, the tasks are physically demanding, and there is so much waiting around. The whole process is totally devoid of fun and absolutely tedious.
Nick and I remained in touch for a while. At one point when I was out of work, he called and asked if I would be interested in
working for André, something to do with helping with rehearsals for a play he was working on. It never happened. Unfortunately, Nick and I just lost touch. He did eventually get
Love Thy Neighbor made with Scott Wolf, Roy Scheider, Jake Weber, and Wallace Shawn in it. The 2005 film did not get wide distribution and the reviews were pretty dismal. I
really should look him up.
A number of years later I ran into André in a little bookshop in the Village. I introduced myself. He naturally did not
remember meeting me about the acting class but I told him that I knew and worked with Nick.
André is now 87 years old and has left New York for the tranquility of Truro, Mass., a summer vacation community just south of the
northern tip of Cape Cod where he lives with his second wife of 22 years, producer-director Cindy Kleine. As for 77-year-old Wally, who is undeniably talented, he is a self-hating Jew who I
lost all respect for when he joined a group of militant actors and writers in signing a letter chastising Israel.
My Dinner with André was directed by the late great Louis Malle, who had a gift for making films that were both very French (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and very American (Atlantic City, 1981). My Dinner with André may not be particularly visual, but it's great storytelling that leaves the audience to create its own images of André's wild adventures. It's a little film with large, existential ideas. And it's something that, forty years later, remains an important and iconic movie experience.
Another Chat with Brooke
September 12, 2021
It was a pleasure to once again appear on Brooke S. Musterman's podcast Let's Talk Art with Brooke. On this episode we discussed the 50th anniversary of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. At some point, we veered into talking about my favorite Ingmar Bergman films. You never know where an interview will go with Brooke, which is why she is such a terrific podcaster. Click here to listen.
Ed Asner: 1929 - 2021
September 1, 2021
Ed Asner was a leftist, socialist, extremist nut! But as far as leftist, socialist, extremist nuts go, he was one of the nicest. A wonderful, down to earth, and, yes, "spunky" guy, he passed away on August 29th at age 91.
Best known as the crotchety Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later his own dramatic spin-off, Asner also appeared in two of the most important TV miniseries of the 1970s, Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and Roots (1977), the latter winning him one of seven Emmy Awards (a record for most wins by a male actor).
On film, he co-starred in Sydney Pollack's The Slender Thread (1965), the John Wayne western El Dorado (1966), and Fort Apache the Bronx (1981) with Paul Newman. He also endeared himself to audiences as Santa in Elf (2003) and as the voice of lonely widower Carl Fredricksen in the Pixar animated hit Up (2009).
His far left politics included petitioning in favor of prisoners' rights, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, and support of 9/11 conspiracy theories. He was also president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1980s.
I met him at a party when I was about 18 and he could not have been nicer or more gracious to a starstruck aspiring filmmaker.
Asner was married and divorced twice. He is survived by four children.
Where Have You Gone, Jerry Silberman?
August 29, 2021
Five years ago today, the world became a less funny place. Gene Wilder, my patron saint and spiritual father, left us at age 83, peacefully surrounded by his family in Stamford, Conn., as Ella Fitzgerald sang "(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow." He left behind his amazing wife Karen, his devoted nephew Jordan, stepson Kevin, and several step-grandchildren, as well as millions of loyal fans. He died on his mother's birthday.
Ten Years an Orphan
August 23, 2021
This appeared in today's edition of Newsday. For the first time in ten years, I have nothing else to say.
Willy Wonka at 50
August 12, 2021
Earlier this year, I was approached by Life magazine to give an interview for a special edition tribute to Willy Wonka & the
Chocolate Factory on its 50th anniversary.
The issue was just released (click here for info). It is very well-produced, colorful, and filled with a lot of great photos, some of them very rare. Yours truly is quoted twice (on pages 68 and
Life put out an impressive special edition tribute to Gene Wilder following his death in 2016. Much of this new issue is a tribute
to Gene as well and makes a nice companion piece to the 2016 issue.
It is available to purchase online and at newsstands.
Jackie Mason: 1928 - 2021
July 26, 2021
Jackie Mason, one of the last of the great borscht belt comedians, died Saturday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 93 and had been hospitalized for over two weeks with an undisclosed illness.
Mason was born Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza in Sheboygan, Wis., the fourth of six children of immigrant parents from Minsk (the family moved to New York's Lower East Side when Mason was five). He came from a family of rabbis that included his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, and three brothers. Mason himself became a rabbi before the gods of comedy made him rethink his calling. He worked the Catskills early on before landing his big break in 1961 on Steve Allen's weekly TV variety show. This led to more television appearances, including The Ed Sullivan Show. During one Sullivan show, Mason was signaled to wrap up his act and ad-libbed a bit in which Sullivan thought Mason was giving him the finger. He was banned from the Sullivan show for two years.
His career floundered after the Sullivan incident. He had small parts in Carl Reiner's The Jerk (1979) and Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I (1981). But it wasn't until the mid 1980s that he became a megsastar with his brilliant one-man show The World According to Me, for which he received a special Tony Award.
“I feel like Ronald Reagan tonight,” Mason joked on Tony night. “He was an actor all his life, knew nothing about politics and became president of the United States. I’m an ex-rabbi who knew nothing about acting and I’m getting a Tony Award.”
Mason also won three Emmy Awards, including one as part of the voiceover cast of The Simpsons on which he played Krusty the Clown's father Rabbi Krustofsky.
I saw Mason on Broadway several times, each show funnier than the last. He had a gift for pointing out the differences between Jews and gentiles in a way that was achingly funny no matter what your ethnic background was. One of my favorite bits of his involves Jews vs. gentiles dining out: "A gentile walks into a restaurant. 'How do you do? May I sit down? How long should I wait? Nine years? Why not?' You ever see how a Jew walks into a restaurant? Like a partner. 'Hello! Let me see my table! You call this a table for a man like me? I don't sit so close to a wall, so far from a window. My wife don't like to face this way, I don't like to face that way. Why are there so many people in this section? They could be moved over here.' The gentiles ate four meals already, the Jews are picking furniture."
My fondest memory of Jackie Mason is meeting him in Midtown around 2004 while on my lunch break. I was talking to my mother on my cell phone when I spotted Mason and his wife Jyll crossing West 57th Street. "Ma, hold on!" I said. "I see Jackie Mason!" I went over and shook his hand, telling him I was a big fan. I asked if he could please say hello to mother. Without missing a beat, he grabbed my phone and said, in his signature Yiddish accent, "Hello? Who's this? Do you work? You're a housewife?! What, you stay home all day and do nothing?!" My mother was hysterical.
Jackie's wife was visibly annoyed, as she just wanted to keep walking, but Jackie insisted on taking the time to make my mother's day. It's the total opposite of that classic scene in The King of Comedy where Jerry Lewis' character is stopped on the street and won't talk to a fan's relative on a payphone because he was running late.
Meeting him in this situation was one of my all-time favorite celebrity encounters, not for what he did for me, but how he gave my mother
a memory she would never forget. In reading his obits, he apparently loved being approached and talking to his admirers, although he could also be impossible to deal with. According to
New York Post columnist John Podhoretz, having lunch with Mason was like spending "an hour with the same Jackie you saw on stage. Only he wasn’t funny offstage. He hectored you and yelled
at you — even if you two agreed on nearly every particular, especially on Israel."
I actually ran into him a second time, about nine years ago on Second Avenue. He was again with his wife. Age had visibly slowed him down, but he was still nice. At the time I was writing for The Jewish Voice and asked if I could interview him. His wife - who was also his manager - said to go to his website and email her the request. I did but she never wrote back.
One more Jackie Mason story. He fathered a daughter out of wedlock in 1985 whom he refused to acknowledge. Her name is Sheba and she is the spitting image of her father, although thankfully much prettier. She is a very funny stand-up comic, and around 2006 I performed stand-up at Don't Tell Mama with a friend of mine and Sheba (we all had our own sets). She had very clever material about her estranged father, such as, "Why couldn't I have had a handsomer Jewish comedian for a father? Ya know, like Woody Allen."
Jackie Mason was one of America's great stand-up acts - and while he was nuttier than a box of rugelach - he was also a stand-up guy for giving my mother that thrill on the phone.
Charles Grodin: 1935 - 2021
May 18, 2021
This one hurts. Charles Grodin, one of the all-time great comic actors, died today. He was 86 and died at his home in Wilton, Conn., according to his son Nicholas. The cause was bone marrow cancer.
A Pittsburgh native, Grodin had an uncredited role as a drummer boy in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) when he was 19 and a small part in Sex and the College Girl (1964). Grodin spent most of the 1960s in various TV roles before landing a small part in a big film as Mia Farrow's obstetrician in Rosemary's Baby (1968). That was followed by Catch-22 in 1970 before he got his big break with the lead in Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid (1972). The film was a hit and earned Grodin a Golden Globe nomination. Despite the film's success, Grodin's film work in the 1970s was sporadic. He most notably appeared in the 1977 remake of King Kong, Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Albert Brooks' first feature Real Life (1979). His most significant work during this period was on Broadway in the acclaimed Same Time, Next Year opposite Ellen Burstyn in 1975. The play was a smash, but although Burstyn won a Tony for her performance, Grodin was not even nominated. When it came time for the 1978 film version, he was passed over for Alan Alda. He had previously directed the Renee Taylor-Joseph Bologna play Lovers and Other Strangers on Broadway in the late '60s.
He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977 and won an Emmy as one of the writers of The Paul Simon Special (1977) along with Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon, and Lily Tomlin. By the 1980s, Grodin was a household name and a regular fixture on Johnny Carson and David Letterman's late night shows. Grodin's gift for deadpan humor made him a perfect foil for both hosts as he always feigned displeasure merely being there. He hosted his own cable talk show on CNBC in the mid '90s (he was particuarly obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, which he spoke about nearly every night) in which he blended his love of politics with entertainment.
Grodin was longtime friends with Gene Wilder, whom he met in the 1950s when they both were taking acting classes at the HB Studio in New York. While Grodin thought Gene (who was still Jerry Silberman) was a good actor, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to make it in the business because he didn’t have the traditional pretty boy actor look of the 1950s. In his autobiography, Grodin recalled, “There was this funny-looking boy in class named Jerry Silberman, and everyone thought: My God, what is a guy who looks like that going to do in this profession?!” Ironically, Gene found stardom before Grodin, despite his "funny looks," and Gene cast him as one of his buddies in The Woman in Red (1984), in which he gave a performance so moving there was briefly talk he might be nominated for a supporting actor Oscar.
Seems Like Old Times (1980) and The Lonely Guy (1984) gave Grodin a chance to work with other seasoned comic actors like Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, and Steve Martin. Last Resort (1986), an island comedy that no one seemed to like, is a film I really remember enjoying. But Grodin's two standouts were Movers & Shakers (1985) and Midnight Run (1988). Originally called Dreamers, Grodin had written Movers & Shakers and spent years trying to get the film made. The dream cast consists of Grodin, Walter Matthau, Gilda Radner, Tyne Daly, Vincent Gardenia, Bill Macy, Steve Martin, and Penny Marshall. A very dry comedy about the movie business, the film was a huge bomb with both critics and audiences. It has never been released on DVD, which is a real shame, because it's a terrific film, perhaps a little too cerebral and subtle for most (my only critique is that Gilda, who looked beautiful in it, was not given enough screen time).
As for Midnight Run, few followers of Grodin's career would disagree that this was his defining role. He and Robert DeNiro were as good a comedy team onscreen as any I can think of. It's an exhilarating, ultimately poignant action-comedy with some of the funniest lines of dialogue either Grodin or DeNiro ever uttered. And was there anyone who wasn't dying to try chorizo and eggs after seeing it?
Grodin had hits with the popular Beethoven films in the early '90s, and he was terrific as Kevin Kline's accountant friend in the underrated Dave (1993). But he quit acting to focus on his talk show, do a stint as a commentator on a 60 Minutes spin-off, write books, and, most importantly, be a stay-at-home dad to Nicholas. He wrote the off-Broadway play The Right Kind People in 2004, and continued appearing on talk shows before returning to acting in several roles between 2006 and 2017. He also did commentaries for the CBS Radio Network.
His first book, It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here: My Journey Through Show Business (1989, William Morrow & Co.), is one of the funniest celebrity memoirs I have ever read, and he followed it up with a half dozen more musings over the years.
In addition to Nicholas, Grodin is survived by his second wife Elissa and his daughter from his first marriage, Marion, a stand-up comic.
My Beautiful Mother Bella
May 5, 2021
My dear mother Bella Mednick would have been 85 today. I cannot believe she is gone 10 years. I will never have anyone care
about me, love me or support me the way she did. I miss her cooking, I miss picking up the phone to tell her which celebrity just died (or vice versa), I miss the long conversations.
I had my first colonoscopy a year ago. I was nervous until right before they put me under. And then I was out. Blackness. Nothingness. No nightmares, no bad thoughts. Just blackness. Best sleep ever. And then I woke up in recovery.
I long for one more Chinese dinner like the ones we frequently had at home or in a nice restaurant. We always got a booth. My mother sat next to me, my father across from us with our jackets and her bag. We'd always start with tea and soup, then split an order of spareribs before our main courses. And, of course, there were always doggie bags.
When my time comes, I hope I go as peacefully as my colonoscopy began. And instead of waking up in recovery, I will be in that booth at that restaurant, eating wonton soup and ribs, smiling and holding my beautiful mother's hand.
I've Been Waiting Years to Use This Joke!
May 2, 2021
Melinda Gates is divorcing Bill - she claims he is Microsoft!
Olympia Dukakis: 1931 - 2021
May 1, 2021
Olympia Dukakis, one of America's finest character actresses, died today. She was 89 and died under hospice care at her home in
Manhattan after many months of failing health.
Dukakis, a Greek-American from Massachusetts, had spent years on and off-Broadway and in minor roles in films such as John and
Mary (1969), Death Wish (1974), and The Idolmaker (1980) before becoming a bona fide movie star with her poignant performance as Cher's world-weary mother in
Moonstruck (1987). The performance won Dukakis a well-deserved supporting actress Oscar and led to roles in major motion pictures such as the much-loved Steel Magnolias
(1989), Dad (1989), Look Who's Talking (1989), and The Cemetery Club (1993). On TV, she appeared in three Tales of the City miniseries, the
2019 entry her final role. She also played Frank Sinatra's mother Dolly in the 1992 TV-movie Sinatra.
But it was in Moonstruck as Rose Castorini, the wise matriach of an offbeat Italian-American family, that Dukakis will best be
remembered. The film is one of my five all-time favorites, and I consider her turn one of the most iconic supporting actress performances ever. Granted, she was gifted with the brilliant
dialogue of John Patrick Shanley and co-stars like Vincent Gardenia, John Mahoney, Danny Aiello, and, of course, Cher. But she brought something unique to each line, each gesture, finally
reaching an odd catharsis when she figures out the reason men chase women is because they fear death. This leads to the classic line to her womanizing husband (Gardenia): "Cosmo, I just want
you to know, no matter what you do you're going to die, just like everybody else."
I met Dukakis briefly in Midtown many years ago. She was in a rush but she gave me her autograph. She was a first cousin of
former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and actively campaigned for him during his 1988 run for president.
Dukakis married actor Louis Zorich in 1962, with whom she had three children. The couple moved to Montclair, New Jersey to raise
their family, and in 1973 they founded the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, the state's first resident professional theater. It remained in operation until 1991. Zorich died in
A documentary about her life, Olympia, was completed in 2018. It has played many film festivals and is currently available to watch online.
"Let's Talk Art With Brooke"
April 7, 2021
Big thank you to Brooke S. Musterman for interviewing me on her podcast about my books and short film. She may not know the difference between Woody Allen and Woody Harrelson, but she is one helluva great interviewer!
Click here to listen.
"Honey, I Forgot to Duck."
March 30, 2021
Hard to believe today is 40 years since the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. I remember the day vividly. My father picked me up from elementary school and told me. We had very few TV channels back then, but we were all glued to the screen. At one point, the repetitive playing of the moment Reagan was shot was a little too much (and was famously parodied on Saturday Night Live when Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat met a less fortunate fate). My mother let me watch Gilligan's Island so we could all have a little break.
Reagan had only been president a little over two months when he was shot after leaving the Washington Hilton, where he had just given a luncheon speech to representatives of the AFL-CIO. Press Secretary James Brady and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy were also shot, the former left permanently paralyzed. The initial news reports were grim, the White House was in chaos as to who was in charge, and the entire country was on edge.
Luckily for us, Reagan pulled through, never losing his trademark humor. When Nancy arrived at the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, he said, "Honey, I forgot to duck," borrowing boxer Jack Dempsey's line to his wife after his loss to Gene Tunney.
In the operating room, Reagan joked to the doctors and nurses, "I hope you are all Republicans." They all laughed, with one of the surgeons, a Democrat, responding, "Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans."
I consider Ronald Reagan the last great American president. He was flawed, to be sure, most notably in his lack of attention to the AIDS crisis, but he was a natural leader with strengths both political and, as evidenced by his quick recovery from the shooting, physical as well. He remains the model of the kind of old school conservative Republicanism missed by moderates who have left what has sadly become the delusional Trump party. He gave the country real optimism and installed a true sense of patriotism, none of this ignorant MAGA crap. He would be saddened to see how far this country has fallen from, as he used to say, a "shining city on a hill."
March 28, 2021
Five years ago today I had to put my Daisy to sleep. One of the hardest things I've ever done. We both went through the horror of losing our parents two days apart in 2011. She took it as bad as I did.
It was terrible watching her health decline. I regret all the times I lost my temper with her and cursed my mother for burdening me with her. She was a pain in the ass but she was my pain in the ass. In her final year, she was not herself. I miss the Daisy who would spoon with me in bed, like we were a couple. I do not regret any of those days I called in sick because I just wanted to stay under the covers holding her (and I have yet to meet the human equivalent before or since who was as nice to sleep next to). I miss the Daisy who knew when I was sad and crawled over and put her paw on me, hating to see me weep.
Losing her five years ago was losing the last connection I had to my parents. As my mother used to say about her, she was "a doll dog."
George Segal: 1934 - 2021
March 24, 2021
I loved George Segal, one of the great, funny, charismatic Jewish American actors of the 1970s along with Elliott Gould, Gene Wilder,
Dustin Hoffman, Richard Benjamin, and Alan Arkin. Segal died yesterday of complications from quadruple bypass surgery in Santa Rosa, California. He was 87.
A native New Yorker, Segal was born to Jewish parents but grew up in a non-religious home and was never bar mitzvahed (wait, this sounds
like me). After several stage roles, Segal debuted in films in the early 1960s starting with The Young Doctors (1961) and The Longest Day (1962), followed by The New
Interns (1964), Stanley Kramer's acclaimed Ship of Fools (1965), and King Rat (1965). His breakthrough came in Mike Nichols' screen version of Edward Albee's play
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which pitted him against legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting
The 1970s would see Segal's star rise as one of the decade's most popular leading men in films like Where's Poppa? (1970),
The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), Blume in Love (1973), A Touch of Class (1973), and California Split (1974).
Segal's career stalled in the 1980s but he made an impressive comeback in a key supporting role in For the Boys (1991) with
Bette Midler before becoming familiar to younger audiences on the sitcoms Just Shoot Me! (1997 - 2003) and, more recently, as the grandfather on The Goldbergs (2013 -
He was also a passionate banjo player who performed at Carnegie Hall. He often performed when a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's
Tonight Show, usually drawing awkward stares from Carson, who apparently found Segal's musical talent, well, "different." A classic 1970 episode of The David Susskind Show
called "How to Be a Jewish Son" featured Segal along
with five other funny Jewish men including Mel Brooks and David Steinberg.
Segal won two Golden Globe Awards for Most Promising Newcomer - Male for The Interns and Best Actor in a Motion Picture –
Musical or Comedy for A Touch of Class.
He is survived by his third wife, Sonia, and two children.
Cloris Leachman: 1926 - 2021
January 28, 2021
Cloris Leachman, the versatile character actress who excelled at both broad comedy and searing drama, died yesterday in her sleep from a stroke at her daughter's home in Encinitas, Calif. She was 94.
Leachman caught the eyes of moviegoers in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 The Last Picture Show as the lonely wife of a high school gym teacher who has an affair with one of her husband's students (Timothy Bottoms). The role won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Leachman would spend the rest of the 1970s showing off her comedic side, most notably in her signature role in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) as Frau Blucher, the villainous housekeeper whose name incites horses to whinny out of control. She would work with Brooks two more times, as a nefariously strict psychiatric nurse with a bent for S&M in High Anxiety (1977) ("Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup.") and as Madame Defarge in History of the World, Part I (1981).
She also appeared as Bob Newhart's unstable wife in Gene Wilder's first TV movie, Thursday's Game (1974).
Most television viewers knew Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 – 1975) and later on her own spinoff Phyllis (1975 – 1977).
Leachman continued working until her final years, building a plethora of film and TV credits. She is tied with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for most Primetime Emmy Awards for an actress (8), although Leachman also has an additional Daytime Emmy Award.
A lifelong vegetarian and animal rights activist, Leachman is survived by five children from her marriage to producer-director George Englund, whom she was married to from 1953 - 1979. Prior to marrying Englund, he vuz her boyfriend!
NB: On February 19th, it was revealed that her death certificate also listed COVID-19 as a significant condition that contributed to her death but was not the underlying cause.
Larry King: 1933 - 2021
January 23, 2021
Larry King, one of the great modern broadcasters, died today at age 87 from sepsis as a complication of COVID-19.
To his critics, King was considered a lightweight who tossed only softball questions. They say that is why he interviewed nearly every major famous figure of the last fifty years. I take exception, though, and argue the reason King was able to land so many rare interviews was that he was not threatening. He was engaging, thoughtful, a great listener, and made his guests feel comfortable. There is enough negativity on television. King was the antidote to that.
King was a real mensch who never forgot that he was some kid named Lawrence Zeiger from Brooklyn. I met him in 1991 when I was 18. Instead of repeating the whole story, I urge you to go to the Archive tab and read my entry from May 19, 2015. All I can say is it was a huge thrill for my mother and me.
King was married eight times to seven women. Two of his older children, Andy and Chaia, died within weeks of each other in August 2020 (Andy at 65 from a heart attack and Chaia at 51 from lung cancer). He is survived by three other children and his eight wife Shawn, whom he had been separated from since 2019.
Over the years, King suffered numerous serious health problems but always bounced back with his typical class, humor, and trademark suspenders intact. Truly one of the great guys in the biz.
An Unprecedented President
January 12, 2021
They say Trump has committed Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I think he is just Bananas.
He had a Sleeper candidacy. He hates how Melania redid the Interiors of Mar-a-Lago. It will be A Rainy Day in New York before he sets foot in Manhattan again. Café Society will not welcome him.
I knew he was going to lose back in September. Stormy Daniels was just Another Woman he viewed as Mighty Aphrodite.
And how about his three marriages? Talk about some screwed up Husbands and Wives!
It was Midnight in Paris when Biden was named the winner here.
His New York Stories about being a successful builder are the product of his Celebrity. His supporters are immersed in Shadows and Fog. He said he could shoot someone on the street and still lose no support. Talk about Bullets Over Broadway!
The Sweet and Lowdown is that he and his cronies are nothing more than Small Time Crooks who thought they could do Whatever Works and Take the Money and Run. His presidency will not conclude with a Hollywood Ending.
We know the Scoop. He is an Irrational Man.
National Buffoon's Christmas Vacation
December 30, 2020
10 Years of Funny and Sad
December 25, 2020
Ten years ago today, my first book, Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, was published. It was a project I spent fifteen years working on, finally abandoning it after being rejected by literally hundreds of publishers. Then at the suggestion of a friend, I sent it to BearManor Media. Ben Ohmart, the owner of BearManor, emailed me and said he'd love to publish it. I thought it had to be a scam. I asked him how much money he wanted from me. He explained they were legit and really liked the manuscript.
I was thrilled. I was living with my parents at the time and ran down to tell them the news. I spent the following months updating and editing the book, choosing the photos I wanted, working with BearManor's incredibly patient designer Brian Pearce on the book cover and back. I even was able to get an advance quote for the back of the book from Richard Roeper, one of the country's foremost critics, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and was Roger Ebert's co-host after Gene Siskel died.
The book got mostly positive reviews and a lot of press, the highlight being on Joe Franklin's radio show, and then becoming friends with this true legend. Sales have been good. After Gene's death, the book sold like crazy. I'm still amazed that after ten years, people are still buying the book.
I was most proud that my mother got to see the book come out. She knew how much time and effort I put into it. I cannot believe it's already ten years. My parents died eight months later. I realize that the publication of the book was not a pivotal moment in history. Having a book published these days is no longer a big deal, since anyone can publish anything. But it was a big deal for me - and a bigger deal that my mother, to whom the book is dedicated, got to see it.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Fauci
December 24, 2020
Happy birthday to a true American hero, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who turns 80 today. Wear your masks!
Speaking of masks... I am amazed how many people still refuse to wear them. Masks do work! Trump has mocked and discouraged mask wearing. He even went after President-elect Joe Biden. "Every time you see him he's got a mask," said the outgoing president. "He could be speaking 200 feet away...and he shows up with the biggest mask I've ever seen."
Trump's followers drink whatever Kool-Aid he serves up. If he wore a mask and told his supporters to do the same, they would. Yet he continues to downplay the epidemic. "It's rounding the curve," he said before the election. "That's all I hear about now... 'Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.' By the way, on November 4th, you won't hear about it anymore."
Really? The situation has never been worse. We're losing 3,000 Americans a day. This president has more blood on his hands than any other before him (just ask the family of Herman Cain). His base is so cultish, they follow their leader no matter what. So many lives could have been saved if he stopped holding live rallies and encouraged mask wearing. He's a disgrace.
I am fervent about wearing a mask whenever I am outside. They are uncomfortable but we have no choice. Although most people here in Manhattan wear masks, I see a lot that don't. I've never uttered the phrase "f***ing moron" more than in the last nine months. I've gotten into some ugly situations with no-maskers. "Masks don't work!" they say. Now Manhattan is far from being a Republican or Trump haven. These anti-maskers can't all be idiot Trump supporters. They're just plain idiots.
I was at my barber the other day. I've been going there for years. A Jewish father and son from Ukraine. They both give excellent haircuts. So I walk in and the son is cutting some guy's hair. He says to have a seat in the other barber chair and his father will be right with me. They have the shop appropriately set up with clear plastic curtains as barriers. Right as the son is finishing up the guy, I notice the guy is not wearing a mask. I did not see this when I walked in. If I did I would have said he has to wear a mask or I'm leaving. So the guy leaves and doesn't even put a mask on as he left.
I asked the barbers why he wasn't wearing a mask. The son said he was at first but took it off. "Then you should have told him to put it on or else leave!" I said. I did not raise my voice but I let them know how pissed I was. "Not only is that a danger to customers, you - as a business owner - can get fined," I said.
"You're right, you're right," the father said with a dumb smile. "He owns the pizza place over here."
"So because he owns a pizza place, he's special?" I shot back. "He doesn't need to wear a mask?"
Well, I paid for the haircut, gave the father a lesser tip than usual (even though tipping the owner is ridiculous), and wished them both a happy new year. They smiled and wished me the same, see you in January, blah blah blah. I'd love to know what they said after I left. One thing I believe, though, is they are not going to let anyone get a haircut without a mask again. I think the part about being fined is what scared them because all they care about is money (and no, not because they're Jewish but because that's how all business owners are).
If you have another minute, let me tell you what happened yesterday. I'm walking up Second Avenue minding my own business on the way to the supermarket. I see this little old lady yelling at a couple and their kids because they weren't wearing masks. She really let them have it. I joined in and berated them as well. "You're absolutely right!" I told her. She was grateful I was on her side. Then another no-masker says masks don't work. "F***ing moron!" I say. Then this young woman joins us and also says how terrible these people are. The old lady said thank you. I said, "No! Thank YOU!"
I walked with the young woman two blocks and we talked about ignorant these people are. "I know, they are selfish," she said. "Don't ask what I see on the subway." I told her I don't take the subway and then relayed the barber story to her. We parted on 86th Street and wished each other happy holidays. To quote Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, "For every shit in the world there are six nice people."
It wasn't until later that night that I regretted not giving the girl my card. She probably had a boyfriend and was not interested in a short guy fifteen years older than her. But I had nothing to lose. I wasn't quick enough to say something like, "If you don't have a boyfriend, maybe we can socially distance together some time."
But I digress. This virus is a nightmare. We all can do our part but human behavior is what is, especially in America. We are a selfish people who only care about our own comfort. This is no joke. Wear your damn mask! And happy holidays!
Geoffrey Palmer: 1927 - 2020
November 13, 2020
I have always been a Britcom fan. After Fawlty Towers, my favorite is easily As Time Goes By, which aired on BBC One from 1992 to 2005. The key to the show's succcess was the chemistry between the two leads, Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. The two played Jean and Lionel, a couple who were madly in love but were separated after Lionel was sent off to war. They meet 38 years later, realize their estrangement was due to a lost love letter, and marry.
Palmer died on November 5th at age 93. He embodied the quintessential English curmudgeon but with a very endearing and warm side, as he displayed on nearly every episode of the show.
If you have never seen As Time Goes By, the entire series is available on DVD. In these trying times, I could not recommend a more soothing entertainment.
In addition to As Time Goes By, Palmer had a memorable guest spot on Fawlty Towers in 1979, and appeared in such films as O Lucky Man! (1973), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Mrs. Brown (1997), and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
The London born Palmer died peacefully at home and is survived by Sally, his wife of 57 years, and two children.
Alex Trebek: 1940 - 2020
November 8, 2020
The high of yesterday's Biden victory was dampered today by the news that Alex Trebek lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
Trebek was probably America's best loved TV personality. He was erudite, witty, self-effacing, and ultimately a very brave man. His public struggle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer was a blow but he handled it with amazing fortitude and grace, always updating his loyal viewers about his condition. He lived longer than most pancreatic cancer patients, and while he continued working, he never looked sick or weak. He looked great actually.
We thought if anyone could pull through this it would be Alex. That's why news of his passing is so devastating. He taped his last show just ten days before his death (it will air on December 25th).
I know my weeknights at 7:00 will never be the same. As Alex himself might say, boo hiss!
Happy Days Are Here Again!
November 7, 2020
After the worst year imaginable for this country, there is hope for real change, respect, and decency.
For me, it's not just about getting Trump out - it's about Joe Biden himself. From the moment he announced he was running, I was all in for him. He was an underdog, he was ridiculed, but he never faltered. He is the first candidate I actually made phone calls for and donated money to. He is a decent, honorable man. I don't agree with him on many issues, but character counts. I have faith in him.
There has never been a more dangerous period in this country. He will lead on Covid-19, he will be willing to negotiate with the opposition, he won't use divisive, juvenile rhetoric, and he will not blatantly lie. He'll be a president who is presidential. It's clichéd, but he is the right man at the right time. Plus we'll be getting a first lady who has inner and outer beauty. And how about our new Jewish second gentleman? Oy, what more could you want? To borrow an infamous Biden line, this is a big f***ing deal!
It's a great day to be an American!
October 21, 2020
One is an ostentatious entertainer who loves excess and has a cult-like following of millions of adoring fans, and the other is Liberace.
I Think Gene Would Approve...
October 6, 2020
Redford on His 2020 Candidate
September 27, 2020
Found this interesting piece by Robert Redford. I usually am turned off by celebrities endorsing politicians, but this is very well-written and thoughtful.
Trump doesn’t care about ordinary people. All the president’s men are enablers. He loathes refugees coming here out of Africa. And he will have appointed three legal eagles to the Supreme Court. The natural thing is to worry. His case for a second term is an indecent proposal. If he gets re-elected, we will all feel the sting. I just hope Biden is the candidate who can take us back to the way we were.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 1933 - 2020
September 19, 2020
No matter what your politics are, you have to admit Ruther Bader Ginsburg was a pretty amazing woman. Ginsburg, who died last night at age 87 after a recurrence of pancreatic cancer, was the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court and the first Jewish woman.
A Brooklyn native, she earned her law degree from Harvard after receiving her bachelor's degree from Cornell University, where she met her future husband Martin Ginsburg. They had two children and were married for 56 years until his death in 2010.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She served until being appointed to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993.
Ginsburg had overcome a number of serious health issues. There was always concern when news would break about her checking into the hospital, but she was a strong lady. She always got better and was determined to stay on the Court.
In these divisive times, it's downright heartwarming to know her best friend on the Court was Antonin Scalia. As jurists, they could not have been further apart in their views. But they were genuine friends, brought together by a love of opera and wine, who often dined together and even spent New Year's Eve with each other's families. Where is that kind of bipartisanship today? It says a lot about both her and Scalia as people. When giving his eulogy, Ginsburg spoke of their odd friendship, and said it was about "making our differences work."
The timing of Ginsburg's death is troubling because the presidential election is just 45 days away. Four years ago when Scalia died in February of that election year, Republicans refused to hold confirmation hearings for President Obama's Court pick. The election was nine months away, yet they would not let a qualified Obama appointee be considered.
Now, with just six weeks before the election, Trump and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not wait for the body to get cold before announcing they intend to speed through the confirmation of a Trump appointed Supreme Court nominee. The blatant hypocrisy is typical Trump. There are several Republican senators who have nothing to lose by insisting whoever wins the election should pick the next Court nominee. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, likely to lose her seat in Maine, have said just that. Mitt Romney is really the only GOP senator who regularly calls out Trump - he needs to speak up. Same for Lamar Alexander, who is retiring. Former rival now Trump flunky Lindsay Graham is on tape saying that if a Court vacancy opened, the appointment should wait until after the election. How is he going to backtrack that now? If Trump gets away with putting one more justice on the Court before the election - and the GOP senate helps him - it will be one more long-lasting stain that this totally unfit, pathological liar has put on this country.
Whatever happens regarding her successor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy will remain an inspiration for all Americans.
The Seven Year Headache
August 28, 2020
Seven years ago today, my third book, Unnecessary Headaches, was published. It was my first novella, and one I remain very proud of. My mother got to see the first two books, but did not live to see this one. I know she would have read it and loved it. Unnecessary Headaches is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
August 23, 2020
Open Letter to:
Peconic Bay Medical Center
Andrew J. Mitchell, FACHE
President and Chief Executive Officer
Chair, Board of Directors
Brian Scott Mednick
New York City
This weekend marks nine years since my dear parents, Martin and Bella Mednick, were taken from me - two days apart - due to the negligence of Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.
My mother passed away on August 24, 2011. Her death was caused by negligence on the part of two attending doctors – Brenda Connolly, DO and Aura Urquia-Robles, DO – who gave her excessive doses of morphine for pain.
My mother had a history of COPD, congestive heart failure, and breathing problems, and used oxygen at home. The doctors were well aware of this, yet they continued to give my mother morphine to treat pain from a bone infection in her foot. The morphine made my mother delirious – she was hallucinating and incoherent, a total contrast to her usual sharp personality.
The doctors recommended my mother be transferred to rehab to help her walk. While in rehab at the hospital, my mother’s mental state worsened. I pleaded with the rehab nurse to stop all narcotics, which they did. I was informed it would take a few days to leave her system. The day after stopping the narcotics, I received a call telling me that my mother was found “unresponsive” in her room at rehab. I was told she fell out of bed. How could she fall out of bed if the bed rails were up? Obviously, they were not up, clear neglect on the part of the hospital staff.
She was taken to the ER where they inserted a breathing tube. The ER physician, Andrew Wackett, MD, told me that morphine often causes problems in people with breathing issues. He was taken aback that she would be prescribed so much morphine when her breathing history was known. Yet Dr. Connolly and Dr. Urquia-Robles continued to give her round-the-clock morphine. Totally unacceptable!
My mother had the breathing tube removed after four days but was not herself. Despite not being on morphine for many days, she was confused and could not even hold a fork or spoon to feed herself. She was transferred from ICU to a regular room. An aide helped her onto a commode and then left her alone. When the aide returned, she was on the floor and not breathing. They brought her back to ICU and inserted the breathing tube again. This is when I was told she would not recover. My mother was in a coma and I had to decide when to remove the tube. There was no hope for her – she was brain dead.
The rehab nurse admitted that my mother should not have been in a room which was the furthest away from the nurse’s station. Also, the aide should have stayed with my mother while she was on the commode. But it was the excessive morphine that started my mother’s deterioration. She had been in and out of the hospital often for congestive heart failure, but I never thought her death would come about in such a needless way as this.
My father was in the hospital at the same time, having had a toe amputated. When I broke the news to him that my mother would not make it, he was confused. He was moved to a rehab facility near the hospital. On Sunday, August 21, 2011, I visited him at the rehab facility and he asked how my mother was. I told him once again she would not make it. My father told me he had a dream that morning that he saw my mother and she said she was better and everything was going to be okay. When I told him the reality of the situation, he just sank. “Just sell the house and put me in a room somewhere,” he said, the most heartbreaking thing a son could hear. He signed a “do not resuscitate” order that day. The next morning his doctor called to tell me he had passed away in his sleep from a heart attack. My father simply could not bear to live without my mother. It’s sounds cliché but he died from a broken heart. That day I decided to remove my mother’s breathing tube. She died two days later.
This was devastating. I lost both of my parents, whom I lived with and took care of and who were my world, two days apart. My mother was 75, my father was 72. As an only child, I had no one to help me through this. While they both suffered from many health problems, I firmly believe they both would have lived had my mother not received all the morphine she was given, was properly attended to, and not been put in situations where she could fall. She went in for a foot infection, not a problem with her heart or lungs.
I consulted three top malpractice attorneys, all of whom agreed that my mother’s death was due to negligence on the part of the hospital. But an autopsy was not performed on my mother, which would complicate a malpractice suit. I was also told it would cost me upwards of $10,000 and probably take two or three years to pursue such a case. I could have futilely tried suing but hospitals are so lawyered up that it’s nearly impossible to win.
No complaint, letter or lawsuit could ever bring back my parents or ease the unbearable grief of the last nine years. No one was held accountable. I want it known that Peconic Bay Medical Center is a horrific hospital that should be avoided at all costs.
I used to have such faith and trust in hospitals. I used to think if my parents were in the hospital, they would be better treated than if at home. How wrong I was. And sadly, I know I am not alone. There are a lot of families who, like me, have had their world destroyed by the thoughtless malpractice of hospitals. My thoughts are with those families. Losing a loved one is never easy, but losing them in such a senseless way makes the loss even harder.
Nine years. Nine years of grief. Each year on the anniversary of their deaths, I light yahrzeit candles for them, get a fresh arrangement of flowers, and arrange my favorite photos of them on my kitchen table. I spend several days in more anguish than usual. Pathetic? Perhaps. But it is the only way I know how to mourn them.
There was a story in the news a few years ago about these parents who sued their 30-year-old son to get him out of their house. I joked at the time that my parents would have sued to keep me there. But it’s true. We were that close.
I curse that hospital for taking my life nine years ago. I view my life as divided before they died and after they died. I kick myself for all the complaining I did when I lived with them at the end and helped take care of them. I hate I cannot pick up the phone when a celebrity dies and say to my mother, "Did ya hear?”
I long for one more Chinese dinner like the ones we frequently had at home or in a nice restaurant. We always got a booth. My mother sat next to me, my father across from us with our jackets and her bag. We'd always start with tea and soup, then split an order of spareribs before our main courses. And, of course, there were always doggie bags. My mother was the most selfless person I have ever known. She put me ahead of everything. When I was not living at home, if she and my father tried a new restaurant and liked it, the first thing out of her mouth would be, "Brian would love this. We’ve got to take him here when he visits."
I cannot imagine how many lives were needlessly taken due to Peconic Bay’s negligence. To them, our loved ones are just another patient, another number.
I am not writing this letter in the hopes of "letting go." I'll never let go. I do not want to “get over it.” I’ve written to Peconic Bay’s president, Andrew Mitchell, every year on the anniversary of my parents’ death. I never get a response, don’t expect one, and frankly do not desire one. This year I decided to take my letter public so people can know the lack of guilt, shame, and responsibility Peconic Bay has. Andrew Mitchell and his board are cowards.
A hospital is supposed to heal people, not kill them. Shame on you, Peconic Bay, Mr. Mitchell, Ms. Patterson, and your board of directors.
Signed a grieving son,
Brian Scott Mednick
The Wails of August
August 14, 2020
August is my least favorite month. It's the month when I lost both of my parents. It's also the month when Joan Rivers went into a coma, Gene Wilder died, Jerry Lewis died, and seemingly every vile person I have known in my life has a birthday. Give me September or October anytime.
Anyway, before I post my annual mourning piece for my parents later this month, I'd like to offer something a little more nostalgic and really delicious. This recipe can be found in the Food and Drink section of this site, but I've been eating it a lot lately for breakfast. It always remind me of my mother. We always had ham, cheese, mayo, lettuce, and English muffins in the fridge. Late at night when I would be aimlessly looking for a snack, she would say, "Ya want an Engla Shmuffin?" That's how it sounded to me.
This very simple but very tasty concontion she would often make me for breakfast, right up until the last months of her life. I call it Bella's Breakfast Sandwich and here's how to make it.
Lightly toast an English muffin on tin foil in toaster oven. Remove and put a little mayo on each side. Add some iceberg lettuce to the bottom muffin. If using packaged American cheese, put half a slice on the lettuce and the other half of cheese on the top slice. If using deli sliced cheese, which is often thinner, just put one whole slice on each side. Depending how thin or thick your Board's Head Deluxe Ham is (and yes, you must use Boar's Head sliced from the deli!), use two or three slices, piled in a ribbon fashion. Loosely wrap this up in the tin foil you used to toast the muffin, completely covering it, and put back in toaster oven at 400 degrees for approximately 6 minutes or until cheese is melted and ham warmed through.
Serve with a cup of coffee or whatever your morning beverage of choice is and enjoy. The subtle crispness of the English muffin, the hint of creamy, warm mayo, the pleasantly wilted lettuce - this is a superb combination. I would not omit or add a single ingredient. Makes a great snack too. Two with a couple of deli side salads would even make a nice dinner. Either way, this is the ultimate comfort food because with every bite, I think of my dear mother, who put as much love into her cooking as she did in raising me. And yes, you'll long for another one as soon as you finish this. My mother would always ask if I wanted a second one, but I never wanted to her put her to the trouble.
Try Bella's Breakfast Sandwich - a healthier and frankly more delicious alternative to the standard egg sandwich - and let me know what you think.
A Little Hanky Panky Started It All
August 13, 2020
39 years ago today, Gene & Gilda met on the first night of shooting on the set of Hanky Panky. Because I am feeling nice, here is the whole chapter from Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad about how they met and later married:
THIS NICE JEWISH GIRL FROM DETROIT
"I've been married twice and both times to Catholic girls...I think next time I'll
be healthy enough to at least consider 'going out' with a Jewish girl."
- Gene Wilder
The script was called Traces. It was a comic murder mystery in the tradition of Hitchcock that Gene Wilder wanted to do simply so he could once again work with his good friend Sidney Poitier. Gilda Radner, who had a year earlier left her star-making five-year run on Saturday Night Live, was cast as the woman Gene falls in love with in the film, which was retitled Hanky Panky. It didn’t take long before their movie romance developed offscreen as well.
“I’d give it all up for love,” Gilda once said of her career, and in Gene she had found someone who she described as “funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good.” Never so much attracted to the good-looking guy so much as the funny one, Gilda confessed, “A funny man is irresistible. More than any looks, more than anything.”
Ironically, Gene didn’t look forward to working with “this nice Jewish girl from Detroit,” as Gilda often characterized herself. In a 1986 interview he and Gilda did with Marilyn Beck, Gene said, “I thought this aggressive Detroit Jewish bitch was going to come on, improvise through every scene, [and] say, ‘No, no, no, no. That’s not how we do it on Saturday Night Live,’ and push her way through. And this little timid girl comes on... She was just Miss Shy.”
In addition to Gene expecting Gilda to be difficult, Gene was quite different than Gilda anticipated he would be. “She thought I was queer,” Gene said, “because she saw Stir Crazy and she got it in her head that I was tutti-frutti. Just because Richard kissed me one time.”
“After seeing his movies,” Gilda admitted, “I thought, he’s much taller than I ever thought. And much handsomer than I ever thought... And not as tutti-frutti as I thought.”
Gene and Gilda’s paths almost crossed before Hanky Panky. “She had seen my movies and I had seen her on television,” Gene said. “But we never met until August 13, 1981, on the first night of shooting Hanky Panky. She says she saw me one time when I came to the NBC building to do an interview. She wanted to come over but felt uncomfortable about doing it. I wish she had.”
There was one complication for Gene and Gilda’s blossoming romance – Gilda was married. Her husband was musician G.E. Smith, who for years was the bandleader on Saturday Night Live. They were married a year and the marriage was already on the skids. Meeting Gene just confirmed for Gilda that the marriage was over. Gilda and Smith soon got an amicable divorce and remained on friendly terms. Prior to Smith, Gilda had been romantically involved with Peter Firth, Bill Murray, Chris Sarandon, and Kevin Kline.
Hanky Panky began production in August 1981 with a cast that included Richard Widmark, Kathleen Quinlan, and Robert Prosky. The film had many similarities to Silver Streak – both films mixed elements of comedy, romance, and suspense – as Gene once again portrayed an innocent nice guy wrongly accused of murder. In the film, Gene plays Michael Jordon (a name which now elicits laughter, though at the time the other Michael Jordan had yet to reach notoriety), a Chicago architect who has recently moved to New York. After sharing a taxi cab with a pretty young woman (Quinlan) and mailing a package for her, Michael is nearly killed by a bunch of thugs who believe he knows about a top secret computer tape.
Michael tracks the young woman down at her hotel, but she just wants to be left alone. After she’s shot to death, Michael finds her body and is assumed to be the murderer, leaving him no choice but to flee. Along the way he meets Kate Hellman (Radner), who believes Michael is innocent and helps him as they run from both the cops and the killers.
The film gave both Gene and Gilda ample opportunity to join together their unique brands of humor. Typical of this is one of the film’s broadest scenes in which the pilot of the small plane they are flying in suddenly dies. Michael refuses to accept the fact that he now has to land the plane himself and keeps telling Kate to ask the dead pilot questions.
Upon its June 4, 1982 release, Hanky Panky was a failure with both audiences and critics. Years later, Gene said, “If I made one mistake professionally in my life, I think it was at that point in my life doing Hanky Panky. If I made one great choice in my life, it was doing Hanky Panky because I met Gilda, who changed where I live, how I think, how I feel, what work I do...”
When they met, Gene was living in Los Angeles while Gilda was residing in a house she had recently bought in Stamford, Connecticut. They lived together on and off for two and a half years. In 1982 they comforted each other as they each suddenly lost a close friend and colleague – on March 5, 1982, Gilda’s fellow Not Ready For Prime Time Player John Belushi died of a drug overdose at age 33, and on December 2, 1982, Marty Feldman died at age 49 of a massive heart attack brought on by food poisoning on the last day of filming Yellowbeard (1983) in Mexico City.
In the summer of 1982, Gene took Gilda to France for a two-week holiday. Gilda had only been there once before when she was eighteen, and had found it a less than thrilling experience. With Gene as her guide, she saw France in a totally different light and, according to her, “learned it could be a pleasure and I could love it.”
Shortly after they returned from France, Gene and Gilda broke up. “Gene said he was suffocating, that my needs were smothering him,” Gilda wrote in her 1989 autobiography. Gilda also suffered from bulimia, something she admitted to during her Saturday Night Live years. But bulimia remained an ongoing struggle for Gilda, and even after she and Gene were married, she continued to force herself to vomit after dinner. It got to the point where Gene saw there was little he could do to help her and eventually just tried ignoring Gilda’s eating disorder.
During their breakup, Gilda bought a dog to help her through this terribly lonely period. The female Yorkshire terrier was named Sparkle. Not long after getting Sparkle, Gene and Gilda got back together. Luckily, Gene was a dog lover (in the 1960s he adopted a small female dog named Julie) and he and Sparkle had no problem taking to one another.
For Gilda, her goal was to convince Gene to settle down and marry her. “Gene built a tennis court and a wine cellar in her Connecticut house,” said Gilda’s friend Pat O’Donoghue. “That made her a lot less insecure. It was sort of like an engagement ring. For a brief moment there, she was truly, finally happy.” Having been married and divorced twice already, Gene was in no hurry to walk down the aisle again. In her autobiography, Gilda wrote, “My new ‘career’ became getting him to marry me. I turned down job offers so I could be geographically available. More often than not, I had on a white, frilly apron like Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year when she left her job to exclusively be Spencer Tracey’s [sic] wife. Unfortunately, my performing ego wasn’t completely content in an apron, and in every screenplay Gene was writing, or project he had under development, I finagled my way into a part.”
Gilda’s finagling worked, for she found herself with a part in Gene’s next film, The Woman in Red. Victor Drai, a first-time producer who had done everything from designing clothes to selling real estate (and is now a nightclub impresario who is opening his own Vegas hotel in 2012), had bought the rights to a 1977 French film called Pardon Mon Affaire. Drai thought Gene would be ideal for the American version as a mild-mannered family man looking for a little adventure in his life. He knew Gene’s agent, and soon Gene and Gilda found themselves having a series of dinners at the home of Drai and his live-in girlfriend Kelly LeBrock.
Gene had doubts about Americanizing Pardon Mon Affaire. “He believed that he really didn’t want to do a remake because he figured the original was so good and it’s really a discredit to the original when you do one again,” said cinematographer Fred Schuler. But Gene soon realized that a remake could stand on its own terms, and he ended up writing the screenplay adaptation and directing as well.
In the film, Gene plays Teddy Pierce, a shy, quiet advertising executive living in San Francisco. One day Teddy is in the parking garage of the building he works in and notices a beautiful young woman in a red dress. As she walks over a ventilation grate, her dress flies up à la Marilyn Monroe. From this moment on, Teddy becomes obsessed with pursuing this mysterious woman in red as he lies to his wife and children.
For the supporting cast, Gene assembled his old friends Charles Grodin, Joseph Bologna, and Michael Huddleston to play his male buddies who cover for him. For the title role, both Gene and Gilda thought Kelly LeBrock would be perfect. LeBrock, who was a 23-year-old model with no prior film experience, was terrified about starring in a movie, but after enough convincing, LeBrock agreed to do a screen test for Orion Pictures and soon found herself with her first film role. She found the entire experience to be very positive.
“Gene was wonderful,” LeBrock said. “He was very busy but he still made time for me... The set was one of the nicest sets I’ve ever been on... I still hope I will find the same feeling that I had on that set. It was a family. We had a great time... There was only tension on the set one day, and that was the scene of going over the [ventilation grate]. Everyone knew it was kind of an important scene to the film, and everybody sort of got a little bit uptight. They just wanted it to be really good, and sometimes when you’re on a set people get nervous off each other.
“Gene never raised his voice, he was never out of line or anything...but you could feel the tension. It was difficult because they were trying to get the dress to blow up, and it wasn’t working well, and they had to change the tactic. They had to keep trying the dryers in different positions and all. And time is money on a set, and it wasn’t a big budget film.”
Gilda played Ms. Milner (though, as Gilda pointed out to David Letterman when promoting the film, her name is never mentioned), a hideous woman who works in Teddy’s office who thinks Teddy is really interested in her. Some critics were baffled as to why Gene would cast Gilda in such an unattractive role with not a lot of screen time. “She looks like a ghost in this movie,” said Gene Siskel. “She does nothing funny.” Despite such criticism, Gilda won the Best Supporting Actress award from the now defunct Your Choice for the Film Awards, an awards program whose nominees were voted on by a panel of film critics and whose winners were chosen by the public. Gilda beat out fellow nominees Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage to India), Christine Lahti (Swing Shift), Geraldine Page (The Pope of Greenwich Village), and Theresa Russell (The Razor’s Edge).
To write the songs for The Woman in Red, Gene acquired the talents of Stevie Wonder. Wonder’s songs resulted in a hugely successful soundtrack album, and his “I Just Called to Say I Love You” went on to win both an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Wonder thanked Gene and dedicated the award to Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time, which resulted in Wonder’s music being banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
The Woman in Red opened on August 15, 1984. It was one of the first films to receive the new PG-13 rating from the MPAA, the first being Red Dawn, which opened a week earlier (Dreamscape, which opened the same day as The Woman in Red, also received the PG-13 rating). It did respectable business at the box office and received mixed reviews. On the positive side, Leonard Maltin called it “Wilder’s best film in years,” while Time magazine’s Richard Schickel found it “a well-made sex farce of classical proportions” and “the summer's first comedy for adults.” Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Wilder, who has improved greatly as a director, has also written the screenplay, and does it with an eye to everyone’s sympathetic foibles... Whether Teddy is taking up horseback riding to impress Charlotte or turning instant hipster with a silly new suit and hairdo, Mr. Wilder manages to make him reasonably likable.” Pat Collins proclaimed The Woman in Red the “best romantic comedy of the summer” and found Gene to be “at his irrepressible best.”
A month after The Woman in Red's release, Gene and Gilda were married. Gilda had been trying for the better part of two years to convince Gene to marry her, and she ended up having Sparkle to thank for Gene’s proposal. “She was very insecure, terrified of so many things, afraid to be alone for the shortest period of time,” Gene said. “I thought, having been married before, this could be a disaster.”
Gene and Gilda were ready to leave for a vacation in France with Sparkle. They had planned to fly from Los Angeles to New York first to visit Corinne and Gil, then leave for France. While waiting in a private passenger lounge in the airport, Sparkle accidentally ate rat poison. A panicked Gilda rushed Sparkle to the vet. Gilda told Gene she would meet up with him in New York. Gilda spent the whole day at the vet’s office while Gene flew to New York. When Gene landed, Gilda called him to let him know Sparkle was fine and said, “I know you love me and you know I love you. You’re so tired. You need a vacation. You go on to France and when you come back I’ll meet you in Connecticut and we’ll be together and we’ll be happy. But let’s not worry about anything.”
“I’d been waiting two years for her to say something like that,” Gene later said. Upon his return, Gene gave Gilda an engagement ring. Orion sent them to Europe to promote The Woman in Red, and in between attending the Deauville Film Festival and doing interviews in Rome, Gene and Gilda found time to stop in the south of France where they were married on September 18, 1984 in the small thirteenth-century village of St. Paul-de-Vence. He was 51, she was 38. They were married by the mayor of the village in a ceremony performed in French that included only eight people, among them a Belgian couple from L.A. whom they were close friends with, some friends who owned a Danish restaurant in the south of France, Corinne and Gil, and, of course, Sparkle. The wedding party celebrated at the Danish restaurant of Gene and Gilda’s friends, and later that evening Gene and Gilda enjoyed a traditional French wedding dinner in the chateau they were staying at. Since they were still in the midst of promoting The Woman in Red, Gene and Gilda actually spent most of their honeymoon in Rome.
When one rude French reporter asked Gene, “Why didn’t you marry the beautiful girl in The Woman in Red?” he immediately replied, “I did!”
Pete Hamill: 1935 - 2020
August 5, 2020
Pete Hamill, one of America's greatest writers, has died at 85.
Hamill endured numerous health problems in recent years. He was on dialysis and wheelchair-bound. According to his brother Denis, also a writer, Hamill fell at his Brooklyn home on Saturday, August 1st, fracturing his right hip. He was rushed to New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery but his kidneys and heart failed while in intensive care. He died on Monday, August 3rd.
A regular at the legendary Lion's Head Tavern in the Village, Hamill was the last of the old school, hard-drinking newspapermen who epitomized New York's gritty golden age of journalism. His 1994 memoir A Drinking Life is probably my favorite book. It's a nostalgic look back at his coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn. A very lucky guy from a young age, the book is filled with lots of kiss-and-tell, personal and professional highs and lows, and his battle with the bottle, a habit that he kicked at age 37.
I probably own more of his books than any other author, and his style of prose has been more influential on my fiction writing than anyone else. Aside from A Drinking Life, my other Hamill favorites are the novels Flesh and Blood (1977) and Loving Women (1989), the journalism collections Irrational Ravings (1971) and Piecework (1996), and the remarkable short story collection The Invisible City: A New York Sketchbook (1980).
Hamill had a brief, controversial stint as editor of the New York Post in 1993 and later as editor-in-chief of the Daily News.
He won a Grammy Award in 1975 for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.
He sent me a letter over 20 years ago when I was still trying to get my Gene Wilder bio published. It was handwritten, sent from his Horatio Street apartment, and very encouraging. He told me keep writing, go on to the next project, and not to wait for editors to make decisions. I met him once, and he graciously signed two of his books to me, both with unique inscriptions.
Hamill was friends with Bobby Kennedy, and helped disarm assassin Sirhan Sirhan on the night of June 5, 1968 as the mortally wounded Kennedy lay nearby. He hung out with Sinatra and dated Shirley MacLaine, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Linda Ronstadt, yet remained down to earth and real. A nice guy who never forgot his Brooklyn roots, Pete Hamill led an amazing life.
In addition to his brother Denis, he is survived by another brother, Brian (best known as Woody Allen's still photographer); his second wife, journalist Fukiko Aoki; and two daughters from his first marriage.
Regis Philbin: 1931 - 2020
July 28, 2020
There are certain beloved entertainers who you know are up there in age but you just think will go on forever. Regis Philbin was one of them. Philbin, who died on July 24th one month shy of his 89th birthday, was a cultural icon. His family said he died of natural causes but it was later revealed he died of a heart attack brought on by coronary artery disease at a hospital in Greenwich, Conn., where he and his wife Joy had a home. Philbin, who lived across the street from the Upper West Side WABC-TV studio he shot his morning show, had a successful triple bypass in 2007.
Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most on-screen television time, the proud Bronx native had the warmth and humor of someone you'd want as your next door neighbor. He dominated morning television for nearly thirty years before retiring in 2011. His chemistry with co-host Kathie Lee Gifford was undeniable. When Kathie Lee left, the show was never the same. Kelly Ripa is not very engaging and, unlike Regis, is a total phony who cruelly stopped talking to him after he left the show, taking it personally. Regis admitted he was dumbfounded by the cold shoulder, as he simply left because after three decades and having just turned 80, he felt it was time to retire.
The tributes to Philbin have been many and deserved. I was an early fan of his while he was still doing the local morning show here in New York before it was syndicated and rebranded Live! Our paths almost crossed several times but alas I never had the pleasure of meeting the man.
In a business that thrives on illusion and insincerity, "Reege" was the real deal. Like Joan Rivers, what you saw on TV was what you got in person. He was a wonderful singer, having grown up idolizing Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. He had a natural talent for hosting, whether it was Live! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or even the Miss America pageant. He really was the daytime equivalent of Johnny Carson.
Regis admitted one of his few regrets was that he did not make it big until he was in his fifties. He won two Daytime Emmy Awards and one lifetime achievement one.
In addition to his wife of fifty years, he is survived by two daughters with Joy and a daughter from his first marriage. His only son, from his first marriage, died in 2014 at age 49.
Woody and His Memoirs
July 13, 2020
When it comes to tell-all memoirs, Woody Allen is the last person I would have thought to open up, but in telling the fascinating story of his life and career, Allen is brutally honest, typically witty, and has written what is easily one of the three or four best autobiographies I have ever read.
Apropos of Nothing (Arcade Publishing) chronicles Allen's life starting as a precocious child growing up in 1940s Brooklyn. He hated school but loved magic, jazz, girls, and playing hooky to go to Times Square where he immersed himself in the movies. He particularly liked elegant black and white films with witty banter where the men wore tuxedos and everyone sipped champagne in a penthouse with spectacular views of Manhattan. He appreciated the irony of living a large part of his adult life in just such a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, until the constant leaks and need for more space forced him to move.
Of his early success while barely out of his teens, Allen refreshingly admits he had an amazing amount of luck. He also had his
eyes on the fairer sex from a very young age, marrying his first wife when she was 17 and he was 20. His affair and later marriage to second wife Louise Lasser makes for great reading as Allen
details Lasser's philandering, eating disorders, and myriad neuroses - in other words, a typical Woody Allen character.
The book spends a lot of time on Allen's early years, so much so I was starting to worry when he would get to the movies. But don't fret - he concisely covers each of his 60+ films with just enough detail and perspective that the book never lags.
Of particular note are:
Like the very best memoirs, you can hear Allen's distinct voice as you turn each page. This is a book that does not insult the reader (I had to look up more words than I can remember with any other book) but also remains very readable and thoroughly engaging.
Although Woody Allen was one of my childhood heroes, his aura of neurotic aloofness led me to believe he was not a particularly nice person. That may be so, but after reading Apropos of Nothing, I came away with a newfound respect for the man. I had no idea he was such a foodie, and loved his veneration of Chinese food, Jewish deli, and, his all-time favorite, spare ribs. Of recalling the first time he saw Mort Sahl perform, Allen writes, "To say that I was blown away by Mort Sahl - it would be like when I first tasted spare ribs." I am in no rush, however, to try one of his breakfast creations, a half-full coffee cup of Rice Krispies into which he cracks two three-and-a-half minute soft-boiled eggs, adds some salt, and stirs. His telling of his morning ritual to Emma Stone leads him believe it was the reason she stopped all communication with him.
The book's front cover is brilliant in its simplicity - author name, title, and the word "autobiography," all in Allen's customary opening titles format of Windsor white letters against a black background. The back author photo is a recent one of Allen at home taken by Diane Keaton, his once girlfriend and lifelong confidante. When I pick up a celebrity memoir, the two things I immediately turn to are the index and the photo section, two things this book does not have.
I was a little surprised by a number of (minor) factual errors, often about the Oscars. While it makes sense he would never do well at an Oscars trivia contest, that's what editors are for. But this is nitpicking, considering the depth and breadth of what is truly a great American success story. Everything you would expect in the life of Woody Allen is here: the many nights at Elaine's with A-list celebs and D-list food, his love of Manhattan and Europe, his fatalistic outlook on life, his creative control over each movie, the women, the jazz, a thankfully limited number of political remarks, and, oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that Mia Farrow thing?
Allen devotes a good deal of time to telling his side of the messy drama that dominated the headlines in 1992. While I thought Allen's having an affair with his girlfriend's daughter was morally not so nice, I never for a second believed Farrow's absurd allegation that Allen sexually abused their daughter Dylan. Allen tells his side so matter-of-factly yet avoids coming across as angry or bitter, though he has every right to be both. Farrow, it turns out, is the angry, bitter, and madly vindictive one. It pains him that Farrow, who on her best day makes Joan Crawford seem like Donna Reed, used his children against him. They were brainwashed by Farrow, including Ronan, who despite being a hero of the #MeToo movement because of his exposés of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, is complicit in keeping the allegations against Allen alive.
The actors who worked with Allen in the past who have since regretted it are total mental weaklings kowtowing to #MeToo and other similar movements. Allen points out how Timothée Chalamet and several other stars of his last completed film A Rainy Day in New York (2019, never released in the U.S.) donated their entire salaries to "woke" causes. What most people don't realize is nobody gets rich off of acting in a Woody Allen film. "This is not as heroic a gesture as it seems," writes Allen, "as we can only afford to pay the union minimum, and my guess is if we paid more usual movie money, which often runs quite high, the actors might have righteously declared they'd never work with me but would leave out the part about donating their salary."
Even Michael Caine, a fairly intelligent bloke who owes his first Oscar to Woody, says he would not work with him again. I mean, bloody bollocks, right?
Mia Farrow is clearly a disturbed woman. She deprived Dylan and Ronan of knowing a father who completely loved and doted on them. I also came away with a new take on Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi, to whom he has been married 23 years. It's an odd but genuinely loving marriage, and he writes despite all of the negative press and legal shenanigans, he would do it all over again.
If you come to Apropos of Nothing just to read the juicy details of the Mia Farrow mess, you'll get your money's worth. If you want an honest, enlightening, and extremely entertaining portrait of one of America's greatest writers and filmmakers, you'll get that too. Either way, at 84 years old, Woody Allen has given us what may well be his most important artistic contribution yet.
A Revolutionary Podcast
July 4, 2020
Earlier this year I was interviewed by Jamey DuVall for his podcast. He was particularly interested in Start the Revolution Without Me. I did not hear from him for six months until a few days ago when he sent me this link. It is a massive undertaking, incredibly detailed and very ambitious. He breaks down films from the year 1970 by month. Go to February. The Start the Revolution segment begins at 18:45 and I start yapping at 28:00. Thanks to Jamey for including me in this very special project.
Carl Reiner: 1922 - 2020
July 3, 2020
What sad news to wake up to this morning. Carl Reiner, legendary comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director, died last night at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 98. According to Reiner's nephew George Shapiro, a producer and agent, Reiner was in good spirits that day and had watched Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune with best friend Mel Brooks, whose 94th birthday Reiner helped celebrate just one night earlier. Around 10:00 p.m., Reiner was walking out of the TV room with the aid of a housekeeper when he stumbled.
“He didn’t fall too hard. It was a gentle buckling of the knees,” Shapiro said. Minutes later, Reiner lost consciousness. “He went out within three minutes,” he said. “He didn’t suffer. Everybody wants to go that way.”
98 is a helluva run for anyone, but Reiner's death really stings. My first reaction was, "I can't imagine how Mel Brooks must feel." Brooks and Reiner formed, in my opinion, the funniest comedy team ever with their "2000 Year Old Man" act, which they started performing for friends at parties before fans such as George Burns and Steve Allen coaxed them to turn the bit into five hit records. Their last one, "The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000," won them a Grammy for Best Spoken Comedy Album in 1999. After 60 years, the material never gets old - they are among the very best comedy albums of all time.
Reiner and Brooks met when they worked on Sid Caesar's landmark Your Show of Shows, and they remained best friends for 70 years.
Reiner would go on to create and star in The Dick Van Dyke Show, write books and plays, and act in and direct numerous films. His best known directorial efforts include the cult classic Where's Poppa? (1970), Oh, God! (1977), and four films in a row starring Steve Martin, which established Martin as a major Hollywood comic lead: The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), The Man with Two Brains (1983) (my personal favorite), and the critically acclaimed All of Me (1984), which won Martin best actor honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics, as well as a Golden Globe nomination. Reiner's last film as a director was That Old Feeling (1997) starring Bette Midler and Dennis Farina.
He had a late career resurgence as a character actor in George Clooney's three Ocean's Elevens reboots, and was a familiar face on talk shows. An old-fashioned liberal Democrat who championed leftist causes (he was a Bernie Sanders supporter), he caught up with the times, Tweeting with abandon about his hatred of Donald Trump, saying he wanted to live to be 100 just to see Trump booted from office. If only he could have held on four more months.
Reiner won 11 Emmy Awards (though some sources say 9 or 12) and in 2000 received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Reiner's wife Estelle died in 2008 after 65 years of marriage. An actress and singer, she was best known for her classic one-liner in her son Rob's film When Harry Met Sally... (1989) when she famously muttered, "I'll have what she's having."
After Estelle's death, Brooks, who three years earlier lost his wife Anne Bancroft, and Reiner became even closer, having dinner together every night in front of Carl's giant screen TV, eating off tray tables in the living room as they watched Jeopardy! At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, they both quarantined in their homes, communicating every day on Skype. A few months before Reiner's death, he and Brooks were able to cautiously and safely resume their nightly dinner ritual in person.
In addition to Rob, he is survived by daughter Annie, an author, son Lucas, an artist, and several grandchildren.
According to Shapiro, Reiner's last meal was one his favorites: a 9-inch hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut from the legendary Pink's Hot Dogs stand in L.A. Pink's named the dog after Reiner, who enjoyed it with baked beans on the side, something that I am sure delighted Mel Brooks.
Carl Reiner was an extraordinary talent and, from what I've been reading, a really nice guy (I met them both at a book signing when I was very young but was too nervous to say anything to them). The thought of Mel Brooks not having his best friend and dinner companion around is heartbreaking. Both these guys deserved to live 2,000 years.
June 28, 2020
Along time ago, in what now seems like another world, the 1992 Democratic convention was held in NYC. We did our radio show, "Soap Opera
Radio," at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Midtown at a terrific restaurant called Samplings. We would have a nice dinner with our guests, then retreat to another part of the hotel to tape the radio
show in a restaurant that was only open for breakfast and lunch.
This photo is (L-R) Linda Dano, me, my mother Bella, and John Aprea. I am so glad I was able to expose my mother to a little bit of show
business. We all had steak for dinner. This was John's last appearance on our show, as he was leaving Another World to pursue film work in LA. My mother and I bought a great cake for
him that read, "Good-bye John and Lucas [his character on the show]. We'll miss you both."
John and Linda may have been the soap stars, but my mother was the superstar. So beautiful here. A day does not go by I do not think of her and the love she gave me. Now I sound like a soap opera.
Color Blind Comedy Magic
June 4, 2020
We need them now more than ever. Stay safe and be nice to each other.
May 22, 2020
Was sad to learn recently that Arnie Baskin, my favorite film professor at NYU and my mentor, died last September 24th. He was 83.
Arnie was a true New York Jew in the best sense. He always knew where to eat, where to hang out for margaritas (which I and many of his students did with him), and, of course, what movies to see.
His skill as a professor of film was equaled by his innate ability to engage people, make them laugh, and instantly make you feel like you were a lifelong friend. As a raconteur, he could easily compete with Tony Randall and Orson Bean.
Almost as soon as I met him, I started calling him Arnaleh, a Jewish endearment where you add "aleh" to the end of someone's first name. Does not work with every name. Samaleh, Jackaleh, Danaleh all work. Brianaleh just doesn't do it. Anyway, it always tickled him, and he would often point to me and say to whoever was in earshot, "He calls me Arnaleh."
Arnie was born three days before my mother. The two grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and both attended Thomas Jefferson High School, but they never knew each other. Years later, before we all had cell phones, my mother served as my de facto receptionist. I would always come home to her wonderful messages and sometimes just notes: "Anthony Perkins died. He was 60. Love, Mom." One note (see below) was a message from Arnie where she called him "a nice man" and was happy they talked about the "old days."
Steve Lawrence (then Sidney Liebowitz) also went to Thomas Jefferson High. My mother would recall him singing and performing in a school production of The Mikado. She never knew him personally, though, something I chided her for practically her whole life. "Why couldn't Steve Lawrence be my father?!" I would say, about a quarter joking and, sadly, 75% serious. Arnie was friends with Steve/Sidney, though.
When I graduated NYU, Arnie took me, his companion Tia, and my then best friend, also a student of his, to dinner at this long gone "Chino-Latino" joint near NYU called Bayamo. I had so many memories at this place, the great food and drinks aside. When the bill came, Arnie, noting I had more than a few margaritas, said, "Brian, we're not a drinking people!" Hey, I was 22 - but yeah, I should have known better.
At another dinner, Arnie introduced us to one of his former students, Todd Solondz, who had just become a hot property with his film Welcome to the Dollhouse. Todd was just as neurotic, nerdy, and forever sniffling as his persona. He would later go on to direct the amazing film Happiness.
I made five short black and white films in Arnie's class, which was called "Sight and Sound," a required class for sophomore film majors to learn how work in 16mm. I had them transferred to DVD and uploaded them to YouTube not long ago. The visual quality is poor and I was going more for laughs than fancy camera angles and swift editing, but at least two of the films have merit.
Alas, I never became a Todd Solondz. Actually, no one in my classes at NYU rose to the level of well-known filmmaker, although I am sure many work in some aspect of film or television. I could write a book about what a farce colleges - particularly arts colleges - are, but let's keep the focus on Arnie.
He was a bon vivant. He spoke French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. Over the years he worked in Paris, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Israel, and Romania before ending up at NYU, where he was a tenured professor for forty years. He lived in Washington Square Village on Bleecker Street, an upscale dormitory, if you will, for longtime NYU faculty.
I'd visit Arnie in his office over the years and occasionally exchange emails with him. When he did not respond to an email last year, I got a little worried but did not think much of it. I learned of his passing after emailing one of Arnie's colleagues. No official cause of death was given, but, according to Tia, he had many health issues. If and when this whole coranvirus mess dies down, Tia and I plan to get together.
Arnie Baskin was a great guy. Miss ya, Arnaleh!
April 26, 2020
Just got Woody Allen's new autobiography. Can't wait to dive in (bummed there is no photo section, though). Pair this with last year's excellent Mel Brooks bio by Patrick McGilligan and my book, and you have the definitive portraits of the three greatest actor-writer-directors of all-time.
Max von Sydow: 1929 - 2020
March 10, 2020
Max von Sydow, the Swedish born actor best known for his longtime collaboration with Ingmar Bergman, died on March 8th. He was 90.
Von Sydow had a unique screen presence, becoming a well-known art house figure in the 1950s for his early roles in Bergman classics like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both in 1957) and later works like The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Winter Light (1963). In total, von Sydow appeared in 11 Bergman films.
He became known to mainstream audiences for playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Father Lankester Merrin in The Excorist (1973), and Ming the Merciless in the camp sci-fi spectacle Flash Gordon (1980).
My personal favorite role was of his was in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), in which he portrayed Frederick, a misanthropic artist keeping house with a much younger woman (Barbara Hershey) who is cheating on him with her brother-in-law (Michael Caine). It was a brooding, complex performance in which he was able to convey the pain and pessimism of a man who intentionally isolates himself from the world. The scene where Hershey comes home after a tryst with Caine to Frederick, sitting at a table in the kitchen area, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper, is a practical master class in dramatic acting. He rants about the sad state of media, culture, and television, uttering such Allen gems as, "If Jesus came back, and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."
Von Sydow was twice nominated for an Oscar, in 1988 for his leading role in the beautiful Danish film Pelle the Conqueror and for his supporting turn in 2011's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. For years, I said the Academy should have awarded him an honorary Oscar but they clearly did not find him as deserving as such recent recepients as Jackie Chan (I'll never understand that one).
For the last two decades, von Sydow made France his home, and in 2002 became a French citizen, which required him to give up his Swedish citizenship. He died in Provence (no cause of death was announced) and is survived by his second wife and four sons.
Go to the Archive tab and read my entry from June 4, 2015 where, clearly having nothing better to do, I mulled what it might be like if Max von Sydow did his own grocery shopping.
Danny Aiello: 1933 - 2019
December 19, 2019
Danny Aiello, the consummate New York character actor who broke into show business at an age when many consider leaving it, died on December 12th at age 86. According to reports, Aiello died in a New Jersey hospital after a brief but undisclosed illness.
Aiello was raised by a single mother on West 68th Street in Manhattan before the family moved to the South Bronx. At age nine, Aiello was shining shoes in Grand Central Station. He lied about his age to get into the Army, where his athletic talent led him to play baseball to entertain the troops.
Upon his return home to the Bronx, Aiello met Sandy Cohen. "She was the most beautiful thing - I swear to you - that I had ever seen," he said of Sandy, whom he married in 1955. Catholic Aiello and Jewish Cohen would have three sons and a daughter.
To support his family, Aiello worked for Greyhound, first as a baggage handler and later as a the bus station's public address
announcer. He rose the ranks to become a union delegate, but was fired following an unauthorized strike. Not knowing where his next job would come from, he resorted to burglarly (he was
never caught) before being hired as a bouncer at the legendary Improv comedy club. He began filling in as emcee and found he had a gift for performing. He started to seriously pursue
acting, and, at age 40, landed his first film role in the 1973 Robert DeNiro film Bang the Drum Slowly. The roles kept coming in such films as The Godfather: Part II (1974),
The Front (1976), and Fort Apache the Bronx (1981).
In 1981, he appeared on Broadway opposite Bea Arthur in Woody Allen's play The Floating Lightbulb (he would go on to play roles
as a heavy in Allen's 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo and 1987 Radio Days).
Aiello worked steadily in film in the 1980s, but his first megahit was as Cher's beleagured fiancé in Moonstruck (1987), a role he admitted hating because his character was such a wimp. Two years later he landed the part that would define his career in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. As Sal, the caring yet conflicted Italian American owner of a pizzeria in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood, Aiello dislayed humor, humanity, and rage as a man who took pride that the locals "grew up on my food." The film earned Aiello an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I still remember my reaction on Oscar night 1990 when Aiello lost to Denzel Washington in Glory. I consider it one of the biggest Oscar slights ever.
Though Aiello mostly appeared in supporting roles, he occasionally was the lead in some outstanding (and very underrated) independent films such as 29th Street (1991), a fanciful comedy-drama based on an amazing true story, and Brooklyn Lobster (2005), where he played opposite Jane Curtin.
But he defined tour de force with his performance as Louis Cropa in Dinner Rush (2000), a wildly entertaining comedy/crime drama about a restaurant owner being shaken down by the Mob. The role was classic Aiello, and he more than proved he could carry a picture on his own.
Aiello was also an accomplished singer, something he first displayed as Holly Hunter's father in Once Around (1991). He performed in small clubs in New York, as well as Atlantic City, and released several CD's, including the superb Live from Atlantic City and I Just Wanted to Hear the Words.
In addition to his Oscar nomination, he won supporting actor honors for Do the Right Thing from the Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles film critics associations. He won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1981 for the ABC Afterschool Special "A Family of Strangers."
I was lucky enough to meet Aiello a few times over the years, and he was always very nice. I have a great photo of us together from a gala - I want to say it was a Catholic Charities event but it might have been the Italian Catholic Federation (either way, it wasn't the B'nai B'rith). I was about 19 and we were both dressed up, he tightly squeezing me as we had our arms around each other. I kinda know where the picture is but stupid me never scanned it.
Aiello was always one of my favorite actors. He made any project he was in a little extra special.
In an industry known for its liberal politics, Aiello was an admitted but quiet conservative who never touched liquor ("I'm to the right
of Ronald Reagan," he once said).
In addition to his wife of 64 years, he is survived by two sons, Rick and Jaime; a daughter, Stacey; ten grandchildren; and a nephew, the sportscaster Michael Kay. His son Daniel III, an actor and stuntman, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.
A memorial was held for Aiello today in Manhattan at Riverside Memorial Chapel. I was able to pay my respects to Sandy and several of his grandchildren. Afterwards I was interviewed by our local Fox 5 news station. Click here to watch.
September 16, 2019
As a right-leaning independent, there was no way I could bring myself to vote for Hillary. If you want to blame anyone for Trump's presidency, blame her. I was largely supportive of Trump until he just went too far with his sick love affair with himself. I was no Obama fan but at least Obama was dignified, eloquent, and yes, presidential.
I cannot vote for Trump again, and I think the Dems are totally nuts. Biden is the only candidate I can feel comfortable supporting. He is a stand-up guy whose reputation for bipartisanship impresses me. He's also seen more tragedy than any one person should have to endure, and he's proven he is a man of fortitude, a very admirable quality in a leader.
I can deal with his gaffes, as he is the most common sense of any of these far left loonies. I think he will restore the presidency to what it used to be, if that's even possible. The more his own party attacks him, the more I like him. (I wanted to slap that pipsqueak Castro for his unnecessarily nasty digs at Biden's age during last week's debate.)
Biden may not be the ideal choice but considering the options, for me, he is the only choice. And if his frontrunner status continues into the new year, he will likely be the nominee. I thought Trump was unbeatable but when you lose people like me, I can see he's not. It's rare for me to agree with anything in The New York Times beyond its cooking section, but Frank Bruni's recent piece about how Trump will never go away (not unlike the Clintons) will likely be very prescient.
I would hate to see a Democratic House and Senate, but I believe balance of power is good for the country. A Republican congress with a Democrat president like Biden - who knows how to negotiate with the other side - may be just what we need.
I shudder to think of a Sanders or Warren presidency, but I would be pleased with a President Biden. This is his to lose.
A Mama's Boy Without His Mama
August 22, 2019
"I am a Mama’s Boy, a description often viewed as disparaging, but it is not. It is a compliment—any boy who is not a mama’s boy is either an evil space alien, or Lizzie Borden. A mama’s boy is a manifestation and consequence of something great: a great mother."
- Greg Gutfeld
I realize I did not post anything last year about the seventh anniversary of the death of my beloved parents. Now it's eight years. My father died on August 22, 2011, my mother two days later.
Some of what I am writing is a rehash of my 2016 post when it was five years since their death. My mother died due to the incompetence of the doctors and staff at the hospital she was staying at. She went in for a bone infection in her foot and never left. My father was in a rehab facility nearby where he was going to learn how to walk following the amputation of a toe due to diabetes.
My mother was in a coma and would never come out of it. My father was confused but when I told him that I had to decide when to "take mommy off the breathing machine," he sank. "Just sell the house and put me in a room somewhere," he said, a more beaten up man I had never seen. He died in his sleep the next morning. I was devastated. This cannot be possible, I thought. How could I lose them both at the same time? That day I took my mother off the machine. She held on for two days. She was 75, he was 72. "So young," is what I am constantly told by anyone I relay this story to.
Yes, I tried to sue the hospital. Went to three different lawyers - one the top malpractice attorney in Manhattan - and while they all agreed there was negligence, they also all agreed I would never win if I sued. These hospitals are so lawyered up, it is nearly impossible to bring a case against them.
My parents both dealt with many health problems but they were not ready to die when they did. I used to think my parents were safer in the hospital than at home with me looking after them. How wrong I was. I lost all faith in the medical profession. To them, our parents, children, and loved ones are just another patient, nothing more.
Every year I write to the president and CEO of the hospital, a corporate coward named Andrew J. Mitchell, and cc at least one board member. Last year I received a call from the hospital's security department asking me to stop the annual letters. In the letter I sent earlier this week, I wrote, "I am still trembling."
The name of this death trap is Peconic Bay Medical Center, located in the armpit of suburban New York, a sad place called Riverhead, LI. If I had the money, I would take out full-page newspaper ads to get the message out about how dangerous this place is.
"You and your doctors have no shame," I wrote. "You feel no guilt. You simply do not care. Your mistakes take and ruin lives. You are a disgrace."
As I get older and deal with the health problems that accompany middle age, bad genes, and a lifetime of bad habits, I only wish I had faith. I wish I could believe that I will be with them and Daisy one day. But I know that is just fantasy. I had my first colonoscopy a few months ago. I was nervous until right before they put me under. The room was all white and clean and calming. The temperature was very cool, just how I like it when I want to go to sleep. My doctor asked me what kind of music I liked. Instantly Sinatra was singing (I think it was "Fly Me to the Moon"). They were all so nice and told me to relax. I jokingly asked if they could come to my apartment and do this every night when I am ready to go to bed - sure beats Ambien. And then I was out. Blackness. Nothingness. No nightmares, no bad thoughts. Just blackness. And then I woke up in recovery.
Woody Allen joked that the wonderful feeling right before going under for a colonoscopy is what death must be like...but that life is like the prep day. Truer words were never said.
Roger Ebert said towards the end of his life that he did not remember anything before he was born, it was all blackness, and he imagined death to be just the same.
My best friend knows my final wishes are to have my ashes and Daisy's scattered on my parents' graves (I also asked if he could reserve just a little to scatter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas).
I am grateful my parents lived to see my first book published, especially since they knew it was a fifteen-year passion project that I had almost given up on. I am also glad that brought a little bit of showbiz into our lives, enabling my mother to meet and talk with some celebrities through me. But I never lived up to my potential to make them really proud, make it big in film and TV, make millions, give them grandchildren.
I long for one more Chinese dinner like the ones we frequently had at home or in a nice restaurant. We always got a booth. My mother sat next to me, my father across from us with our jackets and her bag. We'd always start with tea and soup, then split an order of spareribs before our main courses. And, of course, there were always doggie bags. One of my loveliest memories is how my mother would occasionally hold my hand before the food came. I had a very rough childhood for reasons I can't get into, but the one constant, into adulthood, was my mother's unwavering love and faith in me. She was the most selfless person I have ever known. She put me ahead of everything. When I was not living at home, if she and my father tried a new restaurant and liked it, the first thing out of her mouth would be, "Brian would love this. We gotta take him here when he visits."
There is a story I think of often from when I was in kindergarten when we lived in Brooklyn. During show and tell, some boy brought in this Godzilla toy he had just gotten. It was pretty neat, made sounds and maybe even moved. I do not remember but I liked it. The next morning, as they drove me to school, I told my parents about it but - seriously - did not ask them to buy it for me. Having not yet perfected the art of manipulation, I did not even express interest in wanting my own one. I simply told them about it.
That afternoon when they picked me up, what do you think they presented me with? Yep. I was thrilled, of course, and surprised. And I appreciated and loved them for it. I am sure my mother said to my father that morning, "Marty, let's find him Godzilla." She did it out of love. My father only knew how to show love by buying me things. He thought going to work, bringing in a paycheck, and buying me lots of toys made him a good husband or father. Hugs and kisses he knew nothing about. We fought like crazy, often going for weeks without speaking.
Less than a year before they died, my father was in the hospital. I had moved back with them and took care of them, doing all the shopping, driving them back and forth to doctor's appointments, walking Daisy, etc. During this stay, my father said, "I'm sorry you have no life. I'm sorry you have to take care of us." It was the only time he ever expressed anything vaguely emotional and sincere to me. "It's okay," I quietly said. I did not realize until he died that I really did love him.
I did feel shortchanged that I had to put my life on hold for two years to care for them. But they cared for me my whole life. I was their only child. I had to do what I had to do. And believe me, I am no hero. I still suffer from tremendous guilt for not doing more. If only I stayed with my mother every second of the day while she was in the hospital, maybe I could have saved her. I could have seen her fall and gotten her help before it was too late. And the screwed up thing is that I would gladly exchange the past eight years without them for the last two that I took care of them. I hated seeing them deal with their illnesses, but it was better than being without them now.
My grief has gotten more intense with the years. My father was a gun collector. When I cleared out their house, I came across the guns. They were loaded. I am not a gun person, but I cocked one. I thought this nightmare could end right now. First I'd have to shoot Daisy, though. Then what if after I shot her, I changed my mind? I threw the gun aside. I still often think I could have ended it just like that.
People who I thought were my friends drifted away as if death and grieving were contagious. When I started college and was depressed because I was not able to find a girlfriend and new friends were not being very nice to me, I told my mother one night over the phone, "There's you, there's me, and there's everyone else." Pretty profound for 18 years old. Now there's just me and everyone else.
I curse that hospital for taking my life eight years ago. I long for one last Chinese dinner with them. I hate I cannot pick up the phone when a celebrity dies and say to my mother, "Did ya hear?" And I would love to know her take on Trump.
People who don't like me (and even the few who do) will say I am a whiny, self-pitying mama's boy who blames everyone but himself for his misery. Part of that is true, but one thing you can never call me is dishonest.
When my time comes, I hope I go as peacefully as my colonoscopy began. Maybe Sinatra will be singing "That's Life" as I take my final curtain (I'd prefer "My Way" but my regrets are too many to mention). And instead of waking up in recovery, I will be in that booth at that restaurant, eating wonton soup and ribs, smiling and holding my beautiful mother's hand.
July 17, 2019
Prosecutors in Nantucket today dropped a felony sexual assault charge against Kevin Spacey after it became apparent the accuser's claims were baseless. I knew all along this was a farce, a pathetic attempt for some punk and his overbearing mother to profit by defaming Spacey with bogus groping allegations.
Spacey has been through hell for nearly two years. Thankfully he has enough money that he never has to work another day in his life, but that's not the point. Spacey has been cleared. Now how does he get his reptuation and career back?
These days you are guilty until proven innocent. Look at Brett Kavanaugh and others who have been wrongly accused. I know someone who was fired because his cowardly employers found out he posted something online, in his private time, in defense of Kavanaugh. Dangerous times.
Hollywood is the phoniest, most backstabbing industry there is. Everyone who was so quick to distance themselves from Spacey should be ashamed. This man is a brilliant artist. His loyal fans miss seeing him on stage and screen. I would applaud any major producer or director who has the courage to cast Spacey in a high-profile project. Spacey has been the victim of a movement that has ruined too many lives and careers.
The public can be very forgiving, especially of somebody who has been so wronged. I suggest he write a book, do interviews with anyone who will give him air time, do book signings, and put himself out there. Maybe that's the first step to getting his career back. I personally would be first in line to buy the book (title suggestion: Unusual Suspect.)
30 Years Later, It's Still Always Something
May 20, 2019
Hard to believe today is thirty years since we lost dear Gilda Radner. I remember the day vividly. It was a Saturday morning. I was having Corn Flakes with a banana for breakfast. I asked my mother what the weather was, and she turned on the radio. 1010WINS. As I was enjoying my cereal, I heard the announcer say, "The comedy world has lost one of its greats today..." I was expecting to hear that someone really old like George Burns or Milton Berle had died. The next words out the announcer's mouth were, "Gilda Radner died today..." Shock! Total shock! I got up and looked at the radio as I heard the news. She was just six weeks shy of her 43rd birthday.
Gene's See No Evil, Hear No Evil was at the top of the box office. He had just said on Bob Costas' talk show that she was doing well. How could this be?
Making matters worse, this was before the internet and 24/7 cable news. I had to wait until 6:00 p.m. to watch the local newscasts. Was a terrible day...and no, I didn't finish my Corn Flakes.
I could go on about how wonderful Gilda was - funny, beautiful, full of life and positive energy. A fighter. A doting wife, a dog lover, unquestionably needy and clingy, but always loving and well-meaning. As they used to say, one great broad.
One could only imagine what work Gilda would have done had she lived. There were talks of her own sitcom. Maybe a return to Broadway? More films with Gene? More books? We can only ponder but at least we can appreciate that in her short life, she left behind a comic legacy that is truly special.
Funny Man/Funny and Sad
May 15, 2019
So I was in Barnes & Noble today perusing the new Mel Brooks biography by Patrick McGilligan. I noticed one of the chapter
titles is the same as in Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad - total coincidence, I am sure. I then was looking through the notes
section in the back, and was thrilled to see that Patrick used my Wilder bio as a resource, calling it "insightful."
If you have already bought Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, I recommend buying this. If you haven't bought Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, buy that first, then buy Funny Man: Mel Brooks. Thanks to Patrick McGilligan - I wish his book much success.
Thumb Kind of Wonderful
April 10, 2019
I've been watching a lot of great clips on YouTube from Siskel & Ebert's shows and their many talk show appearances. I really miss these guys. Today I came across this article Roger wrote on the 10th anniversary of Gene's death (hard to believe he is gone 20 years already). When I got to the end, I was in tears. These guys had a fascinating friendship. Click here to read - but grab a few Kleenex first.
The Original Piano Man
February 4, 2019
32 years ago today, we lost one of the world's greatest entertainers. Liberace was nicknamed Mr. Showmanship, and with good reason. His musical talent was often overlooked because of his flamboyant costumes, rhinestone studded pianos, and grand entrances. But he was a gifted musician. Listen to his "Liberace and the London Philharmonic Orchestra" CD (sadly out of print, although luckily I bought it years ago), and you will hear the artistry in such numbers as a rousing 10-minute Gershwin medley and the enthusiasm of his audience as they sing the lyrics to "You Made Me Love You." Great stuff.
He was an easy target to parody, but in the end he had the last laugh. When asked how he felt about nasty reviews from critics, he replied, "I cried...all the way to the bank."
Liberace had a turbulent private life as he strived to hide his homosexuality, even though it was so blatantly on display. On a 1985 Donahue appearance, when an audience member asked him if there was anyone "special" in his life, he replied, "Oh, yeah, everybody." His death from AIDS, which he tried concealing until the very end, saddened his legions of fans, me chief among them, but it did not diminish our love, respect, and admiration for the man.
My mother took me to see Lee, as his friends called him, at Radio City Music Hall when I was 12. It was me who wanted to see him (yes, strange kid), and, thanks to some savvy finagling, my mother was able to get us tickets. It was a great treat and just another example of my mother's love for me. We were both the youngest people in the audience. We sat in the last row of the orchestra level. This was before giant screens that allowed the cheap seats to see what was happening up close, so Lee basically looked like a very colorful dot, but it still remains one of the very best live shows I have ever seen. At the end of the show, I ran down to the stage as he sang his signature closing song, "I'll Be Seeing You," and got to shake his hand, touch his candelabra ring, and take the great photo below.
Liberace was 67 when he died (his 100th birthday is in May). It was a huge loss for the entertainment world. Search for him on YouTube where thankully there are endless clips of him.
How Could Anyone Not Love, Gilda?
January 2, 2019
I hope you caught the documentary Love, Gilda on CNN last night. Very moving and well-made, capturing the essence, spirit, and humanity of Gilda Radner. But the film really takes off when Gene enters the picture. Despite Gene himself admitting he and Gilda had problems, none of that was evident in the priceless home movies and rare material featured here. He deeply cared for her, and was so good to her when she was sick. Particularly moving was a scene where Gene plops their beloved Yorkshire terrier Sparkle on Gilda's hospital bed as Gene greets Gilda with the kind of affection that cannot be faked. For those of us who already knew Gene Wilder was a great guy, this film confirms it. Highly recommended!
George H.W. Bush: 1924 - 2018
December 9, 2019
The outpouring of affection for George H.W. Bush has been quite overwhelming - and deserving. The 41st president, who died on November 30th at 94, was not one of the great modern presidents per se, but he was a decent man whose life and service made for an amazing American success story.
It's interesting how short America's memory seems to be, as the Bushes were reviled not long ago, but, due to the current divisive tone in this country, they are now looked upon in a favorable light for their civility and gravitas. How could anyone, regardless of political party, not be moved at George W. Bush's emotional eulogy for his father?
Bush's death was not unexpected, as he had been in ill health for years and, worse, lost his beloved Barbara after 63 years of marriage in April. She was a first class first lady, he a gentle, dedicated public servant. Forgive the cliche, but we need people like them now more than ever.
May George and Barbara Bush both rest in peace.
Eric Bolling Speaks About Son's Death
November 4, 2018
Came across this heartbreaking interview with Eric Bolling on Glenn Beck's podcast. Bolling opens up about his son Eric Chase's death
from an accidental opioid overdose. He breaks down as he recounts getting the phone call that is every parent's worst nightmare.
I was particularly moved and a bit surprised at Bolling's admission that he has lost his faith and no longer attends church, something he used to do six days a week.
I have always liked Eric Bolling and felt horrible when I heard about his son's death. Watching this interview has given me even more respect for the man. He was totally screwed by Fox, and I found it very telling that he says his liberal competitors reached out to offer comfort more than his former colleagues at Fox.
Few public figures are as honest and open as Bolling is in this interview. I know from experience the pain will never go away - and it shouldn't. Eric Bolling is a mensch, and I hope he and his wife are eventually able to find some kind of peace of mind.
These Kids Definitely Are All Right
November 3, 2018
Haven't posted in a while. Not because there's nothing going on in the news but perhaps because there is just too much going on, and sadly none of it is pleasant. With all the violence and divisiveness, I thought I'd share this video, which is the most moving, hopeful thing I have seen in quite a while. Almost makes me change my mind about kids. Almost!
Burt Reynolds: 1936 - 2018
September 7, 2018
Burt Reynolds, the epitome of 1970s movie machismo, died yesterday at age 82. Reynolds, the top box office draw for five years in row, had been in failing health for years. He died of cardiac arrest in Jupiter, FL.
Reynolds was equally as known for his infectious laugh and innate charm as he was for his movies, of which he starred in more than 140.
His private life often overshadowed his acting, having been involved with such notable women as Dinah Shore, Farrah Fawcett, Sally Field, and Loni Anderson. Reynolds was one of the all-time great talk show guests, never failing to provide laughs during his numerous appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, most memorably the whipped cream and egg incident involving him, Carson, and Dom DeLuise.
When Gene Wilder died, all the press focused mainly on his role as Willy Wonka. When Reynolds died yesterday, for him it was Smokey and the Bandit. I do not know what role he wanted to be remembered for - I am ashamed to admit I have never seen Deliverance or Smokey - but one of my favorite films of his was one he directed in 1978 called The End. It really shows Reynolds knew how to direct comedy - and, even harder, direct himself. As always he surrounded himself with a great cast of friends - DeLuise, Field, David Steinberg, and Joanne Woodward. It also has one of the most underrated and hard-to-find movie songs, Glen Campbell's "Another Fine Mess," which plays over the end credits.
Reynolds' career waned in the mid 1980s, but he made two huge comebacks - on television with the early '90s sitcom Evening Shade, which won him an Emmy and Golden Globe, and in film with 1997's Boogie Nights. Playing a slick adult film director, Reynolds' performance earned him raves, as well as another Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting).
Reynolds taught acting at his dinner theater in Jupiter, and he was known for generously mentoring many young actors.
As his health declined over the years, he sadly saw many of his closest friends die - DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly, Hal Needham, Jerry Reed, and Charles Durning, to name a few. He wrote two memoirs, My Life in 1994 and the wildly entertaining But Enough About Me in 2015, in which he turned name-dropping into an art form. He got to be on friendly terms with ex-wife Anderson, and lamented letting Field get away, alluding that she was "the one." Despite at one time being the number one star in Hollywood, he was plagued for years by financial troubles, leading him to delcare bankruptcy and auction off many of his personal belongings, including his Emmy Award.
And - always the first to laugh at himself - who can forget his priceless cameo in one of the very best episodes of The Golden Girls in 1986?
At a time when there seems be a total void of authentic stars who can be funny, sexy, and charismatic both on and offscreen, Reynolds was one of the last his kind.
Reynolds is survived by his son Quinton, whom he and Anderson adopted in 1988.
Christopher Lawford: 1955 - 2018
September 6, 2018
Was saddened to hear this morning that Christopher Lawford died of a heart attack at 63. Many, many moons ago I produced a radio show dedicated to daytime soaps. Chris was on All My Children at the time and was a guest. We had dinner and he was a really nice guy - even for a Kennedy (sorry, I can't help it).
Lawford was the son of Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy. His uncles were JFK, RFK, and Teddy Kennedy, and among his cousins were JFK Jr. and Caroline. I do not remember the exact conversation we had during dinner and the interview, but we definitely discussed his lineage, but not to the point of being overly intrusive. He was pretty open and willing to talk about being a Kennedy. From the picture below, you can see he was a dead ringer for his father with the addition of Kennedy hair - a very handsome guy.
About 20 years ago I wrote him about a screenplay I was trying to get produced. He personally called and we discussed the project. Naturally, nothing came out of it but it says a lot about him that he called. I had a great photo of us together and have no idea where it is (buried in a box with thousands of others).
He had a lot of personal problems (again, a Kennedy), but from my experience, he was pretty terrific. He leaves behind two sons and a daughter.
August 29, 2018
Two years ago today we lost our dear Gene Wilder. Earlier this year I was a guest on The Wilder Ride, an excellent podcast hosted by Alan J. Sanders. On this sad anniversary, Alan has chosen to post the interview. Click here to listen.
It was a pleasure speaking with Alan and Walt Murray. I look forward to hopefully doing it again. Thanks, guys!
Neil Simon: 1927 - 2018
August 26, 2018
Neil Simon, arguably the greatest writer of American stage comedy, died today at 91. Simon, whose later years were marked by health problems, was on life support while hospitalized for renal failure. He also had Alzheimer's disease. According to Simon's publicist, Bill Evans, the cause of death was complications of pneumonia. Simon received a kidney transplant from Evans, his closest friend, in 2004.
From his early years as a writer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows to his unstoppable string of Broadway successes starting in the 1960s, Simon was one of America's most prolific writers, penning over 30 plays and over 20 screenplays, many of which were adapations of his stage work.
I saw a number of Simon's later plays on Broadway, the funniest being Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), based on his time as a writer for Caesar. The Odd Couple (1965) may be his masterpiece (I recently rewatched the 1968 film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and it is still laugh-out-loud hysterical), but then again, how can you leave out his autobiographical 1980s trifecta of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound? Or The Sunshine Boys (1972) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), both also terrific movies? Or original screenplays, his best being the cult classic Murder by Death (1976)? But then there's also The Goodbye Girl (1977). And has a married couple ever fought with such elegance and venom as Maggie Smith and Michael Caine in his 1978 screen adaptation of California Suite?
His body of work was extraordinary. He also left behind a great gift to fellow writers and fans, two memoirs - Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999) - that detail both the ups and downs of his personal and professional life.
Simon was the only living playwright to have a Broadway theater named after him. He was also honored with 3 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, 4 Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe Award, and the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Neil Simon was the gold standard for American comedy. He is survived by his fifth wife, the actress Elaine Joyce, and three children.
Sen. John McCain: 1936 - 2018
August 25, 2018
We knew for some time this day would come, but it does not make the loss any easier. John McCain, the Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona, died today after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. He was 81.
McCain was a war hero, and all the vitriol and ignorance that has eminated from the current occupant of the White House cannot diminish that. He went through five years of hell, returning home permanently disabled but determined to forge a career in public service.
McCain was frustrating to many, myself included. He waivered on issues, sometimes seeming to have no real convictions. He called himself a maverick, and while overall I believe he was his own man, he himself recently admitted choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate when he ran for president in 2008 was a mistake. McCain caved in to advisers who persuaded him to choose Palin when he wanted to make history by forming a fusion ticket with Joe Lieberman as his VP running mate. He ran his presidential campaign with class, always showing the utmost respect for his opponent. He often voted against his party line (sometimes a good thing, sometimes not) and was accused of being that worst thing in modern politics - a moderate (a really good thing).
He could be difficult and feisty - and always had a quick wit - but he was never undignified, always willing to work with the other side of the aisle (I actually think he had more friends in the Senate who were Democrats than Republicans). It's that kind of bipartisanship that made McCain so special. I long for the days when being a moderate Republican was not something to be mocked or demeaned.
Politics has become a very ugly business in the last few years - without people like John McCain, I fear it's only going to get uglier.
With his passing, we lose a patriot, a gentleman, and, without question, a hero.
"Melania, Get Your Coupons and Immigration Papers. We're Going to Costco."
August 2, 2018
Went to Fairway last night for pork chops, broccoli, juice, bread, and eggs. Had two credit cards, one debit card, and $80 in cash. Left my ID at home. Had to put everything back and order in Chinese, which under current New York state law only requires a letter from your rabbi.