Arthur Hiller: 1923 - 2016
August 20, 2016
Arthur Hiller, the highly respected director of such film classics as Love Story and Silver Streak, died on August 17th at age 92.
Hiller may not have had his own particularly recognizable style as a director but he was an accomplished one nonetheless. He made one of my all-time favorite films, Silver Streak (1976), the first - and best - film to pair Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. A Hitchcockian romantic comedy/action buddy movie, the film was a box office hit that, despite receiving mixed reviews at the time, is now regarded as a classic, in no small part because of Hiller's crackerjack direction, displaying his knack for blending several different genres seamlessly into one hugely entertaining experience.
A dozen years later he would again direct Wilder and Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), a far inferior film to Silver Streak but a very funny movie nonetheless.
Other Hiller films include Author! Author! (1982) with Al Pacino and The Lonely Guy (1984) with Steve Martin, both very underrated.
Showing what an accessible mensch he was, I had reviewed See No Evil, Hear No Evil for my high school newspaper and gave it a rave. I sent him my review and he responded with a beautiful two- (it could have been three - I need to check) page handwritten letter thanking me for the praise.
Years later, I got to interview him for Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, and he gave me some great stuff, reminiscing me about dinners he had with Gene and Gilda, as well as telling me he saw no signs of a romance brewing on the set between Gene and now wife Karen, who was Gene's deaf coach for See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Hiller was nominated for one Oscar for directing Love Story (1970). In 2001, the motion picture academy gave him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He served as the academy's president from 1993 - 1997 and as president of the Directors Guild of America from 1989 - 1993.
His wife of 68 years died in June, also at 92.
Great director. Great guy. Great loss.
Springtime in July
July 29, 2016
My third essay for the Library of Congress' Film Preservation Board went online today. The film I wrote about is The Producers, the 1968 comedy classic that made Gene Wilder a star. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.
So cuddle up with your favorite little old lady, grab your little blue blanket, and click here to read.
Happy 80th, Mom
May 5, 2016
Tough day. My mother would have been 80 today. She was my best friend, the person I cared about more than anyone and she for me was born 80 years ago today.
I remember her 70th. I was living and working in Manhattan. Came for the weekend. I think I sent her flowers with a note saying "here's to the next 70." I got her her favorite perfume - but got it from Saks, wrapped in an elegant grey box and in a fancy Saks gift bag. What did my father get her? Bubkes. A landmark birthday and he got her nothing. Jerk.
She was okay health-wise at 70. The following months and years would see her deteriorate as I, woefully unemployed and unable to keep my apartment, became full-time live-in caretaker for the both of them.
It is almost five years since I lost them, and with Daisy now gone, I really have no family whatsoever. I miss them. Enough time has passed, though, that I also find myself criticizing them about certain things. No one is perfect. My mother was no exception. But she always had one thing that mattered to her above everything else: me. I was her world, and yes, she was mine.
I took today and tomorrow off from work - was going to go away but cannot afford it and realize it just is not a good idea. My mother would not want me to grieve for her, but she would also know that I just can't help it. I have been grieving every day for nearly five years. I can't move on and I don't want to move on. Yes, she would want me to have a girlfriend and even a family of my own - I only want the former. She would want me to be a big success, make a lot of money, be surrounded by good friends. Alas, that is not the case.
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. 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. I did not know the art of coercion then. 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.
So Bella. 80 years old. You left me at 75. For years I always thought you looked so much younger than whatever age you were. I know you would kill me for making this video public on YouTube but I did it anyway (mainly to never lose it). This was us visiting daddy when he was in rehab for something related to his kidney disease and dialysis. I now see you looked older than you were here. A few months later I would lose you both. And yes, those pork chops were delicious. I am so glad you liked them.
You spoiled me, ma. You made me the ultimate mama's boy, a title I take great pride in, but it is hard being one when you can no longer can pick up the phone to speak to the woman who gave you life, love, and everything good and meaningful. I can only imagine all the hours we would have spent talking about the election and all the craziness going on. Can't do that anymore. I don't care what anyone says but Norman Bates was right: a boy's best friend is his mother.
Daisy Mednick: 1994 - 2016
April 3, 2016
I had to do one of the hardest things in my life on Monday, March 28th. I had to put my Daisy down. My best friend. She was 11.
My mother always made me promise to take care of Daisy if something happened to them. For nearly five years, I did the best I could. No more pain. I wish I had faith and could believe they are all together now but I can't.
Daisy was not herself for a long time. She had "doggie Alzheimer's," in addition to several physical problems. But I miss the Daisy who would spoon with me in bed, like we were a couple. The Daisy who knew when I was sad and crawled over and put her paw on me, hating to see me weep.
I regret all the horrible things I said when she upset me. She was sick. She meant well. I used to complain about having to get up early to feed and walk her before work and do the same when I came home from work. Now, aside from going to work and the supermarket, I have no reason to leave my apartment. I wish I had to walk her.
I had three other dogs since I was six years old. But my mother always did all the hard work. I just played with them and loved them. Daisy was different - she was mine. I spent my money on her, she lived in my apartment, I took care of her.
I thank my friend Michael, who adored Daisy, for going with me to the vet on that horrible, appropriately rainy day. I thank my vet, Dr. Sasha Hilchuck, for not only taking such good care of Daisy for the four years I have lived here but also comforting me, hugging me, and assuring me I did the right thing. It simply was her time. I also am very moved by the kindness of my Facebook friends, who are always there for me, and their sympathetic words.
Daisy was a kind, loving, adorable little girl. I now officially have no family. I am heartbroken - a cork floating in the ocean.
Garry Shandling: 1949 - 2016
March 25, 2016
Shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Garry Shandling. The beloved comedian died of a heart attack yesterday at age 66.
I grew up on Shandling. Always enjoyed him guesting or hosting The Tonight Show. It's Garry Shandling's Show was one of the most inventive sitcoms of the 1980s (remember when Gilda made a guest spot as herself and joked about her cancer battle?). For whatever reason, I have never seen a single episode of The Larry Sanders Show, but I am sure it merits all the praise that has been heaped upon it.
Shandling made a few films as well, most notably Mike Nichols' underrated What Planet Are You From? (2000), which co-starred Annette Bening. Shandling was a good friend of Warren Beatty, and also appeared with Beatty and Bening in the 1994 film Love Affair.
I most recently watched Shandling commenting on the "2000 Year Old Man" on The Incredible Mel Brooks DVD set. Shandling kept joking that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner had to be lovers.
Shandling never married or had children. Was a funny guy, gone way too soon.
Go, Tootsie, Go!
March 23, 2016
Back in October, the Library of Congress asked me to write an essay for their National Film Registry website about Young Frankenstein. Being one of the more savvy government agencies, they came back and asked me to write another essay, this time about one of my five favorite films of all time, Sydney Pollack's Tootsie.
I got the Criterion Collection special edition DVD in December, and watching it again and the great special features reminded me why I have been in love with this film since first seeing it when I was nine years old (and also why I have owned a framed, ridiculously oversized poster of the film for over twenty years!).
Click here to read the essay.
Nancy Reagan: 1921 - 2016
March 8, 2016
I think Nancy Reagan got a bad rap. She was everything a first lady should be - elegant, strong, and totally devoted to her husband. I was saddened to hear of her passing at age 94 on Sunday. 94 is a great run - she lived a year longer than Ronnie - but a good woman's death is never welcomed.
Unlike the Clintons, the Reagans had a real marriage, not a business arrangement. They genuinely loved each other. Nancy was criticized by many for the influence she had on the president. Well, I think most first ladies have a lot of influence but this was different. Only two months into his first term, the president was nearly killed after an assassination attempt. Reagan recovered but Nancy was as protective as ever.
They complained when she got new china for the White House - which was paid for by private donations, not taxpayer dollars as her haters claimed. She brought style and class back to the White House after the disastrous Carter years. Just as Reagan brought the country back and made us once again proud to be Americans, Nancy made the White House the showplace it should be.
The anti-Reagan crowd wasted no time on Sunday saying hateful things about the couple, the most ridiculous being that Nancy herself denied Rock Hudson treatment for AIDS! Hudson was a friend of the Reagans. As much as I admire Ronald Reagan, he was flawed like any other human. The biggest mistake of his administration was the failure to acknowledge the growing AIDS crisis. People were dying. They were afraid. They wanted leadership from their president. Reagan did not even utter the word AIDS until 1986. On this, he was sadly out of touch. But he was not a homophobe and it is absurd to suggest he had no compassion for the sick and dying.
Ronald Reagan's final years were, of course, marked by his slow decline from Alzheimer's. Nancy stood by him bravely, speaking out
against the GOP in support of stem cell research. When Reagan died in 2004, the sight of Nancy saying good-bye to his flag draped coffin brought anyone with a heart to tears.
Nancy Reagan was a devoted wife, mother, and advocate. She will hopefully be remembered as one of our great first ladies.
Kasich for President
February 19, 2016
So I re-registered as a Republican recently to vote in the upcoming New York primary. I got my confirmation a couple of weeks ago. For whatever reason, I was looking at it last night and noticed it said my current registration was no affiliation and after Nov. 15th I would be a Republican. Seemed strange, especially since the general election is before then.
So I called the Board of Elections. Turns out there is a screwed up law in New York state that does not allow you to change parties in advance of a primary. The guy said after Nov. 15th I will be a Repub and can vote in primaries. I said I don't want to be a Republican, I just wanted to vote in this primary because NY does not have open primaries. What a crock! He even agreed and said it is an arcane law that benefits incumbents.
If John Kasich loses the NY primary by one vote, I will be livid. Voting laws need to be changed in this country so everybody can vote...except Hillary supporters (okay, even they should have the right).
I was for Trump in the beginning but with each passing month, then week, now day, it becomes clearer and clearer this guy is nuttier than a Snickers bar. Cruz I hated from the beginning with his Jesus schtick (and can you imagine having to look at that meeskite's face for four years?). I considered Rubio for a time, but as I studied him I could tell that behind that boyish face is a typical politician who will say whatever needs to get elected. Carson is likeable and funny (I'm talking about Ben, not Johnny, although the adjectives can be applied to both). But while I may want Carson if I needed brain surgery, he has zero experience when it comes to government and, alas, is another religious right-winger. I always thought Jeb was the smartest of his family (actually, it's his mother) but he has proven to be an incredibly weak candidate who just cannot gain traction. He would be my second choice, but not one I would be enthusiastic about.
So that leaves John Kasich, who, with two decades in congress and two terms as Ohio governor, is clearly the smartest, most experienced, and most capable candidate to lead our country. He took Ohio out of financial turmoil. He is not a religious freak, even though he knows he has to pepper his rhetoric with his "faith" every now and then because you have to if you want the GOP vote. He is that most maligned of Republicans - a moderate. His response in one of the early debates about how, even though he opposed gay marriage, he believes it's the law of land, it must be obeyed, and we should move on showed genuine courage. If that wasn't enough, his remarks about how he would love his daughters just as much if they were lesbians or straight shows he is the lone bagel on a plate of stale onion rolls in this election.
Kasich has the most appeal to independents. He does not seem scripted. And he comes across as genuinely likeable, compassionate, and down to earth.
His second place finish in New Hampshire was very encouraging. Now he's trailing Trump and Cruz in nearly every poll. If anyone but Kasich gets the Republican nomination, the election is Hillary or Bernie's.
I hope Kasich makes it to the New York primary. I just hate that I won't be able to cast my ballot for him, but I hope I can come November.
December 6, 2015
"Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world."
- Ian McKellen as James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998)
I am happy to announce that, after 23 years, my first short film is finally online! Confessions of a Male Prostitute is a 17-minute film I made when I was a freshman at NYU. It stars John Aprea, who was on Another World at the time and a good friend who did this for me as a favor.
He is amazing in it. My friend Dene - also superb - plays Helen, the quintessential hooker with a heart of gold. The kid who plays Jamie was a classmate of mine - huge diva - who is supposedly a big soap star in China now.
Rex Reed said the following about it: "I am a bit speechless. This is exemplary work...revealing much sensitivity and intelligence. The actors were absolutely first-rate and directed with skill, precision and naturalism… I actually could have hung in there with [these] characters for another hour or so. I am really most impressed with by the writing more than anything else – an economy of words, a wealth of style, an almost minimal thrust in dialogue but with maximum believability. [Brian Scott Mednick] has obvious talent... This short film is so good I would be very keen to see what [Mednick comes] up with in the next few years."
Click here to watch. Enjoy!
"You Talkin' Turkey to Me?"
November 25, 2015
So tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Robert DeNiro will undoubtedly enjoy himself some dark meat. I understand he's also having turkey.
November 21, 2015
So I was talking on the phone with Charlie Sheen last night. We spoke about our Thanksgiving plans, and he said his family came over on the Mayflower. I told him he had to be joking. "No," he said, "it's true. On my mother's side." I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "I'm positive!"
Marty and Bella
November 20, 2015
Was going through some old photo albums the other day. Found one of the few photos of my parents together. How screwed up is it that I have so many of Gene & Gilda and almost none of Marty & Bella together? Miss them so much.
November 18, 2015
I am not a judgmental person. As a writer, I would like to interview Charlie Sheen. I called his manager and was told I should expect to hear from his aides.
October 10, 2015
I was recently contacted by the Library of Congress. Great, I thought. They found out about those library books I never returned. But alas, they wanted to know if I would write an essay about Young Frankenstein for their National Film Registry website. Well, knowing very little about the film or its star, I reluctantly agreed. The essay - pulled mostly from the chapter on the film from Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad with a few tweaks - is now alive - ALIVE!!! - on the site.
After Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 (Congress actually gets things right on occasion), the National Film Preservation Board was established to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America's film heritage. The Registry adds 25 films every year.
Young Frankenstein is among four Gene Wilder films on the Registry, the others being Bonnie and Clyde, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and Blazing Saddles. It's a great organization.
So get comfortable, pour yourself a brandy or zum Ovaltine perhaps, and click here to read my thoughts on this enduring classic.
October 1, 2015
Wow! I do not know what else to say. Courage, strength, fortitude, chutzpah - words that can not be applied to many on the world scene today. But Benjamin Netanyahu gave one of the all-time great speeches today at the UN. Forget the best of FDR, Churchill, King, JFK, Reagan or Sally Field. His 45 seconds of silence was filled with more substance than anything Obama has said in 6 years.
September 4, 2015
Hard to believe it's one year today that we lost our dear Joan Rivers. Such a senseless death. She was an amazing person.
My Best Friend
August 24, 2015
Lost my best friend, my world, my everything four years ago today. I will never "get over it" and I don't want to. Miss her so much.
Four Years Later
August 22, 2015
Four years ago my world came to an end. My father died on this day, my mother two days later. Words are futile. Miss them, cry for them, wish I could have one more Chinese dinner with them.
Covering the National Dream Beat
June 15, 2015
Stumbled upon this excellent, very long interview Siskel & Ebert did with Playboy in 1991. Great stuff.
I think of them often. I didn't know it at the time but now I realize they were probably the main reason I wanted to go to film school (the irony is that watching them for free growing up was a much better film school than the hundred grand that was wasted on NYU).
Having had many jobs that I had zero passion for, I was reminded of something Gene Siskel said about a year before he died. He knew he had a brain tumor and was going to be operated on. His son was only about three years old. During a ceremony where he and Roger were being honored, Gene said to his daughters - and I paraphrase - "Do me a favor and tell your brother when he gets older to find something he loves and do it. Roger and I are lucky because we get to do what we love. Do something that you could not imagine not doing. Something that makes you want to get out of bed each morning. If you girls could tell your brother that, I would appreciate it."
I was trying to tell this to a friend last week and I could not finish the story. I welled up - and I was sober! So moving. He feared he would not live to see his son grow up. His son is now in his early twenties, a college graduate, and very handsome.
Reading this interview also made me weep when Siskel talked about his mother's death. He lost both of his parents in the same year when he was a young child. His aunt and uncle raised him.
Life sucks. These guys knew the value of great movies. A great movie could be life changing. A great movie could help you escape from life's miseries for two hours. As Siskel said, they had the best job in the world because they covered "the national dream beat." They had a deeper impact on movies than most of the people who made them.
Happy Birthday, Daisy
June 5, 2015
Happy birthday to my Daisy. She turns 11 today. Unfortunately, her age is catching up with her. She has very bad arthritis but it's under control with medication. But she cannot jump on the bed anymore, I have to help her. I live in a fourth-floor walkup, and it takes her a long time to walk down the stairs. Some days are better than others. I am just thankful that she still has a voracious appetite.
My mother always said that if anything happened to her or my father, I had to take care of Daisy. She made me promise. As much as I complain about her at times, she really is a good dog, my best friend, and the only connection I have left to my mother. I cannot imagine her not sleeping next to me every night.
I am trying to picture him walking down the aisle at Waldbaum's, picking up a cantaloupe and smelling it. "Another two days maybe," he says, possibly in Swedish.
He goes to the customer service counter and says, "You are out of the Canada Dry 12-packs on sale. I want a rain check. If Jesus came back and saw how you stocked your shelves, he'd never stop throwing up."
Then he goes to the deli counter. "I want half a pound of the Boar's Head low sodium ham, not too thin." He solemnly looks at the potato salad and wonders if it was made today. He isn't sure so he only gets a quarter pound.
He proceeds to check out and presents his coupons. He insists on paper and plastic. He wheels his cart to his car - a Volvo, of course - and puts the groceries in the trunk. The gray sky opens up and it starts raining. He drives home consumed with thoughts of death and potato salad.
The King of Late Night
May 22, 2015
As what has inadvertently turned into talk show week here on the site comes to an end, it does so, most appropriately, on the 23rd anniversary of Johnny Carson's last Tonight Show. Carson was the undisputed king of late night. His Midwestern charm, quick wit, and mastery of the medium made him the last face millions chose to see before going to sleep at night.
And, unlike some of these little pishers who are the new face of late night, Carson possessed the most important trait a talk show host should have: he listened. Unlike Conan O'Brien, who interrupts his guests and tries to one-up them, Carson loved sitting back and watching his guests shine. So confident was Carson that he found no need to try being funnier than a guest who was on a roll. We all remember how he would react to something he found beyond hysterical, turning and looking as if he was going to fall off his chair.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is probably my favorite TV show of all time. It was old-fashioned in a good way - everyone dressed nice, and Doc Severinsen's orchestra was truly an orchestra (no one looked like they just came from a Bob Marley concert). The Carson era was about martinis, not marijuana.
Carson was a very lonely, unhappy person off-camera. He had no close friends and apparently had a very bad temper. But for that one hour, he felt alive, he once said. And so did we.
Final Late Show a Great Show
May 21, 2015
David Letterman nailed it last night. What a great last show. Letterman was funny, self-deprecating, and very mindful to thank everyone who worked for him. At times it was quite moving but never maudlin. Unlike Johnny Carson, who welled up a bit when he bid farewell, Letterman kept his emotions in tact (but I thought he should have thanked Carson who, after all, is responsible for making him a star).
The star-studded top ten list was fun, as were some great clips, especially one segment where he was talking to children. As Foo Fighters played him off, we saw quick stills of guests through the years. It was particularly touching to see Gilda Radner, Liberace, Joan Rivers, Siskel & Ebert, and some others who are no longer with us.
Yesterday I wrote Letterman should probably have quit a few years ago but last night he was in top form. Maybe he should have done every show pretending it was his last.
Good Night, Dave
May 20, 2015
Tonight David Letterman ends a remarkable 33-year run on late night TV. I was a huge fan of his growing up. In recent years, however, he seemed to often be calling it in. He should have retired a few years ago.
Letterman is incredibly smart and not just a wiseass. He demonstrated this with a series of compelling, serious interviews following 9/11 (remember Dan Rather crying?). He was also heartfelt (forgive the pun) when he brought the medical team who performed his bypass surgery onto the show.
I personally do not know anyone who likes Letterman. I always found him quick-witted and genuinely funny, but many people seem to agree with Cher's famous assessment of him. My quibble with Letterman is that in the years after 9/11 he turned political. Letterman is a big leftie, which is fine, but the way he blatantly fawned over Democratic politicians like the Clintons, Obama, and Al Gore - while treating Republicans like George W. Bush as children - was not appropriate for a comedy talk show. Johnny Carson was a Republican but he never made his personal political views clear on The Tonight Show. Carson knew his job was to entertain and therefore skewer everyone equally. In all fairness, though, Rudy Giuliani was on many times, and he and Letterman had a mutual liking of one another - Giuliani even thanked Letterman in the acknowledgments section of his book. On his first show after 9/11, he heaped enormous praise on Giuliani - click here to see that and click here to see Giuliani's first post-9/11 appearance.
Still, it's hard to deny Letterman's impact on television. I saw his NBC show when I was fifteen. The guests were Tom Cruise and Connie Chung - great show. Afterwards, I stayed and asked Letterman's late announcer Bill Wendell if I could take a photo of him. He then asked if I wanted him to take a photo of me sitting in Dave's guest chair. As soon as the taping ends, the crew covers the desk and chairs with drop cloths, but what a thrill to sit in that chair (and in retrospect I am grateful for the drop cloths since Tom Cruise had been sitting in that seat less than an hour ago).
So thanks for all the laughs, Dave. When it comes to TV's talk legends, you are most definitely in the top ten.
Behind the Menorah
May 19, 2015
Going through old photos and found this one from December 1985. This is when my family tried really being Jewish (note the Jewfro). I still do not understand why we had to light a candelabra in December considering Liberace's birthday was in May.
It's Good to Be the King
May 19, 2015
When writing my piece about Phil Donahue yesterday, I realized I left a few people of my list of the nicest celebrities I've met:
Larry King, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Tim Robbins. Most stars are smart about being nice to fans and they appreciate the attention. And it's usually the bigger, older celebs who are nicest
and "get it." It infuriates me when I read about some of these young actors who refuse to give autographs. (I'll dish on the very few unpleasant stars I have encountered another time.)
I am really remiss about not including King in yesterday's piece. He is a real mensch. He never forgot that he was some kid named Lawrence Zeiger from Brooklyn. I met him in 1991 when I was 18. My mother and I attended an awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria where I received honorable mention from the Scholastic Writing Awards for a short play I wrote about a bickering show biz couple (which I now can admit was inspired by the Michael Caine/Maggie Smith part of Neil Simon's California Suite).
We were all decked out, me in my first big boy suit and her in a beautiful purple dress, one of maybe only two or three times I ever saw her in a dress. My mother went to use the ladies room. As I waited for her, I see Larry King walking by. With my teenage, starstruck enthusiasm I stopped him. I told him what a fan I was. He said he was there to speak at some radio convention. I told him about my awards ceremony. I then said I would love a picture with him but my mother is in the ladies room and she had the camera. "That's okay," he said. "We can wait." We can wait??? How many stars would do that?
Luckily my mother was quick. When she saw me chatting with Larry King, she was in shock. She playfully smacked him on the shoulder and said, "What are you doing here?!" She snapped the great photo below, and then the Mednicks and Mr. King went our separate ways. Shortly afterwards I mailed him the photo, told him how thrilled we were to meet him, and that I was starting NYU film school. He mailed me back our photo signed along with a 5x7 of him that read, "For Brian, You'll make it. Larry King." Truly one of the nicest guys in the biz.
There is a reason he - like Donahue - interviewed nearly every major figure of the last fifty years. So what is this sudden admittance to my adulation of former male talk show hosts now in their seventies and eighties? No idea. Maybe I should ask Dr. Phil.
Get Your Phil!
May 18, 2015
While browsing YouTube, I was delighted to find this absolutely priceless video of Phil Donahue's primetime television special from 1992 celebrating his 25th anniversary on the air.
I have always been a huge Donahue fan. I went to see his show three times. The last time was in 1992 and the guest was Jesse Jackson, who was running for president. Donahue always kibitzed and fooled around with his audience during commercial breaks. He instructs the audience to raise their hand during the breaks if they want to ask a question. I raised my hand, but before he let me ask my question, he kept personally addressing me during each break and saying things like, "Young man, I have a feeling you're gonna give me the Gettysburg Address. It's only an hour show." Eventually the person next to me asked if I knew Donahue personally. No idea why he kept coming over to me -though, in all fairness, I was 19 but looked much younger, was thin, adorable, and had a great head of hair. See my headshot below from back then when I was pursuing acting (I am the one on the right - no pun intended).
Eventually he let me ask my question and looked at me with a devilish smile, as if he knew something good was coming. I have the show on videotape but alas, who has a VCR anymore? Anyway, I remember my question to the good reverend verbatim: "A few years ago there was a big controversy when you called Jews 'Hymies' and New York 'Hymie Town.' How do you expect to have any credibility as someone who wants to ease racial tensions when you say something like that, which only creates more hate?"
It was and will be my one moment in the national spotlight. Everyone applauded. Up until me, the audience was asking softball questions. I was the only one who challenged Jackson. Of course, he responded with some nonsense and totally avoided the actual question. They kept cutting back to me, and when he was done they captured a perfect shot me turning my head with a WTF gesture.
After the show, Donahue always shook everyone's hand as they left and posed for pictures. When I shook his hand, I said, "See, it wasn't the Gettysburg Address." Like a Jewish mother, he put his hand on my chin and said, "No, it was a good question." Little did I know I had a bromance with him before the word was coined.
Less than a year later I met him backstage at the Daytime Emmy Awards, which he co-hosted with Susan Lucci. Dick Clark was the producer. Despite his genial on-air demeanor, I heard some stories that Clark was a nasty man off-camera. He seemed very unapproachable and bossy. Meanwhile, Donahue was just standing to the side by himself. I went over and asked if he remembered my question to Jesse Jackson. He said he did and we chatted briefly. I also met Oprah Winfrey, who won that year, and she was actually very nice (but then again, she just won an Emmy).
I have met a lot of celebrities, and Donahue is without question one of the two or three nicest (the others would be Dom DeLuise, Joan Rivers, Mario Cuomo, Dick Cavett, Cliff Gorman, Joe Franklin, Paul Shaffer, Ted Allen, and Linda Dano - okay, that's more than two or three).
Donahue, who turns 80 in December, is one of TV's great pioneers. He developed the format for the daytime talk show that set the standard for everyone else. He has no ego whatsoever. He befriended and even championed rival Oprah, who beat Donahue in the ratings consistently. He is the ultimate entertainer - he can act, he can sing, he can dance, he is even a good cook (according to Marlo). He's also a dog lover and family man who loved his mother.
There was no topic Donahue wouldn't tackle. His show was one of the first to regularly address the AIDS epidemic when so many would not. He interviewed nearly every major celebrity and politician from the last fifty years (he even interviewed then senator JFK while a younger reporter in Ohio).
I know I usually write these long tributes to people after they depart us, but sometimes we need to celebrate them while they are alive. Television is a less interesting place without Phil Donahue. He does still pop up here and there. He kicked Bill O'Reilly's ass regarding the Iraq war (click here to watch). Hell, even Sean Hannity admires him.
Click here to watch the full special. You will laugh, cry, and be enthralled.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom
May 10, 2015
My mother's birthday and Mother's Day were always a week apart. This is my fourth Mother's Day without her and I get so upset when I see Mother's Day commercials on TV that I immediately change the channel. I also delete every e-mail telling me what's on sale for Mother's Day.
I used to tell my mother that as far as I was concerned, every day was Mother's Day for her. May sound sappy but I meant it. If you are lucky enough to still have your mother, call her, visit her, kiss her, hug her, take to her dinner, buy her something nice. You wouldn't be here without her. It all goes by too fast.
Happy Birthday, Mom
May 5, 2015
Sad day for me. My mother would have been 79 today. The pain and loss never stops - I don't want it to stop. She was my world, my everything. I still want to pick up the phone to discuss politics or movies or this new restaurant I tried. But I can't. I lost not only the most caring, giving, loving mother anyone could wish for, but I also lost my best friend. No one will care about me the way she did, and I will never love anyone as much as I loved her. Miss you, ma.
Jerry vs. Joan
May 3, 2015
How disappointing to hear of such nonsense between two of your heroes. In a SiriusXM Town Hall last year, three months before Joan Rivers died, Jerry Lewis said, "I always feel bad when someone passes away...except if it was Joan Rivers." He continued his vitriol by saying, "She set the Jews back a thousand years."
This all stems from a comment Joan once made basically saying he is lucky to have the telethon because it helps his career. Jerry claims to have sent Joan a note saying, "Dear Miss Rivers: We've never met, and I'm looking forward to keeping it that way. If you find it necessary to discuss me, my career or my kids ever again, I promise you I will get somebody from Chicago to beat your goddamn head off." Real classy, Jerry. So macho to threaten a woman. (I doubt he ever had the cajones to actually put those words on paper.)
Alas, I would side with Joan. I never personally saw it but Jerry did have a reputation for having a bad temper and not liking female comics. He was always nice to me, but so was Joan. Joan was always Joan. No phoniness or pretense. If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't be in comedy. Joan was an equal opportunity offender.
Jerry Lewis was always an idol of mine but I have lost all respect for him. At 89, I think he's starting to lose it. He says he never met Joan Rivers. Oh, really? Click here for the evidence.
For Jerry to disparage such a beautiful human being as Joan Rivers shows those legendary stories of his horrible temper, much of it aimed at his sons, who claimed to be terrified when he would arrive home, are likely true. As Don Rickles used to say in jest to his pal Frank Sinatra, "It's over, Frank. The voice is gone. Face it, it's over."
Well, pains me to say this, Jerry, but it's over. When you open your mouth and, instead of jokes, you spew venom about a really NICE LAAAAAAADY, it's time to accept you're no longer the nutty professor, you're just plain nuts!
Michael Douglas: Mensch
March 14, 2015
You must read this brilliant piece by Michael Douglas about his son being harassed for being Jewish. I have a newfound respect for Douglas. Bravo, you mensch...a horny mensch, but a mensch nonetheless. Click here to read.
Joe Franklin: 1926 - 2015
January 26, 2015
Joe Franklin the legendary talk show pioneer who was a fixture in New York for more than half a century, died on Saturday at
88. He had been ill for some time with prostate cancer.
Joe was a friend who I often spoke with on the phone. He interviewed me in early 2011 about my Gene Wilder book on his Bloomberg Radio show. It was a great interview, and we became friendly after that.
We had a marvelous time together a few years ago at a Gene Wilder tribute event in Stamford, Connecticut (Gene did not show up but Kelly LeBrock did). He was warm, funny, feisty, and knew everybody in the business. From his early days with Jolson to his historic WOR-TV show where he interviewed everyone from Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Debbie Reynolds - well, the list is too long. He also featured lesser known talents whom he let shine, if only for a brief time in the early morning hours.
He probably received his greatest honor in the 1980s when Billy Crystal impersonated him regularly on Saturday Night Live.
In 2013, Joe gave me a great quote for the back of my first novel, Unnecessary Headaches. He always thrived on helping out other artists.
His Midtown office was famous for being cluttered with showbiz memorabilia. It seems everyone with even a slight connection to the "biz" knew Joe Franklin. He was as New York as they came. We are a lesser city without him, and I have lost a dear man I called my friend.
Mario Cuomo: 1932 - 2015
January 3, 2015
2015 is not starting off on the right foot. Mario Cuomo, the greatest governor the state of New York has ever had, died on New Year's day at 82, just hours after his son was sworn in for a second term as governor.
I loved the man. On July 9, 2004, I interviewed him in his office at Wilke Farr & Gallagher, where he was a partner. I had to wait over an hour because he was on an unexpected conference call. His secretary came out several times and asked if I wanted to reschedule or do it another time by phone. I defiantly said no, I was happy to wait.
When she finally brought me in to meet him, Mario was so apologetic. "I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting," he said. "It's okay," I said. "It's not okay!" he fired back.
Then he immediately started asking me questions. Where ya from? Oh? My brother-in-law had a house there. This was a man who genuinely liked people and was interested in them.
Once I started the interview, I was in awe. This guy could answer any question about anything. You could see the wheels turning in his head. I had to keep myself composed as I realized I was sitting two feet from a man who could have very well been president of the United States. Not asking him why he did not run was my only regret.
As our interview concluded, I told him that my boss loved him, said she would have worked on his campaign had he run for president, and thought he should still run for president. His response: "Oy gevalt!"
"You like Lincoln?" he asked me.
"Of course," I said.
He then conveniently took two copies of his then new book Why Lincoln Matters and began to sign one for me. "It's Bernard, right?"
"I'm all right," he said.
He signed it, "To Brian, Thanks for your patience, Mario Cuomo. 7/9/04."
"And your boss is Audrey?" he asked.
He signed the other book to her (yes, big brownie points).
He then leaned over and said, "Look, if this isn't enough - if you need more stuff - just call me and we can talk some more."
Can you say Mensch City?
I then asked if he would sign an 8x10 photo of him that I had brought. "I'm not signing that!" he said of the lousy photo. "Mary, get me an 8x10," he said to his secretary.
And he proceeded to sign the photo below. "To Brian, Excelsior, Mario Cuomo." "Excelsior is the state motto," he told me. "Not a lot of people know that."
The man was amazing. He was 72 when I interviewed him. Not as tall as I would have imagined. Beautifully dressed in a light blue shirt, tie, and suspenders. Photos of Andrew and the grandkids all over.
I ran into him at a restaurant a few years later. Always curious about people, he asked what I was up to. I told him I had just lost my job. He shook his head in despair. "We just let fifty people go from my law firm," he said. (So much for hitting him up for a job.) He had lunch with some lady. It was a Friday. We both had the fish.
Confession: growing up, my family was not in the Cuomo camp. I voted for Pataki in 1994 and still regret it. Sure, I did not agree with Mario on most issues, but his integrity, his decency, his drive, his compassion - well, that means more than anything. I left his office that day walking on air. I even contemplated becoming a Democrat. I said it then and I say it now: we are a lesser country to not have had him as our president.
Rest in peace, you wonderful, kind man. Deepest sympathies to Matilda, Andrew, Chris, Maria, Margaret, Madeline, and his grandchildren.
I Love Dick!
December 14, 2014
At 78, Dick Cavett has recently had a well-deserved career resurgence. Earlier this year he appeared in a wonderful off-Broadway play as himself called Hellman v. McCarthy (and he is bringing it to L.A. very soon). And now he has written another can't-put-down book of his writings for The New York Times online.
Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Highjinks (Henry Holt) contains so many engaging, thoughtful, and witty observances and memories of everything from sex, politics, aging, alcohol abuse, celebrities, and everything in between. Cavett has met everyone, and his stories about Groucho, Liz Taylor, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, and so many others are just thrilling.
Cavett refers to our current climate in this country as post-literate (he's right) but praises those readers who thoughtfully reply to his columns. He is a stickler for spelling and grammar (as I is) and a self-admitted smarty-pants, but he also happens to remain down to earth and real (met him in April after the play and he could not have been nicer - can we say bromance?).
Dick Cavett is a national treasure. I am glad he is back in the spotlight. Now will someone please give him a new talk show?
Mike Nichols: 1931 - 2014
November 20, 2014
RIP Mike Nichols, one of the great American directors, who died suddenly last night of a heart attack at 83.
Now on to me: I met him around 20 years ago when he was directing Death and the Maiden on Broadway. I did not see the show but was passing by the theater as a weekend matinee had just ended, and lots of people were waiting at the stage door to hopefully see Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss or Gene Hackman. None of them came out but Nichols did and signed autographs.
As he signed my piece of paper, I told him, "I loved Gilda Live." No reaction. Then I said, "I loved Heartburn." He looked at me, totally amused, and said, "You like the obscure ones." "No," I said. "The Graduate was good."
I later dropped off a copy of my short film to his office but he never responded. Maybe he was too busy pasting his eyebrows on. Whatever. He was an exceptional director with a truly amazing filmography.
Coming to "Terms"
October 24, 2014
Was speaking to a friend the other night. Remembering my mother. For a bunch of nobodies, I made us so showbiz. Oscar night 1984. One of the only times me, my mother, and my father all went to the movies together was to see Terms of Endearment. We all loved it and rooted for it on Oscar night. But after Nicholson won, The Right Stuff seemed to dominate the night and we thought we were in trouble.
The show went on forever. I had to go to sleep. My father left for work very early in the morning, and, however it happened, I wound up in my parents' bed. My mother woke me the next morning with the news. "Shirley won," she said. "The movie won too."
You would think we lived in Beverly Hills and had a lifetime subscription to Variety. I was thrilled. We won! We beat those macho astronauts! Must be like what those nutty sports fans feel when their team wins.
I miss not having anyone to wake me up to tell me something like that. These were our "terms." Miss her so much.
30 Years Ago Today...
September 18, 2014
...these wacky kids named Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner were married in the south of France.
Sadly, it was a short-lived union lasting only 4 1/2 years after Gilda's death from ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989.
Buy your copy of Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad to read about their funny, loving but far from perfect marriage.
September 13, 2014
I had never watched the bonus features on Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work until last night. The scenes that did not make it to the finished film are amazing! In one, Joan eerily says she does not want to be revived if something were to happen to her. Pull the plug, she says. She said she did not want to be left a vegetable, and only would want to be revived if she could be 100% and be able to perform a solid hour of standup.
In another scene, she is rushing between gigs and stops at a hot dog stand. She orders two dogs - one with mustard, one with mustard and ketchup. I hope the latter was not for her. And she got a whole bunch of sodas and asked the whole camera crew if they wanted a Diet Coke. Total class.
In the limo, she is practically orgasmic as she enjoys the frankfurter, saying - as any real New Yorker knows - there is no better hot dog than the "dirty water dogs" you get in Manhattan. I was drooling and dying for a hot dog, so went to the store and that's what I shall have tonight - mustard, onions, and sauerkraut. Never ever ketchup!
And one more thing: in the supermarkets near me, almost all of the hot dogs are skinless. Why? I am all for circumcision, but not when it comes to franks. You want the natural casing for that crunchy first bite. My first choice is usually Nathan's brand but Boar's Head is excellent and has the skin on, so that is what I got. As for the buns, that's none of your business.
September 8, 2014
Yesterday was Joan Rivers' funeral. Approximately 1,000 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side for the private, invitation only service. Joan was cremated the day before, and you can obviously see the pain on Melissa and Cooper's faces from the photo below.
The New York Gay Men's Chorus sang, as did Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald. There were scores of famous faces, and a lot more laughs than at your typical funeral.
Thousands of fans lined Fifth Avenue just to get a glimpse of the event.
Joan is gone, and I suppose life must go on, but it won't be as funny.
My Memories of Joan
September 6, 2014
Where do I begin? When I was a kid, I had several heroes: Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Johnny Carson, and, yes, Joan Rivers. In fifth grade, I used to do an impression of her, complete with her jokes and her distinctive clapping. At a parent-teacher conference, my teacher grabbed my mother and said, "Mrs. Mednick, Brian is naturally funny! Just like Joan Rivers!"
I longed to see Joan perform live, but that did not happen until I was an adult. I saw her act numerous times, saw her brilliant turn on Broadway as Lenny Bruce's mother, went to a taping of her morning talk show, and wound up personally meeting her five times over the years. There was never a nicer, more down to earth person.
When I saw her perform at The Duplex - a tiny venue that seats only about 70 people - I was up front and she bantered with me (she even asked if I was circumcised). After the show, we all gave her a standing ovation, and she came over and kissed me. That still remains one of the great thrills of my life.
The loss of Joan Rivers is just inconceivable. Andy Cohen told Anderson Cooper on the eve of her death, "I don't want to live in a world without Joan Rivers." I could not agree more. As I previously said, I viewed her as a friend.
The woman was a dynamo, never stopping to take a break, constantly performing, flying cross-country twice a week, writing, hocking her jewelry, and cementing her legacy as the hardest working woman in show business. Her death was unnecessary. Like my mother, she was done in by the incompetence of so-called "medical professionals." I hope that endoscopy place gets closed down, and Melissa collects as much as she can from them.
As sad as I was when Gilda died, I had never met her, so it was not the same. I feel I knew Joan. Hell, I did know her! This might be a terrible thing to say, but I have been crying over her in a way I have not cried for anyone since my parents died.
The last time I met her was exactly two years ago today when my friend Scott and I saw her perform at The Venetian in Vegas. He had never seen her live before and fell in love with her. She was brilliant. Afterwards we had a meet and greet. I gave Joan my first two books, and she said she loved Gene Wilder and that he was a nice man (yeah, unless you're his biographer). I asked if they ever met since they both did the voiceovers for the Letterman cartoons on The Electric Company. The voiceovers were done separately so they did not meet, which she said she regretted. I also asked if I could interview her for The Jewish Voice, and she had me speak to her assistant, a very nice guy named Graham Reed. We exchanged contact info but after numerous e-mails with Joan's publicist, sadly the interview never happened.
Joan was a fighter. She overcame enough personal and professional obstacles for two lifetimes. She never got over the suicide of her husband or being shunned by Johnny Carson. When I saw her at The Duplex, she took questions from the audience. Carson was still alive then, and one guy shouted, "What do you think of Johnny Carson?" Without missing a beat, she said, "Fuck him!" The whole audience applauded and was hysterical. Carson was warm and loveable on-camera, but, unlike Joan, he was an unhappy, lonely person in real life. Showing how classy she was, Joan never stopped crediting Carson for making her a star.
In 1990, Joan won a well deserved Daytime Emmy Award for her morning talk show. Click here to watch. And notice two real mensches - Phil Donahue, who kissed her and was beaming with pride, and the late great Jeff Smith, who gave her a standing "O."
When you think of the great funny women of all time - Gilda, Lucy, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn - you must remember - as brilliant as they are/were - they were comedic actresses. Joan was a true standup comic in a field that was dominated by men. And she was the best.
Joan loved dogs, she was a great friend to the gay community (she became an ordained minister and performed two gay weddings), she was a staunch supporter of Israel, and she always appreciated how lucky she was to be rich and famous. She said she thanked God every time she got into a limo. She also believed in giving back - every Thanksgiving she and her grandson volunteered at God's Love We Deliver, bringing fresh hot meals to homebound people who were ill.
For most people, living to 81 would be considered a pretty good run. But Joan was spry and healthy - she easily could have lived another dozen years, and I bet she would have never stopped performing.
My heart goes out to her daughter Melissa, who, like me, is an only child and was incredibly close with her mother. I also feel for Joan's handsome grandson Cooper, whom she doted on. There is a scene in the documentary about her where she and Cooper are riding in a limo, and she is holding his hand. You could just see how much she loved him.
Life stinks. As Woody Allen once said, "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." But people like Joan Rivers made life a little more bearable. In this age of political correctness, Joan said what she felt and did not care what anyone thought. The people who did not like her because they thought she was mean just did not get it. Joan's detractors were small-minded and humorless. As she would say, grow up! It's a joke!
We lost a true legend, an icon, a trailblazer - and I feel I lost a friend.
Good-bye, funny lady.
Flowers for Joan
September 5, 2014
Just got back from Joan's apartment building where I left flowers and a note to Melissa and Cooper. Was very moving to see so many flowers and notes. There were two cops and lots of camera crews.
One reporter said Melissa had pizzas and bottled water sent down to the fans and news people who had gathered outside yesterday because that's what Joan would have wanted. Melissa is carrying on Joan's spirit of appreciating her fans.
Temple Emanu-El, where the funeral will take place on Sunday, is a few blocks from Joan's building on Fifth Avenue. Already there are blockades up, for there will no doubt be thousands of fans who will want to have a small part in saying good-bye to her. I am guessing it will be a private funeral with a public memorial hopefully in the coming weeks.
Joan Rivers: 1933 - 2014
September 4, 2014
At 1:17 p.m. today, the world became a less funny place. I am too upset to write a proper tribute now but will soon.
Rest in peace, you dear, wonderful, kind, funny lady.
September 1, 2014
I do not know what to say. I am just devastated. I have never shed tears for a celebrity the way I have the last few days for Joan Rivers. I met her so many times - she even kissed me once - that I feel like she is a friend.
I am too upset to say anything more than that I am hoping for a miracle. I cannot imagine a world without her in it.
My thoughts are with her daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper.
August 24, 2014
Today is the third anniversary of my dear mother's death. Words seem so futile when trying to describe the pain of losing her. She was my best confidante. As my alleged "friends" prove over and over, no one will ever care about me the way she did. And I will never love anyone as much as I loved her.