Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hollywood Television Theater: The Scarecrow (1972)


Network: PBS
Original Airdate: January 10th, 1972


When Percy MacKaye wrote his play The Scarecrow in 1908, he only meant for his audience to make the loosest connections to its obvious inspiration, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop. Admittedly, even MacKaye would have a hard time denying the liberal doses he borrowed from Hawthorne’s story about a witch who creates a man out of a scarecrow, sending him off to woo a wealthy, impressionable young woman. But, it is in the metaphor itself that MacKaye drew on something distinct, softening Hawthorne’s condemnation of the class system and of humanity in general.


 Hawthorne’s work was often heavily tinged in the surreal, and Feathertop is no exception, mixing supernatural mischief and morality in a way that made the story unique and still oh-so-Hawthorne in the commentary. Feathertop sought to expose people for what they were, and to recognize the irony with which they live their own life, as well as how they choose to judge others (Hawthorne uses the word “trash” to compare the makeup of the scarecrow and that of the human race). Ending the tale with Feathertop returning to its original scarecrow form, Hawthorne surmised that an inanimate object was better off in effigy than had it continued to live as a man. However, MacKaye went down a far more sentimental route, making our scarecrow (named Lord Ravensbane in human form) a sympathetic and sad character whose happiness is only derived when he dies a mortal man. The 1972 Hollywood Television Theater production of The Scarecrow upholds the poignancy of MacKaye’s tale. Although, it also highlights some of the whimsical satire Hawthorne embraced and which MacKaye slyly inserted. It is most noted in a party scene where the upper echelon are eager to welcome Lord Ravensbane’s eccentric character into their wealthy fold, but then are just as quick to disown him, even when the truth of his original form leaves him heartbroken and humiliated.


Hollywood Television Theater was a series that aired on local PBS affiliates throughout the United States from 1970-1978. It was conceived by KCET in Los Angeles and that channel capitalized on its location and accessibility to recognizable faces, casting several high profile actors to appear in their productions. Their debut adaptation of The Anderson Trial starred William Shatner, and Martin Sheen (and was directed by George C. Scott!). Other productions featured Earl Holliman (Montserrat, 1972), Joseph Bottoms (Winesburg, Ohio, 1973) and David Hedison (For the Use of the Hall, 1975). According to Adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Screen: Forging New Worlds, this series sought to give audiences an alternative to the cookie cutter world of television of this era. They brought all kinds of heavy hitting playwrights to the show, including Anton Chekhov (Two By Chekov, 1972) and Arthur Miller (Incident at Vichy, 1973). The directors were often well known journeymen such as Boris Sagal, who directed this entry, but actors, like the aforementioned Scott came into the role too, and prominent performers such as Lee Grant (For the Use of the Hall), and Rip Torn (Two By Chekov) took on the heady productions.


Sagal was a Russian born filmmaker who moved from theatricals to telefilms to episodics on a regular basis. With this production, he keeps things simple, while adding shades of flair along the way. Since it wasn’t shot in front of a live audience, the director threw in a few simple effects that, along with its muted shot-on-video pallor, give the play a substantial measure of filmic surrealism that keeps the viewer a little off-kilter as the play progresses.


At this stage in the history of PBS, the network found itself under fire by certain politicians who thought too much government money went into producing television (sound familiar?). So, PBS sought out a mawkish and mainstream title, and The Scarecrow is now considered one of the lesser adaptations to come out of the series. However, it was also a sorely needed entry, balancing out the edgier fare to appease the mostly upper middle class audience’s more conservative ideologies. It’s a bit ironic that this play sometimes lampoons the types of people most associated the PBS viewership, and also most known for condemning it.


The critics at the time were mixed on their thoughts. Henry Mitchell of the Washington Post wrote, “Nothing in the play is very far developed or very carefully worked out, and the sad result was a shiny-wrapped but none too meaty TV dinner, half-baked.” Conversely, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times quite enjoyed it, calling The Scarecrow a “stunning production” that stepped out of “academic mustiness.” However, Smith also criticized the plush production as maybe a little too expensive for what is intended to be a modest television series, thereby giving greedy politicians a decent arguing point.


Certainly some good money went into the absolutely magnificent cast, which features Blythe Danner, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Nina Foch, Elisha Cook, Sian Barbara Allen and an electrifying Gene Wilder as Lord Ravensbane. Wilder’s physical take on manifesting from his original scarecrow state to that of a man, and learning to grow emotionally in that capacity is spellbinding. The scene where he attempts to call out to his mother is both disturbing and sympathetic. And although Ravensbane is definitely the oddest ball in the house, it’s easy to see how the vulnerable and sensitive Rachel (Danner) could fall for his quirky charms.


Pete Duel plays Ravensbane’s nemesis Richard Talbot, the man who has already claimed beautiful Rachel’s hand. Duel is the most under-the-radar actor in the cast, and his delivery feels more tailored for television, as compared to the bigger performances. But it is exhilarating in its own way, anchoring some of the play’s more outlandish moments. There’s also a touch of relatable humanity there. Talbot is jealous but logical and thoughtful, and by the conclusion, empathetic towards his enemy, and ultimately there for him at the end. It’s an interesting yin-yang relationship that could have been explored on a deeper level.

 
Nevertheless, the end product is both intriguing and delightful. At times a little posh and chaotic perhaps, but also earnestly produced, and extremely well acted. It might lack the morality lesson of a Hawthorne classic, but in an era of unrest and during the Vietnam War, The Scarecrow offers audiences a chance to realize that humanity is a virtue and yes, the scarecrow doesn’t just have a brain, he also has a heart.


This blog post was inspired by an upcoming Australian film journal from Lee Gambin and his film collective CineManiacs. The first issue is dedicated to scarecrows and I wrote about Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and interviewed Jeff Burr about his direct-to-video slasher Night of the Scarecrow. Keep an eye on my social media channels for updates on the release of the journal! 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

More News!

Just popping in a with a little news. Also, do you have a cup of sugar I could borrow?
While it's true I don't want my blog to just become a bookmark for other things, I have been so incredibly busy lately that, well, it's become a bookmark for other things. I really, really want to get back to blogging... but for now here's an update on what's going on in my world:

Have we talked about the Rondos yet? I can't remember. I didn't win, but did get an honorable mention, which was amazing. Thanks to everyone who voted for Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999. Your support has been amazing.

Dat artwork! 😍😍😍
Hey guys, one of the most exciting things ever has happened! I have provided a commentary track for Scream Factory's upcoming blu ray release of the classic John Carpenter telefilm Someone's Watching Me! Can I say OH. MY. GAWD. I mean, I just did, but OMG. I'm so excited. The release date is July 24th, but you can pre-order through Scream Factory's site and get it a couple of weeks early! I hope everyone enjoys it. I honestly gave it my all. It's not just an important film because it's early Carpenter, but Someone's Watching Me! is also simply just an amazing movie. And one that deserves all of the love in the world. Also, I'm on the same disc as Adrienne Barbeau. That's it, I'm done! My life is complete. Thank you so much Scream Factory for allowing me to be a part of this! The people at Scream Factory are amazing. It's been wonderful. 

Turns out the very center of hell is kind of awesome. Wes Craven 4lyfe!
In other amazing Amanda news, Arrow's blu ray release of The Last House on the Left was pushed back by a few weeks, but copies have started trickling in all over the world. As you may recall, my good friend Bill Ackerman from Supporting Characters and I contributed a commentary track. The early reviews have been really nice too, which is very exciting. I'm a newbie to the world of commentaries, but I can tell you it's really one of those things you put your heart and soul into because you want to give the film a lot of love and also keep people interested in you for 90s minutes. That's no easy feat, guys. So, even the mild criticism is fine as long as people appreciate the work you put into these things!

Anyway, that's my roundabout way of saying be kind if you review it on Amazon or anywhere else! We work hard on these things, and I'm honored to be a part of them. You can pick up Last House in the UK via Arrow's website, or through Diabolik if you are in the states.

More amazing artwork!
I have also contributed the liner notes to Arrow's upcoming blu ray release of Doom Asylum! Super excited about this. My booklet will only be available on the first pressing so grab a copy now. I will say this, writing liner notes for this project was absolutely one of the most fun writing assignments I've ever had. I was surprised by the amount of information I unearthed... turns out Doom Asylum has been well documented over the years, and it has a fascinating history.

It's also super exciting because The Hysteria Continues provided the commentary track for this release as well. So, I'm in wonderful company. And, I just want to send a lot of love to Arrow for trusting me with Last House on the Left and Doom Asylum. They are a great company full of great people, and I'm so honored to be included somewhere there in the mix! Again, you can pick up Doom Asylum via Arrow's website if you're in the UK or state-siders can go to Diabolik!

Ummm, amazing artwork again!!!
And speaking of liner notes, I also provided some for Retromedia's release of Snowbeast! So, as a company that doesn't normally do liner notes, it's an extra honor, but also something to note because to fit it properly into the packaging my writing has been placed on the opposite side of the insert, so remove the cover if you want to read about Bigfoot and stuff... Again, this was one of the most fun writing projects I've ever had. I'll tell you, liner notes are just a big ball of awesome to work on. I'll never get tired of documenting lost and/or underrated films. I'm so honored people let me do it too!

So, thank you, Fred Olen Ray for allowing me to participate in this release! And check out the commentary he does with David DeCoteau! Good times had by all, to be sure!

By the way, a little while ago I wrote about the blu ray release of The Master for Diabolique. Read it if you are so inclined!

Wonderfully evocative cover art comes courtesy of the talented Jeremy Thompson
I'm also involved in an upcoming book titled Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film! I'll be writing about two fascinating telefilms, which will be announced via House of Leaves Publishing in the coming weeks. For now, check out the Rue Morgue and Anatomy of a Scream articles, as well as the HoL page which is set up for Scared Sacred. There will be a crowdfunding campaign opening up in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out!

I'll also be submitting or have submitted several essays for a few more projects to be announced in the future. And I may or may not have more commentary news for you soon! Most of it is TV movie related, so yay! I might not be able to update my blog, but I'm doing my best to keep the TV movie love alive. There's been so much positivity coming from both strangers and friends alike, so I hope everyone knows how much I appreciate every kind word, like and share. Thank you!

Monday, February 26, 2018

News, News, and Some News

I'm exhausted, but undeniably glamorous!
I'm so sorry I haven't been able to keep things moving on my blog in the ways I'd like, but I have lotsa news that I'm, like, crazy excited about!

I guess we'll do the time sensitive stuff first: If you are in San Antonio or can get to San Antonio on Saturday, March 3rd, please come see me at the San Antonio Pop Con. I'll be giving a presentation on Made for TV movies at 1:30, and then I'll be signing Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999 for the rest of the day. It's a free con put on by the local library and it looks amazing. Check out the presentation schedule here.

I am thrilled to announce that not only did Are You in the House Alone make Barnes and Noble's Best of Horror list for 2017 (OMG!), but it has been nominated for Book of the Year at the Rondo Awards!

Confession: I wasn't on the original list of nominees, but a few of you dropped the Rondo folks a line and I'm so touched that anyone took the time out to request that I be added to what is a great list of books written by a group of lovely and talented writers. I'd also like to give a big shout out to Mike White, who mentioned my exclusion on his Impossible Funky blog. That meant a lot. You can send your votes to taraco@aol.com. (If you want to throw a write-in vote my way for my commentary for The Spell, I won't stop you)


If you find you must vote for another book then follow your heart, but I think you should all make sure that you've checked off The Twilight Zone Podcast in the Best Multi-Media Horror Site category. Tom always does his best to put together an A+++ show and he deserves an award for all of his hard work (plus, dat voice... **drooling**)! Make sure you vote for the TZ podcast called The Twilight Zone Podcast... there's another TZ show on the list (which I'm sure is wonderful, but still... Tom should win!). Tom even made a post where you can just cut and paste his entry into an email. Easy peasy. Do it!

Hiding from my public
Back to me!

In non-TV news: Arrow Video announced last Friday that they are releasing a US/UK Blu Ray of Wes Craven's first horror film, The Last House on the Left, which my good friend Bill Ackerman (Supporting Characters) and I are providing a commentary track for! I am still pinching myself. I think many of you know that I'm a diehard Craven fanatic, so this opportunity has been a dream come true for me. Last House is due to be released in May, you can pre-order via Diabolik if you are in the US or through Arrow for you UK folks.

That's Joe Ziemba making me sound important
I did my first Made for TV Mystery Movie screening at the Alamo, and it was sold out! The evening and event were so amazing, and I'm beyond grateful for the chance to share my love of TV movies with people. I'll be doing another one in April and will share the link to buy tickets via my social media when they become available. On March 2nd I'm hosting the AGFA Secret Society screening. It's sold out, and I'm just mentioning cuz I'm excited. 


By the by, if you haven't had a chance to check out the Made for TV Mayhem Show, give us a go. We'll be talking Kathleen Beller telefilms in March. Join us.

So, now you can see why I'm not around as much (but did you see I posted a review of Madame Sin as part of a recent Classic TV Blog Association blogathon?), but I'm doing my best to keep the love alive! You can always visit my social media if you want to talk TV and horror. I'm on twitter @madefortvmayhem and my facebook is simply Made for TV Mayhem. Say hi!

I may or may not have more news for you in the near future. But hopefully soon (Amy, soon)!!! Absolutely every single one of you that I've run across in person and online has been so supportive of what I'm doing. Thank you!!!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Classic TV Blog Association Presents The Classic TV Villain Blogathon: Madame Sin (1972)


Network: ABC
Original Airdate: January 15th, 1972


Sometimes you run into something so (wonderfully) bonkers, you are left a little beyond words. When the thing that is loopy happens to be a TV movie, you can sometimes count on the late great Alvin Marill to help clear things up. To quote his entry from Movies Made for Television on the 1972 telefilm Madame Sin:

In her initial movie for television, Bette Davis is a ruthless, all powerful mystery woman who abducts an ex-CIA agent and forces him to help her steal an ultra-modern Polaris submarine.

Thank you Alvin, this gets us started. I mean, sure that description is outlandish, but where does the bonkers come into play, you ask? Well, first of all Davis is a half-Asian evil-doer residing in a Scottish castle. She has holograms of musicians playing enormous round harps, and her underground laboratory looks like the sinister workings of a Progressive auto insurance advert!

Flo from Progressive in 30 years
To help her along the way is the aforementioned CIA agent, Anthony Lawrence (Robert Wagner). He’s kidnapped somewhere in London by two women dressed as nuns who use the aid of a strange sound wave machine to throw Lawrence off his game. Out of sorts, he is flown to the castle, where he’s manipulated by a new programming device that works almost like a dog whistle, but with human-recognizable sounds. Turns out Madame Sin once had a tumultuous affair with Lawrence’s father and feels she can influence him with her familiar ties. To a degree this works, but the wicked Madame can’t stop herself from resorting to even dirtier tricks, which involve manipulations so wonderfully evil that it would impress the likes of the greatest small screen love-to-hate-them villains (JR Ewing, I’m looking at you!). And don’t forget, she delivers these emotional and physical blows to her opponent complete with false eyelashes and the bluest eye shadow I have ever seen! The fab obviously elevates her duplicity another notch.

Evil never looked so strangely fab!
Madame Sin commits all kinds of villainy, from faking deaths, to stealing and selling submarines for 1 billion dollars. But she’s at her best when she’s remembering her love affair with Lawrence’s father. She makes jokes no one quite gets ("we spoke only in Croatian!" har har?) and frankly, gets all bent out of shape that her lover never mentioned Miss Sin to his son. So, what does she do when she gets mad? She renders Lawrence deaf and throws him to the wolves of Scotland, which is really just a bunch of tourists who don’t want to be bothered with helping anyone. Evil, I say!

I'm here all week, guys.
As mentioned in Marill’s concise review, Madame Sin marked Bette Davis’ small screen movie debut. This TVM has an interesting history in that it was sold as a pilot film for a sadly unrealized US series, but was scheduled to play theaters overseas. Watching the unfortunate fate of Lawrence, one has to wonder if the series was meant to star Wagner at all, or if was going to follow the exploits of the great Madame (OMG. What did we miss out on?!?).

A board meeting of EVIL! Malcolm must be taking notes off camera
Shooting began in February of 1971 and the film generated some decent attention in England, where part of the film was shot. Bette, like all great divas, seemed to enjoy the response, but was quick to give credit to Madame Sin’s director, David Greene, whom she referred to as “brilliant… but different” in an interview she did for Sight and Sound magazine. She also enjoyed working with Wagner, who was also a producer on the film. In another interview appearing in Variety, Davis said that Wagner was “a very bright lad.”

Davis also felt that despite forty plus years in the biz, she was working on a role that that was fresh. In her interview with Sight and Sound she said, “This film is a new experience for me. For one thing, it‘s a crime fantasy and usually I like to find some way of relating to my characters. But how can you relate to someone as outrageous as Madame Sin? So I have to invent all the time. It’s fun.”

Life is good when you're this wicked!
True to her words, Davis looks like she’s having the time of her life. And that sense of fun isn’t just contained by Davis’ extravagant performance (complete with one of the best sashays I’ve seen in a long time. In short, she’s werking!), it can also be seen in the great Denholm Elliot, who plays her right hand man, Malcolm. He actually seems to be having even more fun than Davis (and was probably just giddy being in the same room with her). It’s impossible not to notice that subtle half grin that appears with some of his best dialog delivery!

Madame Sin
: It’s so disappointing to beat men. They never admit when they’ve lost. Unlike myself. But I’m never faced with the problem of losing because I always win.

Malcolm: Well I’m with you. That is if I understand you correctly, which seems highly improbable.

Evil harpist must be a resume builder...
While the film can seem a bit campy with its strange premise and flamboyant dialog delivery, it had some serious money behind it. Davis’ simple yet outrageously gorgeous wardrobe was designed by the great Edith Head, and aptly places Miss Davis in head to toe villainous glamour! Madame Sin was shot mostly around London and at the famous Pinewood Studios, with some other exteriors shot on the Island of Mull in Scotland. Madame Sin’s gorgeous castle came courtesy of Glengorn Castle (aka Castle Sorn). The acropolis is not just a tourist attraction, it’s now a bed and breakfast!* In short, this film is an oh-so-70s feast for the eyes, and a mind-blowing treat of strange, and wonderfully bizarre filmmaking. While it isn’t a copycat of Wagner’s 1967 TVM How I Spent My Summer Vacation, that colorful and awfully fun comedic spy thriller would make a fantastic double bill with Madame Sin!

Location, location, location!
Unfortunately, despite the positive press the film received while it was in production, London critics weren’t so kind with the final product. Richard Combs of London’s Monthly Film Bulletin remarked that Madame Sin suffered from a “dull script, a wooden hero and an abysmal ending.” The film opened at the Astoria in London’s West End and pulled in a respectable but only “Okay” box office of $8,556 (according to Variety). It was the replacement for Anthony and Cleopatra, which had grossed half as much the week before. Therefore, I call it a success!

Its premiere on American television went over much better critically, although Davis’ TVM debut didn’t set the world on fire (shame on us!). Kevin Thomas of the LA Times said Madame Sin was “lots of fun,” and he enjoyed the “handsome production.” Still, the ratings were average, and the TVM drew an 18.4/24. Not horrible but much like its West End run, it was only OK.

Promotional still used in Sight and Sound magazine
This was actually just one of two pilot movies Davis shot around this time. The other was The Judge and Jake Wyler (NBC, 12/2/1972), which was a Levinson/Link telefilm (they created Columbo). Davis tones down the glamour in the role of “The Judge,” and doesn’t spend much time doing much of anything except talking the phone. Of course, Davis’ star shines in any role, but if I were to pick one show to go to series, it would be hard to turn down Davis’ unforgettable strut as the evil Madame Sin.

This blog post is part of the Classic TV Blog Association's Classic TV Villain Blogathon. Get the full list of participants with links to their articles here. And, enjoy!

*And thank you to Gore Blimey from the Trilogy of Terror podcast for helping me with information regarding Glengorn Castle. You're the best!

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Alamo Drafthouse's Terror Tuesday Presents The Made for TV Mystery Movie! I'm Co-Presenting Too! Hooray!


OK, so the title pretty much tells you all you need to know! But just to reiterate, I was asked by Joseph Ziemba of the Alamo Drafthouse if I'd like to help him program some mystery tele-terrors every few months as part of the Terror Tuesday programming (normally held at their Ritz Theater location). Well, of course I would! Our first screening is January 30th, 2018, and you can get all the details here.

There's not much else to say, except that I'm thrilled and honored. And if you are in the Austin area, please come by and say hello. I can't reveal what the first film will be, but I do think you'll love it!

As you were!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Let's Talk Summer of Fear: An Interview with Lisa Holmes of Music Box Films/Doppelgänger Releasing


 Lee Purcell as Julia Trent in Summer of Fear. © Micheline Keller/Courtesy of
Doppelgänger Releasing

Ummm... can we just call 2017 the Year of the TV Movie? With the release of The Spell, the announcement of The Burning Bed coming out and Music Box Films/Doppleganger Releasing, uh, releasing the most excellent Wes Craven joint Summer of Fear on Blu-Ray, it seems that the oft-maligned telefilm genre is getting its due, and with all kinds of neat bonus features... The love!

Of course, I'm an obvious champion of these movies, and have a particular soft spot for Craven's small screen flicks. I wrote extensively about them in an essay I penned for my book Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999, and I've also reviewed his big three telefilms here, if you want to read my thoughts on Summer of Fear (and Invitation to Hell and Chiller... and you can listen to a podcast episode dedicated to these films as well). I'm so pleased this film is getting a second chance at a new audience, and I should mention it comes with the original Wes Craven commentary conducted on the TV movie's original DVD release from a few years ago. So many great tidbits coming the master himself, a new interview with Linda Blair, and a gorgeous new transfer of a great film! Hooray!

Lisa Holmes, the Director of Sales, Home Entertainment of Music Box Films/Doppleganger Releasing took some time out to discuss the release, which is today, y'all. Go pick up your copy (link above), and leave a review!


Carol Lawrence as Leslie Bryant and Jeremy Slate as Tom Bryant in Summer
of Fear. Courtesy of Doppelgänger Releasing
Amanda Reyes: Why did Music Box/Doppelganger decide to release Summer of Fear?

Lisa Holmes: We saw it as a diamond in the rough, and a great way to start a new direction for the Doppelganger Releasing label. If you look at our catalog, you’ll see that we gravitate toward what I like to think of as a little interesting and different. Summer of Fear fit that bill for us.

AR: It's fantastic that you were able to acquire the original commentary that Wes Craven did for the DVD release in 2003. Out of curiosity, I'm wondering if it is difficult to procure previously released extra materials that were done for another distributor?

LH: We got very lucky in this instance. It always boils down to underlying rights and with older properties in particular, it can be a difficult proposition.

Lee Purcell as Julia Trent in Summer of Fear. © Micheline Keller/Courtesy of
Doppelgänger Releasing
AR: Wes Craven's TVM work has largely been ignored. I'm wondering if you have any general thoughts on his four telefilms, Summer of Fear, Invitation to Hell, Chiller and Night Visions, and how they fit into his overall filmography?

LH: I wonder about that too. I’m no scholar on the subject, but as a viewer I’ve always been of the opinion that Wes Craven’s work was smart and well-crafted regardless of the medium. I never feel like he dumbed anything down, which makes it more interesting. He was willing to go against certain horror tropes – and clearly with the Scream films had no problem making fun of them too.

I think too, unfortunately because he has passed away, people are taking the time to dig in to the broader scope of his work because there won’t be any more. If you want to look at his work completely, the TV films need to have their due as well as the big theatrical releases. On a total side note, one of the things I love about all four of those projects are the casts. It’s totally worth trolling IMDB to see who was in all of those movies. For Summer of Fear, I knew about Linda Blair and Lee Purcell of course, but Fran Drescher and Macdonald Carey were like the cherry on top of the ice cream with the cake. Bobbi Flekman and Dr. Tom Horton in the same movie? My head just exploded.

Lee Purcell as Julia Trent in Summer of Fear. © Micheline Keller/Courtesy of
Doppelgänger Releasing
AR: I was speaking to a couple of people who work for companies that have released TV movies on DVD/Blu Ray and they said they noticed an uptick in interest in the genre. Have you noticed that as well? If so, why do you think that is?

LH: I remember when the moniker “Made for TV” had a certain quality to it that people looked down upon. Perhaps in these days of truly excellent, original television content, viewers and labels alike are keeping a more open mind and are looking at previous made for television films with a new perspective as valid works of art. Of course, it may be driven too by people in my generation who are feeling nostalgic as well. Member Berries anyone?

Linda Blair as Rachel Bryant in Summer of Fear. © Micheline
Keller/Courtesy of Doppelgänger Releasing
AR: I don't want you to give away anything in the interview you conducted with Linda Blair, but can you tell us how she generally looks back on the film, and maybe working with Wes?

LH: Just as a point of clarification, I did not personally conduct the interview. I wish I had! I will say this, when you see the interview I think you cannot be anything but impressed with how professional she is now and how professional she was at such a young age. I wish I could be that professional now. I loved that she spoke of working with Wes Craven as if it were yesterday rather than almost 40 years ago. I hope everyone enjoys the interview!

AR: Do you have plans to release any other TV movies?


LH: Can I say “stay tuned” here without it sounding like a bad pun?

AR: Do you have a favorite TV movie?


LH: SO MANY TO CHOOSE FROM! As a Gemini, I reserve the right to pick two that come to mind right away. The Boy In the Plastic Bubble and KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park left lasting impressions. Salem’s Lot. How do you stop?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Staying AfterSchool with Lance Guest


It's so difficult not to gush here. I'm a life long lover of Lance Guest, having discovered him as a teenager in The Last Starfighter. I remember his stint on Lou Grant, and always love when he shows up in something, like The X-Files (and am unashamedly beyond thrilled when he doesn't die in the Halloween 2 TV edit!) I'm so very excited and frankly, a little honored, that Guest took some time out to answer a few questions about working on the ABC Afterschool Special and television in general. He had a lot of interesting things to say about his time on the small screen, and he gave some great insight into the Afterschool Special, which was this month's topic over at my companion podcast, The Made for TV Mayhem Show! He also name drops some awesome TVM titles at the end! Thank you Lance, and everyone else... enjoy!

Guest and Sean Astin in the harrowing Please Don't Hit Me, Mom
Amanda Reyes: Please Don't Hit Me, Mom was one of the first things you did in film or television. Were you aware of the importance of the Afterschool Specials when you auditioned?

Lance Guest: First of all, no one ever asks about these shows, which were largely part of what I remember to be a late 1970's-era attempt to deal with problems kids might be having in a format that was marketed directly TO kids. Although I hadn't seen many, as they were a little after my time as an adolescent, I remember that, for the most part, they tried to address some serious problems honestly, with a kind of PBS idealism that was unique to that time period of American TV culture. I believed very strongly at that time that TV had a huge influence on kids and was worried that the industry's commercial profit motive would ultimately overshadow any "message" or "value" that the show may want to put across if it contradicted the pro-consumer agenda that fuels the TV industry. It was a transition period from the 70's-era of social commentary, dominated by the likes of Norman Lear, toward the Reagan-era period of so-called Conspicuous Consumption, characterized by kitschy primetime soaps about the particular dramas of wealthy people, which basically served as its' own commercial for a more material society.

Yeah - I wasn't even 21 years old. So, yes, not only was I aware of the "important" intentions of these pieces, I was very much in favor of them, as they were right in line with what I felt was the best use of my skills as an actor. The unfortunately titled Please Don't Hit Me, Mom was originally penned without the Please, which was later added in an apparent attempt to avoid sounding unintentionally humorous (the title was still lampooned by my college friends) but I was proud of what was a pretty damn good show, and, which was in fact produced by Norman's company.  (I would eventually work on one of these goofy prime time soaps for almost a year, about 10 years later -which, to its credit, and in its own way I must admit, tried to address some of the same social concerns,occurring, as they did, in the early 90's).

Guest in Please Don't Hit Me, Mom
AR: That was a really intense episode. Did you do any research on child abuse, and what kind of research would that have entailed? For instance, was there something like a child psychologist on set?

LG: As I remember, there wasn't a psychologist on the set of the show, but in that day, the issue of child abuse was not a complicated thing to understand, and sadly did not require a ton of research, especially as it was presented to young teenagers. Pretty much everyone knew what was up. Nancy McKeon was about 6 years younger than me, and always seemed to have a pretty clear grasp of it. She may have done some research, but as I remember, it was Anna (Patty Duke, Anna was her real name) that did most of the heavy lifting, as she took a lot of the storytelling and the presentation of the pathology on herself (as well as the supporting cast of doctors and parents) I think it was my third or fourth professional job, so I just concentrated on my own stuff.

AR: Are you aware if there was any impact on the audience after it aired?

LG: I don't know if there's a way to gauge the audience impact of something like that. It's not really an issue that people are known to come forward with, but our job was to, I guess, raise awareness, so that people that saw it would come forward. Or a least to recognize behavior that might point to the protection of another. (I am answering these questions not having seen it in over 35 years) I think it won an award or was aired in prime time - much like the one I did later, One Too Many.


AR: So, of course I have to ask about working with Patty Duke. What was she like?

LG: Anna was very serious, I should say she took it very seriously, as her own nine-year-old son Sean played the abused child. I had always thought she was a tremendous actress, and I very much looked forward to working with her. As I said, she wanted to be very precise with the pathology and very honest with the emotion. I don't know what she drew on for this as she is admittedly a survivor of Manic Depression Disorder and alcoholism, but I don't believe she had personal experience to draw on for this show. By the time I met her she was a mother in her early 40's, and a fairly repentant former wild child, as were many in her occupation and generation.

TV Spot for One Too Many:

AR: I am going to repeat the first two questions and ask about the Afterschool Special One Too Many. Was there any kind of research or preparation involved for working on a film about drunk driving? And do you think the special had any influence on the teenagers who watched it?

LG: One Too Many. I am proud to say that I'd had no experience with drunk driving personally at the age of 24, and very little experience with actual drinking. I required very little research to be "the sensible one" of the duo of Val's character and mine. I'd had best friends that were "adventurers" in high school and middle school, but I was very much on the straight side in those years. Also, I don't want to sound as though I never did any research or back story work on my characters. It was just after about 1983 when I had studied with a great acting teacher, Jack Fletcher, who had stressed the importance of research. Prior to 1983, I just had high school and college theatre, neither of which had impressed the concept of "research" on me (which it turns out, is a very creative tool - more than you would think). My biggest acting challenge on that show was 1) to keep a straight face - believe it or not, Val Kilmer is one of the funniest individuals I have ever encountered - and 2) not to fall madly in love with both of my remaining co-stars Mare Winningham and Michelle Pfeiffer. Besides failing miserably on all three counts, I was happy with the result. Obviously the combination of drinking, driving and teenagers has always been a bad one, and there have been anti-drinking propaganda films for as long as I can remember, but it still remains a problem. Perhaps in the age of Uber and Lyft, we will see less incidents. I felt the twist at the end of our story hit pretty hard, and the acting and writing was overall pretty damn good. I think the show was not only bumped up to prime time, but was selected for some US Congress' official film to be presented to schools. So we were government-approved.

Guest and Val Kilmer in One Too Many
AR: You were in three Afterschool Specials. Did you have to keep auditioning for the roles, or did they just bring you in when they thought you were right for a part?

LG: The Director, Peter Horton, had cast Val, Mare, and Michelle, and was looking for my part when he saw Last Starfighter on an airplane and called me up. So, I didn't have to audition. My follow-up movie to Last StarFighter was about to shoot, and I was in LA for a few weeks. That follow-up fell apart financially and sadly never got made. That's when I went up to  Toronto to do [the telefilm] My Father My Rival


AR: What was production like? For example, did you get a lot of time to rehearse and work with the other actors and filmmakers or were these very quickly made?

LG: In general. low budget TV production - which is always what Afterschool Specials were - is always fast, which means usually very little rehearsal. That said, I feel like we got enough, since the object of these shows is not so much profit but accuracy, so although it was fast and cheap, I always felt properly rehearsed. Just in general, it felt good to be a part of something that had as its motive some sort of message or awareness instead of straight up entertainment. Martin Tahse produced many of them, and on Between Two Loves, I experienced the joys of video-assist, which meant all takes were "printed,"meaning that they had a complete record of ALL takes so they didn't have to print ones they didn't use. Very reassuring to the actor and very economical, as film was expensive and by editing on tape first, printing costs were limited to the handful of takes actually used. This was 82 -83(?) - way before the digital camera.

Guest and Karlene Crockett lighting my fire in Two Loves for Jenny (aka Between Two Loves)
AR: In Two Loves for Jenny (aka Between Two Loves) you play the violin quite well. Are you a violinist or did you have to have some training?

LG: I [have been] a guitar player for almost 50 years, and can pass on drums, piano, bass, and banjo, but I had to learn to fake the violin. I can do the fingering pretty convincingly and had to be taught proper bowing technique, but what they did was loosen the strings and put Vaseline on the bow, so that it was completely silent and I just memorized the dynamics and thrashed away to playback. Air-Violin - if you will. I love the way the violin sounds and I saw my "teacher/coach" play a Tchaikovsky concerto once that was so outside it convinced me that he was the Jimi Hendrix of the violin. 

Guest in Two Loves for Jenny
AR: I have to tell you, Loves has three of my favorite actors. You, Robert Reed and Karlene Crockett. What was it like working with them? Do you know what became of Karlene?

LG: It sounds like Karlene still does theatre. Her husband was a teacher and friend of a bunch of my friends and my cousin Jarion up in Mill Valley. He sadly passed away recently. I just remember her being very good. Robert Reed judged/sponsored a Shakespeare competition back when I was at UCLA which my girlfriend Kerry and I won in 1980 as undergrads. It was $500 that bailed me out of a jam when I was down to $9. So I was able to thank him for that. That was fun.

AR: Having worked on three specials, what was your overall experience on those projects, and being a part of the Afterschool Special legacy?

LG: As I stated before, it was really more important for me at that time to be part of something that at least intended to have a positive effect beyond just entertainment. I thought that everything was political. I was over-critical of most of Hollywood's output then, and even though we got paid very little, it made up for a lot of the less noble things that all young actors have to be a part of.  If I saw them all now, I might find them a bit earnest, but compared to what my friend calls the "Get the Nerd Laid" movies that ruled the 80's landscape for 20-something actors, it felt rewarding, probably because I remember seeing the first good ones when I was younger.

Making tough teen choices in Two Loves for Jenny
AR: Which of the three episodes if your favorite? And why?

LG: I would say all three have their good and bad points. Please Don't Hit Me, Mom (That Title!) was probably the most daring subject to tackle, but I was not that experienced an actor, so I don't remember how great my performance was, but I respected it a lot. One Too Many: [It] was fun to work with all those great actors and director, [and] was probably the most comfortably realistic dialogue for those things, but my role was subdued and the least colorful, but still fun. And Between Two Loves was the most dynamic character of them all, but the issue was considerably softer, being just one of jealousy and competition and love.

AR: You've worked in both film and television. I know film likes to go big while TV tends to go small. As an actor, do you feel you have to approach your roles differently, depending on the medium?

LG: Not really, especially between those two. On stage you have to be bigger, or nobody gets it.  I disagree that film requires bigger. A lot of times film requires you to be smaller because the screen is so big.  TV can be 8 feet wide at the largest and cellphone-sized at the smallest. Honestly, I don't make any adjustments. I try to be truthful first and foremost and amp it up if the director asks me to. Which is most of the time.

Guest in Lou Grant

AR: The character of Lance Reineicke appeared on several episodes of Lou Grant during the final season. What do you remember about working on that series?

LG: Again, my very first job (I was Mark the year before, but they just remember Lance so that guy went into the next season). Talk about setting the tone for what i wanted to do with my career. Lou Grant was regarded as having loads of integrity, coming on the heels of All the Presidents Men in terms of the public's taste for political news stories. Great writers, directors, and actors. Everything I came to expect from the industry was introduced to when I did Lou Grant. Most of the cast was fairly radical politically, and Ed, who was SAG president at that time came out (as a private citizen) with financial support for the so-called Marxist rebels in El Salvador, while the US government was supporting the other side. He got into all kinds of hell for that, and I was on the show during the time he would show up for work after having received various death threats. Ed has reconsidered his behavior some since then, but I thought he was super cool. I was 20 and had just left college. My character was not so much radical as kind of high-energy, dorky and impulsive. I had some great scenes with Linda Kelsey, Bobby Walden, and Darryl Anderson, all of whom I really respected. I was totally intimidated by Ed, who I had practically grown up with, watching  the Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was a great first job. 

TV Spot for Confessions of a Married Man:

14. So much television seems to be lost. I couldn't locate the telefilms Confessions of a Married Man or My Father, My Rival. What can you tell us about working on telefilms in this era and if you feel there is an importance to making these projects more accessible?

Ok, well, like said before, I think, The writing tended to be better on TV movies, than on many series. They often tackled important subject matter. I auditioned for a movie about nuclear holocaust and one about the nuns who were killed in El Salvador during the Sandinista Rebellion. I was very excited about them but for the first one, after having a perfect "nailed it" audition, they cast a guy who looks as much like me at the time as anyone, so much that I thought they might've thought he was me) and for the second, they hired my director for One Too Many, Peter Horton (who is a good actor/director and a cool guy). But interestingly, the director of that project, Joe Sargent, remembered me for when he directed Jaws: The Revenge, and offered me a lead part five years later. So, you never know what happens in an audition.

Promotional still for Confessions of a Married Man (dat cast!)
Confessions of a Married Man originally started as An Affair to Forget about a middle aged, indecisive, somewhat neurotic intellectual man who wants to leave his down-to-earth wife and two children for a more mentally stimulating younger woman. The writer wrote it originally for John Cassavettes, but the network chose Robert Conrad. Depending on how old you are, you will either get the irony or not. When you read the script, you could hear rhythms of Woody Allen or Alan Alda, and Bob was just not really that guy. Bob Conrad is a macho Old School Hollywood tough guy from The Wild Wild West and Black Sheep Squadron (who used to quote Steve McQueen on Hollywood: "Where else can you live this well without a gun?"). I thought, "Well this is gonna be interesting." I got along with Bob really well, though and steered clear of any political discussions.

I played a non-intellectual  high school football offensive lineman who has a five page scene at the end of the movie, which was supposed to bring Bob's character to tears, and convince him not to leave his family. When we got to the scene, they were going to cover Bob first, and he announced ,in his Chicago-ese "No way am I cryin' in this scene. Forget it. You're gettin' one take - and you'll get what you get!" The director comes up to me and implores me, "We have to get this. The whole movie doesn't work if he doesn't cry, and he won't take the drops.  It's on you." I was 22 years old. We did the scene and Bob cried. He was great. Then he just walked off the set. Classic. I'll always like him for that. Plus he was the star of one of only three TV shows my actual fighter pilot Dad would watch (Black Sheep Squadron) So that was fun. I had great scenes with my Mom, played by Jennifer Warren (who was Awesome). I used those scenes on my demo reel, instead of Last Starfighter for years. Don't know why. I guess I couldn't decide which ones to use. I don't know if anyone saw that movie, but I was happy with how it came out.


The same goes for The Roommate, which wasn't really, by format, a TV movie from the outset. Originally it was produced for PBS American Playhouse, which had been a pretty prestigious program during the 80's. It was based on a John Updike short story from the 50s, and the writer/producer Neil Miller and director Nell Cox decided they would shoot this low-budget piece in 35mm and try to make it an indie feature. They already had a deal with PBS but the extra production value of the time period would kick it up a notch. It was basically a 1952 college-roommate Odd  Couple, Barry Miller played beatnik purist Ghandi-disciple Hub from Portland OR, and I was uptight, religious, All American weenie Orson from South Dakota. It certainly played more like a feature than most TV movies, although it had a smaller "scope" as my screenwriter friend would say. And sadly it was never released commercially, but we did win the Grand Prize at the LA Indie Film Festival in 1985.

The Roommate
As a film experience it was unlike anything I had ever done, or will ever do. Updike's original story tended to be heady and deliberately uncomfortable, while the demands on a college-age target-demographic for a commercial film shared more with the college memoir comedies of that time, although certainly not as obvious. Those of us that thought we were making an "art film" shuddered at the incorrect notion that we would be making another Porky's. We were totally overreacting, but it was often contentious. Barry, an outspoken perfectionist, and I were solid with each other and would often stay up till four in the morning rehearsing, trying to get what the scenes were about, often suggesting alternate "beats." I must say, the writer/ producer and the director respectfully listened to our ideas, and sometimes used them, but the overall feeling was that we were all collaborating. It was the most fun I've ever had making a movie. By the end we didn't know what we had, but when I saw it, I felt like everyone really got what they wanted.

It won other festival awards, in Chicago and Toronto, I think, but was never released commercially. It aired on PBS in 1985. My parents liked it. I was so proud of having done an independent film that I used only this show on my demo reel for a few years, inadvertently causing my only auditions to be for solely uptight Midwestern weenies.  I was so naively anti-studio and anti-mainstream that I only wanted to appear in independent films. This was about 3 or 4 years before indies were really hip (in the late 80s early 90s).

Guest in Lou Grant
The next year, after I was told Last Starfighter didn't make any money at the box office, and a couple weeks after after my follow-up project (another indie film) fell apart, the newly founded HBO original programming department offered me what was presented as another Afterschool Special, but was really another TV movie for HBO. The original title had been Dark But Full of Diamonds, about a kid who loses his mom at 12 years old and falls in love with his swimming teacher, maybe 6 years his senior, who then starts dating his dad. when my character is 6 years older - so, at 18. My character was a lot of fun to play and I was working with Wendy Crewson, who I liked a lot as an actor. I played all the "Pissed off at Dad" notes with all the Freudian indignant transference and awkwardness, and it ended up pretty well. I had a great time in Toronto, where we shot it, although the fine director, Claude Jutra, didn't speak much English. The title was changed to My Father, My Rival, in my opinion, another title a little too "On the Nose."

So that's all I can say about the TV movies (or Movie Of the Week, as they used to be called) that I had anything to do with. I had been a fan of them when I was a kid in the 70's: Duel, Tribes, The Night Strangler, Sunshine, Melvin Purvis: G-man are the ones that stick out. But as the 80's went on, the TV movie demographic was identified as the "shopping housewife" so, whether that was deserving or not, the content, as a result, became exclusively stories of divorce, cheating husbands, murdered girlfriends, rape cases, lost children, poor little rich girls, etc. And usually by page 75, the leading female character has a "make-over montage" that is supposed to signify her "moving on," conveniently, providing a custom "commercial between commercials" to satisfy the sponsors. But the original reputation of the TV movie had been earned by more original content. Nowadays, with a company like HBO, the content seems less driven by commercial interests, and more pure story, or niche genres.