Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Scruples the TV Series?!?

No joke, guys! ABC just announced that they greenlit a new show based on Judith Krantz's scandalous novel, Scruples. Natalie Portman will be producing and you can read more about it here.

As you all know, Lindsay Wagner starred in the fun, but obviously watered down 1980 TV mini-series adaptation, which is available through Warner Archives.

Anybody have any thoughts on the novel, mini-series or upcoming TV show?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happy Birthday Tom Selleck!

Tom Selleck turns 67 today!

This beautiful and wonderful actor has been such a mainstay in my life. As a huge Magnum P.I. nut, I can truly say I only appreciate the show more and more with each viewing. Thomas Magnum was machismo-laden charisma at its best! So, it's truly surprising that when he starred in a pilot called Bunco (1977) alongside Robert Urich some critics felt both actors lacked leading man qualities! Wow, talk about missing the mark completely! Of course, Selleck is still ruling the airwaves with the hit show Blue Bloods and another Jesse Stone TVM in the works. They say you get better with age, and that's certainly true with Selleck, one of the most likable actors of the small screen.

Happy Birthday Tom!

Check out Selleck's auspicious beginnings in this commercial:

And check out this post I wrote for Tom Selleck's 65th birthday, which features some pictures from Tom's first TVM, The Movie Murderer.

Celebrating Freddie Prinze

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the day we lost Freddie, but rather than feeling sad (although it's really hard not to, even now), I'd like celebrate Freddie's short but fantastic career. Last summer I dedicated a week to his fabulous talent and in my retrospective I looked at Chico and the Man, his sole TV movie Million Dollar Ripoff (by the way, it's still streaming on Netflix and Hulu, so check out the links in the review) and the TVM biopic about his life titled Can You Hear the Laughter.

Freddie was a one of a kind talent, and someone I have adored for as long as I can remember. I'll be spending a little more time thinking about his smile today and I hope you do too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Deliver Us From Evil (1973)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: September 11th, 1973

ABC kicked off their 1973 – 74 Movie of the Week season with Deliver Us from Evil, which was shot entirely on location in Mount Hood, Oregon. Production for the film began in July and lasted a whole three weeks – the longest ever for a TVM at that time.

Three weeks?!?

This is one of the reasons why I tend to be more forgiving of retro-TVMs. They were made for a fraction of the budget of a theatrical and they obviously had to shoot their films under very demanding schedules. And I have to say, most of these films deliver an amazing amount of entertainment. Of course, a lot of the success comes from the actors who tend to be film veterans that can bring in the goods at the drop of a hat. George Kennedy, who stars in Deliver spoke about the perils of television in an interview he did in 1973. While he enjoyed the format and professed he had “no snobbery” when it came to working on small screen treats, he really disliked a lot of the writing. He said, “Nine out of ten scripts they send me are very bad. You turn them down and then you see somebody else has done them. Makes you wonder who’s running the nuthouse.” Kennedy also found Deliver to be a particularly grueling shoot. He commented, “I thought I was in pretty good shape until I started working in those mountains. It’s amazing what being high up does to your body. We had oxygen with us, and believe me, we needed it.” It’s interesting that he brings up the writing because I felt parts of Deliver felt preachy. However, the performances move it up a notch to make it a fantastic little potboiler.

George Kennedy is Cowboy. He’s the cocky type - full of pseudo-machismo, complete with the ten-gallon hat and a survivalist attitude. He is on a camping trip along with 4 other guys and a well-worn guide named Dixie (Jim Davis from Dallas!). The men seem to know each other, but they also appear rather distant in many ways. Certainly, they are not much alike. Steven (Bradford Dillman) works in accounting, Al (Jack Weston) is a blue-collar type and Arnold and Nick (Charles Aidman and Jan Michael Vincent looking kind of dreamy) are a father-son duo who look like the prize of middle class suburbia. Cowboy spots someone parachuting into the forest and then the men hear on the radio that a skyjacker has stolen $600,000 and escaped by jumping from a plane. The next day they search for this D.B. Cooper knock-off and when he’s finally cornered, Cowboy shoots him. The men decide to split the money but Dixie and Nick find themselves torn with how they should handle the situation. Luckily for Cowboy, Dixie takes a big plunge off of a mountain. This sets a trend for the men as one by one they meet horrible ends.

I don’t remember Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan well enough to compare them, but they do seem quite similar in theme. Both films are about taking what isn’t yours and making excuses for why you deserve it. These statements are probably more overt in Deliver, simply because TV movies tended to overreach in that respect. Dixie is the big moral voice in the film and in the first act (before he takes a flying leap) he begs Nick to consider man’s true nature – and not to succumb to it. It was perhaps wise to get rid of him early on because then the men’s motives can be carried out through their actions instead of being told how they feel. However, seeing Jim Davis leave so early was a total bummer. Why is he always the victim?!? He got his just deserts in Satan’s Triangle way too early too! Like Jock Ewing could be taken down so easily…

Whoops! Getting off track…

Deliver is desolate, suspenseful and well acted. Kennedy is especially sleazy, but in the end, he’s really the most honest character in the film. I’ve never been much of a fan of Jan Michael Vincent, but he’s really great as the remaining voice of reason.

Deliver was just the first of over 50 TV films produced for ABC for that season! While not as successful as the previous year, which had ranked # 5 in the Neilsons, the offerings were indeed tasty. I think Deliver was a nice way to start the year, which would also offer such Movie of the Week cult classics as Satan’s School for Girl’s and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s moody, thoughtful and suspenseful, just the way we used to like ‘em!

Deliver Us From Evil is available through Warner Archives.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

James Farentino (1938 - 2012)

I don’t know why I was so shocked when I read yesterday that James Farentino had passed away, but it probably had something to with the fact that I found him to be such a looming presence on screen that I couldn't believe anything would ever stop him. If he seemed larger than life it’s probably because the actor often found himself in situations just as dramatic as the ones he reenacted on TV. His personal life sometimes made front page news, and because of that I think people would forgot that this darkly handsome actor was one of the biggest leading men on television.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, Farentino trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and found fame on Broadway when he was in his early 20s. His first television appearance was in 1962 when he appeared in an episode of Naked City titled Let Me Die Before I Wake. While he would star in some interesting theatricals (The Final Countdown and Dead and Buried being two of his most popular films), the small screen not only beckoned him, it adored him. He appeared in a ridiculous number of made for TV movies. He’s a look at some of his contributions:

Birdbath (1971)
Vanished (1971)
The Family Rico (1972)
The Longest Night (1972)
The Elevator (1974)
Crossfire (1975)
Emily, Emily (1977)
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
The Possessed (1977)
No Margin for Error (1978)
Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neill Story (1978)
Son-Rise (1979)
Something So Right (1982)
The Cradle Will Fall (1983)
License to Kill (1984)
A Summer to Remember (1985)
The Fourth Wise Man (1985)
Picking up the Pieces (1985)
Sins (1986)
That Secret Sunday (1986)
Family Sins (1987)
The Red Spider (1988)
Who Gets the Friends (1988)
The Naked Lie (1989)

And he did oodles more into the 90s and beyond. Farentino’s contribution to the world of TVMs cannot be overstated. While he said he often felt marginalized by Hollywood, he graced the small screen with several fine performances. From this list, my favorite would have to be The Possessed, partially because he wears a lot of groovy turtlenecks but also because I thought he was really fun as the ex-priest out to put a little foot to Satan’s ass! The Cradle Will Fall is another film I find myself watching from time to time as well. Farentino was interesting because he had a very distinctive look but he could also easily slip into varied roles. He played everything from an ex-priest to rugged cop to a killer doctor to whatever else he decided to take on. That obviously worked into his success on various television series as well. Farentino is most noted for appearing in The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1969 – 1972), Dynasty (he played Dr. Nick Toscanni from 1981 – 1982) and Blue Thunder (1984), which also starred a then-unknown Dana Carvey as a computer genius jokester. Farentino enjoyed working on Blue Thunder, which was a revamp of the film which had starred Roy Scheider. He said in an interview, “This is something new for me... I’ve watched enough TV to know there isn’t anything better, and it won’t get any better. It’s an entertainment medium and people want to enjoy it.” The show only ran for 11 episodes but the match up of Farentino, Carvey, Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus made for an unforgettable combo!

And I think that’s the perfect word to describe Farentino… unforgettable.

Rest in peace, James. You made the world a much more interesting place while you were here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Daytime After Dark

As you may have guessed, I've been celebrating the world of daytime television this week as One Life to Live drew to a close. I've been going through old soap magazines and all of my other soap literature (of which I seem to have a lot), and I remembered that I have two old reviews here of TV movies featuring daytime television performers. Please follow the links if so inclined.

The first is a review I did of a movie called Woman on the Ledge which is so full of daytime drama that it was destined to find itself on the ledge of my heart. I know, silly... but true.

The other review is for a movie called Fantasies and it stars Suzanne Pleshette as a dragon lady of a night time soap creator. It features many familiar daytime faces and is a great little made for TV slasher.

Melodrama comes in all shapes and sizes, and for that I am grateful. Enjoy!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Worlds Without End are Ending

Who knew that Friday, January 13th, 2012 was going to be so unlucky for Amanda By Night? I guess I did last April when ABC announced it was cancelling two long time soaps, All My Children and my story, One Life to Live. Since then I’ve watched my show get cancelled, get picked up by a production company named Prospect Park as part of an interesting online venture and then dropped again, when they couldn’t secure the right financing (and guild deals, apparently). Now it’s completed its run and I am beyond words.

OK, I'm not completely beyond words... I'd just like to say that the actors, writers and crew of One Life to Live have risen to an extremely difficult challenge. The last few weeks have been nothing short of sheer brilliance, and the cliffhanger ending was fantastic. While I know they had to leave some stories open because they thought they'd go online, I love the choices they made and I'm looking forward to watching some of the characters move over to General Hospital.

That said, I still have a few bones to pick with the world of television programming...

I understand that television is a business. It’s all about the bottom dollar and deciding what kind of shows will reap the greatest financial rewards. It’s always been like that, but inside of that world of cold, conglomerate business-making there has been an artistic venture residing within. People who want to make great entertainment come in and do what they can with what they’ve got. It’s part of why I love made for television movies so much. Filmmakers were lucky if they were given two weeks to shoot something, and because of small budgets, they concentrated on characters, stories and mood. While the TVM genre became less fiscally rewarding, soaps kept up that tradition by putting together one hour shows, five days a week, all year. It’s amazing to think of how such a large group of people assemble everyday to rehearse, block and film dozens of pages of scripts. Of course they too were all about characters and ambiance. I know melodrama has become less cool over the years, but what’s disparaging is how cold (no pun intended) some people have become towards the daytime genre. I think people have lost respect for the work these people do, and it’s really sad. Sometimes I feel like we’ve become a world who either wants the cruddiest low budget reality programming (technically, the new soap opera) or extravagant effects-laden shows. Somewhere, we forgot about the middle.

I say that knowing that’s not completely true, and I know that with the advent of cable, there are simply too many options and audiences become fractured. In the end, all network television is in decline. But that doesn’t make it any less upsetting to see One Life to Live disappear from my daily viewing habits (and the only current programming I follow aside from Hot in Cleveland).

Soaps are a fantastic venue for escapism. I started watching One Life to Live 30 years ago, and I haven’t regretted an hour I set aside for my daytime drama. One of the reasons the show worked for me was because it had a great sense of humor about itself and the writers never seemed afraid to go there. Characters went back in time, they went to heaven (and came back), they discovered an entire city beneath the most palatial Llanview mansion, Llanfair and they had hilarious characters who often summed up the over-the-top situations with quirky one liners. They also had some incredibly intense and moving drama, such as when Megan died of lupus (I will never get over her death), or when they almost executed Todd Manning for a crime he didn’t commit. They had characters of all kinds of ages finding love in the afternoon. It was a beautiful, fantastic and wonderful ride, and I’m so happy I got to visit Llanview for the last three decades.

But the end of the show doesn’t just mean that I will be wondering how to fill that hour in my day, it also stands for the ongoing, and somewhat brutal, death of the genre. Since ABC announced they were cancelling One Life to Live, I’ve become a member of several Facebook groups (and yes, I am even part of a letter writing campaign), and there are thousands of us gathered together, wondering if it is possible to save our soaps. With SoapNet going bye-bye in the near future (another boneheaded business decision, as far as I am concerned) there isn’t much of an outlet for these shows, which I had once assumed would eventually move to cable. It’s a scary time for people like me, who love this kind of storytelling. It feels like no one is listening, and those channels I once held dear to me have become nothing but strangers, who I pass by on my remote as I look for better entertainment.

Sounds kind of melodramatic, don’t it? Well, I think I’m allowed to mourn to loss of my friend here today and I can’t think of any better fashion than to say there is no more love in the afternoon. Goodbye One Life to Live, I will always love you and I will never ever forget you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Remembering Peter Falk - Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story (1976)

Network: ABC
Original Air Date: February 27th, 1976

Anyone who reads my blog is probably aware that I have a deep love for Peter Falk. You can only imagine how crestfallen I was when he passed away in 2011. But who am I kidding? We were all crestfallen. Falk was such a wonderful actor and if you were born in the 70s or later, chances are he was a mainstay in your life. Of course, he was best known as the disheveled Lt. Columbo, but he was one of the few actors who was lucky and talented enough to move through his famous television series, which he would eternally be identified with, while portraying several other characters on both the big and small screen. Undoubtedly Columbo would become Falk’s trademark, but it was his portrayal as Geoffrey Griffin in Griffin and Phoenix which had the greatest impact for me.

I remember watching Griffin and Phoenix with my father when I was about 10 years old. It was playing on the Afternoon Movie on our local channel (good old KVVU, which is now a Fox affiliate). Although I was too young to really understand what was happening, the ending was moving enough that I carried the image of it with me through my life. I didn’t see it again until 2005, and I watched it three times in one week. In fact, I can remember the last time I saw it because it was February 14th. Despite a maudlin premise, I thought it would be a great Valentine’s Day film choice because it is a simply exquisite and romantic experience.

Peter Falk is Griffin, and he’s just been given a very short time to live. After a misguided attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife and kids, he heads to LA to spend his last days as quietly as possible. Sara Phoenix is 34 going on spinster, and she aimlessly travels from place to place after each failed romance. She is diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer, and she also finds herself heading to LA to… well, I don’t think she knows exactly what she’s doing just yet. She ends up meeting Griffin at the community college in a death and dying class. Phoenix is hesitant to get involved with Griffin although it’s obvious they are attracted to each other. After some pursuit, she finally gives in, but both have decided to keep their disease a secret.

Griffin and Phoenix is a romantic comedy which sounds like it has no romance or comedy in it at all, and that’s the magic of this film, which takes on death and makes it seem a little less scary (at least for a while). Aside from Clayburgh and Falk’s exceptional performances, credit should also be given to producers Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt who not only worked on several other made for TV movies together (including the famous tearjerker Brian’s Song), but also collaborated on SOAP which always managed to move the audience from hysterical laughter to tears. I’m not saying Griffin and Phoenix is exactly hysterical, but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments sandwiched inside the sad story. This was screenwriter John Hill’s first film, and despite being an uncredited writer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his career has fluctuated to varying and odd degrees. Hill also wrote Heatbeeps (!) and Steel Justice, along with a few scripts for television series like Quantum Leap and Diagnosis Murder. His story really comes from the heart, touching on some incredibly poignant and realistic moments.

Peter Falk is simply stunning as Griffin. The fact that he didn’t instantly become a romantic lead after this film shows that even in the edgier 70s, Hollywood was still hesitant to hire unlikely but capable actors in the romance genre. He doesn’t miss a beat as the sensitive and perceptive love interest, and dare I say it? He’s damn sexy in the part too. Falk’s Griffin is haunted by his future, but he’s also led by a passion to make his last days worthwhile to himself. He looks for the little, and often childish, joys in life, such as flying a kite or jumping a train, and he teaches Phoenix to revel in those minor details of happiness instead of wallowing in her own ill fated destiny. Clayburgh is wonderful in the part of Phoenix. Her small screen work often gets overshadowed by her immense theatrical achievements, but she was nominated for an Emmy for her appearance in the excellent tele-film Hustling, and probably should have been nominated here as well. I can only imagine how the original audience perceived Falk in this film, who had already been playing Columbo for five years when it premiered. Griffin and Phoenix was successful enough that it enjoyed a theatrical run overseas under the title is Today is Forever (with a little nudity added to the proceedings!), but mostly it seems this film has been forgotten about. Some attention was brought to it when the story was remade in 2006 with Amanda Peet and Dermot Mulroney. I have no problem with either of those actors, but Griffin and Phoenix is such a holy grail to me, that I was insulted by the fact that someone would remake this movie (without giving much of a nod to the 1976 version) yet the original film remains in limbo, waiting for some kind of DVD release.

Griffin and Phoenix is a film I think about often although I find it very hard to watch now. I’m not sure what made me pull out my old VHS copy in early 2005, and although I found the film to be extremely moving, I can’t pinpoint exactly what compelled me to watch it three times in one week. But just a few months after that peaceful Valentine’s Day my world was turned upside down when both of my parents passed away from cancer about three months apart. I instantly connected with Griffin and Phoenix on a level that I had never expected to, and both Clayburgh and Falk became symbols of my parents, who were also able to finally get in touch with their carefree side when they met. The fact that both actors died fairly close together has only deepened my emotion for this film. Griffin and Phoenix is a truly beautiful movie that deserves a much larger audience.

One of my favorite scenes from Griffin and Phoenix: