THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: AN APPRECIATION

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke) (publicity photo)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke) (publicity photo)

In a huge coincidence, I had rented a DVD box set of the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW just a couple of days before Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. The show was an Emmy Award winning, wonderful comedy that ran on the CBS television network for five seasons, from 1961-1966. A great star, a great ensemble cast, wonderful writing: It had it all and it made one young lady a huge star; just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday when the series debuted, Mary Tyler Moore had a flair for dancing, comedy and… yes, she was quite pretty and had a great smile. The chemistry between Moore and Van Dyke was exceptional.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Rose Marie, DIck Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam) (publicity still)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Rose Marie, DIck Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam) (publicity still)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was written by Carl Reiner, a comedy genius who also played the egotistical TV star, Alan Brady, for whom Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie was the head writer. Rob was (not always so ably) assisted by Rose Marie (as writer Sally Rogers) and the wonderful Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell who could throw jokes and one-liners out as fast as anyone. One of the all time great character actors of the ‘sixties, Richard Deacon played the show’s set-upon producer, Mel Cooley. Deacon is also remembered for his role as perpetual irritant Fred Rutherford on another classic sit-com, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Buddy didn’t care much for Mel and continually lambasted him with funny insults. And, of course, no one can deny that cheery, booming theme song is one of the greatest and most recognized in the history of television. The show, because of its writing and brilliant casting, still stands as a true classic, one of the funniest of any era. Yeah, it’s in “boring old” black and white and laced with mid-sixties nuclear-family-cum-hipster-chic fashion and interior design; still, it doesn’t come off as dated, because it dealt with everyday things in a humorous way that resonates as much today as it did 55 years ago.

MARY TYLER MOORE (Mary Richards' coming-of-age hat toss) (screen still)

MARY TYLER MOORE (Mary Richards’ coming-of-age hat toss) (screen still)

Of course, Mary Tyler Moore became America’s sweetheart as Laura Petrie. She went on to major TV stardom later with the groundbreaking MARY TYLER MOORE series, still considered a defining moment of female empowerment. As with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, the series featured brilliant scripts and a memorable ensemble cast, with Moore’s Mary Richards, a frantic (a trait she shared with Laura) young woman striking a (sometimes unknowing) blow for equality in the male-dominated world of television news. The dancer-turned-actress married future NBC-TV executive Grant Tinker in 1962; the couple formed MTM Enterprises in 1969, producing Moore’s show (and a multitude of spin-offs: RHODA, PHYLLIS and LOU GRANT), as well as innovative television like HILL STREET BLUES, SAINT ELSEWHERE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and, one of my personal favorites, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, among others. Watching these old VAN DYKE episodes was a lot of fun and a great walk down memory lane. Mary told an interviewer in later years that being on the show, surrounded by all those talented performers, was like being in a college for comedy. I couldn’t have said it better.


…AND THE REST: THE DAWN WELLS INTERVIEW

(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

The following interview with Ms Wells was conducted by telephone in Fall 2015 during one of her many publicity jaunts for her latest book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?: A GUIDE TO LIFE. Throughout the chat, Dawn was charming, revealing, appreciative and fun, just the traits you would expect from the gal who created the iconic Mary Ann Summers character on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Dawn is seldom wanting for new projects… she’s an actress in multiple mediums, an author, a designer, a brilliant marketer, in demand for special appearances constantly and, as she says, kind of an “adventurer.” She appreciated the essay I wrote about her, and we talked quite a bit about the GILLIGAN days, as well as plenty of other topics.

THE MULE: Hi Dawn. Pleasure to talk to you again! We met some years before in Columbia.

DAWN: Oh, it was probably the Children’s Miracle Network thing?

THE MULE: Yes, indeed. And you were just delightful then, also.

DAWN: Well, what you wrote about me was so lovely. As a fan, you could see the depth of that character and it was really sweet, all the things you said.

THE MULE: I just felt very strongly that you were the heart of the show. You held everything together amidst plotlines that were often preposterous. Not sure anyone else could have done that.

DAWN: That’s the reason that Mary Ann has sustained for so long. And she really has. There are no Mary Ann’s today.

THE MULE: Well, one reason I knew I was onto something with my premise is because I spoke to some female friends about the show and its longevity. And to a one, they said you were their favorite character. Maybe that isn’t so surprising.

DAWN: I’d have been their friend!

THE MULE: Right. Well, let’s talk a bit about your new book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?. What led you to the writing of this book?

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

DAWN: It was the fans! 80% of the men I meet say, “I married a Mary Ann.” Or, “Mary Ann would have been my partner.” You’d have to have been pretty sophisticated to say that as a young man. The grownups say that they married Mary Ann, and they have their kids with them. Which made me think, there is something to this character that still resonates. Then I went into, Why? What is it about her? As funny as it may seem, I was raised by a Mary Ann mother. In Reno, Nevada. Where there’s legal prostitution! As far away from Kansas as you can be! But it was the morality, the manners, the work ethic, that my mother raised me with. And no matter where you are, it doesn’t make any difference. It was my mother’s influence on me. And I was talking to someone recently, I asked, “Why didn’t I run away? Or go out and drink with my buddies or something like that, like the kids are doing today?” And it’s because I respected my mother. And nobody can teach respect. My parents were divorced. And that’s what I talk about in the book. I had two families that loved me. My mother and father… I never heard a negative word from either of them about each other. My dad would say, “I think your mother needs a washing machine… what do you think?” And then she would ask me something. Raising me was the emphasis in their relationship. And again, that depends on the parents. You know, if you come from a bitter home, you’re listening to what’s around you. And I never had any of that. I really was raised to be a “Mary Ann” and there’s something to be said for that. Today, everybody’s in their room with their computer, nobody knows who they’re talking to or what they’re saying. Nobody has dinner together much anymore. And this bullying? I mean, we had a bunch of kids that I’m sure you’d consider the kids you’d bully maybe. Someone wouldn’t be very good at something but… we loved him anyway. We’ve sort of lost that. I thought this book would be maybe for a mom or a dad or a grandma, to sit down with their kids and read it.

THE MULE: That’s all beautifully expressed, Dawn. I think you’ve really hit on some big things there. You’ve been traveling a lot, and I know you’ve appeared in bookstores and on talk shows and stuff. What has been the response – overall – of people, both the fans and the people who interview you?

DAWN: It’s all positive. I don’t think I have ever had a negative interview.

THE MULE: Really?

DAWN: No, I don’t think so. Well maybe, uh, I don’t know. I did an interview on the Howard Stern show years ago.

THE MULE: Oh, no!

DAWN: I always kind of trusted… and he said we’re gonna do it. And I said okay. Well, it was the most embarrassing thing in the whole world. They did a skit where the Skipper had died and (unintelligible), and Mrs. Howell was pregnant and was played by a guy with a hairy chest. Bob (Denver) and I looked at each other like, Do we walk off or do we continue? But then years later, Howard Stern asked me to be on his radio show, and I said to my PR guy yeah, let me sit down with him for an hour. And I turned him around completely. We got through all of the nonsense right at the beginning. And we ended up talking about the difference between female education and male education in school. And the nitty gritty of who Mary Ann is, which we all know…

THE MULE: Lordy, I’d be terrified to think of the kind of stuff Howard Stern COULD have asked you. (we both laugh) Can you relate an incident or two about fan enthusiasm over the years that stood out? Something more than just, “Oh, you were my favorite character.” Where it maybe surprised you in some way.

DAWN: Well, I tend to get a lot of the same reactions. Some 45-year-old guy will come up, and he’ll bring his 10-year-old daughter. And he wants her to listen to Mary Ann, I think. And they’re not gonna be embarrassed by what I would do. I’m not bra-less, wearing a low-cut gown. So I think they have this trust in what I would say… I mean, I’ve had proposals. Uh, well I did have a cute little thing happen with Nick Nolte. I was doing a show for Australia called “The Castaway Correspondent”. I was interviewing all the people in the movies and everything. And the only person who told me they liked Ginger better than Mary Ann was Robin Williams. (laughs) But Nick Nolte said, “Oh my gosh, you got me through puberty in the nicest of ways!”

THE MULE: That’s a pretty good compliment! In my essay about you, I talked about the fact that you were probably the most popular character on GILLIGAN, that both males and females like you the same, which is amazing. How do you put this in perspective, that you got the most fan mail on the show and continued to be the most popular character years after?

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

DAWN: I really don’t think I was the most popular… I’m sure it would be Gilligan, maybe, or the Skipper. But, I think Mary Ann was relatable. And for you, as a young person growing up watching the show, Ginger was too much! You have to be pretty sophisticated. And Mrs. Howell could have been your grandmother. I think you identified with me because I’d have been your buddy! I’d have been your buddy if I had gone to school with you and you were a guy. I don’t mean to be too modest, but I don’t think it had anything to do with ME. I just think Sherwood Schwartz put these seven people together and took seven personalities… and I think Mary Ann was… I don’t think I carried the show, but she was the center of making everyone pitch in. Y’know, let’s not bully you and let’s get the Skipper on a diet, and make Mister Howell be a little nicer to Mrs. Howell. And I don’t know that it was really in the writing. There were no messages. I think it was the relationships between us all. And there was no jealousy between Mary Ann and Ginger at all!

THE MULE: That’s interesting… that comes up a lot, people wondering about the relationship between you two.

DAWN: I used to think (regarding Tina Louise), gosh, you’re so glamorous. I don’t know, I never had a leopard outfit on before, and I kissed Gilligan and I kissed the Professor and I thought, oh boy, I get to be a girl now. (laughs)

THE MULE: Well, you brought it up, that episode where you played Ginger… what else do you remember about that one? It’s among the most popular with fans, I think. And it showed off your acting chops.

DAWN: Well, she was very sweet, cause she does that little Marilyn Monroe thing with her mouth. That kind of cute little thing… So I’d say, “Now say that again,” so I could kind of imitate her. And I tried to do that. There’s always a Ginger and Mary Ann question, so you’d assume there would be a competition between us. But Ginger… had never had a Thanksgiving dinner! And she said to me… I’m a pretty good cook and my mother is, too… and she said to me, I don’t know if it was our second or third year, but she said, “Would you mind teaching me how to make a Thanksgiving dinner?” And I said “I’d love that!” So she came to my house, and she sat on a stool with a pencil and paper, and my mother did all the shopping. We chopped all the onions and the celery… and she sat there and took notes. And I don’t know if she ever did it. Eight or nine years later, maybe even later, because she had a daughter by that point. And I met Caprice (Crane, Ms Louise’s daughter). And Caprice said to me, “You know how much I love that story about Thanksgiving, how you taught her how to do it?” And I would not have thought Tina would have embraced it that much!

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

THE MULE: That’s a great story! So, there wasn’t any rivalry between you and Tina on the show? Was that just a made-up thing from the fans?

DAWN: I think the fans, at a certain point, decided they had to make a choice, which was silly. Tina was a big movie star. I had just been in the business a couple of years. She’d done GOD’S LITTLE ACRE with Rock Hudson and she’d been on Broadway. She was a beauty. I remember, we started wearing false eyelashes and Tina ordered them from New York. They were $25 a pair. And they were mink. Well, I didn’t know anything about things like that! I watched her… she was very conscious of only wanting to be photographed from the left side. She was very conscious of how she looked best and everything. And I kind of learned a lot from that! She had the experience, I didn’t.

THE MULE: Did you ever get to have input about Mary Ann’s dialogue or story lines on the show?

DAWN: No. No. I don’t think anybody did… Gilligan might have, a little. But we had good writers, and you all had to just stick to the ridiculous plots. I just did what they told me to do, and read the lines.

THE MULE: There’s a particular episode different friends have mentioned, the one where you did a musical version of HAMLET, which was kind of surreal. What do you remember about that one?

DAWN: Oh, yeah. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago, Phil Silvers was our guest star, and I didn’t realize he helped finance the pilot! Sherwood Schwartz and Gladysya Productions. Not until about six months ago did I realize that Gladysya was Phil Silvers! But no, that was fun. That was quite extensive, what they did with the costumes and everything for that one.

THE MULE: I have a friend who, to this day, if I bring up that episode, she’ll break into one of the songs. They stick in your mind!

DAWN: (singing one of the tunes herself) “Neither a borrower nor a lender be!”

THE MULE: Well, you certainly created something very iconic. No doubt about it. So many memorable episodes. What about you and the other cast members? I know you got along really well with Russell Johnson. I loved you two together. You had great chemistry.

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I think we did, too. And we always laughed in that first year about ” …and the rest” (the theme song for the show the first year said ” …and the rest” instead of crediting Wells and Johnson). We’d send each other cards saying “Love, the Rest” for Christmas and birthdays, stuff like that. Bob (Denver) was very private. Very private. He had a lot of children, and he’d come in looking exhausted. There was a childlike soul in Bob. I was one of the few people he allowed in his home. Um, allowed is not the right word. Alan (Hale) was the same size as my dad. So, every time Alan hugged me, he picked me up half off the floor. So there was this big robust, jovial human being there. And he was a good cook. And Natalie (Schafer) and I were very close, especially in later years. I was the least close, probably, to Jim (Backus). I think Jim and Tina were very close, I think they both had that kind of movie star/Hollywood life, which I never did. But Natalie didn’t have any children, and towards the end she confided a lot of things to me. We really were a tight knit cast, though, and I think that shows. I think the charm of the show was that you could kind of tell we all liked each other.

THE MULE: Yes, I agree. There had to be a reason why the show was so popular and never went off the air. Some people don’t realize that, that it has always been on the air, somewhere. People of a certain age still view it with such love and fondness. What’s it like to be part of something so iconic, that people feel such nostalgia for now?

DAWN: You know, it translates easily, into all these other languages. Because you don’t really have to understand any PLOT particularly. And I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. My favorite story… I’m in the Solomon Islands… (she says something about a knee replacement) I’m not an athlete but, I’m an adventurer. Stephens College… went with some of my Stephens College friends to Rwanda, we climbed up to see the gorillas. And I went with five other Stephens women to the Solomon Islands, where no white women have ever been. There was no running water, and no electricity. We had a photographer who had married a Solomon Island girl, so he said, “I’ll take you around.” And, as we canoed up to an island, the chief – his family had been chief for nine generations. And they were all in huts, up on stilts. No running water, no electricity. And he had a little greeting for us. So these young kids did a little dance and as we canoed up to the island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said “I know you.” And I went “WHAT? What are you talking about?” She said “I was on the island of Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands), in 1979, going to nursing school. And I used to come home and watch you in black and white.” In the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

THE MULE: Oh, I can’t believe it. You must have absolutely fallen over!

DAWN: I almost dropped dead! And then the other thing was, we were probably in production for four or five weeks and Sherwood came in with the Coast Guard. Six or seven big mucky-mucks from the Coast Guard. And we stopped filming for a minute or so. And he said “The Coast Guard has something to say to you all.” And I don’t know what the ranks are in the Coast Guard, but the guy said, “We have received several telegrams saying there are seven people stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Why can’t you find them?” Some people believe everything!

Dawn Wells as the giant's maid in the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

Dawn Wells as the giant’s maid in the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

THE MULE: Amazing, truly. Even though the show was a huge hit in syndication, you guys didn’t really get to share in the profits at all, right?

DAWN: Not a dime. I was just talking to Bob Denver’s wife recently and she said, “It just makes me so angry.” We’ve never been off the air, and in how many languages around the world. And we haven’t had one nickel from it! Sherwood Schwartz, I was told, made $90 million on the reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND alone. He could have split it between the seven of us, maybe given us a million, but nope.

THE MULE: And there’s no lawyer out there clever enough to remedy the situation now, maybe?

DAWN: No, cause a lot of other shows have tried that, like F TROOP and stuff like that. But it’s been tried. And that was the contract! That’s what it was. And Jim Backus used to get so angry, like “Hey, you took the part! You knew there weren’t any things along that line.” And how do you go back? You can’t be bitter, that’s stupid. We wouldn’t be known for who we were… so that’s a plus.

THE MULE: Did I read somewhere that a pair of your shorts from the show will be in the Smithsonian?

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

DAWN: They’ve asked me. They want them. And I don’t know whether to do that. I have a family foundation and we have funded a children’s museum in Reno… we are tied to the Smithsonian. So I was going to the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and he was pulling out all the costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they’re all in drawers! I mean, they come out once in a while and display them, but… I don’t know that I want my shorts to be in drawers! I think maybe some fan would rather have them. I still have them, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.

THE MULE: Well, they’re famous! Your shorts, as I mentioned in my essay, came years before the Catherine Bach “daisy dukes” from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, which got so much attention. So, I don’t think you got enough credit!

DAWN: I had to cover my navel, though. I helped design them… I tried to make my legs look longer by making them go up on the sides, and my torso looked longer so I dipped it down on the side but I still had to have that little rise in front so you wouldn’t see my navel!

THE MULE: Still a conversation piece all these years later! Can you just mention a couple of your favorite theatre roles through the years? I know you were in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. I think I told you that my brother Kyle produced the first version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York, a show you were in elsewhere.

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

DAWN: I was not in the New York production, but boy, I love that play. I played Ouiser.(in the Judson Theatre Company production in North Carolina). I did LION IN WINTER. I’m doing a play in Jacksonville, and I’ve been looking at some other things. I just asked the Dramatists Workshop if they ever thought of doing SLEUTH with two women. It took us a long time to get two women to do THE ODD COUPLE. I’m always challenged. I don’t know, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT was about as far from Mary Ann as you could be. However, I gave her the heart of gold. I made her a nice person. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m doing LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE again in Laguna Beach. I’ve had some funny things happen. I was doing OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Dallas, and we had to run down the aisle to the dressing rooms to change clothes. And some guy grabbed me around the thigh, and put me on his lap! (laughing) And of course, it’s black out… y’know, you gotta be changing costumes, and I’m trying to get his hands off me! It was quite an experience.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s a good one. And you’ve also done a fair number of movies… which one was the best experience for you?

DAWN: WINTERHAWK. Because it was so incredibly beautiful, and I had been working with such professional character actors. And we were really in the snow. I mean, I had on pantyhose over my long underwear, and I was bareback on the horse, trying to go up the Rocky Mountains. And my little horse had just a little tuft of his mane. And we started up the hill and my pantyhose would slide back towards the tail. And I tried to grab ahold of his mane. And about a week into it, I said to the director, “Charlie! All the Indians have saddles under their blankets. Why can’t I have a saddle?” He said “It’s too late now, I put ya there without one.” But you really got to have that feeling… and Michael Dante was a wonderful actor in the role… I think that was my favorite. (She also mentions the horror movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which was based on a true story and conjured suspense for both the cast and viewers)

THE MULE: Anything else you are working on now that you’d like to mention?

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I’ve been looking at some plays that I could do, now that I’m more mature. I could do GIN GAME and a few things like that. I’m also in the midst of a cookbook. And, I’ve been asked to do a radio show. And I’d really, really like a radio show, so I am contemplating that… what could be my theme, what could I talk about? I like fans that call in, and having conversations. We’ll be talking seriously about that.

THE MULE: (we talk a little about growing older, and I relate the story of my song “Up In the Air” for the George Clooney movie of the same name, and how I have harbored different impulses myself.)

DAWN: See, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what I always say, you know, “why give up?” Everybody has something to offer in this world, you just gotta do something about it!”

THE MULE: Well Dawn, you have managed to create such good will and a lasting impact from what could have been a less substantial role, and I just admire that so much. Any look at the internet shows how much fans love you. And you’ve managed to stay so positive and accessible through the years. Not every star does.

DAWN: It’s not very hard to be loved. (laughs) I certainly appreciate the admiration. I mean, If you were a secretary somewhere, and somebody was saying, “You did the best job, or you wrote the best blah blah blah,” you’d sort of feel flattered. I do feel flattered, but I also feel a connection. I guess, you know, when you find that many people that… fathers with kids, and passing that down, there must be something connecting us somehow. And I love people. maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change my life.

THE MULE: You preserved something on that show for all time, creating such a lovable character. Something you did transcended the limits of a silly half-hour television show, that’s for sure.

DAWN: Well I wonder, was it the dialogue? Was it my presenting the dialogue? Was it just because I was cast as that character? I don’t know. You can’t put your finger on it..

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells is currently appearing at the Fanboy Expo in Nashville, Tennessee through May 15. Her book WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? is available in bookstores and at Dawn’s website now. You can also keep up-to-date with her upcoming appearances at the site. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND continues its syndication run everywhere, and is probably a popular show on distant planets in outer space by now.


DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ‘em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES

(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT; 2015)

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Since its debut in October, 1961, Carl Reiner’s grand creation, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, has served as a benchmark for quality ensemble comedy… in my humble estimation, matched in quality only by the first two seasons of MASH in the five-and-a-half decades since. The rubbery-boned Van Dyke led the cast as Rob Petrie, the harried head writer for the Alan Brady Show (Brady was played by Reiner himself). Though the show served as a spoof of early television comedy writers, it was also very much a series about family and friends, with the irrepressible Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, occasionally getting herself into some very “Lucy-like” situations, while Rob and Laura dealt out a Ward and June Cleaver type of love, wisdom and guidance to their son, Ritchie (played by Larry Mathews) and, quite often, to Rob’s co-writers, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell, played by comedic geniuses Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam. Though he appeared in about half of the series’ episodes during its five-season run, a highlight was always Richard Deacon’s irascible Mel Cooley, the show’s producer and Brady’s brother-in-law; Deacon was a master at these types of smarmy, borderline sleazy characters… he also played Fred Rutherford (father of Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford) on another classic, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Dick Van Dyke became one of television’s greatest fall guys, as evidenced by one of the greatest opening title sequences ever (introduced at the start of the second season), as well as the consummate straight man with his often bewildered, bemused reactions to the anarchy taking place around him; he also got to show off his Broadway and movie background as a song-and-dance man, either with Ms Moore or as part of the ensemble-within-the-ensemble cast of the Alan Brady Show. His flustered everyman served as template for set-upon husbands and fathers for decades, until the family situation comedy paradigm began to shift in the late ’90s. Even though it was obvious that the adorable Moore had comedic chops aplenty and generally played Laura as smart and confident, it would have been almost inconceivable that she would become head of the powerful MTM Enterprises later in her career; one of her most endearing catch phrases, the quavering, high-pitched lament, “Ohhh, Rob!,” is still recognized virtually the world over. The comedic timing and phrasing of former vaudeville pro Rose Marie, radio performer and writer Morey Amsterdam and veteran character actor Richard Deacon (whose character, Mel Cooley, was the butt of Amsterdam’s Buddy Sorrell’s one-line barbs) was impeccable. Whether the plot showed off the Petrie’s family life at home or Rob’s manic office job, you were guaranteed a quality script and incredible acting.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

Now, just in time for Christmas, RLJ Entertainment has released the entire series (158 episodes, clocking in at just under 66 hours of classic comedy), newly remastered from the original 35 millimeter negatives, in a twenty-five disc box set, filled with plenty of extras (including the original pilot, “Head of the Family”). The set is priced at just below two-hundred bucks (which is in line with the suggested forty dollar price tag for individual season sets), but I’ve seen it available for as low as a C-note, so do some shopping to find the best price and… treat yourself with a great Christmas present this year with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES… You will thank yourself for being so kind and thoughtful.


TO PROTECT AND SERVE: THE DAVID KEITH INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTERVIEW

David Keith (publicity photo)

David Keith (publicity photo)

So, the press release for the independent action flick AWAKEN shows up in my inbox and, I’m thinking, “Okay… the premise sounds promising but, I’m so afraid it’s gonna be nothing more than a distaff version of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.” But, then, the clincher… the movie features one of my favorite character actors, David Keith. And… he’s doing interviews! How could I possibly turn this one down?

Obviously, I couldn‘t and… I didn’t. So, before we take an in-depth look at the movie, here’s my conversation with actor David Keith. While Mister Keith may not really be as intense as many of his characters, he is nonetheless a passionate performer and a compassionate human being.

THE MULE: It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Since you’re on a little bit of a schedule here, let’s talk about AWAKEN and then a couple of other questions. How did you become involved in this project?

DAVID: The producer, Natalie Burn, is an old friend of mine and she asked if I would do her a favor and come play a small role in the movie.

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: You said “small role.” It is a rather small role but, in my mind anyway, fairly pivotal to the story.

DAVID: Yeah… you can’t really harvest organs without a surgeon.

THE MULE: Right. I didn’t wanna give anything away. I guess I shoulda read the back of the box… it may very well tell us what the bad guys are kinda up to. I got the feeling that, possibly, your character wasn’t so much into the way things were being done, but you were just there to help where you could.

DAVID: Well, all he’s washed up. He’s probably lost his license, he’s a drunk and he’s just trying to live out the rest of his days, making some money. But, he does want to do it right. If it’s going to be done, he certainly has given up on the moral question of what he’s doing but, he doesn’t want these kids brought in dead, ’cause then the organs die. He wants to harvest the organs while the person’s still breathing. Dead makes it a little worse; that makes his job work better… you take a live organ over somebody who’s dead or beaten up.

THE MULE: So, this whole thing… there are bad-assess wall-to-wall. I mean, from, I guess, former bad-asses to current bad-asses to future bad-asses… everybody just kinda comes in and pretty much kicks butt and worries about the fall-out later. It’s gotta be fun to work on something that’s almost wall-to-wall action.

DAVID: Well, of course, I represent the part where there isn’t much action. Most of the fighting and action that you see went on when I wasn’t on set. Now, there were some fight scenes shot while I was waiting to shoot my scenes, so I saw a couple of those things. I was only there three or four days and those were the days that they were shooting my scenes, which was a lot more dialogue. I was involved in the dialogue scenes more than in the action.

THE MULE: Okay. So, you didn’t get to actually partake, so to speak, of any of the bad-assery.

DAVID: Not really. No.

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I’ve gotta tell you that one of my all-time favorite episodes of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT is the one that you played the character “Hawk.”

DAVID: Yeah… I was kind of hoping they would make a spin-off of that character.

THE MULE: Yeah. It could have been a recurring character or a spin-off.

DAVID: I did do another LAW AND ORDER after that but, it was CRIMINAL INTENT and a completely different character.

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: You have done… so many great things through the years and, I guess, what may be the ultimate chick flick, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Do you have any favorite roles or favorite movies or TV series that you’ve worked on through the years?

DAVID: Yes. My favorite role was Elvis Presley in HEARTBREAK HOTEL because I’m a frustrated rock star and I got to the singing myself, go into a recording studio and perform onstage. My two favorite television shows were THE CLASS, which was a sit-com, 2006 and 7 and that was just really a riot… an absolutely hilarious show that didn’t make it. And then, LONE STAR, which was probably the best writing of any project I’ve ever worked on… in any medium. And, that show… a few episodes on Fox and then it got yanked. It was brilliant. Basically, those were the shows that were pearls before swine, in my opinion. They were too smart for the average television audience.

THE MULE: That seems to happen a lot.

DAVID: Um-hm. It has to achieve a certain level of mediocrity in television if you’re going to be successful.

THE MULE: Maybe it’s because people just can’t commit to something like that. Know what I mean?

DAVID: They want to multitask. They need to be able to take phone calls while the show’s on or go get a sandwich. And, if it’s multifaceted and has any sort of depth or texture or tapestry to it, then it demands your full attention. If you make a television show that’s as good as a movie, you’re not gonna want to get up and go get your popcorn. That was the fate of both of those shows, I think. Too smart, too clever.

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Too nuanced for their own good. So, where are you headed after this… after AWAKEN? Do you have anything else lined up?

DAVID: Well, I’ve had some minor medical issues that kept me out of show business for the past few months but, there’s always something around the corner. I’m enjoying being a Mister Mom.

THE MULE: That’s a completely different lifestyle, isn’t it?

DAVID: Right. I also work for a charity called National Association To Protect Children or protect.org. That’s basically what I do with most of my time now.

THE MULE: That’s great. I know you have another interview in a few minutes, so I’ll let you go. Just let me say that I like the movie… like watching the old stuff on TV or DVDs and I really appreciate your time.

DAVID: Alrighty. Thanks.

PART TWO: THE REVIEW

AWAKEN

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/7HEAVEN PRODUCTIONS/ARCHSTONE PICTURES (89 minutes; Rated R); 2015)

Awaken_2D

Billie Kope (played by Natalie Burn, whose most high-profile appearance to date is probably THE EXPENDABLES 3), on a search for her sister, who disappeared in Mexico, finds herself alone and very confused when she wakes up on the beach of a remote island. As she begins to regain her bearings, she is surprised by the screams of a frightened young woman; nearly walking to a trap, she is saved and befriended by a group of people who have also been kidnapped and transported to the island for some nefarious reason. This group is populated by a number of well-known character actors, including Phillip Tan (as Todd), Edward Furlong (as Berto), Augie Duke (as Chloe) and Robert Davi (as Quintin). As Billie soon learns, her abduction (and those of the others) are linked to a sinister group of black ops soldiers, who are seemingly hunting them merely for the sport of it. What’s really happening is an intricate organ harvesting operation involving – and you had to see this one coming – her sister, Kat (Chrisa Campbell).

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

The plot – a twist on the Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” – is one that’s turned up over and over again in movies, television (including an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, with Rory Calhoun starring as “The Hunter”), literature and comic books but, with enough of a spin to keep it interesting. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the cast is filled with recognizable faces (if not names): Vinnie Jones as the ruthless black op leader, Michael Pare as his second in command, Jason London as the head of the organ harvesting cartel and Michael Copon as the love interest/hero of the piece. Daryl Hannah appears as Mao, a “customer” searching for a liver donor with the proper chi for her daughter; her performance is over-the-top and cartoonish, the one weak link in an otherwise solid cast. Conversely, David Keith, as Walsh, the disgraced doctor hired to perform the surgeries, gives a nuanced, believeable performance as he struggles with what his life has become and, ultimately, with saving as many lives as he can to atone for his past (and current) indiscretion. Miss Burn (who is also writer, producer, casting director, as well as doing her own stunts) is definitely easy on the eyes, kinda like a cross between Lucy Lawless and Juliette Lewis, only… softer.

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

The action sequences tend to work better than the rest of the story, especially the dialogue which occasionally borders on the soap-ish (as in operas). The one exception is the final shoot-out, which like Miss Hannah’s acting, comes across rather like cartoon violence (but, honestly… I do likes me some mindless cartoon violence). Having said that, AWAKEN does manage to engage and hold your attention; the actors are certainly nice to look at (with the possible exceptions of Jones and Daz Crawford as Stitch). The movie works equally well as an action/adventure dude’s night-in, as a chick flick or even as a date night feature. Some of the concepts may be to advanced for kids younger than twelve and the R rating is due to the violence. My recommendation? Suspend all semblance of believability and strap yourself in for a fun ride. AWAKEN is available in digital, DVD and Video-On-Demand.


THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM COLLECTION

(IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (747 minutes; Unrated); 2015)

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I’ve never been a big fan of musicals… ain’t gonna apologize for it… it’s just the way things have always worked in my brain-pan. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about them. For instance, when the name Sondheim is evoked, I know that he is one of the most celebrated composers of our lifetime, responsible for some of the most well-known musicals (and individual numbers) ever.

Stephen Sondheim, 2010 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/HENNY RAY ABRAMS)

Stephen Sondheim, 2010 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/HENNY RAY ABRAMS)

Just take a look at the offerings on this massive six disc celebration of the life and influential music of the legendary Stephen Sondheim: INTO THE WOODS (way before Disney got their hands on it, this AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE version is from 1991 and stars most of the original Broadway cast, including Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason… so, bonus points for NO Johnny Depp!); SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (another AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE production – from 1986 – and starring Mandy Patinkin and, once again, the sublime Bernadette Peters); COMPANY (an all-star cast headed by Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone and Jon Cryer, performing on stage with the New York Philharmonic in 2011); SWEENEY TOOD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET IN CONCERT (recorded in 2001, with George Hearn, LuPone and Harris in the leads and, again, thankfully, Depp free!). Also included are 2010’s SONDHEIM: THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT, celebrating the lyricist’s 80th birthday, with appearances by just about everyone listed above, David Hyde Pierce (Master of Ceremony) and Sondheim’s long-time collaborator, Paul Gemignani conducting the New York Philharmonic and FOLLIES IN CONCERT, a 1985 film documenting the one night revival of 1971’s FOLLIES, from the first rehearsals to the final curtain call and featuring such luminaries as Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Hearn, Patinkin and more.

So, while there is nothing new here (aside from the packaging and some much-needed re-mastering), it is a chance to get a whole lot of Stephen Sondheim’s best work in one place for a decent price ($129). Plus, with the Disney version of INTO THE WOODS sending most of the female tween population into a frenzy, this is a nice way to introduce them to a more grounded version of that show and, maybe, get them interested in real theater. You can pre-order the box set at all of the usual online places or hunt it down when it’s released on April 14, 2015.


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9″) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9″). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.


EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY): A MEMOIR

(Ron Perlman with Michael Largo; 297 pages; DE CAPO PRESS/PERSEUS BOOKS GROUP; 2014)

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I’ve always liked Ron Perlman’s quirky choices of roles… especially HELLBOY. His voice is immediately recognizable, with a depth of emotion and a sonorous quality that defines the man every bit as much as his character studies… maybe more. When I saw that he was writing his memoir, I was stoked to wander around through the noodle of one of the most adventurous actors of the past 35 years. I wasn’t disappointed with the journey. Well, not much.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

Like many of us, Ron Perlman grew up in a home where the Dad went above and beyond to give his kids the kind of life that he didn’t have; like many of us, Ron Perlman was not an exceptional child and was bullied and abused at school; like many of us, Ron Perlman’s parents made him a better person (not just a more successful person); like many of us, Ron Perlman has taken what he learned from his parents and made a better life for his children. Unlike most of us, Ron Perlman did everything in front of the world. The story he tells is poignant, funny and irreverent; it’s the story of a young kid dealing with a nearly crippling lack of self worth and how, as an adult, he has learned to live with – even embrace – these feelings of inadequacies.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

A young Perlman was infected by the acting bug in high school when, as a member of the swim team, his coach picked him to try out for the school play because they needed bodies and his body wasn’t getting a lot of time in the water at swim meets. In college, he was offered an internship as a production assistant with a very, very off-Broadway company that would occasionally take their show on the road. Ron was on the road when his girlfriend and his cousin came to deliver the word that his father had died; he immediately went home to help his mother with his older brother, a man incapacitated by manic depression (years later, at 39, Les Perlman committed suicide). So, like his father before him, Ron Perlman put his dreams and aspirations on the back burner because that’s what families do. All of this is told in a forthright, warts-and-all narrative in Ron’s inimitably… uh… flowery turn of phrase.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

Perlman (ably assisted by Michael Largo) is fearless in his assessment of his career (and, for long spans of time, lack thereof). When he was cast in the 1981 movie QUEST FOR FIRE, he was certain he was on his way to being a household name; his next job didn’t come until three years later, when he was cast in the STAR WARS spoof, THE ICE PIRATES. That has seemed to be Ron’s career trajectory: A defining moment in front of the camera followed by long lulls when the actor was doubting his choice of career followed by a job he would take to put food on the table. He seemed to be getting typecast in an odd sort of way, also; as varied as most of his early roles were, nearly all of them buried Ron’s face in makeup and prosthetics, including his next big role, as Salvatore in THE NAME OF THE ROSE. The role that defined him for quite a few years, Vincent in the highly successful CBS television series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, was one he told his agent to pass on because he was tired of his face being an artist’s canvas for four hours every day. When things weren’t happening in front of the camera, Perlman started getting work behind a microphone, doing voice-overs and cartoons.

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

A life-long working relationship and friendship was formed in 1992 when Ron was told that a guy named Guillermo del Toro wanted him to star in a movie called CRONOS and was anxious to meet the actor. As fate would have it, that meeting led to the two working together several more times, including BLADE II, PACIFIC RIM and, of course, HELLBOY and its sequel (another is rumored to be in the works). His work as the lead character in the HELLBOY movies directly led to his being cast in the FX series, SONS OF ANARCHY. Guillermo has had a great calming effect on Ron, helping him to keep his feelings of inadequacy in check (Perlman has been diagnosed with clinical depression, a lesser form – though equally as debilitating – than his brother suffered from). The other calming effect in his life has been his family; he’s been with his wife, Opal, since 1976 (they married in 1981) and they have two kids, Blake and Brandon. Opal was by his side through some of the leanest of Perlman’s lean years and continues to be a solid pillar for him to lean on. When he speaks of Opal and his children, you can tell he has a deep and abiding love for his family and an undying respect for the woman who has stayed with him through thick and thin.

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY) is a wild ride through the life of one of Hollywood’s true characters and, as mentioned, Perlman does not pull a single punch. The only problem I find in the book is in the final two chapters, in which Ron does the standard Hollywood political stance thing. I’m not gonna tell you which side I come down on as regards the last few residents of the White House, but I do find it disingenuous and more than a little unfair to label everyone who didn’t vote for our President a racist; I don’t agree with that assessment. I think my real objection here is that, unless I’m reading a biography or autobiography about a political figure, I don’t particularly want to read about someone’s political leanings. Nothing personal… I feel the same way about political statements coming from the stage of a nightclub, too… or from the pulpit. It seems to me that a celebrity making their political thoughts known is well on the way to alienating half of their audience. And, with Ron Perlman, that would be a shame because I believe that he really is one of the good guys.


A LIFE WELL LIVED: THE LOWELL THOMAS INTERVIEW

PART 1: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

I am a big fan of classic television. In many cases (oh, alright… most cases), I was around for the original airings of these shows, which includes the five season run (1962-1967) of COMBAT!, the World War II military drama starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. However, being quite young (at least for the first two or three seasons) and very rarely in control of the sole black and white set in the home, I didn’t see a single episode of COMBAT! during its original run. I was actually introduced to this incredible series a few years after its initial run when it was shown on a local UHF station as part of a midday block with THE RAT PACK. I would actually walk (run) home from school for lunch to catch as much of the show as I possibly could before I had to hoof it back for more learnin’ and, during summer vacation, I was glued to the set while COMBAT! was on. Of course, the program has been rerun from time to time throughout the ensuing decades and, now, you can own the entire series on DVD (no word on a blu-ray release, though).

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

I‘m also a big fan of those family-friendly, ultimately loopy Disney movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. To be more specific, I was actually enamored of Hayley Mills. I had a huge crush on her when I was a kid (and, truth be told, she stills looks amazing at nearly 70). One of my favorites from that bizarre, undoubtedly trip-induced Disney canon was THAT DARN CAT. And that, my friends, is where Disney and COMBAT! intersect. A young actor named Tom Lowell was featured prominently in the first two seasons of COMBAT! and also appeared in THAT DARN CAT with Hayley Mills (he was also in THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BOATNIKS for Disney, as well as guest spots on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BONANZA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and too many others to name… for that, check out his page at www.imdb.com). I’ve been watching those COMBAT! DVDs that I mentioned earlier and, after reading of the death this past January of cast member Pierre Jalbert (he played Caje for the entire run of the series), I went looking for information about the other COMBAT! regulars. That search led me to Lowell Thomas, the very same actor from those Disney movies that I loved as a kid. Sending a blind introduction via e-mail explaining who I was and that I was interested in interviewing him about his career, particularly his COMBAT! days, Mister Thomas very graciously consented.

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Mister Thomas, you are currently the Director of Theater Arts at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. As a young man, what opportunities were available to you in high school and college? How do your experiences as a student affect your work as an instructor?

LOWELL: I had a very supportive family and teachers in both high school as well as college. My father was the head of the Speech and Drama Department at Cal State Sacramento, and both he and my mother were supportive.

THE MULE: For your acting career, you flipped your name. Lowell Thomas became Tom Lowell. What prompted the change?

LOWELL: I had to change my name because “Lowell Thomas” was a famous newscaster/journalist/film narrator/developer of Cinerama, who was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and there is a rule in the Guild that you cannot have the same name as anyone else. So my agent just turned my name around.

THE MULE: Obviously, most people will recognize you as Private Billy Nelson, a role you played for three years, in the television series, COMBAT! And, that’s what has brought us to this interview. However, you did produce a solid and memorable body of work in a relatively short period of time: guest-starring roles in several still-popular-today series; a stint on the soap, DAYS OF OUR LIVES; several movies, including four for Disney. As the bulk of this interview will focus on your days on COMBAT!, before delving into that, which of these roles stick out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, from an acting standpoint, as well as a more personal level… relating to the people you worked with.

LOWELL: There were several roles that were the most enjoyable. A couple of the GUNSMOKE episodes; THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, directed by Mark Rydell; THAT DARN CAT; but, most of all COMBAT!. COMBAT!, because of the relationship between the guys on the show – we all became family.

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE MULE: In the last couple of decades, a lot of actors have made the decision to make Disney or Disney style movies… family and kid friendly movies… for their children. Are you proud of your work with Disney, especially as your kids or grandchildren hit that age group that would understand and enjoy those movies?

LOWELL: I’m very proud of the work I did at Disney and, yes, those were the first films with which my grandchildren became acquainted.

THE MULE: Even though you continued to work in front of the screen, on a limited basis, you eventually moved behind the camera, working on commercials at first before working on and developing several series for different networks, stations and companies. Did you always have the desire to produce or was it something that came later? How did your experience on-screen help you in your move to the producer’s chair? What major differences do you think exist between acting and producing?

LOWELL: I became a commercial producer out of necessity – I was unable to make the transition from “teen actor” (which I played into my 30s), to adult, and had trouble finding work. I was offered a position as a commercial producer at that time and took it. But my time as an actor helped me in the production area.

THE MULE: Billy Nelson, your character from COMBAT!, died in your first appearance. Later, obviously, like Lazarus, Private Nelson was resurrected. Why did the producers, first of all, decide to make the character a one-and-done and, what was involved in the decision to bring you back as a regular?

LOWELL: Yes, supposedly, Billy died in the opening episode, with Tab Hunter. That was the initial concept. However, I had already done three more by the time that one was aired, because Burt Kennedy, the producer/writer/director who created the character, enjoyed the relationship between Billy and Littlejohn and convinced the series producers that they needed the character of Billy. Soon, Billy and Littlejohn became the “comedy relief” of the show. And yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THE MULE: I don’t think that chemistry within an ensemble can be faked. Likewise, I think that ensembles without a certain chemistry can’t pull off a comradeship that simply does not exist. It seems that the main group of actors on COMBAT! had a genuine fellowship on set. Am I wrong? How deep did that commitment to the core group of seven actors go? Did those relationships last past your time on the show?

LOWELL: Yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve read and heard from several sources that Vic Morrow was one of the most generous actors that they had ever worked with. Obviously, Vic and Rick Jason were the leads. What memories do you have from your time on-screen and off of those two gentlemen?

LOWELL: Vic was a very generous actor and would help (especially a young actor just starting out) at any time. I once asked him, in my naivete, what it felt like to be a “star.” He said he wasn’t a star, he was a “comet” – that he’d burn brighter, but have a shorter life span than a star! How prophetic. Rick was a solid “movie star.” Having been raised in the studio system, he generated a great deal of respect.

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

THE MULE: The show was known for a certain gritty realism in dealing with its scenes of war, as well as moral issues and personal relationships. Can you tell us about your favorite episodes and why they stand out? How about some episodes that may stick out in your mind as clunkers?

LOWELL: I guess the most favorite episodes were those that Dick and I had some of our comedy scenes – those written by Burt Kennedy. We had several times in which the show was short, Burt would whip up a three-minute comedy scene the night before and hand it to us in the morning. We’d fool with it for an hour or so and shoot it – we knew it was good by the reaction of the crew the minute it was over – they’d break out into laughter! I also loved the ones in which I got some dramatic chops – great for the ego.

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 ("The Bridge At Chalons") guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 (“The Bridge At Chalons”) guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

THE MULE: Besides the regulars, you also worked with an impressive set of guest-stars. Who were your favorites to work with?

LOWELL: We had many guest stars but, the one that impressed me and intimidated me was Lee Marvin. In the episode, Marvin is severely wounded and Sergeant Saunders and I are carrying him on a stretcher through the woods (the back lot at MGM) when I tripped on a rock and the stretcher slipped out of my hands, dropping Lee to the ground. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I just dropped Lee Marvin on his head!!!!!” I thought he’d get up and clobber me, so I began to profusely apologize and he said: “Don’t apologize, kid – don’t ever apologize!” I thought that was cool.

THE MULE: Likewise, you worked with some great writers and directors, who went on to do more impressive work. Do you have any memories of working with guys like Richard Donner and Robert Altman?

LOWELL: Yes, I worked with Dick Donnor and Bob Altman, both interesting and intense directors. Donnor got me on the first day of shooting – we rehearsed a scene and he turned to me and, with a deadpan face, said: “You really gonna do it like that?!” I was stunned – then the rest of the guys burst out laughing – “Got th’ kid again!!” You see, I really was “Billy Nelson.”

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I know you attended a TWILIGHT ZONE convention in 2006. Would you consider doing another convention, like Comic-Con or something highlighting classic television?

LOWELL: I’ve attended three TWILIGHT ZONE conventions and they were very enjoyable… and, yes, I’d certainly be interested in doing another – Comic Con or Television classics.

THE MULE: Do you ever get the itch to get in front of the camera again?

LOWELL: Yes, I’d love to do more TV or movies. I have, over the past few years, done some plays locally and have just completed a leading role in an animated feature, HERO OF COLOR CITY. So, yes, I’m ready.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE MULE: You’ve made a tremendous impact on people like me who remember (and still enjoy) COMBAT! But, at the end of the day, how do you want people to remember Lowell Thomas?

LOWELL: How do I want to be remembered – I just hope I’ve had the same kind of impact on my students that Professor Fowler (Donald Pleasance), in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Changing of the Guard,” had on his.

THE MULE: Thanks you so much for your time and for all the years of enjoyment that you’ve provided to TV and movie geeks like me.

LOWELL: Thanks for remembering.


THE STORY OF MEDICINE: PAIN, PUS AND POISON

(ATHENA VIDEO/ACORN MEDIA GROUP; 2 DVD, 2014)

Story of Med_product

Originally produced for the BBC, these programs (or, as they say in Britain, “programmes”) are interesting and accessible to any audience. This set will be well appreciated if you are a documentary fan and want to see how modern medical science has developed in three important areas.

These three major developments led to modern medicine: the development of anesthesia, of antibiotics and of treatments for poisonings and treatments based on toxins. These topics are effectively presented on this two DVD set from Athena. With an interesting narrative, energetic physician Doctor Michael Mosley provides a detailed history featuring dynamic video and effective graphics.

Pain: How were morphine drugs developed from poppy plants? What is anesthesia? The medical community, at first, refused to even admit the possibility that a medicine could render someone unconscious. In a scene reminiscent of an old horror movie, anesthesia was first demonstrated live in front of a group of surgeons in an arena-like surgical theater on a real patient. A surgery was performed with ether administered to the patient, which led to the anesthetics we have today.

Pus: More than just about the “gross” aspects of infection, this video talks about what kinds of microbes can cause infections and how scientists found ways to cure them. From the first sulfa and penicillin drugs, during World War II, to the present, the major successes and, more often, failures in the fight against infectious diseases are described.

Series Host Doctor Michael Mosley (publicity photo)

Series Host Doctor Michael Mosley (publicity photo)

Poison: Curare, the “poison dart” toxin, was first described by an eccentric Brit named Waterton. It paralyzes breathing. But the body remains conscious. Does that sound creepy? Have you heard of belladonna? The toxin whose name means “beautiful lady.” Its effects include dilation of the pupils, a sign which normally indicates excitement. It was used by women who wanted to appear to be exciting (and excited!). The study of toxins eventually led to the development of chemotherapy for cancer, as well as Botox, used for skin wrinkles by women and men today.

This is the tone of the three programs: They show what really happens in the case of wounds, infections and poisonings. It is fascinating! If these three topics weren’t enough, there is also a bonus video: “Seven Wonders of the Microbe World,” running about 27 minutes, features the single cell organisms that make such indispensable items as cheese, wine and beer! Don’t miss the history and description of the microorganism which causes “black death” and the development of the nursery rhyme we still know today, “Ring around the Rosie!”

Over the past 200 years, human life expectancy has been extended from a 30 or 40 year lifespan to an age of 80, 90 and beyond. Does this kind of medical history interest you? Do you want to see the 19th century development of modern medicine? Do you read mysteries involving poisonings or are you fascinated by steam-era technology? To see medicine’s past and glimpse its future, see this 2-DVD set of three videos.