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Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

March 5, 2017 2 comments

Nebraska is full of folks with connections to cultural icons. Kevin Simonson of Omaha is such a person. At one time at least he boasted a mere single degree or less of separation from a pair of literary superstars – Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. Now that those writers are gone, Simonson’s connnections to them are admittedly in the past tense but that doesn’t change the fact he personally knew the two men and he got some great stories out of the experiences. Thompson actually counted Simonson as a friend and that friendship earned the Omaha writer great access to the king of Gonzo journalism. Simonson’s interviews with Thompson informed several stories he wrote about him. Though Simonson only met Vonnegut once, it was a memorable encounter he also recorded for posterity. This is my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com) profile of Kevin and his star literary relationships. 

 

Kevin Simonson

On Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like following for his irreverent, self-referential Gonzo-style reporting on America’s underbelly. During his lifetime, he was portrayed in film by Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A Doonesbury character was based on him.

He was already a counterculture icon when Simonson, a Wahoo native, got turned onto his work while a Doane College student. The enterprising Simonson and his brother Mark published an underground newspaper, The Great Red Shark, which evolved into The Reader. They booked Thompson to speak at the University of Nebraska, but the author reneged owing to legal troubles with a porno producer (Thompson once managed an X-rated theater). Simonson’s taped interviews with the producer became evidence in legal proceedings that saw felony weapons charges against Thompson dismissed. Leveraging Thompson’s gratitude, Simonson gained access to interview him several times over the years for such national pubs as the Village Voice, Hustler, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone.

“The hardest thing was just getting him to commit. With him, it wasn’t a sit-down interview. It was like, click-on-the-recorder and he’d go crank up some music for a half-hour, to where you couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t sit still very long. I’d get a few questions in here and there, then he’d take a phone call or go outside and shoot his guns off. It would stretch on for hours.”

Interviewing Thompson could be a real trip.

Deciphering his low, quiet, gravelly voice—near unintelligible when stoned—required asking Thompson to recreate what he said.

Simonson entered Thompson’s trusted inner circle. Several times he visited the author at his infamous Owl Creek Farm in Aspen, Colorado, a scene of odd characters and goings-on. He ascribes losing his former fiancee to getting her a job as Thompson’s assistant. The assorted weirdness freaked her out, and she and Simonson split.

He was so deeply immersed in Thompson lore, he says, “Anything he talked about, I could talk about. I sort of knew him inside-out. The first time I walked into his house, it was like walking into a museum. I looked around and recognized things from certain books or stories.”

Simonson finally did get Thompson to speak in Lincoln (in the spring of 1990, a month after the original booking date). Typical for Thompson, he ran hours late and took the stage, presumably under the influence. People were variously delighted or outraged.

“I grew up with Spy Magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live, and I thought his writing was the funniest stuff ever done. You could turn to any page and there was something laugh-out-loud funny about it. That’s what attracted me to it,” Simonson says.

Thompson, too, represented a refreshing, unfiltered, unapologetic voice and uninhibited, nonconformist lifestyle. “It was his bad- boy attitude and the way he would do things in public and not be even remotely self-conscious about the repercussions,” he says.

Simonson’s widely published work includes authoring and co-editing Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson  He’s helped build the cult of personality around the writer. Even in death, Thompson’s mystique grows larger with every new book and film out on him.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Simonson, who has also managed bars and done marketing and promotions work for Boston University (during a few years on the East Coast) and KFAB and Clear Channel Radio in Omaha. He was the original managing editor of The Reader, where some of his Thompson work has appeared.

As Thompson’s health declined, he talked suicide, but Simonson and others were surprised when he fatally shot himself in 2005. Simonson was among 250 invited guests at a surreal Owl Creek memorial celebration. In the shadow of a towering Gonzo statue, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon. Booze ran freely. A film crew captured it all.

When not chasing literary dreams, Simonson manages a golf course in Fremont, where he directs a 5K mud run. He possesses much Thompson memorabilia (taped interviews, faxes, photos, keepsakes). His “most prized possession” is a Fear and Loathing first edition inscribed with a personal note by Thompson and an original caricature by illustrator and frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Simonson feels fortunate he got close to Thompson and rues his loss.

“I feel really lucky. There’s definitely a void in the literary and even entertainment community with him gone. He definitely made a huge mark on the whole pop culture scene. I miss talking to him. It was always an event when he had a new release out.”

Thompson was not the only late literary giant with whom Simonson was acquainted.

The Simonson brothers, Kevin and Mark, brought literary star Kurt Vonnegut to lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1991. To their surprise, he readily agreed to an interview in a local strip club.

“Compared with Hunter, he [Vonnegut] was like hanging out with Mark Twain. He was funny and so easy to talk to,” Simonson says. His Vonnegut interview ran in the December 2016 issue of Hustler.

Visit facebook.com/conversationswithhuntersthompson to learn more about Simonson’s book. Visit5kthehardway.com to learn about his (non-literary) work with Nebraska’s Mud Run.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Touched by Tokyo: Hairstylist to the Stars Tokyo Stylez

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Born William Jackson, this Omaha native is known to the world today as Tokyo Stylez. His “Touched by Tokyo” tagline follows this hair stylist to the stars wherever he goes. His ability to make clients look fabulous and feel glamorous for photo shoots and red carpet events, combined with his own singular, striking appearance, has him on the fast track to fame and fortune. Tokyo’s mother, Nebraska girls basketball legend Jessica Haynes-Jackson, is a friend of mine whose life story I am due to tell in a book. Beauty and hoops run in this family. So does a history of deaths by gun violence. This story doesn’t get into all that, but the book I’m doing with Jessica will. Despite hardship and tragedy, its a family of great resilience. Their collective and individual stories offer inspiration. Tokyo is their shining star and Mom and Co. couldn’t be any prouder. This is my profile of Tokyo in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Tokyo4

Touched by Tokyo

Hairstylist to the Stars Tokyo Stylez

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Alain Nana Kwango
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

If you don’t consider Omaha a beauty-style launching pad, think again. Homegrown talents Jaime King and Gabrielle Union tear it up on screen, in photo spreads, and for the red carpet. Designer Kate Walz has a Paris collection to her credit. But no one’s trending hotter than hairstylist-to-the-stars William Jackson, aka Tokyo Stylez.

This lithe young man with striking African-American and Native American features is courted for his dope skills with tresses.

“Hair is the new accessory now,” he says.

It all began in Omaha doing his family’s hair. It morphed into an enterprising hustle that became his calling and career. Based in Washington D.C., he’s a bicoastal creative with a celebrity client list: Lil’ Kim, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, Gabrielle Union, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.

“It’s all about building relationships and a trust that you can create their image—their look—and bring it to life for them,” he says.

Tokyo2He’s signed to make over a TV-publishing icon. He’s close to realizing a dream of doing hair for divas Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher. He appears on TLC’s Global Beauty Masters. He tours, giving tutorials. His “Touched by Tokyo” brand features a hair fragrance mist and custom wigs.

It’s all happening so fast. But he’s ready for it.

“Right now is my time, and I just have to capture it and take things to the next level,” he says in his sweet, soft voice.

He feels his versatile chops set him apart.

“I’m like a big creative ball wrapped in one. I have a little bit of everything. You want to take it to the street, I can take you there. If you want soft, chic, and classy, I can do that. If you want a little high fashion. I do that, too. I’m just out of this world. Anything you want, I’ll do. I plan to be the next Paul Mitchell,” he says without brag.

His dreams got fired at 9 when his mother, Jessica Haynes-Jackson, was incarcerated. Some bad choices led to being caught up in a drug ring. She got busted and served several months in prison. While confined, Tokyo and his siblings lived with their father. Before going in, she says, “I asked Tokyo to take care of sissy’s hair while mommy was away. He was delighted and gracefully accepted the challenge. I knew he could do at least one ponytail, and that was all I expected.”

Except he proved a prodigy, replicating what he saw his hairdresser grandma and his mom create—braids, twists, French rolls.

He says, “I picked it up really quick. That’s kind of where I got an idea I knew what I was doing.”

When his mother was released, he couldn’t wait to show her his handiwork.

Tokyo1“She had never seen it. She’d only heard my grandmother telling her, ‘He’s killing it.’ So to show her and to see the look on her face was a great feeling.”

“This was how we discovered his amazing talent that now the whole world enjoys,” Haynes-Jackson says.

By 15, he made a name for himself doing hair. Meanwhile, his mother earned two degrees, became a mental health counselor, and coached. She is his biggest fan and inspiration.

“She’s always supported me and loved everything I’ve done. She’s an awesome lady. She is very independent. She’s never really asked anyone for anything. She’s always found a way to make things happen. I definitely would say I’ve inherited my drive from her.”

“I think what I love most about Tokyo is his warm, gentle spirit,” his mom says. “He is the same person despite his celebrity status. I think what touched my heart the most is when he traveled with his ‘Glam Squad’ to give a teenage girl battling a rare cancer a surprise makeover for her prom. I am a very proud mom.”

Tokyo’s travels have gone international. Life in the fast lane means dropping everything to do high profile gigs with tight deadlines.

He got an early taste of being a coveted stylist in school.

“Everyone came to me to get their hair done—girls and boys. My mom’s friends and clients. Their daughters. I was in such high demand it was crazy. People would be passing me notes, ‘Hey, can you do my hair after school?’ It was always something. But I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

Tokyo3With “a very steady clientele, the money was coming in,” he says. An attempt at a dancing career led to taking Tokyo as his stage name.  Seeking a bigger market as a stylist, he moved to Atlanta where he rebranded as Tokyo Stylez and blew up on social media. Celeb clients followed. In D.C. he’s minutes from New York fashion central and a nonstop flight from L.A.’s entertainment capital.

He plans to have a business presence in Omaha.

“I definitely want something back at home where it came from. It would only be right to do so.”

Meanwhile, he changes perceptions of Omaha wherever he goes.

“People are like, ‘You have black people there?’ I get that every time.”

Visit touchedbytokyo.com for more information.

An Ode to Ali: Forever the Greatest

June 4, 2016 1 comment

An Ode to Ali: Forever the Greatest

©by Leo Adam Biga

When Muhammad Ali burst onto the scene as a provocateur and poet among athletes, he was a revelation. He freely drew from bigger than life sports personas who preceded him to create an image that was one part schtick and one part deeply held personal conviction. Because of his boxing brilliance, his charming demeanor, his bold attitudes, his outspokenness and his genius for using the mass media times he intersected with, he gained an unprecedented platform and emerged as an original among citizen-athletes. Before his arrival there were athletic figures who transcended their sports, such as Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jesse Owens, Bill Tilden, Joe Louis, Babe Didrikson and Jackie Robinson, but none even came close to the impact Ali eventually made. That’s because he was a black man who openly defied the system in support of his own beliefs. His braggadocio and conversion to Islam did not endear him to many at the time. Indeed, his words and actions were viewed as a threat by most outside the black community. His refusal to enter the Army during wartime on conscientious objector grounds earned him support and respect in some quarters but made him a pariah most everywhere else. At the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements he became a powerful symbol of defiance and a powerful advocate for social justice. For many African-Americans, he embodied what it meant to be a strong, self-determined black person. He represented Black Pride and he unabashedly pronounced that Black is Beautiful. His message affirmed self-love as well as love of one’s heritage and people. At the very peak of his boxing greatness, he was stripped of his world heavyweight title and denied the opportunity to make his livelihood in the ring. Instead of wallowing in bitterness, he fought for his rights and he celebrated his blackness at the very moment when the struggle for equality and true emancipation reached its zenith.  Having risen to the top and taken a fall, he then came back bigger than before to reclaim his former title and glory. That’s when he transformed from star to living legend and icon. Then, when Parkinson’s ravaged his body, he didn’t let that setback define him as some tragic figure who retreated into the shadows, rather he used his fame as a tool for humanitarianism. Has there ever been anyone who once antagonized and alienated so many and then went on to become such a universally beloved figure? No athlete since him has come close to being the worldwide icone he became, not even Michael Jordan. Indeed, no popular enterrtainer or public figure of any kind has come close to his impact. Ali did nothing less than inspire billions of people by appealing to our shared humanity and challenging us to live up to our better ideals and to realize our potential. His legacy is all about breaking down barriers and building bridges. It’s all about dreaming and walking into Greatness. When he boasted that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” he was really instructiing us to follow his example and to move through life and through whatever it is that we do with grace and purpose. He touched our hearts and expanded our minds by speaking the truth and having the courage of his convictions. Rest in Peace. Forever the Greatest.

 

Muhammad Ali: Power, Magnetism and Personality by Wishum Gregory

What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?

December 2, 2014 1 comment

What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?

These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.

 

Terence Crawford vs Viktor Postol

Chris Farina/Top Rank

 

74247 full

Director Alexander PayneGRANT SLATER/KPCC

 

 

The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a significant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yet as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.

Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, with one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feeted at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at one oh most title defenses, you knew that Crawford had made it.

I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjoy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.

I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for three years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film “Nebraska,” one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the third time in the space of a year. The 11,000 fans on hand for each of those fights at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he’s displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating tough challengers who ultimately proved no match for his all-around fighting prowess. Every time his pressing opponents tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, The Champ used his superior quickness and agility to turn the tables with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing all the attacking, thwarting the few rallies his foes mounted and frustrating them at every turn. Each of Bud’s performances has been an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about him being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.

Bud’s main events turn into veritable love-ins and as much love as the crowd gives to one of their own he gives it right back. That exchange is a beautiful thing that happens in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game. After not making a film in his hometown of Omaha for more than a decade another local hero, Payne, is coming back to shoot his new feature “Downsizing” here in the spring 2016. By its nature, filmmaking doesn’t lend itself to cheering crowds the way boxing matches do. Most sets are in fact closed from the public, even the media. But Payne is recognized everywhere he goes, especially back home, and just like Bud he handles well-wishers and autograph-seekers and photo-op fans with great aplomb and charm. Look for my stories about him and “Downsizing” throughout 2016.

Look for my new story about Bud in the next issue of Revive! Omaha Magazine. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at this link:

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=terence+crawford

You can find excerpts of my many past stories about Alexander Payne on my blog, leoadambiga.com. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. The second edition of the book is now available and features new content about “Nebraska” and his slated for late 2017 film “Downsizing” as well as the addition of a discussion guide. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and select other sites and booksellers. You can also order it directly from me.

Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood star to appear at Omaha screening of “Carousel”

May 1, 2013 5 comments

On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae.  It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town.  The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall.  The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m.  Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.

In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career.  Jones is an easy interview.  Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is.  She would be fun to hang out with.

 

 

Shirley Jones

 

 

Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood star to appear at Omaha screening of “Carousel”

Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga

©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com

 

LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.

SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”

LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.

SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”

LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?

SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”

LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.

SJ: “I was under contract to them.”

 

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

 

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

 

 

LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?

SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did –  the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”

LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.

SJ: “Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”

LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?

SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.

“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand.  He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’

“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”

 

 

Oklahoma!, Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, 1955 Photo

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma

 

 

LAB: You can’t make up something like that.

SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”

LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?

SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”

LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?

SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”

LAB: R & H really handled you with care.

SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”

LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.

SJ: “That’s for sure.”

 

 

 

Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry

 

 

LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.

SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.

“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’

“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”

LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.

SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”

 

 

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel

 

 

LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?

SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and  said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”

LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?

SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”

LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.

SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”

LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?

SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”

LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?

SJ: “I know, I know.”

 

 

 

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel

 

 

LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?

SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”

LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.

SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”

LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.

SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”

LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?

SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed,        ‘Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”

LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?

SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”

LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.

SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”

LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.

SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”

LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.

SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”

LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?

SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?

SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”

LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.

SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”

LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.

SJ: “Yes it was.”

LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?

SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”

LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?

SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”

LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.

SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”

LAB: They were protective of you?

SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”

LAB:The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

SJ: “Yes, that was it.”

LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.

SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”

 

 

 

Shirley Jones at event of The 70th Annual Academy Awards (1998)

 

LAB:  You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.

SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”

LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.

SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”

LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.

SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”

LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…

SJ:Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”

LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…

SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”

LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?

SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”

LAB:  So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?

SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”

LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.

SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80’s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Being Dick Cavett

December 4, 2010 3 comments

Dick Cavett & Alfred Hitchcock

Image by Stewf via Flickr

The recent publication of Dick Cavett‘s new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, is as good enough a reason as any for me to repost some of the Cavett stories I’ve written in the last few years. I’m also using the book’s release as an excuse to post some Cavett material I wrote that hasn’t appeared before on this blog.  I’ve always admired this most adroit entertainer and I feel privileged that he’s granted me several interviews. With his new book out, I plan to interview him again. For me and a lot of Cavett admirers he’s never quite gotten the credit he deserves for raising the bar for talk shows, perhaps because almost no one followed his lead in making this television genre a forum for both serious and silly conversation.  Cavett never quite caught on with the masses the way his talk-jock contemporaries did, and I’ve always thought it had something to do with his built-in contradiction of being both an egg-head and a stand-up comedian at the same time.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was based on a face-to-face interview I did with him in Lincoln, Neb. in 2009.

 

 

 

 

Being Dick Cavett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

While Johnny Carson’s ghost didn’t appear, visages of the Late Night King abounded in the lobby of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building.

Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.

The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.

The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines — TimeLifeLook — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.

A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.

It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.

 

 

 

They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.

Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Times columnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.

He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.

On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”

Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”

For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.

“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”

He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.

“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.

“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”

He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”

Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.

“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”

Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”

“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.

People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”

He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”

In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.

“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”

 

 

 

When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.

Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”

Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”

That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice  — ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”

Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.

Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”

Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.

“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.

At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”

With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”

He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”

Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”

“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the  fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”

He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.

In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”

Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”

Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?

“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”

His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”

He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.

When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.

Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz Success were fired in Nebraska

December 4, 2010 3 comments

Dick Cavett

Image by nick step via Flickr

In his new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, irrepressible Dick Cavett reminds us that though he hasn’t hosted a talk show in a very long time he has much to say about this television genre, one he gave his own distinctive spin to as a writer and host.  A wordsmith at heart, his new work also reminds us how gifted he is at turning a phrase.  Because Cavett is making the rounds this fall and winter to promote his book, he is very much in the entertainment news again, which is why I am reposting a couple Cavett articles I wrote a few years ago and why I am posting for the first time some other Cavett material I wrote. He’s been very generous with me in terms of granting me ample time for my interviewing him over the years.  To be honest, I didn’t even know about this book until a friend mentioned it.  Now that I’m onto it, I will request a new interview with him and I know he will be accommodating again.  As he likes to say, he’s always a good guest, and in this case, a good interview.  The following piece, which traces his career, originally appeared in the New Horizons newspaper in Omaha, Neb.

 

Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz success were fired in Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Dick Cavett’s longing to be “under the lights” burned so hot as a boy in post-World War II Nebraska that nothing seemed more enticing than the prospect of far-off glamour in New York. Then, as now, the Big Apple loomed as the center of all things, certainly of show biz, which the young Cavett saw as his future.

“Always the shot of the New York skyline spoke to me where it didn’t to others my age,” the 70-year-old comic and former talk show host said by phone from his historic coastal retreat, Tick Hall, on Montauk, Long Island. The 19th-century, Stanford White-designed home is where Cavett and his late wife Carrie Nye spent time away from the tumult of New York. The house burned down in 1997 and over three years time the couple had it reconstructed to historic specifications, an epic project that is the subject of a documentary, From the Ashes.

The house hasn’t been the same since Nye died from cancer last July. She had a way of filling any room she was in with her bright spirit and hearty, Southern drawl-tinged laugh. She and Cavett were married 42 years.

Today, when not at the beach, he stays at the Manhattan apartment the couple shared. This son of career educators lives a life steeped in culture — books, the theater, films, fine dining. He writes letters and op-ed pieces. His ability to engage in literature, history, gossip, trivia and one-liners sets him apart from some entertainers. Words fascinate him. He loves finding just the right one with which to prick or prod or parry. Exposing grammatical errors is a hobby, nigh-compulsion.

Cavett, the forever puckish wit, was born in Gibbon, Neb. and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln. Precociously bright, he got laughs from an early age, when he’d surprise others with his large vocabulary, double entendres, confident delivery and deep voice. His humor’s never left him, not even in his grief. Since Nye’s death, however, he has grown more reflective than usual about his Nebraska upbringing and the close ties he’s kept here throughout his nearly half-century career.

Nebraska is where he came back only three months after Nye, a noted actress, passed. He headed out alone by car to its far western reaches, a road trip he’s made many times over the years as a kind of pilgrimage. When things get too oppressive back East, Nebraska is his escape. Here, away from the glare, the noise, the crowd, he can unwind and breath under the clear, open, quiet skies.

 

 

 

 

“Yeah, it is that in a way,” he said, “especially when I do almost my favorite thing in the world to do, which is get in a car and go out into the Sand Hills. I remember one great teacher I had in high school, after I had just been to the Sand Hills, said, ‘Oh, it’s just heaven. Aren’t you glad the tourists haven’t found it?’ A lot of the tourists wouldn’t dig it or get it. But the idea you could take the family car as I did and drive 416 miles on the 4th of July for however many hours and hours it took and see just four other cars on those old roads…,” he said, his golden voice trailing off, choked with the wonder of the memory.

When he’s back, he stops in on old friends like Dannebrog’s Roger Welsch, the folklorist-author, and Lincoln’s Ron Hull, the avuncular Nebraska Educational Television legend. He visits his stepmother, Dorcas, now 90 but still sharp as a whip.

Welsch said, “Dick loves Nebraska and especially the Sand Hills and whenever he can roams aimlessly around the state pretty much taking the place and its people in.  He is as likely to show up at a cowboy tavern in Arthur as he is a church dinner in Broken Bow. Or here. He calls us with some frequency and we have hour-long talks.” A favorite Welsch anecdote involving Cavett concerns the “night he called about nine and we talked until after ten, and as we wound down our conversation I suggested he really should come by and visit us and even stay over some time when he got out our way here in Dannebrog. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘You’d invite me to come by?’ ‘Sure would, Dick!’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I might just take you up on that….I’m kind of in your area.’ ‘Oh…really? Where?’ I sputtered. ‘The Dandee Drive In.’ That would be the old ice cream shop at the edge of town…

“So I went up to our bedroom where my wife Linda had already gone to bed and said, ‘Uuuuuuuh, Linda…Dick Cavett says he’s going to come visit us sometime. ‘Did he say when?’ she said sleepily. ‘Yeah….in about five minutes.’ She never did forgive me…or Dick…for that one.”

Hull said Cavett’s affinity for Nebraska is “genuine. There’s not a phony bone in his body. He’s a very, very honest person.” Cavett often comes back at Hull’s request to emcee benefits or to lend his famous face and voice to a documentary or spot. “He’s never turned me down,” Hull said admiringly. “He’s a very generous guy. He’s always come through. And he’s always done it pro bono, just as a friend. He’s been a very good friend of Nebraska. That’s one of the things I like about him — he didn’t forget his roots. He is proud of those roots. He never lost touch with that.”

Whether at work in the studio or at play over dinner, Hull said Cavett’s “so much fun to be with. He is curious about everything. He listens. He has this marvelous, retentive mind. He’s so good at words. Don’t ever play Scrabble with him.”

“He is a pleasant soul,” Welsch said. “It’s hard not to like Cavett. His visits here are…definitely not an exercise in royalty visiting the peasants. Yes, he talks about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks…while I talk about my pal Bondo, the auto body repairman, or Dan the plumber, but somehow there isn’t a feeling of inequity. He appreciates the humor I find in ordinary people out here and in turn shows me the ordinary side of the notables in whom he finds his humor. I really don’t consider Dick Cavett to be a famous person who is a friend of mine; to us he is a friend…and oh yes, I guess he’s also famous. Perhaps the best part is that even as a world-famous star and intellect, he is still, through and through, a Nebraskan.”

 

 

Roger Welsch

 

 

Cavett’s love for the wide open spaces, solitude and history of Nebraska was implanted early on, via road trips his family made out West when he was a boy. Book, film and museum images of Plains Indians fixated him. As an adult he immersed himself more deeply in the land and legacy of its native peoples, familiarizing himself and the nation with the works of John Neihardt, Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. He’s proud of the remarkable figures Nebraska’s produced and will name, without any prodding, some of the great film, theater, literary and athletic icons from here.

Whenever someone suggests there’s a characteristic that describes a typical Nebraskan, he’s quick to point out that personalities as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Darryl Zanuck, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Malcolm X, Sandy Dennis and Johnny Rodgers emerged from this same terra cotta.

For the book Eye on Cavett he wrote of returning a celeb to his Lincoln High class reunion. He and Welsch were classmates and bandmates, not buds. Cavett suspects Welsch thought he was “one of the fancy people.” Welsch confirms as much, but adds, “I admired him…He was always one of the stars at the talent shows, theater productions, and that kind of thing, and yet he was never an arrogant pain in the ass…just a nice guy who had a lot of talent.” They both coveted luminous Sandy Dennis, another classmate bound for fame, but neither had the guts to ask her out, much less speak to her. Cavett later got to know her in New York.

Nebraska is where Cavett’s heart is. New York’s where the action is. Even as a boy, he felt the pull of that place. How could it not beckon a starstruck kid like him? Especially after he nearly committed to memory the classic book, The Empire City, an anthology of great stories about New York by great writers.

“It’s just wonderful. Every famous writer who ever wrote anything about New York is in there,” he said, “from E.B. White to Groucho (Marx) to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht. And I would read that thing and then read it again. I knew more about New York then, sitting on the glider on the porch reading that book than most New Yorkers did. I could describe Chinatown and how to get to it and around it and in it,” without having been there. In the book Cavett he co-authored with friend Christopher Porterfield the entertainer calls New York “a siren call.” Made all the more alluring by anecdotes of it told by his parents’ friends or the genuine New York actors he shared the stage with one season of summer stock in Lincoln.

For him, the future was a New York or bust deal. He wasn’t sure what path would take him there — “I had no idea how you got there” — but he knew his destiny lay in the crackle and glow of theater marquees, not the scraping of chairs on floors and chalk on backboards. His late parents, and stepmother, were all public school teachers and while he suspects he too would have excelled at it, he would be dissatisfied knowing he’d missed out on his dream.

“I think I could have enjoyed being a teacher a great deal,” he said. “They would have liked me. I would have been funny and all the things you didn’t associate with most teachers.” Like his dad. “My father was always the most popular teacher anyone in Lincoln ever had,” he said. “My father always attracted the most forlorn types…and made them feel better and gave them confidence and all these things. He gave them meaning. He didn’t mean to do that, but it just happened.”

One of those the elder Cavett tried reaching out to was the garbage man on their block, a young, sullen, self-made rebel named Charlie Starkweather, an obscure boy and striking name soon to strike fear on the Great Plains.

Cavett’s “toyed with the idea” of what might have been if he hadn’t left Nebraska. “Would I go nuts? Probably not. But I certainly wouldn’t have had what I wanted and at times got more than enough of later on. Let’s just say I can’t imagine contributing a covered dish to the picnic of the neighborhood,” he said dryly.

As “drawn” to show biz as he was, he said, “I can’t think of ever wanting anything else. It wasn’t as though, If I can’t become a comedian or a magician I’ll become a lawyer or a plumber and I’ll be happy doing that. Noooo…” That didn’t stop some from trying to dissuade him. “I didn’t have any interest in dental college, one of several things — it seems so humorous now — my father tried to interest me in. And of course his pitch was. ‘You’re talented, but you know a lot of people don’t make much of a living in your business, You really ought to think about something that’s going to be steady.’ I just nodded and let it pass.”

Once bit by the bug, no appeal to practicality could change his mind. “Yeah, because in effect you don’t really have any choice,” he said. “The thought of trying to go to law school was not even in question. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.” The death of his mother from cancer when he was 10 only made him retreat more into the world of make believe. On the whole he counts his childhood a happy one, but the trauma of his mother’s death still stings.

“The worst part of that was not only watching her dying,” he said, “but no other kid I ever heard of lost a parent. Nobody.” He said his wife’s death made him relive the pain of his mother’s death and elicited “the resentment of, Screw this — I have to do it again? That was awful.”

There were also molestations he suffered at the hands of strangers, once at a Lincoln movie theater. He doubts the abuse triggered the depression he struggled with for many years, although he doesn’t discount the possibility.

But mostly he looks back fondly at a solid rearing. While his folks were far from bohemians, they were no squares, either. His mom and dad were intelligent, culturally astute people. As is his stepmother. His dad and step-mom co-founded a high brow social club, the C.A.s, whose name was a closely guarded secret. Critics Anonymous brought together a group of like-minded adults, plus Dick, for celebrations and excoriations of different subjects or themes. Sometimes, a country’s music, food, literature and customs came under scrutiny.

All the talk of exotic places only fueled his fire to see the larger world.

Like the boy who runs away with the circus, Cavett heeded the call of the lights, only gradually, in small measures. While growing up here he did some magic, some acting, some announcing. Even his favorite athletic pursuit, gymnastics, put him out front, under the lights. He studied the great comics, absorbing their stances, their inflections, their timing. His models were as near as Johnny Carson, then a popular magician on the Chautauqua circuit and, later, a dashing television-radio personality in Omaha, and as distant as the greats he glimpsed in the movies or on TV.

He once saw a young Johnny’s Great Carsoni act, and it left an impression. Perhaps, he thought, he could emulate a fellow Nebraskan’s success on stage. And once in awhile one of those bigger-than-life legends, as Bob Hope did, would come to perform in Lincoln or Omaha, giving him a first-person dose of show biz magic.

On those occasions, Cavett would, through sheer pluck, wend his way backstage before and after the show, something he continued doing once he finally made it to New York, becoming a habitue of the club-theater-network TV district, all the better to run into celebs. Just seeing Hope in the flesh was enough to feed his imagination and project himself into that rarefied company.

Besides Hope, long a hero of his, Cavett’s star gazing in Nebraska found him finagling seats and trading backstage banter with the likes of Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone, Phil Silvers and Spike Jones. Each encounter only intoxicated him more with the idea that he belonged “in that world” with them.

Still, the stars were ethereal enough that even his “wildest dream could not convince me I would one day have Hope as a guest on my own show.” But he did.

After one of those head-in-the-cloud nights in Lincoln, enraptured by the sight of his idols and the exchange of a few words with them, his return to dreary Earth felt like defeat. “To go to school the next day was just murder,” he said. I thought, ‘I belong with them (the stars)’” as they set off by train for the next stop under the lights. Wanderlust ran in the family. His maternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher who immigrated from Wales and evangelized his way across the Great Plains. “My hell-for-leather Uncle Paul, as my father always called him,” was a rover who rode the freight rails. A young Cavett was captivated by their experiences of setting off for distant spots. “Oh, yeah, they had dramatic adventures in faraway places,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be T.E. Lawrence or Frank Buck. I didn’t see myself in jungles or deserts, though I’ve been to both…” He said he was like this character from a long-forgotten novel who startles her parents when they ask — ‘What do you want to be, a nurse or a school teacher?’ — by saying, and my wife used to quote this, ‘I want the fast cars, the bright lights and the men in tuxedos.’” Only substitute women in cocktail dresses for men in tuxes.

Cavett was spotted early on as a talent to be watched, even if he didn’t know exactly what talent might send him on his way. As a teen he acted in and eventually directed, too, a Lincoln Junior League Theater program, Storytime Playhouse, on popular radio station KFOR, the same station Carson used to launch his career. Cavett once did a 15-minute Macbeth.

“One day out on the street I run into Bob Johnson, who was of course this huge celebrity in Lincoln because he was a longtime announcer on KFOR. He did Bob Johnson’s Musical Clock and Bob Johnson’s this-and-that. We were both heading for the studio and he said, ‘Let’s walk around the block,’ as if he was about to bring up something sensitive and didn’t quite know how to. So we made small talk and then he said, ‘You know, Dick, I have a feeling about you — you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ And it was a poignant moment because it was a man in his middle age saying, I’m as far as I’m going to get and I faced up to that, but you and Johnny, well…

“I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to say. I kind of hoped he was right, but I didn’t know how Johnny did. I can’t imagine what we said for the last half-block.”

 

 

 

 

Johnny was of course Johnny Carson. “Johnny was 10-12 years older than I was,” Cavett said. “He was doing his television show (The Squirrel’s Nest) in Omaha and soon going on to New York for various things, He hadn’t utterly ‘made it’ yet, but as far as anyone in Lincoln was concerned he had.” Cavett’s since wondered what might have happened if they had bumped into each other then to discuss their nascent show biz dreams. He’s sure they would have recognized in themselves then what kindred spirits they were.

As it was, they both made it big time, their careers following nearly parallel courses. Cavett was a talent coordinator and writer for Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, the slot Carson, who’d hosted TV game shows and written for Red Skelton, inherited when Paar retired. Carson made Tonight an even more popular and lucrative brand name for NBC. Cavett joined Carson’s staff of writers before getting his own talk show.

“I guess I just always had this sort of pull, as I think he (Carson) must have, to go where the action is. Mingle with Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and maybe Groucho if you were really lucky.”

Cavett’s opportunity to leave Nebraska for the bright lights came courtesy of a family friend, another older man who saw in him the hunger and potential to excel.

“A friend of my parents by the name of Frank Rice taught at Omaha Central. Frank sort of looked like Vincent Price. He had a Whitney Fellowship, I think it was called, at Yale for a year. He came back and said, ‘Dick should apply at Yale.’ Nobody took this very seriously and Frank insisted. And somehow that came about.”

“I remember Frank saying, ‘You’ll like it at Yale, if you’re lucky enough to get in, because the Shubert Theatre is right across the street from your freshmen campus. Every week or two a new Broadway show comes through on its way to New York.’’ Broadway show? I didn’t even care it would cost me a dollar-forty to sit in the front row of the second balcony.”

This was it — his entree to the glimmer of New York theater and culture. If he could get in. And then one day, as he tells it, he was “on the same glider on the porch that I was probably readingThe Empire City on” when the mailman brought a letter from Yale that said, ‘You have been accepted in the Class of 1954.’ And the whole world just swam for a moment. ‘What will all this mean? God, what could happen from this? It’s hard to say. Damn near anything.’ I walked around in a daze.”

By the time he headed east he was a certified TV junkie, so much so he said that when his family got their first set in the mid-’50s “I did almost nothing but watch it. Sundays, my God, I got out graham crackers and peanut butter and started with ‘Super Circus, live from Chicago, and went all the way through the evening, including Mr. PeepersWhat’s My Line?Ed SullivanThe Web…I made the mistake of getting a date once on a Saturday night and she did not want to watch Show of Shows, so that was the end of that relationship.

“When I thought of going away to college I wondered, Will they let me watch all my television?”

Yale let him have his catho ray tube fix, although with only one set in the dorm he couldn’t always watch his favorite shows. More importantly, New Haven, Conn. put him within easy reach of where it all happens. With such close access to New York, his idea of a good time was far different than most of his fellow red-blooded Yalies, who had scoring girls on their mind.

“Instead of going to girls schools on the weekends, Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, I went down to New York. I thought, How can you be so dumb as to want to go there when you can go to New York…see a play with the Lunts, Paul Muni or Bette Davis, and sneak into the Jackie Gleason Show and What’s My Line?,” a show he ended up guesting on.

As he did in Lincoln, he gushed to classmates about the stars and shows he saw and that he sometimes talked to. There were more all the time. Now that he was an Ivy Leaguer and a big city sophisticate, he wanted to go home “to parade around” in his Oxford blue shirt and tweed, three-button jacket from Saks and regale everyone with where he’d been and whom he’d seen.

“That was everything I’ve lived for — to come back and cause amazement,” he said. It was also a case of homesickness. But as he found nothing stays the same.

“My first trip from Yale back to Nebraska I couldn’t wait to get to Grand Island and as soon as I got around the corner to see where we used to live, it was gone,” he said. “There was a Safeway there. They had obliterated the Christian church, my best friend Mary Huston’s house, our house, the whole block. And it was one of the most devastating things that’s happened to me. How could they raze this without my permission? A horrible feeling. It hurts me right now.”

He was near finishing up Yale when walking on campus one day in 1957 he heard the news stand jockey hawking papers, Cavett recalled, with “the words ‘murder in Nebraska.” An incredulous Cavett remarked to the man, “It sounded like you said murder in Nebraska.” He confirmed he had. “There in the Journal American, now defunct, in big letters just short of what you put War Declared in, it said, ‘Ghastly Murders, Lincoln, Nebraska.” The headline referred to Charlie Starkweather’s killing spree. It gave Cavett the creeps.

“I don’t know now if I thought, I hope nobody I know was murdered. I guess you wouldn’t necessarily assume it. Had I known and glanced down at the name Starkweather I could have had a horrible moment recalling if my father said, ‘That’s our garbage guy.’ My father said he always seemed like a kind of forlorn kid. He seemed nice enough. My dad made people seem nice enough that weren’t anywhere but in his presence. Though I suppose I doubt if my father was anyone he toyed with as a victim.”

Even that incidental connection to a serial killer was enough for Cavett to closely follow the Starkweather manhunt, capture, trial and eventual execution.

 

 

 

 

By the time the notorious case became a sensation, Cavett was taking courses at Yale School of Drama and that’s when he met the woman who would become his life partner. Carrie Nye was her theatrical name but also her full first name. When Cavett met her her surname was McGeoy. She was flamboyantly Southern. Brilliant. Funny. Serious about her craft. Independent. Opinionated. An original.

The Greenwood, Miss. native attended Stephens College where, Cavett said, she “probably had the record number of violations there of books not returned, walking on the grass, smoking behind the lockers…”

His reaction upon first setting eyes on her? “I didn’t like her very much…I said ‘God, who the hell is that? She looks affected,’ or something like that to one of the guys at the drama school and he said, ‘But have you met her?’ I said, ‘No.’ When I did I saw what he meant. She was not like anything or anybody I ever met before. No one could ever say, ‘She’s just like Carrie Nye.’”

 

'Otherwise Engaged' Cast Party : News Photo

Dick with Carrie Nye

 

 

Their drama mates included, at one time or another, Paul Newman and Julie Harris. Cavett and Nye performed at Yale and in summer stock at Williamstown, Mass. They were soon an item, marrying in 1962. For a time, her career overshadowed his. When things broke for him, they broke big. Working for Paar, Carson, Jerry Lewis. Doing his own standup comedy act. Guesting on panel/game shows. Hosting his own late night network TV show, followed by TV desk-jock stints on PBS, then cable. Prime time specials. Commercials. Voice-overs. Films. Plays. She enjoyed success in regional theater and on Broadway, also taking occasional small and big screen  parts. Their marriage survived the ups and downs of their respective careers.

It’s been awhile since Cavett’s had a talk-show gig. He laid to rest any question of whether he’s still “got it” with his 2000-2002 role as the narrator in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and his 2006 appearances on Turner Classic Movies, which revived some of his late night ABC shows with Hollywood greats. For a new TCM special he taped with Mel Brooks, Cavett proved his quick wit and verbal acuity are still intact. The Hollywood shows are out on DVD, as is a rock icon collection. A new DVD set featuring him with jazz-blues legends is planned.par

It’s interesting to note that even after all the dreaming he’d done of New York and all the trips he made there from New Haven to cozy up to the stars, Cavett still hadn’t made plans to move there after graduating Yale. He was doing summer stock when, he said, a fellow actor remarked, “‘Well, I guess you’ll be heading for New York, looking for an apartment.’ But to that point I hadn’t thought very far beyond the edge of the season. I really hadn’t thought it out. I figured I’d probably trip back to Nebraska. But as soon as I heard ‘you’ll be going to New York,’ I did.”

Cavett lived the life of a struggling young hopeful, making the rounds in casting offices, taking bit parts here and there, working all kinds of side jobs to keep himself alive. He was a copy boy atTime Magazine when he screwed up the nerve to go to the RCA Building with a batch of jokes he’d written for Paar, the king of late night. His plan? To somehow bump into the Great Man, slip him the material, and be discovered for the brilliant comic mind he is. Amazingly, it all came true.

 

 

Jack Paar

 

He still marvels at “the sheer chance of taking the monologue to Jack Paar,” running into him in a hallway, Paar accepting the envelope containing jokes penned by a unknown, then sitting back in the live studio audience to hear hisone-liners go out over the airwaves from the mouth of a star; and later, backstage being thanked by the star and encouraged to feed him more jokes. It all led to Cavett being hired on staff. The surreal experience was just one of “the phenomenal breaks, coincidences and other such things” that helped launch his career.

Cavett found his niche as a writer. “Once I get an idea I can go with it,” he said. “That was true as a monologue writer. If Jack or Johnny would give a subject, then I could be very fast and, to the irritation of the other writers, the first one to Johnny’s desk. Not that it mattered, because the first was not always the best.” He gets a high from writing that’s akin to the buzz he gets from ab libbing. Some, like old friend Ron Hull, suggest the entertainer could be a serious writer. “Yeah, I’m reasonably certain I could have made a living that way,” Cavett agrees.

While the two never talked about it, Cavett said he and Carson understood they shared a special connection. Like Carson did, Cavett’s given back to his home state.

He recalled one of the rare times the intensely private and supposedly cold Carson invited him out to dinner in L.A.

“That night we were sitting in a booth, just two guys from Nebraska in California, and he described the special (Johnny Goes Home) he’d just done in Norfolk and he said ‘there was this moment when I opened the door at the school building and there were all my teachers.’ And it was astounding because he was moved and he stuttered, and I thought, Oh, if people who think he has a ramrod up his ass and he treats people horribly could see this…He wasn’t a bit embarrassed by the emotion.

“He had a tremendous affection for me, and it took somebody to point it out. ‘Do you notice Johnny’s a different man when you’re on his show?’ one of his staff told me. ‘We wish you’d come on all the time. Johnny’s so easy to get along with when you’re on.’ It almost embarrassed me.”

Johnny’ gone. Cavett’s beloved Carrie Nye, a woman Ron Hull called “a perfect complement” to his friend, for her brilliance, humor and taste, is gone now, too, leaving “a void” no amount of quips can fill.

Given Cavett’s comic bent, her humor may be what he misses most. “The obit man at the Times spoke to me and said, ‘I feel I know your wife a bit,’ because he had talked to her twice on the phone about people who had died she had worked with, like Ruth Gordon. He said, ‘I remember those two conversations as the funnest experiences of my life and I wish I’d recorded them.’” To which Cavett can only concur, saying, “She was just vastly entertaining in the way nobody else was.”

Even in her absence he finds himself thinking of things to amuse her with — “Oh, wait till she hears about this” — or moving things lest she trip. Then he catches himself with the stark realization, “Oh, you’re talking about someone who ain’t there no more.” He recently shared his feelings with writer and friend Calvin Trillin, whose wife Alice died five years ago.

Yes, Dick Cavett is hurting, but he knows he always has Nebraska to return to. Here, amidst the wide expanse of land and sky, and the warm embrace of its people, he knows he’s back home. Back to where his dreams first took hold.

Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds and classic film “Singin’ in the Rain” to be saluted

October 31, 2010 3 comments

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Conno...

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I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch.  Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood.  I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by.  She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing.  The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times.   I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story.  Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them.   I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.

 

Debbie Reynolds

ANDY KROPA/GETTY IMAGES

 

 

 

 

Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds and classic film “Singin’ in the Rain” to be Ssaluted 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.

Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.

Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.

At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.

Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.

Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.

The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948’s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.

In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.

“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”

She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.

“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”

A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.

Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.

 

Debbie Reynolds (left), recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, pose in the press room during the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 25, 2015.

Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.

“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.

After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.

“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.

“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.

“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”

She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.

“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”

Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.

Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.

Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.

“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”

Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.

“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”

TheMicFB

Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.

“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”

Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.

But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.

“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.

More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.

Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”

For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.

Bill Maher Gets Real

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

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If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days.  Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say.  Far from it.  Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs.  It isn’t.  It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show.  It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected.  In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that.  My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him.  It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.

 

Bill Maher Gets Real

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.

“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..

“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”

His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.

“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”

Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.

“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.

“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics  You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.

“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”

The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.

“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”

“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.

Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”

At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?

“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”

For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

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