Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ides Marches On

On June 15, 1953, Crime Classics was first heard over the airwaves (on the Columbia Broadcasting system).

Crime Classics was a unique little show (running for two seasons), dramatizing historical crimes ("from every land and every time"). It was produced and directed by Elliott "I know a guy" Lewis, one of radio's best triple threats, a man who at the time was doing similar experiments on Suspense. The writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin (many great radio dramas, and later TV fare such as "I Spy") provided the scripts, based on "court reports and newspaper accounts of the time" (more difficult when dealing with ancient Rome, and nigh impossible when treating the story of King Arthur as a historical event.) Music was composed by Bernard Herrmann (frequent collaborator of both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock).

Much of the history was accurate, or reasonably enough, and side facts and quotes from historians or newspaper blurbs helped. These nuggets were provided by our host, the wry Thomas Hyland, "connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders." Mr. Hyland was "portrayed on radio" by radio great Lou Merrill, a credit almost suggesting that he was indeed a noted antiquarian in his field who was only represented in proxy (like the police chiefs and mayors on Gangbusters). In fact he was entirely fictitious, a man who checks his copious files for facts and delivers them with many a dry "And..." and typically opened his accounts with "Listen. Hear that? That's the sound of a Victorian gentleman about to be coshed" (or the suitable equivalent).

I could say much more about Crime Classics (and some day, I probably shall), but for now, let us turn our attention to the installment of Feb. 10, 1954: "Twenty-Three Knives Against Caesar." While I usually prefer a purely audio source, here's a YouTube option to follow along.

Thomas Hyland, who apparently has a nice copy of Plutarch's Lives handy, opens our narrative. Caesar is played by Edgar Barrier, a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater troupe on stage and radio and character parts on Gunsmoke, Escape, and numerous others. He had previously played Caesar opposite Orson's Brutus on a 1939 Columbia Masterworks LP record. His voice, almost always dry and aloof but cultured and articulate, was an excellent fit for the emperor.

For contrast, in one scene Caesar basks in the compliments and toying attentions of Cleopatra (although he wishes she wouldn't play with his hair so much; he's going bald!) And Cleopatra is played by Betty Harford, practically a Crime Classics regular as assorted tarts, temptresses, coquettes, and parts such that I personally classified her as "The Minx." Usually with a Cockney touch (particularly well suited as Blackbeard's 4th wife, who was no good to him), she retains it as Cleo. Later, we meet Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, who speaks with grace and dignity (but less sex appeal, perhaps) courtesy of Irene Tedrow (who played Lizzie Borden in other Crime Classics, and later was Mrs. Elkins on TV's Dennis the Menace, disapproving of how Mr. Wilson treats that poor innocent Mitchell boy).

Of the famed conspirators, only two are heard: Brutus played by Harry Bartell (Gunsmoke, Escape, and the youthful Lt. Seiberts on Fort Laramie, a favorite of mine) and Marvin Miller (announcer and actor on tons of shows, secretary Anthony on TV's Millionaire, voice in UPA cartoons, etc.) as Cassius. Herrmann uses bells and drum rolls to give an ancient and at times portentous sound to the tale. But the real surprise here is the use of a "man in the street" approach, two average Romans asking questions like "Are you going to take a slave?" They're played by Hy Averback (announcer, director, etc.) and good old, dry voiced Lou Krugman (a frequent bad guy on Gunsmoke and others). They get the best lines, like "I've seen your son Cassio. He waxes with each day."

The soothsayer warning against the Ides of March (encountered first in a dream by Caesar, and then in reality) is played by Marvin Miller (again), in his most dramatic, deep tones. Mr. Hyland of course intervenes and comments periodically. As for the outcome? Well, the title gives it away. Twenty three knives against Caesar was not a close contest, after all.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fish Fridays Intro

So, having bid bon voyage to the late great Abe Vigoda, we now shall attempt to assess his Barney Miller spin-off, Fish.

The groundwork was laid as early as the second season of Barney Miller. The broken-down Detective Sgt. Fish had become a hit, popularly and critically, so there were demands. According to Vince Waldron's Classic Sitcom Guide, ABC wanted a spin-off, ideally for Fish. Danny Arnold experimented with the idea of a rotating spinoff, showing the detectives' home lives or outside activities. Abe Vigoda too wanted either a spin-off or a larger role on the parent show (which was very much an ensemble). He knew this was likely to be his one chance to be a lead and not just support, so you can't really blame him.

The beauty of Barney Miller, as it developed, was that it was a one-set show. Everything happened in the squad room, and what didn't was described (like the actual arrests or chases). This gave the show a stage feel and helped make sure that any subplots still played into the whole (as a "customer" in the cell makes a remark which rebounds into the problem of a detective, and so forth). In addition to home scenes with Barney's wife Liz, there were attempts in the first three seasons to break out (showing a stakeout, different apartment scenes with the squad members), but it really wasn't as effective. The aging, poorly maintained squad room with its attendant problems was a character in itself. Later attempts to use an additional set were mostly saved for special two-part episodes (often season openers or finales).

So an anthology following the 12th Precinct home could have solved that (and indeed, the first season of Fish, which began halfway through the third season of Barney Miller in the spring of 1977, made an attempt). A few earlier episodes suggest some of the other possibilities, however. Wojo's relationship with Detective Janice Wentworth (Linda Lavin), which in the second season episode "Grand Hotel" saw them posing as a married couple in a hotel, was basically an experiment with this idea. A few episodes later, we have... "Fish," the episode, not the series. It introduced Steve Landesberg as Detective Dietrich. He goes to Fish's apartment, meets Bernice (played by Doris Belack, filling in for Florence Stanley) and their daughter Beverly Fish, a teacher having romantic problems with Howard. This leads to Dietrich impersonating Gregory Peck in a classic scene.

Frankly, this actually feels like a better premise for a spin-off then what they tried, having Fish and Bernice running a group home for troubled kids. Early Barney Miller episodes often arrested cute and/or wisecracking kids. The first (an eight year old who tries to stick up Liz Miller) appeared in the first season closer, "The Hero." The urchin (scared by Harris about facing "Judge Meanie" in court) was played by Todd Bridges, who would play Loomis on Fish (and of course, go on to Diff'rent Strokes). "The Kid" from the second season has a cute Puerto Rican kid (whose mother Fish becomes briefly attracted to). Third season introduced Jilly and Victor, who would go on to Fish. More about them in our next installment.

I'd hoped to say more, but Fish has to use the bathroom. He could be there awhile.

We may have to pick up with a Fish *Saturday*.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Abe Vigoda da vida, Baby

*brushes off dust*
After a hiatus of several years, I'm trying to recharge the blog again. Part of the issue, outside of many personal circumstances, has been too many ideas of where and how to start back. Well, recent events forced my hand. Abe Vigoda finally died at the age of 94.

Vigoda will be best remembered for three things: The Godfather, Barney Miller, and people assuming he was dead or wondering how he could still be alive (down to the website which answered that question, Often, when celebrity deaths were announced, I would jokingly suggest Abe Vigoda was the mastermind, since despite greatly exaggerated reports and rumors, he continued on. The classic cop comedy Barney Miller is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, I like deadpan, and I like great character actors, so all of that factors into the following mini-tribute to the Man Who Would Be Fish.

Vigoda's early career included stage work, especially Shakespeare, and bits on the CBS Radio series You Are There in 1949 (playing older characters in crowds or juries during famous moments in history). Also in 1949, at least according to several logs and the unreliable IMDb, Vigoda was in a TV episode of Suspense (based on the venerable radio series). "The Lunch Box" (which had been done on radio as "The Lunch Kit," originally for The Whistler in 1944 and then on Suspense in 1949), but the Paley Center for Media, which has the only copy I'm aware of, doesn't list him. Perhaps he was uncredited, or wasn't in it at all, but the place and time are right. Hopefully someday we can confirm.

Moving along, Vigoda continued to do stage Shakespeare and the like, and then appeared a couple of times on a soap opera by the name of Dark Shadows. My friend Danny Horn, who chronicles the series at Dark Shadows Every Day, discussed Vigoda's two 1969 episodes as elderly silversmith Ezra Braithwaite, who dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. After playing multiple ensemble roles in the Broadway play Inquest, Vigoda returned once more in 1970, as elderly antique dealer Otis Greene who... dies of a heart attack induced by supernatural shock. Well, it's good to have a niche.
Then came The Godfather in 1972, which marked a shift for a time away from playing old men who dropped dead. His performance as Sal Tessio led to more supporting roles mostly as mob types, including Anthony Quinn's The Don Is Dead (1973), a sort of poor man's Godfather, and mob bosses in episodes of Kojak, Cannon, and Hawaii 5-0.
Now in 1974, we have Barney Miller, or rather the pilot, The Life and Times of Captain Barney Miller. As Vigoda told the story, when he came to audition, having just finished a run, producer Danny Arnold immediately pegged him as the old cop, Sgt. Philip K. Fish, and said “You look like you have hemorrhoids.” (Vigoda says he didn’t, but *Fish* certainly did. Fish had everything, including menopause, which he caught from Bernice).
The pilot is filmed rather than taped, but has the same station house set, so it's like watching everyone transferred to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At this point, the show is designed to divide evenly between home and precinct life, with an almost entirely different (and mostly white) squad roster. Also Barney's wife Liz (Abby Dalton) has a windy politician uncle (played by character actor Henry Beckman), who gets third billing in the opening (Vigoda gets fifth and last, but still ahead of two other cops who wait until the end). Val Bisoglia, playing an Italian cop who likes to gamble (and which would become Yemana) later played guest roles on the show. Rod Perry (Wilson, the black cop and a master of disguise) did one episode of the series proper in the same role, but basically Ron Glass' Harris filled that slot. And the prototype for Wojo is played by Charles Haid, who would go on to play Andy Renko on Hill Street Blues.
As noted, none of these made it to the series as regulars (even Liz was recast, with Barbara Barrie, before they realized the show was basically a one-set series focusing on the 12th Precinct, and she faded out). But most of the minor parts (Barney's kids, his daughter's boyfriend, Chu Chu Malave as the perp Ramon, and Buddy Lester as a bookie) made it when the script was reworked as the first series episode, "Ramon," which premiered midseason in January 1975. Of course, Hal Linden as Barney and Abe Vigoda as Fish were retained (no significant differences in characterization for either).
Fish, as Brooks and Marsh put it in their book The Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV Shows, "looked and acted like every breath might be his last." He had kidney stones, he had heartburn, he had arthritis, he had anything and everything. His constant need to use the bathroom was as much a running gag as Yemana's bad coffee, and his one-sided telephone calls with wife Bernice were hilarious. (When she did appear, played by Florence Stanley, she revealed herself as a sweet, insecure, raspy-voiced woman who was better than her trying husband deserved, despite his own put-upon attitude). Mostly he felt oppressed by age (and knowing he would soon be forcibly retired) and so he used complaints and dry quips to fight back. He became the hit of the show and earned Vigoda two Emmy nominations while a regular, and a third for his departure episode "Goodbye Mr. Fish" at the start of season 4. In fact, his last season on Barney Miller was concurrent with the Fish spinoff (which arose from the producers' desire for a spinoff, experimented with in earlier episodes, and Vigoda wanting more of a showcase; as TV Guide recalled in 1979, he suggested renaming the show "Fish and Barney"!) I'll talk more about that in a later post.

When not fishing, Vigoda appeared in two episodes of The Rockford Files, one pre-Barney Miller and one post. The first ("The Kirkoff Case," the first episode of the series proper after the two-hour pilot, in 1974) has Vigoda as a "labor union organizer," clearly to be read as mobster. One of his goons is played by Milt Kogan (Kogan the uniform cop in early episodes of "Barney Miller"; the actor left but the character was mentioned to the end of the run, even earning a promotion to sergeant!) It's a one-scene part but Vigoda makes the most of it.
More impressive, however, is his turn in the cleverly titled "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead" (and they are) from 1978. Spoilers after the pic, but the pleasure lies more in the viewing than being surprised.
Vigoda plays Phil "The Dancer" Gabriel, a mob boss whose nickname is now tinged with irony since he's wheelchair bound due to botched hip surgery. In "Dr. Phibes" fashion (minus the frog masks and blood draining), he sets a hit out on the entire surgical team (which includes Robert Loggia). The final scene, where he reacts to footage of the surgery and realizes that "you let a salesman" actually place the part, is a gem of fury.
In a rare case on Rockford, it's easy to share Gabriel's indignation. The nervous salesman in question, in an off-camera questioning, asks if the man in the limo (Vigoda as Gabriel) had a "face like a bassett hound," the best description of Vigoda this side of the Boris Karloff comparisons.

They got good mileage out of that in the second season "Barney Miller" episode "Discovery," in which a computer error lists Fish as dead (thus starting the trend!) When another character tells Fish he looks just like Karloff, the inevitable answer is "That's because we're both dead."

Speaking of Karloff, the resemblance was also put to use when he guest starred on The Bionic Woman as an ancient, sinister butler named Barlow, in a sort of homage-slash-spoof of Old Dark House mysteries (complete with Vincent Price as both dead man and his scheming twin brother). Vigoda had played a similar role in a 1960s off-Broadway version of The Cat and the Canary, and in 1986, he did the Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace as the murderous Jonathan Brewster, a part originated by Boris Karloff (in fact, the joke in dialogue is that botched plastic surgery has left Jonathan looking like Karloff). Vigoda also played Fish in the

After Fish's cancellation, Vigoda continued the TV guest circuit, including the expected visits to Fantasy Island, The Love Boat (romancing Nancy Walker), Murder She Wrote, and the short-lived Sweepstakes (a modernized The Millionaire with Love Boat touches), and also BJ and the Bear, but out of respect for the deceased, we'll ignore that. Later guest spots included Law & Order (as a retired NYPD detective, surprise surprise) and a Christmas episode of "Wings," called "All About Christmas Eve," in 1996.
On the latter, Vigoda played the brother of another cranky old man... diminutive character great Phil Leeds, who had been a frequent visitor to the 12th Precinct, notably in the 1977 episode “Group Home” (the title doesn't apply to an actual plot element, but "Fish" had started by this point, so Bernice and two of the kids from the group home pop in). Assigned to mugging detail, Fish is in drag again, and followed by infatuated admirer Phil Leeds (who recalled that Barney often cast him as a “dirty old man,” but in this case, he comes off as a sweet, lonely soul desperate for any human connection).

Most of Vigoda's other film credits, apart from The Godfather and its sequel, were fairly forgettable or downright painful, including Good Burger, the Pauly Shore courtroom "comedy" Jury Duty(as the judge), The Misery Brothers (wearing lipstick and earrings in the trailer), and the title role in an oddball Cannon action thriller Keaton's Cop (opposite Lee Majors and Don Rickles), and many movies that barely got a release. There were exceptions, and he did have a very brief cameo in the cult horror comedy The Stuff (1985), in a commercial, married to Clara "Where's the beef?" Peller:

Other fairly respectable turns included an Alaskan grandpa in North, a vet in the Christmas movie Prancer, and yet another mob boss, this time animated, as Sal "The Wheezer" in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). Joe Versus the Volcano improbably but brilliantly cast Abe Vigoda as an island chieftain. Near the bubbling volcano of the title, the chief conducts one of the shortest marriage ceremonies. The image below says far more about the role than mere words could.
Much of his work in later years (and for Vigoda, that was basically two decades of later years) was basically showing up and being Abe Vigoda. Two spoofs on TVLand award shows (as Mr. Big from Sex in the City oppposite Bea Arthur, and as the hunky plumber from Desperate Housewives), a very brief glimpse in the Snickers commercial with Betty White (another player turns into Abe Vigoda, in Fish garb, who says "That hurt"), and especially his frequent visits to Late Night with Conan O'Brien, often for quick gags which were funny mainly because it was old, deadpan Abe Vigoda being covered in Christmas decorations or sitting on a chair while a Vigodal eclipse occurs.

Farewell, Abe. May Heaven be devoid of annoying kids and kidney stones.
Tomorrow, I hope to fulfill a long-held plan, which I discussed with my friend Ivan Shreve, author of Mayberry Mondays (chronicling every episode Mayberry RFD) and Doris Days (The Doris Day Show). The latter has been far more intermittent, but given my own delays, and having watched a few episodes, I can hardly blame him. In any event, Fish Fridays will commence in earnest, at least up until the second season premiere (the only second season episode I could find), including the two-part Barney Miller “Goodbye, Mr. Fish” (the character’s retirement) and possibly a look at his two return visits.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Can you tell me how to get....

So, still no major new content here, but I'm starting a series at, looking at Sesame Street and its use of animated segments over the years. Particularly nifty, I should think, will be an upcoming piece on Henson's own animated experiments.

So, to the two or three people who may see this, enjoy it here!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Listless for the Prosecution

Well, been awhile, hasn't it? Not that I've been the most active blogger. In recent months, humble self was pre-occupied with the El Paso Playhouse production of Witness for the Prosecution. I auditioned, since I love Agatha Christie, and to my surprise, I landed the role of the defendant Leonard Vole.

The show was... interesting. I'd be tempted to call it a trial (ahem), full of actors dropping out early on, intoxicated co-stars (at least it was limited to rehearsals), missed cues and lines, two of our actors reading their dialogue, and self hurting my left knee night after night. In the end, though, I think we acquitted ourselves handsomely, and I met some new and interesting friends.

Hope to get back to blogging here, with a ton of stuff still to scan and discuss (Bungleton awaits!) but in the meantime, I recently started a column at In contrast to these humble surroundings, Examiner writing pays (sort of, a cent per page view more or less, so please give a penny for my thoughts!)

I'm the official El Paso Cartoon Examiner, and my latest entry is here:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Save a Polar Bear, Drink Booze

And now, join us once again for an adventure into the fantastic wilds of vintage advertising. As carefully observed and recorded from a 1942 issue of Liberty Magazine, let us see how the Madison Avenue species of that era managed to link the natural instincts of wildlife with alcohol consumption, yet avoiding the cliche of caribou or water buffalo stampeding to the watering hole.

Meet Clark and Mark, the generic, tie-wearing gents who evidently served as ambassadors for Calvert's Whiskey. The pair closely scrutinize two illustrations of polar bears floating above their heads. I find the baby polar bear treating a fish as if it was a favored blanket rather endearing. Thus we get a potted lesson on camouflage and the phrase "fleecy white cubs" into the bargain. But say, what does any of this have to do with intoxicating beverages, outside of the presence of ice in bulk?

Aha! Just as a mother polar bear protects her cubs, CALVERT'S PROTECTIVE BLENDING "protects the flavor and good taste of Calvert Whiskey." Wait a minute, wouldn't flavor and good taste by synonymous when applied to something one ingests? Or does this mysterious blending process serve as a kind of methylated Lady Bracknell, insuring that Calvert Whiskey never places its elbows on the table or begins consorting with tradesmen and bookmakers? And why are Clark and Mark seemingly drinking not from ordinary shot glasses but from something akin to beakers or oversized testubes? Are they not prosperous businessmen after all but, in fact, druggists who decided to have a liquid lunch before filling old Mrs. Rassmussen's liver pill order?

Anyway, move on to the second panel, which after giving one the option of "richer" or "lighter" whiskeys (once again, vintage liquor ads are at times nearly indistinguishable from tobacco ads, except perhaps for the fact that fewer doctors tended to recommend whiskey in public.) Note particularly the closing tagline: "Clear Head (clear-headed buyers) Call for CALVERT." Linking 90 proof whiskey with clear headedness is either audacious, unintentionally absurd, or an attempt to compliment the genteel, thinking rotgut purchaser on their wisdom and sagacity in buying Calvert. An approach oft used for many a substance.

I have a bit of a headache myself right now, but I don't think I shall seek out Calvert for the cure. Evidently they do still exist, but "Calvert Extra" is now a mere 80 proof whiskey. Still blended, though!

The overall impression I took from this ad, particularly in light of climate change issues, was that the best way to save polar bears would be to get them utterly sloshed on whiskey. They would then be more buoyant and able to swim further to a new climate, and if not, they'd at least drown with a smile! Eesh.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cereal Numbers

Well, long time, no blog. Two virus attacks, personal issues, and a general lack of motivation or snags in more ambitious blog projects (like an analysis of the film version of The Loved One), but I continue to stumble upon comic or advertising ephemera which are worth sharing. So just to get the ball rolling, the first in a series of cereal ads, as seen in Archie and/or Harvey comics in 1964. This is Bullwinkle and Rocky for Cheerios; the moose likewise promoted the cereal in a series of animated spots, with the same punchline ("Watch where they're going"), but with Rocky usually replaced by the Cheerios Kid.

I wish I knew who the artist was. There's a life, a movement that makes this panel arguably superior to the actual cartoons, though certainly they may have overdone it a bit on the action lines, but it's quite effective. I particularly like the depiction of Bullwinkle's smug insoucience in panels two and four. If anyone can ID the pen behind this, please share!