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Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood?  Yes, and a lot more than you might think.   The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe.  A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms.   The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years.  His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event.   This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne.  I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried.  All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.

I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it.  I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios.  I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon.  Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.

This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous.  Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present.  I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.

 

photo credits:
TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER

 

 

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

 

 

Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.

Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.

Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.

His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.

“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.

“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”

Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.

He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.

An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.

Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”

In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.

The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.

 

 

Culver Hotel
Payne’s guest appearances draw overflow crowds. Some 200 attended the Sept. 9 program Nelson hosted. The acclaimed writer-director shared off-the-record dope on the making of his Nebraska, candid comments about the state of movies today and advice for actors and writers hoping to collaborate with him. He took questions from the adoring audience, many of whom he’s gotten to know from past salons, posed for pictures and made small talk.
In addition to Payne, the salon’s featured other Nebraskans: actress Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and actor Chris Klein (Election).
Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence) getting in the spirit of things at a Nebraska Coast Connection Christmas party
Nelson interviewing filmmaker-musician Nik Fackler

The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.

Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.

“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.

“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.

According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”

Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”

Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).

Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.

“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.

“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”

 

 

Payne’s first Oscar passed around at a salon

 

 

Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.

Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.

Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.

“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”

 

 

NebrStars

 

 

Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.

“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”

Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.

“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”

Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”

But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.

“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”

Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.

“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”

Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.

“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”

Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.

“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”

 

 

A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses

 

 

Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .

“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”

Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.

“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.

“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”

Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.

“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”

 

 

 

 

Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.

“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.

“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”

Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.

“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”

“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”

Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.

“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.

Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”

Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.

“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”

Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.

Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”

Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.

“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”

Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.

“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.

“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”

The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says,  “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.

“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”

Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.

 

 

Payne, Bokenkamp and Nelson at dedication of the restored World Theatre in Kearney, Neb.

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Jim Flowers Weathers the Storm

August 28, 2013 1 comment

Jim Flowers may not be the boon to KMTV‘s ratings the station hopes for as it tries to climb out of last place among local network affiliates, but there’s no question he brings a recognizable name and face to TV weathercasting.  After his contract was not renewed by WOWT last fall  he had to deal with unfounded rumors that took him and his family aback.  All that’s behind him now as he leads the weather team at KM3 just as he did at WOWT and KETV before that, making him one of the rare on-air talents, if not the only one, to have worked for all three major Omaha stations.  My Omaha Magazine story about Flowers follows.

 

 

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Jim Flowers

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Weathers the Storm

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Dapper Jim Flowers, with his trademark moustache and buttonhole flower, is a fixture in people’s lives after 31 years as an Omaha television meteorologist. This husband and father of two has invested himself in the community as a public speaker, Knights of Columbus volunteer, and churchgoer. He and his wife, Barb, are members of Mary Our Queen parish.

It all made the ugly rumors that surfaced about him after WOWT did not renew his contract last December more unsettling. With Flowers suddenly off the air and no official word from station management explaining his absence (due to contractual reasons), anonymous social media speculation filled the information void. The chatter was mostly innocuous, but some alleged Flowers had been caught in a 2012 FBI sting operation targeting a local massage parlor fronting for a prostitution ring. It’s not the image a public figure like Flowers can afford, especially when looking for a new job.

Flowers, who flatly denies involvement in any illegal activity, believes a parlor client used his name when procuring sexual services. Unfortunately, Flowers found his good name sullied when the sting broke.

“…in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility…just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

Despite the cloud, Flowers landed at KMTV. He debuted there June 3 as part of a long-term contract he reached with the station, thus making him perhaps the only on-camera talent to have worked at each of Omaha’s three major network affiliates.

The Ohio native and Penn State University grad came to Omaha in 1982 to work at KETV from a TV weathercaster post in South Carolina. After 10 years, he moved to WOWT. He was there 20 years, the last several as chief meteorologist.

He says he and his wife found Omaha to be “a great place to raise kids.” Even though their boys are now men, he says all the roots he and Barb put down here and all the relationships they built here make it a hard place to shake.

 

 

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

 

 

But in the wake of what happened over the winter, he seriously considered moving to another market.

With his exit from WOWT fueling the gossip mill, he posted Facebook and TVSpy responses that reflected his resolve to lay the tittle tattle to rest.

“…I have never been involved in a massage parlor prostitution investigation. I have not been arrested, questioned, or told by the authorities that I am a suspect [a statement confirmed by Omaha Magazinewith Omaha Police Department public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney]…those lies have been very hurtful to me, my wife of 34 years, and our family…I appreciate the loyalty of the many fans who have continued to support me, and I want to assure them that there is nothing behind those rumors.”

He more extensively addressed the situation in June 3rd guest spots on the Todd-N-Tyler radio show and KM3’s own, The Morning Blend.

“Doing that interview with Todd-N-Tyler literally put an end to it,” he says.

But when the rumors were still fresh, they stung. “When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing. Some folks want to bring people down, for whatever reason. It’s the human psyche.”

“When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing.”

His initial reaction was to get mad.

“The first thing you feel is anger because you know you’re not a part of it. That’s what’s frustrating. It had an effect more on my wife and my family, especially my two boys. My two boys were angry…They wanted to find out who used my name, how the stuff got out there.”

His wife has had his back the whole way. She offered this statement about the rumors: “I knew it wasn’t true. It was hurtful to me and my family to think that people would believe those rumors about Jim. I would like to thank those that supported us with positive comments.”

Flowers, an outdoorsman who loves fishing, hunting, and chasing storms, isn’t the type to run scared, but there was little he could do about this.

He gained insight into how his name got dragged into the mud when he contacted authorities, none of whom could speak to the specific case, then active in the judicial system. However, they did lay out a likely scenario.

“I was told by the Omaha Police Department’s public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney that, in general, this is the way it works. The guys that go [to massage parlors] wind up on a list. They don’t use anything that will identify themselves. They don’t use credit cards, they don’t use checkbooks, and they don’t use their real names. She said, ‘Obviously, someone decided to use your name and guess what, now you’re a part of it.’ I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and she said ‘no.’”

 

 

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He says the local FBI office and U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp confirmed the same.

Unfortunately for Flowers, someone used his familiar name. It comes with the territory of being a
public figure.

“Our exposure to this kind thing is not unusual, but this form and how it took off seemed to have a life of its own,” he says. “The constraints that exist for print, television, and radio don’t exist for social media. There are no checks and balances out there. So if there’s a lesson, it’s that, in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility. But just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

He’s satisfied with how he’s managed the incident. “You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out. The night before I went on The Blend and Todd-N-Tyler, I told my wife, ‘I’m starting tomorrow [on KM3], and I feel really excited about it. There’s all these opportunities. But the one thing that’s still out there is this whole rumor thing. I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

He says he and Barb put their “very strong faith in God” that this bad dream would disappear. “I’ve had people compliment me and say you handled it professionally.”

KMTV General Manager Chris Sehring is pleased how it all worked out, too. “Jim’s a great guy, and we are thrilled to finally have him on our KMTV Weather Alert team.”

“You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out…I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

Though Sehring couldn’t comment on what steps the station took or on how much the incident played in its hiring decision, he did say, “Journal Broadcast Group is second to none in its commitment to integrity and the highest ethical standards. I still believe we live in a society where one is innocent until proven guilty…It’s truly a shame Jim and his family have had to endure these unsubstantiated rumors and malicious speculation. After all, it could happen to any of us.”

Both Sehring and Flowers are focused on making KM3, currently in last place in the ratings, number one. Flowers helped bring both KETV and WOWT to the top spot and feels confident he can work magic a third time.

“I’ve been down this road before. I know what it takes to win,” says Flowers. “Whoever wins weather in Omaha wins the ratings; that’s what it boils down to. You can ask every general manager, and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s not only in Omaha; it’s in a lot of weather-sensitive markets. I didn’t decide that, the public did.”

He feels his experience and attention to detail set him apart from other weathercasters in this market.

So do his fishing skills. Once a competitive bass tournament champion, he takes his boat and fishing gear out these days purely for relaxation. With the rumors behind him, he’s forecasting nothing but clear skies and calm waters ahead.

Visit the Omaha Magazine website to see the story and the rest of this issue’s stories at: http://omahamagazine.com/

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 9 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

 

Anthony Chisholm

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics – Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

 

 

August Wilson

 

 

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career

April 2, 2011 2 comments

As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport.  So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy.  In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network.  Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well.  I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.

 

 

 

Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career

©By Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.

Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.

McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.

Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.

“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.

In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.

“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”

Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.

“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”

In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.

McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.

Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.

 

 

 

 

“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”

As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.

The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.

“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”

In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.

“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”

As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.

“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”

While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with

Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett, the Entertainment Legend Whose Dreams of Show Biz Success were Fired in Nebraska

December 4, 2010 1 comment

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 is 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.

 

 

Ron Hull

 

 

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.’”

 

 

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.

Novel’s Mother-Daughter Thing Makes it to the Screen

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Cover of "Orange Mint and Honey: A Novel&...

Cover of Orange Mint and Honey: A Novel

Add Carleen Brice to the very long list of native Nebraskans who have found success as authors.  She plied her craft for years as an editor and journalist before taking the plunge as a novelist a few years ago, and her first two book-length works of fiction, Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters, did very well with critics and audiences.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared on the eve of the Lifetime Movie Network‘s premiere of Sins of the Daughter, the made-for-television adaptation of her first novel Orange Mint and Honey.  Carleen was quite pleased with how her work was transferred to the screen.  The better-than-average Lifetime movie stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as the mother-daughter figures who reconnect after years of estrangement. The pic is steeped in 12-step philosophies and principals because the mother character is a recovering addict, but the movie never steeps to cheap sentimentality or simplistic cures. It is also quite mature and real, just like Carleen’s book.  She got to spend some time on the movie’s set in Vancouver, British Columbia.  In addition to her books, Carleen is an active blogger and contributor to various online sites.  Check out her The Pajama Gardener and White Readers Meet Black Authors. You can also find her work at Girlfriends Book Club, SheWrites, and The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog.  And, of course, she’s on Facebook and Twitter.   It seems that a girl (or boy) author just can’t get by these days without putting themselves and their work out there in the social media world.

A NOTE:  Carleen’s later grandfather, Billy Melton, was a friend of mine.  On this same blog I have several stories in which I quote Billy.  One piece profiles his love of music, another recounts the experiences of Billy and his comrades in an all-black Quartermaster battalion during World War II, another has Billy and friends waxing nostalgic on the Ritz Cab Co. they drove for, and still another has Billy and others weighing in on what makes soul food, well, soul food.  I will also be adding another story I did about Carleen and her writing life.

Carleen Brice
Novel’s Mother-Daughter Thing Makes it to the Screen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha native Carleen Brice often doubted she’d complete, much less get published, her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World/Ballantine). She did. It broke big in 2008 and now a Lifetime Movie Network version of it is premiering.

The movie, Sins of the Mother, stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as a mother and daughter struggling to heal their broken relationship. Scott is a powerhouse as Nona, the mother in recovery from alcoholism. Beharie is intense as Shay, the resentful daughter whose childhood was stolen by Nona’s drinking and carousing.

Long estranged, the two end up living together when Shay’s unresolved turmoil sends her back home from grad school. She finds a changed woman in Nona, who works a steady job, keeps a tidy home, stays sober and cares for a new daughter, Sunny. Her 12-step recovery infuses her life — from affirmations taped everywhere to meetings to sponsorship.

It’s all too much for Shay, who’s come for an apology, not a crash course in serenity. She doesn’t buy Nona’s sobriety as real. After some false-starts she accepts Nona’s healthy transformation. The wounded Shay’s finally able to confront her own hurt and learns to trust and love again.

There are big emotional moments, especially a church scene in which Scott and Beharie tear it up. There are some small, closely observed moments, too, like in the prayer garden where Nona and Shay surrender their fears. It all rings true and cathartic, not sappy or coy. Director Paul Kaufman makes Nona’s house and garden charged characters. Sunny represents the happy child Shay never was but also the hope of her and Nona’s new lives.

Scene from Sins of the Mother, with Jill Scott (L) and Nicole Beharie (R)

Brice, who resides in Denver, is pleased how her work was translated. “I was really happy they stuck so closely to the book. I definitely feel my book is the source of the movie,” she said.

Fans of the novel would have to agree it’s a faithful adaptation, although they may quibble about some deletions. Count screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter (Beauty Shop) a fan. She tried staying true to the novel as possible.

“The book was great. If it’s rolling I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel and this one was rolling. Carleen just created all these very rich characters I hadn’t seen before,” Hunter said.

She hated losing some of the novel’s leitmotifs, such as Nina Simone appearing to Shay in moments of crisis. Hunter, like Brice, is a huge Simone devotee.

“The Nina Simone of it all hooked me into the book,” said Hunter. “Unfortunately, it was very expensive to get the rights to her music.”

Other story elements didn’t make it in the script due to time constraints, but Hunter’s satisfied “the characters and the emotions track really well.” Brice is, too, saying, “I feel very good about how the screenwriter and everyone involved approached this adaptation.”

Brice visited the movie’s Vancouver, British Columbia set, where as an extra she anxiously watched the crucial church scene filmed.

“It was THE big scene in the story, so, yes, I was worried about it,” said Brice. “But I also had always thought of it as the scene that would attract movie people. It’s meaty, you know? It was the last scene they filmed with Jill so it was really special for many reasons to be a part of it.”

In an essay Brice’s written for thedefendersonline.com she describes a coming-full-circle experience of listening on her iPod Scott sing “Try” prior to meeting the Grammy-winning singer and star of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The same song and message carried Brice through the angst of writing the novel. Seeing Scott and Beharie bring it to life moved her to tears.

The author writes she once steeled herself at the thought of others interpreting her work by repeating, mantra-like, “The book is mine, the movie is theirs.” By the end of the shoot she’d changed her mind to the point where “the movie feels like it’s mine, too.”

Brice’s acclaimed 2009 novel, Children of the Waters (One World/Ballantine) is being considered for a movie adaptation. Might she adapt it herself? “I would consider it, but I understand that adapting is more difficult than it seems. We’ll see.”

Her in-progress novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home, is about a woman long estranged from her father who becomes close with his widow.

As for “her” movie, Brice will be watching with a Denver book club that won a contest she sponsored. She’s bringing champagne.

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.

Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner Prick the Body Politic

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...

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This is one of several stories I’ve written about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, and I’m quite sure it will not be the last. As the piece infers she has a facile quality that allows her to do many different kinds of film work, including the hybrid form she hit upon for her collaboration with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.  My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign, which was the fodder for Levin and Brodner’s project called The Naked Campaign.  Their work attracted a fair amount of attention, though I don’t think it quite got the play Levin had hoped it would net.  The two were still collaborating until recently, this time for occasional bits they doidfor the PBS series Need to Know, which has the dubious distinction of replacing the irreplaceable Bill Moyers Journal.  I didn’t see all of the installments in Naked Campaign, but I saw most of them and I must say they were highly entertaining micro-documentaries/political cartoons/reports.  I did not see their work for Need to Know. I meant to catch it some night, but Levin and Brodner have since dissolved their creative partnership and their segment is no longer part of the show. The last time I spoke with Levin, she was crashing to complete a new American Masters doc – a profile of actor Jeff Bridges. The film premiered on PBS earlier this year and it was quite good.  The story I wrote about the project - “Long Live the Dude” -  can be found on this blog.  I had hoped to interview Bridges for the piece but that was never really in the cards. Gail gave me a good interview though.  I look forward to whatever her next project is.

Exposed:  Gail Levin and Steve Brodner Prick the Body Politic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A pair of New York artists, filmmaker Gail Levin and political illustrator and art journalist Steve Brodner, are making the 2008 presidential race both the subject and the laboratory of their The Naked Campaign.

Appearing on The New Yorker Web site since last December, Naked combines the work of Levin, an Omaha native and seven-time Emmy-award winning filmmaker, with the art of Brodner — an acclaimed satirist in pencil, pen, brush and word. Melding film with caricature is not new but consider that Naked then adds the animation of Asterisk studio, along with media images, sound bites and eclectic music tracks. It’s all fodder and counterpoint for Brodner’s brand of irony. The eclectic content is a moving canvas for both his visual art and his verbal commentary, whose pithy, breezy observations are at least as sharp as his barbed illustrations.

Levin believes she and Brodner are innovators with Naked, a cross-platformed, animated, op-ed, multi-media series whose “films” are now on newyorker.com, YouTube, xml and will soon appear as run-of-schedule interstitials on cable TV’s the Sundance Channel. Naked has international distribution via The New York Times Syndicate. Galleries and museums are showing the work. She’s also piecing together a feature documentary based on the series.

“I think we have created a new genre here with extraordinary breadth and range and something very unique in its take and its scope,” Levin said. “This is not only political content, it is equally about ways of seeing — how art informs opinion. In fact, I am calling this Op-Art.”

New enough at least that the project’s been a tough sell to traditional media, although some outlets that passed before, like PBS’s POV series, are interested again, she said, after “the phenomenal reception” to Naked on the Web.

The fluid nature of an unwieldy national campaign with in-flux headlines, stories and sidebars poses unlimited opportunities and problems for those covering it. A new Naked piece — there are 24 and counting now — is posted every couple weeks in an attempt to stay current and respond to developing narratives.

“Its fluidity is both its great strength and its great challenge,” Levin said. “It is very daunting to find our way through some of this and keep these little pieces both reflective and a bit prescient at the same time. One wants to be able not to feel dated, and yet this stuff is dated within milliseconds. Still, though, it is my goal to keep this stuff feeling crisp and right on, even if the events have already begun to shift. There really is a sort of thru line and it is important to see it, and that is not in the day to day — the Obama victory here, the McCain race there. Rather it is finding the guts — keeping the soul of it all in focus that I like.”

 

 

Gail Levin and Steve Brodner

 

Levin and Brodner intended going on the road to follow the slog through the primaries and caucuses, all the way through to the conventions. If Naked had taken that route, then Brodner and Levin would have practiced the kind of art journalism he’s done — from climbing Mt. Fuji to shadowing the Million Man March to covering eight presidential campaigns — that entails going out and coming back with stories.

Budgetary restrictions nixed that plan. So, other than attending a stray primary here and caucus (Iowa) there, and crashing a few photo ops (Obama at the Apollo Theatre), Naked’s creative team has largely monitored the campaign from afar.

No Boys on the Bus tour for this gang.

“We are definitely not on the bus, but that is great,” Levin said. “As fun as that can be it is also very insular. I think you get no distance and you can put no lens on the events. So I rather like this vantage point of ours.”

She said the individual films are stand-alone pieces informed by the entire “streaming” project. “Their present tenseness makes it a documentary which is a witness, not a pundit. We are kind of in a play-by-play mode. No conclusions, just moving decimal points.”

Naked’s not as subversive, say, as Robert Altman’s Tanner: ‘88, the quirky docudrama that inserted a fictional candidate into that election year’s actual ‘88 presidential scene. Clearly, Naked’s not drama. Neither is it straight documentary, nor even pseudo-doc in the way Michael Moore’s partisan films are.

As Levin herself said, “No, we are not exactly journalists and maybe not exactly documentarians either — though the documentary aspect of this will come.”

So, what roles do Levin-Brodner play? “Right now.” she said, “we are in a rather glorious position of our own — neither journalists, nor documentarians, but rather storytellers, animated documentary makers. Artists, I hope. Collagists. Improvisational yet deliberate. Something which is evolving as a whole new form outside the media apparatus but also commenting back on it.”

Brodner feels Naked qualifies as a kind of journalism.

“Anything you do that discusses current affairs can be called journalism,” he said. “George Will doesn’t have to leave his easy chair and he’s still considered a journalist just by sitting and puffing on his pipe and pontificating about things. So, this (Naked) all goes into the vast general description of journalism.”

Still, he said, Naked defies genre. “If you watch these films Gail makes for American Masters they’re about these people (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) but not really about them, they’re about the art that they make. She really has this vision about the mechanics of art being a key into the lives of the artists or, in this case, the political life of the nation as we experience it. Or as it gets perceived under the surface of things. So this (Naked) is just kicking into her unique way of making film.”

For Brodner Naked’s just an extension of what he does in print, on blogs. “This is what I do, it’s what I always do, it’s no different,” he said.

His freelance work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The Washington Post and many other publications. The Brooklyn native’s collected political work was published in the book Freedom Fries. Brodner’s no stranger to celluloid. He created an animated film, Davy Crockett. He also made a documentary short, September 2001, on the emotional aftermath of 9/11. He drew on camera for a Frontline documentary about the ‘96 presidential campaign. He and Levin met when she interviewed him for a piece she did on political cartooning, a lifelong interest of hers.

A winner of the Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, his work is the subject of a new exhibition, Raw Nerve! The Political Art of Steve Brodner, at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Some of his Naked work is on display in a video installation there

For Naked he transforms candidates into metaphorical representations based on the various ways they project themselves. That’s why he plays with the notion of tall, lanky orator-from-Illinois Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln. But is he really Lincoln-like, he ponders. Or, as he suggests, is Obama an Adlai (Stevenson) with highfalutin ideas that don’t register? Or a neurotic intellectual, ala Woody Allen?

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s visual renderings and verbal takes, whether on Obama and McCain or the race writ large, are witty, inventive, dead-on interpretations that examine the subtext and context of these figures, their views, the issues, the parties, et all.

“This is Steve Brodner’s voice and it’s his voice very unedited,” Levis said. “I think he’s very eloquent and very smart. You don’t have to agree with him but he has great, brilliantly-conceived ideas. It’s amazing to watch his mind and hands work.”

Each topical piece is a few minutes in length and pictures Brodner doing his thing in a simple bare white studio, with a table and an easel set before him. He’s often shot over the shoulder, with his back to the camera, to capture him, almost in real-time, executing that episode’s sketches on greaseboard, paper, canvas. He caricatures over photographs in one and on an inflatable globe in another.

“What’s been most satisfying if not surprising is the range of our own method and the evolution and continuing refinement of our use of animation and commentary,” said Levin. “And we still haven’t begun to do a lot of what I hope to do.”

For example, she wants Brodner to paint on a glass plate and envisions him working on a blank museum wall before a live audience he interacts with like a street artist. “The continuing evolution is the thing,” she said.

As Brodner draws, inks or paints in Naked, he yaps about the topic in a running Bill Maheresque commentary, only smarter, with equal historical and pop culture references. “I love that you’re getting American civics-history filtered through this — without shoving it down your throat,” Levin said.

It seems less rehearsed agit-prop than off-the-cuff political banter. You know, the kind of give-and-take you engage in at the neighborhood coffeehouse or bar over the state of the nation or the character of McCain versus Obama.

“It’s the same thing, except I’m doing it with pictures,” Brodner said. “It’s just thinking about the campaign…being honest…being expressive about it. It’s just one voice expressing an opinion. I have no plan or expectation the art will accomplish anything other than just engage in one small part of the debate. We’re having a national conversation here.”

He said the remainder of the race is a referendum on who people trust is best suited to guide the country. Naked will be examining how the McCain-Palin, Obama-Biden tickets spin perception to their own advantage.

“That’s really the kind of dialogue we’re having here, over the next eight weeks especially,” he said. “People are going to be talking a lot about these topics and it’s wonderful. It’s so much better than the way it’s been where people have just not talked about politics, don’t pay attention, aren’t interested, aren’t listening, aren’t involved. We’re now involved.”

“I want to elevate this dialogue,” Levin said. “I want to contribute something to this dialogue.”

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s conversational style accentuates Naked’s in-the-moment sensibility, further heightened by the bleed-through ambient sounds Levin lets leak-in from the street outside. Sometimes you can hear her in the background, always off-camera, prompting him with a comment or question or responding to something he’s said.

In the throes of a sketch, the footage is slightly sped up, which combined with the artist POV, puts you right on top of his work in-the-making. The minimally-produced segments and hand-held camera techniques lend a sense of as-it’s-happening cinema verite intimacy, as if we’re peering in on the private Brodner at work.

He likes this artist-at-work aspect of Naked.

“I think that really brings people along — if they feel they’re watching something in the moment that it’s being created. That’s something most people don’t ever get to see. They just see the final product but they don’t see the person making it. I think everybody finds interesting how something gets made…the crafting of something by one’s hands.”

In the act of completing a portrait caricature all the puffery is stripped away to bare the candidate down to his or her essentials. Down to the naked truth.

“I think something big is revealed in watching the process,” Brodner said. “You see the creation and the act of creation together. It doesn’t bother you, in fact it excites you. I like things that show that the human being is there making this thing happen. At least slight little traces of humanity or maybe imperfection. Or just a sense that it’s art but it’s also a human product. It’s not this cut-off thing where you don’t see the brush strokes. Let’s see the brush strokes.”

There are also set-ups that have Brodner face the camera, obviously addressing the unseen Levin, and deliver op-eds, sans any art.

For “Straight Talk Eggs-Spress” Brodner inks Bush-McCain caricatures on eggs. The artist makes the case that no matter how much McCain tries distancing himself from Bush “he can’t separate his eggs” from George Ws’ on foreign policy. Brodner peels the eggs, places them in a bowl, then crumbles and mixes them to illustrate how the two “are sort of yoked together.” Brodner goes on to make an egg salad with ingredients symbolizing different political points. By the end, he’s left with a kind of Middle Eastern but thoroughly American concoction” that “you just keep spinning and beating into the ground.” The salad becomes an Obama spread that Brodner schmeers into a caricature that’s then animated to a sound bite of the senator intoning “we are hungry for change” over a crowd chanting “U.S.A.”.

Unlike Bill Maher, Brodner doesn’t settle so much for quips or punch-lines or argumentative rants, opting instead for interpretive riffs that take the measure of the candidates’ public faces in rich metaphorical bites.

In “Clash of the Titans” Brodner deals with the looming specters of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The segment appeared before McCain emerged as the leading GOP candidate and prior to Clinton making nice with Obama. “We’re talking about big characters here,” Brodner says. “Larger than life figures. Reagan and Clinton are both that and it’s interesting in this campaign how both have kind of overshadowed the people who are actually running for office.”

Brodner morphs Clinton into King Kong, “a big, weighty, ponderous, powerful character” holding Hillary in one hand while stomping Obama underfoot. Clinton-Kong “comes on the scene and throws his weight around. He knows how dominant he is. Instead of being careful with it he seems almost happy to do damage,” opines Brodner. “It seems like a calculation that something was necessary to stop Obama and that good old-fashioned politics was the ticket. With Hillary in his grip he overshadows and overpowers the other Democratics…”

Clinton is “matched by Reagan, the big mythic character,” observes Brodner, who imagines the Great Communicator “as a dinosaur,” but one “Republicans can’t stop mentioning. And the weaker they seem to be the more they kind of just flap their arms and howl Reagan’s name out — as if an incantation. What we end up with is this mythic figure that has tremendous power over the Republican Party.”

 

 

 

 

After Hillary dropped 10 straight primaries, Brodner-Levin did “Lost at Sea,” which pictures the Clintons as the doomed couple from the movie Titanic, standing at the prow of the ship as it goes down, sunk by an iceberg in the guise of Obama. It’s the connections Brodner makes, first positing Hillary as John Paul Jones, then Admiral Nimitz, before her fateful Titanic encounter, that elevate his work.

Where Maher wears his liberal leanings on his sleeve, infusing his rails against the Right with self-congratulatory indignation, Brodner keeps his own personal political persuasions close to his vest, although he clearly loathes the Bush administration.

Still, he retains an even-handed approach in his bashing. Everyone and everything is fair game. As Naked’s producer-director, it’s ultimately Levin’s call that the series not be identified as either Left nor Right. It is, if anything, Centrist.

Brodner regards candidates “as characters in a novel or a movie or an opera. That’s the only way to think about them in my opinion because they’re not real people,” he said. “They’re characters they consciously create for us to consume, and that’s what the cartoonist draws — that character. We never see the real McCain or the real Obama. I learned this by covering campaigns and by watching these people on and off stage. The performer is the layered-over version, sort of the adopted persona. We’re really shocked and amazed when there’s an open mike and they say something completely uncharacteristic when the real person comes through.”

Beyond the posturing and masks, he said, “what’s most interesting is what they stand for. That’s what we need to be looking at.”

What makes he and Levin a good team? “This is such an equal partnership,” she said. “We listen to each other,” he said.

“I think part of it, too,” he added, “is we’re both in a real way very experienced commercial artists. We both have been able to support ourselves by finding ways to say what we want to say with our respective art while also pleasing some clients.”

Levin said the project’s lack of funding helps keep it independent and free of interference. She said as the series’ title puts it “this is the bare ass look at the campaign, plan and simple. Stripped down. We’re going to give you what we think here. We’re in nobody’s pocket. It’s not a spin. It’s not doctored.”

As the series’ opening tag line goes, “Uncle Sam says, watch your back.”

Only time will tell if her grand hopes for Naked Campaign, which she sees as the start of a whole new way of filmmaking, are realized.

“We think we are doing something quite extraordinary in terms of the sort of nexus of appointment viewing ala television and the expediency of the Internet. I am very determined that we will change the whole paradigm in terms of collaborations, production, platforming, multi-faceted filmmaking, et cetera.”

A Filming We Will Go: Gail Levin Follows Her Passion

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Another of my articles about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, this time taking more of an overview of her career.  If you’re a PBS television viewer then chances are you’ve seen at least one of her films on Great Performances or American Masters.  My profile of her originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). I did a more recent piece on Levin for the same publication, this time having to do with an edgy collaboration she has with editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner.  Look for that story posted on this site as well. Gail and I recently lost a dear friend in Omaha, Ben Nachman, who devoted much of his life to collecting and preserving Jewish oral histories, including the recollections of Holocaust survivors. Look for some stories on this blog site about Ben and his work.  He led me to many survivors and rescuers, and a selection of those stories can be found on the site as well.  Rest in peace, Ben.

Gail’s most recent film to find wide viewing is her documentary profile of actor Jeff Bridges for American Masters. You can find my story “Long Live the Dude” about the project, The Dude Abides, on this blog.  She also has a recent film about Cab Calloway that hasn’t yet found a mass audience. Also on this blog you’ll find my stories about Gail and her Making the Misfits film, her James Dean: Sense Memories film, and her work with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.

 

 

Gail Levin

 

 

A Filming We Will Go: Gail Levin Follows Her Passion 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Reared in Nebraska, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gail Levin captures an encyclopedic gallery of subjects that resonate with her eclectic life. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Levin, a die-hard cineaste since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, followed the example of her aunts, including a pair of English teachers/published poets, and a noted psychologist who was a pioneer in aging research, to choose a field diverse enough to encompass her many passions and interests.

Her most recent work, James Dean: Sense Memories, premieres May 11 (8 p.m. CST) on the PBS American Masters series and takes an impressionistic look at the life imitating art aspects of the late actor’s short but event-filled life. The film comes in the 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death in 1955. It follows another Hollywood-related piece she did, Making the Misfits (2002), for that acclaimed series.

Until its recent demise, Levin was producing and directing small documentaries on artists for a new high-definition satellite television network called Voom.

The Omaha Central High School graduate earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. She enlisted kids in a Boston Head Start program in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. In only a few years, she evolved into the kind of independent filmmaker she is today, where she goes from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

Impassioned Projects
Twenty-five years into her career as a television producer-director and documentary filmmaker, Levin considers her work a calling despite the endless pitches she makes, the constant leads she pursues, the interminable lulls between projects and the inevitable production glitches that crop up.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said on an Omaha visit. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it, I guess. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

One of those dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July. She landed the Lindoassignment through her children’s programming work at Boston’s WBZ-TV. Her film charts the bonds that develop among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors.

 

 

 

 

As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by some unusual circumstances. The U.S. boycott of that summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow freed-up hours of programming that needed filling by then-NBC network affiliates such as WBZ. “I can’t imagine it would happen today,” she said. “That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, lived up to her high expectations. “I loved every minute of it.” The experience of being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary.” She added, “To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

The Boston Years
By the early-’80s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, which she’s since renamed Inscape. During those first years as an independent filmmaker, her deep ties to Boston often led her back there for projects, including a few she counts among her finest achievements. One of these prized Boston projects is The Story of Red Auerbach, a 1985 film she made as a WHDH-TV special profiling the shrewd, crusty architect of the Boston Celtics NBA championship dynasty.

A lifelong sports fan, Levin knew the Celtics legacy and Auerbach’s anointed status in its mythology. When she sensed old-school Red was resistant to an upstart woman treading on his traditionally male turf, she sagely deferred to one of his trusted friends, Will McDonough, the late sportswriter, to handle interviewing the curmudgeonly coach and his players. “Red was very funny about me. I think he thought, Who’s this girl? She can’t do this. And my reaction to that was, Yes, I can, but I’m not going to try to shove this down your throat. So, Will did the bulk of the interviews because I thought Red wouldn’t talk to me the same way he would with Will. It didn’t have anything to do with how much I knew. I knew a lot. I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things. Well, it worked out great and Red ended up really trusting me. One of the great things of my life is to have met Red and to have done that documentary.”

Another Boston project she regards warmly is Harvard, A Video Portrait, a 1986 film made in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the prestigious Ivy League school. “It’s just an amazing place. We started shooting in the reading (pre-exam) period, which meant I didn’t have one working classroom to shoot,” she said. “So, we made it the great academy. The great hall of learning. Everything quiet and beautiful and iconic, which it is.” Her on camera interview subjects included famed lawyer and legal educator Archibald Cox, Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature Seamus Heaney and leading architect Moshe Safde.

Making the Misfits
Then came a dream project – Making the Misfits. This documentary about the celebrated and ill-fated 1961 feature The Misfits starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe takes the measure of one of cinema’s most exhaustively analyzed motion pictures, yet one about which a documentary had not been made until Levin’s. Shot on location in and around the Nevada desert, the film, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and directed by that late great lion of American filmmaking, John Huston, became a cause celeb due to the legendary figures involved in its making, the personal dramas unfolding during and after the shoot and the constant presence of Magnum Photo Agency photographers documenting the entire production. Levin’s impressionistic film touches on it all.

 

 

 

 

Penned by Miller as a vehicle for his then wife Monroe, the story of troubled Western drifters refusing to be reined-in by encroaching civilization had nothing over the on-the-set intrigues playing out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans making The Misfits. Hounded by the press since their headline-making union a few years before, the unlikely match of the intellectual Miller and the bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

The Misfits has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion. Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Co-star Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away at age 45 in 1966.

Long an admirer of the film, Levin got the idea for her documentary when she ran across a book detailing the making of the movie with images by Magnum photogs given complete access to the set. Aware of the rich, behind-the-scenes goings-on of the United Artists release, she immediately saw the potential for a signature the-making-of project. Besides funding, which soon fell into place, she needed to access Magnum’s superb photos, along with excerpts from the film itself, and to record new interviews with surviving principal cast and crew members.

When she began making inquiries about doing a documentary, she assumed she was too late — that surely someone already had something in the works — but much to her surprise and delight she found she was the first in on it. “That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do,” she said in an online PBS interview with writer Gia Kourlas. “I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. The Misfits is a great film that wasn’t received in that way, but I think it’s so extraordinarily modern and courageous.” She also secured rather quickly the releases needed from Magnum, United Artists, cast and crew. Even the indomitable Arthur Miller agreed to participate without much prodding.

 

 

American Masters creator Susan Lacy, actor Jeff Bridges, and Gail Levin

 

 

Framing the Image
A film and photography buff, Levin also liked the idea of looking at cinema through the lens of still imagemakers, whose approach she is influenced by.

“I just loved The Misfits,” she said. “And I just love still photography. It’s very influential in my thinking. I do like what a frame does. I would never say I’m involved in formally composing shots, but some part of me is. I am looking at things always in terms of how I can use a frame, how the frame fits with the next image…I’m very informed by it. I think you can see it all the way through my film.”

Levin prefers “portrait-type” shots. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is.” Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

That’s why Levin was furious with herself when she got back to her editing suite and discovered a sequence in which she’d inexplicably filmed interviews with crew members from The Misfits in wide body shots instead of closeups. The seated subjects were paired off in the open desert and the interviews shot using two cameras. Levin was there the entire time, even eying a video feed, and so she can only assume she got so wrapped up in the content of the scenes she lost sight of how she wanted them composed. “I was absolutely stunned by how much I hated it and by how much I couldn’t bear the notion that this was my frame. This was not the way I wanted this to look. I don’t like commonness in anything and I felt like these were common, bad, sloppy documentary shots.”

That’s when inspiration became the mother of invention. “So, I was looking at these pictures when suddenly I lined them up on the editing screen and I saw how I could use the shots like images on a contact sheet.” And that’s just what she did with the footage, breaking up the frame to run streaming, parallel interviews side-by-side. “It was a very still photographic-inspired solution for me to then take those wide shots and make them work as two shots, one next to the other. It was the opposite of the intimate, beautiful portrait shots I prefer, but what it gave you was all the activity of the interaction of these people.”

Airing to good reviews on PBS’ Great Performances in 2003, Making the Misfits satisfied Levin’s intent “to not have it be another one of the zillions of movies about movies. I wanted to make it have some resonance and to mean something to somebody, and have it not be another, ugh, Marilyn Monroe saga.” Her film played on a continuous loop during the Joslyn Art Museum’s 2003 showing of the traveling exhibition, Magnum Cinema: Photograph from Fifty Years of Movie Making.

Artists and Other Projects
Although she loves the documentary form, she doesn’t consider herself strictly a documentarian. Some of her favorite work includes segments she made for A&E’sRevue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles on individual artists. She’s particularly enamored with the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions. “I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. And I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.” Other notables she’s profiled include Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.

She’s revisited the creative landscape with her current film on James Dean. The hour-long Sense Memories examines the art imitating life aspects of the late actor

She’s now trying to secure backing for a couple documentary projects she’s eager to develop. One would explore the price and promise of life on the Great Plains and the other would reveal the real life affairs that inspired a famous author’s literary romances. As always, her excitement about these new subjects consumes her.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of  how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today.  I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume.  Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death.  I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.

Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.

Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.

Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.

On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.

“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”

Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”

There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.

Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.

Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”

 

 

 

 

The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”

Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”

The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”

Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”

What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”

Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.

 

 

 

 

“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”

As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.

A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”

For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.

“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”

Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”

Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”

Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.

With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”

American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.

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