Friday, March 29, 2013

The Beach Party Movies: A to Z

A – It’s for Annette, of course! (Though Avalon is a fine choice, too.)

BBeach Party, the 1963 movie that started it all. Or, it can also be for Bonehead, Frankie’s dimwitted pal played by Jody McCrea (Joel’s son).

Candy Johnson.
C – Candy Johnson, the fringe-dressed dancer who shimmies through most of the closing credits.

D – Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar,” who appeared in Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party with his band The Del-Tones. Quentin Tarantino used Dale’s “Misirlou” as the theme to Pulp Fiction.

E – Eva Six, the Hungarian bombshell who tries to lure Frankie from Annette in Beach Party.

F – “The Finger,” a self-defensive maneuver, also known as the Himalayan Time Suspension Technique, employed originally by Professor Sutwell (Robert Cummings) in Beach Party. Sutwell would place his index finger on a “complex pressure point” on his opponent’s temple. The victim’s body would then go into a state of “time suspension” for several hours. The most frequent victim was Eric Von Zipper.

G – Go Go (Tommy Kirk), a Martian teen who falls in love with Connie (Annette) instead of preparing for the Mars invasion of Earth in Pajama Party.

H – Dwayne Hickman, TV’s Dobie Gillis, who wooed Annette in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Or, it could be Susan Hart, the beauty who starred as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini after an earlier appearance in Pajama Party.

Harvey Lembeck as
Eric Von Zipper.
I – “I Am My Ideal” a reprise of Eric Von Zipper’s “Follow Your Leader” music number that first appeared in Beach Blanket Bingo and then How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

J – Jack Fanny, the bodybuilding trainer played by Don Rickles in Muscle Beach Party.

K – Sugar Kane, a singer played by Linda Evans in Beach Blanket Bingo (the song vocals are by Jackie Ward). Or, it can be for Buster Keaton, who appeared in Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

L – Lorelei (Marta Kristen), Bonehead’s mermaid girlfriend in Beach Blanket Bingo. It could also be for Donna Loren, who sings some of the best songs in the series, including “It Only Hurts When I Cry” (from Bingo).

M – Flex Martian, the bodybuilder played by Mission: Impossible's Peter Lupus (shown on right) in Muscle Beach Party. Or, it could be Dorothy Malone, the only Oscar winner in a BP movie (Beach Party).

N – The Nooney Rickett Four, an L.A. rock band that appeared in Pajama Party.

O – “O Dio Mio” a pre-Beach Party hit song for Annette.

P – The Potato Bug, a British rock singer played by Frankie Avalon in Bikini Beach (in addition to his regular role of Frankie).

Q – Quinn O’Hara, Scottish redhead who played Basil Rathbone’s homicidal daughter in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.

R – The Ratz, the name of Eric Von Zipper’s motorcycle gang. (The female members were known as the Mice.)

South Dakota Slim.
S – South Dakota Slim (Timothy Carey), the creepy pool shark from Bikini Beach and Bingo (where he kidnaps Sugar Kane). Or, it can for Bobbi Shaw, the curvaceous blonde with a fondness for taking baths in the final four Beach Party movies.

T – Toni Basil, one of the singer-dancers in Pajama Party. In 1982, she had a No. 1 hit song with "Mickey."

U – Gary Usher, the influential 1960s composer, who wrote tunes for four Beach Party movies when not collaborating with Brian Wilson, The Byrds, and others.

V – Vivian Clements, a teacher played by Martha Hyer in Bikini Beach.

Dick Dale and Stevie Wonder.
W – Little Stevie Wonder, who performed in Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach.

X - Francis X. Bushman, famous silent film actor and the first star labeled "King of the Movies." He had a supporting role in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.

Y – “Yoots,” which is how Eric Von Zipper pronounces “youths” as in the Ratz being a bunch of “good clean American yoots.”

Z – Eric Von Zipper (a bit of cheat to make it to “Z”). Eric’s most famous quote: “I like you. And when Eric Von Zipper likes someone, they stay liked.”

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Harvey Lembeck Stays Liked

While some actors are acclaimed for the body of their work, others earn fame for creating a handful of indelible characters. Harvey Lembeck, like many fine comedians, toiled in minor roles for most of his career in film and television. However, when given a promising role, he seized the opportunity and created three classic characters:  Sergeant Harry Shapiro in Billy Wilder's film adaptation of Stalag 17 (1953); Corporal Rocco Barbello in The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59); and klutzy motorocycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper in the Beach Party movies of the 1960s.

Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Harvey Lembeck first entered show business as one-half of The Dancing Carrolls at a 1939 World's Fair exhibition. His partner, Caroline Dubs, eventually became his wife. 

After a stint in the armed services during World War II, Lembeck graduated from New York University in 1947, hoping for a career in radio broadcasting. Instead, he wound up on Broadway, playing the character Insignia for three years opposite Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts. (Robert Roark played Lembeck's role in the 1955 film version of Mister Roberts). 

Strauss and Lembeck in Stalag 17.
His work in Mister Roberts led to his breakout performance as the wisecracking Sergeant Harry "Sugar Lips" Shapiro in the original stage version of the P.O.W. drama Stalag 17. Along with Robert Strauss as "Animal," Lembeck balanced the play's serious aspects with unexpected humor (e.g., "I'm tellin' ya, Animal, these Nazis just ain't kosher!"). When Billy Wilder adapted Stalag 17 for the big screen in 1953, Lembeck and Strauss both recreated their stage performances--with Strauss earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Sgt Bilko and Cpl Barbello in The Phil
Silvers Show
Two years later, Harvey Lembeck joined The Phil Silvers Show as Corporal Rocco Barbello, who usually found himself knee-deep in the conniving Sergeant Bilko's schemes (e.g., passing a desk clerk off as Bing Crosby at a military show). It was a more subtle variation of his Sergeant Shapiro character, but Lembeck created a perfect comic foil for the fast-talking Silvers.

Andy Romano as J.D. and Lembeck
as Eric Von Zipper in Beach Party.
A few years after the demise of The Phil Silvers Show in 1960, Lembeck made his debut as Eric Von Zipper in Beach Party (1963). I doubt if anyone expected Von Zipper to become a series regular. Yet, except for Muscle Beach Party, Lembeck plays the motorcycle gang leader--a parody of Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One (1953)--in six of the seven Beach Party films. Lembeck excels in the physical comedy bits and also gets to shine in a couple of musical numbers (the best being "I Am My Ideal" from Beach Blanket Bingo). But Eric Von Zipper is best remembered for his classic dialogue, perfectly delivered by Lembeck in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. Two of my favorites: “Eric Von Zipper adores you. And when Eric Von Zipper adores somebody, they stay adored” and "Him, I, I don't like."

In 1965, Harvey Lembeck founded The Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop to teach aspiring comedians. Lembeck explained: "“You can’t teach an actor to be funny. If the humor is innately there, we will give him the tools and nourish his own abilities to grow.” Over the years, the workshop has been attended by actors such as Robin Williams, John Ritter, and Mary Kay Place. Lembeck's children, director-actor Michael and daughter Helaine, run the workshop today.

Harvey Lembeck continued performing on TV series such as The Love Boat and Mork & Mindy right up until his death by a heart attack in 1982 at age 58. He left behind a successful acting school and a legacy of memorable film and television characters.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chicks Dig Guys Who "Ride the Wild Surf"

This surprisingly entertaining teen pic sounds like a rip-off of American-International’s Beach Party films. Yet, while it was made in the midst of those movies, Ride the Wild Surf chose to catch an altogether different wave. Stars Fabian and Shelley Fabares don’t sing a single song—in fact, there are no musical numbers (though Susan Hart provides a provocative hula dance and Jan & Dean croon the closing song). In lieu of grainy stock shots of surfing, we’re treated to am amazing display by real-life champs like Mickey Dora gliding across huge waves. And most surprisingly, the young cast even manages a couple of effective dramatic scenes.

Fabian and Shelley Fabares.
The premise, borrowed freely from Three Coins in the Fountain, has three young men arriving in Hawaii in search of the “big wave” at Waimea Bay. What they find initially are three pretty girls and plenty of teen angst. Jody (Fabian) wants to be “surf bum” until college girl Brie (Shelley) convinces him there’s more to life. Chase (Peter Brown) is a stick-in-the-mud who clashes with the free-spirited Augie Poole (Barbara Eden as a redhead). Steamer (Tab Hunter) falls in love with island girl Lily (Susan Hart), but must convince her surf-hating mother that his intentions are honorable. And to top it all off, there are a couple of unlikable rival surfers (James Mitchum, who resembles his dad Robert, and Roger Davis) and a climatic surf championship.

Peter Brown and Barbara Eden.
None of the cast will be mistaken for great thespians, but they’re likable and energetic. They also hold a certain nostalgic appeal for me. Peter Brown, Barbara Eden, and Roger Davis all went on to star in TV series I watched (Laredo, I Dream of Jeannie, and Alias Smith and Jones, respectively…with Roger also in Dark Shadows). The lovely Susan Hart appeared in a handful of Beach Party movies, married AIP co-founder James Nicholson, and retired from acting. Fabian, after pleasant turns in films like Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, starred in some awful films and faded quickly. I was never a big Shelley Fabares fan, but she certainly established a lengthy career on television and had a #1 pop hit with "Johnny Angel."

Susan Hart.
Much of Ride the Wild Surf appears to have been shot in Hawaii. The tropical locales are scenic and the color photography exceptional for this kind of movie. The surfing scenes are incredible, although the big championship goes for about ten minutes too long. After about the seventh wipe-out, they all look the same!

James Mitchum (Robert's son).
I caught Ride the Wild Surf on late night TV in the early 1990s. I didn’t see it again until it was unexpectedly released on DVD about a decade later. To my delight, I found it as charming as the first time. It made me want to go out and taking surfing lessons. But, by the next day, I felt more practical and quenched my thirst for ocean waves by taking my wife to the Red Lobster for some tasty seafood.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gidget: “How Cute Can One Girl Be?”

Sixteen-year-old straight A-student Francie (Sandra Dee) is coaxed into a beach excursion by her gal pals for some “man hunting.” A group of surfing guys pays little attention to the girls, which is blamed on the tomboyish Francie, who freely admits to disliking “smooching” and all that “pawing” from boys. When Francie takes a dip in the ocean, she’s caught in some kelp and is saved from a potential drowning by Moondoggie (James Darren). The girl’s short ride back to shore atop a surfboard spurs a newfound enthusiasm for surfing. She begs her father for the money to buy a used surfboard.

The next day, Francie returns to the beach and meets surf bum, Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), who lives in a shack on the sandy shore. Well beyond his teens (“He’s an older boy,” Francie tells her mother), Kahuna seems to take an instant liking to Francie, and she soon earns the respect of the other male surfers, who dub her “Gidget,” a merging of girl and midget (though she’s more affectionately called “Gidge”). Francie deftly handles the boys’ initiation and spends the summer honing her surfing skills. But it’s not long before smooching a boy doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, and the Gidge has her eyes set on Moondoggie.

Gidget (1959), helmed by TV/film director Paul Wendkos, was based on Frederick Kohner’s novel, Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas (although more commonly known by the condensed title). The film not only popularized surfing (and surf culture in general, particularly surf rock groups) but was also a forerunner for the Beach Party films in the ‘60s.

While the Beach Party movies include crowds of guys ogling the girls in bikinis, the surfers in Gidget are a different breed. They care more for catching waves and even mock Francie’s friends when the girls “accidentally” hit a ball their way so that the boys will acknowledge them. Moondoggie and the others are there for the ocean, not the girls, one of whom is played by Yvonne Craig, who would later star as Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) on the cult TV series, Batman, as well as Marta, the green slave girl from Star Trek recognizable even to novices of the show. The surf bum lifestyle that Kahuna lives and Moondoggie desires is a carefree, day-to-day existence. What makes Francie so appealing is that she seems to have the same attitude, unburdened by concern over what others think of her. From the beginning, she’s a surfer without a surfboard, and the surfing boys quickly accept her as one of them. The nickname with which Francie is bestowed seems like ridicule, but in little time, it’s abbreviated to Gidge, a moniker that Francie redefines with her generous nature and perseverance.

At the same time, Francie, in spite of being a tomboy, is still a teenager and prone to corresponding behavior. Francie, for instance, is smart enough to employ the “daddy’s little girl” routine to get what she wants. She asks her father to help her purchase a used surfboard, but he’s more precisely buying it for her, since he’s contributing over 80 percent of the 25-dollar price tag. Likewise, Francie tends to give too much significance to trivial things: she’s convinced that the surfboard is a “guarantee for a summer of sheer happiness,” while an invitation to a luau is something she wants “more than anything else in the whole wide world.” These characteristics are certainly not flaws, but instead make her seem more appropriate. As it happens, Francie is a little too perfect with her squeaky clean family life. She does occasionally argue with her parents, but no one ever seems truly upset or agitated, and there’s a distinct impression that there’s simply nothing wrong with Francie.

Despite its lightheartedness, Gidget is much more serious in overall tone than later films such as Beach Party (1963). Francie’s relationship with Moondoggie seems more meaningful because they began as friends and only later developed romantic feelings. At one point, Francie seems to question if a more shapely body would make boys take note. Though they never explicitly say it, she and her friend contemplate giving her an artificially bigger bust (fortunately the idea is almost immediately squelched). By the time this topic is addressed, Francie is already a surfer and a part of the boys’ clique. Her implication that a girl could so easily and superficially make boys aware of her presence seems highly critical of the male characters. Near the end of the film is a scene that’s more arduously dramatic. Had it been handled with any humor, it would have been far worse, but it remains a somewhat uncomfortable affair and is a relief when it’s over.

One of Francie’s friends, Betty Louise (Sue George), typically called B.L., is more a tomboy than Francie. B.L. is in the film’s first scene, and her short haircut and boyish attire initially make it difficult to determine whether or not she is a boy. More notable is the fact that B.L. never goes scouring for boys at the beach, and, unlike Francie, is apparently not even pressured to do so. She is, however, quite hilarious and a highlight of the movie. In one scene, Francie practices surfing on her bed, with B.L. reading a how-to book and shaking the mattress to replicate waves. When Francie insinuates that she should have spent more time surfing (or engaging in similar activities), B.L. accepts blame for congratulating Francie on her good grades: “I should have belted you one right then!”

The Four Preps performed the title song that plays over the opening credits, and the song later becomes diegetic when played on the radio. The band also performs “Cinderella” onscreen during the luau.

Gidget spawned two theatrical sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Both were directed by Wendkos and featured a reprisal of Darren’s Moondoggie, but alas, Sandra Dee did not return. Deborah Walley, who starred in two of the Beach Party films, was Gidget in the first sequel, while Cindy Carol was the Gidget who went to Rome. Sally Field starred in the 1965-66 TV series, Gidget, while Karen Valentine played a slightly older Gidget in the TV movie, Gidget Grows Up (1969). Gidget really had grown up by the following TV films, Gidget Gets Married (1972), with Monie Ellis, and Gidget’s Summer Reunion (1985), with Caryn Richman. The latter inspired a TV series with Richman, The New Gidget, which lasted two seasons.

Sandra Dee is quite good as Gidget. Though she was sometimes mocked for her wholesome demeanor associated with her performances (see: the musical, Grease, and its 1978 film adaptation), Dee makes Francie a likable character. The title song instantly defines Francie, describing her short stature and her tomboy traits but stressing that she’s an ideal girl, with the refrain, “Gidget is the one for me,” and her “ring-sized” finger an unmistakable reference to marriage. When Francies wonders why she isn’t like her boy-crazy friends, her mom tells her that she is “too genuine.” That’s a perfect word for Francie, and when the opening credits song is praising a girl that the audience has not yet seen, she wins over the audience with minimal effort. Francie vies for attention in the film, but those watching the movie are hardly watching anyone other than the Gidge.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beach Party Tonight!

Frankie front of a rear screen.
With one notable exception, 1963's Beach Party--the first entry in American-International's seven-film series--provided the blueprint for a new genre: the teen sand 'n' surf musical. It wasn't the first teen movie with surfing (see Gidget) and certainly not the first teen musical (see Rock Around the Clock and many others). However, Beach Party combined both elements into one sunny, sandy, frothy mix.

Annette--pretty in pink!
The aforementioned exception in Beach Party is the presence of adult leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone. Although integrated into the plot, I think they were added to draw an older audience that this genre ultimately didn't need. American-International apparently came to the same conclusion. Starting with Muscle Beach Party, the first stars listed above the title are Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Their popularity grew to the point where just one of the two stars was enough to attract an audience. (In contrast, the only film with neither one, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, was the least successful entry in the series...and a bad movie, too.)

Beach Party opens with Frankie and Annette singing the catchy "Beach Party (Tonight)" as they cruise down a seaside road in Frankie's yellow jalopy, with surfboards protruding from the back. Their destination is a beachfront cabin where they will spend the summer together--although with different expectations as highlighted in this dialogue exchange:

Frankie (motioning to the cabin): There it is, Honey. It's all ours.
Dolores: Just you and me. All alone.
Frankie: Exactly.
Dolores: It's just like we were married.
Frankie: Exactly!

Thus, in the film's first scene, we learn the source of friction in the relationship between Frankie and Dolores: She wants to get married; he wants the sexual benefits of marriage without the commitment. This theme carries throughout most of the films in the series and results in each character going to extremes to make the other jealous.

Bob Cummings watching "tribal" teens.
In Beach Party, these "tribal customs" of the American teenager attract the attention of middle-aged anthropologist Robert Sutwell, who is writing a book titled The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes. His attractive assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone) describes it more accurately as Teenage Sex. Sutwell’s plan is to observe the teenagers through his telescope and eavesdrop with his high-tech sound equipment.

Frankie gets cozy with Eva Six.
Meanwhile, Dolores confides to her friend Rhonda (Valora Noland) that she wants to be with Frankie, but take their relationship slowly. Frankie expresses his frustration to his friends, who advise him to dump Dolores. Frankie confesses that he can’t do that—because he loves her. They hatch a scheme to make Dolores jealous: When the gang goes to Big Daddy’s that night, Frankie will flirt with the voluptuous waitress Ava (Eva Six).

Everyone shows up at Big Daddy’s that evening, including Sutwell, who has decided he needs to get closer to his subjects. Unfortunately, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), an unpopular motorcycle gang leader, also makes an appearance. When Dolores decides to leave after watching Frankie flirt with several other girls (including Ava), Von Zipper approaches her. “Hey, baby, girls fall for Eric Von Zipper,” he tells her. “I like you and what Eric Von Zipper likes, he gets.”

Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper.
Hearing Von Zipper’s unwanted advances, Sutwell comes to Dolores’s rescue. When Von Zipper confronts him, Sutwell pushes his index finger against Von Zipper’s temple and the gang leader's body freezes immediately. Sutwell explains this is the “Himalayan time suspension technique” and that Von Zipper will be fine in a few hours. Sutwell then escorts Dolores back to her beach house, where she hatches her own scheme for making Frankie jealous.

Morey Amsterdam spouting
beatnik poetry.
It's a slight plot, but that doesn't matter, of course. If you're a fan of the Beach Party films--as I am--it's because of the casts and the music. Beach Party introduces many performers who would become regulars in the series:  the delightful Lembeck supported by Andy Romano as his crony J.D. (for Juvenile Delinquent); Jody McCrea as the dim-witted Deadhead (later renamed Bonehead); the shimmying Candy Johnson; and John Ashley as the other good-looking male in the gang. Morey Amsterdam became the first veteran comedian to appear in the series--and would be followed by Don Rickles (four films), Buster Keaton (three), Paul Lynde, and Jesse White. Likewise, Vincent Price became the first classic film star to make a cameo, paving the way for Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, Elsa Lanchester, and Basil Rathbone.

Dick Dale jamming on his guitar.
As for the music, Dick Dale and the Del Tones perform the beach classic "Swingin' and a-Surfin'" while Frankie and Annette (as a duo and separately) croon the rest of the tunes. It's one of the best scores in the series with songs written by Bob Marcucci, Gary Usher and Roger Christian (who sometimes collaborated with the Beach Boys), and Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner (who wrote songs for several Beach Party pictures).

While Beach Party isn't the series' best entry (that'd be Beach Blanket Bingo), it's a pleasant diversion and deserves kudos for establishing the prototype for all subsequent 1960s teen sand 'n'surf movies. That makes it historically significant! And if that's not enough to convince you to watch it, then you might have to deal with Eric Von Zipper and the Ratz....

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Charley Varrick" and Don Siegel: The Last of the Independents

Why hasn't Don Siegel received his due recognition as an important American filmmaker? He certainly directed his share of influential films (e.g., Dirty Harry) and socially significant ones (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And yet, although acclaimed in Europe, he lacks the auteur status bestowed on contemporaries such as Sam Peckinpah. It's a puzzling question, made even more perplexing when one considers Siegel's underrated gem Charley Varrick.

Made in 1973, Charley Varrick stars Walter Matthau as the title character, a crop duster who makes ends meet by robbing small-town banks. When a patrolman recognizes a stolen license plate, one of Charley's robberies goes horribly awry, resulting in three fatalities. Charley and his lone surviving gang member, the dim-witted Harman (Andrew Robinson), discover their bank haul amounts to $765,000. Harman is thrilled; Charley is not. He realizes immediately that they robbed a bank used by the mob. It's not long before the police, the FBI, and a mob hit man start looking for Charley and Harman. Their challenge, though, is that they underestimate the resourceful Charley, who methodically anticipates their every move.

Joe Don Baker as hit man Mr. Molly.
Charley Varrick is a prototypical Siegel anti-hero. He's a criminal, though his motives are driven by a poor economy. He never kills anyone, although he indirectly leads the hit man to Harman when he realizes the latter has become a liability. He is morally dubious, but "better" than the ruthless hit man and corrupt bank officials. In a sense, Charley is not dissimilar from Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry--who bends the law mightily to enforce it. Another similarity is that both men work outside the system, a point emphasized by the slogan on Charley's business signs: "The last of the independents" (which was the original title of the film). However, there remains a key difference between Charley and Harry--they are on opposite sides of the law.

Matthau in disguise for the robbery.
With an anti-hero at the heart of the film, it's essential to cast an actor with some degree of audience appeal. The gruff, likable Matthau fits the bill perfectly, somehow coming across as curmudgeonly and cold. The bottom line is that, despite his significant moral flaws, it's easy to root for Charley because we admire his ingenuity--and because he's played by Walter Matthau.

Siegel directs Charley Varrick with remarkable efficiency. The title credits roll over the same New Mexico town where the robbery occurs: farm workers whistling at a pretty girl; kids playing in a sprinkler; a patrol car cruising down a lonely highway. By the time Siegel's directing credit appears, we already have a feel for the locale, its residents, and the economy. Another example of Siegel's visual brevity is when he shows a close-up of Charley's hand as he slides a wedding band off the body of the female driver of the getaway car. He places the ring on his pinkie, next to a matching band. In one short sequence, Siegel has conveyed that Charley was married, he loved his wife, and must now cope with her death in addition to his self-created mess.

Despite its craftsmanship, Charley Varrick is occasionally sloppy around the edges. In a minor miscue, the plot has Charley sleep with the bank boss's pretty assistant. It makes no sense for either character. She's going to make love with a stranger that stalked her and broke into her apartment? He just lost his wife, but is ready for a one-night stand?

To fully appreciate Charley Varrick, though, one must accept such sporadic missteps. Overall, it's a first-rate action film with a well-cast, interesting protagonist. It makes a strong case for re-evaluating Don Siegel's filmography and recognizing him as a creative force in American cinema from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Monday, March 18, 2013

David Hedison Talks with the Café about Vincent Price, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", James Bond, and Love in Italy

David Hedison (photo courtesy
of Diane Kachmar).
Although best known as Captain Lee Crane on the classic TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, actor David Hedison has enjoyed a long, successful career in stage, film, and television. Now 85 (but not looking it!), he remains active making personal appearances and contributing to a book on his 1959-60 spy TV series Five Fingers due out in 2013. Mr. Hedison was gracious enough to take a break from his busy schedule and talk with the Café.

Café:  You studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and won a Theater World Award for A Month in the Country, directed by Sir Michael Redgrave. What are some of your favorite stage roles and why?

David Hedison: A Phoenix Too Frequent--it was one of the few roles I really thought I grasped and did justice to. I also was fond of what I did in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Of course, A Month in the Country launched my Hollywood career, so that role was probably the most important one I ever did.

Café: In your films, you've worked with actors such as Vincent Price (The Fly), Robert Mitchum (The Enemy Below), and Claude Rains (The Lost World). Who were some of the actors you most enjoyed working with in your movies?

Claude Rains and David Hedison
in The Lost World (1961).
DH: Claude Rains was in two of my films. He was probably the most patient person I have ever met. I must have asked him a thousand questions. He would let me hang out in his dressing room on The Lost World. A wonderful man and a very underrated actor. Vincent Price was a good friend, he would recommend art for me to buy and invite me over and cook wonderful dinners with his then wife, Mary. I miss him very much. When I married Bridget, Vincent and Mary gave us an autographed copy of their now famous cook book. We still use it today.

Café: What prompted you to change your professional name from Al Hedison to David Hedison?

DH: That was NBC's dictate in 1959 when I did a series they bought. I thought it was stupid then, but I was under exclusive contract to 20th Century-Fox and had no say in the final decision. So I became David Hedison and now everyone asks me why. It gets tiresome.

Café: Producer Irwin Allen originally offered you the role of Captain Lee Crane in the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but you declined because of other commitments. You once said you agreed to do the TV series because of the opportunity to work with Richard Basehart. Had you met Richard Basehart prior to Voyage or did you know him only by reputation?

Hedison with Richard Basehart in Voyage.
DH: I had never met him, but I admired Richard's work very much. I got his number from the studio. I called him up, and we agreed to meet at his house. He liked my enthusiasm, we hit it off and we worked really well together. We made the show work. Richard and I had real chemistry. He taught me so much about being camera ready when I needed to be. Television filming is so very fast, we always had to keep moving on. Voyage shot in six days--we filmed at a very fast pace.

Café: You’ve listed as a favorite Voyage episode “The Phantom Strikes” (which guest starred Alfred Ryder as a U-boat commander trying to “take over” Captain Crane). Are there any other episodes that you recall fondly?

Hedison as Captain Lee Crane in "The Human
Computer" from the season 1 DVD set.
DH: I thought I did good work in several first season episodes when we had better writing. "The Saboteur," where I was brainwashed by the Chinese to kill Admiral Nelson, "The Enemies" where I went mad and tried to kill the Admiral, "Mutiny" where Nelson went mad and I had to stop him. I sense a pattern here? Another episode I enjoyed was "The Human Computer." It was the first episode they let me carry--the episode was me, alone on the Seaview with a Russian saboteur. That was fun to do. I also enjoyed the fourth season episode where I turned into a werewolf from an experiment gone bad. I ran amuck and destroyed everything.

Café: You worked with Irwin Allen on Voyage, The Lost World, and the made-for-TV movie Adventures of the Queen. What was he like?

DH: Allen was an incredible salesman--he could sell the studio almost anything. Irwin was very good to me. He would always hire me, even though we hardly ever agreed on how I was to the play the role. He wanted me to play a straight, no-nonsense hero. Which I could do, but I never found that kind of role interesting to me as an actor. I prefer to play someone more emotional, more connected, someone with flaws. But I always did whatever job I was hired for and Allen knew he could count on me to show up and do it.

Café: You and your wife Bridget will celebrate your 45th anniversary this year. Congratulations! How did the two of you meet?

DH: I was scouting locations for an independent film I made in Italy in 1968. She was dancing with my location manager--they were at this supper/dance club in Positano, Italy. I knew right away she was the one, but Bridget had to be persuaded to date an actor. I asked her to dance with me that night because it was my birthday...and she said yes. It took another year to persuade Bridget to accept my marriage proposal.

Live and Let Die with Jane Seymour,
Roger Moore, and Hedison.
Café: You’re one of the few actors to appear in multiple James Bond films. How did you come to be cast as Felix Leiter in Let and Let Die (1973) and Licence to Kill (1989)?

DH: Tom Mankiewicz (the screenwriter of Live and Let Die) thought I would be a great Felix Leiter. He set up a meeting for me in London and I got the part. I was supposed to do the film with Sean Connery, but he dropped out and then they cast Roger Moore. That made it very easy for me to do the role as Roger and I had been friends for over a decade at that point. They called me back for Licence to Kill. They had an idea that they wanted to re-use a previous Felix. I was at the Bistro Gardens restaurant in Beverly Hills with my wife. Cubby Broccoli was there with his wife, also having dinner. I waved, but didn't go over. Cubby stopped by my table on the way out--we were friends--we talked a bit and he left. A few weeks later, I got a call in Florida (where I was doing a play with Elizabeth Ashley) and was asked to come back--on my day off--for a meeting with the director in Hollywood. I got the part.

Café: Having worked with Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, who is your favorite 007?

DH: Roger Moore is a great friend of mine, so that is not a fair question. Roger had his way with the role. That worked for him. Timothy brought his own working style to his take on the role. I was able to work easily with both of them. Roger was less work for me, since I knew him so well. Timothy was very serious about the role and worked hard. We talked and found our relationship and everyone likes what we did in that film. Licence to Kill was very gritty and scores very high in polls among the fans, much more now than it did when it came out.

Jeanne Cooper and Hedison on
The Young and the Restless.
Café: You played Jill Abbott’s father on the long-running daytime drama The Young and the Restless. How would you describe that experience?

DH: I loved working with both ladies. We truly became a family, because all three of us believed in it. Jess (Walton) was lovely, so giving, and Jeanne (Cooper) was so into her role as Katherine Chancellor. It was a real pleasure to go work with them every day.

Café: Are there any current projects or appearances you’d like to share with our readers?

With a fan at Crypticon in 2012
(photo courtesy of Diane Kachmar).
DH: I'm doing a Q &A at a screening of Licence to Kill in Glendale, CA on Tuesday, April 2 at the Alex Theatre. It is the first Q &A in a series of five Bond film screenings that month.

For more information on David Hedison, please visit the web site You can friend David Hedison on Facebook. Unless otherwise noted,
all photos are courtesy of

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Five Best Lee Marvin Performances

While recently reading a new biography of Lee Marvin, I was reminded of his many memorable performances. That led to this latest installment in our "Five Best" series:

1. Point Blank.  As the vengeance-driven Walker, Lee Marvin could have opted to play the protagonist as a robotic killing machine in John Boorman's cult classic. Instead, he provides a complex, nuanced performance that allows Walker's uncomfortable quietness to explode into raw violence. Marvin may have done better acting in other films, but this is his most powerful performance.

2.  Monte Walsh.  Like Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, this fine Western explores the changing times faced by the rugged men who tamed the frontier. A grizzled Marvin captures the title character's honesty, toughness, and--most of all--understanding of the inevitable (the film is often labeled a tragedy).  Had the Academy Awards not given Marvin an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I think he would have been at least nominated for this performance. Incidentally, there's a strong Shane connection: Jack Palance co-stars and the source novel was penned by Shane author Jack Schaefer.

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Compile a list of great Hollywood villains and Liberty Valance is likely to be on it. He's downright despicable in scenes like his confrontation with a pistol-packing Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart). As Stoddard approaches nervously from the shadows, Valance leans casually against a post and laughs almost gleefully, before finally announcing: "All right, dude, this time right between the eyes." It's a pivotal performance in a classic John Ford Western.

4. The Dirty Dozen. In perhaps his most famous role, Marvin played Major John Reisman, who is given the perilous task of molding twelve Army convicts into a cohesive unit for a suicide mission behind enemy lines during World War II. The film's first half is lighthearted, focusing on Reisman's training challenges; the second half is first-rate, nonstop action. As a result, The Dirty Dozen provides Marvin with an opportunity to show both his lighter side and his familiar tough side. In a film with several memorable supporting performances, he is the glue that holds everything together.

5. Cat Ballou. I struggled with this choice, because I think Marvin's Oscar-winning performance is overrated. Personally, I much prefer Marvin in The Professionals and other films listed among the honorable mentions. However, having recently watched Cat Ballou, one can't deny that it features his most different performance as washed-up, drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen (although he does double duty as villain Tim Strawn, that amounts to little more than a cameo). His best scene is when Kid finally decides to get cleaned up for a showdown against his rival.

Honorable Mentions: The Professionals; The Big Red One; The Iceman Cometh; Ships of Fools; and The Killers (1964);

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Classic TV Science Fiction A to Z

Astro Boy originated in a 1952 manga.
A - Astro Boy. This Japanese 1960s import about a boy robot was a favorite of mine as a youth. I thought it was cool how his feet turned into jets when he flew! A new version of the series appeared in 2003 and a theatrical film in 2009.

B - Blake's 7. This 1978-81 British cult series about space rebels still has a strong following. I mentioned it on Twitter recently and the comments came flying in.

A lethal blow from a Cybernaut!
C - The Cybernauts from The Avengers. These karate-chopping, killer androids appeared in two episodes with Mrs. Peel & Steed and then popped up a third time in an episode of The New Avengers.

D - The Daleks from Doctor Who. Super-villain Davros created this race of cyborgs, which were introduced in 1963 and have made periodic appearances ever since (to include the theatrical films Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.).

E - The USS Enterprise (of course!). Note that there have been multiple spaceships with that name in the Star Trek universe.

The Great Gazoo.
G - The Great Gazoo, the troublesome alien from Zetox, who appeared in the last season of The Flintstones; he was voiced by Harvey Korman.  (In case you're not a Gazoo fan, there's also Gemini Man, a revamped version of 1975's The Invisible Man with Ben Murphy taking over for David McCallum.)

H - Hymie, the literally-minded robot played by Dick Gautier on Get Smart. If Maxwell Smart told Hymie to "get hold of himself," Hymie would literally take hold of himself. Hymie was originally created by KAOS, but was reprogrammed into a CONTROL agent.

I - The Invaders. No one believed former architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) when he told them about these crafty human-looking aliens bent on taking over the Earth. It didn't help that dead aliens glowed orange and disappeared (in one memorable episode, two aliens swallow cyanide pills to avoid capture). Also worthy of a mention for "I" is the sitcom It's About Time--if only for the catchy song.

J - The Jetsons. After Hanna-Barbera scored a big hit with an animated, prehistoric variation of The Honeymooners, they launched this futuristic take. I always enjoyed it, but its original run only lasted one season.

K - Khan from the original Star Trek. Hey, how many television villains--who appeared in just one episode--were successful enough to be the subject of their own theatrical motion picture? Yep, Khan (as played by Ricardo Montalban) was in a class by himself!

Marta Kristen as Judy Robinson.
L - Lost in Space. The first of three Irwin Allen sci fi series on this list, Lost in Space is probably the mostly fondly remembered. It did feature a spiffy robot with a classic phrase ("Danger, Will Robinson!")--plus Marta Kristen!

M - My Favorite Martian (a slight favorite over My Living Doll). Ray Walston was a delight as Uncle Martin, an anthropologist from Mars who crash lands on Earth and who moves in with the newspaper reporter (Bill Bixby) who discovered him. It lasted for three seasons. As for My Living Doll, it starred curvy Julie Newmar as an android named Rhoda.

N - "Nanu nanu," Mork's famous greeting from Mork & Mindy. Need we say more?
Robert Culp listens to his hand.

O - The Outer Limits. This acclaimed anthology series featured some classic sci fi episodes (check out our post of the The Five Best Outer Limits Episodes). Our favorite was "Demon With a Glass Hand" starring Robert Culp and a prosthetic electronic hand that provides timely guidance as he battles aliens.

P - Captain Christopher Pike, the commander of the Enterprise prior to Captain Kirk. He was played by Jeffrey Hunter in the episode "The Menagerie" (which was actually revamped footage from an earlier Star Trek pilot).

Q - Quark. Richard Benjamin starred in this quirky 1978 series about an outer space garbage collector worked for the United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol). (Another nice choice for "Q" is The Questor Tapes, an intriguing made-for-TV film from Gene Roddenberry.)

R - Red Dwarf. A radiation leak aboard a small mining spaceship killed everyone aboard except Dave, a low-ranking technician, and a cat. Dave emerges from suspended animation three million years the last human in the universe. Oh, and this cult British series is a comedy!

Bain and Landau look concerned.
S - Space: 1999. Originally intended as the second season of UFO (see below), this expensive series never found an audience despite "stealing" stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from the hit show Mission: Impossible. Sci fi fans remain mixed towards it, though it has slowly been gaining in popularity.

T - Time Tunnel. As the narrator reminded us weekly: "Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time."

U - UFO (it's pronounced "u-foe"). Unbeknownst to most of Earth's population, a full-blown alien assault is underway. Thank goodness, we're protected by the Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation in Gerry Anderson's imaginative, funky British series.

The Seaview.
V - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. My favorite TV show as a kid, these exploits of the submarine Seaview were based on a 1961 theatrical film produced by Irwin Allen. While the plots became repetitious during the show's four-year run, the first two years were Allen's best TV work.

W - Doctor Who (could it be anything else?).

X - XL-5, the model of the spaceship in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's "supermarionation" series Fireball XL-5. Its pilot was Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. By the way, all the character were marionettes!

Y - Yogi's Space Race. Someone come up with another "Y"--please! I like Yogi, but there must be a better choice.

A Zanti convict.
Z - "The Zanti Misfits" episode of The Outer Limits. Were there any aliens on television in the 1960s that were creepier than the insect-like Zantians?

Additions and corrections to our "A to Z" lists are always welcomed!