Thursday, January 30, 2014

Seven Things to Know About "The Fugitive"

1. According to Mel Proctor's The Official Fan's Guide to The Fugitive, David Janssen's "salary" was 20% of the show's earnings plus $10,000 per week. He also owned 20% of the show. Needless to say, The Fugitive made Janssen a multimillionaire.

2. Stanford Whitman, who wrote the pilot episode "Fear in a Desert City," came up with the name of Kimble's "relentless pursuer" Philip Gerard. The police lieutenant's name was an homage to Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Roy Huggins, who created The Fugitive, intended the series to be a modern day version of Hugo's novel.

Stafford resident Phil Gerard.
3. Kimble returned to Stafford, Indiana--the site of Helen Kimble's murder and Lieutenant Gerard's home--on at least three occasions. In "Home Is the Hunted," Richard visits his ailing father, Dr. John Kimble (Robert Keith), brother Ray (Andrew Prine), and sister Donna (Jacqueline Scott). Donna (always played by Scott) appeared in a total of five episodes. Other episodes set in Stafford include "The Survivors" (Kimble confronts Helen's family) and "The Judgment" (the two-part series conclusion). Originally, Stafford was a town in Wisconsin and there are references to that in some of the early episodes. When the writers learned that Wisconsin did not have a death penalty, Stafford's location was changed to Indiana, which has capital punishment.

4. The Fugitive cracked the Top Ten in the Nielsen ratings only once during its four seasons. It finished its second season at No. 5. In all, 120 episodes were broadcast, with only the final season in color.

5. Richard Kimble held many short-term jobs during his four years of running, with the most common ones being truck/bus driver, bartender, and cook. Still, he found work where he could get it in places such as: a department store, dog kennel, health resort, orphanage, lemon orchard, carnival, horse farm, hotel, and liquor store. He also worked in the medical field in a handful of episodes--but not as a physician, of course.

6. The train crash, featured in the opening of each episode during the first season, was lifted from a French film. If you look carefully in the still below, you can make out the letters "MIN DE FER" on the side of one boxcar. "Chemin de Fer" is French for "railroad." In Proctor's book, Barry Morse reveals that his seven-year-old daughter noticed it wasn't an American train. No one else took note, though, and the producers never changed the footage (though only stills were shown from the crash after season one).

7. Richard Kimble used over 100 aliases on The Fugitive, from Pete Allen to Steve Younger. The ones used the most frequently were Frank, Pete, Tom (or Thomas), Paul, Steve, and Ben. Questionably, he used his real first name on a couple of occasions.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Catherine Mary Stewart Talks with the Café About Her Cult Film Classics, Dernzies, and a Kiss from Robert Preston

Since her film debut in 1980, Catherine Mary Stewart has thrived in film, television, and on stage. She starred in three bona fide cult classics from the 1980s: Night of the Comet, The Last Starfighter, and Weekend at Bernie's. She has guest starred in television series such as White CollarKnight Rider, and Days of Our Lives. Married since 1992, Catherine Mary Stewart has two children. In between acting jobs and raising a family, she found time to stop by the Café for an interview.

Café How did you get the lead role in your first film, the quirky 1980 science fiction musical The Apple?

Catherine Mary Stewart rocking out on
The Apple's soundtrack album cover.
Catherine Mary Stewart:  I was living in London, England, attending a performing arts school. One day on my way to dance class, I ran into a couple of fellow students walking in the opposite direction. They told me that they were heading to an open dance audition for a new movie musical. I had never experienced anything like this. The words of my teacher and mentor, Jill MacDonald, from my hometown came flooding back. She said, "While you are studying in London take advantage of every audition you can..." I decided to tag along. I found myself in among around 200 women and men in a cattle call dance audition with the then-unknown Nigel Lythgoe leading as the choreographer. Some time during the audition, I apparently caught the director's eye. He pulled me out of the group and asked me if I could act and sing as well as dance. Of course I said, "Of course!" Before I knew it, I was reading for him from the script and singing one of the songs. The next thing I knew I was cast as Bibi, the lead female in The Apple.

Café Night of the Comet was a cult classic even before zombies become a pop culture phenomenon. Why do you think it has grown in popularity over the last 30 years?

Comet co-start Kelli Maroney and
Catherine Mary Stewart.
CMS:  I think Night of the Comet offers several unique takes on the zombie genre of film. First of all, it doesn't take itself too seriously. I think there's a fantastic combination of scary and hilarious. Another unusual characteristic is that the protagonists are female. How cool is that? Young women who can fend for themselves! Plus, it's a character-driven story. We really get to know these girls and we root for them. I love that both women and men dig it!    

CaféYou and Kelli Maroney were delightful as the zombie-kicking Belmont sisters in Night of the Comet. Was there ever any discussion of a sequel or pairing the two of you in another movie?

CMS:  Kelli and I had and still have a great relationship. As much as we both would have liked to do a sequel (and still do), there has never been any serious discussion about that with the powers that be. I suppose if there's enough uproar from the fans MGM/UA (I believe they own the rights) might consider it.... In terms of working with Kelli again in another project, I would be delighted!

Café:  The Last Starfighter was one of the best teen-oriented films made in the 1980s and featured a terrific cast. What was it like working with Robert Preston, Lance Guest, and Dan O'Herlihy?

Robert Preston in The Last Starfighter.
CMS:  Lance Guest is still a dear friend of mine. He is one of the most down-to-earth, principled actors I've known. He made the process of making The Last Starfighter delightful and honest. I only had one scene with Dan O'Herlihy. It was when Alex (Guest) lands his spacecraft in the trailor park. He introduces me to Grig (O'Herlihy). Honestly, I had no idea what the man looked like. I only saw Mr. O'Herlihy in his full Grig prosthetic makeup. Later, I looked him up online. What a handsome man he was and what a talent portraying all the emotions and expressions through that thick rubber mask. Sadly, I didn't have any scenes with Robert Preston. I did meet him by chance at a re-shoot for the movie. I was introduced to this lovely, charming man who had that undeniable classic Hollywood movie star glow about him. I was giddy with excitement. He kissed my hand and I swore I would never wash it... What an honor that was. The Last Starfighter was the last movie that Robert Preston appeared in before his death in 1987. How lucky can one girl get to be in the same film with a couple of the most iconic actors of the 20th century?

Café Last November, you participated in a Weekend at Bernie's reunion at the Rhode Island Comic Con. Why do you think Bernie's remains such a fan favorite? And what was it like reuniting with Andrew McCarthy, Jonathan Silverman, and other cast members?

Weekend at Bernie's.
CMS:  I think Weekend at Bernie's was one of the original what I like to call "sophomoric" comedies. A couple of young men getting involved with all sorts of unlucky high jinx, comedic situations. Real belly laugh stuff. It's become a classic! Of course, no one could have played Bernie like Terry Kiser! He deserves so much credit. His interpretation of Bernie is what you think of when you think of that movie. Everyone else was just incidental, ultimately... :) I hadn't seen any of the cast for years! The most recent was Jonathan a few years ago at a wrap party. I loved seeing Jonathan, Andrew and Terry. They are sweet and gracious and so talented. I am grateful to be a part of this classic movie that has become a sort of comedic reference on so many other shows. 

Café:  Several of your films have gained exposure over the years. Even a clip of the The Apple was shown on an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (about a restaurant owned by your Apple co-star Allan Love). Which one of your other films do you think deserve more attention and why?

Michael Pare and CMS.
CMS:  Wow! I didn't know they showed a clip on Kitchen Nightmares. I did happen to see the end of that episode. I kept looking at Allan and not realizing who it was, but there was something so familiar about him. I hadn't seen Allan for probably 30 years. It wasn't until the end of the show when they were on the beach with a director's chair that had his name on it, that it all came together! I immediately found him online and we've been in touch ever since. Incidentally, The Apple is screened quite regularly around the country. Even here in NY, there have been many midnight screenings including a couple at the illustrious Lincoln Center. One of my favorite movies that I did was called World Gone Wild. It had an incredible cast including: Bruce Dern, Michael Pare, Adam Ant and more. It's a kind of post apocalyptic movie about a odd group of outcasts who defend a "settlement" and their rare supply of much sought after water. I attended a Q & A session with Bruce Dern for his role in Nebraska a couple of days ago. Again, he is someone I haven't seen for over 25 years. He is incredibly sharp and interesting. Mr. Dern is a wonderful storyteller and forgets absolutely nothing! I got to say hello to him after the session. He remembered me without a pause. Again, what a talent and what an honor and hoot to work with him. His performance was so great! Full of "Dernzies" as they are called. And some of the stuff that came out of his mouth in between shots...I still share some of those stories today. They are not necessarily appropriate for a general audience, so don't ask...:) 

Café:  As one of the many performers who honed their acting skills on a daytime drama, what was your reaction when many long-running soaps were cancelled?

CMS:  Hmm, well I suppose it's the nature of the business. Audiences change. I feel badly for the actors who were put out of work, but hopefully they found other opportunities. Days of Our Lives is still chugging along. I tune in every once in a while just to check it out. I'm astounded at how many actors that I worked with on the show are still there! Soap operas are a great spring board for actors new to the business. It is a great way to learn discipline. I've never worked as hard as I did on soaps.

Café:  Unlike some of the young stars of the 1980s, you have stayed steadily busy in film, television, and theater throughout the years. What's the secret to your success?

CMS and Matt Bomer on the USA
Network TV series White Collar.
CMS:  It is a tough business. I moved from LA, where I was established, to NY where I had to start all over again. At the same time, I had two kids to raise, all while trying to stay current. It has been a struggle to be sure. I have been determined not to give up. I worked hard to get where I was and I've always worked hard to validate that. As my children grow and become adults, I hope to focus more on my work. There is no real "secret."  You just have to believe and be determined. Never give up if it is your passion. I'm also exploring producing and directing.    

Café What are your favorite kinds of films?

CMS:  I am a fan of pretty much all genres of movies. I like foreign films to documentaries, musicals to drama, old and new. I love a good honest laugh, shriek and cry. I love movies that have interesting characters and stories that I can invest in and ponder. If I have a feeling that I've been taken on a journey that leaves me satisfied and even transformed on some level, I am happy!  

Café:  What upcoming projects are you working on that you'd like to share with the Café's readers?

CMS:  I'm looking forward to directing a short film this spring. I also have a project that I've been developing about a heroic true-life woman that was responsible for saving millions of lives in the 1980s. Of course, I'm always on the look out for acting work!  

You can learn more about Catherine Mary Stewart at her web site and by "liking" her on Facebook (click here to visit her page).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"5 Card Stud" and "Rehearsal for Murder" Bend the Mystery Genre

A simple touch can transform a film from conventional to interesting. As evidence, I offer two exhibits from the mystery genre: director Henry Hathaway's 1968 Western 5 Card Stud and the 1982 made-for-TV movie Rehearsal for Murder, written by William Link and Richard Levinson.

The opening scenes of 5 Card Stud play out like a typical Western. After a card shark is caught cheating in a saloon poker game, the other players decide to lynch him. When Van Morgan (Dean Martin) tries to save the stranger, the back of his head encounters the handle of a Colt .45. The card shark dies at the end of a rope and Van leaves town in disgust. He returns only after hearing about the sudden deaths of two members of the lynching mob. When the deadly pattern continues, Van suspects that someone is avenging the hanged man. Could the killer be the new gun-toting reverend (Robert Mitchum) that just arrived in town?

 This crafty variation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians never takes itself too seriously. That attitude extends to its two stars, both of whom were past their prime by the late 1960s. Dean Martin is ideally cast as the befuddled professional gambler pressed into service as the de facto detective. Robert Mitchum, an obvious choice for the enigmatic reverend, gives an acceptable performance, but the role requires little effort on his part. 

Still, 5 Card Stud holds one's attention for its 103-minute running time. Its only significant faults are an uninspired conclusion (i.e., it could have used a twist) and the propensity to waste the talents of Inger Stevens.

The pretty Swedish-born actress had wrapped up her fairly popular TV series The Farmer's Daughter in 1966. However, she subsequently found meaty film roles hard to come by and typically ended up as the inconsequential love interest in movies like Hang 'Em High and Firecreek. Emotional instability--she often had affairs with her leading men, to include Dean Martin--may have contributed to her apparent suicide in 1970. After her death, tabloids reported that she had married an African American man in 1961 and kept it a secret.

As for 5 Card Stud, some film buffs claim it's an unofficial remake of the 1950 film noir Dark City. There may be general similarities, but the inspiration is clearly more Agatha Christie. If you find Western mysteries intriguing, I also recommend checking out the 1957 B-movie Joe Dakota with Jock Mahoney.

With a resume that includes creating Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, William Link and Richard Levinson know a thing or two about the mystery genre. And, like Agatha Christie, they're not above breaking the rules of mystery fiction (see S.S. Van Dine's famous Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories). After all, these are the two guys who revealed the killer's identity in the opening scene of each Columbo episode. Still, Rehearsal for Murder requires one's careful attention--even after a character notes that a well-written mystery "takes the audience by the hand and leads them in the wrong direction."

Robert Preston stars as playwright Alex Dennison, who assembles a group of actors in an empty theater to do a reading of his latest work. It quickly becomes evident that his actual intent is to unmask the person who murdered his fiancee the previous year. In flashback, we're shown that stage star Monica Welles (Lynn Redgrave) apparently took her own life on the opening night of her latest play. However, the evidence is sketchy at best--her final words were typewritten. But why would anyone want to kill Monica?

The stage setting provides Link and Levinson with the opportunity to play with the construct of murder as a form of acting. After all, isn't a killer acting when he or she lies about an alibi? And isn't adding a suicide note to a crime scene similar to creating a stage setting for a play? In both cases, the killer plays the role of playwright, trying to convince the police and others (the audience) that they have seen or heard something different from reality.

Lynn Redgrave plays the murder victim.
Unfortunately, despite a game cast that includes Patrick Macnee and Jeff Goldblum, Rehearsal for Murder falls just short of the mark. Even at a short 75-minutes, it seems sluggish in spots. And after one twist at the midway point, the viewer starts looking for another. In the end, despite its cleverness, the murderer's identify becomes pretty obvious. It doesn't help that Link and Levinson, perhaps inadvertently, steal a page from a classic mystery novel (not revealed here...hey, no spoilers!).

Still, there's enough here to warrant a viewing, though I'd steer Robert Preston fans to another 1980s outing that featured the classic film star: the surprisingly entertaining The Last Starfighter.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Five Best Ronald Colman Performances

Ronald Colman was certainly one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, being equally at home in romances, swashbucklers, comedies, and dramas. He even played a murderer once, though villainous roles were not really his forté. He is also one of my favorite actors and that made culling his impressive filmography to just five movies quite a challenge.

Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.
1. Random Harvest - Ronald Colman played dual roles in the same film on multiple occasions. In The Prisoner of Zenda, he starred as lookalikes: one being a Ruritanian king and the other an English gentleman. In A Double Life, he played a stage actor with a split personality, unable to separate his performance as Othello from his real life. But for me, his most brilliant "double role" performance was in the 1942 adaptation of James Hilton's Random Harvest. The film opens with Colman as "John Smith," a World War I veteran who has lost his memory and resides in a sanitarium. During a celebration of the war's end, Smith wanders into a nearby town and meets an entertainer named Paula (Greer Garson). Smithy (as she calls him) and Paula fall in love, marry, and have a child. They live blissfully in the English countryside until Smithy journeys alone to Liverpool and is struck by a taxi. When he awakes, he remembers his life as the affluent Charles Rainer--but he has forgotten his life as Smithy. Years later, he hires Paula--still not knowing who she is--to work for him. As Smithy and Charles, Colman plays two characters that reside in the same man. It's a brilliantly textured performance that also benefits from Colman's chemistry with Garson (I'd rank it as her best film, too). Those who quibble about the plot's happenstances are grumpy bears that should focus on the sublime cast and first-rate production.

With Art Linkletter on the show
"Masquerade for Money."
2. Champagne for Caesar - I'm always surprised that so few people have seen this smart 1950 comedy featuring delightful performances from Colman, Vincent Price, and Celeste Holm. Of course, it doesn't help that it's rarely shown on television, especially compared to other Colman classics. Ronald stars as an unemployed genius who is rejected for a menial job at Vincent Price's soap company ("Milady Soap--the soap that sanctifies!"). To gain revenge (and money), he appears on a quiz show sponsored by Price's company with the goal of eventually bankrupting the soap-maker. It's great fun watching Colman's confident intellect become befuddled when Price sends a beautiful "undercover agent" (Holm) to distract him. A funny film with a satirical edge, Champagne for Caesar also provides Price with one of his finest roles.

Colman and Madeleine Carroll.
3. The Prisoner of Zenda - Ronald Colman played noble characters numerous films (e.g., A Tale of Two CitiesLost Horizon), but none compare to Rudolf Rassendyll. While vacationing in a small European country, this English gentleman agrees to pose as a kidnapped king to prevent a coup by the king's villainous half-brother at the coronation. It doesn't take long for Rudolf to realize his greatest enemy is not Duke Michael (Raymond Massey), but rather himself--for he has become loved by the people and he has fallen in love with Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). Zenda affords Colman an opportunity to match wits with Massey while romancing Carroll and dueling with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. As an added bonus, he plays the lookalike king with none of the flair and intelligence displayed by Rudolf.

Frances Dee and Colman.
4. If I Were King - Another under-appreciated Colman movie, this one casts him as 15th century French poet, thief, and all-around rascal Francois Villon. One night, while complaining loudly in a tavern about King Louis XI, Villon meets the king...who has donned a disguise while in search of a traitor. When the police try to arrest Villon for theft, a brawl ensues and Francois kills the treacherous traitor. Amused by the poet--and thankful that he disposed of an enemy--King Louis (Basil Rathbone) rewards Villon by making him the court's Grand Constable. What Villon doesn't know is that his new-found life will last only a week, as the king still intends to execute him. This lively historical yarn mixes romance, swashbuckling, and humor in equal amounts. Both Colman and Rathbone are excellent and their scenes together sparkle with wit (no surprise since Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay). It's too bad that Colman didn't make more films like this, though one suspects he was afraid of being pigeon-holed as a swashbuckler in the Errol Flynn mold.

Colman and Richard Haydn.
5. The Late George Apley - Based on John P. Marquand's 1937 novel and play, this appealing social satire takes aim at the Boston upper class circa 1912. Colman plays the family patriarch, who is determined to retain his blue-blooded values even as the world changes around him. Imagine his shock when his daughter falls in love with a "radical" young man from New York! The beauty of Colman's performance is watching George Apley evolve--somewhat painfully--from a stodgy, firm Bostonian to a man who recognizes his mistakes and becomes determined to correct them. Although I like Life With Father, I think The Late George Apley is a much better choice for a Father's Day movie.

Honorable Mentions:  A Double Life, A Tale of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, and Under Two Flags.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dean Martin Ogles the Ladies in "The Wrecking Crew"

I was in the mood for a guilty pleasure recently and up popped The Wrecking Crew (1968) on TCM. Guilty pleasures don't get much guiltier than this fourth entry in Dean Martin's Matt Helm series. With spy movies all the rage in the 1960s, Columbia tried to posture Helm as a poor man's James Bond, Well, sort of. The Helm pictures were actually spoofs--not clever ones like Our Man Flint--but broad tongue-in-cheek efforts. That approach suited Dean Martin, who appeared as the turtle-necked protagonist while still doing his weekly variety TV series on NBC.

The plot resembles Goldfinger with Matt's agency, Intelligence and Counter Espionage (ICE), sending the secret agent to recover $1 billion in stolen gold bullion. Villain Count Contini (Nigel Green) plans to flood the financial markets, thus devaluing the economies of Great Britain and the U.S. Throw in some chases, fisticuffs, and plenty of pulchritude and you have The Wrecking Crew.

Dean sniffs Sharon Tate.
It's a far cry from Donald Hamilton's 1960 novel, the second of 27 Matt Helm spy thrillers. Indeed, the only resemblance is that Helm's cover was as a photographer in both the book and film. Otherwise, Hamilton's tough-minded hero had little in common with the cigarette-smoking, Scotch-drinking ladies man played by Dean Martin.

Martin's film series kicked off in 1966 with The Silencers, which co-starred Stella Stevens as Matt's klutzy cohort (the poster proclaimed: "Girls, Gags & Gadgets! The best spy thriller of Nineteen Sexty-Sex!"). A follow-up, Murderers Row, appeared later that year. It's probably the best of the four films, simply on the basis of a cast featuring Ann-Margret and an over-the-top Karl Malden as the bad guy. Still, the formula was wearing thin by the time The Ambushers (with Senta Berger) was released a year later.

Elke Sommer's "come hither" look.
What redeems The Wrecking Crew is its cast. Tina Louise and Nancy Kwan have little to do other than look glamorous (or, in Kwan's case, also manage a few karate kicks). However, Elke Sommer and Sharon Tate are perfectly cast. Sommer's European sultriness poses a perfect counterpoint to Martin's lecherous looks. In addition, she has a grand time playing a villain and (spoiler alert!) "dies in perfect beauty" (as she described in her interview with the Cafe). In contrast, Tate mixes kooky charm with buckets of sex appeal as Matt's female sidekick. I'm not sure that Tate would have evolved into a major star, but she shows her potential as an appealing comedienne in The Wrecking Crew.

While the karate fights leave much to be desired, they were still choreographed by a young Bruce Lee (granted, he didn't have much to work with). Also, if you look closely at the henchmen in the House of 7 Joys fight, you may notice Chuck Norris (in his film debut).

Dean takes a look at Sharon.
Although the closing credits of The Wrecking Crew promise a fifth installment to be called The Ravagers, another Matt Helm film was never made. Weak boxoffice receipts doomed the franchise and Martin, tired of the series, wanted out. Sharon Tate's murder, which occurred just a year after The Wrecking Crew, also cast a shadow over the series.

Still, decades later, the spirit of Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies lives on. It's hard to watch Mike Myers in his Austin Powers spy spoofs without concluding that he's channeling a lot of Matt Helm.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Elke Sommer Talks with the Cafe About Her Movies, Her Art, and How She Earned the Nickname "The Brute"

A glamorous international star by the time she was 23, Elke Sommer has played opposite leading men such as Paul Newman, Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, James Garner, and Glenn Ford. Born in Berlin in 1940, Elke's film career took off when acclaimed Italian director Vittorio De Sica cast her in the 1959 comedy Men and Noble Men (which starred, but wasn't directed by, De Sica). After going on to headline several European hits, MGM signed her to play Paul Newman's leading lady in The Prize (1963). She subsequently became one of the biggest international stars of the decade, appearing in films such as A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Art of Love (1965), The Money Trap (1966), and The Oscar (1966). She later branched out into singing, appearing in stage plays, guest starring on television, playing tennis and golf, and painting (one of her first loves). These days, Elke still plays golf with her husband of 20 years and supports the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit organization that places homeless pets. Still, Ms. Sommer took time out of her busy schedule to drop by the Café for a chat.

Café:  A Shot in the Dark was one of the funniest comedies of the 1960s. Your performance as Maria the maid was a perfect complement to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. What was it like working with Sellers and director Blake Edwards?

Elke with Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark.
Elke Sommer:  Well, as young as I was at the time, I can say that this movie was one of the greatest experiences of my professional life. Blake Edwards was a very strict and tough director who knew exactly what he wanted. And this is helpful for a young actor because it shows you the way. But then, there was Peter Sellers. And he was not only an experienced actor but also a brilliant mind, a creative powerhouse who loved to improvise. He and I shared the same sense of humor so that we had a very close connection during the movie shoot, and I learned so incredibly much from his genius--and his courage when it came to improvising scenes. Courage that Sellers needed because Edwards was not amused. So, they started arguing. And in most cases, it was Peter Sellers who "won." And this explains why Blake Edwards is known for being one of the greatest directors of his time. He took his actors seriously and the result was one of funniest comedies of the 1960s--your words!

Café:  You made two films with acclaimed horror director Mario Bava: Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil. How would you describe Bava as a director?

ES:  Mario Bava was one of the kindest, sweetest, and most fatherly men I ever knew. Actually, I called him my "papa." He was a very decisive director who told you exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, and I clung to his every word and followed his orders to the letter. Because he was my "papa." And you do what your father says. 

Café:  You made a delightful--and glamorous--villain in the spy spoof The Wrecking Crew (we loved your death scene!). What are your memories of working with Dean Martin and Sharon Tate?

Elke with Sharon Tate.
ES:  Sharon Tate and I loved each other from the start and had a very close relationship. I wouldn't even call it a friendship, as it was more than that. I was a single child and Sharon was the sister I had never had. She left me with many wonderful memories and with an incredible gift: She got me acquainted with the music of Leonard Cohen and for that I will forever be grateful to her. Dean Martin was a close friend of mine. We had done twenty episodes of his Dean Martin Show together, dancing, singing, and acting together. So, working with him on The Wrecking Crew was just another experience of working with a great partner and a wonderful colleague. And the death scene that you are mentioning: You are right--I died in perfect beauty.

Café:  Of your English-language films, which one was your favorite and why?

ES:  The Oscar with Stephen Boyd--a movie that, in my opinion, did not receive the recognition it deserved. Tony Bennett had his first role in a motion picture in The Oscar and we became friends. We even went to the premiere together: he with his mother, and I with my mother. And he felt inspired by my paintings and started painting himself.

Café:  You appeared with most of the great comedians of the 1960s: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, and Peter Sellers. Who was the funniest and why?

Elke with Jack Benny.
ES:  Clearly Jack Benny because this genius had a genuine twinkle in his eye and his sense of delivery and timing was spot-on and his unbelievable ability to improvise did not distort the script, but contributed to the final product turning each and every scene into a piece of art. 

Café:  You appeared in a 1971 TV pilot for a sitcom called The Elke Sommer Show (aka Elke) co-starring Peter Bonerz. How did you feel when CBS didn't pick up the series?

ES:  Please don’t think of me as arrogant. I do remember Peter Bonerz, of course I do, but I do not remember that series, not at all. But please don’t hold this against me. I have been working in this business for more than fifty years and you would be amazed how many projects are planned or even started and never come to pass. It just happens and you move on. And, obviously, you forget--completely.

Café:  You've appeared in numerous stage plays, such as Woman of the Year, Irma La Douce, and Cactus Flower. You even won a Joseph Jefferson Award as Guest Artist in a Chicago production of Born Yesterday. What are some of your favorite stage roles and why?

I have two favorites. Same Time, Next Year because, in my opinion, it is one of the greatest plays ever written, leaving the actors incredible room to create very real characters over an entire lifetime. And Born Yesterday because this is, in a way, the play of my career. It was my first huge success on stage, I played the role of Billie Dawn under the direction of great and famous artists like Leland Ball and Vernon Schwartz, and I played it under my own direction, not only in the U.S. but also abroad in my own productions.

Café:  You became interested in art at a young age and had your first painting exhibition at age 24 in Beverly Hills. How would you describe your artistic style and who were your greatest influences?

Elke Sommer's painting Elephant Girl.
ES:  As strange as it may seem, I have never felt influenced by anyone. I love art and I started loving art at the tender age of four. As to my artistic style, this is kind of hard to explain. I take a white canvas and draw my ideas with a pencil. Then I mix my own acrylic colors and fill them in before edging the pencil lines with black acrylic color. Then I take black watercolor and wash the black lines with a sponge until they are medium to dark gray and use very hard brushes in different colors to create these beautiful shadows where I want them to be. The result is a painting that looks like a stained glass window, like the lead glass windows that we all know from churches. I got the idea for this technique from an old gentleman by the name of Amandeo Mendici, who was already in his late 70s when I was just 20. He showed me his technique, which was different from what I just explained, and I reversed it, so to speak. 

Café:  You played tennis with greats like Ilie Natashe and Billie Jean King. In fact, Sports Illustrated nicknamed you "The Brute." Were you really that competitive on the court?

ES:  Yes, I was. I loved playing tennis and I was really good at it--not good enough to be a professional, but good enough to play celebrity tournaments and win a lot of them. They called me “The Brute” because of my topspin backhand, which must have been…well, brutal. 

Café:  How did you meet your husband Wolf Walther?

ES:  I was in New York City starring in Tamara and had to stay there for four months. So, I had to find an apartment but they were excruciatingly expensive, tiny and loud. As I knew the managing director of the Essex House, I wanted to talk to him about renting a room but the hotel had a new managing director, a man by the name of Wolf Walther. So we met. For him, it was love at first sight. For me, it took a little longer, but not much longer. As you may know, Tamara is a play, in which the audience follows the actor of their choice, and as you may also know, my husband is 6'5" and hard to miss. I saw him every night in the audience, following me. Every night. And that was the beginning of the greatest love story of my life, still unfolding and getting better by the day.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming appearances that you'd like to share with your fans?

ES:  I am constantly receiving offers, but so far, there hasn't been anything that interested me. I am dreaming of a role that’s really different. I would love to play an old hooker or a toothless street person. When this dream part comes along, I will shout it from the mountaintops. Until then, I can finally enjoy what I have, time with my husband and with our dog and my beautiful houses here in Beverly Hills and in Germany--life in a pure and unobstructed form.

You can learn more about Ms. Sommer by visiting her web site at

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Seven Things to Know About "Lost in Space"

1. Gold Key Comics published a Space Family Robinson comic book series three years before the Lost in Space TV series. Its characters were different and its authors had nothing to do with the TV series. However, the premise was similar, so Gold Key's parent company, Western Publishing, and CBS reached a legal settlement. Western received an undisclosed amount of money and was allowed to retitle its comic book series Space Family Robinson: Lost in Space.

2. The show's original pilot "Nowhere to Hide" was never broadcast, although it has since been released on video. It contains two major differences from the regular series:  there is no Dr. Smith and no robot! In the pilot, a meteor storm sends the Gemini XII (instead of the Jupiter 2) off course--as opposed to Dr. Smith's sabotage.

Lost in Space robot with Bill Mumy.
3. Veteran art director Robert Kinoshita created the robot. He also created Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Invisible Boy (1957). In fact, Robby appeared in two Lost in Space episodes: "War of the Robots" and "Condemned of Space." Kinoshita also worked on numerous other TV shows from Sea Hunt to Hawaii Five-O to Kojak.

4. Lost in Space never finished worse than #35 in the Nielsen ratings for a season. Its first season in 1965-66 was its best, with the show finishing #32. The #1 TV series that year was Bonanza.

5. In the first episode, Dr. Smith was an evil enemy agent who sabotaged the Jupiter 2, but was unable to escape from the spaceship. The writers intended to phase him out of the series. However, actor Jonathan Harris eventually turned Dr. Smith into the lovable, bumbling coward that became the focus of the show with young Will Robinson (Bill Mumy).

6. Angela Cartwright, who played Penny Robinson, told us earlier this year that her favorite episode was "My Friend, Mr. Nobody." In it, Penny's "imaginary" friend turns out to be a very protective invisible cosmic force. Ms. Cartwright said: "I love the black and white film noir feel to it. I loved the message it had...though I remember it was challenging to talk to no one through the whole episode."

7. In 2004, director John Woo shot a pilot for a new series to be called The Robinsons: Lost in Space. It retained little except the premise, the character names, and the robot from Irwin Allen's series. The WB network did not pick up the pilot, so the new series never materialized.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Richard Todd Owns "The Hasty Heart"

As World War II comes to an end in Burma in 1945, Lachlan McLachlan (Richard Todd), a Scottish corporal, steps on a land mine. Amazingly, except for the loss of one kidney, his injuries appear to be superficial. The reality, though, is that McLachlan's other kidney is "defective" and that he will die from renal failure in a few weeks. Knowing that the Scotsman has no family nor close friends, the field hospital's commander decides not to tell McLachlan about his impending death. Instead, he places the young man in a ward so he can "be content" during his final days.

Patricia Neal and Richard Todd.
The ward's compassionate nurse, Sister Margaret (Patricia Neal), and the other five patients know the truth. They try to befriend McLachlan--whom they quickly nickname Lachie--but their attempts are rebuffed. The hot-headed, self-sufficient Lachie doesn't make friends freely by his own admission. His first act in the ward is to move his bed away from the other patients. He meets each attempt at civil conversation with a curt, guarded reply. Fortunately, Sister Margaret doesn't give up easily and she eventually finds a way to reach the stubborn Scotsman.

Based on John Patrick's 1945 stage play, The Hasty Heart is a heart-lifting tale rather than a sad one. Patrick wisely avoids a death scene and its aftermath because, after all, that's not the point of his drama. It's a story about love and friendship and knowing that, however briefly we may cherish one another, it's worthwhile to let them into one's heart. (The film's title is derived from a Scottish proverb that states: "Sorrow is born in the hasty heart.") The film's biggest challenge is its premise. The decision not to tell Lachie his fate is questionable at best. Doesn't a soldier deserve to know if he's dying and be given the choice to make his own decisions during what little time remains?

Director Vincent Sherman makes no attempt to hide the film's stage origins. Most of the scenes take place in the ward's tent or in the area around it. His focus is clearly on the script and the performances. Fortunately, the performers are up to the increased scrutiny.

Ronald Reagan and Todd.
Richard Todd gives a brilliant performance as the proud Scot who gradually opens up and then overflows with the joy of friendship and perhaps even love. Richard Basehart, one of my favorite actors, created the role on Broadway and I'm sure he was very good. Gordon Jackson (Hudson on Upstairs, Downstairs) was considered for the film and, again, I think he would have done it justice. But frankly, I can't imagine anyone being better than Richard Todd, who rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing to Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men). It's hard to pick Todd's best scene as Lachie. While his marriage proposal is wonderfully awkward, my choice is probably the scene where the other patients celebrate his birthday--an event that the solitary Lachie has forgotten.

The rest of the cast gives effective supporting performances (though both Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan are billed above Todd). However, it's clearly Todd's picture and your feelings toward the film will likely hinge on whether you embrace his portrayal of Lachie.

Patrick's play has been adapted several times for television. The most notable productions appeared in 1958 and 1983. The former version appeared on the Dupont Show of the Month starring Don Murray as Lachie and Barbara Bel Geddes as Sister Margaret. The 1983 made-for-television film featured Gregory Harrison and Cheryl Ladd in these roles. Perry King earned a Golden Globe nomination for the Ronald Reagan character.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Friday Night Late Movie: Mario Bava Takes Hercules to Hell and Back

Most film buffs remember Mario Bava for his Italian horror films of the 1960s and 1970s--especially Black Sunday, his chilling black and white masterpiece about a vengeful witch. However, he spent much of his career photographing films for other directors. After completing a couple of movies without credit, he directed his first film, Black Sunday, in the age of 46. Its immediate success resulted in a busy decade for Bava, starting with his next film Hercules in the Haunted World (1961).

Bava was not new to the sword-and-sandal genre. He was the cinematographer on producer Joseph E. Levine's worldwide smash Hercules (1958) starring Steve Reeves. He had also worked on the sequel, Hercules Unchained, and Jacques Tourneur's The Giant of Marathon (both of which featured Reeves). With his first solo Hercules film, Bava was saddled with a much smaller budget. In lieu of Reeves, the title role went to British bodybuilder Reg Park, who also played the muscular Greek hero in the same year's Hercules and the Captive Women. Bava hit the jackpot, though, when Christopher Lee signed on to play the villainous Lico.

Deianira doesn't remember Hercules.
The film opens with Hercules returning from a quest to learn that his beloved princess, Deianira, has lost her memory. It can only be restored with the Stone of Forgetfulness--and that's bad news because said stone is located in Hades. Undaunted, Hercules, his skirt-chasing friend Thesus, and the buffoon Telemachus head to an island of darkness to retrieve a golden apple that will open the gates of Hades. Fire-dripping trees initially prevent Herc from getting the apple, but he uses a giant stone to break off one of the branches, get the apple, and make his way to Hades with Thesus. (Telemachus is left to guard the apple, which frankly worried me at the time.)

Surprisingly, Hercules has few difficulties navigating his way through Hades to retrieve the Stone of Forgetfulness (which is actually a crystal). He does appear to lose Thesus along the way when his friend falls into a sea of lava. However, Thesus is rescued by the lovely Persephone--with whom he falls instantly in love. She and Thesus rejoin Herc and Telemachus (who did a fine job guarding the apple after all!) and the four return to save Deianira. Alas, their troubles have just begun. The evil Lico (Lee) wants to sacrifice Deianira and an angry Pluto wants to get back Persephone, who turns out to be his favorite daughter.

One of Bava's night scenes; he was also cinematographer.
While the plot is serviceable, style trumps substance in Hercules in the Haunted World. Bava's nighttime landscapes are bathed in blue and purple with dark drifting leaves, spider webs, and whistling winds. When Hercules sails to the island of the golden apple, a red sky is swallowed up by black as he approaches the land of darkness. Bava "paints" Hades in vibrant shades of orange, red, blue, and green. The viewer can only agree when Thesus observes: "I didn't think Hades would be anything like this." However, the visual highlight in Hercules in the Haunted World occurs when Herc--trying to save Deianira from Lico--battles a horde of flying gray corpses against a dark blue nightscape.

It's difficult to fully assess the qualities of Bava's film. The print I saw was eight minutes shorter than the running time listed in some sources. The cast is mostly dubbed, even Christopher Lee in at least one version. And many prints, including the one I saw, cropped the widescreen image into a TV-friendly ratio. Fortunately for Bava purists, there is at least one DVD containing digitally remastered widescreen versions of both the Italian and English-language releases.

Incidentally, while Reg Park never became a film star, he gained much fame in the world of bodybuilding. He won three Mr. Universe titles, once as an amateur and twice as a pro. In the biography Arnold Schwarzenegger by Colleen A. Sexton, Arnold is quoted as saying: "That's what I wanted to be, ultimately: big. Reg Park was the epitome of that dream, the biggest, most powerful person in bodybuilding."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sapphire & Steel

"Cult classic" is one of those film and television terms applied too frequently and too easily. I use it sparingly and, in regard to British science fiction television, the only shows I've labelled as cult classics are Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and UFO. After recently watching Sapphire & Steel for the first time, I feel compelled to add it to that prestigious group. Original, perplexing, and disturbing--it's difficult to describe this often-fascinating 1979-82 series about time traveling agents played by Joanna Lumley (Sapphire) and David McCallum (Steel).

In the opening credits, a booming voice proclaims that "all irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension." And since "transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life," medium atomic weights must be used--such as sapphire and steel. I found that explanation more than a little perplexing since I didn't even know the definition of  "transuranic" (it describes elements with an atomic weight higher than 92).

Joanna Lumley as Sapphire.
That said, it's easy enough to pick up the premise: An undefined higher intelligence sends agents like Sapphire and Steel to repair irregularities in time. As Steel explains it, time is a "corridor of fabric" and there are creatures moving along that corridor trying to find a hole in the fabric. Series creator P.J. Hammond originally intended to call the series The Time Menders, which sums up the concept nicely.

Steel wearing a tux.
The title characters share some obvious similarities with John Steed and Emma Peel from The Avengers. That's all the more interesting because Joanna Lumley co-starred as Purdey opposite Patrick Macnee in The New Avengers in 1977-78. Like Steed, Steel appears to be the senior partner and often tells Sapphire what to do. He dresses formally (even wearing a tuxedo in Assignment #2) and, of course, his name differs from "Steed" by just one letter. As in The Avengers, the nature of the personal relationship between the two characters is vague. Sapphire and Steel seem concerned about each other's well being and even share a kiss on the cheek, but--like most things in Sapphire & Steel--the audience has to draw its own conclusions.

Sapphire's eyes glow blue when she
uses some of her powers.
Both agents have powers that are revealed during the course of the series. They can communicate with each other telepathically. Sapphire has the ability to turn back time for a short duration. She can also conduct a "spot analysis" on a person through touch (among the data collected is an individual's life span). Unlike Steel, she knows the history of human civilization. Sapphire interacts well with humans. In contrast, Steel is cold--both literally and figuratively. He can lower his body temperature to absolute zero and destroy ghosts. However, he often shows little compassion toward humans, even the ones he is trying to help. And in one assignment, he makes a "deal" with an evil entity, in which he sentences an innocent human to a hellish future.

The always-smiling Lead.
As the series progresses, we learn there are 125 "operators" in addition to Sapphire and Steel, although the twelve transuranic elements cannot be assigned where there is life (but you knew that from the opening, right?). Although we hear about Copper and Jet, the only other operator to appear on Sapphire & Steel is Lead (Val Pringle), a big jovial black man who can create force fields. Silver (David Collings), who can melt metals with his hands, also appears in several episodes. Although Silver is listed with other operators in the opening credits, his status is defined as a "specialist" in Assignment #6, which appears to be a lower level than operator.

Sapphire & Steel originally aired 25-minute episodes twice weekly on Britain's ITV network. During the series' run, the two agents completed six assignments, each ranging from four to eight episodes for a total of 34 half-hours. The episodes are often slowly paced, which works both to the show's advantage and disadvantage. There's an almost deliberate rhythm to some of them, which allows the atmosphere to build effectively. However, other episodes seem to drag, often containing little exposition to advance the plot.

Assignment #2's atmospheric shadows.
Saddled with a small budget, the show was typically filmed on a stage representing a single setting (e.g., an isolated coastal house for Assignment #1, an abandoned train station for Assignment #2). In lieu of expensive special effects, the show's directors skilfully employed atmospheric lighting and imaginative camerawork to maintain a permeating sense of dread. In Assignment #2, the episode's "creeping darkness" is created solely with lighting effects that make it look like a wave of black has swallowed up everything in a room. Although there is minimal background music, songs and rhymes are used extensively in some of the assignments. In Assignment #1, old nursery rhymes are the "trigger" that allow a creature to invade a 250-year-old house.

Since its demise in 1982, Sapphire & Steel has resurfaced in novelizations and in a 2004 radio drama series starring David Warner and Susannah Harker. Both Lumley and McCallum went on to greater successes; she found stardom as the flamboyant Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, while McCallum became audience favorite Ducky Mallard on the hit U.S. series NCIS. Sapphire & Steel creator P.J. Hammond has written scripts for numerous TV shows, including the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.

Sapphire & Steel: The Complete Series is available from the Shout! Factory, which provided a review copy to the Cafe.