Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Joel Grey's Best Performance Isn't in "Cabaret"

Judging from its title, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was intended to be the first of a film series. Heaven knows, there was no shortage of source novels. The film was based on The Destroyer novels written by several authors, most notably original creators Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Since the duo penned Created, the Destroyer in 1971, there have been over 150 Destroyer novels published...and yes, they're still being produced today.

Remo's literary origin introduces the character as a New Jersey cop, who was framed for murder, convicted, and then "rescued" from the electric chair by a shadowy organization called CURE. He is listed as officially dead and given a new identity.
In Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, police officer Sam Makin (Fred Ward) survives a dockside encounter with three violent youths only to have his squad car plowed into the East River by a mysterious man in a truck. He awakens in a hospital and discovers he has a new face and a new identity as Remo Williams.

Fred Ward as Remo.
He learns that he has been recruited (against his will) to become an agent for a secret government agency dedicated to eliminating major criminals and which answers directly to the President. Remo starts his training under an unassuming Korean martial arts master named Chiun. His first mission requires him to take down a corrupt arms manufacturer who has been selling defective weapons to the U.S. Army.

Yes...this is Joel Grey as Chiun.
The highlights of Remo Williams are the training sequences with Chiun, played brilliantly by an unrecognizable Joel Grey. The actor is so convincing as the elderly Korean master that, although I knew Grey was in the movie, I didn't realize he was Chiun for the longest time. Make-up artist Carl Fullerton received an Oscar nomination for his work. However, Grey deserves most of the credit for embodying his character so completely, from the voice to his body movements to the smallest gestures. Of course, he gets a host of great lines as he berates his pupil Remo. Here are a few of my favorites:

"You move like a pregnant yak."

"The trained mind does not need a watch. Watches are a confidence trick invented by the Swiss."

(Assessing Remo) "He's very slow. His reflexes are pitiful; poorly coordinated. He's in wretched physical condition, impetuous, and clumsy. He moves like a baboon with two club feet! However, there is a feeble glint of promise in his eyes. I think I can do something with him."

Remo:  You know, Chiun, there are times when I really like you.
Chiun:  Of course. I am Chiun.
Remo:  And there are times when I could really kill you.
Chiun:  Good! We will practice that after dinner.

One of the ongoing jokes is Chiun's sole obsession: Watching an American soap opera called Beyond the Night. Thus, as Remo navigates a strenuous obstacle course, we see Chiun curled up on a couch in front in the TV, anxiously awaiting news about Jim's pending operation.

Unfortunately, the rest of Remo Williams can't sustain this high level of entertainment, although there's a dandy fight scene on the Statue of Liberty while it was undergoing restoration in 1985. For his part, Fred Ward flashes the quirky combination of humor and toughness that helped make the later Tremors (1990) a cult favorite.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was directed by James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) and penned by 007 scribe Christopher Wood (The Spy Who Loved Me). Yet, despite its Bond pedigree, it never caught fire at the boxoffice--and so the adventure ended rather quickly. Three years later, an unsuccessful Remo Williams TV pilot was made with Roddy McDowell as Chiun. I suppose one could criticize both the TV pilot and theatrical film for not casting a Korean actor as Chiun. While that's a valid comment, the film's budget likely drove the studio to look for a known performer to cast opposite the relatively inexperienced Fred Ward.

As for Joel Grey, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the Golden Globes, but wasn't even mentioned at Oscar time. I suspect it's because the studio never mounted a campaign on his behalf. It should have--his performance in Remo is far better than his more celebrated, Oscar-winning one in Cabaret.


  1. "Remo Williams" not exactly a title to get the blood racing. Wonder if Marvel Comics had the movie/tv TM for "Destroyer".

    1. Yes, it was a clunky title. May be right about Destroyer.

  2. 150 "Destroyer" novels? And still being produced today?! That is amazing.

    This movie isn't normally my kind of thing, but I'm so intrigued by your description of Joel Grey's performance that I think I might have to track it down. I DID NOT recognize him from the image you posted. That Oscar nom was well deserved, from what I can tell.

    1. In one of the "Destroyer" novels terrorist plan a bike a few blocks from the (DC) Capitol building.

      He sends Reno to stop it on the phone Remo says when he tells him it's a nuke just a few blocks from the Capitol,(It's a tiny nuke, small blast zone.) he says "Should I move it closer?" .

      I laughed my ass off at that one. The original authors have a poor view of government.

  3. This film is so much fun - at least the first half. The second half seems like something from a different movie. I agree that Joel Grey should have received an Oscar nomination. His performance is REMARKABLE. I like Fred Ward too, always did. He and Joel Grey make a fine duo. Too bad they had to have a second half to the movie. Ha. Better than 'Cabaret'? Yes, I think you may be right.

  4. Now you've done it! I will have to check this out to see Joel Grey's work. Did you know he was a final Jeopardy! answer this week? Ashamed to say I didn't come up with it.

  5. Fascinating write-up! Joel Grey is excellent and I like his rapport with Fred.

  6. Just been watching "The Old Man" series and saw Joel Grey. I am almost as old and remembered him playing some martial arts in a forgetable film. Google to the rescue. With him on Eddie Cantor 1954, it is like a real life "Little Big Man" story.