Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eli Wallach and Other Show Biz News

I loved Eli Wallach performances.  I picked up that love from my parents.  Mom and Dad didn't agree on much near the end of their 13-year marriage but they did agree that the arts should not be censored.  Especially by the church.  In that regard, they were a rebel Catholic couple.  Anytime the Church condemned a movie, they went to see the movie and make their own decision about it.  Usually, it was a film directed by Billy Wilder or based on work written by Tennessee Williams.  Also, the condemned movies that Catholics were forbidden to see always seemed to involve complicated, vulnerable people seeking sexual fulfillment.  Such was the case with Baby Doll written by Tennessee Williams.  I remember Mom and Dad talking enthusiastically about how much they loved the acting and writing in that movie whenever the movie was mentioned on TV or radio -- and whenever they saw Eli Wallach in a TV show.  I know the immediate Wallach performance that folks mentioned first in tributes was in 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  And it's great.  I do dig that one and I really dig others that rarely get mentioned.  Wallach had an extensive list of credits on his resumé.  He worked a lot for decades.  When I was old enough to see Baby Doll,  I was hooked on Wallach just like my parents were.  In fact, my parents' love of his work is one of influences in why I was determined to be an entertainment reporter and film reviewer on TV.  Yes, we did go to the drive-in movies to see "blaxploitation" films.  But my parents, our neighbors, our friends and my classmates did not see just that genre of features.  We also saw big studio Hollywood releases, independent films and foreign films.  I wanted mainstream viewers and film/TV executives to know that about black people.

Eli Wallach rocked Baby Doll.  To me, that's a lusty modern Southern Gothic comedy.  He had dark eyes that just stimulated you like two shots of espresso.
Baby Doll brought Carroll Baker and Oscar nomination for Best Actress of 1956.
My other favorite Wallach performances are in The Misfits, The Magnificent Seven, Cinderella Liberty and Lord Jim.  Not only was Wallach a solid character actor on stage and on film, Lord Jim showed that he could also be eye candy.  He was hot as The General opposite Peter O'Toole.


On TV, when I was a kid in the 1960s, he was totally cool as a Mr. Freeze on Batman.

He could do it all.

In 2006, I was the weekly film reviewer on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday morning radio show in New York City.  One morning I reviewed The Holiday starring Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz and Jude Law.  The romantic comedy, at best, pleasant.  Like automated Christmas music played in a shopping mall.  But the real spark and wit in the movie came from Eli Wallach as a wise, lovable Hollywood insider.  I couldn't wait to tell Whoopi about that.  Her response -- "I just love him."  We all did!

He stole that comedy away from the four young stars.  I was hoping it would bring him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.  He'd never been nominated for an Oscar in his entire film career.  Never.  Hard to believe.  Look at his prolific film career in the 50 years from Baby Doll to The Holiday.      The guy was in his 90s and still working, still delivering, and he looked great!  He went beyond acting. He nailed down the essential truth and became the character no matter how big or small the role.  He remained relevant.

I hosted a VH1 talk show in the late 80s and two of my favorite guests on it were a celebrated married couple, stage/film actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
She originated the role of Blanche DuBois on Broadway opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Off-camera, we talked about Brando and his major weight gain.  We weren't being catty.  Mr. Cronyn sympathetically remarked that he felt Brando overate because he'd lost the love of the art.

Eli Wallach never seemed to lose the love of the art.  I will never lose my love of the art of Eli Wallach.  I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet and interview him.  I'm so glad the film academy awarded him an honorary Oscar in 2010.  He deserved it. We got the news last night that the versatile and beloved actor died at age 98.

Diane Sawyer is stepping down as anchor of the ABC World News Tonight weekday broadcast.  She'll do network projects.  David Muir will take her place in the anchor seat.  Of the senior three networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- ABC is the most groundbreaking in terms of diversity.  Barbara Walters was the first female anchor of a weekday evening network newscast.  The late Max Robinson was the first African-American anchor of a weekday evening network newscast.  Robinson, who died at age 49 in 1988, anchored ABC's World News Tonight from the late 1970s through the early '80s.
Neither ABC, NBC nor CBS has assigned an African-American journalist to the weekday evening news anchor seat since Max Robinson left in the 1980s.  If Brian Williams gave notice to NBC this month, would Lester Holt be named his replacement?  I'd give him the gig in a heartbeat.  I wonder if we'll get an openly gay journalist in a Senior Three network anchor seat for the weekday duties before we get another black journalist in the role.

I've written this before and I'm writing it again:  I wish ABC News would remind viewers of Max Robinson's legacy and contributions the way we were reminded of all that Barbara Walters did on ABC when she retired from The View.  Max Robinson seems to have been overlooked,if not forgotten, by the network.  His work should be pulled out of the archives and his legacy should be highlighted.  I started my professional TV career at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee in the early 1980s.  Max Robinson was one of the first people I interviewed for a feature piece.  What a privilege that was.

Here in America, another black man who broke through a color barrier is President Barack Obama.  We know that some folks were probably beguiled into thinking that because America elected a black man to the White House, the country had become immediately "post-racial."  Unfortunately, we know better today.  Race is still an issue.  For me personally, I realized again we were not "post-racial" on this day in history five years ago -- and the realization (or reaffirmation) came on Facebook.

On this day, actress Farrah Fawett died.  She gained fame on TV's hit series, Charlie Angels.  On Facebook, many people wrote "Heaven has a new angel.  RIP Farrah Fawcett."  Later in the day, we got the shocking bulletin that Michael Jackson died.  Many of my black and Latino friends (myself included) commented that he was a gifted black entertainer.  A few of my white liberal friends wrote the wisecrack comment "He was black?"  I didn't see one black or Latino person respond to the Farrah Fawcett death news with "She was an actress?"

I had stepped away from my computer for one hour or so to watch the TV reports.  When I returned to Facebook, I was stunned at the heated exchange between some of my fellow minority friends and those who'd posted the "He was black?" wisecrack.  I had to delete the thread, it was that heated.  What stunned me the most was that my Anglo buddies, who really consider themselves to be educated liberals, were totally clueless when writing that racially insensitive wisecrack soon after the news of his death.  And those Caucasian liberal buddies were all over 30.  They weren't kids.  Michael Jackson pretty much had to become an international superstar so MTV would give frequent airtime to his music videos the way it aired Madonna, Aerosmith, Duran Duran and even Right Said Fred.  A color barrier needed to be cracked at MTV and Michael Jackson helped crack it for black music artists.

In a couple of private social media messages, I explained to white Facebook friends -- as my parents did to me when I was a kid -- why some black folks bleached their skin.  The practice went back to "passing for white" so there would be equal treatment.  So one could enter the front door and not be sent directly to the back door.  Passing for white, in modern American history, could mean that one could live and not be lynched by racists.  Keep in mind that 50 years ago this summer, three university students were killed in Mississippi for helping black Americans secure the  right to vote.  To learn more about that, look for a repeat of the PBS broadcast, Freedom Summer.  It premiered this week.  Detailing historic moments in the Civil Rights Movement, it's an American Experience documentary you might be able to see online.  Check out your local PBS station on PBS.org.

I miss Michael Jackson, Max Robinson, Farrah Fawcett and I'll miss Eli Wallach.  I wish the best to ABC newsman David Muir.

For you classic film trivia fans, if you ever need to name movies in which a lead female character was known as The Girl or The Wife and you don't discover her name in the story, here's a few:

Janet Gaynor was The Wife in the 1927 silent film classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.  Carole Lombard was The Beautiful Lady in The Eagle and the Hawk.  Veronica Lake was The Girl in Sullivan's Travels, Marilyn Monroe was The Girl Upstairs in The Seven Year Itch and Daliah Lavi played The Girl in 1965's Lord Jim starring Peter O'Toole and Eli Wallach.














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