Monday, June 30, 2014

Notes on a Great Horne

Born this day in history:  Lena Horne, the very famous singer, actress and Civil Rights activist.
I grew up hearing the legend of this show business great from my parents.  Whenever Lena Horne was on television -- whether it was a network variety show, a network special, a sitcom like Sanford & Son or a part of a news telecast like her address and song at Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington -- it was required viewing in our South Central Los Angeles home.  My parents had Lena Horne records, a book about her and any magazine with a Lena Horne article.  I grew up learning the significance of her.  She made American film history with the 1943 Hollywood production, Cabin in the Sky.  First time director, Vincente Minnelli, guided her through a glamourous and sexy debut in a big screen, major studio production.  This was for MGM, the Tiffany of studios for movie musicals.  She lit up the screen with her beauty.


She lit up the screen with her fabulous singing.  This was the screen version of a Broadway hit.  Ethel Waters recreated her Broadway role.  Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, very popular as a regular on Jack Benny's hit radio show, and Lena were new to the project for the screen adaptation.  No young black actress had ever been given that glamorous a screen assignment in a major Hollywood film.  She was alluring and kittenish in this fantasy fable as the vamp trying to lead a married man astray from his church-going wife.  After that, Lena would be even more glamorous in her MGM screen numbers for other films.  But she usually had just featured numbers.  She didn't interact the film's white co-stars.  She did not have lines with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Van Johnson or Esther Williams.  Her numbers were separate.  Lovely and sophisticated though she was, but she was not integrated into the main action with Caucasian MGM co-stars.  The actresses who played mammies and maids were integrated into the main action the Caucasian stars.  She only had dialogue and scenes with others actor in two 1940s films with an all-black cast.  At MGM, Lena was mostly a featured vocalist in musicals.  Never did she take on a servant role.
The oft-told tale of her numbers being shot separately so they could be cut out when the films played down in segregated South was more tale that fact as you learn when reading the excellent, painstakingly researched and extremely revealing biography Stormy Weather:  The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin.  But she did have her color barriers and she challenged those barriers for her own sake and for the sake of others.  She entertained black troops in the segregated Armed Forces of World War 2 in segregated cities.  She spoke out for equality.  What a book by Jim Gavin! Her history in it goes from the 1940s and '50s when interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states to the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s to the new century with America on the brink of electing the first black man to the White House.

You will be fascinated at what you didn't know about her.  Horne's was a complicated, colorful and substantial life.  I've written before that her fame and her thorny relationship with her mother could inspire a Broadway musical story as strong as Gypsy.
In her MGM years, behind the scenes, she was also groundbreaking.  She had one of Hollywood's first and few interracial marriages.  Her husband, Lennie Hayton, was in the renowned Freed Unit at MGM.  He was a music director and composer who got Oscar nominations for scoring four MGM musicals -- two starred Judy Garland -- The Harvey Girls and The Pirate and two starred Gene Kelly -- On The Town and Singin' in the Rain.

Other Arthur Freed musical productions that boast Lennie Hayton's work are Meet Me in St. Louis, Good  News, Ziegfeld Follies, The Barkleys of Broadway,  Till the Clouds Roll By and Words and Music.  Those last two films include deluxe numbers by Mrs. Hayton, Lena Horne.
Another important figure behind the scenes at MGM was hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff.  He famously put bangs on Claudette Colbert.  Becoming part of the MGM family, he did the hair on A-list star lady heads and got his first onscreen credit in The Women.  He did Judy Garland's hair for The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Pirate.  After the MGM years, he put the streak in Anne Bancroft's hair for The Graduate, did Jane Fonda's hair in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and worked on Liza Minnelli in New York, New York.  He also did Lena Horne's hair in the 1940s at MGM and for her moving appearance in 1994's That's Entertainment! 3.  Her segment is one of the highlights of that documentary sequel.  She's honest about the sting of being racially limited in her days at MGM.  In those days, she could attend a special MGM luncheon, sit next to and chat with Katharine Hepburn.  She just couldn't play her friend and give her hug in an MGM movie scene.  People like Sydney Guilaroff knew of Lena's frustration.
Because of their friendship and his regard for Lena Horne, black hairdressers were able to get work on the lot.  The field of hairdressers and cosmeticians had been segregated in Hollywood.  Guilaroff helped change things and, in his autobiography, he gave the credit to Lena.

Lena starred in a Broadway musical with a fellow MGM veteran, Ricardo Montalban.  It had a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y., Harburg, the men who wrote all the songs for The Wizard of Oz.




They starred in 1957's tropical Broadway musical, Jamaica.

But several years later, she really came into her own in a one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne:  The Lady and Her Music.
In her 60s and gorgeous, her voice and her acting were better than ever.  She had really taken care of her instrument.  No, she didn't act out scenes in her one-woman show.  But, she gave each song an inner life.  She treated each song as a monologue.  This is what many young singers on TV audition shows don't do.  They give us vocal gymnastics and copy the renditions of songs they've heard by other singers but they're not giving the song a unique inner life.

For this hit Broadway show, Lena Horne was honored with a special 1981 Tony Award.

Larry Moss is a most highly-respected and highly-sought after acting coach.  He coached Michael Clarke Duncan to an Oscar nomination for The Green Mile, he coached Hilary Swank to two Oscar wins for Best Actress in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby and he did the same for Helen Hunt who won her Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets.  He was so in demand that he put his lessons in book form.  In The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential As An Actor, he writes about Lena Horne.  He places her one-woman Broadway show performance in a category with Marlon Brando's iconic work and Rudolf Nureyev's inimitable ballet dancing.  He urges new actors to buy the CD of that Lena Horne show, listen to the life she gives each song -- and use her one-woman show recording as a master class in acting.  Get his book and read all about it.
I saw that show and I totally agree with Mr. Moss.  Ms. Horne took her show on tour and it played about about a week in Milwaukee.  I saw it more than once.  The power in her voice was extraordinary.  She worked that stage for over two hours.  Brilliant.  She was getting well-deserved standing ovations in the middle of the show.  Lena Horne was triumphant and each performance was sold out.  My mother had moved to Milwaukee by then and saw the show with me.

I was part of a press conference held when Lena Horne arrived in Milwaukee.  She graciously acknowledged me, as she did all black people in the room.  This was a different time -- and Milwaukee -- so there were not many black entertainment reporters in the room.  In the early 1980s, I was the city's first and only black person who was doing weekly film reviews on local TV in addition to celebrity interviews.

Her manager contacted me via the TV station.

To make a long -- and wonderful -- story short, Lena Horne offered my mother a job when Horne was on the next stop of her tour.  To meet with Mom, she flew her out first class and put her in a nice room in the same hotel where she was staying.  She treated my mother well.

This was a major moment in our Rivers Family history.  I'm writing the rest of the story for a book project I'm pitching.

Lena Horne paid more attention to me and my work than some of my ex-broadcast agents did.  Wow.

Here's some movie trivia for you:  For years, her son-in-law was acclaimed movie director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Group, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Wiz).

Check out those books by James Gavin and Larry Moss.  Learn more about the late, great Lena Horne.
Also, give a listen to the lady and her music.  She was truly legendary.



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Studio Time with Spike Lee

I absolutely loved my three years working on VH1 and working with the studio crew.  This was in the late 1980s.  I enjoyed that job and those people so much that I looked forward to Monday mornings so I could get back to work.  How many folks do you know could ever say that about a job?  We experienced many memorable moments.  We had one memorable afternoon experience with film director/writer/actor Spike Lee.
At the time, he was very popular with young moviegoers who connected with his early films She's Gotta Have It...
...and School Daze, a musical satire starring Laurence Fishburne.


Not only did those films click, so did he as an actor.  We dug his comic acting performance as Mars in She's Gotta Have It.  Remember Mars trying to get some love from Nola by begging "Please, baby.  Please, baby.  Baby, baby, please!"?  I loved it.  His look was fresh for movies.  We all knew guys like Mars in our black and Latino neighborhoods, but we weren't seeing them in mainstream Hollywood movies.  Spike took that look and persona to popular TV commercials.
We did our VH1 taping in studio in downtown Manhattan around 27th Street at Third Avenue.  Later, we moved to West 57th Street.  In those early days, Spike was scheduled to be my guest on VH1's Celebrity Hour talk show.  One of our segment producers was also our studio coordinator.  Still a dear friend, Sharon Kelly ran our studio the way Radar took care of Col. Potter's office on the TV sitcom M*A*S*H*.  Nobody did it better than Sharon Kelly.  Here she is in a photo with one of my other guests, novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City).
Sharon arranged car service pick up for our talk show guests and, after the interviews, the car service would take them back to their original locations.  Sharon had ordered a town car to pick up Spike Lee at his home in Brooklyn.  About ten minutes after our scheduled taping time, he'd yet to appear.  Sharon called the car service company and it was confirmed that a car had indeed been sent to his exact address in Brooklyn.  A little more time passed and we wondered where he was.  Now, we're about 20 minutes late when the studio front door whipped opened and in dashes Spike Lee.  He was out of breath.  He was extremely apologetic, very polite and sweating like he'd just raced in the Kentucky Derby.  He was so sorry for being late. 

He said that the driver would not let him into the car.  He didn't have time to argue with him, so he hopped a subway train to our studio and ran to us when he got off the train.  Sharon, of course, said "What do you mean the driver wouldn't let you into the car?"

She called the car service's main office.  The main office got on the car radio and contacted the driver.  The driver admitted that he wouldn't let a man who fit the description of movie director Spike Lee into the car.  Why?  The driver said to his boss, "He didn't look like a movie director."  

Sharon's Irish temper blew like Mount Vesuvius when she heard that.  The car service boss told Sharon that the driver was ordered to report back to the main office.  He did.  He was immediately fired.  Let's just say that the driver was not black or Latino.

Yep.  Spike Lee was locked out of the town car that was sent to pick him up for a national TV interview because the driver felt "he didn't look like a movie director."  This did not happen to my other guests who'd directed movies -- not to James L. Brooks, Alan Parker, Norman Mailer or Penny Marshall.  And Penny Marshall got into and came out of her car looking like an unmade bed.

During the interview, I asked Spike if he had something new in the works.  He did.

He'd just started shooting a new movie called Do The Right Thing.
Talk about ironic.

That provocative and popular movie, a look at race relations and racial bigotry in a Brooklyn neighborhood on one of the hottest days of the summer, became a critically acclaimed film that is now on the prestigious Criterion Collection DVD list.  This summer at the end of June, Do The Right Thing celebrates the 25th anniversary of its release.


That cast included Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, John Savage, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, plus the extraordinary Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee.
Cast member Danny Aiello got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor of 1989.
Spike Lee went to direct Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, a film biography starring Denzel Washington as the slain civil rights activist.  The film bio brought Denzel Washington one of his Best Actor Oscar nominations.  Other films Lee directed include He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Inside Man and 2012's Red Hook Summer in which Lee played latter day Mookie from Do The Right Thing.  (All those years later and Mookie was still delivering pizzas in Brooklyn.)   For Do The Right Thing, Lee was an Oscar nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category.  He has never been nominated for Best Director.  Many, including myself, felt that Do The Right Thing should've been a nominee for Best Picture.  It wasn't.  The winner for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, based on the Broadway hit of the same name.

Two other Spike Lee directorial high points in his career are the documentaries 4 Little Girls, a brilliant and powerful look at the Alabama church bombing that killed four black girls during America's Civil Rights Movement in 1963, and When the Levees Broke, a feature for HBO that was just as powerful.  It focused on the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastated poor black people in New Orleans.  Both those documentaries were hailed by critics.  The racist bombing a black church on a Sunday in 1963 and the Hurricane Katrina devastation were stories that made international headlines.  Spike went in depth beyond those headlines to get more of the story.  He did outstanding work.

Spike Lee.  An influential film director.
                                                                                               

Here he is with fellow filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood.
To think that, years ago, he was locked out of a town car sent for him because the driver felt he didn't look like a movie director.









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.














Friday, June 20, 2014

Pride Month Gratitude

Richard was not at all my type or what I thought my type was.  Through a mutual friend, we'd met at the major department store where he worked.  I was purchasing a piece of carry-on luggage.  Six months later, the mutual friend called me and said that his buddy who'd sold me the bag wanted to go out with me.  This was 1992.  I'd just started a new TV job.  I was part of the original morning team on WNBC's Weekend Today in New York, a local news program.  We premiered in September.  The buzz was that our show wouldn't last more than half a year.  I was positive that, come the following year, I'd be relocating to Los Angeles.

I wasn't interested in going out with that polite department store clerk who looked like the kind of politically conservative young guy who should've been singing in the Up With People group.  I'd never been in a relationship. I was in my 30s and focused on my TV career.  Romantically, I'd been passed over, ignored and stood up several times.  I didn't want to do that to someone else.  I knew how it felt.  I had my friend give Richard my private home number.  If he called me, I'd honestly tell him why I didn't have time to go out with him.  It wasn't personal.  I was busy with my career and it might put me on the West Coast in a few months.

I'm a sucker for a gentle Southern accent and he was Southern gentleman.  He was so charming on the phone that, when he eventually said "I think we should go out.  Would you go out with me?," I simply said "Yes."

That one little word changed my life.  We went out to a nice downtown Manhattan diner for brunch on October 11, 1992.  We stayed together until the day he died.  No one made me laugh as much.  No one made me cry as much.
I cried when he died of AIDS on this day, June 20th, in 1994.  His parents, his grandparents and I were at the hospital with him.  He was in his 20s.  I felt like a lifetime was packed into our short relationship.  And, in many ways, one was.

Let me share this --- something that lets you know about his character.  He had an excellent work record at the top Manhattan department store.  He was ripe for promotion.  Yet, he was laid off a week or so before leaving to visit family in Tennessee for Thanksgiving.  On one of our early dates, he told me that he hated the way the store's security firm treated black and Latino youth, following them suspiciously and trailing them so aggressively that the minority kids would get irritated and leave the store.  However, upscale white kids would come in, be loud and mess up display clothing.  The upscale white kids were never followed although their behavior was often ill-mannered.  He complained about that to management.  But the exec to whom he complained was friendly with the head of that security firm.  So, the whistleblower (Richard) was let go.  Politically conservative, he wasn't.  He saw racial injustice and spoke out against it.

He was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS the following month, around Christmastime.  The illness came on suddenly and unexpectedly.  With the pneumonia and lymphoma, it had its horrors.  There were many nights I slept sitting up in a chair at his hospital bedside.  And once, I did have my pre-dawn Shirley MacLaine Terms of Endearment meltdown moment when a nurse was 15 minutes late giving him a medication.

I've written previously about the oppressive fear and ignorance that stifled society in those years of the AIDS plague (my Tom Hanks, O.J. and Me blog post).  We saw the oppression portrayed recently in HBO's production of The Normal Heart.  Scott Simon, that gift to Saturday morning radio, touched on the topic in his May 24th segment on what The Normal Heart teaches a new generation.  It aired on Scott's NPR show, Weekend Edition.


I could not have been as good a caregiver as I was without the information and strength I got from New York City's GMHC, the Gay Men's Health Crisis.  When I got to New York in 1985 and worked on WPIX/Channel 11, that station made local news regarding the fear during the AIDS crisis.  A man newly diagnosed with the disease was scheduled to come into the studio to talk about it on a public affairs show.  However, no one on the floor crew would clip a microphone onto his jacket for fear of catching the disease.  The interview never took place.  This was Manhattan but it was like being in Medieval times during the plague.  Gay men were treated like lepers.  Today, celebrities come out of the closet and get applause, congratulations on social media, they get cakes, flowers...a pony. The main thing is -- they get acceptance.  Back then, celebrities didn't come out for fear of being shunned, losing their jobs and having no income.

That's how social attitudes were back then.  It's different now.  When I worked at WNBC news, co-workers in whom I could confide urged me not to tell management that my partner had AIDS.  I told them my health was good, thank Heaven.  They felt, nevertheless, that the management in place at that time could find a way not to need me anymore on the show.  And I wasn't under contract.  Although it was not a big money part-time TV job, it still gave me steady income to take care of Richard and to pay our rent.  GMHC gave me the intellectual and spiritual fuel I needed.  I learned how to deal with hospitals, what questions to ask, what to do if Richard or I wasn't treated well.  I learned about financial aid we could get because he was technically disabled.  I learned that I also needed to take care of myself -- have a day or a half a day to myself -- so I could recharge and be an effective caregiver.  Being an interracial couple, being a same-sex couple and being a couple in which one was terminally ill...we had a lot to deal with.  GMHC gave me the emotional armor I needed.
I wish I could have done regular segments on the WNBC weekend morning news show about what I was learning as a caregiver.  If management back then had embraced diversity, I could written and produced features about my journey helping a loved one diagnosed with AIDS.  Those segments could have helped others the way Katie Couric's Today Show segments on colon cancer helped people after the death of her first husband.  He died of that disease.  If I'd felt that I had the executive support, I could have put a more personal face on the AIDS crisis and, possibly, helped reduce the fear and ignorance.  I would have included GMHC.  However, when I wanted to do two entertainment features with positive gay images, my ideas were nixed by my boss.  He's long gone from the station and WNBC now embraces diversity.  The show that some predicted would be canceled in 1993 is still on -- and it has the popular weatherman, Raphael Miranda, who is out and has a husband.  Viva Diversity!

Richard and I had several friends who were so loyal and helpful during his illness.  And his family was a model of unconditional love and kindness to him and to me.  He had a great doctor.

There was another group that helped Richard, me and countless other men during those dark days of the AIDS crisis.  That group -- lesbians.  Seriously.  In my life, they came in like knights in shining armor.  They got their gay male friends to hospitals, they were at bedsides in hospitals, they ran errands and did chores, comforted family members and cried at funerals.  They lost loved ones too. Lesbians helped so, so many of us men at that time and I've long felt that they never quite got the thanks they deserved.

This day, this Pride Month, I want to extend my deep gratitude again to GMHC and to all my lesbian friends who helped me, hugged me, put their hands at my back and said, "You can get through this."  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

One last note:  About four years after Richard passed away, I was working at another TV station on a weekday morning show.  A news team had taken a hidden camera into a department store because of constant complaints from minority students about the way they were harassed by security.  Yes!  It was the same store Richard worked for and the story had been brought to light because of that undercover news report.  Changes were made.  Richard would've been so thrilled.  I know I was.

It amazes me to this very minute how somebody wonderful changed my life simply because I said just one little word:  "Yes."  Wow.  If it's meant for me to have a second relationship, I'll go into it a better man because of him.

Happy Pride Month.  Thanks for reading this.









Thursday, June 19, 2014

See It Again: NO END IN SIGHT

Today, President Obama emphasized that he would not send combat troops to Iraq.

Is Iraq the Vietnam for the current generation?  Can you just imagine if the draft was still in effect and some of these young male hipsters occupying just about every Starbucks as if it was their personal office space were called up and shipped off to occupied Iraq?  That would not be pretty.  But it would probably and instantly reduce social media snark to half.  Snark may be cool on Twitter but it doesn't save your ass in combat.

With Iraq a heated headline again, I took a second look at a documentary I first saw in theatrical release back in New York City. The feature got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary of 2007.  Directed and written by Charles Ferguson, it's called No End In Sight.  Considering that the documentary takes us back to 2003 and keeping in mind what President Obama said today, that title is still relevant.
Now is really the time to take another look at this fine, scrupulous documentary full of revelations and information about our involvement in Iraq following the September 11th attacks.  All the information is presented in a very level-headed, even manner.  However, the information itself is so gut-punching that you may gasp.  What I remember about seeing it in a downtown Manhattan theater was how information about Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney made audience members so angry that shouted things at the screen.  The documentary had that strong an impact.  We see and hear from soldiers who were stationed in Iraq, journalists, the female ambassador placed in charge of the Baghdad embassy and we see White House press conference footage.

In the theater, my first gasp -- of several -- was the information and footage regarding the destruction of art museums and libraries.  They were buildings that housed artifacts and publications that were hundreds and hundreds of years old.  A certain inexperience, shall we say, in the Bush administration seemed to accelerate a descent into the chaos of Iraq.  That attitude comes from some figures interviewed who were pro-Bush before 9/11.

Frankly, Charles Ferguson's documentary came to my mind this week because some extremely conservative politicians in news sound bites acted as if we just entered Iraq during the current administration.  That's wrong.

This feature is a good, stirring documentary that runs only about one hour and 40 minutes long.  Look for it on DVD.  Heck, you may even be able to find it on YouTube.  No End In Sight is a modern history lesson that we need to keep in mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tom Hanks, O.J. and Me

I was curious to see the movie when it opened.  I'm a longtime Tom Hanks fan, going back to his ABC sitcom years on Bosom Buddies in the 1980s.  He'd proven his dramatic acting chops with his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia.  Now I wanted to see if he could effectively play a big, blond musclebound idiot savant with a crewcut who said "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."  That's how Forrest Gump was and that's what he said in the tart, satirical and outrageously funny novel written by Winston Groom.  I read the novel early in 1994 and it made me laugh out loud.  I laughed at the big handsome idiot's adventures as a football player, a pro wrestler, an astronaut and as sci-fi movie movie in Hollywood with cheap costumes a very cranky actress named Raquel Welch.  Forrest needed to get away from his annoying old bitty of a mother.   That was the novel.
A publicity head for a movie company not releasing Forrest Gump had seen the screen version.  He and I ran into each other one day and he gave me a tip.  "Go if there's a screening.  It's really good."

At that time, I was one of the original on-air regulars on WNBC's Weekend Today in New York.  We premiered in September 1992.  I was approached to be on the show and the initial offer appealed to me.    I was to do entertainment features, film reviews, and lifestyle reports.  This was after my three years as a veejay and a celebrity talk show host on VH1.  I'd done appearances on CBS late night shows. Also, in 1992, I'd hosted a late night syndicated summer replacement game show.

When the WNBC local news show premiered, my assignments changed and that's when friction began.  I was to do "funny" community events live shots from street fairs, shopping malls and such instead of being at the desk doing upscale entertainment features on a regular basis.  I do not mean this as a slam against WNBC because the executives with whom I had problems are long gone, but there were diversity issues then.  To me, there seemed to be something racially funky in its 1990s corporate culture that needed to be plucked out.  If you know classic Hollywood history, I felt like Lena Horne at MGM in the 1940s.  I was with an A-list studio but I'd be limited in how high up I could go.

Adding heat to the diversity issues was the AIDS crisis which was in the headlines at the time and still claiming hundreds and hundreds of lives.  Positive gay images on weekly TV were rare.  Last month on NPR's Weekend Edition, Scott Simon presented a May 24th feature on what The Normal Heart teaches a new generation.  This aired before the premiere of the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer's gut-punching play about the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City.  One thing mentioned was the fear prevalent at that time.  I remember that fear vividly.  It lingered in the air like oppressive summer humidity.  When Tom Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia, it was a landmark victory.  He played an openly gay man with AIDS.  I proudly watched Hanks' acceptance speech with my equally proud partner.  He was also an openly gay man with AIDS.  Richard was diagnosed three months after our Weekend Today in New York show premiered.

WNBC co-workers in whom I could confide urged me not to tell management that my partner had AIDS.  I told them "My health is good, thank Heaven.  He's the ill one."  They felt that since I was part-time and not under contract, management might find some way of not needing me on the show anymore even though I was very popular with viewers.  Again, this is how the climate with the management in place at that time was.  I was not making big money but the money I did make helped me be a good caregiver to my terminally ill partner.  During the course of show, our top news executive denied my being able to do a morning remote from a SAGE fundraiser street fair in Greenwich Village. SAGE is an organization of gay & lesbian seniors.  I guess he thought aging lesbians selling macrame plant holders and old Joni Mitchell records was too controversial for live morning TV.  He would not air my interview of Tony-winning actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein when he was promoting Mrs. Doubtfire.  He aired my Robin Williams interview but wouldn't let us air Harvey's.  Why?  He said, "I have a problem with him being openly gay."  There was fear and ignorance in the air.  And I was afraid of losing that job because I was taking care of Richard.  I often went to work at WNBC directly from having slept in a chair at Richard's beside in Mt. Sinai hospital.

I was invited to be a part of the Forrest Gump press junket in L.A.  Interviews would be done in the Four Seasons Beverly Hills Hotel.  Two days before I left for the junket, I had to get Richard to the hospital again for something minor.  His wonderful doctor wanted him to stay a couple of days for some tests.  She felt he be ready to come back home the day I returned from L.A.  She had my phone number to my room at the hotel.  I called Richard and called her as soon as I arrived.

We saw Forrest Gump.  All the main characters were in it.  The vinegar had been replaced with sugar.  It was a very sentimental movie. Forrest was not 6'6 and 240 pounds of solid beefcake like in the book.  Forrest now said, "Life is like a box of chocolates."  His mother was now sweet, strong and devoted to him. Not a needy old bat.


 We knew the movie would be a colossal box office hit.  Which it was.  The next morning, I'm preparing for my Tom Hanks interview when the phone rang.  It was Richard's doctor.  She told me not to panic, but she felt I should call his parents.  Unfortunately, his body was not responding to any treatments.  It was a call I'd hoped I'd never get.  And the call I had to place to his extraordinary mother in Tennessee was one I'd hoped I'd never have to make.  My initial thought was, "Get the next plane back to New York.  Scratch the interviews.  Tell the publicity people why."  The phone rang again.  It was his doctor calling back.  She said that Richard had ordered me not to come back without having done my work.  I was to do my interviews.  She added, "Somehow, I don't think anything serious will happen before you get here.  Do what he said.  Do your work."

I wanted to do something to honor Richard in my Hanks interview.  Something to honor him and to bring attention to how gay people were treated and the need for diversity.  There was a time when interviewing a top star like Tom Hanks would've been the most important thing in my life.  It would've been what I'd worked for in my career.  That morning was different.  My life had changed.  Richard changed it.  He was more important than any international movie star.  I'd follow his orders and do the work.

I walked into the room, pre-occupied with thoughts of Richard.  Tom Hanks, who'd watched me on VH1, greeted me enthusiastically,  like an old college buddy.  That was a blessing.  It calmed me down and helped me focus.  He gave me a good interview.  The question that I knew Richard would love (and did when I told him) was asking Hanks how Hollywood would've reacted if he was single, gay  and came out during his Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia.

He liked my question.  He said, if that had happened, he wouldn't be surprised if he was never again cast in a romantic comedy as the guy who got Meg Ryan.  William Hurt was the first actor to win an Oscar for playing an openly gay man.  He was the Latin American prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman.  Hanks was the second. And he played an openly gay American with AIDS during America's AIDS crisis.  Celebrities were not coming out then.  We did not have gay talk show hosts and gay regulars on popular reality shows.  Actors were nervous about playing gay characters and more nervous about coming out because that could lead to unemployment.  There was the fear of losing work.

I did all my interviews.  Instead of flying back the following afternoon, I rescheduled myself on a redeye flight that night.  There was buzz among the junket press folks about O.J. Simpson and a murder.  Anything with a celebrity and a murder in L.A. gets instant live local coverage.  And O.J. had been extremely popular in TV commercials and in movies.  The NBA Finals were being played.

A bunch of us gathered in the hospitality suite of The Four Seasons.  Big movie stars were walking around but we were riveted to the special live news broadcast of the now-famous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase with him being pursued by L.A. cop cars....

...and in a smaller box in a corner of the same screen was that evening's NBA game in process.

Meanwhile I was waiting for a friend who'd offered to pick me up at the hotel and drive me to LAX so I could fly back to my terminally ill partner.  This day in history twenty years ago was one surreal day for me.  Tom Hanks, O. J. Simpson and me -- publicity, crime and love.

Here's a short demo reel that includes my June 17th question to Hanks that aired in my WNBC feature before Forrest Gump opened nationwide:

I wrote that there seemed to be something funky in the TV station's corporate culture at that time.  Here's an example in a newspaper article about a comment from a network news executive:


Other actors have since gone on to Oscar nominations and Oscar wins for playing gay characters.  Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Truman Capote) won Oscars.  We now have openly gay network news anchors such as Anderson Cooper and CNN's Don Lemon.  There's a gay contestant in just about every season of Dancing with the Stars.

I'd love to interview Tom Hanks again and talk about how much diversity has been embraced since he won his Oscar for Philadelphia.  And I wish Richard was here so he could see it.  He passed peacefully on June 20th 1994.  He was only in his 20s.

In his short life, he added a great light to the world around him.  Especially to my world.  My relationship with him taught me to be brave, to never deny the truth of myself and to use my talents to help others.  I stayed at WNBC long enough to pay off his funeral expenses.  I quit in January 1995.  Was it a smart move to leave a hit show?  I felt it was.  The same executive who had a problem with Harvey Fierstein being openly gay told me that, although I was popular on the show and my work was good, I would never go full-time and I'd never move up to doing features for the network edition of Weekend Today. 

It was time to move on.










GMA Avoids the Gay

Friday, November 17th.  As usual, I was watching the network morning shows.  I wanted to catch the last half-hour of GOOD MORNING AMERICA be...