Peter Falk, who marshaled actorly tics, prop room
appurtenances and his own physical idiosyncrasies to personify Columbo, one of
the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in television history, died on
Thursday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 83.
His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and
the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s
disease in recent years.
Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and
onstage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he portrayed
the unkempt but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars;
appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon
and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake
Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette
Davis and Jason Robards.
But Mr. Falk’s prime-time popularity, like that of his contemporary Telly
Savalas, of “Kojak” fame, was founded on a single role.
A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, Columbo was a comic variation
on the traditional fictional detective. With the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes
and Philip Marlowe, he was cast in the mold of neither — not a gentleman
scholar, not a tough guy. He was instead a mass of quirks and peculiarities, a
seemingly distracted figure in a rumpled raincoat, perpetually patting his
pockets for a light for his signature stogie.
He drove a battered Peugeot, was unfailingly polite, was sometimes accompanied
by a basset hound named Dog, and was constantly referring to the wisdom of his
wife (who was never seen on screen) and a variety of relatives and acquaintances
who were identified in Homeric-epithet-like shorthand — an uncle who played the
bagpipes with the Shriners, say, or a nephew majoring in dermatology at U.C.L.A.
— and who were called to mind by the circumstances of the crime at hand.
It was a low-rent affect that was especially irksome to the high-society
murderers he outwitted in episode after episode. In the detective-story niche
where Columbo lived, whodunit was hardly the point; the murder was committed and
the murderer revealed in the show’s opening minutes. How it was done was
paramount. Typically, Columbo would string his suspects along, flattering them,
apologizing profusely for continuing to trouble them with questions, appearing
to have bought their alibis and, just before making an exit, nailing them with a
final, damning query that he unfailingly introduced with the innocent-sounding
phrase, “Just one more thing ....” It was the signal to viewers that the jig was
It was also the title of Mr. Falk’s anecdotal memoir, published in 2006, in
which he summarized the appeal of the show.
“What are you hanging around for?” he wrote, referring to the viewer. “Just one
thing. You want to know how he gets caught.”
Mr. Falk had a glass eye, resulting from an operation to remove a cancerous
tumor when he was 3. The prosthesis gave all his characters a peculiar, almost
quizzical squint. And he had a mild speech impediment that gave his L’s a
breathy quality, a sound that emanated from the back of his throat and that
seemed especially emphatic whenever, in character, he introduced himself as
Such a deep well of eccentricity made Columbo amusing as well as incisive, not
to mention a progenitor of later characters like Tony Shalhoub’s Monk, and it
made him a representative Everyman too. Off and on from 1968 to 2003, Mr. Falk
played the character numerous times, often in the format of a 90-minute or
2-hour television movie. Each time Columbo, the ordinary man as hero, brought
low a greedy and murderous privileged denizen of Beverly Hills, Malibu or
Brentwood, it was an implicit victory for the many over the few.
“This is, perhaps, the most thoroughgoing satisfaction ‘Columbo’ offers us,”
Jeff Greenfield wrote in The New York Times in 1973: “the assurance that those
who dwell in marble and satin, those whose clothes, food, cars and mates are the
very best, do not deserve it.”
Peter Michael Falk was born in Manhattan on Sept. 16, 1927, and lived for a time
in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, but grew up mostly in Ossining, N.Y, where
his father owned a clothing store and where, in spite of his missing eye, he was
a high school athlete. In one story he liked to tell, after being called out at
third base during a baseball game, he removed his eye and handed it to the
“You’ll do better with this,” he said.
After high school Mr. Falk went briefly to Hamilton College, in upstate New
York, before dropping out and joining the Merchant Marine as a cook. He later
returned to New York City, where he earned a degree in political science from
the New School for Social Research before attending Syracuse University, where
he received a master’s degree in public administration.
He took a job in Hartford as an efficiency expert for the Connecticut budget
bureau. It was in Connecticut that he began acting, joining an amateur troupe
called the Mark Twain Masquers in Hartford and taking classes from Eva Le
Gallienne at the White Barn Theater in Westport. He was 29 when he decided to
move to New York again, this time to be an actor.
He made his professional debut in an Off Broadway production of Molière’s “Don
Juan” in 1956. In 1957 he was cast as the bartender in the famous Circle in the
Square revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” directed by José Quintero and starring
Jason Robards; he made his first splash on screen, as Abe Reles, a violent mob
thug, in the 1960 film “Murder, Inc.” That performance earned him an Oscar
nomination for best supporting actor and a moment of high embarrassment at the
awards ceremony. When the winner was announced — it was Peter Ustinov for
“Spartacus” — Mr. Falk heard the first name and stood, only to have to sit back
down again a moment later.
“When I hit the seat, I turned to the press agent and said, ‘You’re fired!’ ”
Mr. Falk wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t want him charging me for another day.”
The next year, newly married to a Syracuse classmate, Alyce Mayo — they would
have two daughters and divorce in 1976 — Mr. Falk again earned a
supporting-actor Oscar nomination for playing a mobster, though this time with a
more light-hearted stripe, in the final film to be directed by Frank Capra,
“Pocketful of Miracles,” starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford.
From then on Mr. Falk, who was swarthy, squat (he was 5-foot-6) and handsome,
had to fend off offers to play gangsters. He did take such a part in “Robin and
the 7 Hoods,” alongside Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis
Jr., but fearful of typecasting, he also took roles in comic films like “It’s a
Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Great Race.”
He returned to the stage as well, as Stalin, the title role, in Paddy
Chayefsky’s “Passion of Josef D,” which earned him solid reviews in spite of the
show’s brief run (less than two weeks). Mr. Falk played Stalin “with brilliant,
unsmiling ferocity,” Howard Taubman wrote in his largely positive review in The
His life was forever changed in 1967 when, reportedly after both Bing Crosby and
Lee J. Cobb turned down the role, he was cast as Columbo in the television film
“Prescription: Murder.” The story, about a psychiatrist who kills his wife with
the help of one of his patients, was written by Richard Levinson and William
Link; they had adapted it from their stage play, which opened in San Francisco
and Boston in 1964, and which itself was an adaptation. Mr. Levinson and Mr.
Link first wrote the story in 1960 for a series called “The Chevy Mystery Show.”
It was in that show — the episode was titled “Enough Rope” — that Columbo made
his debut as a character, played by Bert Freed.
But it was Mr. Falk who made him a legend. During the filming it was he who
rejected the fashionable attire the costume shop had laid out for him; it was he
who chose the raincoat — one of his own — and who matched the rest of the
detective’s clothes to its shabbiness. It was he who picked out the Peugeot from
the studio motor pool, a convertible with a flat tire and needing a paint job
that, he reflected years afterward, “even matched the raincoat.”
And as the character grew, the line between the actor and the role grew hazier.
They shared a general disregard for nattiness, an informal mode of speech, an
obsession with detail, an irrepressible absent-mindedness. Even Columbo’s
favorite song, “This Old Man,” which seemed to run through his mind (and the
series) like a broken record, was one that Mr. Falk had loved from childhood and
that ended up in the show because he was standing around humming it one day, in
character, when Columbo was waiting for someone to come to the phone.
Three years passed between the first “Columbo” movie and the second, “Ransom for
a Dead Man,” which became the pilot that turned the show into a regular network
offering. It was part of a revolving wheel of Sunday night mysteries with
recurring characters that appeared under the rubric “NBC Mystery Theater.” The
first set included “McCloud,” with Dennis Weaver, and “McMillan and Wife,” with
Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James.
In between, Mr. Falk made “Husbands,” the first of his collaborations with his
friend Cassavetes. The others were “A Woman Under the Influence,” in 1974, a
brutally realistic portrayal of a marriage undermined by mental illness,
directed by Cassavetes, for which Mr. Falk’s co-star and Cassavetes’s wife, Gena
Rowlands, was nominated for an Academy Award; and “Mikey and Nicky” in 1976, a
dark buddy film directed by Elaine May in which the two men played the title
In 1971 he once again returned to Broadway, in Neil Simon’s angry comedy “The
Prisoner of Second Avenue.”
In later years Mr. Falk starred in several notable films — among them “Murder by
Death” (1976), “The In-Laws” (1979), “The Princess Bride” (1987), “Tune In
Tomorrow” (1990) and “Wings of Desire” (1987), in which he played himself,
contemplating his acting career — and in 1998 he opened Off Broadway in the
title role of Arthur Miller’s play “Mr. Peters’ Connections,” a portrait of an
older man trying to make sense out his life as it comes to an end. By that time,
however, Mr. Falk and Columbo had become more or less interchangeable as
cultural references. Mr. Peters, Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the play in
The Times, “is as genuinely perplexed as Columbo, his aggressively rumpled
television detective, only pretends to be.”
Mr. Falk, who began sketching as a way to while away time on movie sets, had had
many gallery shows of his charcoal drawings and watercolors. He is survived by
his second wife, the former Shera Danese, and his two daughters, Jackie and
For all the mysteries Columbo solved, one remains. Many viewers claim that in
one or more episodes Columbo’s police identification is visible with the first
name “Frank” visibly scrawled on it. However, the character was initially
created without a first name; an exhaustive book about the television show, “The
Columbo Phile,” does not give a first name, and Mr. Falk, for his part, was no
help in this regard. Whenever he was asked Columbo’s first name, his response
was the same.
Stephen J. Cannell, one of television’s most prolific writers and series
creators, whose work encompassed the “The Rockford Files” and “Wiseguy” to “The
A-Team” and “The Greatest American Hero,” died Thursday at his home in Pasadena,
Calif. He was 69.
The cause was complications from melanoma, his family said.
For 30 years, beginning in the early 1970s and extending through the 1990s,
television viewers could hardly go a week without running into a show written by
Mr. Cannell. His writing credits include more than 1,000 episodes of various
series, primarily crime dramas, and he is listed as the creator of almost 20
series — some long-running hits like “The Rockford Files,” and “The Commish,”
others quick flame-outs like “Booker. ” At one point in 1989, Mr. Cannell’s
company was producing five series on three networks. One of them, “21 Jump
Street,” introduced a future Oscar nominee to public acclaim: Johnny Depp.
But that was not unusual. Mr. Cannell’s shows often opened doors for emerging
actors. Jeff Goldblum gained his first wide notice in a short-lived but
well-remembered Cannell series, “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.” And “Wiseguy” gave
another future Oscar winner, Kevin Spacey, a chance to stand out in a memorable
extended turn as a villain.
Mr. Cannell, who regarded his writing less as an art than a craft to which he
was both committed and devoted, never writing less than two hours a day, shifted
late in his career to crime novels and again proved he had a popular touch.
Several of his 16 books, many featuring the detective Shane Scully, were best
“Most of my things strike to the same theme,” Mr. Cannell said in an interview
this year in Success magazine, “which is not to take yourself so seriously that
you can’t grow.”
In many ways Mr. Cannell’s own success mirrored the formula he repeated in so
many of those episodes. It was a three-act, feel-good story of overcoming
Born Feb. 5, 1941, in Los Angeles, to an affluent family (his father owned an
interior design business), Mr. Cannell suffered from extreme dyslexia, which
went undiagnosed and all but ruined his school years. Despite inheriting his
family’s intense work ethic, he failed three grades and was unable to retain a
football scholarship to the University of Oregon because of his academic record.
But a professor there recognized his writing gifts and encouraged him. Once he
tried to break into television writing, Mr. Cannell quickly found he had a knack
for its basics. He was fast and dependable. From early work on shows like “It
Takes a Thief” and “Toma” he graduated to more serious efforts, like a script
for the notoriously demanding “Columbo.”
He was successful and happy, unlike many of his Hollywood writing
contemporaries. He married his grade-school sweetheart, Marcia Finch, in 1964.
She survives him, along with two daughters, Tawnia and Chelsea; a son, Cody; and
It was while banging out a script for “Toma” that Mr. Cannell created a
character named Jim Rockford. Like Rockford, Mr. Cannell often pointed out, his
lead characters were flawed men who somehow found a way to get the right thing
Rockford was an ex-con turned reluctant detective who would rather crack wise
than fight. The series, which was a hit for seven seasons, has since been
credited with helping to signal a cultural shift away from the perfect physical
and moral specimens of the movies and early television and toward more realistic
heroes, the kind viewers had come to expect, given the harder-edged reality they
saw on the evening news.
“Culture changed, and as that happened, so did our need for a hero,” Mr. Cannell
said in a 1999 interview. “That square-jawed good guy began to look like an
idiot to us.”
Rockford also introduced another staple of Mr. Cannell’s best work: humor. His
shows tended to be leavened either with wry comedy, which so fit the performing
style of that show’s star, James Garner, that he seemed inseparable from the
role, or extremely broad comedy, typified by “The A-Team,” the loud, seemingly
mindless action series that ran for five years in the mid-’80s, all but saving
the NBC network in the process. That series included big set-piece action
sequences with explosions and crashing vehicles — and people were hardly ever
Critics and viewers often questioned how a show like that, and other Cannell
titles like “Riptide, “Renegade” and the late-night series “Silk Stalkings”
could spring from the same mind that created a complex, groundbreaking crime
drama like “Wiseguy,” which has often been cited as a forerunner to “The
Sopranos” (though David Chase, creator of that HBO series, never actually saw
Mr. Cannell shrugged off such puzzlement, saying he didn’t know why his work
ranged so widely. “But I do know it’s easier to think of me simply as the guy
who wrote ‘The A-Team,’ ” Mr. Cannel told the Associated Press in 1993. “So they
“I’m generally a very happy guy, because I’m doing what I want,” Mr. Cannell
said in the Success interview. “I’m willing to tell you that there are people
who are much better than I am in writing. I don’t have to be the fastest gun in
Joe Mantell, a character actor who, nearly 20 years apart, delivered two of
movie history’s more memorable lines, one to Ernest Borgnine and one to Jack
Nicholson, died on Wednesday in Tarzana, Calif. He was 94 and lived in Encino,
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his son, Robert.
Mr. Mantell was a familiar figure on television beginning in the 1950s,
appearing in guest roles on numerous series — dramas including “Alfred Hitchcock
Presents,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Defenders,”
“Mission: Impossible” and “Lou Grant”; and situation comedies like “My Three
Sons,” “Maude” and “Barney Miller.” In the early ’60s he had a regular role on
the comedy “Pete and Gladys,” and in the late ’60s he had a recurring part on
the detective drama “Mannix.”
In the movies he appeared in “Onionhead,” with Andy Griffith, and “The Sad
Sack,” with Jerry Lewis. In “The Birds,” Hitchcock’s classic horror film about
avian madness in a California town, he played a traveling salesman who advises,
“Kill them all!”
But he was probably best known for playing a couple of sidekicks. In “Marty,”
the Oscar-winning 1955 film adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from his own teleplay
about a lonely Bronx butcher (Mr. Borgnine) and his search for love, Mr. Mantell
played the title character’s best pal, Angie. Angie began almost every
conversation with the same question — “What do you feel like doin’ tonight?” —
and always got the same answer: “I don’t know, Ange. What do you feel like
For Mr. Mantell, who was nominated for an Oscar himself for best supporting
actor, it was actually a reprise; in the television play, broadcast live in
1953, he had played Angie opposite Rod Steiger.
In 1974, Mr. Mantell appeared in the celebrated nouveau-noir sleuth film
“Chinatown” as Walsh, an associate of Jake Gittes (Mr. Nicholson), a private eye
who becomes embroiled in a complex mess involving water rights, incest and
murder. It was a small role for Mr. Mantell, made notable by his final line,
also the final line of the film, which was set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s.
Gittes, shaken by the violent conclusion of events (which takes place in the
sorry neighborhood that gives the film its name) is encouraged to go home and
take it easy.
“Forget it, Jake,” Walsh says. “It’s Chinatown.”
Joseph Mantel was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn on Dec. 21, 1915.
His parents were immigrants from Poland who ran a butcher shop. He served in the
Army during World War II and, some time between his discharge and his film
debut, in 1949, he changed his name, adding an “l” and altering the
pronunciation from “MON-tle” to “man-TELL.”
In addition to his work onscreen, Mr. Mantell was also a stage actor whose
credits included a Broadway musical, “Buttrio Square,” in 1952. Two decades
later he appeared in a post-Broadway tour of “Twigs,” a play by George Furth
that starred Sada Thompson in a Tony-winning performance.
In addition to his son, who lives in Lancaster, Calif., Mr. Mantell is survived
by his wife, Mary; two daughters, Jeanne, of Encino, and Cathy, of Studio City,
Calif.; a grandson and a step-grandson.
September 9, 2010
The New York Times
By BRUCE WEBER
David Dortort, a television writer and producer whose idea to create a
western drama based not on shoot-’em-ups but instead on the travails of a loving
family resulted in “Bonanza,” one of the most popular shows in history, died on
Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 93.
The cause was uncertain, but he had a history of heart problems, said his
daughter, Wendy Czarnecki.
In 1958 Mr. Dortort, an experienced television writer, had also become one of
the first writer-producers in television drama. He was serving both functions on
a successful half-hour western, “The Restless Gun,” starring John Payne in the
traditional Hollywood role of a roving gunman who settles the conflict in each
episode — and establishes right and wrong — by shooting the bad guy.
The show was broadcast on NBC, and that network asked Mr. Dortort to develop a
western for NBC itself to produce, an opportunity that Mr. Dortort, who studied
American history at City College of New York and believed his familiarity with
the subject was the equal of that of anyone in Hollywood, seized upon to combat
what he called “the myth of the lone gunfighter.”
He pitched a show set on a Nevada ranch on the shore of Lake Tahoe after the
1859 discovery of the gold and silver deposits known as the Comstock Lode in
Virginia City. Rather than focusing on a single hero, the show would have four:
a father, widowed three times, and his three sons. The idea of “Bonanza,” as the
show came to be called, was to depict the story of the American West — “one of
the great migrations of all time,” he called it — with accuracy.
“The gunfighter played a small, inconsequential role in the story of the West,”
Mr. Dortort explained in a 2002 interview with the Archive of American
Television. “The true history of the West is about family, pioneers.”
Because the show was to be partly shot on location, and because color television
sets were on the verge of being readily available to consumers, Mr. Dortort
urged the network to film “Bonanza” in color, and it became television’s first
full-hour western in color, which helped distinguish it from competitors like
“Laramie” and “Gunsmoke.” It starred Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, the family
patriarch (whom Mr. Dortort named after his own father), and, as his sons,
Pernell Roberts as the eldest and the most intellectual, Adam; Dan Blocker as
the sweet-tempered giant Eric, better known as Hoss; and Michael Landon as the
impetuous, hotheaded Little Joe.
“Bonanza” appeared for the first time at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 12, 1959,
opposite “Perry Mason” on CBS. Two years later it moved to 9 p.m. on Sunday and
became a dominant hit, running for 14 seasons — including three years, from 1964
to 1967, when it was the most-watched television show in the country.
Mr. Dortort oversaw production of the show for most of its run. In addition to
telling stories based on historical events involving the Comstock Lode and the
oncoming Civil War, the show dealt with themes like racial prejudice and
religious tolerance. Mostly, though, its drama, and its popularity, were because
of its focus on the Cartwrights and their tightknit bond.
“What is the message?” Mr. Dortort said. “Love is the message.”
David Solomon Katz was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern
Europe on Oct. 23, 1916, and grew up in a neighborhood famous for the gangsters
of Murder Inc., a milieu he mined for one of his two novels, “Burial of the
Fruit” (1947). His second book, “The Post of Honor,” came out two years later.
His father, Beryl Dortort, who came to this country, according to family lore,
to avoid going to rabbinical school, changed his name to Benjamin Katz and
became a successful insurance salesman.
Young David graduated from Boys High in Brooklyn and City College, where he
studied not only history but also creative writing and was a writing-seminar
colleague of Alfred Kazin. He met his future wife, Rose Seldin, an accountant,
after he graduated. They married in 1940. It was she who persuaded him to change
his name back to his father’s original one.
Drafted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he served in special services in
Torrance, Calif., starting a newspaper and arranging for performances by
Hollywood entertainers at an Army hospital. “Burial of the Fruit” was optioned
for a film, and he was hired to write it, but it was never made, an experience
that made him determined to learn how to write for the screen.
His early movie credits include “The Lusty Men” (1952), a western, directed by
Nicholas Ray and starring Susan Hayward and Robert Mitchum, and “A Cry in the
Night” (1956), a police drama about a kidnapping, with Natalie Wood. His
television work included episodes of “Racket Squad” and “Lassie,” and
adaptations of the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel “The Ox-Bow Incident.” In 1967
Mr. Dortort turned his primary focus away from “Bonanza” to create a second
western drama, “The High Chaparral,” set in the 1870s in the American Southwest
and starring Leif Erickson as the head of another fragmented ranch family. That
show ran for four years.
Mr. Dortort’s wife, Rose, died in 2007. In addition to his daughter, who lives
in Petaluma, Calif., he is survived by a brother, Elliot Katz, of Marlboro,
N.J.; a son, Fred Dortort, of Berkeley, Calif.; and a step-granddaughter.
“Good morning, dear,” the
character Nancy Hughes said to her husband from her twin bed as the cameras
rolled for the premiere of “As the World Turns” on April 2, 1956.
The world has turned more than 19,700 times since the actress Helen Wagner
uttered those first words for what would become one of the most popular and —
until CBS takes it off the air in September — the longest-running daytime drama
Ms. Wagner, who portrayed the straitlaced Mrs. Hughes for all of those 54 years,
died on Saturday at her home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 91. The cause was
cancer, her nephew David Laing said.
Proper and unassuming, Ms. Wagner’s Nancy Hughes stood for old-fashioned values
— and never wavered. She was admired, and not only by housewives who, like
Nancy, were striving to maintain a home while raising children. Well into the
’60s, Ms. Wagner received fan letters from young men saying she reminded them of
their mothers and grandmothers.
But times change, and gone are the days when thundering chords from an organ
underlined the discovery that Nancy’s grandson had been caught stealing change
from his father’s trousers.
The citizens of the fictional town of Oakdale, outside Chicago, continued to
have their feuds and affairs. But in recent years issues like incest, AIDS, drug
and alcohol dependency, euthanasia, teen suicide and Alzheimer’s have laced the
Ms. Wagner’s Nancy lasted precisely because she remained solid; she wouldn’t
join the country club because she considered it elitist, and insisted on
cleaning her house because she felt uncomfortable being bossy.
Last December, however, CBS announced that after 54 years “As the World Turns,”
at one time No. 1 in the daytime ratings, would broadcast its last episode in
September. Ms. Wagner made her final appearance on April 5.
In 2004, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy
of Television Arts and Sciences.
Helen Losee Wagner was born on Sept. 3, 1918, in Lubbock, Tex., one of two
daughters of Charles and Janette Tinker Wagner. She studied music and drama at
Monmouth College in Illinois.
Before signing a 13-week contract for “As the World Turns” in 1956, Ms. Wagner
had been a singer and stage actress, sometimes working as a church soloist to
pay the rent. She had roles in “Sunny River,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Bad Seed” on
In 1954 she married Robert Willey, an actor and theater producer. He died last
February 4, 2010
The New York Times
By BRUCE WEBER
Frances Buss, who at the dawn of commercial television parlayed a job as a
temporary receptionist into a pioneering career as a director whose work helped
establish the talk show, the game show and the cooking show as television
staples, died on Jan. 19 in Hendersonville, N.C. She was 92.
She died a few days after having a stroke, said Mark Spencer, her great-nephew.
On July 1, 1941, by declaration of the Federal Communications Commission, the
era of commercial television broadcasting began, and it was that same month that
Ms. Buss, an aspiring actress in New York, took the temporary job at CBS. By
dint of her skills at drawing and mapmaking, and because of the poise she had
developed as an actress, she was asked to stay on, assisting in the production
of what was then rudimentary news and features programming.
“I was put on the air almost right away,” she said, in a 2005 interview for the
Archive of American Television, a video library compiled by the Academy of
Television Arts and Sciences Foundation. “I was capable on my feet, my voice was
audible — and I had good legs.”
Ms. Buss was the prototype for Vanna White; she held props and kept score for
television’s first regularly broadcast game show, “CBS Television Quiz.” She was
the M.C. — or “femcee,” in the showbiz lingo of the time — for a series of
instructional shows demonstrating first aid; she was a dancer on “The Country
Dance,” a sort of antediluvian “American Bandstand.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, she rushed to the studio in the Grand Central Terminal building
to help with the news broadcast of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We didn’t have a decent map of the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Basin,” she
recalled in a 2007 interview with the Paley Center for Media (formerly the
Museum of Television & Radio). “Those of us who could helped draw crude maps and
letter place names so that Richard Hubbell, our newscaster, could go on the
CBS suspended its programming for a time during the war, and Ms. Buss took a job
working on Navy training films. When she returned to CBS in 1944, she was
assigned to the control room, first as an assistant director, later as director
According to the Paley Center, Ms. Buss was the first woman to become a
full-time director at any network. A spokesman for CBS News, however, could not
confirm that Ms. Buss was even the first at CBS, saying the network’s records do
not go back that far, though a press release from 1949 referred to her as “CBS
Television’s only full-fledged woman director.”
In any case, by the time she retired in 1954, Ms. Buss had directed TV dramas,
including “Sorry, Wrong Number”; other game shows, including “What’s It Worth?,”
a progenitor of today’s “Antiques Roadshow,” in which people’s heirlooms were
appraised; sports events including amateur boxing bouts, horse races and a
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game; a pre-Julia Child cooking show known as “To the
Queen’s Taste”; a talk show, “Mike and Buff,” starring Mike Wallace, later of
“60 Minutes” fame, and his wife at the time, Buff Cobb; a daily interview show,
“Vanity Fair”; and a children’s series, “The Whistling Wizard,” in which
original fairy tales were enacted by the well-known puppeteers Bil and Cora
And in 1951, after an F.C.C. ruling that the CBS system of broadcasting in color
would be the industry standard (this turned out to be temporary), she was a
co-director for the celebratory opening show, called “Premiere.” Experimental
programming in color had preceded it, but “Premiere” was the first regular
network color television program.
Frances Martha Buss was born in St. Louis on June 3, 1917, and grew up there and
in Dallas. She attended Washington University in St. Louis and performed in
local theater before moving to New York.
In 1949, she married William H. Buch, a chemical salesman, and after she left
television to be a homemaker, she was known as Frances Buch, which is pronounced
to rhyme with nuke. They lived in Demarest, N.J., until they moved to
Hendersonville in 1988. Mr. Buch died in 1998. In addition to her great nephew,
Ms. Buss is survived by a sister, Mary Buss Keating, of Hilton Head Island, S.C.
In interviews Ms. Buss was remarkably modest about her vanguard role in a
male-dominated profession. “I was a camera director, primarily,” she said in an
interview in 2005, adding, “I moved people around so cameras could show off what
needed to be seen to best advantage.”
Sunday 20 September 2009
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk
at 18.45 BST on Sunday 20
It appeared in the Guardian on Monday 21 September 2009
n p35 of the Obituaries
It was last updated at 18.54 BST
on Sunday 20 September 2009.
While plays in the theatrical sense by living writers have more or less
disappeared from British television over the last half century, the prestige of
writing drama series conceived in fully televisual terms has increased tenfold,
thanks in part to writers such as Troy Kennedy Martin (obituary, 16 September).
Frank Deasy, who has died during an operation to give him a liver transplant at
the age of 49, was a beneficiary of the preceding generation. He had reached the
pinnacle of his profession, having won an Emmy for Prime Suspect: The Final Act
(2006), and had received much acclaim for his four-part television series The
His crime series Father and Son, set in Manchester and Dublin and starring
Dougray Scott, was shown on RTÉ earlier this year, and has still to be shown in
Britain by co-producer ITV. Deasy was working on the screenplay of Gaza, a BBC
feature starring Helen Mirren as a secular Jewish doctor in the Middle East. And
so much more was promised.
Deasy, who was born in Dublin and brought up in the northern suburb of Artane,
studied at Trinity College before working as a child social worker for Ireland's
Eastern Health Board. He began making videos in the mid-1980s before writing and
co-directing his first film, The Courier (1988), in Irish Gaelic and English.
One of the rare Irish features at the time, it starred Gabriel Byrne as a
reformed drug user attempting to crack a drug-dealing operation.
Deasy delicately adapted his screenplay for Gillies MacKinnon's The Grass Arena
(1991) from the powerful and moving autobiography of John Healy (Mark Rylance),
a boxer who became an alcoholic but who finds salvation in chess. Captives
(1994), directed by Angela Pope, was a taut erotic thriller in which dentist
Julia Ormond, who works part time in Wandsworth prison, has a torrid affair with
prisoner Tim Roth.
Deasy, having now moved to Glasgow, wrote the thriller Looking After Jo-Jo
(1998) for BBC Scotland, which starred Robert Carlyle as a petty thief turned
drug dealer. It was clear from these screenplays that Deasy's forte was writing
gritty, intelligent atmospheric dramas with street cred. Also for the BBC were
Real Men (2003), about abuse in a children's home, and England Expects (2004),
about racism in the workplace.
On the strength of these, Deasy was offered the chance to follow Lynda La Plante
and various other writers on Prime Suspect, three years after Prime Suspect 6.
The two-part, four-hour finale proved to be vintage television with Mirren
giving a magisterial valedictory performance as Detective Superintendent Jane
Tennison. "Don't call me 'ma'am'," she says to a colleague near the end. "I'm
not the bloody queen."
The Passion, the gospel according to Deasy, which the BBC screened at Easter
2008, seemed in contrast to his other work, except for the strong human values.
"What I personally was fascinated by was the duality of Jesus in his divinity
and his humanity," Deasy told Christian Today. "This is essentially a mystery,
but his humanity has to be total, otherwise he is somewhat of a tourist in his
own Passion. I've tried to find a human truth that feels real and that is not
always the same as a theological truth, and so I would hope that people would be
open to the fact they are watching a piece of drama rather than a theological
Deasy had already been diagnosed with liver cancer four years previously when he
underwent surgery to remove the tumour. Sadly, it was found to have returned in
January this year. In the Observer of 13 September, Deasy wrote about his wait
for a transplant. "I am only one of thousands of patients on organ transplant
lists in Britain, living on our own, invisible, death row … I take the kids to
school, we celebrate birthdays and argue over whether they're old enough to walk
to school on their own. They probably are but the one thing I know for certain
is they're not old enough to be without their dad."
The article prompted an hour-long interview with Deasy on the RTÉ radio chatshow
Liveline last Monday. As a consequence, more than 10,000 Irish people have
signed up to carry organ donor cards, and health minister Mary Harney has urged
further discussion of the issue.
Deasy married Marie Connolly, a criminal lawyer, in 1996. He is survived by her
and their three children.
• Frank Deasy, writer, born 1960; died 17 September 2009
Troy Kennedy Martin was responsible in large part for two pieces of
television which have become classics. In the early 1960s he had a central role
in the creation of Z-Cars, which challenged the traditionally cosy notion of the
police series, while in the 1980s his nuclear thriller, Edge of Darkness, was a
nightmarish warning about the dangers of ecological disaster.
He wrote much else for television and made regular forays into the cinema, most
successfully with his screenplay for The Italian Job.
He enjoyed a full career but it was one that rarely moved in a straight path,
partly because he was reluctant to compromise a forthright approach to his craft
but also from choice, as when he left Z-Cars only a few months into its run.
After the critical and popular success of Edge of Darkness he should have had
the television world at his feet but the rest of his career was something of an
anti-climax. He became disenchanted with television’s growing surrender to
accountants and did not help himself by leaving projects unfinished. He also had
tax problems which forced him to accept inferior assignments. But his best work
places him among the finest writers for the medium.
Francis Troy Kennedy Martin was born into a Catholic family and named Troy after
a Father Troy who had been a friend of his Glaswegian Irish father. His mother,
a teacher, died when he was 15, leaving his father, who had been out of work, to
bring up four children. The family moved south, where Troy attended Finchley
Catholic Grammar School, and to Ireland as Troy won a place at Trinity College
Dublin to read history.
He spent his National Service as a subaltern with the Gordon Highlanders in
Cyprus, as part of a peacekeeping force in that divided island. He drew on this
experience in his first television play, Incident at Echo Six (1958), which was
set in Cyprus and followed a platoon of young conscripts under fire. It was
transmitted by the BBC in December 1958.
At this time he also wrote a novel, Beat on a Damask Drum, which was set in
Indochina in 1954 during the loss of Dien Bien Phu, which signalled the end of
French colonial rule. Favourable reviews, including one from Graham Greene,
caused Kennedy Martin to wonder whether going into television was a downward
But Incident at Echo Six was well received by viewers and critics and on the
strength of it Kennedy Martin was offered a job with the BBC script editors’
department. Here he found himself in the company of an extraordinarly talented
group, including John Hopkins, John McGrath, Kenith Trodd and Tony Garnett, who,
like him, were to make a distinguished mark on BBC drama.
As a script editor Kennedy Martin did little more than hold other writers’ hands
and he learnt far more about his craft from doing adaptations of novels and
stories by Greene, Somerset Maugham and Raymond Chandler. He regarded it as
ideal training for while he had to stay true to the spirit of the original there
was scope for seeing what would work in the television medium.
The credit for thinking up the idea for Z-Cars, a police series set in the north
and based on patrol cars, is disputed. Elwyn Jones, from the BBC drama
department, had already worked with the police in Lancashire and was keen to set
a fictional series there. Kennedy Martin claimed to have had the idea while
recovering from mumps and listening to police patrols on VHF radio.
Whatever the origins of the project, Kennedy Martin did more than anyone else to
develop it and give it shape. He visited Lancashire more than once, went out
with the police and observed the often difficult relations between the force and
the community, particularly in working-class areas. The Z-Cars format was his,
he held the copyright and he was paid a fee for every episode.
He wrote the first episode, which went out in January 1962, when he was not yet
30. It immediately signalled a new departure for police TV series, introducing a
degree of realism never before seen. The police were seen as fallible, smoking
and gambling while on duty and being violent towards their wives, He wrote
several more of the early scripts and supervised others. But while the series
was critcially acclaimed, and drew large audiences, Kennedy Martin soon became
disillusioned and left. He felt that Z-Cars had moved away from his original
intention of using the police as a device to explore people’s lives.
In 1964 he delivered a forceful attack on naturalism in television drama in the
magazine Encore and argued for a different mode. He tried to put this into
effect in Diary of a Young Man, which he wrote with another Z-Cars pioneer, John
McGrath. The six-part series followed two young northerners to “swinging
London”, and used voiceover commentary and still pictures to break the
naturalistic mould. It was a bold, but flawed, experiment which had little
By this time Kennedy Martin was going through one of his periodic financial
crises, and when his brother, Ian Kennedy Martin, offered him work on Weavers
Green, an ITV soap opera about country vets, he was glad to have the money. But
he invented the pseudonym Tony Marsh to hide what might have looked like a
comedown after Z-Cars and Diary of a Young Man.
In 1967 Kennedy Martin moved into the cinema to write the screenplay for The
Italian Job, an enjoyable bullion heist comedy, with Michael Caine as the
criminal mastermind and a climax of a Mini Cooper chase through the streets of
Turin. After this promising start, his next film, Kelly’s Heroes, was a
disappointingly conventional action adventure starring Clint Eastwood.
In 1970 he returned to television, making an excursion into situation comedy
with If It Moves, File It, an ITV series starring John Bird and Dudley Foster as
filing clerks in Whitehall. Unusually it had no audience and therefore no
laughter track. He was probably happier contributing episodes to The Sweeney,
which had been created by his brother, Ian, and revolutionised the television
police series as Z-Cars had done in the 1960s.
By the mid-1970s his personal life was in disarray with the acrimonious collapse
of his marriage. In addition, despite his high earnings from television and
films, he was being pursued for arrears on income tax and VAT and forced to
exchange a large London house for a two-room flat. In 1978 Z-Cars finally came
to the end of its run, and Kennedy Martin wrote the final episode, in which he
brought back several of the original characters.
In 1983 came his five-part television adaptation of Angus Wilson’s novel The Old
Men at the Zoo, starring Marius Goring and Andrew Cruikshank, and Reilly — Ace
of Spies, set in the early part of the 20th century and based on the exploits of
the Russian-born British agent, Sidney Reilly, played by Sam Neill.
But neither of these admirable projects had the impact of Edge of Darkness
(1985), a dense, enigmatic thriller which started with a policeman (played by
Bob Peck) trying to track down his daughter’s killer but went into the murkier
waters of a conspiracy to convert nuclear waste into plutonium. The six-part
serial, which also had a charismatic performance from Joe Don Baker as a CIA
agent, was first transmitted on BBC2 and immediately repeated on BBC1.
It turned out to be Kennedy Martin’s last personal project. He was given the
freedom to write up to the last minute, thereby keeping the narrative fresh and
avoiding interference from above, an indulgence that few other writers would
enjoy again as television entered a multichannel and ratings-chasing
He continued to be busy but only a fraction of what he wrote after Edge of
Darkness made it to the screen, a sad waste of an unusual talent. Intriguingly,
one of the casualties, dating from the late Eighties, was a drama about global
In 1988 he co-wrote Red Heat, an action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzengger,
but it was routine stuff. There followed the frustration of abandoned projects
until Hostile Waters (1997). Made for the US cable channel HBO, it dramatised a
real incident from 1986 when US and Russian submarines, both nuclear-powered and
carrying ballistic missiles, collided off Bermuda.
Due to political sensitivity in the US the script went through ten versions.
Screened on the BBC, it was Kennedy Martin’s first work to appear on British
television since Edge of Darkness 12 years before. In 1999 he adapted Andy
McNab’s bestseller, Bravo Two Zero, with Sean Bean leading an SAS mission during
the Gulf War. He had just finished scripting an ambitious six-part TV work on
global warming called Broken Light for HBO, based on the writings of James
Kennedy Martin’s marriage in 1967 to Diana Aubrey, an actress, was dissolved.
They had a son and a daughter.
Troy Kennedy Martin, TV and film scriptwriter, was born on February 15, 1932.
He died of liver cancer on September 15, 2009, aged 77
It's 10 years since Channel 4 broke new ground
with the first series of Big
Surely it's now time to close the door
once and for all
Friday 24 July 2009
This article was first published
at 00.05 BST
on Friday 24
It appeared in the Guardian on Friday 24 July 2009
on p7 of the Comment &
It was last updated at 07.28 BST on Friday 24 July 2009.
Anyone who compiles or takes part in quizzes soon realises that the reliably
killer question involves the identity of any of the participants in Big Brother
or its Celebrity spin-off, apart from the late Jade Goody, Shilpa Shetty or, if
there happen to be some TV stattos in the room, just possibly "Nasty Nick"
Bateman. He helped to make the Channel 4 show famous by being thrown out of the
opening series, of course. Bateman's offence – manipulating the voting process –
now seems absurdly quaint in comparison with the racism, bullying, sexual
exhibitionism and desperate craving for fame that subsequent contestants have
displayed over the last decade.
This rapid amnesia about what happens in one of Britain's best-known TV
programmes – does anyone now remember Rachel Rice, the 2008 winner? – is a sign
of the crisis affecting the franchise. Part of the power of the show is that it
had achieved the rare trick of being visible even to those who don't watch it,
through coverage elsewhere.
But, for the first time in a decade, anyone who is not a dedicated viewer will
have little sense that the 2009 contest is even proceeding, as previous media
cheerleaders ignore the current tussle between "Dogface" and the other wannabes.
This is significant because newspapers largely try to anticipate their readers'
interests, and so the silence reflects an impression that the door of the house
Admittedly, as commissioners discover when they attempt to remove any regular
item from the schedule, most programmes retain a basic hard-core audience to the
end of their days and even beyond. Big Brother still has a very stubborn rump of
viewers (between 1.8 and 2 million since the 10th series began on 4 June) and it
is still possible that a dramatic twist – homicide, suicide, or swine flu
sweeping the house – could make the numbers jump. But BB is now frequently
beaten by rival offerings on BBC2 and its graph is clearly downward: the third
series, for example, averaged 5.8 million viewers.
The biggest contributory factor is simply the passage of time: the fact that the
show is now 10 years old. More than any other art-form, television is driven by
audible ticking. If someone has an idea for a movie, a stage play or a radio
programme that has to last for four hours, producers can accommodate this
project if they want to. TV, though, is run on a largely inflexible grid system,
in which programmes are allocated segments of an hour. Big Brother, for example,
was conceived as what's known as a "x 30" but eventually settled as a "x 60" ,
with extensions to "x 90" or "x 120" for the introductory and concluding
programmes of each run.
Beyond this, however, there's a strong suspicion that there is also a clock
running on how long a successful programme can hold the audience's attention.
And statistical evidence compellingly suggests that, for an entertainment
format, the limit is eight years.
Changing Rooms and Ground Force – market- leaders in the home make-over genre
that was the telly sensation in the decade before incarceration game-shows – ran
from 1996 to 2004 and 1997 to 2005 respectively. Another 90s phenomenon, Noel's
House Party, in which Noel Edmonds presciently invited the inter-active
participation of both viewers and celebrities, also served exactly two American
So there may be something prime about the number eight, and almost any TV
phenomenon you choose seems to illustrate this. The X Factor and Strictly Come
Dancing have currently been running for five years and there is already a
feeling of age, as shown by the nervous reshuffling of judges on both
programmes. Intriguingly, Big Brother's steepest and most sustained ratings dip
happened after the eighth year. And, with this series, the feeling that a
television shelf-life has been passed is greatly increased by the withdrawal of
support from the media.
Although it has officially been sponsored by a succession of corporate brands –
currently, Lucozade Energy – the most important patron of the format has been
reporting. Big Brother's success was encouraged, from early on, by unusual
levels of publicity. Most of the popular press, but the Sun, News of the World
and Heat magazine in particular, were willing to give headline coverage to the
housemates and their departures, both from the show and the rules. This
symbiotic relationship with a TV format was not unique – it had begun with
soaps, the red-tops regularly splashing on plot-lines and cast-changes in
EastEnders and Coronation Street – but the remarkable aspect of this stage of
the game was that such attention was being given to a series transmitted on a
minority network, Channel 4.
The reasons why newspapers chased the housemates reflected changes in the
conduct of journalism. Traditional reporting became more difficult: first
because of budget cuts and then as a consequence of both celebrities and members
of the public being given greater protection, by regulators and the courts,
against invasion of privacy. Conventional stars also became less willing to
cooperate with the tabloids: the set of EastEnders, for instance, became more
resistant to journalists after a string of stories about performers, including
Leslie Grantham, that exposed areas that the publicists would have preferred not
to be seen.
In this context, the housemates were a Red Cross food parcel dropped on to the
battlefield of Wapping. They willingly behaved badly in the public domain, their
actions were recorded quite legally and consensually on tape, and they were
unlikely to have lawyers or PR companies trying to spin their stories in a
Their names and faces were also immediately recognisable to readers in a way
that would take a pop or movie star at least several months to achieve, and
anticipated the later explosive fame, in another reality TV genre, of Susan
Boyle and others. In fact, curiously, the combined readership of the papers
reporting on Big Brother generally exceeded the size of the Channel 4 audience,
so that some people clearly knew these fresh celebrities purely from the news
coverage of them.
Nor was this fascination a purely populist phenomenon. For the first few series,
I or another Guardian TV critic would be hired to cover the most significant
episodes of each run on the news pages: the ejection of Nick Bateman was a
headline splash in every paper except the Financial Times. Recently, though, the
black-tops have cut back or abandoned their analysis, having come to the
conclusion that what began as an interesting psychological project has become a
forum where morons audition for fleeting celebrity.
This year, the red-tops have also opted out, partly because of a conviction that
the show is finished – critics such as Ian Hyland of the News of the World and
Ally Ross of the Sun have almost ostentatiously ignored the show – but also
because the 10th series has had the misfortune to coincide with a news cycle of
unusual intensity. Big Brother had previously benefitted from running in the
summer when there are usually pages waiting to be filled, but, this year, a
succession of fantastic happenings – parliamentary expenses, the death of
Michael Jackson, swine flu – has sucked the oxygen of publicity away from the
Perhaps symbolically, the first of these outbreaks of media hysteria involved
the death of one of the 2002 Big Brother runners-up, who came to eclipse all the
winners in fame. It is given to few people to take a whole section of life with
them when they die: cricket survived the loss of Don Bradman, popular music the
demise of Frank Sinatra. But there seems every chance that the obituaries of
Jade Goody will also be the death notices of housemate game-shows.
As with Goody, it's important to acknowledge that the span included commendable
aspects as well as detrimental ones. The first series of Big Brother and the
debut of its Celebrity sister were brave and innovative programmes, achieving a
height of naturalistic interaction and depth of psychological insight that have
rarely been equalled on TV.
But, like a young child invited to perform an encore of a cute song, the show
rapidly became too knowing and desperate to be noticed. Big Brother became a
perfect illustration of a frequent television paradox: the idea with a long
economic life but a short artistic one.
Its effects on both television and wider society, however, were immense. Its
biggest impact was to make power more precarious.
In recent years, beleaguered prime ministers, relegation-threatened football
managers and CEOs facing hostile shareholder meetings have all complained about
the rise of a "get them out" mentality, in which the public expects swift
revenge on anyone who offends them, regardless of contracts, electoral mandates
or previous performance.
During a football commentary last season, distinguished former manager Jimmy
Armfield made a direct comparison between reality and talent shows and the
increasingly brutal job insecurity of coaches: "Now, it's one bad Saturday and
they want you out." Gordon Brown, in his various tributes to Jade Goody, may
also have reflected that the mechanism of her success was a factor in the
constant cloud of failure hanging over his premiership.
The consequences of Big Brother for television were equally profound. One
repercussion was welcome: several actors have told me that they were encouraged
to change their performance styles by the remarkable artlessness of the early
series featuring real people. Seen beside the home-video spontaneity of the
first housemates, conventional acting looked like overacting.
The popularity of the mock-documentary format in comedy and drama – in the
semi-improvised dramas of Dominic Savage, The Office, The Thick Of It and others
– can also be attributed to the presence of this benchmark of realism in the
schedule. In a recent interview, Russell T Davies, saviour of Doctor Who and
creator of Torchwood, argued provocatively that the rise and fall of Susan Boyle
on Britain's Got Talent was, whatever moral concerns it raises, the greatest
drama of the year and challenges the makers of fiction to come up with stories
that engage the public and the media at such a level.
But, less beneficially for the medium, executives saw, in real-people formats, a
cheaper way of delivering the pleasures of drama and documentary, with the
additional advantage that economy could be dressed up as democracy. Those who
argue that Big Brother has ruined Channel 4 are too apocalyptic – its comedies,
documentaries and dramas have continued to out-perform larger broadcasters at
the Bafta awards – but there has been a devastating shift in the perception of
the network. A broadcaster set up to bring variety and innovation to the
schedules is now most associated with a single brand that specialises in giving
deranged wannabes a brief television career. Many producers feel that C4 put all
its eggs in a basket that has turned out to be a basket-case.
It seems likely that shows in which strangers share a house or a tropical
rainforest will turn out to have been a temporary genre, like makeover
programmes, rather than a permanent format such as soap or news or drama. But
the results of this 10-year experiment will hang around like radioactivity. The
fact that the next television novelty after incarceration game-shows was the
revival of talent contests (The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent) suggests that
"real people" will remain the medium's favoured working material: partly because
it is cheaper but also because television has become addicted to verisimilitude,
or at least the appearance of it.
In both television and newspapers, there will be an attempt to reduce the
cruelty and glee that have been central to both the production and the coverage
of reality TV but, here as well, you wonder if the poison is in the water and
nastiness – with inter- mittent outbreaks of sentimental guilt – is now a part
of what we do. There is, with all due respect to the dead, a word for the state
in which 10 years of Big Brother has left television – Jaded.
Farrah Fawcett, an actress and television star whose good looks and signature
flowing hairstyle influenced a generation of women and, beginning with a
celebrated pinup poster, bewitched a generation of men, died Thursday morning in
Santa Monica, Calif. She was 62.
Her death, at a Santa Monica hospital, was announced by her spokesman, Paul
Bloch, The Associated Press reported.
Ms. Fawcett had been battling anal cancer since late 2006, and to an
extraordinary degree the fight was played out in public, generating enormous
interest worldwide. Her face, often showing the ravages of cancer, became a
tabloid fixture, and updates on her health became staples of television
In May, her cancer battle was chronicled in an NBC prime-time documentary,
“Farrah’s Story,” some of it shot on home video. An estimated 9 million people
viewed it. Ms. Fawcett had initiated the project with a friend and producer,
Alana Stewart, after she first learned of her cancer.
Ms. Fawcett’s doctors declared her cancer-free after they removed a tumor in
2007, but her cancer returned later that year. She had been receiving
alternative treatment in Germany and was hospitalized in early April for a blood
clot resulting from that treatment, according to her doctor, Lawrence Piro. Her
cancer had also spread to her liver, Dr. Piro told The A.P.
Ms. Fawcett’s career was a patchwork of positives and negatives, fine dramatic
performances on television and on stage as well as missed opportunities. She
first became famous when a poster of her in a red bathing suit, leonine mane
flying, sold more than twice as many copies as posters of Marilyn Monroe and
Betty Grable combined.
Ms. Fawcett won praise for her serious acting later in her career, typically as
a victimized woman and notably in the television movie “The Burning Bed.”
But she remained best known for the hit 1970s television show “Charlie’s
Angels,” in which she played Jill Munroe, one of three beautiful female private
detectives employed by an unseen male boss who (in the voice of John Forsythe)
issued directives and patronizing praise over a speaker phone. Her pinup fame
had led the producers to cast her.
Ms. Fawcett and her fellow angels, played by Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson,
brought evildoers to justice, often while posing in decoy roles that put them in
skimpy outfits or provocative situations.
“Charlie’s Angels,” created and produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg
for ABC, was a phenomenon, finishing the 1976-77 season as the No. 5 network
show, the highest-rated television debut in history at that time.
Ms. Fawcett was its breakout star. Although she left the show after one season
and returned only sporadically thereafter, the show’s influence — among other
things, it inspired two much later feature films starring Cameron Diaz, Drew
Barrymore and Lucy Liu — was so indelible that she was forever associated with
The series, whose popularity coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement,
brought new attention to issues of female sexuality and the influence of
television. Commentators debated whether the show’s three athletic, scantily
clad heroines were exemplars of female strength or merely a harem of pretty
puppets doing the bidding of a patriarchal leader.
As the show’s most popular star, Ms. Fawcett became another sort of poster girl,
for the “jiggle TV” of the ’70s, and a lightning rod for cultural commentators.
Chadwick Roberts, writing in The Journal of Popular Culture in 2003, described
her “unbound, loose and abundant hair” as marking “a new emphasis on femininity
after the androgyny of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
In 1978 Playboy magazine called Ms. Fawcett “the first mass visual symbol of
post-neurotic fresh-air sexuality.” She herself put it more succinctly: “When
the show got to be No. 3, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be No. 1,
I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.”
Ms. Fawcett acknowledged that her sex symbol status was a mixed blessing. It
made her famous, but it often obscured the acting talent that brought her three
Emmy nominations, most notably for “The Burning Bed,” a critically acclaimed
movie about spousal abuse.
“I don’t think an actor ever wants to establish an image,” she said in an
interview with The New York Times in 1986. “That certainly hurt me, and yet that
is also what made me successful and eventually able to do more challenging
roles. That’s life. Everything has positive and negative consequences.”
Ferrah Leni Fawcett was born in Corpus Christi, Tex., on Feb. 2, 1947. Her
father, James, worked in the oil pipeline industry; her mother, Pauline, was a
After dropping out of the University of Texas, Ms. Fawcett moved to Hollywood to
pursue acting. She soon found work in commercials for Wella Balsam shampoo and
Noxzema shaving cream, among other products. A Noxzema commercial in which she
shaved the face of the football star Joe Namath was shown during the 1973 Super
Ms. Fawcett also found acting work in television, landing guest roles on “I
Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flying Nun” and other sitcoms. She appeared in four
episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” whose star, Lee Majors, she had
married in 1973. When Ms. Fawcett was cast on “Charlie’s Angels,” she had a
clause written into her contract that allowed her to leave the set every day in
time to prepare dinner for Mr. Majors. She was billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors
until 1979. She and Mr. Majors divorced in 1982.
The poster that ignited Ms. Fawcett’s career was shot at the Bel Air home she
shared with Mr. Majors. “She was just this sweet, innocent, beautiful young
girl,” said Bruce McBroom, who took the photograph. Searching for a backdrop to
Ms. Fawcett in her one-piece red swimsuit (which she chose instead of a bikini
because of a childhood scar on her stomach), he grabbed an old Navajo blanket
from the front seat of his 1937 pickup.
After leaving “Charlie’s Angels” to pursue a film career (she came back for
guest appearances for two more seasons), Ms. Fawcett made three forgettable
movies in quick succession, then salvaged her reputation by returning to
television. In 1981 she starred in the mini-series “Murder in Texas,” as the
wife of a doctor who is subsequently accused of murdering her; in 1984 she made
“The Burning Bed,” a portrait of a battered wife.
Both movies were shown on NBC, and both performances received strong reviews. In
“The Burning Bed,” Ms. Fawcett was one of the first prime-time actresses to
forgo cosmetics in favor of a convincing characterization.
In 1983 she played another victimized woman who fights back — a
vengeance-seeking rape victim — in the Off Broadway production of “Extremities.”
She took over for Karen Allen, who had replaced Susan Sarandon. Ms. Fawcett went
on to star in the film version of the play in 1986.
Other roles followed in film and television — she won praise again in the
searing 1989 television movie “Small Sacrifices” — but throughout, Ms. Fawcett
tended to attract more attention for her looks and personal life than for her
professional accomplishments. Her 18-year relationship with the actor Ryan
O’Neal, with whom she had a son, kept her on the gossip pages long after her
television work had become sporadic. This month, interviewed by Barbara Walters
on the ABC program “20/20,” Mr. O’Neal said he had asked Ms. Fawcett to marry
her and that she had said yes.
In 1997 Ms. Fawcett negated much of the respect she had earned as an actress
when, during an appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman,” she promoted a
bizarre body-painting Playboy video and appeared ditsy to the point of
But later that year she appeared in the acclaimed independent film “The Apostle”
as Robert Duvall’s long-suffering wife, and her critical star rose again — only
to be dimmed by publicity about a court case involving a former companion, the
director James Orr. Mr. Orr was convicted of assaulting Ms. Fawcett and
sentenced to three years’ probation.
Ms. Fawcett is survived by her father, James, and her son, Redmond James Fawcett
Though her career was volatile, Ms. Fawcett’s fame never diminished after
“Charlie’s Angels.” She tried to capitalize on her celebrity with the 2005
reality series “Chasing Farrah,” but it was a critical and ratings flop. Writing
in Medialife magazine, Ed Robertson described the series and its star as “a
living example of a talented actress whose career has been turned into a parody
by poor decisions.”
Ms. Fawcett herself described her career succinctly. “I became famous,” she said
in her 1986 Times interview, “almost before I had a craft.”
June 24, 2009
The New York Times
By RICHARD SEVERO
Ed McMahon, who for nearly 30 years was Johnny Carson’s affable second banana
on “The Tonight Show,” introducing it with his ringing trademark call,
“Heeeere’s Johnny!,” died early Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 86.
His publicist, Howard Bragman, told NBC that Mr. McMahon died at Ronald Reagan
UCLA Medical Center surrounded by his family. Mr. Bragman did not give a cause
of death, saying only that Mr. McMahon had a “multitude of health problems the
last few months.”
A person close to Mr. McMahon, speaking anonymously because he was not
authorized to release information, said Mr. McMahon had bone cancer, among other
ailments, The Associated Press reported. In February he had been hospitalized
with pneumonia, Mr. Bragman told CNN.
With his broad, genial, regular-guy features, Mr. McMahon had the face of
someone you would buy a used car from. Indeed, for decades he was one of
television’s most ubiquitous pitchmen, selling everything from boats to beer. He
also took a few acting roles and in later years was the host of the television
talent show “Star Search” and wrotesome popular books, includinghis memoirs.
But it was in the role of the faithful Tonto to Carson’s wry Lone Ranger that
Mr. McMahon made his sideman’s mark. After he rolled out his introduction like a
red carpet for the boss, and after Carson delivered his nightly monologue, Mr.
McMahon, in jacket and tie, would take his seat on the couch beside the host’s
desk, chat and banter with Carson a bit before the guests came on and almost
invariably guffaw at his jokes, even when he was the butt of them. When the
guests did arrive, he would slide over to make room and rarely interrupt.
The work paid handsomely — some reports said $5 million a year — and it made Mr.
McMahon a familiar face, and voice, in millions of households. “The Tonight
Show” became the country’s most popular late-night television diversion, and the
“Heeeere’s Johnny” introduction became a national catchphrase.
“I laugh for an hour and then go home,” Mr. McMahon once said. “I’ve got the
world’s greatest job.”
Off camera he and Carson were friends and occasional drinking buddies, although
Mr. McMahon noted that Carson, who died in 2005, was not terribly social. “He
doesn’t give friendship easily or need it,” he said. “He packs a tight
Mr. McMahon rarely ran the risk of upstaging Carson. “To me, he’s the star and
I’m on the sidelines, just nudging him a bit,” he said. But early in their
association he slipped up.
It happened one night when Carson was telling the audience about a study
concluding that mosquitoes preferred to bite “warm-blooded, passionate people.”
Before Carson could deliver his punch line, Mr. McMahon slapped his own arm, as
if crushing a mosquito. The audience roared. Carson coolly produced a giant can
of insect spray from under his desk and said, glaring at Mr. McMahon, “I guess I
won’t be needing this prop, will I?”
It was a rare flare-up in an association that began in the late 1950s, when
Carson was the host of the ABC comedy quiz show “Do You Trust Your Wife?” and
Mr. McMahon was hired to announce the show and read the commercials. (The title
was later changed to “Who Do You Trust?”) In 1962, when Carson moved to “The
Tonight Show,” replacing Jack Paar, he took Mr. McMahon with him.
Mr. McMahon warmed up the studio audience, read commercials and served as
Carson’s straight man until Carson left the show in 1992. Though Mr. McMahon
sometimes projected the image of an amiable lush and got laughs for it, the cup
that was always before him on “The Tonight Show” held only iced tea, he said.
Years later, he said he had missed only three tapings in 30 years, because of
colds or the flu.
Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was born in Detroit on March 6, 1923. His father, a
vaudevillian, had to move a lot to find work, and young Ed had attended 15 high
schools by the time he was a senior. Edward Sr.’s career was so erratic that one
year, awash in money, the McMahons lived in the Mark Hopkins hotel, atop Nob
Hill in San Francisco; another year, flat broke, they existed in a cold-water
flat in Bayonne, N.J.
As a boy in Bayonne, Mr. McMahon recalled, he dreamed of becoming an entertainer
and did imitations of stars, using a flashlight as his microphone and his dog,
Valiant Prince, as his audience. He shined shoes, sold newspapers, dug ditches,
sold peanuts, worked as an usher, labored on a construction gang and sold
stainless-steel cookware door to door.
At his request he spent his last high school years in Lowell, Mass., where his
grandmother lived. By the time he was 18 he had been a traveling bingo announcer
in New England and had sold a gadget called the Morris Metric Slicer to tourists
on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and in Times Square. He also took elocution
lessons at Emerson College in Boston.
Mr. McMahon enlisted in the Marine Corps toward the end of World War II and
became a fighter pilot, but did not see combat. After his discharge he attended
the Catholic University of America in Washington, receiving a bachelor’s degree
in 1949. He then landed a job at a Philadelphia radio station and began
appearing on television as, among other things, a clown and the host of a
But his budding television career was interrupted when he was recalled into
military service during the Korean War. He flew 85 combat missions in 15 months,
winning six Air Medals, and remained active in the Marine Corps Reserve
Returning from the war, he resumed his television work in Philadelphia while
traveling to New York hoping to break into network television. He also pursued a
separate career as a businessman. By the time he made it as an announcer, he had
acquired a stationery company, a company that made knickknacks, two television
and film companies and a talent agency. He also speculated in real estate.
Even when he got his big break with Carson, he never let up on his business
activities. Carson would tweak him about them on “The Tonight Show,” suggesting
that after that night’s show was over, Mr. McMahon would be selling jams and
jellies in the elevator.
Over the years Mr. McMahon became a paid spokesman for many products and
companies, including Budweiser beer, Alpo dog food, Chris-Craft boats, Texas
Instruments, Breck shampoo, Sara Lee baked goods and Mercedes-Benz. His name and
photograph were fixtures on the form letters mailed by American Family
Publishers announcing sweepstakes winners. He marketed his own brand of liquor,
McMahon Perfect Vodka. Most recently, he and the rapper MC Hammer promoted a
gold-buying business called Cash4Gold.
And for more than 40 years, Mr. McMahon appeared with Jerry Lewis on Mr. Lewis’s
Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon over Labor Day Weekend. He did some
acting as well. Among the movies he appeared in were “The Incident” (1967), in
which he played a passenger brutalized by young thugs on a New York subway
train; “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off” (1973); and “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977).
After leaving “The Tonight Show,” Mr. McMahon appeared in summer stock and kept
his hand in television. He was the host of the talent show “Star Search”; he
joined Dick Clark on “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes”; he was Tom Arnold’s
sidekick on the short-lived sitcom “The Tom Show.” For the USA Radio Network, he
broadcast “Ed McMahon’s Lifestyles Live” weekly from his home.
There were books, too, most recently the best-selling “Here’s Johnny! My
Memories of Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship” (2005).
Others were “For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times” (1998), written with
David Fisher; “Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion” (1969); and “Here’s Ed, or How to
Be a Second Banana, From Midway to Midnight” (1976).
Despite his many business ventures, Mr. McMahon encountered hard times in his
last years. He was forced to sell his Beverly Hills mansion last year after
falling behind in payments on $4.8 million in mortgages, and a former lawyer
sued him for nonpayment of fees.
Mr. McMahon blamed two divorces, bad money management and bad investments for
his woes. “I made a lot of money, but you can spend a lot of money,” he said by
way of explanation.
He was plagued by health problems as well, undergoing a series of operations
after breaking his neck in a fall in 2007.
Mr. McMahon married Alyce Ferrell during World War II. They were divorced in
1976. They had four children, Claudia, Michael, Linda and Jeffrey. His second
marriage, to Victoria Valentine, in 1976, ended in divorce in 1989. They adopted
a daughter, Katherine Mary McMahon. Mr. McMahon and his third wife, Pam Hurn, a
fashion designer, were married in 1992.
Mr. McMahon regarded his friendship with Johnny Carson as a marriage of sorts.
“Most comic teams are not good friends or even friends at all,” he wrote in
“Here’s Johnny.” “Laurel and Hardy didn’t hang out together, Abbott and Costello
weren’t best of friends.” But, he added, “Johnny and I were the happy
”For 40 years Johnny and I were as close as two nonmarried people can be,” he
wrote. “And if he heard me say that, he might say, ‘Ed, I always felt you were
my insignificant other.’ “
March 22, 2009
Filed at 3:00 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LONDON (AP) -- Jade Goody's family asks for ''privacy at last'' after the
death at 27 of the brash former dental assistant who turned her tumultuous life
and struggle with cervical cancer into a one-woman reality show.
Mocked as a slob, then celebrated as an everywoman, Goody lived one of the
world's most public lives, with cameras capturing everything from her racial
slurs to her cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy.
Goody gained fame in 2002 at age 21 when she joined the British version of the
reality television show ''Big Brother,'' in which contestants live together for
weeks and are constantly filmed. She became a highly divisive star and something
of a national touchstone who sparked debate about race, class and celebrity.
During filming of an Indian version of ''Celebrity Big Brother'' in the summer
of 2008, Goody received a diagnosis of cervical cancer by telephone from a
doctor in Britain. The camera captured the deeply personal moment, which was
shown repeatedly on TV.
The progress of her illness was chronicled in detail in the tabloid press and
weekly magazines. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy in the public eye --
filming part of the experience.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who heads the Church of England,
said Goody showed a brave side in the face of death.
''If in her earlier career it was all about her, then I think at the end it was
about something else,'' Williams said.
Bald and frail, Goody married fiancee Jack Tweed last month in an elaborate
event staged at an elegant countryside hotel outside London. The wedding was
shown on television and the photos were sold, prompting criticism.
But Goody, who grew up in a poor London neighborhood, defended herself -- saying
she wanted her two young sons to have a better life than she had. Goody's father
was a heroin addict who served jail time for robbery and died in 2005; her
mother was a former crack addict who lost the use of an arm in a motorcycle
''People will say I'm doing this for money,'' she said. ''And they're right, I
am. But not to buy flash cars or big houses -- it's for my sons' future if I'm
not here. I don't want my kids to have the same miserable, drug-blighted,
poverty-stricken childhood I did.''
Goody's publicist said last month that the cancer had spread to her liver, bowel
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Sunday that Goody used her fame to help others.
''She was a courageous woman both in life and death, and the whole country have
admired her determination to provide a bright future for her children,'' Brown
said. He also praised her for her efforts, after her diagnosis, to raise
awareness about cervical cancer and the need for screening.
Though many praised Goody in recent months for the way in which she handled her
illness, she was often mocked in the press during her stint on ''Big Brother''
for her weight, her big mouth and her apparent lack of general knowledge. She
branded the English region of East Anglia ''East Angular,'' and asked whether it
She didn't win the show, but she earned millions through television and magazine
appearances, an autobiography, a perfume and a series of exercise videos.
Goody was labeled a racist bully for her treatment of another contestant,
Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, while filming the British version of
''Celebrity Big Brother'' in 2007. Goody bad-mouthed Shetty's cooking of Indian
food, mocked her accent and referred to her as ''Shilpa Poppadom.'' While
complaints against the show skyrocketed, so did ratings.
Goody's treatment of Shetty sparked anger in India and Britain -- even becoming
the topic of debate during a House of Commons question-and-answer session with
then Prime Minister Tony Blair. A major sponsor suspended its advertising deal
with ''Celebrity Big Brother,'' and a chain of perfume shops pulled a
Goody-endorsed fragrance, ironically named ''Shh...''
After television viewers voted to evict Goody from the show, Goody -- herself of
mixed race -- insisted she wasn't a racist. ''I argue like that with everybody.
It wasn't just because of the color of her skin that I was that aggressive,''
she said during an interview on Britain's GMTV.
Shetty and Goody eventually reconciled. On Sunday, Shetty told the BBC, ''I am
deeply saddened, but I am glad Jade is out of pain and that she died peacefully
with her family around her.''
After Goody was evicted from the ''Celebrity Big Brother'' house, the Indian
Tourism Office invited Goody to travel to the country. She did, visiting charity
projects and later agreeing to appear on the Indian reality show.
''The people of India have only seen a small part of me, and I'd like to show
them that there is more to me,'' Goody said. ''I'm a mother of two, a
businesswoman. I can't be all that bad.''
Goody is survived by Tweed and her two sons, Bobby and Freddie, with an
ex-boyfriend, television presenter Jeff Brazier. She also is survived by her
mother, Jackiey Budden.
Budden told reporters Sunday: ''Family and friends would like privacy at last.''
LOS ANGELES — Full-time moms are being forced to take part-time jobs, and
corporate executives treat themselves to expensive wine after asking for a
government bailout. Foreclosure signs are going up in the most familiar
neighborhoods. Three neighbors, laid off and their houses foreclosed upon, take
the chief executive of their mortgage company hostage, and out-of-work
investment bankers have to stoop to low-level jobs as corporate interns.
The economic meltdown has come to prime time. While each of those situations
seems real enough to have resulted from the global financial crisis, they are
plotlines of recent or coming episodes of popular prime-time television series,
including “Desperate Housewives” and “Ugly Betty” on ABC, “The Simpsons” on Fox,
“Flashpoint” on CBS and “30 Rock” on NBC.
Popular entertainment often takes the form of escapism in tough economic times.
But a growing number of broadcast network shows have recently incorporated more
real-life issues into their stories — a reflection, producers say, of how
widespread the current financial troubles are.
“If everyone in America is thinking about it, that means every writer in
Hollywood is thinking about it,” said Marc Cherry, the creator and executive
producer of “Desperate Housewives.” “I know people tune in to ‘Desperate
Housewives’ for a bit of escapism and a bit of fun. But here you have fairly
well-off people living in a fairly well-off neighborhood, and this time the
financial crisis is hitting everyone.”
So, on Wisteria Lane, Susan Mayer has been forced to take a part-time job to
help her ex-husband, a plumber who works 16-hour days, pay for their son’s
private-school tuition, and the Scavos’ pizzeria is threatened because people
are dining out less.
Although police dramas like “Law & Order” have long sought to present story
lines that are “ripped from the headlines,” and medical dramas like “ER” have
invoked actual cases as the basis for plots, those “actual” events — double
murders or rare tropical diseases — are usually far removed from the daily lives
of most viewers.
Now, however, the real-life financial situations being used for scripts stand
out for their directness in addressing the economic plight of average Americans.
“We’ve never really been an issues-driven show,” said Mark Ellis, a creator and
producer of “Flashpoint,” which follows the efforts of an urban police
department’s elite Strategic Response Unit, a SWAT-like team that also employs
the techniques of talk therapy in hostage negotiations.
“But we’ve all witnessed people close to us who have experienced the loss of
their home or job or the depletion of their savings account, and seen how
destructive that can be,” Mr. Ellis said. “These are tragic times, and we wanted
to explore the repercussions of that on a personal basis.”
In the Feb. 27 episode, titled “Business as Usual,” a mortgage company executive
who had received a $22 million bonus as his company foreclosed on hundreds of
homes was taken hostage by three former customers.
It never hurts when there is a convenient villain, of course, and television
writers have found plenty of them in the current crisis. On “Flashpoint” the
mortgage company chief is described by one of his foreclosed-upon victims as “a
guy who’s got four houses already who booked a five-star Caribbean resort with
his buddies to brainstorm how to make the most of these troubled times.”
Two coming episodes of “Lie to Me,” the new Fox hit, fit the pattern. One
focuses on a Bernard Madoff-like operator of a Ponzi scheme, and another
features a contractor who, pinched by the slow economy, cuts corners on a
construction project, resulting in a building collapse.
“What’s happening in the economy is very relevant to the substance of our show,”
said Samuel Baum, the show’s creator and executive producer. “We’re looking at
what lies people are willing to tell, and at what cost to their co-workers, to
maintain their own financial security.”
Depictions of the financial crisis have seeped into comedy as well as drama. On
an episode of “30 Rock” last month a fictional group of former Lehman Brothers
investment bankers resorted to jobs as interns at NBC. And Sunday night on “The
Simpsons” Homer Simpson faced foreclosure.
Because of the months-long delay between the genesis of a television plotline
and its broadcast, fictional series rarely make direct reference to current
events, lest they risk seeming stale by the time an episode makes it to air. The
episodes being shown now were conceived last summer or fall and filmed early
this year, meaning they have benefited from the extended economic downturn.
Networks are even considering entire series based on the recession. Fox is
developing a comedy titled “Two-Dollar Beer” that features a group of friends
living in Detroit who are trying to weather that city’s worsening financial
condition, and ABC Studios is developing “Canned,” a situation comedy about a
group of friends who all get fired on the same day.
“Television serves as a crucible for exploring and tapping into real emotions,”
said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that
produces “Lie to Me” and “The Simpsons.” “When our characters are dealing with
things that are relatable to our own lives, it can become more meaningful.”
Director of some of the best British TV comedy
of the late 20th century
18 December 2008
Bob Spiers, who has died of cancer aged 63, was one of Britain's foremost
directors of television comedy. His credits are a roll-call of popular sitcoms
from the 1970s onwards, from Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers to Absolutely
Fabulous. He was twice a Bafta winner.
Born in Glasgow, Spiers was a national junior tennis champion before moving to
London at the age of 13. He developed a love of acting at Southgate college,
north London, and later became involved in youth theatre, touring Britain with
various drama groups.
He joined the BBC as a junior in 1967. One of his favourite moments occurred
early on while working as a broadcast assistant on Top of the Pops. He received
a call from John Lennon, one of his heroes, demanding that Yoko Ono should be
granted a spot on the programme to plug her new single. The request was turned
Spiers's creative talent was soon recognised and he was fast-tracked through
vision-mixing, floor management and production assistant until he had learned
all the skills required to be a director. He began with Seaside Special and
comic dramas from David Croft and Jimmy Perry such as It Ain't Half Hot Mum and
Dad's Army. He was then chosen to direct the second series of Fawlty Towers in
1979. Among the episodes under his charge were Waldorf Salad, Basil the Rat and
Kipper and the Corpse.
The scripts, by John Cleese and Connie Booth, made great technical demands of
the director, including continuous action sequences and inventive camera angles.
Colleagues recall how draining the schedule was, yet Spiers had by then
developed a reputation for acute concentration and the ability to make scenes
appear more visually interesting. He won his first Bafta for Fawlty Towers.
He continued to produce series such as Are You Being Served? and The Goodies,
whose zany brand of humour chimed with his own. He turned freelance in 1982,
feeling that the BBC did not grant the same kudos to sitcom directors as those
working on dramas or in film. The growth of the independent sector also offered
creative opportunities, with less accompanying bureaucracy.
His friend Peter Richardson, the actor, writer and director, hired him to direct
The Comic Strip Presents … for Channel 4. By then, his marriage to Annie, a
leading make-up artist, had failed. While on the set of one of the Comic Strip
episodes, A Fistful of Travellers' Cheques, a spaghetti-western spoof, he met
Sophie Richardson, Peter's sister, who would become his second wife.
From 1989 to 1993, Spiers directed the entire run of Press Gang, ITV's
children's series about a youth newspaper, which was written by Steven Moffat.
His collaboration with Moffat continued with Joking Apart.
At the same time he was lured back to the BBC to direct nine episodes of French
and Saunders. By then, his reputation was that of a perfectionist. Crews loved
working with him because he challenged them creatively, and brought out the best
in them. French and Saunders led, via Murder Most Horrid, Bottom and A Bit of
Fry and Laurie, to the Absolutely Fabulous series, for which Spiers directed
every episode from 1992 to 2001. Jennifer Saunders regarded him as the best
sitcom director, and one who never put style over content. She recalled how he
would remove a tile from a set just to offer up another camera angle, and that
his mental ability to determine camera sequences was so acute that he was once
able to edit out a whole character from a scene without having to re-shoot. He
won his second Bafta for Absolutely Fabulous in 1992.
Spiers's reputation spread to Hollywood, and in 1997 he was hired by Disney to
direct the film That Darn Cat, starring Christina Ricci. He and Sophie took up
residence in Nichols Canyon, California, where they counted Julia Roberts and
Stevie Wonder among their neighbours.
His next film, in the same year, was Spice World: The Movie. He had not heard of
the Spice Girls but Saunders advised him to take it on. When he was first
introduced to them at a Los Angeles bar, Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, told
him that she wanted the group to become "as famous as washing powder". The film
was panned, though Spiers received praise for the direction.
He made one more movie, Kevin of the North (2001), a comedy shot in Canada
starring Skeet Ulrich, Leslie Nielsen and Rik Mayall.
Spiers's subsequent career was blighted, first by a drink problem and then by
cancer. When told that he required a second round of chemotherapy, he decided to
endure it in more pleasant surroundings, in the sun and by the sea. He knew a
friendly hotel in Acapulco, Mexico, once owned by John Wayne, where he went to
convalesce. But after six months with no recovery, he returned home to Devon.
Spiers was a private man who had few interests outside work, save for a love of
Arsenal Football Club.
Annie died in 2007. He is survived by Sophie, his stepdaughter, Coral, and his
The New York Times
By DENNIS HEVES
a mellow-voiced television host who, though blameless, became ensnared in the
quiz-show rigging scandal of the late 1950s but who made a comeback with a
five-year run in front of the big puzzle board on “Concentration,” died
Wednesday near his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 85.
The cause was complications of two strokes, said his friend Steve Beverly, a
professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a game-show
The slim, jet-black-haired Mr. Narz was host of a syndicated version of
“Concentration” from 1973 to 1978; the original version was broadcast on NBC.
Peering at that puzzle board, contestants would call two numbers; if the tiles
bearing those numbers matched after being turned, part of the puzzle behind them
would become visible, and the contestants would be eligible for prizes if they
solved it. Gradually, the board would reveal graphic, rebus-like clues to, for
example, a song title.
Mr. Narz would intone, “Can you tell us what the puzzle says?”
Nearly 200 “Concentration” shows were produced each year, all taped within nine
weeks, seven a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “Jack would say, ‘After
21 shows in three days, I was ready for the golf course,’ ” Mr. Beverly
Not that he didn’t appreciate his success. Mr. Narz had been an announcer on
prime-time variety shows when he was chosen to host “Dotto” in January 1958. It
was a combination of a quiz and a connect-the-dots puzzle. Contestants answered
questions to earn dots; the dots would connect to reveal a celebrity’s face,
which contestants would try to identify.
“Dotto” came to a dramatic end after only eight months. Early in the summer of
1958, a standby contestant found a notebook containing answers on the desk of
that day’s winner. He showed the notebook to CBS executives; an internal
investigation was started. By mid-August, the network concluded that “Dotto” had
been rigged and pulled it off the air. The night-time version on NBC, also
starring Mr. Narz, was also pulled.
“That really launched the quiz-show scandals and the subsequent federal grand
jury investigation,” Professor Beverly said.
Eventually, about 30 shows were investigated and about 200 contestants and
producers were called before the grand jury. Most of the big-money quiz shows —
“The $64,000 Question,” “The $64,000 Challenge,” “Twenty-One,” “Tic Tac Dough”
and “Dotto” — were canceled. A federal law made the rigging of quiz shows a
Mr. Narz was subpoenaed and required to take a polygraph test; it indicated that
he knew nothing about the fraud.
“Jack told me that it was the most frightening time of his career,” Professor
Beverly said, “because, as he said, ‘It didn’t take a genius to know that this
was going to be a major black mark for television.’ He wondered whether he would
ever work in television again.”
After an 18-month layoff, he was rehired, the start of 20 years as host on seven
other game shows: “Top Dollar,” “Video Village,” “Seven Keys,” “I’ll Bet,” “Beat
the Clock,” “Now You See It” and, finally, “Concentration.”
John William Narz Jr. was born in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 13, 1922, one of
three children of John and Ado Narz. Game shows became a sort of family
business. In 1956, his brother Jim took the professional name Tom Kennedy; he
went on to fame as the host of “Password Plus.” Jack Narz’s future
brother-in-law was Bill Cullen, the original host of “The Price Is Right.”
Besides his brother, Mr. Narz is survived by his second wife, the former Delores
Vaichsner; his sister, Mary Scully; three sons, John, Michael and David; a
daughter, Karen Feretti; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His
first marriage, to Mary Lou Roemheld, ended in divorce.
Mr. Narz, a fighter pilot in World War II, received the Distinguished Flying
Cross for missions in the China-Burma theater. Afterward he went to broadcasting
school in Los Angeles and was hired as an announcer at KXO, a Los Angeles radio
station. He broke into television doing commercials as “Jack Narz, the man from
Barr’s,” a men’s store.
His career never stopped paying off. In 1951, Mr. Narz narrated the opening
episode of “Superman.” At the end of the show, with his voice crescendoing, he
said, “Join us every week for the adventures of Superman!” He was paid $150.
Almost every year thereafter he received a residual royalty check of $1.98.
or the transmission by wireless of moving pictures, seems at last to have
arrived. The experiments given in public in London this month by Mr. J. L.
Baird, the young Glasgow electrical engineer who for three years has been
concentrating on this invention, have now reached a point at which expert
observers are satisfied that the wonder is accomplished.
The device has been taken over by a company called Television, Limited. The
Postmaster General has given permission to broadcast. Receiving sets, which in
the meantime will cost £30 each, are to be put on the market forthwith, and it
is hoped that transmission will begin next week.
The international race to reach this stage in the use of electricity has been a
keen and quick one. America for some time past has sent photographs capable of
newspaper reproduction over long distances in the course of a few minutes, but
land lines have been used for the purpose.
In France M. Edouard Belin was commonly reported to be almost as far advanced
with the process as Mr. Baird now seems to be; while in Germany Count Arco
recently explained that only technical difficulties delayed the firm with which
he is associated in reaching a similar result. Amongst them these inventors
should not be long in perfecting the appliance and making it possible for all of
us to evoke the lineaments of singer, speaker, or actor, as we now can the
voice, by simply "tuning in." Whether in all cases that will be a blessing is
Quite often those songs are sweeter far in which the singer is unseen. One has,
indeed, always been doubtful of the wisdom of "Aunts" and "Uncles" whose
mellifluous tones had conjured visions of perfection rare in human form
venturing, as they often do now, upon public platforms and revealing themselves
as quite ordinary folk.
Moreover as electricity is harnessed to attack one after another of our five
senses we shall tend to become steadily more critical; and the B.B.C., which has
trouble enough as it is with our arguments about what we should hear, may well
be distraught to cope with more complex tastes. Meanwhile, however, all
congratulations to Mr. Baird. If this complication to life had to be, at least
it is something to have stolen a march on competitors.
Prince of Wales's Escape
While the Prince of Wales was hunting with the Belvoir Hounds yesterday, his
mount fell dead under him. The Prince escaped injury. He was riding a favourite
hunter, "Oh, Dear", a valuable animal and splendid jumper. "Oh, Dear" fell dead,
as a subsequent veterinary examination showed, of a ruptured blood vessel.
It started as a cop show about drug gangs in Baltimore,
and grew into an
epic, shifting portrait of a city
in the grip of poverty and crisis.
Wire - now in its final season and acclaimed
as the most accomplished TV series
is not the work of regular screen writers but an ex-journalist,
ex-detective and an elite team of novelists.
We asked our own panel of crime
writers to explain its appeal
Sunday July 20, 2008
Irvine Welsh is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter acclaimed for his
gritty depictions of Scottish working-class life. His novels include
Trainspotting, Filth and Porno.
His latest, Crime, is out now.
My pal and screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh is the master of the download and
he seems to get everything before everyone else. He was going on about The Wire
a few years back. Now I think it's the best thing on TV. By far. Nothing's close
to it. A lot of things interest me about the programme: the huge ensemble cast
and the fact that there are no stars, the sheer honesty of the writing. It makes
just about all of the writing on British TV look absolutely shit. It maddens me
that BBC or ITV put out crap after crap after crap and they don't pick up
something like this. We don't know what to do with quality. We wouldn't
recognise it if it bit us in the arse. All of the HBO stuff shows up how poor
and puerile we are, and how our TV people completely patronise the public. Guys
in housing estates in Britain go crazy about The Sopranos but programmers assume
they just want shit like The Bill. A real revolution in programming is required
in British television.
It's significant that none of the writers on The Wire came up through TV and
that quite a few are crime novelists. There's a big difference between a proper
writer and someone who's learned how to write scripts. We've got a big culture
now of screenwriting and telling people how to structure things. Anyone can
learn to write a three-act script but what they don't tell people is how to tell
stories. The guys on The Wire are proper storytellers.
Of course you get good novelists who can't do scripts. F Scott Fitzgerald was
one of the great writers of all time but he couldn't cut it in Hollywood. He
couldn't get down to the crass discipline of doing three-act structures and plot
points and foreshadowing. I had dinner with David Simon [the show's creator] a
few weeks back and I was asking him how they managed it. He's just so careful
about selecting the writers. That's the most important thing to him. It's very,
very hard to get a job writing on The Wire
Simon has created a whole alternative Baltimore in the show. If you take a train
from New York to Washington DC, you pass through the city and you can see all
these places. Large swathes of north Baltimore are [made up of] all these
beautiful old Victorian small houses that are completely derelict and overrun.
You can see the kids standing on the street corners. Basically the whole of
north Baltimore and parts of the south are like a big empty derelict film set
for The Wire. It's like an alternative universe, with the politics and the
school boards, but it's very close to the reality of the city in many ways. They
use great local actors too. The guy who plays Proposition Joe is a well-known
theatre actor who trains all the young kids. The whole thing is very much a
I find the character of Omar particularly interesting. He's an outsider's
outsider, this Robin Hood type of guy who steals from the drug lords as well as
the police. He's an isolated figure, completely against everybody, and one of
the few homosexual characters in the show, but he always seems to be one up. The
guys in the police department and even the smooth characters like Proposition
Joe are always a hop behind him.
Simon is normally very brutal about killing his darlings but Omar seems to have
a different set of rules. Looking at the writing of The Wire, he's right out of
kilter with the other characters. He is this hyper-real, fantastical character -
a sort of mysterious phantom, almost super-powered - whereas the others are all
very realist. If he were a realist character he would have been dead a long time
ago. It's a tribute to the writing that this never hits a false register. It
works as grammar, adding something rather than weakening the plausibility of the
My advice to anyone watching The Wire for the first time is to stick it out. The
first two episodes in season one are actually pretty sketchy. They're a bit
rough and ham-fisted, and it doesn't look as great as it actually becomes, but
it kicks in around episode three, and when it starts to pull together it's
American writer Michael Connelly is the author of the acclaimed Harry Bosch
series, about a Los Angeles detective. His next book, The Brass Verdict, is due
If you look at The Wire in shorthand, it's a story about drug dealers and cops
trying to catch them. That just doesn't sound interesting. But somehow they got
inside these people and their neighbourhoods and the bureaucracies they work in
to a unique degree. I have never seen anything like it on TV before. I've
watched The Wire from the first night it aired, largely because I have a friend,
George Pelecanos, who is a writer on the show. Also, David Simon [the show's
creator] and I come from a similar background: we were both police reporters on
I've dabbled unsuccessfully with screenwriting - I had a TV show on the air
eight years ago but it only lasted six episodes - so I know a little bit about
it. I know in particular about the difficulty of moving from writing a book to a
screenplay and how completely different they are. In a book you can explore
what's going on in someone's head but you can never do that in a script. Instead
you go for broad demonstrations of character, which often means that bad guys
are all bad and good guys are all good. That's what you see most of the time in
TV and movies but you don't see that in The Wire. The achievement of the series
is that it has captured the humanity of every individual in it, whether they are
a good person by trade or a bad person. In some cases it goes further by showing
the nobility of the characters, be they drug dealers or even killers.
It's a fabulous accomplishment that the writers on the show, like Pelecanos and
Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, have somehow been able to stay away from the
stereotypical script. I had the opportunity to sit next to Simon at Lehane's
wedding earlier this year and I asked him how they managed to do it so well. He
said: 'It's my show but I trust these writers. I love their books. I love other
scripts they've written. So I allow them to do their thing. I trust that they're
good storytellers and they know what's important.' He provides the framework and
the beat points - what has to happen in each episode - and he lets them wing it.
HBO deserves a lot of credit too. In the early years the ratings were pretty
lean but the channel believed in the show and let Simon do his thing - pretty
rare in TV, in America at least. They didn't have the ratings of The Sopranos.
Maybe they could have had if they'd made the show more simplistic and focused on
a core group of five or six mobsters, but this thing is all over the place. It's
risky. I applaud that. I like to work for my entertainment. I like to put two
and two together. I don't like to have everything handed to me on a plate.
There's a sub-theme in the final season about the declining newspaper business
in the US that is so important and so accurate. I loved all the seasons but this
one connected with me the most because that's where I came from, and because I
also happen to be writing a novel about a newspaper reporter.
If you read a good book you get glued to your chair and have a visceral reaction
to it. This was happening every week on The Wire. I'd say it's one of the five
best shows I've ever seen.
John Williams is best known for his Cardiff trilogy of thrillers, set in the
city's criminal underworld. His most recent book is Temperance Town.
I didn't watch The Wire till around halfway through series two, delayed by the
fact that I'm one of those people who steadfastly ignore things that everyone
tells them will appeal to them ('snobs', I think, is the technical name). When I
did succumb it took a little while to get my ear tuned in enough to start
picking up the dialogue, but not much longer to realise that this was remarkable
TV, a crime series that actually aspired to tell the truth about the way we live
now rather than simply bamboozle us with an insanely complex whodunit or
entertain us with 'ironic' brutality. And, to be honest, I was kind of annoyed.
Why annoyed? Because here was a TV show, a product of the most commercial
industry you can imagine, and it was taking bigger risks than anything I'd
lately encountered in the world of fiction, especially anything in crime
fiction. That was saddening for me as I'd spent a fair bit of time over the past
couple of decades championing crime fiction as the one art form that really
tells it like it is.
Some time in the 1980s it struck me that mainstream contemporary fiction was
doing a woeful job of reflecting what was going on in our modern-day cities.
Meanwhile, in the world of crime fiction, writers like Elmore Leonard, James Lee
Burke, Sara Paretsky and the late, great George V Higgins were turning out books
that married social realism to energetic storytelling. They, and others who
followed in their footsteps, such as Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos,
successfully conveyed the notion that out there on the streets was a world that
Miss Marple and Hill Street Blues were never going to set right, a world that
Amis and McEwan, or McInerney and Ellis, barely seemed to realise existed.
I was so enthused by this notion that I wrote a book called Into The Badlands in
which I roamed America, talked to its great crime novelists, and fleshed out my
case. And for the next decade or so I suppose I mostly still believed in it. But
as I went on reviewing crime fiction in the Noughties, I felt an increasing
sense of disappointment at the prevailing lack of ambition to do anything more
than entertain. Everything people always used to say about crime fiction - isn't
it just a formula? - seemed to be true. There was a plague of serial killers,
pathologists and profilers, cops with bad marriages and drink problems.
Lumbering plots with saccharine endings. I couldn't deny it any longer: the
world of crime fiction had ceased to interest me.
Then I watched The Wire. And there was everything I'd liked in the work of
Higgins or Leonard or Pelecanos: the inventive dialogue, the characters etched
in shades of grey, the prevailing mood of moral ambiguity and profound cynicism
as to the motives and efficacy of the forces of law and order. There, in
particular, was the sustained attack on the war on drugs - a war that makes the
Iraq adventure look well thought out - that neither our newspapers nor our
novelists (with the shining exception of Richard Price) seemed able to make.
There, in a nutshell, was the revival of American social realism: the
Steinbeck/Hammett/Algren tradition that seemed to have been lost in a welter of
postmodernism, post-colonialism and pure unadulterated schlock.
So I watched The Wire, and watched it some more, and nodded my head in respect
as it widened its brief to take on education and politics, becoming positively
Zola-esque in its detailing of the ways in which the rich and the powerful fail
and exploit and madden the poor and the powerless and - in Baltimore at least -
My one consolation, I suppose, in finding a TV series that is so much better
than contemporary crime fiction is that much of the series is actually down to
writers - not screenplay writers but book writers. Its progenitor, David Simon,
made his name with a wonderful non-fiction account of policing in Baltimore
called Homicide. And the show's regular writers include the aforementioned
George Pelecanos and Richard Price, as well as Dennis Lehane.
Which is perhaps why, for me, The Wire is so satisfying. It's got all the
advantages of a great series of crime novels, plus moving pictures - and for
once there's no one telling the writer that it'll only sell if they stick a
serial killer in the middle of it. So hurrah for smart literary TV; and boo to
dumbed-down crime fiction.
John Harvey is the author of the Charlie Resnick novels, following the exploits
of a Nottingham police officer, and has been awarded the Crime Writers'
Association's Diamond Dagger award for a lifetime's contribution to crime
writing. Cold in Hand is his most recent novel.
A little over a week before writing this, the same evening I read the news
that another young Londoner had been killed - the 18th fatality on the streets
so far this year - I watched Final Grades, the last episode of series four of
For those of you who don't know, this series took public education as its theme;
as well as showing the police continuing their struggle to hold the lid on
mainly drug-fuelled crime, we follow a former police officer, now retrained,
into one of the local schools for his first term of teaching.
Ed Burns, David Simon's principal co-writer on the series, had earlier followed
the same course: police squad room to classroom. He knows.
Aside from how kids think and how they talk, how cops and teachers get through
their day, Burns knows that in education, as in the justice system, it is all
too often the system itself that is the biggest hindrance to achieving the kind
of goals decency and common sense demand. One of the things The Wire is superb
at - and which becomes possible because of its structure - is showing how
politics and finance both underscore and overwhelm decisions taken on the
An initiative to take those most likely to end up in a life of drugs and
violence out of the normal classroom and educate them separately, in ways that
try to give them an element of self-knowledge and pride, is stymied both by a
lack of funding - itself due in no small part to political hubris and chicanery
- and the necessity of forcing each pupil blindly through the rigidity of state
I used the word 'kids' earlier, but that's not quite accurate. These are youths
struggling, too soon, too close to the beginnings of their lives, to become
adult, to become men; forced to do so by poverty and family breakdown, by peer
group pressure, by the lack of opportunity and expectation.
What is so chilling, so heart-rending, about the young men whose short lives we
follow in The Wire is that, despite their bombast and the brash fuck-you
exterior they present to the world and largely to each other, in some ways they
are still children. In brief moments, unguarded, you can see it in their eyes.
Talking to McNulty, the cop who has kept him out of prison, one of these kids
says: 'I been out there since I was 13... This game is rigged... we're like the
little bitches on the chessboard.'
'Pawns,' McNulty informs him. A scene or two later, the same kid is shot dead on
his corner, a bullet to the head.
Of the vulnerable youths that the teachers and cops have made special efforts to
save, one is sent to a group foster home where he's beaten up as a snitch,
another - perhaps the sweetest of all, the one for whom you had the most hope -
is back on the street again, dealing drugs. Even the bright youth who's been
taken in by the ex-policeman and his wife has not lost his connection to the
Despite a few gestures towards closing on an upbeat note, this final episode of
series four leaves you feeling shocked and forlorn, but caring. After getting to
know these characters, week after week, even if you try not to, you care. Last
night I watched a programme about the black power salutes at the 1968 Olympics:
we wanted to draw attention, one of the athletes said, to the lives of black
people in our country.
There's The Wire, holding up its fist. And casting a shadow now on this country,
Dreda Say Mitchell
Dreda Say Mitchell is best known for her novel Running Hot, a gangland thriller
set in the East End, for which she was awarded a Crime Writers' Association
Dagger Award in 2005. Her latest novel, Killer Tune, is out now.
From Dickens and Balzac to Z Cars and Lou Reed, portraying 'street life' has
been a staple of drama, music and fiction, but it's not often that artists get
it right. Most of us are wearily familiar with the pitfalls - the stereotyping,
the authorial finger-wagging and the leaden political and social 'messages'. And
they're often written by people whose only experience of the 'street' has been a
few months slumming in a squat. The success of The Wire has been to transcend
the usual format of social dramas to give us a panoramic view of modern urban
America. It's all here - from the politicians in City Hall to the good cops who
are really bad and the bad cops who are really good.
In season four it follows the experiences of four teenage boys. In a typical
morality drama we would know what to expect: education will be a good thing,
missing school will be a bad thing. And perhaps we can look out for an
idealistic white teacher from the suburbs. But instead, in The Wire, we see the
dynamics of the ghetto apply in the school system the same way they apply
everywhere else, with the same devastating results. Meanwhile, up in City Hall,
it's election time. Perhaps not: there are votes to be won, and it's not going
to be pretty. The West Wing has its fans but if we really want to see the
underbelly of American democracy, these episodes do it better.
British society has increasingly followed the US model and now we're confronting
the same range of social problems. Many are looking to America to see what
answers they've come up with. The narrative of The Wire suggests there aren't
any. There may be solutions for individuals, occasionally, but there are no
solutions for communities. If viewers want to see The Wire as a searing
indictment of free market capitalism or the effects of liberal welfarism, they
can, but the programme doesn't take a point of view. That's not to say, though,
that it doesn't have a message, and it's that this kind of TV drama still works.
When it's well written, well acted and portrays its characters without sentiment
and without moralising, TV drama can still be a powerful artistic force.
Mark Billingham is the author of the Tom Thorne series, about a tormented DI in
the Metropolitan Police. He won the 2003 Sherlock Award for Best UK detective
novel for Scaredy Cat. His latest novel, In the Dark, is published next month.
To seek out novelists as members of a show's writing team is extremely rare but
just such a forward-thinking policy - specifically the use of a triumvirate of
America's finest urban crime novelists - has played a major part in making The
Wire into the most acclaimed and groundbreaking TV drama in decades. George
Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price are the perfect writers for a show
that is anything but a conventional crime series. As with their critically
lauded novels, The Wire is able to deliver the genre goods while at the same
time painting a deftly nuanced portrait of a city - in this case Baltimore -
where the social fabric has been systematically degraded by those entrusted with
With what David Simon has called a 'murderers' row' of writers on board, the
show was further able to develop the novelistic approach which makes it so
unique. With each episode a 'chapter' in a novel that lasts a season, The Wire
makes no concessions to its viewers. This is not a show you can pick up halfway
Pelecanos, Lehane and Price each write with the precision that can only come
from a novelist's research, and their work has an enviable economy. Theirs is
fat-free storytelling, with each able to nail a character in a few key lines of
razor-sharp dialogue without the need for back story or clumsy exposition.
Though the plot moves along quickly enough to satisfy those used to less
ambitious projects, the writers have been given the freedom to let themes and
story-strands develop at their own pace. Characters are brought to life during
seemingly innocuous conversations in bars or in police cruisers, each
relationship as important as any other in a narrative arc that is not
constricted by a ticking clock or the need for action sequences.
It remains to be seen if the righteous fury of The Wire's vision has been the
wake-up call it should be, but at the very least those responsible for TV drama
in Britain should take a hard look, and perhaps be a little braver.
· Season Five of The Wire begins on FX tomorrow at 10pm
Since its debut last fall, “Gossip Girl” has always been more than a
television series about its overt subject, the social machinations of Manhattan
It has also presented a cavalcade of fashion, its primary viewership of
teenagers and young women tuning in not only for the plots, but also to render
judgment on the clothes. The extravagant wardrobes of the stars — a clash of
piped blazers, tiny kilts, dueling plaids and festoons of jewelry — have
inspired countless posts on fan Web sites, and magazine features about the
Now the show’s sense of style is having a broader impact, in the retail
marketplace. Merchants, designers and trend consultants say that “Gossip Girl,”
which is in summer reruns on the CW network before returning Sept. 1, just in
time for back-to-school shopping, is one of the biggest influences on how young
Fans stride into boutiques bearing magazine tear sheets that feature members of
the cast and ask for their exact outfits. Or they order scoop-neck tops and hobo
bags by following e-commerce links from the show’s Web site.
“The show has had a profound influence on retail,” said Stephanie Solomon, the
fashion director for Bloomingdale’s, adding that it appeals not just to
teenagers but also to women in their 20s, the daughters and the younger sisters
of the generation that made “Sex and the City” requisite viewing for aspiring
Although the series has had only middling success in the ratings, in stylistic
terms it “may well be the biggest influence in the youth culture market,” said
Stephanie Meyerson, a trend spotter for Stylesight, a trend forecasting company.
The show has given an unexpected mass appeal to patrician staples like crested
blazers, layered polo shirts and kilts. When cooler days approach this fall,
some retailers are predicting a run on argyle sweaters, knee socks and high
Thanks to the point-and-click shopping on its Web site and the fees it charges
some brands to be featured in the series, “Gossip Girl” has been able to profit
from its power to generate trends. It is not the first show to collect revenues
from product tie-ins, but it probably is the first to have been conceived, in
part, as a fashion marketing vehicle.
“We tried to launch trends from the get-go,” said Eric Daman, the show’s costume
designer, whose résumé includes a stretch working with Patricia Field on
costumes for “Sex and the City.”
Now some fall designer collections will also bear a “Gossip Girl” influence, a
trend first seen in February on the New York runways, when the series ignited “a
pretty huge resurgence of ritzy, preppy and collegiate looks,” said Amy Astley,
the editor of Teen Vogue, citing punky school-girl styles from Marc by Marc
Jacobs and Henry Holland, and crested blazers at Ruffian, among others.
Stefani Greenspan, a New York designer whose youth-oriented line, Priorities, is
sold at Macy’s, Dillard’s and Bloomingdale’s, acknowledges that “Gossip Girl”
was “definitely part of my inspiration” for a line of trim blazers lined in
men’s tie fabric, oversized cardigans and ruffled plaid shirts with gold
“I like that whole upscale collegiate feeling, mixed with a pair of Louboutins,”
Ms. Greenspan said. Sales at her eight-year-old company have doubled in the year
since “Gossip Girl” made its debut, she said.
In its 18 original episodes through May 19, the series attracted an average of
about 2.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. But its clout as
a cultural and shopping influence is amplified by the Web, including the show’s
own site, which lets viewers identify the brand of the clothes and accessories
in each episode and click through to buy them.
“We probably have 50 percent more of our traffic — close to one million viewers
each month — going into ‘Gossip Girl’ than into any other show,” said Travis
Schneider, the founder of StarBrand Media, which handles the e-commerce
connections for the series, along with other shows and films including “She’s
the Man” and “America’s Next Top Model.”
Covet the top that the character Serena van der Woodsen wears in Episode 12?
It’s made by Generra, available for $68, according to the links from the CW Web
site — or it was, before it and many other items seen on the show sold out.
Mr. Daman, the costume designer, conducted his fashion research at private
schools in Manhattan.
“I saw how edgy those girls were, how forward,” he said. “They wore their school
uniforms a little shorter, a little tricked out, definitely tailored to fit them
perfectly, and they took liberties through their tights and bags.”
The show is a soap opera about the indulgences of super-rich teenagers, whether
drugs, sex or Balenciaga, as told by the unseen Gossip Girl of the title, who
blogs about the other characters. Devotees generally fall into two camps: those
taken with the worldly nonchalance of Serena (Blake Lively), the show’s queen
bee, and others fixated on the fussier style of Blair Waldorf (Leighton
Meester), who is given to layering on brooches, pearls, scarves, a shrilly
colorful blazer and patent leather pumps, topped with a frilly headband.
Rachel Grinney, the manager of Intermix in Washington, part of a chain of hip
boutiques, said many of her young customers scour the store for variations on
Serena’s haute bohemian mix of lithe leather jackets with loose-fitting T-shirts
and knee-high boots.
Purists dismiss Blair’s look as visual clutter (“You don’t see headbands worn
with brooches and necklaces,” scoffed one 16-year-old in the December issue of
Teen Vogue), but admirers praise the show’s relative sophistication. “It
represents a stylistic departure,” said Sari Sloane, the vice president for
fashion merchandising of the 24-store Intermix chain, “a move away from a
Hollywood look that was very casual and improvised, to something more polished,
more big-city chic.”
Some like the deft mingling of mass and class, through a smorgasbord of
merchandise culled from stores like Barneys New York, progressive boutiques like
Opening Ceremony in downtown Manhattan and cheap chic chains like Urban
Outfitters. “The style is not alienating,” Ms. Meyerson said. “Girls can look at
these characters and feel like they can emulate them.”
Grown-up women, too. Leigh Luttrell, 26, who works for an advertising agency in
New York, would like to buy a party frock with a plunging back she recently saw
on the show. “I loved that style; I’ve actually been looking for it,” Ms.
The series has become a profitable showcase for certain designers. “Do you like
my new Nanette Lepore?” a character inquired in one episode. Ms. Lepore, a New
York designer, reports that “within days after one of our dresses appears, the
store gets calls.”
“Younger girls come in,” she added, “they know which piece was featured and they
look for it.”
Ms. Lepore said she did not pay to have her brand mentioned or be included in
the wardrobe, although some brands do, said Paul McGuire, the vice president of
network communication for the CW.
The designer Tory Burch, already a favorite with the private-school crowd, has
found that having an item on the show “translates to sales,” she said.
“We have girls coming in with magazine tear sheets of Blake Lively or Leighton
Meester, from location shootings or from everyday life,” Ms. Burch said.
But even those fans have some qualms. Julia Sledge, 26, an administrative
assistant in New York, who wears a mix of Marc by Marc Jacobs, Rebecca Taylor
and Theory, and is a fan of “Gossip Girl,” said the fashions could strain
credulity. “Sometime you see these girls from Brooklyn carrying Valentino bags
that cost $3,000,” she said. “That makes the show a little irritating.”
June 24, 2008
The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Dody Goodman, an actress who
combined a dancer’s grace, a strawberry blond mane and exquisitely timed
scatter-brained humor to create television legends, first as a fey foil to Jack
Paar and later on the soap-opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” died
Sunday in Englewood, N. J. She was 93, older than she often said.
Victor Goldsmith, a receptionist at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, confirmed
the death and age.
Ms. Goodman’s distinctive voice was once described as sounding “like a Tweetie
Pie cartoon bird strangling on peanut butter.” Her sweet face, Kewpie-doll
mouth, supple tongue and teasing way of pausing before speaking were familiar to
“I just opened my mouth and people laughed,” she said in an interview with The
New York Times in 1983.
Miss Goodman was a show-business ingénue when Mr. Paar invited her to be on his
second episode of “The Tonight Show,” on July 30, 1957, and she became a
regular. He wrote in his memoir that her “wackily endearing quality” made her
his “first big hit.”
But she was hardly deferential. When Mr. Paar once remarked, “Give them enough
rope,” she blithely replied, “And they’ll skip.”
Mr. Paar dropped her from the show in 1958. He wrote that he felt “like the
announcer on ‘The Dody Goodman Show.’ ”
On “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a cutting satire of TV mores in 1976-77 that
retains a cult following, Miss Goodman played the title character’s mother. She
talked to plants and had an affair with a hot-air balloonist who crashed through
her kitchen roof. Her crackly voice intoned the show’s title during opening
Dolores Goodman, who left no immediate survivors, was born in Columbus on Oct.
28, 1914. She came to New York and danced in the ballet company of Radio City
Music Hall and on Broadway. Imogene Coca, with whom she had acted, steered her
to comedy and she was soon doing televised humor sketches.
Her subsequent career included appearing on the television show “Diff’rent
Strokes”; in the movies “Grease” and “Splash”; as the cartoon voiceover in “The
Chipmunk Adventure”; and in a wide range of live dramas.
Miss Goodman appeared in several roles in “Nunsense,” an off-Broadway musical
farce, which opened in 1985, and in its sequels. The show’s creator, Danny
Goggin, said in an interview with Playbill magazine that at 85 she could still
lift her leg over her head as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “Nuncrackers.”
George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and
actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations
of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines
like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” died in Santa Monica,
Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.
The cause of death was heart failure. Mr. Carlin, who had a history of heart
problems, went into the hospital on Sunday afternoon after complaining of heart
trouble. The comedian had worked last weekend at The Orleans in Las Vegas.
Recently, Mr. Carlin was named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor. He was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November.
“In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer, and actor, George Carlin has not
only made us laugh, but he makes us think,” said Stephen A. Schwarzman, the
Kennedy Center chairman. “His influence on the next generation of comics has
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jack Burns, who performed with Mr.
Carlin in the 1960’s as one half of a comedy duo, said “He was a genius and I
will miss him dearly.”
Mr. Carlin began his standup comedy act in the late 1950s and made his first
television solo guest appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. At that
time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his
Irish working-class upbringing in New York.
But from the outset there were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his
comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat
characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman
Al Sleet. “The weather was dominated by a large Canadian low, which is not to be
confused with a Mexican high. Tonight’s forecast . . . dark, continued mostly
dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.”
Mr. Carlin released his first comedy album, “Take-Offs and Put-Ons,” to rave
reviews in 1967. He also dabbled in acting, winning a recurring part as Marlo
Thomas’ theatrical agent in the sitcom “That Girl” (1966-67) and a supporting
role in the movie “With Six You Get Egg-Roll,” released in 1968.
By the end of the decade, he was one of America’s best known comedians. He made
more than 80 major television appearances during that time, including the Ed
Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he was also regularly featured
at major nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.
That early success and celebrity, however, was as dinky and hollow as a
gratuitous pratfall to Mr. Carlin. “I was entertaining the fathers and the
mothers of the people I sympathized with, and in some cases associated with, and
whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book “Going
Too Far” by Tony Hendra, which was published in 1987. “I was a traitor, in so
many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Mr. Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the
relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Mr. Carlin
reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that,
according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an
immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year
contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob
threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily
abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs
and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to
both his new image and his material.
By 1972, when he released his second album, “FM & AM,” his star was again on the
rise. The album, which won a Grammy Award as best comedy recording, combined
older material on the “AM” side with bolder, more acerbic routines on the “FM”
side. Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled
“Shoot,” in which Mr. Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the
popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine
“Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which appeared on his third album
“Class Clown,” also released in 1972.
“There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is
all right on television,” Mr. Carlin noted in his introduction to the then
controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of
yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the
redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”
The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when
broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early ‘70s. The station was
censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the
Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ‘offensive
material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Mr. Carlin refused to
drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.
By the mid-’70s, like his comic predecessor Lenny Bruce and the fast-rising
Richard Pryor, Mr. Carlin had emerged as a cultural renegade. In addition to his
irreverent jests about religion and politics, he openly talked about the use of
drugs, including acid and peyote, and said that he kicked cocaine not for moral
or legal reasons but after he found “far more pain in the deal than pleasure.”
But the edgier, more biting comedy he developed during this period, along with
his candid admission of drug use, cemented his reputation as the “comic voice of
Mr. Carlin released a half dozen comedy albums during the ‘70s, including the
million-record sellers “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” (1973) and “An Evening
With Wally Lando” (1975). He was chosen to host the first episode of the
late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. And two years later, he
found the perfect platform for his brand of acerbic, cerebral, sometimes
off-color standup humor in the fledgling, less restricted world of cable
television. By 1977, when his first HBO comedy special, “George Carlin at USC”
was aired, he was recognized as one of the era’s most influential comedians. He
also become a best-selling author of books that expanded on his comedy routines,
including “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?,” which was published by
Hyperion in 2004.
He was “a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy,” the actor Ben Stiller
told The Associated Press. “He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and
always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems,
while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats.”
Pursuing a Dream
Mr. Carlin was born in New York City in 1937. “I grew up in New York wanting to
be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio,” he said. “My
grandfather, mother and father were gifted verbally, and my mother passed that
along to me. She always made sure I was conscious of language and words.”
He quit high school to join the Air Force in the mid-’50s and, while stationed
in Shreveport, La., worked as a radio disc jockey. Discharged in 1957, he set
out to pursue his boyhood dream of becoming an actor and comic. He moved to
Boston where he met and teamed up with Jack Burns, a newscaster and comedian.
The team worked on radio stations in Boston, Fort Worth, and Los Angeles, and
performed in clubs throughout the country during the late ‘50s.
After attracting the attention of the comedian Mort Sahl, who dubbed them “a duo
of hip wits,” they appeared as guests on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
Still, the Carlin-Burns team was only moderately successful, and, in 1960, Mr.
Carlin struck out on his own.
During a career that spanned five decades, he emerged as one of the most
durable, productive and versatile comedians of his era. He evolved from Jerry
Seinfeld-like whimsy and a buttoned-down decorum in the ‘60s to counterculture
icon in the ‘70s. By the ‘80s, he was known as a scathing social critic who
could artfully wring laughs from a list of oxymorons that ranged from “jumbo
shrimp” to “military intelligence.” And in the 1990s and into the 21st century
the balding but still pony-tailed comic prowled the stage — eyes ablaze and
bristling with intensity — as the circuit’s most splenetic curmudgeon.
During his live 1996 HBO special, “Back in Town,” he raged over the shallowness
of the ‘90s “me first” culture — mocking the infatuation with camcorders,
hyphenated names, sneakers with lights on them, and lambasting white guys over
10 years old who wear their baseball hats backwards. Baby boomers, “who went
from ‘do your thing’ to ‘just say no’ ...from cocaine to Rogaine,” and pro life
advocates (“How come when it’s us it’s an abortion, and when it’s a chicken it’s
an omelet?”), were some of his prime targets. In the years following his 1977
cable debut, Mr. Carlin was nominated for a half dozen Grammy awards and
received CableAces awards for best stand-up comedy special for “George Carlin:
Doin’ It Again (1990) and “George Carlin: Jammin’ “ (1992). He also won his
second Grammy for the album “Jammin” in 1994.
During the course of his career, Mr. Carlin overcame numerous personal trials.
His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and struggle to
overcome his self-described “heavy drug use” were the most publicized. But in
the ‘80s he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open
In December 2004 he entered a rehabilitation center to address his addictions to
Vicodin and red wine. Mr. Carlin had a well-chronicled cocaine problem in his
30s, and though he was able to taper his cocaine use on his own, he said, he
continued to abuse alcohol and also became addicted to Vicodin. He entered rehab
at the end of that year, then took two months off before continuing his comedy
“Standup is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my
way of being,” Mr. Carlin once told an interviewer. “This is my art, to
interpret the world.” But, while it always took center stage in his career, Mr.
Carlin did not restrict himself to the comedy stage. He frequently indulged his
childhood fantasy of becoming a movie star. Among his later credits were
supporting parts in “Car Wash” (1976), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”
(1989), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), and “Dogma” (1999).
His 1997 book, “Brain Droppings,” became an instant best seller. And among
several continuing TV roles, he starred in the Fox sitcom “The George Carlin
Show,” which aired for one season. “That was an experiment on my part to see if
there might be a way I could fit into the corporate entertainment structure,” he
said after the show was canceled in 1994. “And I don’t,” he added.
Despite the longevity of his career and his problematic personal life, Mr.
Carlin remained one of the most original and productive comedians in show
business. “It’s his lifelong affection for language and passion for truth that
continue to fuel his performances,” a critic observed of the comedian when he
was in his mid-60s. And Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive, said, “He is as
prolific a comedian as I have witnessed.”
Mr. Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall;
son-in-law, Bob McCall, brother, Patrick Carlin and sister-in-law, Marlene
Carlin. His first wife, Brenda Hosbrook, died in 1997.
Although some criticized parts of his later work as too contentious, Mr. Carlin
defended the material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an
intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society. “Scratch any cynic,”
he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”
Still, when pushed to explain the pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into
his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints
and grievances. “I don’t have pet peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer.
And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic