RIP Larry Cohen: Maniacal Movie Maverick

While everyone on TV and social media are babbling about The Mueller Report, I came across some bigger news: Larry Cohen has passed away at age 77. You can debate politics all you want, but you can’t debate the fact that Cohen was a true artist, despite working within Exploitation genres and dealing with budgetary limitations throughout most of his career. Cohen’s unique vision was his own, and he made some truly great films – some turkeys too, granted, but his overall batting average was high indeed.

I’ve written extensively on this blog about Cohen’s film and television work because I love his style. Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, he frequently turned straw into gold. Born in Manhattan in 1941, Larry Cohen was obsessed with B-movies and hard-boiled fiction, and after graduating from CCNY with a degree in film studies, he got a job as a page at NBC. Cohen worked his way into writing, and had scripts produced for series  like SURFSIDE 6, CHECKMATE, THE DEFENDERS, THE FUGITIVE, and KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER before getting the green light on a show he created, BRANDED.

The Invaders (1967-68)

From there, Cohen created the TV spy drama BLUE LIGHT, the noirish thriller CORONET BLUE, the youth-oriented Western CUSTER, and his small screen magnum opus, the paranoiac sci-fi series THE INVADERS. I wrote a post on the Small Screen Adventures of Larry Cohen, which you can peruse by clicking this link . Cohen then turned his attention to the Big Screen, but didn’t abandon TV completely, writing the mystery TV Movie IN BROAD DAYLIGHT (starring Richard Boone), three episodes of COLUMBO, and (much later) an episode of NYPD BLUE.

Bone (1972)

Cohen’s first film screenplay was 1967’s RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT 7, a sequel to John Sturges’ 1960 classic. Yul Brynner was actually the only one of the originals who “returned”, joined by Robert Fuller and Warren Oates in this enjoyable Western. He wrote a pair of low-budget shockers (SCREAM BABY SCREAM and DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING) and another oater (the Spaghetti-influenced EL CONDOR with Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef) before getting his shot in the director’s chair with 1972’s BONE, a disturbing black comedy about a home invasion featuring Yaphet Kotto, Joyce Van Patten, and Andrew Duggan (who’d make several later appearances for Cohen). BONE wasn’t a box office hit, but it got Larry noticed by someone who would have a big influence on his career – AIP’s Samuel Z. Arkoff.

Black Caesar (1973)

At American-International, Cohen was given free rein to bring his demented vision to the screen. The Blaxpolitationer BLACK CAESAR , with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson as Harlem gangster Tommy Gibbs and a score by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, was a smash, and Arkoff pressed for an immediate sequel. Having no story written whatsoever, Cohen and his crew virtually improvised HELL UP IN HARLEM , a slam-bang actioner that was another slam-bang hit!

It’s Alive! (1974)

Cohen’s best-known picture is undoubtedly IT’S ALIVE! , an out-and-out horror movie about a killer mutant baby that became a drive-in sensation! IT’S ALIVE! finds Larry coming into his own; a totally preposterous premise, deranged special effects, tongue firmly in cheek, and a dash of social commentary thrown in to boot! IT’S ALIVE! spawned a pair of sequels, including the completely over-the-top IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, and a 2009 remake which Cohen did not direct and completely disowned.

God Told Me To (1976)

Speaking of over-the-top, 1976’s GOD TOLD ME TO is my absolute favorite Larry Cohen film, a totally twisted sci-fi saga of mass murders taking place in New York, aliens who impregnate humans, and the nature of God himself. This one finds Tony LoBianco as a cop who learns more about his past than he ever wanted to discover and Richard Lynch as… well, you just have to watch this weirdly insane little gem to find out! It’s Cohen at his bizarre best, in my opinion, and well worth seeking out for yourselves.

The Stuff (1985)

Next up was Q, Cohen’s take on classic monster movies, concerning the Aztec god-beast Quetzalcoatl, with an off-the-wall performance by Michael Moriarty as a cheap crook who discovers the beast on top of a New York skyscraper and holds the city for ransom. Candy Clark, David Carradine, and Richard “SHAFT” Rountree also take part in the madness. After SPECIAL EFFECTS, a behind-the-scenes thriller with Eric Bogosian as a demented director, Cohen came up with THE STUFF, a cult classic about some sentient goo marketed as ice cream to an unsuspecting public. Moriarty starred again, with Andrea Marcovicci and Paul Sorvino in support.

Original Gangstas (1996)

More movie madness followed: RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT, a sequel to the Stephen King novel with Moriarty and cult director Sam Fuller; DEADLY ILLUSION, an action thriller with Billy Dee Williams and Vanity; WICKED STEPMOTHER, a not quite successful film taken out of Cohen’s hands and featuring Bette Davis’ last role; THE AMBULANCE, an action comedy with Eric Roberts. Cohen’s last great movie as director was ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, returning to his Blaxploitation roots and costarring genre vets Williamson, Rountree, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal , and Jim Brown.

Cohen kept writing, creating the zombie/slasher flick MANIAC COP and its sequels (all directed by William Lustig), the neo-noir PHONE BOOTH with Colin Farrell, the thriller CELLULAR starring Chris Evans and Jason Statham, and the “torture porn” CAPTVITY with Elisha Cuthbert. Larry Cohen never ran out of ideas, but unfortunately he did run out of time. He leaves a distinctive body of work behind, a truly original, maniacal movie maverick with a singular vision and an independent streak. He made his movies his way, and we can all be thankful for that. We salute you, sir, and we’ll miss ya.

Rest in peace Larry Cohen
(1941-2019)
Thanks for the memories

 

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Familiar Faces #10: Harold Sakata, Man of Many Hats!

Most of you know burly Harold Sakata for his role as the steel-hat-flinging Oddjob in GOLDFINGER , the third movie in the James Bond franchise. But Mr. Sakata did much more than that one iconic part. In fact, you could say that Harold Sakata wore many hats during his colorful career, and not just on the Silver Screen!

He wasn’t always known as Harold “Oddjob” Sakata, his given name being Toshiyuki Sakata. Born in Holualoa, Hawaii in 1920, Harold was raised in a large family – six brothers and four sisters! Believe it of not, as a teen he was a scrawny 113 pounds, until he took up weightlifting at age 18. Harold bulked right up, and after a stint in the Army during WWII, he became a top powerlifter, so good he made the U.S Weightlifting team at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, where he won the silver medal in the light-heavyweight class by pressing 410 kg, which is more than 903 lbs! Harold also competed in bodybuilding contests, and once won the Mr. Hawaii title.

He began training to become a professional wrestler, and made his ring debut as a “good guy” in 1950. But with his 20″ neck, 50″ chest, and fearsome scowl, Harold reinvented himself as the dastardly, rule-breaking villain ‘Tosh Togo’, billed as the brother of another wrestling heel, The Great Togo. Together the pernicious pair travelled the world, winning numerous tag-team championships along the way. ‘Tosh’ also captured singles gold in Los Angeles, Texas, Puerto Rico, and his native Hawaii. During a grappling tour of Great Britain, film producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli spotted him on the telly, and thought the massive wrestler would make a great henchman in their latest James Bond epic, GOLDFINGER.

In my 2017 review, I called GOLDFINGER “the ultimate James Bond movie”, and Sakata plays a large part in making it so. He had no acting experience, but his career as a wrestling villain gave him more than enough training to play the right-hand man of Gert Frobe’s Auric Goldfinger – with no dialog, all he had to do was look menacing! It took Harold about five months to get that hat-flinging trick down pat before he finally mastered it. His “electrifying” battle with Sean Connery’s 007 is one of the series’ best, and if he had never made another movie after GOLDFINGER, his place in the James Bond Rogue’s Gallery would forever be assured.

But GOLDFINGER was just the beginning of Harold Sakata’s next career, and after roles in a trio of European movies (the German crime thriller 4 SCHLUSSER, the Spanish spy spoof BALERIC CAPER, and the French comedy SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN), he appeared in the all-star TV film THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER, produced under the aegis of the United Nations, and featuring (among others) Stephen Boyd, Yul Brynner, Angie Dickinson , Rita Hayworth , Marcello Mastroianni, Gilbert Roland, Omar Sharif, and Eli Wallach in a tale about a team of international narcs out to stop the heroin pipeline in the Middle East. The movie was “based on” a story by none other than 007 creator Ian Fleming, and directed by Bond vet Terence Young.

With Rory Calhoun on an episode of “Gilligan’s Island”

Harold was next cast as crime boss Big Buddha in the sci-fi/spy flick DIMENSION 5, a low-budget effort starring Jeffrey Hunter and France Nuyen. He was no stranger to episodic TV either, appearing on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND in a spoof of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME as the henchman of big-game hunter Rory Calhoun, who’s out to hunt down a man – namely Gilligan! Around this time he also showed up on variety shows like THE JERRY LEWIS SHOW and ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN. After appearing in the all-star bomb THE PHYNX , Sakata landed a regular role on SARGE, starring Oscar winner George Kennedy as a cop-turned-priest, with Harold as Sarge’s cook at the mission who just happens to be a martial arts expert. The series lasted but one season.

In William Grefe’s “Impulse” (1974)

Yet Harold pressed on, landing a part in Florida filmmaker William Grefe’s 1974 horror movie IMPULSE, starring William Shatner as a serial killer of rich widows! He also played in another Grefe epic, 1976’s MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH, one of the first of the Spielberg rip-offs. He kept active on television too, guest starring on HAWAII 5-0, THE BLUE KNIGHT (with old pal Kennedy), QUINCY, POLICE WOMAN, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. He was also noted for starring in a series of TV commercials for Vicks Formula 44 Cough Syrup, dressed in his ‘Oddjob” get-up, as a man whose coughing fits cause destruction before he takes his dose:

Sakata parodied his TV ads on an episode of Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW, with hilarious results!:

The remainder of his film resume includes turkeys such as THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON, DEATH DIMENSION ( an Al Adamson film featuring Jim ‘BLACK BELT JONES’ Kelly and ex-Bond George Lazenby !), GOIN’ COCONUTS (starring Donny & Marie Osmond!), and a recurring role on  the short-lived horror comedy sitcom HIGHCLIFFE MANOR. Harold Sakata died of liver cancer on July 29, 1982 in a Honolulu hospital, and though his film career wasn’t really very memorable, the man himself certainly was. He did indeed wear many hats during his colorful lifetime, from Olympic strongman to pro wrestler to iconic James Bond villain to TV pitchman, and Harold Sakata is still fondly remembered by his legions of fans – including Yours Truly!

Spot more “Familiar Faces” on Cracked Rear Viewer:

Hank Worden  – Martin Kosleck – Esther Howard – Rainbeaux Smith – Samuel S. Hinds  – Jack Norton – Gordon Jones – Angelique Pettyjohn – Ethelreda Leopold

RIP 20th Century-Fox (1935-2019)

The failing Fox Film Corporation merged with Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent 20th Century Pictures in 1935, and quickly joined the ranks of the major studios of the day (MGM, Paramount, Warners, Universal, Columbia). Over the decades, the trumpet blows sounding the logo for 20th Century-Fox  became familiar to film fans around the world. Now, the studio has been purchased outright by The Walt Disney Company, and will be just another subsidiary to the House The Mouse Built. In tribute to 20th Century-Fox, Cracked Rear Viewer presents a small but glittering gallery of stars and films from the vault of that magnificent movie making machine, 20th Century-Fox:

20th Century-Fox’s first release was the bizarre drama “Dante’s Inferno” starring Spencer Tracy
Sweet little Shirley Temple was Fox’s biggest star of the 1930’s
Warner Oland as sleuth Charlie Chan was popular with audiences and critics alike (here with Boris Karloff in “Charlie Chan at the Opera”)
Sonja Henie skated her way into filmgoer’s hearts in musicals like “One in a Million”
If one Oriental sleuth is good, two is better: Peter Lorre starred in a series of mysteries as Mr. Moto
Dshing Tyrone Power swashbuckled his way through movies like “The Mark of Zorro”
Director John Ford made many of his classics at 20th Century-Fox, such as “The Grapes of Wrath”
Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” was the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar winner
Contract player Betty Grable was the Most Popular Pin-Up Girl of WWII
The studio was known for film noir classics like Otto Preminger’s “Laura”
Richard Widmark freaked audiences out as giggling psycho Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death”
Arch, sarcastic Clifton Webb starred in a popular series of comedies as Mr. Belvedere
‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night’: Bette Davis in the Oscar-winning “All About Eve”
Marilyn Monroe wowed ’em as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”
Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte sizzled the screen in “Carmen Jones”
Jayne Mansfield rocked the film world in Frank Tashlin’s “The Girl Can’t Help It”
Ed Wynn, Millie Perkins, and Richard Beymer starred in the dramatic true story “The Diary of Anne Frank”
Elvis Presley got a chance to display his acting talent in director Don Siegal’s “Flaming Star”
Comedian Jackie Gleason had a rare dramatic turn opposite Paul Newman in “The Hustler”
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor began their torrid affair on the set of “Cleopatra”; the film itself nearly sunk the studio
“The hills are alive, with the sound of” Julie Andrews singing in “The Sound of Music”
Holy Camp Craze! Fox brought Burt Ward and Adam West to the big screen in 1966’s “Batman”
‘Take your filthy paws off me, you damned dirty ape”: Charlton Heston monkeyed around in the sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes”
“Who are those guys?”: Why, they’re Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
George C. Scott won (and refused) the Oscar for the 1970 biopic “Patton”
“Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”: Gene Hackman as tough cop Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection”
An all-star cast had their world turned upside down in Irwin Allen’s disaster flick “The Poseidon Adventure”
‘May the Force Be with You”: battle of the light sabres from 1977’s “Star Wars”

 

RIP Jan-Michael Vincent: A Pictorial Tribute

Jan-Michael Vincent has passed away at age 74. Though the actor suffered many trials and tribulations in his personal life, there’s no doubt his onscreen presence connected with audiences of the 70’s and 80’s. In his honor, we present ten shots from the film and TV career of Jan-Michael Vincent:

Tribes (TV-Movie 1970; D: Joseph Sargent)
Going Home (1971; D: Herbert B. Leonard)
The Mechanic (1972; D: Michael Winner)
The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973; D: Robert Scheerer)
White Line Fever (1975; D: Jonathan Kaplan)
Damnation Alley (1977; D: Jack Smight)
Big Wednesday (1978; D: John Milius)
Defiance (1980; D: John Flynn)
The Winds of War (TV-Miniseries 1983; D: Dan Curtis)
Airwolf (TV Series, 1984-87)

Rest in peace, Jan-Michael Vincent (1944-2019)

What A Glorious Feeling: On Stanely Donen and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (MGM 1952)

I constantly tout CASABLANCA as my all-time favorite movie here on this blog, but I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about my second favorite, 1952’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Sadly, that opportunity has finally arisen with the death today of Stanley Donen at age 94, the producer/director/choreographer of some of Hollywood’s greatest musicals. Donen, along with his longtime  friend Gene Kelly, helped bring the musical genre to dazzling new heights with their innovative style, and nowhere is that more evident than in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is fairly simple: Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are a pair of silent screen stars for Monumental Pictures. Lina believes the studio publicity hype about them being romantically linked, though Don can barely tolerate her. At the premiere of their latest film, Don is mobbed by rabid fans, and jumps into a car driven by young Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who tells him she’s a serious stage actress and looks down on the movie crowd. In reality, Kathy’s a chorus girl, as Don finds out when she pops out of a cake at a studio party! Don falls for her, while Lina fumes.

When THE JAZZ SINGER is released, Monumental Studios boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) wants to jump on the talkie bandwagon with the next Lockwood/Lamont epic, THE DUELING CAVALIER. But try as they may, the studio can’t fix Lina’s squeaky, Bronx-accented voice. Music department head Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor as Kelly’s former vaudeville partner) comes up with a brilliant idea: they can dub Kathy’s pleasant voice to replace Lina’s Bronx screech. Lina finds out about the subterfuge, and invokes a clause in her contract to not give Kathy screen credit… or else! At the movie’s premiere, Lina is exposed, Don and Kathy are united and, as they say in Hollywood, live happily ever after!


Producer Arthur Freed wanted to build a film around songs from older musicals he’d written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown: tunes from BABES IN ARMS, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, COLLEGE COACH, GOING HOLLYWOOD, and HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, among others, and screenwriter Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with the deliciously funny script. The many, many musical highlights include the wistful “You Were Meant For Me”, with  Kelly serenading Reynolds on an abandoned studio set; O’Connor’s hilarious solo slapstick number “Make ‘Em Laugh”; Kelly and O’Connor dueting on the tongue-twisting, energetic fast-tap “Moses Supposes”;  all three doing the bright, peppy “Good Morning”; and of course, the glorious, life-affirming “Singin’ in the Rain”:

The film also features the ambitious, exhilarating 13-minute “Broadway Melody Ballet”, a fantasy sequence in which Kelly describes to Mitchell “the story of a young hoofer who comes to New York”. It’s a highly stylized cinematic wonderland that incorporates tap, ballet, comic dancing, and athleticism, not to mention the long-limbed Cyd Charisse  as “The Vamp”, exuding pure sex in her dance with Kelly. Any film fan who isn’t thrilled by this brilliant piece of movie magic better check their pulse!

“A shining star in the cinema firmament”: Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jean Hagen’s sparkling performance as Lina Lamont. Hagen plays the character to the comic hilt as the dizzy, petulant “shining star of the cinema firmament” who believes her own pub, yet lost the Best Supporting Actress Award to Gloria Grahame’s brief (not even ten minutes!) turn in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL – Another Oscar Crime!!  Familiar Face spotters will want to be on the lookout for Dawn Addams, Madge Blake, Mae Clarke , King Donovan, Douglas Fowley (as movie director Roscoe Dexter), Bess Flowers, Kathleen Freeman (Lina’s frustrated diction coach), Robert Foulke, Joi Lansing, Rita Moreno (as Lina’s pal Zelda), and silent comic Snub Pollard (the man who winds up with Kelly’s umbrella).

The animated sequence in “Anchors Aweigh” was Donen’s idea

Stanley Donen first met Gene Kelly while working in the chorus on Kelly’s Broadway hit PAL JOEY. The two hit it off, and Donen became assistant choreographer for Kelly’s next stage hit, BEST FOOT FORWARD. He travelled to Hollywood for the film version, and assisted Kelly in creating the dance numbers for COVER GIRL , including the marvelous “Alter Ego” scene which found Kelly dancing with himself! ANCHORS AWEIGH found the pair creating the memorable animated sequence with Tom & Jerry; LIVING IN A BIG WAY and TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME followed. The success of the latter film led to MGM giving Kelly and Donen co-directing chores for ON THE TOWN, much of which was shot in New York City, bringing the Hollywood musical outside the studio confines for the first time and opening up a whole new vista for the genre. While Kelly was making AN AMERICAN IN PARIS with Vincente Minnelli, Donen was given his first solo project, 1951’s ROYAL WEDDING, featuring Fred Astaire doing the unique “dancing on the ceiling” number, which Donen helped recreate when he directed this 1986 Lionel Ritchie video:

After SINGIN’, Kelly and Donen teamed once more for IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, but tensions between the two caused a falling out. Donen had had success with his SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, while Kelly’s solo directorial efforts were met with mixed reviews. Donen went on to make three more classic musicals: FUNNY FACE with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, THE PAJAMA GAME starring Doris Day, and the baseball-themed DAMN YANKEES. He also directed a string of non-musical romantic comedies beginning with 1958’s INDISCREET, featuring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman reuniting for the first time since Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS . He guided Grant again in 1963’s Hitchcock-influenced CHARADE, with Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all involved in international intrigue. 1966’s ARABESQUE continued in this vein, only with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren the glamorous stars. TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967) starred Audrey and the late Albert Finney as a couple examining their 12 year relationship while journeying through France. Told in flashbacks and out-of-sequence, it can be difficult to follow at times, but is worth the effort.

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998

Donen’s later career was hit and miss: I liked his BEDAZZLED (with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Raquel Welch), LUCKY LADY (with Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, and Gene Hackman) has its moments, and MOVIE MOVIE is an enjoyably nostalgic tribute to the days of the double feature. I can’t say much  for SATURN 5 or BLAME IT ON RIO, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Donen was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998 for his body of work, but when the Academy announced their new voting rules a few years back, he was a staunch critic of the obvious ageism. Stanley Donen was one of the last living great directors of The Golden Age, and will surely be missed by the film community, especially by his companion of the past twenty years, the multi-talented Elaine May. Bogart says in CASABLANCA, “We’ll always have Paris”; for all us Stanley Donen lovers, we’ll always have SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

Rest in peace, Stanley Donen
(1924-2019)

Confession of a TV Addict #13: Remembering Peter Tork and The Monkees

Before the advent of cable and MTV and music videos, there was The Monkees. Now I know some of you are going give me flak about “The Pre-Fab Four”, how they weren’t a real band, just a commercialized, bubblegum TV concept, so let me put this in perspective… if you were an eight-year-old kid  like me back in The Monkees’ heyday, you watched the show every week, bought the records, and actually enjoyed them! That’s where I’m coming from, and that’s why I’m writing this tribute to the late Peter Tork, who passed away today of cancer at age 77.

Peter Thorkleson was born in Washington, D.C. on February 13, 1942, and as a child loved music, learning to play piano, guitar, bass, and banjo early on. After college, he shortened his name to Tork and hit New York City, becoming part of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene. He was always a musician first and foremost, but when his friend and fellow folkie Stephen Stills (who went on to a pretty damn successful career of his own!) tried out for a part in a new “rock and roll sitcom”, he was turned down, but recommended his pal Pete audition. The young Tork was cast, along with ex-CIRCUS BOY star Mickey Dolenz, Broadway singer/actor Davy Jones, and another musician, Michael Nesmith.

(clockwise from left): Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones

THE MONKEES made its network debut on September 12, 1966, and was an immediate smash! A mash-up of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT , Marx Brothers-style madness, quick jump cuts, and what would later be known as music videos, Monkeemania swept the country, as kids and teenyboppers drank in the weekly ‘youth culture’ antics of these four telegenic stars. Peter was the ‘Ringo’ figure of the group, his character a lovable loser with a sad sack face and not much sense. The Monkees soon found themselves on the covers of teen magazines and racked up such #1 hits as “Last Train to Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, and “Daydream Believer”:

Though all four were accomplished musicians, only Tork was allowed to play on their first two albums. The musicians used were definitely no slouches; session players like Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jim Gordon, Louie Shelton, and Larry Taylor all contributed to various tracks. But The Monkees, now bona fide superstars, rebelled, and beginning with their third LP played their own instruments (and yes, that’s really Tork doing the piano intro on “Daydream Believer”). But like most fads, Monkeemania subsided, and the show ended its run in 1968. The boys went on to star in HEAD , a Jack Nicholson-penned, Bob Rafelson-directed  piece of psychedelia that bombed at the box office – the younger kids were turned off by it, and the older hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead watching The Monkees! The movie has since become somewhat of a cult classic, and is worth a look.

Tork in the 70’s

Peter was the first to leave the group, dissatisfied over their musical direction and off-screen bickering. He drifted back to his roots, trying to get a folk-blues band called Peter Tork And/or Release off the ground without success. He was pretty well broke by 1970, a scant two years after Monkeemania, and a bust for possession of hashish landed Tork three months in a Oklahoma prison. The end of the 70’s found Tork working as a teacher in California  (teaching music of course!) and gigging around in small clubs.

Then came the 80’s, and MTV began rerunning THE MONKEES episodes, and suddenly The Monkees were hot again! A tour was put together with Tork, Jones, and Dolenz (Nesmith declined to participate), and the band continued to tour sporadically over the years. I was fortunate enough to catch them in the early 90’s (along with 60’s favorites The Turtles, The Grass Roots, and Gary Puckett), and their combination of comedy and nostalgic hits was one fun night! Over the years, Peter Tork continued to tour with The Monkees and in smaller venues on his own, playing with his blues/rock band Shoe Suede Blues. 90’s kids will remember him for his guest appearances as Topanga’s dad on BOY MEETS WORLD. Peter Tork certainly had a wild ride during his lifetime, but was blessed to spend it doing what he loved – playing music. Say what you will about The Monkees, but the eight-year-old boy in me will sure miss him.

(I’m A) King “B”: RIP Dick Miller

Dick Miller in ‘Rock All Night’

If you’re a Roger Corman fan, you know Dick Miller . If you enjoy the films of Joe Dante, you know Dick Miller. Hell, if you’ve watched movies for the past sixty years, you know Dick Miller, maybe not by name, but certainly by sight. Dick Miller, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, was one of those character actors who elevated everything he did, even the schlockiest of schlock. He’s in some of my favorite films, never a big star but always a welcome presence, and the ultimate Familiar Face.

Miller was born in the Bronx on Christmas Day 1928 and caught the show biz bug early. By age 8 he was working as a “boy singer” in the Catskills, and as a teen he worked in various stock companies, doing everything from acting to painting scenery. After a hitch in the Navy, the young man continued to work on the stage, also going to college and (are you ready for this?) earning his PhD in psychology!

Miller made his screen debut in Roger Corman’s ‘Apache Woman’

Heading out to Hollywood to write screenplays, he met an ambitious young director by the name of Roger Corman, who told Miller he was looking for actors, not writers. Miller responded, “So I’m an actor”, and Corman cast him in APACHE WOMAN, along with his friend, struggling actor Jonathan Haze. Miller was cast as an Indian, but was called back to also play a cowboy shooting at the Indians, and can be seen as both in the film! This is the movie where Miller once jested he ended up shooting himself!

Walter Paisley and one of his kooky creations in ‘A Bucket of Blood’

Dick Miller didn’t appear in all of Roger Corman’s low-budget epics; it only seems like it! Miller appeared for Corman twenty times, and starred in 1957’s ROCK ALL NIGHT and WAR OF THE SATTELITES. But his biggest (and best) role for Rapid Roger was in 1959’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD , a hip comedy-horror about sad sack wanna-be sculptor Walter Paisley, who discovers an ingenious way to break into the art world. A BUCKET OF BLOOD is Miller’s tour de force, and Miller was so fond of the nebbish Walter he used the name in five other film and TV appearances.

As Murray Futterman in Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’

Director Joe Dante was also a Dick Miller fan, and cast the actor in sixteen films, beginning with his first, the loopy satire HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. Miller plays Candice Rialson’s agent, named… Walter Paisley! Miller’s most famous part for Dante was as Zach Galligan’s neighbor Murray Futterman in GREMLINS and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. He also made nine movies with Jonathan Kaplan, including NIGHT CALL NURSES, THE STUDENT TEACHERS, TRUCK TURNER, HEART LIKE A WHEEL, PROJECT X, and UNLAWFUL ENTRY. A list of his total credits would take all night, so I’ll just mention a few notables: DEATH RACE 2000, ROCK’N’ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, SWING SHIFT, THE TERMINATOR, and CHOPPING MALL.

Miller toasting a friend in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’

Miller was no stranger to TV either, appearing in everything from M SQUAD to THE UNTOUCHABLES, BONANZA to GUNSMOKE, DRAGNET to POLICE SQUAD!, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE to FREDDIE’S NIGHTMARES. He had a semi-regular role as bartender Lou Mackie on FAME from 1984-87. In 2014, a documentary on his life and work called (appropriately) THAT GUY DICK MILLER was released. Dick Miller was loved and respected by his peers, and even though he mainly appeared in ‘B’ movies, he always gave an ‘A’ performance, giving us our money’s worth. That’s why Corman, Dante, and so many others constantly hired Dick Miller to play in their films. He always delivered the goods, and he’ll be missed by film fans everywhere.