The guest contestant on the 'Not My Job' segment of this week's NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is author Piper Kerman .Some of you may know who Ms. Kerman is, but for those who don't she wrote a memoir, Orange is the New Black, on which the Netflix TV series is based -- with (as she notes) takes a lot of liberties with the true story. Her interview with host Peter Sagal is pretty straightforward, going over the story of her past -- and current efforts, which includes teaching writing in state prison -- but Sagal and she are able to make it quite entertaining, including her recipe on how to make a cheesecake when in prison.
The guest contestant on this week's 'Not My Job' segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is novelist Jennifer Weiner. The particularly-fun part of the interview with host Peter Sagal is when she discusses telling her mother that her first novel (which was semi-autobiographical) was being published and that its title was Good in Bed. The quiz is also one of the funniest they've had for a very specific, odd reason.
Rachel Maddow reported on a border story last night that was (not shockingly) utterly horrible, though happily (and shockingly) has a positive ending. But as pronounced and despicable as the story is entirely on its own, there's one side note to it that adds such a profound and -- to me -- obvious level of perspective that sends it to even another level. Yet neither she, nor the NPR report she played, nor any of the articles I read touched on it. To be clear, the story doesn't even remotely need this "other level," it stands low all by itself. But still -- this other level is otherworldly. And when I told the story and connection to a friend, I only had to mention one thing, and he instantly got it, and his immediate reaction was first silence, and then, "Oh, my God..."
The very short version of the news story is that a Honduran family tried to enter the United States at El Paso, Texas, in large part because the youngest of their three children -- a little 3-year-old girl -- has a heart condition that needed treatment. The border official in charge told the family that the mother could stay in the U.S., but that the father had to be sent back across the border into Mexico. But no, that's not the horrible part. The sick part of the story is that (prepare yourself) the U.S. border official told the little 3-year old girl that she had to decide which of her parents she wanted to stay with!!!
Because the little child had a strong attachment with her mother, that's who she chose to remain with. But of course, being only 3-years-old, she didn't understand the full significance of what that meant. And when she learned that it meant she had to leave her father, she (of course) began crying, breaking into huge tears, as did all the other two children.
The good part of the story is that, thanks to a local bishop, the family was able to meet the next day with a different border official, and he approved all of them staying in the country.
But still...the fortunate ending is a lucky circumstance, most especially considering all the hellish news that envelopes this dismal situation. More to the point is -- how on earth do you force a 3-year old girl to choose which of her parents she wants to stay with???!!
And here then is the "side note" part of the news story that Maddow, NPR and all of the articles I came across didn't draw any connection to. It turns out that the little 3-year-old girl who had to choose which of her parents she would stay with was named --
When I was watching the story, I thought it likely that I didn't hear that right and rolled the program back to watch that point again, sure that I heard the name wrong. Figuring it was a name that was close, but not exact. But no, it was exact. Sofi. The 3-year-old girl forced by a guard to choose which of her parents to stay with was named "Sofi."
While I know there are many who have neither read the novel Sophie's Choice by William Styron, nor seen the movie, I suspect most have at least heard of it. The novel won the National Book Award in 1980, and the 1982 movie got five Oscar nominations and won Meryl Streep the Academy Award for Best Actress. But for those here who don't know the story, it centers on a woman in Nazi Germany being sent off to a prison camp who is forced by a Nazi official to choose which of her two little children will live, and which other they will kill.
Obviously, this connection has absolutely nothing to directly do with this recent news story at the Texas border, which stands on its own as the entire point . But it strikes me as surprising that it wouldn't get mentioned for its thoroughly-obvious, ethereal connection and overlap with the renowned novel and award-winning movie about an almost-identical subject and name. In fact, Maddow's show even had a graphic on screen quoting from the NPR radio report that read, "The agent then turned to 3-year-old Sofi and told her to make a choice."
While one explanation for leaving out any mention of the connection is that it's so obvious that people would know it and therefore wasn't necessary -- no. The novel and movie are both almost 40 years old. I feel quite certain that there is a significant segment of the TV audience weren't born for a decade or even two later that remotely doesn't know either. And besides, Rachel Maddow is a host who often spends up to 15 minutes at the beginning of her show going into a long, detailed history of events (and sometimes very well-known history at that) to put a particular story in full perspective. And I'm certain that she and her staff know the book and movie. As do the other reporters. So, I think this is more something that seems to have just fallen through the cracks. To be clear, no, mentioning the connection wasn't even remotely necessary -- but boy, do I think the added literary perspective would have been utterly fascinating to most people and, in fact, even meaningful. All the more so with the current controversy about calling the cages that separated families "concentration camps."
But that aside, what a ghastly, sick tale without any added perspective. Thank goodness that at least one family was able with help to stumble into some decency when dealing with a Trump program filled with racist hate.
You can read a detailed report about the story in Texas here from the Dallas Morning News.
Here is the 5-minute scene from the movie with the choice. If you haven't seen the film and want to avoid watching it yet, skip by. Just know that the story is about more than this moment, but how it impacted her life and those of several other people much later. This comes as a flashback near the end when we finally learn what dark moment from her past has so deeply affected all that came after for her.
Back in Los Angeles, after a bunch of delays on my flight back from Chicago.
While I was away, apparently there's been some major controversy about Disney casting a black actress to star as Ariel in the upcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid. It's a big deal on the white supremacists sites, needless-to-say, but also some Disney "purists" are beside themselves, very upset that this is not the Arilel they grew up with.
While I sort of, kind of, slightly understand the thoughts of a Disney "purist" -- that understanding only goes so far and most I couldn't care less. Not only because it's a fictional character, but also because it really doesn't seem to change much about the story.
But there's another big reason, too.
The Little Mermaid was written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. That's long, long, long, LOOOOONG before Disney adapted their version, and today's "Disney purists" first saw the story. -- which substantially changed from the original. Which is okay...though if one is going to be a "purist" it's certainly worth noting.
But even more than that, back in 1913 -- 106 years ago -- a statue of The Little Mermaid was erected in Copenhagen to honor their Hans Christian Andersen and his story. And while it's not likely that the artist was making an ethno-analysis of the character, and it's just color of the material he chose to use, he could have chosen to use any stone, and in the end, it's all we have to go on.
Yes, just in case "purists" aren't clear -- she's black.
This week, Al Franken's conversation is with author Michael Lewis, whose books include Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, Liar's Poker and many others. They discuss Lewis's latest bestseller, The Fifth Risk, which the site says, "Al calls the best book about the Trump Administration, in no small part because there’s very little focus on Trump himself. Instead, Lewis takes us inside of three Cabinet agencies – Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy – and the incompetent, venal, and/or corrupt appointees who find their way into crucial positions within the federal government."
Maybe 30 years ago or so, I was covering the American Booksellers Association convention. Among the treats of the crowded zoo were the Uncorrected Publishers Editions of books that they gave away. I picked up a few. One was a gem, of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. I’d never heard of them, and it was SO funny and insightful I ended up reading several others – the tales of an awkward, shy British kid who has dreams of being the poet laureate of the BBC.
Another than intrigued me as a fantasy novel, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It looked interesting. Both men were successful novelists on their own. Neil Gaiman wrote the books that the animated film Coraline and Starz series American Gods were based on, and also the TV series Lucifer is based on his characters. Terry Pratchett wrote the novel Going Postal – the 33rd book in his Discworld series -- that was the basis of the 2-part British mini-series – one of the most wildly-imaginative and fun TV films I’ve ever seen. (You can find it here on Netflix here.) But that Uncorrected Publishers Edition of Good Omens sat on my To Read shelf for around 20 years! (Hey, at least I kept it...)
About 10 years ago I finally had enough of procrastination and got around to reading Good Omens, and it was well-worth the wait, and I should have read it years earlier. It’s a very funny story, clever, pointed, rich and often hilarious. It tells the story of the birth of the Antichrist getting screwed up in the hospital, with the child being raised unknowingly by a nice, middle-class British couple, and 11 years later with Armageddon on the horizon, as demon, angel and counter-culture, occultist witch team up to stave it off.
And now, after many years of trying (Terry Gilliam wanted to make a film of it) and Neil Gaiman turning down offers after Terry Pratchett passed away, a six-part mini-series has been made of the book for Amazon Prime, premiering this Friday.
I have no idea how good it will be but – a) the book was wonderful, b) it’s getting good reviews, c) it’s a tough story to pull off, and d) boy, howdy does it ever have a great cast.
The wistful, flighty angel is played by Michael Sheen, with the demon who wants to save Earth because he's having too good a time is played by David Tennant, one of the more popular actors to be 'Dr. Who.'
That's a really terrific start. But the supporting cast also includes -- Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan, Frances McDormand as God, Brian Cox as Death, and Jon Hamm as a somewhat dim Archangel Gabriel, along with Derek Jacobi, Michael McKean, Nick Offerman, Miranda Richardson, and Jack Whitehall (a British comedian/actor I like very much, playing Newton Pulsifer, a sort of bewildered private witchfinder).
Great cast. Wonderful novel. And here's hoping a joyous series.
Here's the official trailer, followed immediately by the subsequent trailer that was put out, to make -- as it notes below -- a longer, extended trailer. (Two comments: the trailer makes it look like the young Antichrist is leading the way to Armageddon, though in fact -- because of how he was raised as a good kid in a middle-class British household -- he really has never had a clue who he is, although as the End of Times nears, some changes take place. And also, though there is definitely some humor and whimsy in the trailer, they focus more on the coming destruction. Though it's possible that's also the focus of the series, with humor in the background, since it has to compress the novel, my sense is that it's more a case of making the trailer as devilishly dramatic as as they can, and the series, while still most-definitely a drama about the end of the world, will have as much fun as the book.
I was sorry to read about the passing of author Herman Wouk, passed away at the seriously-impressive age of 103. Among his many books, Wouk won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny. He was given the first-ever Lifetime Achievement award for fiction writing by the Library of Congress.
Back in 2015, I posted a sequence from What's My Line?, from when he was a guest contestant on the show. I felt it only right and proper to post that video again today, along with what I wrote at the time. It's a wonderful segment, and one of my favorite from the show for it's fun twist, and for his cheery good nature.
What I wrote was --
As I've noted, the great fun for me of the Mystery Guest segments on What's My Line? is when they have people on who you'd never expect to see on a TV game show. And this fits right in with that -- although officially it's not the "Mystery Guest" segment. However, the contestant is well-known enough that the panelists play the game with their masks on because he's a popular novelist. It's Herman Wouk, author of such classics as The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar and The WInds of War, [as well as War and Remembrance -- the latter two which were made into acclaimed TV mini-series[.
However, the segment is great fun for another reason -- and not just because of having a best-selling author on with panelist Bennett Cerf, head of Random House. It's because one of the panelists is the great radio comedian Fred Allen...and much earlier in Wouk's career (known for being such a serious, thoughtful writer), he worked on the staff for Fred Allen's comedy radio show.
This is the full episode, but Herman Wouk comes in early, around the 2:30 mark.
From all the writing I've been doing about my friend Vicki Rskin's wonderful, just-published book A Hollywood Memoir about her parents, actress Fay Wray and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Nigh), I've come across a bunch of interesting videos that I thought I'd post, along with some stories. And given how many articles I've written about it already, I decided not to drag it out further and just put them all together, in one big Fay Fest.
I don’t know what this first video is from, but it has to be within the last year because they mention the Broadway musical of King Kong. It’s a piece on the original movie that uses a lot of an old interview with Fay. I do recognize the announcer, Bill Kurtis who was a very popular TV news anchor in Chicago who then went on to do national work for CBS. And later became a host on several documentary TV series. (Fun note for perspective: I found out only a few years ago that he was close friends with my dad’s cousin -- and my second cousin -- Marion Elisberg Simon, who was sort of a doyenne of Arts, social programs, and Jewish community in Chicago, and he wrote an introduction to her autobiography a few years ago. She only just passed away last year at 99.)
I also came across this fascinating video from 1998, when Fay was 91. She had been invited to come to the Oscars, and host Billy Crystal goes down into the audience to talk to her. What's interesting is that she seems surprised that he's there, which seems unlikely since you wouldn't invite a 91-year old legend to the Oscars, plan to talk to her live, and not tell her. What's also possible, if not likely, is that they did indeed tell her, and at 91 she just got the stories conflated and thought they meant to only have her stand up and wave. The point here, though, is that this is a recipe for something going very, very wrong, live on TV, with a massive worldwide audience -- and yet Fay (although a bit flustered) is sharp, bright and utterly charming. And while every moment you think it's going to go kablooey, it never does. What leaps out too are the looks of joy and awe on the faces of all these major stars in the audience, because that's Fay Wray there, at 91. (By the way, that's her daughter Vicki sitting to her left, with short dark hair and wearing a sort of plaid jacket with black lapels.)
When I noted above that Fay was charming in the video, that shouldn't come as a surprise. From all I've ever heard from Vicki, and stories from others -- including a friend who waited tables years ago and she was a regular-- that she was incredibly charming. I got to meet Fay Wray once, when she was around 92. Her son-in-law David Rintels (who's a good friend of mine) brought her to an event I was at, and he introduced us. It was a very short conversation, but long enough to make me believe every lovely thing David and Vicki and others had told me about her. Incredibly sweet.
She lived to 96, and I remember David once saying that as long as festivals would invite Fay to appear with King Kong that Fay would stick around. What’s fascinating is that she also was a very good writer, and wrote several Broadway plays, including one with Sinclair Lewis who apparently fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, though she wasn’t interested. She did have a relationship though with Clifford Odets.
My favorite story about her is when David told me that the filmmaker Peter Jackson wanted to meet with her before he made his new version of King Kong. To put perspective on the story, Jackson had of course directed, co-written and produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy which together grossed about $3 billion, of which he got a solid royalty. And his absolute favorite film growing up was King Kong. So, he REALLY wanted to meet with Fay, who was 88 at the time. A lunch was set-up between the two, and afterwards David and Vicki asked how it went. “Oh, it was fine,’ she said, “he was a very nice young man. But I really don’t think I’ll be able to invest in his movie.” She’d thought that that was why Peter Jackson – who was SO rich at that point he could have funded the movie himself -- wanted to meet with her, to help finance the film. They explained her, no, he just wanted to meet with her because he was such an admirer.
He actually offered her a role in the movie, to play the lady at the end who says the famous like, “It was beauty that killed the beast,” but she said no. Her reasoning was that “I had made my ‘King Kong,’ and this is his.”
When I went to see the remake, I was wondering if he’d give a sort of thank you to her in the end credits, having met with him. So, I waited through the looooong credits, until they got to the scroll at the end of all the names he thanks. Dozens and dozens in a very long list (including her daughter Vicki) – and then, when the long scroll of names in small print passed by there then came one final credit. In massive letters that literally filled the entire screen –
AND THE INCOMPARABLE
Every time I tell that story, the pure generosity of it by Peter Jackson and his clear affection for her almost (honestly) brings me to tears.
Fay retired from acting after marrying Robert Riskin, but when he passed away much too early from a stroke, she came out of retirement and went back to work, doing a great deal of TV shows among other work. Eventually she retired again.-- but one last time she again came out of retirement in 1980, at the age of 73, to act in one last production. But there was a good reason for it. It was the acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame TV film Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda based on the true-life landmark case that brought about the right of a defendant to counsel.whether or not it can be afforded. But that wasn't the reason she did the film -- it was because it was written and produced by David Rintels, her son-in-law, married to Vicki Riskin.
Here's her one scene, as Gideon's landlady. If you want to jump to her brief appearance, it comes at the 4:00 mark. By the way, that's her in the freeze-frame below.
Anyway, the memoir has been getting good reviews, including in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. (The mere fact that any of them -- let alone all -- reviewed it is impressive enough to me, since publishers would kill to get a book reviewed in any such a major publication.) The Post review oddly doesn’t talk about the book much, but more about the lives of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin. But it does end with this, saying: “Researching and writing this book has given Victoria Riskin — and her readers — two related pleasures: getting to know the man who championed the little guy on film and remembering the woman who screamed life into a Fay Wray doll.”
And here's a very nice Q&A that the Los Angeles Times did with Vicki just the other day. You can read it here.
I said the other day that I wouldn't post any more updates about my friend Vicki Riskin's book, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir unless it hit #1 on Amazon's Hot List for new releases in drama and plays. And I'm a man of my word.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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