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.
I did say "Updates as they occur," so here's the latest for Vicki Riskin's memoir, from Amazon's Hot List of new releases in drama and plays. Now at #3 AND #4 for Kindle and hardcover.
Not to worry, no more updates unless it hits #1. But for now --
The other day, a friend mentioned something that had just happened to him, which in turn reminded me of one of my all-time favorite comic stories, written by James Thurber and given a tremendous rendition when done in the off-Broadway revue A Thurber Carnival in 1960, a show which ran for 223 performances. I realized that rather than tell my friend about it, or try to get him to read the story, which I didn't know the chances of that, I should see if I could track down the cast recording. And indeed, the audio was there on YouTube.
The story is File and Forget, and I will say no more about it, since much of its fun is how the thing develops. The cast of the show, most of whom are in this sketch, are gems. Many of the names aren't well-known today, though some are and all were high quality names at the time. Tom Ewell plays Thurber in the sketch, and others include Paul Ford, Peggy Cass, John McGiver and Alice Ghostley. And there's near-perfect underscoring music to complement it all.
One fun historic note. Fun, but one of those stories that makes me SO wish I could have seen it live, or at least if only there was video of it. The story is that James Thurber was a bit of a ham, and for a few weeks into the run, the producers had the brilliant idea to bring in Thurber to play himself! Because he was legally blind, they built a sort of conveyor belt with a chair on it, to bring him onstage and off. And, of my, do I wish there was a video of that.
Happily, there's audio of the selection.
Just a quick update to let you know that my friend Vicki Riskin's book about her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, was published four days ago. And as of 3 PM today, the Kindle edition is on the Amazon Hot List for New Releases in Drama & Plays at #5! And the hardcover edition is #7!
(When I received an email alerting me to both editions making the list, the note said the Kindle version was #9, and the hardcover was #17. Within an hour, those figures had to be revised upward....)
As I always say, I tries not to steers ya wrong. And here's hoping that it continues to climb up the various lists. Updates as they occur...
You may recall that a couple weeks ago, I wrote a massive rave about a new book by my friend Vicki Riskin, a double memoir about her parents, the actress Fay Wray and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, called, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Love Story.
(Yes, yes, I know that yesterday was the Big Hearing in Congress, but I did write about it twice yesterday, albeit briefly. But mainly, hey, Vicki is my friend, and I have my priorities...)
Anyway, among a great many things that I wrote in my lavish praise of the book was this paragraph --
"But the main reason I loved the book is that it did in a memoir what I look for when reading biographies of any sort. I tend to wade in very warily when I read biographies, most-especially celebrity biographies. What I like in any memoir is not so much that it's just nice tales of famous people's lives, but that it's as much a history book of the times with "edges" and shadings that give context. And to my great pleasure, this is that. It is not a mere collection of stories by a loving daughter putting her family world in the most-shining light, but rather about the Depression, the Golden Age of Hollywood, world war, McCarthyism (with her father being a target, despite his work for the government's war effort) and more -- at the center of which are the two separate lives of the author's parents pushing through it all until they finally meet. Fascinatingly, that meeting doesn't even come until the last third of the book, so it's like following a winding path of successes and major hurdles before simply getting to that point."
My biggest concern with my rave was that people wouldn't believe me, that they'd think it was just my friendship kicking in and biasing my opinion, no matter how much I bent over backwards to explain why I was trying my best to be objective and honest, that being otherwise would risk(in) my credibility for future reviews. Sometimes I am, admittedly, biased, but I state that. In this case, I was being absolutely objective and honest.
I now point you to the first paragraph in a review of the book by the Associated Press, published yesterday.
"If there was an Academy Award for movie books, Victoria Riskin would be making room beside the Oscar her father won for writing the romantic comedy classic 'It Happened One Night.' Part biography, part Hollywood history, part love story, Riskin’s memoir about her parents is captivating and poignant."
And it ends with --
"A psychologist who turned to writing and producing for television, Victoria Riskin enhances her family history with delightful (and sometimes damning) vignettes of movie people. With readers she shares a special sense of discovery: seeing a parent try to find their place and hoping to love and be loved when they get there. Just like in the movies."
And if that isn't enough, here's the first paragraph of the book's rave review in the Wall Street Journal --
"To know Fay Wray was to adore her. She had a joyous, jubilant personality and retained her can-do outlook to the end, living until she was 96 despite a life that offered more than her fair share of problems. In 'Fay Wray and Robert Riskin,' Victoria Riskin remembers her parents with warmth and a perceptible touch of melancholy.
Told you so, told you so, told you so.
It really is that wonderful. Honest. If you want to read the full, glowing review by Douglass K. Daniel, you can find it here. I'd give you the link to the Wall Street Journal review, but you have to be a subscriber to access the full thing. Oh, okay, for those who are subscriber's, it's here.
The book is really terrific, and it's now officially be published, as of a couple days ago. For those interested in getting it, or want to check out more about the book, you can find it here on its Amazon page.
And again, yes, the book is really terrific, with a double emphasis on the "really" -- not just as an adverb to reinforce "terrific," but to mean...HONEST. It really is.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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