This is the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony for composer Richard Rodgers in 1978. It's very enjoyable, though I did expect bigger, more dramatic entertainment, given the subject. Still, it's fun, especially the introduction by Mary Martin, who starred in two legendary Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musicals, South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
I absolutely love Michael Palin. Love, love, love his work. Everyhing Python, of course, but also Ripping Yarns, his many travel documentaries (most especially the joyous Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole), and his movies, from A Fish Called Wanda to A Private Function (an odd film, but he's a joy) to Brazil to the recent The Death of Stalin, and folderol in between. The good news is that he's done so much work that's there still a great deal left to see.
And here's a wonderfully-enjoyable hour-long BBC documentary on the good fellow, A Life on Screen, done just this year.
Back in my dark days of doing movie PR, I was working at Universal Pictures when we released Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. And one of my assignments was to moderate a Q&A with the Python gang after a screening of that film -- alas, it has ever been a disappointment that he was the one Python who couldn't make it. (Side note: I was bowled over by how nice his writing partner Terry Jones was. And surprised by how nice Eric Idle was.)
But I know that Michael Palin would have been even nicer. I say that because my good friend, the writer-director Rob Hedden made a documentary early in his career about the making of Brazil, and raved about how amazingly nice Palin was. He's shown me outtakes of the day he went to Palin's home to interview him which has just heartwarming and hilarious. But then, what's in the movie is aces enough. Most actors hate doing behind-the-scene interviews during a production, you have to maneuver around their schedules and back them into a corner until they can't back out. But when Rob and his small crew (which included his wife, Jan) showed up at Palin's home on an off-day (P.S. as much as actors hate doing behind-the-scenes interviews during a production...they ABSOLUTELY HATE doing them on their off-days. The phrase you hear is -- "No. It's my OFF-DAY") -- he not only graciously gave them as much time as they needed...but suggested that rather than just a simple sit-down interview, how about if he did a number of sketches as different characters, playing various staff members of Michael Palin protecting him from the film crew. Oh, and since the filming took a long time, he invited the crew in and made them lunch.
That's why I feel comfortable saying he would have been nicer.
(I wrote about Rob's documentary, What is Brazil? and embedded the 30-minute documentary, which you can see here. It's one of the best "making of" documentaries I've ever seen. Yes, he's my friend, but I'm not alone -- it won two awards and even showed at the Smithsonian Institution. And by the way, when this BBC documentary deals with Palin's appearance in Brazil...they actually use several sequences from Rob's documentary! If you look in the lower left corner, you can see the credit to What is Brazil? and Rob as director. But I digress.)
For all the joking they make about his travel documentaries for the BBC, they're absolutely wonderful. The two I mentioned above are particularly great, but most especially Around the World in 80 Days. They don't explain what about it makes it so great -- probably because most of the British audience knows -- but it's unique. It's one of the rare travel documentaries with a plot. Palin tries to recreate Phileas Fogg's journey in Jules Verne's classic, and so there are deadlines to make connections through the multi-part series, so there's conflict throughout, and it actually builds to an exciting conclusion. Pole to Pole -- which makes a trip between poles -- does sort of the same thing (trying to make the trip before weather closes travel off), and it's very good, though the first remains the best.
A few notes. At one point, he refers to getting a letter of praise from "Spike." That's Spike Milligan, one of the creators of The Goon Show, which Palin earlier references as his comic inspiration. Also, there are several interview with Connie Booth, who later appeared with Palin in a movie he co-wrote -- but she's also John Cleese's ex-wife, and one of the co-creators and stars (as the maid, 'Polly') of Fawlty Towers. And finally, at about the 44-minute mark something goes bizarre with the sound for about three minutes. The picture continues, but it's like we get the opening three minutes of sound instead. But then it reverts to normal at around 47-minutes. I have no idea what happened, but clearly that isn't the way it went out over the BBC.
All that said, here's the BBC documentary
I've mentioned my friend Myles Berkowitz here occasionally over time. He's a terrific guy and unique. Among other things, he has a political philosophy that he likes to say is "libertarian," but he's wrong since it's like no libertarian known to mankind. It's a combination of liberal libertarian, conservative libertarian, liberal, and some positions that don't follow known-standards, along with on occasion even a little-discovered corner of conservative. I've never heard a similar political philosophy. I tell him he is a Mylesist, because that's the only way to describe it.
This isn't about politics, though. Among Myles' background, I should note is that he attended Wharton School of Management. And unlike Trump, a) got in on his grades, b) went there the full two years, c) didn't transfer in halfway through, and d) actually did very well. (Still, it's fun to annoy Myles when appropriate by saying, "Oh, like Trump?") I believe he was president of his class, but I've never quite understood a universe where this could happen. I do know that one of his professors there was William Kristol -- yes, that William Kristol. And to this day, it galls Myles that Kristol only gave him a B on a paper, and that's just because he went into the office to argue it up from a lower grade. (The story doesn't end there. Several years later, Myles was walking through New York when he saw the office building where he knew William Kristol's father worked -- Irving Kristol was the managing editor of Commentary magazine and is considered the "godfather" of neoconservatism. And Myles went to Irving Kristol's office. Why? To tell him about his son giving Myles a B on that paper, and complaining about it. No, really.)
I told you, he's unique. I don't lie to you folks.
But this isn't about college degrees. In recent years, Myles has been an entrepreneur and, among other things, was the co-founder of a "portion control" diet product, Lifesize, which I wrote about here. The company is still in its start-up stage, though it got a terrific article in the New York Times, which my piece links to, as well, for those interested in reading about such things.
But this isn't about Lifesize either. That's because before this -- in quite a few years back -- Myles had a career in movies and television. He stills dabbles in it when he has the time and inclination, but he began as an actor, and then morphed into a writer, and then director. In fact, he made an absolutely wonderful fake-documentary for Fox Searchlight in 1998 called 20 Dates. I don't call it a mockumentary, because those are films done in a documentary style, but you know they're fake. 20 Dates looks and feels like an actual documentary, and to this day most people who've seen it swear that it is one. And the odd thing is some actually is, but 92% is a structured story. There's no script, but an outline, so that part is ad-libbed, sort of like what Larry David later did with Curb Your Enthusiasm -- though that's clearly a work of fiction. As I said, 20 Dates looks like an actual documentary.
(The plot of the film is that a character named Myles Berkowitz has convinced a producer, Elie Samaha, that he should fund a movie documentary about Myles trying to find true love by going on 20 dates. And he'll film all of this for a movie. It's worth noting that Elie Samaha is the film's actual producer and was married at the time to actress Tia Carrere. The phone conversations you hear in the movie with Elie often yelling at Myles about the film and budget and casting are real. And so are a couple of the dates Myles goes on. And so too are the on-camera interviews with Myles' friends who are prompted to be honest about describing Myles -- and they're brutally and hilariously so. But all that takes up only about 8% of the movie. The rest of the film is fiction. Including the scenes with Elie's wife, Tia Carrere. And actress Julie McCullough playing herself. (From the series, Growing Pains, and most recently the Sharknado TV films.) That's why it's so difficult for people to grasp that the movie isn't a real documentary. It's that well-done, with everything blended together. Alas, for reasons unknown to man, Fox Searchlight has never put it on DVD. Though they did have a VHS release at the time. And even put out a soundtrack.)
Happily, though, the trailer for the movie is available. It's not much to have, but it's better than nothing. And it gives a pretty good sense of the movie. It includes a bunch of his efforts to meet women -- I won't tell you which ones are real and which are set up, they're that natural, and much of the fun is trying to figure it out. I will say, though, that the sequence of him trying to drive onto movie studio lots is real. (The trailer only has a short clip of that here.) He didn't tell the security guards it was for a movie until after the fact, when he needed them to sign a release. And the shot when the camera goes haywire -- that was real. (The cameraman following behind on a date walked into a fire hydrant. Myles left it in, since understandably it added to the sense of total believability.)
Here it is --
For goodness sake, Fox Searchlight -- put this out on DVD already!!
Oh, and by the way, this article here isn't about 20 Dates either. Well, not exactly, but tangentially. However, all this background is necessary to put the proper perspective on what it's all actually about. And in the end, it's also to show you that as brash, annoying and funny as Myles Berkowitz is, he's also incredibly thoughtful, warm and charming.
About a month ago, Myles got a letter from a guy who'd tracked him down. The fellow was about to celebrate his first anniversary, and his wife's very favorite movie in the world was...20 Dates. She and her sister would watch it relentlessly. (She had a VHS copy.) And the guy decided for their first anniversary he wanted to do something special related to his wife's most-favorite movie in the entire world.
And what that was is, after tracking down Myles, he asked if Myles would write something special to her -- on paper, since the first anniversary is paper. Now, mind you, the husband could have asked for a signed photograph. Or a signed poster. Both paper. But no, he asked the filmmaker to write something to his wife that would be meaningful for their first anniversary. Most filmmakers would probably answer, "That's very nice of you to ask, but I write for a living and get paid for it. But I'm happy to sign a 8x10 glossy for you." Or "Fine, you write something out for me, and I'll handwrite a copy and sign it." Or perhaps, "Get lost." But Myles being Myles said, "Okay."
I told you he was unique.
Myles said the guy was pretty unrelenting about it and sort of pushy. "But how could I turn him down? That's pretty much how I am, too, and the character in the movie." So, it just seemed too natural to him.
And here is what he wrote. It's awfully good. The couple's anniversary, by the way, was this past Sunday. Myles asked me to wait until after it passed before I posted this.
So, here you are --
Dear Melinda (not her real name),
Congratulations on your one-year anniversary. This being your paper anniversary, I did something I haven’t done in many years – I went to the Post Office and mailed a letter.
I’m just grateful this isn’t your 11th anniversary because it is almost impossible to write on steel, and I would have had to use a lot more stamps to mail that letter.
Your husband tells me that you and your sister Toni used to watch “20 Dates” over and over again when you were growing up. So I have one question for you ladies –
Why have you stopped?
Now while I don’t know if Toni learned anything from my movie, apparently you have. You seem to have found, dated and married a great guy.
Matt asked me to maybe give you some wisdom on your anniversary. The problem is…”20 Dates” is about dating, not marriage. And while I don’t know if it had a lot of good advice about dating, I know it was very inspirational to a lot of couples.
I don’t mean to brag, but I can’t tell you how many women have come up to me and thanked me for making the movie over the years because, they said, after watching me they realized that the guy they were with wasn’t so bad after all.
Actually, maybe you should be the one giving marriage advice because while I don’t know Matt for longer than a brief phone conversation, the fact that he knew you liked my movie, took the time to think about something clever to give you for your first anniversary, and then actually reached out to me speaks volume. Just to make sure you get it –
The man thinks about you without you knowing it, and tries to make you happy. Which perhaps is the secret of a joyous and long marriage right there.
I hope if you try to do something like this for his birthday that his favorite movie isn’t something like “Casablanca,” because, you know, they’re all dead by now so no one will be sending letters.
I also hope, and I want you to promise me, that on your 20th Anniversary you include me in your celebration then too. But I’m telling you right now, and to be very clear, I will be sending you some china…not sending you, and Matt and Matt Jr. to China.
I've been remiss in not mentioning the passing of Barbara Cook, who died on Tuesday at the age of 89. She had a legendary career on Broadway, yet kept working as a solo concert performer until late in her life. But she even still performed on Broadway as recently as 2010 in the revue, Sondheim on Sondheim.
I suspect most people have a reasonable sense of her highlights, most notably creating the role of 'Marian the Librarian" in The Music Man, as well as 'Cunegonde' in Candide and 'Miss Balish' in She Loves Me. There's a lot more, like Plain and Fancy, and The Grass Harp, along with numerous revival productions on Broadway, like The King and I, and Show Boat, and national tours of Funny Girl and The Unsinkable Molly Brown,
And lots more. Lots. But rather than go into it all, here's the musical section of when she received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2011.
There's another video that includes the biographical section of the evening, and it's quite good. But the voice and picture is out of sync, and there are Japanese subtitles which get a bit distracting, as well. But if you want to see it, you can watch here. (It says the video runs 35 minutes, but it doesn't. It's 17 minutes, and gets repeated.)
But I couldn't leave it at that. How can you honor Barbara Cook and not have Barbara Cook? So, here is a rare . video of her on the Bell Telephone Hour in 1960, performing a medley of two songs from...The Music Man!
(By the way, when she sings the counter-point song of "Lida Rose/ Will I Ever Tell You" with a barbershop quartet, I recognize them as the Buffalo Bills. They were in the original stage production of The Music Man with her, and then re-created their role in the movie.)
I was sorry to read about the the passing today of the great playwright Sam Shepard, at the age of 73. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child and wrote other works that included True West, Fool for Love and Curse of the Starving Class. He later returned to his very-early days of acting and had a successful career at that, getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Right Stuff portraying Chuck Yeager. His many other films included Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Baby Boom, Black Hawk Down and Steel Magnolias.
I worked with him on one movie, the very little known Bright Angel, which was based on two short stories by the acclaimed author Richard Ford. It was a solid, small independent film that had a very good cast for such a tiny, unknown movie that included Dermot Mulroney (who was the star), Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Perinne, Burt Young, Lily Taylor and Benjamin Bratt in what might have been his first movie, along with Sam. And it was in one particular instance dealing with Sam Shepard that was perhaps my finest moment as a movie publicist. (Which I suppose is not saying a lot, given that movie publicity is not filled with fine moments...)
In the film, Sam played a small, but important supporting role (I think as Dermot's father, though I wouldn't swear to that at this point), so he wasn't at the filming location in Montana all that much, maybe a few days. Sam was a nice-enough fellow, willing to chat, though taciturn and a bit distant, seeming to prefer the quiet and being alone, there to do his job.
At one point, a video crew hired by the company came up to Montana to shoot for two days and get material for putting together an "electronic presskit," the EPK They timed their visit to be there specifically when enough of the actors would be around, but most especially Sam Shepard. He would be on the set filming during their second and final night, when we were out on a big field all evening until the wee hours of the morning, a ways outside of our base residence of Billings.
All was fine as the video team was getting their interviews and behind-the-scenes footage...but with one tiny hiccup. The night they showed up on the set, Sam absolutely refused to do an interview. Nope, no way, doing a video interview was not for him, no, absolutely not. I'm not sure if he was against all publicity (I suspect that wasn't the case), or if it was just because this was such a small role and he didn't want it made to seem otherwise, or maybe because it was to be videotaped, rather than a more simple print interview. I did sense that he wasn't a publicity hound and was reticent to do publicity in general, but mainly was adamant about not doing publicity specifically for this. Not at all, nothing. Sorry. Nope. I asked a few times, as politely as possible, but the answer was always a blunt, polite, but crusty, "No."
(I didn't try to do an interview for my own written purposes, but I didn't think I really had to, and so didn't want to push him for it, preferring to put my efforts into the video interview. During his time there, I had chatted with him briefly a few times and got some off-handed replies that were very helpful, which I marked down after walking away, and also picked up random comments from standing with him as he talked with the director about the movie, so I could just use those in fleshing out the production notes I was writing.)
His refusal to do a video interview was causing great stress for the "EPK" crew. Though he wasn't the star, and it was just a small role, he was still the most-famous name in the movie. And he was the reason they were there that night. And they knew they couldn't go back to the production company and say that, "Sorry, no, we didn't get anything from Sam Shepard" and justify what they were paid. (And I knew, having been around on movie sets as a publicist long enough, that to cover their rear I'd no doubt be the one blamed for it all, how the unit publicist just was no help and couldn't get Sam Shepard to talk to them.) They were able to get some behind-the-scenes footage of him when acting, but that wasn't remotely good enough. And as the pitch-black night went on and got later and later, they got more and more concerned. They'd ask me to try again, but there was a limit I could do -- it seemed that pushing any farther than I had risked pissing off Sam Shepard, and not only might he shut down, but I'd be reamed out for mucking up the set. I'd keep my eye on him, seeing how his mood was, go over to chat and listen for any crack in the exterior, but I could tell that the answer was no, period.
And then I had my Great Revelation.
I explained it to the video crew -- I said I knew from chatting with Sam since he'd arrived in Billings that he was a massive admirer of Richard Ford's works, and in fact that was one of the main reasons he agreed to be in the movie, in such a small role. I said to the video director that I thought it was remotely possible that Sam might be willing to answer a couple questions on camera specifically and only about Richard Ford, to help promote a fellow-writer's works. If I could get him to do that, would that be enough for the video? The guy lit up -- that would be great, it would work, and besides, "Once I get him on camera, I'm sure I can get him to talk about some other things." If he couldn't though, he would be really happy to get anything with Sam Shepard on video.
So, I kept an eye on things, picked my moment when it seemed all was low-key, and went over to Sam who was sitting alone, off to the side. It was probably about 2 AM at this point. I laid out my thought to him, might he be willing to talk about Richard Ford -- and Richard Ford only -- to the video crew for about three minutes? To get some well-deserved attention on the novelist? And to my utter relief, Sam said yes, he'd be absolutely fine answering a couple questions about Richard Ford on camera. O huzzah!
When I told the video director, he was overjoyed. They set up their camera, asked their few questions about Richard Ford and -- exactly as he anticipated -- once he got Sam talking on camera, he was politely able to stay pleasant and conversational and keep Sam chatting. And in the end, they got about 15 minutes of Sam Shepard on video.
Afterward, the video director was in heaven. It seemed like he was beaming so much that it shined through that very dark Montana night.
Just to finish things up, here's a short trailer for the movie. It really wasn't a "thriller" like the narrator says, but far more a character study of people impacted by their challenging circumstances, although there was plenty that was tense throughout in the edgy story. And all the better, you'll also get to see scenes here from that dark night out on the field. And a bit of Sam.
Today is Stan Laurel's birthday, born on July 16, 1890 in Ulverston, England. So, I figured that that was as good a reason as any to post this appearance by Laurel and Hardy as the guests of honor on the This is Your Life program in 1954.
(On a totally personal note, which readers of these pages will at least understand, the "inside" person who Laurel and Hardy are visiting in his hotel room when they're surprised is a very young Bernard Delfont, later Lord Delfont a renowned theatrical producer in London. I mention this because eight years after this broadcast, he produced my fave British musical, Pickwick, that starred my fave Harry Secombe.)
But this is about Laurel and Hardy, of course. And a happy 127th.
As I've written here in the past, the wonderful Nell Minow wears many seemingly-incompatible hats. Beyond being one the leading world experts on corporate governance, testifying before Congress on occasion, she also writes movie reviews, as The Movie Mom. (Though the hats may be incompatible, it makes her very stylish.)
Well, as life would have it, she's been packing lately, and shuttering her Movie Mom site that's been hosted by Beliefnet, and moving her online work back to Chicago, electronically speaking and will now be writing for RogerEbert.com, officially as of today. I don't know yet if she'll have her own section there, but for the moment she's busy unpacking her pencils and stash of Milk Duds, so we'll have to give her time meeting the other kids. Updates as they occur. Operators are standing by.
This new situation doesn't come wildly out of the blue. Nell has a long history with Roger Ebert -- the fellow himself, not just the eponymous website. She filled in for him once in a while, writing some guest reviews for his Chicago Sun-Times column, and was hired by Ebert as a correspondent on his last TV series. So, it's sort of like old home week. Just with the "week" being a whole lot more long-term.
So, hat's off! No matter how seemingly-incompatible they may appear.
I have a long-time friend, Peter Carlisle, who I've briefly mentioned here and written about elsewhere. We go back to UCLA grad school, where he went to law school, and I got my Masters degree in screenwriting. Following graduation, we took a camping trip together up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver and then back -- after which I headed to the Land o' Hollywood and he flew to Honolulu to join the Prosecutor's Office.
Peter worked there for quite a few years before the Chief Prosecutor left -- basically their name for District Attorney -- and with the position now open he ran for the job. And he won, becoming only the third elected Chief Prosecutor in Honolulu history. (For many years, it had been appointed.) He did a good enough job to not only get re-elected three times, but for all three re-election campaigns he ran un-opposed, which would seem to be a really good way to run. And then he decided to run for mayor of Honolulu. And was elected.
We don't have the same political views, but though he's a Republican he's from New Jersey, and is much more an East Coast Republican. (If he lived in the Bible Belt, they might even consider him a damn liberal, though he's not, even remotely.) We agree on quite a bit, though, and the reason he lost his re-election bid shows a lot about why that was and who he is as a person. He pretty much lost for two reasons. One is that he had two deeply formidable opponents -- a former mayor of Honolulu, and a former governor of Hawaii. (The former governor won.) And the other reason is because of a local issue. Traffic in Honolulu had become extremely bad, and a rail system was needed. A full plan had been put together, which Peter supported -- even though it would cost a lot of money and mean raising taxes. He knew it risked being unpopular to support the rail system, most especially for a Republican, but he also knew it was necessary and knew it was coming -- if not now, eventually. And he lost. It's worth noting that the rail system is, in fact, still moving ahead, land is being bought for it, and it is on track (no pun intended) to be built, just as he said would be the case.
Since leaving office he's been been in private law practice as partner in a Honolulu law firm. We don't see each other often, usually whenever he's had to come to the Los Angeles area on business. We'd talk on the phone on rare occasion and periodic emails, but we've always stayed in touch. A fond memory is going to a University of Hawaii football with Peter and his wife Judy, which by itself isn't that notable but what stands out is that it was on their wedding night -- Peter in his tux and Judy still in her white, flowing wedding gown. (They had season tickets, and loved the games, so they weren't going to miss it. And fortunately had an extra ticket. And so, having gotten invited to join in, we all left the wedding party early. I'll tell the full story another time.)
Peter is a hugely outgoing, friendly, goofy, nice, very smart, highly-industrious piece of work. Even though much more laid-back than you'd think a mayor and four-time Chief Prosecutor of a city with nearly a million residents would be (hey, this is Hawaii, after all), he's still very driven and an exhausting person to be around for more than, oh, 30 minutes. He was always that way. And he was in Los Angeles not for 30 minutes, but two days. Alone, with only me, no Judy as a buffer. It was a great time, and utterly draining.
(They'd just had their first grandkid, and had gone to be with the new parents. But after a while Peter was politely told to leave, he wasn't needed any more, go away. Judy stayed to help out. To be clear, this was planned. It wasn't like he suddenly made himself a nuisance and was ejected. They just all knew beforehand that there was a limit to how long he should be around before getting in the way. And rather than putter at home alone, and have to make-do there on his own, he was granted full dispensation to take an extended trip back to his old stomping ground of Los Angeles.)
To repeat, it was a great time, and utterly draining.
In fact, it was draining before it even started. No, really, that's not hyperbole. If you believe anything I write here, it must be that Peter Carlisle is a Force of Nature and exhausting.
I had asked Peter to let me know his flight plans, so I could pick him up at LAX. I waited and waited, and the day before he was due in, still no call. I thought about checking with him, but figured he's a big boy and knew he was coming in and would contact me. And on the day he was due, indeed he did call. The problem is that the phone rang AT 5:45 IN THE MORNING! "Hey, Bobbo! Carlisle. How's it going?!" Just so you know, this isn't the first time he's done this. He finds the three-hour time difference with Hawaii hilarious, and likes to occasionally take advantage of it for fun. (Sorry, I mean, for "fun." It's adorable, but only in concept.) Anyway, I got his flight info and asked where he was staying, so I could check the map beforehand and figure out how best to get there. He didn't know -- how on earth could a person not know what hotel he was staying at?? (I found out later how on earth that could be. More on that later.) But I told him to be sure to find out and call before I left to pick him up. Okay, fine. I joked with him a bit about the hour of the call, but said that I cut him some slack since 5:45 AM is still very early in Honolulu -- 2:45 AM. At that point, he corrected me. "Oh, no, I'm not in Honolulu. I'm at O'Hare. I was in Kentucky with Judy and the kids, but flew here after." Oh. So, it's normal time where you are, I said. Oh, sure, he burst out with a laugh. After a slight pause, I replied, "You just blew your airport pick-up."
I did pick him up, of course. And no, he hadn't called with his hotel information before I left for the airport. As he got in the car, though, I asked where his hotel was since I had maps and also a GPS to figure things out. But he still didn't know. It was in his suitcase, we could get it later after stopping for lunch. Fine. So, we went to lunch. I knew he'd said a few weeks earlier that he wanted to stay in West L.A., where I had just come from, and we drove back there. After lunch, we checked his suitcase -- and it turned out his hotel was...back at the airport!! And so, we drove back there again, because he needed to check in and rest up a bit. And I drove back, again, to West L.A. And then drove back to the airport during rush hour to get him for dinner. And he said he wanted to go to Santa Monica to see the ocean. ("Oh," I said, "gee, if only you lived on an island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, what an interesting choice of places to visit that would be." His explanation was that he wanted to see the ocean from a different direction. And it was a different color.) Whatever the reason, we headed back to West L.A. Again. And then back to the airport for his hotel at the end of the evening. After which, of course, back to West L.A. for me to go home. Four round-trips to the airport in about nine hours.
Little did I know that this would be a sort of running theme during his stay. It turns out that although he is a man of a great many skills, traveling on his own is not one of them. And it was actually sort of amusing.
For instance, when we returned back to the hotel in the evening, and got on the elevator to go up to his room, I asked for his floor -- and he wasn't sure. Mind you, this shouldn't have been a particular challenge since there were only four to choose from. (Actually, just three since we were in the lobby...) Eventually, he remembered that it was the third floor. Huzzah.
Fine. But when we got off the elevator, he started wandering around and checking each hallway corner, trying to figure out which was the correct way to go. "I think it's this way..." And then some more uncertain checking. "Okay, wait, I think...hmm, it's...." -- and finally, after a few tentative turns, we did make it to the right direction.
Until he had to figure out his room. He checked his key card...but of course those don't have room numbers on them, for security. A concept Peter seemingly hadn't grasped after more than a decade. But at least he came to his destination, "I think this is it," and put his card in the slot -- but no, it was wrong. He thought a moment, looked around and then realized it was probably the room next door. Maybe. "This is it, I'm pretty sure," and again inserted his card -- but...yes, this was wrong, too.
As he moved down the hall, uncertain where his room was -- again, remember, this is the former mayor of Honolulu and four-time Chief Prosecuting Attorney, a man who personally tried the most high-profile risky cases himself and put numerous truly-vicious killers behind bars, I backed off in the opposite direction. When he asked where I was going, I explained to him, "If you're wrong with the next room, too, I don't want to be standing in front of the door when the guest there comes barreling out in raging anger." Happily, the third time was the charm, and his room was found!
In a rare expression of humility, Peter explained a full self-awareness of his shortcoming. When traveling with his family for the past 30 years, his wife Judy is one of those massively-organized types who runs the household, "This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re doing it, go there," and on trips she handled everything and Peter just had to follow directions. And because of his job for around the past 25 years – when he was Chief Prosecuting Attorney of Honolulu, and then when he was Mayor -- he’s always had an executive assistant who was responsible for everything with his business life: where he was supposed to be, putting together his meetings, press conferences, public appearances, how he was supposed to get there, when he was supposed to have lunch, where to eat, managing his business trips, setting up transportation to the airport, everything. Absolutely everything. So, over time, between home and office, all this simply wasn’t a skill he needed, and so it withered on the vine and he lost this very basic ability, and he admitted being clueless about it. He could run a city, he could keep the public protected from crime, even heinous crime -- but he couldn't remember where his hotel was. Or his floor. Or room. It just wasn't something he'd had to do for a quarter century.
Since his wife was back visiting in Kentucky, and he was now in private practice, and he was on his own – no wife with him, no executive assistant – he was…basically lost. Which brings us back to the 5:45 AM phone call. He knew he had to call me, but the “when” didn’t matter. It was convenient for him to call, so he called.
Of course, Peter being Peter, he didn’t say any of this particularly self-effacingly (well, a little), or as him being “spoiled,” but more laughingly as matter-of-fact, that it's just the way my life has been, my schedule has been run for me and no reason for me to worry about the details, so I haven’t needed the skill. He worried about the Big Picture, the major problems, the planning, the way issues interconnected, and was meticulous and accomplished about them -- while on the small things, like "Where's my room?", everyone else pointed him in the right direction.
It was sort of charming. But exhausting. Especially when combined with Peter's natural larger-than-life personality. Along with his innate insistence on being right, even those times he's not -- it's an impressive political skill, learned over decades, and one it took a while for me to figure out. But once I did, everything fell into place. "So, in other words," I at last noted, after being blamed for another of his gaffes, "your position is basically, 'Why didn't you tell me not to run into traffic with my eyes closed, it's all your fault." Exactly!, he said, laughing. (The laughing was always there, it was never remotely over-bearing but good-natured -- yet, okay, you know the mantra now, exhausting.)
He wanted to go back to the UCLA campus which he hadn't seen in several decades, and we wandered around, and also visited our old dorm, Hershey Hall. But he wanted to see everything, and UCLA is a very big campus, so there was a lot of wandering. And, "No, Peter, this way." And of course, no, he had zero idea where the car was. "I hope you remembered where we parked." Not a problem, I did, but it was fun to watch him bewildered.
As for the car, Peter being Peter is...how shall I put it? -- a really horrific back-seat driver. He's been in charge for 25 years, why should that stop in a car? To be very clear, Peter never expects to be agreed with -- his whole life has been debating, and he loves and fully respects being contradicted. You just have to defend your position well, because he's fully prepared to challenge you back. What I suspect, however, is that what he's not used to is people telling him off. That probably hasn't happened much when you're Mayor and Chief Prosecuting Attorney. But when someone has been your friend for decades, titles don't matter. So, after one too many chidings about this and that and there's a red light and watch the turn, I finally let loose -- and I must admit it was quite a fine rant, one that repeatedly had the phrase, "Stop it already, just stop it, I've been driving you around for two days, including four trips to the airport, enough already, stop it," tossed in there quite a few times. At least, Peter burst into laughter. "So, you're basically saying if I don't shut up you'll throw me out of the car." Yes, I replied, that's it. He started laughing again, said, "Got it," and indeed stopped complaining.
To be clear, Peter is a joy. He's a profoundly decent guy, funny, extremely smart, dynamic, caring, outgoing, fair-minded, and a pleasure. And a force of nature who is exhausting. I don't agree with him on everything, but everything is a joy with him.
Honolulu was lucky to have him in charge of so many important parts of the city for about 25 years. And I was lucky to have him in town for two days, which is pretty much the limit when alone.
I look forward to his next visit, or me going back to Hawaii. And next time, I will absolutely make sure that his wife Judy is with him.
Over on Mark Evanier's website, he has a video here of a song performed by Michelle Nicastro, and some nice words on her. As he points out, since most people won't likely recognize her name, she was a stage performer who passed away much-too-early a few years ago. And he's quite right, she sings the bejeepers out of the song here, from a little-known musical.
I actually had reason once to cross paths with her quite a while ago. There was a couple of years where I did some interviewing here in Los Angeles for Northwestern University -- the school would recruit alumni to volunteer to talk with local students who had applied to NU but couldn't make it to Evanston, Illinois, for an interview with the Admittance Department. One year, Michelle Nicastro and her husband (who was also an actor and is now a successful producer) were part of the Alumni group doing the interviewing, as well.
I wish I could remember much about the encounter, though I do recall them both -- in fact, they are the only two who I do remember from that period. It was pretty early in their careers. I think they'd only been out of school for a couple of years, and I remember being impressed that they wanted to "give back" so soon after graduating. Most of the other volunteers had been graduated much longer. What I also recall is how personable they were -- and how beautiful Michelle was. And then a few years later, I saw her again...but this time from the audience. I'd gone to see the touring company of Les Miserables, and when i opened the program, there she was in the cast. She played the role of Eponine and -- not surprisingly -- sang the bejeepers out of the soaring ballad, "One My Own." She was extremely talented, and appeared on Broadway, as well.
One other note about Michelle Castro. You probably have seen her work and even will be able to remember the role she played. If you've seen the movie, When Harry Met Sally, you'll recall at the very opening that the character of Harry is a student at Northwestern University, saying goodbye to his girlfiend for vacation break. As they kiss, her friend Sally drives by to pick Harry up to share the car ride cross-country. Michelle Nicastro played Harry's girlfiend. I always appreciated the whimsy that the scene took place at Northwestern. Now, whether that was pure chance, or if perhaps she was a student there at the time and got cast when they filmed there, I don't know. It would probably be easy to figure out, checking dates, but at the moment I'm happy to leave things as they are...
Check out her video on Mark's site. By the way, he notes that the song she sings was from the musical, Smile. You likely won't have heard of it, though it has a good pedigree. The music is by Marvin Hamlisch, and the book and lyrics by Howard Ashman -- who had written such productions as Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. But it only ran for 48 performances. Smile is based on a little known, but wonderful film of the same name, a wry, charming and bitingly-satirical story that takes place at the California Young American Miss beauty contest. The movie was written by Jerry Belson, who wrote a lot of episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show -- and it was directed by Michael Ritchie, which is notable for where it came in his body of work. He made it in 1975, right after he had directed the great film The Candidate and immediately before directing The Bad News Bears. So, clearly, this was his "wry, charming and bitingly-satirical" period. So, Smile is worth checking out, as well...
Well, that's sure nice.
Readers of these pages will know well of my many references to my accomplished friend Nell Minow, and my occasional pieces (like here and here and also here) about her father, the eminently accomplished Newton Minow, the former chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy, who coined the now-famous phrased calling TV a "Vast Wasteland" and who helped create the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. And who was the first political mentor back in Chicago for one of the young lawyers at his Sidley-Austin firm, a fellow named Barack Obama -- who later married another lawyer at the firm, Michelle Robinson.
It turns out that, today, President Obama has returned the favor. And on a list of 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of those named was Newton Minow.
The timing is good, given that Mr. Obama only had a few months to go in office. And before all hell breaks loose. So, it's nice to see some grace and sanity in the final act.
That one of President Obama's law school professors at Harvard was Martha Minow, another of Newt's daughters,and now president of Harvard Law, who had called her father to say he should hire this fellow named Barack Obama because he was one of the smartest students she'd ever taught, was perhaps a good point in Newton Minow's favor, as well.
I know my dad would have been thrilled, too, since they were poker buddies, and one of my dad's patients, even occasionally still calling for medical advice after moving to Washington.
It's an auspicious list of medal recipients Among those other 20 citizens who will have to share the spotlight with Newton Minow are Michael Jordan, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Bill and Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Redford and several others...like Vin Scully, Robert DeNiro, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, educator Eduardo Paron and more.
It is my hope that the eldest daughter of a recipient gets to give a speech at the event.
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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