Monday, May 27, 2013

Stop Trashing "The Junkman" (1982)

For my tenth birthday, my father took me to see a film that I had been dying to see for weeks called "The Junkman" (1982).  I had seen the crudely made TV advertisements for weeks, knowing nothing about the plot because the commercials never revealed that there was an actual storyline to the movie.  All I knew was that it was a car chase action thriller and that the booming, bombastic TV commercial narrator informed us that it was "from the maker of 'Gone in 60 Seconds'" (which I had not seen at the time), that we would "witness the destruction of over 150 vehicles," and that the film was "two years in the making."  The idea that the movie would feature wall-to-wall car chase sequences, and that many vehicles would be destroyed on-screen, was enough to get me to want to see "The Junkman."  I remember my father taking my brother and me to see it on opening night and I thought it was exciting and entertaining.  I do recall, however, thinking that there was a rather tacky and sleazy quality to the movie that might have been slightly off-putting at the time.  I guess I was instinctively recognizing how the movie was made by a scrappy independent filmmaker who was working outside the mainstream of Hollywood with energy and enthusiasm, if not exactly brimming with good taste.

A couple of years ago, "The Junkman" was released on DVD in a remastered version that looked as if the movie had been shot yesterday, but the distinctive rock and roll and country music soundtrack, featuring the likes of Hoyt Axton and The Belmonts, had been replaced with a bland synthesizer score.  Furthermore, as I understand it, mild cuss words were also looped out in the DVD version.  One of the worst changes creatively to the movie was the elimination of an evangelist whose sermon emanates from the radio of a brand new Chevrolet Citation driven by an elderly woman who finds herself caught in the middle of one of the film's major chase sequences.  In the DVD version, the radio sermon is completely eliminated, thus also eliminating the movie's cheeky sense of satirical irony.  The result was a blandly generic action film that completely white-washed all of the quirky elements that I remembered from that first viewing of the movie on my tenth birthday.

However, I recently came across the original version of "The Junkman" again and was surprised at how much I remembered from that initial viewing of the film over 30 years ago.  I particularly admired how the songs "James Dean and the Junkman" by Hoyt Axton, and The Belmonts' stirring and racy "Shake it Sally" were incorporated effectively into the action scenes.  The net effect of using these songs created a kind of Greek Chorus throughout the movie, wryly commenting on the car chase action unfolding on-screen.  Moreover, the action sequence featuring the elderly woman driver in her Chevy Citation was funny again now that I could see it with the radio evangelist soundtrack included as it was originally intended.  Taking these songs and soundtrack elements away from the DVD release of "The Junkman" effectively neutered the original version's crudely swaggering charm.

Which is too bad because "The Junkman" has a fanciful and ridiculous storyline that reflects the sense of humor and chutzpah of the film's star and director, H.B. Halicki, who also made the better-known "Gone in 60 Seconds" (1974).  In certain respects, "The Junkman" was a very personal film for Halicki, as the lead character of the story--auto-junkyard-owner-turned-award-winning action-filmmaker Harlan B. Hollis--was clearly based on Halicki's own life and also reflected his own dreams and ambitions as a filmmaker.  In "The Junkman," Harlan Hollis is overseeing a movie making empire operating out of his former auto junkyard-turned-movie studio.  He is busy putting the finishing touches on his latest action epic, "Gone in 60 Seconds," cooperating with doing a TV profile on his life by Independent Network News reporter Susan Clark (Susan Shaw), as well as planning his teenage daughter Kelly's (Kelly Busia) surprise birthday party.

When Hollis is driving to attend a James Dean Festival in Cholame, California, from his ranch in Paso Robles, he is ambushed by a quartet of assassins, two chasing him on the ground by car and two from the sky in airplanes.  One of the pursuers is the beautiful but sinister, raven-haired assassin known only as Blackbird (Rita Rickard).  The resulting chase involving Hollis, his pursuers, innocent bystanders, reporter Susan Clark and her news crew, and law enforcement personnel takes up nearly a third of the film's 98 minute running time.  Hollis is able to eliminate most of his pursuers, but not before his Cadillac Eldorado crashes into a house and is blown up by a grenade dropped by one of his aerial pursuers.  Hollis is declared dead, but has actually survived the crash and explosion.  An injured Hollis is discovered by Susan Clark and her news crew, who team up with him to uncover who among his associates called for his assassination.  The remainder of the film concerns their efforts to bring Hollis' enemies and remaining assassins to justice while averting a plot to detonate a bomb at the premiere of Hollis' movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome.

A fast-paced, entertaining action thriller that defies virtually all definitions of what constitutes a good movie, "The Junkman" works as a celebration of Southern California's early 1980s car culture obsessions.  There is a lot of great documentary-like footage of the James Dean Festival, that Hollis is driving to when he is ambushed, that gives the movie a flavorful background and setting.  Other Southern California motifs such as the Goodyear Blimp, the Los Angeles-area KNX 10.70 news radio station, the Cinerama Dome, and Independent Network News (which used to air on Channel 13) are also put to good use and help further illuminate the film's context and setting.  Halicki himself is a sympathetic and likeable hero as Harlan Hollis, a self-made man who is also a caring and concerned father to his teenage daughter Kelly.  At one point, before the action has really started, Hollis tells Kelly that "When I was growing up, there were thirteen kids in our family.  And sometimes there just wasn't enough to go around.  So just remember, you have a lot of advantages that most kids don't.  So appreciate what you have, and realize these advantages bring responsibilities.  Don't take things for granted."  As such, the Hollis character has substance, which is why it's easy to root for him when he is suddenly attacked and pursued by assassins whose motives and intent appear elusive at first.

As a director, Halicki stages great and impressive action sequences that belie the film's low-budget and are even more impressive in the context of current modern-day cinema, which rely far too heavily on CGI effects to create a sense of spectacle.  What makes "The Junkman" exciting is the sense of authenticity and immediacy that characterizes the chase scenes.  There are no rear-screen projection in any of the action scenes, which allows one to fully appreciate how the cast and stunt personnel of the film worked hard, and put themselves in harm's way, to stage and participate in "The Junkman's" action scenes.  I particularly like the exciting shots taken in the front of the assassins' vehicles driving at high speed that give you a sense of how dangerous these pursuit sequences were.  I also like the breathtaking images involving two rows of California Highway Patrol Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, which I believe were newly issued at the time, driving side-by-side almost in formation as they attempt to close in on the assassins' pursuit of Hollis.  I just remember as a 10 year old kid finding the central action sequence in the film so exciting, that I was blissfully happy and glad that my father agreed to bring me to see "The Junkman" for my birthday.

What I now appreciate about "The Junkman" over 30 years later was director Halicki's interesting and contrasting pair of female leads, real-life Los Angeles area newscaster Susan Shaw as television reporter Susan Clark, and the unknown Rita Rickard as the impressively intimidating villainess Blackbird.  Susan Shaw reported for KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles and was a ubiquitous presence for local area television viewers in the 1970s and 1980s.  Shaw--who as I understand it now works in the public sector in public affairs consultancy, development and fundraising--always had a likeable, intelligent quality as a newscaster and she puts that quality to good use playing fictional Susan Clark, reporter for the real-life Independent Network News syndicated news broadcasts.  I remember as a kid being startled to see Shaw acting in this film, but welcomed her presence as she makes Susan Clark a sympathetic, ethical individual in the course of "The Junkman."  Shaw turns out to be a decent actress and has a couple of funny scenes with Bruce Cameron and Jack Vacek playing the exasperated-but-loyal members of her TV news crew who all work together to help Harlan Hollis uncover the identity of the people out to kill him.

Shaw handles the comedy sequences of the movie well, including an amusing scene where she argues with her news producer (Dan Grimaldi) while she is on the air during a news broadcast.  The Susan Clark character is given a fairly substantive role in "The Junkman," participating in the center piece car chase while Hollis is pursued by his assassins, rescuing Hollis after it appears he has been killed in the explosion, investigating Hollis' associates, and helping to disarm the female assassin Blackbird in the finale at the Cinerama dome.  It's a better part than most actresses get nowadays in mainstream blockbuster movies and it's enhanced by the fact that she never ends up becoming Hollis' love interest.  At the end of the day, she's there to help solve who is behind the assassination plot, and doesn't end up becoming just "the girl" in the film.  Susan Shaw brings a human dimension to "The Junkman" so that the movie isn't merely made up of one car crash after another. 

As an interesting contrast to Susan Shaw's fair-haired warmth, Rita Rickard cuts a tall, striking figure as the ruthless assassin Blackbird.  With jet-black raven hair, wearing seemingly incongruous librarian glasses, and uttering not one word throughout the film, I always vividly remembered Rickard's character in "The Junkman" and wondered who played her and whatever became of her.  At times, she reminded me of Barbara Steele with regards to the intensity and mystery she brought to the role.  Her silent assassin was more impressive than some of the female villains in James Bond movies.  What I particularly liked about Rickard's work in "The Junkman" was the cool, level-headed calmness she brought to Blackbird.  There was no air of neurosis or rage or bitterness attached to this villainess and, as such, she came across as a collected and reasoned thinker who could get herself out of any jam.  Rickard also avoided making Blackbird a camp figure in the movie, which helps to accentuate the character's sinister quality. 

I liked the sequence when Blackbird's enormous Ford Thunderbird is sideswiped by Hollis' Cadillac Eldorado and falls headfirst down a ravine.  With the car upside down, we see Blackbird's gloved hand reach out from the window of the Thunderbird and, one by one, set on the ground outside the car her glasses, her purse, and her gun, before she slides out the window, calmly changes clothes, and sets her car on fire to leave behind no clues, all scored to The Belmonts' sexy song "Shake it Sally."  It's the sort of scene that James Bond villainesses should have, but rarely get, in order to demonstrate their ability to surmount any challenge.  I also like how director Halicki further underscores the differences between Susan Shaw's fictional Susan Clark news reporter, and Rita Rickard's Blackbird assassin, by giving Rickard no dialogue at all.  Whereas the Susan Clark character makes her living by openly communicating verbally with television viewers, Blackbird makes her living in a world of subterfuge and mystery, where less is more and her actions speak louder than words.  Halicki further heightens the contrast between both women by making the appropriate decision to allow reporter Susan Clark to be the person who ultimately defeats Blackbird's efforts to assassinate Harlan Hollis at the end of the film.  In so doing, Halicki demonstrates how he was actually capable of creating interesting characters to serve the plot of his movie, as well as staging exciting action scenes.

While I wouldn't call "The Junkman" a masterpiece, it's at least an interesting and entertaining curiosity from the early 1980s that is action-packed, excitingly photographed, well-edited, competently produced and decently acted (for the most part).  It delivers what it promises in terms of action and suspense, but also provides a few interesting characters along the way to help maintain audience interest throughout.  It is a movie that deserves a far better critical reputation than it has enjoyed through the years.  As mentioned, Susan Shaw and Rita Rickard provide interesting contrasts as the two female leads, and Halicki proves to be a decent action hero.  It's also an extremely personal movie from director Halicki, demonstrating his hopes and ambitions as a filmmaker and allowing him to examine his interest and obsessions, particularly man's continuing love affair with the automobile.  It's just too bad that "The Junkman" is not easily accessible in its original 1982 theatrical version, with the original music and sound effects soundtrack intact, so that modern-day audiences can experience this idiosyncratic and quirky movie in the same way as I did when my father took me and my brother to see it on my tenth birthday. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Charlie's Best and Most Underrated Angel

I admit that I've always been a big fan of "Charlie's Angels" (1976-81), which I already discussed in the early days of my blog.  As I've grown older, my affection for the show continues, as I have also started to recognize aspects and qualities in the show that I once took for granted.  I now realize that Farrah Fawcett, as much as we all loved her, was probably the most overrated of the Angels.  Her work as Jill Munroe was iconic and endearing, but was indeed as light-weight and fluffy as the show's detractors have alleged.  For years, Jaclyn Smith as Kelly Garrett was considered everyone's "favorite" Angel because she was regarded as the classiest and most elegant and I wouldn't dispute that assessment because I do have high regard for her work on the series.  But in recent years, there's one actress on the series whose work continues to surprise and amaze me with the depth and nuance she brought to her role, and that's Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe, the first replacement Angel on the series, brought in to take the place of Fawcett when she departed from the series after the first season.

I think of Ladd as the most underrated of all of "Charlie's Angels."  She's usually given short shrift because she wasn't part of the original cast, is in the shadow of Farrah for having replaced her, and wasn't considered the "smart" one the way Kate Jackson is regarded.  But over the years I've also started to regard her as the best of the Angels because of the way she brought recognizable human traits to the Kris Munroe character that allowed her to rise above the fluffy assumptions and expectations the public has about the series.  This is largely due to the fact that Cheryl Ladd was probably the best actress working on that series.  I've also found, in talking with people who also grew up watching the series in the 1970s and 1980s, that a surprising number of men and women liked Ladd better than Fawcett on "Charlie's Angels" because she just seemed to blend into the ensemble better, rather than try and take up much of the spotlight the way Fawcett inadvertently did when she was on the series.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I don't think Cheryl Ladd was ever taken for granted by genuine fans of the show who watched it in its original run.  I think we all appreciated how well she integrated into the series after Fawcett's departure.  I also believe there was some fan resentment against Fawcett for abandoning the series that had made her a star so soon after its debut, and that this worked in Ladd's favor.  However, as the decades have progressed, I feel that Ladd's contribution to the series has been minimized and diminished by know-nothing writers in the media who continually hype Fawcett's one-season tenure on "Charlie's Angels" as if she had been on it throughout most of its run.  It appears to have been forgotten that Ladd took over at the beginning of the second season and continued with the series for the next four years until it ended in 1981.  For people who actually remember watching "Charlie's Angels," Ladd made a bigger impression than Fawcett by virtue of having been on it longer.

But I also think Ladd's work on the series holds up better because she brought an air of gravitas, maturity and empathy to her role that surpassed that of her other co-stars.  (Kate Jackson became campier as her time on the series progressed, and Jaclyn Smith, while still appealing, could be a one-note actress at times.)  It's been said that producer Aaron Spelling convinced Ladd to accept the role by promising her that Kris Munroe would be written as the wide-eyed kid sister, who could be humorous, make mistakes, and be recognized by the audience as a human being and not just a glamorous archetype.  Indeed, in her opening scene in her debut episode, Kris comes across as eager and slightly naive, with an endearingly high-pitched voice reflective of her youth.  That may have been the original concept of the character throughout Kris Munroe's debut season but, as her time on the series progressed, her voice deepened and she began demonstrating leadership qualities as she continued to mature so that, by the end of the series, the character had become confident and assured as a private detective and had a level of compassion and concern for others that demonstrated she was wise beyond her years.  I've said before on this blog that the writers often seemed to give Kris Munroe the most serious scenes on the show that elevated it from the light escapism it was intended to be that allowed Ladd to demonstrate qualities of humanity and decency that belied the media's fluffy expectations of the series.

Ladd also had a quality of speaking in a particularly pointed and direct manner that allowed her to get to the heart of a scene succinctly and effectively.  I remember in one 1979 episode, "Angels Go Truckin'" where Ladd admonished Maggie (Joanne Linville) the villainess at the end of the episode, who was behind a hijacking operation stealing the cargo her own company was hired to haul, "It's just too bad that you thought stealin' your own cargo would bring you that gold, Maggie.  You know, you really blew it.  You could've proved once and for all that women can do anything that men can do."  Ladd delivers the line with a damning demeanor that really drives home the degree to which Kris was disappointed in learning of Maggie's treachery.  Furthermore, as an actress, Ladd was particularly good at just listening to the other actors in a scene, taking in and absorbing what they were saying so that her character's response was always natural and organic.  I never got the feeling that Ladd was trying to steal the spotlight from anyone, but was merely working hard to blend into the ensemble.  I think this had to do with the fact that she entered the show at a difficult time in the second season after Farrah Fawcett had left and wanted to do the best she could to be accepted into the cast.  In some ways, I think Ladd's eagerness to be accepted was one reason why her performance in the role was always solid--like her character, Ladd never wanted to be accused by her colleagues or the public for having fallen down on the job.  I think she was a good listener as an actress on the show because she wanted her fellow co-stars to know that she knew that this was an ensemble piece and she wasn't there to steal the spotlight from anyone but, in actuality, was there to enhance them.

Because Ladd wasn't part of the original cast, there's always been a bit of an "outsider" quality to her where the series is concerned that makes her more endearing than the members of the original cast.  While glancing at interviews and articles about the series, one gets the impression that Kate Jackson never particularly warmed up to her, that it took Jaclyn Smith awhile before she and Ladd eventually became good friends, and that Fawcett was friendly enough, but not particularly close with Ladd, when she returned to guest-star on the series later on.  Ladd has stated that she always felt like a bit of an outsider whenever Fawcett returned to guest-star on the series when Kate Jackson was still on it, and that the original three actresses retreated back into their first-season clique, leaving her out of their sphere.  As such, it's hard not to warm up to her feelings of being excluded and taken for granted at times.  Anyone who has experienced that in a scholastic or professional environment can visualize and appreciate what Ladd was describing.  I also like how Ladd has always acknowledged in interviews the challenges that Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts faced when they later joined the cast and had to try and fit in with the producers' and the audiences' expectations of them.  Ladd obviously identified with what Hack and Roberts each experienced while trying to establish their own identities within the framework of an already-existing hit series.  In interviews about the series, Ladd almost always mentions Hack and Roberts and how much she enjoyed working with them, whereas Jaclyn Smith tends to mention them in a casual manner in her interviews, without going into too much detail about them, which suggests the extent to which Smith doesn't regard them as full-fledged colleagues on the show the way Ladd does.


For instance, I always remember how the final Shelley Hack episode closed with Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd with their arms around each other, with Hack left out of that final shot standing from the sidelines looking at them.  It was a visual indicator at the end of the season demonstrating the extent to which Hack, who was not asked to return for another season, was no longer part of the team, and reflects the degree to which the producers had washed their hands of her by that point.  A year later, when the series was ending, the final shot of the series in the last episode was a hospital room scene with Ladd, Tanya Roberts and David Doyle standing bedside next to a wounded Jaclyn Smith.  As the camera slowly zoomed out of the scene, I always liked how Ladd, who was standing in the center, clutching Jaclyn Smith's hand with her left hand, reached over and wrapped her right arm around Tanya Roberts, acknowledging Roberts' presence and pulling her closer into the shot.  It's as if Cheryl Ladd, remembering how Shelley Hack was given short shrift in the final shot of the previous season, was being conscientious about acknowledging the contributions of the newest member of the cast, Tanya Roberts, as the show was ending and wanted to ensure that there was no way she could be left out of the final shot of the entire series.  I always considered it a generous gesture from one fellow actor to another.  (The fact that Ladd has acknowledged in interviews that she always felt bad for how the producers never really appreciated Shelley Hack and discharged her from the series in a tactless manner, and how she also felt bad for Tanya Roberts that the show was cancelled so soon after she arrived, helps contribute to my impression of her.)

But it's Ladd's actual work on-screen on "Charlie's Angels" that continues to impress me and the episode that exemplifies the qualities of maturity and decency that Ladd brought to Kris Munroe was the 1980 segment entitled "Harrigan's Angel."  Veteran actor Howard Duff guest-starred as Joseph Harrigan, an alcoholic, down-on-his luck private detective who has been hired, along with the Angels, by an electronics firm to investigate a series of robberies at their plant.  Unbeknownst to Harrigan, the Angels, or Bosley (David Doyle) is the fact that the head of the firm is behind these robberies and that he hired someone as seemingly incompetent as Harrigan to lead the investigation to give the false impression that he is doing the proper due diligence, while at the same time ensuring that his treachery will never be discovered.  At first recognizing that Harrigan's involvement might impede the investigation, Kris volunteers to keep an eye on him to allow Kelly and Tiffany to do most of the legwork.  When Kelly asks Kris if she thinks she can handle the bumbling, befuddled and blasted Harrigan, Kris compassionately responds, "Oh yeah.  I used to know someone very much like him.  Got real down on his luck, started drinking.  But, you know, when he got dried out he sure was a helluva guy."  When Kelly asks if it was anyone they know, Kris humbly answers, "My father.  I think I can handle Mr. Harrigan."  Ladd plays the scene beautifully, demonstrating empathy and compassion for Harrigan's plight, but without any sense of bitterness or self-pity with regards to being the child of an alcoholic, that reflects a level of humility and maturity that you don't normally associate with characters on this series.

Throughout much of the episode, Kris subtly, but effectively, keeps Harrigan from taking another drink so that he can remain sober to help work on the case and also to allow him to begin regaining a sense of his bearings.  She hides his booze, pretends to accidentally smash his bottle of liquor on the sidewalk, takes his glass away from him just before he starts drinking and distracts him by asking him to bring her his case notes so that she can review them, all to keep him from taking another drink.  Kris' tactics to keep Harrigan away from the booze are done so smoothly that you start to get the impression that she must have had a lot of experience at home as a child trying to help keep her father sober.  In so doing, the writers and Ladd help bring depth and develop the backstory to the Kris character in a way that never feels contrived or out-of-place for the series.  It's integrated effectively into the storyline so that the audience isn't expected to wallow in it the way we would in a modern-day series, where backstory and character motivation are now done in a heavy-handed manner.

At first, we get the impression that Kris feels sorry for Harrigan, but over the course of their time together, we start to see how Kris recognizes Harrigan was once a skillful investigator, and has since fallen on bad times.  When they are being pursued on the road by a truck attempting to run them down, Harrigan advises Kris on how to elude them, based on a tactic he used to elude German patrols in occupied France during World War II, which allows her to see a side of him that she hadn't expected.  As such, instead of merely keeping him from drinking and impeding their investigation, she now works hard to bring some dignity back into Harrigan's life, even letting him take credit for a hunch and theory in the investigation that she developed on her own.  In my favorite scene in the episode, Kris discovers some framed pieces in a box at Harrigan's apartment that helps further illuminate his once impressive career.  She discovers a framed photo of a youthful Harrigan with General Dwight D. Eisenhower that was personally inscribed to Harrigan by Ike, as well as a framed Certificate of Appreciation from General Omar Bradley, that helps put Harrigan in an even more impressive light.

When Kris asks about Eisenhower, Harrigan humbly explains to Kris, "Well, I did some special work for him in France during the occupation...Undercover, OSS-type stuff, you know."  As Kris expresses aloud how impressed she is with the Certificate that Harrigan received from General Bradley, Harrigan comments, "Can't figure it, can you?...You've been coddling me all day.  Keeping me out of the sauce.  Out of the way, so your friends can do their thing.  Now, suddenly, it looks like the dummy wasn't always a dummy."  When Kris apologizes for initially condescending to Harrigan, he reassures her "Don't be.  You made all the right moves.  I'm the one who's out of step.  Those were good days.  Somehow between them and now, I seem to have gotten off the track."  As Harrigan lifts the glass and makes a self-pitying toast "To better times," Kris offers to make him a home-cooked meal if he promises to set the glass down and just talk with her for awhile.  A touched Harrigan responds "Nobody's cooked dinner for me for a long time...OK, start cooking" as he puts the glass down and stops drinking, as Kris requested.

Kris tries to keep the mood light by informing Harrigan, after looking through his kitchen, "I just went through all your cupboards and your refrigerator.  Based on what you have in this apartment, I could wax your floors, poison a few rats, polish sixty, oh, seventy pairs of shoes, and maybe make you a navy bean and celery omelette."  In so doing, Kris learns the nature of Harrigan's alcoholism when her gentle chiding of Harrigan's lack of domestic acoutrements inspires him to reveal that he was once married and that "We had some good times.  She and I.  Even decided to have a kid.  Almost happened, but neither one of them made it."  When Kris apologizes and says she didn't mean to pry, Harrigan reassures her "You didn't.  Maybe then was when I went off the track."  Later, Kris and Harrigan have some genuinely charming and amusing moments where he tries to compliment her cooking, and changes the subject when she asks him to elaborate.  When he tries to reassure her he liked her omelette, she admits, "Harrigan, this is awful!"

At the end of the episode, after the case has been solved and the bad guys are put away, as Kris and Harrigan bid farewell to one another, he promises her "I'm gonna get back on the track.  I went a day without a drink, and I can go another one.  One day at a time.  I think I got a chance, thanks to you."  Kris humbly responds, "I didn't do anything.  You did it all by yourself.  I just sorta hung in there, that's all."  Harrigan gratefully acknowledges, "You hung in there pretty good."  Kris acknowledges that, because of her bad cooking with the omelette, "I owe you dinner."  Harrigan suggests that "dinner will be on me.  We'll go someplace with a little class.  I'll even wear a suit.  OK?"  She kisses him on the cheek, and he reaches out and gently touches her face as they part company.

Howard Duff and Cheryl Ladd have great chemistry together throughout this entire episode.  What starts out as a mildly humorous storyline ends up being genuinely touching as a mutual respect and affection develops between the Kris and Harrigan characters.  Kris sees Harrigan as a surrogate father figure that she feels genuinely protective of, whereas Harrigan regards Kris as a surrogate for both his wife, who he lost when she was in childbirth, and the child that he was meant to have raised with his late wife.  You sense at the end of the episode that Harrigan may have fallen a little bit in love with Kris.  The storyline could have been maudlin, except for the flashes of humor that Duff and Ladd bring to their scenes together.  Throughout these scenes, Ladd demonstrates her qualities of listening, absorbing, and taking in what her fellow actor Duff is expressing while playing Harrigan.  Ladd plays off of him in a natural, subtle, humane way that allows Duff to express who Harrigan is as an individual, while also illuminating the Kris Munroe character in the process.  We see Kris express admirable qualities of patience and humility, as well as sincere respect and reverence for Harrigan's prior accomplishments before he took to drinking.  What I also like is how Ladd demonstrates Kris' level of appreciation and awe for historical figures like Eisenhower and Bradley that you don't normally associate with individuals in their late 20s on a fluffy television detective series.  I think this reflects how prior generations were raised with an understanding and appreciation for history, something that isn't as likely to happen with a character from the same age bracket on a current TV show, who probably have no idea what happened historically in the last decade much less during World War II.

As demonstrated in the "Harrigan's Angel" episode, Cheryl Ladd brought qualities of humanity, humility, intelligence, courage, empathy, and patience to Kris Munroe which reflects all of the reasons she was so popular on the show.  Aside from her good looks and sense of fashion, Ladd instilled the role with recognizable human characteristics that made the audience like and care about Kris and which is why the show continues to remain a part of our pop culture landscape over 30 years after it ended.  Of all the actresses on "Charlie's Angels," I consider Ladd to be the most talented.  She built a solid career for herself in the 30-plus years since the show ended with her appearances in television movies, and the occasional theatrical feature, where she continually brought humanity, sensitivity and depth to everything she did.  Even though "Charlie's Angels" is a show considered by many to be cheesy and campy, if the audience didn't at least have a cast of individuals that they enjoyed spending time with week-after-week, it would have been a long-forgotten series by now.  The so-called "jiggle" factor and the novelty of seeing women as action heroines in a detective series has long since worn off as current TV shows are much more sexually explicit and vulgar, and feature plenty of women playing detectives or other action-oriented characters.  I believe the reason why people still remember the show with fondness is because we liked these characters and wanted to either grow up to be like them, or know people like them in our lives.  Cheryl Ladd appeared to understand this, which is why she never condescended to the material, nor ever attempted to just coast by on her looks and charm, and always delivered the goods as an actress while playing Kris Munroe on "Charlie's Angels." 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Nobility of Steve Forrest (1924-2013)

It's been announced this evening that veteran actor Steve Forrest passed away earlier this week at age 88.  Most obituaries will tout him as the star of the 1970s police drama "S.W.A.T." (1975-76), while others will mention that he was the younger brother of 1940s film star Dana Andrews.  I remember him best as a solid, versatile actor who just seemed to always be around in countless film and television appearances while I was growing up.  As a kid, I always thought of Steve Forrest as a big star, because of the prolificacy of his career and the quality of his work.  He always played roles that would only have been offered to a good, well-regarded actor.  I remember liking Steve Forrest from the moment I first laid eyes on him in the disaster TV movie/miniseries "Condominium" (1980), which I blogged about a few weeks ago.

In that movie, he played a dashing, retired engineer named Gus Garver who had to deal with the recent stroke of his long-time wife Carolyn (Virginia Leith), acting as Chairman for a contentious condominium homeowners association, dealing with the discovery that the structure was built using shoddy materials and workmanship, and working diligently to try and prepare the residents for an impending hurricane that threatens to blow it all away.  During the course of the film, he finds himself attracted to Drusilla Byrne (Pamela Hensley), the beautiful associate of the sleazy construction magnate that built the titular condo, who has been planted in the building to spy upon the residents.  Gus forms a deep friendship with Dru based on mutual respect and kindness but is forced to end it when Dru admits her true feelings for him.  Despite his feelings for Dru, Gus loves his wife and would never do anything to hurt her while she is recovering in the hospital.

I guess Gus' decision not to get involved with Dru established the reason why I responded to Steve Forrest the way I did as a kid--he projected nobility in an effortless manner that never seemed dull or forced.  He made nobility seem incredible cool.  I will never forget the scenes in "Condominium" where Gus is visiting his wife in the hospital and his tenderness and concern for her well-being become apparent as he tries to cheer her up with happy thoughts and light conversation as she is recovering from her stroke.  Other actors would have self-indulgently played these scenes as if it were all about showing the audience, "Hey, look at me.  I'm acting!," but Forrest always remained focused on the fact that the scene was not only about Gus, but about both him and his wife.  Forrest did an excellent job portraying Gus' fears and vulnerabilities and courage at doing the best he can to bring a ray of sunshine and hope to his wife Carolyn, even as he worries what will become of them if she never recovers.  It's easy to see how Dru, who has a shady background, would be attracted to the decency of Gus and Forrest was superb in conveying this quality.

Forrest's noble qualities were also apparent in many of his other TV appearances.  I also vividly remember him from the 1986-87 season of "Dallas" playing the controversial Wes Parmalee, a mysterious ranch hand working at Southfork who turns everything upside down when he alleges that he is actually Jock Ewing, the long lost patriarch of the Ewing family, who apparently died five years earlier when his helicopter crashed into a swamp while wildcatting for oil in South America.  After a couple of seasons of disappointingly dull "Dallas" storylines, the Parmalee narrative kicked the show back into high gear again as JR (Larry Hagman) and Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) had to confront this stranger who made everyone in the Ewing family deal with the notion that their long lost Daddy might be alive and back to reclaim his company, which was now owned by Bobby, and his wife, who was now married to the likeable Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel).

Forrest was excellent at conveying the same qualities of toughness and tenderness that Jim Davis instilled in Jock so that the audience was never really sure throughout this storyline whether Wes Parmalee was genuine or a manipulative phony.  As it turned out in the end, Parmalee was simply a man who was on that fateful chopper that went down into the swamp and who, evidently, Jock had spent time with in the days leading up to the crash, nursing a fever where he talked aloud about his life so that Parmalee, after losing his memory and recovering from the accident, apparently believed he really was Jock after all.  What I liked about Forrest's performance was how Wes Parmalee grew to genuinely love and care for Miss Ellie that he realized he was tearing her life apart.  Parmalee ultimately leaves town forever before his presence could inflict more damage upon Miss Ellie and the Ewings.  Parmalee may have unintentionally been a fake, but Forrest's nobility was as genuine as ever.

I also remember him for a 1967 "Bonanza" episode entitled "Desperate Passage" where he and Tina Louise are survivors of an Indian attack on a small town named Coulter Corner.  The Cartwrights find Forrest's character--a man named Josh Tanner--locked in the town jail because he was arrested for shooting Billy Coulter, the treacherous son of the richest man in town.  The Cartwright's take Josh Tanner into custody and bring Tina Louise's character--named Mary Burns--along as they make their way across treacherous territory back to Virginia City.  We learn in the course of the episode that Josh Tanner and Mary Burns were having an affair when Billy Coulter burst into Mary's hotel room in order to attack her.  Josh shot Coulter in self-defense, but Josh made Mary promise never to admit she was in that room with him because she is a married woman.  Josh did not want her reputation ruined by having it become publicly known that she was cheating on her husband by having an affair with him.

When Mary is kidnapped by the Indian tribe who had earlier attacked Coulter Corner, Josh and the Cartwrights stage a daring rescue in order to free Mary and escape to Virginia City.  After they arrive, Mary insists on telling the authorities in Virginia City the truth so that Josh can be freed, but he refuses to allow her to ruin her reputation in order to save him.  He tells her that he couldn't bear thinking of how an intolerant society would treat Mary once they learn publicly of her adultery.  In the end, Josh is exonerated of Billy Coulter's death without Mary having to confess to their affair, but they are separated forever when she's reunited with her husband.  As Mary says goodbye to Josh, he remains stoic in order not to reveal his true feelings for Mary in front of her husband.  Forrest was very touching and admirable playing a man who loved a woman so much that he was willing to go to the gallows in order to protect her reputation.  He infused Josh Tanner with traits of courage, character, and integrity so that we admired his strength and resolve and he never came across as a dumb sap (like other actors could have done with the character).  The episode ends on a haunting note, as you wonder what will become of Josh and Mary and the sincere performances of Steve Forrest and Tina Louise went a long way to establish this level of interest with the audience.

But I don't want to imply that Forrest was a one-note actor only good at playing romantic and noble characters.  He was also incredibly good at playing characters possessing less-than-humble qualities.  I remember him from a 1970 episode of "Gunsmoke" where he played a vain outlaw named Cole Morgan who comes into town with his minions and holds all of Dodge City hostage as they await Marshall Dillon (James Arness) returning to town helping to escort a U.S. Cavalry shipment of gold.  Morgan intends to attack Dillon and the Cavalry with the help of his Gatling Gun.  However, Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) evokes Morgan's ire when she attacks and scars him in an effort to undermine and avert his scheme.  The enraged Morgan swears vengeance on Miss Kitty for marring his handsome visage and Forrest did an excellent job at conveying Morgan's narcissism, vanity, cruelty and ruthlessness.  It was an exciting, Miss Kitty-themed episode of "Gunsmoke" that allowed Blake and Forrest to have suspenseful and riveting adversarial chemistry together.

Steve Forrest was an underrated, but superb, actor who never hit the highest echelons of stardom but who became something even greater.  He become a welcome, versatile character actor in films and television who always landed good roles, never stopped working, and was always a pleasure to watch.  For instance, he held his own opposite Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest" (1981), playing Crawford's lover and attorney (probably based on the famous Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer).  Forrest's character is one of the few people in the film who has the courage to tell it like it is to Dunaway's Crawford, a quality which ensures that he won't be staying around long in her life, and in the movie itself, but which helps evoke the audience's respect and admiration.  He also did a good job parodying his heroic stoicism in the spoof "Amazon Women on the Moon" (1987), displaying a knowing, lighter quality that was unique compared with the rest of his career.  I'm very saddened at hearing of his death, as he was such a ubiquitous presence in films and television while I was growing up, and I've only scratched the surface in describing Steve Forrest's incredibly varied and accomplished career with this little tribute.  However, I believe that Steve Forrest left behind a large body of work as an actor that ensures he will never be forgotten and will live forever for future generations to discover him.