About ronbase

Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

I Can’t Stop Watching: Sex and the TV Drama Revolution

Bryan Cranston in Breaking BadWe’ll get to the sex stuff in a moment, but before we do, a brief look back…

The first time I visited Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time at Universal Studios. In those days, Universal was a television factory. That was more or less their business. Occasionally, they made a feature film, but basically the studio churned out dozens of TV series, like so many sausages.

You could walk around the Universal lot and run into Dennis Weaver taking a stroll between scenes of McCloud. Peter Falk, looking a lot less rumpled than his Columbo character, stopped for lunch at the Universal cafeteria.

Eddie_Albert_Robert_Wagner_Switch_1975Telly Savalas, reveling in his unexpected TV stardom after years as a movie character actor, held court at the Sheraton Universal when he wasn’t shooting Kojak. Robert Wagner relaxed in his trailer while co-star Eddie Albert did a scene for their series, Switch, with an unknown young actress named Jaclyn Smith.

The world at Universal studios was the world of television in those days: a machine pumping out by-the-numbers crime dramas, safe predictable fare that was never going to offend anyone.

I wrote a lot about the medium back then without ever liking much of what I saw. Like most of the people in the TV business, I wanted to be in movies. At least I wanted to write about them. Television was the bargain basement of the culture; the movies were in the penthouse. Movies were on the cutting edge. Movies mattered. That’s where all the action was.

That was then. Today, if I was a young writer anxious to reflect the cutting edge culture of our time, I wouldn’t write about movies. I would write about television.

A seismic shift is taking place in the popular culture; a revolution the like of which we have not seen before–television, the poor cousin to the movies, has exploded into a remarkable golden age of drama.

I’m not talking about conventional network television. For the most part the big three networks are, like the movies, on life support, still churning out formula police procedurals and Gong Show-type reality crap.

No, the focus these days is on the shows being produced by the cable networks, previously the country bumpkins to the tony sophisticates who lived at the top of the hill at NBC, CBS, and ABC. Cable, which started out as a way of showing more bad television to more people, has transformed itself.The Sopranos

Forced by necessity to find some way to distinguish themselves from their more conventional competition, the cable guys pulled out all the stops and threw convention to the wind. HBO was the pioneer here, producing The Sopranos, the classic series about a New Jersey crime family that became the template for everything that has followed.

At the moment, there is so much great drama available, it is hard to keep up: Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Justified, Homeland, Fargo, Boardwalk Empire, The Bridge, Masters of Sex, Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Americans, Bates Motel– and the boldest and best of the lot, Breaking Bad, television’s true masterpiece, a series remarkable in its ability to keep you shaking your head at the many ways it could continually surprise, shock, and amaze.

This is only a partial list of the shows to which I have become addicted. I’m also in love with such British series as Downton Abbey (now wearing a trifle thin), Broadchurch, The Fall, and the British-New Zealand-Australia co-production, Top of the Lake.

These shows are like great novels–not surprising that many of them are adapted from books (i.e. Game of Thrones) often by novelists–unfolding in the most unexpected ways. They are bold, provocative, sexy, refusing to play by any rules other than the rule of keeping their audiences guessing as to what’s going to happen next.

How did this happen? How did cable television get to be so good seemingly overnight?

The writing, stupid.

In movies, the writer is an easily replaced serf, discarded like Kleenex. Movies are mostly produced by committee. If any one person oversees what gets on the screen, it is the director, and he usually has little interest in anything the writer might have to say. Go to just about any movie released this past summer, and you can see the results of that kind of attitude.Vice Gilligan

In television, by contrast, the writer is king, with an accompanying freedom and power unheard of in movies. In a remarkably short period of time a group of talented writers–David Chase (The Sopranos), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), David R. Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones)–has produced work of a quality never before seen in television or movies.

Who knew there was this much writing talent available in Hollywood–certainly not the people who produce feature films.

These brilliant writers have produced a cast of  driven, complex, deeply flawed characters, alternately verging on madness (Carrie Mathison in Homeland; Walter White in Breaking Bad), or repressed (Bill Masters in Masters of Sex, Don Draper in Mad Men), or simply, delightfully bad (Francis Underwood in House of Cards).

Having meaty, multi-layered characters to dig into has inspired a level of performance unimaginable when I was talking to actors like Telly Savalas and  Robert Wagner on the Universal Studios lot. Nice guys, but they weren’t exactly breaking a sweat in front of the camera. These days, the stars of cable weekly give the performances of their lives.

It’s no surprise that Kevin Spacey can bring such deliciously serpentine evil to House of Cards.

Claire Danes in HomelandBut who knew that Bryan Cranston, an actor best known for his recurring role on Malcolm In the Middle, could plumb the depths of Walter White in Breaking Bad? Or that Claire Danes, not previously acclaimed for much of anything in movies, could carry off a bipolar CIA agent for Homeland and create one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional characters in the history of television–not to mention bringing welcome relief from the trauma ward full of messed up men who predominate in TV drama.

Now we get to the sex.

It isn’t just great writing and acting that draws us in. On cable television there is nothing you can’t do, so cable does just about anything. Dressing these shows up as great drama acts as a marvelous cover for the most overt sexuality, far beyond anything seen in theatre or movies or  on chaste, conservative conventional television.

CalifornicationLast year when Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street was running into censorship problems and getting all sorts of attention because of its supposed sexual explicitness, you could only chuckle and shake your head. The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t match a single episode of the very aptly titled Californication.

Those who continue to flail against the evils of movie sex obviously aren’t watching cable television. There the inmates have taken over the asylum, and they are fornicating like crazy.

In little more than a week, the Toronto International Film Festival gets underway with the attendant hoopla not available, so far, to even the most acclaimed TV dramas (although the Emmy Awards will give it a shot Monday, Aug. 25).

Hollywood and the independent film world will unveil the few seriously intentioned films that the industry can still produce, in time for Academy Awards consideration, the promise of an Oscar being about all that keeps the movie business from being turned into a wall-to-wall Marvel comic.

I’m certain there will be some worthy movies among the offerings at TIFF. But in the face of what I am seeing nightly on my (admittedly pretty big) television screen, I can’t rouse much enthusiasm.

One predicts the end of anything at one’s peril, but the movies, if not endangered, are tired and limping, playing old tropes and plot devices that no longer fool anyone. Television drama, by contrast, is alive with energy, originality, and the promise of even greater things to come.

Not to mention a whole lot of people without any clothes on.

 

 

I Tripped Lauren Bacall

????????????????????This is how I came to trip a Hollywood legend.

First of all, let’s set the scene: It is opening night at Detroit’s grand old Fisher Theatre. A new musical based on the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie, All About Eve, is about to be unveiled. It’s titled Applause, and it stars Lauren Bacall, Bogie’s  baby, in her first Broadway musical. .

The show is trying out in Detroit, on its way to New York with a  book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse, no one connected with the show exactly  a slouch in the musical legend department. To say anticipation is running high, particularly around Bacall’s appearance, is to severely understate the case.In the Broadway musical Applause

My pal Ray Bennett has convinced the Toronto Telegram to allow us to cover the show–not quite a couple of wide-eyed kids awash in pre-Broadway glamor and excitement.

But pretty darned close.

The show razzles and dazzles in its way, mostly supercharged by Lauren Bacall’s performance in the Bette Davis role of the aging Broadway star Margo Channing, whose place in the firmament is threatened by a young and duplicitous newcomer.

If the audience doesn’t exactly leave the theatre humming the show’s tunes, everyone is delighted with what they have seen. Invited guests hurry to a reception being thrown to celebrate the show’s opening. A couple of young reporters are among those allowed in.

There is no sign of Bacall, so I escape to the men’s room. Exiting in a hurry, I wheel out into the lobby just as Lauren Bacall wheels in. There is a momentary blur as famous star somehow tangles with the foot of intrepid reporter. She lurches forward with a gasp, caught at the last moment by the gallant and quick-thinking Ray Bennett.

I am, of course, horrified. Bacall is calm and apologetic. Bennett is the glowing hero of the moment. I want to slink away in abject shame, but then we begin to chat with the show’s co-star, Canadian actor Len Cariou. He plays Margo Channing’s squeeze. Leaning against the bar, we are three Canadians bonding over drinks.

Eventually, Lauren Bacall saunters over and takes Cariou’s arm. He formally introduces us. I babble more apologies. Bacall is generous in her forgiveness. She is obviously delighted with the show’s reception and with Cariou, with whom, it turns out, she is having a relationship.

The Big SleepAs we all chat away, I have to remind my youthful, highly impressionable self that here I am standing beside the woman who had besotted the great Humphrey Bogart, who had starred with him in such classics as To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo, the sultry screen siren who had  whispered the immortal, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

At this point she is regarded as somewhat reclusive in the wake of Bogart’s death, impatient with the constant questions about him, and not easily available to the press.Not this night, though. Tonight she is Betty, smiling and relaxed, totally accessible.

Finally, Bacall announces that she is tired, and she and Cariou exit together, leaving two reporters lost in her afterglow.

Applause went on to Broadway where Bacall triumphed and won a Tony for her performance.The show, which also received an award for best musical, revived a career that had been sputtering in Hollywood. If there was any doubt about Lauren Bacall’s legendary status, Applause cancelled those doubts.

The memory of that long-ago brief encounter came back last night when I heard that she had died at the age of eighty-nine, perhaps the last link to a golden movie age when a teenage model named Betty Joan Bacal could take the train out to Hollywood, nervously keep her head down on camera while looking up, have it mistaken for the essence of sensuality, and become an overnight star.

By the time of her death, Bacall and Bogart were the stuff of such movie mythology–fueled by two volumes of her memoirs– that it was hard to believe she really existed except in luminous black and white on the silver screen.

But she did. Flesh and blood. Why, she could even get tripped up by an oblivious young reporter stumbling out of the men’s room.

Accidentally. It was an accident. I swear.

 

 

 

 

On Top of the World With Robin Williams

With Shelley Duval, Robin Williams (1980)The world premiere of the musical Popeye, a live action movie based on the iconic spinach-eating comic strip character, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Robert Altman, music by Harry Nilsson, was held on a warm December night at the legendary Mann’s Chinese Theater on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The actor chosen to play Popeye was a young comedian named Robin Williams. At that point, Williams’ claim to fame was Mork and Mindy, a hit comedy series. That’s about all I knew about him–I don’t think I’d seen an entire episode of the show–when I arrived at the theater for the opening of what was supposed to be one of the year’s big hits.Popeyemovieposter

It is safe to say that I had no interest whatsoever in Robin Williams. I had recently been named the Toronto Star’s movie critic. I wanted to interview real movie stars, not TV comedians.

It is also safe to say that I had never experienced a premiere like the one Paramount put on for Popeye. That night, the studio pulled out all the stops to create  the sort of old-time glamor that Hollywood seldom indulged in any longer.

Klieg lights swept the forecourt of the theater. There was the sort of electrical energy in the air, a sense of excitement that only Hollywood can produce. When the movie ended we all exited into the street, and marched happily along to the buoyant sounds of Harry Nilsson’s Popeye soundtrack, a throng of celebrities that included the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, and Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner.

We arrived inside a huge marquee erected in a nearby parking lot where we were feted with copious amounts of food and wine. Late in the evening, Robin Williams was introduced. I groaned inwardly. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be in front of the microphone for long, and we could all go home.

Up onto the stage bounced this small, slim, guy with soft features, a wickedly gentle smile, and a gleam in his eye. To my astonishment–and to the surprise of a great number of the other guests as well–he launched into verbal warp speed, spewing a series of comic one-liners and impressions like spitting bullets from a machine gun. The audience was convulsed with laughter, including one dubious critic from Toronto. I hate to say something as cliché as he had the us rolling in the aisles. But, in fact, he had us all rolling in the aisles.

What was so amazing–what was always so amazing about him–was that the entire routine was improvised, an inventive flight of hyper imagination created  on the spot. I had seen lots of comedians in action, including the great Bob Hope, but they all worked from written material. They had a set routine and that’s what they did night after night. Not Williams. Part of his attraction was the slightly dangerous prospect of not knowing what he was going to say next.

That night he was at the peak of his comic genius, starring in a big Hollywood movie, the town’s movers and shakers howling with laughter at his feet.

That first night I saw Robin Williams he was on top of the world.

Now, of course, I couldn’t wait to meet him. I hurried over to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the next morning where a slightly nervous Williams  wearing a western-style shirt waited in one of the hotel’s suites, accompanied by his equally nervous co-star, Shelley Duvall (she played Olive Oyl in the movie).

We stood around trading pleasantries. He was plainly dazzled by the glamor of the previous night’s premiere, somewhat awed at  the Hollywood publicity machine working full throttle to make him the center of so much attention.

I gushed about how remarkable he had been on stage. Duvall joined in the praise. Williams looked suitably shy and somewhat embarrassed. He said he had no idea where his comic inspiration came from. He simply opened his mouth and there it was.

I’m not certain how we got onto it, but somehow the topic of cocaine addiction came up and he uttered the line that he was to use many times with such searing comic accuracy: “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you earn too much money.”

He said he had played around with drugs, but no longer. I floated away that afternoon thinking I had met a star in the making, a smart, likable, funny actor with a huge career ahead. You could only wish the best for him.

In Moscow on the HudsonIn the years that followed, I interviewed him more times than was probably good for either of us. I talked to him in connection with some very good movies (Moscow on the Hudson) and I encountered him when talk was more difficult around a dog like The Best of Times.

I continued to think of him as a brilliant improv comedian, but on occasion the improvised one liners, the comic voices and  impressions, wore a trifle thin, and more than once it occurred to me that being constantly on was an effective way of ducking anything like a serious question.

Ironically, the only occasion I experienced him in a reflective mood was the last time I talked to him–in a Toronto hotel room when he was out promoting Dead Poets Society, a movie that  I suppose lent itself to reflection.

But still  it was hard to imagine Williams as anything but the merry, manic Mensch. Even when he announced that he had his demons and discussed stints in rehab, you couldn’t take those confessions too seriously. They were always cushioned with telling wit. Robin Williams would keep us laughing through his tough bits.In The Crazy Ones

He experienced career problems in the last few years. After starring in a series of bland family comedies (Mrs. Doubtfire, anyone?) that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest and highest paid stars, he was forced to retreat back to television in a show that lasted only one season before being cancelled.

Lately, he had starred in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, a lame movie that went straight to video. Did those failures lead to the depression that caused him to commit suicide yesterday at his home outside San Francisco? Or did the demons he talked about finally overwhelm the comic façade he presented so brilliantly to the world?

There will be endless amounts of dime store psychoanalysis in the weeks to come. For now, in the shocking wake of his tragic death, I prefer to recall that magical night when  Robin Williams was on top of the world, and remember with pleasure how he briefly brought a few of us along with him.

Laughing all the way.

Lost on the Prairie With James Garner

James GarnerWe were somewhere in the middle of Alberta, James Garner and me.

Actually, there were a few dozen crew members around as well, not to mention Stuart Margolin, Garner’s long-time friend and a frequent co-star on The Rockford Files. But when you were in Jim Garner’s presence, he had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the world.

Garner was in the wilds of the Canadian west making a low-budget drama titled Pure Escape, directed by Margolin. Garner was co-starring with Billy Dee Williams as a favor to his friend. It was late at night, and we were in a barn. Garner, bearded for his role, was doing a scene involving, if memory serves, a calf. My experience with movie stars on a movie set to that point was as follows: the movie star ignored the visiting reporter until the unit publicist corralled the movie star, at which point you were led to the star’s trailer to receive a few well-chosen words.

Jim Garner, it must be said, was unlike any other famous actor I ever encountered. That night he would finish a scene and then saunter over and start-up a conversation. He was open, friendly, radiating warmth. Hanging around in the middle of the night with James Garner and a calf, you might get the impression you were his best friend in the world.

Garner that is, not the calf.

You weren’t his best friend, of course. But for a few hours you could be fooled. Ah, yes, you could be wonderfully fooled.

“The thing about Jim is that from the movies and television you expect he’s going to be the nicest guy in the world,” noted Quinn Donoghue, the publicist on the film. “And he is. But what an awful disappointment it would be if that turned out not to be the case.”

With Sally FieldQuinn was certainly not alone in his assessment. Garner was hugely popular with just about everyone. Julie Andrews said he was  her favorite leading man. Sally Field, who co-starred with him in a quirky little comedy titled Murphy’s Romance (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) said the best screen kiss she ever received came from Jim Garner,.

When I interviewed him, he was going through a difficult patch. He was in the midst of a legal battle with Universal over his unpaid share of the profits from the Rockford Files (Universal, as was typical of the studios, insisted Rockford, one of TV’s biggest and longest running hits, was still in the red). It was a case that would make its way through the courts for years, but which would result in Garner finally collecting millions. “They think if they can drag this on long enough,” he said to me at the time, “I’ll get tired and let it go.” He paused and grinned. “They don’t know me.”

He had separated from his wife Lois, temporarily as it turned out, and was said to be dating Lauren Bacall, with whom he had co-starred in a little-seen thriller titled The Fan.

But you certainly got no intimation of any difficulties during our time together. When I asked him about Bacall, he just grinned and insisted they were friends—which, as it turned out, was likely the case.

Shooting when on until nearly midnight, but Garner was up early the next morning joining Margolin and myself for breakfast. Later, we retreated to his hotel room and spent the afternoon chatting. There was a lot of talk about how television had cheated him, beginning with Maverick, the offbeat western hit that ran on CBS, and which made the young Korean War veteran an overnight star, but kept him indentured to Warner Bros. for years on a weekly salary (I think he said) of only three hundred dollars.  Little wonder he had little love for the studios that made him famous—and why he went to such lengths to ensure they finally paid up.Maverick

We talked about his curious career, this see-saw professional life he led, bouncing between television and the movies. He could slip from romantic fluff like The Thrill of It All (with Doris Day) to The Americanization of Emily, the Paddy Chayefsky classic (his favorite, co-starring Julie Andrews) that was one of the most powerful anti-war movies of the era (not to mention cuttingly funny), to big studio-big cast extravaganzas such as The Great Escape and Grand Prix to the small-scale comic inventiveness of Support Your Local Sheriff. In between, he jammed in what sometimes seemed an endless succession of quickly forgotten TV movies. Like most stars who work a great deal (hello, Michael Caine), he was not always judicious about the projects he chose.

“I like working,” he explained that afternoon. “I like being on a movie set. I feel very at home on a movie set.”

He was best as the amiable rogue, the easy-going con man who would rather run from a fight, but somehow triumphed at the end anyway. For those of us of a certain generation, he will always be Bret Maverick, the slick western gambler who became the template for the kind of anti-hero he would play over and over again.

Garner in WinterWhen I think about it, that character had an enormous impact of me. Growing up, James Garner was my kind of unwilling hero, and when it came time to create a private eye for The Sanibel Sunset Detective novels, I envisioned a sixtyish Garner in the role and drew shamelessly on the anti-hero persona he established so long ago on television in black and white.

But all of that was a long way in the future. At that point, out there on the prairie, he was simply one of my childhood heroes, and, all grown up, I was a bit in awe. It was a pleasure to be briefly in his company. He may not have been the nicest guy I ever met.

But he came awfully close.

 

James Garner’s death yesterday at the age of eighty-six brought back memories of the time I spent with him. However, shortly after I left the set, Pure Escape ran out of money and shut down. It was never completed, and does not show up on the resumes of either Garner or Stuart Margolin—an all-but-forgotten footnote in a great actor’s long career.

Lucky Man: Remembering Hartley Steward

???????????????????????????????When Hartley Steward was the London correspondent for the Toronto Sun, he got to be friends with Vic Chapman, the Canadian who at the time was the press secretary to Prince Charles.

Vic and his wife were provided with the sort of beautiful apartment near Buckingham Palace that you usually see only in movies about the British aristocracy. One New Year’s Day while I was staying with him, Hartley dragged me around to Vic’s place for a drink.

We found the Chapmans huddled in a couple of badly furnished rooms off a dazzling set of sitting rooms full of priceless Queen Anne furniture. They were so afraid of damaging these irreplaceable antique pieces, they never ventured near them. They were not living in luxury; only living adjacent to it. The four of us sat together, having a drink, laughing at the ridiculousness of Canadians trying to adapt to a Royal lifestyle without sitting on the furniture.

Memories like that came flooding back yesterday afternoon when I heard that Hartley had died. In addition to being the friend who changed my professional life any number of times, Hartley was also one of the country’s great editors, a guy who at different times in his long and varied career was the publisher of the Toronto Sun, the Calgary Sun, the Ottawa Sun, and editor of the Toronto Star.

For good measure, he was also a formidable writer who wrote elegantly for the Canadian magazine in its heyday. I was dazzled by him. He seemed to move through life with such cheerful effortlessness that you could not help but be attracted to him. Even though he held some of the most powerful jobs in Canadian journalism, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t like–no, love–Hartley.

You can count me among the lovers–although he might not care for the way I worded that sentence.

I met Hartley when Sun publisher Doug Creighton brought him in to fix up the fledging but badly stumbling Sunday Sun. I was writing for the paper’s magazine section. What had started out as a tremendous opportunity to create Canada’s first Sunday newspaper, had quickly become something of a journalistic embarrassment.20121027firstsun

Hartley sort of floated onto the scene, a handsome guy, slightly stooped, with dark brown hair, and tinted glasses, armed with an offhand sense of humor and a casual style that immediately put you at ease.

In no time, with remarkably little kicking and screaming on anyone’s part, Hartley worked the Sunday Sun into shape so that it actually resembled a newspaper containing real news stories. Given the circumstances, it was an amazing transformation.

He was my boss but soon after we discovered we were neighbors in the Beach area of Toronto, we became friends. Hartley enjoyed good writing and sitting around with a drink in his hand talking about good writing. We did plenty of both in those days–the drinking and the talking.

We saw each other through a number of incarnations over the years. When he left the Sun to freelance, he convinced me to become a magazine freelancer as well. When he went to the Star to start  a magazine called The City, he pressed me into writing the first cover story (about then-mayor David Crombie).

When I needed a shoulder to cry on, Hartley was there. A broken marriage, a futile love affair, a professional setback, he showed up with a calming voice and pretty good advice. That’s how I ended up in London. “You’ve got problems,” he said on the phone. “There’s no way you’re spending New Year’s alone. Get on a plane and get over here.” Good old Hartley.

Another time I was sitting in the depths of depression, unexpectedly single and miserable about it, the freelancing business going steadily south. Then the telephone rang. It was Hartley, by this time (I believe) managing editor at the Toronto Star.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m going to take advantage of your misfortune.”

His idea of taking advantage was to hire me as the paper’s movie critic. That phone call not only saved my professional life, it also gave me the job I had coveted since I was a kid. Once again, Hartley to the rescue, this time making a life-long dream come true.

Now Hartley wasn’t perfect by any means. Much to the astonishment of everyone who knew him, he married five times. Even in the chaotic world of journalism where no one ever seemed to stay married for too long, that was something of a record.

He never took particularly good care of himself–although he always looked great–and he had heart problems throughout his life. Once he was onboard a cruise ship when he suffered a heart attack.

By the time the ship docked and Hartley got to hospital his current marriage had fallen apart. I found out he was back in Toronto and recuperating alone, just up the street from me.

I insisted he move into my apartment. I was on my way to Paris to write a movie and the place would be empty for a couple of months. Hartley could recuperate there. He moved in, and after a week or so of deep discussion about the vagaries of life and love–and reaching no helpful conclusions on either subject–I headed for France.

Hartley RemeberedBy the time I got back to Toronto, Hartley had met someone new. I couldn’t believe it. I ended up being the best man at the wedding. Alas, that marriage didn’t take either.

When I last saw him, he was happily remarried to the second Mary in his life. We promised each other we would keep in touch, but we didn’t, and now it’s too late. The guy who enriched my life with his friendship, warmth, and endless generosity, is gone.

Despite all his success, he never took himself too seriously. He remained a kid from Northern Ontario who never lost that boyish sense of himself. He counted himself, I think, a lucky man.

But not nearly as lucky as I am to have known him. Go well old friend, and safe journey…

 

Misfits and Inglorious Bastards

???????????????????????????????I went back to my past a few weeks ago–and discovered they were tearing It down.

The past had been safely housed for over forty years inside the old gray stone monolith that was the Windsor Star on the corner of Pitt and Ferry Street in downtown Windsor.

My misspent youth was spent in the smoky, noisy confines of the second floor newsroom, the sounds of the police radio on the wall (“One down on Beaubien. Units responding”), the clack-clack of teletype machines and Underwood typewriters, editors in white shirts, their sleeves rolled up, yelling “Copy!” Those were the days, my friend. We thought they would never end.

The newsroom in addition to being filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, was populated by a colorful band of misfits and inglorious bastards, larger-than-life characters, rogues–okay, there may have been a few normal people too, but they somehow got lost in the much colorful crowd. They reveled in the common knowledge that no one outside the newspaper business would let them in the door, let alone actually hire them.

I felt right at home.

When I came to the Star I was a nineteen-year-old kid recently dropped out of high school. I had nowhere to go but down. My future was as bleak as the interior of the bus carrying me to Windsor that night in 1968.The Youthful Reporter 002

As the bus came along Wyandotte Street, Windsor’s main thoroughfare, I was presented with a view of distant towering spires. Like just about every other first time visitor to Windsor, I thought these skyscrapers were part of the city. My heart leapt. This really was the big time.

The spires actually belonged to the Detroit skyline, as I soon learned when the bus deposited me on Windsor’s empty streets, and I wandered down to Dieppe Park, overlooking the Detroit River.

It was still dark when I plunked myself down on a park bench. I wasn’t due to be  at the Star until nine o’clock that morning. Dead tired, I stretched out on the bench.

The next thing I was being roused out of a sound sleep by a police officer with a flash light. Around me, the homeless men occupying other benches were also being shaken awake. The cop in charge of me took note of the jacket and tie I wore. “What are you doing down here?” he demanded.

I explained that I was in town to be interviewed for a job as a reporter at the Windsor Star. He shook his head and said, “The Star, eh? Well, good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”

I straightened myself around and walked up the street to the paper. The editor, a buck-toothed character named Norm Hull, inspected my resume me, looked me up and down, and said, “You don’t have a drinking problem, do you?”

I sputtered assurances that I most certainly did not. “Okay,” Hull said. “You’re hired.”

It might have been better if Norm Hull had asked if I drank like a fish–just like everyone else at the paper. I had walked into a world that was not quite out of The Front Page, the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about the wild and wooly days of Chicago newspapers–but it was pretty darned close

Windsor’s proximity to Detroit made the Star unique–an otherwise conservative, mid-size Canadian newspaper next door to a big, troubled American city that in 1968 was very much a reflection of the turmoil roiling the United States.

There were race riots, violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations, a polarizing presidential election (Nixon versus Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace thrown in for good measure).

What’s more, Detroit was known as Murder City. We were told not to go to downtown Detroit after dark. Naturally, we made a beeline for downtown Detroit after dark.

So a bunch of young reporters who at any other Canadian newspaper would have had to content themselves writing about local courts, nonagenarians celebrating birthdays, the odd traffic mishap, and city council, ended up, thanks to an accident of geography, with a front row seat on the most tumultuous era in post-World War II American history.

For a teenager freshly escaped from high school and the confines of small town Ontario, working at the Star became the unexpected magic carpet ride to adventure–literally. I had never even been on an airplane before the newspaper put me on one (I flew all the way to Ottawa).

I narrowly escaped being clubbed by a cop during one of several riots the paper sent me to cover, watched in amazement as supporters of George Wallace collected campaign donations at a Cobo Hall rally in used Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and interviewed far too many young Canadian kids who had enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam (they all strongly defended the war).

Playing Santa 002I wrote obits (badly; the job almost got me fired), played Santa Claus, and hitch-hiked across Canada with a high school buddy and twenty dollars in my pocket for a series of articles.

I shook Teddy Kennedy’s hand, hung around one afternoon with Jimmy Hoffa (not long before he disappeared), lunched with Ray Charles, accidentally tripped Lauren Bacall, got yelled at by Ella Fitzgerald (she didn’t like the questions asked by a young snot of a reporter), and sat out in the backyard with Neil Armstrong’s mother.

Best of all, I made friends and those friendships have endured for a lifetime. We were, to say the least, an unruly rat pack, but what a talented bunch as it turned out. You could look around the newsroom and if you were prescient–which, of course, none of us were–you would see three future newspaper publishers, a  platoon of future Toronto newspaper editors, a couple of famous columnists, at least one award-winning television producer, a celebrated Canadian author, and a future London theater critic.

Alas, not everyone turned out so well. One of us ended up, good grief, as a movie critic. I won’t mention any names.

As you might imagine, those times at the Windsor Star are regarded as the stuff of legend–at least they are by those of us who were there. It’s all long gone now, except in fondly held memory. Many of the misfits and inglorious bastards who enlivened my youth have left for good. The newspaper business we all loved is no longer the newspaper business we all loved.

A visit to what’s left of the Star was a stark, sobering reminder of just how much the business has changed, and that nothing is what it was. The lively, chaotic command center from which we were launched on various adventures–and misadventures–currently resembles a bombed-out building in Beirut. Eventually, a corner of the old façade will be part of–as the sign out front says–The University of Windsor’s School of Social Work Centre For Professional Education.

I’m not certain what that means–other than it sure as heck won’t be the Windsor Star. As former Star publisher Jimmy Bruce observed, looking at the broken façade you feel as though part of your soul has been torn out.

Your soul and your beating youthful heart, too.

Revisiting the Windsor Star

 

 

 

 

 

How Barbara Walters Seduced Me

Barbara WaltersAfter she seduced me, Barbara Walters wrote me a letter.

I thought of the letter this week as television’s best-known interviewer, turning eighty-five this year, officially retires from the business of asking famous people questions.

Mind you, her final “gets” have been  V. Stiviano, Donald Sterling’s “archivist,” and Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly. Not exactly on the level of Anwar Sadat or  Fidel Castro. Those final interviews serve as reminders that talking to the famous ain’t what it used to be. Given the state of television journalism, Walters may be getting out just in time.

I went looking for that long-ago letter, and, to my amazement, found it near the bottom of a cardboard box full of yellowed newspaper clippings and fading copies of the magazines I used to write for.

Barbara Walters' BookIt is fair to say I barely knew who Barbara Walters was when I went to interview her in Detroit. I knew that she was part of NBC’s very popular Today show, and that she had recently authored a book titled How to talk to practically anybody about practically anything. It was based on the fact that as part of the Today show she had already interviewed a lot of famous people, and had decided to impart some of the lessons learned to readers.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Walters did not actually write the book. It was ghost-written by a Canadian freelance journalist, June Callwood, who years later became a friend, and who always spoke ruefully about her experience with Walters. The relationship had been surprisingly limited. June said she ended up using  her own experiences doing magazine interviews to flesh out the manuscript.

Of course, when I spoke to her, Walters gave no hint that anyone other than herself had toiled over a typewriter.

When I walked into the conference room at the local NBC affiliate, I was confronted by a dark-haired woman, attractive, smartly dressed, but hardly glamorous. At the time, there were not a lot of women on television, and those who did get in front of a camera tended be blond and carefully manicured. Walters was neither.

That morning I happened to be outfitted in a cherry-red shirt (hey, it was the 70s). When she saw me, Walters lit up. “I love that shirt,” she announced in the raspy voice with the slight lisp that was to become so familiar over the years.

Being young and highly susceptible to any kind of flattery, I immediately fell under her spell.

We had a cordial conversation. She talked about the book, about the difficulty of being taken seriously in what was still very much a male-dominated television news world. Beneath the surface charm she exuded with seemingly so little effort, there was an unexpected strength. You sensed she was ambitious, confident, and determined to break a few glass ceilings.Today show 1973--Gene Shalit, Barbara Walters, Frank McGee

I would not claim  any prescience about her based on our encounter, but later that day, I did witness the most amazing display of Walters Power, the like of which I had not seen before and have seldom seen since.

Intrigued by her, I decided to attend the speech she was giving to a Detroit women’s club. The hall where she was speaking was filled to capacity. A few minutes later, Walters appeared onstage and began to talk–again touching on her experiences and her difficulties making it in male-dominated profession.

Here is where a well-worn cliché can be put to use: as she spoke, you could literally hear a pin drop in the room. I have never seen anyone control an audience the way Barbara Walters did that afternoon. It amounted to a master class in public speaking. The audience was enraptured, and so was I.

Needless to say, I went back and wrote a glowing piece about her. Not only was it enthralling to watch her, I had learned something about how to speak to practically anybody about practically anything–lessons I’ve been trying to put to use ever since.

A few weeks after the story appeared, the letter arrived. In those days, the only means of communication other than a phone call, was by mail, and no celebrity ever wrote a reporter for a local Canadian newspaper. Who would care?

But Barbara Walters cared. Here is what she wrote:

Dear Mr. Base:

A viewer was kind enough to send me the article you wrote on me last month.

I cannot tell you how much it delighted me, especially since I remember you and your shirt very well. My gratitude for your warmth and generosity.

Most sincerely,

Barbara Walters

In the years since that encounter, Walters far exceeded any expectations I might have held for her, although her triumphs did not come easily. For example, as popular as she was on the show, she did not become an official co-host on Today until 1976, years after I interviewed her.

A couple of years later, she became the first female anchor on the ABC Evening News, but that did not work out well, thanks to the animosity of her co-anchor, Harry Reasoner.

Today, TV screens are filled with female journalists and anchors, thanks in no small part to her ground-breaking efforts, efforts that  I happened to be an early witness to.

She has been famous for so long that she has become something of a cliché, lampooned on Saturday Night Live (Barbara Wawa), and made fun of for her questions–to Katherine Hepburn: “If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?”

Like many others, I’ve been of a number of minds about her over the years. You have to wonder if, in changing the face of television news, she didn’t also aid in the creation of the celebrity-obsessed atmosphere in which it now exists.

Still, I think of the afternoon she so easily held a roomful of women in the palm of her hand, and beguiled a youthful reporter in a red shirt.

And I am seduced all over again.Barbara Walters Letter 001

 

Remembering Farley Mowat

farley_mowatMany years ago, a young reporter trundled off to Port Hope, Ontario outside Toronto to interview Farley Mowat.

The best-selling author of such ground-breaking Canadian non-fiction as People of the Deer and   Never Cry Wolf was deathly ill with the flu that afternoon. Nonetheless, he and his wife Claire rallied around, fed the reporter lunch, and then Farley sat for hours into the evening, engaging in the most delightful and plain-spoken conversation.

Back then it was unusual to hear anyone railing about the environment. Farley railed. He was delighted and proud that the Americans had refused to let him into the country. He said it was all right with him if he never went back there.

Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and he and his then-wife Margaret had visited Farley at his summer place on Cape Breton. By that time, Farley was ambivalent, if not downright critical of Trudeau. Even so, he went about making the prime minister and his wife feel at home.  During their visit, Margaret had abruptly sat up, opened her blouse, and breast-fed baby Justin.

The sight of Canada’s first lady breast-feeding in Farley’s sitting room while the prime minister of the country chatted away, filled Farley with a certain awe. The reporter has often speculated since at Farley’s reaction as that baby grew up to become the leader of the Liberal Party.

Farley was opinionated and feisty that afternoon in Port Hope but also warm and generous. You didn’t have to spend much time with him before you started thinking you had made a friend for life. Well, perhaps not a friend, but certainly an acquaintance. For years afterward the reporter would run into Farley at various events, and Farley always remembered. Farley in 2010

The young reporter is not so young any more and now Farley is gone, and so is one of Canada’s most original characters. In his long writing life Farley published over forty books that sold seventeen million copies, likely making him Canada’s best-selling author.

He was part of a now almost-extinct breed: the literary celebrity. He was at the spear point of a ground breaking generation of authors–Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Peter Newman among them–who formed the early  backbone of CanLit, and against all odds helped keep Canadian book publishing alive. That group is mostly  gone now. Only Atwood and Newman survive.

Nearing the end of a long, wonderful afternoon, Farley admonished the young reporter to be as critical as he wanted; he hated puff pieces, he said.

The reporter tried hard to be critical, he really worked at it. But he could not quite pull it off.

 

Bouncing Off The Walls With Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney“Mickey,” Jackie Cooper was saying as he drove onto the lot at the CBS Studio Center, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice, and failing. “We’ve known each other since we were kids, and he’s always been, well…Mickey.”

Mickey was Mickey Rooney, once the biggest star at MGM, and Jackie Cooper was directing him in a TV movie titled Leave ‘Em Laughing. Andy Hardy and America’s Boy, as Cooper was once known–the movies’ two most famous child stars, all grown up and working together.

Kind of working together.The Mick circa 1981

Sort of.

Cooper had just eighteen days to shoot the true story of a professional clown named Jack Thum who raised thirty-seven at-risk children in Chicago before dying of cancer.

Mickey, of course, was playing the clown. He seemed oblivious to the pressures Cooper was under, a pear-shaped dervish whirling around the hospital ward set showing off the under shorts he wore beneath his hospital gown, keeping everyone laughing, particularly six-year-old Danny Lance who was  supposed to be looking glum as his pal Jack Thum faded away.

Mickey wasn’t much interested in fading. He jumped into his hospital bed announcing, “I’m here for a height transplant.” He turned to Danny and the crew members, everyone trying their best not to break up. “Did you hear the one about the woman who got out of the limo–“

“Come on, Mick,” Cooper interrupted. “I’m trying to get  this kid going, and he’s laughing at you.”

“Sorry, babe,” Rooney replied, deadpan. “Didn’t know the kid laughed.”

At that point, Mickey Rooney was sixty years old and riding high once again after decades in the show business wilderness. He had revived his career on Broadway in the hit musical Sugar Babies, and the year before he had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Black Stallion.

“Until recently, Mick was pretty bitter,” Cooper said. “He was never trained for anything but acting. I was luckier, but his dry spell amounted to half his life. He’s only sixty but he’s spent half his life in the crapper.”

Copper had just published a memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog. The title was taken from a notorious incident filming Skippy, the movie that made Cooper a star at the age of eight. When director Norman Taurog couldn’t get Jackie to cry, he threatened to shoot the boy’s beloved dog. The tears immediately flowed.Jackiecooper

“It’s impossible to be a child star and be happy,” Cooper said. “Every child star, if they are not dead or drunk or in jail, they are hiding out or working as male nurses or as restaurant greeters some place. Or they’re addicts.”

Such gloomy talk was immediately dismissed by the Mick, as everyone called him. “What bull,” he told me later, slumped into a wheel chair between takes. “We were working, that’s what counted.

“When I was fifteen I’d been working for thirteen years. Why would it be detrimental? Those years were the detonating points of our careers. It was just great.”

“That’s baloney, of course,” Cooper countered. “But that’s part of his charm. He won’t ever tell you he suffered.”

Spending an afternoon with the Mick as he merrily bounced off the walls of a soundstage  at the CBS Studio Center, it was hard to imagine he was once the biggest star in Hollywood, more popular than Clark Gable or Shirley Temple.Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland

When you now watch Shirley Temple, who died in February, there is a slightly uneasy feeling, and you recall Graham Greene’s acid assessment: “Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.”

But the young Mickey Rooney, well, that’s something else again. Even today you can’t help but be astonished at his talent. In the most run-of-the-mill MGM confections (cue the fifteen Andy Hardy movies) Mickey jumps off the screen. Like his close friend Judy Garland, he could do everything–sing, dance, act, and do those things better than just about anyone else.

As the critic Jim Bawden points out in his lovely remembrance, when asked to name the best actor in movies, James Mason, no slouch in that department himself, instantly threw out Mickey Rooney.

But he was a handful as Jackie Cooper found out filming Leave ‘Em Laughing. Getting the Mick to settle down, and concentrate on the scene was akin to herding cats. The job was not made any easier by the difference in the personalities of star and director.

-Jackie_Cooper_(1989)Cooper was sober-sided, no-nonsense, somewhat shy, the former child star who had learned how to survive in the Hollywood jungle, starring in two hit TV series, becoming a successful production executive, and then transforming himself into an in-demand TV director (interrupted every so often to play Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman movies).

The Mick by contrast was the undisciplined live wire, the extroverted performer who was always “on.” He wasn’t so far removed from his own rambunctious childhood or from Jack Thum, the clown who, no matter what, always wanted to leave ‘em laughing.

“Let’s go before my wife calls and says I’m being sued for divorce,” the Mick announced bouncing back onto the set after lunch. “I haven’t been sued for divorce for two years.”

He climbed back into the hospital bed for the next shot, still talking. “I used to go out with Gloria De Haven,” he said. “I was twenty-one when I walked in there. I was forty-three when she finally came down.”

Only when he spoke to the press, did the Mick take on a kind of subdued gravitas, as though he had been up all night rehearsing the speeches he would give during an interview. His early training at the hands of MGM studio publicists had taken a toll on spontaneity–he was much better at reciting other people’s dialogue than he was at doing the talking himself.

However, when he spoke of Judy Garland, he immediately discarded the rehearsed lines and became surprisingly emotional. “The greatest performer who ever lived,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.

Despite his on-set antics, the Mick got great reviews when Leave ‘Em Laughing aired on CBS in April 1981. “Vintage gutsy Rooney,” pronounced John J. O’Connor, the TV critic for The New York Times. “Leave ‘Em Laughing probably won’t leave a dry eye in living rooms across the country.”

Jackie Cooper continued to direct TV until he retired at the end of the 1980s. He died in 2011 at the age of eighty-nine.Mickey at 93

The Mick outlived just about everybody. He kept going on until his death this week at the age of ninety-three, the last of the great Hollywood legends–maybe the greatest when it comes down to it–still bouncing off the walls, a performer to the end, and driving everyone crazy.

 

 

 

Down and Out in Beverly Hills: Jogging With Eartha Kitt, Lunch With Zsa Zsa Gabor, Escaping Fire With A (Half) Naked Blonde…

Springtime in Beverly HillsMemories of my years spent down and out in Beverly Hills flooded back the other day when I read that the town is celebrating its hundredth anniversary.

The Westside Los Angeles enclave, formerly a bean field transformed in the 1920s into a kind of sun-kissed Olympus for cinema gods and goddesses, remains the best known small town in America. The words Beverly Hills still resonate with all the clichés of Hollywood opulence. Even though I was probably the town’s poorest resident, people always look impressed when I tell them I once lived there.

beverly_hills_sign1Ostensibly, I moved to Los Angeles  to write  a book about movie stardom (it was eventually published in the U.S. titled, If The Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part). However, there were other, more complicated reasons having to do with divorce, leaving a job, reinventing oneself. I was, as it turned out, in the world capital of self reinvention. Everyone there was from somewhere else. Everyone wanted to be something other than what they were.

I was right at home.

From the outset, I decided that if I was going to live anywhere in L.A., it was going to be Beverly Hills. As a kid from small town Canada who had grown up fascinated by the lore of Hollywood, I couldn’t imagine residing anywhere else.

Together with my longtime pal and soon-to-be roommate, Alan Markfield, we found an apartment at 320 North Palm Drive. At that time, the California economy was in such bad shape, rental units were going begging– they even gave us a month’s free rent in order to induce us to move in.

One of the many great things about having Alan as a roommate–other than the fact he was a pretty fair cook–thanks to his job as a movie stills photographer, he was seldom in town. I had this big, airy apartment overlooking North Palm Drive pretty much to myself.

One of the residents at three-twenty had written a screenplay about a talking baby. Another arranged flights for American businessmen to fly to Moscow to meet eligible Russian women looking for husbands. A petite young woman with a gravelly voice had once been a child actor on a popular kids’ TV show.

The white-washed four-story apartment building in which we all resided surrounded an open courtyard and featured a rooftop swimming pool right out of the 1940s. I would swim in the pool in the afternoons, and it didn’t take much to imagine Esther Williams doing laps alongside me.

North Palm Drive was the loveliest street I ever lived on. Each spring about this time, the Jacaranda trees lining either side of the street would break into bloom and form a violet-colored canopy.???????????????????????????????

At dusk, the crimson light that is so special to Los Angeles–the Chinatown light, I used to call it–would filter through the flowering Jacaranda and Beverly Hills would be turned into a beautifully lit, enchanted land where surely all your dreams could come true. Never mind that by the next morning they wouldn’t. For that one brief nighttime moment, you could believe anything, and life didn’t seem so bad at all.

Every morning, I jogged through the strip of parkland running along Santa Monica Boulevard where once the denizens of Beverly Hills rode their horses. You would encounter the most unexpected people on these morning runs: the actress Linda Hunt, also out jogging; Eartha Kitt, dressed head-foot in black strolling along the park’s pathway; the actor Gene Barry (the star of TV’s Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law) also out for a walk, nodding hello.

I never once drove along Sunset Boulevard in my rattletrap Mustang without thinking excitedly, “Gee, here I am, driving along Sunset Boulevard!”–evidence you can take the kid out of small-town Canada, but you can never quite take small-town Canada out of the kid.

Grauman's Chinese TheatreI unfailingly got a charge out of seeing a movie (however bad) at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now called the TCL Chinese Theatre) that has dominated Hollywood Boulevard since 1927 and in whose forecourt you could stop to view the foot and handprints of Hollywood’s greatest stars–including Trigger’s hoof prints.

The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was no longer quite the place to see and be seen, but it was so full of history it didn’t matter.  Middle-aged screenwriters led by Carl Gottlieb, the guy who wrote the script for Jaws, gathered regularly at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood  to grumble about their lot in movie life.

Friday nights I would go up the street to meet my old Windsor Star colleague Ray Bennett at Dan Tana’s restaurant where he and his journalism pals from the Herald Examiner and the Hollywood Reporter held court at the bar, rubbing shoulders with regulars such as actors James Woods and Dabney Coleman.

At lunch you could spot the director Billy Wilder engrossed in conversation–and marvel at being able to sit there staring at the legend who created Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. Zsa Zsa Gabor would be at the next table. Not far away, Arnold Schwarzenegger lit a cigar in the days before he became The Governator of California. Milton Berle entered wearing a fedora and, of all things, an overcoat.

It seemed to me every time I ate out in the neighborhood, George Hamilton managed to show up. And here was Pierce Brosnan wandering around Book Soup, the best bookstore in Los Angeles–and there he was again entering the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive, just around the corner from my apartment.Pierce Brosnan

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Northridge earthquake marked the beginning of the end of me and Beverly Hills. The worse earthquake in the modern history of Los Angeles struck at 4:31 A.M., shaking me out of a sound sleep.

With the whole building trembling violently, I hopped out of bed in my darkened bedroom. Not knowing what else to do, I stood in the doorway, vaguely recalling that a reinforced area would provide some protection.

It didn’t–and it is exactly the wrong thing to do, as I discovered when the door frame shook as badly as the rest of the building. No sooner was I thinking that this was a mistake, and wondering what to do next,  than the shaking stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I had survived an earthquake in Beverly Hills.

I hurried onto the street  where the rest of the neighborhood was already gathering. The power had gone out, but someone had a transistor radio tuned to coverage of the earthquake. One broadcaster noted, “It was like being shaken around in a shoe box.” Exactly what it was like.

Despite the widespread damage–including a freeway collapse just south of where I lived–I had escaped unscathed. By the time we were allowed back into the building, it was a beautiful Los Angeles morning. With nothing else to do, I went up to the rooftop and lay beside the swimming pool, reading a book.

Suddenly, the door to the penthouse apartment on the far side of the pool opened and a lovely blond-haired woman burst into view dressed in nothing but a thin bathrobe, and–I kid you not–high-heeled slip-ons. As she raced toward me, she started yelling something I couldn’t understand.

“What is it?” I said.

“Fire,” she cried. “There’s a fire!”

I couldn’t believe it. What fire? Frantically, she pointed behind me. I turned to see black smoke billowing up from the courtyard. Someone had left a candle burning in their apartment and the flame had ignited sheets of plastic.The apartment building was on fire.

The half-naked blonde and I made our escape down a flight of stairs.

Again, my luck held. Half the apartment building was destroyed–but not my half. I didn’t even suffer any smoke damage. Still, as it was for so many that morning, the earthquake acted as something of a wakeup call.

What was I doing with my life? I asked myself that question a lot over the following days. I was thousands of miles from home and family, down and out in a strange place where one moment the Jacaranda trees were blossoming and the next moment, the whole world was shaking.

Not long afterward, I met my future wife, Kathy. She made it very easy to decide to leave.  Beverly Hills floated into Jacaranda-scented memory.californication

These days, the closest I get to Los Angeles is via the Showtime television series Californication. It’s a raw comedy about the life and loves of an L.A. writer named Hank Moody (played with a certain insouciant charm by David Duchovny).

Hank is a troubled soul but irresistible to endless numbers of beautiful young women with perfect breasts who can’t wait to get him into bed.I tell my wife that’s exactly what my life was like when I lived in Beverly Hills.

She rolls her eyes.