Five Years Later: Still Brian

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 036

Looking through old photos stored on an auxiliary hard drive, I came across pictures of my old friend Brian Vallée when he and his partner Nancy Rahtz visited my wife, Kathy, and me at our home in Milton on a sunny summer weekend in early July 2010.

 I’d forgotten about that weekend and seeing those photos again of a happy, healthy-looking Brian was heart-wrenching. Less than a year later, he was terminally ill with cancer; little more than a year later, on July 22, 2011, he was gone. Looking at those photos today it is hard to believe this is a man with only a year left to live.

 On the fifth anniversary of his death, I thought I’d post some of the photographs from that Milton weekend, as well as repost the remembrance I wrote at the time of his death. Five years later those of us who knew him, loved him, and valued his friendship, still mourn him.

 Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Brian; he’s still here—in pictures, certainly in memory, and, on a day like today, in a lingering sense sadness.

 Rest well, BV. You are not forgotten…

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 030

The digital readout on the phone said: “Vallée B.” In addition to everything else he’d accomplished, I told him, he had become a rap artist. He liked that idea.

When he called, I knew it was time for my daily dose of the Vallée B news: another old newspaper pal gone; a new piece of information unearthed for the Edwin Alonzo Boyd book; the trouble editing the Conrad Black biography; the endless frustrations with a publisher over his latest book.

I always got the chapter and the verse. More than I sometimes wanted to know. But that was okay. He was Brian, after all, Vallée B. We talked nearly every day for over forty-two years. I don’t think we ever exchanged an angry word. Lots of jokes and arguments and jibes. But no anger.

The 70-year-old more formally known as Brian Vallée was a great newspaperman, an award-winning broadcaster, and a best-selling author. But to me he was simply and inevitably, Vallée B, that reassuring humor-filled voice on the phone, my closest and dearest friend.

He got me married twice (the second time as best man), helped me through a divorce, ran interference with various girlfriends when I was single, and when no one else was interested, resurrected a publishing company he helped create, West-End Books, rolled up his sleeves and set about publishing my novel—an act of kindness and unwavering generosity that has quite literally changed my life.

It wasn’t just me, though. Brian was like that with everyone. If you needed help, Brian was there to provide it. He spent too much time trying to help everyone—dying pals, unemployed newsmen, frustrated writers, and wannabe journalists. Brian seldom said no to anyone.

He was handsome and charismatic, larger than life. Everyone he met just naturally gravitated to him. He was one of those people who existed in this special aura that acted as a magnet drawing in everyone he encountered.

With Brian (July 3, 2010) 040

I remember the moment I met him— lunchtime in 1969 at the Windsor Press Club. We were both reporters at the Windsor Star. I remember thinking he was somewhat shy and quiet. The next thing, I started hearing rumblings, stories from the late night front lines about this new guy Vallée. Not so quiet, as it turned out. Not so shy. A character.

He liked to play the piano late into the night. He did a little Johnny Cash and less Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a singular fault when it came to piano playing: he did not know a single tune. This, however, did not stop him. He played with ferocity and passion. So what if he didn’t quite know the whole song—or even half of it.

The amazing thing is, no one seemed to mind. Rapturous audiences would demand more. I used to wonder what they thought they were hearing. It wasn’t the music of course—there was no music—it was Brian. Everyone loved Brian.

But there was much more to him than his ability (as impressive as it was) to hold court around pianos. He also worked harder at his craft than just about anyone I ever knew. He took the business of journalism very seriously; the necessity to be accurate and true was paramount to him.

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 025I don’t think he started out as a good writer, but he certainly finished up that way. The mellowing effect of the years, as well as his enduring relationship with his partner,Nancy Rahtz, provided him with a gravitas that opened the way to his finest work.

His last book, The War On Women, is also his best, a well-researched, eloquent cry for help for the victims of domestic violence.

In the past two years, he had become a passionate advocate for vulnerable women,and traveled the country speaking out for them. His fight for more awareness of domestic violence substantially raised the profile of that issue. He leaves a real legacy, a record of achievement few journalists can ever lay claim to.

There was so much more he wanted to do. Brian’s phone calls were filled with ambitious future plans both as an author and as a publisher. I marveled at what he wanted to do, wondered how he would ever get it all done.

But at the same time, those calls were filled with increasing complaints about back pain. He thought he had pulled something exercising. Instead of getting better, however, the pain grew worse.

His doctor sent him to physiotherapists.  They provided no relief whatsoever. He could not work he was hurting so much. Now when he phoned his voice sounded weak. He seemed much older. Something was wrong, I said. This had to be more than a pulled muscle. Finally, blood tests were done. His doctor ordered him to get to a hospital.

He went into St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, May 14. He never left. Yesterday morning at 10:33 a.m., with wonderful Nancy at his side, Brian went away. I got there a moment before he left. I took his hand in mine, and he was gone.

So that is how forty-two years of friendship slips off; how the best friends leave. As he escaped away, I shouted how much I loved him, and how much he had meant to me—how I would miss him.

He just kept going. I hope he heard me.

Brian (July, 2010)

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The Escarpment: A Video

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Bumping Into O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson in The Towering Inferno

Arriving on the San Francisco set of The Towering Inferno—the downtown Bank of America building was standing in for the film’s fiery skyscraper—there was no one around.

In the Bank of America lobby I found extras dressed to look like survivors of, well, a towering inferno, clothes disheveled, faces smudged. There was no sign of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, or Robert Wagner, the stars who were the excuse for coming up to San Francisco in the first place.

As I turned to leave, I bumped into a guy in a green security guard’s uniform, realizing with a start that it was O.J. Simpson, the former Buffalo Bills football superstar turned actor. He was, in fact, playing a security guard in the movie. He wandered through the crowded lobby. No one paid any attention to him.

I thought to myself, if nothing else worked out tonight, at least I could say I encountered one movie star. Sort of a movie star.

That was the last I saw of O.J. The other, much bigger stars of The Towering Inferno soon arrived and in the course of a night watching Newman and McQueen at work, I forgot all about O.J. Simpson.

Years later, in June 1994, I was living in Los Angeles when he was arrested for the murders of his estranged wife, Nicole nicolebrownsimpson[1]Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

The ensuing trial roiled America in ways few other criminal cases ever have. In the U.S. and the rest of the world this was a national and international event. In L.A. it was a local story. Twenty-two years after the infamous Bronco chase along the San Diego Freeway, much to my amazement, the drama continues to fascinate and perplex.

Earlier this year the FX network presented The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a ten-part drama about the trial. Instead of being an exploitive rip-off, as it might well have been, the limited series wound up being one of television’s best dramas.

This week ESPN (in Canada, it’s showing on the CTV network) is presenting an exhaustive eight-hour documentary, O.J.: Made In America, directed by Ezra Edelman. The film sets the Simpson story into a larger cultural context, focusing on L.A.’s racial divide and, more tellingly, the troubled relationship between the city’s police department and its African American citizens.

If you could not believe Simpson got away with two murders, you certainly better understand how it happened after viewing Edelman’s riveting film. The documentary and the earlier FX drama both draw heavily on New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin’s detailed account of the case, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (apparently there is no such thing as a short title where O.J. is concerned).large_3nyt5niDxXMNGfKlXQ2XmB9hCUn[1]

 I watched the real life version of the story unfold from an apartment at 320 North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, about a fifteen minute drive from the Brentwood  murder scene. At the time—and I have no reason to believe anything has changed—Beverly Hills was said to be the safest town in the United States (the cops were young, chiseled, and camera-ready for the TV series I suspected they all wanted to star in).

The street where I lived was lined with jacaranda trees that flowered every spring to form a lavender archway over the road. Walking along North Palm at that time of the year was magical. I really did feel as though I was in Lotus land.

Except I wasn’t, not really.

Los Angeles, as you might imagine, was transfixed by the televised drama being played out in a downtown courtroom. Everyone was watching, a daily soap opera you could not ignore—even if you tried.

I sat in front of my TV one bright afternoon thinking that I’m wasting my life watching this day after day.

I forced myself to turn off the television set. From around the courtyard outside my window I could hear the blare of dozens of neighboring televisions, all tuned to the trial. There was no escape.

Through it all, I can’t remember hearing anyone say Simpson was innocent. But then I was moving in a pretty narrow white bread enclave. I won’t say I never saw anyone of color, but it was rare. Not so far away, but largely unseen by us Westside residents, was an entirely different—and much larger—universe of African Americans and Latinos. I must be honest and say I seldom saw this L.A.—usually only when a group of us ventured south to historic Dodger Stadium for a baseball game.

In my little jacaranda-scented world, there was no doubt about Simpson’s guilt. The grandstanding antics of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran were just that, antics. Nobody would ever take him seriously. The photographs of the interior of the bloodstained Bronco alone were enough to warrant conviction.

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The first time I truly understood there was a much different view of all this was on the day Simpson won acquittal in October 1995. No one around my neighborhood could believe it. I walked over to Beverly Drive in the late afternoon after the verdict was announced. I’ve never seen such astonishment, anger, and confusion as there was on that street. Not far away, however, people were cheering and dancing in the streets.

Two decades later, viewing O.J. Simpson: Made In America, the verdict remains hard to fathom. You can’t help but think that despite the racial divide, any empathy the jury might have had for the accused, the evidence was so devastating, how could there not have been a conviction?

Edelman’s documentary doesn’t take sides, but it leaves little doubt as to Simpson’s guilt. Is there anyone nowadays who truly believes he was innocent (according to Toobin’s book, even Johnnie Cochran privately thought he was guilty)? The answer to that question is, as it was twenty years ago: depends on who you talk to.

I look back on that time in Los Angeles with a mixture of nostalgia and guilt. This was also the time when I met my wife Kathy and fell in love, the constant chatter of the Simpson trial playing in the background.

But still, I regret that I was so caught up in my sense of the mythic Los Angeles, the city of my simplistic childhood dreams of Hollywood and the movies, that I largely missed the bigger, more complex, much more diverse picture of the city.

I saw the jacaranda trees flowering on a lovely street in Beverly Hills, but I should have seen a lot more.

 

 

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How I Didn’t Host Canada AM and Saved Canadian Television

Canada_AM[1]

No sooner had I escaped the clutches of the Toronto Star than a producer at Canada AM, the CTV network’s long-running version of America’s Today Show, phoned to ask if I would be interested in becoming one of the hosts.

I doubt I was actually being offered a job so much as being given the opportunity to audition. I don’t think they ever would have been crazy enough to let me loose on Canada’s national airwaves without some indication of what they were getting themselves into.

I had appeared on the show fairly regularly. While I was never on long enough to make a good impression, I suppose I wasn’t on long enough to make a bad one, either.

Luckily for Canada AM I had, by that time, decided I wasn’t a TV kind of guy. What’s more, having just left one demanding institution, I wasn’t about to join another. That’s how I saved Canadian television—I stayed out of it. The medium was much better off without me.

My checkered television career began in the 1970s when CBC producer Ross MacLean hired me to be one of the regulars on a Toronto arts and entertainment show he was producing. Ross had fallen on hard times by then, and he is all but forgotten now, but he was one of the pioneers of Canadian television. He helped get CBC-TV on the air and had discovered Pierre Berton, Patrick Watson, and Charles Templeton among others, broadcasting icons in their day.

If anyone in Canada knew television and the kind of personality who worked in the medium, it was Ross. I ran into him at a reception after the show had been on for a few weeks. Being young and eager, I asked the Great Man how he thought I was doing. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Not very well, Ron. Frankly, I’m very disappointed.”

Oh.

That taught me one of life’s invaluable lessons: never ask a TV guru what he thinks of you. Needless to say, I was not added to the list of Ross’s iconic discoveries.

In those days, I wrote a lot about television. I was around when both City-TV and Global went on the air. When Canada-AM started up in 1972, I duly interviewed Helen Hutchinson and Norm Perry, the hosts who were most associated with the show in its early days. They regaled me with tales of rising and shining at three o’clock in the morning so they could be on the air at 6:30.

I began appearing on the show in the 1980s, talking about movies. The Canada AM studios were located at CFTO in the wilds of Agincourt, an eastern Toronto suburb. A taxi would pick me up at six o’clock for the long ride to the studio, invariably in rush hour traffic. Once there I would then sit around for another hour or so, time that included getting fully made up, a process that seemed to take forever—hiding the dark circles under my eyes being a major cosmetic achievement.

By the time I was finally ushered onto the set it was after 8 a.m. Memory has me regularly talking to Craig Oliver, although Craig usually covered Ottawa politics and I don’t think he was ever a regular host.

My appearances generally went something like this—and I am only slightly exaggerating:

Host: Our guest this morning is Toronto Star film critic Ron Base. (turning to me) Ron, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark opens this weekend. Tell us about it.

Ron: Well, Craig, the Indiana Jones movie is an action-packed extravaganza that will have you on the edge—

Host: Thanks, Ron. (turning to camera) That was Ron Base, Toronto Star movie critic reviewing the Indiana Jones movie. We’ll be back after these words from out sponsors.

Once the show went to a commercial break, everyone on the set would look relieved. Someone would say, “That went well,” and I would be ushered off, clutching the Canada AM coffee mug which, if I recall correctly, was about my only payment for the appearance. Then it was out to a waiting taxi for the ride back into Toronto, this time at the height of the morning commute. Two hours or so later, I would be at the office trying to shake off the feeling that I had said almost nothing but had spent most of the morning saying it.

Not surprisingly, any association I had with the show ended after that phone call from the Canada AM producer. How I would ever have fit into its formula is anyone’s guess. From its inception, the show was insistently bright and bland, featuring carefully coiffed hosts and hostesses not out to rock any boats, a reflection of the white bread, controversy-shy network that produced it.

Could I have looked appropriately lively and bubbly every morning, excited over the latest recipe for guacamole, interviewing the Irish Rovers, sympathetically shaking my head at weather reports of another freezing day on the prairies? Could I have pulled that off?

Even if they had been nuts and actually put me on the air, I can’t imagine I would have lasted long. No doubt about it, I saved Canadian television the day I said no.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia as Canada AM finally made its exit last week, remembering my minor association with the show.

The CTV network, trailing a long history of unceremoniously drowning its babies, says it will soon replace Canada AM with a new morning show. I am not expecting a phone call.

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A Summer Treat For Sanibel Sunset Detective Readers

The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to Londoncvr(Aug.15,2015)

THANK YOU TO WONDERFUL READERS

I want to say a heartfelt thank you to readers all over the world who have embraced the Sanibel Sunset Detective novels with such enthusiasm. It severely understates the case to say I could not do it without you. Your passion for Tree Callister and his various misadventures keeps me going.

There will be a new Sanibel Sunset Detective novel in November—The Heart of the Sanibel Sunset Detective.

A SUMMER TREE CALLISTER NOVEL

 In the meantime, though, in response to readers who tell me the books just don’t come out fast enough, a summer special, something a little different, a short e-book set in London titled The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London…

WHAT’S THE BOOK ABOUT?

Big Ben Tree and his wife Freddie are in London, England, to attend the wedding of Freddie’s nephew. It promises to be a relaxing time, visiting family, seeing London’s historic sites.

So then how does Tree end up following a mysterious young woman? Why are tattooed thugs banging him across the head and throwing him into the back of a van? In a city where no one has a gun, why is everyone pointing a gun at Tree?

From the markets along Portobello Road to the royal digs at Kensington Palace, from lively Piccadilly Circus to an ancient castle deep in the English countryside, Sanibel Island’s most famous detective encounters brutal English gangsters, questionable Scotland Yard investigators, blackmail, and murder.

It’s enough to make a private detective wonder why he ever left home.

DOWNLOAD THE BOOK NOW

 Intrigued? I hope so. If you’d like to read The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London simply click HERE to download your copy at Amazon for only $2.99.

 

And please, keep in touch. Let me know what you think of The Sanibel Sunset Detective Goes to London. E-mail me at ronbase@ronbase.com.

 

 

 

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Cannes, El Sid, and Six Green Beans

Cannes Film Festival

Every year about this time I think of Cannes, El Sid, and six green beans.

El Sid was my nick-name for Sid Adilman, the legendary Toronto Star entertainment reporter. For years in May, El Sid and I would head for the Cannes International Film Festival, the longest-running, biggest, and most glamorous of movie gatherings.

Cannes had something no other festival will ever be able to match: the Mediterranean and the French Riviera. When I was growing up, the Côte d’Azur bespoke the ultimate in sophistication, personified, to my mind, by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic To Catch A Thief. Once I saw Cary and Grace against that breath-taking backdrop, I had to get there, somehow.

To my surprise, when I finally did arrive, the reality of Cannes more or less lived up to my childhood fantasy.

In 1981 the festival was still a somewhat intimate affair, although I’m not sure I realized it at the time. You could become stranded at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris with Norman Mailer. Jerry Lewis would stroll past you on the Croisette and nod good morning.

At a reception a tall stranger would walk over and it would take a moment to realize with a start you were chatting to Gore Vidal, a friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward who would arrive a few moments later.

The main festival was still housed in the Palais next door to the Hotel Carlton, tiny compared to the monstrosity being constructed further along the Croisette overlooking the Bay of Cannes.

The life of the festival was more or less defined between the Hotel Carlton to the east and the Hotel Majestic to the west.

The terrace at the Carlton constituted the festival epicenter in those days. Anyone who was anyone sat there, mingling with lots of people who were nobodies, but then the terrace was a fairly democratic place. If you were there, you might be somebody. And if you weren’t, well, who was to know?

Sid and I always stayed at the Hotel du Century up the street from the Carlton on the rue d’Antibes. Not a luxury hotel by any stretch, but the rooms were good-sized and fairly reasonably priced–if there was such a thing as reasonable in Cannes during the festival.

This was our headquarters each year. This is where we drove each other crazy.

It was often said that El Sid and I were an odd couple. He was a small, slim, intense man, always impeccably dressed, always on the hunt for a double espresso, forever staring into patisserie windows at sweets he would never eat.

Everyone in show business read Sid’s daily Eye On Entertainment column in the Toronto Star. He was Canada’s premier show business reporter (the fact that he was also the Canadian editor of Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, only added to his influence).

No one took their beat more seriously than El Sid. He lived and breathed entertainment. I had been reading him since high school in the days when he was at the old Toronto Telegram. When we first met, I was somewhat in awe–and secretly thrilled to be sharing reporting duties at the festival.

At least I was the first year. After that, I decided that life on the Mediterranean was too short to spend sitting in a movie theatre.

The great Dusty Cohl, one of the founders of what is now the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), daily held court on the Carlton terrace  wearing his trademark black cowboy hat.How could you resist him? The  soupe de poisson in the Old Town was delicious, the Kir Royales late at night at the Majestic, irresistible.

The fun of Cannes was not, alas, in the movie theatres. It was at the Hotel du Cap at Eden Roc in Antibes, not far from Cannes. The really rich and the very famous were housed in the one hundred rooms of this converted mansion (built by a Russian prince).

Here, one could inhale the sweet fragrance of the hotel’s roses while lounging near the pool with the actress Mary Steenburgen and her then-husband Malcolm McDowell, sweating from an afternoon tennis match.

The fun was at Le Petit Carlton on the rue d’Antibes, the anthesis of the Carlton terrace, where the press and the indie filmmakers hung out, and where you could end up drinking (fairly cheap) beer with Terry Jones of Monty Python or rubbing shoulders at the bar with director Jim Jarmusch.

It was dining at the Moulin des Mougins, the first Michelin three star restaurant I ever visited, where the diner sitting next to you could turn out to be the great actor James Mason. And it was dancing late at night to a live Chet Baker concert in a ballroom at the Hotel Majestic.

The movies at Cannes could always be screened back in Toronto, but the experience of Cannes, I decided, would never be repeated, and so I had better enjoy it. This attitude infuriated Sid. He was there to work. If I missed the screening of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence–which I did–he became apoplectic.

Each year, without fail, he stopped talking to me. I would line up for a screening (yes, I did go to them on occasion), and there would be El Sid standing not ten feet away. Ignoring me.

But Sid was nothing if not basically good-hearted, and no matter how angry he got with me, he always came around in the end, and, as unlikely as we were together, we remained friends. But he was a character. Of all the stories I can tell about Sid, this is my favorite:

On the Air Canada flight bound for Paris, I settled back in my seat, relieved to finally be off to the festival, looking forward to ten days on the Côte d’Azur. I ordered a nice glass of Merlot from the flight attendant. Dinner arrived (in those days Air Canada still served a pretty decent meal on its transcontinental flights). I glanced over at Sid, who was sitting next to me. He wasn’t eating anything.

Eventually, he produced a tin foil-wrapped package and placed it on his lowered chair back table. He then proceeded to unwrap the tin foil.There, laid out in a neat row, were six green beans.

“My dinner,” he announced testily when I asked him about the beans.

Oh.

Sid proceeded to eat four of the beans, picking up one at a time, placing it in his mouth, chewing it thoroughly, before attacking the next one.

With two green beans left, he abruptly stopped eating, carefully refolded the foil, and put it away. I looked at him. “What was wrong with those two?” I asked.

“I’m saving them for later,” he snapped.

Oh.

Since those days, I’ve been back to the South of France many times and even returned to Cannes on a few occasions. The original Palais has long since closed and the new, much more grand version across from the Majestic has shifted the festival focus away from the Carlton.

The Hotel du Century where Sid and I stayed was closed for years, serving as a drab, deserted repository for my fading Cannes memories. Now it has been renovated into a fashionable boutique hotel and made unrecognizable.

The Carlton also has undergone a facelift that has robbed it of its former Old World charm or any sense that Grace Kelly and Cary Grant might stroll through the lobby. Le Petit Carlton closed in 2008, and the space it occupied is now just another one of the many high-end boutiques lining rue d’Antibes.

The Moulin des Mougins famously lost one of its stars and much of its luster. The Hotel du Cap still attracts the very famous who these days must be really, really rich to stay there (and you still pay in cash).

And the  festival endures of course, but one has the impression, viewing it from afar, that it is much bigger, more regimented, and certainly less intimate than it was when I was there. But maybe that’s just me.

El Sid, wonderful, exasperating Sid, died too soon in 2006 at the age of sixty-eight. But each year as the film festival gets under way, I sit and remember those wild, silly years when we traveled together, and fought together, and, on more than a few occasions, laughed together.

And I smile.

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Don Francks: A Star Was Born Again, and Again–and Again

With Petula Clark in Finian's Rainbow

When I finally met Don Francks it was on the set of a movie I wrote titled First Degree. Not that I had much influence, but as one of the producers, I lobbied hard to cast Don in the role of a powerful entrepreneur confronting the movie’s conniving detective played by Rob Lowe.

It wasn’t a large part, but to my delight Don accepted. He had fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in a small Ontario town, yearning to break out. Don Francks was Canadian, a charismatic performer, blessed with an impressive jaw, an impish smile, a raspy, easy singing voice, dancing ability, and great presence.

Don Francks was going to be a star.

His star was to be born on Broadway in a lavish musical production called Kelly, about a man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. Backed by big name producers David Susskind and Joseph Levine, directed by Herbert Ross, the musical was one of the most expensive productions in Broadway history when it opened in 1965. Don had never appeared on a Broadway stage, but as soon as the producers auditioned him, he was immediately signed for the lead.

Less than a year later, Kelly closed after a single performance; a colossal failure of  legendary proportions.

But Don Francks was going to be a star.

In JerichoHe was going to be a star on television in a big-budget Mission Impossible-inspired series, called Jericho, about an elite intelligence team operating behind German lines during World War II. Don was the team leader. The series lasted sixteen episodes before it was cancelled.

He was going to be a star in Finian’s Rainbow, director Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation of the Broadway hit that co-starred British pop star Petula Clark and Fred Astaire, in what turned out to be his last movie musical. Don played Woody, the movie’s necessary love interest. He and Petula Clark had great onscreen chemistry, particularly when they sang “Old Devil Moon.”

But Finian’s Rainbow bombed at the box office, one of the great musical failures of the era. That was all right. Don Francks was going to be a star…

Except he wasn’t.

Don retreated north, back to his native Canada with his wife, Lili. For a time, he left show business altogether and became Iron Buffalo, living on a First Nations reserve, a long, long way from Broadway and Hollywood. He said he was fed up with American politics and the Vietnam War—and maybe, just maybe, tired of the struggle to become something for which he had little taste.

Francks

I watched all this from a distance, a kid avidly reading about Don, watching with delight his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show, Johnny’s go-to counterculture guy, reading inspired musings from his journals. I rooted for his success, certain that the failures had nothing to do with his talent, which no one ever doubted, but were the result of extraordinary bad luck, the gods merrily playing games with Don’s destiny, allowing him tantalizingly close to stardom then pulling it away at the last moment.

By the time I encountered him on the set of First Degree, the years of his American stardom were faded memory. He was known as a hard-working Canadian actor, accomplished jazz musician (I had seen him perform several times at George’s Spaghetti House in Toronto), a voice-over artist (for many cartoon shows)—in short, a jack-of-all-artistic trades.

I imagine his role in First Degree was just another gig for him, a few days’ work before going on to something else.

He certainly wasn’t all that happy when I found him in his trailer and nervously presented him with the totally rewritten monologue he was to deliver in a couple of hours. After we shook hands, and I showed him the rewritten pages, he gave me a dark look that suggested what he was probably thinking: “What kind of a##hole are you that you can’t get it right?”

He quickly pulled himself together, his hard eyes softened somewhat, and he said he would do his best. He certainly did.

On the set of a dinner party scene his character was hosting, Don, who, with his trademark headband and ponytail was the personification of Old Hippy, this day looked every inch the rich, powerful mogul he was portraying. Berating Rob Lowe as the detective who would stop at nothing to rise above his social status, Don delivered the rewritten lines flawlessly, making them sound a whole lot better than they ever would have had anyone else said them.

Between takes, we sat and talked, and he warmed considerably, perhaps understanding I was genuinely interested in where he had been and how he had gotten from there to here.

A year or so later, trying to get another production off the ground, I again insisted on Don for a co-starring role. He agreed to drop around to the production office for a chat about the part he was to play. When he got there, he recognized me from our last encounter, gave a rather cynical smile and said, “Are you going to pay me this time?”

I joked that he probably got more for First Degree than I did. Again, he softened and we sat around for an hour or so, relaxed, shooting the breeze, talking about the role. He drifted away and that was that. The movie, as is so often the case, never got made. I never saw Don again.

The news of his death at the age of eighty-four, hit me harder than I expected. I went looking for his obituary in the New York Times. He was at least a fascinating bit of unlikely American cultural history; the Times surely would take note. There were a couple of familiar names in the obit section. The paper reported the death of Fred Hayman, the Rodeo Drive boutique owner who, when I came calling, wondered aloud why I didn’t consider getting a haircut.

Anne Jackson, dead at ninety, rated final words., the actress-wife of the late Eli Wallach, who once told me that she wished her husband hadn’t taken all those roles in spaghetti westerns.

But there was nothing about Don Francks. The Toronto Star didn’t run anything that I could see, either (although the Globe and Mail, thanks to the wonderful Susan Ferrier MacKay, published a long remembrance).

The star who was born again, and again—and again, had died little remembered, except by a few of us who cherished his talent and remembered how well, at the last moment, he learned his lines.

Youn Don

 

 

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