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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Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal: Falling in Love Letters

Ali and Ryan

Before the other night, the last time I saw Ryan O’Neal was on an elevator at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel. He was accompanied by his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, Helga Stephenson, at the time the Toronto film festival’s director of communications, and longtime pal, Lee Majors, television’s Six Million Dollar Man.

As the elevator reached the ground floor, Lee turned to Ryan to say goodbye. “By the way,” he said, “when you get to L.A., do me a favor and look up Farrah. Make sure she’s all right.”

Farrah, of course, was Farrah Fawcett-Majors, at the time Lee’s wife. Ryan did as his pal asked. Farrah and Ryan promptly fell in love, and the rest is a certain amount of tabloid-fed show business history.

erichsegal[1]Until then, Ryan O’Neal’s central claim to fame was Love Story, the literary and movie phenomenon of 1970. The film and the subsequent bestselling novel were both written by a Harvard professor, Erich Segal. I got to know Toronto author and journalist Merle Shain who had once dated Segal. She told me that at one point in their relationship, before he wrote the book, they had a terrible fight. Segal phoned to apologize. “Erich,” Merle responded, “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

The rest is, well, more show business history.

In my life as a journalist, I never encountered Ali MacGraw. She blazed so brightly and was extinguished so quickly, but she left a generation of young men, myself included, slightly dazed and not a little lovesick in the wake of her appearances in Goodbye, Columbus and Love Story.

So when it was announced that O’Neal and his Love Story co-star were appearing in a road show production of Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s enduring two-hander, I had more than passing interest.

Hand-in-hand on a recent Saturday night, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal came onto the stage at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, Florida. Iconic Jenny and Oliver are long gone.  She is seventy-seven (her birthday is April 1); on April 20 he turns seventy-five.

The coltish beauty who married movie mogul Robert Evans and then ran off with Steve McQueen when they made The Getaway together, resembles someone’s elegant grandmother, still slim, her gray-streaked hair pulled back into a bun.

O’Neal, the California kid who started out as a boxer before movie stardom and a whole lot of unpleasant headlines involving children on drugs and the death of Farrah Fawcett, has put on weight and a pair of glasses. Now he could play the Ray Milland part of the wealthy father in Love Story.

On Stage

 This night they are Melissa and Andrew, not so far from Jenny and Oliver, except this time she is rich and he is not so rich. Seated at a table on a bare stage they face the audience and read the letters addressed to each other over a tempestuous fifty-year friendship. MacGraw is still the free spirit, goading and poking at the preppy O’Neal through two lives swerving from childhood to college and careers, marriages and divorces, success and failures, the two of them alternately fighting to be together and to stay apart. Are they friends or lovers—or both?

Gurney’s play inhabits a stylish fantasy land wherein the participants have money, go to Ivy League schools, pursue interesting careers, and in an age when no one writes such things, manage to write letters that are often more like smart volleys in an ongoing tennis match.

Reading back and forth seated on a stage is not generally regarded as the way to keep modern audiences mesmerized. But somehow Love Letters works a certain magic, aided by Gurney’s wit and restrained sense of pathos and also by surprisingly fine performances from the two stars. As much as we all loved Ali MacGraw in her brief heyday, she was never much of an actress. By the time the producers of Love Letters came knocking, she had long since retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico to pursue her interest in yoga and put acting behind her.

However, on stage in Fort Myers she delivers a delightfully natural and nuanced performance as a brittle, witty young women spinning into middle age and beyond, battered along the way by alcohol abuse and bad marriages.

O’Neal, as he did in Love Story, must carry much of the emotional load, and he does this exceedingly well as the conservative college jock growing into prosperity, the law, and, eventually, the U.S. senate, all the while trying to put the love of his life behind him—discovering he can’t quite do it. He must forever write her one more letter.

As Love Letters unfolds over the course of an hour and a half, it evokes a series of emotions and memories, thoughts of loves won and lost, of time passing—the young man encountering the movie star on an elevator; a fragile Merle Shain fondly recalling how she inadvertently provided the catch phrase that has long outlived her.

At the end, there is a damnable but unavoidable catch in the throat, the emotion you swear you are going to avoid, but that you can’t as Ali and Ryan take their bows and then, shamelessly playing to audience expectations, kiss before exiting, wrapped in each other’s arms.

You leave the theatre, walking into a cooling Florida night, hugging the co-star of your own love story a little more closely.

Ali and Ryan (2)

 

 

 

 

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The Four Wives Book Tour Continues…

four Wives

A new year, a new Sanibel Sunset Detective mystery…The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective Book Tour 2016 is off and running. Here are a few of the locations where author Ron Base will be appearing. Check ronbase.com for more updates.

Franklin Shops—Friday, Feb. 5, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. 2200 First St., Fort Myers.

Bailey’s General Store—Sunday, Feb. 7. From 10 a.m. 2477 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Fort Myers International Airport—Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 8 and 9. From 10 a.m. At Coastal News on the main concourse.

Annette’s Book Nook—Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 10 and 11, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santini Mall, Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach.

Adventures in Paradise—Friday, Feb. 12. From 11 a.m. 2019 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Bailey’s General Store—Saturday, Feb. 13. From 10 a.m. 2477 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island.

Annette’s Book Nook—Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 17 and 18, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Santini Mall, Estero Blvd. Fort Myers Beach.

MacIntosh Books—Friday, Feb. 19. From 10 a.m. 2330Palm Ridge Road, Sanibel Island.

Sandman Book Store—Saturday, Feb. 20. From 11 a.m. 16480 Burnt Store Road, Punta Gorda, Fl.

 

More dates to be announced soon

 

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Hello Sweetheart…Get Me Val Sears

val sears

Hello, sweetheart. Yeah, get me rewrite will you? One of the giants has fallen, Val Sears, a newspaper legend out of a time of newspaper legends.

Whaddya mean you don’t know who Val Sears is. Val wrote features and covered politics in Ottawa, Washington, and London for the old Toronto Telegram and later for the Toronto Star. He wrote the great Canadian memoir about the Toronto newspaper wars of the 1950s, Hello Sweetheart…Get Me Rewrite.

 Val was class, let me tell you; elegance and grace personified, both in print and in life. He was sort of the Scaramouche of newspapermen, blessed with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

Yeah, hold on a minute, will you, sweetheart, while I brush away a tear. This is one of the tough ones. I loved the guy. When I grow up, I want to be a newspaperman like Val Sears. He was tall, laconic, with snowy hair pushed back from a smooth face, mouth turned at an angle as if he knew instinctively that whatever words came out of it were going to be laced with acid, and he was already savoring them.

Val moved slowly when he came into a newsroom or a bar or a cocktail party, taking in the world at his leisure. If he didn’t already know everyone in the joint, he soon would. Val was on the press plane when U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan insisted a female reporter run her fingers through his hair to demonstrate that he didn’t dye it. Val still didn’t believe him, of course. Val never believed much of anything that a politician ever said.

The first time I met him, it was at a press reception then-Opposition leader Joe Clark threw in the garden of his Stornoway residence. I was in Ottawa doing a magazine piece on a controversial Progressive Conservative member of Parliament named Tom Cossitt. Cossitt is forgotten now, but at the time he had caused the Conservatives considerable embarrassment with his outbursts against bilingualism.Joe Clark

I wanted to talk to Clark about Cossitt. However, the people around their leader didn’t want anything to do with the story. They told me I could come to the reception but to stay away from Clark.

I was standing there wondering what to do when Val entered, lazily taking in his surroundings and then sauntering over. We introduced ourselves; he wondered what I was doing in town. I told him I was writing about Cossitt, but they wouldn’t let me talk to his boss.

“Joe?” Val said with that crooked, sardonic grin of his. “Hold on a minute.” He immediately went over to Clark spoke to him, nodded in my direction, and the next thing I knew I was talking to the Conservative leader, getting the quotes I needed for the story.

After that, Val and I became friends—or I liked to think of him as a friend. I was dazzled by him, his intelligence, his humor, the way he carried himself, the way nothing seemed to faze him, certainly not politicians, newspaper editors or women.

Okay, hold on, sweetheart. Maybe women could shake him up a bit. After all, he was human.

I always looked forward to our encounters, listening to that easy patrician drawl as it declaimed about the politics of the day in Ottawa, Washington, and in that particularly scabrous hotbed of gossip and rumor, the Star newsroom.

The homages to Val all pointed to the time in 1962 when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called an election, and Val strolled into the press gallery—he never would have hurried—and announced, “To work, gentlemen, we have a government to bring down.”

But my favorite Val aphorism was “I’ve been around since the earth cooled.” Well, you got that right, sweetheart, I’ve now been around long enough to use the phrase myself, and I always think of Val when I do.

Yeah, I guess I am a little choked up. When I heard about Val’s death at the age of eighty-eight, I sat alone for a few minutes and let the tears flow. Yes, of course for Val, sweetheart, but also for the era that’s gone with him.

It’s probably mostly in my imagination at this point, but in those days newspapermen—a few women back then, but mostly men—were colorful, larger-than-life characters, livelier than most of the people they covered, world-weary, cynical, not taking guff from anyone. I was a kid then, freshly escaped from small town Ontario, newly arrived in this enthralling newspaper world, totally in awe of these guys.

Val, well, he loomed larger than any of his contemporaries. He was certainly more colorful, a little more world-weary and a lot more cynical and funny, with an added dash of sophistication thrown in for good measure. In his heyday, Cary Grant could have played Val. Or maybe it was Val who was playing a variation on Cary Grant. Hard to tell.

So that’s it, sweetheart, let’s dry the tears and put 30 on this. Whaddya mean you don’t know what “30” means? That’s the newspaper term for the end of the story. When you saw 30 back in the day, you knew it was over. Finished.

So you put “30” on Val’s life, will you? Hate to do it. Hate to think he’s not around anymore.

If I still drank, I’d lift a glass to Val Sears and the lost newspaper era in which he flowered. As it is, I think I’ll just sit here for a while and remember the guy who’d been around since the earth cooled. That earth is a little duller today.

Yeah, thanks, sweetheart. Tell you what? Why don’t we get together later at the press club for a drink? Listen, if my mother calls, don’t tell her I’m a newspaperman, okay?

She still thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.

30

old-typewriter[1]

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At Lunch With Orson Welles

ORSON WELLES

Unlike most of the people writing about him on the hundredth anniversary of his life, I actually met Orson Welles.

As I stood to shake his hand, I do remember thinking, Wow, here I am shaking the hand of the man who made Citizen Kane.

I had seen Welles a couple of times before, lunching on the patio at Ma Maison, sitting alone, a great, bearded Buddha in all his vast magnificence glaring out at the other patrons. At the time, Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue, was the hottest restaurant in Hollywood. Watching him, I thought, here was the genius who made what even then was generally regarded as the greatest American movie in the history of cinema, surrounded by the town’s most powerful movers and shakers. Yet he was not making Hollywood movies. Everyone was basically ignoring him. He certainly didn’t look happy, on display for all to see. Here I am, he seemed to say—what are you going to do about me?

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

This is the paradox of Orson Welles discussed endlessly over the course of his centenary year, the enigma of the boy wonder who could create Kane and then do—well, what did he do? Did he make more masterpieces or did he roam the world, illusive, unable or unwilling to repeat that early ground-breaking greatness? That’s the ongoing dispute, isn’t it?

It’s been played out constantly this year in new biographies, documentaries, as well as an exhaustive article in a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (The Shadow: A Hundred Years of Orson Welles).

There is even talk of another Orson Welles movie, The Other Side of the Wind, a feature he shot over many years with a cast that included directors John Huston (also long gone) and Peter Bogdanovich. Unlike so many Welles projects, this one was actually finished, but unedited and mired for decades in legal entanglements. It was supposed to have been released this year, but like so much about Welles, that promise was never fulfilled. Even in death, Orson somehow never quite shows up.

In the days when I wrote about movies, Welles fascinated me—how could anyone interested in film not be fascinated? I could never walk through the vaulted archways along Windward Avenue in Venice Beach without thinking that this is where Welles shot the famous opening border sequence for Touch of Evil, the last Hollywood studio picture he ever made (click HERE to  view the opening sequence).

John HousemanI drove into the hills of Malibu to interview John Houseman who had played such a pivotal role in Welles’s early career. Houseman hired him to direct a landmark all-black production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project in the thirties, produced Welles’s controversial radio version of The War of the Worlds, and was also involved in the production of Citizen Kane, an involvement that had led to the dissolution of their partnership.

Two things I remember about my encounter with Houseman, who by that time had made The Paper Chase, won an Oscar for the role, and was best known to the world as an elderly, rather patrician character actor.

The living room of the hilltop house in which he and his wife lived was dominated by a huge indoor swimming pool. The furniture where we sat was arranged on the deck surrounding the pool. I’d never seen anything like it. The couple loved it, they said, and swam every morning in their living room-pool.

The other thing I remember is the otherwise affable and welcoming Houseman’s reluctance to talk about Welles. “That was all a long time ago,” he said, more or less closing down the subject. He had not seen his old friend and colleague for many years.

Heston, Leigh in T of E

Charlton Heston with Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil”.

Charlton Heston was much more willing to talk. I spoke to him a number of times, always proud that he had persuaded Universal Studios to hire Welles to not only appear in but also direct Touch of Evil.

I also spoke at length to Robert Wise who had directed a few classics of his own, including West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Wise was the middle-class, no-nonsense antithesis of the flamboyant Welles. He had started his career as a film editor and while at RKO worked on the editing of Citizen Kane and then, notoriously, it was Wise who was assigned to do reshoots and edit Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, after Welles disappeared to South America in order to make a documentary.

This was a pivotal moment in Welles’s career, the beginning of the perceived self-destructiveness that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Wise, sitting in his office on South Beverly Drive, still couldn’t believe Welles had so callously abandoned his own movie at a crucial stage.

He was defensive about taking over the production. “We did the best we could with what we had,” was the way he put it with a shrug. The result, while containing hints of greatness, is generally considered a mess and was a box office failure (Kane had not been a hit at the time, either), pretty much ending the freedom Welles had enjoyed working inside the studio system. (View the restored Ambersons opening HERE).Welles

When I finally met Orson Welles, it was at Ma Maison. I was having lunch with a publicist named Michael Maslansky. “There’s Orson,” Maslansky said with a wave in the direction of where Welles was seated at his usual table.

A few minutes later, Welles abruptly appeared at our table, a great lumbering figure of truly enormous proportions. The only person I’ve ever met who could match Welles’s girth was the actor Raymond Burr.

I stumbled to my feet, flustered at meeting the Great Man. We shook hands, I mumbled something inane about how much I admired him. He nodded vaguely, and then brusquely turned to Maslansky who by now was also on his feet. Welles wondered if he could speak to him for a minute. The two of them walked a few feet away, engaged in a short, hushed conversation before Maslansky returned to our table and we finished lunch. We didn’t discuss what they talked about. The last I saw of him, Welles was back at his table, keeping a malevolent eye on the people who would no longer hire him.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present ÒLinwood Dunn: Celebrating a Visual Effects Pioneer,Ó a program exploring the contributions of Linwood Dunn and the techniques he used in creating optical effects for Orson WellesÕs ÒCitizen Kane,Ó on Friday, October 9, at 8 p.m. at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. The evening also will feature a screening of a newly struck print of ÒCitizen KaneÓ from the Academy Film Archive. This event is sold out, but standby tickets may become available. Pictured: CITIZEN KANE, 1941.

At the end of all the arguments and speculation over Welles’s career and life, we are left with Citizen Kane. It remains, despite various attempts to knock it off its perch, everyone’s go-to choice as the greatest film ever made.

If it were not for Kane, it’s doubtful Welles would get the attention he has been receiving lately. His other films have their ardent defenders, but generally no one much remembers Magificent Ambersons or The Lady from Shanghai or The Stranger (his most commercial film), his Macbeth or Chimes at Midnight. Even the most famous of the Welles films that he didn’t direct, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, right up there when it comes to the greatest films ever made, is mostly forgotten.

Is Kane the greatest movie? Whatever your view, it remains a shimmering black and white feat of filmmaking, innovative, edgy, and cynical, refusing to give into the typical Hollywood happy ending of the time, and therefore timeless.

Recalling that brief encounter at Ma Maison, I think of the masterpiece Orson Welles made when he was only twenty-five.  All the other debates  about its creator fade away. Citizen Kane endures, and that is more than enough.

 

 

 

 

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The Lost Comics

Garrett Champion2 001 - CopyEven though they had already been hugely popular in North American newspapers for at least twenty years, King Features, the granddaddy of newspaper syndicates, is celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of a lost, all-but-forgotten art form: the comic strip.

As far as anyone can figure, the first newspaper comic strip originated in 1895 from an artist named Richard Outcault. He created a strange, bald-headed little boy in a nightshirt and called him The Yellow Kid. The Kid spoke in balloons, hung around a squalid tenement area called Hogan’s Alley, surrounded by a recurring cast of characters.

By the time media baron William Randolph Hearst acquired The Yellow Kid as part of his newly-formed King Features, the strip was already hugely popular. Hearst had learned that one of the best ways to attract readers was to give them comic strips. As the century progressed, and big city newspapers became more and more competitive, their comics sections were powerful circulation boosters in ways unimaginable today.

Large numbers of readers did not buy the paper for news, but for the comics, particularly with the introduction in the 1930s of the continuing adventure strip. In 1934 alone, such enduring comic characters as Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Li’l Abner, Mandrake the Magician, and Terry Lee of Terry and the Pirates came into existence.

terry and the piratesTerry was drawn by a young cartoonist from Ohio by the name of Milton Caniff. Initially, a boy bouncing around what was then known as “the Orient”, Terry was aided by his journalist pal, Pat Ryan, outwitting a band of pirates led by the mysterious but very sexy Dragon Lady.

What brought the stories to life was Caniff’s superb draughtsmanship. He created beautifully-drawn panels, black and white through the week, blazing with color on Sundays, done in shadow and light and changing points of view reminiscent of the movies.

Through the thirties and forties, Terry became the most popular comic strip in America, his adventures followed daily by thirty-one million readers, his creator dubbed the Rembrandt of cartoons. In the 1940s, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were crudely-drawn comic book characters. The real talent in both illustration and story-telling was found in the comics section of your daily newspaper.

Young_Caniff[1]I grew into a teenager idolizing Caniff and the way he drew, wanting to become a newspaper cartoonist just like him. Back then, the daily newspaper strip was a way of escape. Movies could be visited at most once a week. Television was limited and closely watched over by parents afraid it would rot my brain.

That left comics. They would rot brains, too, so I was restricted to one comic book a week. However, nobody ever objected to the weekend comics section of the newspaper.

By the time I discovered Caniff, he had abandoned Terry for a new character, Steve Canyon, an Air Force colonel, blond like Terry, but much more the two-fisted, womanizing (in a gentle sort of way) globe-trotting adventurer. It was not lost on my youthful eyes that Caniff, in addition to being able to summon far-off places filled with fascinating characters with a few strokes of an India-inked pen, also produced the most alluring heroines (and villainesses) in the comics. In those days, one took sexuality where one could find it, and, curiously enough, it often could be found inside the panels of Steve Canyon.

1099fecc080df5d1bb0879cb9026e7fd[1]

Caniff inspired me to become a cartoonist. I enrolled in the John Duncan Correspondence School of Comic Art. Duncan, a professional cartoonist who lived in Florida, sent me four thick binders full of instructions on how to draw. There were assignments to be completed and each week I would mail my drawings off to John Duncan who made corrections and sent them back. Each time I opened the corrected assignments, my heart sank as I realized I was not making a whole lot of progress as a cartoonist.

Nonetheless, I kept at it, obsessed, sitting hour after hour at the drawing board I had constructed, set up in my bedroom, in front of a window overlooking main street in Brockville, where we were living.

I even created my own Steve Canyon-like adventure comic strip. My hero was Garrett Champion. Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone, became the model for Champion. Like Canyon, my guy was a two-fisted adventurer, some sort of secret government agent as I recall, embroiled in various international intrigues that invariably involved my idea of a scantily-clad femme fatale.

By the time I gave up in frustration, I had drawn hundreds of panels on lengths of Bristol board. I’m not sure what happened to them. I suspect my father threw them away after I moved out. However, as an experiment, I sat down the other day and tried to recreate one of those Garrett Champion panels, discovering that I am no better today than I was all those years ago (the shaky results are on view above).

By necessity, Caniff spent his life sitting at a drawing board. This is made clear in Meanwhile… the fine, nearly one thousand-page biography of the artist written by Robert C. Harvey.Steve Canyon in action

Adventure strips in their heyday ran seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, no repeats, no summer hiatus. What’s more, Caniff had to do it so as to keep reminding readers of the plot and at the same time, keep the story churning forward complete with a daily cliffhanger. Then he had to rearrange the story for the full-page Sunday color installment so that readers who didn’t follow the story during the week, could also keep up with it.

In the early days of Terry and the Pirates, Caniff and his wife lived in a Manhattan apartment. They were, according to Meanwhile…, quite the sophisticated party people—except the party came to them. Late into many nights, their apartment filled with friends fresh from the theater or a movie, sitting around drinking cocktails, gossiping, while in a corner Caniff sat at his drawing board completing the day’s quota. Not until late in life was he able to visit any of the exotic locales he drew.

Caniff’s remarkable artistry and story-telling feats finally have been preserved in a series of beautifully-produced books from the Library of American Comics. Flipping through these volumes, my heart aches that they weren’t available when I was a kid. If I’d had them back then, I would have thought I’d died and gone to comic heaven. As it is now, a much older man can only flip through their pages in head-shaking admiration at what Caniff was able to accomplish.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but even if I had been any good at cartooning, I had arrived too late at the party. As I daily devoured Steve Canyon, that sort of continuing adventure strip was dying, killed off by television and the movies.

Even though Steve Canyon’s readership had dwindled to almost nothing, King Features did not have the heart to fire Caniff. He died in 1988, still at his drawing board. As soon as he was gone, so was Steve Canyon. Even though Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon are mostly forgotten today, Caniff’s influence remains strong. Those crudely drawn superheroes of the 1940s have become pop culture icons, rendered in comic books and graphic novels with the sort of artistry, cinematic movement, and attention to detail that almost certainly is inspired by Caniff.Caniff-SCanyon_hc1954[1]

Also, it’s hard to imagine that Terry and the Pirates didn’t provide at least some inspiration for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when they created the Indiana Jones adventures.

As for that frustrated teenage cartoonist in Brockville, thankfully, he discovered he was somewhat better at writing stories than he was drawing them. But all these years later, still a glutton for artistic punishment, he finds himself back at the drawing board, trying to get Garrett Champion right.

And, of course, failing.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blowing Out the Candles at Frank Sinatra’s Birthday Party

Sinatra and Barbara

Frank Sinatra will not attend his hundredth birthday this month. However, Frank was at his eightieth birthday party. I know because I was there with him. You might say I helped him blow out the candles.

Mind you, we weren’t alone. The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was filled with hundreds of well-wishers. An eclectic gathering. You could turn around and nearly bump into Louis Jourdan, the star of Gigi, still looking great all these years later. Were Frank and Louis friends? Who knew?

Not far away, Gregory Peck, a longtime Sinatra pal, huddled with Anthony Quinn, and you couldn’t help but think, Wow, the two stars of The Guns of Navarone together again.

A petite young woman sheathed in white, looking absolutely spectacular, floated past. This turned out to be the then-unknown Selma Hayek. Was Selma a friend? Was I?

Well, no, not really, and probably not Selma, either. I had encountered Sinatra once before in 1975 when he returned to the concert stage after a brief retirement. Ol’ Blue eyes was back and appearing at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Harold Ballard, who owned the Gardens (and the Toronto Maple Leafs), had gone to a great deal of effort and expense to attract Sinatra and there was excitement of the kind ordinarily reserved for visiting royalty and heads of state.

I thought of Sinatra as not much more than a talented thug, what with his organized crime connections, his disdain for the press, and his increasingly throwaway movies (Dirty Dingus Magee, anyone?). In the youth-obsessed, disco world of 1975, Frank Sinatra seemed an anachronism, the boozy, chain smoking, broad-chasing personification of Las Vegas cheesy.

With that kind of attitude, of course I was assigned by Toronto’s Sunday Sun newspaper to do a piece in advance of his visit. I phoned around the country, talking to anyone I could think of who might be able to provide insight into the Sinatra legend.

I interviewed everyone from Hank Greenspun, the editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, who knew Sinatra personally, to Nat Hentoff, the respected arts critic of the Village Voice, who had written about him extensively. Somewhat to my surprise, everyone I talked to had mostly good things to say about him. Greenspun said he had never seen his friend’s dark side. Everyone talked about how generous and caring he was. Good ol’ blue eyes.

By the time I finished the article, I was intrigued enough that when my wife at the time, Lynda, managed to get her hands on concert tickets, I reluctantly went along, expecting to see an aging crooner, just out of retirement, voice fading, leaning hard on past glories.

But from the moment he stepped on the circular stage running through the Gardens he cast a spell and created an excitement that even a skeptic like myself couldn’t resist. It helped that we sat close enough that I could have reached out and touched him.

Sinatra at the Gardens

Dressed in trademark black tie, backed by a full Nelson Riddle orchestra, he transported us all back to a mythical world shimmering in black and white, where beautiful women in evening gowns sipped martinis in smart night clubs, and the music swept you away.

When he sang Harold Arlen’s “One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, the highlight of the evening, I was choking back tears. My wife and I, along with everyone else, floated out of the Gardens when it was over. It was one of the most romantic evenings I have ever spent, and I spent it with Frank Sinatra.

Nearly two decades later, November 19, 1995, at the Shrine, the night celebrating Sinatra’s birthday was more head-scratching than it was romantic. At the beginning, Sinatra was trotted out, once again in black tie, looking pretty darned good, it seemed to me, considering his age and the fact that he had spent most of his years drinking Scotch, smoking cigarettes, and staying up to the wee small hours chasing dames.

Sintra at the ShrineHe was introduced by Bruce Springsteen, the first in a series of unlikely musical guests. Sinatra smiled, waved, more or less acknowledged the standing ovation, and then Springsteen escorted him over to a small table with a red table cloth to the left of the stage where he was seated with his wife, Barbara. That was the last we heard from him.

Springsteen was a fellow Jersey boy, so that more or less explained his presence. Bob Dylan, who followed, was an admirer. Patti LaBelle, Hooti and the Blowfish, Tony Danza were more problematic, as was Little Richard, who, if anything, represented the rock n’ roll Sinatra detested and that at one time nearly put him out of business. There was no sign of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis (who had died five years before), Shirley MacLaine or any of his pals from the Rat Pack era.

The only performers you could readily associate with Sinatra’s past were Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gormé. Tony Bennett, who Sinatra once said was the singer he most admired, was there, too.

It was hard to imagine what Sinatra thought of all this. Those of us in the theater spent the evening staring at the back of his head. The subsequent television broadcast cut occasionally to him smiling—or not—generally looking slightly distracted. After all, he had spent a lifetime being feted and celebrated, this night with people he barely knew, wasn’t going to shake him up too much.

At the end, everyone gathered on stage to sing, not “My Way,” which might have been expected, but “New York, New York,” forgetting for a moment we were all in Los Angeles. Sinatra was brought onstage for the finale, and he actually sang into a microphone, although you could barely hear him.

Afterward, at the backstage after-celebration celebration, the Birthday Boy was a no-show. Springsteen sat for a time with his wife Patti Scialfa. Mike Myers chatted with Martin Short while I wondered yet again at the strange mix of celebrity the night had attracted. Out back, the TV crew who had worked on the broadcast wasn’t looking at what they had taped. They were mesmerized by a special about lost Beatle songs that recently had been released.

That night pretty much marked the last time Sinatra appeared in public. Less than three years later, suffering from various illnesses, including dementia, he died of a heart attack.

The years since have been kind to him. Freed from the constant stories about his mob connections, his women, his temper, the whole Rat Pack thing having lost its louche trappings and taken on a kind of hip nostalgia, we have Sinatra singing, the way he was that long ago romantic night at Maple Leaf Gardens, the way he wasn’t at the Shrine auditorium when everyone showed up for his eightieth birthday.

I was there, too. Good ol’ Frank. My pal. Did I mention I helped blow out the candles?

 

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