Township Tourism: Welcome to the New South Africa

Langa TownshipIn the new South Africa, the poor and the oppressed have been turned into a tourist attraction.

The townships on the flatlands outside Cape Town once were a symbol of the worst excesses of apartheid, the white supremacist South African government’s attempt to permanently separate the races by evicting thousands from urban centers and forcing them into squalid settlements.

The townships are stark reminders of the enduring legacy of apartheid. But rather than pretend they don’t exist, enterprising local entrepreneurs have opened the townships up to tourists.

Welcome to the era of Township Tourism. Yesterday’s state-sponsored atrocities have become today’s major tourist attractions.

Thus, you can also visit Robben Island, a flat piece of scrubland set down in Table Bay. This is where you find South Africa’s most notorious prison, housing political dissidents since the seventeenth century, the place where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his life before being released in 1992. The prison itself is now closed, and has been turned into a museum, a World Heritage site, and Cape Town’s most popular tourist destination.

Mandela's CellEach day, boats bring fifteen hundred visitors from around the world anxious to see the tiny cells where Mandela and other political prisoners were housed. Guided by former Robben Island inmates, you are taken through a maze of one-story stone buildings and courtyards—the B block containing the cell where Mandela was housed and the particularly stark C Block where troublesome prisoners were placed in solitary confinement, sometimes for years, unable to speak to anyone, not even the guards.

There is, of course, a Robben Island gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, everything from key chains in the form of—you guessed it—a key, to T-shirts and coffee mugs. The guide on the first leg of the tour, a bus trip around the island, tells jokes and wants to know if anyone is celebrating a birth or an anniversary.

Our guide inside the prison doesn’t tell jokes. A tall, raw-boned man wearing dark glasses, he was housed on Robben Island for six years during the eighties after being beaten and tortured.

The key chains and shopping bags aside, there is something profoundly moving about the experience of being inside these cold grey prison walls, the physical reality of man’s calculated inhumanity to his fellow man. It is also a reminder of the eventual failure of the totalitarian state, the inability of one group of people to subjugate and separate the members of another group.

Or is it?

Robben Island Prison  Today

Khonaye Tuswa, whose name everyone pronounces as Conor, is one of the young entrepreneurs bringing tourism to the townships. He argues that apartheid in a way succeeded because townships like Langa, where we are visiting this morning, instead of being dismantled at the end of apartheid, have become permanent fixtures on the South African landscape.

The difference now, Khonaye continues, is one of attitude. Because township residents can now own their homes, something they could never do during the apartheid era, there is a renewed sense of pride and community.

Khonaye cleverly promotes his tours not as a chance to see how the poor of South Africa continue to suffer, but as an opportunity for outsiders to witness the spirited optimism of people moving forward with their lives despite their limited circumstances.

The message reaffirmed repeatedly by Khonaye and his township partner, Zingi, is one of hope—and patience. Rome was not built in a day, Zingi says as he leads us through the streets of Langa, teeming with residents out on a Saturday morning. The townships won’t change overnight either, and change has certainly been slower than anyone would have hoped thanks to a corrupt central government. But change will come, he asserts passionately.

Langa residents have become used to celebrity. Several movies have been shot here. Clint Eastwood came to direct scenes for Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. Denzel Washington ran over the township rooftops to escape bad guys in Safe House.

The reaction from the locals to all this outside attention runs the gamut from indifference to friendly waves, and cries of “The white folks are here, the white folks are here!” The children, thrilled to have the distraction of visitors, eagerly pose for photographs.Township Kids

Originally built to house eight thousand residents, Langa bursts at the seams with over fifty thousand, including the squatters living on the outskirts in jerry-rigged huts without electricity or running water. From the outside, this is often the unattractive face of the townships.

As our guides are eager to point out, however, once you enter, the face begins to change into a more settled community. While one street features the corrugated metal huts often seen in township photos, another looks like any suburban neighborhood lined with neat, clean bungalows.

Still, for all the passionate optimism of people like Khonaye, the country remains sharply divided along the racial fault lines formed by history and the original architects of apartheid. The blacks reside mostly in townships like Langa.

Up the road, the irrepressible Kobus Oliphant, former school teacher, preacher, paralegal, driver, and guide, shows us around Stellenbosch. This is the town, located in the wine country, set against dramatic mountain vistas, where Kobus was born and grew up in a “colored” Afrikaner community, higher on the social scale than the blacks in the townships, therefore much more residential and established.

The view of Cape Town from Table MountainIn Cape Town, the white Afrikaners live on the east side of Table Mountain; the white people of British origin are on the west. You do not see many blacks in either part of town, other than in service jobs.

A tourist visiting Cape Town for the first time sees little of this racial divide. Mostly, one is greeted by friendly, helpful people providing services at prices unheard of in North America in a beautiful European-like city against the picture-perfect backdrop of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill. Driving through seacoast communities like Sea Point and Camps Bay it is not hard to believe you are in the South of France. Coming down from Signal Hill at dusk you could be on the Amalfi Coast.

Little wonder those who live outside Cape Town say it is not the real South Africa. The real South Africa is, as one artist I talked to in Hermanus, a tourist town along the scenic Rotary Way, “a country descending into chaos.”

The harsh reality of South African life can intrude even in Cape Town. One night as we leave a seaside restaurant after yet another of the superb meals Cape Town offers, we encounter a man on the ground in the parking lot being administered to by emergency medical personnel. Not far away, a woman sits calmly holding a baby. A small boy, her son, trembles beside her.

The woman says the man on the ground is her husband. She stabbed him because he beat her every day. She was tired of it, she said, so she plunged a knife blade into his chest.

The first responders working to save the man are not happy at the presence of intruders. This is not a tourist attraction late at night in Cape Town. This is life and death.

You are angrily reminded there is still a difference, and sent on your way.

Toto, We Are Not In Kansas Anymore…

CComing into Cape Town

Evidence, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore:the captain of our Boeing 777 announces that the flight to South Africa from Dubai will be longer than usual because we must fly around war-torn Yemen.

You begin to understand you are in a part of the world where things are not quite the same. You are a little closer to the day’s headlines than you were before.

Dubai, part of the United Arab Emerites, on a map, no more than an afterthought attached to the vastness of Saudi Arabia. Iran glowers just across the Persian Gulf; Iraq rips itself apart at the far end of the gulf, a little more to the west.  Looking at a map of the region to get your bearings does not calm the nerves.

My seatmate en route to Dubai is Reza from Toronto who is setting up an office for an Iran power company in anticipation of the loosening of the international sanctions that have hobbled the country for years. Does he really believe the recent U.S.-Iran agreement will bring an end to the restrictions?

“To some of them,” he says. “My company wants to be out in front of this, and not be left behind when the sanctions end.”

He left Iran twenty years ago, fed up with the repression. His brother owned a pool hall in Montreal, and although he seems the most unlikely person in the world to do it, with the help of his brother Reza got into the pool hall business in Toronto.

But now, given the shift in things, he finds himself working for the very people he tried to get away from two decades ago. He flies to Dubai every three months. They have rented an apartment for him and offices close by.

The South African authorities aren’t so concerned about the amount of money you are bringing into the country as they are in making sure you haven’t been anywhere near an Ebola outbreak. To reassure them, you fill out a page-long questionnaire. They may feel better, but it’s a slightly unnerving reminder for the visitor.

Out of (South) Africa (Apr6 to 8,2015) 023These days, it seems, the East never sleeps. That has its good and bad aspects. In Dubai at four o’clock in the morning, the airport is hopping. Apparently, there are no noise abatement laws forcing a cessation of flights after midnight.

Passengers throng the science fiction movie-ready concourses. Everything is open, the duty-free shops selling five thousand dollar watches, the boutiques hawking designer purses, fine restaurants complete with hostesses working to entice customers for a very late meal. All the peoples of the world appear to have gathered at this time of the morning, distinctly Arabic, but at the same time very Western, too, a melting pot of cultures.

Not far away these cultures clash violently. Here they intermingle and shop.

The flight to Cape Town seems endless, the plane going east to bounce off the toe of the Arabian Peninsula to miss Yemen and then more or less following the east coast of Africa south, far, far south—down through the Equator, further south than the visitor has ever ventured before.

Even though we dodge Yemen, we do manage to fly past sometimes notorious hotspots: Mogadishu in Somalia and Mombasa in Kenya. Not so much further west lies Rwanda and beyond that the troubled Congo. These places simmer thirty-five thousand feet below, out of sight, but somehow close by and certainly not out of mind.

The troubled world evaporates for the moment with the first look at the rugged sandstone beauty of the South African landscape coming into Cape Town from the north. Out the right side of the plane, fabled Table Mountain overlooking the bay and reducing this city of nearly four million, to no more than a jumble of toy buildings scattered around the base of the mountain.Out of (South) Africa (Apr6 to 8,2015) 033

Up close, Cape Town pulls into clearer focus enough to understand we are being transported to Burgundy Estate, one of the northern suburbs. Our apartment is lovely, but the compound in which it is located is surrounded by a high wall, topped with wire and signs warning “Danger Electric Fence.” More evidence that we are not in Kansas anymore. But then, that’s the idea.

The adventure has begun.

With Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels, Making a Disaster


Lorne Michaels circa 1976By the time I arrived at Studio 8H on the eighth floor of New York’s Rockefeller Centre to profile the young Toronto-born producer Lorne Michaels, what was then called NBC’s Saturday Night (later changed to Saturday Night Live) was already a hit.

Michaels was struggling to put together the first live telecast of the show’s second season without its breakout star, Chevy Chase. He had surprised everyone by jumping ship to make movies. Now he was on the phone to Michaels asking how preparations for the new season were coming along. “We’re doing fine,” Michaels reported. “Everything is great.”

Their conversation was surprisingly cordial given Chase’s unexpected exit. Michaels hung up and drank from the big water jug he carried with him everywhere. At the time I met him, he was best known in Canada as part of a comedy team with his friend Hart Pomerantz. They had done a TV show together called  The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.

Michaels  was small, intense with long black hair, already starting to turn gray. He was not yet quite the TV wunderkind he was to become, but he was riding high at that point–and he knew it.

In fact, the combination of ego and arrogance at work inside Studio 8H as the cast rushed to prepare the show was something to behold. I had never seen anything quite like it. Here was a group of young comedians, the toast of New York, everyone clamoring for them, overnight stars in the firmament, and not, I thought at the time, reacting to it with particularly good grace.

Dan Aykroyd 1976Even Dan Aykroyd, who I knew from Toronto back in the days when he was getting started as a writer for a late night variety show called Everything Goes, starring comedian Norm Crosby, was standoffish. John Belushi, who, after Chase, was in the process of becoming the show’s reigning star, was all but unapproachable.

One day I was on the Rockefeller Centre elevator. The doors opened and Belushi hurried in looking, as usual, sweaty and disheveled, thinning hair flying everywhere. He was studying script pages, shaking his head, and making disparaging sounds. Trying to make conversation, I asked him how it was going. He just looked at me, snapped “Fine,” and went back to the pages.

(By contrast, a few years later, I visited the set of SCTV, a show I thought was much, much funnier than Saturday Night Live ever was. The cast was working away in the frigid reaches of Edmonton. John Candy (whom I’d also known from Toronto), Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas,  and Andrea Martin could not have been warmer or more welcoming.)SCTV cast

In fairness, everyone connected with Saturday Night was  under immense pressure, knowing they would have to perform live in a couple of days with all critical eyes on them, wondering if the innovative comic momentum from the first season could be maintained.

The guest host that week was Norman Lear, wearing his trademark porkpie-type sailor’s hat, himself riding high as creator of Maude and All in the Family, as well as some of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on television, and not about to take guff from a bunch of upstart young whippersnappers.

Lear had prepared a tape featuring cast members from his TV shows making fun of their boss. It was supposed to be a comic bit to introduce the host. The problem became apparent  as Lear played the piece for Michaels–it wasn’t very funny.

Norman_LearMichaels tried to diplomatically suggest the piece shouldn’t be used. Lear’s face hardened. “A great many people gave their time to be part of this,” he said to Michaels in a cold voice.

The piece ran.

Aykroyd, meanwhile, had been working all week on a sketch featuring then-President Jimmy Carter. It was his signature impersonation, the thing he was becoming best known for. I was present the first time he ran through the sketch, and it was a hoot. Everyone was doubled up with laughter.

Then Michaels came in and got his hands on it. This is what he did best, he had told me, taking the writers’ material, honing and shaping it, and making it funnier. This time it didn’t work. The more Michaels edited and changed Aykroyd’s sketch, the less funny it became.

As the week wore on, the whole show began to unravel mostly because Michaels kept injecting himself into the process. Saturday evening arrived, an eager audience filled the seats in the studio for the first run through. This was done each week to test out the material so that final changes could be made before the show was broadcast live at 11:30 P.M.

The audience sat quietly through most of the show. The Norman Lear bit didn’t get much laughter, and Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter sketch received only lukewarm response. Following the run through, Michaels called everyone together and ordered more changes. Nobody looked very happy.

I retreated to my hotel room a few blocks away to watch the televised show. I could hardly believe it. Michaels’ last-minute tampering resulted in a show that, if anything, was worse than the rehearsal. That first show of Saturday Night’s second season was generally regarded as a disaster.

Forty years later, Saturday Night Live, about to start a new season (with a 40th anniversary special Feb. 15), has survived any number of ups and downs to become a long-running TV fixture. That original cast featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi has been replaced many, many times and has spawned seemingly endless numbers of comedy stars.Lorne-Michaels

Lorne Michaels, at the age of seventy, has evolved from this intense kid running around in jeans with a jug of water to a bespoke-suited entertainment power broker involved in everything from TV (he now produces The Tonight Show) to movies (The Guilt Trip) to Broadway. He still produces Saturday Night Live, of course, and he gives interviews saying that whatever else he does, that show still comes first.

Saturday Night Live has never been as good as it was that first ground-breaking season. I don’t watch the show much any more, but every time I do, it’s usually a disappointment. All these years later, I still imagine Lorne Michaels’ strong hand poking into it each week, making those last-minute changes that are supposed to make it funnier.

And I wonder.

Asking Bob Hope A (Dumb) Question

The first time I laid eyes on Bob Hope he was riding on the back of a convertible down the main street of Wapakoneta, Ohio in  September 1969.

An entertainment icon looking for a reporter with a dumb question. Luckily, I was right there to provide him with one.

The hometown crowd gathered to greet Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was getting the added treat of a comedy legend acting as parade marshal. They loved Bob. Particularly, it seemed to my youthfully inquisitive eyes, the ladies.

As he rode along in the parade, waving to the crowd, I approached Hope and his wife, Dolores, who was riding with him in the car. I then proceeded to ask the artlessly dumb question, the one that still makes me cringe all these years later when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.

“Mr. Hope,” I blurted out, “how does it feel to have all these women going crazy over you?”

Hope looked at me and then he looked at his wife. The two of them traded dubious glances, and then they both looked at me as though I must have escaped from the place where they keep the idiots. Hope said something innocuous about how great it was to be in Wapakoneta, and that this wasn’t his day, it belonged to Neil Armstrong.

I have wondered since, knowing what I know now, if Hope and his wife didn’t regard the question as some sort of veiled reference to his reputation for what used to be called “womanizing”–a reputation, it turned out, almost as legendary as his comic acumen.

Dolores Hope apparently turned a blind eye to that aspect of their sixty-nine-year marriage, so I might well be imagining things in thinking they took my question for anything more than stupid.

I thought about all this the other day reading through Richard Zoglin’s exhaustive biography of Bob Hope titled simply Hope. Zoglin, the theater critic for Time magazine, in the book, and in various interviews, sets out to resurrect a comic genius he feels has become forgotten.Bob Hope by Norman Rockwell

For those of us who grew up at a certain time, Bob Hope doesn’t need a whole lot of resurrecting. He was one of those entertainment icons–Frank Sinatra and John Wayne were a couple of others–who just seemed to dominate the mass culture and who would go on forever. Hope nearly did just that, finally giving into mortality in 2003, two months after his one hundredth birthday.

Zoglin’s  superb biography argues that Bob Hope more or less invented standup comedy  and that even today’s young comedians who barely know of him, owe their existence to what he created.

“By any measure,” Zoglin writes, “he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, the only one who achieved success–often No.1-rated success–in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts.”

That afternoon at the fair grounds in Wapakoneta I got a chance to see Hope doing what he did best–delivering a smart, funny, insouciant monologue that as much as it celebrated Armstrong and his hometown’s honoring of his achievement, also subtly sent up the whole thing.

(If you take a close look at the top photo of Hope onstage at the Wapakoneta fairgrounds, the guy at the far right in the short-sleeved shirt with his hand on his hip is the young reporter who asked that dumb question.)

Hope was a more subversive comedian than even Zoglin gives him credit for. His support of the Vietnam war clouded an entire generation’s perception of him (John Wayne and his achievements on film suffered a similar fate).

He may have been one of the richest men in California, hung around with presidents, and golfed with the establishment, but Bob Hope onstage never celebrated or backed anyone or anything–including himself.

Irreverent, self-mocking, he was the gimlet-eyed, slightly cynical observer, cracking wise, believing he was just a little more knowing and worldly than the rest of us, the con man, talking fast out of the corner of his mouth, always getting conned, the lovable coward forever looking for the way out and never quite finding it.

The comedy movies (Including those Road pictures with pal Bing Crosby) that originally made him one of the top box office draws, in the 1960s became increasingly mediocre, and the skits that filled his television specials ceased to be very funny, even though the shows themselves remained hugely popular (the Hope biography points out that he was NBC’s most enduring comedy star for an unparalleled four decades). But Hope remained the master of the monologue.

As lame as the specials became, Hope’s monologues were always worthwhile, even when, as some critics have pointed out to Zoglin, he was wildly politically incorrect. Those TV shows were probably no worse than the stuff he did in vaudeville. As Hope himself joked, “When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in.”

Hope with Delores turning 100-years-old.

A few years after that Wapakoneta encounter, I saw Hope again, this time in Toronto, onstage at what was then the O’Keefe Centre. He was appearing with Dolores. He came out, did some topical jokes, including, to the delight of the audience, a good deal of local stuff (he had his twelve writers comb the local press for material wherever he appeared).

Then Dolores came out to sing old standards, and she sang well, including “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” the song she was singing in the New York night club the night she met her future husband. Finally, it was Bob and Dolores together to finish the evening. Hope had been doing this since his vaudeville days in the 1920s, and he took the stage and the sold-out O’Keefe  audience with an easy elegance and grace that was a pleasure to watch.

When one of his jokes fell flat, he paused, gave the audience a look, and got a bigger laugh than any one-liner could ever give him. I was watching a legend onstage working, if not at the top of his game, certainly close to it.

The legend has faded now, if only because the culture tends to live in the moment, always in search of the new. Bob Hope is very old news, and Zoglin’s tough-minded but sympathetic biography will not likely change that. But in his time Bob Hope truly was an icon,  the entertainer of the twentieth century, just like Zoglin says.

And I’m the guy who got to ask him a dumb question.

Thanks for the memory.

I think.



A New Novel, Marley Mourned, The Real Clinton Remembered…

Hound3DCover(Oct. 27,2014)???????????????????????????????This week we said farewell to the beloved chocolate lab of my sister-in-law, Alicia, and brother, Ric. Marley’s sad exit after fourteen years, coincided with the publication of the e-book version of my new Tree Callister novel, The Hound of the Sanibel Sunset Detective. The book was inspired by another beloved family pet, our French hound Clinton. Below is an excerpt in I which I tell readers about the wonderful dog who inspired a book. You can download the entire novel by clicking HERE.

Writing The Hound of the Sanibel Sunset Detective was an experience filled with joy and sadness. On the one hand, the novel allowed me to bring back to life Clinton, the beloved family member we lost at the age of fourteen in July 2013. To have him running happily on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands, loved and loving again, was an unexpected delight.

On the other hand, I was reminded constantly that this was only a story, that Clinton really was gone and even the most artfully fashioned words could never really bring him back. In the past five years, I have lost my mother and several of my dearest friends, people who were close and played an extraordinary role in my life.

But I must say, the loss of Clinton, our French hound, hit me harder than the loss of just about anyone else. He was my baby boy, the friend I had with me day in and day out, the one certainty in an uncertain life, always welcoming at the door with a shoe in his mouth, his recurring present for returning friends.Clinton at Rest

As he does for Tree and Freddie, Clinton brought us untold amounts of joy while he was alive. I have said many times that my wife, Kathy, and I would not have had a social life in Toronto, Montreal, or Milton, Ontario, without Clinton. Thanks to him, we met people and made friends who are still in our lives.

Clinton even slept with us. Try as we might to be firm, and not have him on the bed, we soon gave up trying to resist the irresistible. I don’t believe he ever recovered from his inability as he grew old to climb the stairs and be with us. The last year of his life, I never slept through the night, slipping constantly downstairs to console an upset dog who only wanted to be with his pals.

???????????????????????????????The novel, like the other four in the series, is intended as an entertainment, and hopefully you, the reader, have not been disappointed.

However, writing the book also gave me the opportunity to explore within a fictional framework this deep, passionate love affair we have for our pets, how they manage to work their way into our lives and our hearts in ways we never could have imagined.

Any suggestion that they do not become family members is, of course, ludicrous. Only people who have not experienced pets would argue differently. Not only are they members of the family, they manage to become the most important members. We used to say, only half-jokingly, that Clinton didn’t live with us, we lived with Clinton.

The looming tragedy of all this, the cosmic joke the gods have chosen to play, is that our beloved pets do not stay long. We love and protect them in life, but then, all too soon, we must orchestrate their deaths. It is the heartbreak of our pet love—they must exit long before we do, leaving us shattered.

Kathy and I go on, we muddle through. But it’s not the same without Clinton. There remains an emptiness in the house every time we enter, and I doubt that will change any time soon. The memory of Clinton lingers always, the wonderful times we had with him, the ways in which he enriched our lives. Why, he even helped me write a book.

My unforgettable boy.

Wanted Poster for Cover

Want an advance look at The Hound of the Sanibel Sunset Detective? The new Tree Callister novel is available for download now. Please click HERE.



How I Drove Bill Murray From The Movies

With Bill Murray, Ghostbusters (1984) 001These days, Bill Murray is everywhere.

In Toronto, they had a Bill Murray Day in his honor. Words like “beloved,” and phrases like “national treasure” are used to describe him. There is “Oscar buzz,” as everyone says, around his performance as a curmudgeonly old coot in the comedy, St. Vincent.

Everyone loves Bill.

Bill Murray in St. VincentNot that I don’t love Bill, too. It’s just that I remember a slightly different time with Bill, trapped inside the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, desperately trying to avoid him.

Which is how I played a part in driving him from the movies.

I had first encountered Murray a few months before under happier circumstances, in late May 1984.

The premiere of Murray’s new comedy, a saga of paranormal ghost hunters titled Ghostbusters was being held in New York. After the press screening, there was a feeling that everyone involved in the movie had a huge hit on their hands.

Even the usually taciturn director, Ivan Reitman, was looking pleased and being a little more open with members of the press he ordinarily treated with a mixture of suspicion and hostility.

As much as everyone present viewed Ghostbusters as a success, no one, I don’t think, had any idea it would become, thirty years later, a revered comic classic—the subject of endless remake speculation (there was a  1989 sequel, and now there is talk of an all-female Ghostbusters).

Even then, Bill Murray was regarded with great affection by the public. Everyone at the press junket the next day at the Park Plaza Hotel, talked about how throngs of onlookers had shown up on New York locations for a glimpse of Murray and his co-stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, stopping traffic and making filming difficult.

Bill wore his star status as you might expect, with an offhand nonchalance, accompanied by a rather bemused smile. He was dryly funny, approachable, and, I believe, a little taken aback by the positive reception to the movie.Ghostbusters

After the press interviews with Murray and the other cast members, I adjourned to the Park Plaza’s famed Oak Bar with my pal Ray Bennett and another friend, Jerry Gladman. Raymundo and I have shared many adventures over a forty-five year friendship. He was the guy who “saved” Lauren Bacall after I accidentally tripped her in Detroit.

Now here we were in the Oak Bar, and there was Bill Murray unexpectedly seated next to us. Lively banter ensued.  What was Bill drinking? A Golden Cadillac, he answered. We looked confused–or at least I did. A Golden Cadillac?

Murray promptly provided the recipe: one ounce light cream, mixed with an ounce of white crème de cacao, add two ounces of Galliano, a sweet liquor. Mix the concoction in a blender, and–voila! A Golden Cadillac.

Not long afterward, a waiter delivered six Golden Cadillacs to our table. The waiter indicated the drinks were courtesy of Mr. Murray. When we thanked him, Bill said, “You need two to fully appreciate them.”

He was right. Two Golden Cadillacs did the trick. The three of us lifted our glasses to Bill. No bad reviews for him.

What nobody knew that celebratory weekend in New York, was that Murray was not happy doing comedy. At the age of thirty-three, he longed to be taken more seriously. In fact, he had actually turned down Ghostbusters until Columbia Pictures sweetened the deal and offered him a second picture of his choice.

The choice Murray made was, to say the least, curious–a remake of The Razor’s Edge, the 1946 Tyrone Power melodrama, based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, the story, to paraphrase the movie’s trailer, of one man’s search for himself.

The movie had been shot on locations in Europe and Asia, but Columbia wasn’t about to fly a press contingent overseas. It was decided that Quebec City was as close to a European location as you could get in North America. The studio put everyone up at the Château Frontenac, the landmark hotel in the historic heart of the Old City.In The Razor's Edge

On a Friday night in the autumn of 1984, The Razor’s Edge was sneaked at a Quebec City theatre. The audience, out for a Friday night movie, couldn’t believe it when the star of Ghostbusters himself ambled down the aisle. He tried to prepare everyone for what was to come.

“Uh, I just want to introduce the film a little bit,” he announced to the audience. “I don’t want to misrepresent the movie. It’s not a yahoo kinda movie. It’s a movie we spent a lot of time on. There are some funny things in it, but it’s not a comedy. So I want you to relax, and not shift around too much–and don’t spill any drinks on each other.”

Despite the warning, no one in that theater was quite prepared for the turgid mess that unfolded. The movie was, in fact, funny, it just wasn’t supposed to be funny. Murray as the confused hero moving across post World War I Europe in search of himself was particularly unconvincing. Bill Murray was Bill Murray. He was no Tyrone Power.

Now here was the problem. We had just seen the biggest movie disaster of the year. Instead of being able to slink out of the theatre, avoiding the star of the stinker, we were thrown back into the Château Frontenac with him for the rest of the weekend.

What’s more, the weather outside turned rotten, so that no one wanted to leave the hotel. By Saturday morning, Murray knew what we knew, which was that he had a bomb on his hands. Nonetheless, for the next twenty-four hours, there was no escape.

The warm memory of those two Golden Cadillacs was still fresh. I didn’t want to hurt Bill’s feelings, so I did my best to avoid him. Except, every time I turned a corner, there he  was. I couldn’t believe it. It was like the guy was stalking me. He wasn’t, of course, it just felt like it.

Trying to talk about anything but the movie with him turned out to be a grueling exercise in excruciating small talk—for him as well as everyone else.

Finally, mercifully, Sunday arrived, and we all made our escape. I came out of the hotel and, as luck would have it, there was Bill, alone, waiting for a car to take him to the airport. Not knowing what else to say, I wished him luck with the movie.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

I don’t want to take too much responsibility for this, but following that weekend in Quebec City, and the dreadful reaction to The Razor’s Edge—predictably, no one went near it—Murray, like the hero of the film, went off to Paris to find himself and did not make another movie for the next four years.

Thirty years later, he has recovered nicely, and now there are Bill Murray days, and he is a beloved national treasure. Just don’t ask him about The Razor’s Edge. Or that weekend in Quebec City.







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.