Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Twilight of Albert Salmi

As I've mentioned, my latest project is to watch every single episode of the original Twilight Zone, and one thing that makes this such an enjoyable experience is the brilliance of the casting. You will very often see performances from people who turned into stars shortly after the series' 1959-1964 run: Robert Redford, Telly Savalas and Peter Falk show up, as well as Burt Reynolds, doing a note-perfect Brando imitation. There's a whole flock of future sitcom stars: Jack Klugman (four times!), Dick York, Buddy Ebsen, Agnes Moorehead in a brilliant, wordless performance as an isolated farmwife terrorized by alien invaders. Bill Shatner has two starring roles, including his turn in the hysterical "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

One of my favorite Twilight Zone regulars was a beefy, round-faced actor named Albert Salmi, who took the lead in two episodes: "Execution" and "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville." Neither one of them was exactly successful. In the first, Salmi was a horse thief about to be executed in 1880 when he's whisked into the future (or into the present, if you will) by the instantly typecast Russell Johnson as a physics professor. The first half of the episode was pretty good, but eventually a small-time hood tries to rob Johnson's lab (as if physics professors kept a lot of cash lying around), then kills the much-bigger Salmi in hand-to-hand combat, all for no apparent reason except they couldn't think of a better ending.

In "Cliffordville," which boasts one of the series' best episode titles, Salmi plays a rapacious business tycoon who arranges with a female devil (future Catwoman Julie Newmar) to get sent back in time to his Indiana hometown, so he can build his fortune all over again. He fails at this, for reasons the script never quite makes clear. But as in "Execution," Salmi is eminently watchable, obviously delighting in playing the villain. It's rare to see someone so blatantly enjoying his acting. Both performances would have you noting to try to catch anything else you can featuring Albert Salmi.

Salmi never became a star, but he was awfully busy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, making several appearances on Gunsmoke and Bonanza and popping up in series from Toma and Kung Fu to Scarecrow and Mrs. King. He was a regular on Petrocelli, and played Danny Noonan's father in Caddyshack.

By the end of the 1980s, the parts were drying up, and Salmi moved with his wife to Washington State, where he planned to write his memoirs. But Albert suffered from depression, and his wife, Roberta, moved out of their Spokane home. I've seen it reported that Roberta was terminally ill, and that during their separation Albert had gone to live in Idaho.

On April 23, 1990, Albert Salmi drove back to the house he had once shared with his wife. He walked into the kitchen, shot Roberta dead, then went upstairs and pulled the trigger on himself. Albert Salmi was 62.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jeff Conaway, 1950-2011

Jeff Conaway, Grease costar (he had played Danny Zuko on Broadway) turned Taxi star turned sleazy movie auteur, dead at the age of 60.

I'm just sorry he didn't live long enough to fulfill the role he was born to play, starring in Torn and Frayed: The Life and Times of Keith Richards.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Here Comes Something, and It Feels So Good

There's a video going around of a woman at a Paul Simon concert who got his attention well enough to let him know that she had learned how to play guitar using his song "Duncan," and got to go up on stage and play and sing it. I too love the song "Duncan," although I can't play it, or much of anything else, on the guitar. It seems to me to be a serious step forward in his songwriting: Back with "El Condor Pasa," Simon merely appropriated a Peruvian folk song and wrote new lyrics for it. For "Duncan," though, Simon used these Andean influences to create a mood around a much better and more personal song. (The lyrics also seem to be an upgrade on "The Boxer," with a similar story but actual characters.)

But even more than that, "Duncan" is distinctive because it takes its title from the main character's last name. "Lincoln Duncan is my name, and here's my song" goes the end of the first verse, although "Lincoln" seems like an odd name to give a poor boy from Canada.

How many other pop songs are named after a character's surname? There are plenty named after first names ("Mandy," "Alfie,"), or last names with honorifics ("Doctor Wu," "Mr. Jones"), or full names ("Amos Moses," "Eleanor Rigby"), or titles with a last name that's part of a longer title ("A Fifth of Beethoven," "Along Came Jones"). But are there any others that are just a last name?

While you're pondering that, here's Rayna with Paul Simon:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Okay, Tommy — Beatles Songs That Could Also Regard "The Twilight Zone" and Dolls

"Eleanor Rigby" (Guess who could put her face in a jar? That's right — a doll!)

"She's Leaving Home" (Yeah — more like "Dollhome"!)

"Another Girl" (Hey, what's that word for "another girl"? Oh, right: "doll"!)

"Sweet Little Sixteen" (Wait. Do you mean she's 16 inches? That seems biggish.)

"Here, There, and Everywhere" (Paul, no one held a gun to your head when you decorated your room.)

"Ask Me Why" (Okay, me first. What's your "thing" about dolls, John Winston Serling?)

"She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" (And you have got to imagine just how damned easy that was.)

"I'll Get You" (At FAO Schwarz, but not too late, because there's always a rush.)

"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (Answer: Mr. Brian Epstein who generously holds down doll-string over lunch.)

"One After 909" (Again, Debris Slide people, can we just leave our in-house Quality Control numbers outside the doll packaging?)

"Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" (Obviously, the need-not-apply list, in complete alphabetical order: dolls. That is all.)

"Polythene Pam" (Even I am smart enough to see no reason to work in a joke here.)

"I'm Looking Through You" (For you are the doll they used to make called "The Visible Woman." Grr!)

"She's a Woman" (Eh. Maybe not so much.)

And to all Debris Sliders (and by that I mean you asked for this, Tommy, my dear friend): I remind you of that wee album, "Rubber Soul." Rubber. You read me. Case closed. Good day to you, sir, and sirs! (Also to all of yours and even most of theirs. To a limit.) Go back to your homes; there is nothing to see here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We Can Dance If We Want To: The Saga of Men Without Hats

Yes, there was a time in their career when the fact that they were hatless was worthy of note. Men Without Hats hailed from the city of Montreal, where it gets very cold in the winter, but Ivan Doroschuk and his band refused to sacrifice style for comfort. (Ivan was actually born in Urbana, Illinois, but moved to Montreal as a child, and lives there still.) They were Wave 21 at first, Ivan and his brother Colin along with a dude named Jeremy Arrobas, and still in high school. They became Men Without Hats in 1977, and went through many personnel changes after that, some with another Doroschuk brother named Stefan, and with only Ivan as the constant.

In 1980, Men Without Hats had their first chance to go into the studio and record. They were almost purely an electronic band at this point, although Ivan had played some guitar at earlier gigs. The result was an EP called Folk of the '80s, which was released in Canada on Trend Records and in the U.K. on Stiff. In 1982, they recorded their first full-length LP and gave it the Soviet-sounding title Rhythm of Youth.

The big winner on the album was the track "The Safety Dance." Although it was an insistent little techno-pop tune, what really pushed the song over the top was the video, which went into heavy rotation on the year-old MTV. The video suggested a community-theater version of The Lord of the Rings, with Ivan Doroschuk as Aragorn and a dwarf named Mike Edmonds sitting in for all the little people of Middle Earth. Edmonds went on to play an Ewok in Return of the Jedi and appeared in a Harry Potter movie as well. I wouldn't make this up. The Safety Dance itself, as Ivan repeatedly demonstrated, was apparently this thing where you kind of made a box around your head with your forearms, making it one of those '80s would-be dance crazes, alongside the Bud Light Slide, that nobody ever did.

Released in March of 1982, "The Safety Dance" took its sweet time but eventually climbed all the way to Number Three on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1983. Ivan claims the song is really about pogo dancing, and how bouncers in clubs would try to keep people from pogoing because it was allegedly too dangerous. Thus, it's safe to dance. Everyone who heard it thought it was the epitome of a one-it wonder, so when their follow-up album, Folk of the '80s (Part III), arrived in 1984, no one expected too much of it. The lead single, "Where Do the Boys Go?," didn't make the Hot 100 at all, and only went to Number 30 in Canada.

But Men had one more trick up their sleeve. Their third LP, Pop Goes the World, was released in June 1987, and danged if it didn't have another hit on it in the title track. "Pop Goes the World" was produced by someone named Zeus B. Held - I'm guessing that's a pseudonym - and went to Number 20 in the fall of '87. Possibly even more intriguing from that album was a track called "On Tuesday,' which features guest flute work from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson.

That success earned them the right to record another album, 1989's The Adventures of Women & Men Without Hate in the 21st Century. The single "Hey Men" made it to the Top Ten in Canada, but America yawned, and when it came time to make the follow-up, Sideways, from 1991, the Men couldn't even get it released in the U.S. That was really it for Men Without Hats, although they reunited in 2003 to make an LP called No Hats Beyond This Point. It's not clear to me if this ever really saw a proper release; according to Wikipedia, it was never sold in record stores.

In 2010, Ivan Doroschuk began performing with a group of heretofore non-MWH personnel under the Men Without Hats moniker, including a show at this spring's South by Southwest festival in Austin. It was apparently very well-received. Perhaps there's life for the hatless yet.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Shame of Jackie Cooper

Jackie Cooper died on Tuesday, after a unusually long and notable showbiz career, from starring in the Our Gang comedies in the early 1930s to playing Perry White in all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, as well as directing several episodes of Black Sheep Squadron, The White Shadow, and Jake and the Fatman. Among his other distinctions was that he starred in the worst-ever episode of The Twilight Zone, "Caesar and Me," which aired on April 10, 1964.

Its prime competition for that honor would seem to be "Cavender Is Coming," the ill-fated, laugh-track-bedecked outing starring Carol Burnett. I discount "Cavender" for a couple of reasons. One, it wasn't really a Twilight Zone episode so much as it was a pilot for a spinoff series Rod Serling wanted to sell. Two, I haven't seen it. It has been a project of mine recently to watch every original episode of The Twilight Zone, and I'm up to around 120 out of 156. "Cavender" is still missing, but I'll catch up to it in the next couple of weeks.

"Caesar and Me" dates from the Zone's troubled fifth (and last) season. By this time, Rod Serling was teaching at Antioch College in Ohio, commuting back and forth to Los Angeles to tape his intros and still writing the occasional script, but his day-to-day duties had pretty much ended. The episode features Cooper as a ventriloquist whose dummy starts talking to him - already a shopworn conceit that the Zone itself had done much better in "The Dummy," from Season Three. In this one, Cooper has almost no onstage career, so his dummy starts ordering him to rob homes to make a living. Yawn.

The story goes that the producer found himself one week without a script, so his secretary piped up and said she had been working on something. "Caesar and Me" would be the only televised work ever credited to one Adele T. Strassfield. It's not hard to see why.

Photo borrowed from the excellent site Twilight Zone Museum