August, 2016

Doin’ the PC Rag!

August 31st, 2016 29 Comments



I received an email from a reader who saw me in an old movie, White Dog, with Kristy McNichol. It was a polite note, nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought back memories of people and a sequence of events I haven’t thought about for many years, all of which are probably more relevant today than they were in 1980.

I got a call from my agent on a Sunday—not the norm—asking if I’d be willing to meet right away, that day, with the acclaimed (in Europe; underappreciated in America) director Sam Fuller. If the meeting went well, I would pick up the script from Mr. Fuller because I would need to start work the next morning on a film that had already begun production. I was to replace another actor Sam Fuller felt wasn’t right for the role. The other actor was John Friedrich.

It’s an odd feeling, being asked to replace someone else, particularly if you have worked with the someone else, and most especially if you know the someone else is a far better actor than you’ll ever be. John Friedrich, along with Brad Davis, was one of the actors in A Small Circle of Friends who made me feel so out of my league. These days it’s called “imposter syndrome.” I know that because someone I love very much struggles with it and with its frequent concomitant, depression, and we have talked about it in relationship to his work and to mine. But back in 1980, when all this occurred, there was no such thing as imposter syndrome; there was only the perceived difference between the truly gifted (John Friedrich) and those of us who were faking our way through life. Today, when I think about John Friedrich I see him as I saw him one night on a street in Boston when I got into a fight with some teenaged boys who were molesting a girl: watchful, wary, and concerned, as was I. It’s that look I remember more than any moment in the film we made, but he was so incredibly talented. The idea that I was to replace John Friedrich made me very uncomfortable, partly as if stepping into his shoes were somehow unkind or disloyal to him, and partly because it seemed an act of o’erweening hubris on my part.

My agent had little patience with such niceties. He told me in no uncertain terms that this was an unparalleled chance for me to keep my movie career going, that to not take a meeting with Sam Fuller would be tantamount to moronic stupidity on my part, that there was nothing else on the horizon at the moment, that I was hardly in a position to turn down a meeting with an acclaimed director, that… I agreed to call Sam Fuller.

Hollywood has a reputation for being packed to the gills with colorful characters. It is a reputation that sometimes owes more to ill-manners than to genuine singularity or even eccentricity, but Sam Fuller was truly colorful and truly unique, brilliant, complex, singular in both attitude and expression, a kind Hollywood is unlikely ever to see again.

He asked me to drive up to his house on Mulholland Drive and said we would talk about the movie, about the role he wanted me to play, and how he saw me fitting into those two things. It was a perfectly mundane telephone conversation, the kind any actor might have with any director with a gruff, hoarse voice and an idiosyncratic, New York way of expressing himself. I drove up.

His wife, Christa Lang, opened the door and walked me into Sam’s office. And we’ll stop right there to meet Sam Fuller as I knew him.

His office had been the garage. It had been converted to an office by the simple expedient of sealing up the garage door and building bookcases on all four walls. There were no windows, just the door from the house into the office and bookcases from floor to ceiling, bookcases jammed tight with books, with more lying on their sides on top of the upright ones, and if you pulled a book out, there was a second row of books behind the first. The only way to circumnavigate the room was by a narrow pathway around the four sides because the entire middle section was taken up with… Well, I’m not sure. There may have been a very large table covered with stacks of books and with more books piled up underneath, but there was so much random stuff—stuff—that the table may be something real I remember accurately, or it may be something I imagined. I know there were stacks and stacks of papers and scripts (and books), boxes, some kind of military flags—as in Army flags and battalion guidons or things along those lines—a sword, many other miscellaneous items I have now forgotten. In a small space in one corner there was a desk with a chair where Mr. Fuller sat smoking a cigar almost as big as he was.

“Sit down. Thanks for coming, kid. Sit down, sit down.”

I looked around but couldn’t see any place to sit.

“Oh! Sorry about that.” He jumped up and picked up a great armful of stuff—stuff—revealing a chair and threw the armful onto the pile in the center of the room. “There you go. Want a drink?”

He waved an almost full bottle of Jack Daniels at me. Since I was feeling a little dazed, and since he had a partially full glass in front of him, and since it was getting close to the cocktail hour anyway, and since I wanted to be polite, and since I never miss a chance to have a glass of good whiskey or whisky, I thanked him. He poured a healthy portion into a lowball and handed it to me. Fortunately, I like my whiskey and my whisky straight, because there was no mention of ice or water.

“So, where’re you from, kid?”

He was very easy to talk to, a man with a quicksilver mind and a rough, gruff way of expressing himself that disguised real intelligence and real curiosity about the world, and we covered a lot of ground. Somehow, after a long period of casual, albeit fascinating conversation, just as I was trying for the second or third time to bring the conversation around to the project at hand—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll talk about that later.”—it came out that he had started his life as a newspaperman. (What he did not mention is that he had started working fulltime as a copyboy at the age of twelve, and graduated to real, full-fledged, honest-to-God crime reporter by the time he was seventeen.) I made some comment about my grandfather having been a newspaper man, and I think it was my use of that workingman’s term instead of the more high-falutin’ “journalist” that caught his attention.

“Yeah? Who was your grandfather?”

“Well, you probably don’t know him. It was a long time ago, but he was pretty well known back in his day. His name was Mark Sullivan—”

Lord have mercy. If I had told him my grandfather was Johannes Gutenberg he couldn’t have been more excited.

“Mark Sullivan? Mark Sullivan! Your grandfather was Mark Sullivan?! Why, your grandfather and I…”

It appeared that as a teenaged newspaperman Sam Fuller had written a letter to another newspaperman who had gotten his start as a teenager, and that my grandfather, being courtly in his manners and every bit as curious about his fellow travelers through this veil of tears as Sam Fuller, had written back a very encouraging letter that had evolved into a decades-long correspondence.

“I got letters! I got lots of letters!” He jumped up and looked around the sea of clutter. “Well, I don’t know exactly where they are right now, but I got letters!”

And off he went into a long and fascinating and meandering account of his years as a reporter, his correspondence with my grandfather, stories he had written that had been influenced by something my grandfather wrote in his own column or perhaps to him, and from there on to novels he had written, his transition to Hollywood and finally to World War Two. Like so many other courageous Jews of that era, Sam Fuller had served with great distinction (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart), in his case with the First Infantry Division of the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment, the Division that was nicknamed The Big Red One, which became the title of one of his most successful films. And like so many courageous veterans of that most horrible war, a part of him was still and would always be back in Italy and Africa, France and Germany, talking of it with humor and a boy’s lightheartedness, but underneath it all was the sense of a man still trying to come to grips with things no man should ever have to see or do.

And every now and then I would make feeble attempts to bring him back on track—“Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Have another drink. So we landed in Sicily,”—until sometime late that night, the Jack Daniels bottle completely empty, I cautiously put my truck in first gear and crawled home. I started filming White Dog at seven the next morning, without ever having even read the script, the most hungover actor in Hollywood and possibly west of the Mississippi.

White Dog. It was the English translation of Chien Blanc, an autobiographical novel written by one of the more intriguing, most accomplished, and somewhat mysterious figures of the twentieth century. Romain Gary, whose real name was probably Roman Kacew, but might have been Émile Ajar, or any one of half a dozen pseudonyms, was a Jewish, Lithuanian-born, French resistance fighter, bomber pilot (decorated many times for bravery, including the Légion d’Honneur), diplomat (Consul General in Los Angeles), novelist (over thirty novels and memoirs), script writer (The Longest Day), director, and the only man ever to have won the prestigious French-language literary award, the Prix Goncourt, twice under different names. He was married first to a British journalist and Vogue editor, and then to the actress Jean Seberg, beautiful, fragile, vulnerable, naïve Jean Seberg, who should be remembered not just for some of her work (Breathless, Saint Joan, The Mouse that Roared, A Fine Madness, Lilith, Paint Your Wagon, among others) but as an example of why it is never a good idea, gentle reader, to trust your government.

Jean Seberg, who was well-intentioned, if naïve, donated money to a variety of charitable causes and civil rights groups; one of the latter was the Black Panthers. You or I might or might not disapprove of her choice, but that does not excuse what happened to her. She became one of the victims of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) attentions, attentions that included not only surveillance, but also harassment, intimidation, break-ins, burglary, smear campaigns, psychological warfare, and possibly murder (e.g.: Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers). These completely illegal and unconstitutional attentions were directed against anyone the government decided they did not like, including such dangerously radical people and organizations as Jean Seberg, Martin Luther King, the NAACP, Barry Goldwater, the American Indian Movement, some of those oh so notoriously violent and dangerous feminist organizations, along with many others. And just in case you think, as most people do these days, that such charming activities were restricted to Richard Nixon’s tenure, remember, gentle reader, that COINTELPRO was started in a mild version by Franklin Roosevelt, continued under Presidents Truman, and Eisenhower, and galloped into full and filthy swing under the revered Kennedy administration (with no less than the iconic Robert Kennedy signing the authorization for wiretaps of Martin Luther King) and continued under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, only possibly grinding to halt after his resignation, though possibly not, when you consider some of the DOJ and IRS activities under Barack Hussein Obama. There is a reason why we have a Second Amendment, and it ain’t duck hunting.

In 1979, Jean Seberg’s beautiful body, hidden under a blanket and partially decomposed, was found in the back seat of her car in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement. There was a bottle of barbiturates and a suicide note addressed to her son. The Paris police initially ruled her death a suicide, but they subsequently changed the ruling and brought charges against a person or persons unknown because there was no liquor found with her in the car, yet there was so much alcohol in her system that they said it would have been impossible for her to get into the car unassisted.

Was it murder? If so, by whom? The man she was living with at the time, who may have had financial reasons for wanting her dead? The FBI? Someone else? No one knows. Was it suicide? If so, why? Because of the loss of Romain Gary? Because of the Fury-like harassment of her by the FBI? Because of the resultant ruining of her reputation and career? Because of some other, more personal demon or demons? No one knows. And after all these years (to quote a politician who has been known to use COINTELPRO techniques herself), What difference, at this point, does it make?

One year later, Romain Gary followed her lead and put a bullet through his head.

According to Sam Fuller, it was while Romain Gary and Jean Seberg were married and living in Los Angeles that the inspiration came for White Dog. Apparently they were driving home one night on Mulholland Drive and Gary hit a German shepherd. They took the dog back to their house, got a vet, and cared for it. Beyond that incident, the primary theme of White Dog owes its inspiration to the federal government’s delicate attentions toward Jean Seberg, and that theme is the evil of racism. And it was that theme that caused the movie we made to be banned.

It’s a long and dreary story hardly worth the telling, but the Cliff Notes version is that the NAACP, a black journalist who was member of the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition, and various other civil rights leaders all condemned the movie before filming even began, on the grounds that it might spur racist violence. This not only before a day’s shooting had been done, but in spite of the fact that Paramount had specifically decided to buy the rights to Gary’s book because it contained the message that racism is a learned evil, and in spite of the fact that Sam Fuller had a well-deserved reputation for confronting racism for his entire career, and in spite of the fact that Fuller had convinced Paramount CEO Michael Eisner and producer Jon Davison that it would be an anti-racism movie, but possibly because the message was that racism is evil no matter which way it goes. In any event, the NAACP condemned the movie without ever seeing it and threatened boycotts, Paramount decided not to release it, Sam Fuller moved to France in disgust and never made another movie in America, and for many years a movie that may be a great statement (or perhaps not; I’ve never seen the film) against the evil of racism in any of its forms was buried in Paramount’s vaults.

If that story sounds at all familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of the old joke about the lady who refuses to read a book because somebody said someone said the minister said he had heard it might be pornographic. Don’t ever let yourself be confused by reality and God forbid we should do our own homework and make up our own minds. Or maybe it sounds familiar, gentle reader, because you’re old enough to have read 1984 and can recognize the Thought Police at work.

As far as I can remember (this all happened almost forty years ago) I only worked with Kristy McNichol. Two things struck me about her.

I had met her briefly once before when I did an episode of Family, and she was very nice and very professional, but I was struck by how ill at ease she was with her own talent and success. She had just finished filming Only When I Laugh, with Marsha Mason, and when I told her my agent had seen a preview and been blown away by her work and thought she should be nominated for an Oscar, she was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable with both the praise and the attention, immediately deflecting all credit onto Marsha Mason. It came as no surprise to me later when Kristy vanished from the Business almost as completely as I did. I understand she lives now, as she has for the last twenty-odd years, quietly and privately with her long-time partner.

The other thing that struck me was that she had a great, if quirky, sense of humor. At least, she laughed at some of my jokes, so clearly she must have had a great sense of humor. I hope she is happy, and I wish her well.

If he were alive today, I wonder what Sam Fuller would think of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Book Review: At Play in the Fields of the Lord

August 24th, 2016 12 Comments

Old bboks


In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond posits the theory that Eurasian cultures (meaning Europe plus the whole of the Mediterranean region from the Mesopotamian Basin and the Levant across northern Africa to the Atlantic) were able to conquer so-called primitive cultures in Africa and the Americas not because of any inherent intellectual superiority, but because the accident of geography had given the Eurasians natural travel corridors that exposed them to both the creative ideas and the germs of other societies, providing tools for growth and conquest with the one, and resistance to disease with the other. Diamond’s book was written in 1997, over thirty years after Peter Matthiessen wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord, yet Matthiessen’s novel anticipated—albeit indirectly—some of Diamond’s theories about cultural destruction, while adding a third in the form of religious dogma, thereby proving that art frequently presages reality.

Very briefly, and crudely, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, presents three entities in conflict. Two are “civilized” American groups, one of mercenaries, one of missionaries, at a remote outpost in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian jungle.

The mercenaries are a duo, a New York Jew and a half-Cheyenne named Lewis Moon (the side of their stolen plane bears the logo, “Wolfie & Moon, Inc., Small Wars & Demolition”) stranded by lack of cash, and willing to earn their way out of the filthy, fly-ridden hell-hole by killing off the third entity, a band of fierce and feared Indians farther upriver. On a reconnaissance flight, trying to locate the tribe they are to kill, they fly over a clearing as the terrified Indians run into the jungle. All but one, who stands his ground and shoots an arrow into the air at the giant noisy bird above him and with that arrow, that courageous, hopeless gesture of defiance, begins the transformation of Lewis Moon.

The other “civilized” group consists of two married couples, members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect determined to save both the souls of the primitive Indians from damnation and their lives from the mercenaries. One man wants to save them by understanding them; the other by making them understand him and his vision of Jesus Christ. Neither succeeds.

Also there is an intelligent, educated, enigmatic Catholic priest who too wants to save the souls of the savages, but with the wisdom and patience of over a thousand years of the Church, he bides his time and watches the others with detachment and amusement.

Of course, no one is saved. But the story lies in the transformation of the pivotal characters. One of the missionaries loses some of his religion, but gains a greater level of humanity; Matthiessen has him lose his last pair of glasses just as he begins to finally and truly “see” in the proper Christian sense of understanding and compassion. The mercenary loses an identity he never really had and gains a truer understanding of himself as he tries to save the little band of Indians who have proven themselves less savage than portrayed. And the Indians… The Indians lose everything.

I hate synopses; they so frequently—as I have just done—reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, but I want you to keep the basics of the plot in mind.

Many, many years ago I knew an artist by the name of Tobias Schneebaum. Toby, deceased now, God bless him, was acclaimed for his art, but also for his penchant for travelling the world and living with disparate and primitive cultures in far-flung places. He was also known for a book he wrote about one of his experiences, where he marched off into the jungles of Peru and lived for—months? years?—with a tribe of cannibals, a book entitled Keep the River on Your Right, so named after the advice given him by a missionary, the last Westerner to see him. Toby was thought dead for a long time, until he finally reemerged from the jungle to write and paint about his experiences with the tribe (including, apparently, sampling their favorite dish, other tribesmen).

It was Toby’s book that inspired me to originally read At Play in the Fields of the Lord. There are parallels, but it is the differences that are most striking. Toby wasn’t interested in killing or converting anyone. His interests were learning about other people, other cultures, other varieties of artistic expression, and—perhaps above all (at least from something he once said to me)—about the differences of light and color in various parts of the world, differences he would capture on canvas when he returned to New York.

The point is that art can bridge the gap between cultures in ways that nothing else can, certainly and especially not religious belief. I suspect music does this more effectively and universally than any other art form, but Toby wrote specifically about using his artistic skill to keep himself alive initially (Amazonian cannibals apparently being not too fussy about the origins of their food source. New York? Hell, we’ll even eat Brooklyn, Queens, Paterson, whatever.) and equally to bridge the language barrier. And in that openness of mind and spirit, in that willingness to bridge cultural gaps by using the universal language of art, Toby most closely resembles Lewis Moon, the half-Cheyenne mercenary who comes first to kill, then to save, and finally, inadvertently, to destroy, embodying all the elements Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord was published in 1965, not so long ago as the world turns, but unfathomable eons ago in terms of today’s technological advancements. Today, Toby’s cannibals and Lewis Moon’s warrior savages both probably have the internet, 4G Wi-Fi, and their own Facebook pages, so from that perspective it is an old-fashioned, dated book. Yet not so. We can learn much from that grumpy old fart next door, if we just stop being judgmental and open our minds and our hearts to different ways of thinking and being, and other cultures, with other ways of seeing the world might be able to save us more than we can save them. Lewis Moon learns a new way of being, the missionaries retreat, and the priest waits, patient, wise, and enduring.

What I lament is the passing of that single, courageous Indian, defiantly shooting his arrow at a monstrous metal bird.

Hillary’s Promises!

August 22nd, 2016 18 Comments

Hillary Clinton

By golly, you have to admire someone who really will deliver on what she promises!

A couple of readers (people I have banned from both my website and my Facebook page for telling lies, being mindlessly argumentative, and for using profanity, pretty much in that order) accused the NRA of deception. I patiently explained to them that I have consistently checked every fact and controversial statement the NRA made for about twenty years and never once caught them in a lie. But when the NRA accused Hillary of saying on her website that she would make “straw purchases” illegal (i.e. when someone with no criminal record buys a firearm with the intention of giving it to someone with a criminal record that prevents him from purchasing a gun for himself) I knew they must have blundered. I went onto Hillary’s website and clicked onto the gun-violence-prevention tab and this is what I found:

Among other promises, Hillary proudly states that she will: “Keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, other violent criminals, and the severely mentally ill by supporting laws that stop domestic abusers from buying and owning guns, making it a federal crime for someone to intentionally buy a gun for a person prohibited from owning one [emphasis mine], and closing the loopholes that allow people suffering from severe mental illness to purchase and own guns. She will also support work to keep military-style weapons off our streets.”

Let’s take a quick veracity check here.

It is already against both state and federal laws for a violent criminal, or any other kind of criminal, to own, purchase, possess, or even touch a firearm, so by golly, Hillary will be able to deliver on that promise.

It is already a federal crime, with multiple laws already in place, for anyone to make a straw purchase, laws that were deliberately ignored and circumvented by Barack Hussein Obama’s Department of Justice during the “Fast and Furious” scandal perpetrated by the ATF in the border states so, by golly, Hillary will be able to deliver on that promise.

It is already a federal crime for anyone adjudicated as mentally ill to purchase a firearm (just take a look at the NICS form 4473, question “f”) so, by golly, Hillary will be able to deliver on that promise.

The only promise she can’t deliver on, even if she enacts the “Australian-style ban” she has advocated elsewhere, would be keeping those dweadful “military-style” weapons off our streets, because virtually every firearm in existence today—rifle, shotgun, or handgun—has military use as its genesis. Hell, your plastic butter knife owes its existence to the Clovis spear point.

But putting that one aside, by golly, Ol’ Hillary will be able to deliver big time! Now if she would just promise to make it against the law to commit murder, why we’ll be all set!

Book Review: Guns and Violence

August 16th, 2016 13 Comments

Kimber 1911 001 (Small)


Books and articles that attack firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are usually clumsy and tedious recitations of often-repeated lies and misinformation, but they are frequently entertaining. For obscure reasons many anti-gun types, who might otherwise be perfectly intelligent and rational people, seem to become completely unhinged when discussing anything to do with guns and/or the Second Amendment, which is entertaining right there. Also, the authors usually haven’t got a clue as to which end of the gun the bullet comes out of, and ignorance can also be very entertaining. A flagrant example would be a breathless report I read many years ago about the actress Sharon Stone’s “fully automatic double-barreled shotgun,” something I would give a lot to see. A more recent example would be the congressman who worked himself into a frenzy on television following the Orlando terrorist attack, stating in horrified tones that an AR15 is capable of shooting four hundred rounds a minute! Ah, no, counselor, nowhere near; go do your homework.

On the other side, books and articles that support firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are frequently clumsy and tedious recitations of well-known facts, and that’s where Joyce Lee Malcolm’s Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard University Press) stands apart.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, historian and constitutional scholar, professor of law at George Mason University, former professor of history at Bentley University, fellow of the Royal Historical Society… Frankly, the list of her academic accomplishments and honors is too long to record in full. What Ms. Malcom has done with her book is bring a scholar’s dispassionate objectivity and relentless research to an otherwise emotionally charged subject. Not only has she has done it in a refreshingly clear and well-written manner, but she has explored an area that as far as I know no one else has ever written about: the sad decline and eventual loss of the Merrie Olde paradise that was once possibly the most peaceful nation on earth.

Great Britain was for many years, many centuries, a remarkably peaceful country, the kind of place where what little crime there was rarely involved violence of any kind, and violent crime with a firearm was almost non-existent. Many people in Great Britain went armed every day, and not only was there almost no violent crime whatsoever, and even less armed crime, but an unarmed police force relied on an armed public to help them maintain law and order. In a notable example of how an armed populace is a benefit to society as a whole, in one of the rare gun crimes to occur during that peaceful era (a robbery known as the “Tottenham Outrage;” the fact that the incident was given a name shows you just how infrequent such crimes were), unarmed police officers “borrowed four [handguns] from passersby while other armed citizens fulfilled their legal obligation and joined the chase” [emphasis mine].

The industrial revolution was indirectly responsible for the gradual erosion of the traditional right of British citizens to keep and bear arms. The sudden explosion of wealth among the nouveau riche owners of new industries, from coal mines to factories, came at the expense of large numbers of workers who were paid barely living wages to labor in subhuman conditions, and even larger numbers of displaced countrymen who had no work at any salary under any conditions and who congregated in urban areas.

But it is a little too glib and easy to place the blame solely on the inventive fruits and greed of gifted entrepreneurs, and the resentment of the starving poor. Ms. Malcolm does not follow the following thread (it is not germane to her study), but the loss of rights in Great Britain actually had its genesis in the French Revolution.

The Royal Family, specifically the Prince Regent who eventually became George IV, set a standard for egregious, preposterous, wasteful, and ostentatious hedonism and spending that was imitated by wealthy peers who were in turn aped by well-to-do landed gentry and well-heeled middle classes in a nauseating display of trickledown extravagance. To achieve this, they cultivated an attitude of indifferent disdain for the plight of their less fortunate countrymen, a disdain that evolved quickly into fear whenever the desperate and desperately poor gathered to protest their poverty. As J. B. Priestley pointed out in The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency, the excesses of the French Revolution were still vivid in the minds of those who imagined their wealth and breeding made them somehow so superior to the lower classes that not even sympathy had to be extended, let alone a reasonable working wage. The poor wanted to eat; the rich, remembering the guillotines so recently put to good use in France, wanted to maintain both the status quo and their powdered heads on their pampered shoulders. The stage was set.

Every now and then the poor would gather together or march upon various cities, usually London, to voice their unreasonable desire to eat, and here is a singularly shameful period in the history of a great Empire that is filled with shameful periods and shameful episodes. One of the regular practices of the government at this time—and other times, so many others, both before and since—was to plant undercover agents whose role was to act as provocateurs, either starting fights and violence or whipping the crowds that had gathered for peaceful petition into enough of a frenzy to give government forces an excuse to go in and brutally suppress them. An excellent example of this would be the atrocity known as Peterloo that occurred in 1819, when regular troops (the 15th Hussars), local Yeomanry (equivalent to our National Guard), and constables attacked an unarmed crowd and killed at least eleven people and severely wounded an estimated six hundred, many of them women and children, who had gathered in Manchester to listen to orators tell them they had a right to food. So much, however, for the right of the people to petition their government.

The government justified their savagery by claiming the crowds were armed and dangerous (they were neither), the privileged and well-to-do members of the press dutifully reported what the government told them, the really wealthy read what the press reported and then, trembling in fear, demanded the government do something—something!—to protect them. What easier than to pass meaningless laws to solve a problem that did not exist?

Does all that sound familiar, gentle reader?

Governments have been lying to and manipulating the press for as long as both governments and the press have existed and the process continues unabated to this day in every country civilized enough to have a press that requires manipulation in place of direct intimidation. What is striking about the English example Ms. Malcolm has chronicled is that until the last decade or so, the English press seems never to have bothered to question even the most preposterous claims and outright lies spewed forth by generation after generation of British leaders. Instead, the press dutifully reported the lies as facts and duped generation after generation of readers.

Ms. Malcolm is masterfully objective and non-judgmental; the only ax-grinding she indulges in is an obsession with truth and honesty. You can almost hear her disdain as she chronicles the constant, repetitive dishonesty and manipulation of the British government: [The Secretary of State for the Home Office, Sir David Maxwell…] “…Fyfe was closely questioned about his contention that violent crime had risen sharply. Just two weeks earlier the government had defeated an effort to reinstate corporal punishment for some types of violent crimes by insisting that crime rates were declining.”

If that reminds you of the kind of contradictory gobbledygook you read or hear on the news every day, it’s because lying has always been and always will be a way of life for politicians.

Where Ms. Malcolm’s research is most revealing is in her assessment of the effects of Great Britain’s draconian confiscation and total ban of firearms. For over a century the myth of peaceful Olde England has been carefully perpetuated by a dishonest government (forgive the tautology) and a press eager to collude, even as both shrieked for more and more laws to prevent crimes that were not being committed. Finally, about ten years ago, The London Daily Telegraph (I believe) at last rose to the occasion and broke a story about the Home Office and the police consistently underreporting incidents of violent crime, and almost a decade later broke another story showing that even the government’s admission of an increase in violent crime was itself underreported. What Ms. Malcolm’s research showed was: “in 1904, before passage of gun restrictions, there were only 4 armed robberies a year in London. By 1991 this had increased 400 times, to 1,600 cases. From 1989 through 1996, armed crime increased by 500 percent at the very time the number of firearms certificate holders decreased by 20 percent.” The Home Office’s admission shows the situation has gotten markedly worse since then.

For the record, current independent tracking of world-wide crime generally, on a per capita basis, puts Great Britain in fourth place, ahead of South Africa (!) and well ahead of the United States, which came in a paltry twenty-second. For violent crime exclusively, according Great Britain’s Daily Mail, the United Kingdom is the most violent country in Europe, with a violent crime rate of 2,034 per 100,000 residents, compared with a rate of 466 per 100,000 for the United States. So much for disarming the law-abiding citizen. So much for peaceful Olde England.

How Great Britain compares to the United States is accentuated by the respective histories of the two countries. Great Britain had no violent crime but was afraid it might occur; their government took away the right of the people to keep and bear arms to defend themselves and violent crime became epidemic. America had violent crime (though, interestingly enough, nowhere near as much as most people imagine), but also had a Second Amendment that prevented the government from taking away the people’s right to self-defense. Today, America’s violent crime rate is lower than it was three decades ago, and the vast percent of the crime it does have is accounted for exclusively by major metropolitan centers with draconian and illegal gun laws, with Chicago, Washington, DC, and Baltimore topping the list.

Two of those cities have had Democratic mayors and governments for over fifty years; Washington, DC has never had a Republican mayor. All three of those Democratically-led cities scream that their violent crime rates are the fault of surrounding states with lax gun laws, but one has to ask why the surrounding states with the lax gun laws don’t also have stratospheric crime rates.

If you have the slightest interest in the truth about gun ownership and violent crime, read Guns and Violence.

The Best There Is, the Best There Ever Was

August 6th, 2016 25 Comments

James Earl Jones


I got suspended from college during my sophomore year. Memory dims and warps over time, especially when pretty well dimmed by beer and vodka to begin with, but it all had to do with the girl’s dorm, some attractive young ladies in scanty clothing, a child’s plastic bathing pool on the roof, the aforementioned beer and vodka, and a wild, desperate leap from a second- or third-story window in an effort to avoid the tender mercies of the dread majesty of the law. I think I’ve got that right.

It was a year’s suspension, and since I had torn the meniscus in my knee by jumping out that window, the first order of business was knee surgery. I was recuperating in a Washington, DC hospital when I read that the Arena Stage was casting extras for the world premiere of a play called The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. I had already decided I wasn’t fit for much of anything other than acting, so the day I was released from the hospital I drove myself down to the Arena Stage, leaned my crutches up against the outside of the building, and walked in as casually as I could to inquire about auditioning. I was a day too late, but they asked if I knew how to run a follow-spot. I wasn’t entirely sure what a follow-spot was (it’s a spotlight that follows the movement of an actor on the stage) but I allowed as how I’d been running follow-spots most of my life. Was I afraid of heights? Hell, no. Could I climb up a ladder and across a metal grid to get to the catwalk? Piece of cake! Would they like to see me do it right now?

Mercifully, they didn’t require me to do that at the moment, and by the time they needed me for rehearsals I had healed enough that I could climb the ladder and across the metal grid without too much pain, but with a lot of fear. I’ve always been afraid of heights.

And so it was that I sat up on a metal catwalk night after night for eight weeks, watching some of the greatest talent this country has ever produced, in one of the most iconic and rightly awarded plays in American history—the Pulitzer, the Tony, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, three Drama Desk awards, (and later, after the movie was released) a Golden Globe, two Academy Award nominations… The list goes on. Think of watching James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Lou Gilbert, Robert Prosky, Robert Foxworth, others I can no longer remember, night after night. My copy of the play, The Great White Hope, is a commercial one, not a Samuel French edition, and Bantam Books cheaped out by not including an original cast list, so I have may missed some actors or added some who were in other plays I worked on as a stage hand. Memory dims and warps…

But it was James Earl Jones who swept me off my feet. Since then, as a paying audience member, I have seen him in two other plays (Of Mice and Men and Fences) and if the ushers hadn’t run me out I’d probably still be sitting in one of those theaters, bawling. He’s that good. I have seen him and heard him—that voice, that magnificent voice, the way you would expect God Himself to sound—in movies and on television. I’d walk a mile in tight shoes just to watch him read from the yellow pages.

To watch him and the incomparable Jane Alexander—and the others—night after night, always brilliant, always moving, always real and in the moment regardless of any external distractions, was a transcendent, inspiring experience.

The Arena Stage is what is called a theater-in-the-round. Technically, that means the audience sits in a 360-degree circle around a circular stage, but in the case of the Arena, it means a 360-degree square around a square stage. Each of the four corners has a tunnel through which the actors can get on and off stage. (The tunnels are called “vomitoriums,” a Latin word with a double meaning left over from the days of the Roman amphitheaters. The double meaning is because while the tunnels originally were called vomitoriums because actors could spew in or out of the arena, today the word is also an ironic tip of the hat to stage fright.) Because The Great White Hope is such a massive production (approximately twenty separate locales requiring twenty separate sets, and a cast of about thirty-five, not counting extras in crowd scenes), the director, Ed Sherin, and the set designer came up with an ingenious method of wheeling platforms in and out with just enough furniture and just enough props to suggest a set to the audience. The actors would start a scene on the little platforms, but then move around the rest of the stage as needed.

One night, one of the stage hands had placed a chair too close to the edge of the platform, and when James Earl Jones sat down, the chair’s back legs slipped off the platform and sent him sprawling onto the stage. Without missing a beat, he subtly played the rest of the scene as if he were drunk (which was appropriate for that particular scene) and the actor playing his trainer picked up on it and followed his lead. It was a brilliant and inspired way to deal with an accident.

But the unforeseen that had to be dealt with on multiple, on many occasions was the reaction of the black audiences. The Great White Hope chronicles the rise and fall of a fictional boxer based on the real boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. While the play deals with various societal issues, racism is one of the primary themes that runs through it, and black audiences in 1967 were not accustomed to seeing their problems and their persecution portrayed so graphically onstage. The result was frequent verbal commentary from the audience.

As a sheltered piece of Wonder Bread brought up in the confines of “proper” behavior, I was shocked the first time this happened, and I think at first it even caught James Earl Jones off-guard, but after a night or two, he began to take it in stride and incorporate it into his own performance, responding just enough to acknowledge the comments without encouraging them. A laugh here, a “That’s right!” there, sometimes just a hand raised or a slight change of movement as he roamed that stage like one of the big cats, powerful, unpredictable, dangerous, vital and vibrant with more life force than you might imagine any man could have. It really was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever had the pleasure of watching, and he richly deserved every award he won or was nominated for.

I screwed my courage to sticking place one night before or after a performance, and asked him if the verbal interjections from the black audiences distracted him. To his endless credit, instead of dismissing me as the ignorant and pampered white kid I was, he took the question seriously.

“No, no. That’s just the way they react. Different people react in different ways and my job is to always make sure they have something real and right to react to.”

I so idolized James Earl Jones, and was in such awe of his extraordinary talent, that I lost a year or two of my acting life trying to pretend I was him, the single worst mistake an actor can make. Hell, it was hard enough for me to train myself into being a decent Jameson Parker; I was a lousy James Earl Jones. But that’s how much I thought of his talent; it’s how much I still think of his talent.

So not long after Simon & Simon had ended, when my agent asked if I would be interested in doing a guest role on a series starring James Earl Jones, it was the culmination of a dream that had begun on a catwalk in Washington, DC a quarter of a century before.

The show was called Pros and Cons, and was a sort of—what? A spin-off? A morphing? An evolution? An adaptation?—of a series that had been called Gabriel’s Fire. In its new incarnation it starred both James Earl Jones and the late, great Dick Crenna, whom I knew slightly from celebrity shooting events, and I couldn’t wait to begin.

Life so rarely lives up to our best dreams and fantasies. We all tend to make the same stupid mistake of confusing the person and the artist, and the history of Hollywood is jam-packed with tales of how despicable or alcoholic or unprofessional or mean or mingy or whatever this coruscating star or that incandescent starlet were.

Not so James Earl Jones and Dick Crenna. Both were as kind and delightful as they were gifted. Dick Crenna was not only one of the most talented men ever to set foot on a sound stage, but he was also one of the funniest men I have ever known, with a lightning fast sense of the absurd, and James Earl Jones (on a sound stage anyway) was one of the easiest men in the world to corpse. (I’m not sure if that word is used in America, but on the British stage, it means “to cause to laugh at an inappropriate time,” and certain actors are known for being easy marks to make laugh on stage [think Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show], while others [the late, great, incredibly sexy Joan Greenwood, for example] have the reputation of being completely unflappable no matter what their fellow actors do to them.)

The result was that I have little memory of anything about the show, and nothing but fond memories about that week of work. I know I played a sleazy private detective, and since I have always loved playing bad guys, I was in my element. The only scene I actually remember is one where Dick and James Earl Jones handcuff me to the hand-rail in an elevator, but I have the sense, a vague sense, not a memory, that I did some of my best work in that single episode. This is not a self-aggrandizing statement on my part, but rather a reflection on the extraordinary talent I was privileged to work with: just as tennis players talk about their ability rising to meet the level of their competition, so too can great actors bring out the best in mediocre ones. Of course, it always possible that sense of mine is completely off the mark and that I wasn’t very good. I don’t know. I never got to see the episode.

But my main memory, the one that springs to mind now whenever I hear James Earl Jones’ name, or see his face, or hear his voice, is of him laughing. Dear kind, generous, mischievous Dick Crenna would come out with something—a word, a one-liner, a look, anything—and poor James Earl Jones would go off into fits of anything from giggles to roaring gales of laughter. And when he laughed, he laughed with his whole body, that huge frame shaking with a delight so contagious that the crew, normally professionally somber and contained, would join in and production would grind to a halt until we could all pull ourselves together. It was a magical week.

The kind and wonderful Dick Crenna is dead now. James Earl Jones is eight-five, but still working. He has made a rightly deserved fortune, he has won everything there is to win, he has the respect of thousands of co-workers and countless millions of fans. And he still looms, larger than life, in the memory of a wild and eager young boy who watched him, mesmerized, from a catwalk.

Who Are You Going to Believe, Me, Or Your Lying Eyes?

August 1st, 2016 33 Comments

Hillary Clinton


In one of his movies (Marriage Italian Style? Divorce Italian Style? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow? Casanova 70? I don’t remember now.) there is a scene where Marcello Mastroianni gets caught by his wife in bed, in flagrante delicto, in the saddle with a pretty young thing.

The wife, needless to say, reacts badly. Mastroianni reacts by very calmly, serenely, putting on his clothes as he mildly and gently denies that there is any girl in his bed. What girl, he inquires? What are you talking about, my dear? As his wife becomes more and more hysterical, pointing at the somewhat flummoxed naked girl in the bed, Mastroianni becomes more and more solicitous. What are you saying? There is no one there. Are you not feeling well, my darling? He keeps this up until he is fully dressed and then he graciously, soothingly escorts his—by now—gibbering wife out of the room and out into the street.

It’s an absolute comic tour de force of bland denial of reality, of the kind of obfuscation of the patently obvious that could only occur in an Italian comedy. Or on a Fox News interview of Hillary Clinton.

What I found most amazing about that incredible, mind-boggling interview was that Chris Wallace (who is almost as tough as his dad) more or less let her get away with it. He never once laughed in her face, or called her a pathological liar. He did keep trying to point out some of her more egregiously blatant whoppers by playing the video clips of her saying or doing the very thing she was lying about at the moment, but Hillary, like a far less charming, less amusing Marcello Mastroianni, simply denied everything. It was in its own way—on the Shady Lady’s part—a tour de force of ballsy outrageousness.

Mastroianni won two Cannes Film Festival Awards and two Academy Award nominations over the span of his lengthy and distinguished career. Hillary won four Pinocchios, the Washington Post Fact Checker’s highest rating for incredible, gaudy, high-flying, over-the-top whoppers.

In retrospect, looking back over the last eight years, I’m very grateful to Barack Hussein Obama and his entire administration, the Shady Lady not least among them, for finally breaking me of my naïve and childlike faith in the integrity and benign goodwill of our elected officials. Oh, sure, I knew there were rotten apples among them. I knew even the best among them lied occasionally. I knew that from time to time even some of the best played fast and loose with the concepts of right and wrong. But I really did once believe that essentially, at core, most of the men and women who went to Washington did so with good intentions and that most of them really did try to do the right thing most of the time.

Not anymore. There’s not one lying son—or daughter—of a bitch among them who is worth the powder it would take to blow him or her up.


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