Tag Archives: M*A*S*H

Goodbye (TV) Summer

Not that I had any free time to watch all of it.

Summer used to be the dead zone for television, but basic cable has been kicking the networks’ asses for a while thanks to their willingness to go against the grain. Sure, people spend more time outdoors in the summer, but watching at ones own schedule has been a choice since the earliest VCR. With digital television, I don’t think I ever watch a program in its actual time slot; I’ll even start a show late just to zip through the endless commercials. (Don’t worry, advertisers, your product placement is hard to miss…)

So the summer ends and the flurry of new shows are being dangled in front of us like a basket of cant-miss gems…even though we know most of them will suck out loud. And if there is something truly ground-breaking, it will likely get cancelled. Gotta keep those inbred families and their reality shows numbing the minds of America.

So a fond farewell to some favorites:

  • The Closer, winding down towards the series end although the rumored spin-off Major Crimes sounds great.
  • Breaking Bad, which just gets better every year even when you think it can’t possibly raise the bar.
  • Rescue Me, Denis Leary’s often-brilliant series that did for firemen what M*A*S*H did for war vets
  • Friday Night Lights, a class exit for a class act (although you Direct TV subscribers had a jump on me)
  • Louie, which finally let the brilliance of Louis CK shine through to a bigger audience.

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In Praise of Arthur Dietrich

Or as he is known in real life,Steve Landesberg – 65 years young today.

Barney Miller was one of my favorite shows, and in a solid ensemble cast of ethnic characters and odd personalities, Steve’s droll and deadpan Arthur Dietrich provided some of the show’s biggest laughs. Brought on in the second season, he wasn’t a regular until midway through the series’ run, and in fact played a guest role as a felon prior to being cast as a detective.

At first, his calm wit was played off the easily agitated Ron Glass character Detective Harris (the first metrosexual on television?) before his eventual teaming with the frustrated uniform cop Carl Levitt. As the diminutive and gullible Officer Levitt, Ron Carey was the perfect foil for Landesberg’s intellectual smart-ass persona. Many of the later episodes features scenes totally focused on the brilliant interaction between the pair.

Steve was nominated for an Emmy three years running but didn’t win. Bad timing and great competition; from 1980 through 1982 the award went to Harry Morgan on M*A*S*H and both Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd from Taxi. Not bad company.

After Barney Miller went off the air I didn’t see much of him anywhere. Part of it was my non-TV lifestyle, but looking at his resume I don’t think I would have watched anything he was in anyway. But I was thrilled to see him pop up in a small but hilarious role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that perfect comic timing and deadpan humor still in place. And when I saw that he was in the cast of the Showtime comedy Head Case (where he plays Dr. Myron Finkelstein) I picked up the complete series DVD without a second thought.

I still remember cracking up the Dietrich was in an apartment talking to Fish’s daughter who was being harassed by her boyfriend. She tells Dietrich that if he comes to the door to tell him, in a masculine voice, to go away. When someone knocks on the door, Dietrich calmly tells the guy to go away…by imitating the voice of Gregory Peck as his iconic character Atticus Finch.

Video: “Fish” episode (scroll to the 12 minute mark)

That’s about three levels of funny, and a lesser actor would have ruined it with mugging and gestures. Landesberg nailed it by underplaying it and letting the absurdity of the moment sell the scene. I’m still laughing about it thirty years later…well played, Dietrich!

Happy Birthday, Steve.

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Catch ‘Em While You Can

Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone?

That classic Joni Mitchell line doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but you get my point. Artists come and go, books and albums go out of print, and in the world of television, sometimes that great show just doesn’t catch on with enough viewers fast enough, and…poof.

Some of TV’s most iconic programs were not instant successes. In the early days, frankly there wasn’t enough left to replace them with, so a Twilight Zone could have time to build an audience. And it wasn’t unusual for a show to become a staple over time, whether it was a groundbreaking program like M*A*S*H or All In The Family or a pop culture nugget like The Munsters or Gilligan’s Island.

Star Trek probably came out of the 60’s with the strongest credibility, but that show was a bomb when originally aired. And has the ratings been as nervously distilled for Hill Street Blues as they are today, you wouldn’t even know the name of just another cop show that bit the dust.

The next great epic, Boardwalk Empire

So I’m thrilled that HBO has already renewed Boardwalk Empire after just one episode, even if I haven’t seen it yet. After leaving fans of Carnivale and Deadwood in the lurch, perhaps they have learned from Lost that if you are going to try to bring an ocean liner to a halt, a smooth deceleration works better than a dead stop. If this year is successful and DVD sales are solid, they’ll hopefully give the writers and producers another notice next year so that story arcs can be flexible enough to either ascend or wrap up.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the wonderful Better Off Ted, which got the axe with only two shows left in the can. Eight months later, ABC still hasn’t been able to find a time slot to burn off those two shows – again, already filmed and produced, just sitting there – so those of us who appreciate well-written comedy can have one last hour of enjoyment. The UK picked up the show and those episodes aired in England…yet this week in the States, ABC filled a third of its prime time schedule with four hours of Dancing With The Stars and a new show regurgitating both Jerry O’Connell and Jim Belushi. Thanks a lot.

Thankfully Britain is our friend. Since the DVD of season two might never appear, enjoy those last two episodes here, won’t you?

Episode 12It’s My Party and I’ll Lie If I Want To.

Episode 13Swag The Dog

This intelligent comedy is brought to you by Veridian Dynamics

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Batten Down the Hatches

I Voted Today

Yeah, but that’s not why. Sure, today’s a mid-session crapshoot and there will be all sorts of political nonsense spewed from coast to coast. Sure, the phrase means prepare for trouble…but this is a politics-free blog.

Sure, I voted. But when I got home I was saddened to read that Lester Gruber is no longer with us. Or The Amazing Ballantine, for that matter. Because today, Meyer Kessler left this mortal coil.

All three of those people, of course, were Carl Ballantine, the cut-up on McHale’s Navy and the first magician to ever play Las Vegas…even though his whole act was being the world’s most inept magician. Carl was a character actor and a great storyteller from an age gone by, and for those lucky enough to meet him, a damned nice guy to boot. 

McHale’s Navy, in retrospect, wasn’t the funniest show on the planet, but it featured a likeable cast of guys who were always outsmarting the officers, and what kid could resist a show about thumbing your nose at authority? But it was a wartime show, and every so often the crew and their PT boat would be called upon to perform some semi-heroic deed. This was not M*A*S*H by any stretch of the imagination, but at those times, someone would invariably say batten down the hatches.

The show worked because of a great ensemble, including Billy Sands, Joe Flynn as the put upon Captain and Bob Hastings as his buffoonish aide. And while you don’t think of Ernest Borgnine as a comic actor, he held his own, although it was Ballantine and a fresh-faced Tim Conway who brought the biggest laughs.

There must have been something in that fake ocean water on the backlot at Universal Studios, because Ballantine was 87 years old and still active, and Borgnine is still making movies at 92! Hastings,  now 84, is the voice of Commissioner Gordon in some Batman games. And that young pup Tim Conway doesn’t look so bad for a guy who will be 76 next month.

They don’t make shows like this anymore. And there aren’t many around like Carl Ballantine, either. Rest in Peace.

Witness The Great Ballantine!

McHale's Navy

Another hatch battened

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R.I.P. Jim Carroll, Larry Gelbart

"Jimmy, I'll miss you more than all the others / and I SALUTE YOU , Brother..."

" I'll miss you more than all the others / and I SALUTE YOU , Brother..."

Poet. Rocker. Punk. Junkie. Jim Carroll, who was all of these,  passed away at his desk while working on new material. He first became famous for his novel The Basketball Diaries, but I didn’t discover that until after his album Catholic Boy blew my doors in. I can still sing “People Who Died” from memory and was fortunate enough to have seen the man himself do the honors. Many people believe he was the poet of our generation, a post-Beat Beat writer. Now he’s gone. Wicked, wicked gravity.

Larry Gelbart is probably best known as the creator of M*A*S*H, an accomplishment which would outshine many people’s career resumes. But his writing spanned generations – he started writing for Fanny Brice and Bob Hope, wrote jokes for Red Buttons and Danny Kaye, hit his stride in the incredible writer’s room for Sid Caesar (a crew that included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and capped it off with M*A*S*H and Tootsie. His work is so good that I forgive him for AfterMASH.

The typewriter is mightier than the sword

The typewriter is mightier than the sword

My comments on these two is certainly no slight by omission on the recent passing of others. I just had more invested in the works of Carroll and Gelbart.  But over the past seven days the Grim Reaper has been working overtime:

  • Pierre Cossette, a TV and Broadway producer I had the pleasure of working with when I was in Artist Management. Total pro, as was his team.
  • Army Archerd, whose news items in Variety predated today’s gossip rags and TV shows…except Army had ethics and didn’t just blast rumors to get attention.
  • George Eckstein, a producer/writer for some great early TV shows.
  • Paul Burke, star of Naked City and 12 O’Clock High
  • William Beck, the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, who at least was saved from witnessing Michael Jordan’s embarassing Hall Of Fame speech.
  • Frank Batten, creator of The Weather Channel, saving millions of people from having to rely on that antiquated tool of looking out the window.

This idiot died last night, but only on stage. (I’m no fan of Beyonce’s music, but that was a class move at the VMAs.)

Christopher Kelly– hmmm, not suspicious at all, right?

And if the Universe had a better sense of irony,  this jackass would have died a day earlier.

***

Awww crap11pm update. I knew this was going to happen but not this soon.

And damn, Reaper – Wednesday update – you socked it to him, too?

***

Jim Carroll Wikipedia entry

Larry Gelbart page at IMDB.

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