Tag Archives: Taxi

Finally, Barney Miller.

Finally, the entire classic series is available.

Barney Miller ranks right up there with Soap, Cheers, Taxi and the other great sitcoms of the 70s and 8os, although up until now it has gotten sold short in the home video market. Thanks to Shout Factory, yet another great blast from the past gets the proper treatment with a box set complete with extras.

I must admit I’m a little PO’d that they didn’t release the other seasons individually, but the reason is that Sony didn’t sell enough of the first three seasons to warrant releasing the remainder. But at the price – certain to dip a bit over time – I can buy the whole shebang cheaper than if I picked up the remainder of the shows year by year. Eight seasons and one hundred sixty-eight episodes plus commentaries, booklets and even the first series of Vigoda’s spin-off, Fish. That’s a great deal, even at list price.

Video: some early highlights

I won’t go overboard trying to sell you on the show; like most long-running programs there is enough video and commentary to let you make up your own mind. But it does give me a chance to tip my cap to a great ensemble who provided me with years of laughter over eight seasons: Hal Linden, Barbara Barrie, Abe Vigoda, Jack Soo, Ron Glass, Max Gail, Greg Sierra, James Gregory, Ron Carey, and my favorite, the late great Steve Landesberg. The parade of oddball guest stars in the precinct house also featured a bevy of now-recognizable actors.

So I guess my Dad (who loved the show) will be the beneficiary of my three seasonal box sets. Come October, I’m all in on Barney Miller.

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Frank Sinatra Has A Cold

Forty-five years ago, Gay Talese redefined essay writing.

I came across this yesterday – hadn’t seen it in years – when I was writing about Harlan Ellison. Ellison plays a small role in the story, a then lesser-known writer who just happened to be sharing a poolroom with Frank Sinatra when Frank was in one of those moods. It’s a scene in a film-length story about Talese trying to get access to Sinatra for an article assignment from Esquire. Sinatra declined to be interviewed. So Talese wrote around him.

I don’t know if it lives up to its reputation as one of the greatest article ever written, but it is damned good, with a pulse and cadence that combines humor, pathos and even a bit of suspense here and there.

Read the article here.

On a much smaller level I had to do the same thing once, when assigned to cover The Hives on their first tour. Although a band member did pick up the phone, they were so disinterested in participating, every question was answered with two or three words. No comebacks. No tangents. No plugs for new material. In fact the only time there was any exchange was when I asked them about their fictitious Svengali, who they purported wrote all their material and choreographed their every move. But even after that two sentence retort, there was nothing. So I tossed it and wrote around them, angling the piece as if I were a paparazzi eavesdropping on “a day in the life”.

Another favorite, although there was probably no interview scheduled, was Joe Queenan’s toxic Mickey Rourke For A Day. Now I’m as big a Rourke fan as you’ll find – never abandoning him even through the really bad days – but I could appreciate the observance of a train wreck from Queenan’s perspective.

Talese is correct – our media culture today is a machine that gobbles up rumor and gossip and innuendo and regurgitates it as news and fact, only retracting and apologizing when they need to. Society is fascinated with observances of the rich and famous, especially when they falter. That appetite has always been there, but the line between fact and fiction is now murky. Most blur the line purposefully, because they are sensationalists.

Gay Talese did it artfully, because he has talent.

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And R.I.P. Jeff Conaway, dead at 60 from pneumonia and bacterial infections after being comatose for over two weeks.  He played Kenickie in Grease but was more famous as the struggling actor and part-time cabbie Bobby Wheeler in Taxi. He left the show after three years – in fairness, they had run out of things to do with his character – and never really landed anything else of significance. That void led to depression and substance abuse, as it does for many who lose the limelight.

I abhor reality shows, and the lowest in the slime pit are celebrity rehab shows; they are sad and parasitical events that prey on desperate subjects for the entertainment of worthless people. Conaway had been a regular face on shows like these. I prefer to remember him from the glory days, when I was watching the man’s craft, not his public evisceration.

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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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Remembering James Cagney

Simply the best.

James Cagney died twenty-four years ago today. 

When I was a kid my Dad and I would watch a lot of movies together, and that’s where I first saw this pugnacious little punk light up the screen. It didn’t seem to matter what film he was in; when he was on camera he attracted your attention with laser-like intensity. I guess that’s what they call a movie star

The Fighting 69th

Dad loved war movies – still does – and I have vivid memories of watching The Fighting 69th several times (as Irishmen, that’s almost a requirement). Later I discovered What Price Glory and 13 Rue Madeline, which I guess weren’t in rotation on the three or four New York stations available at the time. And his performance in Mr. Roberts was also a classic, although that was a comedy. 

Angels With Dirty Faces

But it was the gangster films that were seared into my memory. Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces were the two we watched most often; stone-cold classics that I still enjoy today. The latter also featured The Dead End Kids, who I would later follow through their comedic incarnation as The Bowery Boys. Two others that rank alongside them in his canon are The Roaring Twenties and the iconic White Heat; how Cagney did not win the Academy Award for the latter is still a mystery. (He eventually won for his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and deservedly so.) 

I learned a bit later that Cagney was constantly battling the studio system – and Harry Warner in particular –  to be able to have more control over his career. The studios treated actors like indentured servants back then, although that also meant that you were used in a lot of movies and even loaned out to other studios on occasion as a favor between moguls. If you had the magic, as they say, soon enough you’d get a chance to prove it. But Cagney was getting typecast and didn’t like it. 

Man of a Thousand Faces

As I was growing up I caught up with several that I had missed, including other genres like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Time of Your Life (which was perhaps my own favorite moment on a college stage). His fierce performance in Love Me Or Leave Me was thrilling; he had played many bad men before but his gangsters always had some charm; Martin Snyder was an unlikeable character. And I got to see Man of a Thousand Faces again and understand what a magnificent performance it was; Cagney as Lon Chaney being other characters. There’s a wordless scene where Cagney re-enacts a brutally deformed cripple being healed and given the ability to walk; it is a master class in acting

I respected Cagney the man almost as much as I admired Cagney the actor. He fought for better working conditions for actors in general (his own behavior inspired others to stand up for themselves) and was president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was a patriot and generously devoted his time and services in support of the troops long before it became fashionable (or a savvy career move). His marriage at 22 lasted sixty-four years until his death at 86. And he avoided the hoopla of Hollywood, buying a farm first in Martha’s Vineyard and later another north of New York City. He approached life on his own terms, supported causes and people without fanfare or fear and set the bar early for the transition to a new style of acting. 

Ragtime

When Cagney died in 1986 it wasn’t a shock, as he had been in poor health for many years. He all but retired from movies twenty-five years earlier, but did return to the big screen in 1981 to play a supporting role in Ragtime as the cantankerous Police Commissioner. But thanks to my Dad and those many nights enjoying his work together, he always seemed vividly alive to me. If I’m flipping channels today and come across a Cagney movie, I automatically lock in and watch it even though the odds are I can recite every line of dialogue from memory. 

I was thrilled when Warners finally started releasing classic Cagney films on DVD (perhaps in an upcoming TGIF  I will rank my ten favorites). But one of my great thrills was being able to record the many unreleased Cagney films that TCM aired during a month-long tribute to Cagney and sharing them with my Dad. He had no idea that these had even aired, and some of them (Taxi, The Strawberry Blonde) he hadn’t seen since we watched them together all those years ago. Sometimes payback isn’t a bitch. 


March 1986 was a tough month. I lost my Mom to cancer; she had never really been sick a day in her life and was not a drinker or smoker. She felt some discomfort that January and it was determined that she needed minor surgery which was supposed to be routine. When under the knife in early February it was discovered that she had cancer. The pre-operative scans missed because it was too small, but it was scattered throughout her liver like buckshot, which meant her bloodstream, which meant it was now invasive everywhere. She never left the hospital. Every time I think of her I’m amazed that twenty-four years seems both like a long time ago and also like yesterday. 

When I think back to my childhood I remember her sitting nearby as my Dad and I watched Cagney’s movies. She probably enjoyed some of them herself, but knew that Dads and sons need to bond over certain things, and she gave us that space. (That was my Mom in a nutshell – unselfish.) So as I warmly remember the man who is still my favorite actor of all time, I do the same for the two people who always supported me unconditionally. March is a little easier to take these days. 

Thanks, Mom & Dad.

James Cagney on IMDB and Wikipedia

James Cagney Online – UK site with info and trailers

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