Thursday, January 28, 2010

Old friends from days gone by.

Pernell Roberts
May 18, 1928 - January 25, 2010

Pernell Roberts, noted actor, singer and civil rights supporter has passed away. Born in Georgia, Pernell sang in USO shows as a teenager and wasm for a time, a US Marine before casting his lot as a performer. The New York stage gave him the opportunity to play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Hollywood, on the look out for new faces, called him west in 1957. And it was indeed the west as westerns were the most popular entertainments of the day. Director John Rich was most impressed with Roberts' audition for the series Gunsmoke and he got the part (episode: How to Kill a Woman) after quickly learning to ride a horse.

Pernell Roberts was cast as Adam Cartwright in the soon to be phenomally successful Bonanza, but after a few years became discontented with the program, playing the eldest and smartest of the three Cartwright brothers. Although the role gave him a chance to do comedy, romance and action, it wasn't enough for the restless star. Actors like to spread their wings and Pernell became discontented with the storylines. The producers attempted a change to keep their star happy in casting Kathie Browne as a character Adam would marry, but the itchy footed troubadour took off for hopefully greener pastures. While guest roles on other series provided character changes and albums and musical theatre roles gave outlet to his glorious baritone, movie success was not to be a part of Pernell's career.

My favourite of his movie roles is in 1959's Ride Lonesome which is available on dvd as part of the Budd Boetticher box set. His Sam Boone is a thoughtful, likable and garrulous "bad guy". You almost root for him in his battle with star Randolph Scott. No. You do root for Sam Boone. It's a well-done role in a fine film and it's a shame more of the kind didn't come Pernell Robert's way.

It was television that would give Pernell Roberts another starring role and success in the series Trapper John (1979-1986). I recall a TV Guide article at the time where his co-star, the late and lovely Madge Sinclair, remarked that Pernell was a "grumpy Taurus" and she understood him because she was one too. As a certified GT as well I feel a kinship with the stars.


Johnny Seven
February 23, 1926 - January 22, 2010

If Johnny Seven's face isn't a familiar one to you then you didn't watch any television between 1950 and 1990! John Antony Fetto was born in New York City, the only brother among six sisters. A boy soprano in his younger days and a soldier as a young man, he was bit by the acting bug when he appeared in USO shows. He spent his life as an actor, a writer, a director (Navajo Run, 1964) and a husband to Estelle Piselli whom he married in 1949, and a father of two. His son John Jr. would become his manager. I think that speaks of a fine relationship.

Johnny Seven made his movie debut as one of the longshoreman in On the Waterfront and appeared in The Apartment as Karl Matuschka, Fran's brother-in-law. Television gave him a variety of roles as he appeared in hundreds of programs from Peter Gunn to Murder, She Wrote. After a couple of guest appearances on Ironside, he had a recurring role on that series as Lt. Carl Reese.


Television. I used to watch a lot of television. My shows were special to me and the cast members became like family. Bonanza was a Sunday night tradition for generations. I'm sure there are some among us who would rather spend holidays with the Cartwrights then with some relatives. Ironside was one of my shows. Cleveland Amory once wrote that while every episode of Ironside might not be the best episode of Ironside, it doesn't matter. It's the Chief and Ed and Mark and Eve/Fran and Lt. Reese that we want to see. These fellows, Pernell Roberts and Johnny Seven, were welcome in homes for years and will continue to be old friends from days gone by.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Starstruck

Jean Simmons
1929 - 2010

I have never lost the electric thrill that occurs when the ticket to a play passes from the box office into my hands. The first time I attended a legit performance it was an April 1974 birthday present from my folks. Jean Simmons starring in A Little Night Music at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.


Sondhemim's waltz haunts me as does those heartbreakingly silly and sad characters in the play and the faces of the generations of actors in their black and white portraits that fill the stairways of the Royal Alex.  I remember climbing that neverending stairway to the upper balcony for the first of countless times nad seeing the faces familiar to me from movies Basil Rathbone, Fay Bainter, Harry Carey, Mischa Auer and those I only knew from reading about their careers Lunt and Fontanne, Cornelia Otis Skinner.

I remember Jean Simmons - coy, honest, smart, defeated, simply gorgeous and selling that song. Yes. She was Desiree Armfeldt. When I would remember to breathe she was also scheming Lily in Footsteps in the Fog, brave Julie Maragon in The Big Country, besotted Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls and conflicted Sister Sharon in Elmer Gantry.

In 35 years of theatre-going I have seen many great names and many humbler names. I have been moved and impressed by work, but rarely have I been starstruck. Long after the details of a show have been forgotten I recall where I sat and how I sat. The sounds around me and the weather outside. The light-headed euphoria of having shared a lifetime with the folk on stage and the leaden feet that don't want to leave the theatre. Oh, how I hate to leave the theatre!

There is a special place in my heart for the woman, the actress, the star that was and is Jean Simmons.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Frank Puglia Double Bill

Frank Puglia
March 9, 1892 - October 25, 1975

Frank Puglia was born in Sicily and began his theatrical career at 15 years of age when he joined an opera company. Emigrating to the United States in 1907 he appeared in Italian language theatrical productions and learned his English from newspapers. D.W. Griffith brought Puglia to the screen in 1921 recreating a role he had played in the stage production of Orphans of the Storm. Playing small, but memorable roles of all ethnic backgrounds, Puglia was a busy actor from that time on. You have seen him in Maytime, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Mark of Zorro (a new member of the National Film Registry), Casablanca (a most ambitious vendor), For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brute Force, Road to Rio, Joan of Arc, The Caddy, etc. If, like me, you grew up watching television in the 60s or caught these programs in syndication you can spot Puglia in Rawhide, Hazel, I Dream of Jeannie, Bonanza, The Fugitive, High Chaparrel, To Rome With Love and Ironside.

For many years I would recognize Frank Puglia as the mysterious and loyal "Talo" in Tall in the Saddle (1944). Speaking of mysterious, he is uncredited in an important role. Perhaps that is why it took me a while to learn his name.

I had a Frank Puglia double bill the other day. First up was TCM's airing of Always in My Heart from 1942.

Not since 1934's Wagon Wheels has the viewing public been hit over the head with a theme song with such fervor. Fortunately, it is a lovely tune by Cuba's Ernesto Lecuona, who gave us "Siboney" and "Malaguena". The English lyrics are from Kim Gannon, writer of "I'll Be Home for Christmas", "Five O'clock Whistle" and "Dreamer's Holiday". It is sung repeatedly by a lovely young soprano named Gloria Warren who disappeared from film after a half dozen titles. She plays the daughter of Kay Francis and Walter Huston. She and brother Frankie (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) Thomas believe their father to be dead. He has recently been pardoned from prison. Is it right to keep his identity from the children? Should Kay marry rich beau, Sidney Blackmer. We know she should keep her distance from the monied fellow. Why? Because he doesn't like Frank Puglia, that's why. Puglia plays Joe Borelli, the youngsters mentor in life and music. One of those happy fellows with a fishing boat, a large family and a large heart. Maybe he can bring the fractured family together again. This is the sort of movie that made me cry watching it on the late show. Borrah Minevitch and his Rascals, the famous harmonica troupe are an added feature which can make the weepy easy to handle on a rainy day, but be prepared to have that song ringing in your head for a few hours/days.


Puglia as Achmed Halide peeks around the corner of this poster.

Next up was a dvd from my treasured Charlie Chan collection. Charlie Chan in Panama was directed by Norman Foster in 1940 and it's a dandy. Puglia is an Arab tobaconist with information for sale. Is he a notorious saboteur/murderer? It could be any one of a number of suspects including the Viennesse chemist, the British author, the American schoolteacher, the American engineer, the pretty European refugee, the dashing nightclub owner. Charlie Chan is undercover in the canal zone to ferret out the spy who has eluded capture. Of course, that cover is neatly blown when number two son, Jimmy, arrives unexpectedly. This Sidney Toler and Sen Yung outing has a great cast with Puglia, Jack LaRue, Kane Richmond, Jean Rogers, Mary Nash, Lionel Atwill, Addison Richards, Don Douglas and Chris Pin-Martin. Danger, humour and tension combine perfectly in the timely WW2 era story. Definitely one for the must-see and must-see-again list.

Keep your eyes peeled on your next classic movie viewings. Especially watch for Frank's star turn as a frightened witness testifying against the Mafia in 1950s Black Hand. Maybe you'll have your own Frank Puglia double bill.