About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ten Best Things About The Year I Was Born

In addition to my entry into the world there were -believe it or not- many other wonderful things going on in 1963. I have compiled a list of the Ten Best Things About The Year I Was Born and how they relate to me and my life (Birthday Self Indulgence Alert! Birthday Self Indulgence Alert!). This list is undoubtedly going to stir up a storm of controversy and heated discussions amongst the massive Internet fanbase for both me and the year 1963. 

I stand by my choices.

10. The Great Escape

In March of 1944, 76 Allied POW's imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, through an amazing feat of ingenuity and determination, pulled off the largest escape from a prisoner of war camp in military history.  The movie's got nothing to do with those events. While based on the book by real life escape participant Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape embellishes the book, rewrites it, borrows incidents from other POW escapes and just plain makes shit up.

So what?

The Great Escape is a fun, exciting, really well shot and edited movie. Director John Sturges follows the formula of the success of his earlier hit film, The Magnificent Seven,  and casts an ensemble of up and coming as well as established man's men stars from the early 60's. The up and comers include a pre-Death Wish 5 Charles Bronson, a pre-the-voice-of-the-bad-guy-in-Monsters Inc. James Coburn, a pre-the-inspiration-for-Dr.Evil Donald Pleasance, a pre-"I'm starring in NCIS to boost my retirement fund" David McCallum, a pre-Polaroid-commercials James Garner and a pre-directing-me-in-a-really-tiny-part-in-a-major-motion-picture Sir Richard Attenborough.

Make no mistake, though,the real star of the film is a pre-Towering Inferno Steve McQueen. McQueen had so much clout at the time that the climatic motorcycle chase to the Swiss border was cooked up by McQueen and his stuntmen motocross buddies and not at all based on historical fact.

One real part of the true story the film does depict is exactly how the escapees dug an elaborate series of tunnels using only stuff they could find in their barracks or steal from unsuspecting guards. Many of the digging and building stuff montages are set to the incredibly rousing score by Hollywood music legend Elmer Bernstein. It's soundtrack full of upbeat catchy marches that suggests the whole extremely dangerous endeavour during one of history's most devastating wars was all one big wonderful romp.  To be fair, that's pretty much the whole movie: a fun romp through WWII.

I remember watching this movie on TV with my sister. At the time, I was six and she was seventeen. We were both really into Steve McQueen, but for completely different reasons.

9. Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle

Apes and monkeys are both primates and both members of the simian suborder. However, the two are very different animals. In current casual English usage the words ape and monkey are often used interchangeably. The french language cuts right to the chase and has just one word for both apes and monkeys: singes.

In 1963, critically acclaimed author of Bridge on the River Kwai, Pierre Boule,  published his first science fiction novel, La Planete des Singes. The title could be translated into English as either Monkey Planet, Planet of the Monkeys, Ape Planet, or as the much more familiar title, Planet of the Apes.

The early English language editions of Boulle's unique novel about a French journalist embedded on a space mission who ends up stranded on a planet where apes are the the masters and humans the beasts went with the title Monkey Planet. Fortunately, for the biggest pre-Star Wars SF movie franchise of all time, when Hollywood adapted Boulle's novel to the big screen, they decided not to forgo Monkey Planet and go with the translation of the title that would actually appeal to audiences over the age of five.

I wouldn't be the first person to point out that Boulle's Monkey Planet bears more similarities to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels than it does to Franklin J. Shaffner's trippy yet moralizing ground breaking science fiction film. Monkey Planet is rife with arch absurdest social and political satire. Planet of the Apes is rife with "Take your damn paws of me you damn dirty apes!". 

Given the political situation of France and it's colonies in the early 60's (they were in the process of losing Algeria and had already lost Vietnam), Boulle's story of a planet where the simians have taken over comes off as something of a cautionary tale with just a tinge of implied underlying racism.

The character of Zira in the book is absolutely incredible. No film has matched Boulle's characterization of the incredibly emotionally grounded and powerful female ape. And did I mention that in the book Charlton Heston is French?

If you're not into reading, just watch the third Apes film, Escape From The Planet of the Apes. Substitute the lone French journalist on an ape planet for the talking apes on a human planet and you get the idea.

Other than an unused treatment for the second Apes film, Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Boulle's only contribution to the Apes franchise was cashing some General Ursus sized royalty cheques.

The cover of this early edition of Pierre Boulle's original novel reflects the satirical spirit of the book.

8. The Final Mercury Space Mission

On May 19, 1963, a rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral. It was piloted by astronaut Gordon Cooper. 22 Earth orbits and one splash down later, the Mercury Space program was over. The significance of this final mission of NASA's first manned space program is not so much what it accomplished but what it lead to. The Mercury program was followed by NASA's Apollo program.

Hopefully, you don't need Tom Hanks and an HBO miniseries to tell you what incredible things the Apollo space program achieved.

Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and their fellow American astronauts were such an incredible part of the mythos of the early 60's. Nothing defined the uniqueness of the era better than those crew-cutted fearless men with their cool helmets who got to go into space.

One night my dad (an aerospace engineer) let us leave the all lights in the house on overnight so that the astronauts could see us and the rest of our city from space. Normally, we would be in serious trouble if we so much as left a room without the lights turning off. All night was unthinkable. These astronauts must have been a big deal indeed.

My father's extraordinary deviation from the Official Always Turn Off Every Light Policy was, in my opinion, Nasa's greatest achievement.

Gordon Cooper or GI Joe Astronaut?

7. Leonard Cohen Emerges

In 1963, The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen's second novel was published.

It would be another five years before the young struggling anglo Montreal writer would shift his career focus from the publishing world to the much more stable and secure prospects of the music industry.

Admittedly I am more familiar with Cohen's music over his early literary aspirations. Nonetheless, it's fair to say that the career of an artist who would later have a profound impact on my life was well underway.

Cohen's words and music always had a way of nurturing the black emptiness of the soul without creating a bottomless abyss of hopelessness and despair from which there is no escape. There was always a light at the end of Cohen's emotional tunnels of pain. For every razor blade there was always faint music outside in the streets, for every deeply scarring relationship there was always some woman's beautiful golden hair and for every betrayal there was always a famous blue raincoat.

There's a few significant Cohen albums that got me through some pretty rough times in my turbulent thirties as well as more break-ups than I'd care to recall. 

Leonard Cohen touches your perfect body with his mind

My different musician friends alternately tell me that Cohen is either one of the most innovative song writers that ever lived or that, c'mon, he's just writing the same song over and over again. Whatever. All I know is that there are very few artists out there that have moved me as much as Leonard Cohen has.

6.Ring of Fire-Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is the coolest guy ever. Period.

He dressed in all in black. He had this amazingly unique deep voice. He has this really cool way of slinging his guitar across his back when taking to the stage.

I've followed the late great Mr.Cash through every step of his career from the whimsical A Boy Named Sue right through to Cash's swan song single, his incredible cover of Trent Reznor's Hurt.

Johnny Cash could be both spiritual and existential simultaneously yet still somehow remaining folksy. The Man in Black certainly knew a thing or two about pain, depression and loneliness too. It mighta had something to do with the reported 100 pills a day he was popping by the mid-60's.

Musically Cash often walked his own line between folk, country, gospel and rock n'roll. He came out the legendary Sun Records studios of Memphis in the 1950's. His graduating class included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet Cash stood apart from those legendary artists. His was a music all his own.

Ring of Fire spent 17 weeks at the number one spot on the country music charts in 1963. Coincidentally, it rose to number 17 on the Billboard Top 100. It was not originally recorded by Cash nor did he write it (the song writing credits go to Merle Kilgore and the love of Johnny's wife, June Carter). Nevertheless, once Cash touched Ring of Fire, it was forever his.

Over the years, Ring of Fire has been covered by such diverse artists as Eric Burdon and The Animals, Blondie, Stan Ridgway and Social Distortion. Though the ultimate accolade for Ring of Fire and Johnny Cash's amazing musical legacy is the inclusion of the song on Guitar Hero 5.

5. Akira Kurosawa's High and Low

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is almost as legendary as the samurai he often portrays in his films. Seven Samurai, in particular is mandatory viewing in most film schools.  Kurosawa was also known for occasionally venturing into the contemporary noir thriller genre. His 1948 film, Stray Dog, is a standout in that department. For me, though, Kurosawa's best film is another such venture into the genre, 1963's High and Low.

Toshiro Mifune, long time Kurosawa collaborator and one of Japan's biggest stars at the time, plays a wealthy executive whose chauffeurs' son is kidnapped in botched attempt to abduct Mifune's son.  That does not stop the kidnappers from still demanding their ransom.

What follows is an incredibly riveting combination of intrigue, suspense and some classic Kurosawan moral and emotional dilemmas. The story takes many amazing twists and turns portraying both intense character development and an in depth police procedural drama. Kurosawa finally leads us (in some unforgettably noir scenes) into to the seamy underbelly of 1963 Tokyo.

At the risk of over-simplifying its title, the film seamlessly takes us from the High of the world of corporate executives and board rooms to the Low of the world of junkies and pushers.

Above all, High and Low is very entertaining film. It's one more masterpiece that helps cement Akira Kurosawa's place in history as Japan's greatest motion picture export.

Well, except maybe for Godzilla...

4. The Beatles- I Want to Hold Your Hand

The Beatles hit I Want to Hold Your Hand was recorded in the month before I was born. It was released in the UK 10 days after I was born. About a month after that, it was released in the US, just narrowly squeaking into 1963. In early 1964, the rookie Lennon-McCartney songwriting collaboration became the anthem of Beatlemania.

It's hard to believe today but back then The Beatles were strictly in the domain of kids mostly under 15. There is a wonderful trailer on the Help! DVD that says, "Hey, adults! You can go see Help! too". In early 60's mainstream media, The Beatles were seen the same way Justin Bieber is today (freakin' hell, that was a scary sentence to write).

My older siblings were all big Beatles fans. So like many kids in the generations to follow me, I grew up with The Beatles. As a preschooler I was more familiar with I Want to Hold Your Hand than I was with Old McDonald Had a Farm.

Like my brothers and my sister I saw the band evolve from the little cuties who sang I Want to Hold Your Hand to the long haired bearded "freaks" performing their final live appearance together on a rooftop in London.

I had a plastic army guy I named Sgt. Pepper. I sang Octopus' Garden in the elementary school variety show (not having had a single singing lesson at the time, it was most likely awful). I actually paid money to see the movie Caveman just because Ringo Starr was in it. I was at the memorial for John Lennon in Central Park on December 14, 1980.

I have lived through all the remixes, remasters, lost tapes, rarities, anthologies, circus shows, re-releases, compilations, rare live recordings, documentaries, photos and whatever the hell else they've come up with to keep repackaging the Fab Four over the years.

The Beatles are more than just band whose music I know and love. They are part of the landscape of my life.

3. Mad Men

Mad Men is, of course, not actually from 1963 but it is very much about 1963. Season 3, in particular, takes place entirely in 1963. Nothing really captures the look and feel of the early 1960's the way Mad Men does. The period detail and fashions are incredible.

Focusing on the professional and personal lives on Madison avenue advertising executives (Mad Men, get it?), the period series depicts a world where everything seems beautiful and perfect on the surface . Not far beneath that beautiful perfect surface of nice clothes, swank offices and smiling families lurks the darker worlds of alcoholism, serial infidelity, undiagnosed depression, paranoia, repressed homosexuality and socially sanctioned sexism, racism, and prejudice. The very different attitudes and social mores of 1963 are skewed through a subtle modern day prism.

Mad Men is often thin on dialogue but thick on subtext. It's a show that says more in its silences than most dramatic TV shows can say in 60 minutes of dialogue. Quite simply, Mad Men is the best show currently on TV.

Among other things, the Season 3 of Mad Men sees deals with the November 22, 1963 assassination of  President John F. Kennedy. The tragic event has a massive indirect impact on the various character's inner emotional lives. It is quite possibly the best episode of the series thus far.

Incidentally, Don and Betty Draper's third child, Gene, would be the same age I am today where he not a fictional character.

2. From Russia With Love

1963 saw the release of the second and, in my opinion, best James Bond movie of the entire franchise (though the 2006 Casino Royale does give it a run for its money). From Russia With Love is also the only Bond film that is actually an improvement on the original Ian Fleming novel.

From Russia With Love is one of the rare Bond movie outings that does involve some kind of an arch villain in a secret lair filled with cutting edge technology, intent on taking over and/or destroying the world.  No, the second Bond is your simple Cold War-era spy thriller.  It is a basic suspense chase story revolving around Bond, evil agents from SPECTRE and beautiful Russian intelligence operative in way over her head.

Connery is in fine form in From Russia With Love. He is as close to Fleming's Bond as he would ever get. By the next installment, Goldfinger, Connery's smirks and sense of self-parody would already begin to kick in. There would be no going back once Connery and the franchise caught the silly bug.

From Russia With Love features one of the greatest fight scenes ever filmed. Sean Connery and Robert Shaw (in a amazingly cold-blooded performance) take each other on in a tiny train compartment. The fight reportedly took two weeks to film. Director Terence Young (no relation) had the good sense to let the rickety rocking sounds of the interior of a speeding train score the scene. The end result is, even by today's standards, exciting and stunning.

The train fight is a scene that defines the essence of Bond. Beneath the nice suits with the thin ties, the first class meals, the gambling in exclusive men's clubs, the gorgeous women,t he fast cars, and the right wine with the right meal, it all comes down two guys in an enclosed space beating the shit out of each other in a kill or be killed bare-knuckled struggle to the death.

It would be another 43 years before a James Bond movie would ever take itself that seriously again.

1.The Birth of JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories

The assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 is a dark moment in history. It really does not belong on any ten best list. That's why it's not on this one. It's the conspiracy theories borne out the fatal shooting that really fascinate me.

The Kennedy assassination was three days after my birth. For better or worse, it's a moment in time that has always and will always be linked to my arrival.  The Official History of the World as it was handed down to me by parents went like this: Great Depression, World War II, JFK is shot, you are born (technically, yes, I was born first but I was too young to grasp such subtleties).

If Oliver Stone is to be believed (and when it comes to conspiracies, why not?), the Kennedy assassination theories began on the actual day the President was shot. Though,  it was really not until Jack Ruby assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged JFK assassin,  on the way to a Dallas courtroom  two days later that the conspiracy theories really took off.

Let's get one thing straight, I'm not going to use this blog to get into the whole conspiracy riff, okay?

I'm not going to talk about all the suspicious unanswered questions surrounding the shooting of the President. Questions like just why exactly why did Ruby shoot Oswald? Could Oswald really have made those three shots at that angle from the Texas School Book Depository? Why did the description of the murder weapon change while in the hands of the Dallas Police? Why was there witness intimidation going on during the investigation? What's with that guy with the umbrella in Zapruder film? Was he signaling somebody? Who did Oswald have contact with while he was living in the Soviet Union?

See? It's kinda addictive, isn't it?

Over the years I think I've heard 'em all. The major more legitimate theories have the conspiracy engineered by either the CIA, the KGB, the mafia, the Secret Service, Fidel Castro, the Israeli government, a secret multi-generational cabal that goes back to the assassination of President Lincoln, UFO's, the teamsters, or, according to a theory put forward by my sketch comedy troupe The Vestibules, British pop star Kiki Dee.

In a really odd way the Kennedy Assassination conspiracy theories are my own twisted connection to the world I was born into.

Or are they?

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