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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: a dramatic appreciation

I've been reading a bunch of obits for Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen.  Notice that I wrote "actor" and not "comic actor" or "funnyman".  

I say that because almost nobody is really looking at this guy here:




Namely, the first 30 years of Nielsen's acting career as a dramatic leading man and character actor. Fair enough. The man's real fame came with Airplane! and, perhaps even more so, the hit Naked Gun movies. However, Nielsen pulled off a pretty incredible dramatic acting career before everyone kept calling him Shirley. 

I feel that it bears some scrutiny.

Nielsen studied with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. I trained intensively for a couple of years in the Meisner technique with an acting teacher who was trained by Meisner himself.  That's ain't no easy shit, I can tell ya.

The original studio plan for Nielsen was to make him a leading man. Most notably, in the sci-fi classic seen here:






That plan continued when Nielsen went, incredibly,  up against Chuck Heston for the title role in Ben Hur.

This his is screen test:

 

However for the 50's, 60's and 70's TV and character parts in movies were Nielsen's destiny. 

The guy guest starred on almost every show in TV history: Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Defenders, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, MASH, Wild Wild West, Columbo, Cannon, The Man From UNCLE, Barnaby Jones, Kojak, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Ironside and even the abysmal Canadian series The Littlest Hobo. Whenever I watched TV with my parents when I was a kid, there was always a rousing round of "What? Him again?" every time Nielsen would turn up on yet another show. When I showed my parents Airplane! on VHS years later, they, more than any other audience I've ever seen, really got the joke behind casting Nielsen.

 The best dramatic acting I've ever seen Nielsen do was an episode of Hawaii Five-0. For the record, I wanted to back up that claim with a clip. However, the Computer Gods were against me on that one today.

One of his most memorable character roles was as the captain of the ill fated ocean liner the S.S. Poseidon in the 70's disaster classic, The Poseidon Adventure. Take a look at this short clip.


video 

Even in the comedies, Nielsen was always cast as the in the non-comedic parts. Like in this Don Knotts vehicle:

Notice that the DVD makes it look like Nielsen is Don Knott's wacky sidekick. Understandable. He's probably a bigger draw than Knotts these days. In the movie, though, he's the very much the heavy against Knott's funny man.

The Minister of Defense's brother also ended up in his fair share of B-movies. Like this buff role in Day of the Animals:



 


The ultimate low point of Nielsen's dramatic career had to be:


Yeah, Nielsen is the bad guy in this one. Though he's not slumming it alone as a quick look at the credits on the poster will tell you. BTW, Nielsen's bad guy drug dealer's plot is to kill Knievel in a stunt "accident" in Mexico so that he can smuggle cocaine back in Evel's coffin because who, after all, would search Evel Knieval's coffin? 

Just had to get that out there.

I don't think it's a complement to his acting skills that the writer/directors of Airplane! saw comedy in Nielson's dramatic acting.  Nonetheless, Nielsen was a savvy enough actor to play the deadpan guy who doesn't get the joke with aplomb.

I remember seeing this movie in the late 80's.


In this film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Nielsen plays a crazed john that Streisand's high class prostitute allegedly murdered. He appears in flashbacks and is quite creepy. However whenever Nielsen appeared on screen there were uncomfortable murmurs and giggling all over the theatre. And I remember thinking to myself, "That's it. The man's dramatic career is over".

And I was right.

Nielsen's ever rising stardom into the 90's consisted of more Naked Gun sequels, Mel Brooks films and fare like Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard and Mr.Magoo. Each one was progressively less deadpan, less subtle and less funny.

Still, Nielsen remains, in my opinion, an actor of great versatility and, even in the worst movies, moments of brilliant delivery.

Probably the my fave of Nielson's dramatic work is his starring role in the 1950's Wonderful World of Disney mini-series, Swamp Fox.  Nielson played General Francis Marion, a real historical figure from the American Revolution (the same guy, in fact, that Mel Gibson played in The Patriot).  A Disney series from the 50's about the American Revolution; it don't get much squarer than that, folks. Even so, Nielson possesses an undeniable charm in the role.

I have a recording of Nielson actually singing the theme the song (which does not appear on any of the DVD's of the show that I've seen).  I wanted to post it but, again, the Computer Gods don't seem to like Mr.Nielson today.

So we'll just have to settle for the rest of cast singing the theme to Nielsen:




Leslie Nielson: dramatic and comedic actor, 1926-2010 RIP.






The Article That All The In-Flight Magazines Rejected

The 10 Greatest Airline Disaster Movies of All Time



10. Zero Hour! (1954)
On a long transcontinental flight, the crew of a passenger airliner is incapacitated by food poisoning. The only person on board who can land the plane is burnt out veteran combat pilot suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Sound familiar? And kinda funny too?

That's probably because the plot of Zero Hour! was lifted entirely by the makers of the great parody film, Airplane! Many of the shots, costumes and even types of actors are almost exactly the same as in Airplane! Even some of the dialogue is verbatim.  The producers of the Airplane! actually optioned the rights to Zero Hour! to avoid any legal complications.

But enough about Airplane! for now. Let's talk Zero Hour!.

Once you get past the temptation to utter the words, "and don't call me Shirley" after every line of dialogue, Zero Hour! is actually not a bad B-movie airline disaster thriller. It was written by Canadian author Arthur Hailey (based on his teleplay), whose later novel Airport would lead to a slew of airline disaster movies in the 70's (but more on that later). 

In Zero Hour!, Ted Stryker (even some of the character names are the same) must not only get over to his traumatic World War II flying memories but he must also land the plane in question before any of the afflicted passengers and crew die of food  poisoning, including his own son (the premises do differ somewhat). Adding to the tension, Stryker (played by Dana Andrews, an odd casting choice for a leading man) has his estranged wife (played by the equally oddly cast Linda Darnell) right in the cockpit with him. Just to keep things hopping, Hailey decided to throw in the plane losing altitude over a mountain range and Stryker's former adversarial air force CO is, coincidentally,  turning up as the guy assigned to talking him down (that role, incidentally, is played by the perfectly cast Sterling Hayden of Dr.Strangelove fame -boy, I wish they woulda got him to reprise that role in Airplane!).

The last 15 minutes of Zero Hour! is text book "keep raising the stakes" screenwriting. Despite the stiffness that seems to inhabit many Hollywood films of the 1950's, the climatic plane landing scene is actually quite exciting.

In a rarity for Hollywood, the film retains the Canadian setting from Hailey's original teleplay. Stryker is a former RCAF pilot and the flight in question is a Winnipeg-Vancouver run. However, nobody in the cast sounds at all Canadian (funny how they can get away with that the other way around, eh?).

Here's an interesting factoid that may win you a trivial pursuit game one day, the teleplay version of Zero Hour! was Canada's first live dramatic television broadcast . It starred a young James Doohan in the role of Stryker.




9.  Skyjacked (1972)

Charlton Heston seemed to spend the 70's alternating between starring in dystopian sci-fi films and starring in big budget disaster films. Skyjacked just manages to squeak its way into the latter category.

In Skyjacked, Heston plays the pilot of a commercial flight hijacked by a crazed Vietnam veteran (combat trauma often played a key role in these stories) played by James Brolin. Brolin demands that the plane be flown to the Soviet Union. I guess "Take this plane to Cuba" was, even then, just a little too done.

Chuck plays to his strengths in this one: the self-righteous, egotistical, slightly morally ambiguous yet strong hero. Brolin, looking much like his son Josh does today, plays the classic early 70's archly unreal psychotic. The guy could just as easily be pulled out of any episode of Hawaii Five-0 or The Mod Squad.

The crazed vet just back from 'Nam was often the norm for the manner in which Hollywood dealt with the war in Vietnam at the time: subtle implications about the high cost of the conflict without  ever making any direct criticisms.

Skyjacked features a great deal of in-air tension, a taunt climatic style talk-down landing sequence that actually happens half way through the movie and a budding young romance between Laurie Partridge and 70's TV Spider-Man.

Best of all, though  is the opening sequence in which Heston freely lights up a pipe: not just on board the plane but in the cockpit during take-off.





8.Die Hard II (1990)

There's an episode of The Simpsons were the first Presidential primaries of the year are held in Springfield. For some reason, all the candidates end up in Homer's living room appealing for his vote. Included among them is politician turned actor turned politician turned actor again turned AIG reverse mortgage spokesman, Fred Thompson. Thompson (who was actually trying to run for President at the time) and all the other candidates are ordered out of the house by Homer. Thompson stays behind. Says Homer to Thompson, "That means you too." to which Thompson replies, "But I was in Die Hard".  Homer stares down Thompson saying,  "Two! TWO!".

That pretty much sums it up: Die Hard II is not Die Hard. Though it is a much better movie than the two more Die Hard movies that would follow in the seventeen years to come. It is a pretty entertaining movie to watch, despite the ever escalating levels of violence and mayhem.

More importantly, though, Die Hard II belongs in this genre. The Die Hard sequel is probably the most action packed of the all the airline disaster films. True, 80% of the action does take place on the ground but the main thrust of the story is all about preventing several planes from crashing.

Die Hard II features a great fight between Bruce Willis, John Amos (J.J. Walker's dad turned evil) and the head honcho bad guy William Sadler (in one of the most underrated villain performances of all time) that takes place entirely on the wing of plane during take off. It's a solid climatic scene for such and action-packed movie, even if does require you to shut off your brain.

Die Hard II: Die Harder also wins The Most Idiotic Movie Title of All Time award hands down.






7.  The High and The Mighty (1954)

No. This is not the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70's.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

The High and The Mighty is one of the earliest airline disaster films. Commercial air travel was just beginning to be accessible to most of the population in the 50's. Naturally, then, so was the fear of airline disasters. That's one reason why this movie was such a huge hit back in '54.

John Wayne brings his artificial cowboy machismo to the cockpit in this story of a Honolulu-San Fransisco flight gone bad. As with so many of these films, Wayne's co-pilot character has got a back story filled with emotional trauma. He lost his family in -you guessed it- a plane crash some years back. Spencer Tracy was originally cast in the part but backed out at the last minute. Wayne, one of the producers of the movie, jumped into Tracy's role days before shooting started. Let's just say that Spencer Tracy and John Wayne are, well, very different actors.

Long story short: an engine burns out while the plane is flying over the middle of the pacific ocean. John Wayne overcomes his emotional trauma filled back story to take over flying the plane and (SPOILER ALERT) manages to land the plane safely . The burnt-out pilot in question is played by Robert Stack , who would later become better known as that guy in Airplane! who takes off one pair of sunglasses to reveal another pair underneath.

An "all star cast" (by film historian standards, anyway) makes up most of the 17 passengers on this flight (different times in the airline industry indeed). Almost all of them have a back story told  in the full tedium of 1950's exposition. Each story is somehow impacted and in true old Hollywood style resolved during or after  the disaster. In one of the more interesting stories, a passenger shoots  at another passenger,  using a gun that he easily brought onto the aircraft in his suit pocket.  Such an act of weapons smuggling could be easily be imitated today without any possible risks or consequences.

The High and The Mighty is an incredibly fun film to watch for both its historical curiosity and its undeniable entertainment value.





6.  Flight of the Phoenix 1965

Not to be confused with the mediocre 2004 remake.

In Flight of the Phoenix, the disaster opens the movie. Like many disaster movies, the film is about the sheer determination to survive in the face of certain death. Jimmy Stewart plays a washed up pilot (anyone seeing some common themes here?) reduced to flying around oil company employees in North Africa. Stewart ends up crashing one such plane right in middle of the Sahara desert. The chances of rescue are slim and the chances of survival are next to nil.

The survivors of the crash are a mix of British, American and Europeans, all from varied classes and social backgrounds. Included among them is a German aviation engineer. He hatches a plan to fly the stranded survivors out of the desert. Only his plan is not to repair the very badly damaged plane but to build an entirely new plane out the old plane's salvageable parts. It's a plan that will challenge the energy, remaining food and water supplies and, ultimately, the spirits of the survivors.

The Flight of the Phoenix features an incredible ensemble cast of male stars and character actors (sorry, it's 1965, no women flying around the desert working for oil companies here) of the era: Stewart, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough, Ian Bannen and Hardy Kruger. The Flight of the Phoenix adheres to my Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom of Entertaining Movies: any film featuring both actors is a good one.

This movie is real old school man's man stuff all the way. The only woman in the picture appears briefly in a mirage. The Flight of the Phoenix was directed by Robert Aldrich a director of similar machismo fare like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen (the Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom applies) and,one of the greatest macho conflict movies of all time, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Stewart spends the entire movie basically playing the angry, cynical  and disillusioned pre-Clarence The Angel George Bailey. That said, Jimmy is really very good in this film. Most of the other guys fill the various levels of testosterone needed to propel the hard edges of the story, with the exception of the intentionally Pansy-waisted Richard Attenborough (his part was played by Miranda Otto in the remake).  Elleston Trevor's novel is given a fine screen treatment here.

One major subtext issue is completely side stepped in Flight of the Phoenix. Namely that of all these foreigners flying around the desert in order to maintain a controlling interest in the region's oil. There's a great scene where a bunch of Bedouins make camp near the wrecked plane. The encounter is far from a joyous opportunity for rescue. Rather the first words on almost every body's lips are "Arabs! They'll kill us!". Aldrich never really gets into why that is.

Things were still quaint in 1965. Nobody was being forced to look at the bigger picture of the whole middle east oil situation just yet.





5.  Airport '75 (1974)

Charlton Heston weighs in with his second appearance on this list. The sequel to the massively successful Airport (more on that one later), Airport '75 was actually released in 1974 by the forward thinking studio execs at Universal.

Zero Hour!'s Dana Andrews also makes a second appearance on this list as the small aircraft pilot who suffers a massive heart attack while flying. Rather than just crashing, Andrews ends up ramming his plane into the cockpit of a 747 that had the misfortune of flying by right at that moment. The 747 is left with one big gaping hole. Co-pilot Roy Thinnes and navigator Erik Estrada are sucked out of the newly ventilated cockpit and pilot Efhrem Zimbalast Jr. is left incapacitated.

That just leaves, egads, the stewardess to fly the plane. Karen Black plays the pre-flight attendant era stewardess in question.  Fortunately, Black's experienced pilot/aviation expert beau is back on the ground as the movie's on-call hero.  That is the role played, naturally, by Heston.

In 1974, it was so inconceivable that Karen Black could land a plane all by herself, that the only possible solution had to be lowering Heston on a tether into the hole in the cockpit from a helicopter flying above the disabled plane.  Seems like a perfectly practical plan to me.

All that so we can get the requisite nail-biting climatic plane landing scene with Chuck at the helm.

Airport '75 boasts a classic 70's all star cast: Efrem Zimbalast Jr., Erik Estrada, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, "comedian" Sid Caesar (that's how he's billed in the trailer though the guy does absolutely nothing funny, intentional or not, during the whole movie), Helen Reddy, and reprising his role from the first Airport movie, George Kennedy (also making his second appearance on the list but, sorry, no Borgnine this time around). 

Karen Black is the only member of the cast that is actually emotionally invested in the material. Roy Thinnes comes in as a close second but his part is tiny and he's killed off way too early in the movie. 

To be fair, though, Heston does totally nail the line "Climb, baby, climb!".




4.  Air Crew (1980)

The Russian film Air Crew (Ekipazh is its Russian title) has the distinction of being the only non-Hollywood movie on this list. Foreign disaster movies in general are pretty rare. The USSR makes its first entry into the "catastrophe movie" (as it is called on a Russian movie fan site) genre with a fascinating and riveting film.

About the first hour of the movie (referred to as Part 1 on the DVD) follows the personal and professional lives of the flight crew of the title. Part 1 is practically indistinguishable from any foreign film of the era revolving around personal and social drama . Close-ups are rare so as not to create too much emotional involvement. Much of the action is covered in extended austere long shots.

In "Part II", Tarkovsky becomes Emmerich as our cast of characters gets into action. It really feels like a whole different movie. The editing is more quickly paced and there many more emotionally engaging close-ups.

The air crew is assigned to an Aeroflot airliner sent on a rescue mission to the remote Russian city (aren't they all?) of Bidri. I suppose a disaster that takes place during a commercial flight may well have been deemed "too bourgeois" by the state owned studio, Mosfilm. The city of Bidri has been besieged by an earthquake which has caused a volcano to erupt in turn creating rapidly spreading fires all over the city. Did I mention that a runaway or two got damaged  along the way? Such ramped up, pull-out-all-the-stops action was rare even in Hollywood at the time. Keep in mind that Michael Bay was still directing Donny Osmond videos in 1980. Speaking of which, the special effects in Air Crew do get a little Gerry Anderson at times but in my book, that ain't a bad thing.

The air crew's mission is to fly the Bidri survivors out before an impending avalanche covers the only surviving runway.  Given the size of the Soviet Air Force in 1980, you'd think they could scrounge up an aircraft better suited to the job than a passenger airliner but is better if you not ask so many questions, comrade.

In another seemingly staunchly anti-Hollywood move, the action of the disaster does not have any direct relation or impact on the character's stories. There's none of these "Do I rescue my ex-wife or my young girlfriend?" moral dilemmas that Chuck Heston is routinely faced with in these kinds of movies.

Air Crew also does something that I have never seen any disaster flick do: it follows the stories of the survivors many years after the "catastrophe".  Fascinatingly, the pre and post disaster story arc is at best only indirectly impacted by the disaster itself. It's like the disaster is just this one extraordinary event in the middle of otherwise normal lives. There's a subtle message to the proletariat buried in there somewhere.

Air Crew features some really good performances by Georgiy Zhzhonov, Leonid Filatov and Aleksandra Ivanes: an early 80's Soviet all star cast...probably.

My favourite line in the film is when an old babushka type lady, watching the wild fires encroach on the runway, turns to the pilot and co-pilot (who have still not yet boarded the plane) and says, "You're men. Do something.".

The following scene (only the beginning of Part II of the film, BTW) is in Russian with no subtitles. However, the more keen viewers among you may just be able to keep up with what's happening.






3.  Air Force One (1997)

A rousing and exciting picture that proudly displays the determination of the American spirit. With the help of a Benedict Arnold in the US Secret Service, Russian terrorists take control of the greatest plane in the world belonging to the greatest country in the world: Air Force One. It is a crisis that would be the true moral test of any great President. In this movie, the President Marshall is no exception.

The Commander-in-Chief splendidly rises to the challenge, refusing to negotiate with the terrorists, taking them on entirely on his own instead, at great risk to both himself and his family. Air Force One is suspenseful and thrilling while still upholding all of the values and courage of those who fight to defend freedom.

The movie is only flawed by the left wing tendencies of its European Socialist Director, Wolgang Peterson. Peterson previously made the three hour Nazi apologist epic, Das Boot. The German director here once again adopts a classic liberal progressivist stance by taking the side of America's enemies. The dialogue of Ivan Korshunov, the lead Russian terrorist, actually attempts to explain and even justify the man's immoral  actions. Many of the familiar old and tired "blame America first" arguments are predictably invoked. The actor who plays Korshunov, Gary Oldman, backs up Peterson's unwarranted and ungrateful bashing of his adopted country all the way. He actually plays the part with a great sensitivity and humanity. It is interesting to note that Oldman, a veteran of London's hard left theatre scene, has, in other movies, endowed similarly vile characters with inappropriate humanity, among them the punk rock anarchist Sid Vicious, the radical homosexual agenda pushing playwright Joe Orton and the amoral evil spawn of the undead, Dracula.

Fortunately, Peterson has the good sense to finally set everything right in the end. President Marshall (played by Harrison Ford, surely this generation's reincarnation of The Duke himself, John Wayne) finally asserts the ultimate superiority of America when he utters the famous line, "Get off my plane!" just before dispatching Odman's "nice guy" villain to the fires of Hell.

God bless Air Force One.




2.  Airport (1970)

Airport is the movie that really built the airline disaster genre. It spawned three sequels and gave rise to an entire big budget disaster genre of the 70's. It also established the many-stories-in-one approach that has been a standard in the disaster genre right up till The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike many of its predecessors, airline and other wise, Airport is a tightly written and directed, entertaining, if somewhat old fashioned, movie.

Airport's also got that all star cast thing happening: Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Jacqueline Bisset and making his third appearance on this list, perennial disaster fave George Kennedy (but again, no Borgnine). The disaster this time around is nice and simple: a desperate man trying to blow up a plane for insurance fraud purposes. Fortunately, pilot Dean Martin (and, no, the disaster does not involve Dean hitting the cocktails in the cockpit) is able to intervene at the last minute but not before the bomb goes off. The explosion tears a hole in the aircraft's fuselage. Martin is now faced with having to land a disabled plane in the middle of a blizzard in a -you guessed it- climatic landing scene. It's a disaster that is just big enough to create credible tension without going overboard in the ol' believability department.

Raising the stakes is a sub-plot involving Kennedy's efforts to get a snowed in aircraft off of the only available runway without damaging it and before Martin's plane has to come in for its emergency landing. To this day, I can not attempt to drive a car out of a snowbank without thinking about Kennedy chomping down on his cigar as he full throttles that aircraft in an all or nothing bid to clear the runway.

In a nice nod to the corporate aviation culture, Boeing is thanked, in actual dialogue, for making aircraft  reliable enough to withstand everything that the plot of Airport could throw at them.

Airport is based on the novel by Zero Hour! writer, Arthur Hailey. As such, the plot is filled with a soap opera in the skies involving infidelity, financial corruption, divorce and, in a ground-breaking move for mainstream Hollywood in 1970, the spectre of a potential abortion.

The passengers in Airport board the plane without going through a metal detector or any other kind of security screening. In fact, security personal are not even anywhere to be seen. My favourite line in this oh so wonderfully dated movie comes during a scene where Burt Lancaster and his airline staff are presented with evidence that a passenger on one of their flights may be carrying a bomb. Says Lancaster, dumbfounded and straight-faced, "A bomb? Why would anybody want to bring a bomb onto an airplane?".





1.  Airplane (1980)

Airline disaster genre purists will no doubt balk at my placing a comedy in the number one spot on this list. So my apologies to all one of you.

Airplane! is probably the best parody movie ever made. Like Airport and disaster movies, it spawned an entire genre. A genre that is still with us today in the form of four Scary Movie films and endless array of Date, Disaster and Superhero Movie movies.

But don't hold that against it.

Aside from still being able to make me laugh to this day, many of the movies on this list are either parodied or otherwise represented in Airplane!. Elmer Bernstein's brilliant score is very much a parody of the Airport's' classic Alfred Newman score. There's the singing to the little sick girl scene from Airport '75.  There's thunderstorm from Skyjacked. Then there's the sets, wardrobe, make up, lighting, cinematography, plot, dialogue and exclamation mark in the title from Zero Hour! Even Robert Stack from the cast of The High and The Mighty makes a career-defining appearance in Airplane!

One of the things I love about Airplane!, other than the great "and don't call me Shirley dialogue" and the gag a second pacing, is that the movie just takes its plot seriously enough that it is still somewhat engaging (even  amongst all the extremely fun silliness).

I remember watching Airplane! for this first time and during the climatic plane landing parody that ends the movie, I recall actually get caught up in not just the comedy but the drama of the moment. Quite a feat that.

Apparently, the biggest battle directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrams had with the studio was over including an all-star-cast style dramatic actors like Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielson (interestingly, Charlton Heston and George Kennedy both passed on starring in Airplane!) instead of established comedic actors. That kind of casting had not yet been done at the time and no one in Hollywood could get their heads around it (including the movie's casting director!).

One studio the director/writer team took the film to wanted to cast Dom DeLuise, Don Knotts and Harvey Korman in Airplane!.

Now that would have been a disaster movie.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Article That All The In-Flight Magazines Rejected

The 10 Greatest Airline Disaster Movies of All Time

10. Zero Hour! (1954)

On a long transcontinental flight, the crew of a passenger airliner is incapacitated by food poisoning. The only person on board who can land the plane is burnt out veteran combat pilot suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Sound familiar? And kinda funny too?

That's probably because the plot of Zero Hour! was lifted entirely by the makers of the great parody film, Airplane! Many of the shots, costumes and even types of actors are almost exactly the same as in Airplane! Even some of the dialogue is verbatim.  The producers of the Airplane! actually optioned the rights to Zero Hour! to avoid any legal complications.

But enough about Airplane! for now. Let's talk Zero Hour!.

Once you get past the temptation to utter the words, "and don't call me Shirley" after every line of dialogue, Zero Hour! is actually not a bad B-movie airline disaster thriller. It was written by Canadian author Arthur Hailey (based on his teleplay), whose later novel Airport would lead to a slew of airline disaster movies in the 70's (but more on that later). 

In Zero Hour!, Ted Stryker (even some of the character names are the same) must not only get over to his traumatic World War II flying memories but he must also land the plane in question before any of the afflicted passengers and crew die of food  poisoning, including his own son (the premises do differ somewhat). Adding to the tension, Stryker (played by Dana Andrews, an odd casting choice for a leading man) has his estranged wife (played by the equally oddly cast Linda Darnell) right in the cockpit with him. Just to keep things hopping, Hailey decided to throw in the plane losing altitude over a mountain range and Stryker's former adversarial air force CO is, coincidentally,  turning up as the guy assigned to talking him down (that role, incidentally, is played by the perfectly cast Sterling Hayden of Dr.Strangelove fame -boy, I wish they woulda got him to reprise that role in Airplane!).

The last 15 minutes of Zero Hour! is text book "keep raising the stakes" screenwriting. Despite the stiffness that seems to inhabit many Hollywood films of the 1950's, the climatic plane landing scene is actually quite exciting.

In a rarity for Hollywood, the film retains the Canadian setting from Hailey's original teleplay. Stryker is a former RCAF pilot and the flight in question is a Winnipeg-Vancouver run. However, nobody in the cast sounds at all Canadian (funny how they can get away with that the other way around, eh?).

Here's an interesting factoid that may win you a trivial pursuit game one day, the teleplay version of Zero Hour! was Canada's first live dramatic television broadcast . It starred a young James Doohan in the role of Stryker.




9.  Skyjacked (1972)

Charlton Heston seemed to spend the 70's alternating between starring in dystopian sci-fi films and starring in big budget disaster films. Skyjacked just manages to squeak its way into the latter category.

In Skyjacked, Heston plays the pilot of a commercial flight hijacked by a crazed Vietnam veteran (combat trauma often played a key role in these stories) played by James Brolin. Brolin demands that the plane be flown to the Soviet Union. I guess "Take this plane to Cuba" was, even then, just a little too done.

Chuck plays to his strengths in this one: the self-righteous, egotistical, slightly morally ambiguous yet strong hero. Brolin, looking much like his son Josh does today, plays the classic early 70's archly unreal psychotic. The guy could just as easily be pulled out of any episode of Hawaii Five-0 or The Mod Squad.

The crazed vet just back from 'Nam was often the norm for the manner in which Hollywood dealt with the war in Vietnam at the time: subtle implications about the high cost of the conflict without  ever making any direct criticisms.

Skyjacked features a great deal of in-air tension, a taunt climatic style talk-down landing sequence that actually happens half way through the movie and a budding young romance between Laurie Partridge and 70's TV Spider-Man.

Best of all, though  is the opening sequence in which Heston freely lights up a pipe: not just on board the plane but in the cockpit during take-off.



8.Die Hard II (1990)

There's an episode of The Simpsons were the first Presidential primaries of the year are held in Springfield. For some reason, all the candidates end up in Homer's living room appealing for his vote. Included among them is politician turned actor turned politician turned actor again turned AAG reverse mortgage spokesman, Fred Thompson. Thompson (who was actually trying to run for President at the time) and all the other candidates are ordered out of the house by Homer. Thompson stays behind. Says Homer to Thompson, "That means you too." to which Thompson replies, "But I was in Die Hard".  Homer stares down Thompson saying,  "Two! TWO!".

That pretty much sums it up: Die Hard II is not Die Hard. Though it is a much better movie than the two more Die Hard movies that would follow in the seventeen years to come. It is a pretty entertaining movie to watch, despite the ever escalating levels of violence and mayhem.

More importantly, though, Die Hard II belongs in this genre. The Die Hard sequel is probably the most action packed of the all the airline disaster films. True, 80% of the action does take place on the ground but the main thrust of the story is all about preventing several planes from crashing.

Die Hard II features a great fight between Bruce Willis, John Amos (J.J. Walker's dad turned evil) and the head honcho bad guy William Sadler (in one of the most underrated villain performances of all time) that takes place entirely on the wing of plane during take off. It's a solid climatic scene for such and action-packed movie, even if does require you to shut off your brain.

Die Hard II: Die Harder also wins The Most Idiotic Movie Title of All Time award hands down.




7.  The High and The Mighty (1954)

No. This is not the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70's.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

The High and The Mighty is one of the earliest airline disaster films. Commercial air travel was just beginning to be accessible to most of the population in the 50's. Naturally, then, so was the fear of airline disasters. That's one reason why this movie was such a huge hit back in '54.

John Wayne brings his artificial cowboy machismo to the cockpit in this story of a Honolulu-San Fransisco flight gone bad. As with so many of these films, Wayne's co-pilot character has got a back story filled with emotional trauma. He lost his family in -you guessed it- a plane crash some years back. Spencer Tracy was originally cast in the part but backed out at the last minute. Wayne, one of the producers of the movie, jumped into Tracy's role days before shooting started. Let's just say that Spencer Tracy and John Wayne are, well, very different actors.

Long story short: an engine burns out while the plane is flying over the middle of the pacific ocean. John Wayne overcomes his emotional trauma filled back story to take over flying the plane and (SPOILER ALERT) manages to land the plane safely . The burnt-out pilot in question is played by Robert Stack , who would later become better known as that guy in Airplane! who takes off one pair of sunglasses to reveal another pair underneath.

As the plane approaches the runway in the landing scene, we see a POV shot of the landing lights. The lights take on the unmistakable shape of a cross, perhaps to symbolize some kind of divine intervention.  Kinda gives new meaning to the phrase, "God is my co-pilot.". 

An "all star cast" (by film historian standards, anyway) makes up most of the 17 passengers on this flight (different times in the airline industry indeed). Almost all of them have a back story told  in the full tedium of 1950's exposition. Each story is somehow impacted and in true old Hollywood style resolved during or after  the disaster. In one of the more interesting stories, a passenger shoots  at another passenger,  using a gun that he easily brought onto the aircraft in his suit pocket.  Such an act of weapons smuggling could be easily be imitated today without any possible risks or consequences.

The High and The Mighty is an incredibly fun film to watch for both its historical curiosity and its undeniable entertainment value.



6.  Flight of the Phoenix 1965

Not to be confused with the mediocre 2005 remake.

In Flight of the Phoenix, the disaster opens the movie. Like many disaster movies, the film is about the sheer determination to survive in the face of certain death. Jimmy Stewart plays a washed up pilot (anyone seeing some common themes here?) reduced to flying around oil company employees in North Africa. Stewart ends up crashing one such plane right in middle of the Sahara desert. The chances of rescue are slim and the chances of survival are next to nil.

The survivors of the crash are a mix of British, American and Europeans, all from varied classes and social backgrounds. Included among them is a German aviation engineer. He hatches a plan to fly the stranded survivors out of the desert. Only his plan is not to repair the very badly damaged plane but to build an entirely new plane out the old plane's salvageable parts. It's a plan that will challenge the energy, remaining food and water supplies and, ultimately, the spirits of the survivors.

The Flight of the Phoenix features an incredible ensemble cast of male stars and character actors (sorry, it's 1965, no women flying around the desert working for oil companies here) of the era: Stewart, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough, Ian Bannen and Hardy Kruger. The Flight of the Phoenix adheres to my Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom of Entertaining Movies: any film featuring both actors is a good one.

This movie is real old school man's man stuff all the way. The only woman in the picture appears briefly in a mirage. The Flight of the Phoenix was directed by Robert Aldrich a director of similar machismo fare like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen (the Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom applies) and,one of the greatest macho conflict movies of all time, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Stewart spends the entire movie basically playing the angry, cynical  and disillusioned pre-Clarence The Angel George Bailey. That said, Jimmy is really very good in this film. Most of the other guys fill the various levels of testosterone needed to propel the hard edges of the story, with the exception of the intentionally Pansy-waisted Richard Attenborough (his part was played by Miranda Otto in the remake).  Elleston Trevor's novel is given a fine screen treatment here.

One major subtext issue is completely side stepped in Flight of the Phoenix. Namely that of all these foreigners flying around the desert in order to maintain a controlling interest in the region's oil. There's a great scene where a bunch of Bedouins make camp near the wrecked plane. The encounter is far from a joyous opportunity for rescue. Rather the first words on almost every body's lips are "Arabs! They'll kill us!". Aldrich never really gets into why that is.

Things were still quaint in 1965. Nobody was being forced to look at the bigger picture of the whole middle east oil situation just yet.



5.  Airport '75 (1974)

Charlton Heston weighs in with his second appearance on this list. The sequel to the massively successful Airport (more on that one later), Airport '75 was actually released in 1974 by the forward thinking studio execs at Universal.

Zero Hour!'s Dana Andrews also makes a second appearance on this list as the small aircraft pilot who suffers a massive heart attack while flying. Rather than just crashing, Andrews ends up ramming his plane into the cockpit of a 747 that had the misfortune of flying by right at that moment. The 747 is left with one big gaping hole. Co-pilot Roy Thinnes and navigator Erik Estrada are sucked out of the newly ventilated cockpit and pilot Efhrem Zimbalast Jr. is left incapacitated.

That just leaves, egads, the stewardess to fly the plane. Karen Black plays the pre-flight attendant era stewardess in question.  Fortunately, Black's experienced pilot/aviation expert beau is back on the ground as the movie's on-call hero.  That is the role played, naturally, by Heston.

In 1974, it was so inconceivable that Karen Black could land a plane all by herself, that the only possible solution had to be lowering Heston on a tether into the hole in the cockpit from a helicopter flying above the disabled plane.  Seems like a perfectly practical plan to me.

All that so we can get the requisite nail-biting climatic plane landing scene with Chuck at the helm.

Airport '75 boasts a classic 70's all star cast: Efrem Zimbalast Jr., Erik Estrada, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, "comedian" Sid Caesar (that's how he's billed in the trailer though the guy does absolutely nothing funny, intentional or not, during the whole movie), Helen Reddy, and reprising his role from the first Airport movie, George Kennedy (also making his second appearance on the list but, sorry, no Borgnine this time around). 

Karen Black is the only member of the cast that is actually emotionally invested in the material. Roy Thinnes comes in as a close second but his part is tiny and he's killed off way too early in the movie. 

To be fair, though, Heston does totally nail the line "Climb, baby, climb!".




4.  Air Crew (1980)

The Russian film Air Crew (Ekipazh is its Russian title) has the distinction of being the only non-Hollywood movie on this list. Foreign disaster movies in general are pretty rare. The USSR makes its first entry into the "catastrophe movie" (as it is called on a Russian movie fan site) genre with a fascinating and riveting film.

About the first hour of the movie (referred to as Part 1 on the DVD) follows the personal and professional lives of the flight crew of the title. Part 1 is practically indistinguishable from any foreign film of the era revolving around personal and social drama . Close-ups are rare so as not to create too much emotional involvement. Much of the action is covered in extended austere long shots.

In "Part II", Tarkovsky becomes Emmerich as our cast of characters gets into action. It really feels like a whole different movie. The editing is more quickly paced and there many more emotionally engaging close-ups.

The air crew is assigned to an Aeroflot airliner sent on a rescue mission to the remote Russian city (aren't they all?) of Bidri. I suppose a disaster that takes place during a commercial flight may well have been deemed "too bourgeois" by the state owned studio, Mosfilm. The city of Bidri has been besieged by an earthquake which has caused a volcano to erupt in turn creating rapidly spreading fires all over the city. Did I mention that a runaway or two got damaged  along the way? Such ramped up, pull-out-all-the-stops action was rare even in Hollywood at the time. Keep in mind that Michael Bay was still directing Donny Osmond videos in 1980. Speaking of which, the special effects in Air Crew do get a little Gerry Anderson at times but in my book, that ain't a bad thing.

The air crew's mission is to fly the Bidri survivors out before an impending avalanche covers the only surviving runway.  Given the size of the Soviet Air Force in 1980, you'd think they could scrounge up an aircraft better suited to the job than a passenger airliner but is better if you not ask so many questions, comrade.

In another seemingly staunchly anti-Hollywood move, the action of the disaster does not have any direct relation or impact on the character's stories. There's none of these "Do I rescue my ex-wife or my young girlfriend?" moral dilemmas that Chuck Heston is routinely faced with in these kinds of movies.

Air Crew also does something that I have never seen any disaster flick do: it follows the stories of the survivors many years after the "catastrophe".  Fascinatingly, the pre and post disaster story arc is at best only indirectly impacted by the disaster itself. It's like the disaster is just this one extraordinary event in the middle of otherwise normal lives. There's a subtle message to the proletariat buried in there somewhere.

Air Crew features some really good performances by Georgiy Zhzhonov, Leonid Filatov and Aleksandra Ivanes: an early 80's Soviet all star cast...probably.

My favourite line in the film is when an old babushka type lady, watching the wild fires encroach on the runway, turns to the pilot and co-pilot (who have still not yet boarded the plane) and says, "You're men. Do something.".

The following scene (only the beginning of Part II of the film, BTW) is in Russian with no subtitles. However, the more keen viewers among you may just be able to keep up with what's happening.




3.  Air Force One (1997)

A rousing and exciting picture that proudly displays the determination of the American spirit. With the help of a Benedict Arnold in the US Secret Service, Russian terrorists take control of the greatest plane in the world belonging to the greatest country in the world: Air Force One. It is a crisis that would be the true moral test of any great President. In this movie, the President Marshall is no exception.

The Commander-in-Chief splendidly rises to the challenge, refusing to negotiate with the terrorists, taking them on entirely on his own instead, at great risk to both himself and his family. Air Force One is suspenseful and thrilling while still upholding all of the values and courage of those who fight to defend freedom.

The movie is only flawed by the left wing tendencies of its European Socialist Director, Wolgang Peterson. Peterson previously made the three hour Nazi apologist epic, Das Boot. The German director here once again adopts a classic liberal progressivist stance by taking the side of America's enemies. The dialogue of Ivan Korshunov, the lead Russian terrorist, actually attempts to explain and even justify the man's immoral  actions. Many of the familiar old and tired "blame America first" arguments are predictably invoked. The actor who plays Korshunov, Gary Oldman, backs up Peterson's unwarranted and ungrateful bashing of his adopted country all the way. He actually plays the part with a great sensitivity and humanity. It is interesting to note that Oldman, a veteran of London's hard left theatre scene, has, in other movies, endowed similarly vile characters with inappropriate humanity, among them the punk rock anarchist Sid Vicious, the radical homosexual agenda pushing playwright Joe Orton and the amoral evil spawn of the undead, Dracula.

Fortunately, Peterson has the good sense to finally set everything right in the end. President Marshall (played by Harrison Ford, surely this generation's reincarnation of The Duke himself, John Wayne) finally asserts the ultimate superiority of America when he utters the famous line, "Get off my plane!" just before dispatching Odman's "nice guy" villain to the fires of Hell.

God bless Air Force One.




2.  Airport (1970)

Airport is the movie that really built the airline disaster genre. It spawned three sequels and gave rise to an entire big budget disaster genre of the 70's. It also established the many-stories-in-one approach that has been a standard in the disaster genre right up till The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike many of its predecessors, airline and other wise, Airport is a tightly written and directed, entertaining, if somewhat old fashioned, movie.

Airport's also got that all star cast thing happening: Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Jacqueline Bisset and making his third appearance on this list, perennial disaster fave George Kennedy (but again, no Borgnine). The disaster this time around is nice and simple: a desperate man trying to blow up a plane for insurance fraud purposes. Fortunately, pilot Dean Martin (and, no, the disaster does not involve Dean hitting the cocktails in the cockpit) is able to intervene at the last minute but not before the bomb goes off. The explosion tears a hole in the aircraft's fuselage. Martin is now faced with having to land a disabled plane in the middle of a blizzard in a -you guessed it- climatic landing scene. It's a disaster that is just big enough to create credible tension without going overboard in the ol' believability department.

Raising the stakes is a sub-plot involving Kennedy's efforts to get a snowed in aircraft off of the only available runway without damaging it and before Martin's plane has to come in for its emergency landing. To this day, I can not attempt to drive a car out of a snowbank without thinking about Kennedy chomping down on his cigar as he full throttles that aircraft in an all or nothing bid to clear the runway.

In a nice nod to the corporate aviation culture, Boeing is thanked, in actual dialogue, for making aircraft  reliable enough to withstand everything that the plot of Airport could throw at them.

Airport is based on the novel by Zero Hour! writer, Arthur Hailey. As such, the plot is filled with a soap opera in the skies involving infidelity, financial corruption, divorce and, in a ground-breaking move for mainstream Hollywood in 1970, the spectre of a potential abortion.

The passengers in Airport board the plane without going through a metal detector or any other kind of security screening. In fact, security personal are not even anywhere to be seen. My favourite line in this oh so wonderfully dated movie comes during a scene where Burt Lancaster and his airline staff are presented with evidence that a passenger on one of their flights may be carrying a bomb. Says Lancaster, dumbfounded and straight-faced, "A bomb? Why would anybody want to bring a bomb onto an airplane?".





1.  Airplane (1980)

Airline disaster genre purists will no doubt balk at my placing a comedy in the number one spot on this list. So my apologies to all one of you.

Airplane! is probably the best parody movie ever made. Like Airport and disaster movies, it spawned an entire genre. A genre that is still with us today in the form of four Scary Movie films and endless array of Date, Disaster and Superhero Movie movies.

But don't hold that against it.

Aside from still being able to make me laugh to this day, many of the movies on this list are either parodied or otherwise represented in Airplane!. Elmer Bernstein's brilliant score is very much a parody of the Airport's' classic Alfred Newman score. There's the singing to the little sick girl scene from Airport '75.  There's thunderstorm from Skyjacked. Then there's the sets, wardrobe, make up, lighting, cinematography, plot, dialogue and exclamation mark in the title from Zero Hour! Even Robert Stack from the cast of The High and The Mighty makes a career-defining appearance in Airplane!

One of the things I love about Airplane!, other than the great "and don't call me Shirley dialogue" and the gag a second pacing, is that the movie just takes its plot seriously enough that it is still somewhat engaging (even  amongst all the extremely fun silliness).

I remember watching Airplane! for this first time and during the climatic plane landing parody that ends the movie, I recall actually get caught up in not just the comedy but the drama of the moment. Quite a feat that.

Apparently, the biggest battle directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrams had with the studio was over including an all-star-cast style dramatic actors like Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielson (interestingly, Charlton Heston and George Kennedy both passed on starring in Airplane!) instead of established comedic actors. That kind of casting had not yet been done at the time and no one in Hollywood could get their heads around it (including the movie's casting director!).

One studio the director/writer team took the film to wanted to cast Dom DeLuise, Don Knotts and Harvey Korman in Airplane!.

Now that would have been a disaster movie.


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?