Thursday, November 29, 2012

Larry Hagman: So long, J.R.Ewing!

It was truly an honour to share the screen with Mr. Larry Hagman. With piercing wit and undeniable charm, he brought to life one of the most legendary television characters of all time.  But to know the man, however briefly, was to know a passion and dedication for life and acting that was profoundly inspirational.
- Jesse Metcalfe
Christopher Ewing on TNT's Dallas

Larry Hagman passed away on November 23, 2012 at the age of 81.  The actor, who underwent a life-saving liver transplant in 1995, reportedly died of complications from stage 2 throat cancer.  Larry's friend, writer Harry Hurt III, has claimed, however, that Hagman was also battling leukemia.  According to Hurt, leukemia was the actual cause of his death.  Yet, no matter how ill he was, Larry was loathe to miss an opportunity to continue his role on Dallas.  During the show's original run from 1978 to 1991, he was the only actor to appear  in all 357 episodes.

Larry Hagman's role as the ruthless oilman, J.R. Ewing, won him worldwide recognition and many accolades.   He became one of television's most unforgettable villains and Dallas fans couldn't wait to tune in every Friday night to watch J.R's. dirty schemes unfold.  With his trademark Stetson hat and devilish smile, Hagman seemed to relish playing the conniving cowboy.

Just like his character on Dallas, Larry was a true son of the Lone Star State..  He was born Larry Martin Hagman on September 21, 1931 in Fort Worth, Texas and, fittingly, he passed away at the Medical City Dallas Hospital in Dallas.  His family and close friends had joined him there for the American Thanksgiving holiday.  According to the Dallas Morining News, his co-stars, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray, were at his side when he passed away.

Larry Hagman was the son of Broadway star Mary Martin and Benjamin Jackson Hagman, a lawyer and district attorney of Swedish descent.  Larry's parents divorced when he was only 5 years old.  After the breakup, Larry moved to Los Angeles to live with grandmother while his mother struggled to achieve a show business career.  She went to so many auditions that she earned the nickname "Audition Mary."  Meanwhile, Larry's grandmother took care of him most of the time.

When Hagman was 12 years old, his grandmother passed away and he was reunited with his mother in New York.  By that time, Mary Martin had made a name for herself on Broadway.  She had also married for the second time, to Richard Halliday.  Larry was then sent to boarding schools until he returned to Texas to live with he father in a small town called Weatherford  After graduating from Weatherford High School, he spent a year a year at Bard College in Anandale-on-Hudson, New York.  It was during that time that he decided to follow in his mother's footsteps.

In 1950, Larry Hagman launched his professional stage career by appearing in small roles with Margo Jones Theatre-in-the-Round in Dallas.  He then performed in the New York City Center's production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.  After a year of regional theatre, he moved to England and joined the cast of his mother's hit musical, South Pacific. In 1952, during the Korean War, Larry enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Stationed in London, he produced and directed several shows for U.S. troops based in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe.

Larry remained in England for five years, returning to New York City  in 1956 after completing his military service.  He then resumed his theatrical career, appearing in several Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.  He also began appearing in many television programs, mostly live.  At the age of 25, he made his  TV debut in a 1957 episode of Decoy, a crime drama about an New York City policewoman.  The episode was entitled "Saturday Lost" (Season One, Episode 24).

In 1957, Larry also appeared in the daytime soap opera The Edge of Night as Curt Williams.  In 1958, he performed guest roles in three episodes of Sea Hunt , an adventure series starring Lloyd Bridges as scuba diver Mike Nelson.  The episodes were  "The Hero," "Legend of the Mermaid" and "The Sponge Divers." From 1961 until 1963, Larry had a role in another daytime drama, Search for Tomorrow, in which he played Ed Gibson / Johnny Collins.

After eight years in New York, Larry relocated to Hollywood where his television career really took off.  He first rose to stardom when he was cast as astronaut Anthony "Tony" Nelson" opposite Barbara Eden in the popular NBC television comedy I Dream of Jeannie.  The highly successful series ran from 1965 until 1970 and featured Eden as a 2,000 year genie and Hagman as her "master."  (a very sexist premise but it was a 1960s show).  Upon learning of Larry's death, Barbara Eden posted an open letter on Facebook.  Here's an excerpt from her letter:

He was such a key element in my life for so long and even, years after I Dream of Jeannie; our paths crossed so many times.  Throughout various productions I had the pleasure of watching the Texas Tornado that was Larry Hagman.  Amidst a whirlwind of big laughs, big smiles and unrestrained personality Larry was always, simply Larry.  You couldn't fault him for it, it was just who he was.  I am so thankful that in this past year I was able to spend time with him and experience yet again 'Larry' in all his Big Texas bravado.

Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden n I Dream of Jeannie

During the early 1970s, there was a lull in Larry's career.  He was a guest star on numerous TV series such as Dan August (1971), Medical Center (1973), Police Woman and McCloud (1974), Marcus Welby, M.D. (1970, 1975), The Streets of San Francisco (1975) and McMillan & Wife and The Rockford Files (1977).  He also starred in two short-lived comedy series, The Good Life (1971-1972) and Here We Go Again (1973),

In The Good Life, Larry and Donna Mills (who later starred in Dallas spinoff Knott's Landing) played Albert and Jane Miller, a bored middle-class couple who pose as a butler and cook for a wealthy industrialist.  In Here We Go Again, Larry and Diane Baker portrayed Richard and Susan Evans in a comedy about newlyweds who move into a house located near the homes of their former spouses.   Both series failed to make waves and Hagman's career remained in the duldrums until the opportunity to play J.R.on Dallas came along in 1977.  He credited his real life spouse for persuading him to take the role.

Larry Hagman met Swedish-born designer named Maj Axelsson (her first name is pronounced "My") while he was stationed in England during his service with the United States Air Force.  The couple married on on December 18, 1954.and they had two children, a daughter named  Heidi Kristina (born February 17, 1958) and a son, Preston (born May 2, 1962).  In 2008, Maj was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.  Sadly, she is now in the advanced stages of the disease and is attended by live-in nurses.  Larry never had the opportunity to say goodbye to his wife of almost 58 years because Maj's assisted living facility is located in California.

Years of hard drinking damaged Larry Hagman's health.  In 1992, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.  A cancerous tumour later developed and on August 23, 1995, he had a liver transplant.  The 16-hour operation saved his life and Larry was gifted with several more years to enjoy.  In a statement released on October 14, 2011, he announced that that had a form of cancer, but did not elaborate.  , "As J.R., I could get away with anything - bribery, blackmail and adultery.  But I got caught by cancer.  I do want everyone to know that it is a very common and treatable form of cancer.  I will be receiving treatment while working on the new Dallas series.  I could not think of a better place to be than working on a show I love, with people I love."

Despite the cancer diagnosis, Larry was determined to play J.R. on the new Dallas series.  His 50-year-old son, Preston Hagman, said, "Doing Dallas is what kept him alive as long as he did."  Preston told ET that his father just loved coming to work every single day . . . It wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the fame, it was about him acting.  That's what he did."

What does Larry Hagman's death mean for the future of the revamped Dallas.  Its second season is set to begin on January 28 and Hagman had already filmed six of its scheduled 15 episodes at the time of his passing.  During the first season, :Larry appeared in 10 episodes while undergoing treatment for cancer.  It was obvious from his appearance that he was quite ill.  He was gaunt and frail-looking but the spark was still there.  Dallas producers will now have to work hard to create a worthy send-off for a character of such impact.  J.R.'s exit should be as memorable as the character himself.

Dallas will certainly continue but it cam never be the same without Larry Hagman and his portrayal of the wily J.R. Ewing.  Josh Henderson, who plays J.R.'s son John Ross in the current series, described his television father as "the most famous villain in TV history."  As for the man who brought the dastardly oil baron to life, Dallas co-star Linda Gray put it best when she wrote that "Larry Hagman was one of a kind and will be with us all forever."


* Mary Martin, Larry Hagman's mother, died of colon cancer on November 3, 1990 at the age of  76. She passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage, California.

* Larry Hagman quit drinking, smoking and became a vegan for health reasons.

*  Larry remained silent for one day a week in order to discipline himself.

*  Larry's final guest-starring role was on Desperate Housewives in 2004.

*  Hagman liked motorcyles and owned a Harley.

*  Larry Hagman published a 2001 memoir titled Hello Darlin: Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life.

- Joanne

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rowan Atkinson: No more Mr. Bean?

As a fan of British comedian Rowan Atkinson and his portrayal of the comical Mr. Bean, I was disappointed to read that the character may soon be put to rest.  In an interview with the  U.K.'s Daily Telegraph last weekend, Atkinson stated, "The stuff that has been most  commercially successful for me. - basically quite physical, quite childish - I increasingly feel I'm going to do a lot less of."  The actor is 57 years old now and he feels that he is becoming too old for the part.  He said, "Apart from the fact that your physical ability starts to decline, I also think someone in their fifties being childlike becomes a little sad.  You've got to be careful."

Rowan first rose to prominence on the BBC satirical sketch comedy Not the Nine O'Clock News.  He did not achieve worldwide fame, however, until he began playing the role of Mr. Bean.  Mr. Bean, the television series, aired from 1990 to 1995 on Britain's ITV network. There were 14 episodes and they were 25 minutes in length.

Mr. Bean is based on a character created by Atkinson while he was studying for his master's degree in Electrical Engineering at Queen's College, Oxford University.  Mr. Bean is usually attired in his trademark tweed jacket and thin, red tie.  He is self-cemtred, socially awkward and seldom speaks.  His best friend is Teddy, his beloved button-eyed teddy bear.  He lives alone in a tiny flat in Highbury, a district in the London borough of Islington and he drives a keylime British Leyland Mini 1000.  As for a first name, Mr. Bean doesn't really have one.  In the first film adaptation of the character, the first name on his passport reads "Mr."  In the second Mr. Bean film, he name is listed as "Rowan."

Mr. Bean with Teddy

Bean has zero finesse with women.  In several episodes of the television series, he has a girlfriend named Imma Gobb, portrayed by Matilda Ziegler.  Bean, of course, does not treat Imma graciously nor with much regard.  In a 1990 episode entitled "Mr. Bean Goes to Town," he takes her to a nightclub and the date turns out to be a disaster.  Bean ruins a magician's show and then loses Imma to another man on the dance floor.  To view a video of Mr. Bean's disastrous date, click on the link below.

I'm partial to Mr. Bean's hilarious 1992 Christmas episode, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean."  It was Episode 7 of the television series and it marked the final appearance of Matilda Ziegler as Imma. I love the scene where a turkey is stuck on Bean's head.   "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean," was viewed by 18.48 million Britons.  The highest rated Bean episode, however, was Episode 5, "The Trouble with Mr. Bean." (originally aired on January 1, 1991).  It attracted an audience of 18.74 million viewers.

Rowan Atkinson has also starred in two Mr. Bean feature films, Bean: The Movie (1997) and Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007).  In Bean: The Movie, the buffoonish Bean travels to American where he is given the responsibility of delivering a highly valuable work of art to a Los Angeles museum.  In Mr. Bean's Holiday, Bean wins a trip to Cannes where he unintentionally separates a young boy from his father while discovering the joys of France, bicycling and romance.

A true innocent, Bean's humour comes from his lack of savvy, and his humour is physical.  It is the kind of universal slapstick comedy that can be enjoyed by all backgrounds and cultures.  Because so few words are spoken, one doesn't even have to speak English to understand and appreciate the Mr. Bean's humour. His comedic style is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp."

Last summer, Rowan Atkinson did his Mr. Bean routine at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. In a memborable skit, he joined the orchestra playing one note on a synthesizer as they performed the theme from Chariots of Fire.  Feigning boredom, he snapped a photo with his phone, sneezed and then daydreamed.  The audience was then treated to a back-slapping parody of the opening sequence from Chariots of Fire in which Mr. Bean dreams of running along the beach with the Olympians in the film. With the assistance of a car, he crosses the finish line first.  Atkinson's performance at he Olympics sparked a barrage of tweets on Twitter.

To watch a video of the Chariots of Fire skit, click on the link below.

I can't really fault Rowan Atkinson for his desire to stop playing the Mr. Bean character even though Bean remains extremely popular.  He probably wants new challenges and he doesn't relish the thought of being constantly typecast as a bumbling boy-man.  Rowan is clearly tired of playing Mr. Bean and he obviously can't do it forever.  He is now more interested in performing in live theatre and will soon play the title role in Quartermaine's Terms in London's West End.  Rowan Atkinson has to do what's right for him, even if his fans aren't happy about it.  He's got to follow his own instincts.

Note to Canadians: One of Mr. Bean's earliest appearances took place in 1987 when Rowan Atkinson performed at the Just for Laughs (Juste Pour Rire) Festival in Montreal.  He purposely performed in front of a French-speaking audience to see how his character would go over in front of a non-English-speaking crowd.

- Joanne

Friday, November 9, 2012

Looking back at Captain Kangaroo

Bob Keeshan as Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo, a round-faced, pleasant mustachioed man possessed of an unshakable calm . . . Captain Kangaroo was one of the most enduring characters television ever produced.
- From Bob Keeshan's obituary in The New York Times, January 24, 2004

Before Sesame Street, there was Captain Kangaroo. When I was a child here in Toronto, I always watched Captain Kangaroo on CBS's Buffalo affiliate.  The popular children's morning show was hosted by Bob Keeshan who played the role of the grandfatherly Captain Kangaroo.  With his wig of long grey hair and bangs (he sported a Beatles hairdo well before The Beatles came on the scene) and his trademark walrus moustache, Keeshan was a familiar figure to children for decades. His character was called Captain Kangaroo because of the large pockets in the oversized red jacket he always wore.

Robert James "Bob" Keeshan was born in Lynbrook, Long Island, New York on June 27, 1927.  He attended Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York. During World War II, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves.  He never engaged in combat, having joined too late, and when Japan surrendered in 1945, Bob was still in the United States.  After leaving the service, he attended Fordham University in New York City.

Soon after the war, network programming began on a brand new medium called television.  Young Keeshan worked as a page at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).   In 1947, he commenced his on-screen career as the original Clarabell the Clown on NBC Puppet Playhouse, later known as The Howdy Doody Show.  Keeshan was fired as Clarabell on Christmas Eve of 1952 due to his strained relationship with the show's host, "Buffalo" Bob Smith.

In August of the same year, Bob was hired to develop Time for Fun, a lunchtime clown show on the ABC network's New York affiliated station.  Keeshan portrayed a gentle, quiet clown named Corny on the one-man show.. He later hosted a morning program, Tinker's Workshop, in which he played a toymaker.

When asked to create a children's show for a network, Bob Keeshan jumped at the opportunity and he came up with the idea for Captain Kangaroo.  On October 3, 1955, Captain Kangaroo began its extraordinary run of almost 30 years on the CBS television network.  In addition to playing the Captain, Keeshan performed as the Town Clown on the program.

In his review of Captain Kangaroo for the The New York Times, John P. Shanley wrote glowingly of the show..  He described it as "civilized and absorbing fun."  Shanley opined that parents were discovering that their weekday mornings were "more bearable because of the delightful artistry of Bob Keeshan."  He stated that Keeshan charmed the toddlers.

The program.was loosely structured and it took place in the "Treasure House."  At the show's opening,  Captain Kangaroo would unlock the Treasure House and he would wake up the snoring Grandfather Clock.  He would tell stories, meet guests and participate in stunts with both human characters and puppets.such as Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Moose and Dancing Bear.  Bunny Rabbit, a bespectacled hare, was always ready to snatch the Captain's carrots.  Mr. Moose would trick the Captain with a knock-knock joke and scores of  ping pong balls would fall on the Captain's head.

Click on the link below to watch the opening of the show in black and white episodes.

Watch this video clip from a later colour episode of the show in which the ping pong balls fall on Captain Kangaroo.

Captain Kangaroo's sidekick was Mr. Green Jeans, a handyman who helped at the Treasure House.and who often showed the Captain the latest addition to his menagerie of zoo animals. As portrayed by Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum, Mr. Green Jeans always wore a straw hat was dressed in green farmer's overalls.  His moniker was derived from his distinctive outfit.  (He later dressed in jeans and a green denim jacket.)  Although the show was broadcast in black and white until 1966, most viewers were well aware of the colour of his attire.

In an interview with L. Wayne Hicks on the TVparty! website, Bob Keeshan praised Hugh Brannum and pointed out how Brannum was ahead of his time and that Mr. Green Jeans was really green in more ways than one.  When asked what Brannum brought to Captain Kangaroo, Keeshan replied, "He was talking about the environment in 1955 . . . .Nobody talked about the environment in those days, not certainly on a general program and certainly not one for children  . . . "He was a protester when they were building dams and rivers that would destroy homes and properties.  He was for clean water.  He was for clean air.  He was for non-fossil fuels . . .  His reverence for life was there.  It was for growing things, the vegetables and the plants he would literally bring from his farm in Pennsylvania."

The jeans were really green.

In addition to Mr. Green Jeans, the talented Hugh Brannum played the roles of several other minor characters such as The Professor, Greeno The Clown, The Old Folk Singer and Mr. Bainter the Painter.  Brannum died on April 19. 1987.  He was 77 years old at the time of this death.  Below is a 1960 photo of Brannum as Mr. Green Jeans celebrating the fifth anniversary of Captain Kangaroo with Dancing Bear (Cosmo Allegretto).

On December 8, 1984, Captain Kangaroo ended its run on CBS.  In 1986, however, the American Program Service (now American Public Television, Boston) combined some newly-made segments of the show with reruns of old episodes.  This new version of Captain Kangaroo aired until 1993.

Through the years, the show received many awards and accolades including six Emmy awards and three Peabodys.  It was innovative in many ways and it changed the complexion of children's television.  Bob Keeshan had a way of interacting with children.  He spoke directly into the camera, as if he were addressing each child individually.  He was an excellent communicator and he was able to educate his young audience in a fun way though the use of puppets and pranks. His message to children was to feel comfortable about themselves and he delivered that message calmly and in a soft-spoken manner.

In July of 1981, Bob Keeshan suffered a heart attack soon after arriving at Toronto's international airport.  He was then 54 years old and had come to the city to receive an award for his service to children.  He underwent triple-bypass surgery and was bombarded with thousands of get-well messages from his fans.

After Captain Kangaroo, Bob hosted CBS Storybreak in 1985.  The program featured animated versions of children's literature.  During his lengthy career, Keeshan never ventured into programming for adults.

Bob Keeshan in April, 1999

For many years, Bob Keeshan lived in Babylon Village, Long Island.  He spent the last 14 years of his life, however, in Norwich. Vermont, near the New Hampshire border.  He devoted his time to advocating for the welfare of children and he strongly opposed video game violence.  Keeshan was also an outspoken critic of corporal punishment and he served on the U.S. National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.  In 1995, he published  his memoirs, Good Morning, Captain: 50 Wonderful Years with Bob Keeshan, TV's Captain Kangaroo.

Bob Keeshan died in Hartford, Vermont on January 23, 2004 at the age of 76.  He was predeceased by his wife of 45 years, Anne Jeanne Laurie Keeshan, who died on February 25, 1996.  The couple had three children: Michael Derek, Laurie Margaret and Maeve Jeanne.

- Joanne