Play of the Week: The Iceman Cometh

The TV series “Play of the Week” aired a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour-long presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh in November 1960. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this production was called “one of the most electrifying evenings in the history of television drama” by the New York Herald Tribune. Jason Robards recreated the starring role of Hickey, which had given him his first triumph off-Broadway in 1956. It’s amazing to me that any of this could actually be shown on TV when it was; series like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” – programs not likely to mention alcoholism, prostitution or murder as episode topics – were among the most popular shows on the air.

Myron McCormick and Robert Redford give the two standout supporting performances in this drama. McCormick is probably best remembered for the films No Time for Sergeants (1958) and The Hustler (1961), but his excellent performance here should not be forgotten. Robert Redford, a 24-year-old whippersnapper, plays a tormented young man who knew McCormick during his (Redford’s) childhood. Although I used to think that Redford wasn’t much of an actor and that he was usually pretty boring (though, it must be said, he was always pretty), in the past year I have definitely become more of a fan of his. I think he’s actually quite good in this particular play, emoting far more than I expected.

The last act of the play belongs almost entirely to Jason Robards. His monologue dominates Act IV and his performance is probably considered a master class for the stage. I must admit I don’t know too much about Eugene O’Neill’s works other than the adaptations I have seen on film, but I appreciate great acting when I see it and that’s certainly what you get here. Too often I have thought of Robards only as the supporting player from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in which he often did little more than steal a few scenes. I did not realize just what a vibrant theatrical career he had, particularly as an interpreter of O’Neill. He comes alive in The Iceman Cometh, like I have seen few others do. If you get the chance to see this slice of history, please give it a try.

Actor Appreciation: Fritz Weaver

Today is the 88th birthday of one of filmdom’s best character actors, Fritz Weaver. I have enjoyed countless hours of his film and television work, including Black Sunday (1977), The Big Fix (1978), multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Law & Order” and, most recently, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013). His resonant voice and imposing height have helped make him a memorable cinematic presence.

Some years ago my mother ran into Mr. Weaver on the street in Manhattan and told him what a fine actor he is, also mentioning that he had acted with my great-uncle, Jerome Raphel, in a short-lived Broadway play called Lorenzo (1963). Mr. Weaver remembered Jerry fondly and asked after him.

My mother may send Mr. Weaver a birthday letter, which I think would be quite sweet. He has been working steadily in roles large and small since the 1950s and although his name is not as well known as those of contemporaries like George C. Scott and Robert Duvall, he’s famous to my family. I hope he won’t mind a nice little note of appreciation.

“The Twilight Zone” Top Ten

Just in time for the tail end of Halloween, here’s my ranking of the top ten best “Twilight Zone” episodes.

10. “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (1964): This is an episode with twist after twist, ending with a darkly comic final revelation that makes you appreciate the creative minds at work on television in the 1960s.

9. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (1961): Concluding with one of the famous images from the series, this is one of the classic tales involving people growing more and more suspicious and paranoid of one another after they learn that one among them is an alien. (There’s a similar concept in the 1960 episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”)

8. “Walking Distance” (1959): Gig Young somehow finds himself back in his hometown during the time of his childhood, meeting himself as a kid and inadvertently causing an injury that affects him at his present age. This is a melancholy episode, observing the tendencies of some people to spend too much time reflecting on (and regretting) the past while ignoring the more positive possibilities of the future.

7. “Where Is Everybody?” (1959): The debut episode of the show starts the series with a bang, forcing both the isolated protagonist (Earl Holliman) and the audience to contemplate the madness of awakening to find yourself totally alone without knowing how or why.

6. “The Masks” (1964): Ida Lupino, who had previously starred in the 1959 episode “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” was the first and only woman to direct an episode of “The Twilight Zone” when she helmed this creepy little story. Here we quickly find that a family game is actually a parable about the pitfalls of inner ugliness.

5. “A Stop at Willoughby” (1960): You’ll never forget this story of one man whose paradise would be anyone else’s nightmare.

4. “Deaths-Head Revisited” (1961): Rod Serling, who served in World War II, wrote this episode about a former SS guard returning to Dachau and being haunted by the ghosts of the camp’s former inmates, who hold a trial for him. Oscar Beregi, Jr. and Joseph Schildkraut, as the tormentor and the victim respectively, give unforgettable performances. The narrative is all the more affecting for taking place in the real world rather than in some alternate “Twilight Zone” reality.

3. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963): This super-famous episode, written by Richard Matheson and starring William Shatner, has been cited and parodied often in pop culture but is well-regarded for good reason. It’ll probably make you a little nervous the next time you take a plane, that’s for sure.

2. “Nothing in the Dark” (1962):  A troubling dilemma for elderly and death-phobic protagonist Gladys Cooper: does she help injured young policeman Robert Redford by letting him into her apartment or does she let him freeze to death outside? One of the show’s most intriguing episodes morphs from fright into a beautiful story about how humanity, courage and companionship can blur the lines between life and death.

1. “The Hitch-Hiker” (1960): For my money, this is the single most terrifying episode of the series. Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of running into the same hitch-hiker over and over, despite the miles that Nan (Inger Stevens) keeps driving; maybe it’s the knowledge of Stevens’ own tragic death just a decade later; whatever the case, I’ll never forget the first time I saw the episode on TV late at night, alone and in the dark. There is no escape for Stevens, no happy ending. It’s classic “Twilight Zone” at its finest, showing exactly why it is still as spooky as ever. I don’t know if it’s actually better than “Nothing in the Dark,” an episode which sets the bar pretty high, but it is certainly more chilling.

Eight Reasons to Watch “Parks and Recreation”

This past week I finally started watching the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” focused on the ongoing sagas of the title department in Pawnee, Indiana. In a matter of days I have already gotten up to midway through the fourth season because yes, it is absolutely worth it. Here are eight aspects of the show which I have loved so far.

“The Banquet” (Season 1, Episode 5): Great friendships abound in this show. Leslie Knope (as played so expertly by Amy Poehler), complete with presidential haircut, goes to this get-together with best friend Ann and with Mark, who’s both a coworker and Leslie’s former flame. The three grab each others’ noses while making fun of higher-up political figures who are seated at other tables. Although Tom, another coworker, is confused by what Leslie, Ann and Mark are doing, their fun is the only thing that matters. I wish I had some Ron Swanson moments to include here because he’s more than Leslie’s boss; he’s also a caring guy, and as one TV critic pointed out (wish I could find the exact page to quote), friendship is underrated in comedy, especially modern sitcoms. It would be so easy to make everything a caricature, but instead, “Parks and Rec” features characters who genuinely like each other.

“The Camel” (Season 2, Episode 9): The Parks and Rec department creates a “camel” of a mural, a hodgepodge of everything great from Indiana, including Michael Jackson seemingly carrying Greg Kinnear into Pawnee’s infamous bread factory fire. (“Jesus” refers to the Kinnear image originally being used in coworker Donna’s celebrity-ized painting of The Last Supper in which Kinnear was the centerpiece.) So: state pride.

“Media Blitz” (Season 3, Episode 5): “Pawnee Today,” the show that Leslie, Ben (who joined the show at the end of season two) and their cohorts all go on at various points to fight for their rights and/or defend themselves. Ben has a tougher time than most; his history of being elected mayor of his hometown at age 18 and then bankrupting that town comes back to haunt him – and “Pawnee Today” keeps the terrible headlines coming. (It doesn’t help that he can’t handle interviews.) The show’s host, Joan Callamezzo, is one of Pawnee’s most entertaining media figures, along with equally hilarious reporter/talk show host Perd Hapley.

“Jerry’s Painting” (Season 3, Episode 11): This might be the single funniest episode of the show. Parks and Rec worker Jerry is accidentally/subconsciously inspired by Leslie Knope when he paints this portrait of Greek goddess Diaphena; naturally, the painting provokes outrage from Pawnee’s conservative townspeople. It also gives Ben, who has a crush on Leslie, the opportunity to sneak a peek at the painting. This is the kind of show where the arts and history are actually a part of these characters’ lives: painting, music, literature, mythology and Leslie’s affinity for biographies of politicians are all connected to central themes in the show.

“Pawnee Rangers” (Season 4, Episode 4): Feminism. Leslie is the leader of her own girl scout troupe, the Pawnee Goddesses, and one of her charges creates a stein inspired by Gertrude Stein. Yep, that’s right: this is a show unafraid to reference stuff other than whatever is currently popular.

“Smallest Park” (Season 4, Episode 8): Romance. This show doesn’t drag relationships and their possible obstacles out nearly as agonizingly as, say, “The Office” did. Problems happen, solutions happen and the results feel right, like they were meant to be regardless of the outcome being good or bad. And unlike “The Office,” you know that there is more to Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt than just settling for doing the bare minimum at their jobs. They’re actually trying to improve their town and state, as well as the lives of everyone around them.

“Citizen Knope” (Season 4, Episode 10): Bad jokes. Ben is an avowed math nerd (in this scene, he’s trying to get a job as an accountant) so he is not above making quips about calculators. Definite plus (pun intended).

“The Comeback Kid” (Season 4, Episode 11): The show’s absurd but loveable physical comedy shines its brightest spotlight in this episode when Leslie and her coworkers set up a public event for her City Council bid but it’s set in an ice rink rather than the basketball court they expected; chaos ensues. That the speakers are blasting the peppy Gloria Estefan song “Get on Your Feet” all through the dangerous trek to the too-small wooden platform makes the scene perfect. Characters face challenges but they never go down without a fight.

TV Time: Getting Into the New Fall Season

With last night’s supercharged season fifteen premiere of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (pictured above), I feel that my reentry into TV viewing – besides “Project Runway,” which is reality TV – is just getting started. Besides my affection for “Lost” and “The Office,” which took up a lot of my time in the last decade, the only shows I have been watching (usually only peripherally because of homework) are “Blue Bloods,” “Grimm” and “Elementary.” In the spirit of wanting to get interested in new TV shows, here are five that I’d be willing to try out, complete with YouTube links to the trailers in the highlighted titles.

“Hello Ladies” (HBO): Stephen Merchant, the excellent co-creator of “The Office,” “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short,” has proven himself as a fine actor and writer. I can’t wait to see him focus his talents into the lead role of this somewhat autobiographical series.

“The Blacklist” (NBC): This Silence of the Lambs-lite drama has gotten some good reviews; surely the unique weirdness of James Spader will be worth watching no matter what turns the script takes. Since the pilot has already aired, I’ll have to catch up pronto.

“The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC): Well, it might turn out OK. I don’t usually like TV comedies unless they’re on HBO – there’s a difference in quality, I guess – but you have to admit that there it’s new and exciting seeing a lead actor (and character) incorporating his life with Parkinson’s disease into a funny, touching real-world setting. Obviously this show isn’t going to be like “Family Ties” or “Spin City,” but then again, Michael J. Fox’s life and acting have evolved and matured. NBC has confidence in the show, having ordered a full season before the show has even debuted, so that’s a good sign.

“Ironside” (NBC): Reboots are a dime a dozen, but Blair Underwood may well prove himself to be a worthy successor to Raymond Burr as disabled detective Robert Ironside. Pablo Schreiber, most recently seen as Olivia Benson’s captor/tormentor in last night’s SVU premiere, plays a fellow detective. As a little bonus, Danny Glover will guest star as Ironside’s father.

“Super Fun Night” (ABC): The recent New York cover story about Rebel Wilson has made me interested in seeing how this comedy will pan out. I like the idea of representing women who are not usually leads on sitcoms. As the article points out, too often female characters complain about being imperfect and awkward but still conform to the common Hollywood standards of thinness and beauty. Here we have a geeky, klutzy character who weighs more than the average TV star but who is defined by more than her size.

TV Time: The Actor’s Choice

I recently discovered that Robin Williams is going to be in a TV show debuting this fall on CBS, “The Crazy Ones.” Isn’t it the first show he’s done since “Mork & Mindy”? If so, does that count as a “step backwards” for him?

It’s not that I don’t like Robin Williams; there are times when I love him. I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting his roles in Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage and Good Will Hunting the way he did. His appearance on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” also rose above the usual standards for the perfunctory big-star-does-SVU situation. I am not, however, going to lie and say that the preview for “The Crazy Ones” looks funny because it doesn’t. It looks terrible.

There is a fine line between doing a TV show to further your career and doing a TV show because there are no better options available for you. I can understand Rebel Wilson doing a show (“Super Fun Night”) if it furthers her growing career. On the other hand, when I saw that Toni Collette is now on a CBS show called “Hostages,” I thought, Really? (Then I remembered that she won an Emmy for the Showtime show “The United States of Tara,” although, let’s face it, Showtime is considered fancier than CBS. I guess that’s why I never thought twice about it at the time.) If Robin Williams has to do a TV show, can’t it at least have a better title than “The Crazy Ones”? Are writers becoming so sloppy that they can’t even find a better adjective than “crazy” to reel in viewers?

At least James Spader got the hint that NBC is generally the way to go. Their shows are better than what most networks produce. And kudos to him for deciding to be even weirder than usual by shaving his hair for “The Blacklist,” which was his own idea. There’s baldness! There’s hats! I can’t wait.

My Favorite Episode of “The Office”: “Business School”

Over the weekend I watched the finale of “The Office,” the US remake/update of the beloved UK series of the same name. While on the surface the US version was a comedy, the show had a remarkable capability for bringing out heartfelt emotion both in its characters and in the audience. For years I have considered “Business School,” directed by none other than Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and The Avengers fame), my favorite episode of the show. Now that the show has run its course, I watched “Business School” again today and I still feel that the same way. There are so many moments in the episode that are wonderfully endearing as only the US “Office” could be in its Michael Scott seasons.

The first strand of the plot revolves around Michael being asked by the office temp, Ryan, to speak at Ryan’s business school. Ryan tells the camera that his grade will be raised a whole letter if his boss speaks at the presentation, so he figures, why not? Naturally, Michael thinks of the event like a graduation where hats get thrown into the air, hence the line he wishes he could tell the class: “May your hats fly as high as your dreams.”

The second strand of the plot revolves around a bat trapped in the office.

Angela is suitably frightened.

Jim easily tricks Dwight into thinking that he (Jim) is turning into a vampire.

Back in the business school setting, Michael talks about how the students can’t learn from textbooks, proceeding to rip one up for emphasis. When one of the students says that Ryan told them Dunder Mifflin would be obsolete in a few years, Michael angrily lashes out. He tells the class that Ryan doesn’t know anything; he’s just a temp whose greatest claim to fame is setting the office on fire by trying to make a “cheesy pita.” Ryan and his classmates think they know everything, but they don’t. They don’t have the experience that Michael has.

The third strand of the plot involves Pam’s art show at a local venue. (Not too many people are stopping by.) Take note of the picture of Dunder Mifflin in the center of the top row.

During the awkward car ride back to the office, in which Ryan tries to explain that his ideas weren’t “personal,” Michael says something which crystallizes how he feels about managing Dunder Mifflin:

This quote defines the essence of Michael’s personality. Interaction with people means everything to him, more than sales or profits ever could. To paraphrase what he tells Ryan in the show’s pilot, Michael has cultivated an atmosphere where he considers himself a friend first and a boss second (and an entertainer third). People matter more than numbers or technology.

For years I have thought of this line as one of the best bits of dialogue in the entire series. It is both extremely funny and extremely sad, capturing just how ill-suited Roy is for Pam. Roy’s attempt at being caring doesn’t soften Pam’s disappointment.

When Michael and Ryan get back to the office, Michael decides to punish Ryan by moving him out of his usual workspace into the annex. Ryan is surprised that Michael isn’t actually firing him, but as Michael points out, “A good manager doesn’t fire people. He hires people and inspires people … People, Ryan. And people will never go out of business.”

The only member of the office to turn up at Pam’s art show is co-worker Oscar, who arrives with his boyfriend; the two of them cattily comment on Pam’s work being mediocre and uninspired/uninspiring. They don’t realize that Pam is standing right behind them. After the show is over, just as Pam is getting ready to leave, Michael shows up. He says “Wow!” a few times, complimenting Pam – who is on the verge of tears – for being a great artist. Most heartening of all, tells her he is really proud of her.

Pam’s hard work has finally been validated. It’s a beautiful moment, even though Michael is a little nonplussed by the hug.

As the episode ends Michael describes Pam’s picture, which he has bought from her, as “a message,” “an inspiration” and “a source of beauty.” I have always thought of this scene as a real highlight of the series. It is only fitting that Pam’s artwork, which hangs on the wall for six years, plays a prominent role in the last shots of the finale.