Clifton James, known as 007 sheriff, dies at 96

Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper in The Man With The Golden Gun

Clifton James, a character actor whose career extended more than 60 years but perhaps best known as a redneck sheriff in two 007 films, has died at 96, according to an obituary by The Associated Press.

James embodied a 1970s shift in James Bond films to a lighter, more comedic tone. He played Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a Louisiana lawman who was comic relief in 1973’s Live And Let Die and 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun.

“What are you, some kind of doomsday machine, boy?” James’ Pepper says, emerging from a wrecked police car and confronting Roger Moore’s James Bond following that film’s massive boat chase sequence.

J.W. Pepper was created by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. In the documentary Inside Live And Let Die, the scribe said he didn’t want the audience laughing at the African American villains in the film.

Clifton James as J.W. Pepper fit the bill. James said in the documentary he wore padding to make himself look heavier.

The character was brought back for Golden Gun. In one January 1974 draft, by 007 veteran Richard Maibaum (who took over for Mankiewicz), Pepper only had a small appearance.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. In the final film, Pepper accompanies Bond on a car chase. The sheriff at one point is leaning out a car window, yelling at other drivers. (The Maibaum draft had a Thai character simply called “Prospective Buyer” ride with Bond.)

James, however, was far more than J.W. Pepper. He easily made a convincing villain in various television series. He also played cheapskate Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey in Eight Men Out , a drama about the scandal when the baseball team threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

James’s IMDB.COM ENTRY lists 100 acting credits from 1954 to 2017.

UPDATE (6:05 p.m., New York time): Roger Moore took to Twitter to note the death of Clifton James.

 
UPDATE II (April 16): The official James Bond Twitter feed published a post about the actor’s passing.

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Should 007 aspire to be a $1B a film franchise?

Skyfall teaser poster

The motion picture industry has always been about money. Sometimes art mixed with money. Sometimes a message mixed with money. But money is always part of the equation.

When you’re dealing with money, round numbers are always nice. The current fixation is with $1 billion worldwide box office.

The James Bond film franchise met that standard (on an unadjusted basis) once with 2012’s Skyfall. It was a big deal at the time. The movie came out on Agent 007’s 50th anniversary and demonstrated the series can play with the “big boys.”

Since then the roster of movies with $1 billion global box office has expanded to 29. Skyfall is ranked 15th of those 29 films. The Fate of the Furious, which opened this weekend, the eighth film in the Fast and the Furious series, may end up making it an even 30. It’s certainly not going to stop there.

It’s gotten to the point that, for some franchise films, not making it to $1 billion comes across as a disappointment.

That was certainly the case with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That 2016 movie that was the first cinematic joint appearance of the three biggest DC Comics characters (Wonder Woman was in it, even if she didn’t figure in the title).

Though no one will admit it publicly, that was probably the case for SPECTRE, the most recent 007 film. You can’t help but wonder if Eon Productions and studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Sony Pictures thought something like, “If Skyfall made $1 billion, this movie will surely make $1.5 billion.” Certainly, some fans were talking like that before the movie came out in fall 2015.

Here’s a question to mull over: Should the Bond franchise actively be attempting to crank out $1 billion blockbusters?

Some fans will reply: “Of course!” If you adjusted for inflation, Thunderball would have a $1 billion-plus box office.

Still, today, to play in the $1 billion club, often requires a lot of money.

Skyfall’s estimated budget was $200 million, which was less than the $230 million or so Quantum of Solace.

An MGM memo that became public because of the 2014 Sony hacking, said SPECTRE’s spending was tracking to go well above $300 million. The final, unofficial estimate was $245 million, after various product placement and tax credits got factored in.

The production cost went up in part because Eon said the movie had the biggest explosion in motion picture history and a car chase sequence estimated to cost about 24 million British pounds, or $36 million at the time. “It’s one of those scenes that’s going to be very iconic,” SPECTRE co-star Dave Bautista said in a promotional video for the film.

Whether either sequence made that much of a difference is up for debate. But the increased cost isn’t. Only the accountants know the final figures.

The ante is going up to play in the $1 billion box office club. There’s speculation that Marvel’s third and fourth Avengers movies that are being filmed at the same time may cost a combined $1 billion (or $500 million each).

This stemmed from remarks by the top executive of Pinewood Studios Atlanta that the studio was home to the “largest film production ever.”  He didn’t specify, but the two Avengers movies are being filmed there.

Bringing this back to the world of James Bond: Should 007 try to keep up with this? Or is it time to re-evaluate, scale back and proceed in a different direction?

Unfortunately, no answers here. For the moment, there’s no studio to actually release Bond 25. Sony’s most recent two-picture deal expired with SPECTRE. But it’s something to keep in mind.

Disney ends work week with The Last Jedi trailer

Walt Disney Co. began the work week by releasing a Thor: Ragnarok trailer. It concluded the work week by putting out the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Neither bears the Disney name. Thor is from the company’s Marvel Studios unit while The Last Jedi is from Lucasfilm. Disney acquired both and set them up as almost separate operations within the company. Releases of these teaser trailers have become semi events unto themselves.

Anyway, The Last Jedi already is causing a stir. It ends with an ominous line of dialogue. Take a look for yourself.

Coming soon (?): The Wild Wild West soundtrack

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

On April 10 on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — Inner Circle Facebook page, there was an item about how La La Records will be releasing a soundtrack album from The Wild Wild West television series.

Not a lot of details are available and there’s nothing, as yet, on the La La Land Records website.

The project, not surprisingly, is headed by film and TV music historian Jon Burlingame, according to the item on the Inner Circle page. Burlingame previously produced soundtracks for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible television shows.

Here’s a list of what the blog hopes will be included in a soundtrack for The Wild Wild West.

The Night of the Inferno (Richard Markowitz): Pilot episode, scored by Markowitz (1926-1994). Originally, CBS hired Dimitri Tiomkin, who earlier wrote the theme song to the network’s Rawhide series, to do the show’s theme song.

Tiomkin’s effort was found wanting and Markowitz got the job. His theme would be distinctive. However, he didn’t get a credit for the theme. He only got a credit for episodes of The Wild Wild West he scored.

The Night The Wizard Shook the Earth (Robert Drasnin): The third episode broadcast introduced Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), the arch foe for U.S. Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon. Drasnin (1927-2015) cooked up a “Dr. Loveless Theme” (the blog’s informal title) that would be used in the 10 episodes where Loveless made an appearance.

The Night of the Eccentrics (Richard Shores): The second-season opener concerned a bizarre gang called the Eccentrics, led by Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono). Manzeppi was intended to be another arch foe for West and Gordon. But he’d only appear in one more episode.

Regardless, the score by Shores (1917-2001) has a lot of energy. That music would be used for a second-season CBS promo that was re-created on YouTube.

The Night of the Man Eating House (Drasnin): One of the oddest, most tense and disturbing episodes of the series. Drasnin delivers an appropriate score.

The Night of the Big Blackmail (Shores): The fourth-season opener had a Shores score that would show up in some episodes of Hawaii Five-O. In the episode, West and Gordon race against time to break in to the embassy of a nation hostile to the U.S.

The Night of the Kraken (Shores): Another Shores score, which had “spooky” music that would end up in Hawaii Five-O episodes with tracked music when the budget didn’t permit an original score. The Stephen Kandel-scripted episode is a great example of the Jules Verne vibe that echoed through out the 1965-69 series.

For more information: Richard Markowitz’s wild wild TV scoring career.

Thor loses hammer, fights Hulk in new trailer

It has been more than three years since the last Thor solo movie and almost two years since the Thunder God was seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

With that in mind, the teaser trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is out today, marking the return of Chris Hemworth’s Thor. While technically a Thor solo movie, the Hulk (also last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) is around. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, naturally, is lurking.

Thor’s enchanted hammer appears to be destroyed, so you know the son of Odin is going to be tested. Later, Thor and the Hulk fight in a gladiator-style setting. Take a look if you’re so inclined. The movie is out in November.

Our newest Bond 25 questions

Image for the official James Bond feed on Twitter

There’s been a bit of Bond 25 news recently. Or has there?

Here are some questions intended to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Script? Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are working on a Bond 25 story, according to a report by the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye last month. Eon Productions never confirmed it, but typically it hasn’t confirmed other 007 scoops Bamigboye had about Skyfall and SPECTRE.

How far along are Purvis and Wade? Maybe not very far.

The duo are in the midst of adapting the novel I Am Victor, according to an April 5 story in Deadline: Hollywood.

If Deadline is accurate, the writers “are understood to be finalizing the script before it goes out to cast.” That suggests Purvis and Wade are, at best, in early days of their Bond 25 work.

Meanwhile, there’s a possibility of a Writer’s Guild strike early next month, which would adversely affect movie and television production.

What about that New York Post gossip column? Page Six says Eon Productions boss Barbara Broccoli is close to getting Daniel Criag to coming back for Bond 25. But it doesn’t actually say it’s a done deal.

So? There’s still no Bond 25 director. There’s still no Bond 25 distributor. Sony Pictures, which distributed the last four 007 films, saw its most recent two-picture 007 deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer expire with SPECTRE.

What are you trying to say? The blog is trying to say there may be more chaff than wheat at this point.

–You have a star (Craig) who hasn’t publicly committed, despite plenty of opportunity to do so.

–You have a production company (Eon) that seems in no rush to produce the next Bond movie and is keeping busy on various non-007 projects.

–You have a studio (MGM) that seems busy with other matters.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that MGM was trying to sell itself to a Chinese buyer but the deal fell apart. MGM never denied the story and at last month’s investor call, the subejct never came up.

Meanwhile, MGM agreed this week to spend $1 billion to give itself sole ownership of the Epix premium TV channel. If the Epix investment works out, that would help MGM’s finances every year. Bond movies, still one of MGM’s biggest assets, come out only so often.

MGM doesn’t have a studio partner to release Bond 25. Sony Pictures has released the last four Bonds, but Sony’s most recent two-picture deal expired with SPECTRE.

In March 2016, MGM CEO Gary Barber had this to say about seeking a new 007 distribution deal.

“There’s no rush,” Barber said. “We’re evaluating all of our options. We will advise on the deal when we actually make it.”

Obviously, he was right about the “no rush” part.

Bond 25 script writing update

“(E)verybody’s just a bit tired,” Daniel Craig, The New Yorker Festival, October 2016.