Burt Reynolds dies at 82

Burt Reynolds and the cast of Hooper in the film’s final scene

Burt Reynolds, who had a long career and was a big movie star in the 1970s and ’80s, has died at 82, according to The Hollywood Reporter, citing his manager.

In the ’70s, Reynolds’ name came up as a possible James Bond. Director Guy Hamilton was keen on the idea after seeing the actor on television. But nothing came of it.

Reynolds had acting credits extending back to the late 1950s. He was half-Comanche Quint Asper, a sidekick to James Arness’ Marshal Matt Dillon in 50 episodes of Gunsmoke from 1962 to 1965. He also was the star of a short-lived police series, Hawk, in 1966.

Burt Reynolds in the main titles to Dan August (1970-71)

Another police drama, Dan August, paved the way for Reynolds to be a star. Not because the show was a hit (it only lasted one season, 1970-71).

Instead, as noted in the book Quinn Martin, Producer, Reynolds used the show’s blooper reel during appearances on talk shows. For the first time, according to author Jonathan Etter, audiences had an opportunity to witness the actor’s sense of humor.

In the ’70s, Reynolds broke out and became a film star. He was helped by doing a centerfold-style photo shoot for Cosmopolitan, though he’d later say he regretted doing it.

His 1970s credits included the likes of Deliverance, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and The Longest Yard (he’d play a different part in a 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler) and, most memorably, Smokey and the Bandit.

Dean Martin, Roger Moore and Burt Reynolds in The Cannonball Run.

Reynolds also had a chance to (sort of) revisit 007 territory in 1978’s Hooper, directed by former stuntman Hal Needham, who had directed Smokey and the Bandit.

In Hooper, the actor played the film’s title character, an aging stunt man working on a James Bond-type film being directed by an “auteur” style director, Roger Deal (Robert Klein). It almost predicted the 21st century 007 films Skyfall and SPECTRE, directed by Sam Mendes.

Another Reynolds comedy, 1981’s The Cannonball Run, included Roger Moore as Seymour, who thinks he’s Roger Moore.

Reynolds’ stardom faded, but he plugged away into the new century. He also extended into directing and producing (including the 1990s television series Evening Shade, where he starred).

John Meston: Winning the West

John Meston title card for an episode of Gunsmoke

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

In the 21st century, it’s hard to remember how popular Westerns were on U.S. television. At their height, Westerns had their own category in the Emmys.

The one Western that stood above the others was Gunsmoke, which had a 20-year run on CBS. And one of the show’s key figures was writer John Meston, who co-created the Gunsmoke radio show in 1952.

Meston’s radio scripts were initially adapted for television. In those early days, they’d often they’d be assigned to other writers, including future movie director Sam Peckinpah.

By the show’s second season, Norman Macdonnell, Gunsmoke’s other co-creator was now in the producer’s chair. Meston was writing full television scripts, either adapting his radio work or penning new stories. Meston would be the primary writer for the TV show’s first 10 seasons, even outlasting Macdonnell, who was replaced as producer during the 10th season.

‘It’s Too Late’

Meston’s scripts included Bloody Hands, a 1957 installment in which Matt Dillon (James Arness) almost falls apart after killing three of four bank robbers in self defense. Tired of the bloodshed, Dillon quits his U.S. marshal job.

For a brief while, Dillon enjoys his respite. He beats Doc (Milburn Stone) in a game of checkers and goes fishing with Kitty (Amanda Blake).

But Dillon, in the end, can’t escape. A gunman has killed one of saloon women at the Long Branch. Chester (Dennis Weaver) rides to the stream where Dillon and Kitty are relaxing.

Chester, uncharacteristically is wearing a gun belt. He hands it to Dillon. No one else is capable of taking the gun man. “I would if I could, but I ain’t good enough,” Chester says.

Dillon attempts to protest. An emotional Chkester replies “it too late for that, Mr. Dillon. Just way too late.” Dillon takes the gun belt. The episode ends with Dillon riding back to Dodge City. Dillon has been dragged back into the life he thought he could escape from.

A Footnote

Admittedly, this post has nothing do with spies. However, I was watching a 1964 Meston-scripted Gunsmoke on Monday night (Dry Well). Like a lot of Meston stories, it ends less than happily with a trafic and unnecessary death.

“What a waste,” says Burt Reynolds’ Quint Asper, a Meston-created character introduced in the early 1960s. As a result, I tweeted out an image of the Meston title card shown in this post.

That tweet got more of a response than I expected. So I figured Meston definitely merited an entry in the blog’s “unsung figures of television” series.

Meston died in 1979 at the age of 64. The New York Times published a four-paragraph obituary published by the United Press International news service. One of the prolific and talented writers on television ended his life as a footnote in the newspaper of record.

50th anniversary of the end of U.N.C.L.E. (and ’60s spymania)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

Originally published Dec. 28, 2012. Adjusted to note it’s now the 50th anniversary along with a few other tweaks.

Jan. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was also a sign that 1960s spymania was drawing to a close.

Ratings for U.N.C.L.E. faltered badly in the fall of 1967, where it aired on Monday nights. It was up against Gunsmoke on CBS — a show that itself had been canceled briefly during the spring of ’67 but got a reprieve thanks to CBS chief William Paley. Instead of oblivion, Gunsmoke was moved from Saturday to Monday.

Earlier, Norman Felton, U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, decided some retooling was in order for the show’s fourth season. He brought in Anthony Spinner, who often wrote for Quinn Martin-produced shows, as producer.

Spinner had also written a first-season U.N.C.L.E. episode and summoned a couple of first-season writers, Jack Turley and Robert E. Thompson, to do some scripts.

Also in the fold was Dean Hargrove, who supplied two first-season scripts but had his biggest impact in the second, when U.N.C.L.E. had its best ratings. Hargrove was off doing other things during the third season, although he did one of the best scripts for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. during 1966-67.

Hargrove, however, quickly learned the Spinner-produced U.N.C.L.E. was different. In a 2007 interview on the U.N.C.L.E. DVD set, Hargrove said Spinner was of “the Quinn Martin school of melodrama.”

Spinner wanted a more serious take on the show compared with the previous season, which included a dancing ape. Hargrove, adept at weaving (relatively subtle) humor into his stories, chafed under Spinner. The producer instructed his writers that U.N.C.L.E. should be closer to James Bond than Get Smart.

The more serious take also extended to the show’s music, as documented in liner notes by journalist Jon Burlingame for U.N.C.L.E. soundstracks released between 2004 and 2007 and the FOR YOUR EYES ONLY U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE.

Matt Dillon, right, and sidekick Festus got new life at U.N.C.L.E.'s expense.

Matt Dillon (James Arness), right, and sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis) got new life at U.N.C.L.E.’s expense.

Gerald Fried, the show’s most frequent composer, had a score rejected. Also jettisoned was a new Fried arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music. A more serious-sounding one was arranged by Robert Armbruster, the music director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of the fourth season’s scores would be composed by Richard Shores. Fried did one fourth-season score, which sounded similar to the more serious style of Shores.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, however, weren’t a match for a resurgent Matt Dillon on CBS. NBC canceled U.N.C.L.E. A final two-part story, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, aired Jan. 8 and 15, 1968..

U.N.C.L.E. wouldn’t be the first spy casualty.

NBC canceled I Spy, with its last new episode appearing April 15, 1968. Within 18 months of U.N.C.L.E.’s demise, The Wild, Wild West was canceled by CBS (its final new episode aired aired April 4, 1969 although CBS did show fourth-season reruns in the summer of 1970) and the last episode of The Avengers was produced, appearing in the U.S. on April 21, 1969.

NBC also canceled Get Smart after the 1968-69 season but CBS picked up the spy comedy for 1969-70. Mission: Impossible managed to stay on CBS until 1973 but shifted away from spy story lines its last two seasons as the IMF opposed “the Syndicate.”

Nor were spy movies exempt. Dean Martin’s last Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew, debuted in U.S. theaters in late 1968. Despite a promise in the end titles that Helm would be back in The Ravagers, the film series was done.

Even the James Bond series, the engine of the ’60s spy craze, was having a crisis in early 1968. Star Sean Connery was gone and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pondered their next move. James Bond would return but things weren’t quite the same.

Albert Heschong: Wizardry on a TV budget

Albert Heschong-designed set for the 1968 pilot of Hawaii Five-O

One in an occasional series of unsung figures of television.

Albert Heschong (1919-2001) labored for years in the art department at CBS, working on the network’s in-house productions.

During Heschong’s career, that meant designing sets on a more economical budget compared with motion pictures.

Heschong succeeded. He received on-screen credits for live television dramas (Playhouse 90), filmed dramas, Westerns (including Gunsmoke) and sitcoms.

On occasion, Heschong could stretch his budget to create some memorable sets.

One of his best efforts was for the pilot to the original Hawaii Five-O series. That pilot, in effect combined spy-fi with police drama.

Villain Wo Fat has a futuristic laboratory housed inside an oil tanker. Wo Fat has devised a form of torture. Victims are deprived of the use of their senses while suspended in a shallow pool.

The laboratory is the first thing viewers see in a short pre-titles sequence. Toward the end of the sequence, viewers see what happens (the victim mindlessly screams) when they finally are let loose.

Naturally, the climax of the pilot takes place in the same set when McGarrett (Jack Lord) undergoes the same torture. Unknown to Wo Fat, however, the lawman has been programmed to impart false information.

Albert Heschong’s title card for The Night of the Raven on The Wild Wild West

Heschong also frequently worked on The Wild Wild West. For that series, which combined spies with cowboys, imagination was a must for the art department. The series frequently depicted “modern day” technology in the 1870s.

A major highlight for Heschong was the second-season episode The Night of the Raven. Arch villain Dr. Loveless has succeeded in shrinking his nemesis James West. Thus, Heschong and his crew had to create  sets where the miniaturized West (Robert Conrad) is menaced by spiders and cats.

Heschong’s work on the series meant he’d be brought back for the 1979 TV movie The Wild Wild West Revisited. For that, he retained his art director title.

However with the 1980 TV movie More Wild Wild West, he got the spiffier title of production designer, which more accurately reflected his contributions. Heschong’s credit also appeared in the main titles instead of the main titles.

Heschong’s career extended from the early 1950s into the 1990s.

Happy 100th birthday, Richard Shores

Richard Shores (1917-2001)

Richard Shores (1917-2001)

Today, May 9, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Richard Shores.

Shores isn’t well known among the general public. He was a busy composer for television shows, including The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (he was the primary composer for that show’s final season), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke  and Perry Mason, among others.

Journalist and movie-television music expert Jon Burlingame described Shores’ work in a 2004 interview after producing an U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack.

“I have become a huge Richard Shores fan as a direct result of this project,” Burlingame said, referring to the U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack. “As for U.N.C.L.E., he was the right man at the right time. He had the right sensibility for fourth-season shows (serious but sometimes jazzy).”

With spy and spy-related shows of the 1960s, Shores had an impact. Besides U.N.C.L.E., he scored 23 episodes of Five-O, from 1969 to 1974, 14 episodes of The Wild Wild West and one episode of It Takes a Thief.

Often, his scores were somber and dramatic. However, he was not a one-trick pony.

He scored an offbeat 1966 episode of Gunsmoke titled Sweet Billy, Singer of Songs. It was a mostly comedic outing of the normally serious show, involving a number of relatives of Festus (Ken Curtis) descending upon Dodge City.

Richard Shores title card for an episode of Hawaii Five-O.

Richard Shores title card for an episode of Hawaii Five-O.

Shores’ music was appropriately light and unlike the composer’s usual fare.

With The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67), Shores’ music was better than episodes he scored such as The Prisoner of Zalamar Affair and The Montori Device Affair.

For the fourth season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1967-68), Shores’ music meshed with the more serious direction that producer Anthony Spinner decided to take the series.

The first episode of the season, The Summit-Five Affair, was drastically different than the show’s campy third season offerings. Gerald Fried, who scored more U.N.C.L.E. episodes than any other episodes, apparently was influenced. His single fourth-season offering in The Test Tube Killer Affair, sounds similar to Shores’ style.

John Wick 2 and Logan: Peckinpah for the 21st century

John Wick Chapter 2 poster

John Wick Chapter 2 poster

The name Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984) doesn’t come up much these days. But somewhere old Sam has to be amused that two films following in his footsteps are among the best reviewed movies of 2017.

Those movies would be John Wick Chapter 2 (with a 90 percent fresh rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website) and Logan (at 93 percent).

Peckinpah, meanwhile, became known mostly for film violence in movies such as The Wild Bunch and The Getaway. Monty Python in the 1970s did a Peckinpah parody titled “Salad Days,” where a party is the English countrywide becomes an orgy of blood and severed limbs.

Peckinpah was more than that, of course. One of his earliest films, Ride the High Country, is a mix of ode to classic Westerns with key updates in the movie’s middle section. The 1962 film also lacks the kind of violence he’d be known for later.

There’s an edge to Peckinpah’s work. In a 1956 episode of Gunsmoke scripted (but not directed) by Peckinpah titled The Guitar, citizens of Dodge City manage to lynch two villainous types. But there’s nothing Matt Dillon (James Arness) can do about it. It’s also strongly implied his assistant Chester (Dennis Weaver) was in on it.

Hugh Jackman in Logan's poster

Hugh Jackman in Logan’s poster

Also, there are a few of James Bond-related things related to Peckinpah.

Tomorrow Never Dies was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who had an “editorial consultant” credit on Peckinpah’s The Getaway and was an editor on the director’s Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

Spottiswoode favored a slow motion technique similar to Peckinpah’s in Tomorrow Never Dies. Years later, the climax of the Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall was compared by some to Straw Dogs.

Anyway, Peckinpah’s name tends to be overshadowed by classic director such as John Ford and Howard Hawks as well as directors who started their career later, such as Steven Spielberg.

Still, in 2017, John Wick Chapter 2 and Logan seem to dip deep into Peckinpah techniques and themes.

In the two R-rated movies, the title characters kill dozens of people in messy ways. John Wick’s violence is a bit more stylized, akin to Peckinpah’s work. Both feature characters who are drawn into their situations reluctantly but don’t back down, not unlike Peckinpah’s Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) in Ride The High Country.

This isn’t to say the similarities are intentional. Logan cites a classic Western (and it’s about as subtle as a heart attack) not directed by Peckinpah (don’t click if you’re spoiler adverse).

Nevertheless, Peckinpah enthusiasts may find themselves amused if they sample either movie.

Burt Reynolds at 80: the (could-have-been) Bond

Burt Reynolds and the cast of Hooper in the film's final scene

Burt Reynolds at the end of Hooper (1978)

Feb. 11 was the 80th birthday of Burt Reynolds. For a time, in the very early 1970s, some (such as director Guy Hamilton) thought he could have been a good James Bond.

That wasn’t meant to be, but the actor’s milestone birthday is worthy of a pause for reflection.

Reynolds was a better actor than a lot of his critics gave him credit for. At the same time, for a long time, Reynolds was quoted as acknowledging that he accepted some roles because it would be fun, rather than stretching his acting chops.

Regardless, Reynolds worked his way up. For a time in the early 1960s, he was a supporting player on Gunsmoke as Quint Asper, a half-Indian blacksmith in Dodge City. Reynolds also had a memorable guest appearance on The Twilight Zone, where he played a pompous actor, doing a spot-on impersonation of Marlon Brando.

Reynolds later became the lead actor in police dramas such as Hawk and Dan August.

The latter, which aired during the 1970-71 season on ABC, was a turning point. Not because it was successful, but because Reynolds took a copy of the show’s “blooper reel” with him on talk shows. (See the book Quinn Martin, Producer for more details.) For the first time, audiences could see what his colleagues already knew — Reynolds had a sense of humor.

Reynolds could be serious when he wanted to, such as the 1971 movie Deliverance. But, for some (such as the Spy Commander), one of his best performances — where drama and comedy were required — was 1978’s Hooper.

In that Hal Needham-directed film, Reynolds played the lead stunt man on a James Bond-like movie being directed by an “A” list movie director (Robert Klein). The latter character was based on Peter Bogdanovich, who directed 1976’s Nickelodeon, a film where Reynolds worked as an actor and Needham as stunt coordinator.

In 1978, it was inconceivable that an “A” list director would ever do a Bond movie. So, in some ways, Hooper was a sort-of preview of the Sam Mendes-directed 007 films of the 21st century.

Anyway, here’s a hearty happy birthday for Burt Reynolds.