Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Twelve Big Lessons Learned as a Little Rascal by Ernie Wechbaugh

Ernie Weckbaugh. Twelve Big Lessons Learned as a Little Rascal. Best-Seller Books, 2009.

Director William McGann and Warner Brothers, observing the success of ShirleyTemple movies, sought to create more films with children. McGann hired Weckbaugh and remaned him Ernie Lewis, and Lewis is his middle name. The author was signed for 12 “Our Gang” movies, also known as the “Little Rascals” movies.

The author was “christened” as “Stinky” in these movies. The author recalls how his classmates didn’t like that he would take time away from school to work at a studio. Plus, he was ridiculed when he was to attend class with his hair in curlers and a hairnet in preparation for a role. Weckbaugh notes how this all affected him as a young boy, also as he knew with his father unemployed with a Depression underway that he had the duty of supporting his family.

Weckbaugh had a five year acting career. He was also in “Sons of Liberty” with Claude Rains, which won as Best Short Subject in 1940. He writes he has no bad feelings that the career did not last longer.

The author attended Hollywood Children’s School which taught acting, dancing, and singing. The author became interested in art in high school. He realized that art, not acting, was his passion.

Acting as a child with African American children Ernie Morrison (“Sunshine Sammy”), Billy Thomas (“Buckwheat”), Matthew Beard (“Stymie”), Allen Hoskins (“Farina”), and Eugene Jackson (“Pineapple”) allowed the children to not think of race. This sensitized the author to racism later on in life.

The author writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Daily News and produced Trodent, a University of Southern California Dental School Alumni publication.

Weckbaugh notes there are three reasons an actor is hired. The most important reason is the actor looks like what is needed for the role. The second more important reasons is that the actor is able to follow direction. The third most important reason is that the actor is talented. Another criteria is the actor has to be available for the role.

A problem arises when actors, even child actors, are provided drugs or alcohol in an effort to improve their acting. This can lead to long term psychological problems.

Weckbaugh observed some bad behaviors from some of the mothers of child actors. They placed too much worry onto their child or were extraordinarily overbearing. The children often became very upset and developed problems in the long run. He is glad his mother was not a stage mother.

Weckbaugh believes “Little Rascals” was popular because children would see themselves in the characters. This was an empowering experience.

Weckbaugh explains how faith and inspiration got him through his performances and through much in life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin. A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.

Griffin’s mother was the youngest of 16 siblings. Her father was the youngest of five siblings. Griffin’s mother used amphetamines while pregnant with her.

At 19, Griffin wanted to learn about acing. She walked backstage at the Groundlings and asked for advice. Phil Hartman answered her questions. It would take Griffin several years of paying dues before she then joined Groundlings.

Griffin attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Sally Kirkland was one of her teachers. Kirkland would tell of famous actors she had sex with. Then these same actors would appear as guest speakers.

Griffin joined Groundlings with Laraine Newman, Paul Reubens, Cassandra Peterson, and Edie McClurg.

Griffin worked as a stand-up comic. Janeane Garafalo advised her not to care about the audience as a performer should concentrate on what feels is funny. Griffin found that advice “liberating”.

Griffin appeared on some episodes of the “Ned & Stacy” TV series. She observed that series star Thomas Haden Church on “Ned & Stacy” was a demanding comedic actor. He was driven, funnier than the writers, and upset that his co-star Debra Messing who was a great comedic actor, wasn’t a comedian. He was very temperamental about the scripts and performances.

Griffin was cast in the part of Vicki in a series “Suddenly Susan”. Maggie Wheeler had the role in the pilot. Griffin is convinced she was hired for the part because they desperately needed someone quickly. She was called in to audition the Friday before filming began in three days. She got the part. Her salary was $15,000 per episode.

Co-star Brooke Shields, married to tennis star Andre Agassi, told her there are divisions among the wealthy, stating “I have money. Andre has real money.”

Co-star David Strickland, who battled drug addiction, committed suicide during the third season. The death fractured the cast. Griffin didn’t like a co-star’s flippant attitude. Brooke Shields gave an interview about the death that some took issue towards. Griffin thought the farewell episode for David Strickland was filmed too soon afterwards and was “tacky”.

Griffin got liposuction. It almost damaged her kidneys and could have killed her.

“Suddenly Susan” was cancelled after four seasons. Griffin claims she spent the next year sleeping until it was afternoon from depression over no longer having work. MTV gave her a show that last six episodes.

Jeff Gaspin, head of NBC’s cable division, offered Griffin a $200,000 per episode reality show. Griffin was considering what to do with the show. While she was attending the “American Idol” finale, got was not invited to the VIP reception. She asked Camryn Manheim to sneak her in, but Manheim declined. It was then that Griffin realized she was in a A list world but her life was D list. That was the idea for her reality show, “Kathy Griffin My Life on the D List”. Griffin further noted she was on the D list when her agent wouldn’t go with her to pitch meetings. The show was sold to Bravo.

A critical time in Griffin’s life came when it was discovered someone had stolen $200,000 from her bank account. Only when she announced that the bank was looking at tapes to see who did it did her husband confess. She then learned her husband life about how much he worked. He entered Debtors Anonymous as well as Overeaters Anonymous. They divorced.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'll Scream Later by Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin with Betsy Sharkey. I’ll Scream Later. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009.

The author lost her hearing at the age of 18 months. She became the youngest woman to win an Academy Award for her performance in “Children of a Lesser God”.

Matlin started dating actor and co-star William Hurt when she was 19. Over the next two years, she became wrongly attached to a life of cocaine and marijuana addiction. As her life was crumbling around her, she was a Golden Globe award. Instead of doing the interviews that were part of publicity for awards voting, Matlin declined participating in them. She quietly entered rehabilitation for her addictions, something that actors could do without notice in 1987. William Hurt helped convince her that she needed to go into rehab.

Matlin’s parents chose to have her live at home and attend mainstream schools. She learned to read lips. Matlin learned to speak and sing, feeling the music’s vibrations. She appears in a Billy Joel video and appeared with Billy Joel on “Sesame Street”.

When Matlin was 12, Henry Winkler and his wife Stacey visited the Creative Arts Festival where Matlin was part of a singing group called Traveling Hands. The Winklers saw that Matlin was a natural actor and moving singer and encouraged her to pursue a career in entertainment. Matlin’s mother disagreed and objected to Matlin going into acting. Henry Winkler became a mentor and advisor to Matlin.

Martlin started smoking up to 20 marijuana joints a day in high school.

Matlin auditioned for the Immediate Theatre Company in Rogers Park, Illinois for “Children of a Lesser God”. She got the role. Her portrayal attracted interest and she flew to New York to audition for the movie version with William Hurt. She was offered
$50,000 and asked if she would do a nude scene. She agreed and got the part. Many deaf actors, who were a small group fighting for rare parts, were upset that Matlin, an unknown, got the film role.

Matlin learned the details of film. She learned not to eat prop food, as it is meant to be filmed, and to eat the catered food instead.

Matlin and costar William Hurt often fought. They both were intense actors and their emotions while acting were absorbed by each other. This worked well on film but the emotions spilled off screen and created problems. Her cocaine use and his alcohol drinking made things worse. Hurt went to the Betty Ford rehab center for his drinking.

“Children of a Lesser God” wsa the first English speaking movie to be close captioned. “Three’s Company” in 1977 was the first TV series to be close captioned. This opened film up to 24 million people. In addition it helped people learn to speak English. Matlin testified before Congress in favor of a law that would place closed captioned circuits in all new TVs. The bill passed and the law became effective in 1993.

Matlin stopped using drugs on January 10, 1987. Matlin also went to Betty Ford Center for 26 days.

Matlin filmed the movie “Walter” for a month in Nicaragua. An American embargo required shipping all props and supplies from other countries.

Matlin worked with Lee Remick. Yet she naturally didn’t move her lips much so Matlin had trouble following where in the script they were.

Matlin advises actors to keep pushing their careers forward. It can be a struggle but she calls on actors to use their desires to keep fighting. She recommends to always do your best and to seek to learn something from every role.

Matlin dated David E. Kelly, noted TV show producer and writer. She found his devotion to his work drove them apart.

Matlin portrayed a deaf attorney on the TV series “Reasonable Doubts”. A network executive commented “that Marlee Matlin is terrific. Is she going to be deaf the entire series?”

Matlin was upset while filming the movie “Hear No Evil” when a bubble bath scene she filmed showed her nude, which she was not expecting. She now has clauses in her film
contracts that there be no nudity nor any body double without her consent.

Matlin worked with Melissa Gilbert in the movie “Against Her Will: The Carne Buck Story”. She found Gilbert a talent who could easily switch emotions in sales.

Matlin appeared on “Seinfeld. It is noted for its memorable line where she misread Seinfeld’s “six” for “sex”. She was nominated in 1994 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy for that role. That same year, she was also nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama for an episode of “Picket Fences” written by her former boyfriend David E. Kelly. Ironically, she gave birth the same night television showed her character giving birth on “Picket Fences”.

Matlin appeared on the TV series “The West Wing”. She credits the realism that writer Aaron Sorkin created for the show’s success.

Matlin received another nomination with a guest appearance on “The Practice”, another show done by David E. Kelly.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Wisdom of Big Bird by Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney with J. Millison. The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers. New York, Villard, 2003.

The author portrays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street”. The author began doing puppet shows as a child for six neighbors in 1942. His mother then bought him a puppet theater. He continued working at puppet shows through high school. He then went to college for commercial art studies and then joined the Air Force before graduating. Assigned to the desert and a 5:30 am to 2 0m schedule due to heat, he obtained an afternoon job at a local TV station making advertising cards. He talked the station manager into a weekly half hour children’s puppet show, “Rascal Rabbit.” It lasted a few months until he was transferred. Yet a desire to continue acting hit him and he knew then what he wanted to do. After military service, he returned to and graduated from college. He then found animation work. He had two local puppet shows on a Boston TV station. On one show, he performed in full body costumes, something that prepared him to his later work on “Sesame Street”. Yet he admit he “was basically phoning it in” as he desired something more interesting.

After attending the 1968 Puppeteers of American festival, he was inspired to create moving animated backgrounds. He built a 3 ½ foot high by 7 foot wide stage for $250 that required him to work on his knees, operating the puppets as well as handing the visuals and the sound. He presented his show at the next festival. Jim Henson saw his show. A spotlight ruined the image. He used humor to make up for the difficulties. Jim Henson, though, recognized what he was attempting and appreciated it. Henson asked Spinney to work on a new show he was creating, “Sesame Street”. Spinney accepted, even though it meant $7,000 a year less than what he made on a local show in Boston.

The early show was filmed in 16 millimeter film. The early shows didn’t have scripts. Spinney’s first line as Big Bird was his going to a girl on a man’s shoulders and stating “wow! You’re the tallest little girl I’ve ever seen.” Big Bird began as a comedic diversion.

Big Bird descended from an earlier Jim Henson puppet La Choy Dragon. It similar had a complex head puppet. Frank Oz was inside the La Choy Dragon costume and disliked being in the suit. He thus did not want to be in the Big Bird suit.

Spinney initially could see very little out the costume. Thus, Big Bird had trouble moving properly. A small TV monitor was placed inside the costume.

Big Bird was changed in the second season. The new image has been the same since.

Young children like continuity. In 2002, the show’s 32nd season, “Sesame Street” switched to being a show where children could find continuity. There was a 31% increase in viewership.

Spinney was considering what voice to use for Oscar the Grouch when he heard a New York cab driver with a voice he liked. That is the voice he chose. Oscar was popular and did the Dick Cavett Show, Flip Wilson Show, Hollywood Squares, and several variety shows.

Big Bird was put on a postage stamp, leading him to respond “I’m really delighted to be on a stamp without having to die first.”

Big Bird appeared with Bob Hope. The toured China, which upset Hope when he realized no one in China had heard of him. Spinney adlibbed some lines, including Big Bird telling Hole “I thought I had a funny looking beak.” Hope the adlibs and told Spinney to keep them in the act.

Spinney was not a good dancer and found it hard to dance in the Big Bird outfit. A Muppetter, Richard Hunt. Told Spinney to have Big Bird think he is a great dancer. Spinney discovered that his thinking he could dance allowed him to dance. Big Bird even got to dance with the Rockettes.

Jim Henson and Fran Oz would often work all night and sometimes work two days nonstop. They often had several projects going concurrently. Henson enjoyed working well with others. He always remained calm/

There are 20 different “Sesame Street” variations in different countries. None were permitted to have a Big Bird. The Chinese version insisted on having a Big Bird since they had already seen Big Bird when Spinney toured China. Spinner returned to China to show actor Da Niao how to be Big Bird for Chinese television.

As Spinney noted. “I may be the most unknown famous person in America” because people know who Big Bird is but not the person inside Big Bird. Of course, not everyone is impressed with this. He recalls telling a stranger in line once that he is Big Bird and the woman responded “well, I wouldn’t tell people that.”

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Prairie Tale by Melissa Gilbert

Melissa Gilbert. Prairie Talk: A Memoir. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009.

Gilbert was adopted a day after her birth by her parents. Her factor was actor Paul Gilbert, who had to change his name from his real name because the Screen Actors Guild already had someone registered as Ed McMahon. Her father was married 13 times, a fact incorporated in his act by stating “it’s true I have a number of wives. I don’t believe in premarital sex.” Her mother was engaged to Don Rickles when her father broke up that engagement. When her mother informed her father, comic Harry Crane, she had married Paul Gilbert, Crane responded “take a sweater”.

Gilbert began acting as a child. She observed that many children would audition, but the job usually went to herself, Jodie Foster, Kristy McNichol, or Dawn Lynn. Gilbert’s first TV show was a Dean Martin Christmas special. This was followed by an episode of “Emergency”.

At the age of 9, she auditioned for an NBC movie “Little House on the Prairie”. She got the part. She worked for four weeks of shooting.

A TV series sprang from the movie. Gilbert went to school on set with the same teacher from 4th grade through high school.

Actor Michael Landon taught Gilbert “not to settle for anything less than my best.”

When Gilbert filmed the movie “The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle”, costar Kurt Russell pulled a prank on costar Andy Prine. Russell wired Prine’s van and hired a woman to fool around with Prine. He then hired people to pretend they were local police enter the van with the woman pretending she was only 16.

To prepare for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”, Gilbert’s acting coast blindfolded her in a dark room for 45 minutes and let her trip, fall, and experience frustration.

14 year old Rob Lowe made a point of meeting Gilbert. Several years later they would meet when their cars were at the same traffic stop. They shouted at each other to meet later. He stood her up, but he returned her call. They began dating.

Shannon Doherty, at age 12, told Gilbert she wanted to be just like her. Gilbert notes that, years later, this included Doherty having a one night stand with her husband.

Martin Sheen told Gilbert that, while filming “Apocalypse Now”, director Francis Coppola told Sheen “you know, I could cut that opening footage and make you look like Mickey Mouse” to which Sheen replied “well, that would make you Walt Disney, wouldn’t it?”

“Little House on the Prairie” was canceled. Three TV movies were filmed and the series was over. Landon was upset at how the network handled not telling him the series was over. He had the entire set, except the church, blown up.

Gilbert caught Rob Lowe cheating on her with Nastassja Kinski. She went up to Lowe, announced to him that “you don’t fuck with America’s sweetheart” and she left him. Later Gilbert found it ironic that Lowe’s trailer was next to a church with a sign reading ‘Hollywood is the devil’s toilet.”

Gilbert and Lowe reconciled. He proposed marriage, she accepted, they moved in together, and she became pregnant. Lowe, though, stated he didn’t want to be a father. They broke up. She miscarried.

Gilbert sued the National Enquirer for libel. Richard Masur, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) President, was working for a privacy law that would restrict tabloid journalism and the paparazzi in what they could do. Masur offered Gilbert help for the lawsuit from the SAG. The lawsuit cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They settled out of court.

Gilbert felt the 2000 SAG strike lasted too long and that SAG’s reputation had been diminished. Gilbert was elected to the SAG Board of Directors. Gilbert found the first six hour meeting to be out of control and a waste of time.

SAG had two divisions. Bill Daniels was then SAG President, whose Performers Alliance, later called Membership First, had led the strike. Others, like Gilbert, thought the strike had been a mistake.

Gilbert was perplexed by the arguing over rules. She felt little was being accomplished. Richard Masur and members of the alternative faction, United Screen Actors Nationwide, asked Gilbert to run for SAG President.

To run for SAG President, one either went before a Nominations Committee or obtained a petition from sufficient SAG members. The nomination committee was composed mostly of William Daniels proponents. Gilbert petitioned to run.

Gilbert ran on the Restore Respect ticket against Valerie Harper and the Membership First group. Gilbert proposed to Harper they run SAG together. She offered Harper could pick whether she wanted to be President or Vice President. Harper declined. Harper stated she was committed to her group of supporters.

Gilbert asked Mike Farrell to run for the Board with the intention of being her First Vice President. He agreed.

Gilbert ran on a platform of using negotiations first and striking as a last resort. She was supported by Debra Messing, Rob Lowe, and Toby Maguire. Harper was supported by Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Sheen, and Gregory Peck.

Harper accused Gilbert of having violated SAG rules in the past. Gilbert admitted it was true, that she hadn’t been aware of the rules and had been sanctioned, and she had formed a Young Performers Committee to see that other actors turning 17 were aware of the rules.

Gilbert was also accused of owning a Canadian production company named for her daughter. Gilbert denied owning such a company or even having a daughter with that name.

Gilbert received 45% of the vote to Harper’s 39%. Harper claimed there were voting irregularities. New York ballots had different signature lines. A new election was called.

Gilbert operated as President through the new election. In the second election, Gilbert received 56.6% to Harper’s 33.4%.

Under Gilbert, meetings that once ran from six hours to two days took less than two hours.

Gilbert tried to merge SAG and AFTRA. 58% of SAG voters approved the merger, yet it required 60% to be approved. Gilbert ran for a second term as SAG President because she wanted to keep working on the merger. She won reelection.

Gilbert worked on a three year contract with the studios. SAG and AFTRA members both approved the deal. Gilbert considers the deal the most important thing she accomplished as SAG President.