Remembering Stan Lee

Essay by Bear Wolf

I Guess One Man Really Can Make a Difference

Those of you who know me, truly know me, know that mychildhood was quite difficult to say the least. My therapist and I are currently working on my displaced attachment issues and late developing connections to people. Because of that childhood and these issues, my formative  years have been skewed a bit from you ‘normal’ humans.

I had almost no positive male role models in my life. I was surrounded by evil men who did evil things with only a 5-foot-tall,  mostly lonely and depressed single mother as a shield. She did what she thought was her best, and I thank her for that and will always know the true meaning of courage as I saw her take on the role of the human shield to protect her children. But as a result of a brutal mixture of all of the above, there was a Thanos-snapping-half-of-all-existence-away sized void in my life.

Comic books were my savior (and KISS to be honest, but that’s for another rant). I learned how to be a man from Batman, Spider-Man,the Hulk AND Bruce Banner, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Daredevil, Mike Grell’s Green Arrow. I also learned that evil often hid behind masks (thank you Scooby Doo), but I saw the epic struggle between good and evil, between human nature and human spirit, and I chose Good Human Spirit. I may be more of the Wolvie anti-hero type, but I know true evil when I see it and I will always fight against it, regardless of how it is made to look by others (see 1980’s Green Arrow to fully understand, thank you again, Mike Grell).  As I grew older, Black Panther and Black Lightning taught me about true injustice in the system of perpetual racism, government greed and the people who directly or indirectly perpetuate it by ‘just doing their jobs.’  I learned what true intense depth of real internal/ external true love was from The Crow.  Unfortunately the movie never captured that very important aspect of the story.

I did not learn that from a father, or an uncle or grandfather or father figure at all (to be fair I never truly knew my grandfather until it was much later; had I truly known him growing up, no other hero could have possibly compared, but again, that’s for another rant).  I did not even learn that from a man who essentially became my god-father because he chose to reach out to a young man eating bologna by himself for Christmas dinner. Don Howard taught me what true kindness and family are.

I learned how to reach for the best human spirit has to offer mostly from what Stan Lee created. Stan Lee and his legacy is my father figure (in my teen years Mike Grell took that role over).  Not Stan Lee’s creations…no, this is much much bigger than that.  Stan Lee (with a beautiful nudge by his amazing wife) set out to create something different, something special.  Much like the best science fiction writers, he took the fantastic to a place that made us take a good hard look at our humanity and what we should be, what we’re doing compared to where we should be.  Since then, the entire genre of comic books was launched into the realm of the iconic.  Mythic heroes, angels, gods, superheroes…not just pretty stories for children to love, but these are life’s lessons that we should all be paying far more close attention to, especially considering our modern world.  So those I have mentioned not named or directly created by Stan Lee are included in this legacy, whether DC & other comic companies want to admit it or not.

In fact, at this very moment, hearing and responding to the news, I am watching Captain America: Winter Soldier. Why? Because I have been suffering some bitter crippling depression of late and can barely get out of bed. To help me through it, I have been watching all the Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men & Avengers movies, in order. My students and my ASL education can thank Stan Lee’s legacy for my continued participation in life.

I have only ever cried for the passing of a celebrity once before, and that was Jim Henson, maybe not a father figure, but the man who brought magic & manners into my life. I love you like a father, Stan Lee! And I will miss your cameos more than I probably should. I thank you for my moral compass and my childhood, Stan Lee. Without you I may not have had either. Excelsior!!

Remembering Scott Wilson

It’s fitting that, on the night before the 9th season of “The Walking Dead” premiered, one of it’s former stars would pass away.  
Scott Wilson, who for three seasons played the beloved Hershel Greene on the AMC program, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer.  He was 76.
Atlanta-born Wilson had planned to attend college on a basketball scholarship yet on a whim decided to head to Los Angeles.  A random chance to go with a friend to audition for a part hooked the young man, who began pursuing acting with a vengeance.
His big break came in 1967, when he was cast as a character suspected of murder in the Academy Award winning “In the Heat of the Night.”  That same year he appeared opposite Robert Blake as two real-life murderers in “In Cold Blood.”  

Robert Blake (l) is Perry Smith. Scott Wilson (l) is Perry Hickock in the 1967 thriller “In Cold Blood”

He followed those two career-making roles with parts in films like “The Gypsy Moths,” The New Centurions” and “The Great Gatsby..”  He portrayed test pilot Scott Crossfield in “The Right Stuff” and appeared in films as different as “Young Guns II” and “The Exorcist III.”
But it was Hershel Greene that Mr. Wilson achieved his biggest success.  A favorite of cast, crew and fans of “The Walking Dead,” Mr. Wilson would often spend his weekends off traveling the country and meeting his fans.  I got the amazing opportunity to meet him when he came to Kansas City as a guest of Planet Comicon.  His representative was a friend of mine and I offered to take them to dinner one night after the show ended.  Piling into my car, I asked him question after question about his career, all of which he answered gracefully.  I told him that I was a huge “In Cold Blood” fan (both the book and the film) and, since moving to Kansas had visited the killers graves and other landmarks in the area.  He seemed pretty impressed and we talked through dinner.  When the check came, he would not let me pay, instead insisting on buying dinner for our group.  The next day, with a starting time of 11:00 a.m., I went to his area of the convention to say hello.  With 15 minutes to go until opening, there were no less than 125 people already lined up to meet him.  Hershel was indeed a popular character and Mr. Wilson was indeed a popular man.

As Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead”

It was revealed earlier this summer that several former characters, including Hershel, would return in the upcoming “The Walking Dead” series.  According to AMC, Mr. Wilson’s scenes had already been completed before his passing..

Behind the Screen: Remembering Burt Reynolds

 

I’m a little late to the party, I know, but I really needed a day to gather my thoughts before I wrote my tribute to Mr. Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr., who passed away yesterday at the age of 82.  Cause of death was listed as a heart attack.

I grew up in Tampa, and if there’s one thing that Floridians were always proud of it was that Burt Reynolds was one of us!  Yes, he was born in Michigan but at age 10 he and his family made their way to the Sunshine State, so he’s one of ours!

Burt became an actor by accident.  He attended Florida State University on a Football Scholarship (in high school he had been named both ALL STATE and ALL SOUTHERN as a fullback).  In his sophomore year, he injured his knee.  He later injured the other knee, and ruptured his spleen, in an automobile accident.  These injuries hampered his ability and, seeing his dreams of playing professional football dashed, he decided to look for a career.   After hearing him read Shakespeare in English class, his professor convinced Reynolds to try out for a play he was producing, called Outward Bound.  Reynolds won the lead role and, for his performance, was given the Florida State Drama Award.

With the award came a summer at the Hyde Park Playhouse in New York.  There Burton met actress Joanne Woodward, who introduced him to agents in the area.  This lead to his first appearance on Broadway, in the play Look We’ve Come Through, earning good reviews.  He went on the road with the show but soon found himself out of work.  However, he soon found himself in the company of Mister Roberts, with Charlton Heston in the lead role.  The play’s director got Reynolds an audition for the film Sayonara, but that film’s director, Joshua Logan, informed Reynolds he couldn’t use him as he looked too much like the film’s star, Marlon Brando.  Logan did encourage Reynolds to go to Hollywood, where he soon found himself in small roles on television.

His big break came when he starred on the television show Riverboat.  He gained more fame when he joined the cast of Gunsmoke as Quint Asper, a “half-breed” blacksmith.   As his success in television grew, he began doing films, including Angel Baby and Navajo Joe.  Reportedly producer Albert Broccoli asked Reynolds to be George Lazenby’s replacement as James Bond, but Reynolds turned him down, being unable to imagine an American playing the British secret agent.

“Deliverance” made Reynolds a star

Reynolds ascended to star status with his role in the film Deliverance.   The film, coupled with Reynolds appearing as the centerfold of “Playgirl” magazine began a run of success that would, by the end of the decades, see him named as the most popular actor in Hollywood.

“COSMO” made him a legend!

His meteoric box office run included such films as The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, White Lightning, Gator, The Longest Yard, Lucky Lady and the second most popular film of 1977:  Smokey and the Bandit (damn you, Star Wars!)  1978 gave us all a double shot of classic Reynolds, as both Hooper and The End are released.

As the 1980s rolled in, he continued his streak with roles in Smokey and the Bandit 2, Cannonball Run, Best Friends and Paternity.   He also took more interest behind the camera, directing several of his films, including Sharky’s Machine, which was both a box office and critical success.  Having released an album in the early 70s, Reynolds was a natural to star opposite Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  He later went on to star on the long running television series Evening Shade, earning an Emmy as Best Actor in a comedy.

Burt sings! One of the prizes on my record shelf!

Though he has played many an iconic character, Reynolds also turned down many roles that made other actors stars.  Besides James Bond, he turned down the role of Han Solo in Star Wars, Michael in The Godfather and John McClain in Die Hard.  The one role he regrets turning down was one written especially for him, that of former astronaut Garret Breedlove in Terms of Endearment.  Citing a promise to his friend Hal Needham to do the film Stroker Ace, Reynolds turned the role down.  The part was given to Jack Nicholson, who would go on to win the Academy Award as Best Supporting /Actor for his work.  The one role he’s glad he turned down?  Edward, the lonely businessman played by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.  Reynolds actually repeatedly turned down the role that would bring him his only Oscar nomination, that of Jack Horner, the adult film director in Boogie Nights.

We at Media Mikes have many fond memories of Burt Reynolds.  Both Mikes (and our wives) met up in New Jersey, where Reynolds was scheduled to be a guest at the Chiller Theater convention.  Due to scheduling reasons, Reynolds could not attend, but we spent the weekend making each other laugh as we all tried to impersonate Reynolds classic, high pitched “Ha-ha!” laugh.  In 2011, Mike G. got the envious job of getting to interview Reynolds for the site.  You can read that interview HERE

And if you want to hear that classic laugh, click HERE.

Breaker, breaker to the Bandit. Keep those wheels spinning and the beavers grinning. R,I.P. sir.

Remembering Roger Ebert

Any time you undertake something you love you can usually cite a few people that influenced you in your endeavor. There are three people I often name as being my “hands on” mentors: Steve Otto, one time film critic of the Tampa Times Stephen Hunter, now a successful author and one time film critic of the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post and Robert Butler, one time film critic of the Kansas City Star (in reading this over I can’t help but be saddened that all of these men no longer work for their respective newspapers, victims of 21st Century technology). If I had to name a fourth it would be Roger Ebert, long time film critic for the Chicago Sun Times who, with his cross-town rival Gene Siskel, brought the movies into our homes each week courtesy of their various television programs. Sadly, Mr. Ebert passed away this morning, a day after announcing he would be curtailing his work schedule because of a recurrence of the cancer he bravely battled for over a decade. He was 70.

Illinois born and bred, Ebert began his journalistic career as a features reporter for the Sun Times in 1966. After the paper’s film critic, Eleanor Keane, left the paper Ebert was given the position, one he filled proudly for almost five decades. In 1975 he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism (I’m proud to add that my friend Stephen Hunter became the second). That same year he and Siskel teamed up for a local television program entitled “Sneak Previews.” The show was a hit and in 1978 became syndicated via PBS. As a film nerd I watched the show religiously, as well as it’s later incarnations: “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.” Week after week millions of film fans would watch the show to see which films were given a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.” In fact, Ebert and Siskel’s widow, Marlene, own the trademarked phrase “Two Thumbs Up.”

I never got to meet Roger Ebert in person but we shared a little bit of film history. In 1982, while reviewing the film “Six Weeks,” which starred Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore, Ebert remarked how he wished he could burn the negative. I sent him the film’s 35 mm trailer, advising him that if he burned it that would be a good start. Many years later, after I contacted him via email about a project I was working on, I reminded him of my gift. He told me he had gotten it but never got around to burning it! I pray that they don’t show “Six Weeks” in Heaven.

Mike’s Behind the Screen: Remembering John Belushi


READERS: The following is an expanded version of a “Behind the Screen” I did last year on the late John Belushi. March 5, 2012 marks the 30th Anniversary of his passing. I have included my list of Belushi’s best performances as well as an excerpt from my interview with Tim Kazurinsky, who was a close friend of Belushi and his wife, Judy.

I was very fortunate to have been around when Belushi’s star began to rise and very unfortunate to hear the news when it finally burnt out. As I do every March 5 I began thinking about what might have been and I came up with the following thoughts:

1. He was truly one of a kind.
In 1978 John Belushi starred on the number one show on television (“Saturday Night Live”), had a number one movie at the box office (“National Lampoon’s Animal House”) and added an album that also went to number one (The Blues Brothers “Briefcase Full of Blues”). I can’t think of any performer, past or present, who has been able to achieve that feat. Belushi was at the very top of the entertainment world before he was 30.

2. He was growing.
After his breakout role as Bluto in “Animal House” I’m sure Belushi could
have had a full career of playing slobs. But instead he pursued other roles. A small supporting role in “Goin’ South” opposite Jack Nicholson. A hilarious cameo as “Wild” Bill Kelso in Steven Spielberg’s underrated comedy “1941.” When he and “Blues Brothers” partner Dan Aykroyd were cast in the film “Neighbors” they switched their original roles, with Aykroyd now playing the crazy neighbor who moves in next to Belushi’s suburban house owner. His final complete role was as a Chicago reporter in “Continental Divide.” It is here that Belushi gave us a look at the future. His performance was spot on and fully developed.

3. What we missed.
Belushi’s last filmed performance was planned for use during the opening of
an episode of “Police Squad.” As Belushi died before the episode ran the footage was removed and replaced. In later years, when looking for extras
to put on the series DVD, the footage was no where to be found. Aykroyd had written at least two roles for his friend, parts that would be taken by other “SNL” alum. The first role was of Emmit Fitz-hume in “Spies Like Us,” a role that later went to Chevy Chase. The second was that of Dr. Peter Venkman in “Ghostbusters,” played in the film by Bill Murray. Rumors also have him turning down the title role in “Arthur” and the part of Billy Blazejowski in “Night Shift.” Billy Blaze made Michael Keaton a star. I’m convinced that Belushi could have gone on to have a career similar to Robin Williams, who coincidentally was with Belushi the night he died. In a bit of irony, Belushi starred in a short film on “SNL” called “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” In the film he mourns the fact that he is the last living survivor of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast. Sadly, he was the first to go. Belushi was scheduled to present the Best Visual Effects Oscar with Aykroyd at the 54th Annual Academy Awards but died three weeks before the ceremony. As he stood alone at the podium, Aykroyd honored his friend by saying, “My partner would have loved to have been here tonight to present this award,
since he was a bit of a Visual Effect himself.”

Last year I had the great fortune of interviewing Mr. Tim Kazurinsky. Where I could go on and on about John Belushi the performer Mr. Kazurinsky was able to talk about Belushi the person. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Mike Smith: Speaking of talent taken way too soon, you worked with the late John Belushi in “Neighbors” and “Continental Divide,” which were both very different roles than Belushi fans were used to? What are your memories of working with him and how do you think his career would have played out had he lived? (NOTE: A visible sadness comes over Mr. Kazurinsky’s face and
his voice lowers)
Tim Kazurinsky: One of the great tragedies of my life was losing John. John got me hired at “SNL.” I never auditioned. He just told Dick Ebersol “ you should go to Chicago and see this guy. He should be the den mother of the next troupe.” That’s what got me hired. Ebersol came…saw the show…and hired me on the spot. I wasn’t even aware I had gotten hired for the cast. I thought I was being hired as a writer. He asked me for my AFTRA card (NOTE: the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is the union for television actors and radio broadcasters). I asked him why and he said I needed an AFTRA card to be in the cast. I said, “What do you mean be in the cast. I thought you just hired me as a writer.” He looked at me and said, “You write?” I loved John dearly. He and his wife, Judy, were so kind to me when I got to New York. They looked after me. They were my guardian angels. (Mr. Kazurinsky’s voice gets even quieter). My birthday is March 3. The three of us were going to have dinner but Judy called me up and told me we’d have to cancel dinner on my birthday because John was still in Los Angeles. I could tell she was crying and I asked her what was going on. “I think he’s in trouble out there.” John had a bodyguard named Smokey, who had been a body guard for Elvis Presley. That week it was also his daughter’s birthday so Smokey went back to Tennessee. And of course a horrible confluence of things happened. (NOTE: On March 5, 1982, John Belushi died from an accidental drug overdose. He was 33.) And now, as of March 5th next year, John will have been dead 30 years. Where did it go? 30 years? He was such a totally misunderstood artist and man. That awful book by Bob Woodward did not serve him well. (NOTE: known for helping break the story that inspired his book “All the President’s Men,” in 1984 Woodward released the book “Wired.” The book, and the film later made of it, were critically slammed. In 1991, Judith Jacklin Belushi released the book “Samurai Widow,” a book that gave John Belushi the respect and honor he certainly earned). That book was nothing but character assassination. John felt he was being “labeled” as a performer. It’s like when the Rolling Stones, influenced by the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Sgt Peppers,” did “Their Satanic Majesties Request” album. It was full of psychedelic music and their fans went, “No!” John felt his fans were thinking, “you can’t do Mike Royko in “Continental Divide”…you can’t do “Neighbors”…you’re Bluto with the mashed potatoes.” But John was really smart. He was a great improviser. And he kept asking “do I have to be THAT guy for the rest of my life?” I think it really depressed him. Billy Murray was having success with “Stripes” and…I don’t really know what was going on inside John’s head but I know he wasn’t happy. He was self medicating himself and…I look at that book “Wired” and I ask “where’ is the man I know…he’s not here.”

My Top 5 John Belushi Performances:
1. “Saturday Night Live” In four short years John Belushi introduced the world to some of the most memorable characters and impersonations ever featured on “SNL.” From Jake Blues of the Blues Brothers to Samurai Mutaba to Matt Cooper in the many “Jaws” parodies, Belushi made those characters come to life. His impersonations are almost too numerous to mention, but a few of the classics include Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Beethoven, Henry Kissinger, William Shatner and Joe Cocker. To see him on stage next to Cocker is truly a classic moment:

2. “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” As Bluto, the hard drinking leader of Delta House that would go on to become a United States Senator, Belushi gave a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

3. “Neighbors.” As straight-laced suburban homeowner Earl Keese, Belushi played against type with his long time partner Dan Aykroyd. Here Aykroyd was the crazy guy while Belushi played it straight. His performance here and in the same year’s “Continental Divide” was just a glimpse of the career
he could have had in front of him

4. “1941.” Steven Spielberg’s outrageous comedy has it’s detractors but there is no argument that Belushi is the funniest part of the picture. Take a look at the teaser trailer featuring Belushi as Wild Wayne Kelso (later changed to Wild Bill Kelso in the finished film):

5. “Goin’ South.” As Deputy Hector, Belushi scored plenty of laughs in Jack Nicholson’s underrated comic western.