Monday, April 24, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Sharky's Machine

When I was a boy, most of my schoolmates at Somers Elementary School wanted to be firemen or policemen.  I think I remember one tow-headed youngster wanted to be an astronaut. Another friend wanted to be a wide receiver, but only if he played for the Green Bay Packers. 

Not me, friends. 

I wanted to be a stuntman.

One evening of thousands in the Will household, I was sitting Indian-style with my bowl of ice cream in front of an action masterpiece being watched by my namesake.  I remember there was a particular movie where Burt Reynolds or some other 70’s stalwart was thrown from a moving car, rolled to his knee and fired 5 shots from a somehow functioning pistol.  

I remarked to my dad that, wow, Burt Reynolds was some tough customer for managing all that obviously incredible physical activity. 

“Well, Robby,” he said with his trademark grin, “That wasn’t Burt.”
“What?!” I shrieked incredulously, “Of course it was!,” I continued, like the complete idiot I was,  “I just saw him do that!”

My dad went on to explain the intricacies of movie magic.  How stuntmen made the movie stars look good, and editing finished the job.  I was both disappointed in Burt and excited as hell for ugly people like myself.  After all, you can get a job not only in the movies, but throwing yourself around like a lunatic.

Heck, that’s what I do 15 hours a day anyway, I remarked to myself.

Imagine.  In my way of thinking, put on some padding and learn how to fall right, and you can get paid for being 8 years old!  Holy Crap! My dad also explained that it only looked like Burt Reynolds, Peter Fonda, and Barry Newman were driving those muscle cars.  Stuntmen did that shit for them too!  What a magical world we live in!!  A job jumping off roofs, faked fisticuffs, and pushing the limits of the greatest cars known to man!!

For a job!!  A career even!!

“That’s what I’m gonna do!” I thought to myself.  From the age of 8 until I tore my first muscle, I decided I was going to be a stuntman.  I was already known around the house for not only running around on the knuckles of my feet, inducing cringes from the masses, but leaping off furniture, sliding down stairs, and climbing shit outside, just to jump back down off of it.  I even provided my own sound effects to go with it.  I’m sure in my 8 year old mind, I began to wonder where those noises came from, and if I could pull double duty as a stunt-sound effects wizard.  I often stole dialogue from my favorite movies for the shadow boxing that took place in the back yard. This was pre-martial arts, so I began to think I could fight the baddest of movie bad guys. Heck, if stuntmen did the falling and driving the cars, I’m sure someone threw their punches too!!!

As a side note, Incidentally, as a younger kid there was a short film about stuntmen with a butt-kicker of a finale that my mom would always let me know was on. (For some reason, this brief thing aired in afternoons on occasion in The Midwest.)  It was hosted, I believe, by a celebrity like Steve McQueen or Robert Blake. I don't know, it's there and it's gone.  I've searched for hours over periods of years looking online for it, and damn if I can't find it.

Anyway, I became a stunt production designer in my own back yard.  Antenna towers became skyscrapers.  Picnic tables were stand-ins for boats.  The sandbox became quicksand. The AC unit was battlefield cover. Every surface and mildly large object also became something to be shot, punched, kicked, or blown off of, screaming to my imaginary (and tiny-distanced) doom. 

My imagination was my best friend for the moment, but someday, I was going to be stupid enough to drive a car off of a cliff. 

A few years later, after dad had passed, my dream of being a stuntman stayed.  One Saturday evening Spectrum aired Sharky’s Machine.  Another opus from Mr. Reynolds.  The movie has a bit of a cult following today.  It’s not among the most famous of Burt’s oeuvre, though it’s definitely one of his better films.  However, it may have the greatest stunt ever pulled off in a Burt Reynolds movie. 

Dar Robinson’s jump.

Dar Robinson was, and is still seen as, the greatest movie stuntman in history.   In “Sharky’s Machine” he doubles for the villain, who after being shot by Reynolds’ titular Sharky, goes out the window of the 220 foot high Atlanta Regency Hotel and drops down.

To this day, the highest live fall used in a film from a building. For some reason, they only used the part where Dar goes through the window initially, and then it cuts to a dummy for the rest of the fall.   He still made the drop though, and that is pure-cane insane. (He had previously bested that for the movie “Highpoint”, where he dropped 770 feet.  That, however, was off the CN Tower in Canada).

As far as Sharky's Machine goes, wow!.... As a kid, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, crashing through a window and dropping that far?  Dang!  (Yes, I thought the word “Dang” in my head).

After a lull in the action-movie intake, that film rekindled my love of the work of the stuntmen.  

Sadly Dar Robinson was tragically killed, not on a movie set, but in a motorcycle accident.  The world is cruel sometimes. 

In another show of the world’s cruelty, I never became a stuntman.   Though I have pulled some pretty cool stunts in my life.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bound to the Past: The Incredible Hulk

I'm getting older, but I still love comic books.  I love them every bit as much as I did when I was ten years old, Marvel and DC alike. Batman, The Hulk, The Flash, and Captain America.  The four color messiahs.  The new stuff's cool and all, but I still lean back into that "bronze" age as it's called, probably more for the nostalgia of it, but there it is.  My enjoyment of the medium is unchanged.

Too bad everything else about me is aging.

About 5 years ago my eyesight, until that point an easy 20/20, went to shit.  Suddenly, almost overnight, text messages on my iPhone were blurry.  I had to squint to read novels and magazines. Menus were becoming an adventure.

"I'll have the fried mussels."
"Sir, that says the menu was printed in Brussels."

What the hell was going on here?

I suddenly felt like my mother, who I once took this book to for spelling clarification...

"Ma, what's that word there?"
"Ah, hell, I can't read that!" she replied reaching for her glasses.

Now I can't either.  Seriously.   Even with readers on it's a struggle to make out the damn microscopic print on the sacred panels of this book.   The book discussed here is Volume 1 of the Marvel Comics paperback, "The Incredible Hulk" which compiles the first 6 issues of the great green beast's adventures in one stupidly tiny paperback.

These things, these amazing dead sea scrolls of books gone by weren't available just anywhere, you know. You had to make a pilgrimage to one of "them malls" to get one.  In this case, Northridge Mall in Southern Wisconsin, which I believe was located somewhere in the Himalayan mountains just between Valhalla and K'un Lun.  That's what I thought at the time anyway.

Remember that?  Remember The Mall?

Before the internet, before Amazon, there was this magical place called The Mall, and within its grand confines were places like Waldenbooks, Camelot, Sam Goody, and B. Dalton, where things you didn't even know existed could be purchased.  I found AC/DC imports at these places.  There were Starlogs and Mad Magazines.  There were Razzles and Marathon bars. I found Matchbox cars that looked like the 69 Dodge Charger Peter Fonda drove  in "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry", by God.

And I found the paperbacks of dreams.  Now, the old Batman compendium I still have is non-linear and non-specific in its chosen reprints,  but the panels were large enough that my old ass can still read them today.

Too bad they're black and white.

However, the Marvel ones now take an effort just as superhuman as old green-skin himself to read. But they're in color. What a paralyzing trade-off.

It's hell getting old.  Now I feel like my mom did, visually flailing away at these miniscule words that only a kid can see, but is too young to read or at the very least understand.  Bumbling to make out the images of Jack Kirby's seminal art.  But I tell you in all truthfulness, this book is every bit as cool as it was 37 years ago when I first got it.

No, you can't have it.

Is that the trade off the universe gives you?  You suddenly start to really appreciate the things you took for granted as a kid.  The wonder of comic book art.  Through a painful squint or expensive eyeglass prescription.  The power chords that were cool as hell are now are legendary, but surrounded by the tinnitus you obtained in your 20 hard years of labor in the printing industry.  The amazing spin kicks in Kung Fu movies that inspired you to take martial arts classes, that if you attempted now would result in you throwing your back out like a dumbass.

The powers that be giveth perspective as they take away, but who knows, maybe it helps you appreciate things all the more. That's what I'm trying to do.

Now where are my glasses, damn it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Volume 2: The Pursuit of DB Cooper

It started on a Saturday night. My wife and daughter were off for a school play, while my son and I were staying home watching "Open Range", a Kevin Costner film starring himself and Robert Duvall.  A loud bark and howl from outside began with the opening frames of the western, and did not cease until long after bed.  This continued for weeks and still happens from time to time to this day.  This dog is a beast. 

It's like the Hound of the Baskervilles across the moors.  I ventured out a couple of times during the early days of this barking blitzkrieg to try to find out if it was the same dog that my wife and I had both spotted running free throughout the neighborhood in recent weeks. I have no doubt it's the same as his first appearance of the evening is typically juxtaposed with the opening salvos of the dog's nightly vocal attack. 

Typically his verbal monotony ventures away from me upon approach, so I know it's a wanderer and not a noisy canine belonging to a thoughtless neighbor. I get close, but never close enough. Eventually I was forced to call the police. When that failed at least three times I called the local office of animal control.  They told me that they only work days, but they'd try to help in any way possible by coming out and looking for a loose dog or holes in fences.  Obviously, no go on that.  This dog has become uncatchable.  A pair of thug-like dogs in this town had achieved the nickname of "Bonnie & Clyde" in recent history, which made me want to nickname this escaped troublemaker who seems to avoid capture. 

I dubbed him DB Cooper.

If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Cooper's work, in the 70's he stole somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars.  He then hijacked a commercial airliner, parachuted off the plane somewhere over the pacific northwest with said cash, and was never captured.  His FBI case remained open until sometime last year.  Cooper was a false moniker, of course, and I guess that's irrelevant as no one knows his real name either.  He's in the wind forever if he survived.

One morning in the very early 80's  I awoke before the house, made my way to the Sylvania console and turned on Spectrum.  The first film of the day was a Roger Spottiswoode-helmed action flick entitled "The Pursuit of DB Cooper".  This movie also starred the affore-mentioned Robert Duvall as a grizzled Insurance adjuster in search of the money.  Now, mind you, this whole film is fiction, and a brief narration states such at the outset just before Cooper, played by Treat Williams, (a hell of an actor whose entire career seems fraught with either poor choices or bad representation), makes his legendary leap. 

The rest of the film is one long extended chase scene involving Williams and Duvall, Kathryn Harrold as the Cooper character's wife, and Paul Gleason as a sketchy, filthy, bum.  It really is a film that feels and looks of it's time and has it's share of fun moments...

Including what may be the worst overdubbing of all time when Duvall, just after slamming Gleason back into the trunk of a car calls him a "motherjumpin' snake dick."  I get it if you're editing for TV, I've actually seen worse in that regard.  However,  I believe these folks were going for the PG, as if you read Robert's lips, that is clearly not what he was saying at the moment of filming.

That bit of language has come out of my mouth in years past, and to this day, especially when trying to locate this stupid bellowing canine to help the local law enforcement give this neighborhood some peace.  By the way, I know the neighbors seek quiet too, as the complaints have shown up aplenty on my burb's Nextdoor page on multiple occasions. 

Sadly, (and exhaustingly) much like his namesake, DB Cooper has not been caught. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Bound to the Past: Volume 3: Lucan

There’s nothing more frustrating than a TV show that can’t find a night. Truly, that’s the network’s fault.  “Firefly”, one of the greatest television shows ever filmed was ineptly handled by its network, Fox, and never had a chance. It bounced around the week, then got pink-slipped.  The same can be said for other shows as well.  Guilty as charged,  good ol' Fox mishandled the great “Brimstone” in 1993.  

Seinfeld was barely even watched when its first season completed, but NBC thought there was enough there to give it a shot and the rest is history.  One of the, if not THE, greatest sitcoms of all time. 

Those days are gone.

In this day and age, viewers have the ability to see when a show is struggling thanks to the power of the internet and instant ratings results.  They often get involved in a struggling show’s attempts at survival.  Constantine and Hannibal are examples of shows that have fan bases who took to the internet in massive campaigns to attempt to save their show, to no avail.

Lucan, airing in 1977 and 1978 had one of the weirdest broadcast schedules ever.  With a premier in September of 77, and two months until the second episode, it was hard to get in to it.  Then it took a month off after it aired for 5 weeks straight.  Who the hell was running the show down there at ABC anyway?  This program never had a chance.  Even with maybe 4 operational channels in a given area, how could a person find the damn thing?

Less than 12 episodes ran. Hardly a case study for a successful launch.   In any case, Lucan was a show about a boy who had been raised by wolves, and the drama that enfolded his reintroduction into society.   It starred Kevin Brophy as the seminal character.  Its debut was a made for TV movie that someone saw enough potential in that they decided to sell it to series, although it appears that they jumped ship like it was on fire after that point.  Ned Beatty, Stockard Channing and John Randolph were all involved in this, and I wish for the love of God that I could remember it better.  The reason?  Because from all accounts when you pissed ol’ Lucan off, his eyes glowed amber, and he, as the theatre instructor in Teen Wolf put it, would “Wolf up, Wolf out, uh… Wolf it”. 

The show went off the air quickly, and I remember being hugely disappointed.  I was 6, what did I know?  So I talked my Dad into buying me the novelization of the pilot movie.  What the hell was I thinking?  How was I going to read this thing at that age?  I eventually did a few years later, long after having lost interest, because I was bored. 

It’s a bye gone era, the era of the novelization. They still exist to an extent,  but it’s not the same.  Before there were VCRs, you could go to the grocery store and buy the paperback version of the movie you saw at the theatre that you were so in love with.  It was a way to keep the images alive in your mind as a kid.  For me, Lucan was the first example of many to come. I was a huge novelization fan.

By the by, if you’re into novelizations, (or were) check this out: 

And despite 40 years gone by, and only 12 episodes airing, someone still cares (this is a pretty sharp site, actually)

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bound to the Past #2: Strange Unsolved Mysteries

Volume 2: Strange Unsolved Mysteries

As a kid, I was an explorer.  On a small scale, I ventured.  I often found myself alone wandering the house, inspecting corners, looking into cabinets, behind curtains, through yards big and small.  Paying sharp attention to the small details.

It was a quiet path, but one I enjoyed.  At our house in Somers, Wisconsin, we had a tuft of miniature woods, a small but dense affair that stretched about 10 yards in diameter.  It hardly qualified as a forest, but the thickness of it would drop the temperature about 10 degrees when you stepped into it. I loved to run into its small opening to hide from an idiotic uncle with a tickle-fetish when he came over.  The knoll sat within viewing distance of the ogre's car, and I could peer back through the brush toward the house, waiting for him to leave.

Sometimes time would go by slowly in this pensive game, but I had a couple of collections in there to keep me busy.  I would often go on long walks next to the train tracks with my Dad, way too deep in his thoughts,  collecting empty shot gun cells and vintage bottle caps.  He let me keep them, and let me know that was okay with his crooked grin and brush of the hair.  The yellow shells were hard to come by, those were the piece de resistance.

It was in this patch of woods that I stored this for inspection and organization.

In colder months, when outside wasn't an option,  I'd wander into the basement.  There the tool area, the rec room, and the basement were areas to stroll, think, and look.  One afternoon I wandered into the rec room, adorned with ultra-thick texture paint, drop ceiling, hand-made bar and an extra bathroom.  Looking around, I spotted a small paperback book that must have belonged to my older sister, Linda.

The cover struck me as creepy, but I was interested by the title, "Strange Unsolved Mysteries".  It was a collection of "true-life" short stories involving hauntings, strange creatures, eerie coincidences, and ESP.  It was of it's era for sure, as my Dad also had books on paranormal and extraterrestrial dealings that I'd wander through.  Paperback copies of "The Late Great Planet Earth", "The Bermuda Triangle", and "Chariots of the Gods" lay about the house.  This item, however, was a combo of all of them, but a Scholastic PG version for young adolescents with short attention spans.

I was stunned by these stories.  This shit was real!  

A small town in Texas was the locale for a strange yellow blob that scientists couldn't categorize!  A plane crash avoided due to a dream!  A picture drawn that was the exact visage of something someone else saw years before!  Terrifying cryptids!!  Good Lord, this stuff needed to be investigated!  If it came from a book order in Weekly Reader, it had to be true!!

It was at that point that I began to draw an interest in Sasquatch,  Loch Ness, hauntings, and shifty-eyed people.   Though I was years ahead in the reading department ( I think I would go on to read "Mandingo" and "Jaws"  in the third grade,  "The Shining", and "Amityville" in the fourth), I was probably too young to read this stuff and infer what was needed.  As a result, I took it way too seriously.  Being a viewer of "In Search Of" and "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", I began to see cryptozoological wonders in every corner, UFOs next to all stars, ...ghosts behind every click and creak.

I only saw these great mysteries in the walls of my home and the plot of our land, and the adventurous territories of my mind, enhanced by these books and television shows.

Going forward, my eyes continued to always be wide open, as all young explorers' are.