Songwriter Steve Dorff in praise of Clint Eastwood


By Ray Bennett

American songwriter and composer Steve Dorff, who turns 75 today, has a huge number of screen credits including TV series such as ‘Murphy Brown’, Spenser for Hire’ and ‘Major Dad’. In a Q&A for The Hollywood Reporter, he told me his big break came in 1979 when Clint Eastwood and music supervisor Snuffy Garrett asked him and collaborator Milton Brown to contribute a song to the film ‘Every Which Way But Loose’. 

They wrote the title track, a hit for Eddie Rabbit, and ‘I’ll Wake You Up When I Get Home’, recorded by Charlie Rich. Dorf also worked on ‘Bronco Billy’, ‘Honkytonk Man’ and ‘Pink Cadillac.’ 

‘It was the education of a lifetime working for Clint and seeing the way he made films,’ Dorff said. ‘It was amazing on-the-job training. He sure knows music.’

Often associated with country music after the success of George Strait’s hit films and best-selling soundtracks for ‘Pure Country’ and its sequel, Dorf’s songs have been recorded by Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston and many others. 

‘I write modern pop songs that kind of fall in the cracks of being a good R&B song, a pop song, a good country song,’ he said. ‘I’ve had as much pop and adult contemporary success with my songs as with all my TV and film music but people look at that last No. 1 you had and go, oh, Reba McEntire, he’s country. I guess I can’t write a song for Barbra Steisand. Go figure. I’ve stopped trying.’

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Henry Mancini and the best strip club in London

By Ray Bennett

A memory of the great film composer Henry Mancini, who was born 100 years ago today:

London’s Soho strip clubs in the Sixties (so I’m told) were shabby and sleazy, compared to which the long-gone Raymond Revuebar on Walker’s Court, run by local mogul Paul Raymond, was classy and good fun.

His wife, dancer and choreographer Jean Raymond (pictured above) , styled the place on iconic Paris venues such as the Folies Bergere and the Crazy Horse. It became a well-appointed nightclub with top-flight ecdysiasts from France and the international circuit.

After I interviewed Jean Raymond for ‘Where to Go in London’ magazine, where I worked at the time, my then wife Anne and I went to the club now and then, drank vodka gimlets and had a fine time.

Best of all was to discover where the music came from. In my interview,  Jean Raymond told me that every year Oscar-winning Hollywood music legend Mancini (left) provided a selection of cues and tracks he’d written that for one reason or another were not used in the movies he scored.

It was great to watch beautiful and stylish performers disrobe and dazzle audiences to musical arrangements that might have come from films such as ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘Charade’ or ‘The Pink Panther’.

Anna Friel plays Jean Raymond opposite Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond in ‘The Look of Love’ (below), a biopic directed by Michael Winterbottom released in 2013.

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Going drink for drink with ‘Dallas’ star Howard Keel

By Ray Bennett

In 1981 when he was 62, Howard Keel’s days as the star of great Hollywood musicals were long gone. He was living in Oklahoma with his third wife Judy when he received a phone call. ‘I was pretty much washed up in Hollywood by the late Seventies,’  he told me. ‘We were packed ready to head off to retirement in Colorado.’  Continue reading

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The sad fate of Carolyn Jones, the original Morticia Addams

By Ray Bennett

The Ringwood Music and Dramatic Society production of the hit Broadway musical ‘The Addams Family’ this week is the latest in a long run of versions of the original one-panel cartoon series created by cartoonist Charles Addams that first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1938 and ran for years. 

The tales of a wealthy family who are not aware that their macabre tastes are unusual spawned a hit 1960s television series that has remained a cult favourite, sequels and specials, two feature films and the successful Broadway musical that will be staged by the RMDS at The Barn, Ringwood School, April 10-13. Continue reading

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Lauren Bacall, a friend’s death and a total eclipse of the sun

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lauren Bacall was wrapping up the pre-Broadway run of ‘Applause’, the stage musical based on the feature film ‘All About Eve’, at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre in February 1970.

After the final curtain in a nearby club rented for the night, my Windsor Star colleague Ron Base and I sat in a booth enjoying the free food and booze waiting for our promised interview with Bacall for a freelance story in The Toronto Telegram and another for our own paper.

Cast and crew were having a lot of fun because they knew they were in a hit. Time was running out for us when Bacall came dancing by only to run into Ron’s long legs that stretched out from the booth. She tripped but I leapt from my seat like Errol Flynn and caught her in a perfect movie catch. Back on her feet, Bacall threw her arms around me and gave me a kiss on the mouth. We explained who we were and she said, ‘Oh, you’re the Canadian boys!’ She had a bad reputation with the press but she joined us and talked about everything and everybody including Humphrey Bogart.

When our interview with Bacall ended, Ron and I drove back to the Windsor Star office to write our stories. We almost didn’t get them done. As we entered the newsroom, an editor told us some terrible news. While Ron and I were having a great time, the bungalow where two of our colleagues – Gord Henderson and Rodger Turner – lived had burned down and one of them had died in the flames. 

It took all our discipline for us to complete our stories and phone one in to Toronto before we went to find out what had happened and, more important, which of our friends had lost his life. Soon, Gord showed up safe and sound. It was Rodger who had died. Gord said he’d been at our local, Lee’s Imperial House, when he got word that there had been a bad fire at the bungalow. Rodger had died from smoke inhalation as he crawled across the living room trying to get to the front door after falling asleep with a pot on the stove. 

We knew that Rodger suffered from trypanosomiasis – sleeping sickness – that he picked up working in Africa with the development organisation CUSO International. It left him with the propensity to fall asleep anywhere and anytime. We were used to him nodding off after only one beer at Lee’s. Gord and I visited the burned out building the next morning and it was horrifying to see how much damage had been done to the interior.

Next day, Rodger’s father flew into town to collect his son’s body. Mr. Turner was a printer from Perth whose clients included small newspapers just outside Ottawa in eastern Ontario. He was pleased to meet Rodger’s friends and stood us all drinks at the Press Club. He said that if any of us would drive Rodger’s car back to Perth near Ottawa in eastern Ontario, he would put us up and fly us back. A few volunteered but when it came down to it, only Gord and I made the trip. Past Toronto, heading east along Highway 401, I was driving when I began to notice that there were fewer and fewer vehicles on what was normally a busy road. 

Soon, it seemed we were the only ones on the freeway. The sky began to darken and I had to turn on the headlights as it became darker and darker. It appeared that the sky had fallen and we were alone in darkness. 

In a dead man’s car. 

We succeeded in freaking out each other before the sky lightened as the moon continued on its path, the sun peeked through the clouds and cars and trucks appeared. Obviously, we concluded, we’d missed something. Consumed by Rodger’s death, we hadn’t noticed that on March 7 in North America there would be a total eclipse of the sun.

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Marlon Brando: the man behind the myth

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The myth surrounding Marlon Brando, who was born 100 years ago today, has centred not only on his brilliant acting in films such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (with Vivien Leigh above),  ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ but also his eccentric ways and latterly immense girth.

It’s instructive to recall what he was like as a young man when he burst into worldwide fame on stage and screen. When he made his first movie – ‘The Men’ (below left) in 1950, a story about disabled war veterans – Brando spent six weeks living in a hospital ward of paraplegic soldiers. Determined to recreate their reality on film, he shared their lives and won their confidence.

In the evenings, he joined them at a Los Angeles bar sitting in a wheelchair just as they did. One night, according to biographer Charles Higham, a woman entered the place whom Brando recognised as a notorious fake evangelist.

‘You poor man,’ she told the actor. ‘Wouldn’t you like to walk again? I have the power.’

Brando decided to play along, Higham writes: ‘Marlon let out a long sigh and stood up pretenting to be a little shakey. Then, slowly but surely he began to dance around the room terminating with a frenzied jig that had all of the veterans hysterical with laughter.’

The depth of the actor’s feelings for those undefeated soldiers is in every frame of ‘The Men’ and that night says a lot about Marlon Brando – the man, not the myth. He was always a curious mix of animal magnetism, intellectual irony and childlike mirth. Born in Omaha, his acting instincts and impish nature were soon revealed. He excelled at swimming and American football and when he moved to New York in 1943 to study acting his physique was a plus. His electrifying success in the Tennessee Williams play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ on Broadway in December 1947 owed as much to his sex appeal as it did to his obvious acting prowess.

When he made the screen version of ‘Streetcar’ in 1951, his oddball sense of humour was unleashed. Biographer Higham writes that Brando reputedly put urine in a cast member’s beer and when he saw co-star Kim Hunter jump at the sight of a spider, he conspired to lower a fake one through her dressing room window eliciting considerable screaming.

At first, Brando did not relate to his British leading lady, Vivien Leigh, as he found her delivery to be affected and false. According to Higham, her very English manners bothered him so much that he demanded, ‘Why are you so fucking polite?’

That all changed when the actor learned that Leigh was suffering from tubeculosis. Leigh biographer Anne Edwards writes, ‘Brando would sing folk songs for her in a pleasant voice and do imitations of Laurence Olivier (Leigh’s then husband) as Henry V.’

Leigh won an Oscar for her performance as did Hunter and Karl Malden. Brando was nominated but lost to Humphrey Bogart in ‘The African Queen’. In 1954, it was a different story with ‘On the Waterfront’ (with Rod Steiger above). A gritty drama about corruption in the longshoremen’s union in New York’s dockland, it survives today as a forceful depiction of betrayal enhanced by brilliant acting. At the time, for the liberal Brando it was a reminder of betrayal of anoter kind.

Coming soon after anti-communist witch-hunts by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the movie involved several people who had informed on their friends including director Elia Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg and co-star Lee J. Cobb. 

Brando hated ‘On the Waterfront’ according to Higham and for years went into a rage whenever Kazan’s name was mentioned although supposedly he later forgave him. They both won Academy Awards and Brando accepted his Oscar from Bette Davis. ‘I can’t remember what I was going to say for the life of me,’ the actor said. ‘I didn’t think ever in my life that so many people were so directly responsible for me being so very, very happy.’

Such was Brando’s pre-eminence that even today his next film, ‘Guys and Dolls’ – Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film version of the Frank Loesser musical ‘Guys and Dolls’ based on writer Damon Runyon’s stylised New York gangster stories – is noted more for his appearance than the Frank Sinatra vehicle it might otherwise have been.

Sinatra was not happy anyway. He had wanted the Brando role in ‘On the Waterfront’ and now Brando was playing the show’s romantic leading man Sky Masterson while Sinatra accepted the second-lead, Nathan Detroit. The singer also came to the set fully prepared and liked to ace his performances in one take, Higham writes. Method-actor Brando took his time. On the first day of shooting, a nightclub scene in which Sinatra had to eat cheesecake while Brando talked, things took a turn for the worse. After eight takes, Sinatra exploded: ‘These fucking New York actors! How much cake do you think I can eat?’

It was not the first time Brando had a fight on a movie set. On the 1962 picture ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, he went through three directors. Carol Reed walked away after Brando objected to the script making Captain Bligh the main focus rather than his rebellious character Fletcher Christian. Trevor Howard (with Brando above left) told me years later that Reed would not suffer Brando’s tantrums. Howard said he got along with his co-star but lamented the change in the direction of the script, which came in fits and starts from Hollywood. Lewis Milestone compleated most of the film but finally quit in exasperation so George Seaton directed the climax of the film.

Brando’s abrupt revisions of how he played Christian turned other cast members against him. Irish actor Richard Harris had several run-ins with the star according to biographers. In one scene, Brando was supposed to slap Harris in the face but he kept pulling back rather than give him a real clout. Annoyed after several useless takes, Harris said, ‘Why don’t you kiss me and be done with it?’

The film was a flop but Brando seemed to find peace in the South Pacific. After notoriously failed marriages, he settled on an island there leaving only to make a series of cinematic bombs. It was not until he made ‘The Godfather’ (above) in 1972 that he redeemed himself.

Director Francis Ford Coppola bought Mario Puzo’s bestselling gangster novel and immediately actors from Danny Thomas to Burt Lancaster made it known they were available for the role of family patriarch Don Corleone. Coppola wanted one of two actors – Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando.

Brando agreed to audition and while the story of his stuffing his cheeks with tissue paper has been disputed, he landed the role. During production, his impish humour surfaced and he got into ‘mooning’ contests with co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall but it became clear that his work on the film was remarkable.

Brando won his second Oscar but famously refused to accept it. His next movie, ‘Last Tango in Paris’, later the subject of accusations over director Bernardo Berlusconis cruel treatment of co-star Maria Schneider, marked a return to sexual intensity matched by his disturbing portrayal of deranged warrrior Col. Kurtz in Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece ‘Apocalypse Now.’

It was largely downhill after that although ‘The Formula’, ‘A Dry White Season’, ‘The Freshman’ and ‘Don Juan DeMarco’ made up for dross such as ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau.’ Some of us remain fond of earlier pictures such as ‘The Young Lions’, ‘One-Eyed Jacks’, ‘The Ugly American’, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’, ‘The Night of the Following Day’, and ‘The Missouri Breaks’.

He died aged 80 on July 1 2004

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Lesley-Anne Down on filming with Patrick Swayze

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lesley-Anne Down, who turns 70 today, was a stark contrast to Patrick Swayze, her co-star in the hit 1985 U.S. Civil War miniseries ‘North and South’. In interviews for Canadian TV Guide, the enormously likeable but very intense young American actor told me back then, ‘The only thing that will make my career last is if I always deliver one hundred percent.’ The English actress, famous for the 1970s British series  ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, confirmed the actor’s high energy and drive drily: ‘Oh, very, yes.’ Continue reading

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James B. Sikking, the mad hatter on ‘Hill Street Blues’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘Hill Street Blues’, the American cop show that was a hit for most of the Eighties, had one of the best casts in television. Of them, James B. Sikking had probably the toughest job playing jut-jawed, pipe-smokimg Howard Hunter, commander of Hill Street’s Emergency Action Team.

Sikking, who turns 90 today, understood that Hunter was a cardboard character used mostly on the show to seque from one scene to another. ‘He’s what I call a coat holder,’ he told me. ‘He’s holding somebody else’s coat while they’re doing the scene. He’s mad as a hatter but from his point of view he’s absolutely correct.’ Continue reading

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Gregory Peck on Abraham Lincoln: ‘A secular saint’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 215 years ago today. In 1982, he fulfilled a dream when he portrayed the U.S. president in the TV mini-series ‘The Blue and the Gray’ and his comments then reverberate in today’s political climate in America.

‘I have admired Abraham Lincoln since I was a boy,’ he told me. ‘I learned the Gettysburg Address when I was 12 and recited it in school. I first read Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln” in university at Berkeley and I was totally absorbed by it.’

Continue reading

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How an NHL match led Norman Jewison to make ‘Rollerball’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘Rollerball’, Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison’s only film set in the future, also is his most action-packed and violent and it was inspired by an experience at a National Hockey League (NHL) game.  Continue reading

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