Randy Newman at 80: Part One – songwriter

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turns 80 today, has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain.

He has been one of my favourite singer-songwriters since I bought his album ‘Sail Away’ in 1970 and he deserved Oscar’s attention for scores such as ‘Ragtime’, ‘The Natural’ and ‘Avalon’ long before his 16th nomination led to a win in 2002 for best original song for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ from ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (He won a second in 2011 for ‘We Belong Together’ from ‘Toy Story 3’). I own nearly all his recorded work; I’ve seen him in concert several times; I’ve interviewed him a few times and had drinks with him at the Festival de Cannes.

Hanging out with Randy Newman is as interesting and as much fun as you might expect it would be. His humour can be as caustic as some of his songs but he is self-deprecating and droll and a keen observer of life in general and music in particular.

Part One: Randy Newman, songwriter

He told me in Cannes in 2002 that he wasn’t bothered that his first Academy Award came for a song for hire. “The awards don’t have much to do with merit,” he said. “I’ve often thought, I get to vote on cinematography. I don’t know a damned thing about cinematography. Costume design – look at me. They let me vote on those and film music is sort of an arcane kind of craft. There aren’t many people who know a great deal about it. If they hear a tune they like they might think, well, there’s a good score but that’s a different thing. I don’t mind that it isn’t Beethoven’s 7th symphony that I got it for. I always expected that it would be something trivial possibly.”

After all those nominations, though, the win did come as a surprise. “I thought I would lose again. I thought Paul McCartney would win or Sting would win. You really couldn’t hear where I was sitting but Faith Hill told me and pushed me out, which was nice. I had nothing in mind to say. I thought, oh, Jennifer Lopez is out there, I’ll say something about, ‘Oh, this is like going to heaven with a lot of beautiful women’ … it was more of a Muslim heaven than any other kind, but when I got there she didn’t look like Jennifer Lopez. Not that I’d ever seen her when I was stalking her earlier. I was very surprised that the audience jumped up. If they liked me so much why didn’t they give it to me 20 years ago? The orchestra was applauding. They were told not to, I learned later. But they did and it touched me. If I’d had a heart it would have been full. But I was very moved, much more so than I thought. I never minded losing. It was always the nomination that really meant a great deal to me. But when I was up there I was kind of choked up and touched that the people were so happy for me.”

Newman’s songs for movies are very different from those he writes for his own albums. He said, “If they give me an assignment and give me enough adjectives on what the song will be – it’s about friendship and they’re friends, and we’ll all work together and everything will work out … given any sort of assignment, any sort of start, I can write a song fairly quickly. For myself, I won’t say ‘I love you’ or ‘You’ve got a friend in me’. I mean, I will but it’s just harder. It’s too hard.”

You won’t learn anything about Randy Newman from his songs. “For the 99% of you who don’t know my music … the style I’ve chosen is sort of the third-person style where I’ll be a narrator who’s often unreliable or stupider than we, the audience, are. That’s not me, ever. I don’t think I have five songs where the ‘I’ is actually me in them. It’s an odd choice to have made. I forgot what point I was making. I actually had a point. Anyway, it’s an odd box to be in. Maybe I’ll try and be more direct. If I were to write a song called ‘I love you just the way you are’. That sounds like a hit song to me, that idea. I like that. Or like, ‘Somewhere over the … rainbow’.”

Writing an album such as his brilliant ‘Bad Love’ (1999), he said, “was a matter of courage and will. I’ve never liked to write so I don’t just leap in there to the piano every morning. I kind of have to drag myself in there. With a movie there’s discipline imposed from without so you have to work every day from eight in the morning until six at night or you don’t finish. I don’t anyway. When I’m given an assignment and I have to please the director, the studio, the movie people, it’s the closest I get to the mainstream. I don’t write songs like that much. I do it for the movies but not if I’m left to my own devices. When you’re writing songs for yourself … I mean they’re hardly waiting for the next Newman album; it’s not going to affect their bottom line. People don’t line up at midnight. So it’s not like the record company has got to have the new record this month. So, it tends to drag on but I get there. To write songs my own albums, I make up assignments for myself. It’s a little better.”

Newman paid attention to songwriting at a young age because while his father was a doctor – “he gave drugs to the other side of the family who are all down below watching us now” – he also wrote songs. “I admire his lyrics. He admired Lorenz Hart a great deal and I do too.  I like Sondheim, Dylan, Cole Porter, the French story-telling guys Jacques Brell and Charles Aznavour … I do sort of the same thing; shittier but sort of. Tom Lehrer, I’m somehow related to Tom Lehrer. It’s very rare for someone to write as many humorous songs as I have. I like to make people laugh. I admire Carole King. We were competing against her, Jackie de Shannon and I. We were at the same publishing company when Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill were at a very successful publishing company. I would think I was writing real middle-of-the-road stuff for Gene McDaniels or the Crystals and she was getting all the records. Pre-‘Tapestry’ was really great stuff, a great American writer. Irving Berlin is an inexplicable genius. He had hits for 50 years, from 1908 to 1954.”

There are several box-sets of the Newman canon. ‘Randy Newman’s Fuast: Words & Music’ is a masterpiece and besides ‘Bad Love’, he has produced wonderful new original material on ‘Harps and Angels’ (2008) and ‘Dark Matter’ (2017).  He told me, “There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that people do their best work at a very young age in rock and roll. Like chess and physics but dumber. There aren’t many people who get better and better and better. McCartney’s an exception. He did his best work with Wings, and continued to grow. And still he remains a regular bloke even though he’s got a billion dollars. He’s got a mouth, he’ll drink a beer with you as soon as not. But there’s a lot to indicate that people do do their best work sometimes before they’re 30. The Who stayed good. Neil Young has stayed consistent. I wasn’t sure whether I would be one of the ones who wrote their best stuff when they were 25. But I don’t think so.”

Like all songwriters, Newman is reluctant to choose between the songs he’s written but he confessed, “My favourite recording is ‘Miami’. It’s a satisfying record to me. My favourite song is ‘Old Man’. It’s a chilly thing; it’s so cold. But when my father died, I saw how true it was … that I had that kinda shithead thing. Funny, too.”

He wasn’t sure in 2002 if music had changed for better or worse: “It’s hard to say. I always watch out for the old crock in me. I have kids and they’d bring me stuff when punk was starting. I’d listen, and I’d hear some good stuff. Black Flag. But I heard myself say one time what my father would have said, ‘It’s too loud.’ Now, what the hell kind of criticism is that from a musician to make of music. ‘Too loud?’ You have to watch out. You have to be able to recognise that Eminem is a great artist, which he is. He’s a comic artist, and he knows he is. But they happen. Dr. Dre will make a nice track. That Eminem record with … who’s the girl who sang on that? Dido, a great record. This thing by Pink now. Pet Clark could have done it in 1962. It’s like the No. 1 record on Mars, as clear as could be. There’s always good stuff. I don’t know what’s going to last. It seems as if what’s lasted in pop music since rock and roll, starting in 1954, is the hit. You don’t go back and find some undiscovered genius like Schubert. You back to the Shirelles or the Crystals, Gene Pitney. The hits are still the hits. That’s why possibly I will go unremembered and unmourned in the future. I don’t expect to be remembered.”

Even Randy Newman can be wrong.

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Randy Newman at 80: Part Two – Film composer

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turns 80 today,  has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain.

He has been one of my favourite singer-songwriters since I bought his album ‘Sail Away’ in 1970 and he deserved Oscar’s attention for scores such as ‘Ragtime’, ‘The Natural’ and ‘Avalon’ long before his 16th nomination led to a win in 2002 for best original song for ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ from ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (He won a second in 2011 for ‘We Belong Together’ from ‘Toy Story 3’). I own nearly all his recorded work; I’ve seen him in concert several times; I’ve interviewed him a few times and hung out with him at the Festival de Cannes.

Hanging out with Randy Newman is as interesting and as much fun as you might expect it would be. His humour can be as caustic as some of his songs but he is self-deprecating and droll and a keen observer of life in general and music in particular.

Part Two: Randy Newman, film composer

Newman’s first film assignment was with Jack Nietzsche and Ry Cooder on the 1970 film ‘Performance’ directed by Donald Cammell (who died in 1996) and the late Nicolas Roeg starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. He said the transition from rock star to film composer was different from most because scoring pictures was “the family business”. One uncle, Alfred Newman, had 43 Oscar nominations and nine wins and another, Lionel Newman, had 11 nominations and one win. He told me, “When I was 8, my vague thought was that I’d be a film composer someday but I went in a different direction. The first picture scared the hell out of me. I had a perhaps exaggerated respect for it. I’d seen it done by experts and I thought if my family had been scared then I should be in the hospital.” 

His family legacy was daunting, he said. “I found it so. I think my cousins Tom and David [Oscar-nominated Thomas Newman (‘Bridge of Spies’, ‘Spectre’) and David Newman (‘Anastasia’, ‘The Nutty Professor’)], who are both really good film composers, might feel the same way. They were strict, you know. My uncle Lionel would have lunch at the commissary and unless you were Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams or a relative it was hard to get a seat. Yes, I felt the weight of my family. My uncle Alfred wouldn’t have cared but I felt Lionel and Johnny Williams … it would have meant a lot to me if, after I did ‘The Natural’, one of them had said ‘Oh, nice job son’ but we had the kind of family … other people would tell me, ‘Oh, your father loves you.’ I’d say, ‘Really? When did you see him?’ It was a rough family.”

Expectations for him were high, he said, “Only in my own mind. For the first few years, I was looking over my shoulder. It took longer for traditional composers to take me seriously, longer than it should have. It wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as if I was denied Academy Award nominations. I sat next to Alan Menken three times at the Oscars. You’re always sitting next to the guy who beats you.” His composing credits are impressive, however, starting in film with ‘Cold Turkey’ in 1971 and including Oscar nominations for ‘Parenthood’ (1989), ‘The Paper’ (1994), ‘Toy Story’ (1995), ’James and the Giant Peach’ (1996), ‘Pleasantville’ (1998), ‘A Bug’s Life’ (1998), ‘Babe, Pig in the City’ (1999), ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999), ‘Meet the Parents’ (2000), ‘Cars’ (2006), and ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (2009). His latest picture was ‘Cars 3’ (2017) and he’s doing ‘Toy Story 4’ for next year.

Newman said he always records his film scores in Los Angeles because he goes back a long way with the orchestra there: “When I was a boy, my uncle [Alfred] was doing pictures like ‘All About Eve’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’. There are families in the orchestra. They are a great orchestra. Certainly, they read better than any orchestra in the world, I’m fairly confident in saying that. They can play anything you put in front of them. There are other orchestras that can do it … more than I might think, I know. But I see no reason to go elsewhere. If someone suggests going elsewhere, I say I’d rather record in L.A. With directors, there will be problems in every area of your life, including respiration, but not that one. They haven’t tried to move me yet.”

His composing technique is simple: “I sit at the piano and sometimes I’ll cheat and use the trumpet but my trumpet sounds like it’s coming out of my nose. I’m not really computer literate but they do have good samplers.” Dealing with directors is more complicated: “You have to learn to subdue your ego. Everything you do is designed to make the picture look better, to make a love scene work better. I’ve seen love scenes without music and they don’t appear to even like each other. Music can trick people. You see ‘Star Wars’ without the music and you see the cardboard. With Johnny’s music there, it’s something else.”

The problem in writing music for films, he said, is that composers do not get enough time to do the job: “Never. There are guys who’ll take the movie and do it in three weeks. I won’t. I take time over money. Did I say that aloud? I’d rather have another two weeks than another $20. But, I wouldn’t want to come in too early. I don’t want to hang around the set and be pals with everybody. You don’t learn a thing from what you think when they’re shooting. You don’t know what the movie’s going to need until it’s up there on the screen. What you think the movie might require and what the director might think he’s got on the screen sometimes will be different from what’s actually up there.”

He said he does not expect directors to be articulate about music and so he speaks to them in a non-musical way: “I think the scene should have more edge, say. Music can communicate much information but it does emotional things very well. You must not to be intimidated by them not having musical knowledge. They’re not supposed to. I try to do what the director wants unless I have a better idea or what he’s got on the screen is not what he thinks he’s got on the screen. You always have a temp track and I almost don’t mind it now. I’d rather not have one but that’s never going to happen. They want to show the picture so they want a temp but you should hire a composer who will do better than your temp. The conversations with directors … if you think they’re wrong, you try to reason with them but it’s their picture. We work for them.”

He quoted the late film composer James Horner (‘Titanic’) who noted that directors tend to come from rock and roll and listening to the radio and watching TV. “It’s all little short things, songs that you can beat around but film doesn’t go that way. After ‘The Graduate’, they all wanted songs like that and they stuck them in everywhere. Sometimes they were hit songs, like in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ they had a truck running through the streets and they put its a song but it didn’t fit. It was wrong. The song was a hit so maybe it was the right thing do. I saw a Woody Allen movie and it had this great music in it, great old songs from the Thirties and Forties by the best composers America has produced in the medium. Gershwin’s in there. It didn’t work at all. It comes in, it comes out. It’s like a porn movie. You expect to see someone in one sock. Music can be great but not fit a movie. I’m not saying it’s a great art form but it is a very complex thing and not very many people know much about it.”

On ‘Maverick’ (1994), for instance, director Richard Donner asked Newman what funny instruments there are: “He wanted everything with the banjo. I said some vulgarisms. A tuba isn’t that funny. You could stick a trumpet up your ass, which is what we ended up doing. No, I ended up on the stand in front of 100 people with three of the best trumpeters in the world, two anyway, having them go ‘nwak, nwak, nwak’ with a trombone going like that too because he wanted what he wanted. He might have been right because the movie was successful and he’s been successful. He just wanted to make sure that the audience got the joke.”

Then there’s the time when a director throws out the score. “It’s happened to everyone,” Newman said. “It happened to me on ‘Air Force One’ and I don’t really know why. He never said anything so there’s nothing I can say about it so I’m sorry for myself but I never heard why. With that director, Wolfgang Petersen, when he described what he wanted, he would ‘Woof! Woohpah!’. I did it all with synths. One time there was a scene where they were talking in the cockpit. It was in the midst of action but they were still talking so I got the music down for the dialogue as you’re supposed to do. I took out the trumpets and played some woodwinds, still keeping it moving but playing it down. He said, ‘No, no, the dialogue doesn’t matter. Forget it, don’t worry about the dialogue.’ Don’t worry about the dialogue? I guess we were on different pages. He is an accomplished director but perhaps we didn’t understand each other very well. I bought back the music but unfortunately we’re getting along with the Russians now. If there’s ever a rupture in our relations, I’ve got some good ‘bad Russians’ music.”

Scoring animation, he said, is different from scoring action or a love story. “‘Maverick’ had a love story as well as action. With animated pictures, you can’t do them the same way. Tom Hanks plays Woody in ‘Toy Story’ and when he falls down you have to fall with him. There’s almost no way out of it. Disney has tried scoring them like real pictures but it just doesn’t work. If Tom Hanks falls down in ‘Saving Colonel Ryan’ … ‘Saving Sergeant Ryan’ … ‘Private’, really? .. and they save him, you don’t do that. Animation is more strenuous to do. ‘A Bug’s Life’ was very difficult because it’s fast music with a lot of notes. They’re bugs and they’re really moving. They’re not little ants to us. To them, a crevice is the Grand Canyon so I played the Grand Canyon. In ‘Toy Story’, they were indoors, this was outdoors. It was ‘The Big Country’ to some degree. Visually, it had an epic quality. Love scenes are different. In ‘Toy Story’, in their world those characters are adults and when they have emotions you play them seriously. When Buzz thinks he’s a spaceman, I write him a spaceman. I write him spaceman music. I think he’s a spaceman. You can’t condescend or treat them as if they were children. You take it seriously. There wasn’t a love scene in ‘Toy Story’, unfortunately. Woody and Buzz never … well, they did fall in love but they cut that part, so it’s very different.”

As with his songs, he prefers not to name his favourite film scores. “They are like children. Some of my children, I don’t like. No, I love them all. I think I helped fool people that a movie was better than it was sometimes, like ‘Awakenings’. A good score will not make a movie great but it can improve its IQ by a couple points. ‘James and the Giant Peach’ made a bundle and maybe I was responsible for $340,000 of it. It wasn’t a successful movie but I helped it. ‘A Bug’s Life’, maybe, ‘Monsters, Inc.’ The way I choose what I’m going to do, of the offers that I get, is how much music matters. There are great movies where it doesn’t matter what the music is … I was going to say ‘Beautiful Mind’, but in that case James Horner did a good score for it. He fooled you a little bit into thinking that movie was a little classier than it was. It does happen.’

Coming from a legendary film music family, Newman reveres the masters of his craft: “Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, my uncle Alfred. Alex North was one of the great film composers of all time. ‘Cleopatra’ was not a good picture but it’s a great score. Morricone. Nino Rota was one of the Top Five of all time, certainly. The guy who did Truffaut’s movies, Georges Delerue. Prokofiev was a great film composer. Copeland became a great film composer.”

When we in Cannes film in 2002, there was a memorable concert, a rarity at the film festival, which featured top composers conducting an orchestra performing their most famous scores. The late Francis Lai (‘A Man and a Woman’), Frederic Devreese (‘Louvre au noir’), ‘Antoine Duhamel (‘Ridicule’), Ennio Morricone (“Cinema Paradiso’) and Jean-Claud Petit (‘Cyrano de Bergerac’) were there along with Randy Newman, who presented his score for ‘Avalon’. Newman told me afterwards that being there had meant more to him than winning the Oscar. ‘It was kind of fantastic. I’d like to go again. It was unforgettable seeing Francis Lai playing his accordion.”

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Veronica Hamel: When intelligence matches beauty

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I had the tee-shirt in the photo above made and gave it to Veronica Hamel on the set of the hit American television cop series ‘Hill Street Blues’, in which she played attorney Joyce Davenport. She loved it. ‘I wear it to work,’ she told me. ‘They figure I’ll do a better job than anybody else.’

Veronica Hamel, who turns 80 today, was one of the most beautiful women on TV in the 1980s, an era of glamorous women on the home screen. Formerly a model, she accepted her beauty with grace and self-effacement. Daniel Travanti, who played Capt. Frank Furillo on the show, Davenport’s lover (pictured with Hamel below), told me, ‘Can’t help but be impressed by her because she’s obviously so beautiful. She’s lived with that and made adjustments. She’s so simple and real about it. She’s very quick to let her hair down. Never gives the impression of being unreachable. She’s not self-protective. If the director wants something messy or foolish, she does it. She doesn’t worry about being lady-like although she’s never not.’

Steven Bochco, who created the series with Michael Kozoll, told me they hired Hamel because of her combination of attributes. ‘Physically, she’s just exquisite and she conveys a tremendous intelligence, a kind of really warm authority,’ he said. ‘The role is a really strong, bright, talented, ambitious character with her own set of complex needs and a great sense of humour. I tell ya, Veronica is a remarkably sexy woman because of that. She is sexy in a way that other women in television are not, because she is real.’

That was exactly how she appeared offscreen too when I interviewed her for a cover story in Canadian TV Guide. I liked her immensely. Over a long, leisurely lunch, just the two of us in a quiet corner of the CBS Studios commissary, we talked about her successful career as a model and transition to acting. I told her that she had a terrific sense of humour. She gave me a look. “How do you know that? You don’t know me.’  I mentioned seeing a lot of kidding on the set. ‘Yes, well, that is something I enjoy in people,’ she said. ‘I think it’s one of the nicest qualities that people have, their humour, particularly not to take yourself too seriously.’

I said I also thought she could be a rascal. She gave me another look: ‘Oh, I can be worse than that. That’s a euphemism. You’re tippy-toeing around here. Well, I’m not gonna let you in on anything devastating. Acting is a much crazier world than modelling but at times people will write to me recalling certain things I’ve done, which I find fascinating but I won’t tell you about.’

Born in Phaldelphia, daughter of a furtniure refinisher, with one sister, at 17 she began a modelling career that lasted for ten years. She expressed no qualms about it. ‘I think models are very underestimated for the talent – possibly a better word is stature – that it takes to stand in front of a camera and grab someoe’s eye. There is a thought process there, an attitude. To fill that space and be exciting, it isn’t just beauty alone that can do that.’

She studied acting in New York and did off-Broadway and dinner theatre and finally decided to quit modeling. Moving to California, she did the rounds of TV series before ‘Hill Street’ came along. I visited her a few times on the set and we spoke on the phone. She always had something unexpected and interesting to say having nothing to do with acting or show-business including an anecdote from her modelling career.

‘I did a job in Vienna at a fancy hotel and I was dressed in the most exquisite designer gown,’ she said. ‘It was wine velvet with a sable hem. My hair was up with various hairpieces and flowers and whatnot. I just couldn’t stand myself. I didn’t want to take it off. I wanted to parade around and do that forever. When we were finished shooting, I asked the photographer and client if I might go down and have cocktails in this dress. I was just too wonderful. They had this marvellous, marvellous staircase with a huge chandelier in the foyer. People were gathered for cocktails and I made my grand entrance at the top of this staircase, so terribly impressive, me with my sable and velvet and all the trimmings. As I proceeded down the stairs with the brass banisters – they had a red carpet, naturally, that was the least they could do for me looking so wonderful. Everybody looked up. I took a deep breath and there I was, the centre of attention. It was too, too much and I was too wonderful. It served me right. There’s always that little person up there saying, wrong! I tripped, slid down on my fanny, my skirt going up in a rather unattractive, unladylike manner. Down several stairs and there I sat, my hair falling to the side with everyone staring. I just started laughing. That’s it. Whenever you think you’re there and can’t stand yourself, duck! That taught me a huge lesson. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.’

Another time, we were talking about life choices in terms of a career and she brought up someone who has only now become well known to a lot of people: Robert Oppenheimer. She had seen John H. Else’s 1981 documentary about him, ‘The Day After Trinity’ and said,  It was fascinating seeing him as a young man in his baseball hat in his bunker as the first H-bomb went off. And it was very strange watching him as an old man reflect on his life and work, his mentality, the brain he was given. They asked him how did he feel watching the first bomb go off. Today, we have bombs that make that look like spit, which is really frightening. He sat in his chair and he had tears in his eyes. It was so wonderful. As the camera zoomed in ever so slowly, he said, ‘I thought of a Hindu poem, “Now I have become death, the destroyer  of worlds.” I just burst into tears looking at this old man’s face and thinking his intellect and mind went for destroying worlds. What an incredible thing to come out with. Whenever I think I should be doing something worthwhile, medicine or something or this or that, here was a man who spent his life – one of the finest minds we’ve ever known – and at the end of his life he was so torn about why he was here. Maybe I am doing something much more worthwhile than I know; at least less destructive.’

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Dave Robb, a fine reporter and great friend

By Ray Bennett

LONDON — A friend of mine is gravely ill and so, risking his wrath, I want to write this now rather than later. David Robb is the best reporter I’ve ever known and I’ve been fortunate to work with a good many very talented journalists.

The labour beat on a trade paper in the entertainment business is one of the toughest assignments of all. Dave did that job better than anyone. Parties on all sides can be devious or tight-lipped but they are the most skilled dissemblers, fabricators, prevaricators and flat-out liars in any industry. Continue reading

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John Barry on his favourite directors and composers

By Ray Bennett

LONDON — English film composer John Barry, who was born on this day in 1933, won five Academy Awards and created the definitive music for James Bond but he remained very fond of his early British films and spoke warmly of comnposers he admired. Continue reading

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When Burt Lancaster wrote me a letter …

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When the Burt Lancaster film ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ (below) came out in 1962, I wrote about it in the Gravesend Reporter, where I was doing my training in Kent, England. Fascinated by the prisoner’s story, I promoted a petition to have the real Birdman, Robert Stroud, paroled after serving many, many years behind bars. Shortly afterwards, I received a thank-you letter from Hollywood. It bore the signature of Burt Lancaster.  Continue reading

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Charlie Rich belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame

By Ray Bennett

LONDON — Charlie Rich is the biggest star in country music not to be admitted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is time that was corrected.

Charlie, who died in 1995 aged 62, was one of the best-loved names in the genre as a songwriter, singer and piano player. His recordings of ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘Most Beautiful Girl’ made him an international smash on country and mainstream charts. He won major awards, appeared in folksy Clint Eastwood comedies and headlined in Las Vegas. Continue reading

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At a country pub with Barnaby from ‘Midsomer Murders’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘How on earth,’ asked John Nettles, ‘can Tom Barnaby be regarded as sexy? I haven’t the faintest notion.’ The British actor, who turns 80 today, played Detective Chief Inspector Barnarby on the internationally successful ‘Midsomer Murders’ for fourteen years but the reaction of fans in more than 200 territories around the world baffled him. He noted that one newspaper described Barnaby as ‘half man, half walnut and full sex god’ and said, ‘I quite liked that.’ Continue reading

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How movie queen Merle Oberon hid her dark past

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Michael Korda, publisher, novelist and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Simon & Schuster who turns 90 today, had a most colourful childhood with his uncle, film producer Alexander Korda who with a string of epic productions was the kingpin of British films in the Thirties and Forties.

His aunt was Merle Oberon (pictured), a classically beautiful ‘English’ actress who starred in romantic pictures such as ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Desiree’ and ‘A Song to Remember’ opposite top leading men such as Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Paul Muni, Gary Cooper and Marlon Brando. Her sudden rise to fame came when she married Korda and she went on to great success as one of the glamour queens of Hollywood. Continue reading

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Why, oh, so serious Charlton Heston never ran for office

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Charlton Heston, who was born on this day in 1923, was as stiff in person as he invariably was onscreen. He had not yet become a shill for the National Rifle Association when we spoke but I knew he had veered from his early liberal views to support right-wing Republicans. He took himself very seriously in both acting and political activism so I asked him if he would ever run for office. Continue reading

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