Thursday, September 30, 2021

Bonus Quote of the Day (David Denby, on ‘Consummate Actress’ Deborah Kerr)

“Deborah Kerr…started out by portraying nuns and nice English ladies. It is commonly said that she saved her career by playing openly sexual women. This is true, though one hastens to add that, unlike the era’s bombshells, Kerr, a consummate actress, displayed many different ways of being sexy….Deborah Kerr made maturity exciting. There’s no one remotely like her today.”—David Denby, “Critic’s Notebook: To Eternity,” The New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2007

Deborah Kerr was born 100 years ago today in Helensburgh, Scotland. The “openly sexual” characters that Denby had in mind were undoubtedly the compassionate (and neglected) football coach’s wife in Tea and Sympathy and the bitter (and horribly hurt) officer’s wife in From Here to Eternity.

Kerr’s versatility and range enabled her to elevate even decidedly pedestrian material to something like a touch of class. With stronger scripts, such as From Here to Eternity and the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” The Innocents, she played a central part in the making of classics.

Long after her film heyday, I saw her in a 1980s TV remake of Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. I chuckled at the starchiness she injected into the barrister’s nurse played in the original by Elsa Lanchester. I kept hoping, in vain, to see more of her.

The next time I saw her was far sadder: in 1994, when Hollywood finally got around to awarding her the Oscar she should have won decades before (and even this time, it was a consolation prize—an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award). My heart sank at the sight of the nervous, aging woman onstage far from the vibrant actress of my memory.

Fortunately, we have those films to remind us of her subtlety, elegance—and a deeper, luminous quality present in the accompanying photo, explained, not long before her death in 2007, by her second husband, writer Peter Viertel:

“The camera goes right through the skin. The camera brings out what you are, and in her case, there was always a kind of a humanity that she had in all of the things that she played . . . I think she made movies that have never worn off their splendor.”

Quote of the Day (Rob Lowe, on the Malibu Kids of His Youth)

“Malibu kids are isolated, solitary by nature, and when among their peers they form small, extremely tight cliques. The surfers. The burn-outs. The brains. The nerds. There are also those who seem like ghosts, not belonging to anyone or any clique. The Lost Boys of Malibu. And indeed, their tragic narrative of freak accidents and death will play itself out throughout my teen years.” —Actor Rob Lowe, Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography (2011)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Photo of the Day: Bird Watching, State Line Lookout, Alpine NJ

State Line Lookout, just off Palisades Interstate Parkway, offers more than just breathtaking views of the Hudson River about half a mile south of the New Jersey-New York state line. It also provides a prime viewing spot for bird watchers, on the forested ridge of the Palisades Cliffs.

As you can tell from the photo I took this morning, the bird watchers were out in full force, wielding binoculars, cameras and unabashed awe at what they observed. A chart next to the group tallied the avian creatures they’d already seen by noon (osprey, bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels, merlins), and other species seen this year (Northern herons, coopers’ hawks, broad-winged hawks, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons)—all compared with the totals for these birds last year.

It was easy to see what drove the bird watchers to this spot on this day: the discovery of, creatures in all their winged glory, swooping and diving under an azure sky. But it’s also a matter of patient observation and documentation as much as it is appreciation, as those who linger here report their findings to the Website

Quote of the Day (Melissa Errico, on Music, Memory and History)

“Music is all about how we turn big questions about memory and history into the personal ones of living in and out of the past. A lot of my job as a performer is to make the archival past available to people, American Songbook stuff. I try to make it occur now—not just for my emotions, for your emotions. I think it’s very healing. Nostalgia is sort of a pejorative word, but it’s an essential feeling. Nostalgia suits me because I can speak on its behalf. I have history now, but I didn’t have it before. While other people are saying, ‘Oh, poor you; you’re an older actress,’ I’m thinking, Are you kidding me? I’ve never had more information to share. I’m not just an information bearer. I try to take in information, but my next step is to make it raw and expansive and natural and available.”—Singer-actress Melissa Errico quoted in “Soapbox—The Columnists: WSJ. Asks Six Luminaries to Weigh in on a Single Topic. This Month: Nostalgia,”, October 2019

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (John le Carre, on the British Embassy in Cold War West Germany)

“Imagine a sprawling factory block of no merit, the kind of building you see in dozens on the western bypass, usually with a symbol of its product set out on the roof; paint about it a sullen Rhenish sky, add an indefinable hint of Nazi architecture, just a breath, no more, and erect in the rough ground behind it two fading goalposts for the recreation of the unwashed, and you have portrayed with fair accuracy the mind and force of England in the Federal Republic.”— British-Irish spy novelist David Cornwell, a.k.a. John le Carre (1931-2020), A Small Town in Germany (1968)

Over the course of his remarkable half-century of writing, John le Carre produced countless vivid descriptions such as this, leading historian Simon Schama, after the novelist’s death late last year, rightly hail him, in a Financial Times retrospective, as “a sketch-artist of fateful topography.”

There is more than a little truth to the contention by former British national security official Dr. Lynette Nusbacher, in a blog post for The Times of Israel, that le Carre “increasingly tended towards caricature of Americans as ridiculous, absurdly zealous, but immensely powerful; and towards America’s enemies as blameless.” 

But his best work will survive him for the manifest gifts on display: not just a new level of realism in spy novels, but also vivid description, an ironic narrative voice, and sharp dialogue.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Quote of the Day (Christine Baranski, on Her Frustrating Early Auditions)

“After I graduated [from Juilliard], I found myself rather like, ‘Why am I going up for these skinny, gangly, awkward funny girls?’ And then I’m like, ‘Well, it’s because you’re kind of a skinny, funny girl.’ ”—Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Christine Baranski on her early auditions, quoted in Rebecca Milzoff, “The New Adventures of Christine Baranski,” New York Magazine, Sept. 17, 2012

(The image accompanying this post is a cropped photo of Ms. Baranski, at a 2010 Metropolitan Opera performance of Das Rheingold, by David Shankbone.)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Teresa of Calcutta, on Silence and Being Alone With God)

“We need silence to be alone with God, to speak to Him, to listen to Him, to ponder His words deep in our hearts. We need to be alone with God in silence to be renewed and transformed. Silence gives us a new outlook on life. In it we are filled with the energy of God himself that makes us do all things with joy.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), Mother Teresa: Essential Writings (2001)

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Judith Viorst, on ‘The Best of Friends’)

“The best of friends, I still believe, totally love and support and trust each other, and bare to each other the secrets of their souls, and run—no questions asked—to help each other, and tell harsh truths to each other when they must be told.

“But we needn't agree about everything (only 12-year-old girl friends agree about everything) to tolerate each other's point of view. To accept without judgment. To give and to take without ever keeping score. And to be there, as I am for them and as they are for me, to comfort our sorrows, to celebrate our joys.” —American essayist, journalist, poet, and psychoanalysis researcher Judith Viorst, “Friends, Good Friends—and Such Good Friends,” Redbook, October 1977

Friday, September 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sending Up a Down-at-the-Heels Screenwriter)

“[Studio exec] Jack [Berners] looked at him—he saw a sort of whipped misery in Pat's eye that reminded him of his own father. Pat had been in the money before Jack was out of college—with three cars and a chicken over every garage. Now his clothes looked as if he'd been standing at Hollywood and Vine for three years.”—American novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), “A Man in the Way,” in The Pat Hobby Stories (1941)

Longtime readers, I hope, have noticed a pattern in this blog: the first and last days of the workweek feature a humorous quote. (Comic relief is seldom more necessary than during these times, I think.) But I don’t think many of you would have expected to see such an item from F. Scott Fitzgerald, born 125 years ago today in St. Paul, Minn.

But, as I made clear in this post from three years ago, Fitzgerald’s life—even his desperate last few years as a Hollywood screenwriter—furnished material for his irony and wit.

Few were more responsible for his tragic image than himself. He often obscured his humor through his self-mythologizing as the symbol of Jazz Age excess and comeuppance, as well as his discounting of short stories produced under the crushing financial pressure to pay for his wife Zelda’s mental treatment and daughter Scottie’s education.

The 17 Hobby stories, written for Esquire Magazine, did help relieve some of this stress. According to David S. Brown’s biography of the novelist, Paradise Lost, they earned him a total of $4,250, or $68,000 in current dollars.

In a sense, the series—neither as long nor as complex as his more ambitious short stories of the Twenties and early Thirties—enabled him to tap into personal and creative instincts towards comedy that had existed from his early manhood. All his life he loved pranks, and friends remembered how he would laugh at his own expense.

A quarter century before The Pat Hobby Stories, he had written pieces for Princeton’s humor magazine and a two-act musical comedy for the university’s Triangle Club.

Moreover, several of his 1920s works sparkled with elegant mockery:

*“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922) centers on the world’s richest man, Braddock Washington, who conceals from the world a diamond so large that “if it were offered for sale not only would the bottom fall out of the market, but also, if the value should vary … there would not be enough gold in the world to buy a tenth of it.”

*“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922) has a title character who so unnerved all around him by a process he can’t control—aging in reverse—that they are driven to upbraid him without hope for his correction: “There’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I really don't think it's very considerate."

* “The I.O.U.” (once thought lost, then finally published in The New Yorker in 2017) is narrated by a publisher with unabashedly commercial instincts. (“I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.”)

* “How to Live on $36,000 A Year" (1924, later part of his posthumous collection, The Crack-Up), is a tongue-in-cheek essay on living well beyond one’s means. (According to the budget he and Zelda had formulated, as their early spending spree ended, “Our allowance for newspapers should be only a quarter of what we spend on self-improvement, so we are considering whether to get the Sunday paper once a month or to subscribe for an almanac.”)

The subjects of Fitzgerald’s early satire were social status and social expectations. By the time of The Pat Hobby Stories, the source of his humor had become the absurd lengths to which characters will go to avoid personal catastrophe.

The protagonist of these stories, Pat Hobby, became, in effect, a means by which Fitzgerald could laugh at his own straitened circumstances by imagining someone even more desperate—not just an alcoholic devalued by the Hollywood dream factory, but a womanizer and con artist without the esteem that the novelist’s contemporaries felt for him.

“The series is characterized by a really bitter humor,” Fitzgerald wrote Nathan Kroll, who was considering turning it into a play, “and only the explosive situations and the fact that Pat is a figure almost incapable of real tragedy or damage saves it from downright unpleasantness.”

Nobody will ever group Fitzgerald with Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and James Thurber among the greatest American humorists. But, unlike frenemy Ernest Hemingway, his was a generous humor, unmarked by cruelty, even as he depicted those like himself who lost their footing on the ladder to success.

Ironically, though unsuccessful in his attempts to succeed on screen and stage, Fitzgerald provided comic fodder for others through The Pat Hobby Stories. In 1987, Christopher Lloyd (most famous as the erstwhile Rev. Jim of Taxi and Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future and its sequels), took on the role of the hilarious hack in the “Pat Hobby Teamed With Genius” installment of the PBS trilogy Tales From the Hollywood Hills.

Then, two years ago, the Edinburgh Fringe mounted its own adaptation of the stories, with Paul Birchard (in the image accompanying this post) as the screenwriter.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, for Those We’ll ‘Meet and Live and Love Again’)

“I'll see you in my dreams
When all the summers have come to an end
I'll see you in my dreams
We'll meet and live and love again.”—American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” from his Letter to You CD (2020)
Bruce Springsteen, my favorite musician, was born 72 years ago today in Long Branch, New Jersey. My favorite album of his nearly five-decade career remains the first one I encountered by him as a high-school sophomore, Born To Run, a song collection revolving about youth, yearning and searching and running for a place in the world.
But over the last year, I have also felt an emotional tug towards the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s Letter to You. Inspired partly by the loss of former bandmate George Theiss, it is not about lives in motion, but those at eternal rest. Rather than the summers of Springsteen’s youth, heated by the desires for love and all his music could achieve, he is now, as in the attached photo, accepting that winter is here.
Like many other people—and particularly those in my baby boomer age group—I’ve lost more than the usual number of relatives and friends in the last year, to both COVID and non-COVID-related issues. So, whenever I’ve listed to The Boss’s mournful meditation on loss and mortality, their images come to mind with insistent poignancy, along with the assurance I share with Springsteen that we’ll rejoice again in the afterlife.

Quote of the Day (Matthew Arnold, on Self-Knowledge)

“O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
‘Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!’"—English poet-critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), “Self-Dependence,” from The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840-1867 (1909)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (Josep Pla, on Autumn and the Sea)

"Autumn is the season most suited to the work of men today. At this time of year city dwellers discover that streets and squares are clean and luminous, the air is light and cool, and people walk with a spring in their step. Since this has to do with temperament, I think I am a man of the sea and working at sea is what I find most congenial, agreeable and easy to grasp. I cannot disassociate the sea from autumn." — Catalan journalist and author Josep Pla (1897-1981), diary entry for Nov. 9, 1918, in The Gray Notebook, translated by Peter Bush (2013)

I took the image accompanying this post when I was on vacation in the autumn of 2014 in Beaufort, SC, by the Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (The Beach Boys, on Summer, ‘Gone Away’)

“Summer's gone
Summer's gone away
Gone away
With yesterday.”— Jon Bon Jovi, Joseph Thomas, and Brian Wilson, “Summer’s Gone,” performed by the Beach Boys on their That's Why God Made the Radio CD (2012)

(The picture accompanying this post shows The Beach Boys back in their Sixties heyday, including two Wilson Brothers who have died: Carl and Dennis. They are "Gone away/With yesterday," like the youth of the surviving members of the band--and, indeed, that of the first two generations of their listeners.)

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on ‘The Beauty of the World’)

“The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” —English novelist-essayist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Monday, September 20, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘3rd Rock from the Sun,’ on the Sixties)

Dr. Mary Albright [played by Jane Curtin]: [talking about the '60s] “You wouldn't believe it to look at me now, but back then, I was a wild woman. If I wanted to do something, I just did it. Did you ever drop acid?”

Dr. Dick Solomon [played by John Lithgow]: [lying] “Oh, constantly.”

Dr. Albright: “You did a lot of tripping?”

Dr. Solomon: “That's how I dropped the acid.” —3rd Rock from the Sun, Season 1, Episode 14, “The Dicks They Are A-Changin',” original air date Apr. 9, 1996, teleplay by Michael Glouberman and Andrew Orenstein, directed by Robert Berlinger

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Peter, on How ‘God Shows No Partiality’)

“Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34-35 (Revised Standard Version)

(The image accompanying this post is from a painting of the apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Words in Print and Digital Form)

“When I have a book or magazine in hand, I generally read every word, attentive not alone to meaning but to style. In digital form, prose has a different feel; style gives way to mere communication. If I discover an essay or article on, say, that runs to more than 25 paragraphs, by the fifteenth paragraph or so I feel a tug of impatience I rarely feel with printed prose. The idea of reading serious poetry online doesn’t even qualify as an abomination.”—American essayist and editor Joseph Epstein, “Casual: Kindle at the Cleaners,” The Weekly Standard, Nov. 14, 2011

Later in the same essay, Epstein observes, “I like the look of books, the heft of them in my hands, their different sizes and various fonts and dust jackets, the smell of them.”

Amen, I say to that. Yes, I have used a Kindle, and I value digital communication for putting at my fingertips what I wouldn’t be able to discover otherwise, such as the original sources of many quotes cited on this blog.

But a printed book, as a physical artifact, is an often undervalued work of art. You don’t have to be an old fogy to appreciate the labor it took to produce it. Maybe that’s why so many of us remain stubbornly resistant to the digital incursion.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Robert Klein, on Halftime Shows, Marching Bands, and Mayonnaise)

“Halftime shows [of football games] really stink. They start psyching you up for the halftime about a half-hour before the halftime, so you won’t switch to the other league. [Mimicking voice of announcer] ‘What do we have here for them, Bill, at halftime?’ ‘The Phillips High School Marching Band, Ralph. They’re state champs, as you remember.’ [Imitates sound of viewer snoring.] They work so hard, the kids! Really. And what happens? ‘Come on, Frank. Let’s get a couple of hot dogs and take a leak! Come on!’ There are very few people who really care. One goes, ‘Not me. I’m not going to miss this halftime show! They’re the high school marching band—state champs!’ They always pay tribute to something, a salute. ‘And now [echo], under the direction of Jay Carlton Blanton [echo], the Phillips High School Marching Band [echo] will pay a tribute ... to mayonnaise!’ They form a gigantic mayonnaise jar on the field. One kid missed practice, doesn't know where to go with the trombone. He's running around like a chicken without a head. From the stands it looks like a fly in the mayonnaise jar. And they announce it: ‘There's a fly in the mayonnaise jar! Very clever...’"—American stand-up comic and actor Robert Klein, Child of the 50's LP (1973)

I was lucky enough to see Robert Klein at the Dr. Central Park Music Festival in late July 1977. He had the ability to make the crowd starting at the Wollman Ice Skating Rink and sprawling out to the surrounding rocks feel like a small, intimate room. To use the term of the stand-up profession, he killed.

The Bronx-born comedian, who appeared numerous times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and in HBO’s first comedy special back in 1975, influenced a host of subsequent comedians with his observational humor, including Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, and Jerry Seinfeld. Remarkably, even routines like the above, dating back nearly 50 years, have aged little or nothing.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Dante, on Opportunists in Hell)

“Here sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled
On the starless air, spilling my soul to tears.
A confusion of tongues and monstrous accents toiled
In pain and anger, voices hoarse and shrill
And sounds of blows, all intermingled, raised
Tumult and pandemonium that still
Whirls on the air forever dirty with it
As if a whirlwind sucked at sand. And I,
Holding my head in horror, cried: ‘Sweet Spirit,
What souls are these who run through this black haze?’
And he to me: ‘These are the nearly soulless
Whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
Of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
But only for themselves. The High Creator
Scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
And Hell will not receive them since the wicked
Might feel some glory over them.’”—Italian poet Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265-1321), “The Inferno” (Part I of The Divine Comedy), Canto 3, translated by American poet John Ciardi (1977)
This week marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri. I almost forgot to mark the event on this blog until I found a link on the Website for BBC Radio mentioning it.
As I wrote this post, I listened to Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony to put me in the appropriate mood. But so extraordinary was the poet’s imagination and style that I had little need to call to mind favorite passages of his Divine Comedy, which English biographer, translator and literary critic Ian Thomson, in a 2018 article for The Irish Times, termed “the most original and audacious treatment of the afterlife in Western literature.”
Many translators have tackled this epic (notably, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and—more surprisingly, to fans of her detective fiction—Dorothy L. Sayers). 

But John Ciardi’s appeals to me the most. It’s the one I first encountered as a high school senior, then used again while in college, and its use of terza rima stanzas (an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme) gives the best sense of how Dante could compress so much into so few words.
Canto 3 became a particular favorite of three of the most charismatic 20th-century Presidents:
*Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1911 a well-received essay for The Outlook on “Dante and the Bowery,” and used much of the imagery from the canto in his 1910 address, “The Man in the Arena”;
*Franklin Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party renomination for President in 1936 in his “Rendezvous With Destiny” address, which defended his administration by warning of indifference in the field of the Depression’s suffering: “Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales”; and
*John F. Kennedy misattributed these words to the poet while being correct about the message that Dante wished to impart: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
The neutrality that Dante is criticizing (those “whose lives concluded neither praise nor blame”) springs not from a plague-on-both-your houses disgust with two opponents, but rather from a cold calculation of advantage amid tumult. Its great fictional epitome is Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, who tells the careful, secretive counselor Varys that “Chaos is a ladder.”
Here in Hell, Dante warns, such men have all the chaos and tumult they can want, but they reap no advantage from it.
Contemporary cynics can’t be faulted for thinking that countless current officeholders are unwittingly clamoring for a chance to join this suffering infernal throng. It just goes to show that technology may change human culture, but not human nature.
The image accompanying this post, by the way, is Mappa dell' Inferno (“The Abyss of Hell”), by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

This Day in TV History (‘Columbo,’ Top TV Detective, Premieres)

Sept. 15, 1971—What many of its fans regard as the greatest detective series in television history, Columbo, premiered as part of “The NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie,” along with McCloud and McMillan and Wife.

I began watching Columbo in the sixth grade and it quickly became what later programmers would call “much-watch TV.” Like many other viewers, I chuckled at the personal touches that Peter Falk used to make the rumpled detective his own: the beat-up 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible, the basset hound, the foul-smelling cigars, and, of course, that raincoat.

But two other aspects of the show also endeared it to me: First, the weighing of evidence—not just hunting for clues, but also deliberating whether they were significant or even in keeping with the context of the scene. It helped cement a research orientation that eventually led me to become, at different times, a librarian, writer and editor.

Second, the murders that Columbo investigated were seldom committed by career criminals or gang members, but instead by the crème de la crème of society—a tycoon, a football team owner, an author, a movie star, a general or a politician, to name a few. It was a seemingly unending trail of villains with not just all the power and privilege someone could have, but enough craftiness to kill a human being and dispose of the evidence or manufacture a red herring.

Yet in each episode, the audience got to root for the underdog—an unglamorous detective who used not a gun or even his fists, but a carefully concealed intelligence that made the elite submit to the same forces of justice that everyone else had to do.

McCloud and McMillan and Wife, the other two occupants of the 8:30-10 PM Tuesday timeslot, have not lingered in the popular imagination to the same extent and are not seen as much today, even on vintage TV channels like MeTV and Cozi.

But Columbo endures—partly because of the genius of its format (a cat-and-mouse game between killer and detective) and partly because of the actor who brought the character to gloriously idiosyncratic life.

During this pandemic, I have watched and rewatched many of its 69 episodes, whether on cable or DVD. Others share my addiction, including the creators of the Websites “The Columbophile,” “The Columbo Podcast,” and the modestly titled “The Ultimate Columbo Site.”

I admit that, to some extent, using the September 1971 date as the starting point for the series is a bit arbitrary. Falk first appeared in the role in the 1968 TV movie "Prescription: Murder," then reprised it, in the spring of 1971, in the pilot for the series, “Ransom for a Dead Man.”

But the show began in earnest when NBC placed it as part of a rotating “wheel” with McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver as a fish-out-of-water New Mexico marshal brought to the streets of New York, and McMillan and Wife, with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James attempting to recreate the witty repartee of the “Thin Man” movie series of the Thirties and Forties.

Being grouped with the other two series satisfied one of the concerns of Falk, who wanted to keep his hand in movies and use the extra time between episodes working on scripts. (He had already been in a weekly meat-grinder of a series in The Trials of O'Brien, which lasted only 22 episodes in the 1965-66 season before being done in by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Like his character, he was dogged and obsessed with details, sometimes testing the patience of series creators Richard Levinson and William Link even as he helped improve the quality of individual episodes.

Longtime writing partners who had created the long-running private-eye series Mannix, Levinson and Link were inspired to produce a far more cerebral series by their youthful reading of Fyodor Dostoyefsky’s Crime and Punishment (featuring the detective Porfiry Petrovich), G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, and the “Ellery Queen” short stories and novels. Columbo would blend the quirky investigator of the first two sources and the relentlessly logical reasoner in the Queen stories.

Levinson and Link first outlined the character in 1960 in the live-to-air murder mystery “Enough Rope,” part of the Chevy Mystery Show drama anthology. The lieutenant, as in his later incarnation, went by no first name and pursued his suspect with initially innocent but increasingly relentless questions. But Bert Freed was a burly actor quite different physically from the shorter Falk.

Next, the writing duo reworked their script into a play for Thomas Mitchell (perhaps most famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s Irish father in Gone With the Wind). But the Oscar-winning character actor died of cancer before the drama could be taken to Broadway.

A few years later, Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby were suggested for the role. But Cobb’s schedule was too full, and Crosby was reluctant to come out of semi-retirement to accept the rigors of a series.

Highly regarded as a dramatic actor by Levinson and Link, Crosby would have made the character much like himself: smooth, laid-back, pipe-smoking. But Falk, in addition to the personal accoutrements I mentioned earlier, made the lieutenant a figure eminently ripe for underestimation by unwary criminals: so gravelly voiced, stooped, squinting (making use of the actor's glass eye), and shambling that his character was once mistaken for a homeless man in a soup kitchen.

You can still see Falk finding his way in his first appearance in the role, in Prescription: Murder. Like Leonard Nimoy in the pilot for Star Trek, he accentuates the intense, relentless aspects of his character initially. The passage of three years led him to emphasize Columbo's more offbeat traits in Ransom for a Dead Man

Nevertheless, this surface “half-assed Sherlock Holmes” (as Falk called him) didn’t miss a trick, finding an unusual bit of evidence as annoying as a bit between the teeth.

In one of the show’s great comic touches, these murderers fumed when Columbo would wheel around, just before departing, and say, “Just one more thing…” (A phrase that became the title of Falk’s autobiography.) No wonder: He was so implacable that Falk likened being targeted by Columbo to “being nibbled to death by a duck.”

But the actors playing the villains were even more likely to be thrown off guard by Falk’s ad-libbed tricks: a request for a pencil, fumbling for something in his pockets, going off on trivia, talking about his wife or another relative, or, on one memorable occasion, asking a suspect, “How much did you pay for those shoes?”

I have a confession to make here. Maybe this goes back to my Sixties childhood, when I delighted in each week’s “guest villain” on Batman, but I loved Columbo’s adversaries just as much as the detective himself. I practically hissed as these chic, wealthy, famous people carried out their killings in the most cold-blooded, cocky fashion possible, only to be brought to heel by their arrogance and by the investigator who wouldn’t let go of his quarry.

I’m sure every fan has his set of favorite baddies, but most, I think, would return to the actors who came back most often: Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, and my favorite, Jack Cassidy. (Yes, baby boomers: the father of David and Shaun.) These repeat offenders brought different characteristics to the roles (Culp, barely controlled resentment; McGoohan, elegant malice; and Cassidy, preening egotism), but all made memorable impressions.

Three other reasons why I liked the series:

*It gave memorable roles to middle-aged and elderly actresses. At a time when Hollywood often didn’t know what to do with actresses who were beyond the ingenue stage, Columbo provided them with multi-dimensional, if sometimes brief, roles, not necessarily confined to villains. These women included Lee Grant, Anne Baxter, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Kim Hunter, Gena Rowlands, Martha Scott, Vera Miles, Ruth Gordon, Faye Dunaway, and Janet Leigh.

*It boosted the careers of rising talents, in front of or behind the camera. Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) first won wide attention with a Columbo teleplay that Falk publicly praised when the actor picked up the first of his four Emmys for the role, while Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme cut their teeth as directors with some of the series’ most striking episodes. Appearing on the show early in their careers were Blythe Danner, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Sheen, Kim Cattrall, Katey Sagal, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

*It blended realistic characterization and the clues of great detective stories into great scripts. The series ranks #57 on a list of “The 101 Best-Written TV Series” compiled by the Writers Guild of America West.

Just one more thing (where did I hear that before?) on this last point: The best scripts of the series were most likely to have been written in the original run of the series, from 1971 to 1978. After a decade-long hiatus, Falk revived the role in 1989, beginning a string of occasional two-hour TV movies that continued until 2003.

But be warned: the longer the series continued, the lower its quality sank. In no small part, this was because the scripts did not match the quality of the original series. (Another sign of a below-average episode: if one of the guest stars included Falk's second wife, Shera Danese.) 

By this time, Levinson had died while Link was busy with another long-running detective series, Murder She Wrote. As executive producer of the new movies, Falk was involved even more intimately with their creation than he was before. He might have taken on more than he could handle. 

One sign of it: two episodes that departed from the cat-and-mouse format of the show—meaning that any other detective could have been inserted into the space reserved for “Columbo” with no one in the audience being the wiser. Falk loved playing the character so much that he simply didn’t know when to stop.

But at its best, Columbo is virtually unrivaled among detective series. Falk enjoyed acclaim on stage and the big screen, but television gave him his greatest vehicle.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Carlyle, on Difficulties and Progress)

"Every noble work is at first impossible." — Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Past and Present (1843)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Quote of the Day (Gelsey Kirkland, on Children and Uncertainty)

“Fortunately for children, the uncertainties of the present always give way to the enchanted possibilities of the future.” —American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (with Greg Lawrence), Dancing on My Grave: An Autobiography (1986)

Monday, September 13, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘M*A*S*H,’ on a General Going Out in a Different Kind of Glory)

[General Robert Kelly—a.k.a. “Iron Guts”—has died after a nocturnal visit to the tent of head nurse Margaret Houlihan. Once the body is discovered, a coverup begins.]

Colonel Wortman [played by Keene Curtis]: “Get me Kimpo Air Base. I want a squadron of jets. And get me the Navy for some offshore bombardment. Major General Robert ‘Iron Guts’ Kelly is gonna perish in a full-scale, blazing, all-out glorious, star-spangled bannered death.”

Lt. Col. Henry Blake [played by McLean Stevenson] [walks over to talk to Hawkeye and Trapper]: “Hey, guys.”

Army Capt. "Trapper John" McIntyre [played by Wayne Rogers]: “Yes, Henry.”

Henry: “Is he talking about killing a General who's already dead?”

Trapper John: “That's right, Henry.”

Henry: “Well, uh, isn't that sort of crazy?”

Wortman [on phone]: “And rockets! I want plenty of rockets!”

Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce [played by Alan Alda]: “That's for the red glare.”—M*A*S*H, Season 3, Episode 4, “Iron Guts Kelly,” original air date Oct. 1, 1974, teleplay by Sid Dorfman, directed by Don Weis

[The image accompanying this post shows McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers as Henry and Trapper.]

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. James, on the Rich and the Poor in Religious Assemblies)

“For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?”—James 2: 2-6 (Revised Standard Version)

The image accompanying this post, of St. James the Apostle, was created in 1516 by the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Photo of the Day: World Trade Center Memorial, Overpeck Park, Bergen County NJ

Not just in New York City, but in its surroundings, many victims of the attacks at the World Trade Center resided, and a number of these towns have held annual ceremonies in the last 20 years honoring the fallen. In New Jersey alone, there are estimated to be more than 150 such memorials.

One of these areas was Bergen County in Northern New Jersey, where I live. This morning one of these commemorations occurred there, in Overpeck Park. I came by later in the day, when signs of the ceremony were still evident, and took this photograph.

I like the heart design around the "Towers" where the victims' names are inscribed. They indicate where those people will always remain.

Quote of the Day (The ‘9/11 Commission Report,’ on America’s ‘Unity of Purpose’ After the Attacks)

“We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a nation—one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren.”—“Executive Summary of the 9/11 Commission Report,” released Aug. 21, 2004

I have written, glancingly, on 9/11 before, but not really about my own experiences that day, till now. I watched with my work colleagues from our midtown Manhattan office, initially with bafflement, then with distress and grief, as first one, then a second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Hours later, safe on a long bus ride on the other side of the Hudson River in New Jersey, I watched a skyline whose beauty I had never properly appreciated before, marred now with coils of dense, deadly smoke spiraling upward from what had been the mighty Twin Towers.

When I returned to the city a couple of days later, mournful bagpipes playing in the Port Authority Building on 42nd Street lamented the dead. Leaflets were plastered on the streets, in an often futile search for the missing.

At the firehouse on Eighth Avenue at 48th Street, photos were posted outside of fallen comrades. For years afterward, whenever I heard the clang of fire bells while working in my building, I offered up fast prayers that those going out on trucks would, unlike many of those earlier heroes, survive and return home safely to the families who loved them.

There are many reasons to feel dismay on this 20th anniversary of 9/11: the chaos that many of us in Manhattan experienced that day; the nearly 3,000 lives lost immediately, there, at the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93 in rural Shanksville, PA; the roughly 4,600 first responders and survivors enrolled in the WTC Health Program who have since died; and, of course, the dispiriting return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But it is that loss of “unity of purpose and unity of effort”—the nonpartisan spirit of instinctive self-sacrifice and looking out for each other—that maybe pains me the most. It will take historians years to figure out how we lost our way in the generation since then.

But clearly, toxins were released not just into Lower Manhattan that day, but into the American body politic. We have gone from praying for each other to shouting at each other.

For good or ill, the question of how America would respond to the horror of 9/11 has been settled. The question of how to remove the foul dust of skepticism and suspicion permeating so much of the national political spectrum has not. That is the nightmare we face all this time after our generation’s Pearl Harbor, except without the sense of closure eventually achieved after that earlier attack on America.

Yet I’m reluctant to end on this dispiriting note. I prefer to remember what a priest noted in a sermon I heard not long afterward, as he recalled the service of firefighters on 9/11: “Hate started the fires that day, but love put them out.”

(I took the image accompanying this post: the Reflecting Pool at the 9/11 Memorial.)

Friday, September 10, 2021

Photo of the Day: The Wall Street Bull, NYC

Early the other morning, as I picked up that day’s copy of The Wall Street Journal, the owner of the convenience store where I bought the paper said to me, “I hear there's going to be a crash on Wall Street.”

I closed my eyes for a few seconds. Great, just great, I thought. Let’s see: Afghanistan's ended as a bloody mess. Hurricane Ida made a mess of my hometown. The pandemic’s still raging. There’s still way too many unemployed. And now, this?

“Well, no, I hadn’t heard that,” I muttered at last, tired before the day had barely begun.

Well, there are still incurable optimists who will have none of that negative talk about the stock market. They have kept it afloat for years, even when their confidence appeared more like what onetime Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

Later that day, on only my second trip to New York City since the start of the pandemic, I saw the symbol of that hope in Lower Manhattan, near Bowling Green. The sculpture I photographed then, which accompanies this post, is formally named “The Charging Bull,” but many call it “The Wall Street Bull.” So shall I (even though some cynics may say that far too much bull is peddled in the Financial District on a regular basis).

Italian-American artist Arturo Di Modica (who died in February this year) originally installed the 11-foot, 7,000-lb. sculpture in time for Christmas 1989, in front of the New York Stock Exchange. I don’t know many people who would turn their noses up at a free gift, but the people in charge of the Stock Exchange did, and got it removed.

But in the meantime, the big creature had endeared himself to many, many more others in the area, and they succeeded in transferring it two blocks away, to its current location. Now it's a tourist magnet. (Indeed, I had to wait quite a while for enough people to step away so that I could catch the bull, so to speak, in all his glory, alone but ready to charge.)

You can read more about this outdoor sculpture in this post from the Web site “The Wall Street Experience.”