Sunday, August 31, 2014

So who is Karl Wiedergott, anyway?

German-born actor Karl Wiedergott in the movie 2 Days. Inset: one of Karl's many, many Simpsons characters

Bill Clinton on The Simpsons
If you have been following the 12-day Simpsons marathon on FXX, there is one name you have undoubtedly seen in the cast credits but may not be able to immediately connect to any particular role. Born in Germany in 1969, Karl Wiedergott lent his vocal talents to a staggering 248 episodes of the extremely long-running animated series, joining the cast in 1998 and staying with the show until 2010 when he left the United States.

In addition to its six principal cast members (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, etc.) and recurring guest stars (Kelsey Grammar, Marcia Wallace, et al.), The Simpsons employs a talented and versatile troupe of additional voice actors, nearly all of them women. Performers like Russi Taylor, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, and Maggie Roswell have been with the show for decades, voicing a slew of child and adult characters.

The odd man out here, in more ways than one, is Wiedergott. Not only is he male and German, but (unlike the women I just mentioned) he doesn't really have any recurring characters on the show. Instead, along with impersonating celebrities like Bill Clinton and John Travolta, Karl Wiedergott spent his time on The Simpsons bringing life to such parts as "Care Worker," "Angry Man," and "Boyfriend 2." Ironically, this thankless work is probably what Wiedergott is best known for, even though he has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies for nearly 30 years. His CV includes such well-known titles as Coach, Columbo, 21 Jump Street, and Star Trek: Voyager. In 2003, he wrote and acted in Two Days, an indie drama whose cast included Paul Rudd, Adam Scott, and Donal Logue. Other film credits for the actor include 18 Again! (1988) and Breakfast of Champions (1999), in which he coincidentally plays a character named Homer. So there you have it, folks. That's the scoop on Karl Wiedergott. And now you know... the rest of the story.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Novel ideas: A comprehensive guide to the books I didn't write

"How you, uh, how you coming on that novel you're working on, huh?"

"Me, I'm a cab driver."
"Working on my novel" is one of the great cliches/lies of the Internet, a statement as comforting to those who make it as it is annoying to the ones who have to read it.

There's a whole Twitter account devoted to people's laughable claims that they're working on novels. This account has recently been turned into a book of its own by Penguin, an impressive feat since it consists only of retweets from supposed authors bragging about their creativity and productivity. Obviously, if you're on Twitter (or any social media site), you're not working on anything, especially not your novel.

And even if you do happen to write a novel, who will actually want to read the thing? Virtually no one. But, still, it's a tempting fantasy. We don't want to admit that we're bank tellers, janitors, or substitute teachers, so we tell ourselves that we're really "writers" and that the things we actually do for money are mere "day jobs." This goes for all the aspiring "artists" and "musicians" out there, too. No one is really fooled by this. And yet the charade continues.

It's hardly a new phenomenon created by the Internet either. In the pilot for the sitcom Taxi in 1978, career cabbie Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch) counsels newcomer and aspiring art dealer Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) on her first day as an employee of the Sunshine Cab Company. When she says she's "not really a taxi driver," Alex responds:
"Oh, yeah, I know. We're all part-time here. You see that guy over there? Now, he's an actor. The guy on the phone, he's a prize fighter. This lady over here, she's a beautician. The man behind her, he's a writer. Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place."
And you can see his point. There comes a time when you should drop the pretension and admit what you truly are.

Well, I'm proud to say that I am most definitely not working on any novels. I wrote one once a few years ago as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is called Perforated, and it is profoundly unreadable, perhaps even stubbornly anti-readable. I've tried to read it myself and found that this is impossible. (I dare you to get through it.)

Even though 2014 is the first year when I was first actually paid for writing something, I would never ever call myself a writer. I'm not one. Jim Thompson was a writer. Dashiell Hammett was a writer. James M. Cain was a writer. I just work for a market research company. That's the real me, as reluctant as I am to admit it.

But there's a part of my brain that won't stop coming up with ideas for novels. I will confess that I've put myself to sleep many nights thinking about these would-be books, imagining both their composition and eventual reception. I'm never going to actually write any of these books, but I want to get some mileage out of them before consigning them forevermore to the cemetery of expired dreams. So here, for your reading pleasure, is a fairly comprehensive list of my "aborted" novels. I'll give you their titles if I have them, plus a general description of their contents. I'm not including The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls, my never-to-be-completed second NaNo novel, because I actually did finally make a short story out of that.
NOTE: None of these are "joke" ideas fabricated solely for this article. The following are all ideas I legitimately considered fleshing out into novels at one time or another.


This is the big one, the magnum opus that would have defined my career as a writer. Vaguely inspired by the writings of Herman Melville (Moby Dick, Billy Budd) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), it's actually three very separate, distinct volumes, published years apart and linked only by the vague thread of "the sea" and those who make their living from it. As such, it only makes sense to discuss these non-books one at a time.
A fitting soundtrack to the book.

The Scarlet Stevedore - This book would run a couple hundred pages and have the same general sense of pacing as a typical romance novel, though the plot is not romantic in nature. I imagined that this would be by far the most popular entry in the series.

As the title indicates, this novel is about the dockworkers who load and unload cargo from ships. Most of these fellows, at least in the book, are brawny in appearance and coarse in manner. But the title character, whose name would have been something like "Adrian," is distinguished by his unsullied good looks, lovingly maintained blond hair, and relatively refined manners. His coworkers don't resent him because he's actually good at his job. Here, the word "scarlet" refers to his rather scandalous lifestyle as well as the bright red scarf he often wears. 

Along the way, Adrian manages to seduce men and women alike, strictly for his own entertainment. Shallow and selfish, he rather enjoys breaking people's hearts. He is not a cruel person, but he does not take life seriously and is amused by those who do. 

The stevedore's fatal mistake is courting a woman who, up to that point, has led a very pious and religious life and has been a faithful wife and mother. Spurned by Adrian, she hangs herself from a rafter in her modest home. As usual, the stevedore shrugs this off. 

But one day, the woman's husband, driven mad with grief and intent on revenge, confronts Adrian on a pier and challenges him to a fight. A lifelong coward, the stevedore backs away until he is standing at the edge of the pier and has nowhere else to go. Assessing his options, he calmly steps off the pier and disappears into the water. No more is seen of the stevedore, but his red scarf does rise to the surface. The end.

You like old-timey ships?
The Sea is a Briny Mistress - This is the centerpiece of the trilogy, and I wanted it to run at least a thousand pages, maybe more. My desire was for The Sea is a Briny Mistress to become one of those difficult-to-read "classics" assigned to bored and resentful teenagers in high schools across America. As such, the plot would move extremely slowly and the language of the book would be very poetic and flowery, with lengthy philosophical digressions. In short, I wanted this book to be a slog for readers so that, when they finished it, they would feel like they had truly overcome something. 

The story concerns a young man who grows up in a shipping town in the Northeastern United States in the 1850s. Everyone in town is very practical and business-minded, but he is intellectual and curious as a child and is always asking impossible questions that the adults in his life cannot and will not answer. Frustrated, he takes comfort in staring at the Atlantic Ocean and develops the fixed idea that this vast body of water must hold some answers for him. 

As soon as he is able, then, he joins the crew of a cargo ship and embarks upon his new life on the ocean. But the people on the ship are, if anything, even more practical and hard-nosed than the people with whom he'd grown up. They offer the protagonist no answers to his questions. The young man becomes even more frustrated and focuses his attention on a fellow crew member, a grizzled, bearded old man who never speaks. 

Years pass in this manner, and ultimately the man gives up on his philosophical pursuits and settles into the reality of his life on the ship. There are storms and outbreaks of scurvy along the way, but these are presented as mere factual events with no symbolic significance at all. 

One calm night, however, the sky turns a rather incredible shade of reddish-orange, and the man temporarily regains at least a little of his old curiosity about the universe. He stands at the railing, staring at the sky, when he is unexpectedly joined by the bearded old man. The young man senses the presence of the older man but does not turn his head to look at him; neither wants to avert his gaze from the sky. "The silence of God," says the young man, "she is deafening." "Aye," says the old man. It is the only conversation they've ever had. The ship sails on towards its next destination. The end.

A Life Asea (or: Elysium on a Tramp Steamer) - After the ponderous tome that was The Sea is a Briny Mistress, the so-called "Maritime Trilogy" would end on a light note with this slip of a book that barely qualifies as a novel and clocks in at only about a hundred pages. It's simply a series of gently nostalgic monologues by an old salt who reminisces about his life, shares some anecdotes about his experiences on a tramp steamer, and indulges in some crude philosophizing about the nature of existence. Though vanity and memory loss make this fellow a less-than-reliable narrator, he nevertheless manages to convey a genuine contentment with his lot in life. I want to note that I first envisioned this book at least ten years ago, well before the 2013 release of the movie Elysium.


Edith Wharton, my taskmistress.
In college, I had two consecutive courses in which the career of Edith Wharton was covered in great detail. Along the way, I managed to read most (or a great deal) of what she had written and eventually came to resent her the way anyone might resent a demanding boss, though I got some enjoyment out of the novel Custom of the Country and the short story collection entitled Roman Fever.

I felt that Wharton ended up repeating a lot of the same ideas and themes in her writing again and again, and I decided that I could write a Wharton-type novel myself.

The plot would have centered around a handsome but weak-willed man who meets a beautiful, slightly mysterious woman at a snooty society party. They converse only briefly, and the height of eroticism is reached when his glove accidentally brushes her elbow. He is engaged to be married, for reasons of social convenience rather than love, to another woman; and she has a vaguely scandalous background, so a relationship between them is unthinkable. But, still, they obsess over that one fleeting encounter.

The elbow and the glove haunt their memories. Nothing much else really happens here. They both spend about 27 chapters feeling lousy about this arrangement, and eventually one of them dies. The other considers attending the funeral but ultimately decides against it. The end.


This probably would have ended up as a short story, but who knows? I might have padded it out to novel length had I really been overtaken by inspiration.

This is the strange, supernatural saga of an unrepentant, irredeemable criminal (most likely a child murderer) who is given a very lengthy prison sentence and then, defying all natural laws, virtually stops aging. The plot would unfold over several decades, maybe even a century. The world outside changes, but this one particular criminal never does. He leads a very quiet, orderly existence inside the prison and rarely speaks, preferring to spend his time reading, but the other inmates give him a wide berth because there is something deeply unsettling about his very presence.

Prison officials try to suppress the story of the seemingly deathless inmate, but eventually word gets out and he becomes internationally famous. There is a widespread belief that he is the Devil or God incarnate, and cults form in his honor with devotees around the world. Scientists, too, take a keen interest in this most unusual man and demand to study him. I don't know where the plot would have gone from there, but I would have read a lot of Stephen King to get in the proper mindset for this one.


This would have been one of my few attempts at writing something in a purely contemporary vein. I pictured this as the kind of slightly "hip," irreverent novel that might be a minor success in paperback form at chain bookstores.

This would be a sort of modern picaresque novel about a fellow who more or less blunders his way into situations reminiscent of pornographic films, minus even a hint of eroticism. Our protagonist and narrator (calling him a "hero" would be pushing it) is dumpy and underemployed, as are most of the people he bangs in public lavatories and other equally unappetizing locations as he goes about his day.

The weirdest thing about this guy is how blasé he is about all of the unlikely events of his life. The title of the book gives you an indication of his sloppy, informal way of talking. He's fond of adding the prefix "super-" to words, for instance.

This is a tough one to explain in the abstract. The humor of the novel derives (one would hope) from the main character's way of talking, thinking, and behaving. After spending a chapter or so with the guy, the reader would get a sense of what he was like and how he tends to react to things.


I don't know why, but I tend to think about The Very Idea of It just about every time I use the bathroom at work. Gross, I realize, but nevertheless true. The title comes from The Very Thing That Happens, a 1964 collection of "fables and drawings" by Russell Edson. I've never seen or read Edson's book, but a copy of it appears in Daniel Clowes' Ghost World comic, and I suppose that sparked my imagination.

My book, The Very Idea of It, would start out as an Agatha Christie-ish mystery: a locked room murder in a stately English home. Chief Inspector Pembroke of Scotland Yard is brought in to solve the case, and he interviews the handful of relatives and servants who were also on the grounds that day. But none of these folks strike Pembroke as suspicious, and no clues are forthcoming. The dead man's will is read, and everyone is satisfied with it. There is no conflict over the distribution of his estate, and no one seems to mourn the dead man at all after a while.

The story quickly fades from the headlines, and Pembroke moves on to another case without having solved the locked room murder. His reputation is slightly tarnished by this but still basically intact.

Meanwhile, however, Pembroke is secretly miserable. A man has been brutally murdered, and yet there's no outpouring of emotion for him, no public or private outcry over this terrible crime. And Pembroke, the supposedly great detective, has been revealed as impotent in the face of evil. He takes to drink. His marriage falls apart. He loses interest in his job and stops showing up at work.

The novel ends with a drunken Pembroke sprawled across the bed in a cheap hotel room, leafing through a folder of evidence related to the locked room murder in a futile effort to make sense of what has happened. He repeatedly mutters to himself: "The very idea of it... the very idea of it..."

The Caballeros; Chuck, Buddy, Elvis, Jerry Lee, and, Richard.

Perhaps my favorite of the unwritten novels. This one requires a little bit of music history.

In October 1957, Little Richard was so unnerved by the sight of a piece of the Sputnik satellite falling to earth that he temporarily renounced popular music and joined the ministry. In March 1958, Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army. In May 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis suffered a major career setback when the British press made a front page scandal of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. In February 1959, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash while on tour. In December 1959, Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a teenage girl across state lines for immoral purposes.

And so, in a little over two years, five of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll music were felled in one way or another.  By 1960, it really seemed like rock music had been little more than a passing fad. Was this all coincidence or were there sinister forces at work?

This novel suggests that these five young men were a victim of a rather outlandish plot by the Central Intelligence Agency (then a fairly new organization) to "reclaim" America's youth by destroying the corrupting influence of rock 'n' roll. One by one, these five men are rounded up by the CIA and told that they have been selected to take part in a top-secret government mission and that their participation is not optional.

They meet in a secret sub-basement deep below the White House, where a CIA agent informs them that they will be going undercover to collect information on communist subversives hiding in the United States. Their cover is that they will be disguised as a mariachi band from Mexico called "The Los Caballeros." Buddy Holly, a Texan, informs the CIA that "los" means "the," so the band's name translates as "The The Gentlemen." Begrudgingly, the CIA changes it to "The Lost Caballeros."

In truth, none of this matters. The CIA just wants to control the lives of the five men for a while and get them conveniently out of the way so that the seeds of their downfall can be planted elsewhere. (Buddy's plane is tampered with; Elvis' induction process is set in motion; even the Sputnik incident is orchestrated.)

Meanwhile, the Caballeros embark upon their manufactured mission and encounter internal problems of their own as they travel incognito through the United States playing mariachi music to smallish crowds. Ornery, money-hungry Chuck Berry becomes the group's leader because no one dares challenge him. Buddy is the naive small town boy who treats this as a great adventure. Elvis is the flirtatious ladies' man, more interested in chasing skirts than hunting reds. Little Richard is the religious one who believes he has a direct pipeline to God. And Jerry Lee is a whirling dervish of chaos never more than a few seconds away from a fight.

Naturally, a woman comes between them at one point. Specifically, Buddy meets and falls in love with a young lady named Riley Switch, with whom he carries on a chaste, sweet courtship. He even writes a song for her, a tune he thinks will be a smash hit: "Riley Switch/Riley Switch/You done make my heart a-twitch." Later, he finds Riley in bed with Elvis in the motel where the Lost Caballeros are staying, setting up an epic Holly-Presley fistfight. Later, Buddy changes the lyrics of his song ("Riley Switch/Riley Switch/She's a low-down cheatin' bitch."), then discards them altogether and uses the melody for a song called "Peggy Sue."

I was toying with the idea of having the entire story be told by an elderly Jerry Lee, who is supposedly writing his memoirs from the Missouri ranch where he has retired.


Never got too far with planning this one, but The Gelded Gifthorse was to be a savage parody of young adult (or YA) novels in general and ones about horses in particular. The "hero" is Trevor, a dishwater-dull lad of 11 or 12 whose parents are so bored with him that they send him to live with his aunt and uncle who have an estate in the country. There are no other children on or near the estate, and Trevor spends much of his time in the stables, carrying on one-sided conversations with the horses. After a while, he is given a steed to call his own: a sullen, broken-down gelding named Toby who is just about ready for the glue factory.

Trevor puts a lot of time and effort into bonding with Toby and even invents an elaborate fantasy life for the two of them, but the disgruntled, phlegmatic animal is having none of it. In the climax, Toby kicks Trevor in the head, leaving him simple-minded. The uncle considers shooting the horse but ends up shooting the boy instead.


This is not a "novel," per se, but rather a themed collection of short stories. The idea for this took hold in my mind when I bought an album of TV game show theme songs. Looking over the track listing, I noticed that the titles of these programs often suggested danger, drama, conflict, and intrigue. Some of them sounded almost like vintage spy novels. But these names could be applied to all kinds of situations. So Gameshow! would consist of stories called "Password," "To Tell the Truth," "Jeopardy!," "The Wheel of Fortune," "Let's Make a Deal," and more.

None of these would have any direct connection to the shows for which they are named. The titles would just serve as inspirational starting points. Maybe "Password" is about a double agent with a lousy memory who forgets an important phrase he's supposed to say at a crucial time. Or "To Tell the Truth" might be a humorous story about someone who is forced by circumstances to tell an uncomfortable truth about himself in a social situation, perhaps meeting his future wife's parents for the first time.

Anyway, this book would have been a chance for me to indulge in my love of game shows without actually writing about them.


This is one of the more recent additions to the roll call of books I'll never write. Like Gameshow!, it's another collection of short stories built around a single theme. In this case, the idea would be to write an alternate-universe version of rock history, one incident at a time. The stories would be wildly fictional, but the characters would all be drawn from reality. "Crazy Man Crazy," for instance, is about the declining years of Bill Haley, arguably rock's first superstar; it would have been written in the style of Cormac McCarthy. "The Lost Caballeros" (see above) might have been reborn as a short story for this collection, too.

And best of all might be a twisted tale called "The Last Sullivan Show." In reality, The Ed Sullivan Show ended in 1971 after 23 years of presenting some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Elvis and the Beatles. In my alternate timeline, however, it ends in 1978 when Ed reluctantly agrees to have the Sex Pistols on his show. The story builds to an incredibly violent and bloody climax with Ed Sullivan and Johnny Rotten fighting each other to the death on network television.


Yes, this is a novelization of John Waters' 1972 cult classic movie about the battle between two families for the title of "the Filthiest People Alive." But it's not what you're thinking. Most novels based on movies are artless, mercenary hack jobs that merely take a film's script and turn it into clumsy prose. It's not so much writing as it is reformatting. But I wanted Pink Flamingos to be a genuine, honest-to-goodness satirical novel. It would actually be written in the style of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and would treat the events of the movie as if they were absolutely real.


I never really got as far as imagining the plots or characters of these novels. The general idea, however, was to write a series of books with the most boring and uninviting titles imaginable. They'd be "normal" novels on the inside, whatever that means, but the titles and covers would make them look like unimaginably tedious textbooks. I have decided to call this a "trilogy," but the series would have gone more than three books if I could have come up with more titles for them. For now, the trilogy consists of Ice Floes of Norway, The Lost Art of Scrimshaw, and The Mating Habits of Migratory Seabirds. You have no idea how much pleasure I've taken in imagining people's bafflement over these non-books.

TROLLEYTOWN FROLICS: The Making and Unmaking of an American Classic (and other pseudo-reference books)

An example of the fictitious Trolleytown Frolics comic strip. There are so, so many more.

I'm just wild about pseudo-documentaries, mock biographies, manufactured histories, and utterly fraudulent reference books, so there's a whole file drawer in my brain devoted to such projects.

The most dominant of these is probably Trolleytown Frolics: The Making and Unmaking of an American Classic, the story of the creation and development of a comic strip that debuted in the 1930s and is still (supposedly) running today, even though its original creator is long dead. Loosely inspired by the sad saga of cartoonist Percy Crosby, Trolleytown Frolics is the story of how an artist has his creation basically stolen from him, leaving him broke and insane. His comic strip passes from artist to artist over the years, with each transition taking it further away from its roots. New characters are added, others dropped, and the gentle whimsy of the early days evaporates over time.

The current version of the strip is churned out by an assembly line of anonymous writers and artists, and the cast is a confusing jumble of human and animal characters, only a few of whom actually date back to the Great Depression. With newspapers in decline, the very existence of the strip is now in doubt.

I was much more interested in the Trolleytown Frolics saga several years ago, when I wrote and (crudely) drew dozens upon dozens of examples of the strip, mostly from the later "bad" days of the feature when it had become a pale clone of Garfield. My ardor has since cooled, but I still have a thick folder filled with Trolleytown Frolics strips, most drawn in ball point pen or pencil on lined notebook paper. In addition, I still occasionally draw characters from the strip -- Rabbit Sam, Thirsty Lad, Mean Maxine, Sadie Nightingale, Skippy the Wonder Boy, and Uncle Penguin -- on any scrap of paper that lands in my possession.

I have a couple of other false history projects, too, but nothing so well-documented or baroque as the history of Trolleytown Frolics.

One is the saga of the most tampered-with television series of all time. It starts in the late 1950s as a frothy domestic comedy called Oh, Those Lembecks! and ends in the early 1970s as a gritty cop drama simply called Lembeck. Never really a hit, it stays on the air mainly due to network politics and the exchange of favors among the top brass. Over the course of 13 years, this television show inadvertently manages to reflect all the changes in television programming over the course of an extremely volatile period of American history, not just shifts in audience taste but in morality as well.

Without intending to do so, the producers of Oh, Those Lembecks! managed to create the perfect document of mid-Twentieth-Century American popular culture. Along similar lines was the story of a Martin and Lewis-esque comedy team and their rise and fall in show business. I can distinctly remember typing up a complete timeline for this duo, including various milestones in their career.

These five friends reconvene at Copco Lake every 5 years.

Considerably more straightforward and sincere than most of my proposed novels, This is Us at the Lake House was directly inspired by the Five-Year Photo Project, in which a group of five friends recreate the same vacation photo once every five years at California's Copco Lake.

I don't know why exactly, but I was truly fascinated by these otherwise unremarkable photos and what they conveyed about the nature of time and its often devastating effect upon our lives and our bodies. I made a collage of the mens' faces to show how they changed over the course of 30 years. That collage was essentially going to be my "outline" for the novel, which would have spanned the years from 1980 to 2010.

I tried to avoid learning anything about the real-life guys and their lives. I wanted to make up all that stuff on my own. Judging these five men solely by their faces, I developed character profiles for each of them.

The central character is a smart, sensitive guy who acts as sort of the Kevin Arnold/Gordie Lachance of the group. He notices and remembers things more than the others do. Then, there's the unshakable zen master, the one who simply accepts whatever happens to him and is fond of quoting fortune cookie messages as if they were profound philosophical statements.

There's also a shy, nerdy guy who acts as a sort of sidekick/tag-along to the group and never feels like he quite belongs among them. He's nicknamed "Me, Too" because of his overuse of that phrase.

And then there's "Bulldog," a short but scrappy fellow who makes up in loyalty what he may lack in refinement. He's always there when you need him, and he is very protective of the rest of the group.

Maybe the most interesting and dynamic character is the one guy who's a wild card: possibly brilliant, possibly insane, possessed of great talent and potential but also dogged by a fearsome self-destructive streak. His life is much more up-and-down than those of the other guys, but he keeps making it back to the lake house every five years, right on schedule.

There are marriages, divorces, successes, and failures along the way, and through all of these calamitous events, the five men still find the time to meet and reconnoiter at the lake house they once knew as teenagers.


I'll end this survey (for now) with a sentimental favorite. I read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio as an adult and realized that it would have had a profound effect on me when I was 14 or 15. As an adult, however, all I could think to do was parody Anderson's book and the characters and stories contained within it. I can remember coming up with ridiculously frumpy names for the townspeople, like "Hearth Haverbrook" and "Mercy Pumpkinquaver."

Here's a representative example of the text, one of the few cases where I actually bothered to write something down for a potential novel:
     Boredom is an inevitable fact of life in Prescott, West Pertussis.  A layer of dullness covers the town like a fine, even coat of whitewash on a good picket fence.  It is the kind of place where the prevailing form of birth control is apathy and dreams regularly go unfulfilled without significant protest.
     To Chalk Whitcomb, Prescott was simply "regular."
     "Yes, sir," he'd often remark, "what we have us here is a "regular American town," and all who heard this statement were inclined to agree, for Chalk knew of which he spoke.  In his capacity as editor-in-chief of the Prescott Morning Bee, Chalk Whitcomb had diligently chronicled the goings-on in the town, such as they were, for some thirty years.  No one in Prescott, not even the Reverend Milksop, was better acquainted with the very heart and soul of the town than Chalk.
     The summers are hot here in Prescott.  Winters cold.  Middling in between.  The town went for Roosevelt in the last election and seems poised to go for Taft in the next. Does it matter that both Roosevelt and Taft died decades ago? It does not.
And that'll just about do 'er. If I ever abandon another novel, I'll add it to this article.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The public is the worst part of public transportation

Imagine running into this dude at 6:30 in the morning. Not fun, citizens. Not fun at all.

I hate people. Just flat-out hate 'em. Oh, sure, I can make exceptions for individuals. The person reading this article right now might be a great guy or gal. But a generalized, all-encompassing love for humanity? No way. People are just the worst. Why do I feel that way? Because I've gotten to know them through the miracle of public transportation.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Where the hell have I been?

Archie and the gang reenact the myth of Sisyphus.

I have not been updating this blog much for the last couple of weeks (shame on me), but I have a valid-ish excuse. If you read last week's Ed Wood Wednesdays article (and please, please do if you haven't already), you'll know that I came down with what was either the worst cold of my life or some virulent strain of influenza with a wide range of inconvenient symptoms, including the temporary loss of my glorious speaking voice. (The laryngitis came on strong, subsided, came back, and subsided again.) I'm operating at about 90-95% capacity now, but the last two weeks have straight up sucked. Regretfully, I did not face adversity like a champion. Instead, I wallowed in depression and inertia, accomplishing very little. I kept going to work and meeting my obligations there, of course, but everything else kinda went by the wayside. The only thing I've been writing recently are tweets. That doctored Archie comic up there represents my first creative endeavor of any kind in a while. I've been watching the hell out of the 12-day Simpsons marathon on FXX (I don't really give a damn about the "cropping" controversy), but that's pretty much been the extent of my media intake. Other blog/life updates:

  • My dad had to spend some time in an intensive care unit following a procedure to remove excess plaque from his arteries. I'll admit I was scared by this, but he's home now and doing fine. We had a nice long chat yesterday, and seems to be recovering nicely. Even though I'm an atheist, I've done plenty of praying in the last few days.
  • In happier news, I was briefly interviewed by a reporter named Erik Piepenberg from the New York Times for a piece about Ed Wood. I don't know if any of what I said will make it into an article, but it was cool to talk to a professional journalist about something which interests me. I'll keep you posted should anything develop from this. UPDATE: Here is a link to the completed article.I'm only quoted once in it, but it's right near the beginning. And the article does kindly mention Dead 2 Rights and "Ed Wood Wednesdays."
  • Even when I don't post anything new to D2R, I'm always working on upcoming pieces for this blog. I have some stuff planned which I hope you will enjoy.
  • That's it. I have nothing else to say right now. Think of me often as you enjoy the rest of your day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 46: 'The Undergraduate' (1971)

Lessons in love: Professor Collins (John Dullaghan) instructs his students about sex in The Undergraduate.

Betsy: You've got to be kidding.
Travis: What?
Betsy: This is a dirty movie.
Travis: No, no, this is, this is a movie that, uh, a lot of couples come to. All kinds of couples go here.
Betsy: Are you sure about that?
Travis: Sure. I've seen 'em all the time.

-dialogue from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)
Remember this dude? Yeah, that's been my life lately.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am sick. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "perverted or deranged," though I may be those things. That's for society to determine, I guess. And I don't mean "sick" in the sense of "sick and tired of writing about Ed Wood." That could never happen. No, I mean "sick" as in since last Wednesday, my life has been like one non-stop Nyquil commercial without the upbeat ending. I somehow came down with the mother of all summer colds that day, and it's been hanging around for a good, long spell ever since.

Other than to go to work or the grocery store, I haven't gotten out of bed much in the last few days. My head feels like a block of concrete. Glue runs through my veins rather than blood. And the rest of my body has been converted into an extremely efficient factory for the production of mucous. I am fairly drowning in a river of snot, to borrow a turn of phrase from John Waters' Female Trouble. I am writing this paragraph through the haze of weak over-the-counter cold remedies that serve only to scramble the mind as they leave one's symptoms unscathed. A humidifier gurgles in the background, and there is a wastebasket right by the bed for those too-frequent times when I need to hack up phlegm. I have all the strength and stamina of a wad of chewed gum.

I tell you these things not to engage your sympathies, though I will gladly accept your pity, but rather to give you some insight into the creation of this particular entry of the "Ed Wood Wednesdays" series. Right now is an exciting time for the Ed Wood fan. Lots of previously-lost material is being re-released, and I wish I were fully awake and alert enough right now to enjoy it. But that's not how this particular cookie crumbled. As it happens, I am writing this article from a cocoon of illness, slumped in my sick bed like a neglected rag doll. Everything seems a bit hazy and distant, and it is difficult for me to concentrate on any particular task for too long before nodding off.

But I have a new Ed Wood DVD to review, goddamnit, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. I suppose what I'm asking is that you, the reader, grade this particular article on a generous curve.

And speaking of generous curves...

Feeling collegiate yet? The title screen from The Undergraduate has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The sleeve for ABA's new edition of The Undergraduate.
Alternate titles: None of which I am aware. However, a few reviews imply that this film is a follow-up to a movie called The Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), which also stars John Dullaghan as Professor Collins. Whether the two films share any footage, I do not know.

Availability: This movie is now available as part of a series of Ed Wood reissues from Alpha Blue Archives. You can order it directly from them right here. For some reason, Amazon doesn't have it in stock right now, but that may change.

The backstory: Do you happen to know what Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. has to say about The Undergraduate? Well, I've saved you the trouble of looking it up. On page 212 of this 230-page book, in the otherwise-lavishly-annotated filmography section, it clearly states:
Jacques Descent Productions
Screenplay: Ed Wood
That's a fountain of information, man. That's a geyser. I mean, woah, daddy. Stand back, man. And that is, quite literally, the only reference to The Undergraduate in Grey's entire book. Clearly, this is going to be one of those times when I have to piece together some semblance of "the truth" from whatever table scraps of knowledge are available to me. I will admit at this juncture that I am not the world's leading authority on pornographic films from the early 1970s. Fortunately, there are folks on the Internet who have devoted more of their lives to this topic than I have, and it is upon their shoulders that I must stand this week. I thank you, noble scholars of pornography.

A poster for Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad.
The term that affixes itself like a particularly stubborn barnacle to the hull of this movie is "white-coater." Named for the traditional garment worn by a physician, a white-coater is a pornographic or sexploitation film, usually presented in documentary form, which purports to be educational in nature rather than salacious. This shady subgenre exists largely out of legal gamesmanship on the part of crafty filmmakers. If hauled in front of a judge on obscenity charges, the producer of a white-coater could claim that his movie was made to educate rather than titillate viewers. And the disingenuous strategy seems to have worked!

Though I cannot pinpoint an exact starting date for this subgenre, the earliest example of the form I can recall is the sensational and controversial Mom and Dad (1945), produced by Kroger Babb and directed by William "One-Shot" Beaudine. This film, which incorporated footage of live births (both natural and Caesarian) and played to gender-segregated audiences, was "the consensus top-grossing picture of 1947," according to the Internet Movie Database. John Waters has speculated that part of Mom and Dad's success was due to the fact that Babb had found a way to sneakily incorporate full-frontal female nudity into an ostensibly "educational" picture. Men in the audience just had to ignore the baby emerging from the woman's vagina. Or so the theory went.

In any event, Kroger Babb's phenomenal success did not go unnoticed by other independent filmmakers, who made white-coaters of their own for decades and may have enjoyed a level of respectability not shared by other pornographic films. In her book Porn Studies (Duke University Press, 2004), Linda Williams notes that "white-coaters were most often released in 35 mm and shown in larger venues" than other hardcore features. In a way, Ed Wood's own Glen or Glenda? (1953) can be considered a white-coater, as it takes a documentary approach to the subject of transgenderism and features two white male authority figures: a medical doctor and a police officer. Neither wears a literal white coat, of course, but their purpose in the film is to lend the project an air of legitimacy.

So powerful was the allure of the white-coater that as late as 1976, Robert De Niro could be seen escorting a highly-skeptical Cybill Shepherd to an X-rated pseudo-documentary entitled Swedish Marriage Manual. It's worth noting that Ms. Shepherd is not fooled by the dispassionate, newsman-style narration of the Swedish movie for even a minute and storms out in a huff. It should also be noted that when De Niro visits a porn theater on his own in another scene from the film, he does not choose a white-coater.

The Undergraduate immediately establishes itself as an example of the subgenre by virtue of its setting and structure. The film's narrator is a college professor, and the bulk of the film is presented as an examination and lecture in one of his supposed courses. The professor's opening monologue, recited over the sparse opening credits, serves as a good plot summary of the film:
Professor Collins
I'm Professor Collins. I want to welcome you to the undergraduate second course in sexual love. The, uh, society is becoming more aware of the need for every individual having a complete knowledge of the sex act, its psychology and technique, in order to fulfill his or her life in a complete way. The producers of this film feel that you as an adult individual have the right to view this entertaining and instructive motion picture and better your sex life. Husbands and wives will learn how to more completely satisfy each other's needs and desires, thereby leading to greater mutual satisfaction and greater compatibility. 
The producers of this film feel that if one member of the audience learns something which will save one marriage, then their efforts have been worthwhile. As a serious student of the epitome of expressing love, the emotionally and physically complete sex act, I'm grateful for this opportunity to share my knowledge with you. In this film, we will broaden your knowledge of contraception, masturbation, and also we will delve into, uh, premature ejaculation. We'll look at fear and its effect on the lovemaking process. I have a midterm essay test that I'm going to give to my students, then we're going to discuss the Presidential Commission's report on pornography and obscenity. 
I would like you to meet some of the students of this college who will be helping me in presenting this course to you.

Required reading: Penthouse February '71.
Professor Collins then goes on to introduce us to the seven students (three boys, four girls, all Caucasian and heterosexual, ranging in age from late teens to early twenties) whom we'll be seeing for the rest of the movie. It is significant that the male students are discussed in terms of their athletic accomplishments ("He plays football, wrestles, and swims.") and personalities ("He seems to be intelligent but restless, very restless."), while their female counterparts are denoted by their physical attributes ("There are doubts as to whether or not she's a natural blonde.") and sexual habits ("I think she's majoring in chasing boys. Boy, is she wild!"). Collins makes sure to give us the height, weight, hair color, and measurements of all of these female students. He does not do the same for the boys.

The first half of the film is dominated by the students. Professor Collins hands out a midterm essay examination about certain sex-related topics like contraception and masturbation, and as the students ponder their answers, the film cuts away to little vignettes in which the young actors demonstrate various erotic techniques in front of colorful but nondescript backgrounds. Since the students take over the voice-over duties during these cutaways, The Undergraduate has the same "multiple narrator" feel as Ed Wood's previous Glen or Glenda? (1953).

Once the tests are handed in, the rest of the class time -- and, consequently, the movie -- is taken up with a lecture by Professor Collins. He talks a bit about the infamous Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and presented to Johnson's successor, Richard M. Nixon, in 1970. That report, which urged leniency on sexually-explicit material and found "no evidence" that pornography leads to crime, was roundly rejected by a scandalized congress and an outraged president. Professor Collins, on the other hand, fully supports the findings of the commission and recommends that his students check out a couple of then-new publications: Bob Guccione's Penthouse (specifically the February 1971 issue) and Al Goldstein's Screw. He also shows them a few minutes of a genuine "stag film" and gives a thumbnail history of pornography in America.

Before dismissing them for break, Professor Collins first warns his students to stay away from such drugs as LSD, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Here, Ed Wood's staunch anti-drug stand comes to the fore.

Jacques Descent at home in 2009.
But who else was responsible/to blame for making this particular motion picture, apart from screenwriter Ed Wood? Well, if you know anything about the porno biz, you have probably already guessed that the film's opening credits are composed entirely of bogus names and are therefore worthless. The listed production company, Yellowbird Films, has no other credits that I can find. An online directory of Florida companies lists Yellowbird Films Inc. as a "domestic for profit business incorporated in Florida, USA on June 25, 1970" and states that the business is now "inactive." If this is indeed the Yellowbird Films that made The Undergraduate, then the timeline just about makes sense. And the Florida thing makes sense, too, once you learn about the film's producer.

All sources seem to agree that the film was produced by a man named Jacques Descent (1937- ), who has an intriguing if spotty filmography of his own. Although Descent hails from and currently resides in Montreal, Quebec, he seems to have spent a good chunk of his career in Florida, including a stint as the "founder and chairman" of something called Fort Lauderdale International Film Market, Inc. in the early 1990s. He was also given a "Man of the Year" award at a documentary film festival in Clearwater, FL in 1999. In addition, he served as an assistant auditor on the Jane Fonda/Gregory Peck drama Old Gringo (1989) and an accountant for the Florida production unit of the James Bond movie License to Kill (1987). If that's not enough to impress you, Jacques Descent is also an inventor who holds several patents, including a self-cleaning, disinfecting toilet he calls Sanisafe. And he made at least three unreleased movies with Sylvester Stallone's mother, Jackie!

Clearly, Jacques Descent is a man who has been around the block a few times. He proudly includes The Undergraduate on the list of accomplishments on his personal web page and even trumpets the involvement of Ed Wood. Jacques had previously produced another Wood screenplay, Operation Redlight, back in 1969. This earlier film has yet to resurface, unfortunately. Curiously, Descent has no directing credits of his own. Though the bogus credits say that this movie was "produced and directed" by the (apparently) fictional "John Flanders," the current director of record for The Undergraduate is one "Ron Black," whose IMDb entry is otherwise blank. His true identity is a matter of speculation.

The movie's cinematographer, however, is quite accomplished. Harold Schwartz (1919-1990) started his career as an uncredited assistant cameraman on Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and was a camera operator on Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World in 1951, but he made his real mark on television, with credits ranging from The Adventures of Superman and Batman to Wyatt Earp, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Land of the Giants, and Love American Style.
John Dullaghan
A movie is nothing without its actors, and there are a few notable names in the cast of The Undergraduate. Front and center is our teacher, Professor Collins, portrayed by the redoubtable John Dullaghan (1930-2009), an actor whose stoic demeanor and graying temples lend authenticity to this thankless, unexciting role. At the time, the Brooklyn-born Dullaghan (billed here as "John Dugan") was a mainstay of X-rated films, racking up appearances in Sex and the Single Vampire (1969), the aforementioned  Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love (1970), and even Big Beaver Splits the Scene (1971).

But by the mid-1970s, Dullaghan had established himself solidly in episodic network television, a world he would inhabit for the rest of the '70s and into the 1980s, with recurring roles on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, B.J. and the Bear, Barney Miller, and Night Court. And these are but a mere fraction of an extensive and impressive resume that includes numerous theater (Major Barbara, Blood Knot, Little Sheba) and film (Kalifornia, Apollo 13, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) credits as well. Dullaghan seems to have given up the nudie racket by around 1973, though not before appearing in another obvious white-coater called The Flanders and Alcott Report on Sexual Response. (For the record, he was Flanders in that one.)

Among the porno starlets appearing in The Undergraduate, the main attraction (at least according to the manufacturers of the DVD) is Suzanne Fields (1950- ?), a kittenish brunette who was active in the adult movie world from 1970 to 1975 and who is probably best known for portraying "Dale Ardor" in the sci-fi parody Flesh Gordon (1974). Other well-known actresses on display in this motion picture include Deep Throat Part II's Tina Russell (1948-1981) and Cindy West of Devil's Due and It Happened in Hollywood fame. Interestingly, as part of his class, the good Professor Collins shows his students a vintage black-and-white "stag" film that features the talents of a prolific porn actress named Eve Orlon, whose path would intersect with that of Ed Wood again in a few years when they both participated in Steve Apostolof's Fugitive Girls (1974).

Incidentally, although both the Internet Movie Database and Jacques Descent's personal website allege that Ed Wood himself appears in The Undergraduate, this seems to be mere wishful thinking. Search all you want, but you won't find him.

Suzanne Fields uses frank verbal communication.
The viewing experience: Slightly unpleasant but nevertheless worthwhile. I have come to a definite conclusion, readers, from watching far too many hours of vintage 1970s pornography in the process of researching these articles: the sex act is simply not photogenic. Or, rather, it can be photogenic, but this requires a delicate combination of attractive performers, flattering camera angles, and careful lighting. And even those aesthetic niceties are not enough to compensate for the stubborn ugliness of the scrotum, a red and wrinkly body part that gets many long, lingering closeups in this film. While most of the performers in The Undergraduate are attractive enough, the camera angles and lighting do them no favors. The movie, which was transferred to DVD from a 1980s Betamax cassette since no film elements still exist, is technically competent but has the flat, drab look of a 1950s industrial or instructional film.

For all the sexual heat it generates, this movie might as well be about how vacuum cleaners work or the importance of maintaining neat penmanship. Following the unwritten code of the white-coater, The Undergraduate stresses keeping up the illusion of respectability even at the expense of enjoyment, this movie is fairly rigorous in its abstinence from anything remotely sensual. Our test subjects fellate, fornicate, and masturbate in a variety of permutations, but they do so in a nearly-featureless void and do not seem to be deriving substantial pleasure from their activities. As befits a classroom film, this is sex as science experiment, carnality as classwork.

The one major deviation from this template comes during the first half of the film, when Suzanne Fields herself demonstrates the importance of "frank" verbal communication during the sex act. As she romps with her mustachioed bed partner, Suzanne gives the following, stunning monologue, which runs a full four minutes. I'd like to think Ed Wood wrote every word:
I love the way you kiss me. Mmmm. Put it in deep. Run it all around me. Put your tongue in my ear and run it all around. Pull me against you so I can feel your hard cock. Mmmm. Put your cock against my pussy. Undress me. Squeeze my tits. Oh, bite my nipples! Squeeze my nipples! Oh, kiss my tits! Oh! Use your tongue! Work down towards my pussy! Mmmm. Eat me. Oh, eat me! Oh, eat me! Oh, eat my pussy! Oh, it feels so good! Mmmm. Oh, eat my pussy. Deeper. Deeper! It's like a little prick. Oh, lick my clit! Eat me! Oh, eat me! Fuck me! I want your hard cock in me. Oh, fuck my pussy. Oh, your big cock is tearing my pussy up! Oh, it feels so good! Oh, your big cock in my pussy! Oh, screw me! Screw my pussy! Oh, screw me! Oh, screw me hard!
I don't know whether this kind of talk will work for you in your relationship, but it's fairly typical of the advice doled out by The Undergraduate.  Among the more memorable kernels of wisdom embedded in this film: olive oil makes an acceptable lube if you're fresh out of K-Y jelly; coitus interruptus can be psychologically damaging for both parties as well as being a lousy method of birth control; and, most importantly, many women actually enjoy the taste of semen. Also, women like to feel secure during sex, so this movie recommends a lovemaking position in which a woman more or less uses her partner as a beanbag chair.

That brings up another salient point about this movie, incidentally. During the sexual demonstrations, the participants are sometimes labeled simply "the man" and  "the woman," but they are more often referred to as "the husband" and "the wife," even though none of the student characters in the movie are married. Typical of the Janus-faced duality (or should I say duplicity?) of the white-coater, The Undergraduate invites middle-aged white male viewers to leer lustily at members of the younger generation but still maintains a dusty, fusty Eisenhower-era definition of sex as something that happens between mommies and daddies who love each other very much. Quite an artifact, this one.

In two weeks: "Get your motor runnin'. Head out on the highway. Lookin' for adventure and whatever comes our way." Such was the exhortation of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" in 1968, and the song's passionate call was heeded by an entire generation, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who "went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere" in the landmark film Easy Rider (1969). A few years later, Ed Wood thought he'd give it a try and see if he could do a little better than Peter and Dennis had. Biker films were the order of the day, so of course Eddie had to give them a try. And naturally, he brought his own unique spin to the subject matter. The result was the film we'll be discussing right here in a mere fortnight. Be here in two weeks for Nympho Cycler (1971).

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ed Wood extra! A single by Paul Marco and Criswell!

In 1995, Dionysus Records released an unusual Ed Wood-themed single by Paul Marco and Criswell.

There passed a golden time in the early-to-mid-1990s when Edward D. Wood, Jr. was considered vaguely chic by people whose opinions actually matter. Eddie's first wave of anti-fame occurred in the early 1980s after the publication of The Golden Turkey Awards, of course, but his filmography did not take on the added luster of hipness for another decade. 

The Nihilistic Nineties were a time in which the trend-setters and tastemakers of America shunned the shopping mall monoculture of the Reagan era in favor of individuality, eccentricity, exclusivity, and (perceived) authenticity. Suddenly, it was no longer cool to be "into" what everybody else was "into." Instead, this was the time of indie movies, indie record labels, and indie bookstores -- smaller concerns catering to niche interests. I'm fairly certain this was when the word "mainstream" first took on a pejorative connotation. 

The atmospheric conditions were just right for someone like Ed Wood to become a secular saint of unpop culture. I don't think it's any coincidence that some of the bigger postmortem developments of Eddie's career, including the publication of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy and the release of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, not to mention a whole host of VHS re-releases, occurred during this fecund era.

"Uncle Dale" Warner
And only during those kooky Clinton years would it have made sense for a label like Dionysus Records to put out an Ed Wood-themed 45 RPM single... on marbled orange vinyl, no less! In 1995, this SoCal surf rock company released "Home on the Strange" b/w "Someone Walked Over My Grave." The A-side was a newly-recorded "Monster Mash"-type novelty tune by actor Paul Marco, reprising his Kelton the Cop character from Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Night of the Ghouls. Aiding and abetting Paul was "Uncle" Dale Warner, a songwriter and musician best known for his work with the Rubatos

On the flip side was the vintage recording "Someone Walked Over My Grave," a morbid yet characteristically flowery recitation by the flamboyant TV psychic Criswell set to a cocktail lounge-type piano accompaniment. Supposedly, the famed prognosticator recorded this song specifically to be played after his death. Take these two ditties, add some eye-catching artwork by Kalynn Campbell, and you've got a neat little collectible for Ed Wood fans. 

Incidentally, according to the comprehensive timeline in Nightmare of Ecstasy, Eddie attempted something like this back in 1970, when he himself produced a 45 with Tor Johnson reading "The Day the Mummy Returned" on the A-side and Criswell reading "Final Curtain" on the B-side. Author Rudolph Grey states that it is "uncertain" whether or not the single was ever released. However, the Dionysus single from 1995 definitely was released and gives us a taste of what that 1970 platter might have been like. Enjoy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

He was what he was.

Pop art: Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams in 1980's Popeye.

"I Am that I Am."
-God (Exodus 3:14) 
"I yam what I yam." 
-Popeye the Sailor Man

The soundtrack LP.
The star of my favorite movie from childhood died today. The star was actor-comedian Robin Williams, and the movie was Robert Altman's much-maligned Popeye (1980), a feature-length musical adapted by Julies Feiffer from E.C. Segar's long-running comic strip of the same name.

Though hardly the financial disaster everyone remembers (in fact, it grossed a cool $50 million and turned a tidy profit), the film was lambasted both by critics, who wondered why a "serious" director like Altman would be wasting his time on such a frivolous movie, and by audiences, who wondered why the movie wasn't more like the Popeye animated cartoons.

Williams distanced himself from the film later in life, alluding with scorn in interviews to "the Popeye years" of his career when he was first transitioning to films after finding success in stand-up comedy and series television. He even made a point of disparaging Popeye at a gala tribute in his honor, cringing and complaining when a clip of Altman's film made its way into a highlight reel of his movies. Obviously, the film was a negative experience for him, and he was not shy about expressing that.

I'm genuinely sorry he felt that way about Robert Altman's Popeye, because I still think of that film as one of the highlights of his filmography. He gives quite a remarkable performance as the legendary "sailor man" of the title, one very different from the types of roles he usually played. Most of Williams' characters were whimsical, motor-mouthed, childlike eccentrics, like the alien Mork from Ork in the TV series Mork & Mindy. In Popeye, however, Williams portrays a muscular, tough-talking loner who makes sardonic remarks under his breath, strictly for his own amusement rather than to entertain or impress those around him.

The original character from the comic strip is such an oddball, with his knotted-up face, swollen forearms, and peculiar syntax, that it must have been supremely difficult to make the character seem even remotely believable or three-dimensional. And yet, somehow, Williams manages to do it. In Mad magazine's beautifully-drawn parody, "Flopeye," (#225, Sept '81), writer Stan Hart has Williams address the audience thusly: "The Director tells me to put on these phony arms, squint one eye, jut out me jaw, talk through clenched teeth, and then -- act natural!!!"

When Popeye was first released some 34 years ago, one of the most controversial aspects of the movie was its unconventional score by Harry Nilsson, another creative talent who left us far too soon. Williams himself brought Nilsson into the production, even though the studio bosses were wary of this notoriously hard-drinking singer-songwriter and feared that his erratic work habits and eclectic tastes might endanger the film. And, sure enough, critics and viewers were only too eager to criticize the often-simple, repetitive songs Nilsson composed for Popeye upon the film's original release. To this day, even some Harry Nilsson fans don't dig the Popeye soundtrack, though it has also gained a cult following along with the movie which spawned it.

Partial redemption came in 2002, when "He Needs Me" from Popeye was used very prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. (Though this, too, caught some flak.) To this day, I remain entranced both by Altman's odd duck of a film and by Nilsson's odder duck of a soundtrack. I'm proud to own both, and I'd like to leave you today with an excerpt which finds Robin Williams in fine form.

Mr. Williams, the floor is yours...