Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 119: The Life and Career of George J. Becwar (1917-1970)

This week, we examine the life and legacy of George J. Becwar.

If there's a scene people remember from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955), it's the one in which Bela Lugosi delivers his heart-wrenching "Home! I have no home!" speech. The emotional monologue looms so large in B-movie mythology that Tim Burton had Martin Landau, portraying an aged Lugosi, recite it twice in the biopic Ed Wood (1994): once while on the set of Bride and once while walking down the street with Ed. The latter performance attracts a crowd of appreciative onlookers, much to Lugosi's satisfaction. The biopic presents this moment as the old actor's last taste of glory before his death.

Lugosi and Becwar in Bride of the Monster.
But Lugosi's character in Bride, tortured mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff, would have had no reason to make such a tear-jerking speech if it hadn't been for good old George Becwar. It's Becwar, as duplicitous foreign agent Prof. Strowski, who provokes the emotional outburst by offering to take Vornoff back to the country from which the scientist had previously been exiled. 

"Vornoff," he says in a passable Eastern European accent, "I have searched for you everywhere. Everywhere I hear stories of monsters. Now I am here, sent to bring you home." And from there, Lugosi is off to the races.

Strowski may not be the most glamorous assignment ever given to an actor—the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew dismissed him as a "worthless ancillary character waiting to be killed off"—but Becwar at least manages to turn him into a pompous villain deserving of our contempt. Thus, it's quite satisfying when Vornoff's henchman Lobo (Tor Johnson) feeds Strowski to a ravenous octopus. Becwar, bless him, remains defiant to the end: "You may kill me, but others will come!"

If actor John Andrews is to be believed, Ed Wood and George Becwar did not exactly have a cozy working relationship during the making of Bride. As he told Rudolph Grey in Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992): "Eddie hated, loathed, despised, wanted murdered, I'm not overdoin' it, man, I'm tellin' you straight—George Becwar." Allegedly, Becwar was dissatisfied with his pay for Bride of the Monster and reported Ed to the Screen Actors Guild. According to John Andrews, Ed Wood held a grudge for the rest of his days against Becwar. Notably, the two never worked together again.

George Jerome Becwar was born on September 16, 1917 in Berwyn, IL a suburb of Chicago. (Yes, the same town mentioned each week on MeTV's Svengoolie.) At Harrison Technical High School, he was a Cadet Major in the ROTC. In 1941, George was drafted by the army and enlisted in the 131st Infantry. His draft card yields some interesting biographical information. He was 23 at the time, living in Chicago and working for the Illinois Writers Project, which was sponsored by the WPA. He lists his mother as his next of kin. For what it's worth, the back of the card describes Becwar as standing 5'10" and weighing 240 pounds with brown hair, brown eyes, and a ruddy complexion. He is said to have worn glasses. The card also notes that he had several scars: one on his left hand, another under his right nostril, and a third at the base of his spine.

George Becwar's draft card.

From the mid-1950s to the early '60s, George had the honor of calling himself a working actor in Hollywood, popping up in at least 14 known television series and seven films. These were not always obscure, low-budget projects either! Remember the CBS Western The Rebel with Nick Adams? ("Johnny Yuma was a rebel! He roamed through the West!") George was on it seven times -- as seven different characters! He's in A Star is Born, too, specifically the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason. Baby boomers may still have fond memories of such black-and-white series as Death Valley Days, Sky King, Highway Patrol, and I Led 3 Lives. All of them hired George Becwar, some on multiple occasions.

After he got to Hollywood, Becwar had his share of misadventures as an actor. The March 31, 1952 issue of The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News shares the "humorous" story of how he was briefly mistaken for a thief.

"Surely, this is not a laughing matter."

In addition to being an actor, Becwar was also civic-minded. The January 3, 1958 issue of The (Los Angeles) Mirror News includes his letter to the editor concerning automobile safety. This letter is not terribly fun, so I suggest you read it aloud in your best Prof. Strowski voice.

George Becwar has a plan.

Los Angeles Times columnist Matt Weinstock wrote about George Becwar a few times. This article from December 15, 1966 gives us yet more background information about the actor, including his past as a journalist and his war injuries. It also fills us in what Becwar did for money between roles, i.e. working as a hotel clerk and doing some writing on the side.

George Becwar was 30% disabled. Who knew?

Another column by Matt Weinstock in the February 9, 1969 issue of The Los Angeles Times yields an intriguing anecdote about Becwar and fills in some details about the actor's past. We learn, for instance, that Bride of the Monster was not the only time George raised a stink about his pay. The article also suggests that the actor had a couple of upcoming movies for producer Martin Zessin. In fact, George's screen acting career basically dried up after 1961. After an absence of eight years, his last-known screen credit is a totally forgotten 1969 film called The Great Sex War, in which he played Gen. Caleb Sutton. This comedy may never have been released, despite the fact that its cast included such well-known actors as James Franciscus, George Raft, and Cantinflas. We were denied a tagline like: "Becwar! Sex War! See it this Christmas!"

As always, George was concerned about his pay.

Other brief mentions of George Becwar in the press (apart from the mere inclusion of his name in cast lists):
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, March 18, 1953: George is listed as the stage manager of an Equity house at 6040 Wilshire Blvd. where auditions are being held for a two-act musical comedy.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, March 25, 1953: A brief item declares that "critics have lauded" the performances of Becwar and his castmates in a play called Outward Bound, which was then in its second week at the Gallery Theater on Santa Monica Blvd.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, November 12, 1953: Richard Lipscomb's review of Outward Bound declares that Becwar is among the "promising talent" in the show. 
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, February 16, 1955: A showbiz column called "In the News" declares that Becwar has signed "with Paul Kohner Agency for radio, movies and television."
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, January 18, 1956: "In the News" says that Becwar has won a television role as a Czech police chief in The Man Called X.
"An important role" for George Becwar.
  • The Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1956: A one-paragraph article in the entertainment section notes that Becwar "enacts an important role in Bride of the Monster." The film is said to be accompanying Ransom! (1956) at various theaters and drive-ins.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, January 18, 1957: "In the News" notes that George has signed with the Swoverland Agency.
  • The (Palm Springs) Desert Sun, July 3, 1957: Columnist Mike Connolly notes that Becwar was hired "at the last minute" to appear in an installment of Playhouse 90 entitled "The Fabulous Irishman." According to Connolly, the hapless actor "stayed up all night working up an Irish brogue," only to find that his character was an Englishman.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, August 29, 1959: George is declared the winner of that week's "Name the Stars of Tomorrow" contest. His prize is a Westclock wrist watch. His address is given as 616 N. Gower St.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, June 28, 1960: "In the News" reports that George is playing three roles in the play Liliom at a venue called The Theater but he's soon leaving the company "to meet TV commitments." 
  • The Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1960: In his review of Liliom, critic Charles Stinson mentions being impressed by Becwar's performance as "the lecherous and pompous police captain."
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, April 2, 1963: The "All About People" column notes that Becwar has returned to Hollywood "after seven months of radio work in Las Vegas." He is said to be in rehearsals for a play called Not to Speak Profanely. His address is given as 1764 N. Orange Dr.
  • The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, February 15, 1967: Another of George's letters to the editor. This time, Becwar opines: "Students at both the University of California and the California State Colleges can easily meet Gov. Ronald Reagan's tuition charges by using the money they used to spend on haircuts." Zing!

Sadly, George Becwar's life was even shorter than that of Ed Wood. The Illinois-born actor passed away at the age of only 52 on July 9, 1970, having never married nor had children.  George's body was sent back to his home state and buried at a Catholic cemetery in suburban Cook County. A modest obituary appeared in the July 13, 1970 edition of The Chicago Tribune. 

"Sent to bring you home": George Becwar's obituary.

CONCLUSION: George Becwar played a fleeting but not insignificant role in the saga of Edward D. Wood, Jr. It may never occur to most viewers to ask who this man was, where he came from, or where he went after Bride of the Monster. As it turns out, however, George had a pretty fascinating and multifaceted life. Was he a pain in the ass? Maybe. But at least he got to take part in one of the most famous scenes in any of Ed Wood's movies, and it's earned him an odd sort of immortality.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "One Malph Over the Line, Sweet Jesus"

Anson Williams, Ron Howard, and Don Most on Happy Days.

The idea of dividing a room—or even a whole house—in two with a line is one that I've seen in plenty of TV shows and cartoons. Lucy and Ricky did this on I Love Lucy, for instance. There's even a whole page devoted to this plot at TV Tropes. I've never known anyone to do this in real life, but I'd have to imagine someone has at least tried it. After all, kids are impressionable. They might see it on, say, The Brady Bunch and then attempt it with their brother or sister. I only have one sibling, an older sister, so I never had the experience of having to share a bedroom. But it's possible we drew an invisible line down the middle of the car on long trips.

"Ralph Vs. Potsie" (season 6, January 1979) is Happy Days' version of this classic sitcom plot. Ralph (Don Most) and Potsie (Anson Williams) share a slovenly bachelor apartment near the college they both attend. They find themselves bickering constantly, however, so they write to a local newspaper advice columnist named "Aunt Fanny" for help. "Fanny" suggests dividing the apartment in two. Idiots that they are, Ralph and Potsie actually follow this advice. Little do they know that "Aunt Fanny" is actually just their friend Richie (Ron Howard) using a pseudonym.  

How does it all turn out? You can find out by listening to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Magazine Orbit, Part 5 by Greg Dziawer

This teddy bear plays a significant role in Ed Wood history.

The sheer volume of Ed Wood's magazine work for Pendulum/Calga and its related imprints is nothing less than staggering. The first half of the 1970s was his most prolific period writing for adult magazines and produced his most freewheeling work. When Eddie penned an entire issue of a magazine -- including the ads, photo captions, and various texts (both credited and uncredited) -- the results are simply sublime for a Wood obsessive like me.

Beyond his known credits and the titles listed on his resumes, however, we can never say with absolute certainty what Ed Wood wrote and didn't write. The editorials in dozens of Pendulum magazines make a good case study. Are they truly Ed-itorials? Let's take a look at two examples, both culled from magazines published in October/November 1971. This was a key timeframe in Wood history. The filming of adult loops on Hal Guthu's sets was at its height, and Ed was also in production on his last-known feature as a writer-director, The Young Marrieds. Did he write the following articles during this busy time? Read on and cast your ballot!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Ed Wood Summit Podcast #11 by Greg Dziawer and Joe Blevins

A young woman admires herself in Ed Wood's "Last Laugh."

Edward D. Wood, Jr. wrote an insane amount of material for adult sex magazines between the early 1960s and his passing in late 1978 -- the better part of his adult life, really. This week, Joe Blevins joins me on The Ed Wood Summit Podcast to dissect a mere one of Ed's hundreds (possibly thousands) of short stories from this timeframe.

First appearing in the spring of 1972, the tail end of his most prolific period as a writer, Ed's "Last Laugh" is a representative example of the short stories he was penning for Pendulum Publishing at that time. It's even credited to one of his most-favored pseudonyms, Shirlee Lane. "Last Laugh" hails from the April/May '72 issue of Pendulum's lesbian-themed magazine Two Plus Two, graciously supplied to us for review by the co-heir of the Kathy Wood estate, Bob Blackburn.

As we discussed "Last Laugh," we couldn't help from veering into a multitude of related matters. The following conversation also includes an overview of the scope of Ed's magazine work, a foundational element of his work still requiring far more rigorous study.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Your Pop Caught You Smoking and He Says No Way"

Erin Moran on Happy Days.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a nonsmoking family. But we always had ashtrays in our house because, back then, it was still acceptable to smoke indoors in other people's homes. People just lit up all the time back then, wherever they were. My own parents didn't partake, but their relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers did. If smokers came over, they needed to some place to flick their ashes. Better in an ashtray than on the carpet.

When I got to high school, some of my friends smoked, but there was no peer pressure to join them like you see in the public service announcements. If you're addicted to nicotine, the last thing you want to do is give your cigarettes away to some dumb newbie. There was a mysterious stretch of land near our school that the kids called "the trail." I never used it because it didn't lead anywhere I needed to go, but I certainly heard stories of "the trail." Legends. Folklore. I pictured it as a place where kids went to smoke, drink, and engage in all kinds of vices.

As a TV show about (and directed toward) young people, Happy Days eventually had to deal with the issue of teen smoking. They got around to it with Season 6's "Smokin' Ain't Cool," which first aired on January 16, 1979. The plot has Joanie (Erin Moran), the youngest of the Cunninghams, taking up smoking because she wants to fit in with a clique called the Magnets. After Richie (Ron Howard) and Howard (Tom Bosley) fail to dissuade her, it's time to call in the big guns -- namely, Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler).

How does this all turn out? And does it lead to an entertaining episode or just a half hour anti-smoking sermon? Find out when we review "Smokin' Ain't Cool" in the latest installment of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast

P.S. There was no room for this in our podcast, but here is the most memorable anti-smoking PSA of my youth. I cannot tell you how many times I've found myself singing this song.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Paperback Odyssey, Part 7 by Greg Dziawer

If you're cramming for your Ed Wood finals this week, you're in luck!

Earlier this year, in an episode of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast, Joe Blevins and I reviewed Ed Wood's 1967 adult paperback Watts... The Difference. For those who may not have access to a copy of the book, here are my extensive notes. These aren't meant to be editorial; I simply noted whatever jumped out at me. In conjunction with our podcast commentary, this should give you the flavor of the book.

CONTENT WARNING: The offensive words and slurs are Ed's, as are all of the flashbacks, reveries and dreams that overwhelm the narrative.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Ed Wood Summit Podcast #10 by Greg Dziawer and Joe Blevins

This week, we take a look at one of Ed Wood's novels.

Logo for Rocket Pictures.
One of the more intriguing items on Ed Wood's resume is the two-year period he spent in the early '60s working for Autonetics, a division of North American Aviation. NAA was one of the major defense contractors in the US at the time, specializing in inertial guidance systems for submarines and ballistic missiles. A small company called Rocket Studios loaned Eddie out to Autonetics, where he seemed to have worked on both short films as well as in what they called "closed television"—a novel and pioneering use of closed circuit TV to broadcast live training right into the plant for its employees to view.

This also begs the question: what is Rocket Studios? The closest I can come that fits the bill is Rocket Pictures, a California company that did not typically make government-sponsored defense films, rather specializing in sales training literature and filmstrips through its Better Selling Bureau. They had their headquarters at 6108 Santa Monica Blvd, in Hollywood, just a couple of miles east of Hal Guthu's studio.

All of which is mere backdrop setting the stage for Ed's 1967 paperback novel Security Risk. In it, a movie studio making government-sponsored defense films is being attacked by a shadowy group of political baddies ("Lice! Maggots! Germs!") who want to shut them down at all cost. Ex-Korean War vet Colonel Harvey Tate, now a successful New York filmmaker, is called in to investigate.

Join us as we break it all down in this week's Ed Wood Summit Podcast:

BONUS MATERIAL: Here's a detail from a 1959 ad for the Better Selling Bureau, along with the section of Ed Wood's resume dealing with his stint at Autonetics.

(left) An ad for the Better Selling Bureau; (right) Ed Wood's resume.

If you still need more, here are Joe's complete notes on Security Guard, including a breakdown of all the characters, memorable quotes, and Woodian motifs in the book. I've also included the novel's front and back covers, as well as the cover of a latter-day reprint (under the title Two Dicks for Danger) from Woodpile Press.

And if you'd like to see a particular novel reviewed on a future edition of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast, let us know in the comments section of the video.

All episodes of The Ed Wood Summit Podcast can be found here!

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "The Soiled Kimono"

Henry Winkler and Eddie Fontaine on Happy Days.

For whatever reason, Happy Days went in a dark direction with two of its most famous Christmas episodes. In Season 2's excellent "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas," the Cunninghams discover that tough mechanic Fonzie (Henry Winkler) is spending the holidays all alone in his sad little apartment. Always the epitome of cool, Fonzie has to set aside his pride and accept the family's kind invitation to spend Christmas with them. This was a milestone episode for the series; Fonzie became an honorary member of the Cunningham clan the next season. This cozy relationship lasted for the rest of the series.

This week on These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, we're covering Season 6's even heavier holiday episode, "Christmas Time." The plot has Fonzie's deadbeat dad Vito (played by disgraced '50s rocker Eddie Fontaine) sending him a mysterious package on Christmas Eve. It's the first contact between Vito and Fonzie in decades. This brief incident causes Fonzie intense stress and grief. Vito abandoned him when he was only three, and Fonzie has always felt guilty about this. Again, he turns to the Cunninghams for support. Again, they provide it. Specifically Howard (Tom Bosley) shares his thoughts on fatherhood.

I suppose, when you think about it, most of our most famous Christmas stories—from A Christmas Carol to It's a Wonderful Lifeare about characters having stressful and difficult holidays. The common thread in these stories is redemption. The main characters (Scrooge, George Bailey, The Grinch, Charlie Brown) are brought down to a low level, only to be brought back up again. Often, this is achieved through the kindness of other characters. Sometimes, it takes supernatural interference.

But what did we think of "Christmas Time"? Is the episode worth your time? Find out by listening to the latest installment of These Days Are Ours.