Hooked on crooks: How ‘Breaking Bad’ created a bona fide binge-watcher

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 22, 2014.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

It took awhile, but I finally went over to the dark side.

There’s nothing new about binge-watching — Netflix says it’s here to stay — but I could never get myself to take the plunge.

Until recently.

I was defeated in a war of attrition. I broke down, upgrading my Netflix account to the two-DVDs-at-once plan. Then my wife and I took another ominous step. We ordered Apple TV, hooked it up to our 8-year-old TV and to our amazement discovered that it worked.

Now a universe of movies and TV series is available at the touch of a finger. We’re free to roam the Netflix streaming library. Delayed gratification is a thing of the past. And it didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was late to the party. But then I usually am.

I took an early plunge with “The Sopranos” just before its third season.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. (HBO)

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

We hadn’t watched the iconic show about New Jersey gangsters trying to acquire the trappings of suburban respectability until HBO ginned up interest in the new episodes by running a marathon of Seasons 1 and 2. The TV happened to be on. We happened to have HBO on the screen. And we happened to watch one episode. And then we watched another. And then another.

After consuming a couple of years of “Sopranos” episodes in a single day, there was no choice but to become regular viewers.

Last year we immersed ourselves in the “House of Cards” experience. We weren’t set up for streaming yet, so we watched the entire first season on DVDs as fast as Netflix could get them to us.

The addictive narrative about an American politician scheming, lying and murdering his way into the White House offered just the right mix of elements to keep us hooked. It was smart. It was sophisticated. It was lurid. And it put some great actors together with some distinguished directors. What more could you ask for?

But then we discovered “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series about a schoolteacher in New Mexico who becomes a meth dealer after his lung-cancer diagnosis.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said the fictitious idea was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Evidently he hit a chord. The show now has a permanent place in pop culture.

You can buy T-shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried-chicken franchise that fronted a drug-smuggling empire. Or shirts with the image of Heisenberg, schoolteacher Walter White’s drug-dealer persona, looking pretty scary in his sunglasses and black porkpie hat.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Once again, we were late to the party. It was months after AMC broadcast the final episode that we began watching. It was all because of our friend Julie, a cancer survivor in Leawood. She insisted we had to watch the show. She and her husband, Terry, had consumed the entire series in a matter of weeks. Now she wanted us to watch it so we could share her obsession.

My wife, Donna, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A high school teacher who becomes a drug dealer? It just sounds so contrived.”

“Just watch it,” Julie insisted.

“But …”

Just watch it.”

So we did — more out of loyalty to Julie than curiosity.

But viewing the episodes in order was a challenge. Netflix had a “very long wait” for Season 1, Disc 1. Area libraries, same problem. We had no choice but to buy the first season on disc.

So, Season 1 in hand, we started watching. Then we watched some more. Before long the show about chemistry teacher Walter White and high school dropout Jesse Pinkman wading into a world of meth addiction, murder and organized crime had us — well, hooked. We’d watch three or four episodes in one sitting. The other seasons were readily available on Netflix, so we began working through them. There were painful days, inevitably, when there was no red envelope waiting in the mailbox.

Julie understood.

“You won’t want to stop,” she said.

When Julie and Terry were in the grip of their “Breaking Bad” binge, they structured their weekends around the show. Friends would invite them to dinner but they’d say, “No, we have plans.” After all, there were unwatched episodes just waiting to be loaded into Terry’s Blu-ray player.

“I would say the show is as addictive as blue meth is to addicts,” Julie said.

At one point they began to toss around Jesse Pinkman’s favored epithet.

“We walk around the house saying, ‘Hey, bitch, you ready?’ ” she said.

And Julie, the most kindhearted person I know, found herself identifying on some level with monomaniacal Walter as he metamorphosed from unremarkable high school teacher to murderous, power-hungry sociopath.

“There were things about his cancer diagnosis that I related to,” Julie said. “Going through chemo and being sick I could kind of relate to. I don’t think I’d be able to put a bullet in someone’s head, but you know …”

The word “binge,” of course, has a pejorative ring to it. It’s a word to describe eating a package of Oreos in one sitting or knocking off two or three bottles of wine before the 10 o’clock news.

But what if you decided to read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” back to back one summer? Would that be considered “binge reading”?

Watching Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood claw his way to power on “House of Cards” inevitably brings William Shakespeare to mind. Francis and Richard III have a few things in common.

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Richard III meets Lady Macbeth: Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright in “House of Cards.” (Netflix)

Indeed, long before anyone had heard of TV bingeing, the Bard set a precedent of sorts with his history plays about the succession of English monarchs in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare wrote eight plays that form a continuous narrative from the reign of Richard II to the rule of Henry VI. Now and then a brave or foolhardy theater company — usually in Britain — takes it upon itself to stage all of them.

Some companies like to pair two of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays, “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” with one actor playing Antony in both. On matinee days audiences could sit through both with a dinner break in-between.

Eugene O’Neill had a penchant for writing plays that clocked in at more than four hours. And some contemporary playwrights have created binge-like viewing experiences with epic dramas, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” both of which must be viewed as two full-length plays.

But nobody in theater or film had ever produced anything quite like “Breaking Bad,” which followed a clear thematic progression and coherent narrative from beginning to end.

“Shakespearean” is an apt description. Each episode was an existential journey into darkness, as cerebral as it was lurid. And the show religiously adhered to Gilligan’s original vision: to turn a protagonist into an antagonist as the series progressed.

Responding to questions by email, Gilligan said he, the actors and his team of writers and directors all were committed to Walter White’s journey.

“When it became clear in Season 4 that Walter White’s story was headed toward its natural conclusion, we didn’t fight or ignore that realization,” Gilligan said. “It’s important to know when to call it quits.”

Gilligan, by the way, says he’s not much of a binge-watcher — with one notable exception.

“Every New Year’s Eve, the SyFy Channel broadcasts a marathon of the original ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, which I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like. I can’t quite figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of holiday tradition for me, I guess.”

But Gilligan in no way underestimates the power of binge-watching and what it says about the way we now consume television shows and movies.

“No matter how old-fashioned I may be personally, I am foursquare behind the concept of binge-watching,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. ‘Breaking Bad’ benefited immensely from it — and perhaps was ultimately saved by it. Binge-watching transformed my career.”

As for Spacey, an executive producer on “House of Cards,” he was quoted recently saying that while his show didn’t start the bingeing phenomenon, Netflix did set a precedent by releasing an entire season at once so people could stream every episode if they chose.

“I think it goes to say how much an audience is really digging being in control and being able to treat a series the way they treat a novel,” Spacey said. “(They) pick it up when they want to pick it up and put it down when they want to put it down.”

Since then I’ve explored other binge candidates. We watched the complete “Luther,” a British police procedural starring Idris Elba as a detective with a history of mental problems and ethical lapses who nonetheless nabs a serial killer by the end of each episode.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “Ripper Street,” a blood-spattered depiction of police detectives in 1889 London.

We checked out “Dexter,” another show I never watched when it was in production. It’s enthusiastically grotesque and somehow invites the word “lighthearted” in its depiction of a serial killer who only kills murderers who got away with it.

And I checked out “The Walking Dead,” another AMC show, about the zombie apocalypse; plenty of action, but too much time spent on humorless survival-camp politics for my taste.

So what are the “Breaking Bad” fans supposed to do? No other show has offered such a consistent, dramatically coherent through line. No other show could draw viewers into an extreme-yet-plausible narrative with such skill.

“There’s an intensity, of course, when you watch back-to-back episodes,” said Paul Tyler, grants director for the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. Tyler said he and his wife didn’t discover “Breaking Bad” until the third season, so they watched the first two in a frenzy on DVDs.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of the best things we’ve ever seen on TV,” Tyler said. “The realism of the show made it all so believable. And the consistency and the arc of those characters over such a long period of time was really phenomenal.”

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” (AMC)

In the interest of something — let’s call it closure — we invited Julie and Terry to watch the final two episodes of “Breaking Bad” with us.

The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there they were — wearing T-shirts showing the periodic table of elements, a reference to the show’s unique credits. And Terry was wearing sunglasses and a black, flat-brimmed Heisenberg hat.

“We’re here, bitch,” he said.

As the credits rolled at the end of “Felina,” the final episode, in which Walter White meets his inevitable end, there was a real sense of loss. The series was over. And we could never watch it as newbies again.

Some of the “Breaking Bad” acolytes are eager to see “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel. But how can it wield the power of the original? Julie wants to watch “Breaking Bad” again from the beginning — when the time is right.

“There was something about ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” she said. “We couldn’t stop.”

(c) 2014 by the Kansas City Star

George Hamilton on the road: ‘La Cage’ star reflects on Evel Knievel, Hank Williams and so much more

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The other day I rang up George Hamilton.

He was out in L.A., catching some rays poolside. And my first thought was: Well, where else would he be?

“Couldn’t be a better day,” the actor/producer said. “I love to be in the sun, sitting around the pool.”

Hamilton, thought of less as an accomplished actor than a charming personality, is on the road with the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical that opens next week at Starlight Theatre. Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a nightclub where his partner, Albin (played by Christopher Sieber), performs in drag as the club singer Zaza.

When Georges’ son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents to visit, Georges and Albin have to conceal the nature of their relationship. Laughter ensues.

Hamilton, 73, plays the “straight man,” as it were, but says his real job is to charm the audience.

Hamilton has been performing steadily since the late 1950s, when he was a contract player at MGM. In that era he appeared in a number of high-profile films — “Light in the Piazza” with Olivia de Havilland, “Home From the Hill” with Robert Mitchum, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood — and he has maintained an active career since.

Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton in “La Cage.” (Paul Kolnik)

He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and eventually began developing and producing his own films, including a biopic about daredevil Evel Knievel and the comedies “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”

He was part of the cast of the prime-time soap “Dynasty” and even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In 2008 he published a memoir in which he described his unconventional upbringing — his father was a bandleader, his mother an actress — and his relationships with a cavalcade of actresses and other famous women, including Lynda Bird Johnson when her father was president.

The book also revealed that he and his stepmother had an affair when he was 12, although he hardly considered himself a victim.

But in our conversation, Hamilton revealed a businesslike attitude when it comes to his chosen art form. He’s not a man who tries to impress you. But he does have some great stories to tell.

Q. Tell us about life on the road.

A. I’ve grown to like the show. It’s a very difficult thing to do for me. It’s a steep learning curve. I love to do things that are a little out of my reach, sometimes out of my grasp. But I always like the challenge. And so it’s gotten easier for me. If the audience doesn’t feel you’re pleased to be there, why should they?

I like the people I’m working with. I like the part. I like the atmosphere. The challenge is always still there because there’s so many … things that go on in a live performance that you have to develop a whole new set of techniques than you would in film. And I like that a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen that have given me a chance to dig down and try things I hadn’t tried before.

Q. How long had it been since you performed on stage?

A. Four or five years. I was on Broadway with “Chicago.” But then I was hurt and had to have an operation on my knee, and then I came back and did it again.

Broadway is a different animal than touring, and touring is a different animal than dinner theaters and plays. There’s a circuit of summer things that a lot of actors do, and I used to do without telling anybody because it’s the only way to learn timing. So I made it my business from the time I was under contract to the studio to make them think I was in the south of France living the life of a playboy, but the truth was I was often billed above the roast beef out in the sticks. So it’s been fun for me to do it. Touring for me is pretty hard. It’s much harder than Broadway. You have eight shows a week, five of which are Friday through Sunday. And you then have to go to the next city and get ready for your next performance. And you have press and travel all in the same time. So there’s no time off. You learn a whole different set of survival techniques.

It’s not very glamourous, the life on the road.

Q. A couple of years ago a local theater company produced the musical “Light in the Piazza.” Coincidentally, Turner Classics showed the (1962) film about the same time, so my wife and I watched it. We agreed you were convincing as a young Italian guy and there you were playing Rossano Brazzi’s son. What was that like?

A. You can be in the business for a lifetime and still not have captured what you’re about on film or have a performance you can point at and say, “This is really good or great.” Because this business is about their vision of you and not what yours is. It’s very hard to break molds and stereotypes, especially when you’re under contract to a big studio as I was.

Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton in “Light in the Piazza.”

That movie came at a time when contract players were thought of as chattel. So being under contract to a studio was not a really a help. It was more of a hindrance. New actors were coming on the lot and they were independent. … (The studio) knew they had you in a pinch, but they didn’t respect that very much.

So I knew that I had to do things that were not expected.

They used to have what they called the script cage, where they mimeographed all these scripts at night that would go out to producers. So I spent a lot of time after hours … and I’d read every script the studio had. And I found “Light in the Piazza.” I loved the idea of it. I thought it was a very sensitive movie and one that would be hard to pull off.

So I started working on the accent, and I went to Rossano Brazzi and said to him, “I want to play your son.” Rossano was a very nice man, typically Italian, and was henpecked by his wife quite a lot. But I spent time with him, and I would watch every mannerism he had and how he would speak.

I went to the head of the studio, who didn’t want to know about it at all, and he said they had a fellow by the name of Tomas Milian, who was a young actor, and he was going to play the role. And I said, “He’s not Italian.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s got an accent.” I said, “It does matter. Don’t you understand the difference between an Italian accent and a South American accent?”

So I said, “Why don’t you let me do the (screen) test?” They were surprised that they had the guy right under their nose who could play the role.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. But even if you did that they didn’t believe you could play another character. And characters were what I wanted to play.

There was a character named Hank Williams. He was a very sensitive country and western musician … and he was really a wonderful writer. So I went down to Nashville. It was a small picture. It wasn’t thought of as anything except the exploitation (of the songs).

And I actually worked on it and could do the songs to the point where they almost let me do the album. But I had to convince them. And that was the hard thing. They really wanted to put me in the playboy roles and leave it that. So I had to buy my way out of my contract with MGM.

Hamilton in “Love at First Bite.”

And then finally when I got to produce my own movies, I would hire me. You know, I’d say, “OK, I’m going to play Dracula and do ‘Love at First Bite’ and put myself into it.” So I raised the money, had the script written and played the role — and made $78 million dollars for them. … Then I had the ability to go on and produce another movie, which was “Zorro the Gay Blade,” and I again hired myself for that role.

It’s much easier to produce a film than it is to convince the producer of another film to hire you. I found that out the hard way. And there were periods when I was basically dead in Hollywood.

Q. If we could go back to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for a moment, didn’t Hank Williams Jr. actually record the songs for the soundtrack?

A. The studio was very uncertain about the music track because Audrey Williams (Hank’s widow) wanted a lot of money and wanted certain controls. I went down to Nashville and spent about a month with her and convinced her that I was the right actor for the role.

The studio didn’t see that at all. They thought I was a sophisticated playboy. I had to explain to them I was born in Memphis, Tenn., and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music.

Poster for “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Finally I began rehearsing the songs. Because anyway you figured it I had to sing ’em to lip-sync them. And I got them nailed to the point where I could finger the guitar and sing the songs. … They were willing to let me do the recordings for the movie, but finally they made a deal with Audrey that Hank Jr. would do them. So I was lip-syncing to Hank Jr.’s interpretations of his father’s songs.

Q. You also produced and starred in a film on the life of Evel Knievel. How did that come about?

A. I was doing a TV series at Universal, and it required some stunts. And there was a young producer on the lot and I kept having lunch with him, saying, “God, I’ve got to get a stunt man who can do this stunt for me.” And he said, “Well, get Evel Knievel.”

And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Evel Knievel?” And he told me about this guy and my first thought about him was he was kind of outrageous, kind of ridiculous. But I had the studio hunt him down. I had a stunt that had to be done, and he said he could do it.

He didn’t show up when he said when he was going to show up … and then one day, we were a week away from shooting the stunt and they called me from the gate and said there was a man out there with a huge semi-truck and some backup cars named Evel Knievel wanting to meet with me. … And I said, well, have him come to the commissary and meet me for lunch. And they said, “He can’t walk.”

They carried him into the commissary and put him down in the booth with me. And I said, “Mr. Knievel, I think there’s been a big mistake here. I would love for you to do the stunt, but I can see you can’t do it, and it would be ridiculous to pursue this.”

The real Evel Knievel.

And he said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. When is the stunt?” And I said it’s in a week. He said, “I’ll be ready.” I said, “You’ll be ready to do a stunt in a week?” He showed me this 11-pound piece of metal that was going into his … left leg.

He said, “I’m going in tomorrow morning, they’re gonna put that in there and they’ll snap this thing into the hip, and I’ll be out of there in three or four days and be ready to go.”

And I just sat there looking at him thinking, “This man is totally out of his mind.” And the more I started realizing that he was out of his mind, the more I found him interesting.

I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this stunt, but I’d like to talk to you about other things.” And he said, “Well, let’s get the stunt out of the way. I wanna know if your money’s good.”

So he called me on the day of the stunt. He called me from a hospital, and he said, “I’m ready to do the stunt for you. Which gate should I go to?” And he’s talking and suddenly I hear this kaplunk and … I thought the phone went dead. And then a nurse picks it up and said, “Mr. Knievel just passed out. He shouldn’t have been out of bed.” I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

So I went out there and he was lying in bed and he said, “Oh, I had a little problem there. They gave me too much medicine. I could have come and done it. I told them not to give me any pain medication but they gave it to me. It’s their fault.”

So I kept trying to talk to him and find out his psychology and what he was about. And I thought this is what America is about. It’s about making our mark on the north wall of the Grand Canyon. It’s a little bit crazy here, what we’re doing.

I found him very interesting. He was a sociopathic guy. And he was a very potentially dangerous human being. … Evel put a shotgun to my head one night when I brought the script to him.

Hamilton as Evel Knievel.

And I said, “What is this about?” He said, “I want you to read the script to me.” I said, “I don’t need a gun stuck to my head to do it.” He said, “You do in my case because if this is gonna be a bad movie it’s gonna be ended right now.” I read that script probably better than anything I read in my life.

Q. What’s next for you after this tour?

A. It’s always a good question because you don’t know. I never plan my life, and I’m surrounded with people who do and they’re always a year or two years ahead. There’s been an offer for a TV series, weekly, based on “Love at First Bite.”

There’s a one-man show that I would take on the road. … I kind of don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think after this the first thing I’ll do is settle in for a long winter’s nap.

Q. Well, thank you for this time.

A. I didn’t talk too much about “La Cage” (laughs).

Q. I did read a quote from your co-star, Christopher Sieber, who said you don’t have a diva bone in your body.

A. (Laughs.) That’s nice. I like to believe that I am a very dedicated and totally professional actor, and I don’t have any room in my life for ego. You can’t expect to be as proficient as people who have been in this play for a long time, who are singers and dancers and dedicated to Broadway.

But what you can bring to it is a certain showmanship and a sense of providing the audience with a kind of permission to enjoy themselves because you’re enjoying yourself. That’s a hard thing to do. You can’t fake that one. You just have to enjoy it, and if you do it’s infectious. My gift, if there is such, is to be delighted to be there.

Read more arts and entertainment new from the Kansas City Star at kansascity.com.

Gregory Harrison plays a different tune in ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

Posted on Wed, Feb. 01, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Gregory Harrison never gets tired of trying something new.

So here he is, in Kansas City — well, Overland Park if you want to get technical about it — making his first appearance at the New Theatre and performing a show he’s never done before: “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

The off-Broadway musical that became a Broadway hit in 1982 and has enjoyed a long life in regional theaters ever since had a special allure for Harrison. For one thing, he’s playing guitar for the first time in 25 years.

“The theater here introduced the idea,” Harrison said during a lunch break one recent afternoon. “It’s not the kind of thing I would generally be offered or cast in, so it appealed to me on that level. I normally play CEOs and doctors and presidents, so the idea of playing a gas station attendant immediately appealed to me.”

Marya Grandy, left, with Gregory Harrison and Jennifer Mays (Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star)

The show revolves around four guys who work in a gas station and two waitresses in the Double Cupp Diner somewhere in North Carolina. The show was written by the people who first performed it, and most of the music comes out of pop music and county rock traditions.

Harrison has enjoyed a long career on stage and screen. He’s remembered for his performance as Dr. George Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates on television’s “Trapper John, M.D.,” which ran from 1979 to 1986, but he’s also produced his own films, run his own theater in Los Angeles and appeared on Broadway in Kander and Ebb’s “Steel Pier” and the long-running revival of “Chicago,” as well as Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”

Harrison has gray hair, but he’s a fit-looking baby boomer, emanating the bronze aura of a California native who grew up swimming and surfing.

He was born in Avalon, on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. He was a third-generation islander. It was a small community — there were 31 kids in his high school graduating class and he had gone to kindergarten with 28 of them — but it was a popular movie location.

And he does carry some vivid memories of his father’s boat being used for a romantic comedy called “The Glass Bottom Boat” with Rod Taylor and Doris Day.

Harrison never went to college but served in the Army as a conscientious objector for three years. Two of those years he was a helicopter medic in Germany and, because of his C.O. classification, never was assigned to serve in Vietnam, although some conscientious objectors were. After the Army he decided to study acting in Los Angeles on the GI Bill.

Most show business careers have humble origins, and Harrison’s was no exception. In 1974 he was cast in a film called “Jim, the World’s Greatest.” According to Harrison, it was made by two 18-year-olds for $100,000 their parents had given them, and they needed a non-union actor.

“We shot it on weekends for a year,” Harrison said. “We’d rent the equipment on Friday night and take it back Monday morning. We wouldn’t sleep. We’d shoot from Friday night to Monday morning straight through.”

Harrison wasn’t getting paid, but eventually the movie was picked up by Universal Pictures, where executives thought the quality was so poor that parts of the film had to be reshot. Harrison said he earned a little money from Universal because of the reshoots.

“It got released, opened and closed in about 10 days,” he said. “But it got me in the union; it got me a rave review by Charles Champlin in the L.A. Times. An agent saw (the review) and called me. So here I was: I was a movie star and still had about $100 in the bank.”

Gregory Harrison and Pernell Roberts

But it wasn’t long until Harrison landed a regular role on the sci-fi series “Logan’s Run.” He’s kept working ever since. He started his own production company and produced about 20 movies, and he bought a theater where, “I taught myself to act on stage.”

“Trapper John,” was technically a “M*A*S*H” spinoff. Pernell Roberts played the middle-aged version of the character played by Wayne Rogers in the first three seasons of the TV series and Elliott Gould in the Robert Altman film. Beyond that, there was virtually no relationship between the two shows.

“ ‘M*A*S*H’ was still on, still a big hit, and they found a way to sell a show idea by taking a character from ‘M*A*S*H,’ updating him to the present, turning it from a half-hour comedy to an hour light drama, and the only real connection to ‘M*A*S*H’ was that one character. So it was probably a way to sell it to the affiliates. I often thought if it wasn’t named ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ it might have had more credibility as its own entity, its own personality and its own rewards.”

Roberts had become famous as one of the Cartwright brothers — sons of the ranching patriarch played by Lorne Greene — on the Western series “Bonanza,” but after several seasons decided to leave the show. Harrison once asked him why he left, and Roberts told him: “There’s an actor nine years older than me and I’m calling him Pa.”

“Pernell was a wonderfully talented man,” Harrison said. “He had a lot of demons, but when he wasn’t fighting them, he was one of the most charming men I had even known. Incredibly bright. Things didn’t work out the way he had hoped they would, and he had to deal with that on some days. … He was sure he would have a good film career and stage career. But he wasn’t cut out for compromise, and network television then required lots of compromise.

“I think what he wanted was to flaunt his independent streak. He wanted everyone to know he was nobody’s fool and nobody’s pawn and he would make up his own mind about how to present himself and how to play a scene. I loved him and embraced him, good and bad, hard and soft.”

Harrison just finished a film for the eccentric director Henry Jaglom with Michael Imperioli and Tanna Frederick. Called “The M Word,” it was largely improvised at Jaglom’s insistence. It’s all part of the actor’s life, according to Harrison. One thing he doesn’t want to do is repeat himself.

“I’m here for a couple of months doing something really different in a city I’m not familiar with,” he said. “I think the reason I became an actor in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s magical, is that it appeared to be something that would never be boring. Different faces, different places, different voices, different characters to play. All that appeals to me. Because I’m never bored.

“I think I fear boredom the way most people fear death.”

Read the review at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All rights reserved.

Evening with LuPone and Patinkin spotlights duo’s many talents

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

It wasn’t really a straight concert. It wasn’t exactly a stroll down memory lane. And it was something more than a Broadway greatest-hits revue.

And although all of those ingredients are found in “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” the show more than anything is LuPone and Patinkin doing their own thing, which met with unbridled approval on opening night Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (photo by Brigitte LaCombe)

What LuPone and Patinkin demonstrated, to no one’s surprise, was that the two Tony Award winners are terrific performers, skilled actors and passionate singers, even if they qualify for senior discounts. They were in fine voice Tuesday, although to be fair, there were fleeting moments when their pitch was less than 100 percent. Even so, Patinkin can take his bass-baritone from a low rumble to a delicate whisper in the upper registers and LuPone still is a master of her signature tunes.

The eclectic song selection includes material many of us can hum in the shower and songs so obscure that we’ve never heard them before. Accompanied by pianist Paul Ford and bassist James Albright, Patinkin and LuPone worked their way through a variety of show tunes that provided a cavalcade of romantic relationships.

Inevitably, Stephen Sondheim is well represented, starting with the opening number, “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” I’ll happily cop to being a philistine for not worshiping at the temple of Sondheim, but the carefully selected songs in this program are performed with deep feeling and high style. Read the complete review at kansascity.com.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin bring show to Kauffman Center; their longtime friendship began during the trials of ‘Evita’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Patti LuPone thinks back to the early days of her friendship with Mandy Patinkin and describes it this way: “Mandy became my rock.”

It was the late 1970s, and they had been cast in “Evita,” a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on the life of Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina who became a sort of secular saint to her followers.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (Brigitte Lacombe)

LuPone had the title role and Patinkin played Che, the show’s Greek chorus and narrator. And they were working with legendary director Hal Prince.

Both actors would win Tony Awards for their performances, but according to LuPone, getting there wasn’t easy.

“It was an incredibly difficult experience for me vocally on that show,” LuPone said. “I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the stuff that occurred on that show. I wasn’t trained for it. I wasn’t warned.

“And Mandy was my rock. Mandy saved me. He really did. I can’t say that strongly enough. He saved me emotionally, spiritually. Every time he was onstage I could relax. It was an incredibly difficult role and experience for me.”

LuPone said her vocal parts were pitched very high, which was a challenge. But there was also a media frenzy surrounding the show.

“We had never been in a play or a musical with that much hype,” she said with a laugh. “It was negotiating the waters of publicity and things that people said. It was hard. I don’t know what else to say. It was brutal.

“You know, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. It was the Andrew Lloyd Webber publicity machine. It tends to be about not putting on a play but something else entirely. And it was scary stuff, especially since we were young and inexperienced.”  Read more at kansascity.com.

Stage to film, film to stage: The elusive art of illusion

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

At the end of the day, I preferred the fake horse to the real one.

The art of illusion is tricky business, especially when you start comparing movies with the plays they were based on. Take “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s epic film that opened Christmas Day.

An image from "War Horse" the play

Spielberg’s handsomely mounted movie is based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, but also the National Theatre of Great Britain’s magnificent stage version that continues running in London and New York.

You simply can’t imagine such radically different viewing experiences. You could argue that “War Horse” is a graphic example of the aesthetic gulf between stage and screen.

On stage it’s a mind-blowing spectacle utilizing the most sophisticated puppets we’ve ever seen. These horses, created by hand from cane and fabric and operated by actors in full view of the audience, are startlingly lifelike. Their legs bend at the knee, their ears move, they shake their tails and they rear on hind legs. Before you know it, you’re invested emotionally. The horses, thanks to the acting ability of the puppeteers, take on recognizable personalities.  Read the rest here, at kansascity.com.

Live From New York | ‘The Mother … With the Hat’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Kansas City Star theater critic Robert Trussell is filing dispatches from Broadway this week.

NEW YORK | OK, let’s just call it “The Mother . . . With the Hat.”

That’s not what this funny, deeply humanistic play by Stephen Adly Guirgis is called, but neither the program nor the marquee can print the full title without the judicious use of a couple of asterisks.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since “Tea and Sympathy.”

I wasn’t surprised when I heard a couple of theatergoers grumbling about the “degradation of the theater” as I left the show. Here we are, some 35 years since David Mamet began his playwriting career and 27 years since his “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with its epithet-laden arias, claimed the Pulitzer Prize. And yet, the use of language — some language, anyway — in the theater remains controversial.

Whatever.

In my view there’s a hunger for material like this — superbly crafted, brilliantly performed plays that avoid pretentiousness, celebrate the human spirit with honest humor and poignancy and try to capture the reality of daily life in all its messy, glorious chaos.

The question of the hat, and to whom it may belong, triggers the action in this cleverly constructed piece about love, sex, betrayal, addiction and recovery among a group of present-day working-class New Yorkers.

Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock (Joan Marcus)

Dominating this Cadillac cast is Bobby Cannavale as the muscular, high-strung Jackie, a recovering addict on parole who is elated because he just landed his first real job since his release from state prison. He comes home to his little apartment to celebrate with the woman in his life, Veronica, a simmering coke user played by the excellent Elizabeth Rodriguez.

Jackie’s celebratory amorous mood disappears in a flash when he spies a hat on a table and demands to know whose it is. What ensues is a chain-reaction of accusations, destruction and deception as Jackie falls from his working-the-program high to an abject state of confused torment.

Jackie turns for help to his sponsor, Ralph D (Chris Rock in his Broadway debut), a seemingly serene, platitude-spewing figure who gets by on a steady diet of vegetable juice. His lonely, angry wife Victoria (the luminous Annabella Sciorra) seems unimpressed by Ralph’s success in sobriety, mainly because she knows just how dishonest he is. Indeed, Ralph may abstain from drugs and alcohol, but he’s still got a junkie’s mind.

Elizabeth Rodriguez (Joan Marcus)

At one point Jackie turns to his cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez), a slightly effeminate but formidable health-food chef and notary public, whose skill as a massage therapist allows him to use his fingers as potentially lethal weapons (or, as he puts, it go “Van Damme”). Julio loves his cousin but doesn’t mince words about how self-obsessed and callous Jackie is.

What emerges between Jackie, Veronica, Ralph and Victoria is a sort of round-robin of actual and would-be sexual relationships because, after all, love and sex are the most potent drugs of all. And just as actual narcotics do, they make people crazy.

Director Anna D. Shapiro (who won a Tony for staging “August: Osage County” in 2008) moves the action quickly and clearly in a play that runs about 100 minutes without an intermission. Cannavale, Rodriguez and Vazquez are simply electrifying, turning their characters’ inarticulate eloquence into sheer poetry.

Rock may not have the acting chops of his colleagues, but his performance is solid and the character of Ralph fits his established comic persona like a glove. Sciorra’s work is heartfelt — volcanically emotional at times — but she often seems challenged to project the performance beyond the first row.

Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal makes an enormous contribution with an ingenious series of sets that rapidly shift from one realistic location to another with revolving platforms and furniture that pivots up through trapdoors.

The fact this show is up for five Tony Awards — including Best Play — tells us all we need to know about the quality of this work. But Guirgis, like many playwrights who see life as a perpetual mix of the tragic and the absurd, gives us something more than a raucous comedy.

Ultimately it’s a love story about Jackie and Veronica. As Jackie prepares to go back to prison for a parole violation, he tells the love his life that he’ll do anything — anything — for them to be together.

We can’t help but root for them but as the play concludes all we know for sure is that maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

But there are no guarantees. Just like real life.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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