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

Bob Barker is the Devil

[ Note: This column, in slightly different form, was published in 2005 in the Sunday magazine of  The Kansas City Star. ]

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

Bob Barker is the devil.

You know it’s true. You’ve watched him on television your entire life. He never goes away. He’s always there, smiling, intoning, seducing, inviting us into a world of naked materialism.

Maybe this seems self-evident, but my conclusion was not reached lightly. It began when I drove my wife to the emergency room. There was no way we could know it at the time, but that was the prelude to our passage into cancer world.

Hospital waiting rooms and oncology clinics are never very happy places, of course. Patients and their loved ones gathered there devote their psychic energy to a set of basic goals: Don’t bolt from your chair and flee. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Don’t do that thing you see people do in movies where hysterical laughter morphs into inconsolable sobbing and only a slap to the face can return them to their senses.

They gather every morning in clinics and hospitals across America, sitting beneath flourescent lights in rooms often lined with dreary wood paneling, terrified of what the doctors may find but trying not to show it.

Some people thumb through magazines. Some stare into the distance. Others watch television.

The Monarch of Hell

There’s always a television. And it’s always on. And in the mornings it’s always tuned to the station that carries The Price Is Right.

This is why I will always link the image of Bob Barker, the 81-year-old host of the longest-running game show on television, with my wife’s cancer.

When I sat in a waiting room at Baptist Medical Center during her surgery, Bob Barker was there. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy at her oncologist’s office on Prospect, Bob Barker was there. Not long ago I drove her to a sonogram at St. Joseph Health Center, and there was Bob Barker—the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dark Lord of Greed.

Here’s a memory: My wife is seated in a recliner as a plastic tube pumps chemicals into her system through a port imbedded in her chest. From a television across the room emanates the screams and antiseptic music of “The Price Is Right.” I’m in a room full of women facing their own mortality, and there on the screen are screaming, jumping contestants focused on one thing only: Taking home a Cracker Jack prize.

My wife and I had fallen into the living hell of cancer—there’s no better word for it—and Bob Barker was our master of ceremonies. This is how I came to view him as El Diablo.

Look at his face and tell me I’m wrong. Study the glint in his eye as he builds the expectations of contestants who moments later walk away empty-handed. Listen to that effortless tone of empathetic disappointment when a contestant loses or the calculated elation in his voice when somebody wins a coveted piece of merchandise.

Oh, Barker’s good. He has been performing before television cameras for most of his adult life. In the ’50s he starred on Truth or Consequences, a game show that featured, among other things, a chimpanzee named Beulah the Buzzer.

But for most television viewers below a certain age, Barker is the face of The Price Is Right, a show that never goes away. It began in 1956 with a different host, but Barker’s involvement goes back 32 years—longer than many of his viewers have been alive.

Recently I made a point of watching several episodes of The Price Is Right. The experience simply confirmed my belief: Bob Barker is the Prince of Darkness, a leering, malevolent presence in doctor’s offices across America.

With a soothing tone, suave bearing and calm authority he appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. The show celebrates our lust for possessions and our need to be anesthetized against the horrors, big and small, of daily existence. Crucial to its popularity is the implied promise that you can get something for nothing.

That’s untrue, of course. There’s always a price. Those who fill the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood each day agree to humiliate themselves for a chance to spin the Big Wheel or to play Bonkers or Pick a Pair or Switcheroo. They greet Bob with a frenzy usually reserved for football games and rock concerts.

They cheer. They shout. They scream. They high-five each other. They exchange hugs. It all has the aroma of a tent revival, with Bob Barker playing the role of preacher. It is, in fact, a form of worship—the worship of stuff.

Listen to him.

Barker put it rather eloquently at the conclusion of one episode. A contestant named Kathleen had won the “Showcase Showdown” and rushed off camera to be with her new possessions.

“And there she goes,” Bob Barker said, “to look at her motorcycle and her boat and all that stuff.”

Bob likes people to win. He doesn’t much care what they win as long as they win something. Cars, living room furniture, cappuccino machines, sailboats, motorcycles, gas grills, luggage—the list is infinite. The unseen Rich Fields—successor to legendary announcers Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy—trumpets the unveiling of each product with a high-decibel carnival barker’s pitch: “It’s a new C-A-A-A-R-R!” or “It’s an exciting P-O-O-O-L table!”

Barker is beloved by his contestants, and they seem to love him all the more when he mocks them in his cool, detached way.

One day a contestant named Alisa played a game called 3 Strikes, shoving her hand into a canvas bag designed to look like a big baseball in the hopes of pulling out the correct token to win a new Lincoln LS. With each unsuccessful try she screamed bloody murder.

“That scream may sound loud at home but I’m telling you when you’re no more than 36 inches away from it, I will never hear out of this ear again,” Barker said.

The camera never gets too close to Bob on The Price Is Right. You usually see him from the waist up and sometimes in head-to-foot shots. That way you can see Bob’s masterful body language and the cut of his suits.

A few years ago, however, Bob made a cameo appearance on the long-running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Bob appeared as himself, accompanied by a couple of his “beauties,” the models who with fluid hand gestures and frozen smiles “present” the refrigerators and ranges and motorcycles and new cars.

But The Bold and the Beautiful showed Barker in disturbing close-ups. The unnatural tan had a sort of radioactive glow, and there was something about the thick white hair that wasn’t right. He looked like an animatronic theme-park character.

This is why it’s so easy to imagine Bob as a demonic presence. He seems “natural” only on the set of The Price Is Right. Remove him from his universe of cardboard sets and garish lighting and it just seems wrong—even when you insert him into the phony world of a daytime soap.

For many The Price Is Right is nothing more than addictive entertainment. And Bob is widely admired for his devotion to animal rights. The former Springfield, Mo. resident projects an unassuming Midwestern manner, often greeting his guests with “Howdy.”

Cloven Hoof and friend

Oh, there were some unpleasant lawsuits from former staffers and models a few years ago. They accused Barker of behavior that was unbecoming to a beloved celebrity.

But Bob has never been distracted from his overriding goal—dragging Americans into a vortex of consumerism. Picture yourself, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, caught in the eye of a tornado, with patio furniture, vacuum cleaners and skate boards spinning all around you.

That’s where Bob wants you to be.

But the funny thing about products is that they really don’t mean much to people dealing with cancer. People on chemo just can’t get excited about new kitchen gadgets or curio cabinets.

What they see on Bob’s show is an endless river of disposable junk—cars that will rust, vacuum cleaners whose belts will break, furniture that will someday be scarred and pitted. All the shiny new products destined to reside in landfills simply remind us that our bodies will eventually fail and that life must come to an end, no matter how diligently we try to forestall the inevitable.

But Barker keeps on keeping on, his place in the Television Hall of Fame secure. Five days a week he torments his guests with condescending charm as they struggle to guess the price of a stereo or a sofa or a ping-pong table.

Maybe you have your own notions of the Dark One. Maybe you believe he really exists. Maybe you just see him as a metaphor for the human animal’s capacity to inflict evil on his own kind.

Regardless, history and literature offer plenty of stand-ins for His Satanic Majesty: Vlad the Impaler, Richard III, Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter. It’s a long list. And somewhere near the bottom is my personal Mephistopheles: Bob Barker.

And what an impoverished figure he is. At the end of the day he’s just a huckster with a cane and megaphone promising unimagined pleasures if only we’ll step inside the tent.

(c) 2005 the Kansas City Star

The time is right for New Theatre’s risk-taking ‘Game Show’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

When Richard Carrothers decided he wanted to stage “Game Show,” a process that began in earnest about two years ago, he knew he needed a cast that was nimble, adaptable and quick.

Because “Game Show” isn’t like other plays you’ve seen at the New Theatre — or anywhere, for that matter.

The piece by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, which originally ran off-Broadway 11 years ago, is really two shows occupying the same slice of time and space.

There’s a “live” TV broadcast, in which actual theatergoers are invited onstage to participate in a quiz show, and actors operating real cameras are capturing images that are shown on big screens on either side of the proscenium.

And then there’s the play itself: a backstage satire depicting cutthroat network politics in which the debonair host, Troy Richards, gradually discovers that he has been set up in an elaborate plot to get him off the show.

Charles Shaughnessy quizzes audience members in "Game Show" (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Carrothers built a unique supporting cast around his guest star, British-born Charles Shaughnessy, who exudes effortless, David Niven-style charm as he interacts with theatergoers as Troy.

Carrothers assembled a group of Kansas City veterans as well as a couple of Chicago actors with improv backgrounds, all of whom had one thing in common: They could go with the flow. “Game Show” is scripted up to a point, but much of the entertainment is found in the unscripted moments when actors relate to real people from the audience.

“It’s going to be a different show every night, depending on the mood of the audience and how much wine they’ve had,” Shaughnessy said one afternoon during a rehearsal break.

Shaughnessy said he has never done improv, and he has never appeared on a game show, but you’d never guess it by watching him work in this production. He and his fellow actors form an ensemble of equally crucial components and share the stage with ease.

“I’ve never done a show like this,” said Shaughnessy, a veteran of film and television, perhaps remembered best for a regular role on “The Nanny.” “It reminds me a bit of English pantomime. This is really quite fascinating.

“You’re doing a play about a game show while filming the game show and broadcasting it to the audience. But the whole thing is a play that takes you behind the scenes. It’s a fascinating Russian-doll show — a show within a show within a show. It’s like Pirandello — wheels within wheels.”

Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

Pirandello, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1934, wrote “tragedies” that are considered forerunners of theater of the absurd. He is best known for a play hardly anyone has seen — “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which characters from an unfinished play wander into a rehearsal and implore the director to finish their story.Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

In short, Pirandello made it OK for playwrights to free themselves from the restrictions of conventional storytelling, to break the “fourth wall” by allowing characters to speak directly to the audience and candidly acknowledging the artifice of theater.

Carrothers said the jokey alternative title for the determinedly frothy show at the New Theatre is “Six Characters in Search of a Game Show.”

“That’s the whole Pirandello thing — blurring the line between acting and reality,” Carrothers said. “This show blurs that line.”

Carrothers had only two weeks to rehearse, which meant, among other things, coming up with questions for the actual games, because the script didn’t provide any.

“The games themselves were very sketchy,” Carrothers said. “The script would say ‘Round One: selected questions.’ ”

Joe Fox, the company’s vice president in charge of production, came up with as many as 400 questions, which they winnowed during rehearsals, Carrothers said.

Actors Craig Benton and Peter DeFaria, who play the camera operators, used the equipment from the beginning and, according to Carrothers, took to it like ducks to water. Actor Tim Cormack plays the television director in the show, which obliges him to direct the live video feed the audience sees on the big screens from an upstage console.

In the 30 minutes or so before the show starts, actors — including Jim Korinke and Todd Carlton Lanker — go into the audience in character and solicit volunteers to participate in the games. Carrothers said many spectators enjoy being made part of the action. But some don’t.

“Audiences by their very nature are voyeurs,” Carrothers said. “It’s like looking into somebody else’s dilemma and wondering what they’re going to do. When you ask voyeurs to be active, there’s a sort of group resistance. We get emails and phone calls from people saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate being part of it.’ ”

As a creative artist, though, Carrothers likes watching what happens when you change the formula.

“It’s interesting that by having an audience member up there it changes the dynamic of how we’re experiencing the show,” he said. “I just love how it shakes up the dynamics. There’s really something I’ve found that in long runs actors get very comfortable with the words. It’s almost hypnotic. They feel protected by the words, but in this show they have to be able to respond.”

Shaughnessy, for his part, seems to enjoy where is. He inherited a baronial title, and he studied law at Cambridge. But the acting bug, he said, can be traced to his discovery in childhood that he really enjoyed reading out loud in class.

“I really like showing off,” he said. “And of course no sensible person is an actor professionally.”

But he never could picture himself among lawyers.

“That’s not my tribe,” he said.

Shaughnessy has done stage and television (including an eight-year stint on the daytime soap “Days of Our Lives”), and in this show he gets to do both. But he has no preference.

“It’s like different parts of a meal,” he said. “They’re all delicious, but they’re all different. I love getting onstage, but at the same time, it’s much more financially rewarding on TV, and that increases your fame, which allows you to do more theater.”

“Game Show,” whether it’s your cup of tea or not, does represent something that’s been happening more of late at the New Theatre: Productions that reflect playful, bold, even risky choices. Last summer Carrothers directed the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a show the company had done before, but Carrothers and his designers came up with a wild new take on the material, and the results were very funny.

Then Dennis Hennessey staged the rather shopworn 1960s British farce “Move Over Mrs. Markham” and hit on the idea of setting the show at the turn of the 20th century, with corsets for the ladies, high collars for the men and antique telephones in the parlor.

And now we have “Game Show,” which has so many unscripted moments that the potential for derailment is always bubbling just below the surface.

Carrothers said the explanation is simple enough. He and Hennessy, who have been producing partners since the 1970s, said they have learned a thing or two through the years.

“What you’re seeing out here is that I get a little more creative the longer I do it,” Carrothers said. “We probably wouldn’t have done ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham,’ but because Dennis had the idea for this mashup, that’s the whole reason we did it.

“I am now more open to outcome than attached to outcome. In terms of this creative piece (‘Game Show’), 10 or 15 years ago I would have gone in with a very rigid approach. But I was so open to any artist in that room who had an opinion, they participated in the shaping and molding of this show. And that’s what you see.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham were artists onstage, genuine men off

Published Nov. 5, 2011

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

T. Max Graham in Brian Friel's "Translations" (KCAT)

I hope I don’t have to write another obituary for a long time.

Last month, in less than three weeks, the theater community lost two formidably talented actors: Gary Holcombe and T. Max Graham.

Holcombe was an accomplished musical theater performer who could handle comic and dramatic roles with equal facility. And Graham was largely known as a funnyman but showed what he could do in dramatic roles late in his career.

Professional theater critics are, of course, expected to keep their distance and avoid close personal relationships with the people they cover. And I do. But it’s virtually impossible to do this job for years without forming attachments to some of the folks you write about.

I liked Gary and Max. they were talented men who almost always brought something special to the stage. they also happened to be good guys. each of them was complicated and had a few demons to deal with — who doesn’t? — but neither was a fake.

Despite my publicly stated admiration for their abilities when they were at their best, neither of them was immune to a critical review. I can recall performances when they appeared to be phoning it in. But it’s the exceptional work that I recall most vividly — those performances you knew were testing the limits of their abilities, when they were demanding something of themselves that nobody else would.

the last time I talked to T. Max Graham, we reminisced about the long-gone era of cheap biker movies, the virtues of misspent youth and the casual pleasures afforded by uncontrolled substances.

One night, as I surfed through the largely unwatched channels in my cable package, I landed on a 1970 film I had never seen. “Unchained Angel,” it was called, and although I was well-versed in the worst movies of my adolescence and early adulthood, this one had escaped my notice.

Shot in Arizona, “Unchained Angel” featured a few of the era’s most ubiquitous Grade B actors — Don Stroud, Luke Askew, bill McKinney — and depicted big-hearted bikers defending a hippie commune from violent rednecks in the nearby town.

As I watched I kept noticing a member of the biker gang who seemed to draw focus in every scene. Unlike the others, he wore a top hat and a cape, and later I learned the character’s name was Magician.

“that looks like Max Graham,” I thought to myself, and I went to the computer, called up the Internet Movie Data Base and quickly confirmed my suspicions. it was, indeed, the future king of dinner theater in Kansas City. This was his debut film, and he used his real name — Neil Moran.

The next day I called Max, excited to share my discovery. Max thought back to the late ’60s and recalled that he had never been on a Harley and had to take motorcycle lessons. his first time out, he skidded out of control.

Apparently he got better. Max allowed that when the cameras rolled and the biker actors swept into town in formation, their Harley engines roaring, it gave him a feeling of exhilaration that didn’t really require any acting.

“That was slick,” he said.

He recalled other details, too — how the actors threw away the phony marijuana cigarettes handed out by the props department and replaced them with the real thing.

One day he and one of his fellow actors, Larry Bishop — comedian Joey Bishop’s son — decided to get on their bikes and take a short tour down the highway during a lull in filming. Soon enough they were pulled over by a highway patrolman, who thought they were real bikers. And for good reason. they were in costume and looked scruffy. And they weren’t carrying IDs.

Max recalled that he and Bishop sat in the back of the patrol car for a couple of hours until the cops determined that they were exactly who they said they were — a couple of actors playing tough guys.

In recent years Max considered himself more or less retired. he collected pensions from all three unions for actors, although he was still up for the occasional bit of film work.

In some ways Max was a guy after my own heart. with no formal training, the one-time kitchen-gadget salesman made his mark. at Tiffany’s Attic and the Waldo Astoria dinner theaters, his name had real marquee value, and if you look at his film and television credits, they range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Among them are the admirable television adaptation of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” and, most notably, Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil.” And on stage, at a time when by his own admission remembering lines had become a challenge, he took on the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” — a voluminous play with reams of dialogue. that was just two years ago. to do the play was an act of faith — and an act of courage.

Gary Holcombe was an operatically trained singer with a formal education. But he was every bit as earthy as Max.

Gary Holcombe in Lanford Wilson's "Talley & Son" (KCAT)

In one my last conversations with Gary, he couldn’t hold back his tears. I had called for a comment about the passing of George Keathley, the former artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Gary was bereft. he kept apologizing for being so emotional.

“I feel like a big baby,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this prickly Vietnam vet break down. Once, as I sat in his living room conducting an interview with Gary and his wife, director Donna Thomason, I casually asked about his hunting dogs without realizing that only recently he had been forced to put down his beloved Mitzi.

Gary excused himself and stepped into the kitchen, where I could hear him overcome with grief. “Blubbering,” he might have called it.

Gary Holcombe felt things deeply, and when he found something new to be enthusiastic about he committed himself to it totally. When he learned to play the banjo and guitar, he wanted only the finest instruments. he was the same way about racing bikes.

That enthusiasm was almost always obvious in his performances. the first time he got my attention was almost 20 years ago in “I Hate Hamlet,” a light comedy that has one great role: the ghost of actor John Barrymore. Gary, naturally, played Barrymore, and he played for keeps. I saw him do that again and again through the years.

And I saw him test himself in roles that didn’t necessarily fit like a glove — as the outcast Wing Biddlebaum in the musical “Winesburg, Ohio” and as German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who served the Nazi regime when other conductors fled the country, in “taking Sides.”

Gary and I had a number of long, memorable and exceptionally candid phone conversations. he was never one to bite his tongue. he said exactly what he thought, including his assessments of local actors. the ones he liked, he really liked. the ones he didn’t never really came up in conversation. And he frequently offered withering opinions of local productions, including those he was in.

Gary, for all his artistry and worldliness as a one-time Broadway actor, never divorced himself from his Kentucky upbringing. In much the same way, Max was always a product of Jackson County, even when playing a Neil Simon New Yorker or a brilliant Italian astronomer. Even when they seemed anything but grounded, they were rooted in Mother Earth.

I never got drunk with either of these gentlemen, although I’m sure the experience would have been worthwhile in its own excessive way. Aside from an occasional lunch or coffee date I rarely saw much of them outside a playhouse.

But I liked them. And I’ll miss them. Rest in peace, guys.

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