Posts Tagged ‘movies’

Auteur! Auteur! Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)


By Glenn Lovell

Andrew Sarris, who died Wednesday at age 83, wrote about movies his entire life but most notably during the 1960s-1970s. It was a heady time, a time of spirited debate over the merits of Bergman, Antonioni and Kubrick. And the scrappy Sarris was at the center of it all, driving and informing the dialogue with his long, rambling, impassioned columns for the Village Voice. The following is an interview I did with Sarris in 1994.

FOR THOSE OF US who began thinking seriously about film in the ’60s, he was the guru, the man who somehow made it all make sense. For his opposite numbers across the Atlantic ‒ Cahiers du Cinéma critics Francois Truffaut and Jean- Luc Godard ‒ he was the chief American proponent of the “auteur theory,” which downgraded Hollywood’s more self-conscious “artists” and made heroes of Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger and especially Alfred Hitchcock.


At “65 going on 66,” Andrew Sarris is still hard at it, writing a weekly column for the New York Observer, teaching at Columbia University and putting the finishing touches on his 11th book, “The American Sound Film.”

Sarris, who will be speaking tonight on “The Iridescence of Irene Dunne” (Stanford Theatre, 7:30 p.m.), refers to his latest tome as “my magnum opus.” It was supposed to be out last year, but Sarris being one of the great dreamers and procrastinators pushed the deadline to this summer. “I haven’t done as much as I should have,” he says of his career in general, “but I’m a very late starter.”

Initially, he saw himself as a novelist. But the “real writing” didn’t come. At 27, after a stint in the Army Signal Corps, he submitted a review of “The Country Girl” to Film Culture (“I really panned it”). Remuneration: zilch. But that was OK; he was living with his mother in Brooklyn and working as a script reader for 20th Century Fox.

Four years later, he walked into the editorial offices of the Village Voice, then all of eight pages. Under his arm was a review of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Not only was it a rave, it argued that the “master of suspense” should be placed on a pedestal with the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman.

“It caused a great storm,” he recalls from his East Side apartment, which he shares with wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell (also a guest speaker for Stanford’s on-going screwball-comedy series). “I was treating Hitchcock as a major artist. Their idea of an art film was something by Bergman or Fellini. The idea of Hitchcock as a great artist was anathema.”

Those early reviews ‒ now described as “very crude, clumsy” ‒ caused quite a commotion among New York film buffs and left their author with a feeling of euphoria, power. A year later, Sarris began his reign as the Voice’s regular film critic. From 1961 to 1989, he wrote the “Films in Focus” column, which became required reading for fledgling critics and sparked very public feuds with anti-auteurists Pauline Kael and John Simon.

In 1968, Sarris loosed a salvo that reverberated throughout the critical community: “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions.” Beginning with the line, “The need for an updated film history is self-evident,” Sarris juggled the standings of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors. The darlings of the critics ‒ John Huston and Elia Kazan, among them ‒ were lumped under the heading “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Studio workhorses, such as Michael Curtiz and Henry Hathaway, were downgraded to “Lightly Likable.” Cerebral mavericks ‒ Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick ‒ were consigned to “Strained Seriousness.”

And the new residents of Sarris’ Pantheon? Such previously underrated entertainers as Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks, Fritz Lang and, of course, Hitchcock. Their personal vision of “a self-contained world” earned them a place beside Orson Welles, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith. Reissued in 1985 with a new afterword by the author, “American Cinema” is required reading in most film aesthetics classes and, along with “What is Cinema?” by André Bazin and the collected reviews of James Agee, a seminal work in film scholarship.

Sarris himself believes the “cult of the auteur” has gone too far. All directors, even the hacks, are revered over screenwriters now. “It was never meant to be the last word, and I was never meant to be a prophet.”

Pressed for changes he would make in his rankings, Sarris says he’d leave the Pantheon category alone, but would be kinder to Wilder, Wellman, Frankenheimer, Leo McCarey, William Wyler.

“I’m always changing. Times change. Movies change. I think differently today than I did when I started out.”

As for the widely hailed Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”), he’s still an overrated “superego.” Ditto David Lean, whose “Lawrence of Arabia” was panned by Sarris when it opened in 1962. He considered the epic gaseous and pretentious then, and still does.

Sarris’ recent favorites: Stephen Frears’ “The Snapper,” Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day” and (as he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Francophile) anything by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. Critics who measure up by combining “intelligence and intelligibility”: Kael, Vincent Canby, Richard Corliss, Manny Farber, David Kehr and Haskell (who chronicled her husband’s prolonged hospitalization in ’85 with a mystery virus in the unique memoir “Love and Other Infectious Diseases”).

At a time when many are decrying the state of film criticism ‒ where gossip and the direction of one’s thumb have replaced learned discourse ‒ Sarris is surprisingly upbeat. “I think film criticism has improved enormously,” he says. Sarris’ assessment of his own writing: idiosyncratic, a weakness for alliteration. “I’m lazy ‒ I don’t work hard enough on my writing.” He believes such traits kept him from breaking into mainstream publications. He would have joined The New Yorker or The New York Times (like buddy Canby) “in a second.” He left the Voice, he says, because he was “tired of that atmosphere. It was too political, too radical, for my taste. I’ve always been sort of a centrist, an anomaly.”

The key to his longevity, he believes, is that, for him, film was always a means to an end: self-awareness. “Film enabled me to find myself. Through film, I’ve been telling the story of my life, like an ongoing memoir.”

Classic Ray Bradbury on “Fahrenheit 451” Redo


by Glenn Lovell

Eloquent, profane, blustery, eternally boyish — Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday at age 91, proved all of the above in our numerous chats. I met the science fiction-fantasy author in 1983, upon the release of the long-stalled adaptation of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Our interview was set for late afternoon at a San Francisco hotel.

But it didn’t come off as planned because Bradbury, by 4 p.m., was happily in his cups, slurring his words after one too many martinis. We rescheduled for two weeks later — at his office-cum-warehouse on Wilshire Blvd. Bradbury couldn’t have been more gracious, regaling his guest with stories of his love/hate relationship with Hollywood. A child at heart, the author surrounded himself with toys and movie memorabilia, including, on his large, cluttered mahogany desk, a model of the Nautilus from Disney’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”

Though we talked numerous times after that meeting, the last story I wrote about Bradbury was on a proposed remake of “Fahrenheit 451” by Mel Gibson. Excerpts from that never-before-published 2001 interview show Bradbury in rare form, at once caustic and testy.

RAY BRADBURY IS FUMING mad at Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. “One of their scripts for ‘Fahrenheit 451’ should be seen by people to show how dumb studios can be,” the author grouses. “And please quote me on that!”

Bradbury was hoping things would go smoother this time around with Icon holding the rights to his 1953 sci-fi classic and Frank Darabont now set to direct for Castle Rock Ent. But so far, the author reports, the new “F-451” has been more exasperating than the 1966 Francois Truffaut version with Oskar Werner as Montag and Julie Christie — in what Bradbury calls “a stupid bit of miscasting” — as both Montag’s wife Mildred and the 16-year-old girl next door.

“F-451,” about a dystopian society in which reading is outlawed, was optioned four years ago by Icon as a possible “Braveheart” follow-up for Gibson. Bradbury lunched with Gibson in 1998 to discuss the project. “We had a terrific meeting,” the author recalls. “He seemed very enthused. He showed me plans for the sets and a design for the mechanical hound, which was cut from Truffaut’s version.”

But then, complete silence. “Every six months I call them and they say the same thing: ‘Oh, we were just about to call you.’ Yeah, sure. Can you believe they’ve let so much time go by, when the novel is in every school in America?”

Bradbury says there are now nine “F-451” scripts circulating, plus his own. “How can you write 10 screenplays on ‘F-451,’ when all you have to do is open the book and shoot the pages? It’s stupid.”

Adding insult to injury, none of the scripts has been sent to Bradbury for comment. He did, however, receive a bootlegged copy of draft six from a bookseller in Atlanta. It was very “un-Bradbury-like,” in the author’s words.

“I was afraid to open it. Finally I turned to page 42, very gingerly. It’s where Fire Chief Beatty comes to Montag’s house and Mildred asks, ‘Would you like some coffee?’ Beatty replies, ‘Does a bear s— in the woods?’ I closed the script and didn’t read the rest. I couldn’t believe it.”

Now that the highly regarded Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) is connected with the project, as well as a proposed $70-million HBO serialization of Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” the author is more optimistic. “He’s does beautiful work. When I saw ‘The Green Mile,’ I called him and said, ‘Is the ending a Bradbury ending?’ He said, ‘Yes, I read you in high school.’ ”

Among the actors periodically mentioned for the Montag role – after Gibson bowed out as director or star – are Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Sean Connery once expressed interest in the Beatty role. “Either Cruise or Pitt would be great,” says Bradbury. “Especially Cruise – he’s a very good actor.”

“Alien” vs. “It! The Terror …”: Feud Revisited


With Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” about to set down, I thought it might be fun to revisit my 1979 story about “Alien” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space.” This story originally appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where I worked as entertainment editor. A second version appeared in “Cinefantastique” magazine.

by Glenn Lovell

Here’s a riddle for you. What came first, the creature or the alien egg?

Put another way, is “Alien,” 20th Century-Fox’s $9-million release, the innovative shock show critics from coast to coast have rushed to call it? Or, is it simply a flashy retread of a number of low-budget 1950s creature features, like “The Thing from Another World” and “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”? With the alien-hitches-a-ride movie already well over the $40 million mark and reaching daily for a spot beside “Jaws,” “Close Encounters” and “Star Wars,” a backlash has begun among onetime admirers who are now asking, “Just how original is ‘Alien’ anyway?”

What they’re discovering ‒ with a little help from horror/sci-fi aficionados ‒ is that “Alien” is not only a first cousin to some of the seedier ’50s monster movies, it is also something of a rip-off of these exploitation numbers.

Although other titles have been bandied about ‒ like “This Island Earth” and “Forbidden Planet” ‒ the two films “Alien” most resembles are “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958)  and “Planet of the Vampires” (1965). The storyline, almost scene for scene, comes from “It!”; the eerie lighting and stylized, expressionistic landscapes are pure “Planet,” an Italian SF/fantasy shocker by Mario Bava.

For those of us who can recall the summer of 1958 and the release by United Artists of a $110,000 quickie titled “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” watching “Alien” for the first time evoked a strong sense of déjà vu. The new script, credited to Dan O’Bannon, seemed nothing less than a verbatim replay of what director Edward L. Cahn and screenwriter Jerome Bixby had supplied in the way of extraterrestrial fright.

Briefly, in “It!” a spaceship lands on an uncharted planet to search for survivors of a downed rocket and, unbeknown to the crew, picks up a deadly, blood-sucking hitchhiker. As in “Alien,” the thing from another world hides in the ventilation shaft, is warded off by a crew member with a blow torch, and is finally sucked into deep space where it dies from lack of oxygen. What the makers of “Alien” have done is change the shape of the creature (theirs is insectoid, Cahn’s was humanoid with reptilian features) and assault us with more sophisticated shock effects.

Still, the stories bear an uncanny resemblance.

Aware of this, we contacted 20th Century’s “Alien” office for the official word on whether the brains behind the hit were conscious of copying an earlier film or had latched onto a project they assumed was original. British director Ridley Scott escapes complicity because he is unacquainted with most American sci-fi. His U.S. collaborators, however, are another matter. At least three were aware of the striking similarities between “Alien” and “It!” One of the film’s producers even admitted screening portions of “It!” during production “to make sure we weren’t  doing a bald remake.”

Producer David Giler: “We only began to hear about ‘It!’ toward the end of production. I haven’t seen it, but t I know of the film. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the alien-hiding-on-a-spaceship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in the Western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.”

Interestingly, Giler was only too happy to brand O’Bannon “a fake” and “rip-off artist.” Giler said he and co-producer Walter Hill wrote most of the script but lost out to O’Bannon in an “idiotic” Writers Guild arbitration. He called O’Bannon’s original draft “amateurishly written ‒ just awful! Basically, it was a pastiche of ’50s movies thrown together. If we had shot the original script we would have had a remake of ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space.’ ”

When pressed, Giler confided: “I know some of the more esoteric SF magazines have commented on tie-ins between ‘It!’ and ‘Alien.’ But I’m not a regular reader of these magazines. Personally, I think that’s a question you ought to put to O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (co-author of the ‘original story’). If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea, it’s them. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Dan O’Bannon stole the idea, I must tell you.”

For a different perspective, we contacted “It!” screenwriter Jerome Bixby. He had not seen “Alien” but, through his sons, was aware of plot similarities. We talked him into viewing the film, then reporting back to us. He called two days later.

“Frankly, I feel like the grandfather of ‘Alien,’” chuckled Bixby, whose credits include 1,300 short stories and segments of “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.” “There’s a whole roster of similarities between what I wrote and the new film. They’re both about a small group of people trapped aboard a spacecraft with an inimical creature out to get them and which, in fact, knocks them off one by one. No problem there; that’s a pretty general plot outline. In both stories the creatures use the ship’s air ducts. In both stories they are held off with gas and electricity. And at the end of both stories, they’re dispatched by suffocation, by evacuating the creatures from the ship and depriving them of air.”

Although Bixby wouldn’t say whether he intended to take action against O’Bannon and 20th Century, he did say he was in touch with his lawyer about the matter.

“In all honesty, my story was also derivative,” he allowed. “Essentially what I did was take Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’ and play it aboard a spaceship. But I didn’t copy the storyline; I used the film ‒ a masterpiece in the genre ‒ as inspiration for my story. The Hawks film has long been a model for SF writers.”

Bixby said he enjoyed “Alien” but believed the film’s extravagant budget and f/x covered for a weak storyline. “When I think what we could have done with that kind of money …,” he mused. “A lot of people saw our little grade-B flick because there was something of a science-fiction boom back then. But it was nothing like we have today.”

“Radio” Days


by Glenn Lovell

When news arrived of Donna Summer’s cruel passing at age 63, I reached for my Summer Greatest Hits CD. But I didn’t play the thumping disco anthems “Last Dance” and “Love to Love You, Baby.” I went to the swoony “On the Radio,” her Casablanca collab with Giorgio Moroder that was used in the mostly forgotten “Foxes” (1980), co-starring the 17-year-old Jodie Foster as one of four vaguely rebellious Valley girls and Sally Kellerman as Foster’s lost, unassertive single mom.

Directed by Brit Adrian Lyne (“Fatal Attraction”) from a script by Gerald Ayres, “Foxes” is very definitely a guilty pleasure, much like “Cat People,” “Flashdance” and other films wed to the pulsating synthesized sound of Moroder. Still, for all its dated, Day-Glo glitz — think skateboards and Scott Baio in cutoffs — there’s something achingly sad about “Foxes,” and much of the credit for this belongs to the dreamy photography, Cherie Currie as the most at-risk of the high school clique … and Summer’s yearning rendition of “On the Radio,” at least the piano prelude ‒

          Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio

          And they told the world just how you felt

          It must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat

          They never said your name

          But I knew just who you meant

Yes, “Foxes” — set in a San Fernando Valley P.T. Anderson would never recognize — is one for the time capsule, but, for a few of us, Summer’s lilting “On the Radio” will remain timeless.

Memo to AMC: Block Phones!


Memo to AMC Theater Management:

Hey, guys, thanks for those new cell phone PSAs ‒ the ones using the Muppets and those cute flying apps.

They’re funny and creative. I love seeing Fozzie Bear talking on a banana as Miss Piggy shushes him.

One problem: The spots are next to useless.

After sitting through “Footloose” at one of your San Jose houses and watching cell phones pop on one after another like Christmas lights, I’d go further ‒ your new spots are not only useless, they encourage cell phone use during the movie by making a joke of the practice.

Cell Phones: No Laughing Matter

The thinking now among repeat offenders: If management thinks it’s funny, it’s obviously no big deal.

In other words, you’re contributing to a problem that’s grown to epidemic proportions and caused a noticeable drop in movie attendance.

What you should be doing is taking a tougher, less conciliatory stance, like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin. Management there lays it out, plain and simple: “If you talk or text during a movie, we kick you out.”

And they do, as an angry voicemail — turned into a hilarious Drafthouse PSA — attests.

Why don’t you follow suit? I’ll tell you why. You’re afraid of offending your worst customers and losing their business. You’ve capitulated by accepting cell phones as a minor nuisance.

Worse, you’re in bed with the cell phone companies. That Kermit and Miss Piggy PSA, besides being a promo for Disney’s new Muppet movie, is brought to us by Sprint, the very folks who profit from cell phone use in theaters.

You need to get control of this problem. Fast. A while back the National Association of Theater Owners petitioned the FCC to follow France’s lead and block cell phone reception in theaters. That effort went nowhere as NATO yielded to pressure from special interest groups. Their tired argument: We need our cell phones with us at all times, in case of an emergency. Phone jammers, they also protested, infringe upon our First Amendment right to act like jerks in public.

If you want to do something worthwhile, AMC, scrub the lip-service PSAs and make your theaters no-reception zones. Sure, you’ll lose some customers. But you’ll win back better ones.

Cry Wolf


I don’t know about you, but I sit up when I hear about a new survival adventure. I admit it, I’m a sucker for these movies. I like seeing people battle the elements and survive through ingenuity and sheer force of will

Looking back, I can remember savoring “Five Came Back” and the original “Flight of the Phoenix,” about downed planes in the Amazon and Sahara. Others in this sub-genre that spring to mind: “Inferno” with Robert Ryan, “The Naked Prey” with Cornell Wilde, “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris, “The Emerald Forest” with Powers Boothe, and Lee Tamahori’s much-underrated “The Edge,” with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin being pursued by a particularly nasty Kodiak bear.

Neeson (far right): What price survival?

If one were to analyze our attraction to these movies, it would probably come down to some atavistic yearning to return to nature … or reading “Robinson Crusoe” and “Coral Island” as a kid.

That certainly would account for the more recent successes of “Cast Away” and “127 Hours.”

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I’m looking forward to Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey,” starring Liam Neeson and Dermot Mulroney. The good news: Neeson, Mulroney and four other oil-rig workers have survived a hellacious plane crash. The bad: They’re in the middle of the frigid Alaskan wilderness and a pack of timber wolves have their scent.

Here’s the preview for “The Grey,” which made me salivate like a schoolboy. The film opens Jan. 27. We’ll report back then.

“Lion” Kinky


Uncle Walt must be rolling over in his grave (or cryogenic chamber, if those conspiracy buffs are to be believed).

Today I called up a trailer at for “Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)” and what did I see as a lead-in?

A preview for Disney’s Blu-ray edition of “The Lion King.”

That’s right, the most popular G-rated animated feature of all time was paired with IFC’s  unrated sequel to Tom Six’s “Human Centipede,” now being promo’ed as “the sickest movie of all time.” In the new installment, a chubby, pop-eyed sadist named Martin seeks to improve on Dr. Heiter’s experiment in gastrointestinal fusion by suturing a dozen human guinea pigs butt to mouth.

I may be wrong but I don’t think this is what “Lion King” songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice meant by “Circle of Life.”

Postscript: “Human Centipede II” — determined to be utterly reprehensible and without a shred of redeeming social value — has been banned in the U.K., a distinction it shares with Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” Brando’s “The Wild One,” Roger Corman’s “The Trip,” Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Wes Craven’s original “Last House on the Left.”

“Banned in Britain!” — the trailer proudly trumpets. You’re right, you can’t buy this kind of advertising.

“Tingler” Terror


As if we didn’t have enough to worry about …

Word arrived yesterday of an incident that brought a queasy sensation and again raised the question: Are our megaplexes a potential terrorist target waiting to happen?

The Columbus Dispatch reported an 8-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital Sunday after being jabbed in the back by a needle that had been wedged in a theater seat. It was no accident. The sewing needle, protruding from the top of a ballpoint pen, formed a makeshift hypo. Authorities said that the boy, apart from being “a little shaky,“ was fine and that they were testing the needle.

No doubt a teen prank or the work of one very twisted individual, the incident nevertheless points up how vulnerable our nation’s theaters are.

Stuck in our seats, for real?

Who among us hasn’t felt a twinge of anxiety when something brushed up against his leg in the dark of a theater? We are, for all intents and purposes, totally exposed to whatever’s out there.

As far as I can tell, local theaters are only protected by exit signs, smoke detectors, ushers and the occasional rent-a-cop. The National Association of Theater Owners has been surprisingly mute on the topic, choosing instead to concentrate on movie piracy and the closing gap between theatrical openings and VOD. Little wonder Homeland Security has designated movie houses, along with malls and hotels, “soft targets.”

This, despite the fact that theaters in Pakistan and other Asian countries have become easy terrorist targets. Karachi, 2001: “A bomb exploded in a crowded movie theater Sunday, killing at least one person and wounding five others.” Peshawar, 2009: “A powerful car bomb blast at a movie house … killed six people and injured 75.”

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, the little boy in Columbus reminds us that we can never be totally sure what awaits us in the dark. William Castle, the master of gimmick horror, played on this innate fear with his “Emergo” skeleton and vibrating seats. Last weekend’s stunt, however, left no one giggling. It was like “The Tingler,” only for real.

Potter Review Sparks Racist Slurs


Amazing, isn’t it, how movies that sing the virtues of tolerance and human decency often bring out the ogre in filmgoers.

As a daily newspaper critic, I slammed the second and third installments in the “Star Wars” Trilogy and paid the price: I received obscene phones calls and “F … you, Mr. Lovell!” fan mail.

When it comes to our passionate likes and dislikes, we can brook no opposition. It’s either “Side with me” or ‒ horrible gnashing of teeth here ‒ “Die, die, die … the death of a thousand cuts!”

Armond White: Pilloried

I’m reminded of this as I scan the near-rabid response to New York Press critic Armond White’s review of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” White, known for his often contrarian positions, had the gall to not only pan the last Potter movie but slam the entire series in the process, grumbling, “This will go down as the dullest franchise in the history of movie franchises.” (Some pronouncement, especially when you take into account the “Porky’s” and “Chucky” franchises … but let that go for now.)

Not surprisingly, White’s review, excerpted on Wednesday, ignited a firestorm of complaint. By Saturday morning, there were more than 200 comments, the majority of which, to be kind, were testy. In an occasionally intentional play on words, readers declared White an (Internet) troll and suggested he “jump in front of a moving train.” Brian B admonished, “Go back under the bridge, Armond.”

Other choice epithets: “imbecile,” “pea-brain,” “hack,” “buffoon,” “douche-bag.”

Echoing Rowling’s Dark Forces, these Potter fans demanded White’s head on a platter. Fire him! Blacklist him! Ostracize him! They were clearly outraged that anyone could not champion their hero, avatar of reason and harmony … Chosen One.

Far worse were the racist slurs, evoking memories of the persecutory, anti-Muggle Ministry of Magic in the first half of “Deathly Hallows.” A number of comments alluded to White being black. Ed D. wrote, “Armond White don’t like white people.” Another reader: “If the main character in these films were black, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” By Friday at 5:44 p.m., the conversation had degenerated into hate-speech and the n-word: “F‒king racist …!”

In 2005, upon the publication of “Half-Blood Prince,” Rowling said that it would be great if her books made people talk about racism and bullying but that she wasn’t naive enough to think of Potter as a panacea for “deeply entrenched prejudice … If someone (is) a committed racist, Harry Potter is not going to have an effect.”

The Tall Man: James Arness (1923-2011)


James Arness ‒ Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS’s long-running “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975) ‒ died Friday at age 88. Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with the TV legend upon the 50th anniversary of what has been hailed as TV’s first adult western.

Arness: Get out of Dodge!

“Matt Dillon was the kind of guy who’s low-key but stands for what is right,” said Arness from his Los Angeles home. “And he goes about seeing that things turn out that way – with, of course, a lot of people suffering along the way.”

Arness — the imposing (6-foot-7) older brother of Peter Graves — broke into movies by doing bit roles for such legendary filmmakers as John Ford, William Wellman and John Sturges. He was the titular being from another world in Howard Hawks’ “The Thing.” He also appeared as an FBI agent investigating giant ants in “Them!”

According to actor Kenneth Tobey and others, Arness was so embarrassed to be playing The Thing in full fright makeup, he hid from the rest of the cast, lunched alone.

Thing: Scary start

“Not at all,” Arness said, setting the record straight. “Gee, it was a great break for me at the time because I was struggling to get any kind of job, and that was a picture of course that got a tremendous amount of publicity and turned out getting me other work afterward.”

John Wayne was originally approached for the Marshal Dillon role. He turned it down but recommended buddy Arness, his co-star in “Big Jim McLain,” “Island in the Sky” and “Hondo.” “It was ridiculous that they even went to Wayne,” Arness recalled. “He was the biggest western movie star of all time and they must have known he couldn’t take it.”

Arness earned $1,200 an episode at first, but after the show won Emmys and topped the ratings, he renegotiated for $20,000 an episode and said, flat-out, “No press!” (TV Guide dubbed him the “recluse on horseback.”)

“Once we got going,” he recalled, “my agents were able to rewrite my contract and get me a really good salary that matched the popularity of the show. But when you think of what those kids get today on shows – phew! – it’s unbelievable. But what I got was great for that time.”

Arness attributed the show’s staying power to behind-the-camera talent, like “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah.  “The only thing I can say is that we had great writers and we always tried for realism … We sort of pioneered the adult approach. These were stories that dealt with universal issues, like betrayal and redemption.”

The series also benefited from Arness’ minimalist acting. He would shoulder his way into a scene and let his physique do the talking.

“Yes, Dillon was a no-nonsense but multidimensional character,” he said. “I didn’t play the character as much as the character played me.”

In the show’s pre-credit sequence, Marshal Dillon and an anonymous gunfighter would square off at high noon. The other guy always drew first, but Dillon’s bullet found its mark.

“They sort of made a point of that, which I thought was right,” Arness says. “As any policeman today will tell you, it’s not the idea of getting the first shot off, it’s hitting your target. Often the first guy that shoots misses.”

Each week, Marshal Dillon was joined by his worrywart deputy, Chester (Dennis Weaver), who walked with a pronounced limp, and the phlegmatic Doc (Milburn Stone) and hard-bitten Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), who ran the Long Branch saloon. Burt Reynolds and Ken Curtis, who replaced Weaver, would later join the ensemble.

Given the show’s often grim tone – and its fearless tackling of such issues as rape and revenge – it’s not surprising that CBS’ front office had to battle the censors.

The censors, he recalls, “limited us down to so many shootings per show and so many fistfights, but it didn’t seem to affect the show. We kept on ticking; the producers wrote around this new set of rules.”

There was also much conjecture about Miss Kitty. Was she a madam who ran a brothel, or just the proprietress of a hotel-saloon?

“That all started on the radio show, that premise of her running a house,” Arness replied, laughing. “But when you get it on the small screen, it just doesn’t work that well. So they transitioned that off quickly and just made her the owner of the Long Branch.”

A decorated war hero who sustained injuries during the assault on Anzio, Italy, in 1944, Arness walked with a limp away from the camera. But he didn’t complain. “Oh, I’ve got a little arthritis that I have to deal with. I was 6 feet 7 when I started and I’ve shrunk up a little bit. I’m probably 6-5 or so now. But up here at 82 I feel pretty good. I’m sticking in there.”