Sunday, May 22, 2011

Then Came (Charles) Bronson





Classic TV shows of the 1950s are often goldmines of early appearances by actors who – while not yet famous – were just learning their craft.   In earlier blogs I’ve mentioned some of the earliest work of actors like Darren McGavin,  Paul Newman, and Leslie Nielson.


The tough-guy, action star of the 1970s - Charles Bronson - in the 1950s was a journeyman actor, still a long way from fame and fortune.    


Born Charles Buchinski in 1921, one of 15 children of a coal miner in Pennsylvania, and who spoke almost no English until he was a teenager- the odds of him becoming a matinee star were pretty long.


But after service in WWII (he was an aerial gunner aboard B-29s), he worked odd jobs and joined  a theatrical group in Philadelphia where his interest in acting bloomed.  Later, he moved to New York, and for a time shared an apartment with another aspiring actor – Jack Klugman.  


In 1950 he married a fellow actor from Philly named Harriet Tendler, and moved to Hollywood, in search of a career. They divorced 15 years later.


He made a number of uncredited appearances in movies (You're in the Navy Now (1951),The People Against O'Hara (1951), The Mob (1951), The Marrying Kind (1952), My Six Convicts (1952)).


In 1952 he finally received screen credit in the Hepburn-Tracy classic Pat and Mike, billed as Charles Buchinsky.

After that, his face – but not his name – appeared in another half dozen features, including (Red Skies of Montana (1952), Battle Zone (1952), and Torpedo Alley (1953)).


He may not have been getting famous, but he was getting work, including an occasional appearance on a fledgling media called Television.His star ascended a bit more in 1953 when he played Vincent Price's mute henchman Igor, in the 3-D remake of  House of Wax.


But it was his portrayal of a murderous Modoc warrior, Captain Jack, in Alan Ladd’s Drum Beat in 1954 that garnered him is first real notice in Hollywood.


That year, during the infamous red-scare of the 1950s, his agent suggested he adopt a less eastern European sounding surname, and so he changed it to Bronson.


Soon Bronson was getting work in both TV and the movies.  Most of his movie roles were either supporting characters, or  - as in the case of Roger Corman’s  Machine Gun Kelly (1958) – low budget affairs.


Typical of his early TV work are the following two appearances, both from The Internet Archive.


Federal Men: The Case of the Deadly Dilemma
An undercover federal agent (Charles Bronson) trying to penetrate a counterfeiting ring runs into a big dilemma when the boss asks him to kill a man.


Public Defender: Cornered-With Commercials
A young has been boxer (Charles Bronson in an early TV role) makes an agreement with the Public Defender to turn himself in for a probation violation.


In 1958, ABC TV (which was, at the time, languishing far behind CBS and NBC in the ratings) offered Charles Bronson his own TV series where he would portray an ex-combat cameraman turned freelance photographer, who often ended up embroiled in peril and intrigue.


The show was  Man With A Camera, and it’s premise was a handy device to let Bronson’s character – Mike Kovac – insert himself into other people’s problems.


Only 29 episodes were filmed, and they were shown on Friday nights (9 pm EST) during the 1958-1960 seasons.


All 29 episodes are available online.   You can access them either through the IMDB Video gallery  or directly from the Internet Archive.




You’ll find a number of very familiar faces showing up in guest appearances on this series, including Sebastian Cabot, Anthony Caruso, Yvonne Craig, Angie Dickinson, Tom Laughlin, Ruta Lee, Gavin MacLeod, and Grant Williams.


While the series was short-lived, Bronson’s career continued to flourish.   In 1960 he co-starred in John Sturges' western classic  The Magnificent Seven and in 1963 he was featured prominently in The Great Escape.


He worked a couple of short-lived TV series in the mid-1960s; Empire and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.


In 1967 he co-starred with Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in the classic war film, The Dirty Dozen.


While becoming very well known in the United States, Bronson’s star was rising even faster in Europe, where he was very popular.  He starred as Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West  and reportedly turned down the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, which helped propel Clint Eastwood to stardom.


Real fame in the U.S. came from his Death Wish series of movies, which started in 1974 and lasted until 1987 with Death Wish IV.


That series, along with films like Telefon,  Ten Til Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, and Messenger of Death helped make Bronson one of the top box office stars of the 1970s and 1980s.


While many people are familiar with post-1960 career, we are quite fortunate to have access to his earlier work on the Internet Archive.


Bronson died in 2003, at the age of 81, after a long illness.   His second wife, actress Jill Ireland had passed away in 1990, from breast cancer.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Full Dinner Jacket





More than a decade before Sean Connery redefined the suave and debonair cold war secret agent James Bond, Brian Donlevy undertook the role of special agent Steve Mitchell for 4 years on the radio  . . . and in 39 early television episodes . . . in Dangerous Assignment.


Arguably, the radio series was a better venue for Donlevy than was the TV series, as his vocal talents gave him the gravitas to play world-weary Steve Mitchell as he is sent off to obscure backwater ports to smash spy rings, rescue defectors, thwart smugglers, or retrieve stolen classified documents.

Steve Mitchell was called an “International Troubleshooter” – not  a spy – and he worked for an un-named US government agency.


He received his assignments each week from `The Commissioner’, after which he was soon winging his way to Berlin, or Prague, or Beirut to solve a crisis in just under 30  minutes of air time (including commercials).

Visually, Donlevy was less of the `hero’ type as he was already in his early 50’s when the series was filmed, and he looked every inch of it.


The radio series ran the NBC radio network from 1949 to 1953.   During the last year of the radio show Donlevy pitched the show to the TV networks, but no one was interested.   He put together his own production company and produced 39 filmed TV episodes, which were sold into syndication around the country.


In its favor, the TV show had decent production values for 1953, was one of a small handful of filmed programs of the time, and provided a large dose of daring-do in (simulated) exotic locations for viewers of the day.


We’ve 90+ episodes of the radio show available on The Internet Archive, along with a growing number of TV episodes.

Dangerous Assignment: 90+ Episodes

Six half hour TV shows are currently available.

Dangerous Assignment: The Alien Smuggler Story
Dangerous Assignment - Season 1, Episode 1

Dangerous Assignment - The Bhandara Story
Dangerous Assignment - Season 1, Episode 7

Dangerous Assignment: The Sunflower Seed Story
Dangerous Assignment - Season 1, Episode 13


Dangerous Assignment: The Missing Diplomat Story
Steve Mitchell goes to Barcelona to track down a European diplomat who has gone missing with top secret papers. Episode 17

Dangerous Assignment: The Art Treasure Story
Steve Mitchell is on board a train in search of a Nazi art treasure and a former Nazi official that commits multiple murders. Episode 27

Dangerous Assignment: The Assassin Ring
Steve Mitchell needs to find out who killed an Arabian king and framed the US for being behind the assassination. Episode 31


If more episodes turn up, you can find them using THIS LINK.

Brian Donlevy – a long-time stage actor in New York - make his mark in the movies first in 1935 in the Edward G. Robinson film Barbary Coast.  He followed that debut with a number of successful films, including his Oscar nominated role of Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste.


During the 1940s he played many `heavies’ in film noir productions, and perhaps most famously, played conniving Dan McGinty, in The Great McGinty (a role he would reprise in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek).


In 1946 he played the role of Trampas in The Virginian and two years later played opposite Clark Gable, Van Johnson, and Walter Pidgeon in Command Decision.


His movie career dwindled by the early 1950s, and he moved into the burgeoning field of TV, appearing in anthology series like Studio One, Kraft Theatre, and Lux Video Theatre along with guest shots on shows like Rawhide, Wagon Train, and Perry Mason.


Brian Donlevy died in 1972, at the age of 71, from throat cancer.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Benny Bell Rides Again





Granted, unless you are over the age of 50, or listened to the Dr. Demento Show during the mid-1970s, you may have no idea who Benny Bell was.


But we can rectify that.


Bell was a prolific song writer and performer.  He wrote more than 600 songs, many of which were written in Yiddish and Hebrew.   He wrote radio jingles, and novelty songs, and formed his own record company to release his endeavors.


With success fleeting at best, in 1939 someone suggested he write `blue’ lyrics – something he was particularly good at – for the cocktail lounge jukebox trade.


Bell became arguably the king of the risqué party song, the master of the double entendre, during the 1940s.  His stock in trade was the sort of thing that England’s Benny Hill would popularize 30 years later.


His songs were considered slightly scandalous back then – but by today’s standards would scarcely raise an eyebrow.


Except for how cleverly they got their message across without using any of George Carlin’s 7 dirty words you can’t say on TV.


Nevertheless, his records rarely got radio airplay back then.  Instead, his records could be found on jukeboxes in bars, sold from `behind the counter’ in record stores, and played at parties by daring adults. 


His most famous song  – Shaving Cream - recorded in 1946 by Paul Wynn, was `rediscovered’ by Dr. Demento in 1975, and suddenly became a `hit’ again, rising to number 30 on the billboard ratings in April of that year.  



"I have a sad story to tell you
It may hurt your feelings a bit
Last night when I walked into my bathroom
I stepped in a big pile of ...shhhhh . . . aving cream, be nice and clean. . . .
Shave ev'ry day and you'll always look keen."


The setup for each verse uses words like `bit’ and `split’ to infer the rhyme will be an obscenity . . . but instead you get the verse of `shaving cream, be nice and clean . . . ‘


The lyrics used a familiar device utilized by Bell.  It was suggestive, not explicit.  If you found it vulgar . . . well, that was the fault of your dirty mind . . . not his.


The same technique was used in the far milder `Sweet Violets’, which was covered by Dinah Shore in 1951.

His biggest hits included `Shaving Cream’, `Sweet Violets’, and `Go Take A Ship For Yourself’.


His signature song, “Pincus The Peddler”, became a big hit among Jewish immigrants, and led to several less successful sequels.





Sadly, Bell’s career (and finances) suffered during the 1950s and 1960s, and only recovered a bit when his music was `rediscovered’ in the mid-1970s.


Aside from it’s entertainment value (which I find considerable), his records are a little-heard-today example of Yiddish comedy which was popular in the middle of the last century.


I’m pleased that his works are being preserved (and made available to the public) by the Internet Archive and by the Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University.


First from Florida Atlantic University, 12 recordings by Bell.



Next, we’ve nearly 3 dozen recordings from the Internet Archive


Collected Works of Benny Bell ()



Bell – who finally achieved national recogniztion at the age of 69 with the re-release of `Shaving Cream’, died in 1999 at the age of 93.


His grandson, Joel Samberg, published and released a biography of Bell in a  book called "Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career and Legacy of Benny Bell," in 2009.