Not only did I not do the math and realize that Allan Arbus was Diane Arbus’ husband, but I didn’t realize he was 95 years old. That makes him only three years younger than Col. Potter (Harry Morgan b. 1915) when he played Sydney on MASH! He seemed more like Hawkeye’s age.
Wow! A week after my own post on the Rockford Files, I came across this wonderful piece by someone named B.B. Olshin. It’s eerily similar to mine in some places, and much better articulated and thought out in other parts. I’m humbled to have made so many like-minded (in some cases almost word for word) observations as this 2012 article written by a philosophy professor, no less. I swear I didn’t know about it beforehand; I just discovered reddit today!
Click on the link below.
Who Knew Don Ho Worked Green??
Is there even such a thing anymore?
The answer seems to be no, at least not in the traditional sense. There are YouTube sensations and American Idol winners, but they’re more like karaoke performers with choreography. Beyond that, the up and comers who sell out arenas and bring out the crowds seem to be DJs.
DJs! I don’t even know how to spell it right: Is it deejay or DJ? I’ll go with the latter since it’s fewer keystrokes. I have no right to judge, but the world I grew up in had certain immutable laws, one of which was that rock and roll would always be king. No one challenged this monolithic truth besides a small number of Anita Bryant types in Seventies news clips.
The only time you ever pondered the genre’s mortality was during the quiet part of The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” when Daltrey intones “rock is dead” three times slowly. Of course, that lyric was just meant as a warning to remind you of what could happen if you let them take your rock away. It was an affirmation. And the affirmation that trickled down to teenage America was that even though you’re just a minor, you could contribute your own dollars, along with your heart and soul, to help keep rock and roll alive.
The century progressed and new generations of teenagers came of age. Trends rose and fell, but rock and roll was still the mother ship to which they all returned. Oh sure, DJs were already on the scene, but few took them seriously as rivals to actual rock stars. They worked the occasional dance club, but their natural purview was bar mitzvahs and wedding parties, not headlining arenas and stadiums.
When the notion of rock star-level DJs did eventually surface in public media, there was no reason not to believe that soon enough the kids’ enthusiasm for the fad would quickly max out and they would drop it like a moldy potato. That’s what happened with hair-rock and every other fanciful trend that took rock and roll too far away from its roots. The youth culture would quickly and aggressively self-correct this trend, it always did. These DJs would get bounced to the curb with the spandexed hair-rockers soon enough.
But in the 2000s, a strange thing happened. The correction never came. Instead, the digital realm began to completely displace rock and roll’s analogue roots. Analogue, in fact, became obsolete. Tapes, records, even CDs were rendered superfluous. Musical instruments themselves became unnecessary. In theory, with the swipe of a finger, one kid with one Ipad could mash and tweak every note ever recorded in the history of man to create masterpieces that Beethoven and the Beatles could only dream of. In theory.
We all know that there’s more to making music than generating a sequence of sound waves. And we all know that actual musical ability isn’t always at the top of the list of what makes an actual rock star. There are reasons we love the Beatles and Hendrix while remaining indifferent to the multitude of dedicated note-for-note Beatles and Hendrix cover artists.
So what are those reasons?
To understand the rock and roll phenomenon a little better, we need to go back to Year Zero, where it all began.
* * *
Who was the first rock star, anyway?
Why, Elvis, of course.
The harder question is why?
Was it Elvis’ ability to channel race music to a white audience? Was it the opportunity he had to work with the hit-makers of the Sun Records crew? Was it the pompadour and the pelvis?
Most people would agree that it was some sort of combination of all three. But in doing so, they omit the most crucial ingredient of all.
There is no Elvis without television, not the Elvis we know, which begs the question, how much of rock and roll itself is the result of television?
Is it any coincidence that the era of rock stars more or less matches up with the era of TV?
A milestone was reached with the first-ever televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. If you listened to the debate on the radio, you likely thought Nixon beat Kennedy. If you watched the debate on television, you probably thought Kennedy was the winner.
Guess who ended up taking that first election in the live television era?
The power of television is that strong.
The Nixon-Kennedy debate occurred halfway between two other major television events: the first Elvis appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the first Beatles appearance on that program.
Would there have been Elvis as we know him without television? Would the Beatles have had their mania without television?
People like to credit the ascent of rock and roll to some sort of collective generational awakening, as if the fingers of teenage America all magically walked themselves over to the sweet spot on the Ouija board together at the same time. But what if the answer was far more mundane? What if rock and roll initially became the coolest thing ever because it was on television Sunday night at 8:00?
Movies enabled performers to be seen on multiple screens across all across the nation. Radio allowed them to be heard live in people’s living rooms simultaneously all across the country. But television marked the first time entertainers could be seen live in your living room nationwide and simultaneously. Rock and roll as we know it begins with this visual being seen by hundreds of millions of eyeballs in their living rooms at the same time.
It’s ironic that an aural experience like music would depend on a visual medium like television to gain traction, but maybe that tells us something about the essence of rock and roll, or lack thereof.
Elvis already had four gold records by the time he got on Sullivan. People knew what he sounded like, and they liked (or hated) it. What was different about a live appearance was the chance to get a look at Elvis himselvis, and just as importantly if not more so, to get a look at the audience. Check out all those screaming teens.
In a way, THAT was the sound that reverberated most strongly with us, not the performances of Elvis or the Beatles. Listen to that sound. It was like nothing ever before heard in the annals of Western Civilization. Teenage girls were succumbing to their hormones while the adults in the room pretended not to notice. But in hindsight it seems obvious that they sensed a loss of control over this marketed-to, largest generation in American history.
Throughout the pre-Woodstock era, the shifting norms of American society played out in the triangulation between Ed Sullivan, his audience, and the performers on the show. It was a Sunday night ritual.
Sullivan, the stiffest possible authority figure left of Nixon, introduces the act and then stands back while the kids go crazy. Sullivan then returns to the stage after the performance to comment on the audience’s behavior and to banter with the talent. Sullivan rarely gets what all the hubbub is about, but he’s powerless to stop it. You could see the generation gap itself acted out in those little vignettes. Little did they know at the time just how thoroughly these nascent Baby-Boomers would overturn the status quo in America or how soon.
1964, the year the Beatles debuted on Sullivan, was a Presidential election year. By the next election cycle, 1968, these teenagers would take over campuses, political conventions, and make serious grabs at the levers of power. Society itself would cross over the cultural Rubicon that year, with rock music as its unlikely masthead. (Part two of this piece will follow next week.)
Though it may be hard to believe, Apr. 7, 2013 marked the 85th birthday of one of TV’s most timeless icons, James Garner. Thanks to the magic of syndicated reruns, Garner is instantly recognizable to generations of TV viewers as Jim Rockford, private investigator and beach parking lot trailer inhabitant.
If you’re like me, the phrase, “two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses” served as a childhood credo, the magic over/under number that seemed like some sort of gateway into adulthood. Whatever your chosen profession, if the quote on your business card–or answering machine message–was $200 a day plus expenses, you’d be writing your own ticket and living in a beachfront condo. In 1974, two hundred dollars a day was a princely sum, more than the average major league baseball player earned in fact. But it was the “plus expenses” part that hinted at the great unknown.
Of course with Jim Rockford, the carpet didn’t match the drapes. There was no beachfront condo, there was a beachfront trailer badly in need of a coat of primer. Rockford’s answering machine and outgoing phone message may have been 1974’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the incoming messages were from bill collectors with overdue dry-cleaning notices.
Rockford had a full ¼ page ad in the Yellow Pages, but he also had an unfinished game of solitaire on his desk.
Rockford’s people weren’t Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they were Beth & Rocky &, Dennis & Angel. (By the way, Rockford taught me another another truism: Anybody named Angel is born to be trouble, male or female.)
Jim Rockford was an everyman, a tall, handsome everyman whose profile was worthy of Mount Rushmore, but an everyman nonetheless, just a guy in a trailer trying to keep the power from getting shut off.
There were plenty of other TV dicks with hour-long primetime slots in those days, but Rockford was the most photogenic of them all. Malden, Ebsen, Cannon, Baretta–not a particularly good-looking bunch of lead detectives by any stretch. But Rockford’s handsomeness was countered by his outsider status. Jim Rockford did time, and although we’re told that it was for a crime he didn’t commit, we also see that in the eyes of the law, Rockford will always be an ex-con, an eternal outsider in the American judicial establishment.
Rockford was too busy being a fugitive from injustice to ever become a legitimate sex symbol. In the Seventies, you needed a moustache for that. Unlike Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, there were no James Garner wall posters adorning bachelorette bedrooms. Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird was probably the biggest sex symbol on the show.
Whether in movies or television, never underestimate the strength of a soundtrack. We do as much watching with our ears as with our eyes. While the Rockford Files’ visuals are compelling enough, the show also offers great ear candy. This ear candy is the secret ingredient that makes “The Rockford Files” so much more watchable than other similar shows. It is rerun comfort food, and the soundtrack is the subliminal reason why it tastes so good.
The theme song is famous in its own right. Other than Garner himself (and possibly Stuart Margolin as Angel), this tune is the single most memorable thing about the show. It was the first TV theme song to achieve Top-40 radio success in the 70s, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975. This is the song that put Mike Post and Pete Carpenter on the map.
Other TV theme songs quickly followed on the heels of The Rockford Files in becoming Top 40 radio hits–Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, and later The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero–but these were all ballads with lyrics. The Rockford Files theme was pure instrumentation: Soundtrack music accompanied by a montage of photo stills illustrating the life and times of James Rockford.
It’s easy to forget that this was an era before MTV and VH-1. Show intros like Rockford’s fulfilled the same role that music videos would in the 80s. In the Seventies, show intros were our MTV.
Go ahead and watch a Rockford Files rerun. You’ll realize that the musical mood established with the opening theme carries through for the entire episode. Country/bluegrass jams are used throughout as sound beds for car chases, describing a character’s emotional arc, to evoke a sudden mood change, punctuate a hard cut, twist the plot, or simply to brighten up the scenery.
The Rockford Files reminds us how good L.A. could look with a country twang, even in the disco era. By the 70s, L.A. had become a prisoner of its own gridlock, smog, and overdevelopment, but Rockford liberated the landscape simply by using music that evoked the freedom and wide-open spaces of the Old West. Revisit an episode with open ears and see if you don’t find that it is the best use of harmonica ever.
* * *
Of course, no visual pairs better with a country-bluegrass sound bed than a good car chase scene, and car chases are a staple of every Rockford Files episode. The Arthur Penn-directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), was a groundbreaking film in many ways, one of which was the marriage of car chases with banjo and fiddle music, which had an invigorating effect on audiences. Following Bonnie & Clyde, the period from 1968-74 was the golden age of car chase movies, when the classics of the genre came out, starting with “Bullitt” (1968), followed by “The Vanishing Point,” “The French Connection,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This six-year span also included “The Seven-Ups,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Duel,” and “The Italian Job.”
But as far as I know, no one was doing it on television until Rockford came on the scene. Country-fried car chases were a new phenomenon on TV in 1974, like answering machines were. Of course, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dukes of Hazzard” would follow, but Rockford was doing it first. And what’s notable about those other car-chase shows is that it took two-men to do what Rockford did on his own.
There were not too many muscle cars on the tube in 1974 either. Most of the TV dicks of the time–Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Karl Malden–drove land yachts. The above-mentioned Starsky & Hutch did indeed drive a Seventies-looking sports car, and, what a surprise, their show debuted at the end of The Rockford Files’ first, and highly Nielsen-rated, season.
While revisiting “Bonnie & Clyde” for car-chase information, I stumbled onto an epiphany: In addition to being a groundbreaking film, Bonnie & Clyde represented everything that was wrong with the 1968 generation. The film rewrote history to portray a couple of violent thrill-killers as a misunderstood Romeo & Juliet hopelessly pitted against an omnimalevolent Establishment. It glorified Bonnie & Clyde as martyrs and reveled cartoonishly in the blood they spilled. It inspired hundreds of thousands of gullible youths to take the message literally and to act out in ridiculous self-serving ways, in essence to loot the noble ideals that had been so painstakingly built up during the earlier part of the 60s and pawn them on an orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll, no doubt setting back the legitimate aspirations of that decade by at least half a generation.
And what about that generation that followed the Sixties? I had another epiphany: Jim Rockford is the Bonnie & Clyde of the post-Woodstock generation. Rockford Files was the go-to afternoon re-run for latchkey kids of the 70s and 80s. It’s a big part of what makes us the people we are today. We don’t self-identify with an extroverted glamour couple shooting up banks and pissing off old folks just for kicks. Our patron saint is a guy who lives in a trailer by the beach and appreciates the little things in life: the smell of the sea, the sound of the gulls, and an onion ring basket shared with a good friend over a picnic table. This was the same strain of disillusioned anti-materialism that ushered in the 90s in response to the steroidal greed of the 1980s. That’s why Ben Folds writes lyrics about getting stoned and watching Rockford Files reruns instead of Barnaby Jones or Magnum, PI.
Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who decided to combat the boredom of their lives by robbing banks and killing for kicks, Rockford was set up; he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Nearly every episode sees him going up against a hostile police force that continues to hold his false conviction against him in perpetuity. If anyone had a right to be angry at society in general and authority in particular, it’s Jim Rockford. But do you see Rockford acting out like Bonnie & Clyde? Not even close.
Inadvertently, James Rockford is the folk hero of post-Watergate era America. Respect for the establishment is at an all-time low, but people are also burned out on the Bonnie & Clyde-style excesses of the Sixties. Each week, Rockford treads the fine line between powerfully corrupt authority figures (ie The Man) and shallowly groveling opportunists (eg Angel Martin), and he does so without ever having to fire a shot (almost). He was the ideal outlaw figure for the times.
Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.
The trailer’s leaking, the Pontiac just blew a retread, Angel’s shaking him down for another sawbuck, and the insurance company isn’t going to pay out after all. That was exactly how the Seventies felt; but Rockford persevered with style, ending every episode with a wry twist that let us know that no matter how much it felt like things were spiraling out of control, at the end of the day we always break about even.
What is sometimes overlooked is that “The Rockford Files” was actually James Garner’s second great act in television. Garner is one of the select TV actors who starred in his own series not once but twice, and in two very different timeframes. In the era when television was black and white, Westerns reigned supreme, and Eisenhower was still President, Garner was Bret Maverick. In the era of dystopian, post-Watergate detective shows, he came back as Jim Rockford.
During that interregnum between 1959 and 1974, America had changed about as radically a society could in 15 years, Not too many actors could bridge that gap and stay relevant, but Garner did just that. It was a totally different America in 1974, but Garner was still Garner and Maverick was now Rockford. The people who ran television liked Garner so much they paid him the ultimate network tribute, allowing him to use his real first name for the character of Rockford.
Garner was still a smooth-skinned post-adolescent when he played Bret Maverick. As Rockford, his majestic profile had matured into its fully chiseled peak. When the time came, Garner walked away from both shows on his own terms, leaving money on the table each time, enhancing his outlaw status.
Rockford portrayed an ageless quality on-screen, so it might surprise people to know that James Garner was 46 years old when the show embarked on its five-year run. And unlike other leading men, Garner did almost all his own stunt-work and live car chases, as well as appearing in almost every scene of every episode. He put his middle-aged body through the ringer to play that part, and the toll it took may have been the primary reason he decided to pull the plug on the program during its sixth season.
“I knew those two weren’t Feds. Feds still wear narrow ties.” Rockford fingering a couple of imposters in an early episode of the first season.
Yes we are boldly in 1974 with this program. There is no ironic Seventies appreciation here, only the real thing. When “The Rockford Files” came out, it was cutting edge, not nostalgic. That’s why it gives us such great insight into what was actually considered cool in the mid-70s: wide ties, earth-tone Pontiacs, and witty answering machine banter.
One other thing about 1974. It’s closer in time to the 1930s than the 2010s. With fresh 2013 eyes, what you notice is just how much a Rockford Files script mirrors one from the classic LA Hardboiled detective genre of the 1930s and 40s (think “Double Indemnity” 1944). It’s all there: The snappy banter; the archetypal characters–hoods, goons, dicks, Seamuses, high-class dames and femme fatales; and air that bristles with sexual electricity but always maintains a puritanical approach to what is actually portrayed on-screen (which happens to be much less than a Close-Up toothpaste commercial of the same era).
Detectives have been part of L.A.’s fictional landscape since L.A. began producing fiction. In novels, movies, or T.V. serials, the City of Angels has always had detectives as protagonists. But there was only one that ever lived in a trailer in a beach parking lot. As I touched upon in a different blog post, Jim Rockford represented the fusion of one Southern California archetype, the hardboiled detective, with another SoCal archetype, the off-the-grid beachcomber. It’s uncertain when we will see another like him come this way again, but Rockford’s place at the top rung of syndicated reruns is eternal.
RIP Ed Cassidy, 60s icon and drummer of LA psychedelic band, Spirit.
He was born in 1923, a full generation older than everyone else on the scene. He played in swing bands in the 30s, served in the navy in WW2, and played in Spirit with his stepson, Randy California. He had a shaved head even in the 1960s, which was unique. He was an experienced showman and gave effusive performances.
Soundwise, there are times in his solos where you expect the drums to spring forward, but instead they fall back, behind the beat. I came to see this style as the missing link between the psychedelic rockers of the 60s and the cool stylings of the jazz musicians favored by the Beatniks who preceded the hippies. Ed Cassidy was basically inserting cool jazz riffs of the b&w Kerouac/Ginsberg era into electric kool-aid acid rock, and he wore all black.
If you ever wondered what it would sound like if a vanful of hippies went back in time and crossed paths with their immediate counterculture ancestors, the Beatniks, take a close listen to some of Ed Cassidy’s drum parts from Spirit’s earlier albums, especially “The Family That Plays Together (other than the album’s hit single, “I Got A Line On You.”)
Hi. My name is Dave. I’ve been thinking a lot about 1972 lately, and of what a long time 40 years is, even if it feels just like yesterday.
It was a big year for me. I started first grade, and not at just any school, but at “The Alternative School.” You can get a pretty good idea of what the school was about from the name and the fact that it started in 1972.
I was in class when I heard about Nixon beating McGovern. Our teacher’s name was Steve. It was the afternoon and we were in our makeshift classroom. The Cuisenaire rods were put away in the closet; math time was over. We were transitioning to the afternoon, sitting on little squares of carpet with the lights dimmed, attempting to have some sort of quiet time, but it was no use. “I think they had the election for the President yesterday!” a kid said.
“No way. Just for one day? That seems like a rip-off. Let’s ask Steve.”
Steve confirmed that it was true, that the elections had been the day before and the results were already decided. “Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide,” were his exact words. A landslide.
You take stuff literally when you’re six. I had just learned about the horrors of quicksand, and I was pretty sure people were killed in landslides. My take on the whole thing was that the popular vote was neither here nor there, but that Nixon became President by default because McGovern got taken out by falling rocks.
Aah, memories…Hard to believe 1972 was 40 years ago. In 1972, 40 years ago was 1932. Hoover was President. The New Deal was still in the future. The world changed unfathomably in those four decades. Sociologically at least, 1972 would have been unrecognizable to a citizen of 1932.
From our current vantage point, 1972 was a different world as well, but not nearly as different as 1932 was to 1972. The Alternative School opened for business in the fall of that year, meaning the school would have begun to be conceptualized and realized in 1970-71 or so. In other words, the Alternative School emerged during America’s most turbulent decade since the Civil War, founded by a small group of committed parents and educators.
It turns out that the tumult and upheaval of that period had largely run its course by 1972, but there was no way of knowing this at the time. The Weathermen and Yippies were still very much active as the 1970s began. The 1968 Democratic National Convention would have been the most recent presidential political marker. Kent State and Jackson State represented the contemporary state of relations between government and higher education.
To us they were Nixon, to them we were Manson. Having long hair in public could still land you in a fistfight.
This was the zeitgeist into which the Alternative School was born. Not all the goals of the school’s ideologues and their generational cohorts were attained. Few of us first graders stuck with the program all the way through high school. Most of my former classmates who now have kids of their own have chosen to raise them in a far more structured environment. The Alternative School itself ceased to exist by the early 1980s.
But looking back now, 40 years later, in an era when the Rolling Stones play Super Bowl halftime shows, a multiracial former Occidental College student sits in the While House, and the term “alternative” itself has acquired mainstream cachet, it’s easier to appreciate how far we’ve actually come since “The Landslide” of 1972.
I haven’t seen so much as a clip of the Six Million Dollar Man since the program actually aired in the 1970s. For all intents and purposes, Steve Austin has been living exclusively inside my head for the last 35 years. But the memory is a sharp one. I was a TV child and the Six Million Dollar Man was officially my favorite program during the 7 to 9 age bracket, when whatever your earholes and eyeballs glom onto gets etched into the wet cement of your brain pan and hardens into the long-term memory that stays with you forever.
“Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology…We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man…Steve Austin will be that man.”
These words, set to the beat of Viking war drums, form part of the show’s intro, which still plays randomly from time to time in the surround-sound of my cranial jukebox. For 35 years I’ve been carrying this secret around with me, and I need to get it out in the open.
Turns out there are full episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man available for viewing on the Internet now. So, after a four-decade separation, I finally squared the circle and queued up one of my favorite episodes, “The Secret of Bigfoot (Part I).”
“Bigfoot” begins with the dramatic whirr of a chopper’s blades. Within moments it all comes rushing back to me, not just the Gerald Ford-era banter of Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman as they fly over the “San Madrian” Fault, but the whole gestalt of 1975-76 itself, of what a strange time it was to be alive and living in L.A.
Like the subconscious of the Manchurian Candidate being activated whenever the queen of diamonds is played, the moment I hear that chopper taking Steve and Oscar to their rendezvous with Bigfoot, my brain’s sleeper cells are switched on and I’m right back there in the third quarter of fiscal 1975, this time with the omniscient perspective of a boy from the futuristic year of 2012 AD.
“The Secret of Bigfoot” aired at the very end of the Vietnam era. By this time, choppers are not only synonymous with Southeast Asian jungle combat scenes, but also the harried evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon that so embodied the unceremonious (some would say humiliating) retreat of a superpower back to where it came from.
And of course, right about then the same thunk-thunk-thunk of the chopper’s blades accompanied the visage of a disgraced President being whisked away from the White House lawn into a hasty exile.
By this time, the whirr of the chopper was also synonymous with our own post-apocalyptic urban condition: cops in hot pursuit of violent criminals, g-men engaged in surveillance and crowd control, news crews updating the citizenry on the myriad traffic jams and high-speed chases affecting the roadways.
The Seventies is when the ominous rumble of the chopper became ubiquitous, when the Vietnam War finally came home.
And to think, in the 1950s helicopters burst onto the scene with such utopian fanfare–a helicopter in every garage so dad could beat traffic on his commute. By the 70s, everything about the Fifties seemed impossibly naïve, but that’s a whole other subject.
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In “The Secret of Bigfoot,” Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman are on their way to help a team of researchers set up a state of the art earthquake monitoring system in the remote mountains on the other side of the “San Madrian Fault.”
Earthquakes loomed large in the 70s for some reason. Maybe it was because LA had kicked off the decade by recording the deadliest quake of its history on the morning of Feb. 9, 1971.
In 1965 it was the Watts Riots; in ’67 it was the acid-eating runaways on the Sunset Strip; in ’69 it was Manson; in ’71 the earthquake. And the even years were no picnic either. It all seemed to be part of LA’s descent into savagery and chaos, and by extension the end times of America’s so-called golden age.
A year before “Jaws” made us afraid to go in the water, a movie called “Earthquake” was the summer blockbuster that made everybody afraid that California was about to fall into the sea. The film was said to be based on the real-life 1971 L.A. temblor; it chronicles the struggle for survival of six ordinary people after a major quake destroys most of Los Angeles. Why not believe it? An earthquake was as likely an event as any to usher in the post-apocalyptic future that seemed inevitably headed L.A.’s way.
“The Secret of Bigfoot” episode of Six Million Dollar Man aired a little over a year after “Earthquake” the movie swept the nation, planting the fear of the fault-line into our hearts. So when Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman fly out to help with the seismic monitoring stations, we know the future of all Americans is at stake here.
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And of course, as the title postulates, this helicopter ride across the “San Madrian” is all leading up to Steve and Oscar’s imminent encounter with Bigfoot himself.
Bigfoot was another counterculture hero of the Seventies: a loner who wore his hair long and went underground, living off the land and staying one step ahead of the law. During those difficult Gerald Ford years of Mourning in America, Bigfoot was the anti-Nixon.
The Six Million Dollar Man was more than just the stylized choreography of a bionic action hero, more than just homo-erotic stump porn. The Six Million Dollar Man offered helicopters, earthquakes, and Bigfoot–the gestalt of American culture writ small for children to digest. That’s why we loved that show so much, it didn’t condescend; it spoke to us as people, not pupils.
The show was dark, with little time for cuteness or humor. It delved deeply into the paranormal, playing out against a stark backdrop of good versus evil. It was the closest thing we had to the X-Files in the 70s. Before Mulder and Scully there was Steve and Oscar, whose on-screen chemistry fell somewhere between that of Mulder & Scully and the two cops from Adam-12. The love between the two men was real; I can see that now.
I didn’t get more than a few minutes into the episode. I didn’t have to. Everything I needed to see happened right there in the first sequence.
Remember the Brady Bunch episode “My Fair Opponent,” in which Marcia takes pity on a plain girl in her class named Molly Webber, and ends up making Molly so popular that she winds up beating out Marcia herself for the honor of hosting Banquet Night and being escorted by an astronaut?
Well, forget about it now. The plot isn’t important here. What’s important is what passes for a plain Jane in 1972 and what passes for a “knockout,” in the words of Peter Brady.
Look at the before shots of Molly Webber on the left. She’s shy, sulky, shoe-gazing and librarian-haired. She wears foreign exchange student glasses and a Little House on the Prairie dress.
In short, she’s absolutely gorgeous.
Now look at her on the right. Those are the after shots. That’s what happens when you leave a 14-year old in charge of your makeover in 1972, even if that 14-year old is Marcia Brady.
You get bad makeup; you get clothing that is both dowdy and tacky, and accentuates the barely budding curves of femininity in all the wrong ways (the girl equivalent of the ninth-grade starter moustache.)
Hairwise, they gave her “The Jan,” with those prominent curling-iron batwings that fall at eye level and serve to draw your attention in toward the powder-blue eye shadow and heavily applied rouge.
That episode was made 40 years ago!
Today we know better. Today we appreciate the old Molly Webber.
Confession: Three’s Company has never been must see TV for me. Unless I’m gawking at one of Mr. Furley’s denim ensembles, I rarely pay the show the attention that it deserves. But that all changed one recent Saturday while chasing my morning coffee with an episode called “Jack the Giant Killer,” enthralled by every minute of it.
From the get-go this is a compelling tale whose central scenes remain as clear to me today as they were when it first aired on Apr. 14, 1977. What I mostly remember is the sudden and unrelenting brutalism of the episode’s guest villain, a large, imposing yachtsman named Jeff, towards gentle Jack Tripper.
Before Jack even enters the scene, the surly seaman establishes his character by boastfully implicating himself as a date-rapist and attempted murderer (he threw a woman overboard because she wouldn’t put out). Even my housemate, who overheard the dialogue while working on her computer across the room, said “ewww” and turned around to see who exactly was uttering these crass lines.
When Jack steps in to protect Chrissy from surly Jeff and his groping paws, things go from bad to worse. If there’s one thing Jeff likes better than molesting women, it’s antagonizing less imposing men.
Considering the New Zoo Revue-like feel of a typical Three’s Company script, Jeff’s unbridled aggressiveness at the Regal Beagle is all the more disturbing. Even 35 years later I wince with sympathetic fear for Jack Tripper each time the bully enters the scene.
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The episode’s middle-eight takes place in Jack, Chrissy, and Janet’s apartment, where Jack chews the scenery, agonizing through various poses of self-loathing and self-pity, acting out his newfound emasculation in full-throated anguish for his two Playboy Bunny-esque housemates, who futilely try to mop up what’s left of his bludgeoned ego.
“Jack the Giant Killer” resolves in straightforward sitcom fashion. Jack returns with the girls to the Regal Beagle and loads up on liquid courage to confront Jeff, who enters the Beagle and heads straight for the bar. Janet sees him first and goes over to whisper something in his ear before Jack can do anything.
Before we have a chance to know what Janet says, Jack steps up and gives the bullying buccaneer a verbal keelhauling followed by eight long seconds of limp-wristed judo moves and high-pealed screeching. Jeff, who has been so confrontational throughout the show, now backs away apologetically after Jack berates him for being such an awful human being.
Surprised he didn’t get slugged, Jack asks Janet, “What did you say to him?”
“I told him you had a plate in your head from rescuing your entire platoon in Vietnam,” she chirped.
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Wha-wha-whaa??? I almost spit up my sanka when Janet said that. It’s the way she blurted the words so casually, flippantly even, that made me do a double take.
Vietnam was a taboo subject in mainstream Hollywood in the Seventies. You just didn’t hear it mentioned on the big or little screen until 1978, when a sudden spate of studio films about that war and its vets emerged (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now), and the “Vietnam in Hollywood” era was launched. Nam acquired instant TV gravitas during this time. Mentioning a wounded vet’s combat experience was a subject reserved for Emmy-winning dramas, not farce.
In later years, you might expect the “watch out, he’s a psycho-Vietnam vet” gag to be played in an edgy Fox sitcom, but it seems way too dark (not to mention complicated) for the pratfall-based plotlines of Three’s Company.
So what’s going on here?
Either Three’s Company has addressed the condition of the Vietnam vet a full year before Coming Home and the Deer Hunter famously broke down that barrier, or the writers for the show where the kisses are hers and hers and his needed a way to wrap the scene fast and came up with the plate-in-the-head-from-Nam line as if it were just an innocuous ‘you wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, would you?’ gag.
I vote for the latter. The allusion to Jack taking shrapnel to the cranium to save his platoon was made in that simpler time, before the abovementioned films sensitized us towards the condition of the Vietnam vet. It’s still unclear whether Jeff the bully was supposed to have feared Jack as a lethal combat fighter or pitied him as a disabled war hero, but we’ll chalk that ambiguity up to mediocre writing.
This isn’t the only scene that is jarring to the modern psyche. There is also the episode’s very first shot, where Jeff establishes himself as a would-be date-rapist who throws women overboard when they spurn his advances.
“Jack the Giant Killer” is just the fourth Three’s Company episode ever produced, but it didn’t air until the fifth week of a six-week initial season. It was as if they knew this one had problems and were willfully holding it back as long as possible.
Either way, it’s an interesting pop culture footnote and a humble reminder that even something as empty-caloried and nougat-filled as Three’s Company can be mined for valuable nuggets of historical information.
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