Posts Tagged ‘W.D. Richter’

I was saddened to learn this morning that Kevin McCarthy had gone to that great Green Room in the sky—saddened but not shocked since he was, after all, 96 and had enjoyed, by any standard, what could conservatively be called a good run.  His screen career stretched over more than sixty years, and got an early boost with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as Biff in Death of a Salesman (1951), which by a bizarre coincidence I just saw on stage with Christopher Lloyd.  He also had the honor of starring in a genuine Classic of the Cinema, Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which led to my becoming acquainted with Kevin a few years ago.

Prior to that, my friend Gilbert Colon and I had been invited to contribute to “They’re Here…”: Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, edited by McCarthy and the redoubtable Ed Gorman, and published by Berkley Boulevard Books in 1999.  I interviewed W.D. Richter, screenwriter of the 1978 version; Gil tackled Abel Ferrara, the director of Body Snatchers (1993); and Kevin was represented with a lengthy interview by my sometime mentor, John McCarty.  When Ed planned a new and somewhat different version of the book, released by Stark House Press as Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute in 2006, I was again asked to contribute, and therein lies the tale.

Ed retained our Richter and Ferrara pieces, but wanted a new interview with Kevin, which was kinda cool because it meant that between us, Gil and I would speak with participants in all three versions made at that time (and if you’re listening, Nicole Kidman, I’m ready for our one-on-one to talk about 2007’s The Invasion).  Naturally, I didn’t want to rehash what John had done in the first edition, so I tried to come up with a new angle.  With Gil as my able research assistant, I interviewed Kevin regarding what we called his “second career as a genre icon,” particularly his work with Joe Dante in the likes of Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and InnerSpace (1987).

Of course, McCarthy figures in Richard Matheson on Screen for his role as Uncle Walt in “It’s a Good Life,” Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983), and he made another notable genre appearance in the original Zone episode “Long Live Walter Jameson.”  No less impressive, his mainstream credits include John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), written as a vehicle for spouse Marilyn Monroe by Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).  But it is Dr. Miles J. Bennell in Body Snatchers, a role that he repeated in a cameo for Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, for which Kevin will inevitably be best remembered.

Having known him, I can attest to the fact that there never was a man less like a pod person than Kevin, full of energy and enthusiasm well into his nineties, and when we did the interview it was not so much a question of interrogating him as simply of unleashing him to tell his anecdotes of Montgomery Clift and Stanley Kubrick.  The hardest thing was to get him to stop tinkering with it and approve it for publication, so I finally just gave him the transcript and let him run with it.  Siegel’s preferred title for Body Snatchers was Sleep No More, since the pods took people over while they were sleeping, but now, at last, Dr. Bennell can rest in peace; we’ll miss you, Kevin.

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While the world (well, okay, three of you) breathlessly awaits the impending publication of Richard Matheson on Screen, which I am still frantically indexing, there is yet new Bradley to be had.  Hot off the presses, and presumably hot on the shelves of your local chain bookstore—or, better yet, a mere subscription form away—is Filmfaxplus #124, containing the conclusion of my interview with W.D. Richter.  This installment covers his work as the director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and the screenwriter of Big Trouble in Little China and Needful Things.  Portions of this interview previously appeared in both editions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, but although space still hasn’t permitted it to run in its entirety, this is the first time any of the non-Body Snatchers material has seen the light of day.

In a stunning piece of serendipity, this issue also contains an interview with legendary Marvel Comics artist “Joltin’ Joe” Sinnott.  Since I consider Sinnott to be the greatest inker who ever lived, I am beyond honored to be sharing space with him, as I am to be represented in their 25th-anniversary issue.  It seems hard to believe that I’ve been generously represented therein for 17 of those 25 years, since my interview with Robert Bloch appeared in #40.  That was my first published interview, although not the first I conducted, which was with The Great You-Know-Who (and aptly debuted soon afterward in their Vincent Price tribute issue, #42).  The number of times Filmfax pops up in my index bespeaks a long, proud relationship with the magazine, where many of the interviews I draw on first appeared.  I hope it will continue for another 17…

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I already knew when I received the package from Filmfax—which has published the vast majority of my magazine work over the years—that issue #123 (Spring 2010) would contain part one of my long-awaited interview with screenwriter and sometime director W.D. Richter. And indeed, there it is, illustrated with the usual impressive array of stills, behind-the-scenes shots, posters, and book jackets. Part one covers Richter’s work on his versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Dracula (1979), and since this issue also contains other articles on Dracula, including an interview with director John Badham, they’ve got a nice theme thing going on here.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I discovered that the same issue also contains an article on Gauntlet Press—which has published the vast majority of my book work over the years—and its publisher, Barry Hoffman. In addition to his amazing track record of publishing both classic and previously unseen works by the likes of Richard Matheson (see “Econo-Matheson”) and Ray Bradbury, usually in handsome limited editions, Barry also discusses his parallel careers as an author and educator.

Then imagine my further surprise, to say nothing of delight, when I discovered a sidebar to the Hoffman interview entitled “Compiling The Richard Matheson Companion.” Sprinkled with delightful adjectives such as “definitive” and “superb,” the review by John McCarty (whose work I publicized eons ago at St. Martin’s Press) concludes, “this is the Holy Grail for Richard Matheson fans. To say that the creators of this book have done their homework would be the understatement of the century.”

As one of said creators, I can only offer my sincerest thanks and urge everyone reading this to pick up the latest issue, with its eye-catching Captain America/Red Skull cover…or, better yet, subscribe!

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First—and briefly, I promise—I don’t want this (b)logrolling thing to get out of hand, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Ed Gorman for the following comment on his blog (http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/):  “I’ve been working with Matthew for probably a dozen years.  I’ve contributed to the books he’s edited and he’s contributed to mine.  Though Matthew’s work spans everything from literature to films he’s started a new blog that deals exclusively with film.  He’s an excellent writer as well as an excellent critic.  He wrote an amazingly good piece on the Matt Helm movies—amazing to me because I can’t stand them but thought his article was a knock-out.  Be sure to check it out.”

I do so not merely to toot my own horn, but also to let interested readers know that through Ed’s good offices, I had the enviable opportunity of contributing interviews with key creative personnel to both editions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute.  The first was W.D. Richter, the screenwriter of the 1978 version and many other excellent films, as well as the director of the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and the underappreciated Late for Dinner.  A longer version of that career-spanning interview is scheduled to appear in Filmfax, so stay tuned for details.  The second interview, appearing only in the revised version of the book—available from Stark House Press (http://starkhousepress.com/classicfilm.html)—was with Kevin McCarthy, the star of the 1956 original, and a legendary raconteur in his own right, not to mention a hell of a nice guy (as is Richter).  And, for those of you who share my appreciation for the third version, titled simply Body Snatchers, my Penguin pal Gilbert Colon interviewed its director, Abel Ferrara.  What’s not to like?

Now, on to the true purpose of this post.  I have many reasons to be grateful to the members of the Monty Python troupe, only the most obvious of which is their legacy of television shows (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).  But they were also indirectly responsible for introducing me to a number of other excellent Britcoms.  Like many of my generation, I first saw the Python series on Sunday nights on PBS, where I watched it religiously with my late father, and which often paired it with other shows such as The Two Ronnies.  Among these was The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

For a long time, this extraordinary BBC show was difficult to find.  About ten years ago, somebody put out the first few episodes on VHS.  Dad, of course, bought that, and we delighted in revisiting Reggie’s outrageous adventures.  But then he made the mistake of lending it to somebody who never returned it, and forgetting to whom he had lent it.  On top of that, the tape must not have sold very well, because I’m not aware that any subsequent episodes were released, at least Stateside.  Now, thank goodness, Koch has released the entire show (consisting of three series of seven episodes apiece) on a four-DVD set, complete with a retrospective devoted to its star, Leonard Rossiter, and a Christmas sketch that reunited the cast three years after the last episode.

The show’s brilliance may be chalked up chiefly to two men:  Rossiter and writer David Nobbs, who adapted the first series from his novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, later retitled to match the show.  He then wrote the other two series directly for the screen and subsequently novelized them as The Return… and The Better World of Reginald Perrin.  Rossiter, alas, was too-little known on this side of the Pond, although he had a nice supporting role in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Stanley Kubrick used him in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon.  I’ve always loved the scene in 2001 where Rossiter’s Russian doctor tries to smoke some information out of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), who tells him nothing but deftly allows him to believe the cover story about some sort of virus outbreak, or whatever it was.

So what the heck is this show?  As I started re-viewing the episodes, which begin with a fast-motion scene of Reggie leaving his clothes on the beach and walking out into the sea that is very reminiscent of Python, my first thought was, “If the Pythons had done a sitcom, this is what it would have been like.”  But that misses an important distinction, because the show is really one continuous story, that of businessman Reginald Iolanthe (yes, after the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) Perrin, initially an executive at Sunshine Desserts.  It’s basically a chronicle of his midlife crisis and what he does about it, and since Reggie and I are now exactly the same age—46—well, let’s just say the show has a resonance for me now that it never did in my teens.  Although he fantasizes about his attractive and loyal secretary, Joan Greengross (Sue Nicholls), and even attempts an amusingly abortive tryst with her, deep down he is completely in love with his wife, Elizabeth (Pauline Yates).  Reggie’s problem is not that he doesn’t love his wife, despite constantly envisioning her mother as a hippopotamus, but that he hates the suffocating routine of his life.  This is brilliantly dramatized with a series of scenes showing his daily rituals, which begin to break down as his behavior becomes more and more eccentric.

Reggie is bemused by his pompous boss, C.J. (John Barron); by the company’s ineffectual doctor, Doc Morrisey (John Horsley); by his relentlessly upbeat and shallow colleagues; by British Rail, whose trains are so reliably eleven minutes late that he quite reasonably suggests they simply adjust their schedule by eleven minutes (an observation I’ve made more than once about the 5:27 from Norwalk on Metro-North); and by most of his immediate family.  Elizabeth’s brother, Jimmy (Geoffrey Palmer), is a clueless army officer who constantly comes by to cadge food; Reggie’s son, Mark (David Warwick), is a not-very-successful actor; and his son-in-law, Tom Patterson (Tim Preece, later replaced by Leslie Schofield), is a windbag who makes wine from nettles and other unappealing substances.  Each has his own peculiar speech patterns and habits, to which Reggie’s sarcastic responses, frequently prefaced by an exasperated “Oh, my God,” are absolutely priceless.

Unable to endure it any longer, Reggie fakes his own suicide (with the same method, although not in the same footage, shown in the credit sequence) and adopts a hilarious series of alternate identities.  The most sympathetic member of his family is his daughter, Linda (Sally-Jane Spencer), to whom he reveals his continued existence.  Ironically, despite his hatred for his old life, fate seems to keep pulling Reggie back into the same old patterns, not least his desire to be with Elizabeth, who is—somewhat implausibly (although admittedly that’s probably a moot point in such a fanciful show)—the only one to see through his current identity of “Martin Wellbourne.”

I’ve just finished the first series, which ends with “Martin” preparing to settle down to domestic bliss with Elizabeth and a new job with his old firm.  I can’t remember all of the developments to come, nor would I ruin them for you, but there is one that I look forward to with delicious pleasure.  During the second series, Reggie opens a shop called Grot that he intends from the outset to fail, selling useless items to people who don’t need them.  But then, in a plot twist worthy and reminscent of Leonard Wibberley’s delightful novel The Mouse That Roared and Jack Arnold’s sublime film version (with Peter Sellers in three roles), the shop becomes an unexpected success, and poor Reggie is right back in the corporate rat race where he started.  Do start from the beginning, though, and take this extraodinary journey with him.  It’s worth your while.

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