A Climb on the Hollywood Sign

Our son could have chosen to live anywhere.  He’s personable and well-educated.  Of all the places he chose to live, he chose southern California.

Now, I’m not one of those narrow Midwesterners who associates Los Angeles—the “City of Angels”—with all things evil.  I know all about the goofy liberalism, Botox, taxes, crime, homelessness, air pollution, traffic congestion, and everything else that makes this neck of the country so disreputable.

But I choose to concentrate on the positive. This includes year-round sunshine.  Ocean surf and beaches.  Great restaurants.  Beautiful and historic homes. A hundred years of high-quality motion pictures (aka films, aka movies).  Classic rock ‘n’ roll. And what red-blooded American male doesn’t like California Girls!

So here are a few pics from our recent vacation to visit our son in one of the most golden places in the Golden State. Come along if you dare!

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First is the header picture, a photo of the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, site of the famous 1955 “youth” picture starring, among others, James Dean and Natalie Wood: Rebel Without a Cause. I did an 8 or 9-mile hike through Griffith Park. The views were stunning: Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the San Fernando Valley on the other.

At the other end of the park is the famous Hollywood Sign. I climbed up Mt. Lee to reach this point. It’s one of the world’s great symbols, 45-foot-tall white capital letters that overlook the buzzing hub of the world film industry. Originally spelled “Hollywoodland” to advertise a realty firm, the most significant letter for me is the Peg Entwistle memorial “H.” (To learn what happened, click here.)

We also visited Venice Beach and nearby Santa Monica Pier. Venice Beach is noteworthy not only for it’s expansive beach and vagabond, free-spirited spirit, it’s also where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek accidentally met one day in 1965 and conceived one of my favorite bands, The Doors. “Moonlight Drive” was in my head.

My son Nick and I visited the enclave of Hawthorne, home of the Wilson brothers (Brian, Dennis, and Carl), who formed the Beach Boys in 1961. Their house was demolished to make room for a freeway, but a plaque commemorates where it all started.

Would a trip to Los Angeles be complete without a jaunt to Sunset Boulevard and the haunts of some of the greatest rock music bands in history? I think not. We visited Ciro’s, where The Byrds invented folk-rock and dominated the pop music world for a while, although the venue is now a comedy club. I also visited the former site of Bido Lito’s, on Cosmo Alley, where another fave band, Love, ruled the local underground scene for a short while in 1965-66.

Then there’s the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where The Doors gained notoriety before their revolutionary first album, released 1967. (The Doors being heavily influenced by Love.)

Hollywood Walk of Fame? Sure! And I finally got to meet my favorite actor, the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, and my favorite actress, the very naughty B-movie star, Gloria Grahame.

But the best part of all is visiting with family. Lynn and I capped off our SoCal sojourn with stunning seafood, thanks to our son and tour guide Nick and his girlfriend Elsa, at Moonshadows in Malibu, where the ocean waves literally lapped the restaurant.

Other visits included Laurel Canyon, famed hippie and music enclave of the ’60s and early ’70s; Robin Drive and Poinsettia Place, which featured in the classic Peter Sellers movie The Party (click here for a review); views of both Warner Brothers and Disney studios and the cylindrical Capital Records building; Doug Weston’s famed Troubadour club; and a lunchtime visit to legendary burger joint In-N-Out Burger.

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Thanks so much for joining me in my travelogue of Los Angeles, California! As Jim Morrison once sang, “This is the end, beautiful friend.”

Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

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The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

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Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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