Brian Brennan recalls conversations he had with celebrities during his 15 years as a newspaper entertainment reporter, in a series that first ran in Facts and Opinions and can now be purchased at Brian Brennan’s site. It is available both as an e-book and as a paperback. Brennan blogs about literature, arts and politics at BrianBrennan.ca, here.
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Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. Formerly a long-time, award-winning writer with the Calgary Herald in its glory days, his bylines have also appeared in magazines and newspapers including The New York Times and Globe and Mail. His autobiography Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada is the latest of his 10 published books. He also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
Emlyn Williams was a versatile actor and playwright who achieved his greatest success when his favourite kind of drama – well-made plays presented on picture-frame stages – no longer appealed to sophisticated West End audiences. In 1951, at age 46, he carved out a new career touring the world with his one-man show, Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens.
Andy Williams cracked open his fourth bottle of beer and pointed it at my notebook. “What’s this story you’re writing going to be about anyhow?” he asked. “You’re not looking for dirt, are you?”
At her most prolific, Nancy White was writing three to five topical satire songs a week and performing them on CBC Radio’s public affairs show, Sunday Morning. But nobody could maintain that pace indefinitely.
Like Stuart Sutcliffe of the early Beatles and Ian Stewart of the early Rolling Stones, Bob Welch was an early member of Fleetwood Mac who left before the band hit the big time … But more than just being an early member of the group, I discovered, Welch was also a significant figure in the artistic evolution of Fleetwood Mac.
Kenny Rogers was having a musical-identity crisis at age 39 when I spoke with him in 1977 before a club gig in Calgary. At that point his beard was already turning salt-and-pepper and the wrinkles were starting to show around his eyes. He was still wearing the Beatles suit of his rock years, not the cowboy clothes that later defined his look as a country-pop superstar.
Sylvia Tyson was learning how to be on her own when I met her in 1978. She and singer-husband Ian Tyson had split both as an act and as a couple. She had also parted company with Capitol Records, the label that released two albums of her music after she went solo. But Tyson, at age 38, wasn’t despondent about any of this. Looking in the rear-view mirror was not her thing. “What’s past is prologue,” she liked to say, quoting a favourite line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
He had made his mark at age 24 when his first single, “Honeycomb,” sold a million copies in the United States. He quickly followed that with two more million-sellers, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again.” From that point onward, the pop singer Jimmie Rodgers was never again confused with the Depression-era country singer of the same name.
My very brief encounter with Elizabeth Taylor occurred late on a Saturday afternoon in May 1983 on a busy street in midtown Manhattan. A mounted New York City policeman was barking orders to the small crowd of about 30 waiting outside the stage door of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street: “Everybody keep to the sidewalk and stay behind the barricades!” Why all the fuss?
Cliff Richard dated back to the early days of British rock, back to even before the Beatles, which made him very dated indeed. Yet you hardly would have known that if you saw him, as I did in March 1981, getting ready to do a concert in Calgary. There he was, the eternal Peter Pan of English popular music, looking 10 years younger than his 40 years, a testament to clean and righteous living.
By the time he was 49, Johnnie Ray had dried the tears that carried him to stardom with such hits as “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” What seemed most remarkable to me when I saw him do a nightclub show in 1976 was not that he continued to inject a level of intensity into his performance, but that he sang at all. He had been deaf since childhood.
Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock didn’t know what to expect when she wrote a play called Doc about her workaholic physician father. Her father’s reaction surprised her.
The newspapers couldn’t figure out how to classify Colleen Peterson’s singing when she was first making her way in the music business in the late 1960s. Neither could the record industry. Sometimes she was listed under folk, other times she was classified as blues, other times she was categorized as country. When asked to provide her own description, Peterson offered a new coinage: CRB, country rhythm and blues.
Nobody had ever made a living playing Irish traditional instrumental music so Paddy Moloney followed his mother’s advice and got himself a day job. He worked from nine to five as a clerk at a Dublin building supplies firm and spent his evenings and weekends playing tin whistle and uilleann pipes at community halls and house parties around Ireland. He experimented with different combinations of instruments in trios and quartets until he found a sound he liked well enough to record. The resulting album, The Chieftains I, was released in 1963 when Moloney was 25.
John Neville was a star of the London stage during the 1950s, excelling both in Shakespearean roles and in productions of contemporary plays, before moving into the artistic management side of theatre. After a career as a director of the Nottingham Playhouse and — after moving to Canada — the National Arts Centre, the Citadel Theatre, the Neptune Theatre and the Stratford Festival, he returned to his first love of acting. It was then he became known — perhaps best-known — for his role as the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files on television.
Back in the day “media opportunities” were known as press conferences. Those of us who had been to one too many of them resorted to asking silly questions to fill up the time and get a rise out of the entertainers. I once asked Donny Osmond how many times a day he brushed his teeth to keep them so sparkling white. He answered, in all seriousness, that his teeth were capped. Then his publicist kicked me out of the room. Clearly, I was not showing the proper respect. I was also kicked out of the room when I asked the Bay City Rollers if a singer had to be five foot five or less in order to qualify for membership in the band. In Anne Murray’s case, I didn’t ask any silly questions.
My interview with John Mortimer, in the lobby of a Calgary hotel, was supposed to last only 15 minutes because Mortimer had several more appointments that day. But that changed when I asked him my first question: “If John Mortimer the award-winning journalist was sent to interview John Mortimer the playwright and novelist, what kinds of questions would he ask?’ “Mr. Brennan, I think we should go and have lunch,” Mortimer replied. “Do you like to drink wine?”
I wanted to talk to Barry Morse about Lieutenant Gerard, the dogged detective he had played for four seasons in The Fugitive, one of the biggest TV hits of the 1960s. But Morse wanted to talk about theatre critics; ill-informed theatre critics. He’d suffered at the hands of a few.
He had made a big splash when he played the role of the troubled wedding singer Johnny Fontane in the movie The Godfather. But Al Martino had no particular desire to do another film when he came to Canada in 1975 to perform the easy-listening pop favourites that had kept him going throughout the hard-rock explosion of the mid-sixties and early seventies.
As a quartet, they went by the rather cumbersome stage name of “The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.” They moved from Ireland to America in their 20s to try and make their living as actors, and found they could make more money singing the traditional ballads and nationalistic rebel songs they had learned from their parents as children. Their big break came when a scheduled two-song appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961 turned into a 20-minute showstopper after a headliner failed to appear. After that, this quartet of Irish balladeers became as well known around the folksinging world as the Kingston Trio, The Weavers and The Limeliters.
Cleo Laine and James Galway were in a record store in England, signing copies of their duet album, Sometimes When We Touch. A woman came up to the autographing table with a record under her arm. Laine reached over to sign the disc but the woman pulled it away saying, “I don’t want you. I want him.” Laine laughed as she recalled the incident…
At age 18, Debbie Lori Kaye became the youngest performer in history to have her own variety special on CBC TV. A tiny singer with a big voice, her star had been rising steadily for four years. At age 14, she had signed a six-year recording contract with Columbia Records. At age 15, she was starring in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand show in Toronto. At age 17, she had become a regular on television’s Tommy Hunter Show where she was known affectionately as “the mighty mite.”
As Hal Holbrook did with Mark Twain and Julie Harris did with Emily Dickinson, so did Roy Dotrice make his mark with John Aubrey: He found a larger-than-life character he could effectively portray on stage in a one-person show. But in Dotrice’s case, instead of choosing a famous personality, he picked Aubrey, an obscure 17th century English gossipmonger who was acquainted with Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Jonson and Sir Christopher Wren.
Milt Kamen was an American comedian who made his mark on network television, appearing on such programs as The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show, giving spontaneous and cheerfully irreverent “reviews” of current movies. “A person gets only one trip through life,” said Kamen, months before he died age55. “There’s a need for laughter in the world.”
Rejecting the “theatre of taxidermy” in his native England, Keith Johnstone vowed to create something different when he moved to Canada. He called it “theatresports,” and it soon moved beyond the boundaries of Calgary, and started to spawn imitation improvisational troupes in Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, New York and elsewhere.
The musician’s nightmare, a broken guitar string, caused barely a ripple in the smooth performance of B.B. King the night I saw him playing an Edmonton nightclub gig in 1977. “When your guitar string breaks, then you really got the blues,” quipped the then 51-year-old musician. He grabbed a fresh high-E string from his guitar case, and told us a story while he restrung the instrument. The story, then rarely heard but now well documented on Wikipedia, was about how King came to name his guitar Lucille.
Being the daughter of British theatrical royalty was a mixed blessing for Ann Casson. Her father, Sir Lewis Casson, and her mother, Dame Sybil Thorndike, captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic during the first half of the 20th century, when liners and ocean crossings were redolent of a more glamorous age. Her mother, especially, had a very distinguished theatrical pedigree. George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan with Dame Sybil specifically in mind.
Mourning was widespread for mystery writer Bunny Wright when she died of breast cancer at age 61 in February 2001. Fellow writers penned personal tributes that were published in newspapers across Canada. Her two daughters, who had worked on the final copy-edit of their mother’s last novel, Menace, while she was in the hospital, also published touching newspaper tributes. What would Wright have thought of all this adulation?
“I last played here 18 years ago,” Bob Newhart told the reporters at a Toronto press conference in 1978 when he announced his return to stand-up comedy. “I think the act went over well because, as you can see, they invited me back.” It was the kind of dead-panned wisecrack one would have expected from Dr. Bob Hartley, the stammering psychologist Newhart played for six years on television from 1972 onwards. That’s where his press conference shtick began and ended, however. Like many comedians, Newhart saved his best jokes for his stage and screen performances. Now in his 80s, Newhart continues to perform.
When I first met John Hirsch in 1977, he talked so passionately about Canadian theatre that I wondered why this Hungarian-born director wasn’t running a theatre company instead of working in television. He had co-founded Canada’s first professional regional theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, as a 27-year-old in 1958, and then spent a couple of years as co-artistic director of the Stratford Festival before making a big splash as a freelance stage director in the United States. When he returned to Canada in 1974, it was to become head of drama programming for the CBC. He told me he had no interest in running another theatre company.
It was the question everyone working in theatre lives to hear: “How would you like to be in a Broadway show?” Nicola Cavendish was about to star in a Canadian production of Educating Rita when she received the call from director Brian Bedford. The 35-year-old actress immediately dropped everything, left husband and dog at home in Vancouver, and headed for the bright lights. The show gave Cavendish a rare opportunity to see at close range how the American star system works. As a Canadian, she was used to a production process where actors big and small endeavoured to serve the text and find the truth in what the playwright had written. In New York, the big actors merely did their star turns and milked their exit lines for maximum applause.
They had created screen magic together in 1973 when Glenda Jackson and George Segal co-starred in A Touch of Class. It was an old-fashioned adultery comedy that earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture and brought Jackson her second Oscar for best actress. Could lightning strike twice? The director, Melvin Frank, hoped so. He had been trying for five years to get Jackson and Segal back together. Now he finally had them on the same set for a romantic comedy called Lost and Found.
When first interviewed at age 41, Ronnie Hawkins was as old as Elvis. And like Elvis, he was packing some weight around the middle. But unlike Elvis, then rumoured to be near retirement (he died the following year), the Hawk had no plans yet to quit. He liked bars. To keep the crowd in the right mood, Hawkins shouted out between songs: “Everybody get drunk. The more you drink the better we sound.” In truth, Hawkins sounded good enough to keep on going: he was still performing last year when, at age 80, his adopted country feted the expat American with an honourary Order of Canada.
Chris de Burgh was 27 years old and something of a British cult favourite when I spoke to him about his music. A single from his first album, Far Beyond These Castle Walls, had spent 17 weeks at #1 in Brazil of all places, and an English music magazine had described him as “the most talented undiscovered solo artist in Britain.” Another publication had called him “the most revelatory supporting act since Leo Sayer toured with Procol Harum.” (Sayer was a British singer-songwriter who had scored big with such songs as You Make Me Feeling Like Dancing and When I Need You. Procol Harum was a one-hit wonder band that charted internationally with A Whiter Shade of Pale.)
The Mephistophelean eyebrows, like symmetrical question marks on a massive forehead, projected an attitude of fierceness. But the twinkling eyes, grandfatherly disposition and easy laugh told another story. If you had dressed him in a red suit, with his bushy beard and snowy-white mane, Robertson Davies could have passed for a department-store Santa Claus. He knew people put him on a pedestal because of what they saw as his elitist professorial bearing (“very embarrassing, they don’t treat you as a human being”). But he was, in fact, approachable and friendly.
David Clayton-Thomas was a Canadian singer who fronted an American brass-rock band, Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T), during the four years, 1968-71, when it achieved its greatest commercial success. One of the first groups to add horns and jazz elements to the backbeat of rock ’n’ roll, BS&T scored with a succession of million-selling singles, including Spinning Wheel, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy and And When I Died. Then, as Clayton-Thomas put it, “the band floundered in a wave of its own imitators.”
By envisioning King Lear’s age as “four score and upward,” Shakespeare created a great role for an actor to play in the autumn of his career. So wasn’t Len Cariou, at age 44, a bit young for the part? In fact, he told me, he had already done it. Ten years earlier, when he was only 34, Cariou had played Lear at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. That made him one of the youngest actors ever to play the part.
Tennessee Williams had always wanted to reimagine Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, The Seagull. He considered it the greatest of modern plays after Brecht’s Mother Courage, and he felt it had never been properly released from the confines of the translation straitjacket.
Sophia Loren hardly ever talked to reporters, and hadn’t planned to do so when she came to Canada in 1987 to promote some beauty products. But after I talked to her publicity people, I was told I could interview her as long as I didn’t ask her about two things…
He liked to say he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Because Long John Baldry stood six-foot-seven (2m) in his stocking feet, this was probably literally true for a while. But it was equally true that because his contemporaries included the likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Elton John – who all played in Baldry’s bands when starting out – they soon surpassed him in stature. His protégés never forgot, however, to whom they owed their success.
In 1956, at age 21, Mary O’Hara had the world by the tail. The Irish-born singer-harpist had a recording contract with Decca for her albums of Celtic songs, she was touring internationally, and was happily married to a rising American poet named Richard Selig. Then her world fell apart. Her husband died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma just 15 months after they married, and O’Hara lost her desire to continue performing. She fulfilled her remaining contractual engagements, took vows as a nun, entered an English convent, and stayed there for 12 years. She melted down her wedding ring to solemnize her vows. When she emerged from the convent in 1974, O’Hara was amazed to discover that her recordings were still selling.
For the 59-year-old John Frankenheimer, The Fourth War offered another opportunity to re-establish his place in the American mainstream after an up-and-down 32-year directing career. During the 1970s and 1980s his career had stumbled because of his problems with alcohol. It ascended in 1988 with the hit re-release of his 1962 classic, The Manchurian Candidate, but then dipped again with the disappointing Dead-Bang, a thriller in which Don Johnson played a Los Angeles homicide detective pitted against a neo-Nazi killer.
According to the gossip of the day, the Monkees couldn’t play their own instruments. They were a band made to order for American television: Artificially manufactured to appeal to teenagers who had flocked to see the Beatles’s movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Michael Nesmith lent credence to the non-playing rumours in 1967 when he called a press conference in New York to declare that this ersatz TV band – in which he mimed playing guitar – was just a bunch of singing actors backed by uncredited studio musicians. “We’re being passed off as something we aren’t.”
After 25 years of writing novels, Brian Moore was trying his hand at playwriting when I met him in Edmonton in 1981. He had adapted his novella Catholics for television in 1973 and now was preparing it for its Canadian stage debut at the Citadel Theatre. He was enjoying the experience of working with a theatre group, not least because it got him out of the house “As one goes on writing novels, one spends more and more time alone,” he said wistfully.
They thought Mario Bernardi was crazy in 1969 when he left a prestige conducting job at the Sadler’s Wells Opera in London to start up a new orchestra from scratch at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa. They also thought he was crazy in 1984 when he left Ottawa to take over as conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO). But in each instance, Bernardi had a very good reason for moving. In each instance, he saw opportunity for growth.
For thousands of Allied soldiers who served in the Second World War, Vera Lynn was the most popular singer on the radio. No matter that Bing Crosby and Judy Garland sold more records. Lynn was the troops’ favourite because, as one wounded soldier said at the time, “She makes you think of your wife, not of her.”
The Associated Press called him the J.D. Salinger of musical satire. Tom Lehrer was a brilliant American songwriter with a sardonic wit who scored big with the college crowd in the 1950s, only to walk away from it all in 1960 when at the height of his fame. There were rumours for a while that he was dead. … read more (paywall)
The line was, “Martha Clark Kent, are you listening to what I’m saying?” It was scripted for Glenn Ford, playing a Kansas farmer named Jonathan Kent in the 1978 movie Superman. A spaceship containing the baby Superman had just crash-landed in the Kent wheat field and the farmer’s wife – played by Phyllis Thaxter – was suggesting they keep the apparently orphaned boy as their own. After a brief exchange about the pros and cons of doing this, the farmer put his foot down. … read more (paywall)
Before I met Shari Lewis, I was under the impression – probably like a lot of people – that she was just a popular children’s entertainer; a ventriloquist with a cute sock puppet named Lamb Chop. To my surprise, I discovered she was much more: a trained musician who played violin and conducted symphony orchestras, an actor-dancer who had done Broadway musicals on tour, and a published book author and newspaper columnist. If she had to settle for one career, she said, it would be as a writer. But she was doing it all. … read more
Richard Harris was off the booze and missing it when he starred as King Arthur in a touring production of Camelot. He said going back to his native Ireland and not having a drink was like “going to church and not saying a prayer.”
I must admit I came loaded for bear when I went to interview bestselling American author Leon Uris. Earlier, I had written a negative review of Trinity, his 751-page novel dealing with Northern Ireland’s politics of violence. After spending the first 23 years of my life in Dublin, I figured I knew a thing or two about Irish history. I said in my review, and repeated it when I met Uris, that the book offered a simplistic and distorted view of history because it castigated the British as oppressors and portrayed the forerunners of the Irish Republican Army as valiant freedom fighters. “I think you’re mistaken and you’re trying to bait me,” responded Uris. “Every responsible scholar I know has said that this book follows very accurate historical lines.”
Before American Idol there was the Kiwanis International Talent Search. The year was 1956, the place was Denver, Colorado. Sixteen-year-old Judy Collins won first prize singing an English folk ballad, Pretty Saro, at a regional talent contest jointly sponsored by Kiwanis clubs in Colorado and three other American states. For accompaniment she used a rented guitar. The prize included a trip to Atlantic City for her first professional singing engagement. One of the other contestants was an ambitious young violinist who had been conservatory trained. His father complained to the man sitting next to him, who just happened to be Collins’s father: “Isn’t that just the damnedest? Here I spend a fortune on violin lessons. My son is on his way to Juilliard and a New York career, and he gets beat out by a hillbilly singer.”
Chuck Berry was cranky. He hadn’t seen a contract for his scheduled nightclub appearance, and he wasn’t about to step out of the airport limo that had brought him to the club. The club had sold tickets for two dinner shows, but Berry wasn’t going to do even one show until he saw that contract. The club manager was in a panic. He had two sold-out shows on his hands and the possibility of refunds loomed.
In 1974, Mordecai Richler’s great comic novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, about a young Jewish hustler from Montreal who connives, cheats and pushes his way to the top, had been turned into a movie that was a hit in Canada and the United States. And 10 years after that, it was being turned into a stage musical that the backers hoped would be a hit on Broadway. Montreal impresario Sam Gesser had so much faith in the musical, titled simply Duddy, that he was putting up $500,000 of his own money to finance the $1.4 million production. With a libretto adapted by Richler from his novel, and songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller of 1950s’ rock ’n’ roll fame (Hound Dog, Kansas City, Jailhouse Rock), how could it miss?
At age 36, dressed in spangled white jumpsuit with neckline plunging to the waist, Chubby Checker looked vaguely silly, like Elvis in Vegas. A dance routine in which a man pretends to grind out cigarette butts with his feet might seem a shaky foundation on which to build an enduring musical career. But there he was, 17 years after hitting the big time with The Twist, still twisting away as if his life depended on it.
I just knew I had to interview Burt Mustin when he walked into the newspaper office in June 1973 and told the receptionist he was “the best they-went-that-a-way” actor working in Hollywood. “I like to say I’ve been a professional since I was six and an inebriated gentleman heard me singing on my way home from kindergarten, took me into Morlein’s saloon to sing for the crowd, and I went home after dark with pockets full of money and got a licking for it.” He was kidding, of course. Mustin didn’t actually get started as professional until he was 67, after working as a car salesman for most of his adult life.
Tammy Wynette was no longer standing by her man when I saw her perform at a nightclub in 1976. At least, she was no longer singing with ex-husband George Jones, with whom she had continued to record – for contractual reasons – after their divorce in 1975. At age 34, Wynette was going it alone as a solo artist with a portfolio of autobiographical songs in which, she said, “every line is true.” Many of them chronicled the twists and turns in her stormy seven-year relationship with Jones.
When I first met him in 1978, Randy Bachman had seemingly committed career suicide not once but twice. Or so it seemed to his fans at the time. First he walked away from the Guess Who immediately after the band’s American Woman became the first song by a Canadian rock group to reach #1 in the United States. Then he left Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO) after that group climbed to the top of the American charts, this time with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. And now, at age 34, Bachman was starting over again, as a solo artist. Why? “I’m trying to grow up,” said the burly musician.
Norman Maen had many challenges as a professional choreographer working on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1970s. None was more demanding than Maen’s assignment to devise a routine for Rudolph Nureyev and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.
n his heyday, singer Frankie Laine was all over the radio, on records and in jukeboxes, and on the soundtracks of movies and television shows. But when he did an interview with me at age 63 in 1976, he wanted to talk first about his little-known Depression-era career as a marathon dancer. His name then was Francesco LoVecchio and he participated in these endurance contests, he said, both for the opportunity to win prizes and for the chance to make some money singing when the dancers were taking their breaks.
My assignment was to interview a 71-year-old grandmother who danced nude while waving a couple of big white ostrich-feather fans like the veils of Salome. She had been a star in 1933 when she created a sensation at the Chicago World’s Fair, but now she seemed more of a curiosity. A 1972 article in The Village Voice had been headlined, “What do you say to a naked 68-year-old lady?” What indeed?
Our interview began with him reminding me of a joke. “You remember the old story about the Lone Ranger and Tonto?” said Jay Silverheels. “The one where they’re surrounded by a band of hostile Indians?” I remembered it well. The “masked rider of the Plains” turned to his “faithful companion” and asked, “How do we get out of this mess, Tonto?” To which the usually taciturn Native replied, “What you mean we, white man?” …. log in to read* The Original Tonto: Jay Silverheels
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