Jane Fonda: A life in many parts -- many of them contrasting, all compelling


Jane Fonda has entwined through much of my life. Like her, I assumed the U.S. was in Vietnam for all the right reasons. (I was there myself, assuming we were up to good,) And like many people, I've seen her work ever since, some of it superb. Now there's a terrific documentary Monday (Sept. 24) on HBO; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Looking back, Jane
Fonda sort of agrees: Her life has been big, odd and very
interesting.

At 80, the current
Fonda – analytic, sometimes apologetic – is a huge leap from the
one Hollywood nurtured. “I was a kind of a pretty girl who made
movies,” she said. “And (I was) kind of hedonistic.”

Then everything
intervened – Vietnam, feminism, new-age cinema ... and some major
men, from Roger Vadim to Ted Turner. “They were all so brilliant,”
Fonda said. “They could teach me things and take me farther than I
had ever gone. And ... they weren't boring.”

That's one of the
things that makes her life intriguing. Here is a strong feminist who
spent much of her life around guys who tend to overshadow. “It took
her a while, as she (has) said, to find her own narrative,” said
Susan Lacy, who has created an HBO documentary.

That explains why
“Jane Fonda in Five Acts” has guys' names for four of the acts –
Henry, Roger, Tom, Ted. Then “Jane” is the final act. “To
fully realize herself,” Lacy said, “she needed to be on her own.”

The “Henry” was
her father – a decent but stoic man who married five times. His
movie characters stood up for the common man; still, he railed when
she had activists at his house, complaining that they'd better not be
Communists.

He “saw his
friends' careers and lives destroyed because of McCarthyism,” Fonda
said, “and ... he was afraid there would be a resurgence of
McCarthyism that would take me down.”

Those concerns
wouldn't be until her later phase. At first, Henry Fonda's kid was
just a promising starlet. As a teen-ager, she was Miss Army Recruiter
of 1954. At 22 – after prep school, Vassar and some modeling –
she did movies, especially romantic comedies.

Later, there were
some light films she likes. Fonda speaks well of “Cat Ballou”
(1965, with an Oscar-winning Lee Marvin) and “Barefoot in the Park”
(1967, with Robert Redford). But there were many others, including
“Sunday in New York,” in 1963. “I don't like that one. That's
why I fled to France.”

She lived a
two-continent life, making some films in the U.S. and three in Europe
with Vadim. They married in 1965 and it was in France that her
activism soared.

“I had met
American soldiers in Paris and they told me what they had seen and
done,” Fonda said.

They gave her a
book, “The Village of Ben Suc,” that had a big impact. “I
didn't even know where Vietnam was. And after reading that book and
talking to these men, the coin shifted.”

It was a big shift.
“My father was in the second World War,” she said. “I was so
proud of that; he was so proud of that. I really thought that if we
had men fighting, they were one the side of the angels.”

She erred, she said,
particularly in being photographed smiling at an anti-aircraft gun in
Hanoi. The smile, she said, involved a song the soldiers had just
sung for her, but it was a mistake.

“I'm proud that I
went to Vietnam when I did,” Fonda said, “and I'm proud that the
bombing of the dikes stopped ....But I'm so sorry that I was
thoughtless enough to sit down on that gun .... The message that that
sends to the guys who were there and their families – it's horrible
for me to think about.”

She married
activist/politician Tom Hayden from 1973 to '90 and cable pioneer Ted
Turner from '91 to 2001. She also saw her acting career revive, via
cable and streaming. Long after her two Academy Awards – for the
1971 “Klute” and the 1977 “Coming Home” -- Fonda has received
Emmy nominations for HBO's “The Newsroom” and for Netflix's
current “Grace and Frankie.”

And yes, her
activism remains. A sequel to the 1980 “9 to 5” will reflect
that, she said. “Today, a lot of the workforce is hired by an
outside company and sub-contracted back .... So if there's a problem,
where do you go? Who do you complain to?

“So it's much
worse. Although I do think probably sexual harassment will tend to
drop because guys are scared. Ha-ha.”

-- “Jane Fonda in
Five Acts,” 8-10:15 p.m. Monday, HBO

-- Reruns often,
including 4:15 p.m.Tuesday, 5:40 p.m. Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Monday,
Oct. 1

From "Seinfeld" to "Big Bang," he's given us global comedy


Five days before the new season officially starts, NBC offers an advance peek at one show ... and (in support) an actor we've enjoyed, from "Seinfeld" to "The Big Bang Theory." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

With his voice
alone, this actor can give us a world tour.

He's been V.M.
Koothrappali on “Big Bang” and Babu Bhatt on “Seinfeld.” He's
been Indian, Pakistani, Turkish and many more, including outer-space
guys.

He's been Dr.
Sleevemore and Dr. Bonjahli and Dr. Rajneesh and ... well, at least
15 TV doctors. He's also been Professor Pyg, Mr. Pickle, Mr.
Fetuccini, Chutney the Elephant and a talking guitar.

You expect him to
have a five-syllable name and a distant accent. Actually ... he's
Brian George and he speaks with the Oxford-English tone we expect
from someone educated in London and Toronto.

But what about that
voice we often hear? “That was the accent I grew up up around,”
said George, who was born in Israel (with roots that are Lebanese,
Indian and Iraqi), but grew up in England and Canada.

He heard the accents
– from family and neighbors – a a boy and has re-harvested them
ever since. That paid off big, 25 years ago. “'Seinfeld' was very
good for me,” George said.

Now he's back, this
time as a series regular. In “I Feel Bad,” George, 66, plays the
father of Emet (Serayu Blue), the show's central character. “He's a
little progressive, but still a traditionalist,” he said.

This is basically a
comedy-drama about women having overcrowded lives. As a bonus,
however, it reminds us that there's great variety to being the child
of immigrants.

Its star (Blue) and
creator (Aseem Batra) seem to have the same background. Both were
born in 1975 in the Midwest – Wisconsin and Ohio, respectively –
to parents from India. Still, there was a difference.

“My parents were
really open to me doing whatever I wanted to,” Blue said.

Batra's parents
didn't see it that way. They “were hoping that I would do something
more traditional than this,” she said.

She finds that
understandable. “They came to this country with $8 in their
pockets” and prefer the steadiest route to success. “I think they
just wanted me to be a doctor and then quit to have kids.”

George's own life
has been a tangle of countries and voices. His dad was born in
Lebanon, his mother in India, but they moved to Jerusalem. He was
born there, then was 1 when they moved to London and 14 when they
moved to Toronto.

His would eventually
attend the University of Toronto and then study comedy with Second
City and John Candy. But in conversation, his voice reflects the
early years in an all-boys London school.

But in his career?
That's when he pulls out the accents he heard as a kid.

“Seinfeld” was
the big break. (Jerry gave Babu terrible advice about switching to a
Pakistani-themed restaurant; later, Elaine fouled up the mail and he
was deported.) More roles have flowed in, both in animation and
live-action. He's already done 15 “Big Bang” episodes, as the
wealthy (and now swinging-single) doctor talking to his son Raj via
Skype.

“I Feel Bad” is
one of his less-ethnic roles. “When I was auditioning, it was every
ethnicity,” Blue said. Once she was cast, her character and her
parents became Indian.

“We had this
conversation,” George said, “saying, 'How lovely that it's just a
blended family and that's it' .... It's just a dopey family, with
problems that they get through.”

-- “I Feel Bad,”
9:30 p.m., Thursdays, NBC, starting Oct. 4, but two episodes will be
at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 19), after the “America's Got
Talent” finale

"Me So Horny" guy? Now he seems "Me So Nice"


You meet a lot of interesting people during Television Critics Association interviews, but few more interesting than Luther Campbell, the rapper turned youth-football patron. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Luther Campbell was
grinning about one of life's odd twists.

“We're the
cleanest show in the room,” he said. “So this is a first for me.”

This was a
Television Critics Association session with the Starz network. A few
minutes earlier, another show (“Power”) had dealt with sex and
violence; now his show was talking about kids and football.

Back home in Miami,
Campbell said, people always knew him as a community/kids guy. “The
rest of the world saw me as the 'Me So Horny' man.”

Hey, it's a hard
image to shake. There was Campbell (as Uncle Luke) with his 2 Live
Crew colleagues, explaining: “Ah, me so horny/Ah, me so horny/Ah,
me so horny/Me love you long time.” He reportedly produced a porno
film, started an adult magazine, had six kids from five relationships
and was at the core of a rule-breaking scheme to pay University of
Miami football players.

Now the same guy
finances and leads a free program for Miami kids. It's sort of “Me
so nice.”

Campbell grew up in
the Liberty City area, which Starz's Carmi Zlotnik calls “a
dangerous neighborhood in Miami that is arguably the NFL's largest
and most successful football factory.”

He was a product of
that factory – a 160-pound high school linebacker, good enough to
improve his situation. “The only people who got bused to South
Beach (were blacks who could) play football.”

Campbell says he
wasn't a big star, but he was helpful. “I was a comedian .... I was
the one who cracked people up.” He would go on to be a DJ and then,
at 24, to be part of 2 Live Crew.

In 1989, the Crew
faced obscenity charges for the album that included “Horny” and
more. The group needed that boost, says the Rolling Stone
Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Fireside, 2005). After making
“otherwise unexceptional recordings for five years, (it gained)
national notoriety.”

Campbell was always
in court and in the news, eventually winning each case. He remained
in Miami and, he says, saw bigger issues. “Knock on the door, the
mom answers. There's a mattress and eight kids sleeping on that one
mattress. This (stuff) is real.”

He started the youth
football program and befriended many of the kids. “(Devonta)
Freeman is like our son” and sometimes lived with Campbell and his
wife. “We basically took him in ... at the age of 8.”

Now Freeman is a
young running back for the Falcons and has already had two 1,000-yard
seasons. Other Liberty City guys have thrived, including Lavonte
David (an all-pro linebacker for Tampa Bay) and Chad Johnson, a
Cincinnati Bengals great who caught 67 touchdown passes.

“In Chad's case
you could always tell he was going to be something,” Campbell said
... even when he was a young offensive lineman, not a receiver.

That success will
elude most kids, Campbell said, “but they'll have an opportunity to
get a college degree.” With that in mind, he expects progress
reports from school and a 2.5 grade point.

He's also expanded
the program to include girls – now there's basketball, dancing and
more – and life “When kids sign up, they bring in their parents,”
he said. “One of the things we ask is, 'Are you registered to
vote?'”

-- “Warriors of
Liberty City,” 8 p.m. Sundays, Starz, beginning Sept. 16

-- Opener reruns at
11 p.m. and 1:01 a.m.; then at 1:50 and 7 p.m. Monday; 6:20 and 9
p.m. Tuesday; 9:02 p.m. Friday (Sept. 21), 5:08 and 10:23 p.m.
Saturday, 11:48 a.m. Sept. 23

 

Cleese towers over comedy, past and present


John Cleese is one of the towering figures of comedy, literally and figuratively. Long ago, his "Monty Python" and "Fawlty Towers" shows were brilliant; now he's part of a clever new show, "Hold the Sunset," which starts Wednesday (Sept. 12) on the Britbox screening service. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The late Douglas
Adams offered a viable theory of comedy:

All truly funny
people, he said, are exactly 6-feet-5 inches tall. For proof, he
mentioned himself (author of the “Hitchhiker's Guide” and “Dirk
Gentley” books), plus another author (P.K. Chesterton) and actors
John Cleese and Peter Cook.

Sure, we might
dispute the specifics. (Some sources put Chesterton at 6-4 and Cook
at 6-2), but Cleese agrees with the concept. “Yes, this is true,”
he said. “The very best comedians are very, very tall.”

He mentions a
glaring exception – Ronnie Corbett, the late British comedian, was
just under 5-foot – but adds: “He was the exception that proves
the rule.”

Now Cleese's
towering brand of comedy returns to TV. “Hold the Sunset” -- on
the Britbox streaming service – is his first situation comedy in 39
years. “My No. 1 mission was to get John back on the BBC,” said
Chris Sussman, the “Sunset” producer.

No extra work was
required; the “Sunset” scripts were already written. The cast
includes two acclaimed writers – Cleese (“Monty Python,”
“Fawlty Towers”) and Joanna Scanlan (“Getting On”) -- but
there was no call for them to improvise. “It is really beautiul,
beautiful, nuanced writing,” Scanlan said.

That left Cleese
with easy work. “For the first time in my life,” he said, “I'm
playing myself .... I just sit there making snarky remarks and hoping
someone else will open the front door.”

Cleese, 78, and
Alison Steadman, 72, play widowers who are ready to marry – until
they're descended upon by her son, daughter (Scanlan) and
daughter-in-law. The commotion grows and Cleese withdraws ... which
may be his natural state.

His humor, after
all, started when he felt like an outsider. “It was a survival
mechanism when I went to school,” he told the Television Critics
Association. “I was very tall and everybody teased me for being
called 'Cheese.' I found if I could make them laugh, somehow the
atmosphere improved.”

The family surname
really was “Cheese,” he wrote in his memoir (“So, Anyway ...,”
Random House, 2014). That was changed before he was born, but his
unusual look remained. “I would pass six-foot before I was 12,”
he wrote. “I had 'outgrown my strength,' and my physical weakness
meant that I was uncoordinated and awkward.” His gym teacher called
him “six foot of chewed string.”

His inclinations
were equally mild. Cleese grew up in a village, with no siblings.
“Everyday sanity is harder for 'only children,'” he wrote. “They
have nothing to moderate or dilute parents' influence.”

His dad, a calm
insurance man, didn't require much dilution, but his nervous mom did.
“Mother experienced the cosmos as a vast, limitless booby trap.”

So Cleese squirmed
at the notion of being noticed ... until he began doing sketches in
school. After seeing Cook's “Beyond the Fringe,” he cranked up
the comedy ... but still considered this only a diversion. He studied
law at Cambridge and even had a job offer from a law firm ... but was
lured away by two other offers – take the college show to London's
West End and write comedy for BBC.

That led to the
“Monty Python” TV show and movies, then to “Fawlty Towers”
and beyond.

Now his life has
slowed down – and his feelings about his height have changed.
“Trying to get into things like cars becomes a major undertaking,”
Cleese said. “For the first 60 years of my life, I was very
grateful that I was tall. And now it's very inconvenient.”

He's had a long
career, working with people in different contexts. Charles McKeown,
who wrote all the “Hold the Sunset” scripts, was an actor in many
of the films by “Python” people.

Cleese recalls
“Life of Brian,” with “that wonderful moment when an old man
with a white stick shouted, 'I was blind and now I can see' – and
falls into a pit. That was Charles. Funniest moment.”

-- “Hold the
Sunset,” any time starting Wednesday (Sept. 12), www.britbox.com.

-- That's a
subscription screening service started by two British groups, BBC and
ITV

 

It's the brand new -- and sort of old -- TV season


Hey, television is a moving target these days. On Sunday (Sept. 9), I sent my six-part season-preview package to papers and put the sories here. (Scroll down for the others.) The next day, I had to update it, to reflect Les Moonves' departure from CBS. Here's the new version, which also includes some other improvements.

By Mike Hughes

Each September, TV
viewers look for new shows, new people, new ideas.

So what are this
year's key shows? There's “Magnum” and “Murphy Brown,”
“Charmed” and “Sabrina,” “Last Man Standing” and
“Roseanne” without Roseanne and ...

Wait, what year is
this, anyway? “Standing” debuted in 2011, but the others
mentioned above range from 1980 (“Magnum PI”) to 1998
(“Charmed”); still, they're crucial to the season that will
officially start on Sept. 24, 2018.

Yes, there are newer
shows worth noting. ABC's “The Rookie” (Nathan Fillion as a
40-year-old newcomer cop) particularly feels like a hit. But the
revival flurry has changed everything.

Last year it was
“Will & Grace” coming back after 20 years and “Roseanne”
after 30. Both had the original casts; both pleased critics and
scored in the ratings.

Remakes seemed
viable – especially for “Murphy Brown,” said creator Diane
English. “When we left these characters in 1998, there was no
Internet. There was no social media. Cable news was just getting
started.” To put the old characters in this new world “was very
rich for us, very, very rich.”

Her revival has the
original cast. By comparison, “Magnum” will star Jay Hernandez –
who was 2 when the original began and 10 when it ended. “I used to
watch it as a kid,” he said. “I was a big fan.”

Now he's the one
driving the sleek cars and charming the people. “Thomas Magnum
survived on his charm,” said Peter Lenkov, who created the reboot.
“He lived on the good graces of his friends. (He) didn't use a gun.
He was somebody who was the underdog in most situations.”

Now “Magnum” is
likely to be a ratings hit; so is “Murphy Brown” ... despite the
internal troubles at their network. Les Moonves – who led CBS for
two decades of ratings power – resigned after a second wave of
sexual-abuse allegations from his past.

“Leslie has been
an excellent boss and a mentor for a long time,” Kelly Kahl, CBS'
programming chief, said to the Television Critics Association, prior
to the new allegations and the resignation. “And he put me in this
job. (But) all allegations need to be and are being taken seriously.”

Now Kahl and his top
aide are the lone men at the top of CBS. “We have 61-percent female
executives at the VP level or higher,” Kahl said. “The heads of
drama development, comedy development, current programming,
alternative, daytime, scheduling are all women.”

Meanwhile, the women
running (or co-running) two other networks face their own problems.

At ABC, it was a
late-night tweet that got Roseanne Barr fired. The network was
planning a powerhouse Tuesday line-up, with top newcomers “The
Rookie” and “The Kids Are Alright”; now the night needs viewers
to accept a no-Roseanne “Roseanne,” suddenly redubbed “The
Conners.”

And at Fox, it's a
fresh twist: Its movie studio is being sold to Disney (which owns
ABC) ... leaving Fox as the only network without the pipeline of a
big-deal studio.

Dana Walden, co-head
of Fox, insists that's good. “It will be the only network to
operate with complete independence,” she said, bringing “a great
opportunity (for) vibrant, independent studios.”

Still,
show-ownership can be crucial. It's one reason ABC canceled “Last
Man Standing” ... and Fox picked it up a year later. Walden also
said it's a reason “Lucifer” wasn't renewed by Fox. “Given that
it was owned by an outside studio at the time, we couldn't justify
the economics.”

Then Netflix, with
its international audience, grabbed “Lucifer.” The show “has
really resonated with audiences in parts of the world where we have
licensed it,” said Netflix programmer Cindy Holland.

For that matter,
Netflix has grabbed a lot of shows. It has signed long-term deals
with the top producers for ABC (Shonda Rhimes of “Grey's Anatomy”
and “Scandal”) and Fox/FX (Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and
“American Horror Story”). And it has even disrupted the witchly
world of CW.

That mini-network
often focuses on fantasy, youth and women, so it seemed logical to
plan remakes of two witch shows. This fall, it will have “Charmed,”
but not the other one.

“'Sabrina' was
...in development here,” said CW chief Mark Pedowitz. “The studio
came to ... me and said, 'We have a two-year commitment from
Netflix.' I said, 'Go with God. It's the right thing to do for your
business.'”

Netflix's strategy –
making big deals and trying everything -- has been decried by others.
At FX, John Landgraf talks about curating for quality; at HBO, Casey
Bloys echoes that. “There is no plan to dilute HBO programming,”
he said. “No one is asking us to take pitches for a 'Love Boat'
reboot.”

At Netflix, Holland
says a mass approach is fine. “Quality and quantity are not
mutually exclusive.”

Maybe. We'll soon
see if this high-quantity season can also deliver some quality.