Good hearts, funny minds and red noses


Almost forever, it seems, I've been a fan of everything Richard Curtis does. I loved the broad comedy of his Rowan Atkinson TV shows and the subtle sweetness of his movies, from "Love Actually" to the undernoticed "Pirate Radio."

What I didn't realize, however, is that for more than half his life, Curtis has also led massive charity efforts, mostly in England and now -- with "Red Nose Day" May 21 on NBC -- in the U.S. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Back in 1985,
Richard Curtis launched a simple notion: Get laughs, get donations,
make a difference.

“It's massively
tempting,” he said, “when you think, 'If I can do this, I'll
raise $1,000 .... That's 250 malaria nets.' I can never get that out
of my mind.”

So he's stuck with
it, spanning three decades and two continents. In England, “Comic
Relief” and related events have raised more than a billion pounds
($1.5 billion-plus) for charities; the U.S. has had three “Idol
Gives Back” specials on Fox and on Thursday has its first “Red
Nose Day” on NBC.

Those “American
Idol” specials were, logically enough, packed with music. But “Red
Nose Day” (8-11 p.m. on NBC) will stick to the British formula,
Curtis said -- offbeat humor, mixed with occasional mini-films,
raising money for a dozen kid-oriented charities in the U.S. and
abroad. “I'm hoping people will get a lot of laughs, as well as
emotional moments.”

Jack Black,
surprisingly, was assigned to the emotions, not the laughs. Visiting
Uganda, Black said, he was moved by a boy's song. “He's a really
bright kid. And he's a survivor in a way that I can't imagine.”

For Black, this was
an alternate world. He grew up comfortably in California, the son of
two satellite engineers. “When you've had as charmed and lucky a
life as I've had, you're looking for opportunities to give back. And
I don't know anyone who's as good at it as Richard.”

On one hand, Curtis
is the classic, upper-crust Englishman, a well-spoken Oxford grad.
Still, he's also global. His dad (a Czech refugee) and mom were
Australian, but Curtis was born in New Zealand and spent parts of his
childhood in Sweden and the Philippines, before settling in England.

He met Rowan
Atkinson at Oxford and wrote two TV series -- “Blackadder” and
“Mr. Bean” -- for him. Movies followed; Curtis does adaptations
(“The War Horse,” “Bridget Jones's Diary”), but mostly writes
originals: “Love, Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,”
“Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio.”

And ever since
visiting drought-ridden Africa 30 years ago, he's kept returning to
charity efforts. “Tiny bits of money can make a huge amount of
difference ... I do hugely believe in the effect that the generosity
of one human to another can make.”

Besides, this is fun
duty: Linking with Funny Or Die (Will Ferrell's Internet site), he's
been working on odd parody films for the NBC special.

“We've just been
shooting with Reese Witherspoon, Zac Efron, Liam Neeson and Richard
Gere,” Curtis said by phone last week. And there's “quite a big
sketch ... with the cast of 'Game of Thrones' as you've never seen
them before.”

There will be big
laughter, he promised -- and maybe donations. “If you'd hunt around
the back of your couches and find something: $4 for a malaria net can
change a life.”

-- “Red Nose Day,”
8-11 p.m. Thursday, NBC

 

Music and memories will soar Sunday with Estefan


Each year, on the eve of Memorial Day, PBS offers a passionate blend of music and memroes. This year's concert (Sunday, May 24) will add extra moment, when Gloria Estefan -- whose dad fought in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs -- sings "Coming Out of the Dark." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Gloria Estefan,
these two things – music and the military – have entwined.

Her first recordings
were tapes she sent to her father in Vietnam. “I always remember my
dad in uniform,” she said.

On Sunday, she'll be
in PBS' annual Memorial Day eve concert, singing her biggest hit,
“Coming Out of the Dark.” It's the song she co-wrote while
recovering from critical bus-crash injuries.

“The words just
passed through me,” Estefan, 57, recalled. “It just came together
all at once.”

On Sunday, the song
will reflect the soldiers – including her dad – who came out of
wartime darkness.

Both of her parents
loved music and sang, Estefan said, but not professionally. Her mom
was a teacher; her dad, the son of a military officer, worked in the
security force for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the
revolution, Batista supporters fled; Gloria was 2 when her family
reached the U.S., not quite 4 when her dad was captured in the Bay of
Pigs operation.

Her mom claimed he
was gone on a project, but Estefan understood the truth. “I was
very precocious and I knew what had happened .... I think we were
trying to fool each other.”

He returned when a
prisoner deal was struck, but soon joined the Army. That's when she
started sending the tapes. “I was very shy, but he always wanted me
to sing.”

Music was a way of
dealing with the pain, she said. “I would go to my room and sing
and cry.”

Shortly after he
returned, the signs of multiple sclerosis – possibly spurred by
Agent Orange chemicals in Vietnam, she feels -- began to appear. “My
father had always been a strong man. It was hard for him to face the
deterioration.”

That lasted 13
years, almost five of them in a Veterans Administration hospital,
before his death at 47. “I've always thought warm things about the
VA,” she said. “I would visit therte almost every day.”

Her own career
soared after Emilio Estefan, now her husband, talked her into singing
with his band. They would go on to merge Cuban traditions, a modern
dance beat and adult-contemporary ballads.

The result, Anthony
DeStefano wrote in “Gloria Estefan” (1997, Signet) “redefined
the meaning of success (for) millions of new, aspiring immigrants.”

On the Billboard
charts, she's had three No. 1 singles, seven more in the top 10, and
five top-10 albums. She's won three Grammys and sung at the Olympics,
two Super Bowls and the White House.

That career almost
ended with the 1990 bus crash. Estefan says she didn't sing for
months and reluctantly accompanied her husband to the studio. “He
pulled out this shriveled piece of paper that said, 'Coming out of
the dark.'”

The phrase had
struck him when the sun poured into a helicopter, on a ride to a New
York hospital. The song – written by Emilio and Gloria Estefan and
Jon Secada – would revive her career.

Now she'll sings it
on the Capitol lawn. “It's going to be a different version, for a
67-piece orchestra .... It's a really beautiful version.”

It will be
emotional, she said, but she's used to mega-crowds. “Sometimes,
it's harder to sing in front of 10 people.” Or to sing into a
tape-recorder, with your dad half-the-world away.

-- “National
Memorial Day Concert”

-- 8 p.m. Sunday
(Memorial Day eve), PBS; most stations will rerun it at 9:30

-- Music from
Estefan, “Voice”-winner Tessanne Chin and Tony-winner Laura
Benanti, plus Jason Dolley and classical singers Katherine Jenkins
and Russell Watson.

 

Welcome to "Welcome to Sweden," a fun trip


From its first minutes, there's a gentle charm and wit to "Welcome to Sweden." Based loosely -- very loosely -- on Greg Poehler's real life, it shows an amiable chap, moving to his wife's homeland. The second season will reach NBC in July, but this one really should be savored from the start. The first season begins DVD sales Tuesday (May 19); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In a logical world,
Greg Poehler might be an American comedy star, like his sister. Or a
lawyer like ... well, like he was for a while.

Instead, he's a
Swedish comedy star, with brief incursions into the U.S. Now the
first season of his amiable “Welcome to Sweden” starts DVD sales,
shortly before the second season reaches NBC.

Poehler, 40, became
a Swedish citizen this year, but grants that he'll “always be an
outsider.” That's good, because it's a key source of some of his
humor.

In “Welcome,” he
plays a likable American transplant, almost fitting in. “So much is
done in English here,” Poehler said, by phone from Sweden. “Then
all of a sudden, everyone will switch to Swedish.”

All he can do is
shrug and take it in stride ... which is the Swedish way.

“They have a great
sense of enjoying life,” said Illeana Douglas, who plays his mom.
“It seemed like every night, there was a party celebrating
something.”

That still leaves
the question of why he didn't do American comedy. It goes back to his
sister's career:

They grew up in
Burlington, a Massachusetts town of 25,000, with both parents
teaching in high school. Amy, three yeaers older, studied comedy with
Second City and improvOlympics, in Chicago.

That's where he saw
her in a show. “Here were a bunch of waiters and receptionists, and
they were hilarious. I thought, 'Hey, if they're that good.I wouldn't
have a chance.'”

As it happened,
these were more than casual wannabes; the novice performers that
night included Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler and more. “They
were comedy royalty,” he now realizes.

He abandoned any
comedy notions and took a standard route -- Boston College, Fordham
Law School, a New York job. There he met his now-wife, another
lawyer, and agreed to move to her homeland.

In the show, he
heads to Sweden with no job, no future and no idea what her parents
or country are like. In truth, he'd already visited there five or six
times, liked it and could still do law work.

And in the show,
towering Swedes keep commenting on how short he is. That started when
Josephine Bornebusch and Lena Olin (each 5-foot-10) were cast as his
wife and mother-in-law, with Claes Mansson (“a real giant”) as
his father-in-law.

In truth, Poehler
says, he's a perfectly normal 5-11. “When they meet me, people say
they're surprised by how tall I am. It's sort of the reverse Tom
Cruise effect.”

Poehler had been in
Sweden for years before taking his first stab at stand-up comedy.
Soon, he was making TV appearances and writing his comedy pilot for
Swedish TV.

When his sister read
it, she decided to produce it and briefly play a perverse version of
herself. Soon, others – Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, Gene Simmons,
Malin Akerman – were also playing themselves.

But the most
important casting – by Swedish standards – was Patrick Duffy as
his dad. “'Dallas' is very big there,” Douglas said. “It was
(art-film master) Ingmar Bergman's favorite show.”

She and Duffy did
two episodes in the first, 10-episode season, and will do about the
same in the second. They were happy times, she said, with constant
pauses for snacks. “I loved it .... If we didn't have this show, I
think I'd be performing in Greg's basement.”

There's no danger of
that for now. As the first season goes on sale, NBC prepares to run
the second one this summer. In a roundabout way, Greg Poehler is
becoming an American comedy star.

-- “Welcome to
Sweden”

-- DVD of the first
season goes on sale Tuesday (May 19); EntertainmentOne, $34.98.

-- Second season,
also 10 episodes, will be 8 and 8:30 p.m. Sundays, NBC, starting July
19

 

After 40 years, a Vietam-era secret is revealed


Sometimes, the most unassuming surface can hold an intriguing secret. So now let's meet Keith Forsyth -- optical engineer, Midweastern guy ... and, back in the Vietnam era, the guy who broke into FBI offices. The film debuts Monday (May 18); here;s the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For four decades,
Keith Forsyth had clung to his secret.

He had an average
sort of life, a married guy working as an optical engineer. Back in
the Vietnam years, however, he had fought often with his conservative
father.

So he eased into the
subject carefully. Did his dad remember back in 1971, when people
broke into an FBI office, stole files and revealed them?

“He goes, 'Those
people should get a medal,'” Forsyth recalled. “And I'm like:
'Wow, I'm very surprised to hear you say that and also pleased,
because I was one of those people.'”

Now others will find
out, as the film “1971” debuts on PBS. They'll meet
average-enough people – two college professors (religion at Temple,
physics and math at Haverford), an early-childhood specialist, a
graphic designer and more – who changed the world a little in '71.

Forsyth had
hitchhiked to Philadelphia, joined its anti-war movement and took one
more key step: “I signed up for a correspondence course in
locksmithing.”

That would be handy,
he felt, in efforts to steal draft records. Then came a different
plan: Back then, the FBI had hundreds of small offices; break into
one, in hopes of finding secrets.

They chose the town
of Media, Pa., on a night when anyone in the building might be
distracted by the Ali-Frazier fight on TV. Forsyth would have to be
in a hallway, struggling to open the FBI door.

“It was more than
15 minutes,” he said. “I heard a noise inside and I'm like, 'Oh,
is that the heating system? Or is that the FBI agents waiting for me
with their guns out?' So it was pretty nerve-wracking.”

It wasn't the
agents. Soon, each person was loading up two suitcases with
documents. Eventually, copies were sent to the New York Times, Los
Angeles Times and Washington Post,

“The documents
were obviously powerful,” said Betty Metzger, then a Post reporter,
“in what they revealed (about the) philosophy of the FBI.” They
told of undercover work with women's liberation groups and others,
and of “truly massive surveillance of black communities all over
the country.”

For the first time,
the FBI faced congressional oversight. Its leader, J. Edgar Hoover,
“was an iconic hero,” Medsger said. “(When) these files came
out, people understood that Hoover was very different.”

As the public
interest surged, the break-in people clung to their secret.

“It wasn't that
hard,” Forsyth said. “In the early years, not wanting to go to
prison for the rest of your life was a pretty powerful incentive. And
I was raised in the Midwest (Marion, Ohio) – in a land long ago and
far away called the '50s – and you don't brag about yourself where
I come from.”

So he simply went on
with his life, finally finishing college at 36. Others kept quiet –
until, a few years ago, Medsger happened to bump into John and Bonnie
Raines. “John accidentally blurted out -- he insists to this day
it was accidental – that the two of them had been part of the
group,” she said.

Indeed, much of the
planning had been done in their apartment, with their three young
children playing nearby. Gradually, Medsger convinced everyone to go
public with a book that led to the documentary.

There was no longer
a possibility of criminal charges, but there were still worries about
government reaction, filmmaker Johanna Hamilton said. “We were
immensely relieved ... when the book came out and the FBI issued the
public statement that said: 'We're a different institution today than
we were back then, party as a result of the revelations from 1971.”

-- “1971,” 10
p.m. Monday (May 18), PBS (check local listings), under the
“Independent Lens” banner

-- “The Burglary:
The Discoveryof J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI” (2014), Vintage,
$16.95 paperback

 

A CBS Monday without laughs? Get used to it this fall


The decline of
situation comedies has reached a new milestone:

For the first time
since 1949, CBS says, it will have a no-sitcom line-up on Mondays.

That's been the
night of “Lucy” and “Mash” and “Raymond” and more. “I
don't think we can be beholden to a 65-year-old strategy,” said
Kelly Kahl, the network's scheduling chief.

He'll ease viewers
into it, though. For the first eight weeks of the season – when
football takes over CBS' Thursdays -- “The Big Bang Theory” and a
new comedy (“Life in Pieces”) will borrow Mondays.

When they return to
Thursdays, “Supergirl steps in, creating an oddity: Two shows about
DC comic characters, from the same studio, collide.

That's not a
conflict, insisted Nina Tassler, CBS' programming chief. Fox's
“Gotham” is a dark and stylish crime story; “Supergirl,”
Tassler said, is “a coming-of-age story about a young woman, 24
years old, (who) was the girl next door.”

And if the notion
crashes, don't worry: CBS has both of its current Monday comedies --
“2 Broke Girls” and “Mike & Molly” -- on the shelf, along
with “The Odd Couple.” All are slated for mid-season, along with
“Person of Interest,” “Undercover Boss” and two new series –
one spun off of “Criminal Minds,” the other from “Rush Hour.”

That reflects the
network's general success, said Les Moonves, the CBS chairman, plus a
desire to trim down on reruns. “We had 62 more hours of original
programs last year.”

Still, some things
had to go. CBS has dumped three Sunday dramas, “The Mentalist,”
“Battle Creek” and “CSI.” The latter – which combined with
“Survivor” to launch the network's comeback in 2000 – gets a
two-hour finale on Sept. 27, bringing back past stars William
Petersen and Marg Helgenberger; its current star, Ted Danson, joins
Patricia Arquette on “CBS: Cyber,” now moving to Sundays.

The fall line-up has
room for only five new shows. There are two comedies -- “Angel in
Hell” has Jane Lynch as a misbehaving guardian angel; “Life in
Pieces” may have a “Modern Family” feel – and three new
dramas.

In additon to
“Supergirl,” there's “Code Black” (an emergency-room drama),
and “Limitless,” in which a pill lets a man use his full brain
capacity. That puts him on a network already stuffed with fictional
geniuses on “Big Bang Theory,” “Scorpion,” “Elementary”
and “CBS Cyber.”

The fall line-up:

-- Mondays:
“Supergirl,” 8 p.m. (in November); “Scorpion,” 9; NCIS: Los
Angeles,” 10.

-- Tuesdays:
“”NCIS,” 8 p.m.; “NCIS: New Orleans,” 9; “Limitless,”
10.

-- Wednesdays:
“Survivor,” 8 p.m.; “Criminal Minds,” 9; “Code Black,”
10.

-- Thursdays (in
November, after football): “The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m.; “Life
in Pieces,” 8:30 (both on Mondays until November); “Mom,” 9;
“Angel From Hell,” 9:30; “Elementary,” 10.

-- Fridays: “The
Amazing Race,” 8 p.m.; “Hawaii Five-0,” 9; “Blue Bloods,”
10.

-- Saturdays: Reruns
and “48 Minutes.”

-- Sunday: “60
Minutes,” 7 p.m.; “Madame Secretary,” 8; “The Good Wife,”
9; “CSI Cyber,” 10.