Bing and Bowie? It was just one odd moment in a far-flung life

Each December, Bing Crosby's voice flows back at us, providing images of white Christmases and simpler times. What's interesting, however, is just how complicated Crosby's own life was. A superb "American Masters" portrait is airing Tuesday (Dec. 2) on some PBS stations and later on others; here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 1977, a
Christmas special offered one of TV's great mismatches.

Bing Crosby was the
host, with David Bowie as his guest. Crosby, 74, was a pipe-puffing,
cardigan-wearing crooner, a Republican father-of-seven with 41 No. 1
singles (led by “White Christmas”) and a laidback image. Bowie,
30, had been a glam-rocker and a punker, known for cross-dressing,
wild make-up, drug addiction and bisexuality.

“You should have
seen the way he was dressed in rehearsal,” Nathaniel Crosby, Bing's
son, said. “It almost didn't happen.”

Mary Crosby, Bing's
daughter, recalls the moment Bowie and his wife arrived: “They're
both wearing full-length mink coats. They have matching full makeup
and their hair was bright red.”

And then, somehow,
the two men clicked. A new PBS profile of Crosby includes their
gorgeous duet of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth.”

That reflects the
range of a man who could pal with golf buddies and/or a glam-rocker:

-- As an actor,
Crosby spent much of his time in silly “Road” comedies with Bob
Hope, offering “just wide-open two hours of improvisation,” his
son Harry recalled. Still, he did some heavy dramas, winning an Oscar
(for “Going My Way”) and two more nominations.

-- He seemed to be
forever at leisure -- golfing, fishing, rooting for baseball's
Pittsburgh Pirates, which he co-owned. (When the Pirates got to the
World Series, his widow Kathryn recalled, he took the family to Paris
because “he was afraid he would jinx his team.”) Yet he was also
a serious businessman whose company produced solid TV dramas “Ben
Casey” and “Slattery's People.”

-- His image was
old-school, but he financed the development of tape-recording radio
shows and of multi-track music. “He was always curious .... He hung
out in the studio,” Harry Crosby said.

Crosby had broad
tastes, technically and personally. He championed under-noticed black
stars; he salvaged Judy Garland's career and had no trouble blending
with Bowie.

“They sat at the
piano,” Mary Crosby recalled, “and David was a little nervous.
And said, 'I only sing in this key.' And Dad's like, 'Don't worry;
I'll get in there somehow.'

“And then you
could just see .... them both collectively relax and then magic was

But what about the
flip side? If Crosby was so easygoing, why did his son Gary write a
book describing physical cruelty?

In some ways, that
also fits into this wide-ranging life. The PBS film says the young
Bing was a heavy drinker who was fired by a bandleader; he overcame
alcoholism, but his first wife (singer-actress Dixie Lee) never did.
Their four sons grew up amid trouble and corporal punishment.

“Bing says it in
his autobiography,” said Robert Trachtenberg, a producer of the PBS
film. “Bing says it in interviews throughout the '50s: 'I
disciplined the kids; maybe I was too hard on them.'”

Two of those sons
committed suicide; the others died at 62 and 69. But the three
children from his second marriage describe a caring father and a
happy home. They say problems were minor ... like having to join him
in the annual TV Christmas specials.

“It wasn't a good
thing for my jock image at school,” said Nathaniel, who became a
champion golfer.

“I was very upset
about the whole thing.”

The last of those
specials was taped in 1977 and shown after Crosby's heart-attack
death. It showed the world what the Crosby kids had already seen –
the quiet beauty of the Bing-and-Bowie music duo.

-- “American
Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

-- Aired Dec. 2
on many PBS stations, but that varies with pledge drive; to find it now, check


A (very) slow flame ignites; crook-catchers are in love

TV shows, it seems, are a little like kids, quarterbacks and best-man toasts: You just can't predict how they'll turn out. Now "The Mentalist" starts its final season Sunday (Nov. 30), looking very different from the show that began in 2008. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 2008, the
“Mentalist” people were explaining the basics of their show.

Bruno Heller, the
show's creator, was with his stars, Simon Baker and Robin Tunney.
Some reporters astutely noticed that one is male and one is female.

“Bruno, Simon and
I all swore up and down: There is no way these two would ever be
together romantically,” Tunney recalled.

Now flash ahead to
the seventh and final season. It starts Sunday, with the lead
characters in love.

What happened? A
friendship evolved, Heller said, allowing a “sort of Jane Austen
type of romance ... between two people you've known for years (and
are) made for each other, not in a fiery kind of crazy way.”

Not fiery at all.
“At that press conference,” Tunney recalled, “Bruno said ... we
would have all the sexual chemistry of The Clintons. So the bar is
really low.”

Baker credits Heller
for sticking with the show and developing the story over about 150
episodes. Networks, he said, “are not necessarily story-friendly.
(They think:) 'We've got a hole that we would like to fill with

As the show started,
Patrick Jane (Baker) was a former charlatan who had used his
observation skills while pretending to be a psychic. When his wife
was slain by a serial killer named Red John, he worked with the
California Bureau of Investigation, with Teresa Lisbon (Tunney) as
his stern boss.

“I was so worried
I wasn't going to seem like an officer of the law if I smiled,”
Tunney recalled. “(I thought:) 'I want to be taken seriously. I am
supposed to be authoritative.”

Things evolved. Red
John was killed. Jane and Lisbon moved to the FBI, with a new boss.
One colleague, Kimball Cho, is still with them. Others, Rigsby and
Van Pelt, are gone.

A newcomer –
played by Josie Loren of “Make It or Break It” -- arrives in the
opener. Over these final 13 episodes, Heller said, “there is a bit
of a love triangle going on.”

But the big change
is with Jane and Lisbon, no longer worried about Red John or about
being the boss.

“It is a bit of a
relief,” Tunney said, to feel “light and natural in scenes when
the stakes aren't so high all the time. And you can sort of smile.”

Sort of. “Jane
and Lisbon are private, self-contained, protective people,” Heller
said. “So it is not a very conventional love story, ... because
they are not fiery, passionate, crazy people.”

Still, they're a lot
warmer than anyone had imagined back in 2008.

-- “The Mentalist”
opens its 13-hour final season Sunday, Nov. 30.

-- Sunday spot is
about 9:30 p.m., but could be later with football overruns; it's 9
p.m. PT.

-- “The Good Wife”
will reclaim that slot on Jan. 4; “Mentalist” then takes 8 p.m.
Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 7; the two-hour series finale is Feb. 18.


Maybe we should all be sleeping

First, a few personal confessions: 1) I used to average five hours of sleep on weeknights, thinking this was a good thing; 2) I was once awakened by my air bag, after striking six cars; we were all very lucky this happened at a slow speed, while they were at a stoplight; 3) Ever since, for 13 years, I've used a sleep-apnea machine nightly.

After seeing a compelling new documentary and talking to some of its people, however, I'm suddenly focusing on sleep. You should, too; "Sleepless in America" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 30) on the National Geographic Channel; here's the story I sent to papers:


In odd corners of
Silicon Valley, some work pull all-nighters. Sleep is considered an
outmoded luxury.

“We thought we
invented that phrase, 'I'll sleep when I'm dead,'” Mark Rosekind
said. “Actually, Ben Franklin said that” more than two centuries

Frankin was setting
an early – and dangerous – pattern for a go-getter nation. “This
has been the American way for a long time,” Rosekind said. “It's
a badge of courage to go without sleep.”

Rosekind --
appointed last week (pending Senate approval) to head the National
Traffic Safety Administration -- has specialized in studying sleep.
Now that's the subject of a cable documentary.

Sleeplessness, said
Courteney Moore of the National Geographic Channel, is “an epidemic
that can best traced to health issues ranging from obesity to
cardiovascular disease to mental-health disorters. (It) costs
American businesses more than $100 billion a year.”

Then there are the
accidents. Sleeplessness has been considered a factor in the Exxon
Valez oil spill, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear
disasters and several car, plane, ferry, truck and bus crashes.

Still, many people
resist sleep. Researchers say adults need 7 to 8 hours, but in his
autobiography, Franklin listed a daily regimen of five hours; Thomas
Edison had even less.

Edison created part
of the problem for the rest of us, historians say. Americans were
quick to go to bed when it turned dark ... until his improved light
bulbs prolonged the day.

More inventions
followed. With the :technology invasion into the bedroom (and) longer
commute times in the morning, the thing that people shortchange most
... is sleep,” Matthew Walker said.

Walker heads the
sleep lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Last year, Moore
said, the lab published a paper saying sleep deprivation causes
“metabolic changes in the gut and fat cells (and) alters the brain
to stimulate appetite for unhealthy foods. “

Others found similar
results. At the University of Chicago, Eve Van Sauter restricted
student volunteers to four hours a night for six nights. “We
expected the result, but the magnitude was enormous. Those were
young, healthy men. (After) six nights ... they were pre-diabetic.”

propels other problems, she said. “Your cancer will spread more
quickly if you don't sleep well or enough. Your diabetes will be more
severe. (You) are at greatly increased risk of obesity and
cardiovacular diseaase .... It is very serious.”

She averages 7-8
hours a night; “I protect my sleep ferociously.” Hoffman averages

And Rosekind – who
once led the Stanford sleep lab, near sleepless Silicon -- said he
does 7-and-a-half to eight. His wife is also a believer, he said.
“Our kids may be the only ones (who) got their nine-plus hours of
sleep until they were in their 20s.”

-- “Sleepless in
America,” 8-10 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel

-- Repeats at 11
p.m.; also, at 9 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7


Brooke Burns: An immensely lucky/unlucky person

One of life's easier chores is interviewing Brooke Burns. She's quick, bright and has an interesting life to talk about -- ranging from ballet and "Baywatch" to her current duties hosting "The Chase" on the Game Show Network. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Brooke Burns may be
one of the luckiest – and unluckiest – people on Planet Earth.

The luck is obvious
in her busy existence. “I've always lived life full-speed-ahead,”
she said. “I've been wing-walking; I've swum with the sharks.”

She has the look
that got her all the right jobs early – modeling in Europe and
acting on TV, including two series filmed in Hawaii. Barely out of
her teens, she was tooling around the island in a BMW.

But she also has a
quick mind that works well for hosting. “The Chase” -- a brainy
game that's one of the top ratings-getters on the Game Show Network –
has just started a new season.

Then what about the
bad luck? Take your pick:

-- A skiing accident
ended her ballet dreams. “I was devastated,” she said. “All I
wanted was to dance.”

-- A
diving accident almost ended her life. Quick thinking by a friend –
floating her in the pool, with her neck supported, until the
ambulance arrived – saved her.

-- And,
on a much smaller scale, a car accident this May totaled both cars.
“It was so near my home that my husband got there before the police
did,” she said.

simply said a man in flannel pajamas comforted her. Actually, she
says, it was husband Gavin O'Connor, who had been at home, working on
a script.

gets back to the positive side, which includes romances.

is a producer of “The Americans” cable series and directed its
pilot, which critics praised. Earlier, Burns was engaged to Bruce
Willis and married to Julian McMahon (“Nip/Tuck”); their daughter
(Madison, 14) has visited his homeland ... where her late
grandfather, Billy McMahon, was once the Australian prime minister.

also grew up comfortably. That was in Dallas, where her dad was in
the oil industry. “My dad also does a lot of mission work,” she
said, and religion continues to be a key part of her life.

first, her own focus was on dance, a long-shot. Burns reached
5-foot-9, which many ballet people consider OK for a star, but too
tall for any other role.

became a moot point after she tore a ligament skiing. “My mom had
told me not to go .... I got too confident. I thought, 'What could go

followed quickly. As a teen, she was working in Paris, Milan and
Munich. Then came acting, as a regular on “Baywatch” and other
series, including “Miss Guided,” “Pepper Dennis,” the
“Melrose Place” revival and “North Shore” ... which was
(after “Baywatch”), her second Hawaiian show.

likes to put her in swimwear, but Burns, 36, also does fine at
competitions. She hosted “Dog Eat Dog” and “Motor City
Masters,” co-hosted “Hole in the Wall,” then found her niche
with “The Chase.”

On one
level, this is a standard quiz show, with fast-based questions in
far-flung categories; the key comes in the second half, when
contestants (given a slight lead) try to top “The Beast,” Mark

at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, he
out answers. "
How much
he knows is amazing," Burns said.

she could only beat him if she chose
the subject
s. "Maybe
ballet .... He is definitely a guy; he does get more engaged in some

after looking at him, people don't usually expect brainpower. Burns
is used to that, too.

The Chase," Game Show Network

New episodes at 8 p.m. ET Tuesdays, rerunning at 11; also, reruns at
8 and 9 p.m.
ET Saturdays


Niorth of the border, there's still danger and death

"The Real Death Valley" is a tough documentary about a sort of border war, far from the real border. You can catch it Tuesday (Nov. 11) on the Weather Channel; here's the story I sent to papers:


The immigration
story we might expect is simple: Mexicans slip across the border,
hoping to find financial prosperity.

The story we get in
a new documentary is jarringly different. For instance:

-- It's not even on
the border. “The Real Death Valley” (9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11, on
the Weather Channel) finds hundreds of people dying in Texas
ranchland – 70 miles into the U.S.

-- This story is far
more global. “Many of the people are from Central America,” said
John Carlos Frey, the film's reporter. “They're fleeing out of

-- And this is not
the ethnic clash you might expect.

Other places may
have border battles between Latino immigrants and Anglo officials,
but that's not what Frey found. At times, he said, Brooks County
could pass for anywhere in Latin America.

In the film, Justice
of the Peace Oralia Morales describes her own pain when seeing
bodies: “You can almost picture your own familty laying there.”

Adds Chief Deputy
Sheriff Benny Martinez: “The border will never be secure.”

Brooks County, with
just 7,500 people, didn't volunteer for this. But the U.S. Border
Patrol set up a highway checkpoint at Falfurrias, 70 miles north of
the border. Many illegal immigrants try a daring detour-- a 40-mile,
four-day walk in fierce heat and humidity. “It's brutal,” said
Frey, who tried it.

He's older (50) than
most of the walkers, but in good shape. He had excellent gear, but
gave his water to some parched walkers before the final day ... then
started to break down. “I was probably in the preliminary stages of
renal failure .... My kidneys were giving out. I was mentally

Some people do phone
for help. “If someone is going to call 9-1-1, that means they've
given up,” Frey said. They may have spent their life savings,
“somewhere upward of $10,000, to get that far.”

Many feel they can't
turn back. One man told Frey his younger brother was beaten nearly to
death by El Salvador gang members, because he'd refused to design
their tattoos. They fled north.

That man did apply
for legal admission, Frey said, but it took a while. “The only way
to do it is to set foot in the U.S. first .... The immigration system
is so broken.”

Born in Tijuana and
raised in San Diego, Frey is Mexican on his mother's side and speaks
fluent Spanish. He began to hear about the problems in Brooks County
... which doesn't qualify for extra federal support, because it's not
on the border.

A partnership was
set up between The Investigation Fund and two of NBC sister networks,
the Weather Channel and the Spanish-language Telemundo. “The issue
of immigration is on the news almost every night” on Telemundo,
Frey said.

He dug into records
and found despair: The county generally only has one deputy
available, so it asks feds to rescue people who call for help. A
typical wait is more than two hours; that El Salvador man and his
dying brother waited nine hours.

The research and
interviews maty have helped, Frey said; recently, 150 rescue
specialists were added in the area. Still, he wishes that had
happened years ago. “In a country where we value life, how could we
let this happen?”