Sure, pilgrims were thankful ... just to have (barely) survived

It all seems bountiful now -- turkey and football and pie and parades and such. But that first Thanksgiving, in the fall of 1621, marked survival against fierce odds. A well-crafted mini-series starts Sunday, focusing on that. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When the Pilgrims
had that first feast, almost 400 years ago, there was a good reason
to give thanks.

They had survived
... barely. A flawed idea had worked out.

“They were very
average people who took this kind of amazing leap,” said Vincent
Kartheiser, who stars in the new “Saints & Strangers”
mini-series. “(They) were faced with really daunting tasks.”

They needed to farm
and hunt ... skills few had. “They had previously been cobblers,
store owners,” said Seth Fisher, who co-wrote the film. “Suddenly,
they had to learn how to use a musket, build a house, form a

Previous colonies
had floundered. One, on Roanoake Island, N.C., disappeared; another,
at Jamestown, Va., had temporarily disbanded, after 80 per cent of
its people died, then re-formed.

Now the Mayflower
headed toward Virginia, was pushed north by strong currents and ended
up the less-known Massachusetts. Onboard were the mariners and 102
settlers, including:

-- More than 50
separatists. To avoid the Church of England, they had fled first to
the Netherlands and then helped charter this voyage, looking for a
new life. “It was decidedly a more conservative life,” Fisher
said. “They refrained from singing hymns .... They didn't celebrate
Christmas as a holiday.”

-- Others who wanted
fresh starts. “The Mayflower's journey was a commercial venture,”
Fisher said. “The whole group was supposed to send back any sort of
profit, any harvests.”

-- And a guy who
knew what to expect. “Stephen Hopkins is the only one who actually
had been to the New World,” producer Gina Matthews said.

Previously, he'd
been shipwrecked on an island, led a failed mutiny, was sentenced to
die and then ws pardoned. He'd worked at Jamestown, returned home
after his wife died in England ... then headed back on the Mayflower
with his second wife Elizabeth, who was pregnant.

He'd promised “that
the baby would be born in Virginia,” said Natascha McElhone, who
plays Elizabeth. “Not only is it not born in Virginia, but it's
born at sea. It survives and is called Oceanus .... She married quite
late, ... then did go on to bear five children, amazingly.”

Mostly, though, the
plan for a vibrant population failed. By the time of the harvest
feast – almost a year after they'd arrived – about half the
Pilgrims had died, including 13 of the 18 adult women.

One of the deaths
was John Carver, the first governor. William Bradford – whose own
wife had fallen overboard and died while he was in the landing party
– took over. He would be elected four more times, leading during
the majority of the next 36 years.

“He was actually
such a modest and humble guy that he rarely mentioned himself in”
his books, said Kartheiser, who plays him.

Bradford became “the
moral compass of the new colody,” said Tim Pastore, National
Geographic's chief of original programming.

And yes, Kartheiser
said, that's a leap from his “Mad Men” character. “Pete
Campbell was the opposite of that – almost no moral compass at

The mini-series was
filmed in South Africa, with a flood of historical advisors. The
native characters, Pastore said, speak “Abenaki, a dialect today
spoken by less than 20 people.”

We'll hear the
Pilgrims' biases against them ... and tne natives' anger at other

“They're letting
us de-santize the idea of Thanksgiving,” said Raoul Trujillo, who
plays Massasoit, a tribal chief. “We bring it down to the
nitty-gritty of ... human beings and trying to make a better life.”

-- “Saints &
Strangers” two-parter, 9-11 p.m. Sunday and Monday (Nov. 22-23),
National Geographic.

-- Full miniseries
airs 7-11 p.m. Monday (repeating 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and at those same
times on Thanksgiving; also, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 29, 3-7 p.m. Nov.


The art of more TV ... and of indie-style shows

We don't usually expect the entertainment world to talk about high-end art dealers. Cops and killers and robots are favorite subjects; auction houses are not.

But lately, there have been exceptions: Steve Martin's excellent novel "An Object of Beauty" ... the movies "Woman in Gold" and "The Monuments Men" ... and now "The Art of More" -- an interesting series that starts Thursday (Nov. 19) in the new world of Internet streaming services. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The birth of a movie
or a TV show can be slow, stready and safe.

“You've got 50
executives sitting around .... It's film by committee,” Cary Elwes

Then there's the new
flip side: “There is a revolution going on with television ....
where you feel like the inmates have taken over the asylum,” Dennis
Quaid said.

New places – with
fewer executives and fewer delays – keep adding shows. Beyond
cable, there's Netflix and Hulu and Amazon. And now Crackle has “The
Art of More,” an ambitious drama with Quaid, Elwes, Kate Bosworth
and Christian Cooke. “This is the new independent film,” Elwes

He knows the value
of independent-thinking; one of his first films, “The Princess
Bride” (1987), became a classic. It “boggles the mind – how
such a quirky and modestly conceived film could achieve such a lofty
position,” Elwes wrote in “As You Wish” (Touchstone, 2014), his
book about the movie.

For that matter,
Quaid found fame in “Breaking Away,” a small film about Indiana
bike-racers. Both men went on to make movies that were bigger, but
(usually) not better.

Now they're in this
new world of original shows made for Internet streaming services. In
“Art of More,” Arthur Davenport (Elwes) and Samuel Brukner
(Quaid) are art collectors.

They're “complete
opposites, (but really) the same,” Quaid said. “They're
collectors of people and objects. Only he had a silver spoon ... when
he was born and (Brukner) was more roughened.”

Both collectors are
sought by people working for big art dealers. There's Graham Connor,
the assumed name of Cooke's character, a tough Iraq veteran from
Brooklyn. And there's Roxanna Whitman.

“She's a very
strong woman,” said Bosworth, who plays her. “I love her drive
.... You see the little cracks of vulnerability in a very tough
exterior .... All the characters have little cracks.”

Bosworth, 32, never
used to get roles like this. “I moved out to Los Angeles at 18, to
try this acting thing,” she said.

She'd been a
champion equestrian in Massachusetts, which led to a teen role in
Robert Redford's “Horse Whisperer.” After a few lesser projects,
Bosworth coveted the role of a young surfer. “I wanted 'Blue
Crush' more than any person on the planet. (It was a) very intensive
process for me.”

She got the role and
other big ones; Bosworth may be the only person to portray both the
fictional Lois Lane and the real-life Sandra Dee. But more and more,
she's leaned to independent films; she married an indie director
(Michael Polish) and has been in three of his films, plus the
acclaimed “Still Alice.”

Elwes, 43, started
in indies. “Princess Bride” director Rob Reiner spotted him in
“Lady Jane” and visited him in Germany, where he was filming
“Maschenka,” from a Vladimir Nabokov novel.

“He resembles a
young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and he's so handsome and he's a terrific
actor,” Reiner wrote in Elwes' book. “But I didn't know if he was

The verdict came
quickly: “He was just a naturally funny guy.”

Elwes has gone on to
play roles ranging from a comic Robin Hood to a serious astronaut
Michael Collins, from serial killer Ted Bundy to Pope John Paul II as
a young man. Still, few shows fit him as neatly as “The Art of

In real life, Elwes'
brother, father and grandfather have all been painters. “My mother
was an interior desigher,” he said. “She used to take us to some
of the high-end auction houses in England, so it is somewhat of a
familiar world for me.”

Bostwick and Quaid
both profess a non-expert fondness for art. Cooke makes no such
claim: “I know nothing about art. That's the beauty of being an
actor. We get to become experts with each job.”

Now he can become an
expert on art, combat, manipulation and TV's new, independent world.

-- “The Art of
More”; the 10-part first season is available beginning Thursday on

-- Crackle is owned
by Sony and primarily offers – with commercials – Sony's past TV
series (including “Seinfeld”) and movies (from “Easy Rider”
to “Glory” to “District 9”).


Into the bad and bloody (but good and artful) world of "Into the Badlands"

You may remember the bad old days of cheap martial-arts films, when hordes of villains would politely attack one at a time, so our hero could dispatch them. Then something happened -- artistriy came to martial-arts movies, just as it did to zombie films and more. Now the impressive "Into the Badlands" starts Sunday (Nov. 15); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In the days days of
drive-ins and B-movies, films seemed to be split in two ways.

There were the silly
ones – zombies and mummies and karate and such – and the serious,
artful ones.

And now? “Into the
Badlands” debuts Sunday, complete with chops, kicks, broken bones
and (often death); it follows “The Walking Dead” on cable's AMC.

“They elevated the
zombie genre to something that is very artful,” said “Badlands”
producer Miles Millar. “And that was sort of our ambition for this

Yes, a new
generation proved zombies can be art; the same is true of other
once-maligned genres:

“Martial arts have
inspired some of the great filmmakers of our day – Ang Lee, Quentin
Tarantino, (Andy and Lana) Wachowski, (Akira) Kurosawa,” said Joel
Stillerman, the AMC programming chief. “That's the tip of the
iceberg. They've all brought their unique visions.”

Now “Badlands”
tries the same thing – a TV series with a sweeping, cinematic feel
and artful fights. Like “Walking Dead,” the idea starts with an

“Disaster struck
the earth, and it's a sort of Darwinian universe,” said co-star
Marton Csokas. “And people are surviving as they can. There is a
foundation treaty that's formed by these seven barons.”

He plays one of
them, the ominous Quinn. Guns have been banished, technology is
slight. Battles are fought with swords and sticks, fists and feet.
Quinn has his own soldiers, plus a stone-faced protege, ironically
named Sunny.

Millar and Al Gough
– who are best-known for the “Smallville” series – had toyed
with martial arts, with the “Shanghai Noon” movie and “Martial
Law” series. Now they wanted to link with masters. In Hong Kong,
they met director Stephen Fung and producer-actor Daniel Wu. Plans
were set to do this in the Hong Kong style – two full-size crews,
one for fight scenes, one for the rest.

But who would play
stony Sunny? “No one really came up,” Wu said. “And then all
eyes turned to me and it was like, 'You got to do it, dude.'”

He's clearly suited
for an American film done in a Chinese style. Wu was born in Berkeley
(with parents from Shanghai) and grew up nearby, studying martial
arts and becoming a fan of Kurosawa and Jackie Chan. Then –
vacationing in Hong Kong, before starting work as an architect – he
was spotted by a director and cast in a film.

“I had never acted
before,” Wu said. “I didn't speak Cantonese; I spoke Mandarin
.... I went into it knowing nothing. And on the first day on-set, I
just fell in love with the whole process.”

Now – 18 years and
60-plus movies later – he's back in the U.S. “A lot of people are
like, 'Wow, your English is so good.' 'No, I was born here.'”

For other actors,
the tough part was learning martial arts. Emily Beecham spent five
weeks in what she calls “grueling but great” training. “I'd
done a lot of ballet and yoga, so I was flexible before, but I had to
build my strength, because of things like back bends. (This) is
really difficult if you're not strong.”

She looks plenty
strong as The Widow, a baron with lethal moves. Wu looks stronger as
Sunny, who has a tattoo mark for each of his 404 kills. It's a tough,
gory show ... but, of course, an artful one.

-- “Into the
Badlands,” 10 p.m. Sundays, AMC, starting Nov. 15

-- Opener reruns
that night at 1:55 and 3:50 a.m.; also, at 9 a.m. Tuesday and 11 p.m.
Friday (Nov. 20). Also, latenight showings Monday and Saturday night,
technically, 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17 and Sunday, Nov. 22.


"X" marks the heroic spot for a smal-town guy

Lately, the "heroes" of cable shows have included a Mob boss, a drug kingpin, a serial killer and more. So it's refreshing to see that "Agent X" gives us a true hero ... and that Jeff Hephner, who has the title role, seems to fit that neatly. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At times, Jeff
Hephner is your average Midwesterner.

He's a small-town
man who was a smaller-town kid. He lives with his wife and three kids
in a city of 5,000, where's he's only the second-most-famous actor.

And at other times,
he saves the world ... often. He has the title role in “Agent X,”
TNT's new global adventure. “I love the fact that it's a real
throwback,” Hephner said. “It's a totally heroic role.”

He plays a secret
agent ... so secret that the only people who know about him are a
long-time aide (Gerald McRaney) and the new vice-president ... played
by the show's biggest name.

“She's Sharon
bleepin' Stone,” Hephner marvelled. “She's an icon .... My first
scene, we were together for four hours. Over time, there's a bonding
that forms.”

Back when Stone was
causing a sensation in “Basic Instinct” (1992), Hephner was at
little Sand Creek High School, in a tiny town at the southern edge of
Michigan; he quarterbacked the football team, played basketball and
was academic all-state.

At 6-foot-2, he
played basketball at Calvin College and then at Ferris State, where
he was a captain without being a starter. The notion of show-business
came slowly. “I was a big TV fan as a kid, but because I was a jock
from a small town,” there wasn't much chance for acting.

After college,
Hephner headed to Florida. He did theater and was a stand-in on the
set of “Tigerland” ... where director Joel Schumacher gave him a
tiny role.

That was enough to
nudge him to New York and Los Angeles – a huge culture shock. “My
dad said, 'Treat every neighborhood like a small town.' He was

Hephner landed a
role in the Fox series “The Jury” and then starred in “The
Water is Wide” (2006), a classy TV movie based on Pat Conroy's
account of teaching on an impoverished South Carolina island. “I
got really lucky with that. Alfre Woodard was there and Frank
Langella,” who became a key mentor.

Many of Hephner's
recurring roles have filled the usual macho forms – a football
coach in “Hellcats,” firefighters in “Mercy” and “Chicago
Fire,” a politician and philanderer in “Boss.”

Now he an action
hero, complete with big fight scenes. “They trusted me to do a lot
of that myself.”

When the 10-episode
season ends, Hephner can return to his adopted home town (near Ann
Arbor) of Chelsea, Mich. It's a picturesque place of 5,000, where
Jeff Daniels remains the most famous actor.

For his wife –
who's from New York – this is an adjustment. “To my surprise, she
really likes it here.”

And for Hephner,
it's a pleasant place to rest, in between turns saving the world.

-- “Agent X,” 9
p.m. Sundays, TNT

-- Opens Nov. 8 with
two episodes, 9 and 10:01 p.m., repeating at 12:01 and 1:02 a.m.;
next episode, Nov. 15, is 9 p.m., repeating at 11.



"Evil Dead" becomes never-dead, the eternal movie

The first time I heard of "Evil Dead" was when a guy named Bruce Campbell walked into a newspaper office, insisting he was an actor who'd just made a movie. The latest time I heard of it was now -- 35 years later -- with a cable series opening. By now, of course, Campbell and "Evil Dead" have become key parts of the pop-culture landscape. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Sometimes, things
just don't go according to plan.

Consider “Evil
Dead,” a ragged little movie from some college students.

“We were simply
trying to make a film ... that would be good enough to play in the
American drive-ins,” Sam Raimi recalled. “We were only hoping it
would play two weeks.”

Instead, it's been
part of the horror landscape for 30-plus years. It's had three
movies, plus posters, costumes, action figures, video games, a stage
musical ... and now a TV series.

That's “Ash vs.
Evil Dead,” which debuts on Halloween on cable's Starz. It will
have “the same gruesome horror, exhilerating thrills and outrageous
humor,” said Carmi Zlotnik, the Starz programmer.

It will also have
the original people. All had gone on to bigger things:

-- Raimi directed a
“Spider-Man” trilogy, plus “Darkman” and “Oz the Great and

-- Rob Tapert
produced many of Raimi's films and three global TV hits, “Hercules,”
“Xena” and “Spartacus.” He also married “Xena” star Lucy
Lawless, who now plays an “Ash” villain.

-- Bruce Campbell
became an all-media figure -- writing books, making movies, acting in
series, from “The X-Files” to the current “Fargo” (playing
Ronald Reagan). “He is one of the funniest and most talented guys
on the planet,” said Jeffrey Donovan, his colleague for seven “Burn
Notice” seasons.

Now all have
re-convened with “Evil Dead,” which is roughly where they

Actually, they
started as teens in Birmingham, Mich. “We met in 8th
grade,” Campbell said. “Sam was dressed like Sherlock Holmes and
was sitting in the middle of the hallway, playing with dolls.”

It turned out that
Raimi had a good movie camera, an active imagination and an ability
to make him laugh. They kept making movies together, even after Raimi
went to Michigan State University and Campbell went (briefly) to
Western Michigan University.

They planned a
low-budget horror film, to be shot in six weeks in Tennessee. The six
weeks became 12; obstacles grew. “Sam and I were stymied,”
Campbell said. “Rob was the one who got us through.”

Tapert – who had
met them as an MSU friend of Raimi's older brother Ivan – handled
the roadblocks. “Evil Dead” was finally finished and
test-screened. Eventually, old-time agent Irvin Shapiro took an
interest, Campbell said, and “treated it like a big Hollywood

It was shown at the
Cannes Film Market, where Stephen King proclaimed it “the most
ferociously original horror film of the year.”

Ash (Campbell) was
killed in “Evil Dead,” but such things aren't permanent barriers.
“He became alive after the movie we made after that ('Crimewave')
didn't make any money,” Raimi said.

So there was “Evil
Dead II” and “Army of Darkness” and then no more ... for a

“I got some great
jobs, like 'Spider-Man' ... and I'd go to these conventions,” Raimi
said. “And all people would say to me was, 'Yeah, but when are you
going to make another “Evil Dead” film?'”

Now he's made a
whole series – as messy and zesty and gory as ever.

-- The movies: “Evil
Dead” (1981), “Evil Dead II” (1987) and “Army of Darkness”
(1992). The Starz cable channel shows them at 8, 9:30 and 10:50 p.m.
Friday (Oct. 30).

-- The series: “Ash
vs. Evil Dead,” 9 p.m. Saturdays on Starz, starting on Halloween.
The opener reruns at 9:45 and 11:30 p.m. and 12:12 a.m.; then at
1:10, 2:25, 7:30 and 11:30 p.m. Sunday.