A chatty soul savors life alone in the North

As winter nears, we might start to feel sorry for ourselves ... unless we've met Sue Aikens, who spends each winter alone, in weather that sometimes hits 50-below. And yes, she does it on purpose. She's one of the intriguing "Life Below Zero" people; here's the story I sent to papers:


Sue Aikens might
seem neatly suited for our talky-texty social world.

Once a star student
in suburban Chicago, she talks quickly and cheerfully. “I'm not
exactly known for being shy,” she said.

And her career
choice? Her camp, 197 miles north of the Arctic Circle, leaves her
completely alone, eight to nine months a year.

“My first reaction
when I got there was to be in tears,” Aikens recalled. “It was a
little bit (run down).”

The moping stopped,
she said, when a bear swiped at her. “It was game on .... I'm

That was 11 years
ago; now she owns the camp and she's a reality star. Aikens did one
episode of “Sarah Palin's Alaska” and four of “Flying Wild
Alaska”; then became key to “Life Below Zero.”

The show, returning
after a four-month break, has plenty of other intriguing Alaskans:

-- Andy Bassich, who
spent 20 years as a riverboat captain, “but in my heart I always
knew I wanted to be out in the Bush.”

-- Kate Bassich, who
met her husband while vacationing from Newfoundland. “I went from
diva to ditch digger ... from city life to Bush life. It's been the
best experience I could possibly imagine.”

-- Two men – Erik
Salitan and Glenn Villeneuva -- who work solo, hunting or guiding.

-- And Chip and
Agnes Hailstone and their seven kids. A native Inupiaq, she's the
only adult on the show who was born in Alaska.

The others have
quickly become accustomed. “This is the first time Kate and I have
left the state in (six) years,” Andy Bassich told the Television
Critics Association at a lush Beverly Hills hotel.

The hotel took some
adjustment, Kate said. “It's very difficult to go from complete
silence to noise.”

Aikens savored the
swimming pool. “I got in water and I could stand there and I wasn't
losing body parts. That was exciting. And I flushed toilets! Never
gets old.”

She grew up in a
world where everyone can flush. That changed, she has said, when her
family moved to Fairbanks when she was 11 or 12 and her mom ignored
her; she learned the skills of the North.

Aikens, 50, has been
widowed and had a second marriage last 17 years. She has children and
grandchildren who sometimes visit her in the summer. But mostly,
she's been on her own.

“I had a 400-mile
trap line (and) 32 giant Alaskan malamute (dogs),” she said.“And
that 's how I lived.”

Then a friend asked
Aikens to manage the Kavik River Camp, which she later bought. “Kavik
is like a twisted bed and breakfast,” she said.

During the summer,
it's busy. “If there are 50 people staying, I'm cooking breakfast,
lunch and dinner for 50 people, doing their room, fueling the
airpanes, working the runway .... About 45 minutes to an hour a day
is what I give myself for sleep.”

And during the other
eight or nine months, she usually sees no one. Her job is to keep the
camp safe from freezing up or from being hit by intruders, either
human or bear.

The bears can be
lethal, despite her caution. Aikens had several run-ins with one,
before it surprised her while she was getting water. “The fog came
down, he snatched me .... You can feel where the teeth went into the
skull .... It took 10 days before somebody found me.”

She went to the
hospital for months of repairs ... but not before she found and
killed the bear.

Kate Bassich
understands that: “I walked out of my greenhouse a couple weeks ago
and I almost tripped over a black bear waiting for me outside the
gate. I'm wearing him now on my necklace.”

-- “Life Below
Zero,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, National Geographic; returns with new
episode Nov. 4.

-- That episode
reruns at 11 p.m. Tuesday, 10 p.m. and midnight Thursday, 6 and 8
p.m. Nov. 11.

-- Other episodes
rerun at 7 and 8 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 4), 9 and 11 p.m. Thursday, 9
a.m. to noon Sunday and 3 and 5 p.m. Nov. 11.


Independent filmmaking: It's easier, harder ... and (sometimes) worth the trouble

So you want to make
a movie?

In some ways, that gets easier. “I finished mine on my
laptop at a Bigbee's (coffee shop),” David Jones said.

And in some ways, he
said, it's never easy. “Had I known what I was getting into, I
would never had made it.”

He is, after all, a
regular working guy – a cameraman for WILS (Channel 10) in Lansing,
Mich., married to a director for the station's newscasts. A decade
ago, he started working on “Anatomy of 'Anatomy,'” an enjoyable
documentary about the filming of the 1959 classic “Anatomy of a
Murder” in Marquette, Mich., at a time when almost everything else
was made in Hollywood.

And then came the
delays. “It took so long to make it that the technology kept
changing,” Jones said.

The biggest problem
involved separate clearances for everything – movie clips, the
film's background music, even many of the still photos. Jones
estimates that it cost him $31,000 for rights and almost $100,000
for the film. He still only has the festival rights; “we can't even
put it Online legally.”

Still, there were
good things to all this. For instance:

-- It would have
been much more difficult, but most of the rights were held by one
company. “I think Disney owns half the world and Sony owns the
other half.” He was dealing with Sony.

-- Once he landed
the music rights, he virtually had a Duke Ellington soundtrack.

-- He didn't have to
worry about one use. The Criterion Collection, which does classy DVD
re-releases, had overall rights. It's using an early version of the
documentary as an extra for its “Anatomy” release.

Other filmmakers
feel Jones' pain. “I spent more than a year getting rights to the
music,” Bob Albers said of “Elderly Instruments: All Things
Strings,” his amiable film about a quirky Lansing music store that
has a national reputation.

They were talking at
a forum of the East Lansing Film Festival, which Albers granted was a
tad ironic: “I told Susan (Woods, the founder) that the festival
wouldn't work.”

It did and is in its
17th year, prospering partly because there are lots of
independent filmmakers – too many, almost. “There are so many
(independent films) out there,” Shane Hagedorn said. “How do
people find the time to even see yours”

He made a solidly
crafted drama (“Ashes of Eden”) that stands out partly by having
a slight religious sub-text. Others have their own ways they managed

“Second Shift”
cost close to $200,000, director Tom Lietz said, but doesn't have the
usual imperative of getting its money back. Donations were raised, to
make a film showing how disparate forces had combined in Lansing to
save its General Motors factories.

Then there's
“Project: Ice.” William Kleiner puts the budget at $1.3 million,
once he factors in his own time. It had the usual rights problems
(there are more than 250 archival photos, plus some newsreels), but
the big expense was for modern shooting of the story of Great Lakes
ice. He used a giant camera “wth almost five times the resolution
of a Blu-ray disc .... This was not two guys on an I-phone.”

He also financed it
himself, hoping to ge the money back next year, in movie theaters.

That brings the
tricky question of how you see the films mentioned here.
Possibilities include:

-- The “Anatomy”
documentary is shown at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, in Wells Hall of
Michigan State University. After that ... well, there's that
Criterion DVD.

-- “Ashes of Eden”
follows at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at Wells.

-- “Second Shift”
is at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 3, at the Studio C movie theaters, next
to Meridian Mall, east of East Lansing.

-- The other two
have had their ELFF showing. But “Elderly Instruments” is on sale
in some places, including (logically) at Elderly Instruments. And
“Project Ice” hopes to hit 100 theaters next year.

-- And remember to
catch any film festivals nearby. There are lots of movies waiting for

It was the wrong place to be a sports-avoider

"The McCarthys" gets its laughs -- bit ones -- the old-fashioned way: Studio audience, living-room set, clever lines. The result is great fun; here's the story I sent to papers:


Like lots of other
guys, Brian Gallivan grew up not knowing or caring about sports.

It's just that he
picked the wrong place and the wrong family for that.

The place was
Boston, home of Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots (nearby), Bruins and
general craziness. And the family is what inspired him to write his
“The McCarthys” comedy series.

“My dad ... was a
very successful basketball coach,” Gallivan said. “And my
brothers have coached. My sisters coached. A brother played
basketball in college. My mother knows more about basketball than I
do. They just love basketball.”

And he ... well,
grasped to understand it. “I did try very hard, especially around
7th and 8th grade,” Gallivan said. “So I
have a really great knowledge of the Celtics at a very certain time.”

Somehow, it all
works out, simply making more material for good-natured jibes. “My
family expresses love thrugh insultig each other,” Gallivan said.

And that led to “The

Gallivan had moved
to Chicago and joined the Second City comedy troupe, where his “sassy
gay friend” character was popular. He wrote for Chelsea Handler's
situation comedy and then for ABC's “Happy Endings.” That's when
he wrote “McCarthys,” based on his family.

Well, loosely based.
“My sisters called me (and said), 'You tell them we've never had a
DUI. We've never carriedle a dead man's baby.'”

Such things do
happen in the larger-than-life “McCarthys” world, accompanied by
verbal jabs. The show's first pilot was shot single-camera style,
without an audience; the insults seemed “a little dark,” Gallivan
said. A new version, with a studio audience laughing along, seemed

From that first
version, the show kept the actor playing the dad (Jack McGee of
“Rescue Me”). It also kept the two brothers -- Joey McIntyre (of
New Kids on the Block) and Jack Dunn.

Both use their own
Boston accents; Dunn, who has worked in the Boston Garden and Fenway
Park, fits the role easily. “I'm a pretty hard-core Boston sports
fan,” he said. “When somebody from Boston doesn't know how the
Red Sox did last night, that's really strange to me .... Like, don't
you have cable?”

Joining them for the
new version were Kelen Coleman as their sister, Laurie Metcalf
(“Roseanne”) as their mom and Tyler Ritter as Ronny, the
character Gallivan patterned after himself.

For Ritter, doing
comedy with a studio audience seems natural. “I grew up around the
sets of 'Hearts Afire' ... and I got to see my father (John Ritter)
enjoy himself at his work .... And I got to see my brother (Jason) on
'The Class,' ... just loving every second of it.”

He understands the
comedy part. All he has to fake is the accent and the total
disinterest in sports.

-- “The
McCarthys,” 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, CBS; debuts Oct. 30


A thriving writer, 78, re-creates a dying poet at 39

We really don't expect this, you know. On a Wednesday, in the middle of all the Halloween gore and goofiness, we don't expect a richly crafted drama about a dying poet. But there it is, at 8 and 11:30 p.m. Oct. 29: "A Poet in New York" is one of the year's best TV films; here's the story I sent to papers:


In the proper Welsh
tradition, Andrew Davies grew up savoring the words and world of
Dylan Thomas.

“I found that his
background was very similar to mine,” Davies said. “And I had
dreams – rather than ambitions – of being a writer.”

His ambition was to
become an English teacher, which he did. The dreams were fulfilled
much later; he became an award-winning screenwriter whose Dylan
Thomas film airs Wednesday on BBC America.

“Here was a man
who just poured his heart all over the place ... yet was suffering
all the time,” Tom Hollander said of Thomas, whom he plays in the

Now “A Poet in New
York” catches the final days, when Thomas' fame and drinking
soared, while his health crashed. “He was horribly neglected
physically,” said Hollander.

He was 39 when he
died. Davies, now 78, was older than that before he wrote the TV
screenplays -- “Sense and Sensibility,” “Vanity Fair,”
“Middlemarch,” more -- that make him a PBS favorite.

Davies grew up in
Rhiwbina, a village-looking suburb of Cardiff, Wales. In a school
competition, he recited “The Hand That Signed the Paper,” by
Thomas, “and that led me to want to read more of him.”

His own writing came
later, after six years of teaching in London. He had his first radio
play broadcast when he was 28, his first TV play at 31, his first two
TV series when he was 44 and 50.

As he reached his
60s, he began his strongest stretch. Davies won Emmys for “Little
Dorrit” and the original “House of Cards,” nominations for
“Bleak House” and “Pride and Prejudice,” praise for more.

Davies tried
something new last year, being the creator and showrunner of “Mr.
Selfridge.” He didn't enjoy the showrunning part, returned to a
writer's life ... and was asked to write about Thomas.

For the first time,
Davies visited Laugharne, the seaside town (seemingly the inspiration
for “Under the Milkwood”) where Davies spent his final years.

Thomas' home (shown
in the film) is still there, preserved museum-style, Davies said.
“You can go and drink in the same pub, Brown's Hotel, where he used
to drink. You can (go where his wife) Caitlin used to dance. She was
a professional dancer before she got into that whole domestic swirl
of drudgery, which she resented so much.”

Caitlin and Dylan
drank heavily and fought often. Their two sons had troubled lives,
Davies said, but their daughter “remained very fond of her father
and had happy memories of her childhood.”

As the drinking
accelerated and the finances dwindled, Thomas made his speaking trip
to Boston and New York. Davies visited those spots, too. “The
Chelsea Hotel and the White Horse Tavern look so rundown and seedy
now. And the Welsh scenes look extraordinarily beautiful and
peaceful. He had such stark contrasts in his life.”

Now “A Poet in New
York” finds both extremes. Flashbacks capture the beauty of Wales;
New York scenes catch the torment of a brilliant poet, fading from

-- “A Poet in New
York,” 8-9:30 p.m. Wednesday, BBC America; reruns at 11:30 p.m.

It's kind of nice to host an eternal show

In all of commercial TV, which shows have had the longest prime-time runs? The list has some high-profile shows -- "60 Minutes" (47 seasons), "Monday Night Football" (44), "20/20" (37) and Walt Disney (34). But right behind those -- wedged between "The Simpsons" (26) and Ed Sullivan (24) is the quiet success of "America's Funniest Home Videos," which just started its 25th season. Hosting is Tom Bergeron, who proved two decades ago that he's a quietly clever guy. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This seemed like endgame duty – closing the shop, pitching
the final inning.

When Tom Bergeron took over “America’s Funniest Home Video,”
it had already been around for a dozen years. Its early whoosh (with Bob Saget
hosting) was gone. “It was a series of specials, with Daisy Fuentes or John
Fugelsang hosting,” Bergeron recalled. “ABC would just order a few episodes at
a time.”

Clearly, it was shutting down … except that never happened.
“AFHV” has just started its 25
th season and Bergeron’s final one.
“It just felt like the right time,” he said. “I really wanted to go out in the

Afterward, he won’t have to spend his time whittling and
grumping. Bergeron also hosts “Dancing with the Stars,” guests on other shows
and jets cross-country. “My heart is always on the East Coast,” he said.

But his work is in California, where “AFHV” seems to last forever.
“There’s the eternal joy of slapstick,” he said. “It’s what (Charlie) Chaplin
and (Buster) Keaton did, long ago.”

In this case, it involves the sight gags of our daily lives.
At first, Bergeron recalled, things were recorded by “camcorders the size of a
small refrigerator.” Picture quality was low and mailing the videotapes was
difficult. Now “it looks a lot better; the show has changed a lot.”

The hosting style has also changed: Saget liked to add
comments during a video; Bergeron prefers to introduce and step aside. “It’s
like how Johnny Carson would just kind of dial it back.”

That reflects opposite roots. Saget, as a stand-up comic,
looks for quick laughs. Bergeron started in radio, where there are hours to

He started at 17, at a station in his home town of
Haverhill, Mass. Then came radio and TV work in New Hampshire and Boston and
beyond. Along the way, he studied mime (there’s that sight-gag thing) and improvisational
acting and more.

Then came the national leap in 1994: “Breakfast Time” (on
FX) and “Fox After Breakfast” (on Fox) were amiable daily shows, with clever
people winging it. “That was my favorite job ever,” he said.

It folded after two years, but Bergeron kept getting more
jobs, daily (“Hollywood Squares”) and annually (“A Capitol Fourth,” Muscular
Dystrophy Association telethon). He showed the rare ability to be clever, yet
quiet. And next year he’ll take it slightly easier.

Bergeron has said he once had anger issues, none of which
seem apparent. He’s the easy-going guy at 59, married to a former producer for
32 years and (next year) quitting a show that just won’t quit.

“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” 7 p.m. Sundays,

Started its 25th season Oct. 12. The second
episode, Oct. 19, has a Halloween theme.

Will be pre-empted Oct. 26 by the animated “Star
Wars Rebels,” but returns the next week.

Also, reruns on cable. Weekdays, that’s 11 a.m.
on TBS and 6 and 7 p.m. on WGN America, sometimes moving into prime time.