His road to stardom is bumpy. muddy and more

The things I appreciate in a hotel are a big pool and a little refrigertator; the thing Josh Gates appreciates is survival. He spends his life traveling in odd places, chasing elusive clues. Now his "Expedition Unknown" debuts Thursday (Jan. 8); here's the story I sent to papers:




Anyone diligently
watching the “Expedition Unknown” debut will hear this three
times: “There must be a better way to make a living,” Josh Gates

He says that while
crawling under a Fiji house, amid spiders and such, looking for bones
that may or may not be Amelia Earhart's. Now that he's back, we'll
double-check: IS there a better job than this?

“It depends on
your level of interest in difficult food, bad roads, questionable air
travel,” Gates said. “For me, I love this stuff. I love
rough-shod travel, I love adventure travel, so for me, I think I do
have the best job in the world. (But) it does get a little hairy
along the way.”

Or a lot hairy. In
the opener, a helicopter takes him to what is supposed to be a New
Guinea village, but is really just a jungle clearing. He finds the
village and – with the camera rolling – feels an earthquake. “It
was a 7.4 .... It just felt like the entire world has sort of

Such things happen
when you're visiting near-invisible worlds with near-impossible
goals. In his previous shows -- “Destination Truth” and guest
shots on “Ghost Hunters” -- he kept looking for monsters and Yeti
and such; now his new show aims bigger – from Jesse James' buried
gold to Captain Morgan's sunken ship to recently discovered “lost
cities” in Peru and Cambodia.

But that all starts
with Earhart, the pioneering pilot whose plane disappeared in 1937.
“I heard the Earhart story at some point when I was a kid,” Gates
said, “and I was just transfixed by this idea that we couldn't find
this person .... It has something to do with just how daring she was,
how unrestrained.”

Planes were a
natural interest for Gates, whose dad (a deep-sea diver) “worked
overseas for most of my childhood and was flying back and forth.”

Gates, 37, grew up
in Massachusetts and graduated from Tufts, majoring in archaeology
and drama. His monster-hunting, legend-probing life has taken him to
95 countries, often to places he doesn't fit. In Papua New Guinea,
many of the men were under 5-foot; Gates puts his own height at

“Kids sometimes
are either giggling or terrified .... Some of these little kids have
just never seen a white person before.”

And yes, Gates --
newly married to Hallie Gnatovich, who was a “Destination Truth”
researcher – says he does sometimes have an average American life
and meal. “In and Out Burger is usually my first stop on the way
home from the airport.”

-- “Expedition
Unknown,” Travel Channel

-- 9 p.m. Thursdays,
beginning Jan. 8, rerunning at midnight; opener is two hours, others
are one hour

-- Opener (Amelia
Earhart) also runs at 10 p.m. Sunday (rerunning at 1 a.m.) and at
noon Jan. 18.

It's slow-build Urban on fast-track "Idol"

Is it still possible to get excited about "American Idol"? Yes, actually, because many of the young singers are good, a few have been great and these three judges -- Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. -- really know what they're talking about. The season starts Wednesday and Thursday (Jan. 7-8), here's the story I sent to papers about Urban and "Idol":


“American Idol”
is back, putting young lives into hyperdrive. And no, that's not
always a good thing.

“Some people dive
straight into the arenas,” said Keith Urban, an “Idol” judge.
“It's just 0-to-100 as far as their career goes. I think there's no
substitue for the slow build.”

He's in those arenas
now, with a pile of hits; he has a movie-star wife (Nicole Kidman),
two young daughters and general optimism. “Eight years of sobriety
(have) an impact on the way I feel,” he said.

But that's at 47,
triple the age of some “Idol” contestants. First, Urban competed
in three “Idol”-type Australian shows, never winning. He went to
rehab twice. He worked small spots, few of them comfy.

“I learned
everything playing in tiny clubs and slowly building,” Urban said.
“I've been fired from a gig. I've had every kind of insult and
abuse hurled at me on stage, literally things being thrown at me.
Especially, growing up in Australia, you play at really rough

He did find some
success there, doing regional TV shows, cutting an album and backing
other people. Then he took a chance, “coming to America with really
nothing. I was 24 when I moved to Nashville. I really didn't know
anybody and I just showed up because I believed I was supposed to be

No one else seemed
to. “After being there five years (I had) still nothing really

He got studio gigs,
co-wrote a few album cuts and was part of a group (The Ranch), with a
semi-noticed album. At 31, a year after his first rehab, he finally
reached the solo charts.

Then things soared.
Urban has had 15 singles reach No. 1 on Billboard's country chart. On
the country-album chart, he's been No. 1 four times, with three more
reaching the top four; even on the overall album chart, he's been No.
1 twice and No. 3 twice.

Now he's judging
“Idol” contestants, many of them lacking those tough roots.
“They're really revered in their little towns,” Urban said.

Many seem great in
auditions; this year, more than 200 advanced to Hollywood.

Some contestants –
Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, a
few more – have jumped nimbly to the big venues; most weren't
ready. The new goal, Urban said, is to figure out which have more
depth. “Idol” changes, he said, include:

-- An extra step.
Before the cut from 48 singers to 24, each does a song at the House
of Blues. “We've never done that before .... I really wanted to see
what they were like in front of a club setting.”

-- A new mentor with
current-hit credentials. That's Scott Borchetta, who created Big
Machine Records, signing teen Taylor Swift as his first act. “He's
brought something very, very fresh.”

-- An attempt to
learn more about the singers than whether they have good voices. “You
can have people who sing really well, but they may not (have) an
artistic vision of who they are and what kind of career they want to
have. Sitting down and talking with them really allowed us to see
that .... From there, I think we really found some artists.”

Perhaps. Eventually,
we'll see if they're ready for the 0-to-100 life “American Idol”
can demand.


-- “American
Idol,” Fox; season starts Jan. 7

-- 8-9 p.m.
Wednesdays (leading into the new “Empire” drama), 8-10 p.m.
Thursdays; later in the season, that will be trimmed to one night a

-- First week:
Nashville on Wednesday; Nashville and Kansas City on Thursday

-- Second week:
Kansas City on Wednesday; Long Island, NY, on Thursday. In Long
Island, Adam Lambert substituted on the judging panel, alongside
Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.; Urban was in Australia for the
funeral of his father-in-law, a clinical psychologist who died at 75.

-- Other auditions
were in San Francisco (Urban's favorite this time), New Orleans and


It's a compelling story, believe it or not

There are plenty of interesting stories on PBS' "American Experience," but the new Robert Ripley profile is one of my favorites. This is a downright compelling chunk of Americana; here's the story I sent to papers:


Picture a modern
media star – smooth, slick and handsome, with strong voice and easy

Now meet the
opposite. As a California kid, Leroy Ripley showed no hints of

He was “bucktoothed,
really a strange-looking dude,” said Neal Thompson, whose biography
is the core of a fascinating PBS film. He had little education and a
“sort of ordinariness.”

Then he
semi-transformed. He switched his name – Leroy Robert became Robert
Leroy – and spiffed up his attire. He was still shy and clumsy, but
he became a star of radio, TV, movies and more.

“He was kind of
this Everyman character,” Thompson said. “I think his fans were
drawn to that.”

He was a regular
guy, awed by an irregular world. His “Believe It or Not” features

-- Religious and
cultural customs -- men who walked on fire or held their arms aloft
for years.

-- Strange deeds,
from sword-swallowers to a guy descending a stairs on his head. “I
think it's the first time that 'American Experience' has had footage
of a woman eating a plate of razor blades,” filmmaker Cathleen
O'Connell said. There's also a guy swallowing a mouse.

-- Odd habits. One
woman, O'Connell said, crocheted a hat out of her own hair; another
“baked a certain number of pies every day for years.” These were
“everyday Americans who, during the Depression, (shared) their
ordinary wonderfulness.”

-- And mere quirks.
There was, for instance, a ham seller named Sam Heller.

All of this
fascinated Ripley, a self-made man. He was a fine athlete – a
baseball prospect and handball champion – and a good cartoonist;
his break came, however, when he changed his newspaper sports cartoon
to a daily “Belive It or Not” feature.

As his empire grew,
people compared him to the circus and sideshow king. “Ripley loved
P.T. Barnum, one of his heroes,” said Edward Meyer, who is in
charge of the Ripley exhibits and archives.

Still, Ripley
exposed Barnum's “Fiji mermaid” hoax, illustrating a key
difference: While Barnum lied consistently, Ripley – with the
exception of his age – stuck to the truth.

He had a master
fact-checker in Norbert Pearlroth, stationed at theNew York Public
Library. More verification came after he signed with the Hearst
newspaper syndicate. “They were calling him the biggest liar in the
world,” Meyer said. “He starts traveling with William Randolph
Hearst's (money). Hearst gives him the direction: 'Bring back stuff
to prove what you're writing about.'”

Ripley visited 201
countries. At first, the result (shrunken heads and such) were in his
home. In 1933, he created an “odditorium”; now there are 31 in
ten countries, with a collection of 30,000 artifacts.

That's 65 years
after Ripley's death (at 58, of a heart attack). At his peak, he had
80 million readers.

The guy with a poor
media presence had a hit radio show, some movie shorts and, briefly,
a TV show. He was a big-time star, believe it or not.

-- “Ripley:
Believe It or Not,” under the “American Experience” banner

-- 9 p.m. Tuesday,
PBS (check local listings)

-- Prime source is
Neal Thompson's “A Curious Man” (2013, Crown Publishing)

-- Current cartoons
and other information at www.ripleys.com


Roger Ebert: A sharp film scholar with a bar-next-door image

There was always something special about the Siskel-and-Ebert TV shows. They were fine entertainment, with clips, commentary and quick "thumbs up/thumbs down" verdicts. But beyond that surface were two brainy guys who loved movies and weren't so sure about each other. Both died early -- Siskel at 53, Ebert at 70 -- but a documentary offers a fascinating Ebert portrait. It runs on CNN on Jan. 4 and 10; here's the story I sent to papers:


A while back, movies
were mostly a two-coast deal.

They were made on
the West Coast and reviewed on the East Coast. The space in between
had ... well, a lot of theaters and some popcorn farms.

Then two Chicago
guys became the most influential film critics in America. Roger Ebert
and Gene Siskel did it in on a TV show that even had a dog; Some Easterners
accused them of dumbing down.

“They felt they
were reducing films to a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' situation,”
said Steve James, whose “Life Itself” -- a compelling portrait of
the late Ebert – is now on CNN.

On the surface,
Ebert didn't fit the established image. Unlike Siskel – a
prep-school and Yale grad – he was an electrician's son and a
University of Illinois grad. He wrote for a blue-collar paper, the
Sun-Times; in the Chicago newspaper tradition, he hit the bars at

“He wasn't a film
snob and never became one,” James said. “But over the years, he
had developed an incredible breadth of knowledge.”

Under that
bar-next-door image was a guy who praised the foreign-film masters,
frequented the Cannes Film Festival and – alongside more-popular
films – discovered independent gems.

For his movie, James
included many people whose indie films were championed by Ebert –
Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”),
Werner Herzog (“Nosferatu”), Ava DuVernay (now the “Selma”
director) and even Martin Scorsese, an unknown when Ebert spotted

Still, James omitted
the prime example – his own “Hoop Dreams.” A documentary
following two Chicago basketball kids, it had landed a spot in the
1994 Sundance Film Festival. That's when a publicist asked the
critics to see it.

“He called Gene up
and said it's about basketball, because he knew he was a fan,”
James said. “He told Roger it wasn't just about basketball.”

At the most, James
was hoping for brief newspaper mentions. Instead, Siskel and Ebert
praised the film on the show. Each picked it as the best movie of the
year; Ebert later called it the best of the decade.

Even though they
both lived in Chicago, James only met Ebert a few brief times. (“I
really took to the idea that a critic and a filmmaker should keep
their distance.”) He was surprised to learn that many directors had
developed warm friendships with Ebert, who “felt that wasn't going
to compromise him.”

Then a producer who
read Ebert's book (also called “Life Itself”) suggested a
documentary. “I expected to be showing Roger in a vigorous and
active life ... at screenings and parties,” James said.

The timing was wrong
for that. Fighting cancer, Ebert soon returned for a long hospital
stay; James watched him continue his writing -- “he did seem pretty
cheerful” -- even while facing painful treatment. Mostly, others
provided the rich biographical details.

Ebert was always
gifted, James said, pointing to an elegant college-paper commentary.
He was hired by the Sun-Times in 1966 and a year later, at 25, became
its film critic. In 1975, a public-TV station paired him with Siskel,
the Chicago Tribune critic. Two years later, the show went national;
it would continue in different forms until Siskel's death (at 53,
during brain-cancer surgery) in 1999.

Ebert was 50 when he
married lawyer Chaz Hamnmelsmith, whom he called “the great fact of
my life.” His final 20 years, before his death in 2013, were filled
with stepkids and movies as he conquered life itself.

-- “Life Itself,”
9 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, CNN

-- Repeats at the
same times Jan. 10


"Downton Abbey" keeps surprising us ... and its actors

 "Downton Abbey" returns Sunday, in an episode that's big, ambitious and (as usual) well-crafted. There are surprises ahead ... which, actually, shouldn't surprise us. From the beginning, "Downton" has sometimes managed to startle its viewers and its cast. Here's the story I sent to papers: 



“Downton Abbey”
is back and ready to surprise us ... again.

It does that a lot,
defying the traditions of British costume dramas. “The death of
Mr. Pamuk – in the third episode of the first season – was an
incredibly important storyline,” said producer Gareth Neame. “It
showed that we weren't that dusty old genre that everybody was

The show has kept
surprising viewers ... and its cast; Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna,
has seen that: “Gareth said, 'Well ... there's a really big
storyline happening for Anna in Season 4.'”

She never imagined
how big: Anna (a “lady's maid) was raped by a visiting valet.
Fearing that her husband Bates would take vengeance and return to
prison, she kept it a secret. Then – on a day when Bates had
mysteriously disappeared – the villain was pushed to his death.

All of this caught
Froggat by surprise ... just as Allen Leech (who plays Tom) keeps
being surprised.

“I was hired for
three episodes” in the first season, Leech said, and “was lucky
enough to come back for the second, and thought that might be it. I
was expecting the 'you're fired' papers around the corner.”

Instead, Tom (the
chauffeur) and Lady Sybil (youngest of the three Crawley sisterts)
fell in love, married, moved to Tom's native Ireland and returned
after protests went bad. It was rich material ... that evaporated
when Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Sybil, decided to leave the

“I thought that
might be it for me,” Leech said. Julian Fellowes, the “Downton”
creator, disagreed.

“He actually
embraced it,” Leech said, “and he engaged with what that poor man
had to do.” Sybil died while giving birth. Now Tom is a single dad,
raising his daughter amid his former employers.

“He's still the
guy stuck in no-man's-land, between these two worlds,” Neame said.

But the Crawleys are
gradually accepting him. Even Lady Mary, Sybil's eldest sister, has
warmed up. “Mary couldn't bear the idea of Sybil uniting with (Tom)
in the beginning,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays her. “It's
amazing how their friendship has evolved.”

They have a common
cause now: Like her late husband, Mary feels the estate's farming
must be modernized; Tom agrees – and now that he's estate manager,
he can do something about it. “The character's been on an
incredible journey,” Leech said.

More surprises are
coming, he said. Such as? “Well, the unicorn farm .... Definitely
out of left field.”

Leech is like that,
with a droll humor that stands out in any drab PBS discussion. He's
become the show's social-media star, someone the others would like to
emulate -- within reason.

“I need to just
sort of relax (and) let my personality come out a little bit more
like Allen does,” Froggatt said of social media. “But not quite
as much as Allen does.”

There may be plenty
of time for that. “Downton Abbey” has a large audience and high
interest; it's currently in 1924, separated from us by 90 years and
an ocean.

-- “Masterpiece
Classi: Downton Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS.

-- Eight-week season
goes from Jan. 4 to Feb. 22; most episodes are an hour, but the
season's opener and finale are longer.

-- Previous episodes
are available at www.pbs.org.

-- The opener is
followed at 10:15 by “The Manners of Downton Abbey,” hosted by
Alastair Bruce, the show's historical advisor.

-- For more history,
“Million-Dollar American Princesses” is 8 p.m. on three Sundays,
beginning Jan. 4, on the Smithsonian Channel. It views people similar
to the show's Cora Crawley – American heiresses who married into
British nobility.