A semi-incredible, global life of piglets, hedgehogs and cable fame

Up close, Jan Pol is just what you expect -- a big, vibrant Dutchman who became a veterinarian on purpose and a cable-TV star by accident. Now NatGeo Wild has a special about Pol on Saturday (Jan. 10), along with an "Incredible Dr. Pol" marathon. Here's the story I sent to papers:


PASADENA, Cal. -- So
there was this Dutch boy, not quite a teen, with his arm halfway up a

“That was so much
fun,” Jan Pol recalls, 60 years later. “I knew then I wanted to
work with animals.”

What he didn't know
was that he would become a TV star, beloved (often) and berated
(sometimes). Now he has a successful cable series (“The Incredible
Dr. Pol”), plus a new special about his life.

It's a fairly
un-incredible life in many ways. Dr. Pol has been in the same little
town (Weidman, near Mount Pleasant, Mich.) for 34 years; he's been
married 47 years.

But four years ago,
his son Charles (an aspiring TV producer in California) pushed the
idea to his friends and co-workers. “He said, 'My dad is a a
character,'” Pol said.

Others agree;
ratings – more than a half-million viewers for some hours – are
high by cable-Saturday standards. Viewers savor an old-school vet who
ranges from cows and horses to snakes and hedgehogs.

That's what Pol has
wanted to do since he was 12 and was asked to help the difficult
birth of piglets.

The youngest of six
kids in a farm family, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian ... but
to see the world, too. He became a foreign-exchange student, choosing
Michigan by miscalculation.

“The Netherlands
is so small, you can get anywhere in an hour,” Pol said. Eyeing a
map, he assumed Mayville (in Michigan's “Thumb” artea), is near
Ontario, where his sister lived.

It's not, but he
soon liked his host family, including Diane. As he came off the
plane, he noticed her “towering over the rest.” She was
5-foot-8-and-a-half, he was 6-2; that was a start.

Her first reaction?
“I thought, 'He's not as good-looking as I thought he would be.'”
But by the end of the year, “we were good friends, like brother and
sister.” When she visited Europe, they fell in love.

Pol got his
veterinary degree in the Netherlands, worked for 10 years in the
Thumb town of Harbor Beach and sought the perfect spot for his own
practice; Isabella Counry seemed ideal – lots of horses and cows
... only “three old vets” ... and Mt. Pleasant (home of Central
Michigan University) nearby.

So the clinic
opened, at first focusing on cows and horses. “I never wanted to
quit small animals,” Pol said. Soon, people brought dogs and cats
and more; he figures he's treated a half-million animals.

Things keep growing,
Pol said. “Within five years, we built the clinic we have now. Four
years later, we doubled that. Last fall, we expanded it again.”

Now he employs three
vets, a vet-tech and more. “He is a true hero of his community,”
said Geoff Daniels, a NatGeo programmer.

But a controversial
one. “Dr. Pol may look like the wonderful ol' family farm vet, but
his medicine is antiquated,” Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, a
Massachusetts vet, wrote in petsadvisor.com, reeling off things she
feels brought excessive pain or danger to his patients. “He
(should) understand that animals have a pain center and surgery
requires clean gloves.”

She wrote that in
2012, the year state regulators fined Pol and put him on probation.
He had misread ultrasound, they said; 10 dead puppies were in a dog
for days, before the owners went to another vet.

Pol defends his
upbeat, old-school approach. “My goal has always been to provide
affordable care.”

That approach is one
reason viewers like the show, Diane said. “It is a true reality

-- “Incredible!
The Story of Dr. Pol,” 10 p.m. Saturday, NatGeo Wild

-- Surrounded by
episodes of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” from noon to 3 a.m.


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