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?”


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