Belafonte -- passion, power and (sometimes) music

There is great power to Harry Belafonte's life. For most of his 84 years he's been sometimes an actor, sometimes a singer, always a passionate idealist. Now he has a new book and tonight (10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17) an HBO documentary. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Harry Belafonte and his classmates
expected to spend their lives on stage.

There was Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis,
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau and more. All studied
with an intense, German-born acting teacher in New York.

They learned passion, performance and
message. “The art of theater was all driven by social mission,”
recalled Belafonte, 84, who has a new HBO documentary and a new book.

His career soon detoured into music.
His acting was often set aside; his social mission wasn't.

“His message is clarion clear –
that we can make the world a better place with passion and commitment
and an honest heart,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO's documentary chief.
“He's extraordinary.”

What most Americans saw first was a
handsome man with a calypso sound they hadn't heard before.

Back in 1956, when Elvis Presley ruled
the Billboard singles charts, Belafonte dominated in albums. His
first two reached No. 1; the second stayed there for an astounding 31
weeks. Over the next five years, he had six more albums that reached
No. 2 or 3.

Americans were fascinated. They might
have assumed he'd grown up on the islands of the Caribbean.

His parents did, but Belafonte was
mainly from Harlem. He spent five childhood years on Jamaica, but
returned to the U.S. He was in the Navy in World War II, then studied
acting under Erwin Piscator.

This was when actors did much more than
read lines. “We began to meet many of the more advanced writers and
directors and creators of theater in our day,” Belafonte recalled.
“Robert Penn Warren, whose book ('All the King's Men') we turned
into a theater piece that became a film …. We began to meet people
like Jean-Paul Sartre.”

That could have been his entire career,
on stage and on film. The music, however, soon took over.

Belafonte started by singing jazz and
pop, then studied calypso. When he reached Broadway, it was in a
music revue; he won the Tony for best featured actor.

Two years later, his music career
soared. Belafonte did some acting, but the world had changed.

“Art had always been a part of
activism,” he said, “where the function of artists as the
gatekeepers of truth was to reflect the world in which we live – to
critique it, to inspire people.”

As commerce grew, he said, less was
expected of actors. “They were just to entertain.”

He did less acting and more direct
activism. There were civil rights marches; there were African
efforts, including the historic “We Are the World” recording.
There were so many new projects that he didn't pause to celebrate the
old ones. “My DNA drives me to go where I have not been,” he

Belafonte stayed in Haiti, turning down
a chance to celebrate the rise of Nelson Mandela.

American foreign policy, Belafonte
said, “demonized Nelson Mandela, vilified him, helped get him into
prison …. He was now free, a new, powerful moral voice. And all of
a sudden, many who had turned their back on him were now beginning to
cash in on the celebration of his triumph.”

Not Belafonte. He had new battles to
fight; he always seems to.

– “Sing Your Song,” debuts at 10
p.m. Monday (Oct. 17) on HBO

– Reruns include 4 p.m. Thursday,
3:45 p.m. Sunday and 11:30 a.m. Oct. 26

– Also: “Harry Belafonte: My Song”
(Knopf) reached book stores this week

Yes, there's life (and TV time) after the governorship

In America, any kid can grow up to be president or governor -- and then, maybe, to get a real cable-TV show.

That's what has happened to Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor. Today, the Current TV cable channel announced she'll have a primetime show, five days a week, beginning in January. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As Al Gore sees it, Jennifer Granholm
has star potential for cable-TV.

In January, the former Michigan
governor will have a show on Current TV, the channel Gore co-founded.
It will be at 9 p.m. weekdays, colliding with Piers Morgan on CNN,
Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Sean Hannity on Fox News.

“We want it to be fast-moving, want
it to be entertaining,” Granholm said. There will eve be a
comedian, Brett Erlich. And as the title (“The War Room”),
implies, it will be heavy on politics.

That's her strong point, Gore said.
“Very few people can articulate the issues the way she does,”

He was the one who first started
discussions with Granholm, a month or two ago, he said. “We were
blown away by the way she just lit up the room and just took

Still, there's a flip side: When
Granholm finished her second four-year term (the limit in Michigan)
on Jan. 1, the state was troubled and her approval rating were low.

“That's the reality,” Granholm said
of the economy that plagued her in Lansing and plagues Barack Obama
in Washington. “It's certainly an issue as we look at what the
solutions are.”

A prime focus of the show will be jobs,
she said – which states have found ways to keep them and to spur
new ones. Gore talked about “a resurgence (in Detroit), which she
laid the groundwork for.”

David Bohrman, the Current president,
insisted that Granholm isn't weighed down by the Michigan troubles.
“Gov. Granholm was re-elected in a down economy.”

Bohrman, formerly of CNN, took over
Current 10 weeks ago and quickly began working on a commentary
line-up for prime time. Cenk Uygur's “Young Turks” will be at 7
p.m., Keith Olbermann at 8 and Granholm at 9, with all three
repeating at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. and midnight.

Gore and Joel Hyatt launched Current in
2005, as a loose collection of viewer-submitted films. Ratings were
meager and the channel drew attention only for its award-winning
documentaries. The transition to a news-and-commentary focus began in
June, when Olbermann moved his show to Current.

Ratings remain low, but Hyatt said
Current is drawing younger viewers. The mean age, he said, is 65 for
Fox News, 63 for CNN, 62 for MSNBC, in the 50s “and getting
younger” for Current.

Now Granholm, 52, steps in. Her show
will be done from San Francisco, near where she and her husband, Dan
Mulhern, have faculty jobs at the University of California, Berkeley.
She said she will continue that (and her job on NBC's “Meet the
Press”), but has resigned from boards of directors.

The rest will be fairly easy, Gore
insisted. “If she can lead the state of Michigan, she can lead the
mechanics of a television program.”


Cable's big week: Artists, then Oprah, then zombies

The big networks had their three weeks of debuts and such. Now -- with a few big-network shows still coming -- cable takes over.

It was Rosie O'Donnell this week (see previous blogs), with more Oprah Winfrey Network shows this weekend (see the Saturday and Sunday columns). And wrapping up the weekend, "The Walking Dead" brings fresh swarms of zombies.

Before that, however, I like "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," which debuts tonight (Wednesday) and reruns often. It has an interesting batch of people; here's the story I sent to papers, interviewing two of them:


Artists, we've always suspected, are
not like the people next door. Van Gogh and Picasso were different
from Herb the accountant and Deb the work-flow analyst.

Now a cable reality show adds some more
information: Artists aren't like each other, either.

On “Work of Art: The Next Great
Artist,” one contestant – who gave himself the self-deprecating
name The Sucklord – is a big-city guy. He grew up in Greenwich
Village, where his mom designed sadomasochism gear. “S-and-M was
very big back then,” he said.

Another, Jazz-Minh Moore, spent her
formative times in a hippie commune in the Oregon woods. “There are
trees that are 300 years old,” she said. “I think of them as my

These two have little in common with
each other … or with Dusty Mitchell, a soft-spoken art teacher in
Mountain View, an Arkansas town of 2,800. Or Ugo Nonis, from Paris …
Or Leon Lim, from Malaysia … or Lola Thompson, from everywhere; her
mom is a wanderer and she went to 20 schools.

These artists are from opposite worlds.
“What I found interesting was that everyone liked each other and we
got along,” said Sucklord, 42.

Well, usually. Moore, 33, admits she
distrusted Sarah Kabot, who was entirely too cheerful.

Some artists may be more visual than
verbal, more likely to be lost in thought. The Sucklord, an outgoing
guy, is an exception. “I used to be very shy as a kid,” he said.
“I perhaps overcompensated.”

And Moore? Consider the first time she
went to a public school, away from the rural-hippie mood. “It was
overwhelming,” she said. “The kids seemed like wild, feral
animals. I would hide away.”

A teacher noticed this and found
another contemplative girl for her to play with. It was a start.

Her real roots are in what's now known
as the Breitenbush Retreat, 154 acres of the Willamette National
Forest of the Oregon Cascades. Kids aren't distracted; they play
outside or they create.

Moore spent her first two years there,
before leaving with her mother, and returned every summer. Her father
– “a really creative guy, a philosopher” – remains there as
business director.

After moving to California, her mother
became a nurse, but retained her own artistic impulses. And with a
name like Jazz-Minh, Moore would always stand out. “I knew that I
was different,” she said.

The name grabbed people instantly.
“When I got to a new school in Lodi, Calif., the teacher said, 'Oh
honey, I was sure you were going to be black.'”

Some normality crept in. Her mother
remarried and Moore became a responsible older sister to kids 10, 11
and 16 years younger. “I've always liked to work; I've had a work
permit since I was 14 years old.”

Five years ago, she moved to New York,
where she taught and was an artists' model, while working on her own
figurative paintings and living in Greenwich Village.

That's where The Sucklord, 42, spent
his early years, when he was merely known as Morgan Phillips. Much
later, he would coin the phrase “suckadelic” and the name
Sucklord, which is not meant in a religious or sexual way. “It's
self-deprecating,” he said, “(but) I'm an ego-driven guy.”

Mostly, he takes old action figures and
transforms them into odd creations. Then he arrives at art shows in
costume – anything from a leisure suit to a Darth Vader mask.

Art can be like that, he said, letting
people sink into their own quirks. A reality show has them interact.

“It's like being in a war,” he
said. “You're all in it together and you get to know each other.
I'm not the diabolical mastermind I'm supposed to be. Underneath that
is a human side, I guess.”

– “Work of Art: The Next Great
Artist,” Bravo

– First season reruns from 8 a.m. to
5 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 12)

– Second season opens at 9 p.m.
Wednesday, rerunning at 11. That episode also airs at 6 p.m.
Thursday, 9 a.m. Sunday, 6 p.m. next Wednesday, Oct. 19



"Rosie": Slow start, strong finish

The worst and best moments of Rosie O'Donnell's new show came at the beginning and end.

The worst, surprisingly, came with the opening monolog. O'Donnell, a smart stand-up comic, had hired joke-writers, but there was little evidence of them here. She had some mild remarks, then turned to questions from the audience -- never a good idea unless the whole thing is sharply edited -- and (belatedly) a witty song.

And the best came at the end. Her first mini-game show was quick and fun and let O'Donnell play off the contestants cleverly.

In between? This daily cable show -- see O'Donnell interview, two blogs ago -- had a zesty band, a shrill-and-grating announcer and a long chat with Russell Brand.

This wasn't quite the leisurely, in-depth interview that was promised. (Too many other things broke into the Brand time.) Still, it was an enjoyable chat between two intelligent and opinionated people. In its own, erratic way, "The Rosie Show" was kind of fun.

"Five": The best TV movie in years

OK, people have had some good excuses lately for not watching TV. The weather has been perfect in many places. It happens.

Now, however, it's time to start watching. Tonight (Monday, Oct. 10) is big, with:

-- A makeover for the struggling Oprah Winfrey Network, starting at 7 p.m. with Rosie O'Donnell's new talk show (see previous blog).

-- The departure of "The Playboy Club," a dark and dreary show that didn't deserve to live (see two blogs ago).

-- Lots of sports, as usual. In Michigan, where I live, people are giddy about a double-header of storts -- the Tigers in the play-offs (4:20 p.m., Fox), the undefeated Lions hosting the Bears (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

-- And much more, including "Five" -- which is very simply the best TV movie in years. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This is the sort of starpower that's
rare for TV – Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys.

The catch: None of them are on-camera
in the movie “Five”; instead, each makes her directing debut.

“Great actors do often make great
directors,” said actress Patricia Clarkson.

The idea was hatched in a meeting the
Lifetime cable network had with Jennifer Aniston and her friend,
producer Kristin Hahn: Combine five mini-films about breast cancer.
“We call it a film in short films,” said producer Marta Kauffman,
who came up with a way for all of them to be related.

Then the powerhouse people converged.
In order, the films are directed by:

– Moore. Her film is set on the night
of the moon walk, with a little girl shielded from the fact that her
mother (Ginnifer Goodwin) is dying. Jennifer Morrison and Annie Potts

– Aniston. Clarkson plays
someone who rants at her own advance funeral. “It was so emotional
and physically so brutal at times,” she said. “(Aniston)
understood the humor of this character.”

– Keys. An in-control lawyer (Rosario
Dawson) finds herself still sparring with her sister (Tracee Ross)
and mother (Jenifer Lewis). “When a woman who is diagnosed with
breast cancer still has to deal with her mother, it can be funny,”
Kauffman said.

– Penelope Spheeris, best known for
directing “Wayne's World” and rock 'n' roll documentaries. Her
film has a young stripper (Lyndsy Fonseca) who may need both breasts
removed. Unlike the other films, this has a gritty, blue-collar
setting. “I know that territory,” Spheeris said, “so it was perfect
for me.”

– Patty Jenkins, who directed
Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning work in “Monster.” Her film has
an oncologist (Jeanne Tripplehorn) facing her own crisis. “We knew
it was new territory for everybody, and that sort of gave it this
freshness and excitement on the set,” Tripplehorn said.

Many of these women are best known for
comedy – especially Kauffman, the “Friends” co-creator and
co-producer – and Aniston, one of the “Friends” stars. So humor
emerges in surprising places.

“When we are in the most
extraordinary circumstances,” Kauffman said, “we react in one of
two ways. Either we completely freak out or we go toward humor.”

The film has both, Spheeris said. “You
cry and you laugh and you do so many different emotions.”

At the core is Lifetime's ongoing push
for women to get mammograms. “There are currently 2.5 million
breast-cancer survivors in the U.S.,” said Nancy Dubuc, president
of the cable channel.

This film could stir some more.
Tripplehorn said Keys asked her to be at a script-reading. “I said,
'You know, I'm a professional and I want to be (there). But frankly,
I'm getting a mammogram.'”

– “Five,” 9 p.m. Monday,
Lifetime; repeats at 1 a.m.

– Also, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday,
Oct. 15-16; repeats at midnight each time