Not a puppy, but a lot to love

Dog actors -- like human actors -- can vary sharply, you know. I found the "Frasier" and "Golden Girls" dogs to be warm and low-key; I never really liked the "Wishbone" dog, whose owner insisted he not be touched.

And I intantly loved Bug Z, star of the new cable film "Puppy Love." He's no puppy, but he seems to burst with enthusiasm. Here's the story I sent to papers:


In a room stuffed with TV stars, it was
easy to spot the happy one.

That was Bug Z, whose tail was wagging.
“He loves people,” said Sarah Clifford, his handler. “He's the
most gentle, sweet dog I've seen.”

She's seen a lot of dogs – plus rats,
cats, insects, birds and more – through her business, Animal Savvy.
Clifford was the on-set trainer for “The Artist,” then saw Uggie
dominate attention during the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and more.

Now she was in the Beverly Hilton
ballroom, where the Hallmark Channel had assembled stars of its
upcoming movies – Patricia Heaton, Carrie Fisher, Joey
Lawrence,Teri Polo, Marilu Henner, Jason Gedrick and others …
including Bug Z, who's at the core of “Puppy Love” this weekend.

He seemed happy to meet people. “Movie
dogs tend be aloof,” Clifford said, “but not Bug Z.”

That created some guilt in Candace
Cameron Bure, 36, the film's human star.”For half the movie, I
wasn't supposed to like him,” she said. “I couldn't give him
kisses. (After scenes,) I wanted to go over and say, 'I'm so sorry I
had to yell at you.'”

In the movie, he wanders off when his
owner (Victor Webster) is out of town and ends up at a shelter, where
a single mom (Bure) reluctantly adopts him for her daughter. The rest
will not surprise you.

The movie is linked to Hallmark's “Pet
Project,” which encourages people to adopt dogs from shelters. Its
spokeswoman is Bure … who, ironically, has never had a shelter
dog.”But I will now,” she said.

Her life has changing, now that Valeri
Bure, her husband of 16 years, has retired from hockey. They moved
often – Montreal, Calgary, Florida (twice), St. Louis, Dallas –
as his team changed. Now they've settled into California, with their
kids (ages 14, 12 and 10) and puppy potential.

By comparison, Bug Z has adoption
experience. Clifford got him at the Riverside Animal Shelter.

A friend had thought this mixture of
bearded collie and sheepdog, then 2 years old, would be perfect for
movies. Clifford soon had doubts; “I thought he was too hyper,”she

He did little except a commercial,
pretending to be the Brady Bunch dog. Then came “Puppy Love.”

The “puppy” part is a stretch –
he's 9 years old and weighs 75 pounds – but the “love” part
seems to fit. “He just wants to please people,” Clifford said.

– “Puppy Love,” Hallmark Channel

– 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m.
and 9 p.m. Sunday; also, 5 p.m. Sept. 15

Sir Ken and I have a lot in common

So it turns out that Ken Branagh -- or Sir Kenneth, as he's now known -- has something in common with me.

In most areas, we're far apart. He's mastered Shakespeare plays; I don't understand them. He's been knighted; I've seen "Camelot."

What we have in common, however, is illustrated by an exceptionally inept serving tray that it took me months to make in shop class. This remains on exhibit at the family cottage -- which my grandfather built, shortly after building his family home. The building-stuff trait bypassed me entirely.

And that's roughly the same thing that happened to Branagh, who has brilliant "Masterpiece Mystery" movies on the next three Sundays. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Like other Belfast blokes, Kenneth
Branagh could have gone into his father's business.

Fate, however, intervened. Branagh was
a very bad carpenter, he said; the opposite of his dad: “He was a
master and … I'm a liability when it comes to DIY (do it

So he became an actor and director,
from Shakespeare to “Thor” to the three new “Wallander”
mystery movies reaching PBS. He's a master of that – as proven by
his recent knighthood.

“It's kind of thrilling to hear,”
Branagh said of the “Sir Kenneth” tag. And it happened partly
because he was so bad at his dad's carpentry profession.

“I made a bench …. It's
unsittable-on, because it's unsafe,” Branagh said. “When I
started to build it – which my father could have done in a morning
– it took me three months.”

He built this awful bench as a boy, but
it's now at his home. “It didn't ever involve the idea of
understanding how you would support such a thing,” Branagh
said..”So now it sits at a rakish angle in our garden …. It's one
of the things my wife chooses to illuminate … my utter uselessness
as a practical man of the house.”

His parents, wisely, had no carpentry
expectations for him. “They were engrained with the idea that …
you have to follow your own heart about these things. They said it
really doesn't matter what you do as long as you are happy. Then I
said I wanted to be an actor and they said, 'Well, we didn't mean

Fortunately, he succeeded at it. At 51,
he's had two Oscar nominations for acting, two for directing and one
for writing. Now he does big action films and small ones about this
Swedish cop/.

“Kurt Wallander fit right into this
family of disconsolate single men that we seem to be making so much
traction with,” said Rebecca Eaton, the “Masterpiece” producer.

He's a lot like Morse and Sherlock
Holmes and other PBS crimesolvers – only with the added effect of
the Swedish mood and landscape.

“When I visited (Sweden),” Branagh
said,” I did feel this sort of sense of being in a landscape
painting …. Everything feels as though it's been composed by God
for you to have a very good think about.”

Then there are the rural nights, he
said. “It's as pitch-black as you can possibly imagine. Suddenly,
an environment that can seem magnificent and majestic in the day
feels very, very dangerous at night.”

There is, for a moment, bit of
contrast. The new season arrives, Eaton said, with Wallander in
mid-romance. “He had fallen in love and it looked like Kurt
Wallader might be the first cheerful Scandinavia detective in the
history of show business.”

That doesn't last, of course. New,
tough cases arrived, Branagh said, for this “obsessive man with
work (who) pays the price in personal life.”

Branagh admits to sharing some of those
traits, focusing too hard on his work. At least he's good at it; it
would be unfortunate to focus on bad carpentry.

– “Wallandar,” via “Masterpiece
Mystery,” 9-10:30 p.m. Sundays, PBS (check local listings)

– Three new movies, Sept. 9, 16 and


You've gotta love Daniel Tiger

Daniel Tiger is one of those guys you like instantly. He's cute, he's 4, he's well-meaning and he's animated. Even better, he links back to the kindly days of the late Fred Rogers. Daniel's new show -- a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" spin-off -- debuts Monday (Memorial Day) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES – Daniel Tiger is ready
for his spotlight now. He brings an imposing TV legacy.

This is the son of Daniel Striped
Tiger, the first puppet of the late Fred Rogers, who was PBS's first
kids-TV superstar. Rogers left a generation of passionate admirers …
including Angela Santomero, the “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood”
creator and producer.

“I was Fred's No. 1 fan …. I could
not sit any closer to the television set,” Santomero said.

That started when she was three months
old, confirms her mother, Mary Jane Capobianco. “She loved it.
'Sesame Street' and 'Mister Rogers,' that was all I allowed.”

Little Angela knew the show's songs and
its attitude. “I think it made her more calm,”Capobianco said.

And in her New Jersey home, calmness
was helpful. “I did come from a crazy, Italian family,” Santomero
said fondly. “It was very loud.”

On TV, she saw this opposite world. It
was always a beautiful day in the neighborhood; Fred Rogers said it,
sang it and believed it.

In real life, said his widow Joanne,
Rogers was the same easygoing guy people we saw on TV. “I think at
home he may have been a little more fun-loving …. He was whimsical
and he loved to be silly.”

That showed up occasionally, including
the puppets' names – Donkey Hodie, King Friday XIII, Prince
Tuesday, Digger Digorum, Dr. Duckbill Platypus.

Mostly,though, this was an earnest guy
who grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, got college degrees in music
and theology, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and stayed
forever calm.

don't think he screamed and yelled,” she said. “He got quieter.
But I think that didn't happen so much at home as it happened in the
work area. He was very, very serious about his work.”

from a Pittsburgh station, he was on National Educational Television
in 1967 – two years before there was a “Sesame Street,” three
before there was PBS. Rogers made 475 episodes through 2001; he died
two years later of stomach cancer at 74.

his company prepared its next step … gradually. “It shouldn't
take six years (plus), but there were some changes in management,”
said Kevin Morrison, the new show's executive producer.

in to create the show was Santomero, who had already co-created and
produced two shows (“Blues Clues,” “Super Why”) and had all
those Rogers roots.

grade, I wrote a paper on Fred,” she said. And later, complete with
a Master's Degree in childhood development, she was at a conference
with him “I went up to him and said, 'I just want you to know the
whole reason I want to do children's television was because of you.'”

she was visiting the set, then keeping in touch with Rogers. Much
later, she was working at Rogers' company. “Some of the staff had
been there for 40-plus years,” Morrison said.

agreed that the new show wouldn't have a human host, trying to match
what Rogers did. And instead of puppets, it would use newer
techniques of flash animation.

setting would be “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe” from the
original show, now in cartoon form, with some of the same people and
places. “It's such a magical world,” Santomero said.

of the songs and many of the attitudes, she said, are from the
original. “We have a 40-plus-year curriculum from the Fred Rogers
company …. We learned the Fred-ish approach.”

she uses the word “Fred-ish.” It makes sense about someone who
lived in her girlhood TV set.

– “Daniel
Tiger's Neighborhood”

Monday (Memorial Day) on most PBS stations; any will air it at 11
a.m. weekdays

Political conventions on TV -- once huge, now ... well, interesting

The storm has stirred up some complications with the Republican convention this week in Tampa. Monday's events -- including Ann Romney's speech -- have been postponed; they'll be compacted into the next three days. Here's the updated version of the convention story I sent to papers:


There was a time (really) when the big
television networks savored political conventions.

Those events had everything TV prefers
– conflict, controversy, surprise. Coverage sprawled for hours.

And now? Each convention gets only
three prime-time hours on the big networks.

“I've been reading the Walter
Cronkite biography (and) anybody would envy what they had back in
the glory days of broadcast television,” said George
Stephanopoulos, who has seen conventions as a politico and now as an
anchor of ABC's “Good Morning, America.” Cronkite and his CBS
colleagues, Stephanopoulos said. “would go on for 12, 14, 16 hours
a day, and they would run all around.”
Back in 1952, anything
was possible … including bugging. Cronkite kept telling viewers
what had just happened in closed-door meetings; Republicans were
perplexed … then found that a CBS technician had tapped into their
mikes, stringing lines to a broom-closet listening area.

This was a time when conventions
roared. “The public got a wonderful sense of participation in the
political process,”:Cronkite wrote in “A Reporter's Life”
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

The mood was big, booming – and soon
obsolete. It was, Cronkite wrote,”the last time the American public
would have such an opportunity to see our great political conclaves
in pure, undiluted form.”

Others agree. “When Cronkite did it,
it was actually real news breaking out,” said Jeff Fager, chairman
of CBS News. “There was a reason to cover (conventions) all the
time. Anything could change.”

In the past half-century, there have
been a few spontaneous moments – the chaos of 1968 Democrats …
the tight Ford-Reagan race among 1976 Republicans, with the
last-second choice of Bob Dole for vice-president … the Sarah Palin
commotion for 2008 Republicans.

Mostly, however, that's been rare. “By
1956,” Cronkite wrote, “the parties had begun to sanitize their
proceedings …. The conventions were reduced to marketing tools.”

Stephanopoulos agrees that the big
convention days are gone. “That was just a different era.”

Still, networks aren't ignoring the
events completely. He'll be at both conventions with the “GMA”
people; the NBC and CBS morning shows will also be there. So will the
evening newscasts, plus ABC's late-night “Nightline”and more.

Cable still loves the conventions.
There will be CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN and (with Al Gore
anchoring) Current. And PBS is devoting prime time to the
conventions. “This is a great example of stepping into where the
commercial marketplace isn't delivering,” said PBS programmer John

Even in these sanitized days, said PBS
anchor Judy Woodruff, there's much for reporters to do. “You can go
from delegation to delegation, find out what's on their mind, what
they are worried about.”

And you can provide perspective. “If
anything cries out for explanation and analysis, it's these political
conventions in these political years,” said PBS anchor Gwen Ifill.

Especially now, Stephanopoulos said,
with both candidates having majority disapproval ratings “This is
the only time, I think, when you see each party get the chance in a
concentrated way to make its case.”

So lots of TV people will be there.
“We'll be live,” said CBS morning anchor Charlie Rose. “We'll
have a presence there. And we'll reach out to where the big stories

They'll have fun. Just not as much fun
as Cronkite once had.

– Republican convention, Tuesday
through Thursday, Aug. 28-30, from Tampa; it was originally scheduled
for four days, but Monday's events were postponed because of storm
warnings and will be compacted into the next days.

– Democratic convention, Tuesday
through Thursday, Sept. 4-6, Charlotte, N.C.

– ABC, CBS and NBC plan primetime
coverage only at 10 p.m. ET, for the keynote speaker (Tuesdays),
vice-presidential nominees (Wednesdays), and presidential nominees
(Thursdays). They'll have more via their evening newscasts, morning
shows, Internet streaming and ABC's “Nightline.”

– Full coverage on CNN, Fox News,
MSNBC, C-SPAN, Current and (at 8 p.m. ET nightly) PBS.

TV surprises: Tough guy turns sweet, sex symbol turns grandmama-ly

The GMC cable channel keeps surprising people. That may be fairly easy to do, when many people have never heard of you -- or assumed you had something to do with trucks.

Instead, GMC makes what it calls "faith-friendly" movies, with tight budgets and notable stars. The next one airs six times this weekend (Aug. 25-26); here's the story I sent to papers:


Imagine a sudden detour – a boxer
turns mellow, a hit man becomes a saint.

That;s roughly what it's like to see
Michael Jai White star in a feel-good movie (“Somebody's Child”)
on a feel-fine cable channel (GMC, formerly Gospel Music Channel).

This is someone who often plays
toughness and menace. He's been boxing champion Mike Tyson; he's
been Gambol in “The Dark Knight,” the title role in “Black
Dynamite”and more. “Michael is this amazing action hero,” said
Lynn Whitfield, who plays his mom in “Child.”

Doesn't he need to do lots of acting
now, to play a good guy in a warm movie.

Actually, White insisted, he was “doing
more acting in the other roles. (Now) I'm playing someone closer to
who I am.”

Who he is, White said, is a Brookly guy
who was shaped by religion. “I basically grew up almost chained to
a church. I grew up two doors away from a church and I went probably
four days a week. I did everything – I sang in the choir, I played

Then he became Tyson and other tough
guys. Show business bring surprises – as Whitfield points out.
“Hailing from swinging in a banana skirt topless to (playing) this
grandmama and sick ...”

Whitfield won an Emmy for starring in
HBO's “The Josephine Baker Story,” playing a sometimes-topless
singer and dancer. Now, at 59, she's playing the mother of White, 44;
her character is a gentle soul, in desperate need of a kidney

Such surprises come from GMC, a
once-obscure channel that now reaches more than 55million homes,
generally via satellite or digital cable. It has reruns – “Touched
By An Angel” arrives next month, joining “The Waltons,”
“Sister, Sister,” “7th Heaven,” “Moesha” and
more – plus new movies that network chief Brad Siegel calls “faith

Siegel launched a screenplay contest
through the American Black Film Festival. The winning script became
GMC's recent “Raising Izzie”; an honorable-mention one became
“Somebody's Child.”

In her other life, Siddeeqah Powell has
two kids (ages 14 and 10) and a job in the aircraft parts and
distribution unit of Delta. But she's also had three novels published
and she tackled the script contest.

Then she found herself in Wilmington,
N.C., watching her idea become a movie. “Just looking at all these
people that were working to make something that was in my head and in
my mind come to life – it was surreal,” Powell said. “It still

And these weren't just any people.
There was the man who was Tyson, the woman who was Josephine Baker,
stepping into Powell's gentle story of family warmth.

– “Somebody's Child,” GMC
(formerly Gospel Music Channel)

– 7, 9 and 11 p.m. Saturday and
Sunday (Aug. 25-26), plus more reruns