Hollywood's silent minority: People with disabilities

Television can get silly at times -- as you'll notice via recent blogs on Golden Globes and Nina Turtles. Still, it can also be dead-serious. Please catch my recent blog on "Half the Sky," which runs Monday and Tuesday (Oct. 1-2) on PBS. Also, here's the story I sent to papers, about a cable series with movies about the disabled:



Fate stepped in early, choosing
Larwence Carter-Long's career.

The United Way in Indianapolis was
looking for a poster child, he recalled. “There I was, a
blond-haired 5-year-old who talked a lot.”

Now; 40 years later, he still talks a
lot, usually about social issues. On Tuesdays this month, he's
featured on Turner Classic Movies' “A History of Disability in

TCM has had series in previous years,
dealing with other minorities. This one, Carter-Long said, features
“the only minority anyone could join in an instant.”

He was born with cerebral palsy and
didn't walk until he was 5. (Today, his unsteady walking in virtually
the only indication of a disability.) Other people – real and
fictional – had to adjust quickly.

An example, he said, is in Hollywood's
classic disability film: “You couldn't do a series like this
without 'Best Years of Our Lives.'”

That's the 1946 movie about returning
soldiers. Classic Movie Companion (1999, Hyperion) calls it “a
landmark achievement,” adding that “the movie never glosses over
the reality of altered lives.'”

It won seven Academy Awards, including
best picture; Harold Russell, ;who lost both hands when an explosive
device detonated during military training, won for best supporting

Other films in the TCM line-up won
Oscars. There were five, including best picture, for “One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest” (1975); there were two acting awards for “The
Miracle Worker” (1962), one each for”Johnny Belinda (1948),
“Butterflies Are Free” (1972) and “A Patch of Blue” (1965).

Still, other movies in the series lack
such prestige. “Freaks” (1932) is a micro-budget film, featuring
people from circus sideshows. “It was uncomfortable for
(moviegoers),” Carter-Long said. “It turns out that the bad-guys
are the beautiful blond con men.”

For years, Carter-Long ran a disability
film series that had the slogan “no handkerchief needed, no heroism
required.” He seems equally opposed to films that paint disability
as an all-consuming tragedy and ones that show the disabled person
being relentlessly heroic. The latter, he said, “is a lot to live
up to. It's exhausting to be inspirational all the time.”

Some films resist the heroism impulse.
Susan Peters – who became paraplegic after a hunting accident –
played a wheelchair-bound villain in “The Sign of the Ram” (1948)

Such casting was rare back then. In
modern times, Carter-Long likes seeing cable's “Switched at Birth”
blend deaf and hearing characters; he cheers the fact that Robert
David Hall, who has prosthetic legs, has been integral to “CSI”
for all 13seasons.

In past years, such casting was rare.
Peters had only one more role – playing a lawyer in a 15-minute
daytime series on NBC, before her death (attributed to anorexia) at
31. After winning his Oscars, Russell waited 36 years for his next
movie role.

The films, Tuesdays, Turner Classic
Movies; all times ET

– Oct. 2: “An Affair to
Remember”(1957), 8 p.m.; “A Patch of Blue” (1965), 10:15;
“Butterflies are Free” (1972), 12:15 a.m.; “Gaby – A True
Story” (1987), 2:15; “Sign of the Ram” (1948), 4:15.

– Oct. 9: “Lucky Star” (1929), 8
p.m.; “The Best Years of Our Lives”(1946), 9:45; “Reach For the
Sky” ( 1956), 12:45 a..; “Bright Victory” (1951), 3:15 a.m.

– Oct. 16: “Eyes in the Night”
(1942), 8 p.m.; “23 Paces to Baker Street” (1956), 9:30; “Johnny
Belinda” (1948), 11:30; “The Miracle Worker” (1962), 1:30 a.m.

– Oct.23: “A Child is Waiting”
(1963), 8 p.m.; “Mandy” (1953), 10 p.m.; “Of Mice and Men”
(1939), midnight; “Charly” (1968), 2 a.m.

– Oct. 30: “The Unknown” (1929),
8 p.m.; “Freaks” (1932), 9:15; “Bedlam” (1946), 10:30; “One
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (1975),. midnight.


This Hollywood princess now has her own show

It's good to be second-generation Hollywood, better to be third-generation ... and best to have actual talent, while being in a well-made show.

Dakota Johnson qualifies on all counts. On Tuesday, she shares a comedy hour with her mother and grandmother; here's the story I sent to papers: 


The rewards to royalty can vary.
England's princesses might become queen; Hollywood's become Miss
Golden Globes.

That happened to Dakota Johnson, six
years ago. “It was terrifying,” she said, “absolutely

It was also a sign of her fortunate
birth. Another comes Tuesday, with three generations on Fox:

– On “Raising Hope” (8 p.m.),
Melanie Griffith plays the self-obsessed mother of Sabrina. Tippi
Hedren plays Griffith's mother, which she is in real life.

– Then comes “Ben and Kate” at
8:30. It stars Johnson, Griffith's daughter and Hedren's

The tradition started with Hedren, a
Nordic beauty who starred in “The Birds” and “Marnie” for
Alfred Hitchcock.“The Hitchcock blondes are kind of revered in the
motion picture business,” she said.

Her life has included movies, TV, lions
(she runs the Shambala Preserve in California), four marriages and
three children, one of them famous. That's Griffith, who was 14 when
she began her affair with actor Don Johnson; they were married twice
and had one child, Dakota.

These are people with colorful lives.
Hedren, 82, describes screening an upcoming HBO film, which centers
on Hitchcock's thwarted obsession with her. “At the end of it,
nobody moved. Nobody said anything until my daughter, Melanie
Griffith, jumped up and said, 'Now I have to go back to therapy.'”

Surrounded by interesting people
(including stepdad Antonio Banderas), Johnson was drawn to acting. “I
didn't know any different,” she said. As a girl, “I thought about
being lots of different things, but the one thing that stuck with me
(was) telling stories and acting.”

First came the notion of a Hollywood
daughter being Miss Golden Globes. That's been a tradition since
1971, but only a few of the Misses went on to be famous – Anne
Archer (1971), Laura Dern ('82) and Joely Fisher ('87) – plus
Griffith in '75 and Johnson in 2006, the only mother-daughter set.

Johnson did that at 16, was a model
after high school, then landed small roles in big movies (“The
Social Network,” “21 Jump Street”) and the lead in “Ben and

Dana Fox created the show, based on her
relationship with her free-form brother. Fox says she chose Johnson
because “she wasn't afraid to look silly or stupid.”

As Johnson tells it, she is afraid of
having her flashy parents as guest stars. “It's not their show,”
she said, perhaps jokingly. “This is for me.”

Still, her mom and grandma will come
close to invading her turf. They'll share an hour on Fox.

– “Raising Hope” and “Ben and
Kate,” 8 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Fox

– Season-opener for “Hope,”
second episide for “Kate”


Yes, there is joy in "Half the Sky"

Waves of despair seem to fill "Half the Sky." This is a jolting documentary (Monday and Tuesday on PBS) about the mistreatent of women and girl.

The surprise, however, is how much hope and joy the film also delivers. It profiles heroes who beat the odds; here's the story I sent to papers:


Churning through “Half the Sky” are
deep stories of human tragedy.

“Sky” – the book and the PBS
documentary – finds females being abused worldwide.

“There are women who were trafficked
at the age of 13,” said Urmi Basu, who works with prostitutes and
their daughters in her native India. “As young girls, (they were)
raped multiple times … and then grow up to look after children of
their own, with absolutely no resources.”

Some of the abuses are dismissed as
local or religious traditions. Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of the book,
disagrees.”My grandmother's feet were bound …. It was a
centuries-old (Chinese) tradition,” she said. “To disrupt that
kind of tradition was really kind of amazing to think about.”

WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof (her
husband and fellow New York Times reporter) wrote “Sky.” For the
two-night documentary, he revisited six of the locations, in each
case bringing a Hollywood actress.

The people they met were not interested
in Hollywood, Meg Ryan said. “They just wanted hugs.”

They wanted to meet someone from
another world, said America Ferrera. “They really just wanted to
know what was my mom was like and and where did I grow up and what do
I do with my friends and if I had seen 'Titanic' and did I know that
song that Celine Dion sang and could they sing it for me.”

These girls won't have to repeat the
prostitution some of their mothers face, Kristof said, because of
efforts by Basu and others. “Side-by-side with the worst of
humanity, you encounter the very best.”

Here are some examples:

– INDIA: Basu grew up in Calcutta,
the daughter of a doctor and a health-care professional. “I had a
very privileged life,” she said.

She studied sociology, worked with
organizations, then decided to be more direct. “I got into that
red-light district quite by chance,” she said, “ and this project
started with $200.”

That's New Light, which provides girls
with education and housing. That impressed Ferrera: “I was
witnessing about100 children whose lives were forever changed by the
decision of one person.”

– SOMALILAND: Like Basu, Edna Adan
Ismail grew up comfortably. “She was the daughter of an amazing
doctor and grew up basically playing in the hospital,” actress
Diane Lane said.

When Somali civil war broke out in th
1980s, she fled and became a United Nations health official. Later,
her husband was president of Somaliland from 1993 to his death in
2002; she was foreign minister from 2003-6.

Along the way, Lane said, Ismail made a
key decision. “She sold her Mercedes and her jewelry and started
her life over.” In 2002, she opened a maternity hospital on a
former garbage dump, training nurses and midwives in advance. Now it
doubles as a hospital and nursing school.

– CAMBODIA: Unlike Basu and Ismail,
Somaly Mam grew up without money or education. “She was trafficked,
I think, starting when she was 12 or14,” Ryan said, “and spent 10
years as a prostitute.”

She says she doesn't know her real
name, her age (about 41) or her parents. An aid worker helped her
escape to Paris, where she became a nurse. Mam set up a foundation
and returned to her homeland.

“What she does is rescue girls in the
same situations (she was in),” Ryan said. “She has several
centers” for them to live in.

“She is this unbelievably glamorous
individual with a sort of cult of personality …. This woman can
walk down the street and inspire these girls (who) know, just by
looking at her, there's a way out.”

“Half the Sky”

– The book: Alfred Knopf, 2009

– The documentary: 9-11 p.m. Monday
and Tuesday, PBS (check local listings); see www.pbs.org.


Turtles-plus-25: Now it almost seems logical

The predictable world of TV cartoons needed something fresh and different. It got it -- from ninja turtles and Animaniacs and Ren and Stimpy and more. Now one of those game-changing shows, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," returns this weekend (Sept. 28-30); here's the story I sent to papers:


In a logical world, Rob Paulsen might
have ignored this assignment.

He was asked to play a turtle who has
martial-arts skills and a passion for pizza. Fortunately, he took the
job; now he's back in a new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”
special, 25 years later.

“I was vaguely familiar (with) this
underground comic,” Paulsen recalled of that 1987 cartoon. “My
first thought was, 'This is really a gas.'”

Besides, cartoon-voice actors will try
anything. He had already been a soldier, a Smurf, a Snork and a
spaceball. He'd been a gander, a Fraggle and a kid from India.

In the decades ahead, Paulsen would be
a pig, a parrot, a possum and a pitbull. He'd be a squirrel, a
walrus, ,a rooster, an owl, a gopher, a terrier, a dinosaur, an
anteater and an alligator, plus a rude dog, a biker mouse and many
kinds of bears – panda, cub and Gummi. So why not a ninja turtle?

Still, most underground things rarely
survive on the surface. This would be an exception.

That first comic book, in 1984, was
gritty and black-and-white. Three years later, a toy company
(Playmates) licensed rights to make action figures; to sell them, it
tried a TV cartoon with a lighter tone, voice-over pros and a
handful of trial episodes.

“They aired to sort of a lukewarm
response,” Paulsen recalled. “Playmates decided to do … 13 and
finally it took off.”

And soared. “It's the coolest thing
ever,” insists Greg Cipes – who was then a 7-year-old “Turtles”
fan and now does the voice of Michaelangelo.

The show would run 10 seasons and 193
episodes. It would spin off other things, some with Paulsen (video
games) and any without. There have been three live-action movies, an
animated movie and two more series, one animated and one live-action.

Now it's Nickelodeon's turn, with this
special and (later) the fourth series. “We tried to keep that
comedy element,” producer Ciro Nieli said, but also added the
faster action that computers allow.

There's one other change, he said: The
human friend, April, used to seem “kind of like a mother”; now
she's “this hip, cool, young, energetic person.”

The turtles are younger too, Nieli
said. “The one component we really wanted to bring to the show was
the word 'teenage,'” which previous versions “either glanced over
or completely betrayed.”

That means Paulsen – Raphael in the
original series, Donatello now – passes Henry Winkler as the
oldest person to play a teen-ager. When work started, he said, his
co-stars “were being very respectful. They also reminded me of how
incredibly old I am.”

He's 56, Sean Astin (Raphael) is 40,
Jason Biggs (Leonardo) is 34 and Cipes is 32 and smitten. “The
Turtles taught me how to meditate, got me into martial arts,” he

Those episodes are just one piece of
Paulsen's past. “I've done almost 2,500 episodes,” he said.

He's been a captain, a baron and a
prince, plus Gen. Custer and Napoleon. He's also been Mother Goose,
the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, plus a mirror a doorbell and a
tomato. As Pinky (in “Pinky and the Brain”) he won a daytime Emmy
and three Annies.

He's been characters with names like
Dickie Dastardly, Rhomboid Vreedle, Mr. Prickle, Mr. Wheezer, Dr.
Otto Scratchensnif and Dr. Sigmund Fruit. Ninja turtledom is just
another day at the office.

– “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,”

– One-hour opener is 11 a.m.
Saturday, repeating at noon and 6 p.m., then at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

– Prior to that, the first half of
that hour also airs at 8 p.m. Friday

It's time to call these midwives

The new "Call the Midwife" series will grow on you, in the same way the midwife job grows on the central character.

At first, "Midwife" seems too harsh, too dark, too depressing. As the seven-week series continues, however, it gives us wide-eyed characters worth knowing.

"Midwife" starts at 8 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 30) on most PBS stations. Here's the story I sent to papers:


There are people who spend their lives
in cozy comfort zones.

Then there are ones who try new worlds.
Jenny Lee was like that; Jessica Raine – who plays her in the new
PBS drama “Call the Midwife” – sort of knows the feeling.

Lee grew up comfortably in small-town
England and tried the standard jobs – grammar-school secretary,
hospital nurse. Then, in the early 1950s, she became a midwife on
London's East End.

For someone from a river-valley town,
this was a huge leap. “It was a bustling world in transition,”
said PBS programming chief John Wilson,with “wretched poverty,
unemployment, child labor, prostitution and record levels of infant

There were plenty of infants, at a time
before birth-control pills. In her memoir, Jennifer Worth (formerly
Jenny Lee) told of one patient who had 24 children.

That book came out in 2002, long after
Worth had left nursing. (She died last year, at 75.) It became a
non-fiction best-seller, then was adapted into this scripted drama.

The result has a few veteran actresses;
Judy Parfitt and Jenny Agutter plays nuns Lee worked with, Vanessa
Redgrave does the author's narration. The key roles, however, went to
relative newcomers – topped by Raine, who has
outside-the-comfort-zone instincts.

After growing up on a farm, Raine went
to college, taught English in Thailand for a year, then moved to
London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, then soon landed the
“Midwife” role.

“I had been doing mostly theater
work,” she said. “So walking onto a set and going, 'OK, I've got
to be the lead in this huge series,' … I felt a bit like Jenny Lee
… going, 'What am I going to do?'”

There was much to learn, from body
language – “Jenny Lee is much posher than me” – to riding
old-style bikes. “The padding on the seats does not say much,”
said Helen George,who plays high-spirited Trixie. “And we ride on
cobbles. So learning to deal with the pain factor while cycling was

And there was the art of delivery.
Neither Raine nor George has had a baby; after filming scenes of
drug-free childbirth, neither is in a hurry to have one. “We know
too much,” George said.

They studied birthing films and did
scenes with prosthetic babies – including one with a detachable
penis, so it can be a boy or girl. A technical advisor discussed
midwives' techniques and emotions..

On one hand, they must seem steady.
“Midwives are the center of calm in the room,” Raine said

On the other, the advisor showed that
emotion is part of the job. “She still cries,” George said. “And
the woman has delivered thousands of babies.”
The “Midwife”
series ranges, from pain and poverty (especially in the first hour)
to humor and romance (especially later). In England, it caught on
quickly. George remembers being at a wedding reception and noticing
there were fewer people. “I said, 'Where has everybody gone?'And
they'd gone upstairs to watch 'Call the Midwife.'”

For Raine, such popularity was a jolt.
“It was overnight for me,” she said. “I remember I was doing a
play in London and traveling to work on the train.'” On the day
after “Midwife” had started, a woman quickly spotted her.
”There's a little gap between the seats and she … kept peeping

Raine's life had changed instantly,
just as Jenny Lee's did in 1950s London.

– “Call the Midwife,” 8 p.m.
Sundays, PBS, beginning Sept. 30 (check local listings)

– Seven-week series; a second season
is being filmed now