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


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


"Downton Abbey" keeps surprising us ... and its actors

 "Downton Abbey" returns Sunday, in an episode that's big, ambitious and (as usual) well-crafted. There are surprises ahead ... which, actually, shouldn't surprise us. From the beginning, "Downton" has sometimes managed to startle its viewers and its cast. Here's the story I sent to papers: 



“Downton Abbey”
is back and ready to surprise us ... again.

It does that a lot,
defying the traditions of British costume dramas. “The death of
Mr. Pamuk – in the third episode of the first season – was an
incredibly important storyline,” said producer Gareth Neame. “It
showed that we weren't that dusty old genre that everybody was

The show has kept
surprising viewers ... and its cast; Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna,
has seen that: “Gareth said, 'Well ... there's a really big
storyline happening for Anna in Season 4.'”

She never imagined
how big: Anna (a “lady's maid) was raped by a visiting valet.
Fearing that her husband Bates would take vengeance and return to
prison, she kept it a secret. Then – on a day when Bates had
mysteriously disappeared – the villain was pushed to his death.

All of this caught
Froggat by surprise ... just as Allen Leech (who plays Tom) keeps
being surprised.

“I was hired for
three episodes” in the first season, Leech said, and “was lucky
enough to come back for the second, and thought that might be it. I
was expecting the 'you're fired' papers around the corner.”

Instead, Tom (the
chauffeur) and Lady Sybil (youngest of the three Crawley sisterts)
fell in love, married, moved to Tom's native Ireland and returned
after protests went bad. It was rich material ... that evaporated
when Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Sybil, decided to leave the

“I thought that
might be it for me,” Leech said. Julian Fellowes, the “Downton”
creator, disagreed.

“He actually
embraced it,” Leech said, “and he engaged with what that poor man
had to do.” Sybil died while giving birth. Now Tom is a single dad,
raising his daughter amid his former employers.

“He's still the
guy stuck in no-man's-land, between these two worlds,” Neame said.

But the Crawleys are
gradually accepting him. Even Lady Mary, Sybil's eldest sister, has
warmed up. “Mary couldn't bear the idea of Sybil uniting with (Tom)
in the beginning,” said Michelle Dockery, who plays her. “It's
amazing how their friendship has evolved.”

They have a common
cause now: Like her late husband, Mary feels the estate's farming
must be modernized; Tom agrees – and now that he's estate manager,
he can do something about it. “The character's been on an
incredible journey,” Leech said.

More surprises are
coming, he said. Such as? “Well, the unicorn farm .... Definitely
out of left field.”

Leech is like that,
with a droll humor that stands out in any drab PBS discussion. He's
become the show's social-media star, someone the others would like to
emulate -- within reason.

“I need to just
sort of relax (and) let my personality come out a little bit more
like Allen does,” Froggatt said of social media. “But not quite
as much as Allen does.”

There may be plenty
of time for that. “Downton Abbey” has a large audience and high
interest; it's currently in 1924, separated from us by 90 years and
an ocean.

-- “Masterpiece
Classi: Downton Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS.

-- Eight-week season
goes from Jan. 4 to Feb. 22; most episodes are an hour, but the
season's opener and finale are longer.

-- Previous episodes
are available at

-- The opener is
followed at 10:15 by “The Manners of Downton Abbey,” hosted by
Alastair Bruce, the show's historical advisor.

-- For more history,
“Million-Dollar American Princesses” is 8 p.m. on three Sundays,
beginning Jan. 4, on the Smithsonian Channel. It views people similar
to the show's Cora Crawley – American heiresses who married into
British nobility.

Coppola clan masters filmmaking and (really) classical music

Two things stand out from the time, long ago, when I interviewed Carmine Coppola:

1) Life is not fair. When Carmine wrote a fresh score for "Napoleon,"
the silent-movie classic, he had to create more than two hours of music
-- then conduct it at special showings. David Shire, at that time his
son-in-law, wrote maybe 11 minutes for "Norma Rae," promptly winning
praise and a best-song Oscar.

2) Sure, Carmine's son Francis Ford Coppola was known as the classic New
Yorker; he was also a guy whose hatred of Henry Ford showed in the
movie "Tucker." Still, Francis was born in Detroit ... and was partially
named after Henry Ford. Back then, his dad was a flautist for the
Detroit Symphony; the middle name reflects the hospital Francis was born
in and his dad's fondness for the automaker, a patron who was kind to

I mention that now because Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman have
created a superb series that merges humor, drama, sex and soaring
classical music. The show debuts Tuesday (Dec. 23) on Amazon; here's the
story I sent to papers:


Two powerful forces
– movies and music – ripple throught the Coppola family tree.

Now they've merged
neatly in “Mozart in the Jungle,” the new Amazon series catching
an orchestra in transition. At the core are writer-director Roman
Coppola and actor-writer Jason Schwartzman, who are cousins and
experts on artistic temperament.

“Passionate people
(working) together – and the tempers and the love of the work and
all the drama that goes into creating stuff – comes from our family
tradition,” Roman said.

He's the son of
Francis Coppola; Schwartzman is the son of actress Talia Shire,
Francis' sister. They're in the rock generation; indeed, Schwartzman
was the rock drummer for Phantom Planet and co-wrote a modest hit
(“California”) that later became the theme song for TV's “The

Still, they've been
surrounded by classical music. Their grandfather (Carmine Coppola)
was first flautist under Arturo Toscanini ... their grand-uncle Anton
Coppola (Carmine's brother) was an opera conductor and artistic
director, before retiring at 95.

“My mom loves
classical music ... and I love being with her and watching her love
it,” Schwartzman said. And so he happened to be there that night,
five years ago, when 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel took over as
conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony.

“It was so
exciting and exhilerating ... There was such a contagious feeling in
the room,” Schwartzman recalled. “And everybody was smiling.”

The cousins had
already been thinking about a series set in the classical world, he
said. They optioned “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical
Music,” the 2005 memoir of Blair Tindall, a journalist who had
spent her early years as a promising oboist in New York City. With
playwright Alex Timbers, they wrote a frothy, fictional series, with
broad swaths of humor, drama and sex.

Hailey, a young
oboist, happens into an orchestra's quaking changes. Its maestro
(Malcolm McDowell) is retiring; its leader (Bernadette Peters) wants
a fresh force. She hires a young conductor, played by Gael Garcia
Bernal, a Spanish-language film star. Chaos ensues, alongside soaring

At times, real
musicians perform; the opening minutes include a blistering solo from
violinist Joshua Bell. Mostly, however, actors must fake it

“I played a
cellist once or twice before,” said Saffron Burrows, who plays one
of the orchestra stars. “(I) didn't keep it up in-between, but at
least I'm a little kind of familiar with it.”

For Lola Kirke, this
is all knew. A virtual unknown until her pivotal “Gone Girl” role
(as the stranger who befriends Amy at a motel), she started taking
oboe lessons and dug into the role of Hailey.

Classical musicians
“are so committed to something and are almost like athletes,”
Kirke said. “You start learning how to play your instrument when
you're a child and you spend hours and hours and hours a day

They are often
passionate and sometimes desperate. They help Mozart thrive in the
modern jungle.

-- “Mozart in the

-- Amazon Prime
Instant Video;

-- Subscribers can
catch the first episode now; the 10-episode first season will be
available Tuesday (Dec. 23)


Bing and Bowie? It was just one odd moment in a far-flung life

Each December, Bing Crosby's voice flows back at us, providing images of white Christmases and simpler times. What's interesting, however, is just how complicated Crosby's own life was. A superb "American Masters" portrait is airing Tuesday (Dec. 2) on some PBS stations and later on others; here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 1977, a
Christmas special offered one of TV's great mismatches.

Bing Crosby was the
host, with David Bowie as his guest. Crosby, 74, was a pipe-puffing,
cardigan-wearing crooner, a Republican father-of-seven with 41 No. 1
singles (led by “White Christmas”) and a laidback image. Bowie,
30, had been a glam-rocker and a punker, known for cross-dressing,
wild make-up, drug addiction and bisexuality.

“You should have
seen the way he was dressed in rehearsal,” Nathaniel Crosby, Bing's
son, said. “It almost didn't happen.”

Mary Crosby, Bing's
daughter, recalls the moment Bowie and his wife arrived: “They're
both wearing full-length mink coats. They have matching full makeup
and their hair was bright red.”

And then, somehow,
the two men clicked. A new PBS profile of Crosby includes their
gorgeous duet of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth.”

That reflects the
range of a man who could pal with golf buddies and/or a glam-rocker:

-- As an actor,
Crosby spent much of his time in silly “Road” comedies with Bob
Hope, offering “just wide-open two hours of improvisation,” his
son Harry recalled. Still, he did some heavy dramas, winning an Oscar
(for “Going My Way”) and two more nominations.

-- He seemed to be
forever at leisure -- golfing, fishing, rooting for baseball's
Pittsburgh Pirates, which he co-owned. (When the Pirates got to the
World Series, his widow Kathryn recalled, he took the family to Paris
because “he was afraid he would jinx his team.”) Yet he was also
a serious businessman whose company produced solid TV dramas “Ben
Casey” and “Slattery's People.”

-- His image was
old-school, but he financed the development of tape-recording radio
shows and of multi-track music. “He was always curious .... He hung
out in the studio,” Harry Crosby said.

Crosby had broad
tastes, technically and personally. He championed under-noticed black
stars; he salvaged Judy Garland's career and had no trouble blending
with Bowie.

“They sat at the
piano,” Mary Crosby recalled, “and David was a little nervous.
And said, 'I only sing in this key.' And Dad's like, 'Don't worry;
I'll get in there somehow.'

“And then you
could just see .... them both collectively relax and then magic was

But what about the
flip side? If Crosby was so easygoing, why did his son Gary write a
book describing physical cruelty?

In some ways, that
also fits into this wide-ranging life. The PBS film says the young
Bing was a heavy drinker who was fired by a bandleader; he overcame
alcoholism, but his first wife (singer-actress Dixie Lee) never did.
Their four sons grew up amid trouble and corporal punishment.

“Bing says it in
his autobiography,” said Robert Trachtenberg, a producer of the PBS
film. “Bing says it in interviews throughout the '50s: 'I
disciplined the kids; maybe I was too hard on them.'”

Two of those sons
committed suicide; the others died at 62 and 69. But the three
children from his second marriage describe a caring father and a
happy home. They say problems were minor ... like having to join him
in the annual TV Christmas specials.

“It wasn't a good
thing for my jock image at school,” said Nathaniel, who became a
champion golfer.

“I was very upset
about the whole thing.”

The last of those
specials was taped in 1977 and shown after Crosby's heart-attack
death. It showed the world what the Crosby kids had already seen –
the quiet beauty of the Bing-and-Bowie music duo.

-- “American
Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

-- Aired Dec. 2
on many PBS stations, but that varies with pledge drive; to find it now, check