"Cancer" resonates rich emotions from the filmmakers

"Cancer" isn't your usual Ken Burns film. It does have the richly human history that we expect from Burns, but it also has long (and, sometimes, painful) visits with current cancer patients. It's a hybrid, partly spurred by the deep personal histories of some of the people involved. The film airs Monday (March 30) through Wednesday (April 1) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most of their
documentaries, Ken Burns and his colleagues can keep an emotional

They've never been
Civil War soldiers, jazzmen, speakeasy owners or pro baseball

But “Cancer” --
which continues through Wednesday – is different. The issue has
deeply affected:

-- Sharon
Rockefeller, the station-president who launched the project. A decade
ago, she was diagnosed: “I had an advanced, Stage-3B colon cancer
(with) a 20-percent chance of living five years.”

-- Edward Herrmann,
the narrator. “The first day he arrived at our studio to record,
he collapsed,” said Barak Goodman, who produced and directed the
film. “I had no idea.” Herrmann proceeded with the narration,
then explained that he had terminal brain cancer. He died Dec. 31.

-- Laura Ziskin, one of the producers. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she died at 61 in  2011. By then, she had co-founded Stand Up to Cancer and had obtained film rights to the book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer." 

-- And Burns, who
was 3 when his mother, a iotechnician, was diagnosed with breast
cancer. As far as boyhood is concerned, he says simply, “I didn't
have one.”

His family life was
often a blur of doctor visits and insurance worries. He remembers his
dad weeping with relief, when neighbors stopped in to give him “six
crisp $20 bills, to pay for doctor bills.”

Burns was almost 12
when she died; “you never get closure,” he said. As a teen-ager,
he was a film buff in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his dad taught
archaeology at the University of Michigan. As a documentary-maker, he
usually sticks to subjects well in the past ... until Rockefeller

In many ways,
Rockefeller has had a blessed life. Both her father and her husband
were long-time U.S. senators. Her dad (Charles Percy, R-Illinois) was
in the Senate for 18 years, after being a corporate president; her
husband (Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia) was there for 30 years,
after being governor, and is the great-grandson of oil mogul John D.

Still, she's also
known deep tragedy. She was 2 when her mother died of ulcerative
colitis, 21 when her sister was killed by an intruder, 60 when she
was diagnosed with cancer.

“I had every
side-effect in the book – 12 spontaneous spinal fractures, because
your bones are so weakened by radiation, several organ failures,”
she said. “But ... I was lucky. I lived.”

During a hospital
stay she read “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,”
a Pulitzer Prize-winner by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. As president of
the PBS station in Washington, D.C., she was in a position to get a
TV project done.

She linked with Ziskin -- whose busy producing career had included "Pretty Woman," "As Good as It Gets" and two Academy Award telecasts -- for TV rights. She also insisted that Burns produce it.

Burns – already
with projects planned over the next decade – says he was reluctant.
“There was no way I could stop and be the producer and director. I
also couldn't, because of my mother.”

But he agreed to
produce and co-write it, with someone else in charge. That became
Goodman, who's done 10 films for PBS' “American Experience” and
five for “Frontline.”

The result is a
hybrid – partly following current cancer patients and partly a
Burns-style look at the history of the disease. Helping with both
parts was Mukherjee, an Indian-born Columbia University doctor,
assistant professor and researcher ... and an expert on cancer's

“What surprised me
is how old it is and how new it is,” Mukherjee said.

Egyptians wrote
about the disease 4,000 years ago and had medical approaches. Still,
it wasn't until the late 19th century that doctors began
to understand cancer ... even if it was rarely mentioned.

“Someone with
cancer was sort of exiled to the attic,” Burns said. When a woman
tried to list a breast-cancer support group, she was told: “We
can't say 'breast' or 'cancer' in the New York Times.”

Shortly after that,
priorities shifted. In 1948, the fundraising “Jimmy Fund”
launched a modern push.

Mukherjee has seen
setbacks -- “the budget sequester has cost us a vast drain,” he
said – and progress. “You realize how exciting it is. Some of the
greatest discoveries are being made right now.”

Along with it come
close calls, Goodman said. “One person calls this a profession for
the manic-depressive .... It brings a real roller-coaster of

Still, he sees this
series as hopeful “The pace of discovery in the last three decades
has been astonishing and outshone the pace of discovery for the
previous century. So something has happened.”

“Cancer: The
Emperor of All Maladies”

9-11 p.m. Monday
(March 30) through Wednesday, PBS; also, www.pbs.org



Late-night TV gets a British burst of energy

This is one of the rare times when I'm thoroughly optimistic about a show before it arrives. James Corden seems perfectly suited for late-night TV ... in much the same way that Jimmy Fallon is. His show debuts Monday (March 23); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Leaping into the
late-night TV world, James Corden is juggling two extremes.

Many people have
never heard of him; some already consider him a star. Just ask:

-- Ben Winston, a
producer and long-time friend. “James has an amazing ability to
entertain,” he said.

-- Nina Tassler,
CBS' programming chief: “He's a combination of Jack Black and Fred

OK, the Jack Black
part is obvious; Cordon is chubby and cheery. But Astaire? “Rap and
dance are what I want to be known for .... I'm going to do ballet or
tap or modern on tour,” Corden said.

He's joking about
that, but the guy really has ranged from rap to Broadway. “He's an
actor, he's a writer, he's a performer,” Tassler said. “He's a
singer, he's a dancer .... He's pretty magic.”

And he seems to do
all of it with enthusiasm.

Talk-show hosts have
often kept a cool distance from their guests and their viewers.
Corden describes that in positive terms: “I was amazed at how
relaxed (Letterman) was,” he said. “There is a formal
informality, if you like, to his approach in dealing with you.”

Still, that's not
Corden's style. He praises “Jimmy Fallon's ... absolute core
enthusiasm” and says: “We want to make a warm show, ... a show
that never feels spiky.”

Corden, 36, has
middle-of-the-road roots. “I'm from High Wycombe, which you've
never heard of, in Buckinghamshire” which we also haven't heard of.

High Wycombe is a
city of 120,000, about 30 miles west of London. Corden grew up in a
town next to that; his dad was a Royal Air Force musician, his mom
was a social worker and he loved performing. At 18, he had one line
in a musical; next was TV, where Winston was a production assistant.

“I was 18, he was
20,” Winston recalled. “I would get them coffee and we would talk
about life.”

Winston remembers
seeing Corden dazzle an audience in “the most depressing club in
Europe. I knew then that he was the greatest entertainer I'd ever

Two years later,
Corden co-starred in “Fat Friends,” about a weekly slimming club.
He and one of the stars, Ruth Jones, then wrote “Gavin &
Stacey”; they gave the title roles to slim, telegenic people,
writing supporting roles for themselves. “They were the more
interesting parts,” he said.

The show was a hit
in England. In the U.S., it aired on BBC America, then was remade
with American actors as “Us & Them”; NBC shot seven episodes,
which it dumped.

By then, Corden had
seen an uncharacteristic failure, a sketch show that British critics
attacked and viewers ignored. “I absolutely wasn't putting the work
in,” he said. “It's a really mind-altering time, that first flash
of fame, and you start to perhaps think you're a bit more of a dude
than you really are.”

He went back to
work, succeeding with specials, a sports-talk-variety show and then
“One Man, Two Guv'nors.” That's a comedy play that prospered in
London, then tried Broadway.

“It was so steeped
in British humor, end-of-the-pier humor,” Corden said. “I
remember saying to my wife, 'Babe, there's a real chance this isn't
going to work. So we should rent an apartment when we get to New York
that we can get out of in a week.”

Instead, it ran five
months; he won a 2012 Tony and audience approval. “You knew that
you were in the presence of someone a little crazy and someone
incredibly talented,” Tassler said.

When he pitched
something else to CBS, she said, she and network boss Leslie Moonves
were “mesmerized.” They asked him to take over the late-late spot
Craig Ferguson has vacated.

Corden did a movie
musical (“Into the Woods”), then moved to the U.S. with his wife,
their 3-year-old and a newborn baby. It was time to try latenight TV
– presumably with enthusiasm.

-- “The Late Late
Show With James Corden”

-- 12:37 a.m.
weekdays, CBS, following David Letterman and opposite NBC's Seth

-- Starts March 23,
with Tom Hanks as guest; Reggie Watts (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”)
leads the band


Naughty royals (fictional ones) reach cable

Admit it: When the E network announced it qiyks have its first scripted series, you weren't expecting Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. Any place that only has one letter in its name (and not a particularly good letter at that) isn't going to be terribly literate.

So that series is sort of what you'd expect, with lots of attractive royals behaving badly. "The Royals" debuts Sunday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For years, cable's E
channel has offered reality shows about privileged people.

It's given us
Kardashians and Carters and Lohans, RichKids and Total Divas,
Playmates and Realtors. Most have been pretty; many have been

Now it tries its
first scripted show, which means the bad behavior can be amped up a
bit. That's in “The Royals,” which E programmer Jeff Olde calls
“a delicious, scandalous roller-coaster ride .... It's like the
real (British) royal family, if they were younger, way hotter and
trying to kill each other.”

The queen is played
by Elizabeth Hurley, 49, who mentions two disparate influences. She
said she asked herself “what would it have been like if Princess
Diana had become Queen of England. (And) some of it, we picked from
Cruella de Vil,” the Disney villain.

And the queen mother
is played by Joan Collins, 81, who seems to savor the character's
sarcastic side. “The thing that I first say to Queen Helena when I
come in (is), 'I didn't realize when you decorated you were going to
use Vegas as your theme.'”

But the real focus
here is on the young people; they are:

-- Eleanor, the wild
one. “She fronts as this confident, boozehound, table-dancing,
don't-care (person),” said Alexandra Park, who plays her. Beyond
that surface, Park said, it's like meeting “many young women (aged)
20 and realizing they're actually pretty lost.

-- Liam, her twin,
living the care-free life ... until he suddenly becomes first in line
of succession. “Liam definitely has to rethink himself,” said
William Moseley, who plays him.

-- Ophelia, a
commoner whose dad works at the palace. She's played by Merritt
Patterson, 24, who says being Canadian helps her fit the role.
“Ophelia is American, but she's now living in London, so she's
totally a fish out of water. (That) happened to me when I got there;
I had never been to London.”

One other thing may
make her seem out of place: Patterson was born the year after
Collins' “Dynasty” ended; she's never seen the show.

Hurley has. “I was
obsessed with it,” she said. When she heard who would play her
mother, she said, she cheerfully showed her son a montage of Collins'
classic “Dynasty” fight scenes.

And “Dynasty”
fandom may have extended to royalty. Collins describes meeting Queen
Elizabeth's late mother: “At a premiere, ... she said, 'Oh yes, we
all watch it.'”

Now the royal family
can watch Collins anew ... if it's willing to see fictional royals
behaving badly.

-- “The Royals,”
10 p.m. Sundays, E; opener (March 15) repeats at 11:15 p.m. and 1:30

-- Opener also
reruns at 6 and 9 p.m. Monday (March 16), 10 p.m. Wednesday, 6 p.m.
Thursday, 12:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday (March 21), 8 a.m. and 2:30 and 7
p.m. March 22

-- Also, opener
reruns on two sister channels – 11 p.m. Monday on Oxygen, 7 p.m.
Tuesday on Bravo



Hutton is award-worthy again ... after a 34-year pause

I still have mixed feelings about ABC's "American Crime" ... but not about its star; Tim Hutton is subtly superb. You can particularly savor that in the show's second episode, at 10 p.m. Thursday (March 12); you can also catch a rerun of the opener, a day earlier. Here's the story I sent to papers:

Mike Hughes

the dark depths of ABC's “American Crime,” there are few things
people can agree on.

may be this: Timothy Hutton is extraordinary. He should finally be
ready for his second major award ... some 34 years after his first

was 20 when he was named best supporting actor for “Ordinary
People,” making him the youngest male ever to win an acting Oscar.
Since then, his performances and his roles have drawn raves; the late
Ted Demme, who directed him in the 1996 “Beautiful Girls,” called
him “the greatest actor of his generation.” But these were subtle
roles in small, subtle, un-nominated films.

Hutton is in a series filled with wrenching emotions and long, tight
close-ups. John Ridley said his “Crime” scripts require “a cast
that can hold the frame, beginning to end .... It's essential to be
able to sit with these characters, to be able to feel what they're
feeling, to not look away.”

something Hutton can handle, with a subject – the complications of
parenthood – he knows well.

few years ago, we asked him what it was like to see his second son
born in Paris, on the day (Sept. 11, 2001) when the world changed.

was a garden at the hospital,” he said. “You could stand there
and look up into the rooms ….

all the rooms, you could see different people gathered around. In the
center of every room was someone holding a baby in a blanket. It all
seemed to show there could be moments of incredible joy, at the same
time that terrible things had happened.”

sort of balance fills “American Crime” and its troubled parents.
Benito Martinez, for instance, plays a dad whose tough-love code
brings aftershocks.

came back to bite him sometimes,” Martinez said. “That made the
journey difficult, interesting, real, profound .... There are other
parents in the piece as well that have been kicked in the guts.”

Hutton's character, who bounced back from years of absent fatherhood
to care deeply ... and then to wonder if he really knew his slain
son. “You understand that the layers and layers of the person's
past are going to be pushed foward,” he said.

a surface level, this role seems to fit Hutton's life. His parents
divorced when he was 3; for nine years, he was a continent away from
his dad. He became close to him, only to see him die young Later,
Hutton and his first wife (Debra Winger) divorced when their son was
2; he and his second wife divorced when their son was 7.

he has resisted any easy attempts to compare real life to the
troubled people he's played. Hutton has talked warmly of
relationships with his sons and his dad. “My parents got along so
well that Dad would stay in the house when he visited,” he told
People magazine in 1982.

Hutton was a popular actor in Los Angeles. His ex-wife moved their
two children to academic places – Cambridge, Mass. (where she got a
Master's degree), Connecticut (where she was a librarian) and
Berkeley. Timothy was 12 then, used to artistic places; his first
school play was by Euripides.

was 15 when his dad suggested he visit for the summer; that went so
well that he stayed. “The timing was perfect,” he told Rolling
Stone in '82. “We were friends on an equal level. There was a
tremendous amout of respect for each other.”

dad coached him for the school musical (“Guys and Dolls”) and did
summer-stock theater (“Harvey”) with him. After getting his high
school equivalency degree, Timothy landed some TV roles ... then was
stunned when his dad died at 45, eight weeks after being diagnosed
with cancer.

short time later,
Timothy started work
in Robert Redford's
People.” Hu won an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
had two Globe nominations (for “Taps” and the TV movie “A Long
Way Home”)
the next year --
and then lots of praise
and no nominations ... until, maybe, now.

“American Crime,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, ABC;
episode reruns at 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 11


They went from "Wheel" winnings to Amazon adventure

Sure, it's nice to get away from it all ... but maybe only a mile or two away. For some New Yorkers, the journey involves a plane ride to Peru, then a three-hour boat ride to the Amazon jungle lodge they built with "Wheel of Fortune" winnings. They're on the Travel Channel, starting Monday (March 9). Here's the story I sent to papers:

(This is a really
fun TV story about two sorta-regular Americans who built a lodge in
the Peruvian jungle. The series debuts Monday and runs six weeks, so
story works any time, print or Web.)

By Mike Hughes

One crucial day in
2012, a New York firefighter stared blankly at the “Wheel of
Fortune” board.

The letters read
“R-G-T/---N/T-/T-E/--RE.” It was a phrase that would whisk him to
the Amazon jungle... and to a reality show that debuts Monday. But at
first, it meant nothing to him.

“I didn't have a
clue,” Stephan Jablonski recalled. “I thought, 'I've gone this
far and now I was going to blow it.' Then I took a breath and thought

With four seconds
left, he blurted out “right down to the wire.” Suddenly, he had
$54,000 ($40,000 or so after taxes) that he could spend anywhere.

His fiance, Dr. Gina
Perez, suggested investment; “she's very level-headed,” Jablonski
said. His friend Rusty Johnson, who's not, suggested building a lodge
in Peru's Amazon jungle.

Somehow, the latter
idea won; now the six-part “Hotel Amazon” is a sign of enduring

The guys met when
they were 15, at a martial-arts class in Kingston, New York, the
Hudson Valley town where they still live. Jablonski, precise and
detail-oriented, became a firefighter and an emergency medical
technician – good fields for careful people; Johnson, struggling
with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, went in other
“I always had animals,” he said. “I trained a
falcon when I was 17.” He worked with Jim Fowler (“Wild
Kingdon”), wrote a book about Africa (“Twilight of the Wild”)
and did lots of school talks.

Most of all, he
said, he savored Peru and the Amazon. “The moment you stepped off
the plane, you felt the heat, felt the humidity. I loved it.”

In the city, he
liked the free-form streets and markets. (“It's almost like the
wild West.”) In the jungle, he brought people malaria nets and
medicine and found key moments.

On his 33rd
birthday, Johnson delivered a baby in the jungle; she's now 9 and
named the native word for Miracle. He also fell in love with a native
woman, Madeley; they're married and have a 5-year-old. “You feel
like he's a Peruvian man,” she says in the show,

Johnson also kept
returning home to Kingston. “Rusty's been telling me all about
this,” Jablonski said.

Then Perez suggested
that Jablonski, handy with word games, try out for “Wheel of

He got on the show
and somehow detected that B---/TO/--E/-----E (movie title) was “Back
to the Future.” Then an opponent had almost completed “synchronized
swimming,” before accidentally saying the wrong letter; Jablonski
cleaned up that one, finished big and agreed to finance the lodge.

And he finally
visited the place. First, he landed in Iquetos, a city of 420,000
that has much commotoion -- “It's sensory overload,” Jablonski
said – and no access via roads. Then came the 86-mile, three-hour
boat trip to the lodge's Yanayacu River site.

The locals were
startled by him. “They've never seen anyone so big,” one man says
on the show. “And with no hair.”

And Jablonski –
6-foot and 250, sometimes compared to actor Michael Chiklis -- was
startled by their casual pace. “I feel like one man standing
against an entire village,” he says in the show. “I feel alone.”

Expecting to stay
for two weeks, he got an extended leave for six months, scrambling to
make sure the lodge actually got built.

It did. The Wild
Yarapa Amazon Jungle Lodge – 17 rooms and a “VIP treehouse” --
has handled groups as large as 32, he said. It has Wi-fi and cell
service. And when Jablonski happens to be there, it has good access
to help with medical emergencies and/or missing-letter phrases.

-- “Hotel Amazon,”
six Mondays on Travel Channel, starting March 9

-- 10 p.m. ET,
rerunning at 1 a.m.; 7 p.m. PT, rerunning at 10

-- Information on
the lodge is at www.wildyarapa.com