Freeman's "Fargo": The quiet eloquence of "Minnesota nice"

During a busy blur of new cable shows, "Fargo" is the one that seized my attention. The series (which starts at 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 15) is good in every way -- beautifully written, filmed and -- with Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton playing opposites -- acted. And as someone who has spent a lot of time in Minnesota, I can attest to the fact that it captures that region's quiet and quirky charm. Here's the story I sent to papers:


British actors quickly become masters of big words, long
sentences, grand speeches.

Starring in the new “Fargo” series, however, Martin Freeman
goes the opposite way. “You have the so-called ‘Minnesota nice,’” he said.

These are Northern folks who don’t spend much time
lecturing. They were created in the 1996 movie by Minneapolis natives (Joel and
Ethan Coen) who know the turf.

“It’s a much more stoic culture,” said Noah Hawley, who
produces the TV version. “People don’t like to talk about their feelings.” It’s
a culture another Minnesotan (Garrison Keillor) captures on radio, Hawley said,
complete with “a lot of sentences started and abandoned.”

It’s a quiet and trusting world, creating fierce contrasts when
grisly murders appear. It’s also light years from the New York City where Hawley
grew up or the Texas where Allison Tolman (who plays a cop) grew up. “Southern
women (are often) lying about how great everything is,” she said.

And it’s a jump for Freeman, who has conquered British
classics – Hobbit, Holmes and Hitchhiker.

He stars in the “Hobbit” movies, starred in the 2005
“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and is Watson in PBS’ “Sherlock” series. In
each case, he says, he had a big respect, but not a superfan background. “If you’re
too close to something, too invested, it can be difficult to play.”

And he entered into “Fargo” with a respect for the movie. “You’re
in a world between humor and drama, which is a beautiful set-up.”

Like many Englishmen, he grew up around clever comedy. “I
remember loving ‘Monty Python’ when I was 5, holding my sides laughing, because
it was so silly.’”

The next year, he moved (with his mother and four siblings) from
the military town of Aldershot to a London suburb. There, his life had little
in common with that of Lester Nygaard, the bullied “Fargo” guy.

“I was always a small kid,” Freeman said, but “with the
tough guys, I was always the mascot …. I could make them laugh.” He managed to
co-exist with nerds and jocks. “I liked the kids who could talk about (actor)
Peter Sellers, but also liked the ones who gave the nuns a hard time.”

He joined a theater group at 15, went to acting school at 17,
got OK roles in theater, movies and TV, then drew attention at 30, in the British
version of “The Office.” A decade later, his hot streak began.

“You get too busy,” Freeman said. “But as an actor, if you’re
not doing something you start to worry.”

There hasn’t been much time with long-time partner Amanda Abbington
(who plays Miss Mardle on PBS’ “Mr. Selfridge” series) and their two children. The
best time came when “Sherlock” cast her as Watson’s wife. “I think I got it
because Martin and I have quite good chemistry,” she joked.

Mostly, Freeman has been gone. He raced from New Zealand
(doing “Hobbit”) to Calgary, a Canadian province facing one of its toughest winters.
“I’ve never seen that much white,” he said.

It was a fiercely cold place to film “Fargo”; it was also a
reminder of why Northerners can be so stoic.

“Fargo,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX; debuts April 15,
rerunning at 11:37 p.m.

Opener then has latenight reruns on Wednesday
night (12:21 a.m.), Thursday night (1:02 a.m.) and Saturday night (1 a.m.)

Oinks and all, Chris P. is a charming star

TV critics meet a lot of stars during their trips to California, but few match the personal appeal of Chris P. Bacon. Yes, he's a pig (a small, two-legged one), but he has accepted his fate with a sense of grace and joy. He'll be part of a charming PBS special Wednesday (April 9); here's the story I sent to papers:


Chris P. Bacon should be used to the complications of fame.

He’s a two-legged pig with a three-book deal, occasional TV
appearances and a key spot Wednesday in a feel-good PBS special. He’s used to
traveling … but not used to changing time zones.

“He woke me up at 3 this morning,” Dr. Len Lucero said after
they met with TV critics in Pasadena. “He’s still on Florida time.”

Still, he’s a cheerful traveler. “He has a lot of body
movements that mimic happiness,” Lucero said. “But for the most part, we assume
if (pigs are) quiet, they’re happy.”

Bacon’s colleague onstage was more visible in his joy.
Roofus, a golden retriever, is blind and lame (with non-functioning front legs),
yet upbeat. “He’s a very happy guy,” said Kathy Weir, his human.

He has, after all, survived an awful start. Roofus and his
brother, who is also blind, were abandoned in a park. They were taken to a
golden-retriever rescue agency, where Weir and a friend decided to take turns
caring for him … and to provide part of the $1,500 needed for prosthetic legs.

Such critter-prosthetics are becoming more common, said
Martin Kaufman, a Denver man who specializes in them. “If you can do it for a
two-patient, let’s do it for the four-legged,” he said.

Dogs are the biggest winners; the PBS special has Roofus and
others, but also includes a pony’s new foreleg, plus a beak for a swan and a
tail for an alligator. And it includes Bacon, in a category of his own.

With all sorts of troubled animals in his veterinary
practice, Lucero still noticed Chris. “Looking at this otherwise healthy animal
just crawl across the exam table, it didn’t seem right to put (him) to sleep.”

So he took him home. “I come walking in with this box and this
squeaky little pig inside, and everybody thought that they heard a bird …. I
told my family that we needed to find a home for this pet. And without batting
an eye, my wife stands up and says, ‘Well, you just found one.’”

Their kids, then ages 15 and 17, also approved. One of their
old toys was re-purposed, providing wheels in lieu of hind legs. Soon dubbed
Chris P. Bacon (after an old videogame character), he began making the rounds
in the passenger seat of the truck. Lucero calls him “my veterinary assistant.”

Soon, people noticed. A video quickly drew more than a
million views; Chris became one of the world’s best-known Bacons, alongside
Kevin, Canadian and Sir Francis. His story became an amiable children’s book.
He did TV appearances pleasantly … as long as he didn’t switch time zones.

“Nature: My Bionic Pet,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, PBS
(check local listings)

“Chris P. Bacon: My Life So Far,” Hay House

Blue-collar rockers made audiences glad all over


A half-century ago, music’s “British invasion” sent careers
into hyper-speed.

Forget about agents and such. Dave Clark, then a 22-year-old
former movie extra, was negotiating with the heads of Warner Brothers, “The Ed
Sullivan Show” and EMI records. He got great deals:

EMI said he could own the records after three
years. “In those days, there was no such thing as longevity,” Clark said. “They
thought you would be one-, two-, three-hit wonders.”

Sullivan flew the Dave Clark Five to New York,
where they did his show two days after at least one of them was still doing his
British factory job. “They appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ 18 times, more
than … any other act except for Topo Gigio,” said Stephen Segaller, programming
director for WNET, which produced a rambunctious new Clark special airing
Tuesday on PBS.

And even Jack Warner, movie master, made

This was when most rock movies were universally awful. “It
was a bit like when I met Elvis,” Clark, 72,’ recalled. “He said, ‘You see one
of my films, you’ve seem then all.’”

Now, Clark recalled, Warner was sitting at one end of a
giant table. “He said, ‘My daughter loves you. I want to do a movie with you.’”

Clark insisted on a real story – music only in the
background -- and wanted to choose the director. Warner agreed, he said,
“providing the film was out there for the drive-ins next summer.’”

Then Clark chose director John Boorman, whose work he’d seen
in a TV documentary. Their movie – called “Having a Wild Weekend” in the U.S. –
made no box-office splash, but drew a rave from demanding critic Pauline Kael
and some others.

Boorman would go on to a long career, directing “Deliverance,”
“Excalibur” and more. The band’s life would be hot -- it “recorded 13 albums in
four years,” Segaller said – and brief, breaking up in 1970,.

It had the right preparation, Clark said; here were five
blue-collar mates who savored soccer and did long shows in tiny English places.
“You played at the dives where they would throw things at you.”

Then came big dance halls and American air bases. “There
were lots of records on the jukebox that were never played in England, like ‘Do
You Love Me,’ ‘Twist and Shout,’ ‘Over and Over.’”

Clark built his band in the style of the American
rhythm-and-blues groups, complete with keyboards and saxophone. “I wasn’t that
good a drummer,” he said. “I drummed for the fun of it.”

It was a vigorous, kinetic style; in the PBS film,
Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg talks about copying Dave Clark moves. And amid
those high-energy, high-decibel instruments, there was Mike Smith. “He was one
of the most underrated singers,” Clark said.

This was a band that could switch to a gentle ballad –
“Because” or (during a royal charity concert) “Georgia.” Then the drums would
pound again and the Dave Clark Five boomed, over and over.

“The Dave Clark Five: Glad All Over,” 8-10 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS (check local listings), under the “Great Performances” banner.

It's time for spy master of (really) the Revolutionary War

On Sunday, our cable-TV attention turns back -- way back -- to spies in the Revolutionary War. Here's the story I sent to papers:


In his English school days, Jamie Bell’s knowledge of the
Revolutionary War was limited, but accurate.

“They taught us that we lost,” he said.

Then teachers returned to kings and such, ignoring talk
about the irritable colonies. “I don’t think to this day it’s something we look
on particularly fondly.” That’s fine, because:

He had bigger things to worry about. Bell was
the young star of “Billy Elliot,” the soaring movie about a blue-collar kid who
wants to be a dancer.

And now he’s getting a crash course in the war.
In the “Turn” series, ironically, he plays an American spying on the British.

That starts with an essential problem: “George Washington …
was being massively outspied,” said Joel Stillerman, AMC’s programming chief.
Then he found “the Culper Ring, a small group of young men and women who risked
everything to (match) the British army’s very sophisticated espionage program.”

Soon, historian Alexander Rose said, the general was
savoring the mental adventure.

“We always tend to think of Washington as this solemn sort
of figure on a one-dollar bill, who’s completely and utterly humorless,” Rose
said. “But … he took this very deep interest in the goings-on of this very
obscure bunch of people on Long Island.”

Rose had come across a brief reference to the spy ring; he
went to libraries to learn more … and found almost nothing. Soon, he was in the
Library of Congress. “If you search very carefully, you find the entire
correspondence that Washington had with the Culper Ring. (In spy matters,) you
never find that, ever.”

What Rose found were the first steps of a sort of art form  He wrote a non-fiction book, which producer
Craig Silverstein saw as ideal for scripted drama: “The birth of modern trade
craft was worked out here through trial and error – aliases, cover stories,
dead drops … a lot of cryptography. These things were invented by the Culver
Ring, out of necessity.”

Now that has been turned into TV drama, with Bell as a
farmer who reluctantly gets tugged into the revolution. And yes, that sometimes
mean evil Englishmen. “They used to stable their horses in … a Presbyterian
church,” Rose said. “So it was just sort of adding insult to injury.”

It got worse, Silverstein said: “The British tore up the
gravestones in this town and used them to fortify … as kind of extra shielding
against a musket shot.”

Two sides with common ancestry split. “It really was more of
a sibling rivalry,” Bell said. And now he gets to play someone on the winning

“Turn,” 9 p.m. Sundays, AMC; 90-minute debut
April 6, then an hour

Opener reruns at 10:30 p.m.; then 2:30 p.m. Tuesday;
10:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. April 12; 7:30 p.m. April 13, before the second
episode at 9 and the “Mad Men” debut at 10


Small-town Southerner conquers Broadway; PBS is next

Trust me on this: Patina Miller is one terrific singer. In January, I heard her soar effortlessly from Broadway to jazz and beyond; now she'll do that Friday (March 28) on "Live From Lincoln Center." It's been a busy time for someone who's just a decade removed from small-town South Carolina. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Patina Miller might be getting used to being a big-time,
big-city star. She has:

Revived a Broadway role that Ben Vereen made
famous. “On opening night of ‘Pippin,’ he sat right behind my mom,” she said. “No
pressure; it was really crazy.”

Won a Tony Award for that role, on an historic
night. “There were four African-Americans that won the Tonys, all in the same
year,” said Leslie Uggams, who was once the only black star of Broadway
musicals. “That really showed that there are more shows that are opening up for

And prepared for Friday’s big moment, a PBS
concert from the prestigious Lincoln Center. “It’s going to be inspired by some
of my favorite music – Broadway, R&B, gospel, jazz,” Miller said.

This city success is happening to someone who grew up in
Pageland, a South Carolina town of 2,500.

“There weren’t a lot of artistic opportunities,” Miller, 29,
said. “So the things that I found were watching movies … and watching programs
on PBS.”

This was a single-parent family, short on money but long on encouragement.
“My mom and my grandmother were both very strong women,” Miller said. “And my
mom always said, ‘They can tell you no, (but) somebody’s going to say yes.’”

After hearing her sing at home and in a gospel choir, her
mother looked for more opportunities. Miller recalls being 9 or 10 and “going
to a summer arts program about three towns away …. I would get up in the
morning when all the kids were sleeping and I would go on the little bus.”

Next came a boarding school (South Carolina’s School for the
Arts and Humanities) and a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University. And then
a short-cut to success … almost.

At 21, Miller was one of three finalists to play Effie in
the “Dreamgirls” movie. Jennifer Hudson got the role and an Academy Award;
Miller took a more gradual route.

In New York, she did a soap opera (“All My Children”) and
two non-Broadway musicals; in London, she starred in “Sister Act” and received
an Olivier Award nomination. She also received a Tony nomination when the show
reached New York, but her next Broadway show was the big on

“Pippin” cast Miller as The Leading Player, the show’s
razzle-dazzle narrator. This version would have more dazzle than ever; she
would do the opening number upside-down on a trapeze. That took nerve -- “I’m
afraid of heights; I didn’t tell anyone” – and physical fitness; the fitness
comes in handy in her upcoming movie role as Commander Paylor, a rebel leader
in the third “Hunger Games” movie.

Miller continues to do “Pippin” and has major fans,
including Vereen (who has seen the show several more times), Uggams (who calls
her “quite astounding as a performer” and Andrew Wilk, the “Live From Lincoln
Center” producer.

“Patina is a powerhouse vocalist,” Wilk said. Now he’s
giving her an hour to unleash that power.

“Live From Lincoln Center,” with Patina Miller
in concert;  9 p.m. Friday, PBS (check
local listings)