Wednesday, February 16, 2005

'Believe It or Not,' it's sold out!

I don't know whether to be depressed or amazed.

Last night, two friends and I ventured out to Best Buy on what I thought would be a simple outing: to purchase "The Greatest American Hero" on DVD. I had watched this program as a kid and had been anticipating the DVD release as a nostalgic trip back to childhood.

Little did I know, we were about to embark on an improbable adventure.

The show was an entertaining, if somewhat cheesy, comedy adventure starring William Katt as a high school special ed teacher, Ralph Hinkley, who is given a suit that contains special powers when he encounters aliens on a field trip to the desert.

Hinkley becomes an unwilling government employee, assisting agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) by using the suit's powers for the forces of good. The only problem was that Hinkley quickly lost the instructions to the suit, so he was constantly running into buildings and creating havoc.

The program was the brainchild of prolific TV producer Stephen J. Cannell and ran on ABC's primetime lineup from 1981 to 1983. (Its theme song, "The Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)," was a top five smash hit for Joey Scarbury in the summer of 1981.) The program debuted in March 1981 to big ratings and plenty of hype. It finished the season as a hit, although trouble was brewing from nearly the beginning.

DC Comics sued the producers of the program and attempted to prevent it from airing, claiming it was ripping off Superman. A judge ruled in the show's favor and it aired as planned. Then, just after the series premiere, a man named John Hinckley ( spelling with a "c") attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan. The nervous network had Hinkley's name dubbed "Hanley" and he was also referred to as "Mr. H" for a few episodes. (The name eventually reverted back to Hinkley.)

By the 1981-82 season, the ratings had begun to drop and when the show was renewed for a third season in 1982, ABC unwisely moved the show to Friday nights to compete with "Knight Rider" and "Dallas." The ratings tanked even further and the program was canceled in March 1983.

I was amazed when the announcement came that the show was being released on DVD. I suspected this would be a novelty item and would be purchased by a few collectors and the show's few (I thought) fans.

Much to my surprise as I walked to the DVD section at Best Buy last night, the show was sold out. Completely. On the first day of release.

Thinking that perhaps fans were attracted to Best Buy's sale price ($17.99), we headed to Target to find the set. Nothing.

What had began as a fun night out had become a quixotic search for a show none of us could believe was still this sought after.

Our next stop was Wal-Mart. Sold out.

Stops at Borders, another Target and two other Wal-Marts also proved to be wasted trips. We were beginning to feel like we were caught in an episode of "Seinfeld."

Stunned, we finally gave up and I returned home and ordered the DVD set on Best Buy's web site. Amazingly enough, as of this morning had the show listed as #22 in DVD sales. Who knew? Adding to the unbelievability, the show's second season is already slated for release on April 5.

Believe it or not, 20 plus years later, "The Greatest American Hero" is still walking on air...

Monday, February 07, 2005

That's Entertainment...or it used to be

I gave up on Paul McCartney during the Super Bowl halftime show in favor of a friend's DVD of the Rat Pack live in concert from 1965. God, it was good.

The late, great Johnny Carson hosted the program, cracking jokes and making one remember how much fun the old "Tonight Show" used to be. After a few wisecracks, suddenly there was Dino Martin, looking suave as usual, singing Roger Miller's "King of the Road."

Martin told a few jokes and crooned awhile, treating the audience to "Everybody Loves Somebody" and "Volare." He was such an underrated talent. Although he played second bananna to the whirling dervish that was Jerry Lewis (and often to Sinatra, too), Martin was a star in his own right. Watch him for a few moments and you'll see what I mean.

Switching back to see if the game was on, Sir Paul was lip-syncing to "Baby You Can Drive My Car." Puke.

After Dino came Sammy Davis, with his friendly smile, belting out showtunes. The other day, TV Land was airing his last TV appearance, when he tapped danced for the last time. He was a treasure. Here's hoping Mr. Bojangles is dancing for God somewhere up in Heaven.

Being short on time, we fast forwarded to the Chairman of the Board. Nobody could sing a pop song like Frankie. His phrasing was priceless.

We then fast forwarded to the three of them performing together, with Carson standing by offering an occasional joke and even part of a song.

"Imagine what it was like being in that audience," a friend remarked. "What an all-star cast."

Indeed. Popular music has never been as good as it was during that era. For all of their splash, the Beatles couldn't polish the Rat Pack's cocktail glasses. Sorry, Sir Paul.

Perhaps Dudley Moore said it best. His character George Webber, in Blake Edwards' 1979 hit "10", laments over the worthlessness of pop music.

"Can you imagine anyone sitting around nostalgically in 20 years singing 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?'" Webber askes at one point.

Not hardly.

Night and day, Frankie, you are still the one....

'Million Dollar Baby' a champ

Rarely these days is a movie released that makes you think.

Most of the offerings out of Hollywood are little more than two hour special effects extravaganzas with a little music and dialogue thrown in. The bigger the bang, the bigger the buck at the box office.

Which is what makes "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood's brilliant new film, a masterpiece. There is not an explosion in the entire movie. No char chases. No gunfights.

But there is plenty of character development, shockingly enough. Plenty of good old fashioned dialogue. And (gasp!) well acted scenes and a point behind the plot.

Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, an aging boxing cut man, full of pain and self doubt. He goes to mass every day, often to chastise his youthful, well-meaning priest. He reads poetry and studies foreign languages. And he runs a gym and trains prizefighters.

How could you not like a character like that?

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is from the rough side of the tracks. She grew up dirt poor, in the trailer park. But she is full of passion and has a strong work ethic. She wants to box and she wants Dunn to teach her.

He turns her down flat, saying he doesn't train girls. She pays for six months time at his gym and he reluctantly allows her to stay, telling Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), "don't encourage her."

The former boxer does anyway and Maggie slowly begins to develop. After Dunn's star prizefighter leaves him for another manager, Dunn takes Maggie under his wing.

What follows is a quietly powerful film about dreams, regrets and difficult choices. It is Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven" and perhaps his best film, period.

The plot, based on boxing stories by F.X. Toole, is allowed to unfold on its own, taking time for characters to develop and a story to be told. Such technique is so rare in Hollywood these days, one should take time to savor every minute of it.

In the end, "Million Dollar Baby" offers a few lessons on life and on dreaming dreams. It may be the best film of the year. If it doesn't dominate the Academy Awards, that organization will have become a bigger joke than the Downtown Athletic Club.

This movie is a champ.