Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A Man with Dangerous Friends (1920-2007)

Allow me to add a couple of clarifications to last week’s ramble:

1) One obvious possible explanation for the accent Jane Leeves used in her role on Frasier might be simply… that is the way she actually talks. (There. I feel much better.)

2) I fear I left the impression that I thought that American chat shows are better than Irish chat shows. That was not my point. Let me try to sum up my point succinctly. American chat show hosts are generally more entertaining than the average American. Irish chat show hosts are generally more boring than the average Irish person. Is that clear?

It is a common refrain in the States to bemoan the state of TV talk shows, especially when compared to the golden age(s) of the likes of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. These days the late night yakkers tend to be focused on not wearing on the attention span of viewers with itchy fingers on their remotes or constantly being drawn to media other than television. And the synergy goals of corporate conglomerates seem to insist on more relentless uncritical focus on the movie or television show the guest on the coach is pushing that night (frequently to the profit of a sister business division)—as opposed to spontaneous discussion of the issues of the day.

I was reminded, a couple of weeks ago, how good American evening TV chat once was, as I was listening to right-wing AM radio. Well, not directly to right-wing AM radio—since I am a bit out of range of the nearest broadcaster. But I was listening to a podcast of such a show, and enjoying it very much thank you.

Bear with me, as I switch gears again. I know I seem to be rambling all over the place, and the heading above led you to believe that this would be some sort of tribute to some luminary recently departed. Patience. When we were staying up late in the 1970s to watch a brash new late-night sketch comedy show called Saturday Night Live, little did we suspect how familiar we would become with the evolving cast and what lay ahead of them. Some, like Eddie Murphy, broke out to become big stars. Too many (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Danitra Vance, Chris Farley) died young. But one future I didn’t see coming for any of the cast members of that self-consciously hip and edge New York-based late-night comedy institution was that of luminary of conservative talk radio. But, sure enough, over the years I watched former Weekend Update anchor Dennis Miller become more and more of a gadfly and move to the right. And now he is on the airwaves on the same stations that carry Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Michael Medved and others. And the big surprise is that he is wonderfully fun to listen to.

First, he is genuinely funny and, I think, actually funnier than he ever was before. Moreover, he is extremely gracious. He greets every caller like an old friend. He is eminently courteous to guests, even when he is vociferously disagreeing with them. He has a great foil in his sidekick Sal, whose laidback style fits comfortably with Miller’s somewhat more wired style. Miller is very listenable because he is not like other AM radio types, who seem to rant continually about things like how Jesus is being taken out of Christmas or the last thing that Rosie O’Donnell said. Miller is a self-described Rudy Giuliani Republican, who is extremely hawkish on national security but live-and-let-live on social issues like gay rights. The main surprise is how this comedian, best known for his cynically hip persona on Weekend Update, has mellowed into a man who exudes sincere love for the institutions of comedy, of show business in general and, it must be said, for his country. But perhaps the main attraction for listening to Miller is the lineup of great guests he gets. Predictably, some of his old SNL pals, like Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon and Norm MacDonald, drop by and provide some of the most intense hilarity I have experienced in a long time. But he also gets people like Dick Cavett, which is what got me to thinking about how good U.S. TV talk shows once were. It was great to hear Cavett’s voice again, and it brought back memories of his always witty show back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was in stitches, inappropriately I suppose, as he recalled the night that one of his guests died suddenly during live filming.

One conversation I recently enjoyed on Miller’s show via podcast had to do with the screenwriter and author Peter Viertel. I forget how it came up, but Miller was luxuriating in an anecdote that Viertel had included in his gossipy, name-dropping 1992 memoir Dangerous Friends: At Large With Huston and Hemingway in the 50‘s. As the subtitle suggests, the anecdote had to do with legendary film director John Huston and immortal novelist Ernest Hemingway, and it also involved much liquor and a potential boxing match. Hearing Viertel brought up on my MP3 player was one of those strange coincidences that seem to crop up regularly in life. I was listening to it shortly after his wife, Deborah Kerr, had died. And, as it turned out, very shortly before Viertel himself died—November 4, just 19 days after his wife. And now I am belatedly writing Viertel, just as I belatedly wrote about his late wife two weeks ago. Of course, if I were at all efficient, I should be writing this week about Ira Levin. (Sigh, next time.)

Viertel is one famous figure whose life I would actually not have minded having. He was born in Germany to a Polish mother and an Austrian father. But he grew up, from the age of 6, in southern California. He was always what one would call well-connected. His mother was a screenwriter for (and apparently fairly intimate friend of) Greta Garbo, who would join the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, Arnold Schoenberg, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood in the Viertels’ Santa Monica home. After a stint in the South Pacific with the Marines and in Europe for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, he settled into a career as a novelist and a screenwriter. His first screenplay was for Hitchcock’s Saboteur, before he joined the military. After the war, he wrote screenplays for Huston and adapted novels by Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. He went to Africa with John Huston to be a script doctor (working with Truman Capote) on The African Queen. Clearly, that experience not only generated a great supply of his famous anecdotes but also a few additional paychecks. He wrote a fictionalized version of the experience in the novel White Hunter Black Heart. Then, when Clint Eastwood decided to adapt his novel into a 1990 movie, Viertel was hired to collaborate on that screenplay.

A charming man, Viertel was able to accumulate his wealth of stories about the famous and celebrated because, not only was he rubbing shoulders with them, but he was generally the only one not drinking. His New York Times obituary quoted the Washington Post observation, “Most of the nights between 1948 and 1960 he slept in hotel rooms or in the homes of others, a kind of champion house guest invited for his charm and his talent as a storyteller.” If that doesn’t sound like a good enough of a life, consider that he married Deborah Kerr and divided his time between the Swiss resort of Klosters and a villa in Marbella, Spain, where he died. Another notable achievement: when he saw the waves at the beach in Biarritz (while working on The Sun Also Rises), this California boy had a surfboard sent to him, and he started the first surf club in Europe.

One of the best stories about Viertel involved his first marriage. Douglas Martin used it to end the NYT obituary, and I’ll shamelessly follow suit. Viertel abandoned his pregnant wife Virginia (ex-wife of Hollywood writer Budd Schulberg) for the French model Bettina Graziani, but Bettina subsequently dumped Viertel for Prince Aly Khan. (Okay, this is one part of Viertel’s life that I am glad I haven’t had.) Huston’s strange way of consoling his friend was to tell him kindly, “Aly Khan is one swell guy.” Later, it was Huston’s wife who became romantically involved with Aly Khan, and Viertel had his comeback: “John, you’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but Aly is one swell guy.”

-S.L., 15 November 2007

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