Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Southfork cum Irish silverware

It never fails. A mere two weeks after I publicly made the sweeping generalization that people in countries outside the United States don’t label their own movies’ titles with their own nationality, like the Yanks do (e.g. American Gangster, American Graffiti, etc.), a movie was released in the UK with the title A Very British Gangster. Oh well.

It should be noted, however, that this is not a feature film like the ones in the long list of flicks cited here with the modifier “American” in the title. Directed by Donal MacIntyre, it is a documentary about one Dominic Noonan, aka Lattlay Fottfoy. But it still seems to fit the mold of an individual character being used as an archetype for a whole nation. So, depending on your point of view, this is the exception that proves my rule—or I was just plain wrong.

Let’s quickly change the subject. At this time of year when, among other things, copious spending runs rampant, it’s worthwhile to look back at the 1980s when today’s levels of conspicuous consumerism seems to have begun. One of the several TV series of that era that seemed to catch the spirit of getting money and spending it was the primetime soap Dallas. I have confessed before that I actually followed the series during its initial run. In a strange way this also ties into something I have written recently. Two weeks ago I mused on the 40th anniversary of the movie The Graduate and recounted hearing National Public Radio’s Fresh Air reprise past interviews with some of the people involved in the making of the film. As I listened to director Mike Nichols talk about how he came to shoot Dustin Hoffman through Anne Bancroft’s arched leg and interviewer Terri Gross note that the iconic shot was used for the famous movie poster, something gnawed in my dusty old memory. Didn’t I hear or read once that it wasn’t really Bancroft’s leg in the poster? Wasn’t there a stand-in or, in this case, an arch-in? Did the leg actually belong to Mary Tyler Moore? Wait, no, her legs (but not the rest of her) were used in the TV series Richard Diamond, Private Detective, as the hero’s sultry answering service girl. I would have to wait a week before the answer would magically be provided to me.

And the answer came on one of those Irish TV chat shows that I was criticizing just last month. (Can I tie things together or what?) The woman who provided the arched leg for the movie poster was a guest on The Late Late Show. At the time she took the job for the Graduate poster, she was an unknown model and her name was Linda Gray. Coincidentally, decades after being a body-part stand=in for the character of Mrs. Robinson, she became one of several well-known actors to play the role in a musical stage version of The Graduate.

Before I leave the topic of The Graduate (again), allow me to supplement my previous reminiscence of it by the following information, which I gleaned from the Internet Movie Database. According to contributors to the IMDB, actors considered for the Dustin Hoffman role included Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Lee Stanley, Charles Grodin, Jack Nicholson and Burt Ward (of Batman fame). Actors considered for the Katharine Ross role are said to have included Candice Bergen, Patty Duke and Sally Field. The real surprise, if the IMDB is to be believed, is the number of actors who were offered/considered for/turned down/had nailed down the role of Mrs. Robinson. I have written before about how Grayson Hall supposedly had the part lined up. And in my more recent look at the movie, I noted that Doris Day had been thought of for the part, although one IMDB contribution insists the offer never reached her. Other actors apparently up for the role that established Anne Bancroft forever include Jeanne Moreau, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland and Patricia Neal, who was still recovering from a stroke. One more bit of trivia: IMDB says Hoffman’s former roommate Gene Hackman was cast as Mr. Robinson but was fired after a few weeks.

But back to Linda Gray and The Late Late Show. She was not featured on the program because of early leg work or her latter-day turn as Mrs. Robinson. She, along with former co-star Charlene Tilton, were on Irish TV because of their years of work on the TV series Dallas. When you are out of the U.S., you get a better appreciation of just what a worldwide phenomenon that series was. And the obvious question is: why? The reason I am still asking that question is that I am basically clueless about what most people want to watch on television. I would say that I have a checkered history in predicting which new TV shows will succeed and which will fail, but my record is not even good enough to be checkered. “Checkered” implies that I get it right at least some of the time. I remember when, in 1971, both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore each had a new sitcom. The two, of course, had together made TV history in the first half of the 1960s playing husband and wife in the classic Dick Van Dyke Show. Van Dyke’s show will obviously be another hit, I thought. After all, he was the real talent on his 1960s sitcom. Poor Mary Tyler Moore’s show won’t stand a chance, I worried. Of course, today no one remembers The New Dick Van Dyke Show (with Hope Lange as his wife), whereas the Mary Tyler Moore show was a seminal television landmark that still lives and breathes today. Later on, I would be indifferent to the first episodes of Cheers, Seinfeld (too much talk, I thought), even Frasier (not enough like Cheers, I thought) and Friends (trying too hard to be like Seinfeld, I thought). Instead, I picked as winners shows like Flying Blind and Bakersfield P.D., both short-lived wonders on the Fox network in the early 1990s, but whose quality I still defend. The former starred Corey Parker and Téa Leoni as, respectively, the sheltered young man from the suburbs and the too-hip-to-live urban woman he gets involved with. The latter, apart from being perhaps the only TV show to be set in the city of my birth, was a wonderfully subtle and knowing parody of TV cop shows.

As it happens, I actually saw the very first episode of Dallas when it was broadcast back in 1978. Who is going to watch this every week? I wondered. Hardly anything happens. This won’t be around long. The rest, of course, is history. If I couldn’t see the series’ appeal to the American TV audience, I certainly hade no clue that it would be embraced around the globe. I got an insight into its penetration when I discovered that my future wife, who when I met her was so pop-culture-challenged that she knew virtually nothing about Star Trek, knew all about J.R. and Sue Ellen. Back in the 1980s, Irish audiences—like people everywhere—were entranced by the Ewings. Some of the appeal seems to have been the voyeuristic aspect of seeing how the filthy rich lived—something that would make an impression on a country like Ireland which, at the time, was still a poor country by American and European standards. The Missus recounted how she and her sisters oohed and aahed at Sue Ellen’s clothes and hair and thought this is how all American women dressed and looked. Her bubble was burst when she finally made a trip to Boston to visit her aunt and uncle and found women in track suits and curlers in their hair shopping at K-Mart. The Dallas mystique still prevails here. Even today, you can still find it on television most days of the week.

As I watched Gray and Tilton get interviewed last Friday, it was clear that the memory of those days is still strong among people who remember what Ireland was like before the vaunted Celtic Tiger economy lifted a good bit of the country into Dallas levels of excessive affluence. The two actors had been brought over by Newbridge Silverware, known for its fine jewelry and giftware, as part of a promotion that brought together all kinds of symbols of wealth and class. Gray and Tilton, neither of whom had ever been in Ireland before, seemed thrilled to be getting all the attention. Neither is running away from the association with the TV show which probably typecast them forever. Gray looks remarkably similar to the old Sue Ellen (especially when compared to Larry Hagman these days), although with the obvious help of crates of makeup. Tilton, who played the naughty nymphet Lucy, has a harder comparison as a mature woman. Today she looks and sounds eerily like Sally Struthers.

Of course, fascination with the Ewings goes beyond the Emerald Isle. Last spring I caught a sort of reality program on Britain’s Channel 4 called Bring Back… Dallas, which followed a very funny man named Justin Lee Collins as he apparently ambushed various members of the old Dallas cast as they innocently went about their ordinary lives in southern California. The premise was that he had challenged himself to bring them all together at a reunion dinner in one week. The various segments came off a little too well to seem completely spontaneous, but it was good fun, even if he failed to get any of them to show up at his dinner. He did, however, manage to find the man who had “played” baby Christopher as an infant—something that seemed to be a bit of an obsession.

Surely, after all these years plus the fact that we keep getting report after report on the bad effects of fossil fuels on the environment and climate change—not to mention eight years of a former Texas oil man in the White House—we have had enough of the whole Dallas thing by now, right? Apparently not. Next year we can look forward to Dallas getting the big-screen treatment, with John Travolta as J.R. Ewing.

-S.L., 13 December 2007

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