December 28, 1984: Sam Peckinpah Dies

On this day in 1984, Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure in Inglewood, California. The hard-living, volatile filmmaker was 59 years old.

Sam PeckinpahOn this day in 1984, Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure in Inglewood, California. The hard-living, volatile filmmaker was 59 years old.

Peckinpah was born in Fresno, California, and worked odd jobs before taking a position in 1954 as a Dialogue Director on “Riot in Cell Block 11.” In 1961, he made his directorial debut with “The Deadly Companions.” From there, he fought with countless producers, actors and executives, drank tequila for breakfast and made some of the most important movies of the 1960s and 70s. Here they are.

  • Ride the High Country (1962): The only pairing of Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea is a classic. While it was not as provocative as Peckinpah’s later work, it is one of the 50 greatest westerns ever made.
  • The Wild Bunch (1969): Worth seeing for so many reasons, including the look Ernest Borgnine gives William Holden before they take on a Mexican army.
  • Straw Dogs (1971): The story of a pacifist mathematician and his wife being terrorized in their small British town will have you full of rage by the time is it over.
  • Junior Bonner (1972): This amusing tale of a dysfunctional Arizona rodeo family showed Peckinpah’s warmer side.
  • Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974): Some found this movie appalling. Others thought it was a masterpiece. Either way, it is hard to forget.

December 25, 1992: Trespass Released

On this day in 1992, “Trespass” was released in U.S. movie theaters. This flick is one of the more underappreciated movies of the 1990s, but was quietly released in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Trespass PosterOn this day in 1992, “Trespass was released in U.S. movie theaters. This flick is one of the more underappreciated movies of the 1990s, but was quietly released in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Back to the Future” co-writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis conceived the movie, originally called “Looters,” as an update to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” This time, two Arkansas firemen (played by Bill Paxton and William Sadler) and a crew of drug dealers (the leaders played by Ice-T and Ice Cube) battled over the lost treasure in an abandoned building in East St. Louis, Illinois. Legendary action director Walter Hill helmed the picture and the result was a wickedly entertaining cat-and-mouse action picture.

The film was slated for summer release in 1992 and Premiere magazine projected it to be one of the top 20 grossing films of the season. However, the riots in May of 1992 prompted Universal Pictures to move the release to December and change the name to “Trespass.” The film is widely respected but was lost in the holiday shuffle and did not recoup its $17 million budget.

Nevertheless, the film is available on DVD and can be streamed and is worth seeing.

December 24, 1981: Mad Max 2 Released in Australia

On this day in 1981, “Mad Max 2” was released in Australia. Six months later, it was released in the United States as “The Road Warrior.”

Mad Max 2 PosterOn this day in 1981, “Mad Max 2” was released in Australia. Six months later, it was released in the United States as “The Road Warrior.”

The first “Mad Max” was released in 1979 and was an international success. Shot on a budget of around half a million dollars, this film about a ex-cop getting revenge on the bikers that killed his family in an apocalyptic future blew audiences minds with its amazing and violent car chases. The only country where it did not do well was the United States, in part because the Mel Gibson’s and all of the other actors’ voices were dubbed for the American release.

A sequel was inevitable and with it director George Miller upped the ante. With a budget of around $4 million, the plot centered around Max helping a town haul its tanker of gasoline past a degenerate biker gang to a better life. The climax is a 30-minute, 30-car chase that has never been duplicated.

Mad Max 2” was a commercial and critical success in the U.S. and made Gibson an international star (this time, he wasn’t dubbed in the U.S. release). Another sequel, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” was released in 1985 and a prequel “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which takes place between the first two movies and stars Tom Hardy as Max, is scheduled for release in 2015.

December 22, 1999: Any Given Sunday Released

On this day in 1999, “Any Given Sunday” was released in U.S. movie theaters. Director Oliver Stone’s take on professional football did not work in a lot of areas, but did feature the greatest speech ever captured in a sports movie.

Any Given Sunday PosterOn this day in 1999, “Any Given Sunday” was released in U.S. movie theaters. Director Oliver Stone’s take on professional football did not work in a lot of areas, but did feature the greatest speech ever captured in a sports movie.

When I heard that Stone would be making a film about football with Al Pacino playing the head coach and Dennis Quaid playing the aging quarterback, I got excited. However, in its near three-hour running time, it exposed nothing new about pro football and the plot about a team and immature quarterback overcoming their dysfunction to win the big game was bit clichéd. The film did have its bright moments, but as the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “if some studio executive came along and made Stone cut his movie down to two hours, I have the strangest feeling it wouldn’t lose much of substance and might even play better.” I have to agree.

All that being said, Pacino’s speech before the opening playoff is the greatest pre-game speech in movie history. You can have “Win one for the Gipper.” I’ll take “Piece by inches” any day.

December 18, 1946: Steven Spielberg Born

On this day in 1946, Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time.

Steven SpielbergOn this day in 1946, Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time.

While he has made numerous classics as a director, he has been a producer on a variety of films ranging from “Poltergeist” to the “Back to the Future” trilogy to the Coen brothers remake of “True Grit.”  While his influence varies with each one, it can still be seen.

A good portion of the films that Spielberg has directed is now quintessential American cinema, but there are a few gems that have been forgotten. Here a few worth revisiting.

  • Duel (1971): This TV movie in which a business commuter (Dennis Weaver) is terrorized by a crazed trucker was the first to show Spielberg’s talent and is as frightening today as it was 40 years ago.
  • The Sugerland Express (1974): His feature film debut is the only time he ever made a lovers-on-the-run picture. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): This entry in the series is best remembered for its darkness and violence. That’s a true shame, considering that it’s second only to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
  • Always (1989):A Guy Named Joe” is retold about firefighters out west. This film is forgotten, but is funny and heartbreaking all at once.
  • Munich (2005): The story of the Black September aftermath was an Academy Award Best Picture nominee. Considering that Spielberg’s best movie since “Schindler’s List” lost to “Crash,” it’s safe to say that it didn’t get the appreciation it deserved.

November 21, 1986: Dar Robinson Dies

On this day in 1986, Dar Robinson died while filming a routine stunt on the set of “Million Dollar Mystery” in Page, Arizona. One of the greatest stuntmen in movie history was 39 years old.

Dar RobinsonOn this day in 1986, Dar Robinson died while filming a routine stunt on the set of “Million Dollar Mystery” in Page, Arizona. One of the greatest stuntmen in movie history was 39 years old.

When you watch a movie or a television show and you see an overhead shot of a character falling from a building, you can thank Robinson (If you can’t tell the difference between blue screens and CGI, bless your heart.). He invented the decelerator, which allowed wire cable to slow a fall instead of the traditional airbag. It freed filmmakers and stuntmen to be much more creative in how they filmed those type of stunts.

Robinson’s work was featured in many memorable movies, including “Lethal Weapon” (dedicated to his memory), “Magnum Force”, “Stick” and “Papillon”. In 1979, Robinson fell 700 feet from Toronto’s CN Tower in the movie, “Highpoint” (video below).

On the set of “Million Dollar Mystery”, Robinson was performing a high-speed motorcycle drive-by in front of a camera. He didn’t brake in time and went straight off a cliff to his death.

In 1995, he received a posthumous honorary Academy Award for his work.

November 14, 1962: Harland Williams Born

On this day in 1962, Harland Williams was born in Toronto, Canada. The comedian has made a career in movies and honing a unique schtick in stand-up comedy.

harland_williamsOn this day in 1962, Harland Williams was born in Toronto, Canada. The comedian has made a career in movies and honing a unique schtick in stand-up comedy.

“Hey buddy, you ever go to Chinatown and try the squid lips?” he asked me at the D.C. Improv years ago. It was the first time a comedian has ever asked me a question at a show.

Williams’ many movie roles include the serial killer in “There’s Something About Mary” and the state trooper who ends up drinking urine in “Dumb and Dumber.” My mother and I went to see him perform that night not because we are fans, but because the Improv is always fun and fairly inexpensive.

All the comedians who perform there have strengths and Williams’ was the random questions he asked the audience. He asked a lot of my mother, but they were always tasteful and followed up with “ma’am” so I didn’t have to worry if that night would also be the first time I threw a beer bottle at a stage performer.

But since asking those questions are his schtick, I was disappointed that my question was so lame. I would have rather been the guy asked if he’d ever tried to see how many onion rings he could stack on his penis or the long-haired audience member who kept getting questions about The Doors.

I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. The guy who kept getting The Doors questions also got the nickname of Jim Morrison. I was wearing an argyle sweater so I suppose I would have been given a nickname like Cliff Huxtable of something like that.

November 10, 1932: Roy Scheider Born

On this day in 1932, Roy Scheider was born in Orange, New Jersey. During his six decades in movies, he excelled at playing everymen placed in extraordinary situations.

Roy ScheiderOn this day in 1932, Roy Scheider was born in Orange, New Jersey. During his six decades in movies, he excelled at playing everymen placed in extraordinary situations.

Scheider appeared in numerous memorable films of the 1970s, most notably “The French Connection” and “Jaws.” While he was relegated to B-movies and television during the last 15 years, it was always a treat to see him in any medium. For example, his performance as Frank Castle’s father in “The Punisher” was the best aspect of an otherwise dreadful movie.

Sadly, Scheider passed away from myeloma in 2008. Below are five of his greatest performances.

  • Klute (1971): Scheider’s breakthrough performance was as Jane Fonda’s sleazy pimp who treats controlling and destroying women as simply business.
  • The French Connection (1971): Gene Hackman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an asshole cop who would burn anyone to make a bust. The only reason you cared about him was because of Scheider’s performance as his partner whose philosophy was, “If I didn’t like this guy, who would?”
  • The Seven-Ups (1973): This movie features one of the great car chases ever captured on celluloid. Car chases are made great by two things: visuals and purpose. Scheider gives it the latter.
  • Jaws (1975): If your town is ever threatened by some leviathan, pray that your police chief has the composure and courage of Scheider’s Martin Brody.
  • All That Jazz (1979): Scheider’s favorite performance was of the self-destructive director/choreographer Joe Gideon.  Throughout the picture, you may be disgusted with him, but you never stop rooting for him.

 

November 5, 1913: Vivien Leigh Born

On this day in 1913, Vivien Hartley was born in Darjeeling, British India (now India). Under her stage name, Vivien Leigh, she gave 20 movie performances, two of which earned her Academy Awards.

Vivien LeighOn this day in 1913, Vivien Hartley was born in Darjeeling, British India (now India). Under her stage name, Vivien Leigh, she gave 20 movie performances, two of which earned her Academy Awards.

Leigh acted very little during her career in part because she suffered from bipolar disorder and contracted tuberculosis in the mid-1940s. The latter would claim her life in 1967.  She had actually won the Tony Award just four years earlier for Best Actress in a Musical in “Tovarich.”

Her work helped create some of the greatest movies of all time. Here are a few essentials.

Gone with the Wind (1939): There are many reasons to watch one of the greatest movies ever made. Leigh’s Oscar-winning performance is one of them.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): Marlon Brando actually wrote in his autobiography that Leigh was so great in her role as Blanche because, sadly, she actually was Blanche. Regardless, the performance garnered her second Academy Award.

Ship of Fools (1965): In her last film, Leigh plays a divorcee traveling on a cruise ship from Mexico to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Onboard, she has a flirtation with Lee Marvin, which is funny, sad and bit a creepy.

October 30, 1949: Leon Rippy Born

On this day in 1949, Leon Rippy was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He has become one of the more recognizable character actors working today.

Leon RippyOn this day in 1949, Leon Rippy was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He has become one of the more recognizable character actors working today.

Rippy has acted in more than 60 movies and television shows and more than 70 plays. He has not had his career-defining role, and here’s hoping a television show creator with HBO, FX or AMC will give him that opportunity. In the meantime, here are some of his most memorable performances.

  • Chiefs (1983): In his acting debut, Rippy has no trouble being convincing as a Southern Klansman in this CBS miniseries based on the Stuart Woods’ novel.
  • Young Guns II (1990): “Best $1.80 I’ve ever spent.”
  • Kuffs (1991): It’s hard to make a villain disgustingly foul, but Rippy seems to do it with ease.
  • Beyond the Law (1993): In this underrated B-movie, an FBI agent (Charlie Sheen) infiltrates a biker gang with the guidance of an old pro played by Rippy.
  • Saving Grace (2007): The Lord works in mysterious ways and in this series, he answers the title character’s (Holly Hunter) prayers in the form of a scruffy Rippy.