2016: Random Roles Revisited, Pt. 1

For the past few years, I’ve entertained myself – and hopefully at least a few of you folks, too – by pulling together sort of a highlight reel of the Random Roles interviews I’ve done over the course of the year. I do it partly to remind myself of the fact that freelance writing may never make me rich, but it sure does provide me with an opportunity to talk to and occasionally even meet some really cool people. I also do it as a way of displaying my wares, as it were: my readers are able to easily check to see if they’ve accidentally missed anything that I’ve posted over the year, and I can send the link to potential new employers and say, “Here are several pieces that display my skill as an interviewer.”

This is, as the title indicates, only part one. Part two will show up as soon as I’ve had a chance to pull it together and post it. There is no part three, but with that said, you should go ahead and plan on seeing a piece that’ll spotlight my favorite work for other outlets as well as my favorite non-Random Roles pieces for the AV Club.

For now, though, enjoy what’s here, and please accept my thanks for your support over the course of 2016.  It was much needed, and it remains much appreciated.

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R.I.P. Alan Thicke


2016 sucks.

I was fortunate enough to chat with the late Alan Thicke on three occasions – twice on the phone, once in person – and on each occasion he was absolutely just as nice as you’d want the man who played Jason Seaver on Growing Pains to be.

You can read the first interview, which I did for Bullz-Eye when Thicke was promoting his appearance in The Goods, by clicking here, but this is my favorite section from it:

“[Writing] was my first career. I did that for about ten years, and I was very happy with that. I completely enjoyed it and had no aspirations beyond my writing career. I just kind of stumbled into the on-camera work, at first as a host, then as an actor. I consider writing to be my craft, though. I’ve had seven Emmy nominations, and five of them were for writing. Only two of them were for acting. It’s something I’ve always been proud of, and when I go and do a banquet – I do a lot of personal appearances – I still enjoy writing for those things and getting the odd laugh. It keeps me on my toes.

“That was a great period of my life, and I’m terribly proud of [Fernwood 2-Nite]. But I wrote for Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby…a lot of the big variety shows of the ‘70s. So I’ll always consider that a big part of my life. The key to writing for Richard was to just push his buttons and then know when to push the buttons on your cassette recorder. You’d get him started, then surreptitiously start recording when he got inspired and started walking around the room and improvising in character. Then you’d get it all transcribed and take credit for it!”

The second interview took place when I was compiling my oral history of The Facts of Life for EW.com, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here. It was a short and sweet conversation, since it was very specific in topic (he wrote the theme song for the show, you know), and I didn’t go back to check and see if every word of this was used, but this is everything I submitted with the piece. As for the third interview, I did that this summer during the TCA press tour, and I have to admit that I hadn’t gotten around to transcribing it, but…well, I guess I’ll be doing that this evening. But I wanted to close with this section because when I pulled it up, I realized that his last lines directly reference his teenage son, with whom he was playing basketball when he had his fatal heart attack. They were pretty tight, I guess. To the very end.

Norman Lear and I became rather close when I was working on Fernwood 2-Nite. Music had been part of my background before that. I started off in rock bands after college, but I wasn’t much good, and the reaction of the audiences quickly taught me that I’d do better with patter than the music, which is why I started talking more and singing less. But Norman’s familiarity with my music really came by way of the little comedy ditties and silly stuff that I wrote for Fernwood 2-Nite. We had a mythical band on the show called Happy Kyne and the Mirthmakers, and I would write intentionally bad or corny songs for them, which amused Norman. He liked the style and respected my lyrical rhyme-scheming ability. [Laughs.]But all of that is what kind of led into my doing the theme for Diff’rent Strokes, and after that went well, he said, “You’re the guy we need for The Facts of Life.”

I must say, I was very proud of the internal rhyme scheme for that entire song. The opening lines are obviously the ones that everyone remembers (“You take the good, you take the bad / You take them both, and there you have / The Facts of Life / The Facts of Life”), and, of course, you don’t get to hear all of the lyrics in the 30-second version – or however long it is – that’s at the beginning of the show, and I don’t know how many of them I’ll exactly right off the top of my head, but there’s also “If you hear them from your brother / Better clear them with your mother / Better get them right / Call them late at night.” I remember that one, and then there’s also, “There’s a time you’ve got to go and show / You’re growing now, you know / About The Facts of Life, The Facts of Life.” I mean, that was a pretty ambitious internal rhyme! [Laughs.]

I’m always proud when I see (the opening lines of the theme song) show up as a spoken line in a sketch on television. I mean, I’ve seen it on Saturday Night Live, I’ve seen it on 2 Broke Girls, and someone referred me to its use on The Goldbergs… There have been a number of shows that – flatteringly – will liberally quote lines from the song like they actually meant something. And I take that as a tribute to that demographic that grew up watching that show and to whom that lyric must’ve resonated. But when stuff like that comes up and I’m sitting with my teenage son, I usually elbow him and say, “See? Your dad wasn’t such a stiff back then. I had a couple of things that stuck!”

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After failing to secure an interview, one can sometimes find solace in past successes


A few weeks ago, I got an email that thrilled me to no end. It was an invite to a junket for the new Warren Beatty film, Rules Don’t Apply, where I would’ve had the opportunity to screen the film and, after getting a good night’s sleep, sit down with Beatty and two of his co-stars, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich. Alas, the opportunity to participate in the junket failed to materialize, and I reacted by going through all five stages of grief, as is only appropriate for the loss of a bucket-list interview opportunity, but after considering the situation further, I found solace.

For one thing, Beatty is a notoriously guarded interview, and there’s no reason to think that I would have walked away from a sit-down with him feeling anything but frustration. Perhaps more importantly, though, it occurred to me that I’ve probably learned far more about Beatty from talking to people who know him and have worked with him over the years than I ever would’ve learned from talking to Beatty himself.

In truth, I put together this collection of quotes from past interviews more as a cathartic exercise than anything else, but after taking a step back and looking at the resulting piece, I realized that it was a rather entertaining read, and given that Rules Don’t Apply is in theaters now, it also happens to be timely. As such, I decided I’d post it, because why not? Even if no one reads it, I’ve already gotten everything I needed out of compiling it (I feel a lot better now, thanks), but if you do give a look-see, I hope you find it as satisfying to read as it was to compile.

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Late Night with Kevin Curran


The man you see before you is Kevin Curran. If that sentence seems familiar, it’s because it’s the same one I used to open the piece I wrote for this site upon learning of his death during the last week of October.

At the time, I offered up a story that followed Curran around throughout much of his career, as well it should have, given how awesome it is. The following day, I contributed an additional piece to the A.V. Club, one in which I offered a brief sketch of Curran’s career, after which followed a collection of quotes from several of Curran’s colleagues on The Simpsons. I felt like the obituary was the least I could do for him, given what a wonderful interview he’d given me, and yet after I’d wrapped it up, I still felt like I wanted to do something further to pay tribute to his writing career. The next thing I knew, I was in the process of putting together a new piece, this one involving a look back at Curran’s time as a writer on Late Night with David Letterman. Additionally, I decided to follow in the footsteps of other great writers by making a terrible financial decision and post the piece on my own site, which means I’m not getting paid for it. But, of course, I didn’t do it because I wanted to get paid. I did it just because it felt like something I should do.

Given that all the contributions were from former Late Night writers and most were sent via email, I didn’t really have to do much in the way of heavy lifting to turn it into a piece, but as the memories and anecdotes began to come in, I found that the quotes flowed together with remarkable cohesion, so I decided to try utilizing one of my favorite formats and see how well it would play as an oral history. I think it works. I also think it helps tell a bit more about a guy who wrote a lot of great comedy, so I hope you walk away feeling like you’ve gotten a bit of an education as well.

[Special thanks to Bill Scheft and Merrill Markoe, who helped steer me toward a couple of the contributors, and Gerard Mulligan, who gave me a great anecdote, only to realize at the last minute that he’d been wrong and that the anecdote was about another writer, not Kevin. Hey, at least he realized it before the article went live…]

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Can you hear my ‘Heart Beat’? Well, not exactly…


If you listened to any or all of the first six episodes of my podcast, Obscurity Knocks, I’d like to offer my formal apology for the fact that you haven’t yet had the opportunity hear a seventh episode.

It hasn’t been for lack of desire. It’s mostly been for lack of time combined with the lack of payment for doing Obscurity Knocks, but in addition to these things, I also experienced some frustration when I had a case of equipment failure whilst recording my interview with John Heard. This would’ve been upsetting no matter what, but it particularly upset me because I’d set up the episode with the specific intent of using it to help promote Heard’s then-upcoming film, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero.

Unfortunately, for some reason the program I’d used to record the previous six episodes didn’t work properly. Part of this can probably be attributed to the fact that he was very late calling in – so late, in fact, that I didn’t expect that he’d be calling in at all, so I didn’t even have Skype up anymore – or it may have been because he called in using video mode, which no one had done before. But in the long run, the fault is mine, because I’m the one who was recording it, and I felt so badly about it that I kept putting off trying to do another episode because I wanted to see if there was any way to make the quality of Heard’s interview worth downloading, because – sound quality aside – he’s got some absolutely amazing stories.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, when I finally had an opportunity to finish my Random Roles with Nick Nolte and began transcribing the two conversations we’d had. When I hit the point in the interview where Nolte started discussing Heart Beat, I found myself remembering how I’d talked to Heard about the film…or, to be more precise, how I brought up Heart Beat and let Heard loose to say anything and everything that crossed his mind about the film. And that’s when I realized, “Okay, maybe I can at least hear Heard well enough to transcribe what he had to say about Heart Beat, and then I can post those remarks on News Reviews Interviews along with an apology about the disappearing act that Obscurity Knocks pulled. If I do that, then maybe I’ll feel like I’ve got enough of a clean slate that I can start the show back up again.”

Well, I transcribed what Heard had to say about Heart Beat, and now that I’ve offered my apology, I’m going to post them. I guess all I need to do now is figure out who’s going to be my next guest, huh?

So here’s Mr. Heard, and I hope you’ll be hearing from me soon…

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Your bonus Nick Nolte anecdote


When I do Random Roles interviews for the AV Club, it’s become an increasingly rare occurrence for an anecdote to get dropped from a piece, and on the cases when it does happen, it’s generally for a legitimate reason. As you might imagine, that reason is generally that it’s already too long an interview to begin with and the anecdote in question doesn’t really add much to the piece.

In the case of this anecdote from Nick Nolte, there’s no question that it would’ve added something to his Random Roles interview, and given that it revolves around his aborted attempt to meet Eddie Murphy prior to the start of filming for 48 Hours, there’s no question that it’s something that readers would’ve appreciated. Still, I get why there might’ve been some hand-wringing over its inclusion, and although I noticed its absence, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised that it had vanished.

If I had to theorize as to the explanation for its disappearing act from the piece, I’d surmise that there were concerns about how readers would respond to one of Nolte’s choices of phrase, although in the context it strikes me as little more than jazz speak. Or maybe they were worried that Murphy or someone from his team would get upset about the story, even though he technically isn’t even in it.

Aw, hell, I don’t know. In fact, the only thing I do know is that Nolte mentioned at the end of our conversation that he’s in the middle of working on a memoir right now, and I guarantee he’ll use the story. I mean, he was way too gleeful as he was telling it for me to believe that he’d have that bullet in the chamber and not fire it. And since he unquestionably said it on the record, and in direct response to a question I’d asked him, I don’t see why I shouldn’t regale you folks with the story.

Plus, as Nick Nolte stories go, this one’s pretty much the Nick-Noltiest.

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Kevin Curran is gone, but his “Circus” story will live forever


The man you see before you is Kevin Curran. As you may suspect from the familiar characters in the background of this photo, he has a connection to The Simpsons: he’s credited with co-producing almost 300 episodes of the series. He was also the voice of Buck, the Bundy family’s dog, on Married with Children. To me, though, he’s the guy who provided me with one of the greatest stories that anyone has ever told me during my career as a pop culture journalist. Granted, it was a story that had made the rounds for years, and it was one that had made him a legend of sorts among his TV writer peers, but he’d never actually told the story to a journalist until he told it to me a few years ago – at the behest of fellow Simpsons producer Michael Price – for “Pilot Error,” a recurring column I was writing for the now-defunct site AntennaFree.TV.

A few minutes ago, I received an email from Michael Price. He took my breath away for a moment when he revealed that Kevin had passed away, but even with that terrible news, I still suddenly found a smile when Michael asked if I could steer him toward that piece I’d written about Kevin, because it immediately reminded me of Kevin’s story.

Unfortunately, since AntennaFree.TV is defunct, the piece isn’t readily available for viewing, but in honor of Kevin and his story, I decided that the best tribute I could possibly offer would be to post the story on my own page, so everyone can read it for themselves. If you’re mourning the loss of Kevin, this won’t make it any easier to take, but it’ll at least provide you with a few moments of levity to raise your spirits.

My sincerest condolences to Kevin’s family, friends, co-workers, and to anyone who actually knew him…as opposed to, say, just having interviewed him one time. I can at least say, though, that while it may only have been one interview, as far as I’m concerned it was one for the ages.

And with that said, let me ask you a question: did you ever hear the one about the network executive who said “Nelson” when he meant “Hirsch,” and the executive producer whose reaction to the error lost him a series?

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Boldly Going Where I’ve Gone Before for Star Trek’s 50th


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek, and while I may not have the same budget available to me as CBS-Paramount, I nonetheless wanted to mark the occasion somehow. As such, I decided to delve into my back catalog of interviews and compile a piece featuring reflections and remembrances from some of the many cast members and guest stars of the various series and films in the franchise that I’ve had the opportunity to talk Trek with. I don’t think there’s many of you out there who would’ve read all of them already (mostly because there’s at least one in the mix that has yet to see print), but even if you’ve read most of them, you’ve still never had the opportunity to read them all in one place, so please enjoy and – wait for it – live long and prosper.

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“Desperate” Memories of Michael Cimino

115051350I never interviewed Michael Cimino, whose death was confirmed earlier today, but I’ve certainly heard a fair amount about him and his various works from other people over the years.

For instance, the famed writer/director isn’t mentioned by name in Terry O’Quinn’s reminiscences about his work in Heaven’s Gate in his Random Roles interview, but if you revisit that conversation, you’ll see that his story lives up to everything you’ve ever heard about the film and how long it took to finish it.

For the most part, though, when I think of Cimino, I think of one of his lesser efforts: his remake of William Wyler’s 1955 drama The Desperate Hours, which originally starred Humphrey Bogart and Frederic March. Cimino’s version, which dropped the “The,” was released in 1990 and starred Mickey Rourke, a just barely pre-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins, and one hell of a supporting cast, including Lindsay Crouse, Elias Koteas, Kelly Lynch, David Morse, Mimi Rogers, and Shawnee Smith. Alas, Cimino’s film was not what you’d call a critical success, but when I interviewed Lynch and Morse for Random Roles, they both had anecdotes that have stuck with me for the long haul. If you’ve read the pieces in question, they may well have stuck with you, too, but just in case they haven’t, this seemed like an apropos time to share them, as they seem to confirm one thing about Cimino: he was a real handful to work with, but if you had the opportunity to do so, you almost certainly never forgot it.

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Obscurity Knocks: Episode 6 – Peter Mackenzie

PeterMackenzie25Peter Mackenzie, as you may be aware, is currently a cast member on ABC’s black-ish, and once you listen to this episode, you’ll be so happy for him that he is, because our last few topics of conversation would have you believe that most of the man’s career has involved working on pilots that never got picked up. In fact, he’s been in a lot of great stuff over the years, including films like Trumbo, 42, One Hour Photo, and Lorenzo’s Oil, not to mention more TV series than you can shake a stick at. I also must give all due credit for Peter’s appearance on the show to Michael Price (The Simpsons, F Is for Family), who recommended that I invite him on. They worked together on Homeboys from Outer Space, you know. And, yes, of course we talked about that.

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