Monday, July 27, 2020

How COP AND A HALF Divided Siskel & Ebert More Than Any Other Film

he legendary movie critics Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun Times, and Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune, may be long gone (Siskel died in 1999; Ebert in 2013), but their legacy remains strong particularly among film geeks like me who still watch their old clips on YouTube.

Siskel & Ebert (this is the official order of their names according to law and/or PBS branding), disagreed on many, many movies but none was as hilariously divisive as Henry Winkler’s (that
’s right, The Fonz) 1993 comedy COP AND A HALF.

This family-friendly buddy cop flick, which paired a tired-looking Burt Reynolds as a Tampa detective paired with 8-year Norman D. Golden II, as a kid who witnessed a murder and wants to be made a cop so he can help solve the killing.

It was a wacky premise, and one that looked pretty crappy via TV spots and the poster, especially considering how dire Reynolds’ film career was at that point. Definitely not an appealing prospect for most movie-goers.

Then this happened: On April 3, 1993, the weekend that COP AND A HALF was released, Roger Ebert led off he and Siskel’s popular syndicated series At the Movies with his review of the film (watch the clip). Usually they show a few clips before airing their opinions, but before offering up some excerpts from the film, Ebert called it “entertaining.”

After the montage of clips was over, Ebert rendered his review: “COP AND A HALF is not any kind of a masterpiece, but on the other hand, it’s not dumb and not boring either. And a lot of the credit for that goes to little Norman D. Golden II, who is a natural actor, very bright and very funny.

But, credit must also be paid to big Burt Reynolds, who takes what might’ve been a thankless role and plays it just right here, finding the right balance between toughness and humor. This movie has the kind of chemistry between the grown-up world and a smart kid that I looked for and missed in ‘HOME ALONE 2.’ It’s amusing, it moves, and somewhat to my surprise, I liked it.”

Then with perfect timing, Siskel replied: “Wow-ee, where’s your big red suit and beard, Santa? You just gave them a gift.”

Following that hilarious response, Siskel went on to say that Norman wasn’t “a particularly charismatic actor,” and that he didn’t think there “was any chemistry” between the two leads. Siskel ends his thumbs down segment saying of Ebert’s favorable review of COP AND A HALF, “I’m stunned, Roger.”

At the start of 1994, Siskel & Ebert aired their annual “Worst Movies” of the previous year round-up, and Siskel took the opportunity to again dump on COP AND A HALF. Siskel said that Reynolds performance “makes my skin crawl,” and concluded that “the only thing more unnerving than this picture is that my esteemed colleague, across the aisle, so wise, so often, is the only major film critic in America that actually recommended COP AND A HALF.”

Ebert responded: “Norman B. Golden was just wonderful in this film. Now, you have to admit it.”

“No I don’t have to admit it,” Siskel said. “He’s an okay movie kid – he’s a Hollywood acting kid.”

Siskel then barked about the script, the money, and Burt Reynolds has done too many cop pictures.

“Maybe you got up on the wrong side of bed that morning,” Ebert postulates.

“As did the rest of America,” Siskel concludes.

Ebert then said that he doubted he was the only major film critic that liked the film, but later that year, on Late Night With David Letterman, he complained to the host that “Burt Reynolds always bad mouths both of us, and I gave COP AND A HALF a good review, and I’m the only critic in the world who liked that movie. And he goes on some talk show and says ‘Siskel and Ebert don’t like anything I do,’ and, you know, why did I go out on a limb for him?’” So it seemed Ebert had accepted by then that he was the movie’s only fan as a critic.

COP AND A HALF came up now and then on At the Movies, but the most notable occasion came during the duo’s review of John Woo’s 1996 action thriller BROKEN ARROW (watch it here).

After giving a lukewarm but positive review, Siskel does something he has never done before: he changes his mind on the film turning his thumb up to a thumb down. “I’m changing my opinion, now do me one…I know you’re amazed, do me one favor, look into the camera and say ‘I was wrong about COP AND A HALF - it wasn’t a very good movie.’” Ebert refused saying, “I won’t do that, I saw things in COP AND A HALF that I admire.” “That no one else did!” Siskel responded while laughing.

A half a week after this aired, Siskel & Ebert re-hashed this conversation on another of their many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. Siskel discussed his opinion change on BROKEN ARROW, then again needled Ebert: “Roger, do you want to change your vote on COP AND A HALF, with Burt Reynolds and a little boy, and, of course, Roger, being totally insecure, said ‘no, I don’t want to.’”

The spat was notorious enough that this quote was featured in obituaries of Ebert, after he passed in 2013: “Gene didn't like APOCALYPSE NOW, and I was appalled. I liked COP AND A HALF, and Gene was appalled.”

For his part, I can’t find a single interview in which Reynolds spoke of the film. It did little to slow his career decline, something even his acclaimed Oscar-nominated role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS failed to do (it didn’t help that he hated BOOGIE NIGHTS, bad mouthing it often). Reynolds passed in 2018, sadly leaving behind a legacy in which his many bad movies may be remembered better than his few good ones.

As I mentioned at the top of this post that Siskel & Ebert are no longer with us but there’s a wealth of their great stuff on YouTube: full episodes of their series from their original show on PBS to the syndicated At the Movies franchise, plus tons of talk show appearances.

So that leaves the last leading player in the COP AND A HALF, the A HALF. Norman D. Golden II, who also goes by the name Enormus as a rapper, was asked in a 2014 for the site, “Little White Lies,” about the criticism the film received back upon release in 1993: “Critics can be cruel but that’s what they get paid to do! I honestly wasn’t really exposed to much of what the critics were saying mostly because my parents did not want that to affect my creativity.”

After all of this critical hubbub, I must say that while was roundly panned by everyone except Ebert, COP AND A HALF was actually a mild success (largely due to a small budget) and even a quarter of a century later spawned a sequel entitled COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, and newcomer Lulu Wilson, which was rightfully ignored presumably because it was a direct-to-video release.

It seems fitting that part of Ebert’s legend is that he would often stick up for the little fluffy movies that could, even when everyone else thought they couldn’t. Siskel disliking APOCALYPSE NOW or some other well received film, just doesn’t have the same likable impact as Ebert’s going against the negative flow for such a silly forgettable kids-themed comedy. COP AND A HALF may be forgettable as a film, but this funny feud between Siskel & Ebert made it one of the most memorable movies they ever talked about in their 24-year career together.

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Gary Cole

Although he started out as a dramatic actor in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Gary Cole’s career is dominated by comedic roles. After some bit parts in films, he got a big break stepping into Robert Reed’s shoes to play Mike Brady in THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE.

The hit adaptation of the seminal ‘70s series was followed by two sequels (the third is a TV movie that was largely ignored), but the role that really got him noticed was as boss Bill Lumbergh in the cult classic OFFICE SPACE. Among his many film appearances, he mostly stood out in such crass comedies as DODGEBALL, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, TAMMY, and TALLADEGA NIGHTS which he seriously stole from Will Ferrell. 

It would take all day to list his TV credits so I’ll just highlight these: The West Wing, Veep, Frasier, two different incarnations of The Twilight Zone, Harvey Birdman, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bob’s Burgers, The Good Wife (The Good Fight too), Arrested Development, Chicago Fire, and Mixed-ish. So if you could just go ahead and learn his name, yeah, that’d be great.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Mary Kay Place

Love this lady. Mary Kay Place is largely known for her Emmy-winning performance as wannabe country music star Loretta Haggers on the ‘70s sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – a role that resulted in Place recording an album in character as Lorreta, which won her a Grammy.

Her film career includes memorable roles in THE BIG CHILL, PRIVATE BENJAMIN, CAPTAIN RON, CITIZEN RUTH, PECKER, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, IT’S COMPLICATED and the recent (2018) critically acclaimed DIANE. 

Place has also seemingly has made appearances on every popular show of the last 40 years including All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Thirtysomething, My So Called Life, King of the Hill, West Wing, Law & Order, Big Love, and Grey’s Anatomy. Whew! There are so many more credits, but I gotta stop somewhere.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Names

Another actor in this series that is sadly no longer with us, J.T. Walsh had a great yet oddly unsung run from the early ‘80s up to his death in 1998 usually playing heavies or assholes or both. His debut in EDDIE MACON’S RUN was followed by small but significant parts in POWER, TIN MEN, and HOUSE OF GAMES, but it was his larger role as Robin Williams’ adversary in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM that really gave his career a boost.

After that, Walsh became ubiquitous appearing in such major motion pictures as TEQUILA SUNRISE, BACKDRAFT, A FEW GOOD MEN, HOFFA, NIXON, SLING BLADE, and literally dozens of others. The year he passed (1998), he appeared in PLEASANTVILLE, THE NEGOTIATOR, and completed work on HIDDEN AGENDA, which was released posthumously in 1999.

Oddly, his TV-work is only appearances on three shows – L.A. Law, The X Files, and Dark Skies, and one TV movie, GANG IN BLUE (1996).

Sigh, I miss this dead-eyed bully of a guy.

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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know their Name: Lynne Thigpen

Although Lynne Thigpen  passed away in 2003, the Tony-winning actress left behind a career so rich that I still see her pop up in old movies and TV shows all the time.

After reprising her stage role in the 1973 film version of the hippy musical GODSPELL, Thigpen played a major part as the D.J./narrator in the 1979 cult classic THE WARRIORS, though only her lips were seen. 

Following that were parts in TOOTSIE, STREETS OF FIRE, LEAN ON ME, BOB ROBERTS, THE INSIDER, and SHAFT (2000) alongside tons of other turns in films. 

Her television work began with the long-running soap, All My Children, then she bounced around from Gimme a Break to Roseanne to The Cosby Show to Law & Order to Homicide to…well, name a show in the 
80s and ‘90s and she likely appeared on at least one episode.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Carl Reiner: A Film Babble Blog Tribute

Yesterday, after the word spread online that comedy legend Carl Reiner had passed, it was very moving to see many people post tributes via photos, classic clips, and memories of the actor/writer/director. Reiner’s colossal career touched many people and it was interesting to see what works that people knew him from best. 

For me, it’s an amalgam of his highlights. My introduction to the man came from four classic comedies he made with then up and coming comedian Steve Martin: THE JERK, DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, and ALL OF ME. Reiner, who I think I only knew as Rob Reiner’s father (Rob, I think I only knew as “Meathead” from All in the Family as he yet to make his directorial debut with THIS IS SPINAL TAP), appeared in cameos in two of Martin’s movies – in THE JERK, he was credited as “Carl Reiner, The Celebrity,” and in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS he played a Nazi, Field Marshall VonKluck. 

But my real education into Reiner’s comedic genius came from reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show I first saw in the mid ‘80s. Reiner created the show, originally as a vehicle for himself as comedy writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frazier, The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond) put it in his RIP post on his blog yesterday:

“He wrote the first 13 episodes on spec. A pilot was even filmed. It didn’t get on the air. Producer Sheldon Leonard told him the project had tremendous potential except for one thing - Carl was wrong for the part. How many actor/writers would be insulted and just junk the project? Not Carl Reiner. Not only did he agree to recast his part, but he even named the show after the actor who replaced him. That’s humility.”

Much of The Dick Van Dyke Show focused on Van Dyke’s character Rob Petrie working as a writer on the fictional TV show The Alan Brady Show. Reiner played Brady, the blustery and vain host who would often stress out his staff. In one extremely memorable episode, Petrie’s wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) let it slip on live television that Brady wore a toupee, and was summoned to her husband’s boss’s office:

This hilarious scene, from the fifth season episode “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” is considered a classic TV moment of the era, and was one of the bits that a lot of people posted in tribute in the last day.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was largely based on Reiner’s experiences working as a writer on Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. This wasn’t in syndication (at least where I lived) when I was kid, but its legacy was well known, and later I caught up with a fair amount of its material through clips on Comedy Central. 

In 1950, Reiner met Mel Brooks on Your Show of Shows, and the duo would be best friends for the next 70 years. Brooks and Reiner created a sketch involving a 2000-year old man (Brooks), being interviewed by a reporter (Reiner). The improvised bit spawned five 2000-Year Old Man record albums, the last of which won a Grammy. 

Another crucial comedy from my youth that Reiner helmed was the 1977 film, OH, GOD!, which starred George Burns in the title role. In 2007, I wrote about the movie in this post: 

10 Reasons The 30th Anniversary Of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated (Film Babble Blog 10/3/07)

Throughout the last seven decades, Reiner has appeared in tons of shows including Night Gallery, The Carol Burnett Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You (in which he reprised the character of Alan Brady, The Bernie Mac Show, Parks and Recreation, Family Guy (!), and many, many more, but my favorite has to be when he and Brooks showed up on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (available on Netflix).

The episode, very little of which takes place in a car, makes me feel like I have an inkling of what it’s like to hang with Brooks and Reiner as they dine on a feast of take-out food, tell ancient jokes, and discuss their quintessential canons – well, mostly Mel’s.

Reiner’s filmwork as an actor includes roles in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE END, FATAL INSTINCT (which he directed), the OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy, and TOY STORY 4, in which he voiced Carl Reineroceros (Brooks also appeared as Melephant Brooks). 

Along with the Grammy, Reiner won eleven Emmys, and was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000. Okay, now I feel like I’m just re-writing his Wikipedia entry so I’ll leave you with this compilation of three of Reiner’s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 in which he was billed (most likely by himself) as “one of the best talk show guests ever”*:

* There is a wealth of great clips of one of the best talk show guests ever” on YouTube. It would be very easy, and not at all a waste of time, to fall far down the Reiner rabbit hole - take it from me.

R.I.P. Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

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