Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Robin Williams!

I mentioned Robin Williams in my last post, in regard to the Disney short film that he appeared in with Walter Cronkite. As it happens, today is Robin Williams' birthday, so I figured I should celebrate it with this little novelty pictured above. Here's the story behind this particular caricature:

Back in 1982 I went out to visit my friend, Bryan Stoller, whom I had grown up with in Ottawa but who was at that time aspiring to become a film director in LA after having graduated from the American Film Institute. Bryan had made some contacts within several of the studios, enabling us to visit the set of the series, Bret Maverick, filming at Warner Brothers, where I got to meet my hero, James Garner. I've written about this at great length in this previous post. But Bryan also knew a producer at Paramount, and was therefore able to get us onto the set of the popular sitcom, Mork and Mindy, which was pretty much what had launched the career of Robin Williams, playing Mork, the alien sent to study earthlings.

When we arrived on the set, the cast and crew were busy rehearsing for that week's show, with the director setting up camera angles as the actors went through their paces. Bryan and I went up into the empty stands where the audience would sit for the taping at the end of the week. I had brought along my sketchbook and so I started sketching the cast while they rehearsed. This was to be the final season of the series, and Jonathan Winters had joined the cast as Mork and Mindy's (strangely fully grown adult) baby, Mearth, hatched from an egg laid by poppa Mork. (Okay, the 70s really was a strange decade!) The main reason that Winters had been added to the cast, however, was that he had been the lifelong comedic idol of Robin Williams, who had patterned his own scattergun style of improv comedy after this comedy legend.

One of the most memorable events while watching this rehearsal came when the cast took a short break while the camera crew set up the next shot. Jonathan Winters had wandered over to a chair on the set and had started a one way conversation with it. Robin noticed what he was doing and was soon joining in on this madcap bit of improv with the chair. It was really neat to see how these two guys, the master and his disciple, worked off of each other, obviously having great fun with such off-the-cuff invention.

After they were through with the rehearsal, Bryan and I went down to say hello to the cast and the producer, Gene Sultan, who had kindly given us permission to visit the set. I showed them the quick sketch caricatures I'd been doing and the cast members were quite excited with them. We accompanied them back to their breakroom for coffee and to chat for a bit, and they asked if they could photocopy my sketches. Interestingly, I found Robin himself to be a bit quiet and reserved, quite unlike what I would have expected. In contrast, Jonathan Winters was very outgoing and funny, and even sketched a cartoon for me! I must admit, though, that I was most of all enjoying the company of Pam Dawber, who played Mindy. Pam was just as cute and sweet in person as she was on the show, and I came away quite smitten! As our visit wrapped up, the producer gave us tickets to come back and attend the show's taping at the end of the week. I couldn't believe how gracious they had all been and I wanted to do something for them in return.

Once I had returned back home from my trip, I decided to work up the rough sketches (as well as some new ones I drew from the TV show) into a finished piece of art. Actually, I did three identical originals, then mailed them to Bryan with the instructions to keep one for himself as thanks, and to give one to the producer, Gene Sultan, and hopefully see if he could get the cast to autograph and return one to me. Bryan came through, and several weeks later I received my original back, signed by the cast, as well as an 8 x 10 photo reproduction of it. There was also a note from the producer, thanking me for the caricature and hoping that I didn't mind him taking the liberty of having it printed up and distributed to all the cast and crew at the end of season wrap party. Of course I was flattered that he had done that, happy that they all had a momento of their final season that featured my art.

Just as a postscript, I've always thought it was funny how similar an approach Disney animator, Eric Goldberg had 10 years later in caricaturing Robin Williams' features and incorporating them into his design of Genie in Aladdin. Both Eric and I are highly influenced by famed caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld, so I think we were both somewhat guided by his sense of flowing design in the facial features. It's uncanny how similar our approach is when you look at that profile of Genie in the centre of this model sheet:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite Signs Off For The Last Time.

Though he lived a long and full life, passing away at the ripe old age of 92, Walter Cronkite will be well missed. I was too young at the time to have witnessed the pivotal moments in America's history that he famously covered, such as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, or the first walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong. But for a teenager growing up in the 1970s, Walter Cronkite was a familiar and comforting presence on the evening news, speaking in that calmly reassuring voice of quiet authority. In fact, with his bushy eyebrows, neatly trimmed mustache, and warm midwestern tones, he very much put me in mind of that other Walter - the one who went by the name, Walt Disney.

Like Disney, Walter Cronkite came across to we youngsters as a trusted older uncle or grandfather type. It's no wonder that he had earned the nickname, "The Most Trusted Man in America", as he always seemed to be giving us the straight goods, devoid of the type of hype we're fed today, especially on the all-news channels. I suspect that I wasn't the only one who had noticed his similarity to Walt Disney, as there seemed to be a distinct Disney connection for Cronkite in his later years. On October 1st 1982, my family and I were at Walt Disney World for the opening day of EPCOT Center, and it was very exciting to be among the first guests to experience this new park. Of course, we wanted to do things right, and immediately joined the big line-up just inside the park entrance for the attraction within EPCOT's iconic geosphere, Spaceship Earth. This attraction was sponsored by Bell, and simulated a time machine trip through the history of communication. As guests who visited Spaceship Earth in the early years will recall, the narrator of this trip through time was none other than Walter Cronkite. Again, I couldn't help but think of Walt Disney's voice back when he hosted his TV show, as I listened to the warm, rumbly midwestern tones of Mr. Cronkite.

A few years later, Walter Cronkite would make an onscreen appearance at another Disney theme park - the Disney/MGM Studios that opened in 1989. He appeared alongside Robin Williams in the whimsical featurette, Back To Neverland, that accompanied the Animation Tour at Disney's Florida Feature Animation Studio. Although the film in its entirety may not be available for viewing, here is a short segment featuring Robin Williams as an animated Lost Boy from Peter Pan, going through a succession of animated impersonations, including one of his very dignified co-star. Yes, Walter Cronkite, that respected and beloved CBS anchorman will be missed, but well remembered:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fondly Remembering Marty Feldman

I'm afraid I missed this guy's birthday by a few days, as it was on July 8th. But a belated Happy Birthday nonetheless to Marty Feldman, one of the funniest characters to grace the movie screens in both Hollywood and his native England. Though Marty had an unfortunate defect of the eyes, he was able to turn this bizarre physical trait into a successful career as a much beloved screen comic. In order to draw this sketch, I watched him in 1975's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, where he costarred alongside actor (and first-time director) Gene Wilder. In truth, it's a pretty weak film, although it boasts some quite nice atmospheric visuals and lush colour. Also, it was shot in England, thereby giving them easy access to some terrific British character actors, including Leo McKern (as Prof. Moriarty), John Le Mesurier, and Roy Kinnear.

Much better of course was the film where Wilder and Feldman had first costarred together the year before: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, considered now to be a comedy classic. Marty Feldman played the assistant, "Igor", (humourously pronounced "Eye-gor", as Feldman points out when his character is first introduced), whose hump seems to migrate between the left and right side of his back. This was the film that firmly established Feldman as a screen comedian in America, although he'd already been a big star on British TV for a number of years. One very bizarre film that I recommend seeing him in is The Bed Sitting Room, a darkly funny, post nuclear holocaust film, where Marty Feldman plays a female nurse that has mutated into...well... a bug-eyed little man!

Sadly, Marty Feldman left this world far too soon back in 1982, the victim of shellfish poisoning that triggered a massive heart attack while he was in the midst of shooting his final film, Yellowbeard. He was only 49 when he died.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day!!

Here's wishing all of my Canadian readers a Happy Canada Day, although the rest of you are welcome to celebrate too by putting on your toques while dining on some Molson beer and Beaver Tail. If you Americans don't know what a Beaver Tail is, go ask President Obama - he sampled one in The Byward Market during his first visit to Ottawa back on my birthday in February. Hey, I kid you not. Or you can just sit there and relax while this pretty Canadian maiden on mooseback rides by and bestows a blessing of Timbits upon you all:

Though I consider myself a proud Canadian and enjoy living here on the western edge of Mississauga not far from the scenic Niagara escarpment, I must admit I don't believe that Canada has ever lived up to its full potential. I personally loved the years that Pierre Trudeau was our Prime Minister, as he was such a dynamic leader who really helped to raise our profile on the international scene. But after that, Canada seems to have become rather second-rate, content to live in the shadow of our neighbour to the south. When I was a kid back in 1967, Canada's centennial year, it really felt like we were going someplace. Though I was too young to appreciate everything going on at the time, I do recall all of the hoopla and national pride surrounding Expo 67 in Montreal. Mostly, I remember the song that had been written for our centennial that played everywhere at that time. Hopefully, the following YouTube clip will bring back some happy nostalgia for my Canadian readers of a similar age:

That same year, also for Expo 67, this promotional film and song were created for the Ontario pavilion. This song too I remember loving whenever I'd hear it, as it had such a majestic quality to it. Coincidentally, it was written by Delores Clamen, who also wrote the theme for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada that made its debut the following year in 1968. (Sadly, CBC let its rights to that song lapse last year, resulting in quite the national controversy!) Anyway, here too is the Ontario song for my fellow middle-aged Canucks:

However, lest you think that I'm just wallowing in the past, here is something contemporary for you to enjoy. I don't like modern pop music at all (as I HATE rock!), so I turn to the world of jazz to hear singers that I can relate to and appreciate. One of my very favourite singers these days is Sophie Milman, a young jazz chanteuse who is making quite a name for herself not only in Canada but internationally too. She's actually Russian born and grew up in Israel, but has been living here in Toronto for a fair number of years now. Apparently, she didn't even speak much English prior to arriving in Canada, so I'm doubly impressed with how much she has accomplished artistically in a relatively short time span. So let's have a big hand for Sophie Milman: