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Apr 22

mel brooks head shotMel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” is the funniest movie ever made. Just ask Mel
Brooks. He is quite certain of it, and of course, millions of us who can cheer
ourselves up some by dropping a line of authentic frontier gibberish agree. The
humor half-life of the comedy bits contained in the film is such that, 40 years
later, we still laugh at the mere mention of schnitzengruben or a laurel and
hearty handshake. Yes, 40 years. And on May 6, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
and Mel are commemorating the occasion with a 40th anniversary Blu-ray release
of the movie, complete with a new featurette, “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild,
Wild West.” Sitting in his office, the esteemed funnyman takes time to talk
about how he got away with the comedy that scared the #@$! out of Warner Bros.
executives — and gives his thoughts about Twitter, late pal Mickey Rooney and
the power of laughter. What a nice guy!

Q: I wonder if you could get this movie made today. In the “Blaze of Glory”
documentary you talked about the number of times Richard Pryor said, ‘Use the
N-word here, use the N-word there. Use it twice there … ‘

A: Yeah, I didn’t want to use the N-word so much, but Richard forced me to. He
said something really interesting. He said, ‘You know, the N-word is used
properly in two basic ways: One is when bad people use it, and we’re sure they
are bad people because they use it. We don’t want them to succeed or prosper, we
want them to fail and we want the black guy to succeed because they used that
word. And the second use is as a term of affection among the brothers. It made a
lot of sense. I was going to use it three or four times, I ended up using it 16
or 17 times because of Richie.

Q: And you originally wanted him to star in addition to working with you on the
screenplay?

A: I wanted him to be Black Bart, to be the black sheriff. But Warner Bros.
wouldn’t do it. They said, ‘He’s been taking drugs and we don’t know. We don’t
want to take a chance.’ Two years later he was the No. 1 comedy star in the
country. But they wouldn’t do it. So I was going to quit, and Richard said,
‘Please. Direct the movie. Don’t quit. We’ve written a great movie here, said a
lot of wonderful things. If you leave, it just ain’t gonna be the same movie.’
So I said, OK. And when we were auditioning, you know, for our Black Bart, we
both saw Cleavon Little and we jumped in the air and said, ‘That’s the guy!’
Richard said something interesting. He said, ‘I’ve got a mustache, and I’m
coffee colored. I could be Cuban. But Cleavon is really black. He’s gonna scare
the s— out of the West.’

Q: You got a little emotional in the documentary, talking about the late,
wonderful Madeline Kahn. Is looking back on all this an emotional roller coaster
for you?

A: Oh no, it wasn’t a roller coaster. It’s really a resting place for sweet,
wonderful memories of what I did then and that life then. That wonderful plateau
of happiness in my life. You know, my wife [Anne Bancroft] was still with me,
still alive. Harvey Korman, Cleavon, Richard — all the people that left, you
know? It was a great, wonderful time in my life. I’ve gotten through many, many
battles with all these losses. I watch the movie and my heart sings. I love it.
I wrote it, and even so, I laugh a lot.

Q: Sure, and you had all these talented people bringing their best to the party
also, like Gene Wilder as The Waco Kid and Madeline Kahn playing Lili Von
Shtupp.

A: You know, [the American Film Institute] had a list of the 100 greatest
comedies, it was like five or six. I said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ It’s No. 1 all
the way.

Q: I totally agree. So, is it time for those questions again about Broadway and
‘Blazing Saddles.’

A: I think about it. I’ve got a couple of tunes. I’m thinking about The Waco
Kid and the Black Sheriff doing a duet, something like, you know, ‘You’re Just
in Love’ — you know, the Irving Berlin song? You don’t get it, you’re just
black. (Sings) Why do people hate me, why am I an outcast, why do they treat me
without any respect? And then the counterpoint would be, ‘Well, you’re just
black.’ A cute song for that.

Q: How far along are you? Is this something we can look forward to?
A: I’m toying with it. We’ll see. There’s no big rush. I’ve got a couple of
tunes in it already — one of them is the ‘Ballad of Rock Ridge,’ which is a
lovely song. And then Madeline’s great song: ‘I’m Tired.’

Q: Have you had your eye on anybody around today that could play those roles?
It would be hard to cast, wouldn’t it?

A: No. There’s always somebody, always somebody good that’s going to come
around. I won’t say any names now because I don’t know when I’ll finish it and I
don’t know when I’ll cast it. But it’ll be a new guy who rides into town with a
shiny badge, and that’s the guy, you know?

Q: “Blazing Saddles” had so much to say about racism. And now your son, Max,
has this graphic novel out about ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ — and Will Smith
snapped up rights. You must be so proud.

A: I am, I am! It’s a little-known fact about the 369th black regiment in World
War I that the American army didn’t want to use except as truck drivers and
cooks and bottle washers. The French took them in as a fighting unit and they
ended up winning the Croix de Guerre — they were an incredible unit. It’s a
beautiful book.

Q: Somebody told me that Carl Reiner says you have a Twitter account, but can’t
use it. Is that true?

A: The truth is, I don’t use it much. But I used it the other day to salute
Mickey Rooney. Once in a blue moon I use the Twitter, but I don’t use it too
often. People use it to say ‘I brushed my teeth. I think I missed one.’ You
know, you get a lot of gossipy nonsense, so I’m careful how I use it.

Q: What did you say about Mickey?

A: We were at the racetrack together. I posted the last picture he ever took.
You know, we’re going to miss him a lot. He was the complete talent. Nobody was
more talented, nobody, than Mickey Rooney. He could sing and dance exquisitely.
He could act — he could tear your heart out, as you know if you saw ‘National
Velvet.’ And he was funny and peppy.

Q: You’ve been quoted in the past that there might have been some anger in your
humor, having lost your father at two years old. Now, do you find that humor
helps you through this time that — well, I know I’ve lost some friends and it’s
hard to lose so many people in your life.

A: Humor can conquer over anything. Laughing blows the dust off your soul.

Q: What is on the front burner for you right now?

A: I have been a secret producer. I did about eight or 10 movies hiding my
name. Nobody knows I’m connected to them. They’re called Brooksfilms. They’re
very — there’s ‘The Fly’ with Jeff Goldblum, ‘The Elephant Man,’ there’s
‘Frances’ with Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer. I made ’84 Charing Cross Road’
with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft; ‘The Doctor and the Devils’ Jonathan
Pryce and Twiggy. That is my next project: I am putting them together in a box
set! And I’m finally taking credit for them with a little oval picture of me,
Mel Brooks. I was afraid to be associated with them because of my mad comedy.
Some of these pictures were quite profound and serious. They should be out in
two or three months.

Q: One more thing: What’s the best recipe for staying positive?

A: Thank God every time you wake up and realize you’re alive. OK, I’m up!
Things are going to be OK.

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Apr 18

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in "Hill Street Blues"

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in “Hill Street Blues”

In its heyday, there was no more powerful show on television than “Hill Street Blues.” But could the series that took us into the personal lives of cops survive in today’s TV world? The 26 Emmy-winning, envelope-pushing, career-launching drama is a touchstone of the 80s for many viewers — but early on in its life it held the distinction of being the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.

We’ll soon be able to gauge this century’s consumer appetite for “Hill Street.” All 144 episodes are being released in a 34-DVD box set complete with commemorative booklet and other goodies by Shout! Factory April 29.

“When the ratings came out, we were devastated, absolutely devastated, because we thought we had a hell of a show,” recalls James B. Sikking — a.k.a. gonzo S.W.A.T. team leader Lt. Howard Hunter. “When we got this terrible rating, like 89th place out of 100, we thought, ‘Wow. Call the agent. We’ve got to go somewhere else to work.’”

What made the challenge all the tougher was that in its first season, “Hill Street” was moved from one timeslot to another, to another. “We were on every night except Sunday,” says Sikking. “We were getting mail saying, ‘Just let us know where it’s going to be on. We’d like to see it.’”

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that the series team was surprised when they received word of its renewal. “I kept saying, ‘How come they picked us up?’” Sikking says, “and hearing this word, ‘Demographics.’”

Statistics showed that the people who were watching “Hill Street Blues” were an affluent, well-educated crowd who in large part had left off watching television except for sports events. They were, Sikking says, what was “quite frequently called ‘the Esquire demographic.’ It was a demographic of people who read the New Yorker, who liked content. We were very high with them, exceedingly high. So NBC said, ‘We’re keeping you, and we’re going to find a spot for you and build around it.’ Because when you can get those people to watch, then you get to advertise Cadillacs, jewelry, fine wine, nice clothes. Then you get really high-paying advertisers. People forget the advertisers we had on the show.”

“Hill Street” climbed to No. 1 and helped NBC build one of its strongest schedules.

As for whether it could survive in today’s vastly different landscape, Sikking says, “It’s hard to say. ‘Breaking Bad’ did well — it was a good show. But it was such a different world 34 years ago with only three networks.”

Sikking, who was friends with “Hill Street” creator Steven Bochco for more than a decade before signing on to the show, says he and Bochco still get together. (In fact, Sikking went on to play father to Neil Patrick Harris’ precocious doctor in Bochco’s “Doogie Howser MD” series and he was among the stars of Bochco’s “Brooklyn South.”) They’re both promoting the box set although “there’s no financial advantage for either of us in this anymore. I’m proud of it; it’s a good show, and those seven years were a joyous time in my life,” he says.

The actor stays in touch with several of the other “Hill Streeters” as well.

But his main focus now is his four grandchildren. At 80, with a long and satisfying portfolio of dozens of films and TV shows, Sikking and wife Florine are enjoying their offspring’s offspring. He says, “We just came back from taking our nine-year-old granddaughter to Washington DC, to help her understand what America is — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the archives. Then we saw how the government works. We went to the House of Representatives. We saw the Lincoln Memorial. It seems to me that somewhere in the educational process we guarantee that a citizen child of America goes to spend three days, five days, a week, in Washington, D.C..”

Somewhere, Howard Hunter is smiling.

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Apr 16

tom greenTom Green’s enjoying the latest permutation of his eclectic career — commuting back and forth each week between Las Vegas, where he recently started a four-month engagement at the Hard Rock Hotel, and Los Angeles, where he does his weekly live talk show on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV.

“I’ve toured around the world doing stand-up the last few years. So it’s kind of cool, it’s kind of nice to be able to have a little consistency as to where I am,” notes the funny man, whose global itinerary ranged from Australia to Afghanistan, where he entertained troops. Now, “I can do my interview show here in Los Angeles on Thursday nights and then we fly down to Vegas on the weekends and do my shows there. And it’s turning out great.

“I love playing in Vegas because you’ve got people from all over the world and you’re already accepted,” he adds. “It’s kind of a great mixture of people that come out to the shows and that makes it fun.”

His “Tom Green Live” was recently renewed for its third season. The show, which has a hip alternative vibe, devotes an entire hour to one subject, live and impromptu — a sort of homage to one of Green’s favorites, the late Tom Snyder.

“This show that I’m doing on AXS TV is what I’ve always wanted to do. With the long format interview I can get into really interesting conversations with my guests,” says Green. “You know what it’s like to get the opportunity to speak to really interesting people and pick their brain about things. To have time to let a guest actually speak and tell a story and get into detail is really exciting.”

Green’s talk with esteemed CBS anchor emeritus Dan Rather included shots of Wild Turkey and ranged from journalism and broadcasting topics to a demonstration of how Texans chew tobacco. “That was awesome,” says the Pembroke, Ontario, Canada-born personality, who rose to fame with his trailblazing and frequently tacky MTV “The Tom Green Show” that ran from 1999 to 2003.

Other recent guests include Dr. Drew Pinsky talking celebrity-obsessed culture — and a bunch of Green’s favorite comedian pals like Richard Belzer, Andrew Dice Clay, Seth Green, Norm MacDonald, Howie Mandel and Comedy Central’s The Workaholics.

“It’s really neat to have this interactive experience where viewers can call in on Skype and talk to the guests,” he notes.

Talking about Green’s wish list of guests for future shows — how about Mark Cuban himself?

“I’d love to interview Mark Cuban! He’s certainly a great guy to have running this network,” notes Green of the billionaire internet mogul, Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” personality. He adds that Cuban has “really been supportive of what I’m doing. It was cool that he was able to see what it is that I’m trying to do and to step up and support me in a bigger way with this outlet.”

Green has made a habit of taking a path apart from the mainstream. He was all over the internet, doing his talk show from his living room, before many in entertainment were paying much attention to the immense possibilities of the medium. Then, when there was a mass rush to the web, Green did live stage shows for audiences around the world. Now others are going short on interviews — and he’s going long.

“I like to do things that are different,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always found success in sort of separating myself from the pack mentality things. My early show was very different. It was before reality TV and it was sort of opening a way to make a show nobody else was doing. I think it found success because it was different from what anybody else was doing. I think people are responding to this show for the same reason. We’re taking it back old school.”

Could he have done this show back in his manic twenties — or is the in-depth interview best served by 42-year-old Tom Green of today?

“Well, when I was in my twenties, interviewing was sort of secondary to the show which was more about pranks and out in the street stuff,” he responds. “Certainly being older and having a different perspective on the world, and probably being closer in age to my guests so I can relate to them more, is helpful. And just having been through more of life personally and understanding human beings a little bit more — how people think and how they want to be treated. And how to make a comfortable environment for them on my show and get the most out of people.

“Certainly being older in those regards has been helpful, and also in interviewing people. But, really, the internet show prepared me for this in so many ways,” he adds. “Having done so many shows and having had so many people coming to the house were I was doing the show. There were really no executives or television people overseeing it, so I was able to really experiment and learn a lot of things. I’ve had a lot of growth and learning in the last 10 years.”

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Apr 07

tim headshot

photo by Ross Pelto

Tim Allen says he tries not to get caught up in focusing too much on ratings and competition for his ABC “Last Man Standing” sitcom because, he says, “I’m kind of a worrywart.” Still, he is obviously well aware of what’s going on. Though TV pundits expect the show to get a fourth season renewal, things could be better — and should be better, as far as he is concerned. He points out, “We’re winning our timeslot Friday, which is a very difficult night. So that’s what it is. ABC — I think we’re one of their best products. I think we’re very undersold. Believe me, if four million more people saw the show, it would be amazing. We’d be in the top rung. I think it’s a top-rung show. It’s so well produced, so well written.”

Indeed, as viewers know, there is a lot to enjoy about Allen’s second series. From his interplay with onscreen wife Nancy Travis and boss Hector Elizondo, to his ever-more-capable younger castmates (daughters played by Amanda Fuller, Molly Ephraim and Kaitlyn Dever, plus guys including employee Christoph Sanders).

“I adore the show!” he enthuses. “I never, in my wildest imagination, would have figured I’d have done ‘Home Improvement’ for eight years, and I loved every second of that. And the crew, and the excitement in my life. I’ve gone through some personal troubles in between there, but aside from that, my work was wonderful,” he says. “Then to have this family I love deeply — different because they’re girls — it’s just been amazing! I’m so protective of the integrity of this.

“If I think about being competitive, well, I don’t get much help by their moving us, you know? First they put us against ‘NCIS,’ which is a fabulous show. It’s a very different vibe, but it’s kind of the same audience as ours. But we still did great numbers, and then right as we’re climbing, they move us to Friday to anchor their Friday night” — the worst night of the week for television, historically speaking.

“I’m a veteran, so we do what we need to do,” he says. Besides, “It’s a different landscape from the past. People watch what they want to watch; people TiVo it and make their own night out of it.”

Allen comes off as relaxed and open in an afternoon’s talk that ranges from his push to garner more attention for “Last Man Standing” to the future of Buzz Lightyear and Santa Claus, to the joys of being a later-in-life dad.

He is not only in a second-time-around situation at work, but at home as well. Married since 2006 to actress Jane Hajduk, he’s doing daddy duty once again. Does he bring any comedy fodder from home?

“No. I often say I wish I lived in a sitcom world, where things are resolved. Things aren’t resolved like that in real life. My five-year-old — it’s more intimidating because it’s real,” he says of his little Elizabeth. “She’s a bright one. My older one is calm and quiet,” he continues, referring to 24-year-old daughter Katherine, from his former marriage.

“But this one is very opinionated for a five-year-old. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. I adore being around her.”

How does she feel about daddy being Buzz Lightyear?

“She doesn’t quite get it,” he replies. “Right now she’s a ‘Frozen’ freak. She loves it. But it’s funny — we have a couple down the block who were over Friday for dinner. They think it’s fun to watch ‘Last Man Standing’ with me in the room. The baby’s right there. In a very funny way, in about five minutes she goes, ‘Can we watch something else?’” He laughs.

Speaking of Buzz, what’s the outlook for another “Toy Story” film or television special?

“As far as specials, I’m sure they’ll have another one because they’re so successful. But it’s very hard on these guys to come up with the stuff. It’s very difficult for them,” he stresses. “I believe there’ll be more specials, but I’m not the one to ask. They’re very private about what things are going on. And I respect it. They’re very cautious about making promises they can’t keep. But they love doing this.”

And so does Allen. “I just so like that I’m part of America’s history with this stuff. It’s such a part of the zeitgeist,” he notes. “I very rarely get to be around my buddy Hanks, so I like working with him, but we don’t do it that much.”

When Allen finished making “Santa Clause 3″ in 2006, he said he’d had it with the grueling demands of long days filming in prosthetics and swore he was hanging up the red suit for good. But ho ho ho. “Enough time has gone by, I’d do another ‘Santa Clause’ now,” he tells us. The bad memories have worn off enough.

His memories of the beloved “Home Improvement” live on, however — and he has former castmates Richard Karn and Jonathan Taylor Thomas in recurring “Last Man Standing” roles. Thomas has directed a couple of “Last Man Standing” episodes, in addition to popping up on the show as John Baker, daughter Kristin’s (Fuller) hot boss at the swanky restaurant where she works.

Baker was introduced at the end of last season. Allen says he loves working with his former series son. “It’s always nice to have him around. It’s been seamless again. It took awhile for the girls to settle down though — they’re big fans of his,” he says.

Last year’s season-ender was a noteworthy episode in terms of opening up new story arenas in addition to introducing Thomas. This year’s, coming up April 25, will be every bit as memorable, to hear Allen tell it.

“This cliffhanger is kind of fun. I don’t know that I’m supposed to give it away. In the atmosphere of the show, it’s pretty odd. It’s pretty uncommon, what’s going to happen. Somebody’s getting married,” he reveals.

“During rehearsal, my reaction as Mike Baxter was kind of a shock to me, because I felt like a parent. It’s a peculiar thing, being a TV parent, first with those boys all those years. It is, of course, structurally different from being a real parent, but you spend so much time with the damn kids, you take on some parental point of view. So I was like, ‘This couple, they’ve got to work some s#@! out. It’s not my decision.’ It’s kind of funny. I went ‘What?!’ And the look on my face — it’s a pretty funny line that they’ve given me.”

“Home Improvement” lasted eight years. Allen would like “Last Man Standing” to go that long as well. Or longer.

“I’d love to see these girls get married,” he says. “I’d love to see them have children, I’d love to see them go through that. Yes, I’d love that.”

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Apr 06

whoopi and vingWhoopi Goldberg didn’t have to think twice about signing on for Lifetime’s April 19 “A Day Late and a Dollar Short.”  p>”It was literally, the executive producer called and said, ‘Listen, we have this project and we want you to be in it.  We’re doing it for Lifetime.’  And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’  It was really that succinct,” says Whoopi, who turns in a brilliant performance as the irascible, dying Viola, trying to help her woefully dysfunctional family resolve their many problems — without letting them know her condition — in this adaptation of the Terry McMillan book.  She adds, “We shot it during a break that I had so it didn’t interfere with ‘The View’ or anything, so it was perfect.”

She tells us she liked the fact that “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” has an important underlying theme about living life fully aware that time will not stand still for anyone.  ”Death comes to everybody.  It doesn’t care how old you are.  I’m sure that as a kid Viola thought she was going to live forever, and suddenly she finds, ‘You have no time left.’  So she tries to fix everything she can fix, and, you know, you can’t.”

Whoopi also has a role in the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” feature being unveiled in August.  ”People know that I love superhero stuff. I’ve always loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and have wanted to be in it, and have said that over the years, and finally somebody listened,” she says.

Then there’s her dramatic feature coming out later this year with Patrick Wilson and Ashley Judd, “Big Stone Gap,” based on the best-selling series of novels set in the Virginia hamlet.  ”My friend Adriana Trigiani wrote ‘Big Stone Gap’ and when I met her, she said, ‘I wrote this for you.’ Isn’t that cool?” she says of the best-selling author.  ”And she said, ‘When I get the money, we’re going to make this into a film.’  And it took her 15 years, but she did it.  It’s wonderful.”

Besides “The View” and acting assignments, she has a calendar filled with comedy show dates.  ”You have to be 18 to get into my shows, but parents tend to bring their kids anyway,” notes Whoopi with surprise.  She works blue to put it mildly.  ”It is interesting, whenever I spot kids, I go, ‘Do you know what I talk about?’ And they go, ‘Yeah.’  And it’s okay. We think it’s okay for her to hear it from you, or him to hear it from you.’”

Of course, then there are the kids in her own life, three grandchildren, offspring of her daughter Amarah Dean, and, since March 15, one granddaughter.

The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner is 58 now — very young for being a great-grandmother. Does her humor help her deal with getting older?

“Well, the only to answer to that question is, what is the alternative?  And once you come to terms with that,” she says, “everything else is gravy.”

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Mar 13

Olivia summer nightsIt’s fabulous to see Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts out on the international 14 On Fire Rolling Stones tour at age 72, more than three years after recovering from throat cancer.

It’s fantastic that Fran Drescher is on Broadway in the revival of Cinderella, nearly 14 years after successfully battling uterine cancer – and becoming a tireless advocate for cancer patients.

We honestly love the fact that 21 years after beating breast cancer, Olivia Newton-John is busy as ever. beginning her “Summer Nights” residency at the Flamingo Las Vegas next month. She was on hand for the opening of Australia’s Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center in 2008, has put out music releases as cancer fundraisers. Her “Hope is Always Here” song for her 2009 “Kaleidoscope” television special was performed by figure skating great and fellow breast cancer survivor Dorothy Hamill.

Knowing that such admired and diverse famous personalities as Edie Falco, Colin Powell, Eddie Van Halen. Gerald McRaney and Kylie Minogue have faced down cancer gives countless patients all the more resolve.

The fact is, when it comes to battling debilitating or life-threatening ailments, celebrities find themselves in the unique position of being able to quite literally help millions by their own examples.

It is an act of courage and enormous generosity toward their fans and the general public when they choose to share, inspire, fund-raise, lobby on behalf of cures. Melissa Etheridge, at the White House last week for the Women of Soul celebration, is the embodiment of that courage. No one who saw it is likely to forget her flipping off her breast cancer with her 2005 Grammy show performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” her head shaved bald rather than showing a chemotherapy hair loss.

Going public with an illness can be a career-ender, which is why it’s unusual for performers to be as open as Etheridge. Or Tom Green.

That the king of tacky taste was chosen by fate to get hit with testicular cancer – which predominantly strikes men between the ages of 15 and 35 — turned out to have unforeseen pluses. Who else would have turned the occasion into an MTV “Cancer Special”? The show caused a surge in testing for testicular cancer, which Green told Playboy wasn’t “the main plan.” Still, he added, “I hope the show made kids realize that testicular cancer isn’t embarrassing. It’s #$@!% hilarious. Feel your balls!”

Drescher told us she never made the decision to tell the world of her disease. “I was outed by the tabloids while I was still in the hospital. I turned that into a positive, because it forced me to come to terms what had happened,” she said. “Some people make believe they never had cancer. They keep it a big secret. With me, everyone had heard about it before I had a chance to digest it.”

Fran found that in her case, “There is a silver lining of cancer. Being a survivor has given a purpose to my life and an importance to my fame that works in astounding way I could never have imagined.”

Fran has received many messages from cancer patients and their loved ones thanking her for the inspiration in her best-selling “Cancer Schmancer” book. She’s become the unlikely pal of legislators, lobbying for legislation on behalf of cancer prevention education and cancer care, particularly for women’s cancers, which she believes have received far less attention and research funding than other forms.

Many stars have come through the trials of illness or disability with insight and appreciation, and their words have staying power.

“My teacher told me at the age of 10 that when I grew up, I was going to be given a gift. Diabetes turned out to be it. It gave me the strength and toughness I needed for my life,” said Halle Berry at a Diabetes fund raiser.

Michael J. Fox’s 2003 No. 1 New York Times best-seller, “Lucky Man,” takes readers on a journey through his self-indulgent days as a young star through his denial of his illness to his final acceptance and then advocacy for Parkinson’s sufferers. He’s often bitingly funny and never allows himself to get maudlin – and makes it clear he really does believe in the title. His “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” (2009) and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned” (2010) give readers incalculable inspiration along with the laughs. His Michael J. Fox Research Foundation proudly states it has granted more then $450 million in research since 2000. Fox’s ongoing acting career, his roles on shows including “Rescue Me” and “The Good Wife” in addition to his own NBC sitcom are a further testimonial to his grit and gifts.

Meredith Vieira and her husband, CBS News journalist Richard Cohen, have made an art of surmounting the insurmountable. He literally wrote the book on it: “Blindsided: Living a Life Above Illness: A Reluctant Memoir.” Cohen has had multiple sclerosis since age 25 and has gone through two bouts of colon cancer. He is also legally blind. But his is a full life anyway, rich with accomplishment and family love.

Breast cancer survivor Suzanne Somers sums up how life feels with a drastically changed perspective: “The birds are singing more sweetly and the foxes don’t scare me. Everything has slowed down. Cancer does that for you,” she told People magazine. “That’s the first of the blessings. Worrying about work and all those things that were so urgent seemed so stupid. I just want to live.”

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Mar 12

Home posterFirst-time filmmaker Jono Oliver never dreamed that his work would wind up winning accolades from organizations across the country — but his touching and beautifully rendered Home drama has been doing just that. The story of a man recovering from mental illness (Gbenga Akinnagbe), whose goal is to leave his group home, get his own apartment and reconnect with his son, “Home” has been nominated for a SAMSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) and an Entertainment Industries Council Prism Award. It was recognized by the New York Metro branch of NAMI (The National Alliance of Mental Illness). And Oliver found himself nominated — along with the directors of “12 Years a Slave,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “The Best Man Holiday” — for an NAACP Image Award for directing.

“It wasn’t a goal to be acknowledged like this. The goal was to make an entertaining film,” says Oliver, who has a life-long awareness of the challenges of mentally ill people through his social worker parents. “I’ve always had the idea of doing a story that took place in that world,” he says. Oliver notes that it was of paramount importance to him to portray the challenges of mental illness truthfully, and never to allow the film’s light moments to veer into mockery. He enlisted the help of technical consultants including a psychiatric nurse to ensure verisimilitude.

“I’m glad didn’t screw that up,” says the filmmaker, who is a First Assistant Director on “Blue Bloods” when he’s not busy with his labor of love. “It’s unfortunate that most of the time you see people with mental illness in film, they’re either a joke or a psycho killer. There’s not a lot of in-between. And oftentimes in the media’s portrayals, you see headlines where they’re made into monsters.”

Oliver cites statistics that claim one in four Americans is dealing with some form of mental health issue, “millions upon millions of people. There are a lot of mental health organizations whose main goal is combating the stigma that surrounds mental illness — a stigma that leads to people being discriminated against when it comes to housing or jobs. There’s a preconception that these people are violent; they’re much more likely to become a victim of violent crime. There are a lot of statistics, a lot of knowledge and education people need. What’s been really cool about this film is that it’s opened up a dialogue on mental illness,” he says.

Pitching a “small story” with no guns or explosions wasn’t easy, he admits. Along the movie’s two-year journey to production, Oliver put his project on Kickstarter, where friends and family contributed 10 per cent of the budget. His “Blue Bloods” friends not only contributed monetarily, but gave him equipment to use and made it possible for Oliver to use rehearsal and office space when the show was on hiatus.

The film had a week-long theatrical release late last year. It will become available to the mass audience March 25, when Entertainment 1 releases it on DVD and video on demand. The Prism Awards are coming up April 22. Whether “Home” wins, Oliver says he feels its nomination — all its nominations and kudos — are “not just an honor, but a victory.”

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Mar 04

jerry lewisThe rather prickly nature of the choice of Jerry Lewis as recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement honors at the ICG Publicists Awards was underscored by none other than Lewis himself.  He noted in his acceptance remarks that he was receiving the guild’s statuette with all the humility he could muster — and his name wasn’t one normally associated with humility.

Lewis also noted his surprise at being given any award by the press, since he’s long made his feelings about the press clear.  Interesting that somehow in the weeks ramping up to the event — not to mention a career spanning seven decades — he failed to recognize that publicists and press are two different things.

The 87-year-old legend of slapstick did, however, take the time to tell an odd joke/story about how he’d decided to take a New York subway train one day, only to have a man clad in leather and chains with head full of rainbow-hued hair board his car.  Seeing Lewis stare at him, he said — said Lewis — “Hey, old man.  Haven’t you ever done anything unusual?”

The audience laughed.

Lewis went on, “I had sex with a parrot once.  I was wondering if you were my son.”

The Friars Club must’ve loved that one.

In fact, a clip package of Lewis in his antic comedy heyday, as well as his later achievments — the drama of “The King of Comedy,” for instance — and his many Muscular Dystrophy Association fund-raising telethons, reminded the crowd of what a towering figure Lewis has been in entertainment.

Not that this ultra-savvy crowd needed reminding. There were also grumbles from some who recalled just how despised Lewis was by many who worked for him.

Complex, gifted, controversial Jerry Lewis has a Publicists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.  Perhaps he’ll take time to become aquainted with the work of publicists now.

Introducing her friend Lewis was Carol Burnett.  The long standing ovation that sparkled with sincerity for Carol was among the more uplifting moments of this 51st Publicists Guild Awards.  She motioned for everyone to sit down, and tugged her ear — after all, she was a presenter, not a recipient this time — then introduced Lewis.  He also got a standing ovation, of course.

Also honored at this favorite Oscar week event were writer-producer Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal,” “Gray’s Anatomy”)– named the Television Showman of the Year; Lionsgate chieftains Rob Friedman and Patrick Waschberger — named the Motion Picture Showmen of the Year; and “Entertainment Tonight” exec producer Linda Bell Blue — given The President’s Award.

Awards to publicists included honors to the team that executed the campaign for “American Horror Story: Coven.” And on the film side, the publicity team for “Gravity” were named winners.  Indeed!

The glamorous Friday afternoon event, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, got off to a merry start with a video from Jimmy Kimmel depicting what his show would be like if it weren’t for publicists:  himself and an empty chair.  He exhorted the audience to relax and enjoy themselves in the only Hollywood event where they didn’t have to run around the red carpet wearing headsets and catering to narcissistic stars.  But Jimmy, they live for that stuff!

It’s only right that incredibly hard-working and under-sung entertainment industry publicists get their moment in the sun in this popular annual luncheon.

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Mar 03

McConaughey wins Best ActorBrad Pitt waxed poetic about his love for “12 Years a Slave” — but admitted he’d started his stellar day by having to “pick up dog poop…in my bedroom.” Cate Blanchett swore her Aussie pride, Lupita Nyong’o spoke of honoring the spirits of slaves, and Jared Leto offered opportunities to fondle his Oscar in a night that ping-ponged between euphoria and thoughtfulness backstage at the 86th Academy Awards.

It was a historic night for Oscar, with “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker Steve McQueen becoming the first black man to win Best Picture honors, “Gravity’s” Alfonso Cuaron becoming the first Mexican to win Best Director, and Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett becoming Australia’s first double Oscar winner in the acting categories.

McQueen, who literally jumped up and down on the Oscar stage when his film took the top prize, claimed to be “cool as a cucumber” by the time he made it to the press room, but was clearly still on the verge of another happy dance, explaining that sometimes physicality just takes control. Some 75 years after “Gone With the Wind” gave moviegoers a romanticized view of antebellum slavery, McQueen noted that his film’s success shows “a progression. The background characters are now in the foreground. It’s indicative of what is going on right now; people now want to look at that history and embrace it.”

His fellow producer, Pitt, told us, “I love this movie. I love our film…This man in this inhumane situation trying to get back to his family…It’s important to understand our history — not for any kind of guilt, but to know who we were so we can better understand who we are…and who we’re going to be. It’s a gentle reminder that we’re all equal, that we all want the same dignity and humanity for our family, and that another’s freedom is as important as our own.”

The film team is particularly pleased that their movie has brought Solomon Northup’s memoir back into the spotlight. The long out-of-print book is a best seller now, and destined to be in high schools across the country. It’s noteworthy that the Academy was looking to update and diversify itself and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, its first black president, opened up the membership in hope of bringing in more diverse and younger members — which certainly did not hurt “12 Years a Slave’s” chances this year.

“12 Years a Slave” also won Best Supporting Actress honors for Lupita Nyong’o. Backstage, the It Girl of this Awards Season, admitted she was “a little dazed. I can’t believe this is in my hand. I can’t believe this is real life. I’m really overwhelmed.” Yet the stunning fashion world favorite was poised enough to talk about how moved she was by support in her native Kenya and around the world — including coming across an Instagram of hundreds of people holding a good luck sign. She had the presence of mind to touch again upon the fact that “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker Steve McQueen “honored people who really have been unsung for a really long time, doing this film. Their spirits have been honored.”

And, asked by a Chinese reporter what had been the most encouraging thing that had been said to her along the way, Nyong’o was thoughtful enough to respond that those words were from people who had said “from their hearts, that the outcome doesn’t matter. You’ve already won because the work has been done. Remembering that has kept me hopeful and positive and relaxed.”

As for celebrating, she was going to head to the Board of Governor’s Ball and “do all the things that are Oscar-related. It’s my first time here. I feel like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory.”

So, apparently, did rock star cum Oscar winner Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor, “Dallas Buyers Club”), He revved up the press room crowd early on by offering his Oscar to “anyone who wants to try it out for size…hold it…If you have swine flu, please — don’t touch,” he joked. “I bet this is a first — the first person to give their Oscar away for an orgy in the press room…Anyone else wanna fondle?”

He also offered the chance to take a selfie with his statuette, but was told the Academy doesn’t allow unauthorized pictures in the press room. He tweaked the Academy reps there, saying, “You guys want to get media — let the media do what they do!” Not surprisingly, he was answered with a huge round of cheers from the media. A few seconds later, sounding every bit the rock star, he rallied the crowd, “Who’s your favorite Oscar winner tonight?!”

Leto certainly made clear, on this “Hero”-themed night, that his personal hero is is mother, who was a single teen when she gave birth to him and his brother, but managed to raise them and give them wings of imagination as well. Backstage, he reiterated that the best thing about winning was having his mother and brother there with him — “the two most important people in my life…I’m really fortunate to be able to thank them in such a unique and grand way.”

Leto was asked about the comments he made to encourage dreamers out there, especially in Ukraine and Venezuela. He pointed out that, “You have an opportunity, when you stand on stage — you can make it about yourself, or you can take the opporunity to shine a light…For me, these global issues impact us in a real way. We have a show in Ukraine in a couple of weeks,” he said, referring to his 30 Seconds to Mars band’s touring schedule. Leto says he and his band “feel at home all over the world. Social unrest affects us in a real way.”

He was quick to acknowledge the work of fellow winners Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews, who did hair and makeup on “Dallas Buyers Club.” Their win was seen over the monitor while Leto was in the room. Pointing out that they’d had an unbelievable budget of $250.00, he said, “They work harder than anyone else; they’re there at the crack-ass of dawn and stay ’til the crack-ass of dawn.”

When Lee and Mathews came backstage, they said that they’d never met Jared until the Oscar Nominees’ Luncheon a couple of weeks ago — they knew him as Rayon. He was in character as the AIDS-stricken transvestite when he came to them and remained in character.

Leto was asked whether it’s better to be cheered onstage as a rock star, or to win an Oscar. His answer: “The good news is, I don’t have to choose.”

He left saying, “and thanks for getting my Oscar dirty with your fingerprints.”

Leto’s fellow “Dallas Buyers Club” winner, Best Actor Matthew McConaughey, said that despite being considered a lock by most Oscar prognoticators, “I did not expect it.”

The actor who decided to put his all into promoting the small-budget feature when it was made — and has reaped amazing results — noted, “It’s a bit of the end of a journey with this film, this script that came across my desk four years ago…Nobody wanted to make it for 20 years. It was turned down 137 times.” Getting the movie mad was “a miracle in itself,” he went on. Then it was received well at the Toronto Film Festival and “started to gain momentum. This is the gold standard of the light of excellence.”

He again expressed his gratitude for his wife’s support, and the fact that she’s taken their children to all his film locations — “It’s been harder for her than for me.” Asked what he hoped his children would take from this Oscar experience, he recounted telling them, “‘Remember when we were in New Orleans, the work that Dad did? People are shining a light on it today.’ I want them to see, if you do your best right now, it can come back and have reciprocity.”

Regal-looking Cate Blanchett, Best Actress winner for “Blue Jasmine,” said she “got to be a princess today.” She got a massage — “pummelled like Kobi beef” — and had the privelege of choosing between three dresses prepared for her by “Mr. Armani, with whom I have a long and great relationship.”

However, when a reporter began a question by stating that she’s the first Australian actress to win two Oscdars, she dropped the decorum to interrupt, “and don’t you f#@!ing forget it!”

Blanchett had phoned home and found her youngest child had “stopped vomiting, so that’s good.”

Next, she anticipated going out dancing.

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Feb 21

Face Off - Season 6McKenzie Westmore has loved acting since she played Robert De Niro’s daugther in “Raging Bull” at age three. That was when she got her Screen Actors Guild card. She came to love singing as well, and was studying opera and performing in musical theater by age seven.

But the blue-eyed, blond host of SyFy’s fiendishly popular “Face Off” reality competition show does say that for awhile, she considered going into the family business. That family business, in case you’re not aware, is movie makeup. The Westmores, going back to patriarch George (who made up Mary Pickford and the Talmadge sisters, among dozens of others), have been responsible for many of the unforgettable faces, hideous and beauteous, that you have seen on the big screen small. From “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to all the makeup for “Gone With the Wind” to “Blade Runner” and beyond, four generations of Westmores have plied their special creative trade in Hollywood.

“The bug did actually bite me at one point, really going way back,” she says. “When I got into my teens, I thought, ‘Oh, gosh. I don’t want to see the family business die.’ I had actually read an interview, the Los Angeles Times had done an interview with my dad, and they called him The Last of the Living Dinosaurs,” she says, speaking of Michael Westmore, who won an Oscar for his work on “Mask,” was a vital part of the “Star Trek” series’ teams, and even created spy makeup kits for CIA operatives overseas. Fans of “Face Off” have seen Michael as a mentor on the show.

Continues McKenzie, “He was one of the last to do everything — conceptualize an idea, run the molds, run the lab, then bring it to life and actually do the application on the actors. You don’t really see that a lot now. When I read that article I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see the family legacy go.’ So I started to study. I started to take classes and work alongside my dad. I helped him out in the lab. And after awhile, I said, ‘Dad, I love you. I love what our family is known for in the industry. There’s magic there. But it’s not the thing that’s stolen my heart. I love acting, and I want to continue down that path,’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘You know I support you whatever you want to do. Go after your dreams like I did mine.’ And so, I went back to acting and got ‘Passions.’”

She was on that soap for 11 years, and also accumulated credits on other shows including “Dexter,” “All My Children” and “Friends.”

With her knowledge of makeup arts, “I feel very confident to walk into the lab on ‘Face Off,’ because I do know what I’m talking about. But at the same time, I did not want to go that route in life. ‘Face Off’ is the best of all worlds for me. I couldn’t have scripted this better.”

The show boasts the crème de la crème of Hollywood makeup artists, including judges Ve Neill (“Beetlejuice,” Mrs. Doubtfire”), Glenn Hetrick (“The Hunger Games,” “Heroes”) and Neville Page (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”) — plus such guest judges as filmmakers Paul W.S. Anderson, Gale Anne Hurd, Brian Grazer and Kevin Smith.

This season, “We get to travel — a big travel. We get to go to Japan. One of the challenges I’ve always wanted to see on our show is anime, and that’s what we bring back with us from Japan,” notes Westmore, speaking of the March 4 installment of the show. “I can’t wait for the fans, even new fans who jump into the show, to experience that because we really get to show them these amazing stunning visuals of Japan, from the middle of the countryside to the urban scene. It’s really going to be fun for the viewers.”

The Japan shoot took place over one week. “We got off the plane guns blazing — the contestants had to do a challenge immediately,” she says.

With “Face Off” in its sixth season, Westmore hopes the show will go on and on. She points out, “‘Face Off’ really is a go-go-go-go-go production, but it doesn’t take the whole year. So I can go out and do other things. I’ve also fallen in love with hosting since doing this. ‘Face Off’ is my baby, it will always be number one,” she says, “but I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there.”

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