M*A*S*H Notes, television

We recently lost a great, unsung talent.  I’m taking a look back at the best performances of William Christopher as Father  Francis Mulcahy in the long-running classic series, M*A*S*H.

“Dear Dad,” original airdate December 12, 1972

With few exceptions, I really love the early seasons of my favorite television shows. There is something intriguing and comforting to me about seeing a season one Monkees or M*A*S*H episode, with the sometimes shifting cast or uncertain series premise. Actually, I generally find season two, especially of longer running series, to be a sweet spot in terms of having a lot of the elements place but carrying the freshness and promise of the plots yet to spin out. See: The Office season two, with the Pam and Jim tension established yet barely realized, or Sex and The City season two, where Carrie is fresh from her first breakup with Big and about to embark on many, many dates with a variety of characters, along with more breakups with Big to come. Season Twos are often when things begin to hit a stride, or at least stop the jerky gait and get close to a good pace.

I guess I love the promise of things and while it’s up to me and my therapist to tease out the larger implications of that, when it comes to television, those early seasons do it for me. This M*A*S*H episode, “Dear Dad,” hits all those notes. It’s late in Season 1 and most of the characters we will come to know and love and consider as part of the 4077th family are here. The main players are firmly established (Hawk, Trapper, Henry, Margaret, even Radar), and we’ll lose a couple who don’t really settle in well (Ugly John, Lt. Dish), but some of the side characters are just beginning to step up here, namely our own Father Mulcahy. At this point, Mulcahy is a small, but pivotal part of the ensemble. He’s a moral touchstone, a peacemaker, and a reminder of something greater than the violence and loss surrounding the doctors and nurses in the mobile surgical army hospital every day of the Korean Conflict. As time, and seasons, move on, the producers finally began to understand what they had in the character, and in the delicate surety of William Christopher’s performance. It wasn’t until season five that they upgraded his credit (and hopefully, his pay!) to series regular, and his name appeared in the opening credits right after Jamie Farr, instead of the ending “also starring” footnote.

The through line of this episode is one that will repeat over several episodes in several seasons: a narrated letter home, in this case from Hawkeye (Alan Alda) to his father. This one is also the first of an incongruous number of Christmas episodes, something hard to avoid when the show outlasted the real Korean War by eight years. Being the first, though, it has a crisp perspective on the strains people so far from home labor under at a time in the year that culturally focuses on family togetherness. Hawkeye not only shares his longing for home comforts (though, in another of those Early Season Gaffes that so often happen, he misses his home in Vermont, when is it firmly established from season two on that he’s from Crabapple Cove, Maine), but also tours his Dad through the happenings of most of the characters around him at the 4077th. This allows for a fairly gripping scene between Father Mulcahy and Jamie Farr’s Corporal Klinger, who has been ordered by an officious and by-the-book authoritarian Major Burns (the always sublime Larry Linville) to take off the lucky neckerchief he always wears (although, I’m not sure we ever see it again…). Klinger stubbornly refuses, and they tussle. When Burns sends him out of Post Op with a direct order and a threat of punishment, Klinger returns with a grenade. Whoa. Now, putting aside that the Klinger we know from future seasons (he’s still in mens’ clothes and is little more than an orderly at this point) would not pull such a dangerous and provocative stunt, the exchange here between him and Mulcahy is powerful.

Mulcahy stops Klinger from entering Post Op with the weapon and doesn’t flinch when the Corporal threatens to pull the pin. Mulcahy calmly requests the grenade, over and over. As Klinger begins to relent, we learn that the bandana is more than a civilian accessory and he’s terrified to take it off. It’s another reminder of the minute to minute uncertainty of war, and the strength of even the most tenuous connections to Home.

Father Mulcahy:  Give it to me

Klinger: Don’t touch me or you’re going to be a lot of little priests

Father Mulcahy:  (takes a step forward) Klinger…

Klinger:  I can’t take this off! Somethin’ll happen to me!

Father Mulcahy: (takes another step forward) Klinger…

Klinger:  Another step and I’ll take us both out!

Father Mulcahy:  He’s tired. We’re all tired.

Klinger:  You’re tired too?

Father Mulcahy:  I can’t get to sleep. Unless I count sacrificial sheep. (takes another step) Give me the grenade. Please.

Klinger:  (hesitates)  Can  I keep my bandana?

Father Mulcahy:  I guarantee it.

Klinger:  (lets his arms fall, exhausted) It’s from my ma you know… she said to never take it off.

Father Mulcahy: There’s no reason why you should.

The scene is well-written, and William Christopher leaves a strong impression with his performance as a man, who in the face of certain danger, is unshakable in his faith – not faith in God, necessarily, or the church – but faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity. He knows Klinger will back down. He knows he can convince Burns to let the issue go. He knows. That’s faith. And that’s perhaps Christopher’s greatest contribution to this landmark in television: that faith in something more than yourself is possible, even under the most difficult circumstances.

M*A*S*H Notes, television

We recently lost a great, unsung talent.  I’m taking a look back at the best performances of William Christopher as Father  Francis Mulcahy in the long-running classic series, M*A*S*H.

Requiem for a Lightweight, original airdate October 1, 1972

Fr. Mulcahy, calling the fight

The plot of this episode centers around Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) being coaxed by Hawkeye (Alan Alda) into fighting the rival unit’s big boxing champ for the glory of the 4077th – and for the promised return of the newest and prettiest nurse to arrive in camp, Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman).  This old chestnut of a plot might the the “lightweight” of the title, but it’s tightly-written and delivers on the first season, Larry Gelbart-ian laughs. Season one M*A*S*H does struggle a bit to find its identity, and we see the season two premier (“For The Good of The Outfit”) make a conscious attempt to reintroduce the main cast of characters to the viewer as the show begins to find its sea legs.

Back here in season one, though, we are still a bit scattershot. This episode is significant as William’s Christopher’s debut as Father Mulcahy, (the character  having been portrayed by George Morgan in the pilot) in a small but memorable bit, announcing the fight between Trapper and the 8063rd’s killer. He also gets to establish that he “coached a few fighters” in his time, and indeed, future episodes will further explore Mulcahy’s pugnacious past, and the depth and struggle it sometimes brings to his character. For now, though, he is relegated to the ring, but as it’s the climax of the episode, he gets decent screen time.

It’s the beginning of long and wonderful character development by a talented actor.

Music, the monkees

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-10-34-08-amThis popped up in my inbox the other day, and, oh Ticketmaster, you don’t know what you’re asking. How do I describe for other Monkees fans – or for anyone, for that matter – how the concert was? How do I describe how any of this has gone? Begin at the beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

I have loved the Monkees with a deep and utterly committed passion since 1986. Even before that, I knew who they were and watched the television show when it was on in reruns here and there. But in 1986, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones reunited for the 20th anniversary of their beginnings, went on tour, and my life changed. Since then, The Monkees have always been a part of it. The 1986 reunion concert, the television show, their music, more concerts, birthday cakes, 8th grade art projects, posters covering my teenage bedroom…my fandom is as much a part of me as my size seven feet or my surgery scars.

mike_art
I am no Seurat

So when Davy Jones suddenly died February, 2012, I was quite devastated, in that curious and unique way when beloved stars die; like losing someone in your life who is both a stranger and a childhood friend. It’s a loss that certainly isn’t personal but is also very personal. And with that loss, I felt that The Monkees were also, effectively, over. For the previous 26 years, The Monkees had performed and functioned as a threesome: Micky, Davy, Peter. How could they go on without the heart of the group, the Manchester Cowboy?

But with an enigmatic Facebook post that summer from Michael Nesmith, the fourth and mostly long-absent Monkee, they did go on. Mike was not part of the 1986 reunion that brought me into the fandom. Scheduling issues, work with his video production company, and maybe personal politics kept him away, although he did join the others for a one-off concert date in Los Angeles, and an event here and there. But suddenly, this man, who I had ceased to consider as part of the touring Monkees, was joining Micky and Peter on stage. As a Monkee. For an entire tour. This was mind-blowing to me. I bought tickets for the Chicago date in November, 2012 as soon as they went on sale. That night was an ecstatic celebration of one of the most important parts of my childhood. It was a renewing of something I thought was lost to me, with the death of Davy Jones. And it was a reacquaintance with a man who was suddenly a Monkee again. Michael brought The Monkees back and gave them new life. What a gift.

And then he went on tour with them again in 2013. And again in 2014. He also toured in those years with his own solo show, Movies of The Mind. I was so fortunate to see all of this. The Monkees came roaring back into my life, a vibrant going concern once again. This new configuration, with Mike on stage and involved, was intoxicating and wonderful. By just being present, Nez gave The Monkees a wealth of material to perform live that I had certainly never heard nor expected to hear on stage. And his sensibilities and musical style gave the live shows a new flavor and energy  that was totally exhilarating.  Before 2012, I had seen the Micky, Davy, and Peter combination of The Monkees several times, and these Mike shows were very different in tone and feel. There was a seriousness about the music and performing that the previous shows didn’t necessarily have. Don’t misunderstand me: I adored Davy and always will. I support the horses he left behind; he was my first pretend boyfriend. Meeting him in 1987 on his book tour was easily the highlight of my life for years, and I love him like no other celebrity. But these new tours with Michael felt very differently musically, and I can’t deny that. Michael brings a depth to The Monkees music through his prolific and intelligent songwriting and his masterful performance. It’s been a different Monkees.

And now, in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the 1966 television premier of The Monkees – and the 30th anniversary of my own fandom, Michael Nesmith has said his goodbye to performing as a Monkee.

It’s a lot to take in. When I bought tickets for the September 16 show at The Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, I knew only two things: one, that I needed to see The Monkees again on the 50th Anniversary Tour –  I’d seen them closer to home, with my SamePageCast partner, Craig, in Hammond, back in June – and second, that if Michael was going to join them at all in 2016, it would be in California. Something told me that I needed to be there if that happened.

On August 19th, Michael announced via Facebook that he would indeed be joining Micky and Peter, for what would be the last time:

The show is set for September 16th — which I believe is almost a perfect match for the fifty year anniversary of the TV show — at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. I am bringing Gretsch, my beautiful, intelligent blonde to help me, and it looks like I’ll make it once again.

I expect it will be fun, and a great way for me to sign out. I see the specter of the multiple Sinatra retirement/farewells — and this seems like the perfect time for me to step off, sit down and shut up.

Hope I see you there. No, I don’t have any tickets. What a long strange trip it’s been said TGD — and it looks like I’ve made it to the end.

Through a series of wonderful and crazy events, Craig and I were invited to come to LA and see the show with the generous Pat Francis of The Rock Solid Podcast. It was quite an amazing trip, culminating in our appearing on Pat’s show to talk about The Monkees’ musical catalog. That alone would have been enough for one lifetime, but the Pantages show… that show.

img_7524I can’t describe in words the feeling in the theater when the three Monkees walked on to the stage. I know that, like when I left the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center at Notre Dame in November, 1986, my life has been changed. I didn’t know then how central and important The Monkees and my fandom would be to my life. They brought me through trauma and abuse; they lifted me up and gave me something to focus on and laugh with. They taught me 5/4 time and key changes and informed my musicianship. They helped me finish grad school; they introduced me to Craig and SamePageCast.  And with the show at the Pantages on September 16, they’ve changed me once again.

You can hear a full run down on the setlist and our overall impressions in an episode of the podcast, but here’s what I didn’t get around to saying: Michael’s last show was as much about facing my own life and mortality as it was the final performance of a man who is busy with other projects. Davy’s death four years ago was a shock and a reminder that life is too often very short and ends without pomp and circumstance. In the four years since, I’ve suffered some loss and sad endings in my own life, and have begun to face the fact that childhood is long over and was not what I thought it was. Perhaps 42 is late to come to this, perhaps not. But for me, this period of truly becoming an adult has been the some of the most bittersweet and difficult growing of my life.

As I watched Michael take the stage for his final solo number, Tapioca Tundra, the emotions that welled in me and spilled over, smearing my eye makeup and blurring my vision were complex. Gratitude for this man who allowed me four more years of living the best parts of my childhood. Grief for the little girl who was denied her innocence and freedom. Sadness for the too early loss of David Thomas Jones, a man who loved his audience. Love for the people in my life who accept me as who I am now, despite my trauma and pain. Selfish regret that I’ll never see The Monkees like this again.

Michael told a story before he started the song, about the writing of it back in 1967 after The Monkees’ first live performance together. He said, “we all agreed that there was something  else on the stage that night with the four of us…it was you.”  It brought a refrain from the song into sharp relief, and gave it meaning it never held before:

It cannot be a part of me for now it’s part of you.

He sang it with emotion and vulnerability and a touch of yearning. The connection and love in the theater was palpable. We didn’t get to say goodbye to Davy, but we were, all of us, sharing one last moment with Michael. Like what he did for us in 2012, he gave us an incredible gift.  For now it’s part of you.

And now, perhaps, my story is also part of you. The story of a little girl who was hurt irrevocably in her childhood, but saved by a television show and a band of four funny, handsome guys and their music. A girl who was given the past four years to relive the joy that they gave her, when she never expected to feel that again. A girl who has grown up, left childish things behind, but will never lose the childlike sense of wonder and hope that four strangers on a stage could bring her.

Thank you, Michael.

grad school, the monkees

Monkees Surprise

Over at tumblr, a video I made for my fall 2012 Fan Studies class made the rounds all the way back to me, all covered with love and awesome notes from other Monkees fans. It’s like getting a present!

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It’s a super cut of all* of the running gags from The Monkees 1966-1968 television show. Which was, of course, fantastic.

Watch the original video right here:

*I missed a few, I know. 

day in the life, Music, television

I feel just about this enthused today. Mondays are a challenge under the best of circumstances. I don’t know what it is about today, but today is just not thrilling me.

Today, I feel like drinking all the absinthe out of Toulouse-Lautrec’s private reserve and then staring into space until the barman asks me to leave because I’m making the other patrons uncomfortable.

I don’t like Mondays.

To cheer myself, I decided to revisit with some old friends.

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television

I kind of want one if it would take me back to the time when these fabulous commercials would interrupt As The World Turns which I watched in a decongestant haze on the couch while my mom made me buttery alphabet noodles out in the kitchen.

*Thanks to a touch of tuesday weld for the link. Laura, I love your stuff.

television, tributes

I can’t let another day go by without paying tribute to the Matron Saint of The House of Mirth, my beloved Ms. Beatrice Arthur.

It’s ridiculous, I know, but I’m so sad. Call it projection, transference, whatever you want, all I know is I loved her, and I’m sorry she’s gone

Obituaries all over the news outlets list her accolades: an amazing talent who both adored and was frustrated by her singular talents, Bea was unstoppable. She won a Tony for Mame and multiple Emmys for her work on television. She elevated that crappy Star Wars Holiday Special into a yearned-for classic; she made Maude divine like no one else could; she truly made that other show Golden.

For me, she was my pretend tv grandma; as silly as it sounds, it was like she was a glimpse of what my own beloved Grandma J might have been like if she’d lived beyond my eighth year. Tall and stately, ready with a zinger and a hug. I was so taken with her that I’ve seen the film version of Mame (1974) dozens of times, Enemies of Laughter (2000) twice, her guest stint on Malcolm in the Middle too many times; I own and have listened to the CD of her one-woman show over and over, and can quote more of Dorothy Zbornak’s lines than I care to admit. I can even spell “Zbornak” without looking it up.

She was the greatest.

I don’t know what’ll I do, Ms. Bea, except be ever grateful for you.