Sunday, May 10, 2015

Quantum Leaping: Deborah M. Pratt Answers Eight Eighties Questions

Today’s Eight Eighties Questions interview is with Deborah M. Pratt.  If you had to sum up her career in one word, it would be epic.  To most 1980s kids, she will probably be best remembered for her crucial contributions to the much-loved sci-fi show Quantum Leap, where she was the co-executive producer, head writer, the voice of the super computer Ziggy,  and she co-starred as Troian Claridge on the episode “A Portrait for Troian”.  One of Ms. Pratt’s earliest experiences in show business was as a “Golddigger” on The Dean Martin Show, where she got to work with legendary singer and actor Dean Martin, along with an array of celebrity guest stars that included some of the most famous names in show business history.  In addition to the many credits listed above, she is also a director, a producer, and a novelist.  She also acted on many other popular 1980s shows such as:  Airwolf, Magnum P.I., Gimmie a Break!, Benson, and Happy Days

Special thanks to Deborah for taking time out of her schedule to answer today’s Eight Eighties Questions.

1.  In the early days of your career you were a Golddigger on The Dean Martin Show, which featured guest appearances by some of the most legendary stars in the history of show business.  What were some of your favorite encounters you’ve had with the different celebrities who appeared on the show?

The most exciting had to be that I got to work with Gene Kelly. I had loved him in everything I’d ever seen him do. Coming to Hollywood, being under contract right out of school and getting to work with an icon from one my favorite musicals, Singin’ in the Rain (I also worked with Donald O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds) was a dream come true. In the Golddiggers, I was one of the featured singers in the group with multiple solos on our road show and on Dean’s show as well as a featured dancer. I could dance, but I wasn’t a “hoofer”. That means I couldn’t tap my a-- off. I remembered when Gene walked into the room and everyone nervously crossed over to meet him, something possessed me to wait and when everyone had introduced themselves, I ran across the room, dropped to my knees and did a four-foot knee slide with arms open and a huge smile just like he did in, I believe, Singin’ in the Rain. He laughed and my silliness seemed to break the tension for all of us.

Gene wanted to do a big tap number with us. I was a fast learner but, like I said, not a hoofer. Robin Hoctor was a consummate tap dancer. She went on to work with Fred Astair on one of his last films. I digress. So we learned the routine and Gene said, “Alright ladies, tomorrow morning, show me what you got.” I panicked. We all worked hard on the routine but I wasn’t getting the ease and grace that comes with being a great tapper. Robin and Susan Buckner (Patti Simcox in Grease) came to my rescue and made me do it over and over and over. When we finally quit is was some ungodly hour of the morning and I took my tap shoes off only to see my toes bleeding. That was the moment I knew I was a real dancer. I had bled for my art. That day we showed up and danced with the amazing Gene Kelly. It was a moment to remember.

2.  You made a very memorable appearance on Happy Days as the mysterious character Kat Mandu who enchanted both Fonzie and Richie.  What was it like to work on that show?

It was a blast. I had been spotted at Harvey Lembek’s comedy workshop by Garry Marshall’s casting director. We were invited to create a character and come in to show Garry. I created a young high school, English girl whose father had been an American soldier over in London in WWII and I was brought to the States to live with my father. I was bringing the BEATLES to the Midwest, British accent and all. Garry liked me more than my character and said he had a character named Kat Mandu and would I do a guest spot on the show. I did and, because I was the only character in the history of the series to save the Fonze, they, and I, got the show’s highest ratings. Garry wanted to spin off Kat Mandu into her own show. I was on my way to comedic stardom. It was what he’d done with Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy, Lavern and Shirley, and Joanie Loves Chachi. However, Henry Winkler said, “No more spin offs.” The rest is history and I didn’t get my big comedy break. I did get Garry Marshall as a lifelong friend.

3.  As the head writer of Quantum Leap, what was it like to take an idea for one of Sam’s leaps and turn it into a finished script?

It was an amazing, freeing experience. Unlike most shows, if the writer has a medical show, they always write a medical show for that series, or a cop, or lawyer, or whatever.  Quantum  was a writer’s and an actor’s dream in TV. I would write anything I wanted; drama, comedy, action adventure, mystery, historical or sci-fi. It was awesome.

4.  You were a co-executive producer of Quantum Leap, which TV Guide named as one of “TV’s Top Cult Shows Ever.”  What was it like to make a typical episode of the show?

Any episode starts with the characters and premise and we had very specific QL related rules that has to be followed. Beyond that it was where your imagination could take you. A writer would pitch me an arena and some characters. “We liked it,” I would say, “bring me a story.” From story it was broken down into acts and then beats, then you write the dialogue and bring me a polished script. You get notes from me, sometimes Don, the network and the Studio, It may take five to seven rewrites to make everyone happy. It would then go to production and we would attach a director, start casting, location scout, - every member did their specialty and it was like watching magic happen. The show would shoot in six or seven days. The editor would send a cut – more notes. Post meant spotting for music, sound effects and then mixing. After that – It was airtime! The whole process takes about three weeks once the script is approved.

5.  One of the many episodes that you wrote was “A Portrait for Troian”, which you also guest-starred in.  You were also the voice of Ziggy.  What was it like when you got to experience the show as a performer in addition to your usual responsibilities behind the camera?

Let’s just say, I had new respect for Barbra Streisand and anyone who has to wear multiple hats. I had to learn lines and blocking to shoot a scene and then step off camera and do my job as a producer. I was very proud of myself. My only regret was I never directed an episode. I guess I’ll have to direct the feature film.

6.  What was it like working with Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell?

They were, besides being great, funny, charming, supportive, talented actors, superb human beings. I couldn’t have asked for two kinder gentlemen with mega talent to write and produce for.

7.  You’ve done so many things in the course of your amazing career, which also includes authoring the Vision Quest novels.  What can you tell us about your current projects?

I have rewritten the first book of the Vision Quest and will be releasing it May 15th. I’m working on the second book and will follow with the full four, maybe five book series. The Atlantian VQ comes out May 15, 2015. Please come to the new site that day and watch what is happening.

I’m working to direct a wonderful film based on a short I directed for AFI (The American Film Institute).  I have two erotic novels out, The Age of Eve and The Tempting.

And maybe, because it is an exciting world, I may come back and create something very special for TV.

8.  What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?

Dream big and never let anyone tell you can’t manifest those dreams into reality. Remember to only surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you. The universe wants to give you whatever you imagine. Every day, look in the mirror and tell yourself, I love you.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

He Let Us Choose Our Own Adventures: Edward Packard Answers Eight Eighties Questions

Today’s interview is with Edward Packard, who created the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that dominated the reading habits of millions of 1980s kids.  Everyone in our generation remembers the excitement of reading The Cave of Time, You are a Genius, and countless other titles that we read and reread until we had experienced every possible outcome that each book could offer.  If you were like me, every book order, every school book fair, every trip to the school library and the public library was a quest to get your little hands on every Choose Your Own Adventure title.  This interview gives a glimpse into the life of the man responsible for coming up with a brilliant idea - and having the will to bring it into reality.  In his case, that meant walking away from a successful New York law career to become a full-time writer.

My thanks to Edward Packard for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview.

1.  What sorts of books and activities did you enjoy as a child?

Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. They were the inspiration for bedtime stories I made up with my kids and for the book I wrote which came out of them, which I titled The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island: You are swept overboard while on a sailing trip and cast up on a mysterious tropical island. What will you discover? How will you survive? Will you ever get home again? All questions that have the makings of great adventure.

I was also interested in astronomy and wrote a short book on the subject. It was very much out of date, because my principal source was an ancient encyclopedia I found in the attic. 

2.  What are some of the books that influenced you the most as an adult?

I’ve heard it said that the mark of a great book is that it changes the way you think about life; it gives you a jolt in a new direction, one hopes for the better! I think there’s some truth in that, and I have that in mind in trying to answer this question, though it doesn’t make it easier to pick particular books among so many candidates. Among those I found most engaging and illuminating are Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I have a feeling is the greatest novel ever written, The Odyssey, which must be the greatest adventure story; Shakespeare’s incomparable plays; in our own backyard –– Huckleberry Finn; and among short stories, Tolstoy’s "Master and Man" and James Joyce’s "The Dead"; in contemporary non-fiction, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which helped me learn to think twice about everything except things you have to think fast about.

3.  You earned degrees from Princeton University and Columbia Law School and became a successful lawyer before becoming a writer.  What was that transition like?

The law was not my natural calling, and I never missed it once I discovered I could make a living writing. 

4.  What inspired you to create the Choose Your Own Adventure series?

When I realized that my first book initiated a new genre, it was natural to imagine a series of them. I thought of calling them Adventures of You books, but Lippincott (later merged into Harper), which published my next two books, headlined them Choose Your Own Adventure in the Wild West and Choose Your Own Adventure in Outer Space. That designation appealed to Bantam, so when they started publishing books in this genre, they trademarked them as Choose Your Own Adventure books. 

5.  How did you come up with the seemingly endless ideas for the many titles that you wrote for the series?

All it took was to imagine the kinds of adventures I would like to have or might have without wanting them! If aliens captured you and brought you onto their UFO, what would it be like inside it? What would it be like to find yourself hundreds of years in the past; Or in the future? Or be caught on a sailboat in a typhoon? Or go through a black hole and enter another universe? Or be an eagle or an elephant? There’s no limit to “what ifs.” 

Edward Packard today
6.  Eventually other writers began contributing to the series, such as R.A. Montgomery and Alison Gilligan.  How many Choose Your Own Adventure books did you write?

Probably about forty in the main series of 180 books, and maybe ten more in the Skylark series for younger readers, plus eleven in other interactive series I invented, such as Space Hawks (you are an elite space pilot helping defend Earth from alien invaders); Earth Inspectors (you are an enlightened alien sent to Earth to learn about the strange creatures called humans that live there); Escape books, which I call story mazes (you are trapped on an island on an alien planet); there is only one ending in the book –– the ending in which you escape –– and it’s very hard to reach.

7.  You’ve published other books as well.  What are you working on currently?

I’ve written and am having illustrated a children’s picture book titled Space Trip; collaborating with developers in producing a computer game based on my book, Escape from Tenopia; writing a science fiction short story in which Kooz, a super rich entrepreneur tries to achieve immortality by uploading the content and neural patterns of his brain into a computer, then creating a new-born clone of himself, whose brain, as it develops, will assimilate his mental state from the computer, whereupon (a three-time Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist has assured him) he, Kooz, will experienece his sense of self-awareness –– his very being –– emerging in the person of his clone. Sound far out? I wouldn’t argue with you. I also write blogs and book notes, which I post on my website, 

8.  What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?

Did you know that free will vs. determinism is still a big subject of contention among philosophers? Assuming it is possible to have free will, which we must if we don’t want to just walk around like zombies, the question is how do we maximize it? How do we free ourselves of emotional constraints on thinking clearly? It’s a question I began asking myself when I realized I had made some simply awful decisions because of harmful embedded emotions I wasn’t aware of. There was a famous movie decades ago titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As I remember, these were aliens who took over peoples’ brains, after which, though these poor humans thought they were making their own decisions, it was actually the aliens who were making them. Harmful embedded emotions that we are not conscious of –– ones we may not have the slightest idea exist –– such as, for example, a feeling of unworthiness, can mess things up for you just as much as evil aliens. My one piece of advice is to think about decisions you’ve made that you wish you hadn’t and try to identify any harmful embedded emotions that may have driven them. If you can free yourself of such influences, you’ll probably have no trouble thinking clearly.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Do What You Dream: The NeverEnding Story's Tami Stronach Answers Eight Eighties Questions

[Note:  This interview contains spoilers about the film The NeverEnding Story]

Today’s Eight Eighties Questions are being answered by Tami Stronach, who was unforgettable in her role as the Childlike Empress in the legendary 1984 film The NeverEnding Story.  Arguably one of the greatest epic children’s movies of the decade, every 1980s kid remembers the land of Fantasia being mysteriously destroyed by the Nothing.  Fantasia was filled with unforgettable characters such as The Childlike Empress, Atreyu, Falkor, and the Rockbiter, and their world mysteriously came into contact with ours when a little boy named Bastian began to read about them in a book that pulled the two worlds together. 

Many thanks to Tami Stronach for taking the time to be part of the Eight Eighties Questions series.

1.  You were eleven years old when production began, and your role was quite a demanding one for a child.  As the ruler of Fantasia, you seemed to possess the wisdom of the ages.  But in one scene you had to go from having great hope because of Atreyu’s successful journey, and tearful desperation as you plead with Bastian in another world to save Fantasia.  How did you prepare for the role?

I was very serious about preparing for the role and had a journal I carried around with me that included things I thought I needed to improve on in terms of my capturing my character.  Here is a brief quote from that journal "The Empress is very dignified and serious, and mystery is always with her.  Secrets are always hidden in her and yet with her there is a sense of safety and warmth."  I also created a list of adjectives some of which make sense like "magical, very sick, very old (300 years), very other worldly" and some of which make me chuckle like "very Empress, very Godess- like...

2.  The Ivory Tower was an amazing set.  What did you think the first time you saw it?
The truth is in the filming process you only see pieces of the final product so I saw the bed I sat on and the walls of my room built around it.  These were obviously impressive but when I saw the view of the Ivory Tower from a distance in the film that was really the first time I was exposed to the effect of the sum of these parts.  It was thrilling.

3.  What can you tell us about your experience filming the movie?

I loved filming the movie.  Acting was something I was very passionate about.  Wolfgang talked to me in a professional way that I enjoyed.  He didn't talk to me like I was child - he directed me the way he directed the adults.  Also as a child it was easy to slip into imaginary worlds for me.  I often felt more at home in imaginary worlds than in reality.

4.  What was it like working with Noah Hathaway [Atreyu] and Barret Oliver [Bastian]?

Well, it’s a funny age for girls and boys to mix.  Barret was really into action figures which I could not really relate to although I thought he was a very nice boy.  Noah was also really nice but I think he was disappointed that I was essentially a nerd.  I mostly wanted to practice my lines.

5.  Did you get to keep any souvenirs after the filming ended?

I got some action figures, a stuffed Luck dragon, some pencils...I was supposed to get to keep my dress from the film but it never shipped which is a little disappointing as I would have loved to pass it on to my daughter.  She has inherited a similar penchant for imaginary worlds.

6.  The symbolism in the story is incredible, the idea that the Nothing is about growing up and losing your imagination and your dreams.  As you have grown up, do you find that the meaning of the story has changed for you at all over the years?

I think I understand the value of imagination even more now.  I am a choreographer and also an assistant professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College.  I tell my students that making a dance is really powerful because it reinforces for us that ideas in our head can be given form and come into the world.  This action is applicable to anything, not just making art.  I think this connects to my being more comfortable in imaginary worlds versus reality as a child.  Reality can sometimes be so depressing with the environmental crisis we are facing and the violence humanity seems so addicted to revisiting each decade.  But if we have a vision that is clear it can find its way into being (with diligence and work) and that's the key to making a better world.  I think that is what The NeverEnding Story is about for me.  It asks people to dream . . . to do what they dream so what they imagine comes into being and replaces our destructive tendencies.  It's also just a really fun visual fantasy world to get lost in.

Tami Stronach today

7.  What are you working on currently?

I have been dancing, choreographing and acting in NYC for the last 20 years.  I have two projects I am currently working on "Light A Dark Comedy", a theater piece for family audiences and "Around the Bend", a dance theater piece.

Tami Stronach Dance's "Around the Bend" is being presented by Triskelion Arts in NY this February.  It's an exciting premier for my company and the piece has been invited to Russia and Canada so it looks like there will be some touring in the works.

I am really excited about the second project because it is a bit of a departure for me but in many ways also a coming home of sorts.  "Light a Dark Comedy" is a theater work for family audiences that we hope to premier in NY next spring.  We were awarded a Labworks residency at the New Victory theater to launch the project and will be taking the next year to finish it.  This work is geared for the same type of audience members that appreciated The NeverEnding Story but for the stage.  I hope that I can entertain the children of people who loved The NeverEnding Story as well as my daughter.  Coming back to theater and a fantasy and family entertainment feels nice! 

8.  What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?

Living a creative, authentic life can be hard...the rewards are often more spiritual then material.  But it's worth it.  Do what you love...This is cheesy but I'm going to write what what you dream.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

We Make Our Dreams Come True: The Muppet Babies' Laurie O'Brien Answers Eight Eighties Questions

Today’s Eight Eighties Questions are answered by Laurie O’Brien, who was the voice of Miss Piggy on the Emmy-winning hit The Muppet Babies, which was a Saturday morning staple for millions of 1980s kids.  In addition to The Muppet Babies she was also in another 1980s classic, Harry and the Hendersons.  She has additionally appeared in many popular 1980s shows including Dynasty, St. Elsewhere, Knight Rider, Cagney and Lacey, and Matlock.  Laurie has had many other credits after the 1980s drew to a close, a small sampling of them include:  Spiderman (the TV series), Walker, Texas Ranger, 7th Heaven, ER, Chicago Hope, and the upcoming series Complete Works.  

My thanks to Laurie for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer today’s Eight Eighties Questions.

1.  The Muppet Babies was a favorite cartoon for countless 1980s kids.  When you were a child, what were some of your favorite cartoons?

Popeye. I was very skinny and identified with Olive Oyle. I also loved Huckleberry Hound, The Yogi Bear Show, Rocky and Bullwinkle (especially Fractured Fairytales) The Flintstones, Betty Boop, Casper, The Jetsons, Bugs Bunny (I adored Tweety Bird), Mighty Mouse and of course Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Donald.

2.  When did you know that you wanted to become a performer?

It’s funny, but the first time I got bitten by the performance bug was also the first, and last time, I was nearly crippled by stage fright. By the time I was seven I had been performing with my mother’s singing group, the Musiquettes, for a couple of years. I enjoyed it, but it was just kind of something I did. Until one night when they got me all gussied up in a slinky red satin gown with sequins and a slit up the side, with plastic dime store high heels and a cigarette holder fashioned out of tin foil and glitter. I was going to sing Put the Blame on Mame a la Rita Hayworth.

I had never actually sung this song full out, or walked beyond three feet in the shoes, and boy, the stage seemed huge. So, standing in the dark of the wings, waiting to go on stage, my left knee started shaking, butterflies fluttered up into my throat, and I had to pee. Badly. I was watching my mother’s trio sing. She was the favorite soprano and gorgeous and perfectly at ease. I got more nervous. The song ended, the applause began, and Margaret, the piano player/director gestured for me to come out. Turning to the audience she said, “And now for a special treat we have the youngest, and maybe the sweetest Musiquette of all, our own Henrietta O’Brien’s daughter Laurie singing a siren’s song, Put the Blame on Mame.”

She gestured to me again, but my feet were six feet under. Everything suddenly seemed too bright and slow. My mouth went dry, my tongue numb. “Come on, sweetheart,” Margaret mouthed, but I couldn’t budge from my nice, anonymous spot, besides I couldn’t remember the first words of the song. Margaret bugged her eyes at me, glanced at the audience, laughed, and then turned toward my mother and shook her head. Silence. A few people cleared their throats. Someone coughed.

Then my mother, in what seemed like slow motion, turned to me and simply smiled. Her face was untroubled, without sign of panic or embarrassment. It was just a full confident, joyful smile that sent life back into my feet, moisture to my mouth. So I took a deep breath, stepped onto the stage, into the dazzling light, and plunging ahead I clickity-clacked my way across the stage on those little heels to the piano, and laying my hand on top of it, took a drag off my cigarette holder and said to Margaret, “Hi there, Dearie.”

The audience howled and something shifted inside me. My heart danced a sassy little cha-cha. Margaret winked and said in a grand stage whisper, “You know what to do, honey,” and began the intro.

So I flipped my hair over my shoulder and sidled up to the audience and as I looked out over that vast darkness I felt connected, at home. All those strangers turned into my friends. We were in this together.

Margaret was right; I did know what to do. I wasn’t imitating Rita, or my mother, but neither was I quite myself. Something strange and beautiful had climbed inside me, turned me inside out. I brought the house to their feet, and I was bitten.

3.  How did you get the role of Miss Piggy?

I auditioned for it. I’ve been told that hundreds of people did so. I’m not sure if that’s true. Regardless, I was very lucky to have landed the role. The meeting came through my agent at the time, Herb Tannen. Actually I came very close to not going to the audition. Herb called me one afternoon and asked if I could do the voice of Miss Piggy as a child. I said, I supposed so, if I practiced. I had a young kid’s voice that I walked around doing all the time, claiming that someday I was going to make a million dollars with it. I figured I could probably add Miss Piggy’s idiosyncrasies to that voice. “Well,” he said, “I just said you could do her as well as 3 other characters. Your appointment is at 10:45 tomorrow.” I said, okay if I could get around to it. I was busy rehearsing a one-woman play I had written and was rather preoccupied. He said, “No, no, you don’t understand, Laurie. This is really important. You’ll be there.”

Well, I had a TV but I didn’t have a VCR back then, so I rented The Muppet Movie and took it to a friend’s house and played it on his machine. I took along my little cassette player and recorded a couple of sections of Piggy talking that I thought best represented her tone and attitude and I practiced saying those lines over and over with her inflections in that “million dollar” little girl’s voice. I actually took the cassette player with me to the audition and whenever I felt I was losing Piggy’s rhythms or tone I listened to it. The audition was so much fun, and just a taste of what was to come after I landed the role. When I found out I got the part, I knew something magical had just come into my life.

Front row:  Janis Liebhart (song writer/vocal coach), Barbara Billingsley (Nanny), Russi Taylor (Gonzo), Hank Saroyan (Director), Katie Leigh (Rowlf), Frank Welker (Kermit, Skeeter and Beaker), Laurie O'Brien (Piggy).
Back Row:  David Coulier (Animal, Bunsen), a technician, Greg Berg (Fozzie) and Star Kaplan (production coordinator/assistant).

4.  What can you tell us about making a typical episode of The Muppet Babies?

There was never a dull moment. I worked with the most amazingly talented, creative, fun, good people in the world. Voiceover people are notorious for cutting up during sessions, entertaining each other between takes with improvisational antics and this crowd was classic. That’s not to say that people didn’t do their jobs, or stick with the script. They did. Everyone was beyond professional. It’s just that there was an abundance of creative energy and joy in the room. Truly, you can’t help but be happy doing this work. We had the blessing of eight seasons and we grew very close.

It normally took us a full day, eight hours, to record one episode. The voice actors would arrive around 9 in the morning, we’d get our scripts, mark them. Sometimes we had a table read, but not always. We all had our favorite spots in the booth. The technical crew was always there before us, of course and had everything ready. They would check each of us for sound and then we would begin from the top and work our way through. We did quite a bit of stopping and starting so that Hank Saroyan, our director, our guiding light, could realize his vision to the fullest. Like I said, we clowned around a lot between takes.

We recorded the songs at separate sessions. We tried, for the first couple of episodes, to sing together but that didn’t work out. So we each had our own time in the studio and they layered us in.

5.  The Muppet Babies was a major hit. I had a Muppet Babies lunch box, finger puppets, stuffed animals, sewing cards, and there were so many toys and products.  What was it like being part of such a hit show?

It was truly a gift. Piggy was a star, so I got to be too. Whenever I told anyone I was Baby Miss Piggy they would practically swoon. It’s funny, but that still will happen, especially with people who are between about 25-35 years old. I can never make the announcement and get away without doing a little bit of her. I love the looks on people’s faces.

It was a wild time. We were in high demand. There were commercials, toys; we even recorded an album. I was so proud of all of it. The show was smart and quirky and accessible to both kids and adults. What could be better than to be paid to be a singing, screaming, giggly, bossy, spunky pig? And to work with and know such great people (including Jim Henson!) AND to get to be a STAR and yet walk through my normal life and not be mobbed by crowds or paparazzi. Fabulous!

From Left to Right:  Greg Berg (Fozzie, Scooter), Jim Henson, Howie Mandel (original Animal/Sketer/Bunsen), Laurie O'Brien (Piggy), Hank Saroyan (Director), Russi Taylor (Gonzo), Maian Matisse (production coordinator), unknown name, Frank Welker (Kermit), Bob Richardson (supervising producer/director). Kate Leigh (Rowlf) is crouching between the railings.

6.  You were also in Harry and the Hendersons, which was one of the great kids films of the 1980s. What memories can you share about your experience?

Laurie O'Brien Today
I didn’t have a large part in the film, but I had worked with the director, Bill Dear, before and we had a great relationship. Bill is a very intense, funny man who keeps his sets both lively and focused. I remember there was a lot of hilarity on the set.

7.  What are you working on currently?

I just completed a short film, and I’m in the outlining stage of writing a new one-woman show. I’m also a sculptress and I practice yoga. Of course I’m auditioning as often as I can and am always hopeful another Muppet Babies will come my way.

8.  What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?

Live in the here and now, and of course, do what you love to do. That will mean you’re always on your right path. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Active Visionary - David Crane Answers Eight Eighties Questions

This week’s Eight Eighties Questions are being answered by the legendary video game designer David Crane, who helped to shape the childhood of 1980s kids with his contributions to the video game industry.  He began his programming career at Atari by creating video games for the Atari 2600, and he helped to design the operating system for the Atari 800 Home Computer System.  He was a co-founder of Activision and created Pitfall! – one of the greatest titles from the golden era of gaming.  Pitfall! was named Game of the Year in 1982 and is the #2 bestselling game of all-time for the Atari 2600, second only to Pac-Man.  David is still a programmer, and was kind enough to make time in his schedule to answer Eight Eighties Questions.

1.  When you were growing up, video games and personal computers didn’t exist.  How did you become interested in computer science?

Growing up my older brother had an interest in the sciences, making rocket fuel with his chemistry set to stuff into cardboard tube rockets, etc.  (He went on to become a systems analyst for IBM.)  But he was much older and after he went off to college I got heavily into electronics.  I subscribed to a “kit of the month” club containing science experiments and rudimentary electronic projects.  My parents quickly learned that as each kit arrived they could get me to do anything - up to and including cleaning my room - before I was allowed to open the box.  One such kit was the “Digital LogicMicrolab”  that was first an assembly project, and then a platform for wiring up digital logic gates to learn logic.  I was hooked.

Before I was out of high school I had taken apart and reassembled a TV set, built a 7-segment digit display, and created a tic-tac-toe machine out of rotary switches.

David Crane in 1979

2.  You had a hand in developing the Atari 800 Home Computer, which was more powerful and had more sophisticated graphics and sound capabilities than the Apple II.  It was revolutionary for its time because it was a fully functioning computer and a video game console in one. What can you tell us about your role in developing it?

Ironically, Atari created the 400/800 computer to compete with Apple, but the engineering department used the budget instead to create a better video game system.  In truth, there was very little market for a personal computer at the time for any of the classic reasons.  When the storage device was a cassette tape and the output device was a 40 character printer that used adding-machine paper, it was a tough sell.  Sure, you could balance your checkbook with it, but no better than with a calculator.  Word processing made no sense without the ability to print a page at least as attractive as what a typewriter could do.  But we in engineering knew that a better, higher-resolution video game was needed to replace the aging Atari VCS.

This split came from the highest levels.  The senior VP of engineering told management what they wanted to hear: “Of course we are making you a personal computer at least as good as the Apple II.” At the same time he told us to make the best video game hardware and software we could.  Obviously, with management and marketing trying to sell a different product than what engineering was developing, the 400/800 never got marketed correctly or sold very well.

We did end up with a nice new generation video game console, but saddled with personal computer elements like a full keyboard made it too expensive.

3.  Like all 1980s kids I loved Pitfall! and still play it on my 2600 – my favorite obstacle continues to be the pond that would disappear and reappear.  What inspired you to create Pitfall!? 

I was driven to make a game with a realistic human character, before the game console hardware really had the capability of rendering a recognizable human figure.  The hardest part of making Pitfall! was Pitfall Harry himself.  Once I had him looking good by carefully selecting every pixel, his side-view perspective lent itself to transitioning from screen to screen in a larger world.  That made Pitfall! so much more expansive than the typical single screen Atari 2600 game.

I tried to find a good game concept into which I could insert the running man, but I failed several times.  After each failure I went off and made another game, vowing to come back to the running man again.  When I finally settled on a side-view adventure format, there were a couple of inspirations from other media.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was in theaters, and that likely gave me the idea to place the adventure in a jungle.  The alligators came from a cartoon from my childhood: Heckle and Jeckle.  These were two “talking magpies” (don’t ask me why) who always got into trouble and barely escaped.  A sequence in the opening credits showed the characters running through the open mouths of alligators, each of which snapped closed an instant too late to munch the magpie.  As I was adding the water hazards to Pitfall! I added the alligators as an homage to Heckle and Jeckle.

David Crane in 1985

4.  You created many early games besides Pitfall!, including Grand Prix, Dragster, and Fishing Derby.  In those days, one person would design an entire game by themselves.  How long did it take to design, create, and program a game in the early days of video gaming?

In that era we coined the job description “Game Designer” to call attention to the fact that we were a lot more than programmers.  We each came up with an original game concept, drew every pixel of art, developed every sound effect, programmed every line of code, and then did all of the play testing.  A typical project would take approximately 1000 hours of work over 6-9 months.

Some of my game concepts came from real life.  (I still remember riding in a bus to CES in Chicago and watching a man try to cross 10 lanes of rush-hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive to avoid a $10 parking fee.  I remarked to my seat companion “There’s an idea for a video game.”  Freeway was born.)  But more often I would experiment for several weeks trying to make the Atari 2600 hardware do something not intended by its designers.  I achieved that many times, making games like Dragster and Grand Prix possible.  That added to my development workload, but I was among the fastest coders of the time and still managed to turn out about 1.5 games per year.

5.  You are a co-founder of Activision (which produced some of the most memorable games of the 1980s, including River Raid), which was the first company to make games independently for other platforms.  What can you tell us about founding Activision, and the unique culture that centered around game designers?

Activision was founded by 4 game designers from Atari and one executive from the record business.  One of the founding principals was that a video game is the work of an author, and that the author should be given credit for his work.  So each of our games featured the designer’s name and a designer’s tip that we would create.  Once the game player could know who made a game, they might decide to add a game to their collection based as much on the game as the author.  We all tended to have our own style.

Because of his background, our CEO Jim Levy embraced the concept and included it into the company’s marketing.  That resulted in a little bit of fame which was nice.  That said, I am always quick to point out that my typical groupie was a 12-year-old boy… It wasn’t quite rock star status.

We also designed the games in an open cubicle farm.  Everybody’s TVs faced the open center, so anyone in the room could kibbutz on the games.  That made every game a little better since it first had to pass the approval of the top collection of game designers in the industry.  In that same way we could bring the new game designers along and help them out.  I remember one day in the lab when Carol Shaw was working on River Raid.  She wanted to play a warning siren sound effect for low fuel.  All sound effects on the Atari 2600 were actually programmed algorithms.  I called across the room and gave her a dozen program instructions to type in.  She did so and it created the siren effect that is in the game to this day.

6.  You are still a game designer, and programming has come a long way since the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Video games are lot more sophisticated in every way than their early predecessors.  What is it like creating a video game today as opposed to the early years?

Video game design has gone from one man projects completed in less than a year to 100+ person projects taking several years and tens of millions of dollars.  This did not occur as a revolution, but rather as an evolution, and I was able to evolve with it.  Having produced games through the entire period I am familiar with how to make a successful game regardless of the size of the project.  After all, the goal is still to provide a fun and entertaining diversion that a player can enjoy for a few hours.
As it happens, having the ability to wear any hat on a given project helped me a great deal.  Look at any successful movie maker.  You can bet he or she knows a lot about every discipline required.  To frame a particularly difficult scene, Steven Spielberg still climbs the camera boom and sits behind the viewfinder to tweak the scene.  Any successful game has to have that someone who can make the tough decisions so that the end product lives up to its potential.

7.  Today you are an independent game programmer and have a phenomenal career, having created over one-hundred video games.  What can you tell us about your current projects?
David Crane today

I am currently an independent game designer simply because there is a bias in the industry against anyone over 30.  People who don’t understand the creative process think it makes sense that you have to be a part of the target market in order to relate to a target market.  I prefer working with others like myself who have a proven track record of being able to produce a game on time and on budget that is still fun to play.  But we are all expensive and it is hard to raise the budget needed to staff a project with all seasoned professionals.

As a result I have several projects in the very early stages that I am thinking about developing more fully.  I will likely choose one of those to take into the cutthroat world of project funding before I have anything I can talk about.

8.  What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?

I often have people ask me how to get into game development.  My first answer is “Why?  Do you really like working all-nighters and never seeing your family?”  But for those so inclined I suggest that they get involved in a game development project at whatever level they can get into - even as an unpaid intern.  Or if you know how to program, make a game on the iPhone.  You may not sell any more copies than you have friends, but you can go into the next project as a “published game developer.”  Bigger developers will take you more seriously at that point.

To turn this into “life advice,” at the end of the project honestly ask yourself if that was the most fun thing you have ever done.  And only if the answer is yes pursue it further.  Only a fraction of a percent of people become successful in game development.  If you are having the time of your life, you can fail and still feel like a success.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mathnet, Frankly: Joe Howard Answers Eight Eighties Questions.

Joe Howard
Today our Eight Eighties Questions interviewee is Joe Howard, who is probably best remembered by most 1980s kids as mathematician George Frankly from Mathnet, a segment of SquareOne Television.  Many of you will remember George Frankly working with his partner, Kate Monday, as they hunted down criminals using math, logic, and the calculators they carried in their holsters.  In addition to his work on Mathnet, Joe has made many appearances on the big and small screen in his long career, including Mork and Mindy, The Mighty Ducks, Grumpy Old Men, Frasier, House of Sand and Fog, The West Wing, The Mentalist, and Jersey Boys.

Joe was kind enough to answer these questions so that we could enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the set of Mathnet.  

1.  George Frankly was the only character on Mathnet to appear in every single episode.  What was it like playing that role?  

It was an enormous amount of fun. I loved the people I was working with. I wish I could have played the role for many more years than I did.

2.  How much of your personality did you infuse into the lovable George Frankly? 

Joe Howard and Beverly Leech
I always felt George was just an exaggerated version of myself, so there was lots of me in him. It required zero preparation to get into character.

3.  James Earl Jones played your boss, Thad Green, on a few episodes.  What was it like working with him?

I really liked James. I wish we could have spent more time together. What a nice man. I expected to be blown away by the voice of Darth Vader when I met him, but he was very soft spoken…a really lovely gentleman.

4.  What is your favorite memory of working on Mathnet?

Probably working on the "Case of the Mystery Weekend." That old mansion we shot in was a fun location. We had some great guest stars on that show, including Nick Wyman, whom I had done a show with back in 1975 (and who is now the president of the actors stage union (Actors Equity Association) and Stephen Marcus.

5.  Did you have any idea when you were filming Mathnet that the show would end up with the type of loyal following that continues to this day?

I figured that something from the people who made SESAME STREET would make an enduring mark, so I am not surprised.

6.  Your son Jeremy is also an actor.  What’s it like having him follow your footsteps into the world of acting?

I'm very pleased about it. He has hooked into the business at a higher level than I, and parents like to see their kids do better than they did.

7.  What projects are you currently working on?

I am constantly workshopping material that I have written and perform in showcases for casting directors to see my work. The performing I do with that is more interesting than the jobs I get paid for. I am in the fortunate position where I don't have to work anymore with my actor pensions and Social Security coming in. The last project I worked on was an indie film called AMERICAN BRED, a movie about the Detroit Mafia. I played a priest in it, as I have many times in the past (as in JERSEY BOYS).

8.  What piece of life advice would you like to share?

Listen to your intuition. It will guide you as to what you need to do to have a fulfilling life. Everyone's has to lead their own life, and no one is better than you in determining the way to go. By all means listen to guidance from those whom you trust may know more than you and heed that which feels right. Know that desire for fame, money, stature, power is not coming from your intuition, and following that kind of desire will not serve you. You will feel frustrated if you don't fulfill those desires, and satisfying those desires for their own sake will disappoint you in the long run. Determine your real needs and what you need to do to satisfy them.

Our last interview featured Beverly Leech who played Kate Monday, you can read her interview here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I Was Working the Day Watch Out of Mathnet: Beverly Leech Answers Eight Eighties Questions

Mathnetters George Frankly and Kate Monday

Today’s Eight Eighties Questions interview is with Beverly Leech, an actress who most 1980s kids will remember as Kate Monday from Mathnet.  A parody of Dragnet, Mathnet was a segment of the mathematically-themed Children’s Television Workshop hit SquareOne Television.   She also worked on many other memorable 1980s shows, including Star Search, The Facts of Life, Matlock, Head of the Class, and Quantum Leap.  Her long and multifaceted career has included film and Broadway, as well. Just a few of her many credits include Frasier, Star Trek:  Voyager, JAG, Criminal Minds, Mad Men, and Rizzoli & Isles.  She has recently had memorable spots in the Nokia Lumia commercials “The Wedding” (which included a Jedi-like leap over a table), and “The Recital” (where she asks, “How’s this for a drama shot?” and delivers a wallop of a head-butt).  In addition to her own work in front of the camera, she is one of the most sought after acting coaches in Hollywood and is the author of Actor Muscle – Craft, Grit, Wit:  A Professional Guide to the Business of Acting.

Beverly was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to be the first interviewee of the Eight Eighties Questions series.

#1.  When you think back to your days on Mathnet, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

The first thing?  ‘The Angle of Incidence equals the angle of reflection’ – from “The Problem of the Missing Baseball,” season one of Mathnet.  Hey, I learned some things, too!
#2.  What was the best thing that happened to you as a result of playing Kate Monday? 

Beverly Leech
There wasn’t any one “best thing” except that I grew up.  I grew up in all sorts of ways – as a person, as an actor.  I believe that our incomparable director, Charlie Dubin, was the kindest, funniest, toughest, and most interesting man I’d ever met.  I had very little experience on a film set, and in my ignorance, had no good habits that were a reflection of a “leading lady.”  Charlie literally grabbed me by the collar and plunked me in to a chair next to him and told me I wasn’t ever allowed to leave the set for any reason.  “Sit there, be quiet, and learn something.”  And I did.  Charlie had his early roots in vaudeville, and his stories between camera set-ups were hilarious.  I’ll always be grateful for his intervention and talent.  Janette Webb, our beautiful producer, was a lady in every sense of the word, and she very patiently smoothed out my Texan-tomboy-redneck manners … though, honestly, it took longer that she probably would have preferred.  Lastly, I can’t say enough good things about the writing team of Dave Connell and Jim Thurman – truly funny men, deeply committed, and always a joy to break out a new script. They are still my favorite writers to this day, and really taught me everything about timing and comedy.

#3.  What was a typical day of filming like for a five episode Mathnet case?

I’m very disciplined and like to wake up several hours before the early morning, 6am, calls to set.  I’d get up around 4 or 5 am, have coffee, move around and get my body awake – then review the day’s scenes with a bowl of cereal or hard boiled eggs.  I’d drive to set, go to makeup and wardrobe, then do a camera blocking with the director, and go back to the hair and makeup trailer to finish the prep. Joe and the guest star and I would run the scene lightly in the trailer, get to know each other a bit, then go to the set and wait for camera to be ready, rehearse some more.  Being on set requires patience – there’s a lot of waiting.  But under no circumstances can you get lazy and zone out on the intent of the immediate scene.  When camera is ready, you have to be, too.  So I wait like a pot that’s lightly simmering, just ready to go in to a full boil.  And since the dialogue was frequently difficult with zany tongue twisters and mathematic formulas, I was running those quite a bit.  At lunch, I don’t always eat with the cast and crew.  If it’s been a big morning and I’m feeling a little burned out, I will grab a tray but prop my feet up in the trailer for a power nap to rejuvenate my brain cells.  Then, eat lunch while I’m going through touch ups before camera again.  There’s nothing worse than losing your juice before the shooting day is over, so lunch time power naps are important for me.  “Losing your juice” means my mind and body begin to fade – I forget lines, I get slow or clumsy, and that by itself will kill comedy.  Comedy needs pace and timing, and my instrument needs to play to its tune.

#4.  My favorite episode of Mathnet was “The View From the Rear Terrace” [a parody of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window].   Kate was in a wheelchair recuperating from a leg injury, which she refused to reveal how it happened because she said it was embarrassing.  While at home, Kate was nearly killed by a time bomb that had been planted by a deranged criminal seeking revenge.  With seconds left to go, Kate is screaming her last goodbyes to George through the locked door as he tries to save her.  Thankfully he succeeded, and in my opinion it was the most intense episode in Mathnet history.  What can you tell us about that episode, especially the mystery injury and the bomb scene? 

This episode was one of my favorites as well – mainly because it was one of the few times we broke out of the traditional Mathnet script and circumstances.  It was perhaps the only time (?) we got to see Kate and George in their homes, not the headquarters or at the scene of a “crime.” They weren’t in uniform, which is a visual sign of authority, but in regular clothing – more human, more vulnerable, and we see them as friends.  In the past, they were always friendly and worked well together, but this time it was a deeper friendship, with more at stake.  And because of this situation, the production also relaxed the requirement of my character’s stoicism and “just the facts” kind of delivery.  I was allowed to move out from that emotionally, and it was a gratifying experience.  Joe Howard is simply wonderful to work with – always.  He is a very talented man, very humble, and a consummate professional.  I rather admire and look up to him, so it was effortless to transfer that real kinship in to our performance.

#5.  Kate Monday disappeared without a trace, and was literally never mentioned again.  Her disappearance was very upsetting to a lot of little Mathnet fans.  What happened?

Aw, gee. I hate answering this. It broke my heart to leave the show, it really did.  In the early years after my departure, I never answered anyone with a straight answer about why because I was very protective of the show’s image. But, it’s been 20 years, and it’s not that it’s some deep dark secret, it was just long and complicated. The short answer is: After several years of working under the same contract (which had started out very simple and tidy), headquarters in New York changed the shooting schedule, location, and the contract terms in such a way that I literally could not afford to do it.

The salary for Mathnet was very meager, but it was a labor of love, not about the money. And PBS/CTW had the wisdom at that time to shoot it on hiatus. [Hiatus is a rest period in between the shooting seasons of the industry.]  I made enough money in the other seasons to cover all of my expenses and my bills, and during the hiatus, I was able to afford to work on Mathnet.  Initially, Mathnet was shot in LA, and when they did it in New York, CTW/PBS covered the travel and modest living quarters.  Covering those travel expenses is industry standard, by the way, and routinely practiced by every major studio and production house.

It was no secret that my agents didn’t make a good commission on this gig, and pressured me to move on, but I really enjoyed doing the show and continued in spite of that.  However, the deal that was presented to me by CTW/PBS the last year was drastically different - the shooting schedule was going to be moved into pilot season, which would effectively take me out of the market during a highly lucrative time. Furthermore, in those days, you were exclusively tied by contract to a show: you had to be available at all times and you couldn’t do anything else. So I would not have had the ability to appear on any other shows (shows that paid my rent and bills). The other huge surprise was that they wanted me to literally move to New York to be considered a “local hire” - then they wouldn’t have to pay for my airfare, or housing, or per diem to eat. When all was said and done, my choices were to either leave my husband and newborn completely behind in California or take them with me and effectively cut off two sources of income (his and mine). Now, it comes down to math! After taxes and commissions to a teeny weeny salary, it left me with about 200 bucks a week. Can any single person live in New York on $200 a week?  Impossible.  We explained the situation in contract negotiations over and over again. I was willing to take the part, and I was even willing to take the money, but there had to be some kind of compromise that would allow me to afford to do it. If they kept the traditional shooting schedule at hiatus, for instance, I doubt there would have been a problem I’d have taken it in a heartbeat. But there wasn’t any compromise; they wouldn’t even pay for the plane ticket – totally contrary to industry standards. And we all know what happened next. It was very, very hard phone call. I didn’t allow my agent to do it, I handled it personally.  The producer and I both cried on the phone. I loved those people, and I had a really hard time stepping away. But CTW/PBS headquarters did what they had to do to meet their budget, and I did what I had to do to meet mine. Now, it’s been 20 years, water under the bridge. I don’t have any hard feelings about it at all, and I’m sure they don’t either. 

#6.  One of Mathnet’s trademarks was that Kate and George carried their calculators in holsters.  After your time on the show ended, did you get to keep them or your Mathnet badge?

Yes.  Props gave me the badge as a parting gift.  I have the badge in the special chest where I store all my precious memories.

#7.  Between acting, coaching, and writing, you’ve got a lot going on.  What can you tell us about your current projects?

Still pounding pavement as an actor, but I’m a classic actor and superstitious about divulging titles to specific projects. It jinx’ the audition.  I’m blessed to have terrific agents, both theatrically and commercially.  A lot of women my age sometimes stall out, but I’ve already renewed contracts and it feels good to still keep showing up and being allowed to use the gifts my higher power has so graciously given me.  I try to remember that when my ego gets petulant.  I currently work every week with a great actors/writers lab, The Actors Gym, run by Academy Award Winning writer/director, Bobby Moresco.  It’s a great group of highly skilled professionals and we develop new screenplays and television pilots, and workshop the occasional stage play - very invigorating.  Lately, I’ve been auditioning again for musical theatre which is a total surprise.  I’d had a series of shoulder surgeries the last few years and had literally stepped out of that very rigorous type of production.  But, I’m back, and who knew I still had singing chops?  As things slow down for the holidays, I stay busy doing staged readings for other writers – will be doing one this Friday, actually – an interesting film noir piece set in the South.  My husband, actor Christian Meoli, runs a rather successful venue called The Arena Cinema in Hollywood, giving independent film makers a chance to give their film a theatrical release. He’s the face and the brains of the operation, but I assist with the business aspects to keep the wheels running smoothly.  Yes, it involves MATH.

#8.  What piece of life advice would you like to share?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s – ‘It’s Never Too Late’
“For what it’s worth:  it’s never too late, or in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be.  There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want.  You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing.  We can make the best or the worst of it.  I hope you make the best of it.  And I hope you see things that startle you.  I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before.  I hope you meet people with a different point of view.  I hope you live a life you’re proud of.  If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

~ AND ~ I think  #6 and  #10 below are the most potent for me personally.

   1.    Take the money …
   2.    Eat when you can …
   3.    Nothing is in the bag, so keep your day job.
   4.    Never screw the stage manager.
   5.    Never turn your back on a producer.
   6.    Leave yourself alone, and work to be better.
   7.    Never share a vast idea with a half vast person.
   8.    Never forget what they’ve done to you, but never show you remember.
   9.    Never underestimate the bad taste of the artistically pretentious.
   10. Fame is what others give you. Success is what you give yourself. 

      Be sure to check out some of Beverly Leech's links:

     "Actor Muscle: Craft. Grit. Wit. A Professional Guide 
      to the Business of Acting" 2014 edition available in print
      at  Amazon.   

     "The Nuts and Bolts: Audition Technique for 
      Television & Film" MP3  Download at CD Baby.  Now on
      shelves at Samuel French/LA, Drama Book Shop/NYC, and
      Skylight Books.