Tag Archives: steven spielberg

Three’s Company

Do celebrities really die in threes?

To some, it’s a universal law. To others, it’s just sloppy thinking applied to a statistical likelihood with all the famous people walking around these days.

Each camp draws different conclusions to the same evidence, like in late June, 2009, with the wave of celebrity deaths that took place around the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Another such grouping happened five years ago this week with the triple-deaths of the three-D’s – Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver, and Don Knotts – within 24 hours.

Darren McGavin, the first to be born and the last to die, spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest either homeless or living in orphanages. He began his Hollywood career as a painter on the Columbia lot where he secured a bit role in a film before moving to New York to hone the craft of acting.

He eventually starred in seven television series, most notably in Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the early 70s, playing a modern-day vampire hunter. His most famous film role came in 1983’s A Christmas Story, where he played the grumpy father with the kitschy leg lamp.

McGavin died on February 25, 2006, a day after Knotts and Weaver. He was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in an appropriate spot for a former vampire hunter, as his plot overlooks that of Maila Nurmi, television’s original Vampira.

Dennis Weaver was raised in Missouri where he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He committed to the profession after failing to make the 1948 U.S. Olympic decathlon team. His acting career was secured when he landed the role of Chester, Matt Dillon’s deputy, in the long-running Western series Gunsmoke in 1955.

Weaver was often seen on television throughout the rest of his career, including starring roles in Gentle Ben in 1967 and McCloud in 1970. He also starred in the Steven Spielberg thriller Duel in 1971.

Weaver and his wife Gerry had one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood history, lasting from 1945 until his death. He was an advocate for the environment and a major supporter of several progressive causes. He died from lung cancer on February 24, 2006.

Don Knotts, like Weaver, was born in the summer of 1924.

Knotts came from West Virginia and began his stage career as a ventriloquist. In 1958, he appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film No Time For Sergeants, which began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship between the two men.

Knotts later got regular work on television on Three’s Company and other shows, and in several classic screen comedies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Pleasantville, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (“Atta boy, Luther!”). 

But to the millions of fans who still regularly transport themselves to the town of Mayberry in the country of TV Land, Knotts will forever be Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney, with his Napoleon complex and single bullet, was just about the funniest character to ever appear on a television set.

It was fitting that both Knotts and Weaver died on the same day, since they both became famous playing deputies. As one blogger wrote back in 2006, “it looks like a bad week to be an ex-law enforcement sidekick.”

It was a bad week for us all.

I never met any of these men, so I can’t vouch for their real-life personalities, but thanks to the wonderful characters they played, it’s impossible for me to bring any of them to mind without breaking into a smile.

 

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Battle:LA 02.24.42

Have you seen the billboards around town that read “Battle:LA 03.11.11”?

They are there to promote an upcoming science fiction action film called Battle: Los Angeles, which stars Aaron Eckhart as a Marine battling to save us from them, with “us” being the Earth, and “them,” a bunch of invading aliens from outer space.

What most people don’t realize, there actually was a Battle of Los Angeles during the early days of World War II.

While it turned out to be a “bogus battle,” officially attributed to a bad case of war nerves, it brought about the twin tragedies of civilian deaths and the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.

The “battle” actually began the night before on the evening of February 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine shelled an oil producing plant twelve miles north of Santa Barbara.

The particulars of the attack sound like the start of a bad WWII-era joke: Did you hear the one about the Japanese submarine commander who sat on a cactus and started the Battle of Los Angeles?

Let me explain.

Before the war a Japanese tanker commander stopped to fill up his ship at the Ellwood Oil Field near Goleta, California. While he was ashore he tripped and fell on a cactus which resulted in the painful extraction of quills from his rump, accompanied by a chorus of ribald laughter from the oil workers.

A short time later, the same man found himself in command of a Japanese submarine that was patrolling the waters off California after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On the night of February 23, the submarine surfaced near the oil field and the commander, in an obvious act of revenge over his previous harsh treatment, ordered his gunners to fire.

The attack was the first direct assault by a foreign enemy on the American mainland since the War of 1812. It caused minimal damage, but frazzled nerves up and down the coast.

The following night, air raid sirens sounded all around Los Angeles, and the skies over the city were lit up by anti-aircraft fire. The targets were thought to be enemy aircraft, but officially the government said the belligerents were stray weather balloons. (Isn’t that what they always say?)

The bogus battle claimed six civilian lives – three from friendly fire, and another three from heart attacks. It also helped bring about the governmental policy of placing Japanese-Americans into internment camps, which began just days later.

Some feel there was a third great tragedy of the battle – that unfortunate Steven Spielberg film 1941, which was based on the story.


Black and White and Red All Over

Southern California is blessed with spots where the storied events of the Old West actually took place, and where those same events were later portrayed to the outside world in old black-and-white Western films. We recently visited one of these places in the Mojave Desert called Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon is a 27,000 acre state park situated at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Range. It lies halfway between the towns of Mojave and Ridgecrest, 120 miles north of Los Angeles on California 14.

Watch out for the camels. They spit!

Destructive, yet beautiful, forces of nature created Red Rock Canyon. Tectonic tears caused by the nearby Garlock Fault raised what was once a lake hundreds of feet into the sky, revealing the sedimentary layers beneath. Some of these layers contain high contents of iron which rusted in the open air, giving the rocks its dark red color. Wind and rain have gouged the layers into stone curtains cascading down in accordion-like folds.

The canyons of Red Rock have seen their share of folks pass by, starting with the Kawaiisu Indians, who had a trade route through the area. During the nineteenth century, prospectors, twenty-mule teams, and even a party of lost Death Valley survivors creeped through the canyons.

"Tombstone Canyon" (1932)

With the majestic otherworldly vistas of the area, it was inevitable that Hollywood filmmakers would eventually find the place. According to Richard J. Schmidt of redrockcanyonmovies.com, the first film made here was Wild Horse Canyon in 1925. Since then, over 130 movies, television episodes, commercials, and music videos have been shot here. Many of Hollywood’s biggest Western stars have worked in the canyons, including John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, and Gary Cooper. The area has appeared in classic horror and science fiction films as well, like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Despite all of these attempts to capture the beauty of Red Rock Canyon on film, pictures just don’t do the place justice. You have to see if for yourself.

The same site today.


“Road Rage” Spielberg-style

I’m not sure if the term “road rage” had been coined in 1971, but I remember learning about it as a boy watching the psychological-thriller Duel, which was the first commercial film directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Yesterday I wrote about Mystery Mesa, where the killer truck plunges off a cliff at the film’s conclusion. Today, we will take a look at some of the other sites used in the film around the Santa Clarita Valley.

Duel is a simple story about a traveling salesman, played by Dennis Weaver, who is stalked in his red 1971 Dodge Valiant by a huge rusty gasoline tanker truck. The driver of the truck is never seen, and the motive for the chase is never made clear.

Steven Spielberg was only twenty-five when he made the film, which was created as a made-for-television movie, but also had theatrical releases overseas and in a limited number of venues in America. It was based on a story written by science-fiction and fantasy author Richard Matheson, who got the idea when he experienced road rage from a truck driver on the day that JFK was assassinated.

Most of the film was shot over thirteen days around the Acton area of the Santa Clarita Valley, far from the urban encroachment of Los Angeles (at that time). Dennis Weaver was Spielberg’s choice for the role, but he only was able to sign the actor the night before filming began.

Since 1971, much of the open desert has been covered with tract housing, but a few of the locations still look much as they did back then. The tunnel used during the school bus scene is near Acton on Soledad Canyon Road. Nearby is Le Chien, a French restaurant on Sierra Highway north of Canyon Country, which was known as Chuck’s Café in the film. It was here that Weaver’s character confronts the man he believes to be the driver.

The gasoline truck used in the film was a rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 which carried license plates from several states to subtly imply that the trucker had killed other drivers previously. It was destroyed at the film’s conclusion when it tumbled down the face of Box Canyon at Mystery Mesa in Canyon Country, which is visible from Vasquez Canyon Road. For the film’s theatrical release, additional scenes were shot which required the acquisition of additional trucks. At least one of the vehicles still exists in a private collection in North Carolina.

The roar that the truck makes when it tumbles over the cliff was later incorporated into Spielberg’s film Jaws, during the death of the shark. As the director later stated, it was “my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career.”

(THIS JUST IN: I found this great web site that has most of the filming locations of DUEL. Check it out here.)