Oscars envelope snafu boosts ‘Moonlight’ box office

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Worldwide headlines about the Oscar fiasco over mixed-up envelopes that saw “Moonlight” triumph over “La La Land” as best picture has been a big help to the low-budget picture’s international theatrical release.

I’m happy to have been proved right when I made that prediction on Monday on BBC World News (see clip below).

Altitude Film Distribution, which has the U.K. rights to “Moonlight”, said that following the Academy Awards, the film had the highest per-screen average of any film in the Top 15 to take 4th place in the current box-office ranking.

The distributor expanded the number of screens from 170 to 239 on Monday and from today (March 3) it is playing on 280 screens across the country.

“Moonlight”, which earned $22 million at the North American box office, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Altitude on June 19.

The right-of-passage drama also won the best screenplay award for director Barry Jenkins (script) and Tarell Alvin McCraney and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali as a benevolent drug dealer.

The musical “La La Land”, which won six Oscars including best director for Damien Chazelle, best actress for Emma Stone, and Justin Hurwitz for original score and original song (with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), has grossed more than $370 million around the world. Its U.K. Blu-ray and DVD release by Lionsgate has yet to be announced. Polypro released the soundtrack in the U.K. on Jan. 13.

Studiocanal will release “Manchester by the Sea”, the drama about grief and guilt for which director Ken Lonergan won the award for original screenplay and Casey Affleck was named best actor, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 17.

Among the other films nominated at the Academy Awards for best picture, sci-fi drama “Arrival” is due on Blu-ray and DVD from E1 Entertainment on March 20. Entertainment in Video will release Indian lost-boy saga “Lion” on May 22. Studiocanal released modern wester “Hell or High Water” on Jan. 9.

Home entertainment releases are still to be announced for Paramount’s Denzell Washington drama “Fences”, for which Viola Davis won as best supporting actress; 20th Century Fox’s “Hidden Figures”, the true story of of unheralded black women who were vital to the success of NASA; Lionsgate’s violent war picture “Hacksaw Ridge” directed by nominee Mel Gibson.

Dogwoof will release “O.J. Simpson: Made in America”, which won the Oscar for best documentary, on April 17 and Curzon Artificial Eye will release the Iranian film “The Salesman”, which won the award for best foreign language picture, on May 29.

Walt Disney Studios released the best animated film winner, “The Jungle Book” last August.

Among films that picked up top BAFTA Film Awards, “I, Daniel Blake”, the benefits drama by Ken Loach that won as outstanding British film, came out on Feb. 27 from E1 Entertainment. Universal Pictures released “Kubo and the Two Strings”, which picked up the BAFTA award for animated film, on Jan. 16

[‘Moonlight’ still from A24 Pictures, David Bornfriend]

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THEATRE REVIEW: Ugly Lies the Bone

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Mind over matter is refined in Lindsey Ferrentino’s absorbing new play “Ugly Lies the Bone” at the National Theatre to the application of virtual reality to deal with physical and emotional pain.

The U.S. playwright’s approach is to first show us a young female soldier named Jess who has just returned from combat in Afghanistan with fearsome wounds as she dons a virtual reality headset and then she turns the backdrop of the stage into what the ex-soldier sees.

The production design is vital to the success of the play and between them designer Es Devlin, video designer Luke Halls and lighting designer Oliver Fenwick largely pull it off.

Kate Fleetwood (above and below with Ralf Little), her face a hideous mask of damage done by explosives, does well to convey the young woman’s torment with neck rigid and arms and legs stiff. Ferrentino gives her some tough-minded dialogue as she adjusts to life back in Florida.

The setting is the part of the state known as the Space Coast near Cape Canaveral where NASA’s Space Shuttle is making its last return trip. Unemployment is rife as the programme is shut down and the Florida heat remains relentless.

Jess chafes under the cheerful attentions of her sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) and the impositions of her ne’er-do-well fiance Kelvin (Kris Marshall). She also feigns indifference to Stevie (Ralf Little), the boyfriend she abandoned for a second tour in harm’s way.

In a fast-paced single act over 95 minutes, under the smart direction of Indhu Rubasingham, the play draws sardonic humour from the way Jess uses sarcasm to deflect her anguish and in the awkward response to her wounds by the two men and the way Kacie tries to ignore them. All four give sprightly performances.

Perhaps due to the brevity, the play does not touch on what the U.S. military was doing in Afghanistan nor on what virtual reality might do for Jess’s mother, seen briefly, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Designer Devlin works with artists such as Beyoncé and Adele and she designed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics and opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro event. Her work on “Ugly Lies the Bone” is impressive with a half-bowl effect in which the sloping walls shift from a 3D impression of the dull suburbs to which Jess has returned and the snowy paradise where virtual reality takes her.

The National Theatre offers a free immersive installation in which to experience VR in the Lyttelton Lounge after playgoers watch the play.

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton Stage; runs to June 6; Cast: Kate Fleetwood, Olivia Darnley, Ralf Little, Kris Marshall, Buffy Davis; Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino; Director: Indhu Rubasingham; Designer: Es Devlin; Video Designer: Luke Halls; Costumes: Johanna Coe; Lighting: Oliver Fenwick; Music and Sound: Ben and Max Ringham. Supported by Travelex with many tickets priced at £15 for every performance.

Photos: Mark Douet

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Notes ahead of the 2017 Academy Awards

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Repeat screenings of the Academy Awards nominees serve to reinforce original impressions so while I doubt that it will win, my choice for best picture remains Denis Villeneuve’s profound sci-fi picture “Arrival” (pictured).

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a haunting and ultimately life-affirming story of grief and guilt and I would not be displeased if it were to win.

The same goes for David Mackenzie’s terrific modern Western “Hell or High Water” and I would smile if Theodore Melfi’s warm and rewarding “Hidden Figures” took the top prize.

Garth Davis’s “Lion” is what soccer fans call a game of two halves – the first section is captivating and thrilling while the second is pedestrian.

Denzel Washington’s talkathon “Fences” captures August Wilson’s stage play in a manner not much different from the way the National Theatre and others capture their stage productions for cinemas – in other words, it’s not really a movie so much as a play caught on film. The problem is too much reverence for Wilson’s dialogue. They cut Shakespeare, don’t they?

Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” also has two distinct parts, one labours over establishing a young man’s religious conviction, the second is a zombie war picture with the Japanese depicted as soulless and extraordinarily agile ghouls. Leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, on third viewing, is a celebration of mediocrity in story and execution as two not very talented people pass on happiness to find a degree of fame. Some dreamy sequences are let down by unmemorable music.

Another viewing of “Moonlight” fails to reveal all the great things that so many other people appear to find in the film with its main failing simply that it’s extremely dull.

Here are my choices in some of the other categories:

Director: Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) for creating a sci-fi movie that is both thrilling, thoughtful and deeply involving. Runner-up: Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”.

Actor: Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) explores a complex character without sentiment and the choices he makes serve the film brilliantly. Ryan Gosling does well to make a jerk look like a great guy in “La La Land”. Denzel Washington deservedly won the right prize for his splendid performance in “Fences”: a Tony Award. I have great regard for Viggo Mortensen but I hated “Captain Fantastic” from the opening scene to the last.

Actress: Amy Adams delivered the two best performances of the year in “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals” but she is not nominated. I hope Isabelle Huppert wins.

Supporting actor: Michael Shannon has the best lines in “Nocturnal Animals” and, boy, does he nail them. I love Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”) but these days he appears to speak with a mouthful of marbles. Lucas Hedges does splendid work in “Manchester by the Sea” but all the acclaim for Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” remains a mystery to me.

Supporting actress: Michelle Williams doesn’t have a lot of screen time in “Manchester by the Sea” but she is heartbreaking. Viola Davis deserves an Oscar, period. But she also has a Tony for “Fences”..

Music: Mica Levi does so much of the heavy lifting in “Jackie” that were Natalie Portman to win as best actress she should give the composer half of her prize.

Original screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan for his deeply affecting “Manchester on Sea”. Fine work too by Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) and Mike Mills for “20th Century Women”, a shaggy tale with great performances by Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. It’s a sort of female “Wonder Boys” with a similar rich vein of observation and humour.

Adapted screenplay: Eric Heisserer for exploring aspects of time and wonder in a cinematic and accessible form.

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Sixty years a film critic … how it all started

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – My life as film critic began 60 years ago with a log of movies I saw along with my verdict on each one. I was 11.

The first movie image I recall seeing was of a man with curly white hair in a battered top hat who reaches deep into a pocket of his baggy overcoat and when he draws out his hand, his fingers and thumb are lighted candles.

Harpo Marx in “A Night in Casablanca”. Harpo tries to comfort a girl named Maggie on a park bench. He pretends that his eyes are made of glass and he mimes removing them, cleans them and puts them back. He plays “Happy Birthday” on his harp and does the magic with the candles.

The first movie I saw on my own was the musical “White Christmas”, with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, when I was 9. The Odeon cinema in Ashford, Kent, was packed and I entered right in the middle of the picture. One of the usherettes led me down the aisle with a torch to find a seat and I had that amazing sensation of going from daylight into the darkened corridor of a cinema to emerge in a crowded auditorium with a giant, glittering screen.

I’ve loved it ever since. My professional career commenced 55 years ago when I was 16 as a trainee reporter on the Gravesend Reporter in north Kent and over a long career on newspapers and magazines in the U.K., Canada and the United States, I have always found a way to write about the cinema.

The first feature in my movie log, which I kept from January 1957 to January 1959, was a musical titled “Serenade” starring Mario Lanza. It was based on a novel by James M. Cain although even with Anthony Mann as director it didn’t retain much from the noir writer. The opera was fine, though, and I gave it three stars.

I learn now that director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) optioned the novel originally and he used a similar approach when he adapted “A Stone for Danny Fisher” by Harold Robbins into an Elvis Presley vehicle titled “King Creole”, which earned a full five stars in my movie log.

I was a big Elvis fan and so “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock” also received five stars although an exploitation quickie titled “Don’t Knock the Rock”, featuring Bill Haley and Little Richard, got only three.

I’m pleased to see that the five-star accolade went to “The Fastest Gun Alive” with Glenn Ford, “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, “Fear Strikes Out” with Anthony Perkins, “Enemy Below” with Robert Mitchum, “Teacher’s Pet” with Doris Day and Clark Gable.

“The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis also had five stars along with “Indiscreet” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando, Mongomery Clift and Dean Martin, “The Defiant Ones” with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with James Stewart and Kim Novak.

I’m amused to see that I gave Lewis Allen’s wartime romance “Another Time, Another Place” three stars and mentioned Lana Turner, Glynis Johns and Barry Sullivan but not future 007 Sean Connery.

When I turned 12, I began to add a comment or two to some entries. Martin Ritt’s black-and-white drama of marital strife “No Down Payment” earned five stars and the comment: “Brilliant acting, amusing and highly dramatic”. Set in a California sub-division, its ensemble cast included Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Sheree North, Jeffrey Hunter and Canadian-born British actress Patricia Owens, with whom I was in love at the time, which probably accounts for the rating.

Even with Patricia Owens, however, the original “The Fly” rated just three. “The Fiend Who Walked the West” starring Hugh O’Brian and future producer Robert Evans was “amusing at times” with three stars. Raoul Walsh’s film of the Norman Mailer World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead”, which I had read, was deemed “slightly too long” with four stars. I’m pleased that along with Aldo Ray and Cliff Robertson in the cast I noted William Campbell, Richard Jaeckel and James Best.

War pictures “Ice Cold in Alex” and “Dunkirk”, both with John Mills, were “typically British” with four stars apiece. Anthony Mann’s swampy sex tale “God’s Little Acre” with Robert Ryan and Tina Louise, was “weird” with three stars.

Arthur Penn’s Western “The Left Handed Gun” with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid based on Gore Vidal’s play, had “good acting” at four stars. My favourite childhood star Roy Rogers had played William Bonney in “Billy the Kid Returns” (1938) and another favourite of my youth, Audie Murphy, played him in “The Kid From Texas” (1950).

That led to two lifelong literary interests, first tales of the Old West, which resulted in discovering the wonderful novels of Larry McMurtry, and then, after Audie Murphy starred in “The Quiet American” (1958), discovering Graham Greene, whose novels I re-read every 10 years.

My parents said that when I was little and they asked me what I wanted to do in life, I said, “I want to be a reporter and go to Hollywood and meet Roy Rogers.” And that’s what I did.

 

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My Top 10 Movie picks for 2016

By Ray Bennett

In a year that has featured many fine films with splendid performances by women, the movie I enjoyed the most was Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” starring Amy Adams (pictured).

In my review from the Toronto International Film Festival, I said: “Science-fiction movies that threaten to depict creatures from outer-space generally leave me cold but Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” presents a plausible “what if?” grounded in a contemplative question for humankind with another standout performance by Amy Adams.

“Adams, who wears no makeup and looks the least glamorous she could possibly be, conveys the linguist’s thought processes so clearly that she renders fanciful notions credible and dubious hypotheses possible.”

As I reported, the big talking point at TIFF2016 was the sheer number of films that featured high-profile performances by women including Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (“Julieta”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”), Rosamund Pike (“A United Kingdom”), Rachel Weisz (“Denial”) and Adams again in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”.

There were many others throughout the year including Kate Beckinsale in the excellent Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship”, Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train”, Helen Mirren in the suspenseful drone drama “Eye in the Sky”, Meryl Streep as the caterwauling “Florence Foster Jenskins”, Annette Bening as a wise mother in “Twentieth Century Women” and the cast of NASA tale “Hidden Figures”. Not to mention Felicity Jones catapulted to major stardom in “Rogue One”.

Not a golden year, perhaps, but (while several titles are still to be released) not a bad one either.

Performances I enjoyed the most this year included, as best actress, Amy Adams in both her films, Kate Beckinsale, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike and Meryl Streep; as best actor, Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Snowden”), David Oyelowo (“A United Kingdom”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”); as supporting actor, Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”), Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”), Hugh Grant (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), and George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (all for “Hail, Caesar”); Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson (“The Girl on the Train”), Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe (all for “Hidden Figures”), Scarlett Johansson *”Hail, Caesar”).
Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta” had my favourite score of the year, by Alberto Iglesias and I also especially enjoyed the scores for “Arrival” (Jóhann Jóhannsson) and “Jackie” (Mica Levi).

Here are my Top 10 Film Picks for 2016:

Arrival

Julieta

Love and Friendship

Hell or High Water

Manchester By the Sea

Hail, Caesar

The Girl on the Train

Snowden

Florence Foster Jenkins

La La Land

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“Love and Friendship’, ‘Moonlight’ top London critics noms

kate-beckinsale-love-and-friendship-x650By Ray Bennett

Very pleased to see that Kate Beckinsale (pictured right) has won two nominations in the 37th London Critics’ Circle Awards for her sparkling performance in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship”, which garnered seven nominations overall including film of the year and British film of the year. Continue reading

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How Alan Thicke turned failure into success

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By Ray Bennett

Canadian writer and performer Alan Thicke, who died on Tuesday aged 69, was one of the good guys. He found lasting fame on the Eighties sitcom “Growing Pains” but he was multi-faceted and he had to overcome one of the most public failures in TV history.

As he told me once, “nothing succeeds in Hollywood like failure, as long as you fail big.” Continue reading

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FILM REVIEW: Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’

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By Ray Bennett

Damien Chazell’s musical fantasy “La La Land” starts badly but evolves into a sweet little film for romantics thanks largely to winning performances by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

A tale of two dreamers whose ambitions in Hollywood are at odds in many ways but dovetail when it comes to romance, it’s a shame that the director’s love for musical overkill threatens to swamp a charming story.

“La La Land” begins with such aggressively appalling musical numbers that when I went to see it at the Toronto International Film Festival, I fled after 20 minutes. Only when film lovers I trust  urged me to stick with it did I discover something genuinely pleasing. Continue reading

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When Dar Robinson leapt from Toronto’s CN Tower

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The perfect word to describe legendary movie stuntman Dar Robinson, who was killed 30 years ago today: unfuckwithable. It allowed him to create thrilling stunts in films such as “Sharkey’s Machine” (above), “Papillon” and “Magnum Force” and combined with an irresistible pickup line, it made him catnip to the ladies.

Cathy Lee Crosby, host of the Eighties TV series “That’s Incredible”, told me when they were in Toronto in 1980, that he asked attractive women “How would you like to be my last?” Then he pointed to the CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, and explain that the following day he planned to jump from the top.

He had jumped from the tower before from a 700-foot deck, as stunt double for Christopher Plummer in the Richard Harris caper movie “Highpoint”. This time he did it from 900-feet for a TV documentary hosted by Crosby titled “The World’s Most Spectacular Stuntman.

I met him at the 1981 Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix. I was nursing a coffee in the VIP marquee for the Celebrity Race when he strolled over with a gorgeous young woman and said hello.

STICK, Dar Robinson, Burt Reynolds, Jose Perez, 1985. ©Universal

STICK, Dar Robinson, Burt Reynolds, Jose Perez, 1985. ©Universal

We chatted for a while, and when I said I had to go to the paddock, he asked if they could tag along. We spent the rest of the day together traipsing about the race enclosure, had lunch and watched the race together.

I’ve never met another man like him. Dar Robinson was Steve McQueen cool but without the actor’s insecurities. He was 34 when I met him, not tall, very fit but not muscle-bound. He emanated no menace; he did not swagger and his glance did not contain a challenge. His serene self-assurance and calm authority were what I imagine a gunfighter needed to survive in the Old West.

He died on Nov. 21, 1986 performing a straightforward motorcycle chase on a cliff edge for the film  “Million Dollar Mystery”.

*That day in Long Beach was already special for me as not only was in my first Formula 1 event but I met one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman. Some actors – Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, George Clooney, for example – appear to be easily approachable, and they are. Others – Jack Palance, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall – suggest that you approach with caution. Gene Hackman is like that but I said hello anyway.

He was on his own in a corner of the VIP marquee, there to defend his title win the previous year in the annual 10-lap celebrity charity race. He was completely genial and we chatted until he had to go off to the starting grid although Robert Hays (“Airplane”) won that year.

Report on Dar Robertson’s death with amazing clips

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Angie Dickinson was TV’s first top female cop

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Angie Dickinson, who turns 85 today, claimed many a young man’s heart in 1959 when, as a woman named Feathers, she squared off in only corset and tights against John Wayne in the great Howard Hawks western, “Rio Bravo”.

16-angie-dickinson-x325We didn’t notice or care that the Duke was old enough to be her father, it was her blazing eyes and fighting spirit and, oh yes, those legs.

Some of us had spotted her already on Fifties TV westerns such as “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”, “Cheyenne” and “Have Gun – Will Travel”. Also in a couple of movies, a Randolph Scott oater titled “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend” (1957) , with James Garner, her future co-star in Norman Jewison’s “The Art of Love” (1965), and an Andrew L. Stone thrilled called “Cry Terror!” (1958) opposite James Mason and Rod Steiger.

It was “Rio Bravo” that made Angie Dickinson a star and her allure and feisty self-confidence made her the inevitable feminine foil for the Rat Pack caper in the original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (below), and soapy dramas such as “The Bramble Bush” (1960) with Richard Burton, “A Fever in the Blood” (1961) with Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and “The Sins of Rachel Cade” (1961) with Peter Finch and Roger Moore.20-angie-dickinson-dean-martin-x325

The North Dakota native makes a great impression opposite Gregory Peck and Tony Curtis in David Miller’s offbeat medical drama “Captain Newman M.D.” (1963) and Arthur Penn’s torrid Deep South tale “The Chase” (1966) with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (and a terrific John Barry score).

She has fun in such western frolics as “Sam Whiskey” (1969) with Burt Reynolds and “Young Billy Young” (1969) with Robert Mitchum, Roger Vadim’s crime comedy “Pretty Maids All in a Row” (1971) with Rock Hudson, and in the title role of Steve Carver’s bootlegging romp “Big Bad Mama” (1974, below) with William Shatner and Tom Skerritt.

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Besides “Rio Bravo”, her most striking film roles are in three notable thrillers, two of them with Lee Marvin: Don Siegel’s taut remake of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1964), angie-dickinson-ronald-reagan-x325co-starring John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan (his last film and only appearance as a villain, pictured left), and John Boorman’s masterpiece, “Point Blank” (1967, below right). The other is Brian De Palma’s mordant “Dressed to Kill” (1980) with Michael Caine and Nancy Allen.

Dickinson made lots of TV and she is best remembered for her groundbreaking hit “Police Woman”, which ran for 91 episodes on NBC from 1974-78. She played Sergeant Pepper Anderson in the first U.S. cop show to have a female lead. Barbara 26-angie-dickinson-lee-marvin-x325Eden (“I Dream of Jeannie”) had wanted to play a female police officer back then but she told me, “They said no policewoman would have blonde hair or fit her uniform, ‘absolutely not, it would not be believable’. Then Angie Dickinson came along on NBC (“Police Woman”) and proved them wrong. I guess NBC had more courage.”

“Police Woman” paved the way for all the female cops that followed and Dickinson tried again in 1982 with another NBC series, “Cassie & Co.” in which she essentially played a Pepper Anderson who has left the force and become a private eye.

angie-dickinson-nc-x325I was set to interview the actress in connection with that show but it aired first as a mid-season replacement and failed to gain traction. It lasted 13 episodes.

I did, however, get to meet her and see her at work. It was a location shoot on the pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu. She and co-star A Martinez did some scenes on a sailboat and I watched along with another co-star, the veteran Canadian John Ireland, and “Sands of the Kalahari” star Stuart Whitman, who was visiting the set. He and Dickinson later appeared in a Burt Kennedy TV western titled “Once Upon a Texas Train” (1988) along with Willie Nelson and Richard Widmark.

Dickinson had lunch with the crew in the open air, chatting and laughing and when she was done she took her own tray and cleaned it. Then 51, she looked not much different from the svelte beauty in “Rio Bravo” and she could still take a fellow’s breath away.

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