Weighing in on Weinstein

Hollywood was built by Bullies. The caricature of the fat-cat movie mogul, chomping on a cigar and bossing around film crews before returning to his gilded office’s casting couch to “audition” the latest round of aspiring starlets has long been spoofed by the industry itself. The Power Players in Tinseltown from its earliest days were renowned misogynists, abusers, pill-pushers or worse. Most victims of these actions remained silent out of shame, coercion, fear of repercussion or in exchange for payoffs. Business as usual in La-La Land.

But the Harvey Weinstein Sexual Harassment Allegations and his subsequent firing from his own mega-studio may be the beginning of significant change. We now live in a world with a ceaseless 24 hour news cycle and technology that makes secrets harder to keep.  Reputations can be made or unmade in 140 characters or less.  Politicians who were pleased to accept his donations have been quick to move those dollars to charitable coffers. Celebrities have been slower to distance themselves and even the venerable “Saturday Night Live” wimped out of addressing the controversy through its usual use of Lampoon (There’s always next week…) Filmdom’s Grande Dame Meryl Streep, who once famously referred to Weinstein as “God” in an Awards speech, released a thoughtfully prepared statement today, pointing out that “not everybody knew.” You can read the full statement here:
Meryl Streep Condemns Harvey Weinstein Over Sexual Harassment Allegations

When famous folks, especially those we perceive as “lovable,” become embroiled in a scandal, tragedy or controversy (there are plenty!) we are shocked and disappointed…sometimes outraged.  But when abuses of power/privilege are executed by people “behind the scenes,” it usually remains relegated there: Out of sight.  Star-makers like Jack Warner, Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst were known for lascivious behavior, while simultaneously being publicly loved and lauded by the very stars they created.  My cousin, Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founded the 20th Century Fox studios and is credited with not only making some of the finest films of his time, but by being as much of a showman as any of his stars (such as Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple and Henry Fonda).  A biography on his life, “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” tells you a lot about his personality.  The roly-poly papa of MGM during its Golden Years, Louis B. Mayer, may have espoused family values and wholesomeness on-screen, but worked children in ways that would be illegal today and, in some cases (read any reputable biography of Judy Garland) exercised psychological and pharmaceutical abuse.  Over the decades, it has trickled down into a pervasive pattern in Entertainment where it’s deemed “perfectly acceptable” for those in positions of power (male or female) to demean, belittle or berate their “underlings.”
Of course, nepotism and “office-politics” exist almost everywhere from Wall Street to Washington DC to the Vatican.  But nowhere else does “climbing the corporate ladder” or “paying one’s dues” manifest itself the way it does in Hollywood.  I think that is because the perception of its product is Creative…Artistic…almost Altruistic.  I always remind people that “showbiz” is defined as TWO things: SHOW and BUSINESS.  “It’s Not Creative Unless It Sells,” as I so vividly recall from my very first TV job in the 1980s; would you believe that was the company motto literally printed on our paychecks!?
So while the Weinstein story plays out and more sordid details emerge, let’s aspire to make it an example of how NOT to go forward.  With the issue of gun violence so pervasive in America, I’d like to see Hollywood exercise some leadership by ceasing to glorify it for dramatic/box-office purpose.  So, too, would I like to see restraint exercised behind the scenes: using respect, diversity and fairness to lead the future of the industry.  “That’s Entertainment!”
Note: For an excellent new read on the early days of the Movie Business, I highly recommend “Warner Bros” by David Thomson.  Interesting and thoughtfully researched.
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Thank You for Being a Friend!

Los Angeles, 1991.  I’d been living full time in Hollywood for about a year, couch-surfing from one apartment situation to another until finally landing in a tiny studio apartment in an old walk-up building on South Detroit Street. Just me & my cat, Henry, sleeping on a futon with make-shift furniture made from cinder blocks I’d pilfered from a pile on the street. Tinseltown glamour, right? With plumbing to match! So one night when I needed a plunger for the bathroom and realized it was not a gadget I had in my possession, I went downstairs to my knock on my neighbor’s door. I’d seen her around: a gregarious, piano-playing photographer and aspiring filmmaker with pets of her own. I figured she would not only have a plunger, she’d be OK with my asking to borrow it!

And that was how I met Julie “J.D.” DiSalvatore. She was not only one of my favorite neighbors ever, but one of my most fun friends…even after I moved out of the building (first across the street and then to a small house in the Hollywood Hills). She and I saw each other almost daily and were constantly coming up with ideas for finding fame and fortune. We wrote screenplays, started a “Movies & Margaritas” night at a local bar and worked the LA nightlife scene in search of our proverbial “big breaks.” She took my headshots and ran around town the way only 20-somethings could do in 1990s Hollywood. I remember we were invited to my pal’s Birthday party whose theme was “Come As You Are…or As You Wish to Be.” We wore our pajamas and came as “Retired!”   When the Northridge Earthquake hit in January, 1994, we ran to each other immediately.  There was no electricity or phone service…so we made pitchers of Bloody Marys and played “Monopoly” while waiting it out.

She was a younger version of Bea Arthur’s “Dorothy” and I was certainly a “Blanche,” so the Golden Girls had nothing on us! (She lovvvvved Bea Arthur and was always flattered by the comparisons.)  In 2007, she wrote that she thought of me as the “Vera” to her “Auntie Mame,” (if you get that reference) and that she is Martha Raye to my Bob Hope.  We produced play readings, cooked big meals on a shoestring budget, watched old movie classics and commiserated over our love lives. When she got a job a directing an indie film, she cast me in a supporting role. When I did my first LA Cabaret show, she joined me on stage for a musical comedy improv. Most memorably, in the late 90’s, she directed me in a great production of the Lanford Wilson play “Burn This” at the Coast Playhouse. Alongside 3 other actors (Jane Clark, Kirk Geiger and Craig Damon), JD & I had a lot of margaritas and a lot of laughs….even/especially in times of stress, worry and trouble.  A true friend and “partner in crime!”

JD went on to become a well known personality in the West Hollywood LGBTQ community and a passionate advocate for Pet Rescue.  Even throughout her long battle with cancer, she devoted her time and talents to helping shelter animals, filming artfully produced profiles to encourage their adoptions.  I saw her for the last time when I was back in Hollywood for the 2017 Oscars and we had a “Burn This” reunion at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.  Although frail, she was in great spirits and her indomitable humor made us all feel more comfortable about the inevitable outcome she faced.  Thank goodness for email as it was a great way to stay in touch across the years and miles.  I’m going to miss swapping funny anecdotes and shared memories with this outrageously smart and funny lady.
Jane told me she saw JD the day before she died and that she was in bed watching the soap GENERAL HOSPITAL.  She explained that she had started tuning in when she got sick from chemo because “it was easy and entertaining to watch and you could miss days and it didn’t matter.”  She was amused by the fact that most of the characters and actors had been around since the 90s and looked exactly the same…which must have been comforting somehow.  Jane said she drifted off for a few minutes and then came back, looked at the TV for a moment and said, “I think I missed a plot point!”   Jane replied, “Yup…they just found out Sonny was alive.”  Same storylines as the 90s, too!  
I can imagine JD in Heaven, her wild mane of Salt & Pepper hair restored to its 1990s glory, wearing a head-set, carrying a Walkie-Talkie and telling other Angels where to position themselves to find the most flattering light.  She’s surrounded by all her animal angels and, knowing her as I do, when it’s my turn to come through the Pearly Gates, she’ll push St. Peter aside to make sure she’s first to greet me.  We will sing show tunes, drink Margaritas and laugh til it hurts.
Love you, JD…26 years flew by!

The Gift I Received from Princess Diana

As the world remembers the 20th Anniversary of Diana’s death, most adults are recounting the stories of where they were when they heard the terrible news out of Paris. (I had just bought my first house in Los Angeles and was having a backyard BBQ with friends, a UK journalist among them. It was surreal when a satellite truck arrived in my driveway so that we could live-broadcast commentary from my living room…unpacked moving boxes stacked just out of camera range.)

But what I still remember most about Diana isn’t the soap opera of her very public/seldom-private life, nor even her winsome face…dazzling smile…glamorous style. It is the inadvertent gift she gave me: a career.

Having moved to Hollywood from NYC in 1990 to further my career as an actor, I was paying bills by working as an aerobics instructor.  Those were the days of that hot new workout, “Step,” and I had a lot of hair and a lot of lycra.  Teaching in a popular beachside studio in Santa Monica, I had many celebrity clients in my classes (Margeaux Hemingway, Kristin Davis, Helen Hunt, Pia Zadora, Alfre Woodard spring to mind) as well a slew of British tourists and flight attendants who stayed at the hotel down the street and were keen to try out new workout trends.  I was approached to travel to the UK and personally deliver a Step workout to everyone’s favorite Royal, Diana (we share “July 1” birthdays, so I thought this was certainly destined in the stars!).
To say I was excited was an understatement and off I flew to Merry Olde England.  Once on the ground, however, I learned that I would only be enlisted to train her own Personal Trainer and teach Master Classes to the staff of instructors at her posh gym.  I may not have gotten to meet the Princess, but I had a ball!  I even got an invitation to Princess Margaret’s country home that still ranks among one of the most wild weekends of my youth…and that is saying something!
I was also asked to appear on the British breakfast show, “This Morning,” demonstrating “Diana’s new workout” and in true “wacky Morning TV” style, I had to do it in the middle of Liverpool’s Mersey River…on a floating map of the United Kingdom.   I still get a little sea sick just thinking about that!  Maybe it was my mullet hairdo or American accent, but I somehow struck a chord with the audience and was immediately signed up to be the show’s “Fitness Correspondent” from Hollywood.  My first assignment was a story on “Pet Fitness” that included my very first celebrity interview with gorgeous Golden Girl, Betty White.  (Recently unearthed you can see it here: https://youtu.be/HdPUScCbzb8 )  “Ladies Boxing with Michelle Phillips,” “How to Hypnotize Your Boobs Bigger” and so forth.  It was tons of fun and eventually led me to another UK show, “GMTV” and then on to national morning shows for Ireland, New Zealand and Australia’s “Sunrise” where I have been working since 2003.
I’ve covered big news stories ranging from the deaths of superstars like Michael Jackson & Whitney Houston to Superstorm Sandy.  I’ve walked Oscars red-carpets, interviewed world leaders and movie stars, authored books and performed at the Sydney Opera House.  I have an extraordinary life and career that can be directly traced back to the late great Lady Di.
I thank my lucky stars that, like me, she had such a keen interest in fitness and fun.  In addition to her already rich legacy, isn’t that a wonderful thing to remember about her?

Superheroes & Supermodels

Like most adolescents of the 1970s, “Wonder Woman” was must-see TV and, with all due respect to Gal Gadot, no actress could better embody the charm, power and pulchritude of the Amazing Amazon than Lynda Carter. Even today, she still sparkles with the same ageless appeal she had decades ago.

Perhaps that’s why Australian sleepwear designer Peter Alexander enlisted her to front his latest campaign and I was gobsmacked to spend an afternoon with them to discuss their affiliation as well as Lynda’s long career and enduring star-power. As a teenager with posters of her adorning my bedroom walls and her album on the record-player, it was a thrill for me. (Peter and I must have had similar childhoods because a couple of years ago he introduced me to another ageless bombshell, supermodel Christie Brinkley.  He’s a super sweet guy…even outfitted me with some comedic comfy costumes for my concert at the Sydney Opera House!)

I’ve always been a “fanboi,” so I never cease to get star struck. Come on, my big sisters had me singing the soundtrack to “The Sound of Music” before I could talk…and now I’ve gotten to interview Julie Andrews 8 (!) times, Pinch me! I was the little farmboy who used to write to movie stars requesting autographed pictures (I amassed quite a collection over the years…) I’m fortunate to have a job that allows me to meet so many great stars, but even when it’s not work-related, I enjoy being around personalities whose work I admire. You don’t need to have a job in show business to do this; more than ever, stars are accessible to see in person whether it’s through speaking engagements, charitable functions, concert & theatrical performances and even autograph shows. While I may not fully have appreciated the historical significance at the time, I’m forever grateful that as a kid I got to see icons onstage like Yul Brynner in “The King & I,” Anthony Quinn in “Zorba,” Geraldine Page in “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Harvey Fierstein in “Torch Song Trilogy,” Patti Lupone & Mandy Patinkin in “Evita,” Mickey Rooney & Ann Miller in “Sugar Babies.” I’m still doing it: last week I got to enjoy Glenn Close in “Sunset Boulevard” and I already have my tickets for Bette Midler in “Hello Dolly!”

If you don’t have access to events like these, you do have the internet! Almost everyone has a social media presence or official website. If there is someone who inspires you, don’t be afraid to compose and send them some fan mail. You might just make their day! Wouldn’t YOU love to receive a note of commendation for something you’ve accomplished? Now that I think of it, the morning after I saw “Sunset Boulevard,” I did take pen in hand and write a congratulatory card to Glenn Close.

And you could do that right from the comfort of your own living room…maybe wearing a pair of Peter Alexander’s Lynda Carter inspired pyjamas!

 

“Full Circle” in the City of Brotherly Love!

My cabaret show, FULL CIRCLE, has evolved from its inception at the Adelaide Cabaret festival…to the Sydney Opera House…and then through two annual incarnations at NYC’s “Don’t Tell Mama” theater where I started out performing way back in my salad days of the Mid-1980s. Another sold-out gig at Hollywood’s “Bar Fedora” followed, just before the 2017 Oscars and now I’m giving one final performance April 30 at Philadelphia’s Rrazz Room at the Prince. It’s been fun to welcome theatrical friends onstage with me as musical guest stars including Broadway legends Anita Gillette and Shelly Burch…in Philly it will be Sitcom Sweetie Monica Horan (best known as ‘Amy’ from TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”), who just happens to be nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award the same day as our performance. That has to be a good luck omen, eh!?

I’m delighted to report that we are on target to be fully sold out, so if you’re in the Philly area, definitely grab tix and join us as we come “Full Circle”…literally! She and I both hail from that part of the world, having met in college and remained fast friends ever since. It will be a musical, nostalgic journey through 30 years of showbiz told with stories and song. Here is a direct link to tickets; some good seats remain:
https://filmadelphia.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S1a00000GGD8HEAX

If you’ve never visited “The City of Brotherly Love” (the Translation of “Philadelphia”), you’re in for a lot more than just delicious cheesesteaks and soft-pretzels. It is a vibrant metropolis packed with culture, history and art treasures. I highly recommend The Barnes Foundation, The Franklin Institute, The Art Museum and the brand new Museum of the American Revolution. http://www.visitphilly.com can help you plan your trip.

Monica and I hope to see you for the final performance of FULL CIRCLE on April 30…it will be a real celebration! Just because I describe it as “final” doesn’t mean I’m retiring from my joyful work in cabaret. Au Contraire! I will be spending the summer months working on an all-new show to premiere in October and have a major announcement about that coming soon. So, watch this space!

Even if you can’t join us in Philadelphia…I hope you will find some “Brotherly” AND “Sisterly” Love wherever your travels may take you!

Welcome to My Super-Store!

I recently interviewed two major stars known for the singing skills, Mandy Patinkin and Demi Lovato. However, instead of being commissioned to discuss their status as legendary vocal artists (Google Mandy’s “Sonny Boy”…it will move you to tears!), it was to discuss their participation in the new animated “Smurfs” movie. [Fortunately for me, Demi was running behind schedule so I got to sit with Mandy off camera for several minutes and talk Music…] After interviewing so many big stars about why they lend their voices to these films (Not a single one has ever ‘fessed up “it’s for the paycheck!”), I finally got to do a voice over (gratis, I might add) for a comedy video, “Welcome to My Super Store,” written and produced by my friend and gifted comedienne Deven Green.

I first became aware of Deven’s talents when, like millions of other fans, I saw her 2007 “Welcome to my Home” parody video on YouTube and nearly collapsed with laughter. I posted a complimentary comment and, to my happy surprise, she responded and a correspondence ensued and flourished. In 2008, we met in person when she came to my LA studio one afternoon with her husband Joel and a camera. A wig and a sequined pantsuit later, she was ready to shoot “Welcome to My Interview”…in which I happily portrayed myself.

Deven, Joel and I became close friends and spent a lot of time together in the years that followed while I was still living in Los Angeles. I don’t think they missed any of my New Year’s Eve or Halloween parties (needless to say, their costumes were always a hit) and are even prominently featured in my 2011 book, “Dinner at Nelson’s.” When I went through my tattoo phase (which lasted about a decade), Deven accompanied me to The Purple Panther on the Sunset Strip and kept me company through the long process of having Poseidon, God of the Seas, permanently inked onto my right leg. Flaming Margaritas followed.

I loved watching Deven’s star continue to ascend as she became a sought after & Award winning comedienne…performing at events and in clubs all across the USA…teaching herself the ukulele to accompany herself musically…becoming a spokesmodel for OCC Cosmetics and even a judge on the wildly popular “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Her portrayal of “Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian,” regularly ranks her among the most popular and top trending viral stars online. She honored me by being my Guest Star for the Los Angeles production of my cabaret show, “Full Circle,” last month in Los Angeles.

Still…I was dying to work with her in a Voice Over capacity and the right opportunity finally arose: a promotional video from 1969 starring one of my all time favorites–silver screen legend Joan Crawford! There has been a renewed interest in Crawford’s later years, thanks to Ryan Murphy’s hit anthology series, “Feud,” and Faye Dunaway’s recent slip up at the Oscars (“…and the winner for Best Picture…La La Land!” Oops.) reminded everyone how camp-tastic “Mommie Dearest” was/is.

So here is the result…from Deven’s furtive, funny mind…and featuring my own vocal skills in the morphed role of Joan/Mommie….Deven & I say, “Welcome to My Super Store!” I hope it makes you laugh.

PS: Now I understand why Mandy, Demi and all the other stars love doing these Voice-Over roles…it’s fun. And collaborating with someone as darling and clever as Deven makes it all the more enjoyable. We’re already plotting our next move…..

Death with Dignity

There’s a TV special coming up that profiles celebrities who died “too soon,” but I’ve found in my long career of reporting Entertainment news that the passing of a star always seems to come as a shock…even when they live to a ripe old age like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who passed away last year just shy of her 100th birthday. In fact, years before when she was in failing health, our News Bureau prepared an Obituary package (standard practice with notable figures) but so many years went by before it was needed that it was too out-of-date and needed to be redone from scratch!

People seem to think more celebrities are dying nowadays, but I suspect in today’s Around The Clock access to information, as well as a greater number of celebrities in our Pop Culture lexicon, we are simply more aware of their presence…and passings.

The first celebrity death I covered “on scene” was Heath Ledger, 2008. I was in balmy Bermuda running a marathon, taking the first holiday I’d had since joining the SUNRISE morning show, when the news broke. I alerted my producers and my vacation was immediately over and I was on a flight to snowy NYC where I spent a week outside of his SoHo apartment building, reporting on the sad developments.

When silver screen star Deborah Kerr died, I made the case for including it in my news report, even though many/most people didn’t recognize her name. “Just give me 30 seconds,” I pleaded with producers, “…and cue up a clip of her famous kissing scene with Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.”   On air, I explained her important cinematic influence because of that scene: its brazen sexuality was shocking for the time (1953) and changed the way love scenes were (and are) depicted.  My audience understood and appreciated that fact and I was really pleased to have had the green light.  I’m not always so lucky!

Ironically, I was  on live reporting the terrible news of Farrah Fawcett’s death when the first reports surfaced that Michael Jackson had died.  I didn’t get out of my chair for the next 4 hours as I kept viewers apprised of every late breaking development as well as offering ongoing analysis.  When stories like that break, it’s important to KEEP TALKING!  As Fate would have it, the death of “The King of Pop” kept me busy and mostly on location for the next year: reporting from Neverland Ranch, his Bel Air mansion, Staples Center where his funeral was held and Forest Lawn Cemetery where he was laid to rest.  It may have been the biggest story of my career, to date.

March, 2011.  I was in Australia staying with my friend Melissa Doyle and had a bout of insomnia so I jumped online in the middle of the night only to be alerted to the passing of Dame Elizabeth Taylor.  I quickly contacted our Overnight Producers so we could plan full coverage for the morning show.  Needless to say, I never got back to sleep that night.

Timing is everything.  February 2012, I was flying to Los Angeles to cover the Grammys and Oscars and when I landed and turned on my phone, news had broken that Whitney Houston has passed away at the Beverly Hilton Hotel…a short distance from the airport.  I went directly there to meet my cameraman.

A slow news day got tragically busy right as we were wrapping up the show on August 11, 2014, with word that the great Robin Williams had passed away.  I had interviewed him many times and even made a movie with him, SEIZE THE DAY (1986), so it felt like a personal loss…as I know it did for his many fans.

Of course, 2016 brought the double-whammy of losing both Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds.  On assignment for a magazine piece, I spent a memorable weekend with Debbie in the mid 1990s at her Vegas Casino.  The word “legend” is thrown around a lot in our industry, but it certainly applied in her case.  What a generous, talented, brilliant lady she was!  Getting to remember her publicly was very fulfilling for me and enlightened me as to why sharing stories about lost loved ones is so therapeutic for everyone.

Having some kind of connection to a public figure who passes away not only enables me to offer perspective, but instills in me a keen responsibility to honor their contributions to the Show Business community.  After all my years in Entertainment and thousands of celebrity interviews, I’ve joked that I’m your “One Degree of Separation from all things Showbiz.”  But…no joke…it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.  People remember big moments; I can vividly recall where I was when I found out Elvis Presley had died…when John Lennon had been murdered…when Lady Diana was killed…  If someone is going to get news like that from ME, I want to be sure it’s done not only with accuracy, but with dignity.

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