Thursday, January 4, 2018

Hollywood's Original Gig

Byron Elsworth Barr became Gig Young after “Gay Sisters” gig!


Original Gig

by Jamie Jobb

Sometimes "identity theft" is difficult to comprehend – particularly when it involves Hollywood, where stolen identity is nothing new.

Take "Gig Young", for example. He was a Hollywood actor from the 1940s to the 1970s who assumed the fictional name of a loutish character he portrayed in a studio picture three years into his career.

Once he assumed the character's on screen name, he reprised that lothario role repeatedly throughout the twisted fate of his own life off screen. Until his life ended in a drunken murder/suicide plot right out of Film Noir.

* * *

Seven decades ago, Warner Brothers cast an actor named Byron Elsworth Barr to play "second banana" in a Barbara Stanwyck feature, "The Gay Sisters" (1942). The character he plays in that film is "Gig Young".

You can see from these clips that screenwriter Lenore Coffee and the film’s cast had fun with that character name when the film was in production, joking about it as often as they could.

Barr liked the name "Gig Young" so much he decided to keep it as his own on screen. Warners agreed, and he was so credited in subsequent roles, right up to his final film role as Jim Marshall in “Game of Death” (1978). He ended up making 55 pictures in thirty years, and won an Oscar for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969).

The original credits for "The Gay Sisters" listed "Byron Barr" as playing "Gig Young" but after Barr assumed that screen name, the credits were changed in later release prints.

This creates a confusing mess for anyone who sees the film in the Twenty-First Century where "Gig Young" is vaguely recalled from his dim but considerable celebrity from the Twentieth Century.

"The Gay Sisters" is often screened on TCM. If you get a chance to see it, note that:

The credits of "The Gay Sisters" were not changed to read "Gig Young as himself" – because any actor named "Gig Young" was unknown at the time, so he could not appear in public "as himself", like say Liberace or Cantinflas.

Actor George Brent plays a character named "Charles Barclay" which may sound similar to -- but is by no means reflective of -- an NBA player who spells the name differently and was born 22 years after the film was made.

* * *

Speaking of shelf life, Gig Young's professional name change was necessitated by confusion with another actor named "Byron Barr". As Young's career developed he became typecast as the self-same cynical-but-friendly drunken buddy of the "top banana".

Unfortunately that recurring acolholic role spilled over into his private life and eventually scuttled his career. When Young passed out drunk on the set of "Blazing Saddles" in 1973, Mel Brooks replaced him with Gene Wilder. Brooks tells that story of that first day on the set with Gig in the saddle:

We draped Gig Young's legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, This guy's giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He's giving me the old alky shake. Great. And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, That's the last time I'll ever cast anybody who really is that person. If you want an alcoholic, don't cast an alcoholic. Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”

After that humiliation, Gig Young's star quickly collapsed like other black holes which once were Hollywood supernovae. Further sordid details of his demise may be found in the links below, but Gig's daughter Jennifer Young has produced a loving documentary that concentrates on the value of her father's career without ignoring his flaws, which she has experienced first hand. A portion of her film was once posted to You Tube, but since has been taken down. There is these update links, regarding her attempts to distribute the film:

Other resources:

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Unread Kid

Shirley Temple in “Bright Eyes” (1934)

The Unread Kid

by Jamie Jobb

Our new neighbors’ son is named after the protagonist of “Catcher In The Rye” – although the boy has never read that famous novel, nor anything else for that matter. He just turned five. While he’s too young for school, his pre-literacy hasn’t squelched his creative instincts. At his family’s recent open house, he proudly showed off a shelf full of Lego transformers he’d assembled with only video instructions he found posted on You Tube.

His dad says the boy also has built functioning lightsabres and has taught himself how to devise intricate pop-up storybooks without any use of written words. Our granddaughter who lives in Tokyo also was drawing and making her own full-color origami books long before she could read or write either Japanese or English.

Who cares to distinguish nouns from verbs when you can write” a book simply by observing objects and actions with no need to read” them? Our neighbor calls his child a “maker” and we agree the boy is a budding genius who understands patterning, but I think he’s also behaving like any observant “child actor”.

What is “acting” if not “… Action!” – the last word a director says after “Quiet on the set”? Anything observant actors actually do beyond their dialog is often more telling than any written lines they may speak. Good actors know their concentrated action in a scene provides an audience with a direct handle for subtext, what’s actually going on inside their characters -- no matter what they might say in dialog. Actors know that if an action can be observed and studied, it again can be replicated – on stage or on a set. Any repeat performance or new take may be reshaped like a Lego transformer in the hands of a creative child.

* * *

When the kids were little, we went to a parents’ meeting at their school and I asked the teacher why all her students were geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at the third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade – your grade. Matisses everyone. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into second grade! What is your secret? And this is what she said: “Secret? I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”
                             – from "Six Degrees of Separationby John Guare

With so much to occupy his acquiring mind, our neighbor Holden has no current concern for what his fictional namesake in J. D. Salinger’s book called the “death of the imagination”. The boy’s own imagination is quite proactive, thank you very much! Indeed, his precocity doesn’t seem unique. In our same neighborhood, an art studio/school recently featured an exhibit of the flamboyant cartoon paintings of a seven-year-old who seems to be a young Roy Lichtenstein. All the boy’s works sold at the opening except for one, which he didn’t want to sell!

Opera prodigy Alma Deutscher, 12, was recently featured on "60 Minutes" and discussed her unique work with an astonished Scott Pelley. Alma told the CBS Correspondent that when she comes to a particularly difficult part of a composition, she will consult her “imaginary composer friends” to work through that passage. How many kids have friends like that?

Then there are exceptional You Tube kids like Iain Armitage who grew up with Broadway folks who coaxed him to post his first theater reviews five years ago when he was four. Now the child has the lead role in “Young Sheldon”, an outstanding new prime-time sitcom on broadcast television. The self-made critic became the self-made star (more below).

Armitage is not alone as a budding performer. And this glorious glut of screen talent has an obvious origin: these young actors are able to study their own work, and that of their colleagues, right on their tablets and smartphones in a new kind of on-line selfie-exploration.

Trick question for any pre-school actor: Where’d you go to acting school? For young thespians of the 21st Century, the answer seems to be “anywhere we get wifi”. Kids also may shoot video rehearsals as part of their acting practice. Who needs a camera when you’ve got a movie studio in your pocket? Who needs public or charter schools when you can teach yourself almost everything on You Tube?

Not unlike athletes, actors also study “film” of other players on line. This study is no mere matter of style but of technique, footwork, reactions, timing – one actor mirroring or mimicking “takes” of other actors. Video scene practice helps a young actor learn to observe how another player develops a character from the outside in.

Role-playing opportunities abound for young actors who may appear not only on television, but also on stage. A recent one-act festival at our community theater featured an evening of plays for families with several child actors standing up to the challenge of live performance before an audience of strangers. In fact, some in that talented young cast appeared a little over-eager to, in the words of Mickey Rooney, “put on a show!”

With prompting and rehearsal, young actors can “read” any lines directors feed them – even if they can’t actually comprehend any words appearing on the page. As playwright David Mamet often points out, after a script is complete, all an actor need do is simply say the lines. And a good director can “feed” dialog to any child actor who can’t yet read her script.

* * *

Of course talent scouts admit that one of the first qualities they seek in an actor is literacy. So, eventually every child actor must learn to read. East Coast Talent Agency’s Barbara Garvey clarifies: “Children who can read and who read a lot make the best actors, in my opinion. It makes everything a lot easier if the child can read and understand his script without a lot of help from an adult having to feed lines. It also gives them a larger worldview when they explore other worlds through books, and helps to develop their imaginations.”

In early Hollywood long before home schooling, precocious child actors were tutored in studio facilities like MGM’s Little Red Schoolhouse. Class size was limited to a maximum of ten students, with instructors enforcing strict rules developed by the Los Angeles School Board which required student-actors to put in three hours of daily study off the set. There on Lot One, MGM housed its iconic child stars – Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jackie Cooper, Lana Turner – when they weren’t needed in front of cameras.

Long studio hours, amphetamine routines and other allegations of child abuse dogged the studios and tested the tolerance of talent at the time. While some young actors – Rooney and Garland in particular – had difficulty adjusting to the rigors of adulthood outside studio walls, other child stars like Shirley Temple left Hollywood behind in later years to become a UN General Assembly delegate and ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Twentieth Century prime-time programs like “The Brady Bunch”, “The Partridge Family” and “The Cosby Show” were notable for their large casts of young actors. Broadcast television still runs on the assumption of an assembled family at home all watching tv together at night. The network sitcom has survived and in the last decade a new crop of astonishing young talent began to emerge on Hollywood sound stages.

Let’s peek at some of the most impressive young actors now appearing on these four outstanding network shows – “Modern Family”, “Life in Pieces”, “Black-ish” and “Young Sheldon” – currently running in prime-time.

* * *

Modern Family”

Jeremy Maguire plays “Joe” – youngest in cast of ABC’s “Modern Family”

No network program has a stable of more thoroughbred actors than "Modern Family", ABC’s prime-time offering which raised the stakes for seriously funny sitcoms when it premiered in 2009. The mockumentary series follows three intersecting household storylines tracking around an aging patriarch and his extensive family in suburban Los Angeles.

Now in its ninth season, the show immediately distinguished itself with production design patterned after so-called “reality tv”. Hand-held cameras shoot scenes on “real sets” with actors-facing-us in “confession room” moments where their characters comment directly on the story in progress as it unreels. The show’s creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan also allow actors the discretion to glance at cameras for “Say-what?” effects when a moment allows it, breaking tv’s comic taboo of the "fourth wall").

The series centers on Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill), a retired “closet & blind” magnate who lives with trophy wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara, a modern Lucille Ball) and their two children, Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and Joe (more on him later) in a big house not far from his four grandchildren who live nearby in two other households.

Jay’s two adult siblings, Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) moved out of Jay’s house long ago to form their own households. Claire works full time running Pritchett Closet & Blinds while raising “four kids” – Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter), Luke (Noland Gould) AND Phil Dunphy (slapstick master Ty Burrell), her true-goofball husband and impractical joking real estate salesman.

Jay’s son Mitchell is a gay attorney raising adopted daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) with his husband Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), a football coach and professional clown. Indeed, every actor in this cast seems a performer gifted with fearless funny bones as they perform their own comic stunts.

Often cited as Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “Modern Family” has won numerous Writers Guild, Golden Globe and Peabody Awards to add to its growing rack of 21 Primetime Emmys. One clear reason for this on-going success is an extremely talented cast of child actors who literally grew up on the show.

Long-time viewers know that as “Modern Family” progressed, Rodriguez and Gould became better actors once they learned to slow down and savor their lines, whereas Hyland and Winter seemed to be solid from the series start. Hyland (a young Natalie Wood) and Winter have appeared in a total of a hundred film and video productions between them. Rodriguez and Gould also have become seasoned pros, winning Screen Actors Guild, Teen Choice and Young Hollywood Awards.

Meanwhile Anderson-Emmons, who was outrageous as an unbridled preschooler, seems to have become much more shy as she’s matured. This three-and-a-half minute clip illustrates how Lily’s on-camera presence has lost its sparkle over the seasons.

The show’s writers have noticed her hesitation and now the outrageous scenes she once commanded, seem to be written for Jeremy Maguire. Currently only six, Jeremy is the youngest player in this incredibly gifted youth ensemble. When he turned four, Jeremy took over the role of Fulgencio Joseph Pritchett – or just “Joe” – replacing toddler Pierce Wallace, who’d held the role as basically an unspeaking parental prop for three seasons. Young Maguire is already a consummate performer who doesn’t need prompting to slow down his line “readings”.

Jeremy may be too young to comprehend scripts, but not too young to deliver complex lines in his own peculiar style of sophisticated “baby talk”. So the show’s writers began to stretch the child’s limits, giving him primary speaking roles in some scenes. Soon they realized his comic chops could handle more funny material, like "ice cream soup", and mouthfuls of monolog like these “adult” lines from the 1942 screenplay of "Casablanca":

If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with her, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life … It doesn’t take much to see the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Not now … Here’s lookin’ at you kid.

* * *

Life In Pieces”

Giselle Eisenberg stands-up for Sophia Hughes in “Life in Pieces”

Although it employs a much smaller roster of youthful actors, the CBS’ series "Life In Pieces" rivals “Modern Family” in its cross-hatched storylines which do not overlap as they do on the ABC series. Most of the actors on the CBS program are masters of messy slapstick and recoiling reactions that land somewhere just short of ridiculous. So, “Life in Pieces” is an apt description of this crazy comedy.

Tagline for the show is “One Big Family, Four Short Stories”. Not unlike Jay Pritchett, grandparents Joan (Dianne Wiest) and John (James Brolin) Short also are wrapped up in the frequently messy familial details of their “kids” (the so-called “Short Stories”). It seems everyone occupies the same zany household, although they live in different places: their sons – Greg (Colin Hanks) and Matt (Thomas Sadoski) and their mates Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral) are always hanging around; as well as their grandson Tyler (Niall Cunningham) and his young wife Clementine (Hunter King) who live in a tiny home in the backyard.

Alpha Kid on the series is Giselle Eisenberg, 10, who plays Sophia Hughes, the cracker-jack “middle” child of Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) and Heather Hughes (Betsy Brandt), the other Short sibling. Australian-born Holly J. Barrett, 15, plays Sophia’s sister Samantha while Cunningham, 23, is their married brother who lives in the tiny home.

Young Giselle is a “listening” actor of the Sanford Meisner school, obviously observant in her interactions with other cast mates. She also seems to have a supreme sense of timing to counter her quick wit. She certainly knows when to use a her pause for great effect. Like Audrey Hepburn or Irene Dunne, young Eisenberg exudes an inner calm and maturity that belies the fact she’s only now completed her first decade of life.

Before she turned ten, Eisenberg had appeared in five tv shows, four films and lots of commercials. Her film work landed her on sets with Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie. Her youthful self-assurance challenges the show’s writers to devise storylines that support her unique presence in a scene. Here’s Sophia in a quick bit with her uncle Matt that attempts to answer the musical question: "Why are rock stars so skinny?" (55 seconds)

* * *


Miles Brown and Marsai Martin shine as twins on “Black-ish”

With five children including a newborn all living under one roof, ABC’s serious sitcom "Black-ish" could be seen as a one-household “modern family” in the Huxtable mode – with privileged kids of privileged parents and grandparents all living in a privileged steady-state of suburban privilege.

However, now in its fourth season, the series is blessed with creators who keep challenging themselves to take on difficult issues for situation comedy. So far in four seasons, they’ve tackled these tough topics: health care, gun control, charity giving, postpartum depression, corporal punishment, race relations, school bullies, jury selection, diabetes, diversity, witchcraft, religion, law enforcement, and the controversial US presidential election of 2016.

Black-ish” posits a world where “race” is not a simple competition in black-and-white, but a complex and diverse daily dance of profound public consequence.

Indeed, the series pulled out all stops for its Season 4 premiere this October, when the cast challenged itself on stage with an absolutely thrilling song-and-dance production, a virtual Broadway musical with prime-time production values to match anything ever dished out by "Glee" or "Smash".

The program was titled “I Am A Slave: The Roots Meet Schoolhouse Rock”.
Like other programs mentioned here, “Black-ish” also suffers from an abundance of superior acting talent: Laurence Fishburne is Pops Johnson, another at-home grandfather who lives with grandkids whom he loves to provoke. The outrageous Jenifer Lewis sparkles as Pops’ ex-wife Ruby – mama of Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and foe of his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). The hilarious Deon Cole plays Charlie Telphy, a single father with a recurring memory problem, while Peter Mackenzie is Andre’s boss Leslie Stevens, a white-ish member, if ever there was one.

Two older Johnson children – the “teens’ of the family -- seem destined for their own promising acting careers, given their performance so far on the series. In fact Yara Shahidi who plays Zoey Johnson is such a self-assured talent, she’s now set to star in her own lead role on ABC’s new spin-off “Grow-ish” next season. Yara, 17, has appeared in over a dozen other tv shows and six films so far.

Marcus Scribner who plays Andre Junior, is the black sheep of “Black-ish”. An incredibly easy-going slapstick talent, Scribner seems a goofball in the Buddy Ebsen mold. But the 17-year-old’s comic demeanor belies his serious side. He’s also a humanitarian high school honor-student dedicated to animal protection and higher education opportunities for disadvantaged youth in undeveloped nations.

Obviously, it’s hard to upstage righteous talent like that, but the young actors who steal the “Black-ish” spotlight are twins Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown) Johnson, both 13. Jack-and-Diane are quickly becoming a modern version of Nichols and May, the classic comedy duo of the Twentieth Century. It would be fun to watch Miles and Marsai improvise!

Miles Brown takes full advantage of being the shortest member of the cast. Proclaiming his stage name “Baby Boogaloo”, the young actor, rapper and dancer started performing at age four and had appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, America’s Got Talent and Justin Bieber’s “Believe” before landing in the “Black-ish” cast.

Born in Plano Texas, Marsai has been acting professionally in front of cameras since she was five, when she landed her first national commercial. Ms. Martin makes no bones about her ambitions: “I want to be a legend!” Watch her in a scene and it’s not difficult to imagine Marsai as a modern Shirley Temple!

* * *

Young Sheldon”

Iain Armitage is “Young Sheldon” Cooper

Creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady knew they’d struck a creative Mother Lode when they conceived their brutally-honest character Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) as the precocious savant and alpha-nerd on their popular CBS series “Big Bang Theory” now in its eleventh season. Although the writers didn’t care to burden Sheldon’s backstory with autism or Aspergers Syndrome, they understood their character was an avowed genius with an eidetic memory who could say almost anything and it would be believable … from his point-of-view. Any strange line of dialog tossed out in the writer’s room could be deemed in character” for someone so absent in his own presence, a socially clueless genius who can’t tell sarcasm from a joke, sincerity from a sneer.

Television hadn’t known such characterized nonsense since the demise of Mork from Ork, the role that introduced Robin Williams to an awestruck broadcast audience in 1978. Before then, tv viewers had only known strange sketchy characters fashioned by do-anything-on-tv crackpots Ernie Kovacs and Jonathan Winters. Mork was the first recurring prime-time character who could say and believe almost anything.

Chuck Lorre Productions seems to have hit more buried treasure when they developed Sheldon’s backstory in the “Big Bang” prequel, "Young Sheldon" a CBS prime-time series which premiered this fall with Iain Armitage – age 9 – in the lead role of Sheldon Cooper as a child at home growing up in Texas.

The program supports an inspired cast, led by Annie Potts as Meemaw, Lance Barber as father George Cooper Senior; Zoe Perry as mother Mary, Montana Jordan as brother George Junior and Raegan Revord as Sheldon’s twin sister Missy.

It certainly helps Armitage to have Parsons as the Big Sheldon producer/narrator of the show, to coach the young talent while they continue to apply nuance to this complex character’s deep backstory. Armitage is no stranger to the footlights and it certainly helps to have this young actor’s connections: His mother is theater producer Lee Armitage and his dad is actor Euan Morton, mostly recently in the cast of “Hamilton”.

Iain himself gained fame as the "child theatre critic" in 2012, when he posted his first You Tube video on his channel which mostly features his after-show reviews outside the theater from which he just emerged. His videos have not gone viral, but did came to the attention of Perez Hilton and The New York Post’s Michael Riedel. Hilton invited the child to work the red carpet at the Tony Awards, and that earned Iain the attention he deserved from casting agents.

The boy has never taken an acting class but tap dances, likes long walks, collects playbills and executes magic tricks. I love watching theater and being in some shows,” Iain admits. “But when I grow up, I want to be a magician.”

Well, as Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) famously said at the end of “Casablanca”:

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!”

* * *

The Well-Read Actor

Sanford Meisner on Acting” by Sanford Meisner and Dennis Longwell. Fifteen months of Meisner classes transcribed and edited for actors who listen. Vintage. 1987.

The Presence of the Actor” by Joseph Chaikin. Origins of “devised” playmaking. Theatre Communications Group. 1993.

Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard: Letters and Texts, 1972-1984” Edited by Barry Daniels. New American Library. 1989.

An Actor Prepares” by Konstantin Stanislavski. Classic Method Acting text for actors who like to talk, talk, talk. Taylor & Francis. 1936.

SAG/AFTRA guidelines for young performers:

MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan. Eye-opening picture book and insiders peek into the motion picture industry. Santa Monica Press. 2011.

The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger. The original coming-of-age novel. Little Brown. 1951.

The “death of the imagination” monologue from “Six Degrees of Separation”:

Casablanca” script (1942):

The Well-Written Actor

Ten Actors Who Write (Ben Affleck, Woody Allen, Joel Edgerton, Christopher Guest, Desiree Akhavan, Billy Bob Thornton, George Clooney, Lake Bell, Edward Burns, Orson Welles)

And five more (Daniel Radcliffe, James Franco, Matt Damon, Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin):

And 13 more not listed above (Charlie Chaplin, Eric von Stroheim, Spike Lee, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Kenneth Branagh, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Smith, Noel Clarke, Helen Hunt, Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Clint Eastwood)

Plus four more forgotten above (Miranda July, Lauren Graham, Tom Hanks, B.J. Novak,

And 13 others: Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd, John Cusack, Emma Thompson, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Rashida Jones, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillipps, John Francis Daley, Gene Wilder, Wentworth Miller, Thomas Lennon,

Stage Study

Post-Doctorate theatre education on You Tube:

Keep current on West End productions:

and Broadway shows:

The TV Shows

Life in Pieces” (CBS)



Black-ish” (ABC)

Modern Family” (ABC)

Young Sheldon” (CBS)


Six-year-old toothless reviews of Tony Picks
Iain’s Theatre Traditions! “dressing up for the theater” “an electric spark of happiness”

collecting playbills” (1:15)

Being nice at the theater” (1:29)

Four-year-old Iain signs “Stars” from “Les Miserables”