Thursday, February 25, 2010

Culture Shock 02.25.10: 'That guy' is no longer a mystery man

It's that guy!
How many times has this happened to you?

You're watching television and see an actor you've seen a million times before. But you can't remember his name and aren't even sure where you saw him. You can't look it up online because you wouldn't know where to begin. Slowly, it starts to drive you insane, and you can't stand it anymore. You phone a friend.

"Hey, turn your TV to channel 38," you say. "No, I don't care that you're watching 'Lost.' You don't understand 'Lost,' anyway. Change the #%&@ channel! Got it? OK, help me out. See that guy, the one with the hat? No, the other one. It's that guy!"

Yes, that's the eternal refrain: "It's that guy!" But who is that guy?

For as long as there have been hard-working character actors taking jobs just to pay the bills, with no hope of ever planting their footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, people have said, "It's that guy!" He's somebody. You know his face for a reason. But his name escapes you. For all his years of acting, the guy might as well be a face on a milk cartoon.

Now, at long last, there's help. There's "That Guy!"

That Guy! is a Web site devoted to the nameless faces that keep you up at night.

Lucky for you, the friendly folks at found That Guy! And Neatorama is one of the nearly 200 Web sites I scan every day to bring you vital information like this, allowing you to get some sleep instead of obsessing over actors who may have been dead for 10 or 20 years for all you know.

Online at, That Guy! lets you scroll through photos of character actors — much like looking through a book of mug shots at the police station — in search of that guy. And like any good collection of mug shots, it contains many of the usual suspects.

Looking for that guy who always plays either the grubby campfire cook in old westerns or the redneck moonshiner? You're probably thinking of Dub Taylor. Or what about the guy who played something like a dozen different characters over the course of "M*A*S*H" and was the go-to guy for Asian roles throughout the 1970s? Yeah, that's James Hong.

If you're like me, and the parts of your brain that could otherwise be curing cancer or picking winning horses at the track are instead filled with a century's worth of useless cultural trivia, you may think you don't need That Guy!

You'd be wrong.

Even trained professionals get stumped sometimes. For example, I used to get Peter Mark Richman confused with Robert Lansing. In the 1960s, Richman guest starred in "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone," two shows known for "that guy" casting. Lansing, meanwhile, starred in the second-season "Star Trek" episode "Assignment: Earth" and went on to a recurring role in the 1980s CBS crime drama "The Equalizer."

Then I became addicted to buying packs of "Outer Limits" and "Twilight Zone" trading cards, hoping with each pack to obtain one of the rare cards autographed by William Shatner — or at least Jack Klugman. Instead, I got Richman's autograph. Twice. And I ended up paying $50 to get Shatner's card from eBay. Believe me, I never got Richman and Lansing confused again.

That Guy! is a work in progress. For example, while it does include Richman, Lansing is missing. And any listing of character actors that doesn't include Earl Holliman ("Police Woman") is by definition not comprehensive.

But the next time you blank out on Henry Silva or Michael Ansara — they both played Kane on "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," but only one of them was ever a Klingon — maybe That Guy! can help you out.

At the least, it could keep your next drunken argument about who played the lazy-eyed doctor in "The Cannonball Run" from turning violent. (Hint: It's Jack Elam. And I didn't have to look that up.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culture Shock 02.18.10: Admiral Ackbar knows a trap when he sees it

As the saying goes, "There are no small parts, only small actors."

Yet I suspect Tim Rose never thought his "small part" more than 25 years ago would amount to much in 2010.

Back in 1983, Rose portrayed Admiral Ackbar, the squid-headed commander of the Rebel Alliance fleet in "Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi."

As a character, Ackbar doesn't have a lot going for him. To be honest, he is a lousy battlefield commander, so it falls to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to hold the fleet together until it can finally launch its assault on the Death Star.

Ackbar does, however, have a keen grasp of the obvious. When the rebels arrive to find the Imperial fleet waiting in ambush and the Death Star's defense shield still up, Ackbar shouts, "It's a trap!"

And as strange as it may seem, that simple, three-word exclamation still echoes through American pop culture 27 years later.

Don't believe me? Search YouTube for "Ackbar" and you'll find more than 1,000 videos, most of them playing off that now-immortal phrase. The admiral may not know how his ships can repel firepower of the Death Star's magnitude, but he definitely knows a trap when he sees one.

My favorite of the videos I've seen is one titled "It's a Trap Volume 1," in which Ackbar repeatedly warns other movie characters — like Indiana Jones and Austin Powers — about various traps. But none of them listen.

Seriously, folks, if Admiral Ackbar tells you it's a trap, you better believe it's a trap.

Besides being a popular subject for amateur videos on YouTube, Ackbar has shown up in a Jerry Springer parody on and, more than once, on Adult Swim's animated series "Robot Chicken."

But that's not surprising. The guys who produce "Robot Chicken" probably still have all of their original "Star Wars" action figures — some still in mint condition.

Then, last week, Ackbar made his most high-profile appearance yet.

After President Barack Obama invited Republican leaders to participate in a health-care summit, some Republicans and radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh branded the summit "a trap." So, when Jon Stewart played clips on "The Daily Show" of Limbaugh and company saying "It's a trap," guess who showed up at the end with his own "It's a trap."

Yes, it was Admiral Ackbar, breaking into the mainstream. Like Boba Fett before him, he has achieved a level of notoriety that defies all logic.

Actually, Ackbar's popularity may be easier to understand than Boba Fett's. All Boba Fett ever did was say five lines in "The Empire Strikes" back and get eaten alive by the Sarlacc in "Return of the Jedi."

But what about the actor who helped make all of this possible?

Apart from playing Ackbar, Rose is probably best known — to the extent he is known — for helping bring to life the title character of the 1986 George Lucas flop "Howard the Duck."

And the most interesting thing about that is Rose was just one of eight actors billed in the role. (Similarly, I'm just one of 8,000 writers to make that "billed" joke.)

He wasn't even the one who provided Howard's voice. According to the Internet Movie Database, that was a fellow by the name of Chip Zien, who went on to guest appearances in prime-time shows like "CSI" and "Ugly Betty."

But if there is any consolation, there aren't 1,000 "Chip Zien" videos on YouTube.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Culture Shock 02.11.10: Aqua Net fog can't hide awful '80s cartoons

So many fools. So much pity.
When it comes to nostalgia, I consider myself a child of the 1970s, but the '80s are finally making a play for my affections.

So, I was initially excited to learn Warner Bros. is producing a two-DVD set of "classic" '80s cartoons.

The studio will release "Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980s Vol. 1" on May 1, and while Warner Bros. hasn't announced the set's contents, the package art holds a few clues — which is why my excitement quickly turned into disappointment.

Apart from "Thundarr the Barbarian," which holds up surprisingly well, the DVDs will include "Monchichis," "The Flintstone Kids," "Dragon's Lair" and "Mr. T."

Ah, yes. Despite the Aqua Net haze of time, I remember it clearly: Saturday-morning cartoons during the '80s were, for the most part, awful. How did I forget?

The soft-focus lens of nostalgia obscures many of blemishes. By any reasonable standard, the cartoons I love from the '70s weren't particularly good, either. Still, they had something that most of the subsequent decade's Saturday-morning programs lacked. But whether that something was creativity or kitsch is probably a matter of taste.

Many of the most fondly remembered cartoons of the '80s — "Transformers," "Robotech," "Thundercats," "She-Ra," etc. — aired in weekday syndication. Saturday mornings, burdened by more stringent broadcast standards, were tame and lame in comparison.

There were three main types of Saturday-morning cartoons during the decade: cartoons based on real people or live-action TV characters, cartoons based on video games, and cartoons based on tiny, mythological creatures created by Belgians.

The A-Team's Mr. T., for example, told youngsters to stay in school and off drugs. Gary Coleman of "Diff'rent Strokes" fame lent his voice to a guardian angel who helped children in trouble. And Punky Brewster (aka Soleil Moon Frye) did pretty much the same stuff she did on her nighttime sitcom.

Nowadays, video games are incredibly sophisticated and inspire Hollywood movies. Back then, they were incredibly simple and inspired cartoons with plots that had nothing to do with the games because the games didn't have plots. Pac-Man, Q*bert, Frogger, Donkey Kong and Pitfall all inspired Saturday-morning adaptations, each more suspect than the last.

And then there were the Smurfs. Dreamed up by Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs were a race of small blue men, each three apples tall. And by men, I mean they were all males, at least until Smurfette showed up, which begs lots of questions about Smurf procreation.

NBC had so much success with "The Smurfs" that it commissioned "The Snorks," created by yet another Belgian cartoonist. The Snorks were just like the Smurfs except they lived underwater and were less communist.

In retrospect, that's a pretty bleak television landscape, and one that never recovered, as the best cartoons moved to cable TV and Saturday mornings became, due in part to the Children's Television Act of 1990, a dumping ground for soulless "educational and informational" programming.

I might pick up "Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980s Vol. 1" just for "Thundarr," but if Warner Bros. releases a Vol. 2, I hate to think what it will contain. Saturday mornings only go downhill from here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Culture Shock 02.04.10: Surviving the '70s with the 'Star Trek' cast

The last of three drive-in movies William Shatner starred in during the 1970s has finally made its way to DVD.

"Kingdom of the Spiders" finds the former "Star Trek" captain trying to save a rural Arizona town from being overrun by angry arachnids.

After farmers eradicate the spiders' natural food supply, the spiders turn to the only food sources left to them — livestock and people. It then falls to veterinarian Robert "Rack" Hansen (Shatner) and entomologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) to try to stop the ravenous tarantulas before they cocoon the entire town.

Nature-strikes-back movies were a staple of 1970s creature features, and "Kingdom of the Spiders" is one of the better examples. (It certainly has "Frogs" beat.) Still, "Kingdom" owes its cult status mostly to Shatner, who is in full Shatner mode throughout.

Shout! Factory's "special edition" DVD includes behind-the-scenes footage, an audio commentary and interviews. Now that he has two Emmys on his mantelpiece, Shatner is a good sport when it comes to talking about some of his lesser projects. He gamely reminisces about his experiences on the set, including filming the iconic scene in which he crawls up a staircase while covered in live tarantulas.

Apart from "Kingdom of the Spiders," Shatner also appeared in the cult favorites "The Devil's Rain" and "Big Bad Mama," both previously released on DVD. "The Devil's Rain" (1975) also features John Travolta in one of his earliest roles, while "Big Bad Mama" (1974) is infamous for its sex scene between Shatner and Angie Dickinson.

While I'm sure Shatner would have preferred better roles in the 1970s — not that there is anything wrong with a sex scene with Angie Dickinson — he fared pretty well compared to most of his "Star Trek" co-stars.

Only Leonard Nimoy did as well as Shatner. He starred in two seasons of "Mission: Impossible," taking over the "master of disguise" role from Martin Landau.

Between 1969, when the last episode of "Star Trek" aired, and 1979, when "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" revived the franchise, DeForest Kelley's best-known part was in one of those nature-strikes-back movies, 1972's "Night of the Lepus." But instead of spiders or even frogs, Kelley had to worry about man-eating bunny rabbits the size of Volkswagens.

Nichelle Nichols had a supporting role in the Isaac Hayes action film "Truck Turner" (1974), and Hayes' title song is better known than the movie. Walter Koenig, meanwhile, appeared in two episodes of the Canadian sci-fi series "The Starlost" (1973), which had special effects that make the original "Star Trek" look like "Avatar."

James Doohan appeared in Roger Vadim's 1971 film "Pretty Maids All in a Row," for which "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry wrote the screenplay. Doohan then got a promotion of sorts, playing the commander on the CBS Saturday-morning sci-fi series "Jason of Star Command."

And lastly, George Takei starred in the 1972 hippie exploitation flick "Josie's Castle," which is available on DVD under the title "Teenage Divorcee," even though none of the characters are teens.

Looking back, it's a crime that the "Star Trek" cast had so much trouble landing decent roles during the '70s. But during those fallow years before "Star Trek" became a successful film franchise, the once and future crew of the Enterprise did give fans of B-movies and forgotten TV shows a lot of material for our late-night viewing pleasure.