Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr

He was one of the last surviving "Murrow's Boys," a select group of men who were personally recruited to CBS Radio by the legendary Edward R. Murrow, considered the father of broadcast journalism. Legend has it that Dan's news career began when he was 12 years old. The story goes that Schorr came upon a woman who had jumped, or fallen, from the roof of his own apartment building in the Bronx; after calling for help, he dropped a dime to the Bronx Home News. He earned five bucks for this very first scoop.

Two years after Murrow added Schorr to his news team, Dan was given the enviable task of opening the first CBS News bureau in Moscow. In 1957, he was the first American to interview Soviet Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev, an interview which was broadcast on Face the Nation. Dan left the Soviet Union for a time due to its strict censorship laws, and was denied a visa when he attempted to return. Nevertheless, he became an authority on the Cold War, and in 1962, delivered an in-depth report on everyday life behind the Iron Curtain.

Schorr was an adamant supporter of first amendment rights (which lead to an unlikely friendship with rocker Frank Zappa, of all people), and if he had been recently connected to the mainstream media, he would surely be labeled a left-winger. But in the 70s, a liberal bent toward freedom of the press was considered an asset, which helped Dan rise to the top of his profession. His relentless investigations into the suspected corruption of the Nixon White House lead to his being investigated by the FBI. When Nixon's infamous enemies list was made public during the Watergate hearings, Schorr scored a bit of a coup when he read the list aloud on live television, only to discover his own name at number 17 (two slots above Paul Newman!)

It was during this period in the early 70s that Dan won three Emmys, back to back, for outstanding achievement in news reporting. By 1976, he had drawn the criticism of his own network, CBS, when he leaked the contents of a confidential report detailing illegal activities performed by the FBI and CIA. He resigned from the network, but retained his reputation as a reporter scrupulously devoted to the truth. In 1979, he was hired by Ted Turner as the first on-air newsman for CNN; he ultimately clashed with his boss regarding Turner's crusade to censor violent movies, and in 1985, he moved to NPR, where his commentary as Senior News Analyst became an invaluable source of historical context. When he turned 90, NPR renamed a studio after him (by the way, did you know it's not National Public Radio anymore? Nope, it's now just NPR, like Kentucky Fried Chicken is now just KFC...but that's another posting).

I have to confess that, when Dan Schorr was in the height of his career, I lumped him in with all those other news hounds, but in recent years, I have greatly enjoyed tuning in to his weekly chat with Scott Simon every Saturday morning on Weekend Edition. He filed his last commentary only two weeks ago, and was as lucid as ever. He died today, only 5 weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

Friday Dance Party: "Mrs. Peel, We're Needed."

All hail Diana Rigg! She burst onto the international scene when she took over the female lead in the 60s British television series The Avengers, a show I remember quite fondly from my youth. It took the espionage genre popular during the Cold War, added a bit of SciFi and a lot of stylish humor, and created a hybrid all its own.

Rigg was not very happy doing the show, discovering after her first year that she was being paid less than the cameraman, but she stuck with the program for three seasons. Though the series had a life before and after her appearances, her years as the athletic, sensuous Mrs. Emma Peel are commonly considered the highlight of the series' run. She never quite escaped that early fame; only a few years ago, she poked a bit of fun at herself during a cameo appearance on Ricky Gervais's series Extras, when guest star Daniel Radcliffe asked if the now middle-aged Dame Diana still had that cat suit.

During the time The Avengers was broadcast on American television, I had no idea Rigg already had substantial classical theatre cred. In her early career, she was memorably paired with a very young Helen Mirren and a topless Judi Dench in the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her extensive Shakespearean resume includes playing Regan to Laurence Olivier's King Lear, which would turn out to be his final Shakespearean role. Her stage work has included Stoppard, Coward, Brecht, Albee, Williams, and Euripides.

Diana won the Tony in 1995 for her Medea, and the Emmy in 1997 as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She was damed in 1994. Bond buffs think her work in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service far outshines that of George Lazenby, who was playing 007 at the time, but my favorite film role of Diana's must be 1973's Theatre of Blood, a darkly comic, tongue-in-cheek movie which mixes theatrical grand guignol with Shakespeare (and gives Vincent Price one of his juiciest roles to boot).

(That's Diana in disguise, helping Vinnie whip up a meat pie with a particularly vengeful ingredient)

Rigg must have felt a particular satisfaction in appearing in Theatre of Blood, which concerns an actor taking gruesome but appropriate vengeance on the critics who savaged his work. Diana herself had been deeply humiliated by critic John Simon in 1971, when he described her nudity in Abelard and Heloise as being "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." She included that hideous stinger in her best-selling book No Turn Unstoned, a compilation of the worst reviews ever published about herself and her peers. (The book is painful and hilarious and a must-read for any actor.)

This week's Dance Party star does not consider herself much of a musical theatre performer, but her resume proves otherwise. There are people who still recall her guest appearance on the Christmas episode of the British variety show Morecambe and Wise in 1975, where she displayed hammy music hall skills.

Over the years, she has sung several of Stephen Sondheim's most memorable character songs. She was the only actor to emerge unscathed from the disastrous attempt to film A Little Night Music in 1977, in which she stole her scenes as Countess Charlotte, and warbled "Every Day a Little Death" opposite Lesley-Anne Down.

The London stage premiere of Follies, in which she played cynical socialite Phyllis, allowed her to belt "Could I Leave You?". It was in this production that she introduced a new Sondheim song written specifically for her. The recording of that number, "Ah, but Underneath," is the soundtrack for today's Dance Party clip, a montage of our star's film and television career. I'm not really sure why I became such an early fan of Rigg's back in the day, perhaps it was her easy repartee with the ultra-suave Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (I doubt it was that cat suit), but no matter. And I don't care what snarky John Simon thinks: Dame Diana has plenty of flying buttresses for me:

Dame Diana Rigg turned 72 years old this week.