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An Inspiring Actress…And An Inspired TV Comedy

dvd reviews

What do Julie Andrews, Barry Manilow, and the directors of Grease, Glory and Toy Story 3 have in common? They all studied acting with the great Nina Foch and continue to sing her praises.

Timing in life is everything. When I was a journalism major at New York University, years ago, I was allowed to cherry-pick film courses I wanted to take, but I was a few years too late to attend Martin Scorsese’s classes, which I’m told were amazing. When I started teaching at USC fourteen years ago, I heard that Nina Foch was a longtime faculty member but didn’t give it any further thought. I’d always admired her work on film, but I had no ambition to become an actor.

Only now do I realize what I missed out on. Fortunately, dedicated USC alumnus Randal Kleiser, who took Foch’s class when he was a student and later became a close friend, persuaded fellow grad George Lucas to—

Nina Foch in her first showcase role in the well-regarded B movie My Name is Julia Ross (1945).

—bankroll the taping of an entire semester’s worth of classes in 2002. Kleiser has now culled through 400 hours of lectures and put together a two-disc DVD set called The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors, which has been released under the auspices of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. These classes opened doors of understanding for countless writers, directors, producers, singers, animators, and of course, actors.

But don’t take my word for it. Go to ninafochproject.com, where you can see and hear testimonials from a wide range of industry professionals, ranging from directors like Ed Zwick, Amy Heckerling, and John Singleton to such talented performers as Julie Andrews and Barry Manilow.



Andrews asked Foch to critique her concert appearances, and says she was “a tough teacher, but in the best sense… Occasionally she broke down my song lyrics, and she

Foch lecturing her class in 2002.

was phenomenal; she gave me a whole new perspective. She broke down the lyrics to ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ I was wondering how to sing it; it’s not a song that this white-bread lady would normally sing. She said, ‘Make it about the theater,’ and it became one of the best things I did in my concert performances.” Barry Manilow says she taught him “how to act a pop song. For thirty years I have been able to make these songs as fresh as if I’ve never sung them before, and it’s all because of Nina.”

I can’t tell you how many visiting directors, when asked for advice by my students, offer the same answer: “Take acting classes and learn how to communicate with actors.” That’s what Nina Foch offered, and thanks to this DVD release, her valuable lessons are still available to one and all.

Foch in a dramatic scene from Cash McCall (1960).

___________________________

When I was a kid, I thought Nat Hiken’s Car 54, Where Are You? was just about the funniest TV show I’d ever seen. Having just revisited the series (after many years’ time) I have found no reason to change my mind.

It isn’t just the inventive, gut-funny writing by Hiken, Terry Ryan, Tony Webster, and others, or the inspired casting of that odd couple Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as police officers Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon. It isn’t even the unforgettable theme song, whose topical early-1960s references would have to be explained to younger viewers. (Yes, Kennedy Airport used to be called Idlewild.) It was the way the series captured the zeitgeist of New York City, and even better, drew on its deep well of acting talent, at a time when almost all TV comedies were being filmed in Hollywood.

Regulars like the great Paul Reed, Charlotte Rae, and Beatrice Pons were veterans of the Broadway stage. (Reed, who played Captain Block, finally got to use his singing voice—heard in such musicals as The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—in the final episode of the first season, which featured him in a wonderful Gilbert & Sullivan parody.) The list of guest stars and recurring actors reads like an honor roll of theater, nightclub, and Borscht Belt pros: Al Lewis (as Officer Schnauser), Hank Garrett, Nipsey Russell, Ossie Davis, Carl Ballantine, Larry Storch, Gerald Hiken (Nat’s cousin), Mickey Deems, Wally Cox, Carl Ballantine, Nathaniel Frey, Billy Sands, Gene Baylos, Alice Ghostley, John Alexander, Teddy Hart, Margaret Hamilton, Charles Nelson Reilly.

Yiddish stage star Molly Picon, who later conquered Broadway, was so funny as Mrs. Bronson in one episode—in which she refused to move out of her comfy but crumbling brownstone to make room for a new housing development—that Hiken brought her back two more times.

Maureen Stapleton, with a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination already under her belt, gave a hilarious performance as a gypsy fortune teller in one episode.

And nightclub comic Jan Murray guest-starred in my all-time favorite episode, “Boom Boom Boom,” as the celebrity judge of a barbershop quartet contest who eventually goes crazy from the incessant harmonies of the competitors.

Hiken knew many of these performers from his years of working in radio (with Fred Allen and Milton Berle) and creating The Phil Silvers Show, another TV classic shot in New York. Many of the people who worked with Silvers as Sergeant Bilko wound up on Car 54, including Al Lewis and Fred Gwynne, who made a memorable appearance as the deadpan contestant in an eating competition. In turn, producer Edward Montagne, who worked on Bilko, later called on some of the same actors to populate McHale’s Navy. His home studio, Universal, subsequently drafted Gwynne and Lewis to star in The Munsters.

But enjoyable as those sitcoms were, they didn’t have the New York edge, or the distinctive Hiken touch, that made Car 54, Where Are You? the gem it remains today. The new four-disc DVD set from Shanachie Video includes all 30 episodes of Season One in pristine transfers from the 35mm negatives and an enjoyable conversation between Robert Klein and cast members Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett. If you haven’t seen the show in a long time, you won’t be disappointed; if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a comic treat.

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