The Actor's Detective

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A legendary voice, and a smart marketer

And now, heeeeeeere's Johnny!"

For generations of Americans that was the familiar sound as they settled into bed at night to watch the Tonight Show before they drifted off to sleep.  The voice behind the call was one of the most memorable in television history. It was that of legendary broadcaster/entertainer Ed McMahon. His story is one that should inspire and motivate you. (It pains me to write this, but I know some of you were born too late to have experienced him in his prime. Trust me, he was a master performer.)

A true renaissance man, McMahon was - at various times in his life - a stand-up comedian, author, actor, game show host, and salesman. (He was also a decorated war veteran, flying 85 missions as a Marine pilot.) It was the persistence and ingenuity he learned as a salesman that helped to launch his career.

Back in the 1940's and 50's, without the benefit of the internet and multiple home shopping channels, McMahon was able to succeed as one of the best "pitchmen" ever (he would put the ShamWow guy to shame.)

The pre-casinos Boardwalk at Atlantic City was McMahon's territory, and he excelled at selling vegetable slicers to passers-by. He made quite a tidy profit. McMahon knew deep in his heart, though, that he had a higher calling and it was to be on camera or in front of a microphone.

Ed McMahon wanted his name to be right at the top of the list for casting directors in Philadelphia and New York, so he diligently researched the names and contact information of those who were producing and directing shows in those early days of television. He sent out hundreds of letters pitching himself as an undiscovered broadcast talent, but he did not leave it at that.

McMahon succeeded where others didn't because he followed up on his initial networking efforts. He would regularly take a morning train from South Jersey to New York City with his pocket full of dimes. When he arrived in Manhattan, he would find the nearest pay telephone booth and methodically proceeded to call those producers he had made a connection with by mail, to remind them that he was in town and available to meet in person. The tenacity paid off.

Within a few years, he was cast as the announcer on a New York based game show called "Who Do You Trust?" along with a skinny, shy kid from Nebraska, Johnny Carson, as the host. Their chemistry was off the charts. When Carson was named host of NBC's "Tonight Show", McMahon joined him. When the show moved to California, so did Ed.

By the 1970's Ed McMahon was as familiar to most Americans as their Uncle who visits on Thanksgiving and brings laughter and joy to the house. (On a personal note, my introduction to Ed McMahon was as host of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC.) For some, Ed McMahon is synonymous with "Star Search," for others it was his often overlooked role as annual co-host of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. Still others recall his spots for American Family Publishers (not their competitors: Publisher's Clearing House, as many people assume.) I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Thanks to his smart marketing efforts, research and determination, Ed McMahon carved out a place for himself as an American pop culture Icon and sits quite firmly in the pantheon of broadcasting greats. Sadly, his golden voice is no longer with us, but you can still use McMahon's story to inspire you to great heights by emulating his letter writing strategy to great success.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Walt Disney's Irish Connections

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, we post this article written by our CEO (Chris Lucas) about Walt Disney's Irish connections and how they had an impact on the pop culture landscape.

Most people don't realize that Walt Disney himself was of Irish ancestry. His forebears came from County Kilkenny. Walt's Great Grandfather, Arundel Disney, moved to Canada in the 1830's.  Walt's Grandfather, Kepple, was actually born in Ireland just before the move.  Later, the Disney clan would move to the Midwestern U.S. to seek their fortune. It was there that Walt was raised with a keen appreciation for his Irish background, which would continue throughout his life. (Take a good look at any photos of Walt, you'll notice that he only wore two pieces of jewlery, his wedding ring on one hand and an Irish Claddagh ring on the other. The "Partners" statue in the Disney parks also feature Walt wearing this tribute to his heritage.)

In addition to a few trips to Ireland in his lifetime (including for the Dublin premiere of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" in 1959) Walt's career got a boost from some Irishmen.

In 1922, when his animation career was just beginning and he was struggling to make ends meet, Walt got a break (and a much needed infusion of cash) from a Kansas City based Irish dentist named Tom McCrum, who commissioned Disney to make an educational live action/cartoon film called "Tommy Tucker's Tooth." The $500 from that film set Walt on his way. There was even a sequel (1926's "Clara Cleans Her Teeth") made after Walt moved to California.

When Disney wanted to make his groundbreaking move to add sound to his Mickey cartoons in 1928, he needed to find a partner with a sound system that could deliver quality, but with affordable prices. He wound up with Pat Powers, a charming Irish immigrant who was also a con man. At first Powers was an asset to Walt (with pirated technology, no less) but the relationship soured as Powers tried to take more and more control and profit from Disney. Walt learned a lesson from that relationship, that a brogue and a twinkle from business partner don't always make up for bad business practices.

Here now, in no particular order, are ten other Irishmen (and women) who made a big impact on Walt Disney and his company:

J. Patrick O'Malley

What a name to start this list. If ever there were an Irishman, J. Patrick (or "Pat" as he liked to be called) O'Malley was one to the nines.

O'Malley (who was actually born in England, though his family had emigrated there from Ireland and he always referred to himself as Irish) had a flourishing career as a recording artist and music hall performer before he moved to the U.S. to seek his fame on the silver screen in 1935. He was a hit as a nimble comedian with a warm, soft side and and it gained him work  in films like 1943's "Lassie Come Home."

His roles on radio programs led him to Disney, where he gave voice to many classic characters.

O'Malley began at Disney with "The Adventures of Mr. Toad" in 1949, where he played Cyril Proudbottom. His work quadrupled in 1951, when he was cast as four characters in "Alice In Wonderland":  TweedleDum and TweedleDee and the Walrus and the Carpenter. He also worked on "101 Dalmatians" and "Robin Hood", but is probably most noted for his creation of the "stiff upper lip, ever so proper" British military commander Colonel Hathi in 1967's "The Jungle Book."

The versatility of O'Malley kept him working in television well into his 70's. He appeared in over one hundred roles on television, including on the Disney TV series "Swamp Fox" and "Spin and Marty." His last role was on "Taxi" in 1982, shortly before his death.

O'Malley is one of those genial faces that you see on TV and in movies all the time, but can't quite place the name. The next time he pops up on your screen, listen to the voice and you will instantly recognize that distinctive Irish sound that he so memorably loaned to Disney.

Jimmie Dodd

Generations of children (and adults) know the Mickey Mouse Club theme song by heart. Few know the name of the man that actually wrote it, even though he was a big part of the Club itself.

Head Mouseketer Jimmie Dodd was the genial host of the show and a sort of father figure to the young Mouseketeers (and to the Baby Boomers watching at home.) He was also a prolific songwriter.

In addition to the upbeat Mickey Mouse Club March (and the more somber version of it which closed the show, "M-I-C, See Ya real soon...") Dodd composed more than half of the tunes heard on the show. His music, like the show, was both entertaining and educational at the same time. Without Dodd and his "Mousegetar", the show might not have been as successful as it was.

It seemed like Dodd came out of nowhere as his star rose on the Mickey Mouse Club, but he'd actually had a bunch of roles in other movies and TV shows  like "Easter Parade' and "The Adventures of Superman." Bill Justice, one of  Disney's legendary animators, was a tennis partner of Dodd's and recommended him when Walt was looking for a new song. Jimmie came in and sang the song directly for Mr. Disney, who hired him immediately as the host of his new kids TV show.

Dodd, who wrote over 400 songs in his lifetime, stayed with the Mickey Mouse Club for its entire four year run. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years after that at the relatively young age of 54. Everyone who came in contact with him says that he was just as he appeared to be on screen, and that he was one of the nicest men they ever had the pleasure of meeting. Jimmie Dodd was named a Disney Legend in 1992.

Bill Walsh/The McEveety Brothers

No Hollywood history books can be written without prominently mentioning the four Irish-Americans that made Disney live action films as successful as they were in the 1950's, 60's and 70's.

Producer Bill Walsh and the trio of director brothers Bernard, Joe and Vince McEveety shepherded some of Walt's biggest non-animated hits to the screen. They are not as widely known as say Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or James Cameron, but the collective works of Walsh and the McEveetys still rank high on the all-time box office list. 

Bill Walsh began with Disney as a writer for the Mickey Mouse comic strip. Walt asked him to write and produce the first Disney TV special in 1950, called "One Hour In Wonderland." That was followed by work on "Davy Crockett" and "the Mickey Mouse Club." The success of those shows led to a long career for Walsh with Disney as a producer and/or writer for such notable  films as "The Shaggy Dog", "The Absent Minded Professor", "That Darn Cat!" and "The Love Bug", among others.

The three McEveety brothers, from New Rochelle, New York all wound up in Hollywood and all worked for Disney, quite a feat. Their directorial output for the studio reads like a list of fondly remembered films for those who came of age in the 1970's.

The oldest brother, Bernard, began his career at the House of Mouse later than his two younger siblings, but helmed such pics as 1972's "Napoleon & Samantha" and "One Little Indian."

The middle brother, Joe, has the strongest Disney resume of the three. He wrote the scripts for "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" (and its two sequels) "The Apple Dumpling Gang", "Hot Lead and Cold Feet", "No Deposit No Return"  and "The Barefoot Executive." He also worked as an assistant director on numerous Disney films.

Vince McEveety directed many of the films written by his brother that I listed above. He also worked on several of the TV movies for the various Disney shows.

All three brothers were prolific directors, yet not exclusive with Disney. Their work can be seen on countless popular TV shows and movies of the 70's and 80's. Filmmaking became the family business, as now a second generation of the McEveety clan has carved out nice careers as directors, producers and camera operators.

Oh, and if you're wondering why I don't have a picture of all three brothers, I searched and searched but just could not locate one. Strange, considering the amount of work they did for archive happy Disney. The McEveetys are also not included among the official Disney Legends, as Walsh is. Hopefully that omission will be rectified soon.

Fulton Burley

No revue is complete without an Irish tenor and Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe had one of the best in Fulton Burley.

Hailing from Tipperary, it was truly a long way from there to Anaheim for Burley. He started singing in Broadway revues, moved to Hollywood as a contract payer and then had the good fortune of meeting fellow Disney legend Wally Boag. It was Boag who called Burley in 1962  when Fulton was headlining at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas. It turns out that someone in the cast of the Golden Horseshoe Revue was sick and Wally, the star of the show, asked Burley to step in. The rest, as they say, is history.

Boag and Burley would be one of the longest running duos in show business history, as the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Frontierland set the all time record for theatrical performances. Burleys amazing Irish voice was complimented by his impeccable comic timing. He brought down the house several times a day.

Before retiring from Disney in 1987, Burley made one more contribution to the parks. It is his voice you hear as Michael, the Irish parrot in the Enchanted Tiki Room.  No faking there, that brogue is the genuine article.

Kevin Corcoran

The son of a blue collar Irish couple from  Quincy, Massachusetts, Kevin Corcoran used his cherubic features to become one of Disney's biggest child stars.

His first appearance was at the studio was in a short film about a dairy farm. The character's name was Moochie, and it stuck. Corcoran played a kid named Moochie in several different projects, ranging from TV serials to movies.

He also starred in his own feature film, "Toby Tyler" and was a key part of classic Disney films like "Polyanna", "The Absent Minded Professor", "The Shaggy Dog" "Old Yeller" and "Swiss Family Robinson", often partnered with Tommy Kirk.

After retiring from acting, Corcoran remained involved with Disney, working as an assistant director and producer on "SuperDad", "Return To Witch Mountain" and "Pete's Dragon" among others. He always credits Walt Disney with providing a firm foundation for his success and grounded attitude towards the business.

Margaret Kerry

You know Tinker Bell dresses in green, but did you know that she was Irish too? Well, at least the actress that played her is.

Margaret Kerry (real name: Peggy Lynch, still pretty darn Irish) saw an ad placed by the Disney studios back in the late 1940's  for their adaptation of JM Barrie's Peter Pan. The studio was looking for actors  to perform  the roles on a soundstage as reference models for the animators.

Kerry worked out her moves as Tinker Bell in an empty room. Props were provided, as well as large doors and keyholes. If you see her movements in real life and compare them to what actually was drawn in the finished film, they are almost exactly alike.

Though Tinker Bell is mute, Kerry did get to do a voice in the film, that of a mermaid. Contrary to popular opinion, Marilyn Monroe had no bearing on Tinker Bell's look, it's all Kerry, who is just as beautiful and shapely as Monroe. (It was Kerry's idea to have Tinker Bell react negatively when she sees her backside in a mirror, which as become one of Disney's most famous scenes.)

Still active in her 80's, Margaret Kerry is proud of her connection to the classic character. Without her superb acting skills to draw on, Tinker Bell might not have become as enduring and popular.

Joe Flynn

Of all the actors to play flustered authority figures on screen, Joe Flynn was the master.

Best known for his work on TV's "McHale's Navy" (with fellow Disney stalwart - and Irish-American - Tim Conway) Flynn came to Disney late in his career, but made a mark as Dean Higgins, the put upon, often confused head of Medfield College.

Medfield was Disney's stock college (campus scenes were actaully filmed on Disney's studio campus) and had been featured long before Flynn took over. He came to define the face of the college in all three Dexter Riley films. Flynn was a perfect foil for star Kurt Russell, always threatening him with expulsion, yet secretly proud of his schemes. Flynn could do a take of goofy exasperation better than almost anyone.

His Disney filmography also includes "The Love Bug", "Barefoot Executive" and "Million Dollar Duck." He wasn't called Dean Higgins in any of those pictures, but might as well have been, the tics and mannerisms were so close. Flynn's last Disney role was a voice-over one, as the villain's main henchman in 1977's "The Rescuers." Flynn might have had a longer career with Disney, but -sadly - he accidentally drowned in his swimming pool shortly after completing his work on "The Rescuers."

College Deans were never seen in the same light after Joe Flynn got through with them. 

John Musker

Directors of animated films are not often given as much credit as their live action counterparts. This is probably due to the fact that people think animators are responsible for most of the work. In reality, without an expert hand at the helm, you wind up with unorganized dreck and films that are long forgotten.

Luckily for Disney, they have John Musker.

The oldest son of an Irish family from Chicago, Musker was one of the "young turks" who helped to raise Disney animation from its 1970's doldrums and into a new golden age.

He began with Disney as an artist, most notably working on "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron." He toiled alongside his former college classmates like John Lasseter, Tim Burton and Brad Bird. One of the other people he met at the studio was Ron Clements, who began a fruitful collaboration with him as co-directors.

Starting in 1986 with "The Great Mouse Detective", the team of Musker & Clements directed a string of hits with "The Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", and "Hercules." In recent years, they've worked on "Treasure Planet" and "The Princess and The Frog." The latter film helped to prove to the powers that be at Disney that there's still room for traditionally animated films on the production slate.

Musker's next announced  project for Disney will be "Mort", an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel about Death's apprentice. It's due in 2013 or 2014.

Nathan Lane

He's only done one major role in a Disney animated classic feature film, but Nathan Lane has made an indelible impression on the company.

Lane is an Irish-American kid from the streets of Jersey City (full disclosure here - I grew up right around the corner from him, and we both went to the same high school, though we graduated years apart.) He was known as Joe Lane, until joining the Actors Equity union, where there was already an actor by that name. He'd played Nathan Detroit in a high school production of "Guys and Dolls" so he adopted the name for himself.

Lane became a go to guy on Broadway and was one of the biggest stars on the Great White Way when Disney came calling in  the early 1990's to ask him to create the role of Timon the meerkat for "The Lion King."

Lane made it his own.

Timon, as originally written, was an antagonist and grumpy, but Lane added a wiseguy Jersey attitude flavored with Catskills and Broadway schtick. Together with fellow Broadway vet Ernie Sabella as Pumba, they were the breakout stars of the most successful animated film to that date. They reprised the role in several direct to video sequels.

Nathan Lane won an Emmy as the voice of  Spot/Scott, the dog who wants to be a little boy in "Disney's Teacher's Pet." In addition, he was the voice of Mr. Tom Morrow at Innoventions in Disneyland.

Whether he does another role for Disney in the future (which hopefully he does) Nathan Lane will more than likely be named a Disney Legend, a well deserved honor.

Glen Keane

Not many people can say that they were born into the cartooning business and that working at Disney was a natural progression. For Glen Keane, that was just the case.

The son of legendary cartoonist Bil Keane, who created "The Family Circus", the long running strip about a large Irish-American family, Glen was the inspiration for the character of "Little Billy", who is still appearing in the strip and delighting readers five decades later.

Keane's father encouraged him to pursue his passion for drawing, and he enrolled at CalArts, the college Walt Disney himself had supported. 

In 1974, Keane left school early to go work for Disney, at a time when the fortunes of the animation department were on the wane. He apprenticed under one of Walt's "Nine Old Men", Ollie Johnston, on "The Rescuers." After that, Keane was asked to animate the title character in "Pete's Dragon."

His design of  Ariel in "The Little Mermaid" helped to set the tone for the new wave of classic Disney characters. Among his other creations are Beast (which he modeled on composites of several different animals), Aladdin, Tarzan and Rapunzel.

Keane is the winner of many awards for his lifetime spent in the arts, and is the author of several childrens books. Not bad for a kid whose drawings inspired his Dad to create the character of an 8 year old budding artist.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Man Behind The Muppet

Who is everyone's favorite furry red monster Muppet?

Unless you've been living on another planet for the last fifteen years, you probably know that the answer is Elmo.

Love him or not love him (OK, that was bad English, but hate is too strong a word to use here) you can't escape his infectious giggle and childlike wonder.

Most people forget, however, that there is indeed a man behind the Muppet. His name is Kevin Clash, and he is a true inspiration to those of us who are trying to advance our careers by being proactive.
Since he was a little boy, Kevin Clash knew his destiny. He wanted to be a puppeteer. He even followed in Jim Henson's footsteps by cutting up one of his parents good coats to make his first puppet.

In  the 1970's, when Clash was still a teenager, he reached out to Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Carrol Spinney (Big Bird) and many other famous puppeteers, all of whom inspired him.

One of the people Clash got in touch with (actually, Kevin's Mom did the detective work, found a phone number and called directly) was a gentle man named Kermit Love. Mr. Love was a collaborator of Henson's and a well respected puppet designer. (I know what you're thinking. No, he was not the namesake of the famous green frog, who came along years before Love met Henson.)

Kermit  Love was so impressed with Clash's determination to succeed and his shrewd dedication to seeking out mentors that he invited the young man to come visit him at his New York City workshop. Clash got on a train from his hometown of Baltimore, met with Kermit Love and it changed his life forever.

After Clash graduated from high school, Love took him under his wing and gave him career advice. The elder man then introduced his protege to Jim Henson and helped him to earn a job as a Muppet performer alongside his heroes. (Did you know that one of Kevin Clash's first big Muppet jobs was as the voice of the baby dinosaur on Henson's classic "Dinosaurs" show on ABC in the early 90's? Listen to him say "I'm the baby!" and you'll hear Elmo.) Clash eventually helped to create the unique character of Elmo and brought him to greater heights than anyone could ever imagine. For a whole generation it's now Elmo (not Ernie, Bert, Cookie, Oscar, Grover or Big Bird) that is the face of Sesame Street.

And it all began with a simple contact strategy, by not being afraid to reach out and to seek mentors.

So the lesson here is to not make excuses or feel bad about lack of work or bookings. Use that downtime positively, like Clash did, to follow those that inspire you and ask them for advice. You never know where it can lead, just ask Elmo (actually, maybe you shouldn't, you'll just get your answer in a high pitched voice and broken syntax.)

To your success!

P.S: If you want to learn more about Kevin Clash and his journey, watch the new documentary "Being Elmo" available now on DVD. Or you can read his memoir,  published in 2010.

If you want to write your own letters, but you're not sure what to say, why not pick up a copy of The Actor's Detective Guide To Writing Show Business Contact Letters, now ON SALE now for just $10.

Click HERE to order your copy.