Tuesday, July 9, 2013

John Wayne, Bobby Murcer and Other Legends of My Youth

In this world of diversity, when people spend their time asking automated call systems for more options, there are scant few subjects upon which opinions cleave so closely to the 50-50 mark, like and dislike if you will. John Wayne is one of those subjects. There are two schools of thought about iconic film actor Marion Robert Morrison, who never once played the role of the bad guy in a movie (not even in his portrayal, somehow, of Gengis Khan). You either love The Duke, and his movies, or you hate them.

Those who love them list many reasons for doing so. Those who hate them have but one reason. They see John Wayne as a symbol of old white male conservatism. They say he was too cozy with the Ronald Reagans of the world. They say he was a symbol of the male dominant era - generally referred to as "history" - that had repressed so many people for so long. They say his character was a bit too authentic in The Searchers. While all of that may be true, that just isn't how I see John Wayne.

I see him as a big drunken Irishman who made rollicking movies with lots of shooting and punching and yelling and chasing girls. He did things the way everyone would if there weren't laws against doing so. He was like that crazy, bad-ass uncle that some kids had and everyone else wished for. Today's action movie stars aren't anything at all like John Wayne. Instead, we get Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, guys who can’t afford to “play themselves”, because they happen to be actual jerks whose behavior in real life is far more reprehensible than anything John Wayne ever did on screen, or off.

I sound like an old guy now, and could even be mistaken for a conservative in the wrong light, although that's not likely to ever be the case. (Today's conservatives are, as the Duke would have said, short on ears and long on mouth.) It's just worth noting what a vastly different world this is in which Generation Wireless is growing up.

In the 1970s, our TV shows didn't feature young, hip people wearing sexy clothing. We had a bunch of fat, old people schlepping around in gray trench coats (even if they were filmed in color) like Peter Falk in Columbo and Judd Hirsch in Taxi. We had M*A*S*H, where most of the cast was either graying or balding. Bob Denver was the youngest guy on Gilligan's Island, and he was already an aging pothead. Hal Linden and the boys on Barney Miller were only a decade or so removed from doing a nursing home sitcom. The only real exception in prime-time was Happy Days, a show set in the idyllic, pre-Civil Rights 1950s. Y'know... John Wayne's kids.

Even when they started to bring on shows that were aimed at the new desired demographic, like Welcome Back, Kotter or Good Times or Three's Company, they still featured prominently in their casts a balding old guy. Veteran actors Gabe Kaplan, John Amos and the absolutely inimitable Norman Fell (respectively) anchored their programs and helped deliver the ratings, week after week, year after year.

What all of these shows had in common is fairly obvious. Not only did they employ actual actors and actresses, they took care to address serious themes (often to their own detriment - see Dabney Coleman and Geena Davis's abortion episode in the short-lived Buffalo Bill). But other than the rare exception, most of the programming on television back then shoved viewers in the direction of law, order and authority.

This was pretty much the case right up until Dukes of Hazzard. Then, the police became clowns, and traffic laws were made to be broken (as were the frames of Dodge Chargers all across America). Similarly, television programming didn't become particularly dark or edgy until Hill Street Blues. Prior to that, cop dramas were more of the action variety, like Starsky and Hutch or Hawaii Five-O. Shows like Dallas and Knott's Landing relied on soap opera plots and, in Larry Hagman and Joan Collins, had actors of severe maturity playing key roles.

We all watched as our great cultural medium, television, coarsened and hardened. The unabashed slut-fest that was Melrose Place took over for the glamorous settings of its dramatic predecessors. Coffee shops, diners and bars replaced the Korean peninsula as the settings for ensemble comedies. The nudity of NYPD Blue replaced the pie-eyed hoke of Magnum P.I. and Simon and Simon... And then came the cartoons.

While I appreciate the comedic value of shows like South Park and (once upon a time) The Simpsons, I found little redeeming social value in Ren and Stimpy. Beavis and Butthead had its moments, I guess, but King of the Hill didn't. Family Guy deliberately shoots straight for the lowest common denominator. 

Basically, I stopped watching cartoons about the same that I stopped wearing PJs. Cartoons were for Saturday mornings, and we weren't watching any weirdo Japanimation, either (at least not until Star Blazers). It was pretty much Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn and Elmer Fudd. That's it. No Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and certainly no psychotic infants dressed up as Adolf Hitler. If those had been my options, I would've quit watching cartoons long before I discovered the NFL and the WWF.

Pro wrestling and pro football were staples of every kid's life when I grew up. That's what prompted us to pick up our first dumbbells before we were four feet tall. Today's children want Pokemon cards; we wanted biceps. Just as the actors on our TV shows seemed older and wiser, so did our athletes, those who went according to choreographed scripts and those who tried to really kill each other on the gridiron. There were no young guys in pro wrestling, except as stooges to be thrown around in predictable fashion by large, middle-aged men with receding hairlines who wore their Lycra trunks pulled halfway up to their breasts, from Hulk Hogan to the Junk Yard Dog to Jesse "The Body" Ventura (the latter of which would go on to be, of all things, the governor of Minnesota).

Vince McMahon's glitzy World Wrestling Federation certainly transfixed millions of viewers, but when cable TV came into our living rooms, Ted Turner's network brought with it the truly seamy underbelly of wrestling, the decidedly minor-league NWA. (National Wrestling Alliance? Something, pronounced, "ENNNN-Dubya-ay".) The announcers drawled out their truly Faulknerian story lines in their laconic Southern accents. The arenas were small and dimly lit, and the fans, not so many.

The main players were the likes of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, well on his way up the pro wrestling ladder, and Dusty Rhodes, who always looked like he was on the brink of an impending heart attack (which he was), along with such luminaries as Abdullah the Butcher, Lex Luger and Manny "The Raging Bull" Fernandez, a guy who won Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins in the '70s. All in all, it was quite depressing, and had to have been the creative wellspring for the equally depressing film "starring" Mickey Rourke, so eruditely titled, The Wrestler.

In real sports, rookies rarely saw the field. The stars of the game were graybeards. Roger Staubach served in the Navy before he had a blue star on his silver Cowboys helmet. Terry Bradshaw looked like a math teacher and talked like a lawnmower mechanic. Jim Plunkett looked like the school janitor. "Mean" Joe Greene and John Matuszak appeared to be actual cavemen. Jack Tatum looked like a damn pimp - and played the game with much worse intentions.

Today's football players wear pink for four weeks out of the season. They shave their arms so we can all see their artsy-fartsy tattoos. They go to Tina Turner's hair stylist. And they have a commissioner who is overly concerned about "player safety" in a sport where the very intent is knock the shit out of one another. Reduce injuries? Jack Youngblood of the Rams played in the Super Bowl against the Steelers with a broken femur. Head injuries? Dick Butkus – appropriately of the Bears - once kicked a colleague in the face. Pittsburgh’s Jack Lambert was playing hockey on cleats. Tatum's nickname was "The Assassin"; he infamously refused to apologize for paralyzing New England Patriots receiver Daryl Stingley in a preseason game.

Even in baseball, the young players rarely got to play in the big parks. They were being shuttled about on creaky buses between towns with names like Racine and Murfreesboro. They had to earn their stripes in the minors before they could get to The Bigs. It wasn't a system so much as it was a tradition. The professional baseball players we saw on TV seemed like thoroughly grown-up people, not troubled young athletes with drug problems who dated the cougars of the entertainment industry. They didn't much look like athletes, either; it was more Goose Gossage than Barry Bonds.

One baseball player who stood out was Bobby Murcer, the longtime-Yankee who ended up with the Chicago Cubs, becoming a lone bright spot in the mire of that franchise’s mediocrity. Bobby Murcer once told a terminally ill child, a young Cubbies fan named Scott Crull, that he would try to hit a home run and a double for him. Then, that night, before that kid's eyes on the TV screen above his hospital bed, Bobby Murcer hit two homers. For any kid, that would be a miracle, especially poignant when miracles were the only thing left that a deathly ill kid had going for him.

But baseball changed, too, just like everything else. In 1994, there was no World Series winner, because there was no World Series. The business side of baseball ushered the players and the fans out of the ball parks, and the only thing that has made that sport noteworthy since then is a steroids scandal. And everyone feigned such shock that all those guys with Popeye’s forearms would ever ingest something other than their spinach.

John Wayne didn't need steroids. He was just big and strong and enduring, qualities that have kept his movies in the regular rotation on channels all across the dial - not that they've made any TVs with dials in about 25 years now. Television is being supplanted, anyway, by the Internet as the social medium of its time.

When I pull up my home page, I am usually greeted with a story about Katy Perry or Justin Bieber or Britney Spears or Rhianna – and that’s just what's in the news. As far as cinema goes, computer-generated graphics have replaced talented actors in our movie theaters, with no looking back.

Bobby Murcer died of brain cancer in 2008. The Cubs never did amount to anything. And they probably never will. It's all right. In every place else in this savage and beautiful world, throughout humanity's tumbling generations, hope springs eternal... Even, somehow, among those who really ought to know better by now.

pH 7.o9.13

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