On Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin and Al Capp

November 14th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I’m on a Bobby Darin group on Facebook, where several people have talked about throwing away their DVDs and CD soundtracks of Kevin Spacey’s 2004 Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.

I get it. While I am at times queasy over the witch hunt feel of today – whose career will be ruined tomorrow? – seeing the creepy Roy Moore defend himself by attacking his attackers (the women accusing him, the Washington Post, Democrats in general, the media at large) reminds me that a verdict in a courtroom isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a legitimate verdict can come from the courtroom of public opinion, if the allegations have been vetted by journalists with the credentials of those at the Post. When the number of allegations grows to critical mass, as with Cosby and Spacey, that verdict has the ring of truth.

I can only say that Kevin Spacey – whose love for Bobby Darin’s work was deeply felt – was very kind to my wife, son and me when he performed his Darin tribute concert at the House of Blues in Chicago in December 2004.

Beyond the Sea

Spacey and I had a connection through Sam Mendes, who directed both American Beauty and Road to Perdition. When Barb, Nate and I went to the House of Blues, I brought along a signed copy of Road to Purgatory to send backstage to Spacey. I had ordered tickets for the event the day they went on sale, but when we arrived, we found most of the main floor was reserved for some special party. We were sent high up to nosebleed seats. The atmosphere created by Hell’s Angel type bouncers/ushers was decidedly unfriendly.

When I went downstairs to try to convince someone with the House of Blues to send the book backstage, I was treated harshly (I will never return to that venue). By bribing one, I finally got the book accepted, having the strong feeling it would be tossed in the trash as soon as I was out of sight. Upstairs, we crowded around a tiny table with a bunch of strangers and my family studied me with the cold-eyed “What have you gotten us into this time, you incompetent fool?” expression that I know so well.

Then, over the intercom, I was called to come downstairs to the front of the club. I went down and was told that Mr. Spacey wanted to meet us after the show – there was a scheduled meet-and-greet – and that we were to be given special seating. Chairs were set up for us (by some of the same crabby biker types who had treated us so badly) right in front of the sound board, dead center, best seats in the house.

Spacey came on and did a fine show. Afterward, he greeted us warmly and he and I talked Bobby Darin for about five minutes. He was friendly and articulate and I thanked him especially for making me look good in front of my family (something that rarely happens).

Which brings me to the today’s topic, as Bob and Doug McKenzie would say: Is the work of an artist suddenly invalid because bad conduct is revealed? And is there any coming back from a scandal like this and the behavior it represents?

I’m really just asking. With someone like Cosby, I think the body of work is so large and so at odds with his actual wrongdoing that it’s hard to imagine sitting down now with one of his comedy albums or TV shows. I love the movie Hickey and Boggs but haven’t watched it since Cosby’s fall from grace. I can’t imagine I’ll ever look at my complete DVD set of I, Spy again.

On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Al Capp and Li’l Abner. I have said numerous times that it’s not only my favorite comic strip, but in my opinion the greatest of all comic strips. It had everything – sharp satire, slapstick humor, adventure, suspense, great art, and…beautiful girls.

Capp’s women were outrageously sexy, and a hidden sexual content – the frequent use of the number 69, phallic mushrooms clustered around trees with vagina-like knotholes, the positioning of Shmoos also with phallic intent – was enough to encourage Capp’s former boss, Ham Fisher, to try to get his ex-assistant thrown out of newspapers by going around showing editors examples of supposed pornography smuggled into Abner. Unfortunately, Fisher doctored the examples to make them look worse, and got kicked out of the National Cartoonists Society for it, which led to Joe Palooka’s daddy committing suicide. (See my novel, Strip for Murder, for more.)

Late in his life, when longtime liberal Capp had suddenly gone right wing (as some old rich white guys do), he became a sexual predator. On college campuses, where he gave lectures, he would arrange to meet with coeds and came onto them; he did the same for young actresses who were supposedly interviewing for parts in various Abner TV series. No reports of rape, but plenty of obnoxious behavior, which eventually was exposed (shall we say) in the press. Capp didn’t kill himself, like his old boss, but he killed his strip and died a few years later.

Still, I love Li’l Abner. I have a number of Capp originals framed and on my wall. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to banish his lifetime of brilliant work to the scrap heap of history because he was, in his later years, a dirty old man? Also, am I supposed to be surprised Al Capp liked sexy young women?

Do we think Frank Sinatra would have held up to this kind of scrutiny? How about rock ‘n’ roll stars? Does anyone really want to turn over the rock that is Mick Jagger, much less Keith Richards? Did those lads from Liverpool have their way with some underage groupies? Would you be shocked if they did? Shine the spotlight on rock ‘n’ roll and it’ll be the sexual apocalypse.

The Millennials did not live through the Sexual Revolution, which created a climate of carnal activity for a generation who’d been brought up innocently in the fifties. Beaver was the last name of a kid named Cleaver; then suddenly it wasn’t. I don’t excuse the behavior of any of my generation, but I’m not sure we should have to sit for a jury of kids who didn’t live through it. Free Love and feminism were brewing at the same time, and brother was it a strange brew.

During those years, when things were loosening up sexually, homophobia went on unabated. Closeted gays lived an outlaw life style by definition. Like a lot of straight guys, I had gay men come onto me – the first time freaked me out. Later I realized that they were as uneasy and even more afraid than I was. Roy Moore still wants gays thrown in jail or worse. Might someone like Kevin Spacey or George Takei make a mistake, a misjudgment, a misreading of another male, living as they did in a world of shadows? How harshly should we judge gay men and women who grew up in the second half of the Twentieth Century?

Not excusing anything. I certainly abhor what these famous men, straight and gay, have been getting away with, almost always operating from a position of power. But I wonder – is there any chance for redemption for somebody like Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K.? Can they come back from this? Should they? Can I watch Baby Driver with a clear conscience, or ever revisit House of Cards? Spacey’s scenes are being cut and re-shot for the soon-to-be-released All the Money in the World – should his entire cinematic legacy be similarly snipped away? Must I forget the kindness he showed me and my family?

Can I listen to Frank Sinatra without thinking about Sam Giancana?

I really am wondering.

But I do know plenty of great art has come from terrible people. It’s a subject I’ve been wrestling with, and discussing, for years – long before the daily exposure of this star or that one as a sexual predator.

* * *

The new Murder on the Orient Express isn’t bad. It’s quite sumptuous looking, and is faithful enough to the Christie source material to receive an approving nod from me. True, some action scenes – including questionable heroics from Hercule Poirot – seem like pandering to an audience dumber than anybody who would likely go to a movie called Murder on the Orient Express. But it’s a good, old-fashioned (in a positive way) movie. It’s just not as good as the 1974 original – actually, not even close.

Refresh your memory and look up the cast of the ‘74 version, and see names like Connery, Bacall, Guielgud, Widmark, Redgrave, Finney and on and on. Such giants no longer walk the earth – well, a few still do. This Murder is committed by a cast about half of whom are names – Cruz, Depp, Gad, Dafoe, Jacobi – but hardly the superstars of old. Depp, for example, is quite good…until you compare his performance to Richard Widmark’s. In ‘74, Albert Finney made an oddly cartoonish Poirot (though it worked), while director/star Kenneth Branagh has to compete with David Suchet’s definitive Poirot. In fairness, this one is better than Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express, a rare misfire for that wonderful series.

Barb and I also took in Thor Ragnarok, which is very funny while retaining the expected spectacle and superhero heroics. Marvel seems to have learned a lot from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of Fate of the Union.

And check out this look at Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane.


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20 Responses to “On Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin and Al Capp”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    Well….perhaps if we could just somehow manage to take all the sex out of showbiz we would never have these problems again.

  2. Graham Powell says:

    About the Suchet Orient Express – yeah, how’d they screw that up? They also managed to make “Curtain” boring. The return of Hastings should have been great but it was just a slog. Haven’t seen the new one yet but I will definitely check it out.

  3. Su Cote says:

    Kevin is a wonderful actor, and I’ll probably watch the films of his that I own as long as they last. I know that his mother liked Bobby Darin’s music as does Kevin. I have not lost respect for his acting. I have however, lost all respect for him as a human being. What he is, doesn’t affect me personally, but from what we are being told, he has emotionally injured others. I don’t give a hoot what his sexual preference is. That I believe is his business. But he should have had the decency to only choose willing partners. He lost sight of his own moral base. I’m sure it’s going to happen again and again and again with others in Hollywood and in Politics.

  4. Glen Davis says:

    You’re going to have to explain to me what Al Capp did that the Kennedys didn’t do, or that Bill Clinton didn’t do, or heck, that Errol Flynn didn’t do besides mock hippies. Mocking hippies is what really seems to be Capp’s unpardonable crime.

    It’s amazing to me that Baby Boomers think they get to excuse their behavior by simply saying “It was the 60s/70s…It was a weird time.”

  5. Max Allan Collins says:

    Not sure what point you’re making, Glen. I suspect it’s the old right wing, “So what if Trump colluded with Russia! Hillary was just as bad or worse!” Bad behavior is bad behavior. If you’ve read my novels BYE BYE, BABY, TARGET LANCER and ASK NOT, you would know I don’t give the Kennedys a pass. Bill Clinton’s behavior has been exposed and it cost him dearly.

    As for Baby Boomers like me excusing their behavior, I didn’t, and don’t. I doubt few people of my generation are more disappointed and even ashamed by how we turned out. What I did do was explain context, something Millennials and the generations fore and aft of them seem to have no clue about.

  6. Glen Davis says:

    Um, no, it’s not a political point. Jerry Lee Lewis and Mike Tyson aren’t exactly what I’d call paragons of the right. Some people get away with these things, and others don’t. I don’t always know why. But shouldn’t everyone be held to the same standard?

    There is some separation of the artist and their art, especially as time goes by. I don’t think too many people would feel guilty today about watching a George Raft movie or listening to Spade Cooley music (As if very many people actually do those things anymore.) I don’t read about very many people feeling guilty watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, despite all of his pecadillos, either. I don’t understand exactly how this works though.

    I read Strip For Murder, and you seemed a lot more offended about Capp making fun of hippies than anything else. I found it…a bit odd. Then I read Richard Zoglin’s biography of Bob Hope, who was a tragically flawed individual (as are we all) and apparently, Hope’s biggest crime was that he made fun of hippies. When did hippies become sacrosanct?

  7. Max Allan Collins says:

    A couple of things. STRIP FOR MURDER is set in 1953. There are, in the wrap-up final chapter, a couple of paragraphs with mention of Capp’s fall as it related to college campuses, and they don’t seem particularly in favor of hippies to me. But even if they did, you talk about me being offended by Capp’s view of hippies — well, that isn’t me, it’s Jack Starr. He’s an even bigger smart-ass than me. While a Jack Starr or Quarry or Nate Heller may be alter egos of mine, they aren’t me. In a way that’s what we’re talking about — the artist is not the art.

    You’re invoking some things that are false equivalents. Jerry Lee married a young girl, he didn’t molest her. As I recall, Tyson was accused of domestic violence. He has stayed in the culture in I would say a reduced way. Jerry Lee fought his way back, which pleases me. I don’t think you can find a double standard, in today’s culture, where child molestation or sexual harassment are concerned. Anybody can be held accountable. The Kennedys and Clinton would find themselves in a drastically different landscape than in their respective times, although Clinton did get impeached. But most if not all of that was consensual and between adults. What Cosby did was NEVER acceptable. There was never a time when drugging somebody to force sex on them was cool. At least not in this country.

    My piece is mostly about wondering if artists can make a comeback after a nasty sex scandal. And about how those of us who like such an artist have to deal with it. You make an interesting point about Spade Cooley, who was after all a murderer but whose place in his musical genre seems secure. Errol Flynn, to some degree, kept going in Hollywood despite the underage girl he went sailing with. His fading career had more to do with his drink-ravaged looks than that dalliance — “in like Flynn” was a damn joke. And you know what? I’m glad classic Flynn movies are acceptable and not banned or something. What did George Raft do, besides hang around with gangsters? So did a guy named Sinatra.

    If we’re arguing about something, I’ll be goddamned if I know what it is. I’m no defender of Baby Boomers, although I am one — we dropped the ball bigtime. But I do think discussions of what’s wrong with people who grow up in those years should have some historical perspective.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    I got a problem here, MAC …

    You say it in so many words:

    ” … when longtime liberal Capp had suddenly gone right-wing … he became a sexual predator.”

    … as if it were cause and effect.

    If we’ve learned anything about sexual predators over the years, it’s that they usually start early in life.

    Remember a few years back, when Goldie Hawn told the tale of an ugly encounter she had with Capp when she was 19 years old?

    Hawn was born in 1945, which would date the Capp encounter to 1964 – when he was still a Democrat (you might recall that he was pretty rough on Goldwater back then).

    Since I read about this, I’ve seen various accounts about Capp’s “exploits” with many other women, famous and otherwise, not always verifiable, almost all predating the Hawn story – and therefore also predating Capp’s hard list to starboard.

    It’s true enough that Capp’s right-wing years are when he started getting caught at it; the whistle-blower was Jack Anderson’s legman of that time, Brit Hume (the story takes up a whole chapter of his first book, whose title I can’t recall at the moment).

    The one thing that we seem to be noticing about these disclosures is that in so many cases, they date back many years – frequently to early youth.

    Putting it another way: the old perv of the present usually got his start as a young perv (oversimplifying, but we have a space limit here, don’t we?)

    For a long time, Fame was the most effective “get-out-of-jail-free” card you could have; if you misbehaved, the studio “fixer” could make it go away.
    These days – not so much.

    As I get older, my expectations get lower, more so every year.
    More often than not, I vote against, rather than for.
    I gave up hero worship long ago; I haven’t ever found an acceptable substitute.

    As to how this affects my entertainment choices these days-

    – mostly (I’m afraid) I have to just pretend I never learned many of the rotten things about Famous Folks that I was once so avid to find out …
    … or I couldn’t watch much of anything anymore …

    I guess that’s the real curse of Getting Old.

    … So Max, how was your week?

  9. Mike Doran says:

    Sorry about screwing up with the italics.
    I’m usually a lot better with the HTML.
    My defense is that it’s almost three in the blessed A.M.

    Maybe The Week Will Get Better.

  10. Max Allan Collins says:

    No argument with anything you say, Mike. It is likely that Capp started earlier than in his later years, although most of the stories I’ve read about him (like Hume) are about the campus tour years. I wouldn’t take the math involving Hawn’s birthday and such very seriously — Barney Ross gets the year he won the championship wrong in his bio.

    There does seem to be an element of Capp thinking the sexual revolution was an opportunity to get a little (or a lot). It emboldened him.

    But I also recall Edie Adams saying that he was a letch when he visited the LI’L ABNER Broadway rehearsals in the early fifties. She was looking forward to him coming in and adding humorous/satirical touches to the script but all he wanted to do was make passes at the girls.

    As obnoxious as that is, I can’t help myself — I love that damn comic strip.

  11. Max Allan Collins says:

    One last thing — I again must remind everybody that STRIP FOR MURDER is a novel, a melodramatic one whose broad strokes do not represent reality. On one level it was me working out my feelings about two cartoonists I loved, and on another it was just a great story that had the makings of a mystery novel. THE CARPETBAGGERS is not a non-fiction biography of Howard Hughes. Jack Starr’s over-simplification of the Capp-type character’s predatory behavior being tied to his right-wing shift has more to do with reaching for the irony of Al Capp becoming Ham Fisher than making any comment, pro or con, about the sixties counter culture.

  12. stephen borer says:

    I’m also conflicted over the uproar involving Mr. Spacey. Hollywood seems to have had scandals since the first movies were shown – and sometimes the claim of a crime is all that is remembered. Few folks today have heard of Fatty Arbuckle, but, many of those that have only recall the claim of an attack..not that he was acquitted after the third trial. In my 67 years, I’ve never heard of an actor being edited out of a pending movie, as is apparently happening now with Christopher Plummer taking over the Spacey part. Gotta agree with Su Cote [above] that the “acting” Spacey can be independent of the “real life” Spacey to a degree. And I admire anyone that got a Bobby Darin movie produced and released.

  13. Eric Harper says:

    Mel Gibson was cut from The Hangover 2.

  14. Jon Gerrity says:

    I may have a different perspective on this topic. I am a baby boomer as well and carry around all the baggage that goes with that accident of birth. I will admit to great disappointment in the mess my generation has made of its once lofty sounding ideals. I also grew up with two writers who influenced my life greatly. One was my father, David Gerrity and the other was Mickey. In fact, I grew up from the age of 12 in the house Mick had built in Newburgh, NY. He was always a large presence in my life, for better or worse. I watched him struggle at times juggling the conflict between his image and himself. Later in life he had resolved that conflict and was much more pleasant to be around. When he was in Mike Hammer mode, which happened often in my youth, he could be very unpleasant. Pop, having never achieved much success never had those struggles. I was his sounding board. He would sit at the dining room table and read his work to me and bounce ideas off me. Those are some of the most cherished memories of him. I know I’m rambling, but as I write this memories of them both are flooding over me. In many ways, their memories are intertwined for me, inseparable it seems. It seems to me that fame can be a curse as often as it is a blessing. I do not judge an artists work based upon their life. If I did, it would be nearly impossible to enjoy any artists work since we are all just human in the end and all in need of grace. I miss them both greatly. As an aside, I have often thought that that the guy who got fame right was Bernie Taupin. Got the fame and the jack and no one knows what he looks like!

  15. Michael Tearson says:

    Excellent post on the fallout from the revelations of sexual misconduct. As for the question of can anyone be rehabillitated I think of Hulk Hogan who keeps making comeback after comeback despite whatever awful things he’s been caught doing this time. Right now there’s buzz about not if but when WWE will welcome him back.

    Doing the webcasts I do one thing that has nagged at me is those wonderful early Bill Cosby albums which really are still as warm and funny as ever, BUT which I really cannot use now due to Cosby’s fall from grace. Pity. Taking an entire person’s life work and trashing it because of later behavior just feels wrong, BUT that said the society we live in now does that all the time.

  16. Max Allan Collins says:

    Jon, thanks for your wonderful e-mail. I liked and admired your dad very much and he was a wonderful friend to me. He convinced Mickey to read my book TRUE DETECTIVE and give me a blurb, and that was a big career boost. He’s also a much underrated writer. As for Mickey, I never knew him in his earlier days — he was always a warm, even sweet person when I was around — but I have heard stories. I wonder if you’ve chatted with Jim Traylor about your memories — he is working on a rough draft of what will eventually be a bio of Mickey by the two of us (which will be our third book about Spillane together!).

    Jon and Michael both echo my thoughts — it’s frustrating to have to juggle an artist’s bad behavior with his work, but also, ultimately, the work is the work. I will say this — when i’ve met people whose work I admire (writers, actors, directors), if they are shits to me, I lose enough respect to turn on their work, as well.

  17. Lou Mougin says:

    I know what you mean, Max, but I separate Cos’s performances from his darker self…no pun intended. Similarly, I’ll still watch THE USUAL SUSPECTS because it’s such a damn good movie. So much for that.

  18. Bryan McMillan says:

    Some very thoughtful remarks on the topic. I appreciate hearing your perspective and ambivalence on it.

    Ever since I got old enough to read bios of my favorite artists, I’ve struggled with stuff like this. Ultimately, like you say up there, the work is the work. If the work refracts a particularly creepy subtext on the part of the artist, it becomes a judgment call, I guess, depending on the tastes of whomever best motivates the mob (in whatever form it takes.) Fairly or unfairly – and a lot of times it’s both, or complicated enough to make us wish for reason and patience, not to mention due process – we’re all at the mercy of the mob.

    That’s not to liken any/all whistleblowers or accusers or victims as the mob, not at all. Personally, I’m all for victims overcoming a network of entrenched power to get justice. I like to think most people are. But I get a little nervous about this stuff, too. When will the Beatles be this week’s raw meat for narrative? (“Didn’t this guy abuse women and almost kill someone with a shovel for implying he was gay? And all the cultural appropriation!” etc.) Or any of the examples you mention. It doesn’t seem fair. And yet, SO MUCH fantastic art over the centuries is the creation of sleazy people, or, at its broadest strokes, produced in a system of exploitation, etc. It seems ridiculous to think it could all be stamped “IMMORAL” and to own/support is to promote the behavior. How did we get to this point?

    I like what you wrote about historical, generational context, too. The past is a different country, and those who never knew it shouldn’t get to police the border. (So to speak.)

    I’m rambling, my apologies. I worry, though, that culturally we’re losing the ability to seek middle ground. There’s a will-to-lynch-mob that is always outside the door in human nature, and it seemed there were some hard-won battles and psychological realizations along the way that helped restrain it, understand it, and shed some light on it. All that seems to interest people less, these days, and they just want to go flying off with pitchforks and torches at the drop of a hat. Blood in the water.

  19. Max Allan Collins says:

    Excellent comment, Bryan.

    We are in blood-in-the-water-ville. Al Franken is now a sexual harasser because (a) an actress he was working with did not want to rehearse a scene in full, and (b) he posed for a stupid picture, possibly because the actress was a pain to work with. Incidentally, it’s clear he isn’t fondling her in the pic — you can see the shadows beneath his hands.

    Yet this is now somehow the equivalent of Roy Moore trolling and molesting young women.

    This needs to settle down. We need a sense of what is just mildly offensive behavior and criminal conduct.

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