Posts Tagged ‘Eliot Ness’

Mommy Streams, Backlist Bubbles, We Binge

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

Both Mommy and Mommy’s Day are now streaming on Amazon Prime. (Links: Mommy; Mommy’s Day) How long they will be there I can’t say (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life has disappeared, though some other streaming services have it). If you’re a Prime member, it’s included.

[Note from Nate: Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is currently on Tubi, free (with ads?)]

So if you haven’t seen both or either of these films, now’s your chance. If you have the earlier full-screen versions, this is an opportunity to see the widescreen versions that Phil Dingeldein and I recently labored to create. I do warn everyone not to expect HD quality (despite being streamed as HD) – the picture (particularly on Mommy) is rather soft. But it’s probably the best either one is going to look.

As I’ve said, compromises were made to be able to afford the wonderful casts.

remain proud of these films, and the Blu-ray double-feature release has received mostly good to great notices. People seem to understand where these little movies were coming from – which is to say blackly humorous melodrama, and a tribute to The Bad Seed and to Patty McCormack herself.

Mommy and Mommy’s Day are streaming on Fandango, too, for a couple of bucks. It may show up elsewhere (I am not kept terribly well in the loop by the distributor). (Links: Mommy; Mommy’s Day)

The novel versions will be coming out again one of these days, part of a package I am negotiating with a major e-book publisher for the seven remaining novels on my backlist (Amazon has most of the rest, Dover has the first two Jack and Maggie Starr novels).

We are also discussing a group of collections of my short fiction (and Barb’s), reprinting Blue Christmas, Too Many Tomcats, and Murder – His and Hers, plus a follow-up to that last title, a collection of my horror stories, and two collections of the stories Matt Clemens and I have done together.

Pulling these stories together has been a big job. They go back to the nineties in many cases, and were written using the word-processing program (wait for it) WordStar, and then converted to now nearly obsolete versions of WordPerfect maybe twenty years ago, and finally to Word. So while I have most of the files in some form, the dizzying array of conversion glitches causes twitches.

For the horror collection I decided to include the radio scripts of “Mercy” and “House of Blood,” written for the Fangoria radio show, Dreadtime Stories. I had adapted a number of my short stories for producer Carl Amari, but had two indie movie ideas I wanted to get up on their feet, and that’s how the two scripts above came to be written. The scripts were in a format (basically a very narrow strip of copy, maybe four inches wide, that required hours of work transforming them into more standard pages of text that wouldn’t bewilder or annoy readers. Fortunately, I have a staff to do such scut work. No, wait – I don’t!

Ultimately, though, it will mean the vast majority of my work will be available in e-book (and real books), with only a handful of things lost to the mists of time.

* * *

What have Barb and I been watching lately? Now that we don’t go to the movies anymore?

We finally got around to Ozark, which had been recommended to me by smart people, who were right. It’s a terrific show, very well-acted and full of twists and turns. Several people had told me that somebody (or somebodies) at the series seemed to be fans of mine or were influenced by me, and I think that might be the case. If so, it’s flattering. If not, it’s not the first time I’ve been deluded.

But there’s a hillbilly family reminiscent of the Comforts from the Nolan novels, a character called Boyd (Quarry’s partner in those novels), and a major villain in the first of the three seasons so far is played by the actor (Peter Mullen) who was the Broker in the Quarry TV series. And the good man doing bad things to keep his family afloat is Road to Perdition 101. Maybe half a dozen times I turned to Barb and said, “At least somebody’s reading me.”

The series itself is obviously something that wouldn’t exist without Breaking Bad, and it challenges you (in a Quarry-like way) to root for and identify with people who are making really poor choices. I don’t mean to overstate any debt anybody owes me, because (a) I owe plenty of debts myself, and (b) I may be full of shit about this.

The Guardian describes Ozark thusly: “Ozark follows the misadventures of Marty Byrde (the perpetually clenched Jason Bateman), a financial adviser forced to relocate from Chicago to Osage Beach, Missouri, where he launders money on a scale that would give Al Capone a cluster migraine.”

Bateman uses his standard glib, slightly put-upon persona to nice comic effect initially, and you are slightly amazed at first by how well that persona works in a dark melodrama. But as that melodrama grows darker, and the consequences ever more dire, Bateman’s performance deepens. Other mesmerizing performances come from Laura Linney, as Bateman’s even more glib wife, whose sunny smile delivers manipulative self-interest in such a “helpful” way; and Julia Garner’s Ruth, the most original and unique character in Ozark, a hillbilly girl with a good heart and a crushed soul, capable of kindness and murder, when either is called for.

I like the series and I think you will, too.

We also have recently enjoyed the surprise gift of a second season of Rick Gervais’ After Life, the touching drama/comedy (you don’t think I could ever type the vile word “dramedy,” do you?) that explores the road back for a husband consumed by grief over the loss of a wonderful wife.

The very special thing about After Life is its signature combination of mean humor and genuine sentiment. It’s a show about a man so depressed that suicide is an understandable option, and it’s often frequently hilarious.

I am a Gervais fan and have been for a long, long time. This little series isn’t much talked about, but it may represent his best work.

On the film front, we have watched a lot of British comedies of the late ‘40s and 1950s – such Alastair Sim gems as our perennial favorite, The Belles of St. Trinian’s, but also Laughter in Paradise and School for Scoundrels; and Alec Guinness in All at Sea, The Captain’s Paradise and Last Holiday.

And the most current season of Midsomer Murders, a favorite comfort food of ours, seemed particularly strong after a few missteps the season before.

* * *

Bookgasm, which is a book review site you should be regularly visiting, has posted a wonderful review of Girl Can’t Help It that’s been picked up all over the place, and I provided a link last week. But in case you haven’t seen it, I’m going to share it here, right now:

Notoriously prolific author Max Allan Collins has added a second entry to his Krista Larson series, GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. It’s also a stretch back to Collins’ past (and present) as a rock and roll musician. True! I didn’t know this either but Collins apparently wrote the song “Psychedelic Siren” recorded by The Daybreakers in 1968 (here, watch it on YouTube). In the author’s note, he states this is the first time he has mined his rock and roll experience for a book. Well dang it, more of this please. Mr. Collins.

The first book in the series, Girl Most Likely, features Krista Larson as the Chief of Police in Galena, Illinois. She is assisted by her able staff but also by her father, a retired cop from the Dubuque Police Department who does invaluable detective work. In this second work, Girl Can’t Help It, the Larson duo is back on the job.

The book title refers to a song title recorded by local Galena band Hot Rod & The Pistons. They scored a huge hit with the song in the 80s when retro rockabilly hit big (think Stray Cats). They managed two albums and then faded away. But after their election into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they’re set for a reunion gig and maybe even a little tour. The town of Galena is excited and creates a special musical festival to kick off the whole thing. All well and good.

Until one of the members is found dead of a heart attack in a bathtub. Oh well, old guys do die. But then a second band member commits suicide and his apartment has been ransacked. This hits the Larsons as fishy, and they’re fairly convinced that both deaths are murders.

Of course, we the readers know these are murders because we have chapters written from the point of view of the murderer. The crimes continue to escalate and it’s a battle between the murderer and the police department to see who will come out on top and if the entire lineup of Hot Rod & The Pistons will be killed off one by one.

Everybody knows Max Allan Collins by now. He has multiple series in place, writes another successful series with his wife (the duo goes by Barbara Allan) and is one of the solid bricks in the pyramid of genre writers over the past 40+ years. A lovely, smooth and polished style coupled with a brisk pace makes for quick reading short chapters, believable characters, behaviors and dialogue. If you like any of Collins’ works, you’ll like GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. I think this series has real promise. Recommended. —Mark Rose

Get it at Amazon.

A fun podcast about books, The Inside Flap, was kind enough to give Do No Harm and Nate Heller some attention. The Do No Harm stuff happens a bit after the hour mark. You’ll hear one of the participants wish that I would have Heller solve the JFK assassination (guess what books I sent along to them).

The great blog Paperback Warrior is posting their all-time ten favorite posts, and the one focusing on The First Quarry is #4.

Here’s a great interview with my buddy Charles Ardai, touching on our projects together.

The fantastic Stiletto Gumshoe site talks about Mike Hammer and Masquerade for Murder, and provides some links to things you may have missed.

This nice review of Antiques Fire Sale is a little quirky – doesn’t like all the talking to the reader, and thinks referring to Vivian as “Mother” is disrespectful – but some nice insights are on hand, as well. Loving us is preferred, but liking us is just fine, too.

Finally, check out this terrific Mystery Tribute piece about Mike Hammer and Masquerade for Murder.

M.A.C.

San Diego and More

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Last week’s update was strictly pics from San Diego Con, and this time – along with some news and reviews – I will report in prose.

The highlight for me was the interview with my buddy Andrew Sumner, an exec at Titan; he and I did a Spillane two-man panel at SDCC last year and this time we focused on the upcoming release of the first of five Ms. Tree collections: One Mean Mother.


Andrew Sumner and M.A.C.

Jamie Coville posted the audio of our panel, a link to which you can find among the rest of his SDCC interviews – as of this writing, it’s the fourth entry down and you can download the audio by right-clicking the link once you navigate to this page.

A signing at the Titan booth – we had copies of Quarry’s War and the Mike Hammer graphic novel, plus free Ms. Tree art cards that I autographed – went very well. Got to talk to lots of smart fans – definition of “smart”: they like my work.

Jonathan Maberry did a great job, taking over for me as president of the International Association of Movie and Tie-in Writers, presenting the Scribe awards and helming a very good panel of mostly nominees. I did not win for Killing Town in the general fiction category, but did not expect to.

Otherwise, I have to admit that I find SDCC increasingly unpleasant and anything but user friendly. Part of this is my age, both in terms of physical tiredness and an absence of material of interest to me (Bud Plant, wherefore art thou?). Additionally, with this the 50th anniversary of the biggest con in pop culture, no particular fuss was in evidence. (The question I was most asked was, “Why isn’t Seduction of the Innocent playing?” And I have no answer.)

The aisles are hopelessly clogged, starting on preview night – in what I described to Barb as the world’s slowest moving stampede. Barb, doing an absent Nate’s bidding in search of inexplicably popular pins, had a series of increasingly harrowing, soul-destroying adventures in lines that were unfairly administered.

Here, in Barb’s words reporting back to Nate, are her experiences on Thursday, the official opening day of the con:

“We hit the Udon booth first thing for the other stuff you wanted, and there was no line…but they had sold out of the art book yesterday and won’t have any more. OMG, what a nightmare getting into the convention center at 9:30, a hundred thousand people – just crushing. And it didn’t let up once inside. I was plastered to a guy who worked at the Figpin booth, and he couldn’t get there. After hearing my tale of woe about trying to get a card, he pulled out the Ash pin from his pocket to shut me up.

I went to the Figpin line at 1:30 to mill around for the public 2 o’clock queue-up but there was already a line of a dozen, so I hopped on board. Then the staff tried to disperse us saying it was too early to be there, and when ignored, brought security over. We scattered like cockroaches, only to come back when they left. I was amazed at the camaraderie when we re-formed, “No, I was behind him, you were in front of her,” etc. We were locked in a war together!

After a while, the enemy gave up, and we settled in for the real battle. But then distressing news began filtering down from the front, “They’re out of Batman and the Joker!” Recon was sent out to confirm. “Yes, and Hercule, too!” And so it went. After an hour and a half, battle fatigue set in, some went AWOL, but the rest of the troop pressed forward into the breach! And when the dust settled, I got Thanos, and the last Gogeta.

One funny story – when I was exiting the booth, this girl was telling a Figpin employee HER tale of woe, which was that she had gotten inside before the others this morning, in a motorized wheelchair, and was zipping toward where Figpin was handing out the “golden ticket cards,” when, about three yards from her goal, the chair died, and she was stuck in the aisle, watching helplessly as the cards all disappeared. The thing is, she was saying this while STANDING, and stomped off in a huff when no comp card was given.”

All this culminated on Sunday with a near riot that had Barb shoved up against some garbage cans. Seemed a Figpin staffer just started tossing the precious cards (required to make a purchase) into the air like chum to sharks. Figpin, perhaps the prime offender, will be lucky not to be sued. A company called Bait also rates a “boo,” as Nate put it.

This seems to me to be no fun, no matter what your age. Yes, it’s entertaining to see the cosplay – my favorite was Jason from Friday the 13th dragging a body behind him – but belligerent guards, rude people and impossible-to-get-into panels featuring your favorite stars add up to a popular culture nightmare.

It’s unlikely I’ll be back…but that was what I said last year.

* * *

My partner in Eliot Ness crime, A. Brad Schwartz, attended a different convention of sorts in Coudersport, PA’s annual Eliot Ness fest. Read about it (and see him!) here.

I completed my pass of the second Ness non-fiction book, The Untouchable and the Butcher, and just recently yesterday the third pass, which is primarily tweaking and catching typos and so on. Barb enters these for me, in most cases. This was a big job – the manuscript runs around 550 manuscript pages, and does not include Brad’s bibliographic end notes. I still have to assemble the chapter files into one big file of the whole book.

We did this in the midst of a major event – the move to Muscatine from the St. Louis area of Nathan, his wife Abby and our two grandchildren, Sam, almost four, Lucy, ten months. They will be living up the street just seven houses away, and it will be wonderful. Right now it isn’t – we are all struggling to maintain controlled chaos. More about this later.

* * *

A few TV notes.

Much on the streaming services has yet to capture my attention. But three series already very much on my radar have delivered excellent seasons that are worth your time, whether you munch on them or binge.

The fifth season of Schitt’s Creek continues to astound with its unique combination of deepening characterization and off-the-wall humor. Netflix has it, and if you’ve not watched this offspring of SCTV starring Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy (the latter’s son Daniel is a co-star and co-creator with his dad, and a genius), you need to drop everything and start. And it only gets better and better. For me, a particular pleasure is watching Chris Elliott bump his gonzo comedy style up against the Second City-trained cast members, creating a comic tension that provides the laughs with a special subtext.

Stranger Things has a third season that is broader than the first two but similarly satisfying. The central location, an ‘80s mall, provides a nostalgic backdrop that provided me with unexpected pangs – who knew I actually missed Sam Goody and B. Dalton? The storytelling is first-rate as the cast members are divided into groups for excellent back-and-forth narrative with tiny cliffhangers to hold you from scene to scene, and of course larger ones to keep you bingeing. Millie Bobby Brown continues to be a remarkable young actress, exploring this dangerously powerful girl’s entry into the teen years with poignance and possibilities. The creators, the Duffer brothers, have also found a way to avoid (this time anyway) the pitfalls of a character who can easily swoop in to save the day.

Finally, Veronica Mars roars in with an unexpected fourth season. I have not hidden my admiration for Kristen Bell (not even from my wife) and she outdoes herself here, bringing layers to her characterization with every pause and glance. This twisty mystery is hard to discuss without spoiler warnings, so I’ll say only that the season seems to be dealing with the need to move on from Neptune, California, and Veronica’s teenage years (the character is pointedly described as being in her late thirties) into adulthood and the maturity of a classic detective. Creator Rob Thomas clearly wants Veronica to join the ranks of Marlowe, Hammer, Nero & Archie, and other noir-ish detectives. I would caution him only that to abandon Enrico Colantoni’s Keith Mars, and the hilarious yet warm verbal interplay between father and daughter, would be to lose the heart and soul of the show. My favorite moment in the season has Veronica telling her father how irritated she is that her longtime lover Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) has asked her to marry him. Keith’s droll low-key reply: “What an asshole.”

* * *

Check out this fantastic Leonard Maltin review of Scarface and the Untouchable.

Jude Law’s role is number six on this list of his best screen performances.

M.A.C.

Prime Eliot Ness! And a Fond Farewell

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

I am pleased to announce that my filmed version of the play Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is now available in HD on Amazon Prime, and included as part of your membership. Here’s a link so you can watch it at your leisure, and I hope you take time to give it a nice rating (as in five star). [Note from Nate: For non-Prime members, rental is $2.99 and you can own the digital HD for $9.99]

As you may recall, the film is a one-man show with my late friend Michael Cornelison bringing Ness back to life. It was made possible by a grant from Humanities Iowa, several airings by Iowa PBS, and a lot of hard work by my buddy Phil Dingeldein and myself (and many others).

This is very gratifying, and of course is the work that led directly to the current non-fiction book, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, & the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and me.

Coincidentally, I got this news while I was in Las Vegas with Brad making two appearances in support of our book at the Mob Museum. The museum itself is a terrific facility, and those who run it are outstanding. I was blown away by how much of what is on display relates to various things I’ve written, from Dick Tracy to the Nathan Heller saga and the four Eliot Ness in Cleveland novels. A wall of photos and descriptions of organized crime killings was virtually a greatest hits of my literary output (Willie Bioff, Mad Sam Destefano, etc.). I will include some highlights by way of photos, including my co-author and me in front of the actual St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall as well as with the real machine guns used in that, uh, celebration. More photos may follow.

Because our appearance was in conjunction with the 90th anniversary of the massacre, and the seventh anniversary of the Mob Museum opening, the attendance reached record proportions. Both of our appearances were well-attended, as were book signings in the Mob Museum gift shop.

What’s interesting to me is how attitudes in Vegas have shifted on the mob influence that built the modern “sin city.” Back in the ‘80s, researching Neon Mirage – the Nate Heller novel about Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Vegas – I encountered some resistance to my research into what was then seen by many as an embarrassing aspect of local history. That has definitely changed, as Vegas embraces its colorful past.

Brad did an excellent job, utilizing power point presentations (Baby Boomers – that’s “slide show” to you) and I was frankly not at my best at the first presentation, very tired from travel and a long day. The subsequent presentation, however, found me back on my game and Brad just as good as before. If we get a link to the video of it that the Museum made, I’ll provide it in the next few weeks.

Interestingly, nobody asked me a single question about CSI, which of course was set in Vegas, with my five years as its licensing writer (novels, video games, jigsaw puzzles, graphic novels, often with Matt Clemens) not rating a single inquiry. CSI seems to have retreated into the past, at least the Las Vegas past.

All in all, it was a great trip, and there’s a reasonable possibility we’ll be asked back next year to talk about The Untouchable and the Butcher (the sequel to Scarface and the Untouchable, currently in progress) and the new Nate Heller (Do No Harm, the Sam Sheppard murder case, due out in about a year).

* * *

My fellow classmates at Muscatine High School will be saddened to learn of the death of Steve Kochneff, a beloved figure in our collective past and one of my best friends from those years. As had been the case with Jon McCrea (who became the partial basis for Quarry), Steve was someone I stayed in touch with over the years. He spent much of his life in L.A., pursuing the Hollywood dream, and he and I and Barb often got together there, to catch up, meeting usually at the great deli restaurant, Cantor’s.

At MHS, Steve was a genial madman, an eccentric with a unique comic wit, very popular and known for his creativity and his athletic ability. His father had been a much-loved and successful basketball coach, and Steve – who was tall and lanky – was a center on our MHS team, and excelled in that role.

But Steve also was known for mounting crazy comic skits. He and I were collaborators on these. He would come to my house and we’d hole up in my room with me at the typewriter and Steve pacing and throwing around ideas. This was very much like the old Hollywood cliche, short only of Steve puffing on a cigar. At the height of the James Bond craze, we did a Goldfinger take-off skit at a pep rally about a villain called Purple-and-Gold-Finger (purple and gold being our school colors – why the villain bore the school colors is lost to history and my fading memory). The kids loved it.

I was always a little jealous of Steve’s popularity around the school, since we were collaborators and he got the credit, or anyway the love. I was too intense and needy, and Steve was just a big guy with a great laugh and a wide smile, and all that love came pouring in, unbidden. As with so many high school stars, those days were probably the best of his life. In years to come he would be jealous, in a very sweet and even supportive way, of the success I’d achieved in the arts, staying home in Iowa when he had made the Hollywood trek.

I have talked about how I wrote novels in high school and tried to sell them – writing all summer, marketing all year (unsuccessfully), and my career is based on that enthusiastic early obsessive behavior. Only Steve Kochneff was capable of topping me. He wrote a Laugh-In script a year or so after graduation and drove out to Hollywood to deliver it. My memory is fuzzy on this, but I believe he eventually did do some work on the show.

Over the years he had a lot of projects and many were interesting, and I believe some were stolen from him. He created potential shows, with scripts, for a comedy about female wrestlers, a cop show about a motorcycle-riding Hispanic female detective, and an ambitious film script about a cloning of Princess Diana. And much more. His biggest success, perhaps, was his pioneering production company shooting videos of high-ticket homes in Beverly Hills, Bel Air and other exclusive sections.

We talked a number of times about collaborating, and I offered several times to get involved with projects. But he always preferred to go his own way – to talk to me and get input, but make his own mark. Like many talented people in Hollywood, he came close. So close.

He came back to Muscatine from time to time and stayed with us at least once that I can recall. I know he envied my luck in having Barbara as a wife, so beautiful, so supportive, so talented herself. He knew I had really struck gold there, that this was an element that he wished he had in his life. I know he had close relationships with various women in Southern California and also, I think, in Arizona. But he never shared details with me.

I had a phone call from him a few months ago and it was a warm exchange, as always. I gave him a bad time for not coming to the MHS 50th class reunion, and he revealed to me that he was embarrassed to attend. He thought we all knew that he’d gone to prison for a while, apparently on a trumped-up, non-violent charge. But we hadn’t heard, and when he told me – rather haltingly – I said I was in the friendship business, not the judgement one. Typically, he was full of enthusiasm to write a movie script or TV pilot based on his experiences inside. Like any real writer would, Steve viewed incarceration primarily as an opportunity to do research.

Listen, I loved the guy. It broke my heart to learn he had died January 2 in a psychiatric hospital. But I am relieved that his search for fame and success is finally over, because I suspect as the years passed that effort grew only more frustrating and finally painful. I want to assure you that our phone conversation, perhaps two months before he passed, was filled with laughter.

I can hear that laugh right now. One of those distinctive laughs, a combination of glee and embarrassment.

He signed himself Starko, and I didn’t even get into what a terrific artist – in particular cartoonist – he was.

So long, Steve. Damnit. So long.

* * *

Yes, it’s yet another “Films You Didn’t Know Came from Comic Books” write-up in which Road to Perdition is included.

M.A.C.

Untouchable Letterman

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

The Blu-ray of Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is out now. It’s available at any of the usual suspects among Internet retailers, but Amazon has it for about ten bucks off ($15.69).

I’m very proud of this one, which makes a good companion to Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and me. It is, in fact, what brought Brad and me together – he went to the play in Des Moines and saw Mike Cornelison perform the one-man show in person.

Mike is gone, for several years now, and I am so grateful that we were able to have this one last, great project with the actor who was the backbone of all of my indie film projects. Mike starred in Mommy, Mommy’s Day and Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market. He narrated my two documentaries, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane and Caveman: V.T. Hamlin and Alley Oop. He starred in two short films, one of which – “An Inconsequential Matter” – is a bonus feature on the Blu-ray. That short film was our last collaboration.

Whether, at my age, in the wake of some health issues, I can ever mount another film production is a question I can’t answer (Barb can – “NO!”). My other frequent collaborator, director of photography/editor Phil Dingeldein, is still raring to go. But I admit not having Mike on the team makes it tough to imagine.

For now, however, we have this fine Blu-ray, thanks to VCI Entertainment.

Treat yourself to this one, and it’s a perfect stocking stuffer….

* * *

For reasons I’ve never really understood, one of the questions I am most asked is, “What are you reading?” And, of course, a more general version: “What do you read?”

Regular readers of this update/blog know that I read little contemporary crime fiction, because of my desire not to be influenced by anyone working currently and also the busman’s holiday nature of it. Barb and I do watch a lot of British crime series, which slakes my thirst for mystery narrative – I generally find Brit TV crime more compelling and just, well, better than the American variety. Recently we watched the third season of The Forgotten and the first season of Bodyguard, and both were outstanding (I buy these from Amazon UK).

I also watch a lot of vintage noir, catching up with things I have never seen that have become suddenly available (the very interesting The Man Who Cheated Himself, for example, now on Blu-ray) and revisiting things I haven’t watched in ages.

My reading tends to be in bed, for a half hour or hour before I attempt sleep (not always a successful endeavor). I usually read books about film or other aspects of pop culture, including biographies. Recently I read a good book on Randolph Scott’s key director, The Films of Budd Boetticher by Robert Knott. I also gobbled up Christmas Movies by Jeremy Arnold (a TCM book), which looks at such movies with nice little well-illustrated articles combining making-of info and critical assessment, including my favorites – It’s a Wonderful Life, the Alastair Sim Scrooge and the original Miracle on 34th Street. (I skipped certain later films that I had no interest in, like Home Alone and Little Women. Not all of the author’s selections seem like real Christmas movies to me. Die Hard?) [note from Nate: It absolutely is!]

The only novel I’ve read lately is Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel, co-author of Seven Days in May. I dug this out of my basement storehouse of old paperbacks when I learned it was now a collector’s item. The subject is a president of the United States who goes mad.

Now and then I read a book that serves to do more than just lull me to sleep in a pleasant way. Such a book is The Last Days of Letterman: The Final 6 Weeks. I would say it’s a book that I enjoyed more than any in my recent memory, and yet I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to pick it up.

I loved Letterman’s Late Night at NBC and am fairly sure I never missed an episode. Letterman’s wry, self-deprecating humor resonated with this Midwestern boy, and he peopled his show with guests ranging from oddball to brilliant. I could see Norm Macdonald one night and Andy Kaufmann the next. Pee Wee Herman (my pal Paul Reubens) was often a guest. Band leader Paul Shaffer, with his tongue-in-cheek show biz sensibility, was both funny and hip, an incredible musician who had hung out in Canada with SNL and SCTV stars-to-be. Dave showcased top-notch musical acts. For someone my age, this was the natural next step from Johnny Carson.

And I grew up on Carson, but also Jack Paar and even Steve Allen, the original Tonight Show host. Our house was set up with my bedroom adjacent to where my father watched television; he often fell asleep, while I couldn’t due to the blaring TV and frankly didn’t want to, because I was listening to Allen or Parr or Carson. Sometimes, knowing my dad was likely cutting zee’s, I would go out there and sit on the floor right in front of the tube and watch till he woke up and shooed me back to bed. (I learned to write dialogue listening to old Dragnet episodes that way, as if they were radio shows, and of course they had been – Jack Webb came on at midnight after Carson signed off.)

So late night TV was a part of the fabric of my life. I remember dreaming about being a Carson guest some day – he was a Midwestern boy, too – and later I hoped I might get successful enough to be invited onto Letterman’s Late Show. Didn’t happen. Well, it sort of did. Stay tuned through the rest of this essay.

The Last Days of Letterman, written by Scott Ryan, hit me surprisingly hard. I realized that Letterman, of all the great late-night hosts I’d grown up with, was the most intimately, intricately woven into the aforementioned fabric of my life. He was on air for over thirty years. And for a long time, I never missed a show, including when he moved to CBS with the Late Show. I saw it all, for a long while, from Drew Barrymore dancing topless on Dave’s desk to Stupid Human Tricks, from Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every year to Chris Elliot’s ongoing insanity. I also met Larry “Bud” Melman, Dave’s mom and her pies, Rupert Jee, Biff Henderson, and so many and so much more. For me a particularly memorable thing about Letterman and Late Show was the host’s love for Warren Zevon’s work and the way he and Zevon dealt with the latter’s oncoming death. Zevon’s advice to the rest of us is something I think of frequently, and did even before I (like Dave) had open-heart surgery: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

But at some point, probably around fifteen years ago, I started missing episodes. It began when a guest was announced – usually a sports figure – that I had no interest in. At some point politics had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tempting me away, now and then, and finally regularly. Things evolved into my having to know that someone I was a fan of (Elvis Costello, for example) was going to be on Letterman for me to watch. And I would tune back into Dave, and bask in the familiarity of Dave and Paul’s effortless banter, and slip back into that comfy shoe of Late Show.

Funny thing is, what made Letterman and his show so comfy was how uncomfortable Dave himself seemed. He was embarrassed by his success. He always seemed like somebody just waiting to get found out and hauled off the stage. He was anything but comfortable in his skin. In a way Johnny Carson only pretended to be, Dave Letterman was us – particularly Baby Boomer boys like myself.

The genius of Scott Ryan’s book is the writer’s decision to focus on the final six weeks of this long-running show (and, let’s face it, Late Night and Late Show were one show). It gives Ryan a framework to discuss all the frequent guests, the famous show business figures who were indebted to Dave and (to Dave’s embarrassment) loved him. Ryan can look at the Top Ten List and various other running gags and traditions, in between describing each individual episode of those last six weeks and who was on and what happened.

Because the show is coming to its conclusion, there’s a sort of suspense-novel engine at play. How will Dave handle the loss of the thing that has been his life? How will the staff around him deal with the pressures of expectation for one special episode after another? How will Letterman endure the love fest that is being flung at him and smothering him into full-throttle embarrassment? Did anyone in bigtime show business ever deal so poorly with praise?

The second stroke of genius in this fine book is Ryan’s decision to tell the story as an oral history. He gets interviews not from Dave and Paul (who would never cooperate, of course, but Ryan seems not to have bothered approaching them) but to the army those two generals commanded. We hear from the officers – directors and producers – and from the grunts – stagehands and bookers. We experience the war of those last six weeks from the trenches. And it’s fascinating. And strangely moving.

As I say, I had not been regularly watching Letterman. I didn’t see the final episode. I think I caught one or two of the shows during that last six weeks. But here’s the thing – as I read about these episodes that I had missed, they nonetheless played in my mind as if I had. I was so familiar, so much a part of the Letterman experience, that a few words could blossom in my imagination into the feeling that I had indeed seen them…or maybe I should say, knew them.

Letterman is my age, more or less. We are Midwestern boys. I’ve had a little success and am not at all embarrassed about it, though mixed in with my egotism is some of that self-deprecation that Letterman – a huge success and extremely embarrassed about it – is so successful at conveying. Again, he also had open-heart surgery. He seemed to like a lot of the same things I did – Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Darlene Love – and he introduced me to the pleasures of Norm Macdonald, Chris Elliott, and Amy Sedaris. He also gave us new sides of superstars like Bruce Willis, Steve Martin, Bill Murray and Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Tom Hanks.

This is the closest I ever got to being on Letterman, and frankly it was enough. Okay, almost enough. Dave made it clear, usually when Hanks was a guest but other times too, that he loved Road to Perdition. That got my attention. I talked to the TV and raised my hand like a kid in class.

“Dave! I wrote that! Not the movie, but the book – you could ask me what a graphic novel is! You could call it a ‘funny book’ and make me smile in embarrassment, because you are a Midwestern boy! And so am! Dave! I’m right here!”

As it happens, not long after, I began to leave the fold. I decided that watching talk shows (and I don’t watch any now, though I know Colbert, Fallon, Conan and others are worthwhile) was ultimately an ephemeral waste of time. I stopped watching Colbert when, at the Second City reunion, he refused to sign an autograph (I am a petty fucker). And even Stewart faded away for me, when some of his recurring players went off to have careers. I started watching a movie on DVD and later Blu-ray at night, in the talk-show time slot, wanting to catch up with old films noir and various terrible movies for which I have an inexplicable affection.

Reading The Last Days of Letterman gave the Late Show back to me. Those last six weeks, anyway. If you are or ever were a Letterman fan, you are in for a bittersweet treat.

* * *

This review of Scarface and the Untouchable has a peculiar headline, but the piece itself is fine.

Finally, here’s a great review of Kiss Her Goodbye, a Mike Hammer by Mickey and me.

M.A.C.