Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Simon's Early Roles: A Treasure-Trove of Classics

Something that may not be very well-known except to those interested enough to research is that Simon Oakland got his film start on television rather than in the movies. A very young Simon can be seen in early episodes of Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Decoy, Brenner, and other mid to late 1950s shows, including episodes of anthology series.

It’s interesting to note that for the most part, these early roles were all as protagonists and “good guys.” When it comes to guest-starring roles, it sometimes seems as though Simon is most usually remembered for his villains. And while they are excellent, so are his heroes, and they should be well remembered too.

Among the earliest of Simon’s works that is still commercially available appears to be his second appearance on Beverly Garland’s gritty vehicle Decoy, in the episode Saturday Lost. He portrays a hard-nosed, cynical sergeant, Steve Necclo, who works with Beverly’s character Casey Jones on a strange and disturbing amnesia case. He is both no-nonsense and compassionate, and by the episode’s end he is grim over the heart-breaking solution to the mystery.

Sancho Fernandez, from the first season finale of Have Gun-Will Travel, The Statue of San Sebastian, is an angry man locked in a rivalry with a local, believing him to have killed his brother. His rage is certainly understandable. Simon portrays him, as always, as very human and three-dimensional.

In the early days of Gunsmoke, Simon played everything from a protective Mexican father enraged over the treatment of his daughter to an honest businessman in Dodge City to an innocent man accused of murder. Jim Nation, the latter role, is my favorite of his Gunsmoke characters. It’s thrilling to see Matt Dillon forced into a position where he must trust that Jim will help them when their stagecoach is hijacked. And it’s even more thrilling to see Jim come through with flying colors.

The poker player Enoch Mills doesn’t appear for too long in the episode How to Cure a Friend, but it is highly gratifying to see that the richest man in Dodge is upright. Sometimes it seems a bit too cliché that businessmen in old Westerns will be crooked. And an important note: Simon filmed this role in 1956, making it one of the very earliest television appearances he ever made. And, next to Decoy’s Saturday Lost, it is the oldest Simon Oakland role that is easily viewed today.

The titular character in Miguel’s Daughter is the darkest of Simon’s early Gunsmoke roles. And it’s difficult to know what to say about him. He is not a villain, but he has a warped sense of justice. When Matt tries to explain to him that if he goes after and kills the men who assaulted his daughter, he will end up leaving his daughter alone because he will be arrested and executed, it makes no difference. He still pursues his brand of justice, seeking and killing the one man who escaped Matt’s capture. The last line of the episode is heart-breaking, as Matt says to Chester that now he must tell the daughter of Miguel’s kind of justice.

Simon plays Miguel complete with a Spanish accent. Another thing about him that has always impressed me, which I believe Crystal wrote an entry on, is his amazing array of accents. I have heard him portray Russians, Mexicans, Italians, and men in the Old West, each with an appropriate and well-done voice. I have also heard him disguise his natural Brooklyn tones and speak without any accent at all.

On Brenner, in the episode Small Take, Simon plays one of his earliest villains. And even then, Mike Dover is certainly not the same breed of slime as later wretches. He bribes a young cop and runs various rackets in his neighborhood, but he does not have a dangerous temper and does not decide to kill a policeman who is getting too close to the truth until it looks like the only possibility. And still, when one of his lackeys cackles psychotically at the thought of killing the man, Dover reacts in disturbed disgust. This is a world apart from men such as Vernon Kane on Laramie or Mel Barnes on Bonanza. Those killers would be the ones doing the delighted cackling.

It’s difficult to narrow down exactly if Simon had one character type that was more prominent than all the rest. Unlike some people, I do not believe Simon was typecast. He played just as many good guys as bad guys, if not more. It’s just that his villains are so memorable, perhaps sometimes viewers don’t recall or seek out his other roles. Also, regretfully, many of Simon’s roles, including a vast number of his protagonists, are not currently commercially available. But hopefully soon, with the continuing interest in shows of yesteryear, more rare golden oldies will make their way onto DVDs and television channels, and we will be able to explore many more facets of Simon’s incredible acting abilities.

~Lucky Ladybug

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Flaws of Fictional Characters, and Why We Love Them

Try as we might to attain perfection in everything we do, the truth of the matter is that we have our flaws.  Perhaps this is why when we see flaws in fictional characters, it can end up making us pity or even adore them.  Simon Oakland has played countless characters during his time as an actor; no single character, whether good or bad, is without flaws.  These flaws are essential to their characterization.

For Simon’s villain characters, the flaws are pretty easy to see: Mel Barnes’ general nastiness, William Poole’s madness, Seth Tabor’s greed, Bolivar Jagger’s ingratitude, Mandee’s treacherous nature, Nick’s scheming and so on.  Of course, these flaws don’t make these characters endearing in anyway, but Nick’s sheer misfortune in how spectacularly his plans fail make him a laughable villain, at best.

Then there are the characters who are not quite villains, but aren’t exactly getting along with the main characters, either.  It is these characters’ flaws who actually do allow them to earn some pity, despite their standing.  Sancho Fernandez and Frank Epstein are both bitter, vengeful men, yet after the viewer realizes that their bitterness is not unfounded, the viewer nonetheless ends up siding with them, or, at the very least, giving them their pity.  Vern St. Cloud, for all his boisterousness and loud mouth, one can’t help but pity how his insistence to act like a tough guy sometimes get him into trouble.  And Lt. Schrank, despite saying a great deal of nasty things, earns a bit of pity after one takes a step back and realizes how jaded he has become after years of trying—and failing—to get rival street gangs to stop their fighting.

And yes, even the characters who are good guys all around have their flaws.  Alonzo Galezio’s flaw may be that he’s just too nice for his own good; he still longs and hopes that Donna Fuller will somehow see past his winemaking occupation and accept him for what he is, despite being insulted and verbally brought down by her.  And even after her mob wrecks his personal property and, in doing so, his potential livelihood, he can’t bring himself to press charges and instead tries to pick up the pieces and move on.  General Moore, despite being the tough-but-fair commanding officer of the Marines at Esprito Marcos, is revealed to put his instincts as a father first when he makes a somewhat unprofessional—albeit understandable—attempt to transfer his Navy nurse daughter to a safer place (this attempt fails upon her reminding him that he is obligated not to do so).  And Tony Vincenzo is an interesting mix of a temper to be reckoned with plus a person too nice for his own good; while a good portion of his dialogues with Carl Kolchak are often at a considerably loud volume, the truth of the matter is that he would do anything to help his sometimes-unfortunate employee, even at the risk of his own job security (as The Night Strangler movie showed).  And all of those threats to fire Carl?  All talk, and nothing more.  And Carl knows it.

It is important for fictional characters to have believable flaws; it is these flaws that make them more real and easier to relate to, particularly regarding the non-villain characters.  It makes them more human (even the characters who aren’t human, such as the Empyrian, who acknowledges his own mistakes after the humans he shanghais prove his mindset wrong).  And it’s another way that Simon, as an actor, reached out to us to remind us of what makes us human ourselves: the fact that we’re not perfect… and how that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, as long as we’re inherently good people.

~Crystal Rose

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Captain Beechum and Lieutenant Schrank: Two Very Different Men

It never fails to amaze me, how Simon can slip so seemingly effortlessly into whatever character he portrays, both good guys and bad. I wonder exactly how he prepared for a role and how he determined the way he wanted to approach it.

I have divided his years of acting into several eras. In his early years on television and in the movies he played an incredible variety of characters, from innocents on the run to careworn policemen to military officials to horrid villains. Later on he took on many paternal and protective roles, mixed in with other villains.

A lot, but not all, of his younger characters have a certain impulsive nature about them. Even someone such as the cynical and bitter Lieutenant Schrank comes across as being younger than, say, Tony Vincenzo or General Moore. Schrank also seems younger in comparison with Lieutenant Tobin from Murder, Inc., whom Simon portrayed a year earlier.

That speech pattern likely has a lot to do with it. Schrank appears to be uncultured and blunt; he uses slang frequently and sometimes has terrible grammar. And there’s a definite sense that he couldn’t care less, even if he realizes he isn’t speaking proper English.

His frustration over the street gangs is another indication of some level of immaturity. Completely at his wit’s end after dealing with the gangs for so many years, and unable to stop their feuding, he blurts out whatever comes to him, including taunts and racial jeers. (Whether or not he is truly racist is a topic for another time, but I am still torn on it because of canon evidence that he is simply speaking in utter despair instead.) I suspect that at least part of the reason he repeatedly resorts to this behavior is because it’s the only way the gangs pay him any heed at all. It’s his method of fighting back when they completely disregard all of his warnings (since of course, despite his threats, he wouldn’t really beat up on teenage kids). Naturally, it only makes everything worse.

When he is able to control these outbursts he comes across, by contrast, as much more mature. The scene where he questions Maria is quite surprising in comparison to the confrontations with the Jets and the Sharks. He mutters a slightly odd (and amusing) rhetorical question when he comments, “Don’t you people keep aspirin around here?” But that is the strangest remark in the scene. Otherwise he displays a very levelheaded “just the facts” attitude. But, human as always, he says in response to Anita’s news that Maria isn’t feeling well, “Who is?” The inability to prevent more gang-related deaths has drained him.

Two years later Simon played Captain Beechum on The Twilight Zone, in a highly eerie and unsettling episode called The Thirty-Fathom Grave. Beechum particularly struck me in contrast to Lieutenant Schrank, due to the close chronological proximity in which Simon brought them each to life. He has a well-educated command of the English language and clearly shows his maturity and wisdom from his many years in the U.S. Navy. Of course, he is also not jaded, as poor Lieutenant Schrank is.

Beechum is stern, not wanting any foolish nonsense or lying down on the job taking place on his ship. But the instant he understands that the reason his chief boson is suddenly doing a terrible job is because of feeling unwell, his entire attitude changes. He shows sincere concern and wants to make sure that the man is receiving the proper care. Later, when it looks as though the boson is completely losing his mind, Beechum tries desperately to bring him back down to Earth.

He is bewildered by the odd hammering sound everyone on ship suddenly starts hearing and does all that he can to get to the bottom of the mystery. When it looks as though someone is alive in the submarine below, and has been for twenty years, he throws himself into the effort to try to rescue the poor soul. Eventually it becomes apparent that the truth is something more supernatural. Instead of dismissing that as utter nonsense, he instead tells the diver that he can tell that part of the story to his grandkids and pretend he made it up.

Like Schrank, Beechum has a store of sarcasm. We only see a small bit of it, but it’s gold. Upon first determining that what’s below them is likely a submarine, Beechum doesn’t feel that the information is good enough to explain the hammering. “Does it have two arms and a fist?” he exclaims.

He is deeply affected by the tragedies that unfold over the course of the episode. By the final scene he is standing alone, looking out at the ocean where Chief Bell ultimately jumped after Beechum failed to make him listen to reason. Beechum bids the tortured man to rest in peace, that it took him years to die after the horrors he suffered during World War II and that he deserves a peaceful end now.

I love both characters dearly. Lieutenant Schrank is one whom I’ve often written about and tried to show in a kind light. I’ve never written for Beechum, but he is outstanding as well. They have core differences in their personalities and their approaches, yet they do have something in common. At heart they’re both good men. And Simon played them both expertly, allowing the viewer to become lost in their adventures and see them as real.

~Lucky Ladybug

Friday, September 2, 2011

Into the West

It isn’t everyday that a movie/TV genre you previously thought was dull and boring eventually becomes a favorite.  I was never a fan of the Western genre for a number of reasons.  The whole “gunslinger” archetype made my eyes roll, someone always seemed to be feuding with someone else, and the landscape was noticeably lacking in greenery (guess I’m too used to seeing a carpet of grass around…).  I was convinced that nothing would ever change my mind.

Enter Simon Oakland.

Though, it did take a while for him to get me to change my mind.  I never counted his “Cowboy” role from Get Smart as a Western (the character had been on his way to a costume party), and my eyes were otherwise drawn to Tony Vincenzo and General Moore.  It was sometime afterwards that I found out about a character called Mel Barnes, from the Bonanza episode “Justice Deferred.”

Out of sheer curiosity, I took at look at “Justice Deferred.”  Surprising though it was to see Simon playing a character so cruel and malicious (and yet thrilling to see him break the fourth wall in the opening credits—in the most adorable way possible), it was even more surprising for me to realize that I liked the episode, despite its Western genre.  I quickly wrote this off as a one-time thing.  Sometime after that, I looked at another Bonanza episode: “Thunder Man.”  Once again, Simon played a character that was cruel and malicious… but, this time, the character (William Poole) was also a wonderful singer.  “Thunder Man” still remains the only time I’ve ever heard Simon sing, but that alone cemented this episode as a favorite for me.  Poole has intrigued me so much as a character, as well, from his mysterious backstory to whether or not he was once a decent man who was corrupted by madness.

I conceded that I was now a fan of Bonanza.  Even then, I considered it to be a fluke—the one Western that I would like.  And, once again, Simon would prove me wrong.  First The Virginian episode “Letter of the Law” and then “The Secret” episode of The Big Valley warmed me up to the genre slightly more.  I found that, thanks to Simon’s wonderful acting, I could look past the feuds and the lack of greenery and enjoy the story.

However, there was still one more hurdle to get me to get past my dismissal of the Western genre—the “gunslinger” archetype.  Looking back, it was a weird quirk of mine; I couldn’t stand watching an Old West gun duel, yet if people were dueling with tamed monsters or a card game, I was all for it.  But I stayed away from shows like Gunsmoke just to avoid the archetype.

And then came my first watching of the “Overland Express” episode of Gunsmoke, in which Simon’s character (Jim Nation) was, for once, not a cold and malicious character.  And I was enamored.  The archetype wasn’t as bad as I thought, and it was a thrill to see Simon play a good guy, for once (and it was also amusing to see him trying not to break character at one point; he was smiling in amusement when one of the other characters was talking about greasing a wagon wheel with cheese).  Seeing other episodes of Gunsmoke, even ones where Simon wasn’t even in, eventually followed.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to get us to see things in a different light, with a more open mind.  And I am forever grateful to Simon for introducing me to a genre that was intriguing after all.

~Crystal Rose