Retro Television Review: The Love Boat 1.4 “Message for Maureen / Gotcha / Acapulco Connection”


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Wednesdays, I will be reviewing the original Love Boat, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1986!  The series can be streamed on Paramount Plus!

Welcome aboard, it’s love!

Episode 1.4 “Message for Maureen / Gotcha / Acapulco Connection”

(Directed by Stuart Margolin, Richard Kinon, and Peter Baldwin, originally aired on October 15th, 1977)

Oh no!  It’s a stowaway!  I guess any television show that took place on a cruise ship would have to feature at least one storyline featuring a stowaway.  It’s a bit disconcerting that The Love Boat couldn’t make it for more than four episodes before using the most obvious plotline but then again, the show ended up running for 9 seasons and a movie.  So, apparently, audiences didn’t mind and I have a feeling that there will probably be many more stowaway stories to come.

The stowaway in this episode is April Lopez (played by Charo).  Apparently, April became a recurring character, one who appeared in almost every season.  In this, her first appearance, she sneaks onto the boat in Acapulco.  The captain is not happy when she’s discovered hiding in a laundry hamper but everyone else is charmed by just how loud and talkative she is.  Because there’s no available rooms, April is housed with Doc Bricker until she can be dropped off at the next port.  Of course, Doc falls in love because Doc fell in love with everyone who came into his exam room.  Seriously, Doc was an HR nightmare waiting to happen.

Of course, April is not the only exhausting person to be on the ship.  There’s also Cyril Wolfe (Milton Berle), a nonstop practical joker whose wife (Audra Lindley) is getting sick of dealing with him and really, who can blame her?  Cyril greets a total stranger with a joy buzzer.  He carries around a fake, detachable hand so that he can freak people out.  Cyril can’t even give it a rest during their vacation!  Pretty soon, not only his wife but the crew are pretty sick of him.  (Most of the people watching the show will be sick of him, too.)  Do they conspire to toss Cyril overboard?  They could probably get away with it, seeing as how all of the ship’s nominal authority figures are busy dealing with a stowaway who loves to sing.  Somehow, Cyril survives his trip and he and his wife end up more in love than ever.

Finally, Maureen Mitchell (Brenda Benet) is a former tennis player who is now in a wheelchair.  All she wants is a few days of vacation before she meets with a surgeon who might be able to help her walk again.  Unfortunately, she discovers that an arrogant sportswriter named John (Bill Bixby) is also on the cruise!  At first, she wants nothing to do with him but when John injures his knee and has to use a wheelchair for the rest of the cruise, the two of them fall in love….

Hold on.  You know what just occurred to me?  Last week’s episode featured Robert Reed and Loretta Swit as two people who don’t like each other but just happen to end up on the same cruise.  This episode featured Brenda Benet and Bill Bixby as two people who don’t like each other but just happen to end up on the same cruise …. how long did The Love Boat writers last before they said, “Okay, we’re out of stories.  Let’s start repeating ourselves?”

Anyway, this episode was a mixed bag.  Charo and Milton Berle were not particularly subtle performers and their storylines felt as if they were designed to invite them to indulge in their worst impulses as performers.  But Bill Bixby and Brenda Benet had a lot of chemistry as John and Maureen and their story actually worked as a result.  (Bixby and Benet were married at the time they appeared in this episode.)  Plus, the ship looked lovely.  So did the ocean.  That’s what really matters.

Retro Television Reviews: The Love Boat 1.3 “Ex Plus Y / Golden Agers / Graham and Kelly”


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Wednesdays, I will be reviewing the original Love Boat, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1986!  The series can be streamed on Paramount Plus!

Love!  Was it exciting and new this week?

Episode 1.3 “Ex Plus Y / Golden Agers / Graham and Kelly”

(Directed by  Adam Rafkin and Stuart Margolin, originally aired on October 8th, 1977)

The third episode of The Love Boat is all about age differences, growing together, and growing apart.

For instance, it’s love at first sight when Julie spots Jim Wright (Charles Frank).  I mean, hey, his name is even “Mr. Wright!”  And it turns out that, even though he looks like he’s 40, Mr. Wright is actually only 30!  And he likes Julie too!  The problem, however, is that Jim has been hired to serve as a tour guide for a group of elderly tourists.  And those tourists (led by Edward Andrews) simply will not leave Mr. Wright alone!  Every time Mr. Wright tries to spend some time alone with Julie, the old people show up.  Obviously, the show means for us to sympathize with Julie and Jim but I think I’m actually on the side of the old people as far as this is concerned.  I mean, they didn’t pay money so that Jim could have a vacation.  They paid Jim to be their tour guide and, unless he’s going to refund their money, that’s what he needs to concentrate on.  He and Julie can fall in love once Jim is off the clock.

While Julie pursues Jim, 12 year-olds Kelly (Kristy McNichol) and Graham (a very young Scott Baio) pursue their own romance.  Or actually, it’s Kelly who pursues the romance.  Graham likes Kelly but he’s also immature and not sure how to talk to girls so he always ends up doing or saying something silly or stupid whenever he and Kelly are on the verge of having a “real” moment.  On the one hand, this was actually a fairly realistic storyline, at least by Love Boat standards.  On the other hand, Baio and McNichol looked so much alike that any scene featuring the two of them was like that picture of the two Spider-Men pointing at each other.  Graham also ended up with a very convoluted backstory to explain why he was traveling with a British grandmother (played by Hermoine Baddeley) despite being a kid from Brooklyn.  It was one of those overly complicated and distracting things that could have been solved by simply not casting a British stage actress as Baio’s grandmother or not casting a very American actor as Baddeley’s grandson.

Finally, Robert Reed and Loretta Swit played a divorced couple who found themselves on the same cruise.  At first, they dreaded seeing each other but then, eventually, they agreed that they still had feelings for each other.  Surprisingly enough, the story did not end with Reed and Swit getting back together.  Instead, they just grew as people and were now ready to let go of the bitterness that was holding them back in their new relationships.  That was actually a pretty good story and I appreciated the realistic resolution.  However, before making peace with his ex-wife, Robert Reed came across as being so angry and so bitter that it was actually kind of scary to watch.  It turns out that the Love Boat has skeet shooting.  If you don’t think the sight of Robert “Mr. Brady” Reed with a rifle wouldn’t be terrifying, this episode is here to prove you wrong!

I have to give this episode a mixed review.  Two of the stories worked better than I was expecting but this episode suffered from the miscasting of some of the passengers.  Still, the ship and the ocean looked as lovely as ever and really, that’s the important thing.

Retro Television Review: The Love Boat 1.2 “A Tasteful Affair / Oh, Dale! / The Main Event”


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Wednesdays, I will be reviewing the original Love Boat, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1986!  The series can be streamed on Paramount Plus!

It’s time to set sail on adventure and set your mind on a new romance!

Episode 1.2 “A Tasteful Affair / Oh, Dale! / The Main Event”

(Directed by Richard Kinon, Adam Rafkin, and Stuart Margolin, originally aired on October 1st, 1977)

The second episode of The Love Boat was all about fighting lovers.

For instance, one storyline — I assume it’s the one that was called “The Main Event” — features Sherman Hemsley as Maurice Marshall and LaWanda Page as his wife, Stella.  From the minute that they get on the boat, Maurice and Stella are arguing but it soon becomes obvious that, like many couples who have been together for a while, arguing is just the way that they express their love for each other.  The insults may be frequent but they’re always affectionate, which is kind of sweet.  Anyway, while on their way to dinner in the ship’s lounge, they get stuck in an elevator.  After arguing about the best way to escape from the elevator, they end up making out.  Of course, when the doors to the elevator do finally open, Captain Stubing and Gopher see that the couple, rather than being dead, are instead making good use of the space.  Everyone laughs.  Seriously, that’s the entire story.  Two people get suck in an elevator and make out.  That’s it.  You know, you can fool around on a moving elevator as well.  You don’t have to fry the circuitry ahead of time.  Just listen for the ping before the elevator doors open.

In a rather more serious storyline, Jaclyn Smith plays Janette Bradford, the wife of a wealthy but heartless man named Lucas (David Knapp).  Lucas is convinced that Janette is only taking the cruise alone because she’s planning on cheating on him.  Lucas hires a private investigator named Dennis Kingsley (Dennis Cole) to watch her on the boat.  Dennis soon discovers that Janette is not cheating on her husband but instead, she took the cruise because she needed a break from his controlling and emotionally abusive ways.  Dennis ends up falling in love with Janette and Janette with him.  However, Dennis also knows that he’s going to have to tell her the truth about why he’s on the cruise.  It doesn’t quite lead to heartbreak but it’s still far more serious than anything you might expect to see on a show of The Love Boat‘s reputation.  Jaclyn Smith, it should be said, does a wonderful job in the role of Janette, capturing both the vulnerability of someone in an abusive relationship and also her growing determination to escape from Lucas’s control.

Unfortunately, while all of this is going on, you have to deal with John Ritter playing a guy whose lover actually is cheating on him.  Ritter plays Dale.  Dale wants to follow his girlfriend on the cruise for the same reason that Lucas hired Dennis to spy on Janette.  Dale suspects that he’s being cheated on.  However, the cruise is almost entirely sold out.  There’s only one ticket left but it’s to share a cabin that’s already occupied by a woman.  Since Dale is not a woman, he can’t buy the ticket.  So, of course, Dale steals a blonde wig and a suitcase full of the frumpiest dresses imaginable.  Can you guess where this is going?  Dale gets his cabin, falls in love with his cabinmate (played, in a likable performance, by Tovah Feldshuh), and spends a lot of time changing clothes in the ship’s linen closet.  Captain Stubing ends up getting a crush on the mysterious woman with the big blonde hair and the ugly dresses and yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds with a heavy dose of cringey 70s gay panic humor tossed in to boot.  It doesn’t help that John Ritter gives such a frantic performance in the role that I actually got nervous watching him.  “Calm down!” I wanted to say.

As you can guess, the tone is all over the place in this episode.  That’s to be expected when you’re telling three stories at one time but there’s such an imbalance between Jaclyn Smith acting depressed and fragile and John Ritter doing pratfalls that it ultimately takes away from both stories.  With the second episode of The Love Boat, it seems obvious that the show was still struggling to find the right balance between drama and comedy.  As well, this episode suffers because the crew isn’t given much to do.  The first episode was enjoyable because the main cast had a fun chemistry but, in this episode, everyone is a bystander except for Captain Stubing.  Unfortunately, this episode couldn’t even treat Stubing consistently as the elevator storyline requires Stubing to be significantly smarter than the Stubing who appears in the John Ritter storyline.

Would the show ever succeed in finding and striking the right balance?  We’ll see what happens next week!

Retro Television Review: The Love Boat 1.1 “Captain & The Lady/Centerfold/One If By Land….”


Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Wednesdays, I will be reviewing the original Love Boat, which aired on ABC from 1977 to 1986!  The series can be streamed on Paramount Plus!

Welcome aboard, it’s love!

Produced by Aaron Spelling, The Love Boat is one of the signature shows of the 70s and the 80s.  Each week, the Pacific Princess would set off for a different location with a different group of guest stars.  Typically, each episode would feature three stories.  One story would be silly fun.  One story would be a dramedy.  And then one story would typically feature a member of the Love Boat crew either falling in love or worrying about losing their job.  It was a tremendously silly show but, from the episodes I’ve seen, it was also very likable.  If nothing else, the ship looked really nice.

While the passengers changed from week-to-week, the crew largely remained the same.  During the show’s first season, the crew was made up of:

Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), who started out as a stern, no-nonsense captain but who became significantly nicer and a good deal goofier as the series progressed,

Adam “Doc” Bricker (Bernie Kopell), the ship’s doctor who hit on every woman who boarded the boat and who probably would have been an HR nightmare if the show actually took place in the real world,

Gopher (Fred Grandy), the ship’s purser who …. well, I’m not sure what a purser does but hopefully it wasn’t too important of a job because Gopher was always getting into weird situations,

Isaac (Ted Lange), the ship’s bartender who spent the entire cruise getting people drunk,

and Julie (Lauren Tewes), the cheerful cruise director.

And, of course, we can’t forget the true star of the show, the theme song!

Before the series, there were three made-for-television movies: The Love Boat (1976), The Love Boat II (1976), and finally The New Love Boat (1977).  These movies served as pilots for the show.  The first movie featured an entirely different cast playing the ship’s crew.  Kopell, Lange, and Grandy first played their roles in The Love Boat II.  MacLeod and Tewes came aboard in The New Love Boat.  Unfortunately, these pilots aren’t available on Paramount Plus but, fortunately, the rest of the series is.

So, let’s set sail on a course for adventure with the first episode of The Love Boat!

Episode 1.1 “Captain & The Lady/Centerfold/One If By Land….”

(Directed by Richard Kinon, Stuart Margolin, and Alan Rafkin, originally aired on September 24th, 1977)

The Pacific Princess is about to set sail but all is not right on the cruise ship that some call The Love Boat.

Ginny O’Brien (Brenda Sykes) just wants to get away from her longtime boyfriend, Ronald (Jimmie Walker).  Ginny wants to marry Ronald but Ronald just wants to have a good time.  When Ginny boards the cruise, Ronald decides to follow her.  The only problem is that the cruise is sold out and Ronald can’t break the law by stowing away.  (I was actually surprised that didn’t happen.  I can imagine The Love Boat writers room descending into chaos as the writers argued about whether or not it was too early to do a stowaway story.)  Ronald decides to follow the Love Boat from port to port, just so he can show Ginny that he is committed to something.  Ginny ends up spending her entire cruise wondering if Ronald is going to be make it to every port.  To me, it felt as if her cabinmate (Suzanne Somers) seemed to be kind of annoyed about getting sucked into all of Ginny’s personal drama but that could just be projection on my part.  I know that I would certainly get annoyed by it.

Meanwhile, Congressman Brad Brockway (Shelly Novack) has set sail with his fiancée, Sandy (Meredith Baxter-Birney).  When Sandy was younger, she posed for a sleazy photographer.  Now that she’s engaged to the Congressman, a tabloid has published those pictures.  Sandy spends the entire cruise trying to keep Brad from seeing any copies of the magazine.  The only problem is that the magazine is sold in ship’s gift shop!  (Did most cruise ships sell adult magazines in their gift shop?  I supposed it’s possible.  It was the 70s….)  Sandy manages to get almost every copy of the magazine but misses the copy that Doc keeps in his examination room.  Doc looks at the pictures and tells her that she has nothing to be ashamed of because the pictures look good.  That really wasn’t her main concern, Doc.  Anyway, it turns out that the Congressman doesn’t care.  Personally, I would have preferred that the story had ended with Sandy announcing that she was the one who didn’t care.

Finally, Captain Stubing is a nervous wreck because an executive of the cruise line named Aubrey Skogstad (Robert Symonds) is on the cruise and so is his wife, Stacy (Bonnie Franklin).  While Aubrey is quiet and polite, Stacy proceeds to tell every member of the crew that they are inadequate and that she will personally make it her duty to get them all fired.  It turns out that Stacy is hostile because she’s Captain Stubing’s ex-wife.  Since Captain Stubing is still new to the ship and has kept himself aloof from the rest of the crew, they wonder if he’ll ever stand up for them.  Eventually, the captain tells Stacy off and, in doing so, he finally wins the loyalty of his crew.  Yay!

Anyway, the first episode of The Love Boat was very, very 70s.  The only thing that could have made it more 70s would have been a disco ball on the lido deck.  Fortunately, as our long-time readers know, I’m a total history nerd so I enjoyed the show as a floating time capsule.  It’s one thing to watch a movie that’s set in the 70s and which features everyone going out of their way to bring to life every stereotype.  It’s another thing to actually view something that was specifically made during the time period.

Unfortunately, the stories and the passengers themselves were pretty forgettable.  The whole thing about the Stacy and the Congressman was slightly interesting just because, with the rise of social media, everyone’s got smutty pictures out there now.  For the most part, though, this first episode was about introducing Captain Stubing and the crew and the cast did display a good deal of chemistry together.  They were all likable.  Even Doc Bricker, with his stash of cruise porn, seemed to be well-intentioned.  They came across as people who most viewers would want to take a cruise with, which is exactly what the show required to be a success.

Next week …. more love, more 70s fashion, and more intrusive laugh tracks as we set sail on another voyage!

The Ballad of Andy Crocker (1969, directed by George McCowan)


Andy Crocker (Lee Majors) is a earnest young Texan who enlists in Vietnam, is injured in a firefight, and returns home with a purple heart.  Upon landing in California, he discovers that America has changed.  A group of hippies (led by Stuart Margolin, who also wrote this film’s script and the folk-style song that’s played throughout the action) taunts him for wearing his uniform.  After Andy steals a motorcycle from them and makes his way back down to Dallas, he discovers that his girlfriend, Lisa (Joey Heatherton), has left him for another man and that his best friend (played by singer Jimmy Dean) has sold Andy’s business.  Lisa’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) orders Andy to stay away from her family while she’s skeet shooting.  Even though everyone tells him how proud they are of him, no one seems to want Andy around.  Finally, Andy ends up back in California without any direction home.

This made-for-television movie (which was produced by Aaron Spelling) was important in that it was the first film to attempt to explore the issues that would face servicemen as they returned home after serving in an unpopular war.  It was actually meant to be a pilot for a series called Corporal Crocker, which would have followed Andy Crocker as he traveled across the country, Route 66-style.  Since the series wasn’t picked up, The Ballad of Andy Crocker instead becomes a downbeat look at a man discovering that he no longer has any place in the world.  It’s only 72-minutes long so it doesn’t examine any issues in depth but it’s still sincere in its intentions and Lee Majors gives a good performance in the lead role.  Andy Crocker is an interesting character.  Despite the fact that he just returned from fighting in it, he doesn’t seem to have any strong opinion about the war in Vietnam.  He’s hardly a pacifist and he does steal a motorcycle but, at the same time, he’s not a gung ho warrior either.  He’s just an ordinary man who is trying to figure out where he fits in.  By the end of the movie, he’s more scarred by society’s indifference than he has been by the war.

Keep an eye out for Marvin Gaye, who has a small role as Crocker’s best friend from Vietnam.

It’s No Westworld: Futureworld (1976, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


Two years after the Westworld “incident,” (in which a group of robots malfunctioned and murdered hundreds of humans), Delos Amusement Park has reopened and is accepting guests.  Westworld has been permanently shut down but guests can still go to Romanworld and Medeivalworld (despite the fact that it was in Medievalworld that the whole robot rebellion started in the first place).  Delos has added two new worlds: Spaworld and Futureworld.  Spaworld is a spa for people who want to think young and Futureworld is the world of the future, which looks much like 1976, the year that this film was made.

Two reporters, Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), have been invited to cover the grand reopening of Delos and to hopefully generate some good publicity.  Chuck, however, has reason to believe that there’s something sinister happening at Delos.  While Tracy is busy fantasizing about Yul Brynner, Chuck discovers that Delos is using Futureworld to clone diplomats.

At the end of Futureworld, Peter Fonda gives everyone the finger and that’s really cool but otherwise, this is a forgettable sequel to Westworld.  The whole point of the original Westworld was that the robots didn’t know they were robots but, in Futureworld, the robots not only know what they are but they’re also superfluous to the plot.  There’s no robot revolution in Futureworld nor is there any of Crichton’s concerns about technology run amok.  Instead, it’s all about clones and a predictable political conspiracy.

The main issue facing the makers of this film was how could they do a sequel to Michael Crichton’s unexpected hit when Westworld‘s main attraction, Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger, was thoroughly destroyed at the end of the first film.  It would not make any sense for anyone to have reactivated the robot.  Their solution was to bring Brynner in for a cameo in which he appeared in one of Tracy’s dreams.  Sadly, why they thought it was a good idea to have Tracy develop an erotic fixation on a killer robot and then, just as abruptly, abandon the idea is not for us to know.  They would have been better off leaving Brynner out of the film entirely because his presence just reminds us that Futureworld is no Westworld.

Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

Happy Birthday Charles Bronson!: THE STONE KILLER (Columbia 1973)


cracked rear viewer

Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.

By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New…

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Bronson’s Revenge: Death Wish (1974, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote “Dirty” Harry Callahan, “I’m all broken up about his rights.”

In 1972, a novel by Brian Garfield was published.  The novel was about a meek New York City accountant named Paul Benjamin.  After Paul’s wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, Paul suffers a nervous breakdown.  A self-described bleeding heart liberal, Paul starts to stalk the streets at night while carrying a gun.  He is hunting muggers.  At first, he just kills the muggers who approach him but soon, he starts to deliberately set traps.  Sinking into insanity, Paul becomes just as dangerous as the men he is hunting.  Garfield later said that the book was inspired by two real-life incidents, one in which his wife’s purse was stolen and another in which his car was vandalized.  Garfield said that his initial response was one of primitive anger.  He wondered what would happen if a man had these rageful thoughts and could not escape them.

The title of that novel was Death Wish.  Though it was never a best seller, it received respectful reviews and Garfield subsequently sold the film rights.  At first, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct and, keeping with Garfield’s portrayal of Paul Benjamin, Jack Lemmon was cast as the unlikely vigilante.

Lumet, ultimately, left the project so that he could concentrate on another film about crime in New York City, Serpico.  When Lumet left, Jack Lemmon also dropped out of the film.  Lumet was replaced by Michael Winner, a director who may not have been as thoughtful as Lumet but who had a solid box office record and a reputation for making tough and gritty action films.

Winner immediately realized that audiences would not be interested in seeing an anti-vigilante film.  Instead of casting an actor with an intellectual image, like Jack Lemmon, Winner instead offered the lead role (now named Paul Kersey and no longer an accountant but an architect) to Charles Bronson.  When Winner told Bronson that the script was about a man who shot muggers, Bronson replied, “I’d like to do that.”

“The script?” Winner asked.

“No, shoot muggers.”

At the time that he was cast, Charles Bronson was 52 years old.  He was the biggest star in the world, except for in America where he was still viewed as being a B-talent at best.  Bronson was known for playing tough, violent men who were not afraid to use violence to accomplish their goals.  (Ironically, in real life, Bronson was as much of an ardent liberal as Paul Kersey was meant to be at the beginning of the movie.)  Among those complaining that Charles Bronson was all wrong for Paul Kersey was Brian Garfield.  However, Bronson accepted the role and the huge box office success of Death Wish finally made him a star in America.

To an extent, Brian Garfield was right.  Charles Bronson was a better actor than he is often given credit for but, in the early scenes of Death Wish, he does seem miscast.  When Paul is first seen frolicking with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii, Bronson seems stiff and awkward.  In New York City, when Paul tells his right-wing colleague (William Redfield) that “my heart does bleed for the less fortunate,” it doesn’t sound natural.  But once Paul finds out that his wife has been murdered and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), has been raped, Paul gets mad and Bronson finally seems comfortable in the role.

In both the book and the original screenplay, both the murder and the rape happened off-screen.  Never a subtle director, Winner instead opted to show them in a brutal and ugly scene designed to get the audience as eager to shoot muggers as Bronson was.  Today, the power of the scene is diluted by the presence of Jeff Goldblum, making his screen debut as a very unlikely street thug.  Everyone has to start somewhere and Goldblum got his start kicking Hope Lange while wearing a hat that made him look like he belonged in an Archie comic.

With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul discovers that no one can help him get justice.  The police have no leads.  His son-in-law (Steven Keats) is a weak and emotional mess.  (As an actor, some of Bronson’s best moments are when Paul makes no effort to hide how much he loathes his son-in-law.)  When a mugger approaches Paul shortly after his wife’s funeral, Paul shocks himself by punching the mugger in the face.

When Paul is sent down to Arizona on business, he meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a land developer who calls New York a “toilet” and who takes Paul to see a wild west show.  Later at a gun club, Paul explains that he was a conscientious objects during the Korean War but he knows how to shoot.  His father was a hunter and Paul grew up around guns.  When Paul returns to New York, Ames gives him a present, a revolver.  Paul is soon using that revolver to bring old west justice to the streets of New York City.

As muggers start to show up dead, the NYPD is outraged that a vigilante is stalking the street.  Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to bring the vigilante in.  But the citizens of New York love the vigilante.  Witnesses refuse to give an accurate description of Paul.  When Paul is wounded, a young patrolman (Christopher Guest, making almost as unlikely a film debut as Jeff Goldblum) conspires to keep Paul’s revolver from being turned over as evidence.

The critics hated Death Wish, with many of them calling it an “immoral” film.  Brian Garfield was so disgusted by how Winner changed his story that he wrote a follow-up novel in which Paul is confronted by an even more dangerous vigilante who claims to have been inspired by him.  Audiences, however, loved it.  Death Wish was one of the top films at the box office and it spawned a whole host of other vigilante films.

Death Wish is a crude movie, without any hint of subtlety and nuance.  It is also brutally effective, as anyone who has ever felt as if they were the victim of a crime can attest.  In a complicated and often unfair world, Kersey’s approach may not be realistic or ideal but it is emotionally cathartic.  Watching Death Wish, it is easy to see why critics hated it and why audiences loved it.

It is also to see why the movie made Bronson a star.  Miscast in the role or not, Bronson exudes a quiet authority and determination that suggests that if anyone could single-handedly clean-up New York City, it’s him.  An underrated actor, Bronson’s best moment comes after he punches his first mugger and he triumphantly reenters his apartment.  After he commits his first killing, Bronson gets another good scene where he is so keyed up that he collapses to the floor and then staggers into the bathroom and throws up.  Garfield may have complained that the Death Wish made his madman into a hero but Bronson’s best moments are the ones the suggest Paul has gone mad.  The real difference between the book and the movie is that the movie portrays madness as a necessary survival skill.

This Friday, a new version of Death Wish will be playing in theaters.  Directed by Eli Roth, this version starts Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Will the new Death Wish be as effective as the original?  Judging from the trailer, I doubt it.  Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson?  I’ll pick Bronson every time.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns in Death Wish II!

Bronson’s Best: The Stone Killer (1973, directed by Michael Winner)


Stone_killerAfter tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD.  Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can.  When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).

Vescari is plotting something big.  It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time.  Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner.  During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated.  To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen.  Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).

Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star.  His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image.  But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson.  Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.

It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner.  Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best.  Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture.  If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see.  The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.

(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)

The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television.  Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great.  Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.

Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.