Patsy Cline: A country-music life and an all-music voice

When CMT picked the best country songs of all time, it had Patsy Cline at No. 3 ("Crazy") ... and No. 7 ("I Fall to Pieces") ... and No. 41 ("Sweet Dreams"). I would have nudged "Crazy" -- written by Willie Nelson -- even higher, past the top two (Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" and George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today").

Wherever you list her, Cline was a great country star who lived a brief and compelling country life. Now she's the subect of an excellent profile which PBS stations are airing at various times, during their March pledge drives. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Times were tough,
money was scarce, the odds were steep ... but Patsy Cline seemed
certain: Somehow, she would be a singer.

“Nothing was going
to get in her way,” said Barbara Hall, writer-director of a new
“American Masters” profile on PBS. “She was going to fight ...
because singing was in her.”

It came out of her
beautifully. “Cline's voice was wistful, smoky, lonely, tragic and
compelling,” Liz Mechem and Chris Carroll wrote in “Legends of
Country” (Dalmation Press, 2007).

It affected people
for generations. Mickey Guyton – 33 and born more than 20 years
after the star0's death – did Cline songs at the White House and
calls her “the Adele of that time.”

The time was the
Depression; Cline was born in 1932. Her dad – a harsh man, but a
strong choir singer -- was 42; her mom was 16 and about to give
birth. They moved 19 times in 16 years, before splitting.

That was in
Winchester, Va., where the transformation began. The teen-ager (then
named Virginia Hensley) “went from an 8th-grade dropout,
who wore fringed cowgirl outfits made by her mother, to a cultural
icon,” said Michael Kantor, the “Masters” producer.

It wasn't always
cowgirl, though. Yes, Cline was influenced by the Grand Ole Opry and
Patsy Montana, but she also talked of Helen Morgan and Kate Smith.
“She earned her chops listening to big-band,” Guyton said. “She
went country-western – then she went country pop and then she was

Cline reached the
pop charts with four songs -- “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin'
After Midnight,” “She's Got You” and (breaking into the top 10)
“Crazy.” Some people said she wasn't country; Guyton disagrees:
“Country music is telling a story and expressing emotion, and
that's what she did.”

It helped that
Cline's own life felt like a country-music story. As a teen, she
helped her mother raise her brother and sister. The mom took in
seamstress jobs; the daughter worked at a poultry place (lying about
her age), a bus station and a soda fountain ... while racing to
talent shows and singing gigs.

Some went badly. In
her cowgirl suit, she sang atop the concession building of the
drive-in theater, Margaret Jones wrote in “Patsy” (HarperCollins,
1994). “She was honked at and booed.”

Other gigs, however,
went well. Cline sang with a supper club band. An Opry audition was
futile because she was two years under the minimum age of 18, but it
led to an outdoor concert with Roy Acuff. At 20, she began singing
with the Melody Boys and signed a harsh deal with 4 Star Records.

After four failed
singles, she had her break. With her mother posing as a friend who
had “discovered” her, she sang “Walkin' After Midnight” on
CBS' “Talent Scouts,” then the No. 12 show in prime time.

Hall considers that
show her favorite find. “Hearing her sing live – she's remarkable
.... But hearing the excitement on her voice when she won.” Arthur
Godfrey, the host, was charmed and promptly had her on his radio
show. The song became a hit; others followed – when she finally
switched labels.

“Once she got out
of her 4 Star contract, it was her and (producer) Owen Bradley,”
Hall said.

Like Cline, Hall
said, his tastes went far beyond Nashville traditions. “He was into
Texas swing, which is kind of big-band music.” They chose well and
argued sharply ... which was Cline's way.

“If a man got in
her way, she let 'em know,” Loretta Lynn wrote in the “Patsy”

Cline's second
husband, Charlie Dick, agreed. Their fights were intense, but Hall
said he told her: “One time, I did raise my hand to her and she
slugged me across the room and I never did it again.”

He was a big fan of
hers who watched their two kids during her endless road trips. In
Marc hof 1963, he heard the news on the radio: Returning from a
benefit concert, Patsy Cline, 30, and two other singers had died in
the crash of a plane piloted by her manager.

She was 30, already
a star who controlled her career. “She set that template for
Loretta Lynn, (who) influenced other people,” said Beverly
D'Angelo, who played Cline in “Coal Miner's Daughter.”

Lynn agreed. “She
and I both grew up the hard way, had to be a woman when we were
children,” she wrote. “She was a wise, older woman, even though
she was so young when she died.”


Our minds at work -- creating fire and (a while later) telepathy

Talking to Jason Silva is a whirlwind experience. Ideas and words swirl through his busy brain and out his mouth. He's a technology guy who makes it all sound exciting ... even to a TV reporter who still uses a stupid phone. And now his new "Origins" series is looking way back. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Jason Silva has
spent years talking about the future. “I'm a big technology
optimist,” he said.

But now he's looking
the other way. In the ambitious new “Origins” series, he talks
about the past – sometimes the deep, distant past.

No matter which
direction you look, he said, humans keep tinkering. So he likes to:

-- Peek ahead a few
years, to improvements in powered exoskeletons, often for medical
uses. “Technology is the thing that helps us overcome limitations.”

-- And look
backward. The “Origins” opener focuses on the development of
fire, which made life easier. “It freed us to use the cognitive
part of our minds.”

Able to cook food
and warm people, ancient man could go on to other things, from art to
agriculture. Much later, he would find bigger uses for fire and
bigger dangers; the opening hour – filled with high-octane visuals
and music – ranges from fire helping the Chinese repel the Mongol
hordes ... to a fire destroying old London ... to the emergence of
rocketry and beyond.

Shows like this are
part of a key makeover for the National Geographic Channel since
Courteney Monroe took over as CEO in 2014.

Not long ago, she
said, the channel “included shows like 'American Gypsies,' 'Church
Rescue' and 'Doomsday Castle' .... I suppose they all served a
purpose at the time.”

But that time seems
to have passed. What Monroe calls “the biggest rebrand in National
Geographic's history” has included such ambitious efforts as
“Mars,” “The Story of God,” the retooled “Explorer”
magazine, “Before the Flood” and the upcoming “Genius.”

Then there's
“Origins,” hosted by Silva, who fits neatly into any “genius”
category. As a teen-ager, he organized “salons” in his home, to
discuss big issues. “I was never good at small talk,” he said.

Or small anything.
Silva, 35, is 6-foot-4, a dynamic speaker who is global and

He grew up in
Caracas, Venezuela, where his mother's family was big in textiles.
Spanish was his first language and Montessori schools were an
influence. “They really build the curiosity and the passion.”

At the University of
Miami, he majored in film and philosophy – two things he used in
films that were presented at TED talks and beyond. Silva was on Al
Gore's now-departed Current channel and then hosted “Brain Games”
on National Geographic.

He seems fascinated
by the games of the brain, past and present. “There's a cyborg
anthropologist named Amber Case, who refers to texting as
'technologically mediated telepathy,'” Silva told the Television
Critics Association before “Brain Games” was launched. “It
allows us to ... send our thoughts brain-to-brain, transcending the
limitations of time, space and distance.”

It's part of human
progress that somehow went from creating fire to having a cyborg

-- Origins, 9 p.m.
ET Mondays, National Geographic Channel, leading into “Explorer”
at 10

-- Opener (March 6,
about fire) reruns at 11 p.m. ET on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and
Sunday; also at 9 p.m. ET Friday and at 8 p.m. ET on March 13,
leading into the second hour, on “cheating death.”


Classic Hollywood: Two giants feuded elegantly

Once you sink into it, you'll find "Feud" immensely entertaining. This is from the "People v. O.J. Simpson" producer, with the same idea -- a high-stakes battle involving high-stakes people. But now, it's Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, in the last days of old Hollywood.

The series opens Sunday (March 5) on FX, (A second "Feud" has already been ordered, this time with Charles and Diana.) Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The movie was small,
but the stars were big.

Back in 1962, there
was a collision of giants in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Between them, Bette
Davis and Joan Crawford already had three Academy Awards, 13
nominations and a cascade of Hollywood headlines. They “were both
larger-than-life figures,” Ryan Murphy said.

So now Murphy's new
series (“Feud”) uses that movie in the same way his previous one
(“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) used a court case – as the
backdrop for spectacular personalities.

And these women were
much like members of the Simpson legal team – high-profile and
high-strung, but total opposites. Set designer Judy Becker found that
while re-creating their homes:

-- Davis was
non-Hollywood. She “was from a town outside of Boston and she went
to boarding school on the East Coast,” Becker said. “She really
was like a Yankee .... She considered herself a very serious actress,
so that was reflected in the way she lived ... She had this kind of
dowdy furniture.”

-- Crawford was
anti-dowdy. You could sense that in her living room – with a large
painting of herself – or st the vanity table, with a refrigerator
to “keep her witch hazel and her lemons and her ice cubes and her
vodka – all of which were used to help preserve her appaearance,
except the vodka. That was for her mental health.”

It's easy to mock
Crawford, until you remember the odds she faced, especially the bias
against older women. “When I started, (actresses were) over by 40,”
said Susan Sarandon, who plays Davis.

Now Davis was 54;
various sources put Crawford at between 54 and 58. They were clinging
to fame.

For Crawford, it had
been a long fight. There was “the physical abuse, sexual abuse, the
povery,” said Jessica Lange, who plays her. “All of these things
.... She had a 5th-grade education. As she said,
'Everything I learned, I was taught by MGM.'”

Jeanine Basinger, a
professor and author, sees her as the classic archetype.

“Quite possibly
the perfect and most enduring example of Hollywood female stardom is
Joan Crawford,” she wrote in “American Cinema” (1994, Rizzoli).
“She was born poor in Texas and had to fight for everything she
had. With a minimum of education and a maximum of good looks, she
forged her way forward, dancing in the chous and ending up in
California with a ($75-a-week) contract.”

Even her name –
originally Lucille Le Seueur – was flexible. The new one was
decided after a Movie Weekly contest asked readers to choose a name
for this new actress.

Davis was also,
perhaps, willing to play the game a little. “She felt that she was
never going to be anybody unless somebody could impersonate her,”
Murphy said.

In public, he said,
“she rarely turned that off; she felt that was important for her

But Murphy also knew
the private Davis a little. “I got to one day spend four hours
talking with her. She was not that person at all. She was not camp,
she was not broad.”

So “Feud” isn't
out to mock Davis or Crawford. (“I do still think ... their
interactions are hilarious,” Murphy granted.) Instead, it captures
women out to conquer the world.

Sarandon, 70,
captured the precision of Davis' voice. “Her speech pattern is the
antithesis of mine.”

Lange, 67, found
Crawford's persona. “She was never not on .... There is that famous
quote of hers: 'I never go out without looking like Joan Crawford. If
you want to see the girl next door, go next door.'”

And the sets
captured the feel of the time. There is the mansion that Crawford
kept transforming ... complete with a plastic cover on the sofa. And
there's the re-created Perino's night spot.

It was “a circular
restaurant,” Becker said, “and I think that was partly so people
could kind of see each other .... They're celebrities; they like to
be seen.”

-- “Feud: Bette
and Joan,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX

-- Opener (March 5)
reruns at 11:12 p.m. and 1:42 a.m.; also, 2 a.m. Tuesday (latenight
Monday), 2:30 a.m. Thursday, 2:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Saturday, March


Man seeking comedy: Simon Rich's life plan is succeeding

There's an impish charm to Simon Rich, somewhere between Puck, a leprechaun and Santa's most perverse elf. Beyond that surface lies a neatly off-center comedy touch. Now his cable comedy, "Man Seeking Woman," is nearing its key episodes, March 1 and 8; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Stepping into
America's most prestigious school, you'll find lots of wide-eyed

They reach Harvard
with dreams of curing cancer or reaching Mars or being president or
such. Then there was Simon Rich: “My only goal was to be on the
Lampoon,” he said with a grin.

Often, people arrive
with high intentions ... which are transformed by work on the Harvard
Lampoon comedy magazine. “A lot of future science and business
careers are destroyed.” he semi-joked.

But for Rich, comedy
was always the plan. It has worked out quickly.

At 32 – and
looking much younger, in a Michael J. Fox/George Stephanopoulos way –
he's already written six books ... spent four years writing for
“Saturday Night Live” ... spent two writing for Pixar ... and now
has his own cable show, ready for its big moments.

That's “Man
Seeking Woman.” After three seasons, the man (Jay Baruchel) has
actually found a woman (Katie Findlay); coming now are a bachelor
party (Wednesday) and a wedding (March 8).

“Simon kept
saying, 'This is the season we've earned,'” Baruchel said.

They earned it by
putting the characters through epic disasters – which are sort of
fun for the actors. “They want you to go all the way,” Findlay
said, “if you can be bigger, if you can be weirder.”

Being weirder is a
skill nourished by Rich, who was 5 when “The Simpsons” arrived.
“I didn't really obsess on it until I was 11 or 12; then I started
to really geek out, scene-for-scene.”

There were more
laughs, with “Saturday Night Live” reruns, author Douglas Adams
(“Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe”) and even regular TV. “Of
course I watched a lot of 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends' (and then) Jon
Stewart in my college years.”

Writing seemed
logical enough. His father is a columnist who spent 13 years as New
York Times theater critic. Some people might not link Frank Rich with
comedy, but his son points to a review of the “Moose Murders”
play. “Those of us who witnessed (it),” that review proclaimed,
“will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of
survivors of the Titanic.”

Those words were
written in 1983, a year before Simon was born. His dad continued to
do reviews for another decade, sometimes taking his son with him to
the theater.

Eventually, Simon
Rich learned that many of the “Simpsons” and “SNL” writers
had written for the Harvard Lampoon. That became his educational
goal. He eventually became president of the Lampoon and had a book
deal before graduating.

Still, he persisted
with TV. He was at “Saturday Night Live” for four years, often
writing odd pieces with John Mulaney and Marika Sawyer. “Usually,
those were in the last 20 minutes of the show.”

That sort of
segregation was fine, he said, fitting producer Lorne Michaels' “SNL”
view. “It's a variety show at its core. There's political humor,
there's character humor and some of it can be surreal.”

Rich then spent two
years at Pixar and landed a cable deal to adapt his “The Last
Girlfriend on Earth.”

In truth, Rich says,
his own dating life had the usual success and failure, but nothing
spectacular. He was living with author Kathleen Hale, now his wife.

But he put his
character through two seasons of offbeat agony, before giving him a
steady girlfriend.

That's Findlay,
known for playing homicide victims – Rosie in “The Killing.”
Rebecca in “How to Get Away With Murder” -- before this. “Half
(the viewers) are convinced that I'm going to die,” she said.

She's won't,
apparently. Instead, she'll marry, continuing Simon Rich's comedy

-- “Man Seeking
Woman,” 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, FXX, rerunning at 11:30 p.m. and
1:30 a.m.

-- Bachelor party is
March 1, wedding is in the March 8 season-finale


Bill Paxton: A true Texan (and TV-and-movie star) dies at 61

By Mike Hughes

Bill Paxton was a
teen-ager when he left Texas to follow his obsession with movies.

Still, his home
state remained a key part of him. “You can't take Texas out of the
boy,” he said in 2015. “We are pretty heavily indoctrinated.”

Paxton died Saturday
at 61, from complications of heart surgery. His career was at a peak
– starring in CBS' currentn “Training Day” and preparing for an
“Aliens” sequel and more.

Even the CBS show –
set in modern Los Angeles – had a Texas feeling. In one episode,
Paxton managed to mention both the 1977 Dallas Cowboys and the Alamo.
The latter, he said last month, is “a reference to a great event in
our history.”

He played some
classic people from Texas and cowboy history – Jesse James'
brother, Wyatt Earp's brother and Sam Houston. He even had a blood
link to Sam Houston: “His mother's name was Elizabeth Paxton. She
was my great, great, great aunt.”

Paxton grew up in
Fort Worth, where his dad was a businessman and museum executive.
Photos show him at 8, on his dad's shoulders to see John Kennedy on
Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was killed.

At 18, Paxton moved
to Hollywood and started the way many did – working for little
money for low-budget Roger Corman films, building sets and more. He
may have been naive then.

When he was 20, he
recalled last month, he met a man and woman having tough luck. He
gave them gas money and invited them home for a meal. “When I was
as work the next day, they came and completely cleared out the

There were more
troubles in Los Angeles -- “I had my door kicked in twice; I've
been held up at knifepoint” -- and then success. He did “Apollo
13,” “Twister,” the “Big Love” HBO series ... and four
films (from “Terminator” to “Titanic”) directed by another
former Corman-sets guy, James Cameron. “If you're going to hang
out with Jim, you'd better have your life insurance,” he told one

Then came the
“Training Day” series. It's set after the 2001 movie, with a
character who's a little like the one Denzel Washington played in the
movie ... but with a key difference. “I think Bill's character is
more like the old western hero,” said producer Barry Schindel.

It's the type of
role that neatly fit a forever-Texas guy.