A warm and quirky memorial

This may be one of the best lines ever uttered at a memorial service.

The subject was Richard Thomsen, the actor and director who linked with John Peakes to start BoarsHead Theater, near Lansing, Mich. His colleagues gathered, some calling it a sort of reunion. They recalled Thomsen's broad knowledge, his daring taste, his immense talent.

Then John Bowman talked about Thomsen's directing style. This man was terse, tough, demanding, precise. "This feels like a high school reunion," Bowman said, "only the bully is dead."

He said it fondly. Thomsen was a benevolent bully. He knew more than anyone else and wasted no time explaining it.

Once, a young actor found he could get laughs by scratching his back with a violin bow. Thomsen used only four sharp words: "Miller, eschew the impulse."

Yes, he could use the word "eschew" easily. He was sort of like John Houseman in "Paper Chase," only less cuddly.

Thomsen grew up as the son of a socialist druggist in small-town Iowa. He knew approximately everything, people agree. His daughter used to call him the smartest man in the world; she later lowered him to fourth-smartest (behind Albert Einstein and two others), but then raised him again after realizing the full scope of what he and Peakes had accomplished.

Consider David Dunckel, who was determined to run away from home at 10 or 11. He got on his bike and pedalled 10 miles or so, to the wilderness of Fitzgerald Park, in Grand Ledge.  There, he settled into the closest thing to a cave he could find -- and wept. Thomsen and Peakes heard him, took him to their Ledges Playhouse, gave him a blanket and called his dad.

Yes, it's amazing that those men would have heard the crying, far from their theater. Still, the most amazing thing was simply the fact that professional theater was being created in Grand Ledge.

It was often great theater. BoarsHead launched the professional careers of William Hurt, Anthony Heald, Bowman (the final new comic introduced by Johnny Carson), Mary Beth Hurt, Larry Joe Campbell and many more. Carmen Decker took a BoarsHead show to Chicago, promptly winning the Jefferson Award as that city's best professional actress; she promptly returned to Lansing and never did another Chicago show.

With Thomsen nudging it along, BoarsHead skipped all the easy routes. One year, a memorial speaker said, four of its eight shows were world premieres; the others were Michigan premieres.

There have been changes, of course. BoarsHead moved away from the wilderness and into a comfy, downtown theater. Thomsen moved to New York, Peakes to Philadelphia. Kristine Thatcher -- a former teen protege at BoarsHead and then an acclaimed Chicago writer-director -- is now in charge. This year, she had two straight near-premieres; now she's drawing good crowds with the logical combination of Decker in "Driving Miss Daisy."

Great theater has happened at BoarsHead; it's likely to keep happening there. That's the legacy of a benevolent bully.





Some David Frost memories

Watching the excellent movie "Frost/Nixon," I drifted back to a couple David Frost memories.

The film sort of implies that Frost was strictly a glib TV guy, smooth and slick, with nothing that prepared him to do those historic interviews with former President Richard Nixon.

Perhaps, but remember this: Frost -- like so many British TV people -- is smart and sly; he knew enough politics to do first-rate satire.

I first saw him in 1964, on "That Was The Week That Was." The show had been a hit in England, then was temporarily yanked off the air so it wouldn't do satire in a British election year. (Hey, sometime try to pull "Saturday Night Live" or "The Daily Show" during an election year.) So Frost was available for the American version.

It had some so-so people and some talented ones, including Alan Alda, Buck Henry, songwriter Tom Lehrer and, especially, Frost.

I remember him explaining the population explosion and the fact that (back then) there were maybe 800 million Chinese people. "To illustrate this, if you took those 800 million people and had them walking single-file around the equater, and kept them marching all day, every day, (a British-style pause here) you'd pretty much have the population explosion solved."

In 1977, 13 years later, Frost had his historic interviews with Nixon. Those moments are neatly captures in the movie, which is brilliantly written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen") and directed by Ron Howard. It has some flaws -- including an oddly showy performance by Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. -- but is an involving look at a key confrontation.

It also portrays Frost as a globetrotter, a guy forever leaping across continents. That part is definitely true.

When I interviewed Frost in 1988, he had taken over as anchor and producer of "Inside Edition." He explained his schedule: Each Monday morning, he got on a Concord plane in London, flew to New York, then took a helicopter to the show's office. Each Friday, he reversed that route.

Commuting weekly between continents? That seems typical of Frost, a guy with a hyperactive mind. At 69, he's been Sir David Frost for 15 years. He still does light entertainment, but he has also interviewed six prime ministers and seven U.S. presidents. And thanks to a good movie, a piece of his past is now well-known. 




Back from Wisconsin

I'm back now, from my eight-day Wisconsin adventure. It turns out that the train-and-bus plan works fine, going either way.

Wisconsin is where I grew up; it's also a different world. For instance:

1) Interest in the Super Bowl is muted, at best. People there still can't believe the game counts if the Packers aren't included.

2) On Sunday, the minister was discussing various kinds of love. "We say, 'I love cheeseburgers,'" he said. "But you don't love a cheeseburger as much as you love your spouse." And as I looked around the congregation, I think some people were trying to decide.

Super Bowl thoughts

My Super Bowl view: It was definitely the best one ever.

It was tough, taut, muscular, kinetic. It was filled with action, excitement and stardom.

Also, the game was OK.

What I'm talking about, of course, is the Bruce Springsteen halftime show. In Super Bowl halftime standards, it was twice as good as the Rolling Stones, three times as good as Paul McCartney. Even if Janet Jackson's exposure had been doubled, Springsteen's show would have been better. Maybe.

The hour-long "Office" that followed the game was also a winner. It started wonderfully, faded a little during the "roast" portions, then ended well. The mini-movie inside the episode was only so-so -- Jessica Alba, who was supposed to be one of its stars -- was barely in it at all, but the rest was often terrific. 

Some other Super Bowl thoughts:

1) It's supposed to be called the Bridgestone halftime show, which is OK with me, because I loved the Bridgestone commercials. Especially the Mr. Potato Head one. The worst part of any car accident is when your lips fall down a cliff.

2) We're also supposed to refer to the G halftime report, but I won't. I really don't like the notion of changing Gator Aid to G. As far as G is concerned, I think it's a spot, not a drink. I'm just glad Pepsi didn't turn into P.

3) Speaking of commercials, I've got to go now and drive a car wildly. That's the collective effect of car commercials and "Fast and the Furious" ads.

4) My favorite commercial, though, was from monster.com. (The boss gets the moose head in his office suite; the worker gets the rest of the moose. Most people know the feeling.) Or the witty take-off of Coke's Mean Joe Greene commercial.

5) Incidentally, this Super Bowl XLIII included movie ads for "Land of the Lost," "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe." Did somebody lose the L and think this was Super Bowl XIII?

6) You probably noticed this already, but Faith Hill and Jennifer Hudson are great singers.

7) I get tired just watching a supersized lineman run 100 hards with an interception. When they run it over and over, I'm exhausted.

8) NBC listed only Andrea Kremer as working the sidelines, but it had a second person. She instantly broke two rules: When covering a football game, don't mention F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you do, don't give the impression that you have no idea who he was. Except maybe that he wrote a Brad Pitt movie.

9) Speaking of NBC, there was immense creativity in it promos. I'd like to see more of that in the NBC shows.

10) That was more than fair. Kurt Warner got a trophy before the game started. (It was the Walter Peython being-a-nice person award.) So he didn't need to win the game, did he?



Monday (Feb. 2) TV: Too much, too good

We all know that Feb. 2 repeats itself over and over. That's what happened to Bill Murray in the "Groundhog Day" movie; the repeating was, we were told, a bad thing.

This week, however, I think it would be kind of good. Monday has way too many strong shows for one night; it would be a good day to repeat -- or at least to put our VCR's or TIVO's into hyperdrive.

Any regular Monday includes TV's best series ("House," 8 p.m.) and TV's best comedy ("Big Bang Theory," 8 p.m.). It has the sometimes-terrific "How I Met Your Mother" (8:30), plus the still-funny "Two and a Half Men" (9 p.m.) and "Prison Break" (9 p.m.) and more.

This Monday, things pile up. There's the 100th "House" episode, a richly crafted hour with an ethical dilemma that entangles Foreman. There's a compelling "American Experience" (9 p.m.), viewing the rush to find a polio vaccine. And there's the return of NBC's Monday line-up, which spent way too long on the shelf.

"Chuck" (8 p.m.) is an underrated delight. Now it's back with an episode that's in 3-D. (We're supposed to get glasses wherever SoBe is sold, which kind of depends on what SoBe is and where it's sold.)

"Medium," a fairly good show, finally starts its season at 10.  And in between is the start of a new "Heroes" chapter.

Often, "Heroes" has scattered its characters in too many places. Monday's episode tries to patch things up. By the end of Monday's hour, most of the characters are in one precarious place.

They'll split back up eventually, but this is a promising start. "Heroes" is making a heroic effort to get back on track.