Yes, there is a Broadway; Sutton Foster found and conquered it


Sutton Foster is a terrific performer, as we found wen she sang for the Television Critics Association. Now she has that same sort of concert -- intimate and Broadway-laced -- on PBS Friday (April 20), Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For a while, Sutton
Foster didn't even know there was a Broadway, much less a chance to
conquer it.

She was a kid in
Georgia -- “no music, no theater” -- and then in Michigan
suburbia. “No one in our family is an entertainer,” she said. “My
dad worked for Chevrolet; my mom was a mom.”

And then, quite
quickly, both kids zoomed to the top.

Her brother Hunter,
48, has been in 10 Broadway shows and received a Tony nomination.
Sutton, 43, has done 11; she's twice won the Tony for best actress in
a musical and has been nominated six times.

Now comes a new
distinction: She launches a PBS series of intimate concerts by
Broadway stars.

“There are so may
fantastically talented young Broadway folks, with great voices, great
stories,” said producer Andrew Wilk. Foster is “the real deal,
just perfectly authentic.”

On Broadway – and
in TV's “Younger” and “Bunheads” -- she plays grown-up
versions of the girl next door. That's how she comes across in real
life, as a Michigan/Georgia kid, astonished to live in the city.

“I love and hate
New York,” Foster said. “We have this wonderful relationship.
It's a thrilling city and a frustrating one at the same time.”

She was born in
Statesboro, Ga., and was show-biz-ready in one way: She and her
brother were both given distinctive names.

“My mom and dad,
their names are Helen and Bob,” she said. So “my mom was like,
'We have to name our children something more exciting than Helen and
Bob .... As soon as I started to become interested in the arts, I was
like, 'My name is going to stick out.'”

Hunter and Sutton
started in the library, she said, checking out cast albums. “I was
just watching things on the Tonys (and PBS). It was just sort of like
this fantasy dream world.”

She also found that
Georgia does have lots of musical theater, after all. By the time she
moved north, at 13, she was experienced. At Troy (Mich.) High School,
she was Frenchie in “Grease” and starred in other musicals. At
15, she was on “Star Search”; at 17, she left school early
(finishing by correspondence) to go on the road with “Will Rogers
Follies.”

A decade later,
after four other Broadway shows, Foster got her biggest break: She
was in the ensemble of a pre-Broadway “Thoroughly Modern Millie,”
when, reportedly, Kristin Chenoweth dropped out and Erin Dilly turned
down the role. Foster took it to Broadway and won the 2004 Tony.

She would win again
in 2011 for the “Anything Goes” revival. By then, Foster says,
she “was feeling a major burnout, because you do eight shows a week
and it's incredibly taxing and grueling.”

So she did two short
seasons of “Bunheads,” as a former chorus girl who inherits a
small-town dance studio. Then – after another Broadway show
(“Violet”) and another Tony nomination – was “Younger.”

The cable drama –
which starts its fifth season in June – started with Foster as a
40-year-old, disguising as 26 to survive in Manhattan's
youth-obsessed world. It's a deception she could pull off easily.

Foster still comes
across as a young mom. She and her second husband (Ted Griffin, the
screenwriter for “Ocean's 11,” the “Terriers” series and
more) adopted a daughter, who recently turned 1.

“I waited (until)
later in life to start a family, and I'm so glad I did in many ways,”
Foster said. “Because I never would have been ready.”

She feels she's also
ready for a PBS intimate concert, reflecting on her career so far. “I
feel like the last six years, we've been kind of working towards,
oddly, this show.”

-- “Live at
Lincoln Center,” 9 p.m. Friday, April 20 (check local listings), PBS; Sutton Foster, with Jonathan
Groff of “Glee” as guest star..

-- First of four
intimate concerts by Broadway stars. The next three Fridays have
Leslie Odom, Jr., Stephanie J. Block and Andrew Rannells and.

He's Bill Nye, the climate-change guy


For a while, Bill Nye was just a goofy guy wih goofy bow ties. He still has lots of the ties (about 500 of them) and still likes humor. But now, at 62, he's in the middle of dead-serious debates about climate change and more. Nye will be profiled in an interesting PBS documentary movie at 10 p.m. Wednesday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Bill Nye has taught
kids many skills, including blowing things up and throwing things
down.

But the most
important lesson comes from his own journey: In college, pay
attention to electives.

Nye had a fine major
(mechanical engineering), from a fine school (Cornell), leading to
the start of what could have been a fine career. He even had an
invention at Boeing; he might have been known as Bill Nye, The
Hydraulic Resonance Suppressor Tube Guy.

Instead, he became a
TV personality, first for kids and then -- as shown in a PBS
documentary movie Wednesday -- for grown-ups in hot-button
environmental issues. He's Bill Nye, the Science Guy ... and for
that, he credits an elective course taught by former PBS host Carl
Sagan.

“The guy utterly
changed my life,” Nye said. “I had finished all my engineering
requirements, so I thought, 'Oh, I'll take astronomy.'”

Nye went on to
Boeing in Seattle, but there were other tugs. One was the science
passion Sagan ignited; the other was winning a Steve
Martin-impressions contest and moonlighting in comedy clubs.

He began doing goofy
science experiments on a TV comedy show in Seattle. Then – in 1987,
when he was thinking about doing a science series -- came a brief
chat with Sagan.

“I met him at my
tenth college reunion,” Nye said. “I got a meeting with him for
five minutes. He said, 'When you do this show, focus on pure science.
Don't focus on technology.'

“You know, I'm an
engineer. I'm all about technology. And that really was hugely
important.”

Five years later,
“Bill Nye, the Science Guy” debuted. Produced by Seattle's PBS
station, it had a double life for five years, running of PBS and
commercial stations.

“His show made
science everyone's favorite subject,” said Justine Nagan, whose
“POV” series is showing the Nye film. “His blue lab coat and
bow tie became iconic.”

Both are in the
Smithsonian museum. The series – ranging from a vinegar and baking
soda explosion to hurling things down from a rooftop -- won 19
Daytime Emmys, two for best children's series.

It also may have
stirred young minds. “I grew up thinking the world was about 10,000
years old,” said David Alvarado, co-director of the PBS film.
“Watching Bill on TV was ... like getting out of that community and
thinking about the world in a different way.”

The notion, Nye
insists, is to stick with things that can be questioned and proven
scientifically. Now he spends much of his time – with speeches, two
books and a Netflix series – railing against what he calls
“anti-science” views about climate change and more.

The filmmakers
showed the adulation Nye gets on campuses, but also showed his
troubles. “They get what they want,” Nye said wryly. “They get
Steve Wilson saying that one thing, dear friend of mine.”

What Wilson said
was: “Bill has always wanted to be famous, from the get-go.”

This is a guy who
has kept finding the spotlight – from “Hollywood Squares” to
“Dancing With the Stars” to some poorly chosen battlegrounds.
After his much-publicized debate at a creationism museum, fundraising
soared for construction of a giant Noah's ark. “Kentucky tax
dollars are paying for buses to take kids to that thing,” Nye
grumbles.

The film shows
things out of his control – a “survivor's guilt” for escaping
the ataxia that struck his dad and siblings – and within it. It
shows Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist, digging into his life alone.

“In the middle of
the film, Dr. Berlin (is) grilling me about women and girlfriends
.... I kind of want to kill myself,” Nye said.

Viewers get the
impression he's never married, which is technically true. Seven weeks
after he married Blair Tindall (an oboist whose book is the basis for
the “Mozart In the Jungle” series), the license was declared
invalid; he got an annulment and, later, a restraining order.

His life has been
crowded. He may have overachieved that wish for fame. “Walking with
Bill through New York City is ... like Beatlemania sometimes,”
Alvarado said. “I imagine it takes a toll.”

-- “Bill Nye,
Science Guy,” 10-11:30 p.m. Wednesday, in PBS' “POV” series

-- Part of the PBS
preview of Earth Day, Sunday. “Nova” looks at science and the
weather, from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday; also, the animated “Cyberchase”
has eco-episodes all week.

-- “Bill Nye Saves
the World,” currently on Netflix

-- Previous shows
often appear on-air or in classrooms

-- Two books,
“Undeniable” (2014) and “Unstoppable” (2015), from St.
Martin's Press

 

 

Once a 'library nerd,' Lumbly now conquers Earth and Mars and beyond


"Supergirl" has always been a good show, but when it returns Monday (March 16) for the season's final nine episodes,it has a particularly strong hour. Alongside some boom-bang action scenes, there are moments of deep drama, some involving Carl Lumbly. Here's the story about Lumbly that I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Carl Lumbly keeps
rippling through the world of TV science-fiction.

He was a black
superhero, 23 years before Black Panther conquered Hollywood. He's
been a voice in many Superman and Batman cartoons. He's been the
Martian Manhunter and – currently, on “Supergirl” -- the
Manhunter's father.

So can we assume
this is some boyhood dream – that he used to gobble up comics as a
kid?

“Not comics,
books,” Lumbly said. “I was a library nerd. I read constantly.”

He devoured Robert
Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and, later, Oc tavia Butler. He savored “the
idea that we could move forward,” envisioning new worlds and often
reflecting on our current one.

In many ways, that's
what “Supergirl” does now: When the show returns Monday (April
16), it includes deeply dramatic scenes in which Lumbly's character
deals with age and memory loss.

“We all have a
curtain, we just don't know when it is,” said Lumbly, who is 66 and
widowed. “When you realize that, you react differently, including
gratitude for each and every moment you have.”

The show also
thrusts him into another issue – the immigrant experience.

M'ymn J'onzz
(Lumbly) has just arrived from Mars. His son J'onn (David Harewood),
the Martian Manhunter, has become accustomed to this country; for
M'ymn, it's a bewildering blur.

“That echoes
experiences in my own life,” Lumbly said. “It was a situation for
my mother and father.”

They were from
Jamaica and the dad had a job sponsor in Minneapolis. “You're going
from this beautiful, warm place to somewhere with 18-below
temperatures.”

That brings changes
in lifestyle, a tendency “to rely on infrastructure and to remain
walled off.”

Minnesota is famous
for good-natured people and Lumbly talks about “some wonderful
people I went to school with, of all backgrounds.” But even there,
he confronted bias.

He remained a book
person and a words person, graduating from Macalester College in St.
Paul and planning to be a journalist. But while covering a
Minneapolis theater group, he was cast in a show; it was the start of
a busy career.

Lumbly's roles have
ranged from small ones in support (including all seven years of
“Cagney & Lacey”) to big ones. He's played real-life people –
Bobby Seale, U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, a heroic dad in the passionate
“The Ditchdigger's Daughter.” He also had “my Spandex role”
in the 1994 series “M.A.N.T.I.S,,” playing a scientist whose suit
gives him superpowers.

His wife, movie star
Vonetta McGee, died in 2010 of a heart attack at 65. Lumbly has
continued to be busy, ranging from voice work – including the
Martian Manhunter in several cartoon series – and often returning
to the stage. “I'm just really dedicated to the idea of being an
actor,” he said.

That makes him an
ideal link with Harewood, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts grad,
described by Lumbly as “a treasure and a good, good man.”

Harewood entered
“Supergirl” as Hank Henshaw, before viewers learned that's the
Earth identity of J'onn J'onzz. Now he learns that his powerhouse
father is losing his memories.

-- “Supergirl,”
8 p.m. Mondays, CW

-- Returns April 16
for the final nine episodes of its third season; already renewed for
its fourth

 

 

A passionate pioneer keeps organizing at 87


The first surprise is that Dolores Huerta is still quick, vibrant and busy; we don't expect that from an 87-year-old. The second is that she has accomplished so much, without becoming well-known. Now more people will know her, after an excellent documentary airs Tuesday (March 27) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Dolores Huerta grew
up in a world of limits and barriers.

This was before
powerless people had a voice, long before teens would lead their own
march. Many people – including Latinos, farmworkers and women –
were on the outside.

Then Huerta went
into action. “I learned that you could really make policy changes
by organizing people and having them come together .... That was
exhilarating,” she said.

Agreements were
signed; bills were passed. “She was like a folk hero,” said Peter
Bratt, whose “Dolores” airs Tuesday on PBS.

A folk hero that
many of us had never heard of; her colleague's name is now on street
signs and schools and more. “History tells us that Cesar Chavez
transformed the U.S. labor movement, (but) he did not do it alone,”
said Marie Nelson, a PBS vice-president. “He had a partner, an
equal partner.”

That was Huerta, now
87. In 1962, the two of them created what would become the National
Farmworkers Union. Back then “everybody just assumed that men
always had to take the leading role,” she said. So “Cesar said to
me, 'One of us has to be the spokesperson. Is it OK if it's me?'”

“And I said, 'Of
course.' And looking back, I think I would have said, 'You know what,
let's go 50/50.'”

Huerta had grown up
in New Mexico and – after her parents' divorce when she was 3 –
Stockton, Cal. Her dad, the son of Mexican immigrants, was a miner;
her mom owned a restaurant and hotel. She went to community college,
taught elementary school briefly and headed to a middle-class life.

She had long
American roots; ancestors, she said, fought in the Civil War (for the
Union), World War II and Korea. “But that doesn't make any
difference if you're a person of color.”

Added was another
bias. One labor leader told her “farm-labor organizing was no place
for a woman,” Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval wrote in “The
Fight in the Fields” (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

But Huerta
persisted. It was tough, she said, “to leave the job as a school
teacher, with a safe, secure position, and to go down and organize
(with) no income and seven children.”

Three years later,
her group launched a national grape boycott. Ronald Reagan called it
“illegal and immoral”; Richard Nixon said, “I stand firmly
against it.” But Robert Kennedy backed it; on June 5, 1968, he
stood alongside Huerta as he spoke to a Los Angeles crowd.

“He was actually
supposed to go with me to a ballroom,”she said. “We had a
mariachi waiting.”

That's when he was
killed. “It was very devastating to everyone .... A lot of people
became very cynical and stopped being engaged in political activity.”

She didn't have that
luxury. “We were right in the middle of a big fight with the grape
boycott and the farmworker momement, so we had to continue. There was
no way we could stop.”

Two years later, the
strike ended; as chief negotiator, Huerta got benefits for
farmworkers. “Many of them now have a pension plan and a medical
plan and they got the toilets that they needed in the field.”

She also had major
successes as a lobbyist, in California (benefits for non-citizens)
and nationally (the 1986 immigration amnesty bill).”We actually had
to cut many, many chapters of Dolores' work,” Bratt said of his
film. “Her work in the LGBT community started way back with
Stonewall.”

Huerta was slower to
align with feminists. “Like many Latinos, I was very much
influenced by the Catholic church, in terms of thinking of abortion
as being a sin.” She eventually marched with Gloria Steinem and
favored choice. “It was a difficult decision for me.”

Her own life has
included 11 children from two marriages and then a long relationship
with the late Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother. Some have struggled;
others include a doctor and lawyer.

When Cesar died in
1993, Huerta was passed over for presidency; in 2002, she resigned
with a warm speech. Cesar Chavez “didn't have the privilege of
saying goodbye,” she said. “I have that privilege.”

She was 72 then and
promptly started a new foundation, plunging back into community
organizing. She resisted movie and TV ideas – until a star called.
“You can't say no to Carlos Santana.”

He produced
“Dolores”; Bratt directed and his younger brother (actor Benjamin
Bratt) consulted.

“We were raised by
an activist mother (a Peruvian native), who actually marched with
Dolores,” Peter said. “We were shocked that people didn't know
who (Huerta is).” Now they might.

-- “Dolores,”
9-11 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, under the “Independent Lens” title

-- Previously won
awards at five film festivals and was nominated at the Sundance
festival

Shandling: Comedy and kindness blended in a busy life


When I first met Judd Apatow -- 25 years ago, when he was a writer-producer for "The Ben Stiller Show" -- I could tell he was special; he was a good guy, with a sense for other people. Now we find that he had a good example to follow -- his mentor and friend, Garry Shandling. Apatow's richly detailed profile of Shandling debuts Monday on HBO and reruns often; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

A generation ago,
these friends-to-be met.

Both followed the
Jewish tradition of comedy, but that was all they had in common.

Gary Shandling was
34 and had just guest-hosted Johnny Carson's show; Judd Apatow was
16, interviewing comedians for the radio. Shandling had grown up in
Arizona, Apatow in Long Island. Shandling was spiritual; Apatow ...

“My parents didn't
believe in God,” he recalled. “I wasn't Bar Mitzvahed. The only
religion in my house was every once in a while, my mom would go,
'Nobody said life was fair.'”

Shandling would
later be his mentor and friend. Now, two years after his death (at
66, of myocardial infarction), he's remembered in Apatow's two-night
HBO biography.

This was someone
with a deep view of life, Apatow said. “He talked about Buddhism
and he gave me a book (by a Buddhist monk). That really changed my
life. He was a great friend .... He liked to talk a lot about being
kind and trying to be a loving person.”

In that long-ago
interview, Shandling discussed his early obsession (“I had a total
interest in comedians when I was 10”), his detour (at first,
majoring in electrical engineering), his success as a TV comedy
writer and his abrupt change: “I was sitting at my typewriter one
day and I realized this was not what I wanted to do the rest of my
life. I had a mid-life crisis at 28.”

He did stand-up,
then cable comedy for Showtime (“It's Garry Shandling's Show”)
and HBO.

“'The Larry
Sanders Show'” kind of lit the way for what HBO could be, (with)
very high-quality work,” Apatow said.

Apatow would
continue that, producing HBO's “Girls” and “Crashing,”
alongside movie hits from “40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Trainwreck.”
Now he's using HBO to recall a philosophic friend.

-- “The Zen
Diaries of Garry Shandling,” two-part, four-hour documentary, HBO

-- First part is 8
p.m. Monday (March 26). The two parts together are 6-10 p.m. Tuesday,
2-6 p.m. Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, 3-7 p.m. April 5.

-- Also, first part
reruns at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, second part Thursday night at
midnight; more reruns are on HBO2

-- Apatow's
interviews with Shandling and other comedians are in “Sick in the
Head” (Random House, 2016)