Burt Reynolds: A life of mistakes and grand triumphs

(There are two versions of this story, but this is the national one. For the Lansing State Journal, the story focuses on Burt Reynolds' Lansing roots. This is the second version, which I sent to other papers.)

By Mike Hughes

Burt Reynolds' life
will flash before us, one more time.

On Wednesday (Dec.
26), Turner Classic Movies has a six-film marathon. It reminds us
that Reynolds – who died in September at 82 – had a richly varied

At 10 p.m. ET is his
favorite. “If I had to put only one of my movies in a time capsule,
it would be 'Deliverance,'” Reynolds wrote in “But Enough About
Me” (Putnam's, 2015). It was “the best movie I've ever been in.
It proved I could act, not only to the public, but to me.”

But surrounding it
are two “Smokey and the Bandit films (8 p.m. and 4:15 a.m.) and
“Hooper” (2:15 a.m.), all directed by his friend Hal Needham, a
former stunt man. They were entertaining enough, but Reynolds kept
repeating himself with “Stroker Ace” and two “Cannonball Run”

“I'd chosen too
many films because I liked the location .... Or the leading lady,”
Reynolds wrote. “Or because I'd be working with friends. If the
script was crap, I rationalized that I could make it better. And I
usually did, but it was just better crap.”

He could do
intensity and comedy, as TCM shows with “The Longest Yard” at
midnight and “Best Friends” at 6 a.m. His resume and his life
were huge; people weren't even sure where he was from.

“Burt always told
me that he'd been born in Waycross, Georgia,” Sally Field wrote in
“In Pieces” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018). “Whether that's
true or not, I do know that he grew up in (Florida).”

Well ... sort of.
Reynolds spread the Waycross story, which fit his good ol' boy image.
He later granted that he was born in Lansing, Mich., but said he was
young – 5 or 6 or 7 – when he moved South.

But his first book
(“My Life,” Hyperion, 1994) talks about the family's 1946 move to
Florida, where his dad would become a small-town police chief. “He
wanted to make something of his life,” Reynolds wrote. “And at
ten years of age, I wanted to discover mine.”

They were
Northerners, suddenly in Florida. “It was in the dead of summer,”
Reynolds said in 1990. “And my sister, who's six years older than I
am ... got out and she said, 'Dear God, I'm in Hell!'”

This was a new world
for them. “It was segregated then,” he said in '90, “and it was
an incredible experience to grow up in a small town that way, having
a family that wasn't prejudiced.”

But he soon found
his image, despite his dad's approval. “I was a big rebel,” he
said. “I was constantly in trouble all the time, kind of like being
a preacher's son. And then I found athletics, which saved me.”

He did well as a
running back, got a Florida State scholarship, had a good start in
his first season (134 yards on just 16 carries), then was stopped by
injuries and, later, a car crash. Acting was Plan B.

Reynolds eventually
soared -- the No. 1 box-office star for four years and a talk-show

“He was incredibly
charming,” Field wrote, “adored at the time for being who he was
– a funny, self-deprecating, good ol' boy .... But he was also a
man engulfed by a massive wave of instant notoriety.”

He seemed
controlling and jealous, she wrote. He advised her to skip the Emmy
ceremony or “be prepared to lose again.” (She skipped it and
won.) When he read the “Norma Rae” script, he proclaimed it “a
piece of (crap)”; she won an Oscar in it.

In his second book,
Reynolds offered his regrets: “I'm sorry I never told her that I
loved her and I'm sorry we couldn't make it work. It's the biggest
regret of my life.”

He made many
mistakes, but he also thrived. “There's one thing they can never
take away,” Reynolds wrote. “Nobody had more fun than I did.”


-- Wednesday on
Turner Classic Movies

-- 8 p.m. ET,“Smokey
and the Bandit” (1977); 10, “Deliverance” (1972); Midnight:
“The Longest Yard” (1974); 2:15 a.m.; “Hooper” (1978); 4:15
a.m.: “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980); 6 a.m.: “Best Friends”

True Christmas spectacle: Sutton, Hugh, 17,000 pipes and 21,000 souls

Size and spectacle are key parts of many Christmas celebrations. It takes flair to decorate a mega-tree or to soar onto rooftops with eight or nine reindeer. And few events match the joyous spectacle of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's annual PBS and cable concert. Here's the story I sent to papers, looking at this year's event through the eyes of performers Sutton Foster and Hugh Bonneville ... known to TV viewers via "Younger" and "Downton Abbey.:

By Mike Hughes

Sutton Foster and
Hugh Bonneville are used to ruling big occasions.

She stars on
Broadway and in symphony halls; he runs Downton Abbey. They know
pomp, circumstance and spectacle ... but hadn't seen anything like
their Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert.

“I had that
feeling when I got out on stage,” Bonneville said. “The audience
adds to the emotion.”

And that's a lot of
people. “It's very overwhelming,” Foster said. “There are
20,000 people there.”

It's 21,000,
actually. That's more than 10 times the size of her Broadway theaters
... more than 200 times the size of his “Downton Abbey” dinner
parties. The concet also had a 300-voice choir, an orchestra ... and
a 7,667-piece pipe organ.

Foster sang
Christmas songs – from “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”
to the tune from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” her avorite holiday
show. Those will be in the PBS version, Dec. 17; for a longer version
(Dec. 20 on the BYUtv cable channel), she adds a “Willy Wonka”
song, plus “Jingle Bells” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” by
John Denver. “He always represented goodness,” she said.

Bonneville avoided
singing. “I'm not a musical person,” he said, despite having sung
quite regally as the pirate king in “Galavant,” for ABC. “I sat
in awe of the performances.”

His skill is
speaking in a precise, lord-of-the-manor voice; you might imagine him
delivering a sermon. Bonneville did study theology at Cambridge ...
but upper-crust Englishmen do that with no intention of being vicars.
“I always say I entered it as an atheist and came out as more of an

The son of a surgeon
and a nurse, he was more interested in acting than studying. Before
Cambridge, he did the National Youth Theatre; afterward, he studied
acting in London and ranged from movies and TV to the Royal
Shakespeare Company.

Back then,
Bonneville was doing comedy and even playing villains. It would take
a while to age into being the earl in “Downton Abbey,” in six
seasons on PBS and in a movie that recently finished filming. “We
had a lot of fun getting back together.”

At 55, he has the
age and the voice to stand before the Tabernacle crowd, reading Luke
2 and the story of Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer who faced
devastating tragedies, before writing the hymn that says: “Whatever
my lot, Thou hast taught me to know/It is well, it is well with my

What Foster shares
with Bonneville is the passion for performing. That peaked when –
after having roots in Georgia and North Carolina – she moved with
her family to a Detroit suburb. “It was an interesting move for me;
I was 13, in 7th grade; that's a tough time in your life.”

Her solution was
theater; “I found a place to fit in.”

She did school shows
and more. She competed in “Star Search,” auditioned for “The
Mickey Mouse Club” and left school early, to do “The Will Rogers
Follies” on tour. “I have absolutely no regrets. I was safe and I
was taken care of .... I was a very young 17; it taught me a lot.”

She graduated via
correspondence, even got to her prom -- the tour happened to be in
Detroit that week -- and beat all the odds against a theater career.
“I just plowed forward and kept going.”

After losing for
“Star Search” and such, she would become a winner – six Tony
nominations (winning for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything
Goes”), a Gracie Allen Award (for TV's “Bunheads”) and several
nominations for “Younger,” which starts its sixth season next

Now she lives in New
York with her husband Ted Griffin, the writer of “Ocean's 11,”
“Tower Heist” and the “Terriers” cable series. Last
Christmas, their adopted daughter was 9 months old and very approving
of the Rockefeller Center tree; this year, Emily can watch her mom
sing on TV.

-- “Christmas With
the Mormon Tabernacle Choir”

-- 9 p.m. Dec. 17 on
most PBS stations; some (check local listings) will rerun it at 9
p.m. Christmas Eve and 10:30 p.m. Christmas Day

-- That's a
60-minute version; a 90-minute one debuts at 8 p.m. Dec. 20 on BYUtv,
which is on cable, Dish, DirecTV and apps

-- Each telecast is
from the concert the previous year. This year's concert – Dec.
13-15, with Kristin Chenoweth as both singer and narrator – will
air in December of 2019

Her world had sleek beauty ... and a sociopath

I'd like to live in Debra Newell's world ... or, at least, in the re-creation of it for the new "Dirty John" mini-series. She seems to have great taste in design, but maybe not in romance. The show starts Sunday (Nov. 25), with a glamorous look and great work from Connie Britton as Newell; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Step into Debra
Newell's world and you're surrounded by beauty that is sleek and
slick ... and maybe a tad impersonal.

“There are no
antiques, no pictures of family,” production designer Ruth Ammon
said, on the set of the new “Dirty John” mini-series.

But there's a sense
that Newell, a designer, knew beauty and knew quality. For her new
boyfriend, John Meehan, this was dazzling. He soon marvelled at how
comfortable her mattress was.

“It turns out that
he had only been out of prison for two days,” said Jeffrey Reiner,
the “Dirty John” director. “He'd been laying on basically a
concrete slab before this.”

Or, at least, he was
fresh out of jail. A former nurse anesthetist in Dayton, Ohio, and
other places, Meehan had been caught stealing drugs; he lost his
nursing license and his freedom.

He spent 17 months
in a Michigan prison, then moved to California. Handsome and
barrel-chested, he began romances with wealthy women. Three had
restraining orders against him and he was jailed briefly. When he met
Newell on an online dating site, she was 59, attractive and

“She's really a
self-made woman,” said Connie Britton, who plays her in the
mini-series. “She was married four times prior to this (and) ended
up as a single mom. So started this business on her own that
flourished and actually started hiring single-mom employees.”

Newell wanted to
meet a successful man. Meehan, 55, said he was an anesthesiologist
and a part of “Doctors Without Borders.” He even showed up for a
fancy charity event wearing scrubs and saying he was just out of
surgery. “We find out that he was just at Taco Bell, eating a
burrito,” Reiner said.

Her daughters were
skeptical. What kind of doctor, they asked, doesn't have a car and
never seems to have money? But Newell wanted to be in love; they
moved to a gorgeous, Newport Beach home, which she again designed
beautifully. “She's creating almost a romantic scene,” Ammon

When it fell apart,
the story was told in a Los Angeles Times podcast and stories,
drawing strong reactions. “One of he things that pains me the most
is when people talk about, 'How could Debra be so stupid?'” said
Alexandra Cunningham, the “Dirty John” writer and showrunner.

It can happen
easily, Britton said, amid a search for love. “I've been amazed
(at) the people in my life who have come out o the woodwork (and
said), 'I was in a relationship with a sociopath' ....

“One thing that
they say is, 'They will say anything, to get you to stay.'”

-- “Dirty John,”
10 p.m. for eight Sundays beginning Nov. 25, Bravo

-- Connie Britton
stars as Debra Newell, with Eric Bana as John Meehan. Juno Tempo
plays Newell's older daughter, with Jean Smart as Newell's mother


Agatha is back ... and village life is lethal again

Acorn is a dandy screening service that's stuffed with shows from England, Australia and beyond. And now it has rescued Agatha Raisin, a fun character who is sort of like Lucy Ricardo turned blonde crimesolver. Her next movie arrives Monday (Nov. 19); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Two versions of
Great Britain seem to co-exist.

There's the real
world for most people, in crowded cities. And there's the other world
– villages, vicars, knitting clubs, tea parties -- where TV's
murder mysteries take place.

“Agatha Raisin,”
now returning with monthly movies, acknowledges both. Agatha, an
overwrought public relations person in London, inherited a house in a
folksy village; murder mysteries ensued.

The result gives
Ashley Jensen – the “Ugly Betty” and “Extras” co-star –
room to play. “There's this daft and eccentric quality” to
Agatha, she said. “I kind of push the envelope.”

And yes, cozy
villages do still exist. There are the places where “Agatha Raisin”
is filmed, including Biddestone, population 498. “It's beautiful
countryside,” Jensen said. “The sun shines a lot more.”

And there's her home
town. Annon is a Scottish coastal town of 8,900, complete with a
castle and a 19h-century town hall. Robert Burns worked there, Thomas
Carlyle studied there, Jensen played there.

“I grew up in
lovely country,” she said. “I loved school; I did everything.”
That included sports, Girl Guides, winning a Duke of Edinburgh Award
and, especially, the National Youth Theatre.

After college, she
did TV supporting roles, then got a big break in “Extras,” as
Ricky Gervais' socially inept friend. “It was a platonic
friendship,” she said, “which there haven't been many of on TV.”

Jensen got a British
Comedy Award, an Emmy nomination and a fresh following. Then came the
four seasons of “Ugly Betty” and more British shows.

Producers suggested
she play Agatha Raisin, who's been in 29 novels by M.C. Heaton. “I
thought, 'This is just a delight of a character.'”

There was a movie
and eight one-hour episodes. Then “Agatha” was cancelled ... and

Acorn, an American
streaming service specializing in shows from England and beyond, took
over. “No one was more surprised than I was,” Jensen said, “when
Acorn stepped in and said this was going to be on America first and
was going to be 90-minute movies.”

The new movie offers
lots of room for big, visual moments. That's Jensen in a garbage can
... and stuck in a window ... and having a VERY bad hair day ... and
then in a fundraising burlesque show.

“When I saw the
film of the burlesque scene, I thought, 'That's not bad for a lady
who's not 25 any more,'” said Jensen, 49. “It was actually very
liberating and fun to do.”

-- “Agatha Raisin
and the Wizard of Evesham,” available starting Monday on

-- Acorn is a
streaming service, $4.99 a month (after a trial period) and $49.99 a
year. It focused on British shows, with a library that includes “Doc
Martin,” “Foyle's War,” etc. With the competition from Britbox,
it has put more emphasis on Australia and beyond, and on directly
funding British shows.

-- “Agatha” is
Acorn's first turn as the lead producer. The monthly movies will
reach the U.S. first.


A nuts-but-true prison-escape story becomes a compelling mini-series

There are lots of good TV shows and a few truly great ones. The latest (and, almost, greatest) is "Escape at Dannemora," a superb, seven-week mini-series (debuting Nov. 18), with director Ben Stiller getting amazing work from Patricia Arquette, Eric Lange, Bonnie Hunt and more. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In the summer of
2015, a New York prison escape seized national attention.

“I just thought it
was nuts,” Eric Lange, a co-star of the “Escape at Dannemora”
mini-series, recalled. “It was mind-blowing -- sex in prison,
cutting through steel.It was all like this big soap opera.”

For 170 years, the
prison held everyone from Lucky Luciano to Tupac Shakur, without
escapes. Now two murderers were free; three weeks later, they were
shot (one fatally) within 35 miles of the prison.

Fresh details kept
emerging in the news, recalled producer Brett Johnson. “When you're
watching it in real time: 'Holy (crap), this guy's a painter .... His
paintings are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.' And then you find
out she was having sex with both” men, prior to their escape.

“She” is Joyce
“Tilly” Mitchell, a worker convicted of aiding them. In “Escape,”
Patricia Arquette creates Tilly's unusual sound (“we had a great
dialect coach”) and look.

This was a chance,
Arquette said, “to show a woman who enjoys sex, who doesn't have
this type of body that Hollywood people are supposed to have.”

Arquette didn't
arrive with a Tilly body, but she built it. “We became buddies,
trying to gain weight,” said Lange, who plays Lyle Mitchell, her
husband. “We'd sit at the table, eating pasta.”

In two months, Lange
put on 40 pounds. “It totally affected how I walked, how I did

It helped him adjust
to the heaviness of the world these people inhabited.

Dannemora is a town
of 3,900 people – almost 3,000 of them prisoners – just 25 miles
from Canada. “They call it 'Little Siberia,'” Lange said. “They
say there are two seasons – winter and July.”

The mini-series
people – who did some filming outside the prison and in the town –
recall the mood. Arquette calls it “desolate.” Ben Stiller, who
directed, talks of “the heaviness they were living with.” Paul
Dano, who plays one of the escapees, recalls “the smell, the
temperature in the air, the sound.”

The town has “a
lot of really lovely people,” Lange said. Some had adjusted to a
no-frill life. “The most exciting part of Lyle's day is, 'Where are
we going to eat today?' And for him, that's enough.”

His wife is
different, Arquette said. She “is kind of bored and wants to feel
alive. I'd hear these stories of all these people who were having
affairs .... I think we as a species want to feel alive.”

Tilly “would play
the top-40 music station in the tailor shop all the time,” Stiller
said. “Here's 40 convicted felons and one civilian worker and one
corrections officer in a room.”

The Mitchells had a
working-class, Americana life -- something Lange, 45, can relate to.
He grew up near Cincinnati, in Hamilton, with a dad who worked with
software and a stay-at-home mom.

“I was alway in
choir,” he said. “I would drum, I would play the piano, I would
sing.” When there was no choir available to high school freshmen,
he tried the drama club. “The curtain went down, then went up again
and everyone clapped. That was it; I was sold.”

He did lots of
theater at Miami (Ohio) University, then found jobs in California.
Many were in heavy dramas – the villain in the first year of “The
Bridge,” the station chief in “Narcos,” the coroner in “Wind
River,” Mitch in a stage “Streetcar Named Desire.” But he also
played the theater teacher in “Victorious,” a broad teen comedy
that propelled Ariana Grande, Elizabeth Gillies and more.

A casting director
asked him to audition for “Escape” and sent a tape of Lyle being
interviewed. “He seemed befuddled and confused,” Lange said. “It
was really quite moving.”

Lange added a wig
and fake teeth and auditioned. Forty pounds later, he entered a
“nuts” world.

-- “Escape at
Dannemora,” 10 p.m. Sundays for seven weeks starting Nov. 18,

-- Opener reruns
daily – 11:05 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Monday, 7:55 p.m. Tuesday, 10
p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, 10:30 p.m. Saturday
(Nov. 24), 1:55 and 6:55 p.m. Nov. 25.