I Am Jackie Chan

The Book of the Week is “I Am Jackie Chan” by Jackie Chan, published in 1998. This is the autobiography of Jackie Chan, a kung fu movie stuntman.

Born in April 1954 to parents who worked as household help in a foreign embassy in Hong Kong, Chan was frequently subjected to cruel physical punishment by his father. When he was about seven years old, unable to sit still in a formal classroom, he was sent to China Drama Academy, a boarding school. There, approximately fifty kids of all ages were taught kung fu, and for a fleeting time, basic academic subjects by a series of tutors. When Chan left the school after ten years, the kids numbered about thirty, due to attrition. Discipline was meted out with the painful striking of a cane on the hands by the master for even minor infractions. The master’s senior underlings were into bullying.

After leaving the Academy, Chan had difficult periods in his life as a young adult, involving a romantic subplot, poverty, more bullying, and dangerous physical work, among other adventures. He spoke no English. He could take jobs that required minimal literacy, but those were all menial, with no chance for growth. Formal education was not for him. He came to the realization that his career options were extremely limited because the only marketable skill he possessed was as a stuntman.

Much later, during the making of the movie, “Rush Hour” Chan writes, “Three insurance guys were standing around the director… It took several hours for them to rig padded mats so that they’d catch me if I fell… ” It took a while for Chan to get used to the hassles associated with litigious American culture.

The making of Hollywood’s movies cost many times more than Chan’s Hong Kong movies. Many American producers spared no expense whenever they needed props or equipment but stuck to a strict shooting schedule, which meant reluctance to re-shoot scenes that weren’t perfect. Chan’s culture in Hong Kong was the opposite. He would resourcefully use whatever props or equipment were on hand and re-shoot a scene innumerable times to get it perfect with no insurance, no… “private jets, no mansions, no luxurious trailers, no fancy food.”

Read the book to learn how Chan separated his identity from that of Bruce Lee, and became a director, producer, film editor and stuntman in his own movies.

Married to Laughter

The Book of the Week is “Married to Laughter” by Jerry Stiller, published in 2000. This is Stiller’s autobiography.

Born in 1927, the author grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York and Williamsburg neighborhoods in New York City. “During the Depression, many husbands left their homes and moved into the bathhouses, establishments normally occupied by alcoholics and womanizers drying out after a night in the bars.” Stiller’s father went to stay at a bathhouse when his parents weren’t getting along. For a while, his father was an unemployed cab driver who had to feed a wife and three kids. During a physical fight over money, the author’s mother told the author to call the police. “Jews did not call the police– Jews fighting among themselves. The police would only watch and laugh. Encourage us to kill ourselves.”

 As a youngster, Stiller wrote to the radio station to get his family free tickets to witness the recording of Eddie Cantor’s radio show at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The author was then inspired to become a comedian.

“Off-Broadway theater was a new concept in 1947. It wasn’t Broadway. But it was theater.” After his discharge from the army, Stiller tried to become a stage actor. He ended up attending college on the GI Bill, the original reason he’d joined the army.

Stiller had this to say about the TV show “Seinfeld” on which he played George Costanza’s father: “The show was successful because it never apologized for the behavior of its characters. Nor do most people in real life apologize when they step over the line. The show mirrored not just Jewish behavior, but everyone’s.”

Read the book to learn about Stiller’s adventures in the army, how he developed his craft with a professor’s help, and about his life with Anne Meara– his partner in comedy and in life.

The Hoax

The Book of the Week is “The Hoax” by Clifford Irving, published 2006.

This is a personal account of an incredibly talented, savvy phony and writer, who, starting in 1969, with a co-conspirator, Dick Suskind, proceeded to write the autobiography of reclusive businessman Howard Hughes; phony, because he had never met Hughes.

McGraw Hill, Irving’s publisher, believed Irving when he told them he had actually spent time with Hughes. McGraw wanted to believe that it was going to produce an exclusive work on a billionaire businessman who, up to that point, had refused to let anyone publicize significant information on his personal life.

Irving and Suskind perpetrated their deception because: trying to get away with preying on the gullibility and greed of the publishing industry was a challenge that would make them feel alive.

Pursuant to the writers’ scheme, the book was “…based on fact and yet we had the freedom and power to infuse fact with the drama of fiction.” The writers did extensive research– spent hours poring over old city telephone directories, old maps, surveys, society columns and classified documents in order to perfectly embody Hughes’ voice in print. When they were concocting anecdotes, they inserted (real) people who were dead because dead people couldn’t sue for libel.

Incidentally, a whole other book could be written on the name for the marital anguish: soul-vomit, that Irving caused his wife with his adulterous behavior– that has so much female appeal on the big screen and in books.

Read the book to learn what was becoming of Irving and Suskind when Irving was heard to say, “You know, I’ve had a lot of experience in this past year burning manuscripts. It takes a long time and it’s not easy.”

Jimi Hendrix

The Book of the Week is “Jimi Hendrix” by Sharon Lawrence, published in 2005. This ebook is the biography of the world-renowned guitarist.

Hendrix suffered numerous hardships and deprivation in his childhood. Born in 1942, he was shuttled among various relatives, including his alcoholic father– divorced from his mother when he was 9; she died when he was in his mid-teens. He developed a passion for music, which was his one solace.

By the mid-1960’s, he had formed a band with two other musicians, and they were touring and recording on an unusually rigorous schedule. This prompted them to resort to partaking of pills, marijuana, hashish and LSD to mitigate severe sleep deprivation and stress.

Hendrix was afforded the opportunity to meet or play music with many other rock stars of his generation. Due to his incredible talent, he experienced tremendous fame very suddenly. Unfortunately, he was too passive and nice. Read the book to learn the details of how Hendrix fared after he allowed numerous greedy, manipulative and ungrateful people to enter his life.

 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The Book of the Week is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” by Crystal Zevon, published in 2007. This is a biography of singer/ songwriter/ guitar player, Warren Zevon, written by his ex-wife.

Born in 1947, Zevon started partying like a rock star in his teenage years. He and fellow musicians partook of a variety of controlled substances, including marijuana, acid and hash. Warren later became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Philandering was a lifelong part of Zevon’s persona. Nevertheless, he was well-versed in what developed nations consider “the classics” in literature and in classical composers. As an adolescent, he was afforded the opportunity to meet Igor Stravinsky.

The many people interviewed for this ebook who drifted in and out of Zevon’s life all said he was immensely talented at writing imaganitive song lyrics. However, the reason most of them had a relationship with him that was rocky, or permanently severed, was due to his temperament when he was drunk, or his taking offense at a remark they made. He would ignore their communications for weeks or months.

At times, Zevon could utter witty lines, such as a) the title of this ebook, and, b) in the author’s recollection, “I can’t eat on an empty stomach.’ He’d down a little more vodka and we’d go have breakfast. Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge…” Sometimes, his self-destructive tendencies were insane, such as when she observed him playing darts in his bedroom; absent a dartboard. “There were all these holes in the wall… they were knife holes. He was lying in bed throwing a knife at the wall.” He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which he received no treatment. Various of his residences were a disaster.

The songs Zevon became most famous for include “Werewolves in London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Read the book to learn about a) his music career making albums; b) his composing music for movies; c) playing in the band on a prominent TV show as a fill-in musician; and d) whether he was able to turn his life around and repair his severed relationships with his family, friends and colleagues.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.

A Funny Thing Happened… – Bonus Post

The short ebook “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future” by Michael J. Fox, published in 2010 is an inspiring commencement speech.  The author answers the question, “What constitutes an education?”

As a teenager, Fox himself sacrificed his formal education for his career. It was an alternate route that was not necessarily inferior to his staying in school. He had found his passion early in life and circumstances allowed him to pursue it. He does not necessarily recommend the method he fell into, but tells the reader to be on the lookout for and respect mentors, opportunities and lessons in life. Read the book to learn the details of the education Fox did receive.

My Happy Days in Hollywood

The Book of the Week is “My Happy Days in Hollywood” by Garry Marshall, published in 2012. This ebook is the autobiography of the Hollywood director, producer, screenwriter, playwright and actor.

Marshall grew up in the Bronx. After graduating college, he volunteered for the army. In 1959, almost immediately after returning home, he was hired on the spot as a copyboy at the New York Daily News. He writes, “They didn’t even care where I went to journalism school. As long as I could carry a cup of coffee without spilling it…” He made $38 a week.

The author paired up with a writing partner to create jokes and skits to be sold to stand-up comedians. He also wrote for famous TV shows and celebrity comedians. When he was starting out, in order to get the business, he had to write scripts on spec.

By 1963, Marshall and a different partner had “…written 31 produced sitcom scripts, [with a typewriter in those days] which was more than any team had ever written before.” The TV shows he produced that became most famous were “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Odd Couple” and “Mork and Mindy.”

In theater and movies, he realized that “…you need more than ‘funny.’ You have to have a story with depth and emotions that people can follow.”

Read the book to learn what Marshall learned and experienced in his four-plus decades working in television, movies and the theater.

Cronkite

The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.

In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.

There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.

This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”

This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.

For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.

The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.

Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.

Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat:  the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events–  the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.

My Extraordinary Ordinary Life

The Book of the Week is “My Extraordinary Ordinary Life” by Sissy Spacek with Maryanne Vollers, published in 2012. This is the ebook autobiography of an actor and filmmaker who grew up in a small town in Texas.

Everyone knew everyone else. They were church-going folk, farmers and merchants, Methodists and Baptists. The mayor of the town was also its fire chief, owner of the local insurance company and funeral home. His brother was an undertaker, hardware store owner and co-owner of a motel. The brother’s wife was room attendant at the motel and a chinchilla breeder.

Spacek’s immediate family included her parents and two much older brothers, and many pets through the years, including horses. She writes, “I learned to drive a car when I was still a little kid, seven or eight years old.” At thirteen, she was driving with a thirteen-and-a-half year old passenger who had an official driver’s license. This is because in rural areas, people learn to drive farm equipment at an early age.

In high school, Spacek took up baton twirling as a majorette with a marching band that performed at halftime at high school football games– one of three major values in Texas; the others being family and Christianity.

In 1971, the author acted in her first movie, Prime Cut, with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, that required her to do a scene in the nude. She is probably best known for playing Carrie in the eponymous movie.

Read the book to learn about her adventures as a young adult in 1960’s New York City, and as an actor, wife and mother in various states in later decades.