Liner Notes: When The Dread Pirate Roberts Met The Godfather

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

“Do you want to hear a story? It’s a good one.”

Note to future journalists, if there are any left: if you’re interviewing someone who’s super-famous, these are precisely the words you want to hear. This will also be the story that will absolutely not fit into your word count, no matter how many tricks you try. A few weeks ago, this is what I heard myself when I was sitting at a hotel room desk with Cary Elwes, the actor most famous for his role as the farm boy Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) in the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride. You can read my short feature interview with him at Kirkus Reviews about his new memoir, As You Wish. But there’s always so much more behind these interviews—I swear I could compose an entire book based on outtakes alone. That being the case, here’s a couple of interesting moments that didn’t make it into my story.

Elwes has a reputation in Hollywood for exacting preparation, for starters. This isn’t surprising, given his background at The Actor’s Studio in New York, as well as the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is part of the story I mentioned above. I was, however, surprised at the actor’s reasoning behind it.

Cary Elwe“I’m a historian at heart, if you look at my body of work,” Elwes said. “History was absolutely my favorite subject at school. It’s the only subject where a professor is standing up there just telling you stories. I loved history and I loved learning about our species and all the crazy things we’ve gotten up to in the past, so I became an avid historian by accident. It’s not happenstance that much of my work has led towards that kind of genre. Before the Internet, you would find me in the library. Once the Internet came alone, my life as an actor changed. I used to overdo it. I used to show up with a ton of research, and directors would be like, ‘Cary, relax, it’s just a movie.’ So I finally learned to relax and take the notes I need to take and read the material I need to read and just download it and let the character remember it all. It’s so much easier to let that information come through the pores of a character rather than scrambling to remember ever little detail.”

The only real trouble I had with this particular interview was its timing. As You Wish, you see, was published on October 14th, well in advance of Christmas sales and in plenty of time for Simon & Schuster’s considerable publicity department and Cary’s own team to do their thing. This means that by the time I happened to luck into an in-person interview, Cary Elwes has pretty much been interviewed by anybody who possesses some form of electricity—we’re talking dozens of newspapers, hundreds of morning shows, an epic appearance on Kevin Pollack’s Chat Show, and a good number of podcasts to boot. (Note to self: your own grasp of technology did not prevent the new Apple iOS update from screwing up your recording app, forcing you to record this interview on two antique tape recorders. Your interview prep could definitely use some brushing up.)

Add to this fact that my subject was a bit beat from speaking at Powell’s Books in Portland the night before—an event that drew over 2,000 people during the largest event in the bookstore’s storied history, mind you—and you might see my concern. That was why I brazenly cautioned him that if I started to hear a story that I’ve heard before, I might guide him in a different direction. (Yes, this would be me advising a world-famous actor how to do an interview.) So this is when Cary Elwes decided to tell me a story about being a very non-famous actor, long before The Princess Bride made him a household name.

Princess Bride“I’m in New York and I’m at a restaurant,” he said. “I moved to New York to be around all these titans that I worshiped as an actor. Suddenly, across this restaurant I see Al Pacino sitting down to a meal. Now, you have to watch everything of Pacino’s if you’re serious about acting. You’re not studying the craft if you don’t. My friend I was with pointed him out, so I turned around, trying not to be obvious, and there he was. I thought, ‘I’ll kill myself if I don’t meet him.’ So I timed it as I he started to leave, one of those so-called, coincidental, just bumped-into-him things. He asked my name, and he could tell right away that I was an actor, and he asked, ‘So what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I just got here.’ And he says, ‘No, you’re not. You’re drifting.’ So, Michael Corleone just called me a drifter, and my heart sank.”

“Then he taps me on the head, and says, ‘What’s this?’ And I said, ‘My brain?’ and he goes, ‘No.’ This is getting better by the minute. Then he tapped me on the chest and says, ‘What’s this?’ ‘My heart?’ I said. He says, ‘Wrong. They’re both muscles. You work out, right? What happens when you don’t go to the gym? They atrophy. Why wouldn’t you go work out both of these muscles? Whenever I’m not shooting, I go work them out.'”

“That was the moment that really inspired me,” Elwes said. “He was the one who introduced me to the people at the Actor’s Studio, and after I had spent a year with them, he introduced me to his mentor, Charlie Laughton. I spent the next two years studying under the great Charlie Laughton and Anna Strasberg, getting lessons that Lee Strasberg once taught, passed down to me from my heroes. Al didn’t really know me at all, and he opened a lot of doors for me, which changed my life.”

All in all, he seems like a decent fellow.

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Behind The Imitation Game

The Imitation GameLike many others, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming release of The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the film, the actor portrays the brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst Alan Turing, who was absolutely mission-critical to the breaking of Germany’s enigma code during World War II. The film delves, deservedly, much deeper into the troubled and complicated life of Turing, who died in 1958 from cyanide poisoning just a few days before his 42nd birthday. The film opens November 28 worldwide.

I’ve been wondering how many people have a good history of just what the men and women of Bletchley Park accomplished. I know my British friends and historian friends are steeped in the story, but so many people don’t learn proper history these days. I think it’s a very good thing to put Turing’s story on the big screen for all to see, especially as portrayed by someone of Cumberbatch’s extraordinary abilities.

We’ve seen Bletchley Park portrayed before, of course, though not quite so accurately. There was the 2001 film Enigma, based on the novel by Robert Harris, although that was filmed elsewhere. There was also the recent British television drama The Bletchley Circle, and either before or after you see The Imitation Game, I would recommend a viewing of the new drama-documentary Codebreaker, which goes into quite some detail about Turing’s life before and after the war as well.

I think I have some affinity for this story, too, because I stood where Turing did, once. Some time ago when I was living in London, we took the train out to Bletchley Park and spent the entire day exploring the grounds and buildings, talking to elderly volunteers who had either worked there or had relatives who had, and learning much more about the project than I had ever previously known. I was also lucky enough to have met the late computer engineer Tony Sale, who led the reconstruction of the Colossus computer that is now one of the centerpieces of the National Museum of Computing that is on site at Bletchley Park.

On the eve of the release of The Imitation Game I thought it might be worth revisiting the travelogue I wrote about Bletchley Park immediately after my visit. Enjoy.

The Secrets of Station X

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883.  As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

The mansion at Bletchley Park was built in 1838 and renovated extensively by Sir Herbert Leon starting in 1883. As war loomed closer in 1938, the Government Code and Cipher School purchased the property, valuing its good transportation links and location outside of London, later bombed heavily during The Blitz.

It was by far the best-kept secret of World War II, England’s secret weapon against the onslaught of Nazi military power. Not a rocket or a tank, the savior of thousands of soldiers was a secret intelligence headquarters codenamed “Station X,” housed in a moderate country manor north of London called Bletchley Park. Here at the Government Code and Cipher School, more than 12,000 mathematicians, cryptoanalysts, linguists, engineers, and clerks worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes being delivered between Germany and its armies in Europe and Africa as well as U-boats and other naval forces attacking Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.

During the entire course of the war, it never slipped that a secret army of code breakers was fighting a secret war on the Bletchley campus. In fact, the work of Station X was so secret that Winston Churchill himself ordered all of its paperwork destroyed and the site was not declassified for more than thirty years. At Bletchley Park, secrets were not just deciphered but kept as well.

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70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

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What Might Have Been

It’s no secret that I love alternative histories, not to mention the secret histories of the world, so these next two interviews feel like kindred spirits to me.

DominionFirst up, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing C.J. Sansom, the distinguished Scottish novelist and iconoclast behind the Matthew Shardlake historical thrillers and the very fine spy novel Winter in Madrid. I feel very lucky to have caught him when I did, because his new novel Dominion is spectacular. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. I had to laugh when the interview was published to see no less than Stephen King broadcast, “That book DOMINION is terrific. And no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it. Nice and long, too.”

As stated, it’s an alternative history of World War II, but it’s a damned thoughtful one, let me tell you. Sansom pulled off a great trick, as we discuss in “Inventing a New History,” in that he only changed a single fact: instead of the ferocious Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, the so-called “architect of appeasement,” Lord Halifax, takes the role. By the time we catch up to the “present” in 1952, Great Britain is under German occupation and America has retreated under the cover of isolationism. It’s a great spy novel but it’s also truly creepy at times, throwing out seemingly random facts like the fact that the Holocaust has come and gone, with only whispers that it ever happened at all. I’m told that BBC radio adapted it as a miniseries, so there’s a note to self to go check that out, too.

You can get the most interesting comments in the interview at Kirkus, but I thought it was worth sharing a few conversations that didn’t make it into the feature. It was a bit too much to go into there, but Mr. Sansom definitely had an agenda in writing Dominion.

The author, a trained historian himself, managed to drum up a bit of controversy when the book was released. The minor kerfuffle was over his portrayal of Enoch Powell, which you can read about in the British Press. The underlying theme of the novel, however, is warning against the dangers of nationalism. It’s an issue that Sansom cares about deeply, as it falls right in line with his passionate opposition to the Scottish vote on independence later this year. Here’s what he had to say about the dangers inherent in national idealism.

“The short answer is: look at modern European history,” he explained. “The first danger is the extent to which socially liberally or socially conservative views on issues of personal freedom prevail. Those are the things that most people argue about when they argue about politics. About only a week or two ago, Nichola Sturgeon, who is the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, said that independence transcends conventional politics. Well, I think it’s very bad to transcend conventional politics, because you’re saying other issues don’t matter; it’s just nationality that matters. I think that’s wrong. It’s also completely unrealistic and myth-making because the issues that one faces in daily life are ones of political economy. Dreams of nationality don’t fill people’s stomachs. It’s also dangerous because nationalism by definition defines itself against an an enemy of ‘other’ There always has to be an enemy. That’s dangerous.”

“If you say nationalism trumps other issues, it’s very easy to stomp down the road to authoritarianism,” he continued. “I’m not saying it always happens, but there is always a risk. Nationalists also wind up anthropomorphizing the nation as just a collection of people who lived in the same place under the same political rule for a few hundred years. Nationalism gives the state a sort of human personality. The national destiny, the national dream, the national feeling. To me, that’s all just so much rubbish.”

Half WorldBack on this side of the pond, I connected with novelist Scott O’Connor about his eerie new novel Half World. It’s about one of the great secret histories of America, delving not only into a series of desperately dark personal journeys but into the connective tissue of American conspiracies, the threads that lead directly from Menlo Park to Dealey Plaza to Jonestown, Abu Gharib and beyond. In my feature “Thought Control” at Kirkus Reviews, we delved into the history of Project MKUltra, the CIA’s decades-long experiment in bioengineering behavior through the use of LSD, behavioral modifications, hypnosis, rape and torture.

“What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories out there about the program,” O’Connor explained. “A quick Google search will implicate MK Ultra in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years. The records were only destroyed because the agnecy knew that public hearings were coming. The political climate was changing because of Watergate and Vietnam and they knew they were going to be called to be counted. In the mid-70s, there were a couple of hearings in which they disclosed assassination attempts and coups. It was pretty shocking, especially at the time. The idea that this was the project that they destroyed records over is terrifying. I mean, they didn’t destroy the records about trying to kill Castro, which was a pretty shocking revelation in 1975, but this had to be buried. It really makes you wonder how bad it got. As a novelist, you now have something to write about because it gives you a place to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have happened there.”

Sleep tight.

Louis Prima Played It Pretty For the People

Author’s note: sometimes you don’t want good stories to disappear. This was one of my first magazine features, and because it’s of a historical nature, I think it holds up. It was also a lot of fun to write, and some of the original voices in the story, like sax man Sam Butera, have left us. Anyway, every so often, you may see me resurrect an old story for my entertainment, and for yours. A slightly alternative version of this story originally appeared in the late Atomic Magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Prima.

To his guys, he was simply, “The Chief,” or “The Boss.”  To throngs of admiring women, he was a magnetic, charismatic star with a dazzling and disarming smile.  For musicians he was their sensational trumpet player as well as the bandleader who knew how to bring out the best playing they had in them.  For children, he remains forever the voice of “King Louie,” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.  To a legion of music lovers worldwide, he is the indomitable, gravel-voiced giant of swing that is the one and only Louis Prima.

Atomic Louis Prima One

For Prima fans, a large chunk of the musician’s formidable output has been widely unavailable until now.  Louis’ widow, Gia Prima, has recently re-released nine albums that were originally available on Prima’s own Prima 1 Magnagroove label.

“It was a long, hard battle but I’m so proud of them.  I think they look beautiful and they sound wonderful,” said Prima of the process of re-releasing the records.

Featuring original album covers and remastered recordings, the discs cover the years from 1962 to 1975.  They include such rare albums as Prima Show at the Casbar and King of Clubs that have been out of print since the early sixties as well as regional favorites like Just A Gigalo and The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show, which sold almost exclusively at live gigs in Las Vegas and New Orleans.

“You close your eyes and it’s like a time machine taking you back to a Las Vegas of long ago,” said New Orleans radio host Ron Cannatella, who has consulted with the Prima estate on the re-releases.  “It’s really like being in the audience.  You can hear the clinking of the glasses and the crowd really getting into it.”

Louis & KeelyThrough three-quarters of a century, King Louie’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping brand of New Orleans-flavored jazz continues to reign over fans, critics and other artists.  His music could fill three lifetimes and has deeply entrenched itself into the fabric of American life.  He was a crack big band leader who went on to form the hottest combo in the world.  In his later years he became a children’s favorite but never stopped experimenting with style and substance until he passed on into legend with his death in 1978.  Since then, he has passed his unique combination of deft musicianship and daft humor onto a broad spectrum of artists ranging from ridiculous remakes to smoking tributes from the neo-swing set.

Prima is also the bridge between two other monoliths of 20th century American music.  Alongside him is Louis Armstrong, a more serious horn blower, but one who came out of the same New Orleans tradition that Prima was born into.  After Prima comes Frank Sinatra, who took Prima’s reconstruction of the lounge act and forged his own famous “Rat Pack.”

Louis Prima would be a legend if all he had ever done was to compose the now-classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” around 1935.  The big band anthem became hugely successful for the famous rearrangement performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and was the first song to be put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Lucky for all of us, on December 26, 1954, the stars aligned and Louis Prima struck gold again on the night the Witnesses were born. (Keep swingin’ with Louis Prima after the jump).

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