NBC’s Party at Avery Fisher Hall: Sassa, Conan and a Nasty Li’l Dog

Wednesday, May 19

NBC presented its ’99-’00 lineup to its advertisers at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall May 17. That’s right, a classy venue, meant to reflect the programming– Frasier , with its upscale latte humor; Friends , with its beautiful people in beautiful surroundings (and, oh yeah, and highest joke-per-second ratio in TV history); and E.R. , the oh-so-serious drama that allows the network to do Big Issues among the frothy sitcoms and gut-wrenching Dateline segments (multiple births, organ transplants, etc.). These are boutique shows for a boutique network–an Avery Fisher Hall kind of network. (Right?) That’s what they were selling to the advertisers, anyway. And then along came Conan O’Brien.

“I like our new slogan: ‘Let us entertain you.’ Isn’t that a great slogan?” said Mr. O’Brien from the stage. “I think it’s much better than last year’s slogan: Let us squander an incredible lead .”

The place–reeking of Binaca and breath mints–roared louder than it did for any of the lines culled from clips from the new Must-See TV lineup shown earlier. For Mr. O’Brien had brought subtext of the day’s event– NBC is not what it used to be! Help! –to the surface. Aye, the former No. 1 network has dropped 14 percent of its audience during the ’98-’99 season. Today’s spin mission was to tell the advertisers something along the lines of: Ratings, shmatings–at least we get the viewers who count, people with money, between 18 and 49 years old.

There was a time, not too long ago, when NBC executives would run screaming from Conan O’Brien. And like David Letterman before him, Mr. O’Brien struck back at those who had little confidence in him with stinging, aggressive comedy bits disguised as harmless late-night wackiness. Who can forget Mr. O’Brien’s version of the NBC peacock, a giant, skinny bird who urged the audience, in a screeching, unpleasant voice, to watch some of NBC’s vilest shows; NBC executives actually objected to the peacock at one point, Mr. O’Brien said in an interview. But now, with the lanky late-night host’s show bringing boatloads of cash into General Electric, which owns the network, he had the dubious show-biz honor of serving as the guest of honor before an audience NBC needed to impress at this annual convention known as “the upfronts.”

Accompanying Mr. O’Brien was Triumph, the Insult-Comic Dog, a recurring character on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in the amusingly disgusting tradition of the Masturbating Bear and the Gaseous Weiner. Triumph, a Rottweiler-style hand puppet, wears an oversize, gold bow tie. Also debuting before the advertisers were NBC’s new West Coast president, Scott Sassa, and his deputy, new entertainment head, Garth Ancier; replacing Don Ohlmeyer, Mr. Sassa comes from Turner Broadcasting; replacing Warren Littlefield, Mr. Ancier from the WB network.

With Mr. O’Brien having uttered aloud what was on everyone’s minds, Triumph the Insult-Comic Dog’s piped in with his gravelly, Eastern European accent: “This up-front presentation thing, it’s terrific, it’s one of the cultural highlights of the season …” (Long pause.) ” For me to poop on! ”

Doing the puppet’s voice was Robert Smigel, comedy renegade and former Conan producer. Then Mr. Smigel’s Triumph got personal. Taking on Mr. Ancier’s WB pedigree, the puppet said: “Oh, the WB–I’m so impressed! Give me a break. I have worms in my stool that have shows on the WB!”

How’z about the new NBC fall schedule, Triumph?

“Oh, yes , very great, entertaining stuff, I watched it all ,” said Triumph, fangs dripping with sarcasm. “I haven’t had this much fun since the doctor chopped my nuts off.”

The advertisers in the audience were seeing the meeting of two elements that have been part of NBC since the 1950’s: tough TV executives and subversive comedy. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think that the executives let Conan run wild on stage (or, in the case of Triumph, poop on it) because, as broadcast moguls, they have such respect for freedom of expression? More likely, they felt they were giving their advertisers a few good belly laughs before sending them back home to podunkville. But the NBC comics did better than work over the conventioneers for laughs. They scored.

Messrs. Sassa and Ancier played it cool on the Avery Fisher stage, stressing NBC’s “stability.”

Their message to the ad hawks, with their $7 billion in bull market booty that’s up for grabs: As you all spend the week facing similar spectacles from the other networks this week, we’re still the one you have to be with.

The ad execs sat in awed silence as a giant screen between two pillars topped by peacocks showed six multicolored socks–why socks?–that turned into … a peacock. Then it pulsed images, rapid-fire: David Spade! The gang from Friends ! Third Rock ‘s John Lithgow! Brooke Shields! A virtual TV explosion ! And with that, the peacock exploded and the following take-me-to-your-leader phrase appeared in white letters on a black backdrop: “The audience is watching. The advertisers are buying.”

The spotlight next found Saturday Night Live ‘s Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri doing their spoof morning show, Morning Latte –a show that might have a chance at a post- Today slot, if only it were real. About the new NBC team of Sassa and Ancier, they said, in rapid-fire Regis and Kathie Lee fashion, “Not a fan, not a fan.” Then, impersonating departed NBC moneymaker Jerry Seinfeld, came Saturday Night Live player Jimmy Fallon. The clueless hosts asked him to describe the big last episode.

“Ah, Mad About You ?” said the fake Seinfeld. “I don’t know–maybe we’ll find out what they’re so mad about.” He also noted that Seinfeld was gone, and so was Cheers .

The message, made clear by NBC’s corporate jesters: We had Seinfeld and Mad About You and Cheers and no one could touch our Thursday night (even as its lead has shrunk with the absence of those shows) but not anymore.

Mr. Ferrell’s character tossed in a dig at ex-programming chief Warren Littlefield: “Where did that little redheaded leprechaun with the beard go?” With the ground thus burned, Mr. Sassa moved in. After thanking Mr. Ohlmeyer, whom he’s replacing, he got right into his case, chipping away at all the nasty things folks have been saying about NBC and the networks in general lately.

“There’s a lot of misperceptions about the networks and NBC,” he said in a flat tone and then listed all of his competitors’ hot shows. “If you read the headlines, you would think that cable shows are directly competitive with broadcast shows. Truth is, they’re not the same game … Let’s put things in perspective for you. Nielsen says the highest-rated comedy show on cable is South Park –yet Friends delivers 10 times as many adults as South Park .”

Sure, he conceded, silly ol’ No. 1-rated CBS is tops in terms of “households,” but NBC is up where it counts: “NBC continues to be the place to reach upscale demos. So if you were trying to reach a 25-year-old college-educated woman, only Bill Clinton could do it better.”


So what does NBC plan to do this fall? Ummm, uh, not all that much, said Mr. Ancier in his stage turn. He mentioned that the network has found its viewers to be happy with what’s on the schedule. (No, this was not a laugh line.)

“We know, you know, television viewing patterns are based on human habit,” said Mr. Ancier, sounding sociological.

So, there will be very few time changes, only a couple of new half-hour shows and a handful of hourlong dramas and dramedies.

“That kind of stability makes NBC a comfortable, friendly, familiar place for viewers in a very turbulent … television environment.”

Next on screen, the advertisers were treated to the sight of Kathy Griffin, the alternative monologue comedian who plays Brooke Shields’ sidekick on Suddenly Susan . Trying to do a clever-stupid thing, she said, “If you’re a woman 18 to 49, then you know me well.” Cut to professional-looking woman: “We like to go out and spend lots of money on things we see advertised on television and then we go and watch Suddenly Susan ,” she says.

Then it’s on to the next demographic, “upscale viewers,” an apparently wealthy couple sitting stiffly in a brown leather couch, the man holding a glass of wine: “We like to go out and spend lots of money on things we see advertised on television and then we go and watch Suddenly Susan ,” says the ostensible husband.

Who don’t you reach, Kathy? Cut to a motorcycle man in a junkyard, drinking a beer. What’s he watching? “Fox,” he replies. (The more historical-minded audience members were dreaming of a time, oh, 25 years ago, when NBC actually had a sitcom– Sanford and Son –set in a junkyard. Now they all work for magazines. Ach! Enough of this film montage. The advertisers sat through it. You don’t have to. Except to mention that it went on to mock CBS for catering to older viewers, as if that were a sin, as if they did not buy products …)

Anyway, there might be a decent new show in the batch. Cold Feet , a dramedy about three couples in different stages of their relationships; Aaron ( Sports Night ) Sorkin’s new White House comedy (Rob Lowe, in the Michael J. Fox-George Stephanopoulos role, in bed with a woman–as President Martin Sheen gets into a bicycle accident) The West Wing ; and a few duds, most notably Stark Raving Mad , starring Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie!). The high concept: an eccentric writer who loves, just loves to scare everybody, see, is forced to work with–get this–an eccentric editor who’s afraid of practically everything .

Oooh, boy. Tonight, see Conan do comedy for civilians in his usual slot. With that hilarious Canadian, Scott Thompson. [WNBC, 4, 12:35 A.M.]

So the TV people were in town and they needed a place to schmooze and drink before they learned of their fates–would their shows get picked up for the ’99-’00 season?–in the week that lay ahead.

At Match Uptown restaurant–at a party thrown by the United Talent Agency May 16–in strode Peter Mehlman, the crumpled executive producer of It’s Like, You Know , which was one of the most hyped midseason debuts in TV history … and then flopped and got mercilessly canceled by ABC. Mr. Mehlman, who more or less ran Seinfeld in its final two seasons, is tall and lanky, with a lazy drawl to his speech and a shock of thin gray hair.

He came here “because I was awake,” he said. Despite the chipper L.A. outfit–black sweater, white T-shirt, jeans and white tennis sneakers–he was very gloomy. “It’s so absurd to come 3,000 miles to see the same people you see in L.A.,” said Mr. Mehlman, who was staying at the Four Seasons. “You know, you walk the streets in New York and you see all these people and you think, boy, I could be friends with that person, not even knowing anything about them, and then you come here and these are all nice people, but it’s a little crazy.”

Mr. Mehlman, a Fresh Meadows, Queens, native, has been off for the past five months, since he completed shooting of his It’s Like, You Know run. Now, it looked like he’d have to get back to work. The prospect didn’t have him jumping for joy.

“I mean, you know, it’s just a TV show–it’s not King Lear.”

Now on ABC in the It’s Like, You Know time slot is the It’s Like, You Know of ’97-98, Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. [WABC, 7, 8:30 P.M.]

Thursday, May 20

A show for motorcycle guys–and proud of it! On April 29, “daredevil” Robbie Knievel was supposed to have jumped across the Grand Canyon, but it snowed. Now he’ll give it another shot. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]

Friday, May 21

A straight-to-premium-cable special: Harvey Keitel as Elvis Presley (or, at least that’s who he thinks he is), in Finding Graceland . [Cinemax, 33, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, May 22

Come on back, the Xena’s fine: On the finale of Xena: Warrior Princess , Lucy Lawless plays a modern-day woman who believes she was Xena in another life. [WPIX, 11, 8 P.M.]

Sunday, May 23

Two WB shows, Sister, Sister and Unhappily Ever After , take their final bow tonight. Pass the hankies. They’ll be replaced in the fall by Felicity , moving over from Tuesday night, and a new show, Jack & Jill .

The latter show is about young, beautiful people in Manhattan. NYTV talked with Justin Kirk, 29, one of the guys on the show, at WB’s unveiling of its ’99-’00 prime-time lineup on May 18 at the New York Sheraton.

“This is my third pilot,” said Mr. Kirk. “Last year, I was in a pilot called Cold Feet .” Hey, we know Cold Feet , that’s in this year’s NBC prime-time lineup. What happened?

“First, they fired the guy who made it and then they fired the rest of the cast. They fired him and then we were sitting around waiting for months and months, and then they fired us. I’ll tell you what, I’d rather be at the WB,” he said.

(The new Cold Feet will air on NBC on Friday nights at 10 P.M.)

“It happens to every pilot I’ve ever known about or made,” he said. “Once it gets into the offices with the suits, changes are made. Someone’s going to put their imprint on it.”

Mr. Kirk was also in another ill-fated pilot called Black ‘Atcha! on the UPN network. “It’s a good title. It didn’t go. It was a good experience. It was The Larry Sanders Show , if it were about In Living Color , backstage at a black sketch comedy show. I, of course, played a young clueless junior exec.”

Now that he’s got steady work, Mr. Kirk will be moving from his East Village apartment (favorite hangouts: Ace Bar and Niagara) to L.A. Mr. Kirk said he has a “kind of girlfriend” in Los Angeles and he’ll have to sort that one out when he moves out there. “The closest thing I have to a girlfriend is in Los Angeles,” he said. “Now I have to deal with that. I hope she’s not reading The New York Observer .”

Are you a commitment kind of guy?

“I could conceive of a situation where that might happen. I’ve had long relationships before, I guess. There was one that lasted for a few years, but it was an off-and-on sort of thing. I did a little stalking. She wouldn’t speak to me. I’d leave things on the doorstep.”

Was she beautiful?

“Yeah, the most beautiful thing of all time in my twisted little world. I let it slide and now I’m regretting it. She’s a CD-ROM programmer. She’s the first non-actress type I’ve dated. It’s not going to last. I need to be pushed around a little. A big personality. I need the drama. I should never have strayed from dating actresses. Actresses are great. They’re highly emotional, so they make lots of noise in bed. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.”

O.K., buddy, so good luck with the new show. [WPIX, 11, 8 P.M.]

Monday, May 24

Melrose Place ends a glorious run. But after seven years, it shuts down about two years too late. Discuss. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]

Monday nights at 9 P.M., NBC will put on a companion to Law and Order called Law and Order: Special Victims Unit . The show comes out of the Studios USA, a shop run by David Kissinger, son of Henry. He is the president of programming for Studios USA–Barry Diller’s production unit. At the United Talent Agency party on May 16, the younger Mr. Kissinger was holding an extinguished cigar in one hand and an Amstel Light in the other. He said he had two other shows up for the fall: a romantic comedy made for ABC, True Love, and D.C., about young people in Washington. At 37, he looked like a smoother version of his father–round and squat, but fresh-faced and without the wrinkles.

A Yale graduate, he said he was more on his father’s track until seven years ago, when he gave up being a litigation lawyer and started as a freelance writer and eventually worked his way into the TV biz. What prepared him for this? During summers with Richard Nixon at San Clemente, Calif., he would dine with the likes of Robert Evans and Bob Hope. Besides–”There’s an enormous amount of diplomacy in this business,” he said.

He was awaiting his fate, waiting to see if his shows would get picked up. “It’s like being in court, waiting for the jury to come in,” he said. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M. (starting in the fall).]

Tuesday, May 25

Tents at Lincoln Center, sushi on trays. Aaah, conventioneers. It was after the Avery Fisher Hall presentation on May 17, and under an orange “Tuesday Night” banner stood Michael O’Malley, star of the imaginatively titled Michael O’Malley Show , which is set to debut in the fall for NBC.

“Pictures? Pictures anyone? Step right up!” barked an NBC publicist. As the nearby Rob Lowe line (welcome to NBC, Robbie!) was growing rowdy, Mr. O’Malley reflected on his prospects: “I’ve done a lot of this before for Nickelodeon.” (He hosted two kids shows there.) “So I’ve been through this before–so I know that there’s a very jaded group here. It’s funny, when you’re a new show and nobody knows anything about you. We’re basically just taking pictures of our parents and agents. No one really wants to talk to us. They want to talk to the Law and Order people.”

Excited to hit the big time? “It’s very exciting, but it’s also tempered with the reality that you’ve opened yourself up to a whole level of national criticism. The network has a quick string. I worked and worked and auditioned and auditioned in order to get this opportunity. We wrote a great pilot and we know we have to write 21 more episodes and it’s a tall order. People have seen so much TV they basically know all the jokes and all the situations. And I don’t want to play some jackass in some jackass situation. I want to reflect the humor going on in my life. And when you get involved with network, everyone has their opinions.” [WNBC, 4, 8:30 P.M. (starting in the fall).]

Spin City writer Tom Hertz, wearing a Calvin Klein sport coat, Levi’s and Italian loafers, was working on one of the three bottles of Heineken he had in his hands. He was looking O.K. He had recently got a fancy development deal with Dreamworks SKG, an “overall” deal, he called it.

“It’s a unique deal,” Mr. Hertz said, at the United Talent Agency party on May 16. “It’s like, do you remember the Colonel and Elvis? The deal is he gets 70 percent of everything I make.” But he wasn’t whining. “It’s better than slinging hash,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, that’s really the only way of preparing hash, is slinging it. There’s not really like lifting it up and placing it on a plate–you have to actually sling it.”

Yes, readers, as you may have guessed, Mr. Hertz has worked as a stand-up comedian. He grew up in Connecticut, went to the state university there, worked for an insurance company for a year, didn’t like it, did the stand-up for seven years in New York, then wrote for shows like Dennis Miller Live and The Larry Sanders Show .

He said he recently got a “nicer” apartment on the Upper West Side, “with a concierge.” So what’s he making, a million a year?

“No, under that,” he said. “Maybe not this coming year, but the year after. Yeah, it’s a lot of money. Whatever. I don’t think it affects me that much, because that’s just TV. It’s what America puts a premium on–it’s capitalism, it sells detergent and trucks and cigarettes, and it’s just a business that pays a lot. That’s not why I got into it.”

He continued, on the benefits of having money: “You can just do things easier. In a supermarket, you don’t have to look at prices so much, you don’t have to decide on which CD to buy–’Oh, I’ll buy ’em both.'”

While he enjoyed more beers and girl-watching, his manager, Cary Hoffman, talked him up: “Tom Hertz is the kind of a writer that, if you tell him to go into a room and he’s got five minutes to write 10 jokes about a refrigerator, he will come out with eight brilliant jokes and two funny jokes. It’s unbelievable. He’s the whole kernel of what this is all about. All the people here who mean the most to everybody are the people like Tom, who are going to create shows. Those people are what everyone wants to get into with, because Seinfeld is going to throw off a billion dollars in syndication, and if you get somebody right at the time that Tom is, and catch a rising star, you get someone at the right time.”

He either really is that great, or he has a really great manager.

Soon, Mr. Hertz was on his sixth Heineken. He looked over at former Star Trek actor Colm Meaney, who was talking to two lovely young ladies, one of them being Mr. Meaney’s girlfriend, a fetching actress from London.

“Right there is the difference between on-camera people and writers,” Mr. Hertz said. “It seems the ladies like famous people. I don’t know what it is, a guy who looks like him. If he were a plumber, is he going to have 22-year-old women climbing all over him? Maybe, if he were the best plumber ever, the greatest plumber in the history of pipes and sewage, but there’s something about seeing someone that you’ve seen on TV or in a film, they’re just bigger than life.”

There was Chris Noth, formerly of Law and Order.

“Chris Noth and I apparently go to the same gym, the Reebok Club, and I have hot-tubbed with him, but due to my shyness, I know nothing about Chris Noth’s physical structure. I have been in a hot tub with Chris Noth, Regis Philbin and Bill Beutel–all separately.”

A guy named Dan Ehrlich waved hello on his way by.

“Dan here used to be my agent’s assistant,” Mr. Hertz said. “Recently, he was promoted and became an agent himself.”

It sure felt industry-ish in here. There was an empty pack of Parliaments on the table. A woman spotted them, asked for one, then threw the pack down when she saw it was empty. “Thanks for teasing me,” she snarled. “I’ll find another one.”

Another woman walked by and winked at Mr. Hertz. Then Kirk Rudell, a former Spin City writer, said hello and moved on.

“Is there doubt in your mind?” NYTV asked.

“I guess the doubt is, you’re paid a lot for a couple of years, you’re doing all right, and then it ends. Like MC Hammer–he made $40 million and then he’s bankrupt. How does that happen? I’m obsessed with these VH-1 History of Rock shows. It’s, like, they’re rocking in the garage, they play in the bars in town, they get a contract, they have a hit, they make a million dollars, drugs, alcohol, plane crash–it’s over. And often, they’re not even on a plane, they’re riding in a bus, and a plane hits them! Somehow–O.K., that was funny. Don’t make me sound too stiff and analytical. Put the funny stuff in.”

He examined his career. “Let’s say Spin City ends after six or seven years on the air. I’m in my early 30’s now, and there have been articles about comedy, sitcom writers in their mid-40’s, 50’s who can’t get work. So there’s a fear about getting older. What am I going to do? What if I don’t create my own show, what if I don’t get to the next level? Do I want to be 50 in a room full of 28-year-olds, working 12 hours a day? You hope you can make enough in sitcoms where you can be a consultant, where you go in one or two days a week, get paid a good amount per day.”

Colm Meaney’s girlfriend, Melissa Joanne Davis, came over and took a seat. A beige bandeau top, black skirt, black strappy heels and a question. “What do we think about men kissing men?” she said. “Up there is men kissing men. There. They’re not doing it now, but they were before. O.K. Women kissing women is O.K. Men kissing men is not O.K.”

“I disagree,” Mr. Hertz said.

After a while, she left. A writer from Spin City took her place.

His name’s Philip Wen. He’s 25. He’s a new guy at the show. “You know what television is about today?” he said, drinking a Scotch. “It’s all about survival. This guy’s at the top of the totem pole and he’s doing all right. The young blood like myself, it’s like trying to look at the future of the business with a Doppler effect–”

“Oh, the Doppler effect!” Mr. Hertz said.

“It’s like playing golf with a slice,” Mr. Wen said. “You see it before you hear it. The industry changing, the business is changing, the technology’s changing, and I just hope to stay on top–”

Mr. Hertz cut in. “I have to go home now to invent a machine that will make Phil more boring in this interview,” he said. “Phil is young and just starting, he has not achieved the area that I have, and the area that I’m in is ‘It’s all stupid and who cares and if you just keep writing and hanging out, you’re going to keep making more money and getting kicked up the ladder by accident, and it’s over.’ Phil doesn’t realize he’s set for life. You can’t help but make a good living, and you may never be David Kelley and make hundreds of millions of dollars, but, anonymously, quietly, you can make more than anyone …”

His voice trailed off.

“The goal is, once you’re in the loop, it seems, you can make a really good living, just doing a solid job, not being a jerk, not being obnoxious with your co-workers.”

It was 1 A.M. The crowd was thinning out. Good night, everybody. See you next week! [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

In 1950, the sizable success of a modestly budgeted western drama had an enormous impact on the future of the American film industry, one still felt today. The movie also marked the beginning of an extremely fruitful relationship between its star and its director and, for good measure, was–and remains–among the first and best of the genre’s darkening trend, a kind of noir western with complex and ambiguous reverberations. Since its subject, in essence, is the uniquely American obsession with firearms–in this case, a highly prized rifle–the picture obviously, tragically, retains a contemporary significance, an ominous quality perhaps not nearly as resonant, nor as grimly intended, on its initial release. But if one of the key uses of art is to illuminate, this work continues to serve its purpose. I’m talking about James Stewart’s first postwar western, directed by the estimable Anthony Mann, and named after the weapon that is coveted by everybody throughout Winchester ’73 [Thursday, May 20, American Movie Classics, 54, 12:35 P.M.; also on videocassette] .

Although Cary Grant had flourished since the end of the 30’s as an independent star, not signed to any studio’s long-term contract, and although by the end of the 40’s such stars as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney had their own production companies, it wasn’t until Jimmy Stewart’s percentage deal on Winchester ’73 –negotiated for him with Universal by his agent Lew Wasserman (whose own company within a decade would buy this same studio)–that the notion of a star’s receiving a hefty piece of the action in lieu of salary began to gain wide acceptance. As a result, by the start of the 60’s, the studio system had crumbled, and all stars were getting a piece and large salaries. What was initiated as a name-actor’s honest sharing of the gamble with a film’s financiers has deteriorated into a no-lose situation for the talent, and a deep crisis for the business and art of pictures.

In the late 40’s, Anthony Mann had done a group of striking, dark-shadowed Orson Welles-influenced B-movies like Railroaded, T-Men and Raw Deal before he and Stewart teamed up for this fast-paced tale of a westerner’s intense pursuit of both the elusive rifle he wins–”one in a thousand” manufactured in 1873–and the murderer of his father. Mann and Stewart would eventually work together on eight other movies, most memorably four more of the finest 1950’s westerns, with strikingly photographed exteriors and generally hard-edged stories of greed, ambition and vengeance: Bend of the River , The Naked Spur , The Far Country and The Man From Laramie .

Stewart, whose only previous western role had been as a pacific, eccentric non-gun-toting marshal in 1939’s Destry Rides Again opposite Marlene Dietrich, used these tough, somewhat neurotic frontiersmen he played for Mann to radically alter his original image as all-American dreamer and whimsical man of integrity (though he still mined that area with occasional pictures like The Glenn Miller Story , also directed by Tony Mann). As a result of these films, and his three Hitchcock movies during the same years ( Rear Window , The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo ), Stewart became one of the five biggest stars of the 50’s; indeed, it was by far Jimmy’s most popular decade, ending brilliantly with Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder . His edgy, chip-on-the-shoulder performance in Winchester ’73 set the standard and remains one of his most intriguing.

Originally a project developed by the German master Fritz Lang–and his visual and thematic influence somehow sticks to it– Winchester ’73 features excellent weather-beaten character portrayals by Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire and a tough Shelley Winters, with bit appearances from Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis before they had become stars. The ironies of this film seem only to improve and deepen with age since they connect sharply to the frontier mentality we still live with here. NBC’s Party at Avery Fisher Hall: Sassa, Conan and a Nasty Li’l Dog