Classic Jim Brown, The Slams

Jim Brown, Jan Merlin in The Slams

DATELINE:  70s Prison Movie

When you have a film from 1973 and the cusp of a new wave, you can expect “exploitation” that includes heavy-handed use of the “F” word and the “N” word among prison populations. Audiences may have been a tad shocked by this new adult content. The film is given the black idiom name, “The Slams,” short for slammer.

Jim Brown is the hero or antihero of sorts. Having been in a gang that murders a half-dozen people for drugs and money in the first few minutes of the movie, he rejects the drugs and kills his accomplices. But, he has a lovely kind mother who shows up for a minute and disappears. That is part of the script’s problem: comings and goings.

The cast is somewhat familiar, only because Lurch from The Addams Family is around as a white gang leader, looking young and tall and handsome. Frank de Kova is the mob leader in prison who has a suite of cells and curtains, but runs the show.

The warden’s office features one of the most hilarious photos of President Richard Nixon: looking shifty-eyed, even before Watergate and his resignation.

And, Jan Merlin has the unenviable task of flirting mercilessly with Jim Brown. He tells guards, to “check his crotch” during a search, which may be one of the most outrageous lines of his acting career.

Director Jonathan Kaplan was the nephew of actor Van Heflin and thought he was Hollywood royalty.  He made some truly B-level films in his oeuvre. But some directors cannot be dissuaded from their lofty self-image.

Having fallen out of favor with both Brown and the director over character expectations, Jan Merlin’s “Golden Mouth” inmate brazenly ingratiates himself to Jim Brown—and suddenly is gone to the cutting room floor.

This was not the first director Merlin clashed with. It is the fate of all actors who dispute their director and star. What a shame that the most interesting part of the movie simply evaporates.

Dr. William Russo’s movie collection of reviews of prisoner films is titled Imprisoned. It is available on amazon in both paperback and ebook.


Chesley Bonestell: Futuristic Artiste

Titan Viewpoint


An artist you likely never heard of by name may be one of the most intriguing personalities of the 20thcentury. His name is Chesley Bonestell, and you have seen his work all over the world.

A staggering biographical documentary called A Brush with the Future tells his amazing story.

Living to be nearly 100 years of age, he passed away in the 1980s But, his life transcended the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to days of Old Hollywood and New York City at its pinnacle.

He managed to succeed in whatever he put his energy. Though he preferred to be an artist, his first years in a profession was work as an architect. After the great earthquake in his hometown, he helped to re-build the city with Willis Polk. It was Chesley who drew the illustrations for investors and made the schematics come to life.

When he went to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, he took a job for several studios as the matte painter. You’d think that to be a rather anonymous job, but he transformed it into a peak of success by making all the set designs for Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and also Magnificent Ambersons.  It was his vision of Xanadu, interior and out.

Between jobs, he did the design brochures for Golden Gate Bridge and made it a popular idea across the world with its startling originality and beauty.

Later, he designed the architecture for the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  Then, in New York, he worked on the Chrysler building. It was a full life: but not his true fame.

Yes, in 1944 for Life magazine he did some color illos of the planet Saturn that looked like a rover had landed. It was a true vision of the future, and made him a staple of science fiction.

His terrain paintings of Mars, the Moon, and other planets, decades ago showed a man who saw the future and painted it as it is. It was his teaming with scientist Willy Ley (from TV’s Tom Corbett Space Cadet)  who  co-authored a book called Conquest of Space.  Ley was a friend of Frank Thomas and Jan Merlin,  stars of the show (who later teamed with this writer). How many degrees is that?

Jan Merlin and Dr. William Russo collaborated on six books.

Escape from Devil’s Island

co-star/co-author Jan Merlin


DATELINE: 1973 Blaxploitation Movie

 Jim Brown’s prison movie about the 1917 French island prison came before the prestige movie with McQueen, titled Papillion. They had overlapped during filming, but the speed of Roger Corman could not be matched. He was not interested in “art.” He wanted a product that might titillate audiences

I Escaped from Devil’s Island  had all those ingredients.

The film began on a high note: Jim Brown is dragged from his cell in the tropical prison to a makeshift guillotine. He is about to be beheaded before the credits even roll. No flashback was required because the sado-masochistic guards had set this up, knowing a general amnesty for all French prisoners had arrived and no one would be executed. It was cruel kindness.

Of course, this Roger Corman quickie was called a blaxploitation film, geared toward making black audiences approve of a black hero. It’s hard to realize Brown was really doing trail-blazing work, and perhaps the other shocking part of the movie was the open homosexual relationships in the movie. The gay characters are in eye-makeup and are called “fancy boys,” who have boyfriends like James Luisi and Chris George. Rick Ely played the pretty boy who has his nipples tortured in one scene.

Jan Merlin, in eyeglasses, played the leader of the political prisoners—and a communist, which was a true work of performance since Jan was a Republican. For him it was another character unlike his cultured, soft-spoken self,  playing at abrasive, uncouth villains. We must confess to be transparent that Jan co-authored many books with Ossurworld.

The “F” word is used surprisingly often for the first time in movies here, often just to discuss homosexual relations. And nearly every male to male encounter is fraught with both sexual and sadistic overtones.

Once the escape plan takes hold, the movie seems to peter out. Yet, films like this paved the way for leading men of the future like Denzel Washington.

The film deteriorates toward the end with a chaotic fireworks display in a city to help the escapees flee authority.

The best performance in this movie was given by Acapulco, the Mexican resort town, playing Devil’s Island.

Merlin Among the Stars!

DATELINE: Jan Merlin’s Final Book!

Hand-made card drawn by Jan at Kilimanjaro during film Woman & the Hunter.

My dear friend and coauthor Jan Merlin died a few months ago. He lived a long and creative life. That does not lessen the effect of a hard loss, and I have managed to complete something that was brewing for decades.

Jan knew that I kept all his letters, copies of his emails, and took notes on many of our conversations over the course of thirty years. He steadfastly said he did not want a biography in any traditional sense. But, as the years passed, he often gave me a flood of memories about his years on Broadway, in early TV, and later in movies. I have completed a memoir in his own words.

He worked with so many famous—and he was one of them, knew their foibles and secrets. If I learned anything, it was a secret society—and they all kept their privilege sacred. Yet, he provided me with anecdotes with people from stage like Josh Logan, from movies such as Marlon Brando, from literature like Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, from TV like every Western TV star over 15 years (from Chuck Connors to Michael Landon).

So, I have compiled his memories to provide some amazing insights into the profession of acting and the business of movies. It did not take long to do—as I had been adding bits and pieces after each chat or text.

Now, I have for you a record of an era: the star of two TV series, Tom Corbett and Rough Riders,who played mostly the bad guy on TV westerns, committing every dastardly act and finding come-uppance weekly in a variety of ways.

His voice is clear and direct on every page; he never pulled punches, never played the social game, and he felt he damaged his career with projects like The List of Adrian Messengerwith Kirk Douglas, and he felt John Huston misused him. Even today, he is the man under the masks—but Douglas takes credit for the performance (even in an Oscar compilation clip!).

He gave me a title:  We Were All Six Feet Tall,which I have kept with the main focus, Merlin Among the Stars.It is now available on Kindle as an ebook and the paperback will soon be out for his fans and friends.

When I re-read his letters, there was so much I had forgotten—and never followed up. One example was his friendship with noted crypto-scientist Willy Ley who was tech advisor on his show Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

There are gems from the era—and can only be appreciated by those with a grand sense of the past.





Jan Merlin: Statuesque Among the Stars, 1925-2019

  Jan with his Emmy Award!

My co-author and most important literary collaborator has gone from this world.

Jan Merlin might be recognizable to a generation or two of film and TV fans as the villain who populated a hundred TV shows. He made movies with Ann Sheridan, George C. Scott, and Woody Allen. He starred in two 1950s TV series, The Rough Riders—and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, with Frankie Thomas.

A veteran of the Navy in World War II, Jan went from the military during the big war to the Neighborhood Playhouse where he learned the craft of acting, though he had many talents. He always thought his acting fame was a lesser role. He was always the antagonist to some western star, or some dubious military man.

Yet, despite playing dastardly villains almost constantly, with his Aryan looks (Polish American out of New York City), he was a genteel man with a sense of art and brilliantly self-educated. Like a generation of those who were never able to attend college, he more than made up for it with a dozen books to his credit. He loved fiction—drawing  upon his movie background, or his experiences in Japan after the war.

Together we did a half-dozen books of which I am most proud. We did only one work of fiction, The Paid Companion of J. Wilkes Booth. Most of our Hollywood history tales were based on his insider knowledge of how a set work, from knowing nearly every star of the 1950s and 1960s. He laughed they were all “six feet tall,” no matter what the truth might be.

We wrote about Boys Town, Billy Budd, Reflections in a Golden Eye, among other films, giving a unique perspective on daily life during the studio shoot. He knew Brando, Taylor, Clift, James Dean, in ways that others could never understand. He threw James Dean out of the Pier Angeli house at her mother’s request.

When we did not write books together, he gave me editorial and research insights for my books on James Kirkwood and Audie Murphy. Oh, he knew them too.

Now he is gone, irreplaceable in my life and in Hollywood history, with all those insights and memories. He had stories he would not tell about the damaged figures of show business. He took those secrets with him, as much as I wanted to hear them. He was loyal to the memory of the business he loved and hated.

Once I called it ‘Tinseltown’, and he reprimanded me: it was a cherished professional location, not a frivolous tabloid fantasy to him. He introduced me as his “son” on occasion, which amused me–and made movie star Frankie Thomas look at me with quite an impression.

Goodbye, dear Jan. I am so lucky to have known you and to have worked with you. I have been left a treasure trove of his life, and maybe one day I will tell what he told me. He was my touchstone to a bygone era and glorious movie history.

Emperor Norton’s Bridge: TV in 1956!

DATELINE:  Writer Jan Merlin as Writer Bret Harte


Edgar Stehli as Emperor Norton with actor Jan Merlin.

Recently we heard from the “Emperor’s Bridge Campaign” in San Francisco and its president, John Lumea. They are a historical group that has amassed a collection of memorabilia about Emperor Norton, a 19th century citizen who was considered pixilated, but clairvoyant about the future.

It seems my old collaborator and dear friend, Jan Merlin, appeared on a TV show in 1956 that detailed Emperor Norton’s life. Jan played another writer by the name of Bret Harte.

After his acting career, Jan had a prolific writing career, even winning an Emmy for television writing. We always thought he was Bret Harte’s equal.

So, when we received a pristine copy of an old Telephone Time TV show, we were eager to view it. We had seen it 30-odd years ago. We know that Jan Merlin never really had a chance to watch his performances on television in those days.

Merlin was too busy each week, preparing for the next role, as he was active in dozens of TV shows and feature films in far-flung places like Kenya with Ann Sheridan. He saw many shows only a few years ago. Some he has never seen. This appearance was a rare sympathetic role. Usually he was a baddie in TV westerns—and plugged at the last minute of the show–and showdown.

Sixty years later, Jan still looks much the same, still youthful, but is now in his retirement, probably the only survivor of that long-ago show on Norton with the exception of a child actress, Cheryl Callaway, who had a scene.

Edgar Stelhi played Emperor Norton. We almost didn’t recognize him with his Trump-style wig. He also was quite active on television in the 1950s. His best role in movies was opposite Audie Murphy as the old judge in No Name on the Bullet. Jan also did a couple of movies with Audie—and his TV show too as a guest.

A 25-minute teleplay was chock full of intriguing moments, including a scene in which Norton is mocked in a saloon with a fake crown and seated among his detractors; it reminded one of those Renaissance paintings on the mocking of Christ by his captors.

Owing to the vigilance of Jan’s character, Norton’s past is revealed—and he wins accolades for his ideas.

Now a San Francisco group has taken up Norton’s cause, to the point of hoping to rename a section of the Bay Bridge after the old emperor.

Old TV shows never die. They end up in media museums, awaiting re-discovery. 

Among their books, Jan Merlin and William Russo have written a memoir about Frankie Thomas, child star of the 1930s to TV star of the 1950s on Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. The biography is available on Amazon in paper and e-book, for smart readers. As a team, they have written four other non-fiction works and one novel, plus several chapters in biographical anthologies.



Another World: 50 Years Later, RIP


Mac & Rachel

Mac & Rachel during one of their 3 marriages to each other!

That lost Another World was a daytime drama, one of the best ever to hit the airwaves because it was literate, played with the genre to elevate it. Now it has been relegated to memories for 15 years, gone and missed by its devotees. It ran on TV from 1964 to 1999.

Young viewers know nothing of the show that threw words like “ubiquitous” at its audience and never batted an eye at low-brows.

There are websites dedicated to it with a handful of fans still in mourning for Rachel, Mac, Iris, Cass, Ada, and the litany of marvelous characters depicted by highly skilled actors like Connie Ford, Stephen Schnetzer, Beverlee McKinsee, the redoubtable Douglass Watson, and Victoria Wyndham.

The characters came from brilliant writers like Harding Lemay (who wrote a book about his experiences called Eight Years on Another World) and my writing partner of many years, Jan Merlin (who won his Emmy for writing this show).

We still have pangs around 2pm every afternoon when we would tune it. On those days we could not, we started taping it with one of our first in the neighborhood VCRs back in 1977. Thus, never missing an episode, we sometimes fast-forwarded through storylines that perplexed us.

The show evolved from thirty minutes to an hour and thence an hour and a half each day, then splintered into spinoffs, two hours each day.

In later years, after the deaths of Ada and Mac, never replaced with different actors, the show seemed to wander off the reservation with younger and duller characters. Only Charles Keating as the diabolical Carl Hutchins came back with regular delight. We saw Cecile now and then too as Nancy Frangione could play her.

If truth be told, the show limped to its denouement. If it had been a novel or a movie, the show would have ended with the demise of Mac Cory, debonair billionaire. Douglass Watson’s image haunted the set for a decade thereafter. He was its soul and its presence.

Now, we realize it will never be resurrected, and the old videotapes of the 1980s may be fading in some vault, never seen. Even if it were to return for a brief moment, the originals would be out of the right demographic profile for studio production.

Somewhere in cyberspace, the spirits of Another World float in perpetual suspension. Adieu, Old Standby.

Actor Goes Anonymous, Not Pseudonymous



ImageJames Gertrude Franco-Stein

James Franco takes the same road as Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, George Sanders, and Kirk Douglas, by penning novels as part of his Renaissance Man act. Nathaniel Hawthorne once complained of his competition as “damned scribbling women.” Now we have an army of scribbling actors.

Mr. Franco has written a novella called Actors Anonymous about acting in movies, which likens the experience to being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous on the fame track. With his talents sewn together like a Mary Shelley novel written by Gertrude Stein, he is now Franco-Stein.

James Franco directs serious movies, acts in frivolous movies, trods the boards in Broadway plays, and now writes up a storm in Actors Anonymous, his experimental novel that has him hiding in many guises between the lines.

Eschewing traditional narrative and storyline, Franco reverts to the old Faulknerian style of multi-narrative voices, all roles acted by James Franco. It is reminiscent of his film As I Lay Dying, the multi-narrative novel of Faulkner he directed last year.

Franco may be writing autobiographically, but he is a chameleon actor. We were most impressed with his knowledge of Hollywood history—especially since our writing partner for almost 20 years has been Jan Merlin, another major actor turned writer. Merlin’s face was known as the bad guy in nearly every Western on television in the heyday of Westerns.

The young actor-Oscar host-novelist seems to be cramming a great deal of artistic aspiration into a small window of opportunity. We give him accolades for the energy he brings to his endeavors.

As with Franco’s directoral efforts, his novel is not for everyone. Indeed, his movie fans may be lost in the rich references to old stars and behind the scenes antics. From our limited knowledge of Hollywood business, he is on the money—much to the consternation of his pot-head fans of Pineapple Express.

We would have taken some pleasure had Merlin and Russo written this novella, but Franco beat us to the punchline.