Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joining the Franciscus Order

Yes, I've been away from a while yet again. Not only did I have to take time out to do my taxes, but I'm also waist deep into rehearsals for the show I am about to appear in. Rehearsing for three hours Monday through Friday for five weeks on top of a regular job doesn't leave a great deal of downtime! Nevertheless, here we are again with another tribute to an Underworld favorite. Today, we'll be looking at tan, tawny, toothsome James Franciscus, an actor who managed to fit quite a bit of work into his schedule before departing this world far too soon.

Franciscus was born on January 31st, 1934 and lived a childhood of extremes with regards to his surroundings. He, his parents and his older brother John lived in rural Missouri where James (I may get tired of typing Franciscus over and over!) played in the woods, fished, swam and basically enacted a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn sort of life. He was nearly killed once when he fell off a wall and landed on a lightning rod that pierced his stomach. Always a dog lover, he claimed to have owned close to twenty-five different kinds, but one, Randolph, became a sort of class mascot when he jumped in the school window one day when the kids were being held late for misbehaving.

When James was seven, the family moved to Canada where his father had enlisted as a pilot for the English (the U.S. not having entered WWII yet.) During a heavy fog-laden mission, his father crashed and was killed. This marked a shift in young James' demeanor as he knew that tough times were ahead and that a lot of rowdy behavior wouldn't help matters.

A few years later, his mother met and married a stockbroker who then moved the family to New York City. Here was a major change in atmosphere from what the boys had previously experienced. This proved to be only a home base, however, as the boys were soon separated into boarding schools. James attended an all boys one in Massachusetts where he took part in his first play at age twelve. The naturally blonde and handsome boy played a female role out of necessity.

From here, the acting bug took over, though he was also a proficient sportsman until a torn cartilage in his knee curbed most of those activities. He tended to be cast as heroes and good guys, but on the rare occasion that he was cast as a villain (such as in The Devil and Daniel Webster), he relished it. As he finished prep school, he took an interest in writing, composing the senior class play and when he went to Yale, he continued to write. Four of his plays were produced there.

While still at Yale, a talent scout spotted him and had him test for a part in an upcoming movie. During a school vacation, he took part the a movie called Four Boys and a Gun, having secured a featured role. He was offered movie contracts from two different studios, but opted to stay in school and finish his degrees in English and Theater. He later graduated Magna Cum Laude.

The summer after graduation, he went to Europe with Henry Fonda and his family. Henry's daughter Jane had met Franciscus when he stage managed a play she appeared in and the two became a couple. James Franciscus would be Jane Fonda's first lover (imagine losing your virginity to this Malibu Ken in human form! Yes!) and there was talk of marriage, but it wasn't to be. The relationship was over by the fall of that year.

Back in the States, Franciscus began winning roles on television series such as Studio One in Hollywood and Have Gun, Will Travel. He also landed a juicy role in a low-budget film called The Mugger, about the title figure who robs women then slashes their cheeks. Franciscus plays a cabbie whose life becomes entwined in the drama through a plot twist.

This was 1958 and that same year, he would be cast in a regular role on a TV show called Naked City. The police drama (based on a 1948 film called The Naked City) was shot on location in New York City and focused on the people involved in various crimes from week to week. Franciscus played a young detective opposite the elder John McIntire. McIntire wanted to return to California and, thus, was killed off after twenty-six episodes, though rumors surfaced that he didn't enjoy working with Franciscus. The show was cancelled thirteen episodes later (though revived without him the following season in a longer format) and Franciscus decided to try his own luck on the west coast.

He immediately began appearing on various shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman, The Millionaire and Wagon Train. He won the male lead in a low-budget film called I Passed for White, all about the trauma of a light-skinned black girl marrying the unwitting Franciscus, only to go into panic mode when she becomes pregnant. She fears that the baby will be dark-skinned and reveal her secret. This was followed by a part in The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis, all about the lives of the men who raised that famous flag on Iwo Jima.

Franciscus continued to be primarily a TV actor, though, working on all sorts of shows including Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even another regular series, The Investigators, which only ran for thirteen episodes. His tan face and blonde hair (not to mention a row of white teeth) gave him a distinctive look in those black and white days.

In 1960, he married Kitty Wellman, daughter of the great director William Wellman, who he had met briefly the previous year in New York. Their whirlwind courtship reached a head when he tossed her, silk cocktail gown and all, into a swimming pool at a party. They would remain wed for nearly twenty years and have four, count 'em, four daughters together.

Another film, Miracle of the White Stallions, was a Disney production in which he played an American major caught up in the fate of some gorgeous horses who are being passed from an Austrian in the German army to the Allies in the wake of WWII. The little-known, but well-regarded film starred Robert Taylor, Lilli Palmer, Eddie Albert and Curd Jurgens. Devoted to his role as a husband and father, he asked permission to bring his wife and newborn child to the Austrian location and was allowed to do so.

He became popular enough with television producers to be first choice at playing Dr. Kildare, but a prior commitment kept him from taking the role. Richard Chamberlain then won the part. Once he was free, it was decided to use him in a series with similar qualities, thus he was placed in Mr. Novak, a series about a handsome and idealistic teacher. Just as Kildare had his Dr. Gillespie as a mentor, Novak had an older sounding board in Principal Vane, played by veteran actor Dean Jagger.
Now Franciscus, nearing thirty, was thrust into the limelight that came from appearing in a popular show. Countless promotional photos featuring his image were dispersed to the nation and he appeared on the cover of TV Guide at least three times. The series, made with the cooperation of The National Education Association, featured many topical stories, always with an eye towards promoting education. Adults appreciated the engrossing and sensible storylines while teenage girls dreamed of having a teacher that looked anything like the gleamingly handsome James Franciscus. He received a Golden Globe nomination for his acting on the series.

During a break from filming the show (which ran from 1963 – 1965), Franciscus worked on what could have been a major step in the ladder of his success. Warren Beatty had turned down the lead in Youngblood Hawke, the story of a na├»ve writer from Kentucky trying to adjust to the pace and lifestyle of the big city (something Franciscus had already done in real life as a youth!) He was picked to headline the movie and was cast alongside such ladies as Suzanne Pleshette, Genevieve Page, Eva Gabor and Mary Astor.
As the film (based on a novel by Herman Wouk) depicts his rise and fall and his relationships with the people, good and bad, in his life, the audience is treated to some barechested love scenes, notably with Page, whose performance was singled out as one of the best amongst the cast. (This movie is not an easy one to come across. I have never seen it on TV and it isn't available on home video as of this writing!) Unfortunately, what was expected to become a smash hit was instead a dismal failure and it hampered Franciscus' attempts to become a major leading man. It would be several years before he was granted a role in a feature film and, even then, it was in an overseas production.

For now, it was guest shots on Combat!, Judd for the Defense and The F.B.I. As the late '60s approached, Franciscus worked on several features in a row, ever-interested in becoming a go-to leading man. First was the Norwegian-made Snow Treasure, about children smuggling gold bullion out of the country during German occupation in WWII. James played a Nazi lieutenant. He also did a TV movie with Don Ameche, Leslie Nielsen and Shirley Knight (shown here - don't they both look great?!) called Shadow Over Elveron, all about an ideal community with a secret that Franciscus is trying to uncover.

James also, with his film career not exactly exploding and without significant success on television, turned to producing in order to fill his time and express his interest in popular literature. His first project was an adaptation of Heidi in 1968. Other made for TV movies he produced after that were Jane Eyre, Kidnapped, The Red Pony and A Girl Named Sooner. Stars such as Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Henry Fonda (once nearly his father-in-law!) and Maureen O'Hara took part in these well-regarded productions. Heidi, in fact, was Emmy-nominated (though it had been the subject of a huge scandal when it came on the air during the final moments of a close football game! We can thank this incident for the now-standard practice of backing up network programming anytime a Sunday afternoon football game runs long.)

Next came one of his oddest (and, really, what would have been almost anyone's oddest) movies, The Valley Of Gwangi. A hybrid of cowboy and dinosaur movies, it featured him as an adventurer who finds and captures a Tyrannosaurus Rex with the intent of featuring it in the circus he works for. Unfortunately, the T-Rex, understandably, is not personally invested in this plan and decides to break free, causing havoc and death.
Taking a not-so-tiny page from King Kong, the movie featured some of famed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's work. There is also a score by Jerome Moross, who had previously given the world the sterling western music from The Big Country. While never anything more than a colorful adventure flick, it caught the imagination of many a young boy and retains a cult following today.

A more serious picture followed in Marooned, a somber tale about three astronauts (James, Richard Crenna and Gene Hackman) who become stranded in outer space with a depleted supply of oxygen while their white-knuckled wives (played, respectively, by Nancy Kovack, Lee Grant and Mariette Hartley) sweat it out on the ground. The top-billed star, however, was Gregory Peck as the man in charge of figuring out how to return the men to Earth.

Complicating the rescue attempts are a hurricane on the ground and the mental deterioration of one of the astronauts. While solid and well-appointed, the movie is subdued to the point of sometimes being excruciating. There's also a Sominex-ish approach to the “music” in that there is no score, but rather dronelike sounds being played and held during scenes, thereby further dissipating the energy and emotion of the story. It's still great for a glimpse of that era's slick, clean movie-making style.
Next up was a British-made WWII film called Hell Boats. Franciscus played an American caught up in not only wartime action, but in a love triangle with Ronald Allen and his unhappy wife Elizabeth Shepherd. As the tension of the mission at hand mounts, so does the tension between the men who both love the same woman. This type of plot line was hardly new in 1970 (and has been employed countless times since!) One of the benefits of the movie seems to be the disrobing of Mr. Franciscus for the various scuba-diving sequences and the other scenes of him taking part in the mission while clad only in some swim trunks. His next film, probably the one for which he is best known, would combine the astronaut qualities of Marooned with the barechested ones of Hell Boats.

After Planet of the Apes became a sensational blockbuster in 1968, plans were immediately set into motion for a sequel. Charlton Heston was reluctant to appear in a second movie, but agreed to do it on two conditions. One was that he not be the primary star (working only two weeks total on the project) and the other that he was assured he would be in no more of them after this. It's a lesser known fact that he also gave his entire paycheck for the sequel to charity.

After considering Burt Reynolds (who would have rocked the loincloth look, too!) the producers hired James in order to supply a virtual clone of what they'd had in Heston for the first film. (People speak of a resemblance between the two, but I do not see it! James is far more handsome, tan, smooth and fit than Heston and shorter as well.)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was both a bit of a rehash of the first movie as well as a step in a new direction with the introduction of some atom bomb-worshiping mutants living underground. Franciscus, on a mission to find Heston, crashes in the desert and, in a very pat coincidence, is discovered by Heston's love Linda Harrison. Heston has disappeared and Franciscus joins her in order to locate him. They wind up in Ape City where they briefly interact with characters from the first movie and then James is placed in a skimpy loincloth, just as Heston was before him.

The pair take on a sort of post-Eden Adam and Eve look, scurrying around in their abbreviated clothes, looking all the time like ideal examples of the male and female form. I think Harrison looks even better this time than she did in the first Apes movie, but there is no question that Franciscus makes a better looking hero, no harm to Chuck!

As a kid growing up in the '70s, there was not a lot of access to the male form the way there is now with the Internet. You had to grasp on to whatever came your way and there was no pausing or rewinding. You had to be alert! Thus, a Tarzan movie or one like this, in which the leading man is barely dressed throughout, was a real feast for the eyes. (Speaking of eyes, Franciscus' baby blues leapt off the screen when photographed against his deeply tanned face.)
This was shown on TV one summer afternoon in the mid-'70s and I was watching it closely. My mother threw a fit that I was sitting in front of the TV on such a gorgeous day and turned off the set, tossing me outside to play. A short while later, she found me sitting in the driveway crying. Ha! The seeds of obsession with movies and TV had already been planted long before. She let me come back in and watch the rest.

Franciscus, having been a playwright in his school days and possessing an English degree, was rarely satisfied with the dialogue he was given. For this film, in particular, he retooled his dialogue in order to bring further dimension and texture to the thankless, cookie-cutter role.

An imperfect film with a limited budget, it was nevertheless a massive success, earning back six times its cost and spawning three more feature films and eventually two TV shows.

The next year, James starred in Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's second film, Cat o' Nine Tails. The thriller concerned a reporter (Franciscus) trying to delve into the mystery of some murders connected to genetic research. His cohort is a blind man (Karl Malden) who has overheard a conversation related to the crimes. Also on board, and looking very far out, is Catherine Spaak as James' love interest. Franciscus would soon be exploring the blind issue himself in his next part.

Franciscus made another attempt at a television series with Longstreet. As the title character, he was an insurance investigator whose wife had been killed in an explosion, an explosion that also left him blind. He continued to work on cases with the assistance of Peter Mark Richman, braille teacher Marlyn Mason and guide dog Pax. Franciscus studied relentlessly with a blindfold prior to filming in order to master the art of portraying someone whose sight is missing.
This was the era of detective series featuring heroes with distinctive attributes. Ironside was in a wheelchair. Cannon was morbidly obese. Barnaby Jones was old. Despite solid work from Franciscus (and recurring appearances by Bruce Lee as Longstreet's martial arts instructor), the series only lasted one season.

In 1973, Franciscus was selected for another unusual project, this time he was to provide the voice (unlikely as it sounds) of the title character in Jonathan Livingston Seagull! The movie, based on a hugely popular book of the same name, contained no humans, but rather showed the lives of seagulls set to the music of Neal Diamond and with other voiceovers provided by Juliet Mills, Richard Crenna and Dorothy McGuire. Notorious as the only movie Roger Ebert ever walked out of, it swiftly landed on many worst film lists including Harry Medved's The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

So it was back to the tube. This time, James played Dr. Benjamin Elliott in a short-lived series called Doc Elliott. He played a big-city doctor who leaves everything behind in order to practice medicine in rural Colorado, making house calls via four-wheel drive truck or small aircraft. While this character utilized the same blend of urban and rural background that made up James' own life, it was not successful enough to run past fifteen episodes.

Around this time, Franciscus began arranging celebrity tennis tournaments in order to raise funds for charity, primarly multiple sclerosis, an affliction that had come upon his mother when he was eleven. He helped to make this a viable and popular way to raise money for this and other causes. To be as random as hell, here's a shot of him at a Golden Globes ceremony with Eleanor Parker and Harve Presnell. I just liked the photo of Parker and wanted to put it in!

A string of TV-movies came next including Aloha Means Goodbye, with Sally Struthers as a terminally ill woman whose doctor wants her heart for a transplant, The Dream Makers, concerning a record company president enmeshed in a payola scandal, The Trial of Chaplain Jenson, based on the true story of a navy chaplain court-martialed for adultery, The Man Inside, concerning an undercover cop tempted by the ability to pilfer $2 million and One of My Wives is Missing, a cat and mouse mystery in which honeymooning Franciscus loses his wife only to have Elizabeth Ashley show up claiming to be her. It's up to police inspector Jack Klugman to unravel the situation.

Another feature film arrived in 1976 with The Amazing Dobermans. First came The Doberman Gang, then The Daring Dobermans, followed by this third installment. A TV sequel would appear in 1980 (and a big screen remake of the first film is due in theaters next year!) This time out, the pack of five specially trained dogs are owned by elderly con man Fred Astaire and are used to help treasury agent James out of a run-in with the mob. They wind up working with a circus where comely Barbara Eden is onhand as a horseback-riding performer.

Yet another TV series came about that same year. Hunter (not to be confused with the later Fred Dryer show) concerned government special agent Franciscus and his globe-trotting exploits in espionage. He worked in a bookstore as a cover while his cohort (a pre-Dynasty Linda Evans) used modeling as hers. Thirteen episodes of the show were shot, but only eight wound up airing thanks to its early cancellation.

In 1978, his All-American looks were put to use in The Greek Tycoon, playing a barely-veiled version of President John F. Kennedy whose widow Jacqueline Bisset falls for the title character (based, naturally, on Aristotle Onassis) played by Anthony Quinn. With character names like President Cassidy and Theo Tomasis and with Bisset wearing massive sunglasses on the poster, it seemed ridiculous for the producers to keep insisting that the film was pure fiction and not inspired by real people and events.

His marriage ended in 1979 and he swiftly married another woman, Carla Ankney, who would remain with him for the remainder of his life.

Perhaps in order to refill the coffers after a costly divorce and resultant child support, the oncoming years brought forth some real crap. Franciscus costarred with Chuck Norris in Good Guys Wear Black along with Anne Archer, then did a lame, poorly shot Italian movie called The Concorde Affair (which came out at about the same time as Airport '79: The Concorde. People were briefly fascinated with that aircraft.) At least he had a shirtless scene (shown here with Mimsy Farmer) to help keep viewers awake.

As if things weren't bad enough, he took part in the notoriously bad Canadian-made disaster movie City on Fire. At least he wasn't the only one to be caught in that one. His name brand costars included Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner and Henry Fonda. Then came another international production called Killer Fish. This one concerned deadly piranhas and starred Lee Majors, Karen Black, Margaux Hemingway and Marisa Berenson. It's mostly watched now for the unintentional laughs.

Considering some of the projects that had come his way, it probably sounded like a good idea to team up with Paul Newman, William Holden, Jacqueline Bisset, Edward Albert and others for a Warner Brothers film, but the end result was less than satisfactory. When Time Ran Out... ended up being the last theatrically released movie Irwin Allen produced.

The hackneyed and pedestrian story of a volcano erupting and threatening the lives of an assortment of vacationers and guests was undone by some shoddy special effects and a truckload of cliched characters. Franciscus at least had one of the more compelling roles (but compared to what?!) as the developer of the resort hotel who doesn't want to admit that there is anything wrong with the volcano.

The social-climbing son of a now-deceased land baron, he is married to pretty Veronica Hamel (and even shares a brief shower scene with her, shown through mottled glass doors), but his eyes are straying elsewhere. One scene has him hilariously asking her to put out some clothes from his "A-List wardrobe...something money, but casual." Naturally, it turns out to be an open shirt with gold chains, off-white polyester slacks and white plastic loafers!

The lengthy film had originally included a pat, soapy subplot about him being secretly related to Albert, but by the time the editing was finished, that aspect was cut out. The movie was further trimmed (and, in fact, retitled The Day the World Ended) in a desperate attempts to get butts in the theater seats, but it was not to be. It wound up being a fiasco and helped to signal the end of the 1970s disaster movie cycle.

He then had a supporting role in a film called Nightkill. Intended to be a feature film, it was instead shuttled off to television, thus denying star Jaclyn Smith the chance to star in a movie. Also on board were Robert Mitchum and Mike Conners. The very next year, Smith and Franciscus were joined again when she played Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and he was cast, this time for real, as President John F. Kennedy. In this rendition of the couple, a Valentine to its still living subject, the story ended before she ever met Ari Onassis.

Still ensconced in the Italian film industry, James made the Jaws rip-off Great White in 1981. The other American star was Vic Morrow, who would be dead within a year from an accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Franciscus played a novelist named Peter Benton (get it? The novel Jaws was written by Peter Benchley!) who finds himself up against a thirty-foot long shark. I don't see how the movie could have been very good, but I do like James' clingy red wetsuit which shows off his still-trim physique (he was forty-seven by this time.) Due to a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, this film was pulled from theaters and has never been broadcast in or released on video in North America.

Not content for City on Fire or When Time Ran Out... to be the most visible bomb on his resume, he next appeared in the infamously bad Butterfly. The jaw-dropping trashfest featured Pia Zadora along with Stacy Keach, Orson Welles, Edward Albert, Stuart Whitman and Ed McMahon(!) James played a snarling piece of work named Moke Blue.

One thing Franciscus did that was extremely detrimental to his health was to maintain a four pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit. By the mid '80s, his health was deteriorating thanks to this and his work before the cameras became limited. He made his last onscreen appearance in a 1985 TV-movie called Secret Weapons, an instantaneously campy story involving Linda Hamilton as a spy who catches men in compromising situations. After this, Franciscus turned primarily to writing, providing the story for the 1991 film 29th Street. He would be dead of emphysema on July 8th of that same year at the age of fifty-seven.

James Franciscus could be a determined, even difficult, person occasionally (he was voted the Sour Apple Award in 1963 for being the least cooperative actor with the press), but he was also a dedicated and hard-working one. While he wasn't able to emerge as a significant film star, he always gave 100% to the productions he was cast in. Apart from his many series, he worked on quite a few pilots, some of them considered too progressive for audiences at the time. He is heralded in The Underworld for his scantily-clad work in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but we enjoy watching him in many of his other works as well. It's a shame he didn't take better internal care of the body that caught such attention. His career (and life!) was cut short far too early.


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