Monday, April 30, 2012

Crane This Way for a Second...

By current Underworld standards, this will be a pretty brief post. As it's the last day in April, I wanted to put up just one more entry before the month was over and this seemed like one I could knock out in a single day. Recently, as I was swimming through waves of information on another topic, I stumbled onto a person I had never heard of before and knew nothing about. His boyish good looks (from a time period – the mid-'60s – that I am particularly fond of) caught my eye and I started to investigate him a bit further. I'm going to offer him up to you now, though I still don't know a great deal about him, I just think he was nice-looking and apparently once made a real impression, albeit briefly.

On December 3rd, 1933, Lesley Stein was born. Though he is believed to have been born in Long Beach, New York, both San Francisco and The Bronx have also been noted as his birthplace. After graduating from Tulane University (majoring in English), he joined the U.S. Air Force and became a jet pilot and a helicopter instructor. For many years afterward, he wore a bracelet bearing the Air Force wings on it, noting that anything he might be doing at the present was safer than the work he'd done in the service.

And, in truth, he was known to be a rather cocky and combative personality as he pursued a career in radio following his military stint (changing his name to Les Crane along the way.) He was credited by Casey Kasem as being one of the men who implemented the idea of a Top 40 list of hit songs. His first notable exposure was as a San Francisco disc jockey who broadcast from a popular nightclub and studio (the hungry i) where he would take calls from the public and sometimes verbally sting them with his repartee or even hang up on them if he didn't care for their opinions. In that post-Eisenhower, neo-Kennedy era, it was more than shocking for a radio host to be so blunt and “inconsiderate” to callers.

Nevertheless, his amiably brusque style won him many fans and before long he was pegged for television. On the cusp of thirty years of age in 1963, the handsome young man was transferred to New York City to helm a late-night talk show. Though the show was only local to New York City, it has the distinction of being the first program ever to feature The Rolling Stones on it. In 1964, The Les Crane Show went national on ABC, butting up against the juggernaut The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (a program he had once guest hosted in 1962.)

Though Crane featured celebrity guests, he also strove to include topicality and, as a result, controversy. One installment had attorney Melvin Belli debating the guilt of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald with Oswald's own mother! He also had the combination of author Norman Mailer and Richard Burton, with Burton encouraging English scholar Crane to recite a speech from Hamlet, which he did. Shelley Winters (a frequent Tonight Show guest) even appeared once, debating some issue or another with black baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

Crane's studio set-up was completely different from that of any other established talk show. It was done in the round with he and his guest is swivel chairs. Most importantly (and memorably for those who saw it) was a shotgun microphone he kept at his side and used frequently in order to target any audience member who had a question or viable comment. The sight of this handsome man brandishing the mammoth sound device almost like a weapon was eye-popping indeed. This, along with his take-no-prisoners style of interviewing and conversing earned him the nickname “The Bad Boy of Late-Night Television.”

His show sought to bring notable, newsworthy people of the day to the airwaves. Bob Dylan, Alabama governor (and segregationist) George Wallace, Martin Luther King JR, Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were among his guests. He also has the distinction of having been the very first East Coast TV talk show hosts to welcome an openly gay guest to his program. Randy Wicker, a highly visible activist of the early-'60s (and beyond) and founder of The Homosexual League of New York, appeared on the program, but the network nixed a later appearance by the lesbian advocacy group the Daughters of Bilitis.

Regardless of the provocative nature of his show and the publicity generated from it, The Les Crane Show was cancelled after only fourteen weeks and refashioned into a program called ABC's Nightlife (on which he also appeared occasionally.) His comely face also drew the attention of film and television producers and in 1965, her returned to California and began to work as an occasional actor. He did an episode of Burke's Law (with Gene Barry) and then was hired to play a deadly hit-man in the feature film An American Dream.

Dream was based on a novel written by Norman Mailer, who'd appeared on The Les Crane Show. Oddly, the story revolved around a controversial TV talk show host who's in the throes of attacking police corruption and mob influence when he allows his shrew of a wife to fall to her death, thus making him guilty of covering up himself. The lead went to Stuart Whitman, with Crane in the supporting role. (Whether he offered any advice to Whitman about the character's career is unknown, though unlikely.)

While becoming part of the emerging Hollywood scene, he caught the eye of Tina Louise, then co-starring on the popular sitcom Gilligan's Island as shipwrecked movie goddess Ginger Grant. The two of them embarked on a relationship that culminated in their 1966 wedding. Depending on which account you believe, this was either Crane's third or fourth trip down the aisle! This was Louise's one and only wedding, though, so it was festooned with all the trimmings. The two became a glittering, gorgeous show biz couple, hob-nobbing all over the place (in this instance in Italy with Ugo Tognazzi, who is to the left of Louise.)

If you do anything on this page, do right-click this photo of their wedding from a magazine spread. Not only is Mr. Crane tan and beautiful, but there's even a shot of Crane and Louise with most of her Gilligan cast-mates (castaway-mates?), a rare shot of them together out of GI drag. Was Russell “The Professor” Johnson absent or was he taking the picture?! You know, Louise was never happy working on Island, believing she was above such an enterprise (especially when she realized she wasn't really “starring” on it) and never warming up to Dawn “Mary Ann” Wells. The fact it dragged on for three seasons, that most episodes had her glued to Wells and that she, despite vehement efforts to the contrary, was forever associated with it must have equalled up to her own personal hell! LOL

Also in 1966, Crane joined David Hartman (top) and Hagan Beggs (middle) along with Don Knotts, Ida Lupino, Jack Weston, Melodie Johnson and Deanna Lund in the TV-movie I Love a Mystery, though this project remained on the shelf, un-aired, until 1973. He did continue with other gigs like guesting on The Virginian (as shown below), Ironside and It Takes a Thief. He also headlined a local radio talk show in California in 1968 as well as some local TV appearances, but now he had abandoned the crisp suits and clean good looks, opting for groovy turtlenecks, moccasins and a thick moustache.

In 1970, Crane and Louise welcomed a daughter into the fold. Caprice Crane grew up to become a successful novelist in the “chick lit” genre as well as a TV writer, producer and music supervisor. A not too terribly successful 2011 movie Love, Wedding, Marriage (directed by Dermot Mulroney and starring Mandy Moore and Kellan Lutz with Jane Seymour and James Brolin) was co-written by her as well.

A barely recognizable Crane and Louise appeared together on an installment of the comedic anthology series Love, American Style and also collaborated on the TV special Love It or Leave It, a music-filled, ecology-minded program about the destruction of planet Earth's resources and beauty. He was starting to resemble famed porn-star Harry Reems! This was in 1971, the year that Crane also released a single, Desiderata, a poetic recitation that was backed by music. The song reached #8 on the Billboard charts and, more than that, garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording! (National Lampoon parodied the gooey, altruistic song with their own version called “Deteriorata.” Years later, Crane claimed his own song was gag-inducing and that he found the parody better!)

After Crane left TV in in the early-'70s (divorcing Louise in 1974), he rarely, if ever, spoke of or referred to his career in that business again. Eventually, he became interested in the world of computers and successfully explored that as a means of income. His company was innovative when it came to computer games and eventually merged with another company, providing a secure retirement for the man who had once lived a rather scrambled existence in the tough world of TV broadcasting and acting.

In an “it can only happen in Hollywood” type of twist, Crane married for the last time to a woman he stayed with for twenty years until his death in 2008. Her name? Ginger! When he died of natural causes that year, he was seventy-four. In a rare burst of nostalgia for those whose careers are limited in scope, he was present in the annual “In Memoriam” video tribute during the 60th Annual Emmy Awards of 2008. Did any of you ever see his talk show or have memories of Mr. Crane that you can share?


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