Billy Dee’s not two-faced

For the second time this year, I will have to miss the premiere of a heavily-anticipated movie due to preparations for my mission trip. I’ll be going to Mississippi next weekend and will miss the opening of “Batman Begins.” But I’ll see it soon enough. I’d like to go to the IMAX theater in Nashville and see it there.

While whetting my appetite, I was looking at some trivia on IMDb related to the moves that were produced between 1989 and 1997. This new movie essentially restarts the franchise; it’s not really a sequel or a prequel to those movies, more of a remake.

Anyway, I found a couple of very interesting facts about casting which I’d never heard before.

When “Batman Forever” came out in 1995, I recall explaining to my editor at the time — a movie buff — that Tommy Lee Jones was playing the same character that Billy Dee Williams had played in the original 1989 movie. In “Batman,” Billy Dee played district attorney Harvey Dent, essentially a cameo role. As comic book fans know, and as is briefly explained in “Batman Forever,” Dent is horribly disfigured and becomes the bitter criminal Two-Face.

Well, it turns out that Billy Dee was well aware of Harvey Dent’s ultimate destiny when he played the straight district attorney part in the first movie. In fact, he apparently had it written into his contract that he would get to play Two-Face in a sequel. When the producers eventually decided to cast Jones, they reportedly had to pay Billy Dee a large sum to buy out his contract.

The other piece of trivia concerns another Williams — Robin Williams. When the producers of the original movie were trying to convince Jack Nicholson to take the part of The Joker, he held out for a lot of money. At one point, they made a big show of talking to Robin Williams about the part, and sure enough Nicholson came around. But he needn’t have worried: according to IMDb, Nicholson made so much from his share of the profits, marketing and merchandising that he holds the record for the best compensation of an actor for a single film.

Anyway, the producers later tried to recruit Robin Williams for the part of The Riddler in “Batman Forever” — but he was still furious at having been used as bait to threaten Nicholson, and insisted on an apology from the producers! Whatever happened after that, Jim Carrey ended up with the part.

“Batman Begins” looks like it will return to the serious tone of the first movie, avoiding the campiness into which the other movies slipped. I can’t wait to see it, but I’ll have to wait.

Bonnaroo

I am only about 20 miles as the crow flies from the annual Bonnaroo rock festival, which enters its fourth year this weekend. The Woodstock-like event draws 100,000 visitors to a farm just outside Manchester, Tenn., but it really doesn’t have much impact on me. I’ve never covered it for the newspaper (two of my co-workers are sharing the honors this year), and it’s not really in my way.

Manchester is directly due east of Shelbyville, but when I go out of town it tends to be north (to Murfreesboro or Nashville) . When I do go southeast, to Mountain T.O.P. events, I usually bypass Manchester anyway, by taking the Arnold Engineering Development Center access road. I would only pass through Manchester if I were headed to Mountain T.O.P.’s camp near Spencer, Tenn., and as far as I know I won’t need to go there this weekend.

Nashville, too, has a big event going on this weekend — the CMA Music Festival, formerly known as “Fan Fair.” But you don’t notice a big event in Nashville as much as you notice one in Manchester. And I don’t plan to go to Nashville this weekend either.

More disturbed than Michael

I don’t know whether Michael Jackson committed the specific crimes for which he’s now being tried. But I do know that the things he publicly admits to doing — these “innocent sleepovers” with young boys — are wildly inappropriate.

Michael Jackson grew up, from what we’ve been told, with an abusive father. He had an incredible degree of stardom thrust upon him at a young age. Those factors don’t excuse his actions, by any stretch of the imagination, but even the casual outside observer can recognize that Michael Jackson needs help. First and foremost, he needs someone who can say “no” to him — someone who isn’t afraid to tell him that something is out of line.

The people I have no sympathy for are the slack-jawed idiots and the publicity-seeking activists who are demonstrating on Michael’s behalf outside the trial. Who do these people think they’re protecting?

Straczynski Still Wants To Run ‘Star Trek’

J. Michael “Joe” Straczynski, creator of “Babylon 5,” says he still is interested in producing producing a new “Star Trek” series — but Paramount has indicated it won’t do anything with the franchise for a couple of years (probably a good idea).

The most interesting thing about this is that JMS (as B5 fans sometimes refer to him) is proposing a “reboot” of “Star Trek” — like Ron Moore’s version of “Battlestar Galactica,” presumably meaning his version would start over again from scratch and not attempt continuity with the existing canon of shows. That probably wouldn’t sit well with a lot of the hard-core “Trek” fans (just as Moore’s worthy efforts nevertheless offended a lot of hard-core “Galactica” fans). And JMS would have a heck of a lot more canon to compete with than Moore did.

Still, as I’ve previously posted, it’s fascinating to think of what a JMS-produced “Star Trek” would be like. Would he attempt, as Moore did, to re-cast familiar characters for his new version? Or would he take an easier route and invent a whole new ship and crew?

I always enjoyed B5, although I can’t say I watched every episode. I think JMS’s take on the conflict of cultures and individuals was in many ways more complex and realistic than the way similar issues were being portrayed on the “Star Trek” series which were running at the same time. It was also, for better or worse, a much more personal take — JMS was said to have written all or the vast majority of the show himself. (I still remember, long before B5, when he used to write the screenwriting column for Writer’s Digest magazine.)

B5 wasn’t always as much fun as Trek, of course, and that might give Paramount pause. Heck, it gives me pause, come to think about it. Star Trek should allow for the occasional light-hearted plotline; Tribbles and Q and Lwaxana Troi and what have you. But maybe I’m not giving JMS enough credit.

In any case, I’ll be curious to see how this plays out.

Bancroft and Brooks

84 Charing Cross RoadWhatever it is that causes most Hollywood marriages to have the same half-life as Cesium 130, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks seemed to have avoided it. They remained married for 40 years until her death on Tuesday night.

I once heard the story of how the movie “84 Charing Cross Road” came to be made. If you’ve never seen the film, it’s a very quiet, subtle little project, starring Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins as trans-Atlantic pen pals sharing a love of books. Bancroft had been reading the book — which was a non-fiction memoir by Helene Hanff, who had been a writer in the early days of TV. She made a casual remark to her husband about how much she’d love to play the part if there were ever a movie adaptation.

Mel Brooks is best known for his own movies — brash and bawdy comedies — but his company has also produced films like “The Elephant Man.” Because Mel Brooks as an individual has become so closely associated with one particular genre, he often leaves his name off his more serious projects — you have to look for his company name, Brooksfilm, to recognize them.

Anyway, Brooks went out and — without telling his wife — negotiated for the rights to make “84 Charing Cross Road.” He gave this to her as a birthday gift!

When I heard Tuesday night about Ms. Bancroft’s death, I mourned the loss of a fine actress, but I also thought about the uniqueness of their partnership — the classy actress and the low-brow comedian. I imagine they must have been a delightful couple to know, and more than once (as strange as it sounds) I fantasized about going to dinner with them.

The thinking toy’s man

20 Questions Handheld Game

On our bus ride to the baseball game yesterday, I became acquainted with a new toy which I plan to purchase at my next opportunity. Run, don’t walk, to Wal-Mart, Target or your nearest toy store and look for Radica’s “20 Q” or “20 Questions” game. (Or just click on the Amazon associates link above.)

This is a handheld game about the size of a billiard ball, costing between $10 and $15. You imagine any item and the game asks you 20 yes-or-no questions about it. (The first question is potentially in four parts, about whether the item is animal, vegetable, mineral or other.) For each question, you push one of four buttons to answer “yes,” “no,” “sometimes” or “unknown.”

The game then guesses your item, with astonishing accuracy. If its first guess happens to be wrong, it will go up to five more questions before conceding.

The questions seem so vague that you don’t realize how much information is being garnered, which makes the final revelation all the more startling. Both times I tested the machine yesterday, at the end of 20 questions I didn’t think (based on the questions that had been asked) that the machine was anywhere near the right answer.

And yet, on my first game, I imagined a shoebox — and the game guessed “cardboard box,” which I would consider an exact match. Then, I imagined binoculars — and the game guessed “binoculars.”

Someone else on the bus reported imagining a llama, and the machine nailed it. The algorithm inside this little toy must have thousands and thousands of possible answers programmed into it, along with a tree of yes/no questions leading to each one.

It’s a fascinating conversation piece, and I can’t wait to have one of my own.