Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Joe Frankin’s Five Craziest Yarns

In his final years, Joe Franklin had a lot in common with the great American directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Like Howard Hawks, Edgar G. Ulmer, and especially Orson Welles, Joe wasn’t content to be saluted for his very real, very impressive, achievement in show business — the fact that he had a talk show on for 40 years in one of the biggest markets in America (his local station later becoming a “super station” on cable) and that he had been involved with the format before the concept was crystallized by Steve Allen on The Tonight Show in 1954.

No, for Joe that wasn’t enough. And so, like the aforementioned Hollywood giants (and others from their era), he began to “touch up” his legacy in nearly all of his later interviews to include new names in his roster of A-list guests (for the most part, Joe's guests were indeed nobodies — which is what made his show the odd viewing experience that it was). Some of these stars never appeared on TV on any talk show ever, others had their careers followed with eagle eyes by their fan communities, yet Joe decided that he would say he had them on his local NYC talk show. (And in most cases, he didn’t just have them on, he had them on “four or five times,” “he cohosted a week of shows”).

Thus there is a problem: who exactly did Joe have on his show? Since he stated that the first two decades of the program were wiped by the two stations he was on (WJZ/WABC and WOR), it becomes harder to track the recognizable names he did have on. As far as actual footage, the only name star for which there is a kinescope is Sessue Hayakawa:

Barring footage, the best source of verification are the on-set photos that Joe had taken of his major guests – he and his producers recognized that it was important to have shots of these guests for his archive (also, obviously, for newspaper articles), so we have some great pictures of Joe with A-listers. Many of them are contained in this opening credits sequence from 1977:

In his book Up Late with Joe Franklin (Scribner, 1995), the original source of a bunch of his “yarns,” you can also see pics of Joe with these celebs: Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Ethel Waters, Paul Whiteman, Mike Douglas, Guy Lombardo, Mitchell Parrish, Leopold Stokowski, Rodney Dangerfield, Georgie Jessel, Myrna Loy, John Houseman, Mickey Rooney, Phyllis Diller, Stiller and Meara, Dyan Cannon, Dick Shawn, Tony Curtis, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern, Tiny Tim, Shari Lewis, Joe Louis, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, and Dan Aykroyd. So evidently Joe had a photographer on-set ready to document the guests on the show, except for the “many times” he had Chaplin on....

The question is: why the hell did Joe begin fabricating highly unlikely/utterly impossible guest stars as the years went on? It's a puzzle, but perhaps it's the same thing that motivated the directors I mentioned above. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's tendency to lie about his past is discussed in Michael Palm's great documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004).

It is posited that he simply wanted to be involved in all of the seminal moments of German cinema (as it was, he was involved in the production of a few Murnau classics and Menschen am Sonntag with Wilder, Zinneman, and Siodmak, which in itself should be enough). In this instance, one can see that his “disputed” credits (read: his tall tales and yarns) have made it into his IMDB filmography, but his Wikipedia entry notes that they are unsubstantiated.

The extremely thorough, nearly 800-page long, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy also faces this brick wall of old-guy lying: Hawks had an astounding life, in which he hunted with Hemingway, counted Faulkner as a close friend and colleague, and gave the first significant roles to many, many iconic actors and actresses. So why did he perpetually lie to interviewers in his dotage, claiming involvement in things that he had no hand in? Perhaps it was that he had “run out” of stories – his known stories (read: the true ones) had been revealed in prior interviews, and he was trying to supply “new copy” to the latest set of interviewers. McCarthy explores this in the book's lengthy foreword.

As for Welles, making up tall tales was part of his charm, and a big part of his legend. He was aware that people knew he was fabricating some stories and inflating the triumphs in others. He in fact made a cinematic essay that is one of the most profound statements on truth and lying ever. Orson was a proud liar, a man who was able to make art from his un-checkable yarns:

Perhaps a key element in Franklin's compulsion to make stuff up was the fact that the public's memory is extremely short, and never so much as in this lazy era when — as Chris Marker posited — your memory sits inside your computer. Thus, if you're going to impress today's viewers with your having encountered 1950s celebrities, it's not that news-making to mention Mineo, Mitchum, and the others. The current public perception of the Fifties is represented by a small group of icons who adorn tchotchkes in stores everywhere: Marilyn, James Dean, Brando, Sinatra, Gleason, Lucy, and of course Elvis. If you want to get in the news, saying you interviewed Tony Curtis is nowhere near as impressive as saying you fucked Marilyn, even if you barely had contact with her.

This has become the case with Jerry Lewis as well. Jerry *was* there, he did without doubt know and work with all these people, he is the last living A-list member of the extended Rat Pack “community,” and yet his stories about them change from telling to telling (and even autobiography to autobiography). Like Tony Curtis and Joe Franklin, he also put in a claim to having slept with Marilyn many decades on.

That's also a key to the old-guy yarn-spinning business: if someone died tragically and became a legend decades ago, why is it that only *now* that you're revealing your immortal meeting or sordid tryst with them? Tony Curtis spent years saying his time with Marilyn on the set of Some Like It Hot was hell on earth but then maintained late in his life that he fucked her; when Jerry makes this claim – along with a similar story about hunting for babes with JFK – he often evokes laughter, because it's coming out of a clear blue sky.

A similar case existed with Grandpa Al Lewis. He claimed to have encountered many great historical figures in both show-biz and politics, and to have been present at a lot of important events. The New York Times ended up doing a whole article discussing his“Zelig”-like claims, and how difficult it was to substantiate any of them. 

What it comes down to is that Joe took on the role of a modern-day Munchausen. People are entertained by seniors and like to hear their stories. If their stories involve people that the public is unaware of, you will only attract the fanboys, geeks, and true believers; if suddenly you fucked Marilyn Monroe, you are part of some kind of historic chain of important men — you join the Holy Trinity of guys who “passed around dames,” namely Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and JFK.

Thus, Joe began somewhere in the Nineties (a few years before his hoarding compulsion got really, really overwhelming in his office) to lie in every single interview. Big lies, small lies, odd lies, incredibly colorful lies, lies worthy of Mark Twain or Damon Runyon, and lies that just made you think “c'mon...”

Why is this important? Well, on a certain level it isn't. Joe was just an older gent, an incredibly fun character on the scene in Manhattan, a NYC show-biz institution (that he was, there is no denying or diminishing that). But I guess for someone like myself who really loves to research things about cultural history, Joe's pervasive lies moved beyond cute stories and became things that people quoted as being actual events.

The worst instance of this when he died was a sloppy Daily News obit that lifted the list of Franklin show guests from his Wikipedia entry, which contains a bunch of Joe's yarns, repeated as if they were truth. Thus the News obit contains a list of completely unsubstantiated celebrities, including two celebs who never did talk shows (Chaplin and “Gary Grant” — nice!).

There is also the kind of lie that is injurious. As I noted in my last blog entry on Joe, he frequently lied about the legal outcomes of his “character defamation” cases, saying he won cases he lost or never even filed. He also created wildly insulting lies about performers he was angry at. His book Up Late contains two paragraphs of slanderous lies about Uncle Floyd, all of them 100% untrue (see Floyd's response to Joe's bizarre, libelous storytelling at 1:15 here).

So, while it became part of Joe's charm to assume that everything he was saying was an adorable made-up lie, there were stories of his that are somehow being turned into entertainment fact via the unreliable institution that is Wikipedia. And there are others (like the lies about Floyd) that were simply petty and mean-spirited.

With that in mind, I hereby assemble a “listicle” (I don't do 'em often, but sometimes a topic cries out for the list formula) of Joe's most outlandish show-biz-related yarns: 

Bonus yarn: Joe claimed he slept with not one but two blonde bombshells of the Fifties. The lesser of the two (but still an amazing icon) was Jayne Mansfield. Joe writes in his book Up Late that she was on his show “twenty times” (no pics, not a one!). He had a drink with her once:

(p. 121) “She and I were having a drink alone together near my office when I felt her smoldering touch, sensed her eyes filling with longing. I let the alcoholic glow silence my resistance. What happened next is a blaze of Toscanini — as I say, Jayne Mansfield was a brilliant violinist. At about seven forty-five, at eight o'clock, there were frantic calls all over town from the theater [where she was acting in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?], from the stagehands, director, the producer, until Jayne showed up, a half hour late for her curtain. If someone asks, I didn't tell you this. You heard it from someone else.”

It's hard to top that torrid bit of trash prose, but here goes. If anyone does have evidence that any of these interviews took place on Joe's show, I will be happy to update, say I was wrong in that instance, and post the stated evidence. 

5. James Dean/Al Pacino. In one of his last interviews, possibly his last ever, Joe told Gilbert Gottfried and cohost Frank Santopadre on the “Amazing Colossal Podcast” that he had many amazing combinations of guests. He announced one of these interesting pairings for the first time ever on the 'cast (hear it here at 11:10). He noted that, back in the Fifties, he had James Dean on his show along with a newcomer named Al Pacino. Gilbert and Frank were quite polite listening to this odd revelation. 

“C'mon...” factor: He has no picture, never mentioned it before, and James Dean was famous for about a year, from '54-'55; at the time Al was 14-15 and not acting professionally.

4. John Lennon. This one is a tangled mess — Joe introduced this to my knowledge for the first time on Later with Bob Costas in the Nineties. He claimed that he had a deal with John: put Yoko on a few times and then John would appear on his TV show. He thus added that he had Yoko on many times on his TV show, but John was only on a few times. The only evidence that he interacted with Yoko is a photo of her guesting on his radio show, and his only interaction with John appears to have been a letter Lennon wrote to him “explaining” Yoko's music and oddly sorta asking Joe to give it a shot. (John namechecks avant-garde jazz musicians Joe would've had no knowledge of or interest in, given his musical preferences.) 

“C'mon...” factor: Here there is no greater “you shittin' me?” element than the fact that no photos exist. John had already been a Beatle, may not have been selling records as much as he used to, but remained an A-lister who was photographed in various locations when he moved to NYC. Presumably Joe's steadfast on-set photographer called in sick each time John was on the Joe show. Curiously, Joe also never mentioned these appearances when John was killed in 1980. There's also the fact that pretty much every single day in the Beatles existence has been chronicled in detailed books, none of which mention appearances on the Franklin show. 

3. Charlie Chaplin. Joe began to tout Chaplin's name as a frequent guest on his TV show in the last decade or so. If I remember correctly, Chaplin used to rank with Garbo as one of the people on his “wish list” (he had a story about a friend of Garbo calling him about his radio show but never did quite bother to lie about Greta being on his TV program — most likely because younger folk don't know/care who she was). Suddenly, though, Charlie had been on his program “four or five times.” 

“C'mon...” factor: Again, no on-set photo of Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous performers on the planet. The only fact that needs repeating is that Chaplin left the U.S. for good in September 1952 because of political problems. Joe went on the air in Jan. 8, 1951, so there's a very small window for Charlie to have shown up on the show. And surely, if you're the biggest star on Earth, you're certainly going to make your TV debut on a local, no-budget talk show with a nostalgia theme, right?

2. Marilyn Monroe: Joe was irresistible to blonde bombshells, we've already seen that with Jayne (did Joe dally with Mamie as well? one wonders). Joe's story, as told in Up Late, the nexus for many of the Franklin yarns, is that Marilyn's press agent set up a meeting between she and Joe because he wanted her to get on the TV show Luncheon at Sardi's. The two struck it off immediately (of course), and Joe suggested to a publisher, Rudolph Field, that he write a book with Marilyn about her life (this is when, Joe claims, she had brunette hair, which does run counter to her chronology in the early Fifties when the story is taking place — Niagara made her a saleable commodity, and she was a blonde from that point on).

Joe did say in interviews he had her on his TV show many times. But the piece de resistance is his account of their having sex. They were working on her autobiography (which, incidentally, did get written in 1956 as an item called My Story, ghosted by none other than Ben Hecht!). He remembered:

(p. 119) “One night we were working late on the manuscript. I was astonished to feel her hand on my knee. I stammered a weak protest. The rest is a fog of Chinese food and Garry Moore [the two were presumably watching TV; Garry was not in the room]. She had a very severe biological need, a strong biological urge. I would characterize her as straight-ahead, unemotional, businesslike. Not kinky. Neither dominant nor submissive — neuter. A man could get her in the sack, and he would think that he was the conqueror when actually she made the conquest....” 

“C'mon...” factor: That damned on-set photographer, he kept calling in sick! Given the frequency with which Joe says he met her, there might've been one photograph of the two together, but none has surfaced (time will only tell if there is any pertinent documentation anywhere in his cluttered office or storage space). The book did materialize, but isn't touted as an autobiography (strange, given that the other ghost written book was touted as such). It is credited to Joe and writer Laurie Palmer. As with the Beatles, there have been countless tomes about Marilyn, none of which has seen fit to include l'affaire Franklin.

1. John F. Kennedy/Richard M. Nixon. There is nothing that approaches this story for its sheer levels of comic invention and/or insanity. I never heard Joe tell it in an interview, but there it is, tucked away in that same urtext of true stories and bizarrely fabricated fakes, Up Late. He's discussing how a local restaurateur had a heart attack on the show, live, and...

(pp. 106-107) “He slipped under the table, the camera got off him, and we called for help. We did have a doctor at ABC, but he was busy reading the racing form. Nixon and Kennedy were in the next room rehearsing for their debate, and they ran in to help revive the guy. I had no choice but to keep on going, to talk to another guest, the camera in close, while they worked on the restaurant owner. It was already too late; he was dead.”

This little inclusion from Joe, the fact that Tricky Dick and Jack the Zipper were there to help him out with a dead man, creates an image that deserves to be in a deranged short story or most certainly a cartoon (perhaps a missing panel from "The Joe Franklin Story" by Drew Friedman and Josh Alan Friedman?). It's not even surreal, it's something like a stroke of lying-genius. It's reaching out to grab any two celebrity names and slapping them into your story. After Joe's death, someone posted to the Net about their friend who did camerawork for Joe's daytime ABC show. He noted that someone did die on the air and the show kept going. No mention of Jack or Dick. 

“C'mon...” factor: C'mon.

The single best piece of writing about Joe appeared in the Village Voice at the time that his TV show left the airwaves. Nick Tosches wrote a sublime piece on the man he called “the Lorenzo de' Medici of divine mediocrity.” It can be found in its entirety here, as reprinted in the terrific collection The Nick Tosches Reader.

Nick declares (in a piece that was lovingly illustrated by expert Franklin caricaturist Drew Friedman), “I had seen Dracula rise from his coffin, I had seen the Wolfman howl, the Invisible Man unravel, the Mummy walk. But Joe and his baby hands and his shining forehead were a weirdness unto themselves.”

He notes he left off watching Joe at one point because he was unsettled by Joe’s “shoddy carnival of nihilism.” He returned years later, though, for while under the influence of Ronsonol, he began to understand Joe, “still living, still beaming, still shrinking, still talking with zero conviction about what he called, as if alluding to some dark Zoroastrian duality, ‘the good nostalgia.’ ” Nick proceeds to outline Joe’s career, supplying real, verified dates (one of many things Tosches does brilliantly is research his topics) for the many transitional moments in Joe’s TV show.

On to the video: Perhaps the best example of Joe’s show is this representative episode from 1976, which starts off in the middle of things with Joe errantly bringing up Lee J. Cobb out of the blue to his panel.

Another example of the oddness of the Joe show offers us in the first minute alone the topics of bounty hunting, ham radio, and vaudeville. This is followed by some trivia questions from Franklin “anchor man” Richie Ornstein (when Joe couldn’t answer, he'd just snap out “I don’t know,” indicating that Richie should move on). Joe prefigured a lot of current reality shows by probing all of the details of the bounty hunter’s life (and if you don’t care, as I don’t, you’ll be bored to tears — just imagine you’re up at 1:00 a.m. watching it with bleary eyes and nothing on the other channels….)

The most interesting moments were when Joe met up with old comedians. Here, from his 40th Anniversary special, is Joe hosting a panel of old Jewish comics: Joey Adams, Henny Youngman, Freddie Roman, Mickey Freeman, and Bob Melvin.

1 comment:

Craven Lovelace said...

This, like all your posts about Joe, was great. Just a fabulous read, and it's clear you grok the Joe Franklin mystique.

I'd just like to point out that his hoarding disorder was already full-blown in the '80s. I visited his office one day to drop off a VHS copy of the film I co-wrote and -directed with Todd Rutt, "Shock! Shock! Shock!" We had been dying to get on the show to promote it (Todd and I were such Joe fans that we wrote "The big, big show is only just beginning!" into the dialog as an homage), and finally, after my girlfriend at the time called Joe every single day for nearly a year, he relented and booked us. We appeared on the same episode as New Kids on the Block, which was great since, once their star rose, he repeated the episode ad nauseum for a couple years. It was Todd and I who crafted and gave to Joe the "Franklinstein" poster you can see in the photo accompanying this post.

Anyway, believe me, his office was a mountain of detritus and ephemera even then. (I think this was '88.) Also, one of my most vivid memories was seeing what it looked like behind Joe's onscreen desk. There was a six-inch pile of hamburger wrappers, coke cups and other trash right there, out of sight of the camera but visible to anyone who guested on the show.

Anyway, thanks again for the great blog, and especially the articles on Joe. Everyone knew it was coming, but in some weird way, his death affected me more than I would have imagined.