Fans of TV One’s documentary program Unsung, which shines the spotlight on performers whose mainstream profiles aren’t as substantial as they perhaps out to be, will be pleased to learn that the network is branching out with the series, expanding its coverage beyond the world of music and into the field of acting. Tonight marks the premiere episode of Unsung Hollywood, which kicks off with a look at the life and career of Pam Grier, and Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Grier and discuss the episode and how it came about while also chatting a bit about her career…but without giving away too much about the program, of course.
Bullz-Eye: How did you find your way to Unsung Hollywood? Did they pitch you on the idea?
Pam Grier: I had turned them down several times, because I wasn’t interested, but then I saw one of their episodes. My mom was so enthralled by one of the shows they had done on musicians – they did an excellent job – and she said, “I didn’t know that!” And, of course, no one knows what inspired the music and the tenacity of people to get their music played and all that except for the musicians. So we talked, and they said what they were going to do, and I said, “Okay, but you know it’s very difficult to get photographs.” Because as I learned from doing my book (Foxy: My Life in Three Acts), you have to have the rights if someone owns the photographs, and if someone else is in it, you have to get the rights from those people.
I said, “I don’t know if I can do that, because you’re going to get maybe five pictures, because a lot of people do not want to participate.” So I said, “I don’t want to marginalize it, but I can only give you so much, and I don’t know when I can do it.” But they kind of gave me an outline, and I said, “Oh, I think we can do this…so I just have to find the time!” And I did. And I think they did an excellent job.
When we saw the cast that Sylvester Stallone assembled for war machine throwback that is the upcoming “The Expendables,” well, we were just giddy. It didn’t matter that Stallone’s recent writing projects (“Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo”) were as predictable as a sunrise and safe as houses – he has put together the single biggest cast of ass-kicking movie stars we’ve seen in decades, possibly ever. Indeed, as we looked back at great action ensembles from the past, we discovered just how infrequently the big stars worked together for an action movie. It happens all the time for dramas (two words: Oscar bait), but one quick look at the ‘80s in particular will tell you that action movies, by and large, are a single man’s game.
However, there are times when movie stars have forsaken the lion’s share of the spotlight in order to deliver something special, and so we salute the great guy movie ensembles of years past. In the interest of full disclosure, once we discovered that the list was going to consist almost entirely of war movies, westerns and sequels, we decided to play around a little bit with the definition of “action movie.” To the point where it included Tim Burton and Steven Soderbergh. Don’t judge.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Cast: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter The Plot: A village of farmers, frequently raided by a group of bandits, recruits a group of gunslingers to defend their town. The Back Story: In the 1950s, it wasn’t exactly the easiest task to get the average American to go see a Japanese film, no matter how great it may have been. Fortunately, director John Sturges was up to the task of seeing Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” and upon doing so, he saw elements in the story and characters which would translate well to the Western genre. Boy, was he right…and if his instinct for hot properties was good, then his gift for casting was downright remarkable, given that the only truly top-shelf actor in the cast at the time was Brynner, who was riding high on the Academy Award winning success of “The King and I.” Combining these upstanding gentlemen, the inspiration of the original source material, and the classic score by Elmer Bernstein, and you’ve got yourself one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The Money Shot: There are a lot of great small moments leading up to the big showdown between the Magnificent Seven and the despicable Calvera (Wallach), including the classic knife-throwing sequence that introduces Coburn’s character, and, indeed, the grand finale offers several immortal death sequences. None, however, match the power of Calvera’s final seconds onscreen, specifically his stunned reaction to the fact that Chris (Brynner), despite his earlier retreat, has not only returned but, indeed, successfully taken him down.
The Great Escape (1963)
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Donald The Plot: A group of Allied prisoners plan a daring escape from a supposedly escape-proof German prison. The Back Story: Remember what we said about Sturges’s gift for casting? It wasn’t a one-off, as this ensemble clearly demonstrates. Based on a true story, utilizing Paul Brickhill’s book of the same title as its inspiration, “The Great Escape” was adapted somewhat from its source material, pumping up the importance of the Americans in the story and adding a bit more motorcycle action. The latter was reportedly done at McQueen’s request, but whoever came up with the idea deserves a round of applause, as it makes for some of the film’s most exciting moments. Ironically, “The Great Escape” got more shrugs than kudos upon its original release, but it has since gone on to become recognized as a classic. The Money Shot: When Hilts’s mad motorcycle ride through Germany ends abruptly when he attempts to jump the fence into Switzerland, only to get caught in the barbed wire. That’s got to hurt…