Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force.

August 12, 2014

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Joe Viskocil  1951 – 2014

Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force who – through his work on so many major motion pictures — freely gave joy and pleasure to millions around the world. He was a true master of his craft.

He was the recipient of many honors, including an Academy award, yet my guess is that those who knew and loved him are probably not thinking very much about his credits or distinguished career. We only hear his infectious laughter, see the joyous smile with which he greeted his friends and colleagues, and sit around struggling to imagine a world without him in it. Because when all the lofty words about his talent have been exhausted, many of us will be left with his simple legacy of joy that easily transcends any awards or movie reviews or glowing magazine articles.

He created joy. He inspired gut-splitting laughter.  He was capable of absolutely glorious mischief, jokes, and teasing.  He relished the kind and generous gesture. And – most importantly for me, at least — he lived a life in which the ability to make, have and share fun was virtually a sacrament.

Who knew that, in all this fun, he was actually teaching us a lesson? Because in the way he lived his life, you slowly came to see that fun and laughter, shared generously and with love, was deadly serious business, nothing less than one of life’s fundamental fuels.  And, trust me; this was a guy who knew fun and laughter like nobody’s business.

Since we lost the comic genius Robin Williams yesterday, you may think I am describing him. A number of these details do apply. But this blog post is actually about someone else, a friend of close to 50 years and someone I wish you all could have known.

JoeViskocil blockade runner

Today, I write about my friend Joe Viskocil, Academy award-winning visual effects artist and master of cinematic pyrotechnics, who died yesterday in California at the age of 63. There are many places you can find out about his professional accomplishments, from the explosion of Death Star in the early Star Wars to the destruction of the White House in Independence Day. My purpose here is simply to note the passing of one sublimely nice fellow, a bringer of joy par excellence, and share just how much he will be missed by so many.

Joe had many friends, friends that I did not know. To me, Joe was part of a small group of 5 high school friends who attended South Hills High School in Covina, California together. For decades we have competed for each other’s laughter (the more raucous the better), written sketches and parodies in which we were both the writers and sole audience members, and been there for each other when laughter was the last thing on the agenda.

Now we are four.

If my hunch is right, a lot of other people who knew Joe are also now doing the same, profoundly sad mathematics of loss, taking stock of their lives, factoring Joe into the equation, and trying to figure out just what the world will be like when so much joy is subtracted. I wouldn’t pretend to do anyone else’s math, but I’d be willing to bet just one more dinner with Joe and the gang at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. that most of us – after all the subtracting – will still be left with more belly laughs and giggling than we know what to do with.

Rest well, Giuseppe.


Great Songs in Film #11: “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Gordon MacRae opens Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film “Oklahoma”

June 21, 2014

I grew up hearing about Gordon MacRae’s problems with alcoholism and its consequences.  I was a star-struck kid, read magazines like Photoplay, and was totally caught up in both the  nonsensical gossip  being produced by Hollywood press agents and  the embarrassing truths being being suppressed by the same Hollywood press agents. In college, I even got a part time job with Cinema Center films as a publicist for perhaps the most forgettable film the great Dustin Hoffman ever made.

Fun? Of course.

But looking back, I see that what all the nuttiness obscured was the actual talent that celebrities did or did not bring to the table. Set all the rumors and backbiting aside, and someone could either act, sing, or dance or they couldn’t.

Well, Gordon MacRae had more raw charm and acting chops than any one human being deserves.

And he could sing. Beautifully.

When he was given a chance at one of the greatest songs Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote — “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” —  the result was sublime.

Gordon MacRae died in 1986, having faced his demons, recovered from alcoholism, and become a visible spokesman for this insidious disease. 

But before everything, there was the voice.

And the fact that when two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest musicals were filmed, one guy was cast as the male lead in both. 


Maxine Greene 1917 – 2014

June 6, 2014

Riveting lecturer,  human being of unlimited compassion, intellectual and philosopher of mind-boggling depth, champion of the arts, and wonderful, unforgettable teacher.

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The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), Santa Monica, California Civic Auditorium: Big. Very Big.

May 30, 2014

Seriously, The T.A.M.I.  Show was big. And not just because of a lineup that seemed to include every popular pop, rock, and R&B  artist short of the Beatles.

What will always make The T.A.M.I. Show  special is the fact that, at a time just before the Watts riots when Southern California was as racially, culturally and geographically segregated as any place in the United States, the show was the first high-profile opportunity for cloistered white kids to see black  R&B artists up close.

It’s painful to admit,  but many white kids who went to their local theaters to see The T.A.M.I. Show had never seen a person of color in person.

These were the artists  who in many cases had written and first performed the songs that squeaky clean white artists like Pat Boone subsequently appropriated,  “cleaned up” and recorded in excruciatingly saccharine versions.

It was a revelation.

Music was never the same. Life was never the same.


He was 14 years old. 14. And he could already do this. 14.

May 15, 2014


For John Duvanich. Teacher, Mentor, Fountain of Joy and Curiousity. 6th Grade Teacher, Vincent Avenue Elementary School, 1962. Covina, California.

May 6, 2014


Ron Takaki: Teacher, Scholar, and Activist for the Ages

May 3, 2014

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Five years ago this month, one of my most extraordinary and unforgettable undergraduate professors at UCLA — Ron Takaki — died at the age of 70. I am re-posting the tribute I posted at the time. Truly a teacher and scholar for the ages. SMG.

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Ronald Takaki  was a teacher, historian,  and extraordinary human being.  He  was a pioneer in ethnic studies and a faculty member at UCLA and Berkeley.  Ron Takaki died at the age of 70 this past May.

Ron was also my teacher and  easily one of the 2 -3 greatest and most inspiring professors I had as an undergraduate at the University of California. He is one of the main reasons I chose to spend a lifetime in higher education. Remembering his brilliant and packed lectures, and thinking back to his influence on so many students, I am yet again reminded of the incredible responsibilities, challenges and opportunities we all have as faculty members.

In the spring of 1970, I can’t say I had ever heard the term “globalization.” National, ethnic, religious, and racial borders, especially in a place like California, could not have been more closely guarded. White middle class suburbs — even ones directly adjoining Chicano or African American or Asian neighborhoods — were social and cultural fortresses. Many of us who came directly from those fortresses to UCLA or Berkeley had never been in close proximity to any ethnic diversity. None. It was shameful. We lived in a well armored comfort zone that neither challenged us nor expanded our world view beyond the San Bernardino Freeway.

But there we were as freshmen, looking over the schedule of classes, trying to figure out who was responsible for the typo that had listed some professor with a Japanese surname as the professor for intro to African American history.

When we showed up at class, imagine how baffled we were to see this soft-spoken Asian American professor speaking  with a quiet yet furious indignation about the shame of slavery.  I vividly remember thinking almost immediately that nothing I thought knew about how the world worked, about the fortresses that were our ethnic and racial and religious enclaves, would ever be the same. Something was happening, and — if we didn’t fully understand all the complex forces — Professor Takaki would be there as a guide to the perplexed. And believe me, in the spring 1970 quarter we needed guiding —   Kent State, Cambodia, the Moratorium, and violent confrontations with campus police. Even a fatal shooting on campus. As I look back and calculate the chronology, I am stunned to realize that this gentle and powerful man was then  only in his early 30s.

There has never been a time in the intervening 40 years when, seeing someone trying to persuade with bluster and arrogance, I haven’t remembered Ron Takaki in the spring of 1970 and thought:  Rage born and nurtured in gentle soul can burn with even greater intensity.

It was an extraordinary time at UCLA, full of fury and passion. Across campus, another great and inspiring professor, Angela Davis, was approaching these issues of inequality from another perspective. And it was a loud time – a time of rage and grievance. How extraordinary it was to have Ron Takaki there amidst the ferment, showing us that even rage could be expressed with civility, that scholarship could reveal layers of barbarity and fuel the kind of anger that can lead to social change.

Sometime later he brought to campus some of the great figures of the infamous WW II relocation of Japanese Americans, people like Fred Korematsu and Joe Grant Masaoka. For many of us in 1969, this shameful episode was still virtually invisible in the exclusionist and triumphal narrative of California history.

He never minimized the conflicts and inequalities and injustices that fueled the growing rage. There was nothing “feel good” about these classes. But simply by explaining these forces, by struggling to help us understand the fires that were starting to burn in urban America, he helped us see that — through understanding and rigorous scholarship — a peaceful future just might be possible.

Really a teacher for the ages.


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