Sidney Sheldon: the other side of me

If you didn’t grow up through the 60’s and 70’s you can be excused for not knowing who Sidney Sheldon is. I mention those two decades because it was through that time period when he had not one, not two, but three hit television programs that he wrote and in some cases produced. In case you’re interested the programs were: The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart. He also wrote and produced Nancy but the network cancelled it before it really got a chance to get started.

Before he died aged 89 on 30 January 2007 he wrote 7 Broadway plays, 25 feature films, 4 television shows, 18 novels, and 9 children’s books. 11 of his novels have been adapted into films and television shows (including mini-series’) and he was the producer for 6 projects and directed 2 feature films. Yet this over productive over achiever suffered from manic depression (later changed to the much nicer bipolar disorder) that was only diagnosed after he’d suffered from it for years.

At age 17 he saved up a collection of sleeping pills and “borrowing” a bottle of bourbon from his father, he decided to kill himself. He father Otto, came back into the family apartment just as Sidney was about to start taking the pills. His father talked him into taking a walk and during their stroll; Otto talked him out of killing himself.

Sheldon was a real “Jack-of-all-trades” he moved to New York to become a song writer; he joined the Army Air Corp in the newly formed Training Corp learned to fly. He got his wings and waited for his call-up for advanced flight training. While he waited he started writing Broadway plays with Ben Roberts who he’d worked with in Hollywood. When he finally got his call for advanced training his herniated disc got him kicked out of the Army Air Corp and the Army declared him 4-F (unfit for duty) and he continued on his sometimes rocky rise to fame.

This autobiography was first published in 2005 and it is a very entertaining read and it provides a  brilliant insight on how the entertainment business really works. Sheldon worked with a lot of the greats; Irving Berlin, Dore Schary, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland to name just a few.

This modest unassuming gentleman made a lot of life-long friends in both Hollywood and New York. He gives the reader an insight to all his personality. His faults and foibles are included as well as a straight forward look at the Bipolar disorder that plagued him his entire life. He never, at any point in the book, attempts to gild the lily or to portray himself as anything other than a hard-working Joe who has managed to land the best job in the world and as an added bonus gets to meet and work with the rich and famous.

At the ripe old age of 53 he published his first novel and began a whole new career as a writer of novels and children’s books. This multi-talented hard worker managed to amass a resume that would impress even the harshest of critics.

The book is a fast read. It flows quickly from page to page and I “power read” the book in one setting. With 360 pages of information and a few photo’s stuck in the middle; the achievement of reading the book from front to back in one go is diminished somewhat by the fact that it is written well and ultimately makes the actual task of reading it very easy.

It’s been out a while (like I said, originally published in 2005) but if you haven’t read it, pick it up and give it a go. It is entertaining, insightful and interesting. I know as much as I knew the name of Sidney Sheldon, I had no idea of all the things he’d accomplished in his life, not least of which was dealing with his own personal Bipolar demon.

A definite 5 star read.

The late Sidney Sheldon (February 11, 1917 – January 30, 2007)

Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat

When I was a kid, I idolised James Cagney. To me he was not only an actor, but was an actor of short stature who came over on the screen as someone who was huge. He was a giant. I’m not talking about the old cinema screens of my youth that made anyone who appeared on them about 50 feet tall. He looked like a giant on the small television screen. He had power in his performances, an aura that made his characters bigger than life.

I did not even see Cagney on the big screen. I first saw him in a Bob Hope film called The Seven Little Foys (1955 from Paramount studios, three years before I was born), on television. Cagney played George M. Cohan, he was reprising his role in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy; a biopic of the grand old man [Cohan] of American entertainment.

There is a scene where Bob Hope, as the equally legendary entertainment figure Eddie Foy, has a table top “dance off” with Cagney as Cohan. It is, as they say, a show stopper. Hope has always been a more than capable hoofer (dancer) and Cagney actually seemed to “tone himself down” in the scene. After I watched this film, I became almost fixated on this short dancer from New York who, I knew from my parents, had started playing gangsters for Warner Brothers.

In my youth it was not easy to see really old films (in my day that counted as films made before the 60’s). The VCR had not been invented yet and apart from “all nighters” that showed a wealth of work from any given actor, you just had to hope you could catch future screenings on TV by reading the TV Guide in advance.

“Top of the world, Ma!” As Cody Jarrett, White Heat 1949.

The next film of Cagney’s I watched was White Heat. There cannot be a film fan in the world who doesn’t immediately think of Cody Jarrett screaming, “Top of the World, Ma!” Surrounded by fire, his world is about to end in a blaze of irony. The two characters that I’d seen Cagney play were polar opposites and he sold each one, completely.

I have read about James Cagney over the years in various books, Hollywood anthologies, and other biographies of entertainers, but McCabe does a brilliant job of bringing this legend to life. Perhaps the fact that John McCabe was a personal friend of Cagney’s and as a result was able to see more of the entertainer’s humanity and lack of guile.

I always refer to James Cagney as an entertainer versus an actor because he started out in vaudeville as a song and dance man (where he met his only wife, Willie, who stayed with him till he died) and he never lost his ability to dance the feet off of most of his peers. *He used to say he could never come close to Fred Astaire.*

Cagney was born in an area of New York that was heavily Jewish (he learned Yiddish as a boy) and poor. Most of his boyhood pals wound up in prison or at the gallows. His tough Irish mother taught him and his brothers how to box. The amount of things that McCabe relays, with the help of Cagney, is astonishing.

He paints as thorough a picture of the entertainer as possible. He does so without being overly sensitive with the more “unhappy” moments in Cagney’s life. If you are a Cagney fan, this book will be a revelation. Printed in 1997, there are very few things not covered in Cagney’s career and personal life.

When I read actor’s biographies I always finish feeling slightly down. Most “celebrities” pay highly for their success in the entertainment business. Some, like David Niven, seem to have almost been punished by their success. (Don’t go by the two self-penned books by Niven, but read the other two books about his live by Sheridan Morley or Graham Lord) When I finished McCabe’s recounting of Cagney’s life and career I felt happy and uplifted.

Cagney, despite the ravages of old age and all the pain that it brings, was a deeply contented man, who wrote poetry, painted, raised horses and cattle and loved the same woman till he died. This same contented man entertained literally millions of people over the years by his portrayal of a broad spectrum of characters.

This book is one that I would call the definitive work on Cagney; his work and his life. One that shows how he became a Hollywood legend and adored by his fans the world over; this is a real 5 star book that you should not miss if you’re a fan of Cagney or film.

A grapefruit in the mush…as Tom Power in The Public Enemy 1931.