Like a Rolling Stone

Dropping Names & Lifting Spirits In The Year of the Pig-er, Boar

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Sunday, 28 January 2007

Pee-Wee Herman is back, and he talks with our Ben Fong-Torres.

I hate to be a name-dropper. Diana Ross told me it was gauche. But Ive got to drop at least one on youactually, two: Pee-Wee Herman and the guy who created and played him, Paul Reubens.

He was honored by SF Sketchfest, an annual celebration of sketch comedy, and the organizers asked me to conduct the interview, in the theater at the Palace of Fine Arts. I accepted immediately. Way back in 1983, hed brought his Pee Wees Playhouse act to a nightclub in North Beach, and Dianne and I were immediate fans of his quirky character. Next came the movie, Pee-Wees Big Adventure, followed by CBS putting him on Saturday mornings for kids (and the young and goofy at heart). In 1988, he had his second film, Big Top Pee-Wee.

And then came his arrest in an adult theater in his hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and a couple of years away from the spotlight. He has since appeared in numerous films and TV shows, from Batman Returns and Mystery Men to, currently, 30 Rock and Reno 911. And, after years of pointedly not doing his Pee-Wee character, even as the shows were being rerun and distributed on DVD, hes working on two films centering on that beloved character.

Before our interview, he made it clear that he didnt want to rehash his arrest. He had nothing to worry about. This, after all, was a tribute, a celebration of his work. And with as rich a career as his, I was barely finished with questions about the Pee-Wee projects when it...

'You Don't Know Jack:' The Story of a Renaissance Pioneer

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Wednesday, 01 April 2009

Our Renaissance Guy gets to know the story of a REAL jack of all trades: Jack Soo.

After the premiere screen- ing of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story , at the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival at the Sundance Kabuki theater, Dianne, my wife, turned to me as the applause wafted up to the stage, where the director and producer, Jeff Adachi , stood smiling. Until we saw this documentary of Jack Soo , we really didn't know Jack. But Dianne knows me, and she said, "Wow. You two had a LOT in common!"

And, of course, she was right. Soo, best known for his work in The Flower Drum Song , both in the film and on Broadway, and in the '70s sitcom, Barney Miller (he was the deadpan smart-alecky detective sergeant, Nick Yemane), was born in 1917, almost 30 years before I was, and was a Japanese American. Those are some big diffs. Two others: he was interned, along with thousands of fellow Japanese Americans, during World War II. And he became a star as an actor and all-around entertainer.

Still, watching this fascinating, well-researched, well-told biography -- a must-see for anyone interested in Asian American history and pop culture -- I was struck by more than a few harmonic notes:

For starters, we both were raised in Oakland, both went to Westlake Jr. High, and both wound up with unique names. Soo was originally Goro Suzuki; became Carl Suzuki, and then, after the war, when he began working nightclubs in the Midwest, changed his name to Jack Soo. In that...

M*A*S*H Notes: Unreal Sex and Real Acting

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Thursday, 20 October 2005

Ben Fong-Torres chats with the commanding Donald Sutherland

Over the years, one of my favorite side gigs has been the conducting of on-stage interviews at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Mill Valley is a village of a town, nestled in Marin County, and its the last place youd think of as a host of a film festivalespecially since, right across the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco, theres an annual International Film Festival.

But this years was the 28th Mill Valley gathering, dedicated, as always, to smaller, independent films, but also welcoming of, and drawing, big stars. Pierce Brosnan attended opening night for a screening of his latest, Matador . Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives ), appeared for her stunning new film, Transamerica.

In the last dozen years or so, the MVFF has also paid tribute to a wide range of actors and directors. Thats where Ive come in. Since 1989, Ive sat, usually in front of a packed house, with James Woods, Edward James Olmos, Richard Fleisher (director of the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ), Amanda Plummer, Helena Bonham Carter, Robin Williams, William Macy, Jr., Dianne Wiest, Peter Coyote and Albert Maysles (legendary documentary filmmaker of Salesman and Gimme Shelter ).

This year, I got two assignments: the tributes to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement , as well as Delicatessen and Alien 4: Resurrection ) and Donald Sutherland. Mssr. Jeunet was funny, charming, candida perfect guest. But it was...

The Olympics, Ryan Seacrest and Me by Ben Fong-Torres

Posted by AC Team on Tuesday, 07 August 2012

The Olympics, Ryan Seacrest and Me by Ben Fong-Torres

The Olympics, Ryan Seacrest and Me

As the old song goes, “it’s been a long, long time.”

I apologize for not writing sooner. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. Just not for this space. For example, I just had a short piece published in The Hollywood Reporter, about the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, with a focus on music. It’s in the August 10 edition of “THR,” which is an interesting blend of trade magazine (for showbiz industry folks) and consumer mag (for people who like backstage peeps at the business known as show).

My piece—about the 60’s music that producer Danny Boyle featured during that wild, wacky event—was nothing special. But one thing about it really amused me. Just below my story was a Q&A with Ryan Seacrest, who was among the talent NBC shipped to London to work the Olympics.

A few months ago, when Dick Clark died, I wrote my first article for The Hollywood Reporter, recalling a sometimes contentious interview with him from ‘way back, for Rolling Stone. The editors chose a quote of Clark, something he said to me, for the headline: “YOU’RE A LIBERAL, AND I’M A F---ING WHORE’. This, right after a glowing tribute, “What I Learned from the Master,” by…Ryan Seacrest.

We are fated to be together!

This is to say that stuff happens.

Just the other day, I was on Castro Street here in San Francisco, and a guy asks, “Aren’t you Ben Fong-Torres?” I admit that I am.

“Well, that’s reassuring,” he says.

I didn’t...

Asians in the Outfield and an Attorney on the Rotisserie

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Thursday, 04 September 2003

Can you be Chinese American ... AND a baseball fan? Plus, a highly regarded civil rights lawyer, Dale Minami, gets royally roasted.

When I'm sworn in as Governor of California oh, you didnt know I was running? I'm going to try and do something about the stupid people.

It's been several weeks now, and my sunburns just about peeled off, but I'm still smarting from a comment I got as I was walking toward Pacific Bell Park for a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Alongside, I had Richard, a brother-in-law visiting from Los Angeles. Thanks to Larry Baer, the Giants' executive VP, I'd been able to buy a pair of tickets right behind the backstop, about eight rows back from the Giants' on-deck circle.

So we were feeling pretty reet petite this Sunny San Francisco Saturday, heading up Third Street to Pac Bell, when, all of a sudden, a man standing on the street, not heading toward the ballpark, looked at my Giants baseball cap, and then at me, and yelled, "Hey, you cant be for the Giants. You Chinese!" I ignored the man, and Richard didn't hear him, but I couldn't believe it. The man was African American, and he'd unleashed a remark that hurt more than a 90 mph fast ball to the head would have.

And here we were, heading off to see a game that has, in recent years, become a true melting pot of not only African American and Latin players, but also numerous Asians, including Ichiro Suzuki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners, Byung Hyun Kim of Boston,...