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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Post-Swayze chemo comment fallout: Can Suzanne Somers' media savvy channel the voice of change that NBC's misguided "Farrah's Story" should've?

Media-shrewd actress-turned-bestselling author Suzanne Somers last week outraged many Americans—including the equally vocal Whoopi Goldberg, who just ripped her on The View—with her latest, publicity-magnetizing comment, which goes something like this: Chemotherapy poisoned the late Patrick Swayze. Last week's headlines took it a (logical) step further: "Suzanne Somers Claims Chemo Killed Patrick Swayze."

The always-outspoken Somers' remarks surfaced just days after Swayze died—and, ironically, less than a week after TV icon Farrah Fawcett's cancer documentary, Farrah's Story, was denied an Emmy amidst claims that Ryan O'Neal seized control of the NBC special and, in essence, muffled Farrah's voice in her final months. Retroality.TV recently broke news about Fawcett's hopes for the project—and revealed stunning details about her fight for life and O'Neal's alleged threats to kill Farrah's Story executive producer Craig Nevius—in this exclusive interview with Fawcett's producing partner and confidant.

To be fair, Suzanne's sound bite-worthy claims were derived from her longer, if equally unsettling, comment about the late Swayze's chemotherapy. In Somers' own words: "They took this beautiful man and they basically put poison in him. Why couldn't they have built him up nutritionally and gotten rid of the toxins in his body? I hate to be this controversial. I'm a singer-dancer-comedienne. But we have an epidemic going on, and I have to say it."

Goldberg today shot back: “In case she doesn’t know, Patrick did everything and went everywhere to try and stay healthy as long as he could. That he’s been gone a week and this statement came out is bad timing and bad taste and Suzanne, you know better. And I’m not sure that’s not what you meant to do, but you should have thought about it.”

"MaryscottOConnor"'s stinging comments following a New York Post story about the controversy also pretty well sum up the anti-Somers Swayze backlash:

"She's entitled to her opinion. As am I: and my opinion is that Ms. Somers is an utter moron, and an insensitive, opportunistic moron, at that. I believe she actually believes the stuff she's spewing, but I also believe she's spewing this particular stuff at this particular time—taste and tact be damned—because the publicity and attendant possible increased sales for HER book are just too tempting. Which makes her not only a moron but a venal, contemptible moron, at that."

Ouch. Somers' new book, Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer—And How to Prevent Getting it in the First Place, hits bookstores Oct. 20.

The breast cancer survivor, who in 2001 controversially announced she eschewed chemo in favor of injecting the herb Iscador, made her Swayze remark to Toronto-based columnist Shinan Govani just hours after the beloved Dirty Dancing and Ghost star succumbed to almost always-deadly pancreatic cancer following a valiant 20-month fight. “People won’t listen to me," the PR-savvy proponent of alternative medicine told the National Post gossip columnist. "If only they would listen to me.”

Monday, Somers apologized on her blog: "In a casual conversation at a private party (with someone who never identified himself as a reporter) at the Toronto Film Festival last week, I was asked about this beloved actor. It was never my intention to make an official statement about his passing. I was not informed or aware I was being interviewed. I would never have been so insensitive as to offer a public statement so close to his untimely passing. I sincerely apologize if my comment has caused any additional pain to his family during this difficult time. I send my deepest condolences for their loss."

(I wonder who Suzanne thought she was talking to when Govani chatted her up—or vice versa—at this industry event. Govani must've had a good memory, because apparently he quoted her accurately without wielding a pen or a tape recorder. Chances are, Suzanne will get the 411 next time.)

Timing is everything. Perhaps if Suzanne had waited a few weeks to reference Swayze's death, more people would be willing to listen. On the other hand, would her comments spread like wildfire once the media focuses squarely on (God forbid) the next untimely (and, in the case of Michael Jackson and Billy Mayes, non-cancer-related) celebrity death?

In Somers' defense, she says she just wants to get potentially life-saving information to the public. As someone who's had the honor of interviewing a few famous cancer survivors—namely Fran Drescher, Jaclyn Smith and Olivia Newton-John—I appreciate the value of Somers' voice in the public arena. And as the guy who literally wrote the book on her rise to superstardom and public war of words with her Three's Company producers and, many years later in my book, her former co-stars, I also appreciate Suzanne's passion to speak her truth, however controversial and, at times, completely at odds with seemingly everyone else's truth, it can be.

Perhaps she will be more successful in getting her potentially life-saving message out than was the late '70s sensation whose stratospheric stardom inspired Somers' own quest for instant made-for-TV celebrity. Farrah Fawcett devoted the final years of her life to fighting cancer and enlightening the public about alternative, life-extending therapies. Sadly, the brave TV Angel lost her three-year battle with anal cancer on June 25. But thanks to her "video diary" that documented her trips to a German clinic to find the treatment and hope that the U.S. health care system could not offer her, she left behind a legacy of courage, strength and potential change for millions afflicted with terminal cancer.

Tragically, according to my interview with Craig Nevius, Farrah's Emmy-nominated NBC documentary was riddled with misinformation, missing information and the misguided machinations of Fawcett's longtime lover, Ryan O'Neal, and close friend Alana Stewart.

Farrah's message was further muddled by the coincidental timing of Michael Jackson's shocking and suspicious death. What media attention and analysis Fawcett's death—and life—clearly merited gave way to the relentless feeding frenzy surrounding MJ's demise.

Not that Stewart had trouble promoting her well-timed (?) book My Journey with Farrah last month, though. People magazine gave her the cover treatment, and the talk show circuit spread the word. (Gotta love corporate synergy.) But when Nevius broke his silence recently about Stewart and O'Neal's alleged betrayal of Fawcett while they apparently took the reigns of the documentary Fawcett and Nevius had named—with NBC's apparent blessing—A Wing & A Prayer, the media turned a deaf ear.

So what if Nevius exposed Farrah's true—and apparently thwarted—intentions behind her cancer video diary? So what if he revealed for the first time why she avoided surgery to receive a colostomy bag, famously commented on weeks earlier by Ryan O'Neal? So what if he offered compelling details about O'Neal's alleged efforts to overtake the project and Stewart's supposed remarks that "at least (Entertainment Tonight) ran only the 'good wheelchair pictures'" while the celebrity news show exploited Farrah's final days last spring?

By early September, the media was more interested in showing Patrick Swayze's "final photos"—the same wheelchair trip home to die that Farrah had taken in April—and looking for the next death-related celebrity sound bite. Which Suzanne served up, unwittingly or not, during the oh-so-important 24-hour news cycle following Swayze's sad demise.

Somers will be on the talk-show circuit next month with her new book, offering more potentially breakthrough info in the fight against cancer. Thankfully cancer-free and otherwise able-bodied, she will have the chance to get her unfettered words across—an opportunity that Fawcett, according to her A Wing & A Prayer producing partner, was denied in Farrah's Story. (Farrah was indisputably unable to promote the NBC special last May; instead, O'Neal and Stewart walked the red carpet and spoke in place of the iconic Angel in numerous interviews.)

I trust that Suzanne will use this public platform responsibly and sensitively. If she invokes Swayze's or Fawcett's name—and she probably will and, under the right circumstances, maybe should—I hope for her message's sake that she tempers her product-publicizing passion with the utmost respect for the brave, though sadly silenced, celebs whose advanced and terminal cancers clearly couldn't be beaten with herbs and nutrition.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

GUEST SHOT: Digging Up the Brady Bastard Child and Showering It ... With Love

By Ted Nichelson
Co-author, Love to Love You Bradys: The Bizarre Story of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour

A long time ago, in a disco hallucination far, far away, I was dumb struck by an obscure show that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. The Brady Bunch Variety Hour was not only “so bad it’s good” but also marked a dark chapter in Brady Bunch history that had been conveniently swept under the rug – that dirty little secret Grandma won’t talk about. Anyone who discovers how America’s favorite family ended up in history’s worst show can’t help but fall in love with this glorious train wreck.

My involvement began innocently enough one evening in Ann Arbor, Michigan while reading through some news group postings on the Internet. I was a student at the University of Michigan and probably had more important things to do. But I was curious about this Brady Variety Hour that was being rerun on an obscure cable network in Australia. People down under were having the most entertaining discussions about this supposedly terrible show.

I became email friends with a few people lucky enough to see the Variety Hour and convinced one of them to record some episodes and send them to me on the other side of the globe. As a childhood fan of The Brady Bunch it was a thrill to see this cast of characters in a “new” series, much of which to this day has still not been viewed by American audiences since its single and only broadcast in 1976-77.

Why do cable networks refuse to air this show? Why has it not been released on DVD? Why does the Brady Bunch cast pretend it never existed? This secret Hollywood conspiracy was nearly successful until I decided I was going to expose the skeleton in the closet. From that point forward, it became a fun and interesting obsession that I have been able to share with thousands of Brady Bunch fans who are equally excited to see the secret vaults blasted open in a shower of confetti.

I began by starting a website devoted to The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which soon raised some eyebrows. Almost immediately I received an email from Maureen McCormick’s mother, Irene, who was so very entertained by what I had put together. In the next year this was followed by interviews with cast members such as Geri Reischl, whom I spent six months trying to locate, Chris Knight, and finally Susan Olsen.

Susan Olsen dishes up the Jell-O shots during our marathon viewing of all nine Brady Bunch Variety Hour episodes in October 2004.

Susan was particularly awestruck by my website because she had suppressed her memories of the Variety Hour and was shocked to have them coming to the surface once again. Over several years of becoming friends and relocating to Los Angeles after graduation, I asked her if she would like to collaborate on a book about the series. Fans had been encouraging me to move forward on such a project for a long time, and I knew that Susan would be the perfect compliment to such a publication.

This is when the archeological dig first took on steam—and the digging ensued. It was not easy. Almost all materials to the show had completely disappeared. The network and the Kroffts, while generally helpful, all turned up miniscule quantities of artifacts. I was lucky enough to find many stray items on ebay that nobody was interested in buying. Over time I amassed a large collection of Brady Bunch Variety Hour memorabilia, some of which the Kroffts had actually given away or sold at one time or another. The Kroffts had a lot of trouble coming up with a complete set of episodes as some of their master tapes were damaged. I was lucky enough to have assistance from our video editor friend Glenn McClain who restored scenes (and in some cases audio) using additional copies that were given to me by some interns at Paramount—because nobody wanted the Variety Hour there either. The boxes came to me caked in dust.

Imagine that one of the most celebrated shows of all time could have a bastard child that nobody cared about.

Once a full set of episodes was finally put together, Susan and I sat down with our Bradyologist friend Lisa Sutton, who agreed to be the graphic designer for our proposed coffee table book. Surprisingly we sat through every single minute of each show in one sitting! Then we were off and running with interviews, interviews, and MORE interviews!

Finding everyone from the show was some of the most difficult work. These people were not on Facebook! A lot of them still had rotary phones. Almost everyone was very kind and eager to share their memories and their photographs. They did not have anything to hide and were rightfully proud of a job well-done. The friendships I made along this journey were wonderful—especially the Krofftettes, who I discovered to be an eclectic and amazing group of women. I was honored and privileged to locate and interview all eight swimmers.

The cast and crew were also helpful, and over 100 interviews later we really had a lot of great material. Unfortunately, Florence Henderson was not cooperative and was one of the disappointments of this project. I had met Florence several times and was surprised by her sharp, deliberate rebuke of me. Because all of the other cast members had participated, Susan really felt that we needed to give Florence her space and respect her wishes. Florence felt that she did not want to be a part of something she interpreted as negative. I personally found it strange that Florence would reject Susan in this way. However, Susan saw it differently and felt Florence had already done a lot of things for her in the past, so ultimately there were no bad feelings of any kind.

Florence’s assertion that I was only digging for dirt helped shape the book in many ways. I decided that we needed to have a title that conveyed affection, derived from a disco song with the word ‘baby’ that could be changed to ‘Brady.’ Thus, the phrase “Love to Love You Bradys” was conceived and suggested (to me at least) that the world loves the Bradys unconditionally, even if their dancing and singing is questionable.

Writing the book was a major challenge because of the many disparate pieces that had to be combined into a single story. But the combination of my historical text and Susan’s humorous commentary was almost magical in how they fit together. I wanted to continue my theme of loving the Bradys and always tried to write with loving thoughts so that the story would become benevolent for the reader.

The next hurdle was finding the right publisher. Yet again The Brady Bunch Variety Hour was an awful piece of you-know-what that NOBODY would touch with a ten foot pole. Door after door was slammed in my face by publishers who now might think otherwise. In a last ditch effort I decided to strike up a conversation with a librarian for one of the photo archives I frequented and asked her who she liked to work with. Her answer was ECW Press, who had just put out a successful coffee table book about High School Musical. I contacted their head publisher and they saw great potential for our project. They also would allow us creative control and would support our marketing efforts after the book was released.

Lisa and I then spent the next nine excruciating months piecing together the book bit-by-bit, somehow pulling each artifact into the chapters and making sure it illustrated what was being said in the text. Susan was tweaking our layout throughout the process with her own graphic designs and clever suggestions. It was absolutely a team effort.

Now that Love to Love You Bradys has finally become a reality, the three authors look back at our experience with pride and satisfaction. We hope that we have created something fun so that people with a sense of humor can laugh with us, and that Brady fans can come to appreciate with warmth what was The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.