Friday, April 3, 2020

Day 22 of Nat'l Emergency: Seven Samurai Memories

To commemorate the 100th birthday of the late Toshiro Mifune, the lead actor in many of Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa’s films, including “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon,” Turner Classic Movies broadcast the flicks Wednesday. I recorded them.

“The Magnificent Seven” with Yul Brynner and a host of other soon to be well-known actors including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach and James Coburn, was adapted from “Seven Samurai.” Not that it really matters. This blog post is not really concerned with “Seven Samurai.” Rather the focus is on the person with whom I saw the film for the first time, Steve Kreinberg.

In September 1971 I attended an evening orientation program for graduate students enrolled at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. I knew no one among the roughly 80 attendees, but by some karma found myself drawn to a straight-haired, mustachioed, willowy fellow with a slight Southern twang from growing up in Gainesville, Fla. We immediately bonded, not because we turned out to be perhaps the only Jewish students but more probably because, as we acknowledged to each other later that evening, we both reconnoitered the venue prior to the meeting time to ascertain where the bathroom was located. 

Steve was two years older than my 22 years. He was married to Nancy, a nurse, who I met when we returned to his basement apartment. I was surprised to learn Nancy was headed back to their residence in San Francisco for the duration of Steve’s stay in Syracuse. 

Steve and I became almost inseparable that year despite the fact that we shared very few classes. Evenings and weekends were our bonding times. We ate pizza at the Varsity, an off-campus hangout. We drove out to the closest Lum’s in DeWitt to savor hot dogs steamed in beer, or my preferred meal, a fried shrimp basket with fries, washed down with beer served in frosted glasses. 

We went to movies. It was with Steve (and Gilda during one of her visits) that I saw “A Clockwork Orange.” We especially enjoyed Woody Allen’s “Bananas” and “Play It Again, Sam.” Steve became such a devotee of Allen that he wangled an interview with him while serving as the movie critic of the Syracuse New Times, a two-year-old alternative newspaper. Though Allen was in the middle of editing “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask,” he agreed to meet Steve at his Manhattan studio.

After Steve returned to Syracuse he was uncharacteristically quiet. When the next edition of his paper did not run his interview I demanded an explanation. Sheepishly he admitted he lost all professional composure in the presence of Allen. He just kept gushing, “You’re Woody Allen. I love your work.” There’s only so many times he could say that before Woody determined the interview was going nowhere and he dismissed Steve.

We also bonded over our shiksa (Gentile woman) fantasy, a real life blonde in our class named Donna Doherty. We barely spoke a word to her that year but hardly a day went by that her name and image did not crop up in our conversations. (As an aside, she lived in Branford, Conn., outside New Haven. I owe my first reporting job to my fascination with her. When looking for a job in 1972 I came to a fork in the road in Ansonia. The right fork led to Bridgeport, the left to New Haven. I chose New Haven because it was closer to where she lived. I got a job at The New Haven Register. Two years later Donna joined the paper as a sports writer. She eventually became editor of Tennis magazine.)  

Back to Steve: After we earned our master’s degree in newspaper journalism in the spring of 1972 Steve went back to San Francisco despite his constant fretting that reporting jobs would be hard to land. While I started work on The Register, Steve wound up working for a public relations firm. His marriage ended. He decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. 

Steve became one of the five question writers for the old “Hollywood Squares” show (the one that featured Paul Lynde in the center square). He was expected to write 50 acceptable questions per day, and yes, celebrities were counseled before each show on topics they would be asked. After “Hollywood Squares” Steve and his writing partner Andy became staff writers for “Archie Bunker’s Place” (Carroll O’Connor’s successor show to “All in the Family”) as well as for “Herman’s Head,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Head of the Class,” “Nine to Five” and “Mork & Mindy.”

He had married Robin Baskin, like Nancy a nurse. They had a son, Oliver. As with Nancy, they divorced. Robin, Oliver and Steve moved to Asheville, NC, because, as Steve related to Gilda and me during one of our visits to his California apartment, Los Angeles was no place to raise a child and besides, he had accumulated enough money to leave the Hollywood rat race. We visited him in Asheville. He came to New York with Oliver. We took them to a New York Yankees game. But our get-togethers ended almost 30 years ago. 

One of these days I will do two things. One, I will watch “Seven Samurai.” All I remember from the first time was it was almost impossible to read the English subtitles, partly because we were watching the film on Steve’s small portable television but more importantly because the white outfits of the samurai obscured many of the words superimposed in white. 

Second, I will contact him. As I had done in the past I googled Steve, Robin and Oliver as I was writing this blog post. This time I came up with information I could use to contact him. If we are successful in reconnecting I will owe it all to time spent sheltering-in-place and TCM’s broadcast of “Seven Samurai.”