About twenty-eight years ago a friend whose taste and opinion were generally on the money recommended I see Hero at Large (1980). The friend, who I’ll call JR to save my time and his embarrassment, introduced me to studio-era Hollywood movies when I was a teen (he loved Warners and RKO). An avid moviegoer, he appreciated the smaller pictures that were then bypassing the public, such as Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero (1973), which he probably saw three or four times in the theater (I went twice with him), and David Greene’s Hard Country (1981), JR grooving on the beauty and talent of newcomer Kim Basinger.
Drunk and disorderly, I burned bridges and killed valuable friendships with crazy attitudes, sharp words and harsh actions. (Don’t fret: I’ve been clean for over twenty years.) A casualty of the fallout, JR and I haven’t spoken or crossed paths since the early 80s, but I recently remembered him and Hero at Large. One of a handful of sleepy efforts that failed to elevate John Ritter from TV to movie star, it undoubtedly struck my optimistic friend with its Capra-esque story of a down-on-his-luck actor (Ritter) who disguises himself as a comic book superhero to stamp out crime and denounce cynical posturing in New York City.
It’s a modest feel-good movie steeped in the low rent district of late 70s American cinema. (The director was Martin Davidson, of the shrill Lords of Flatbush.) Poised somewhat awkwardly as cuddly beefcake, the frequently bare-chested Ritter doesn’t overplay things as he did on Three’s Company, and Anne Archer fits nicely into the Jean Arthur part. A soft-spoken and squinty-eyed beauty who should’ve been the next Angie Dickinson, Archer was 33-years-old at the time, a veteran of TV guest spots, Chuck Norris’s Good Guys Wear Black and Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley (both in 1978). By 1987 she’d be in her first megahit, preposterously miscast as Michael Douglas’s wife in Fatal Attraction (1987). Why Douglas would cheat on her for the comparatively gamy Glenn Close remains a riddle of the ages.
His Name Was Gene Palma, portrait by Bruce Barone (click to enlarge)
The one bizarre aspect of Hero at Large is its sundry connections to Taxi Driver (!). Two radically different sides of the same coin, both pictures are about nobodies cleaning up the streets. However, I doubt that director Davidson or screenwriter A.J. Carothers (fresh off the Disney payroll) were responsible for inserting these scattered references to Schrader and Scorsese’s urban nightmare: Ritter is a part-time hack driving a Yellow Checker cab; both films have loving exterior shots of the late Belmore Cafeteria, a famous cabbie hangout (“I once went there at about 2am,” remembers Nelhydrea Paupér, “and suddenly felt like I was tripping…weird place”); street drummer Gene Palma — he of the slick, black-dyed hair and heavily-blushed cheeks — appears in both; as does Leonard Harris, then the movie critic on WCBS-TV in New York, who played Senator Palantine in Taxi Driver and the Mayor in Hero at Large, his only two acting credits.
Above all else, Hero at Large was filmed on the streets of the Manhattan that transfixed me throughout the 70s. Beginning in 1969, my older sister acclimated me to the place and had me stay at her apartment on weekends, away from our parent’s cushy Long Island digs. I was hitting the DVD freeze-frame to savor the storefronts and buildings long since hit by the wrecking ball, and to look at the occasional passerby staring directly into the camera. Plus, those fleeting shots of faces from long ago: Rolland Smith, Penny Crone, John Roland — mainstays on local TV before cable reformatted syndication into soulless superstations. The last time I was in New York was five years ago and, by and large, the place seemed colder, detached and beyond my comprehension — Blade Runner territory. I really have no interest is going back, whereas, thirty-five years ago, you couldn’t keep me away.
For an update and photo of Gene Palma posted on 12.4.09, click here.
Update by Nelhydrea Paupér: Busker Do!
I used to see Gene Palma around on 6th Ave. He was a truly scary looking guy. Not only the pomade but also the tons of red stuff (rouge?) on his cheeks. He looked like he himself was a Travis Bickle waiting to explode.
There was also an old bearded, disheveled man — what we used to call a bum — on the lower east side near the Bowery, who slowly moved up and down the street (maybe east 3rd or 4th St?) with two sticks tapping them on the street, slowly waving his hands in the air, bringing one stick down at a time, as if in a dance. He would do it all day long. On one hand you could say he was just crazy. But it really seemed like it was his art form. He lived each day giving this performance for hours. It was quite remarkable. This was in the early '70s.
I remember the Flying Rabbi. He rolled his upright piano over to Washington Square, located himself under the arch and played glistening arpeggios (i.e. muzak). Some (all?) of the keys were covered with strips of red velvet.
One of the most famous was Moondog, who left NYC and moved to Germany where he became a very highly respected composer. He married a German woman who took care of him (he was blind) and helped create a career that allowed him to write and have his works performed by symphony orchestras. There's a recent bio of him I'd love to read.
A documentary on these guys would be wonderful. I would give anything to see them all again. But I doubt there's very much existing footage and I assume they're all dead now. A real shame.
Funny, I can relate to these guys better than just about anything I see going on today in the arts.
Labels: Capsule reviews, Gene Palma, Une affaire de Flickhead