Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Script with Writer Marianne Meyer

by G. Jack Urso


Marianne Meyer had just picked up her Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming for Hot Hero Sandwich. It was sitting on the floor next to her while the producers for The Great Space Coaster told her she didn’t know how to write for a children’s show. Later, when she opened the box up, she discovered they misspelled her name on the award.

This story sums up the fickle nature of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry. As actor Walter Huston is reported to have said, “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture,” and sometimes not even that. It's a hard lesson to learn at any time in life.

Marianne Meyer, at 23, was the youngest writer on staff at Hot Hero Sandwich and not that far removed in age from the target age of the teen audience. Marianne’s story is simply that she liked writing, she liked TV, she wanted to write for TV, she took chances, and she made her dreams come true, landing a network series and winning an Emmy on her first writing job right out of the gate.  

Yet, in true Hollywood form, while the industry may give you a little bite at your dreams now and then, if you want to stay in the game you have to fight for every word you want to write. In our interview below, Meyer shares with us some secrets from behind the scenes, such as an alternative title for the series (Snafu), and we get a glimpse into a rough and tumble industry where success is dependent on equal measures of dreams, talent, and luck.

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Ae13U: So, tell me about your road to Hot Hero Sandwich. What had you been up to before the show?

Marianne Meyer:  I graduated from college with . . . a dramatic literature degree from NYU. I was writing freelance articles, mostly about musicians and music and concert reviews like that. I was working living at home with my parents in Queens and working at a Sam Goody record store. I was a really big fan of the show M*A*S*H — and who wasn’t, right?

So, I read about breaking into the TV business and you need to write a spec script [a speculative screenplay], and the show that I most loved in the world was M*A*S*H.  So, I said OK. Maybe I should.

But almost in a way to give myself an out not to do it, I wrote a letter to Alan Alda and I said, “Oh, I'm a young graduate from NYU . . . I've been thinking about trying to write a spec script for M*A*S*H, and I have heard that many TV shows have what they call a bible of characters and how they interrelate and the storylines that have been covered and I before I write this, I was hoping I might get a copy of the  bible . . . and lo and behold, I got a note back from Alan Alda!

Ae13U: Really? Alan Alda himself!

Marianne Meyer: Somebody typed it up, but he did sign it, and he said, you know, thank you for your interest in the show. We don't have a bible that I can send you, but if you are a fan and you watch it so regularly you will have a good feeling how the characters are dressed.

So, I sat down and I worked on a spec script for M*A*S*H, and if you saw it, you would laugh because I did not even know how to format and I would have the names of the characters on the far left and then their dialogue would start and go all the way across the page . . . so anyway, I wrote this script and I showed it to some people. They seemed to think it was funny.

My grandmother at the time worked at William Morris [the legendary talent agency]. She was the telephone operator in the time when you used to have the switchboards. So . . . I gave her the script and asked her if she could get somebody to read it. A young agent, who I think was probably not much out of the mail room himself, got it and then sat on it for weeks and weeks, and then all of a sudden he called and said I really like this script and I signed with the William Morris Agency.

Ae13U: How did you get hired for Hot Hero Sandwich? Did you know of the Harts before this?

Marianne Meyer:  I don't remember going on a lot of conversations. I didn't know Bruce and Carol, although I mean I heard their names and that they worked on Sesame Street and such I was very impressed. And, you know, I think they had a mixed bag of veterans and I think they wanted some young, eager, cheap talent, and I was all three! [laughter]

Ae13U: That’s the thing I was interested in finding out. Because sometimes, particularly with shows aimed at younger audience, they don’t always hire writers in touch with the demographic, particularly in that era. You, Sherry Coben, and Richard Camp, were all in your twenties.

Did you work closely with the Harts on the scripts or did they just give you an idea and say, “Go with it?”

Marianne Meyer: I have unearthed some Hot Hero Sandwich, including my notebook . . . I’m sure if I went through it I would be able to refresh my memory a lot better, but we did have a writers’ room and we did sit together . . . initially, I do remember . . . and it even had an alternate title.

I do believe, if my memory serves, that we spent some time in general with the Harts talking about formats. You know, there were going there was going to be music, there was going to be the interviews, and there was going to be comedy, and how would these things all work together. So, they were very active in the room talking with us and throwing ideas around and at first I think it was more. In general about how the show would look and what would, you know, having the having a cast of kids who would be the audience surrogates and they would have adventures, or whatever you would have to choose to deal with.
Cover page of a sample script (courtesy Marianne Meyer). Here we learn the show
was also slugged as “Hot Heros” [sic] with an alternate title “Snafu.
Ae13U: Had Dr. Cottle’s interviews been completed yet?

Marianne Meyer: I think the interviews were happening first and they were getting great feedback and they were getting stories that touched on adolescent issues and so we would then try to come up with ideas that worked with those issues. You know, kids are self-conscious or, you know, dating as well. What do you think about dating and then how do you approach a girl? Or, you know, there was a drug sketch [Episodes 10’s Marijuana Sketch]. So, we would throw ideas around and come up with possibilities and then we each had an office. We each had private space to work in and do a lot of things on our own.

But we also would work together . . . I worked with Sherry [Coben] and I worked on a sketch with Richard [Camp] and I think I worked on some stuff with Andy [Breckman]. So, if you had a question I was very open and friendly and, you know, “Can you help me with this?” And again, being that it was my first time out, I was, you know, a little insecure . . . Sherry was like my big sister. She was wonderful. If I got anxious or nervous because I really didn't know how things worked, she say, “Ok . . . It’s OK.”

Ae13U: Alright, to shift gears for a moment, and I know this is a very geeky kind of question, but there some early desktop computers/word processing terminals available at the time. Were you using any at NBC?

Marianne  Meyer: [laughter] Oh, no, no, no! I'm guessing they were just, you know, basic Selectric typewriters.

From Episode 1: The first of Meyer’s signature “Phone Friends” sketches.

Ae13U: Were your offices also in Rockefeller Center near Studio 8H?

Marianne Meyer:  I’m not even sure it was in the same building . . . I was in and out of the Saturday Night Live offices once or twice and I don’t remember that being the environment I was in.

Ae13U: Were there any sketches that got shot down by the Harts?

Marianne Meyer:  We would, we would run ideas past them and they would say, “Oh that sounds interesting. Develop it,” . . .  or not.  I remember one of the first things [I pitched] . . . there was a kid filling out a form and it said sex and he went to his mother and said, well, “What am I supposed to put here,” or “Tell me about sex,” and she [the mother] gets and she gets all flustered.  They [the Harts] said “No. They [the audience] might be a little young.”

But we would, you know, throw something past them and they would, especially in writers’ room . . . if you had an idea that sounded like it had potential, somebody would say, “OK. Why don't you go work on that for a while.” I don't think . . . anything got really far along before it was scotched.

I think Sherry [Coben] had mentioned the book report about Moby Dick [a sketch idea that was not filmed] and the prudish librarian was getting all freaked out, and I don’t even think they even said the title. [The punch line was], “It’s a whale!”

From Episode 8: Miss Pinch is on the case of books whose titles we dare not speak!

Ae13U: [laughter] I think nearly every kid snickers in class when first introduced to that book. 

Marianne Meyer: I remember one [that aired] that was so, so funny. There was a sketch where Matt McCoy is sitting at the dinner table with his sister and his mother and his father, and the sister is talking about how they always talked about he's such a perfect guy and the father [who found a joint behind the couch] is saying something about, you know, don't do drugs and everything and Matt literally is just sitting there with this crazy glazed look on his face and then falls face down in the mashed potatoes. 

Episode 10 Clip: The Marijuana sketch.
Ae13U: Yes, the marijuana sketch in Episode 11! I remember watching that one. It struck home with me at the time not just because it was the late 70s and marijuana was just about everywhere, but the thing about that sketch I remember is that no matter how screwed up Matt’s character was, he could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes, much to his siblings’ dismay. I thought that was a pretty timeless teenager grip, and the larger point of the sketch, rather than marijuana. I was surprised the marijuana sketch and the N-word monologue got the go ahead.

Marianne Meyer: The episode that won the Emmy very directly dealt with the racial issue, there probably was some discussion about whether that would fly.

Ae13U: Yes, Jarett Smithwrick’s “N-Word” monologue in Episode 5. I discuss that with him [Off-Stage with Cast Member Jarett Smithwrick] and how powerful it was. He talked about how it probably took him a couple takes to nail it, but noted how everyone, including the crew, applauded at the end, and how it was just something he dealt with every day in New York. Unfortunately, it’s still a very timely topic, but I can remember watching it back in 1979 and my mind getting blown. I remember thinking, “Wow. Did I really just hear that?”

 Episode 5 Clip: On racism. The “N-Word” monologue.

Marianne Meyer: And, of course, there was the Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor [the infamous Word Association sketch — Pryor also was interviewed by Dr. Tom Cottle on Hot Hero Sandwich].

Ae13U: Right! One was at 11 AM Saturday morning, the other at 11:30 PM Saturday night, but both taking on the same issue. That’s what made Hot Hero innovative, cutting edge, and still ahead of its time in some ways. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t see that today on a Saturday morning. 

OK. Let’s shift gears back into developing the ideas . . .

Marianne Meyer: I was just actually flipping through the first script and we did. At one point Stanley Dipstyck [Paul O’Keefe with a paper bag on his head] was initially Stanley Bunghole [laughter]. And somebody said, “You know, I don’t think that will work well.”

Ae13U: Oh, if only that made it on air! [laughter]. I have great fondness for Stanley Dipstyck. I think every kid at one time just wanted to pull a paper bag over their head and just disappear. This segues into my next question how actors were selected for their parts. Jarett noted that he recalled getting assigned roles while Michael [Longfield] recalled being able to ask to play certain parts they connect to. I wonder, was there any thought to who would play the rolls when you wrote?

Marianne Meyer: I think when we wrote things we could say, “Well, I sort of have him or her in mind for it, just in terms of the demographic or something. I think it was the Bruce and Carol . . . would make a decision when we were talking about the kids in the Hot Hero Cafe and who they were, where they came from we did them a little bit of, I don’t know if you’d call it a backstory, but there would be a reason why they act as they do.

Ae13U: Right, as Michael Longfield noted his character was named “Tapedeck” [and noted so on the NBC publicity photos]. I do sort of see some continuity in Michael’s character development from the “Living in a Suitcase” sketch, where his character talks about moving around a lot, to the “Getting Together” dating sequence in Episode 10 with Nan-Lynn, where his character discuss his responsibilities for cooking for his family. It would have been interesting to see that aspect of characters developed more.

Were there recurring sketches or characters you were assigned to write?

Marianne Meyer:  A lot of what I did was the so-called “Phone Friends” [sketches] . . . I mean, I was not that far out of high school and I remembered my friends and I were constantly on the phone and you had to, like, make dates to get on the phone. You know, today's kids wouldn't understand the idea that we had to call somebody from a location where there was a phone. Denny Dillon’s character would sometimes do it from the cafĂ©. 

Phone Friends segments from Episode 4. Denny Dillon’s character makes a deal with the devil, her little brother (Adam Ross). Will she regret it, or will he?

Ae13U: Times do change.

Marianne Meyer: I must say now [in reference to the Episode 4 “Phone Friends” segments] . . .  a sketch that really doesn't hold up very well, which is the one where Denny's character wants practice talking to a boy with her younger brother [Adam Ross] and makes to deal with him that in order to, and she will be his quote-unquote “Slave for a Day.” You know, I I don't think any of us ever intended it to be . . .

Ae13U: I remember having a “Slave for a Day” fundraiser at my large inner-city public high school about 1979-1980; so, I don’t think it was that unusual for the day, even in the immediate post-Civil Rights era.

Marianne Meyer: The term wasn’t as loaded. I never in a million years would write such a thing now because is so loaded and at the time it wasn't. And we did have, you know, Northern Calloway [David on Sesame Street as a creative consultant] was basically there, to tell us if we were being jerks on a racial issue . . . the young black performers (Nan-Lynn Nelson and Jarett Smithwrick] might have felt that wasn't their place to say something, but it didn't even a blip. Now I look at it and I shudder, “Oh boy, I wish I come up with a different idea there,” but the phone friends were basically my kids and so I would come up with different scenarios . . . they usually did it in a split screen because they were both on the telephone.

Ae13U: Anything else you wrote that sticks out in your mind?

Marianne Meyer: Then another thing that I was actually kind of proud of — and then in retrospect, I wasn't sure how they did it. The “I'm Only Sleeping” conceptual video where the girl [Nan-Lynn Nelson] wakes up and gets ready to go to school, and then she goes outside and realizes its Saturday and goes running back to her bed. And I don't recall there being much of an issue getting the Beatles song . . .

Ae13U: I love that piece, as well as it being one of my favorite Beatles songs. Unfortunately, out of all the music from the show I have posted — Eddie Money, Stephan Still, Little River Band, Sister Sledge — that’s the only piece that gets a total block on YouTube. It’s disappointing because it is a wonderful piece. It reminds me of L. Michael Longfield’s “Waking Up” sketch in Episode 7. No words, just a performance.

Marianne Meyer: I was always trying to come up with ways that you could take a song and make a cartoon or an animation or something that went with it.

Ae13U: Yes, it anticipates the 1980s music videos just around the corner. One piece that comes to mind is Episode 8’s segment "Stork Deliveries" with the animation done to the hit country song "Rollin' Rig" by Dave Dudley comes to mind. The artist, Jerry Lieberman’s style is so fanciful and surrealistic. It really took the show to another level.  

Marianne Meyer: Bruce [Hart], having come from Sesame Street, always had a way of using animations and short films and music that was innovative and conceptual stuff that's really interesting.

Ae13U: At what point were you aware that the show wouldn’t be going on for another season?

Marianne Meyer: Well, I do wonder whether NBC wanted the show to succeed or whether it was an idea of “Let's give them something high-quality and when nobody watches it, we can say we tried,” because the first of all there was the time slot. Yes, if you want to appeal to teenagers, let's put a show up against American Bandstand. Oh, thank you very much! That was strike one.

Strike two was during basketball season. It was constantly preempted, so you've never really developed momentum. The third strike was that the commercials were just, you know, if you were a teenager in your tweens and you were watching the show and you were enjoying it and then the commercial came on for Betsy Wetsy, you'd go, “Oh, God, I shouldn't be watching this. This is for babies.” It really wasn't handled well and I don't know if there was an ulterior motive or just really bad planning.

Ae13U: The dissonance between the show content and the type of commercials was something that Sherry Coben pointed out. Instead of commercials aimed at the tween/teen audience, they seemed more directed towards a pre-teen demographic.

Marianne Meyer:  I think there were, there was some discussions in the press about NBC was launching this innovative show that was going to, you know, really do things for children's television and I think that there were a few people who did say something about why is it constantly preempted and up against American Bandstand? So, you know, they didn't totally get away with it, but we always knew we were . . .  I don't want to say “not long for this world,” but . . . there was this sense . . . we're trying something and it feels good and It looks good and people seem to like it, but the ratings were never great and the way it was being treated as kind of on-again off-again, I don't think we had, I don't remember, having really high hope that it was coming back.

Babysitting Blues: In this Phone Friends segment, Denny and Nan-Lynn discuss every big sister’s bane of existence — their little brothers.

Ae13U: So, after the show, you get an Emmy for it. How did that impact your career?

Marianne Meyer: Like I said, this was my first job and everybody says show business is so difficult, but we won an Emmy. Now, what do I do? So anyway, this is the agent that I had at William Morris [referenced earlier]. He was a good guy, an active guy, and he was trying to send me around to other things. At one point I was I hired to do a script for another children’s show called The Great Space Coaster.

Ae13U: Yes, I know it well. I worked as a tape operator at a PBS uplink station in Albany in the late 1980s and one of my jobs was to load PBS programs up for broadcast to other stations. I saw a lot of The Great Space Coaster, Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street, among others. [Ed. note: As noted in my article The New York Network: A Peek into Broadcasting Past]

Marianne Meyer: Well, here's your irony. I did a sketch for them . . . they were still developing it and had they had concepts and . . . I wrote the segment and literally the day I picked up my Emmy from the offices . . . and went to a meeting with these people. They told me they hated the script and then I didn't know how to write for children . . . and I was literally sitting there with the Emmy in a box at my feet . . . and I really, really wanted to take it out and just hit them with it, but I said, “No, that's OK. It's just, you know, you don't want me, I don't want you."

Ae13U: Wow. It is hard to believe that professionals would treat another professional so unprofessionally, particularly for a children's show. What was the next step?

Marianne Meyer: So, yeah. I’m still writing music articles and stuff like that and then at this point, I think I was on my own. I was living in Brooklyn, but Andy, my lovely agent, quit the business and I got another agent who I guess because, you know, I wasn't his discovery . . . he set me up to do some work in Canada.  There was a sitcom in Canada called Flappers and no one's ever heard of it unless maybe if you live in Canada. It was the early 1980s I guess [ed. note: 1979-1981]. They allowed me to work in Canada because I had an Emmy and that gave me permission because the Canadian government's very tough about the work that people from outside Canada and the Emmy was somehow that gave me permission.

Short clip from Flappers.

So, I got a job doing a couple of scripts for Flappers. The only reason I'm bothered to bring it bring it up is that the two show runners for Flappers went on to beat Johnny Carson's head writers. They came to America years later. They wrote for [fellow Canadian] Alan Thicke, but they became Johnny Carson's head writers.

Ae13U: Thicke of the Night? [1983-1984]

Marianne Meyer: Yep, but in that interim period, the agent was not really setting me up for things. I'd give him ideas. He didn't like them and I just said, you know, this probably isn't going to work out for me. So, I left William Morris and I went back to doing print journalism and things like that.

And then one day I'm living in Westchester and I get a bunch of envelopes, and I'm too busy opening up the mailers from the record companies with the free vinyl and that I'm all excited to, you know, be reviewing and stuff, and there's an envelope that says Tonight Show, and I think it's a press release, so I don't open it until later and it's these two guys [the show runners from Flappers, Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers], saying “Hey, Johnny is quitting the business and we're about to develop some sitcoms and you wrote some stuff for us when we did Flappers, and we liked your style. What are you up to? Are you interested in working?”

Ae13U: Exciting! This led where?

Marianne Meyer: This started a period in the early 90s when I was living in New York and then in Virginia and I was bi-coastal for like two years where I would go out to California and work with these guys on some spec scripts. We did a wonderful show with Terry Garr and Greg Bierko, but the pilot didn't fly. We did another show that the pilot that didn't go and then we got lucky and they had two shows that were picked up by CBS. One called The Trouble with Larry with Bronson Pinchot and Courtney Cox before she became a “Friend.” Now, that's a show that one day, some people are going to say that was a wildly funny show, but it was just not meant to be on broadcast television.

And then another show with Faye Dunaway and Robert Urich called It had to Be You, so I was working was primarily on It had to Be You, but I was in touch with what they were doing with The Trouble with Larry because they were doing it simultaneously. Then both shows failed and I came back to Virginia and I worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a radio show for kids called Kinetic City Super Crew and we won the Peabody Award. 

Ae13U: You were still working without an agent through this time?

Marianne Meyer: I was able to get an agent to negotiate my contract, and get their piece of the action, and then when the shows did not fly and I said I was coming back to Virginia, the agent said, “Well, if you're not going to stay in. LA I can't be of any help for you.” You know, this time frame, it was not a Zoom world . . . it was not where you can live in an on another coast. You need to be in LA and I wasn't.

Ae13U: So, what next?

Marianne Meyer: More freelance writing. I sort of moved up a little bit and I wrote a few things for Rolling Stone, in The Washington Post, the regional section of The New York Times.  So, I stayed busy writing, but not always and now I guess I'm semi-retired.

Ae13U: Looking back, what advice would you give to those looking to break into the industry?

Marianne Meyer: I personally believe that the main things you need is some talent, you need some opportunity, and then you need luck, and it's very hard to get those three things all aligned. Even though the people on the Oscars always say “Never give up on your dreams,” but sometimes you just have to also accept the fact that things don't always work out, you know, and that's OK too.  I did not want to live in LA and I did not want to raise my children in LA and I've had a fun life doing lots of music and stuff. It’s just nice to know that I have shows and books and things in my life, not hits, but they mean something to me, and I'm grateful for them and to find out that there who remember Hot Hero Sandwich so fondly is wonderful . . . and that's all we ever, ever want, is to maybe just strike lightning once and touch somebody.
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Concluding Thoughts

Meyer’s writing resume is the envy of any budding or old, jaded journalist.  In addition to work for CBS and NBC, her bylines include work for The Washington Post, Columbia Records, Elekra Records, Virgin Records, Muppet Magazine, The New York Times, Redbook, Rolling Stone, as a rock music and cable TV columnist for United Features Syndicate, and so many more. One of my favorite gigs of hers was adapting The Electric Company for foreign audiences. Oh, and not to mention a biography of Bruce Springsteen at the height of his Born in the U.S.A. fame in 1984. Nice work if you can get it!

In reviewing my notes from my interview with Marianne Meyer, while we learn a lot more about Hot Hero Sandwich, it is really her experience as a writer that strikes me. There are times when it seems analogous to the actors’ careers, dependent on luck, where you live, who you work with, who remembers you, if you have an agent, if the agent likes you, and if you have talent and really know your trade.  

Then, all those elements have to align to just get a break. As I have noted previously in other profiles of cast and crew, I sometimes wonder why they go through it all, but say Meyer herself says, “all we ever, ever want, is to maybe just strike lightning once and touch somebody.”

I think they did. 
 
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Friday, May 12, 2023

The Underestimation Destination

by G. Jack Urso
 

In the late 2000s, I taught a Composition II class with two students who had both recently come to the United States within the past few years. One was Russian, a hipster with flashy clothes, and the other a rather sedate, slightly nebbish Ukrainian with a buttoned-up Oxford shirt with a buttoned-down collar, no tie, and a sweater vest.

While the Russian had excellent language skills, the Ukrainian clearly had struggles. I wasn’t sure he understood everything I said, and his writing was filled with the syntax and grammatical errors common to those for whom English is not their first language. Additionally, he was unsure what I meant when I referred to the MLA documentation style, which he should have covered in Comp I. 

At the end of the first class, as I reviewed his writing sample, I expressed my concerns to the Ukrainian student, which the Russian student, who was hovering nearby, overheard.

“Not to worry professor,” the young Russian student chimed in. “I’ll help him and explain what you say to him.” He then exchanged a few words in Russian with the Ukrainian, who responded in English.

“Yes, no problem,” the Ukrainian replied. “I can do this.”

The Ukrainian's broken English led me to doubt the outcome, but, as the saying goes, “You pays your monies and you takes your chances.”

Over the next month, I was pleased to see the Russian student sit with the Ukrainian student and explain in Russian certain things I said in class. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian met with me during office hours, sent me rough drafts, peppered me with questions via email, went to the writing center, and if I gave him an opportunity to redo an assignment because of the grade, he took the opportunity. Maybe he was going to pass after all!

Meanwhile, the interest of the Russian student, who had excellent writing skills and produced spot-on work, waned. He began missing classes and dropped the course before mid-terms. The Ukrainian was now on his own.

At the end of the semester, I thought the Ukrainian would end up with a B or a B+, but, as I checked his grades over, he somehow managed to score exactly .1 above what he needed for an A-. I must have reviewed his assignments and grades three or four times, but, somehow, he did it. Since the college I worked for didn’t record plus or minus grades for the final grade, the Ukrainian nailed a solid A on his transcript.

I learned two lessons that day. First, never judge a student’s potential for success based on their first attempts. Second — and perhaps most important of all — never, ever, underestimate a determined Ukrainian.

That seems to be a lesson a lot of people are learning lately.

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Monday, May 1, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Stage with Cast Member Michael Longfield

by G. Jack Urso
 
Longfield’s title card in the opening credits.
Actor Michael Longfield, credited on Hot Hero Sandwich as L. Michael Craig, brought with him a frenetic, kinetic energy that I identified with as an attention-deficit young man. I had the opportunity recently to speak with him about the show and he really delivered some inside info!

Here, Longfield discusses his Hot Hero character “Tapedeck,” the Hot Hero van, the Puberty Fairy at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the other Michael Longfield, beer and comedy in Aspen, Dan Aykroyd's dressing room, and the perks of NBC employment (which seem to include sneaking into the CBS commissary). Also, Eddie Money, Giancarlo Esposito, and Robert Townsend turn up, and we learn about the wild ride young actors take to make their way in the world.
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Starting Out and Moving About

Ae13U: I usually ask where people originally hail from, but you noted you came from a military family that moved around a lot. What places did you live before Hot Hero Sandwich?

Michael Longfield: I was born in Palo Alto CA, lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Washington DC, then the family settled in Seattle moving (for their last time) after my dad retired from the Navy. I went to four different schools in Seattle, so in a lot of ways I was still like moving every few years.

Ae13U: How did you get started acting? Did you go through any kind of formal training through a coach or school?

Michael Longfield: My dad used to stick his head in my crib and say “Let’s see the old Stanislavsky technique” and I would apparently laugh, cry, giggle and get mad on cues. I was always interested in acting and my senior year in High School did an Independent study at a local theatre call The Empty Space (I wear that shirt in pretty much every episode). That was the most pivotal training ground I could have had. I went to the Cornish College of the arts for a year, then was a member of The Empty Space company of actors for a season, then I moved to New York.

Ae13U: I know there were a couple episodes of The Edge of Night, according to the IMdB, before Hot Hero. What else? Plays, commercials? If the later, can you share what kind of products they were about?

Michael Longfield: Actually, I was never on Edge of Night, there was another Michael Longfield and a pretty funny story around that and Taps. I did a lot of plays before moving to New York and commercials after.

Ae13U: OK, now that I just completely embarrassed myself with bad research, let’s talk Hot Hero. How did you get cast on Hot Hero Sandwich? What was the audition process?

Michael Longfield: Like Jarett I had just gotten an agent and they got me the audition. Carole Pffeffer and Christine Rolfs [casting agents] cast me in HHS and my first commercial. There were several rounds of auditions and on the final call back I met Robert Townsend. Afterward he showed me how to sneak into the CBS commissary for lunch!

Ae13U: Robert Townsend, the actor and director?

Michael Longfield: Yes. He and Jarett were after the same role.

Ae13U: Where had you been living at the time you were filming Hot Hero Sandwich?

Michael Longfield: I was living with two roommates in a one-bedroom apartment in the village just up the street from Herbert Berghof Studios [a famous acting school] with no air conditioning, it felt very Bohemian.

The “Waking Up” sketch. Michael Longfield channels Buster Keaton. Note Longfield is wearing his “The Empty Space” t-shirt, the theater company he was a member of before Hot Hero Sandwich.

Ae13U: You traveled around a lot at the time. How exactly did you end up in NYC and on Hot Hero?

Michael Longfield: So, I got to New York in a really roundabout way. My agents were Jacobs and Wilder. I was doing plays in Seattle at The Empty Space [the noted theater company that ran from 1970-2006]. Tapedeck [Longfield’s character on HHS] wears The Empty Space t-shirt, and that was the theater that I grew up at in Seattle. They did all sorts . . . David Mamet and stuff like that. I had been seen by this director who is doing a show in Hartford, and he called Seattle and asked, “Oh, is Michael around?” And I wasn't. I was in New York visiting a friend. Through a bunch of phone tags, someone finally told me, “Oh, hey. Burke [the director] has been trying to get in touch with you. I called Seattle. They got me in touch with this guy, and I auditioned for a play in Hartford, and I got it!  So I moved to Hartford and Sada Thompson was in it.

[Ed. Note: Thompson is the noted Emmy Award-winning actress on the ABC drama Family, 1976-1980, which also starred Kristi McNichol, whose brother Jimmy is interviewed by Dr. Tom Cottle in Hot Hero Sandwich.]

Ae13U: Acting with Sada Thompson on stage must have been a pretty intense experience for a young actor.

Michael Longfield: It was kind of surreal [laughter]. All of the actors were from New York. So, all of their agents came up to see it and I was kind of courted by several different agencies — which was super cool — because there was kind of a buzz. I got cast, they put in two things at the same time, I got cast in a pilot in LA and Hot Hero Sandwich, and I took Hot Hero Sandwich after I turned down the pilot, for considerably more money and had a guarantee build right into it. I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, I wanted to move to New York, you know, and the pilot got cancelled after the first table reading!

Ae13U: [laughter] Well, it was a good decision at least.

Michael Longfield: Well, no it was a terrible decision because I could have gone back and done Hot Hero Sandwich . . .

Ae13U: And you would have the money anyways!

Michael Longfield: I would have had $100,000* in my pocket. It was a big guarantee, but I absolutely thought that that Hot Hero Sandwich was just going to be a huge hit. [*Ed. Note: Approx. $415,752.07 in 2023. Sorry Mike. You probably didn’t want to know that.]

Ae13U: Did you have much interaction with Bruce and Carole Hart?

Michael Longfield: Bruce and Carole were just like the nicest the nicest people. They were super down-to-earth and, you know, no pretense at all. I remember they had a wrap party for us at their apartment on the Upper West Side . . . I was using the restroom and they had a signed Picasso in the restroom!

Ae13U: Wow!

Michael Longfield: It's like, well, I guess Sesame Street was pretty good!

Ae13U: [laughter] Oscar the Grouch paid dividends! Who would have guessed?

Michael Longfield: These were just people you didn’t think would have it, and they have it in the bathroom, that’s the type of people they were. I think their Emmys were in there too . . . just super low-key and really wonderful.
Carole and Bruce Hart, looking groovy!
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On Stage at Studio 8H

Ae13U: I know all actors chaff somewhat at looking back at their performances, with the perspective of the years, how do you regard the young man looking back at the show now?

Michael Longfield: Looked back at the performances and frenetic energy that you appreciated and it’s something that, you know, I worked my entire career to get rid of and that's one of the reasons why I really don't act that much anymore! [laughter]

Ae13U: Well, listening to your jazz show, which, having worked in radio myself, and love jazz, you have a really tight show, but there was a sort of disconnect. I had to check and make sure this was the same guy on Hot Hero because your delivery is really mellow compared to the series, so you’ve succeeded! [laughter]

Michael Longfield: Oh good. Thank God, because I’m too old to be that nutty now!

Ae13U: One scene you did from the show I want to discuss is regards your monologue in Episode 2, the "Living in a Suitcase" segment. This stuck with me because at the time of broadcast I was moving round a lot, eventually moving five times between 8th grade and 12th grade. It's one of those things I saw that made me think "Yeah, someone gets it. It's not just me." Not that there were any answers, but just recognizing that kids get kind of overlooked in frequent moves, as well the psychological impact, made an impression on me.

“Living in a Suitcase” monologue.

A couple questions about this scene. First, this seems like a real challenging piece. It was just you with no one to react to and you’re in front of a blue screen with only a few props. It seems like a really challenging piece to do as an actor. The background on that piece would be particularly interesting and informative on the process how scripts with this type of messaging were developed. How did you prepare for a piece like this? Did you work with the director to find just the right tone, or did they just give you the space to work up your interpretation for the scene?

Also, speaking with Jarett, I understand that parts were usually assigned, but given your background this part seems almost like it was written specifically for you. Was that just a coincidence?

Michael Longfield: I remember things a little differently than Jarett. I thought we had table reads then kind of discussed stuff we felt really close to.  I am pretty sure I pitched myself for that one. It was at the very end of a particularly long day, and it is one of the few pieces I feel very proud of. The thoughts and emotions were real and after what would be a 20-hour workday the crew did clap at the end of the performance but I thought that was just because we all got to go home!

Ae13U: In Episode 10, there is a three-part sketch where your character and Nan-Lynn Nelson’s are friends who have a bit of a flirtation and agree to go to a dance together, but after arguing they realize they have too many differences and decide to stay just friends. A nice little piece of modeling appropriate behavior to kids learning how to navigate crushes with friends. 

What I found interesting and innovative in this episode is that is that race is not an issue. That you and Nan-Lynn have different skin colors never is never mentioned. I absolutely remember this sketch because if this was anywhere else on network TV in 1979, it would have been a “very special” episode entirely on race relations. In fact, at the time I can remember thinking, “OK. When are they going to discuss it?” And when it never came up, I can still recall my reaction was, “Yeah, it shouldn’t be an issue, so why even mention it?” What were your thoughts at the time about this aspect of the scene? 

Michael Longfield: It was really nice to see the little arc we got out of that. I had forgotten how often the show did that. Nan Lynn was such a good actress and whenever I was smart enough to calm down and listen I think I did my best work. Nan and I listened to each other and I don’t think either of us were thinking about the racial overtones of the scene, just the feelings. There were so many opportunities to find those moments that were especially important to kids. I grew up in a very integrated environment so I didn’t really think about racial stuff at the time.

I was so excited about having a show and I assume everyone felt the same way. There might have been moments where we might have hoped to bring more to the plate but the production team were trying to create a genre, that’s a lot more than just making a kids show. In retrospect testing might have been good but it could have killed us in the middle of production. Standards and practices were always calling. There was always something controversial going on. I know this because I cracked a joke in rehearsal of a Captain Hero bit and someone came out of the booth and said that S&P had called and I felt so bad and whoever it was said “don’t worry we get those calls from them all day”. It was a tight rope and I think we ended up pretty over budget.

The three-part “Getting Together” sketch with Nan-Lynn Nelson.

Ae13U: You had a certain kinetic, frenetic energy on the show, and one I think a lot of teens could relate to.

Michael Longfield: It's so funny that that you talk about the kinetic energy that I brought to the show. When I watched that, it’s just . . . I haven't seen this show in 40 years . . . I didn't even watch every episode when they came out, and so to see it see it now, it’s really been fun. It's amazing to hear, you know, Robert Guillaume, and Richard Pryor, and then Jarett saying the n-word on TV. That would not happen [today].

Ae13U: I remember seeing that episode and it blew my mind. Finally, someone was getting real about the issue. I remember thinking at the time, “Is anybody at the network watching this? How did this get by them?

Michael Longfield: We used to get calls from standard and practices every day. We we're doing a run-through of the Captain Hero sketch with the drug dealer, and I played a drug dealer and at one point. I said, “Kid, why don't you go home and take a nap?”  Well, in rehearsal, I said, “Why don't you go home and take a Tylenol?”  And their reaction was immediate.

I think we had three Standards and Practices [executives] and, you know, the feed goes all around NBC and so they just watched Hot Hero Sandwich rehearsals all day long . . . and hard days, they were long. They were loooong . . .


Ae13U: Jarett Smithwrick mentioned how long the days were. You began in the morning and worked through evening.

Michael Longfield: I remember the day we did the “I Live in a Suitcase” bit . . . the way the shot those, like Nan-Lynn’s where she's alone, and all the all pretty much all the solo stuff, was done as the last thing so they could release everybody else.

I think our call was 8 o'clock in the morning and it was probably 2 A.M. when we shot that [The “Living in a Suitcase” segment]. I mean, we’re talking twenty-hour days. No problem, you know? [laughter] Everybody was super into it.


Ae13U: That’s the kind of detail we’re want to pull out in these interviews — to give an idea of what goes into being a performer. It’s not always, “Lights! Camera! Action!”

Michael Longfield: It's sit around and wait. You know, the longest part of the day is to sitting in your dressing room and waiting for lighting to get done and waiting for the shots to get set up. It's just such a long day


Ae13U: What about the Hot Hero van seen in the opening credits? Can you tell me anything about that? I think a lot of Baby Boomer fans have fond memories of the VW Bus.

Michael Longfield: One of the stories that I can tell you is they wanted to put the Hot Hero van outside of the set. So, they drove the Hot Hero van from the Brooklyn Warehouse into the city and they pulled up to the loading dock and they tried to get it onto the freight elevator and it was three feet too long, so they drove it back to the shops in Brooklyn, chopped it, cut three feet out of the middle of it put it back together it back to park it on the outside [of the set] and then I don't think they ever did.

The Hot Hero van in the opening credits.

Ae13U: Not that I saw. It would have been a sweet addition to the set, but I’m not sure where they could have squeezed it in?

Michael Longfield: Andy Breckman [as the Puberty Fairy] was the only representative from the cast to ride the Hot Hero van in that year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade! [1979]

Ae13U: That is a surreal and slightly disturbing image [laughter].

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Character Counts

Longfield’s NBC publicity photo from the show (author’s collection). You can see his character's name "Tapedeck" written the back of the photo by network PR.
. . . and, of course, he's wearing his ever-present The Empty Space t-shirt!

Ae13U: Turning to your character on the show, the PR photo I have of you released by NBC at the time as you, or your character at least, identified as ”Tapedeck.” Can you fill me in on the backstory there?

Michael Longfield: We were kinda kicking round the first couple rehearsals . . . talking about who was gonna be Stanley Dipstyck, who wanted to be . . .  whatever . . .  they had a character called “Tapedeck” that just listened to the tape deck and I absolutely said right away, “I will do that guy because I know I'll never have to learn any lines.”

Ae13U: Interesting. In my interview with Marianne Meyer she mentioned that they discussed giving the actor’s on-stage characters an identity, or a backstory of some kind. I don’t suppose you ever actually listened to anything on those headphones?

Michael Longfield: The only song that I listen to during every single taping was "Life During Wartime" by The Talking Heads.

Ae13U: [laughter] OK. So, your cool factor just went to Warp 10. I wish I knew that back in ‘79!

Michael Longfield: If you ever see me with my heading bopping up and down [with the headphones on] that’s it!

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Backstage at Studio 8H

Ae13U: I know production ended on Saturday Night Live for the season before Hot Hero got access to Studio 8H, but I would be remiss in not asking if there are any backstage stories you can share.

Michael Longfield: I’ll tell you this story. We went on the year immediately following the season that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi quit so they were on the season before, but then they didn't come back after our show, and I had Dan Aykroyd’s dressing room, and all of the acoustic ceiling tiles have been punched out! [laughter]

I said, “Hey, could someone put the ceiling tiles back?” And they said, “Oh, that’s Dan Aykroyd and he’s going to put them back.” [laughter] Now, I don’t know if that’s why he didn’t come back . . .

Ae13U: I always wondered if you guys used the same dressing rooms.

Michael Longfield: Same dressing rooms, same crew. You know, I love watching Saturday Night Live now and seeing all the guys . . .  I mean they must be very old because they're still on the crew . . . Akira Yoshimura who was the designer. 

[Ed. Note: Yoshimura was then and is now a production designer on the SNL crew as of this writing].

Ae13U: Yes, Akira Yoshimura! It blew my mind when I realized he also played Mr. Sulu to John Belushi’s Captain Kirk on SNL [and later for William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, and Chris Pine in their appearances].

Left to Right: Chevy Chase as Spock, John Belushi as Kirk, and Yoshimura as Sulu.

Michael Longfield: One of the great perks of being in Hot Hero Sandwich was that I had a NBC employee ID card and it was good until the end of the year. So, I could get in and out of anywhere at NBC anytime I wanted to and so I saw every episode of Saturday Night Live that year . . . [and went] backstage, because I knew all the people backstage . . . and then I go to the party afterwards.

Ae13U: [laughter] That's exactly what I thought you would do if I had to guess! [Ed. Note: The 1979-1980 season of SNL featured, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, and Harry Shearer].

Looking back, what things did Hot Hero Sandwich do that you thought worked particularly well, and which things perhaps you thought didn’t work quite as well?

Michael Longfield: As far as my own performance goes I didn’t think I was very good in HHS, but I learned so much from working with the people on and around the show.

Longfield and Vicky Dawson explore hooking up in the 1970s. 
I’m not so sure this would air today, but it was the 1970s . . .
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After Hot Hero Sandwich

Ae13U: I know it’s a bit of time to cover, and the IMDb can leave out a lot of what an actor does, such as commercials, plays, voice overs, etc. Can you fill us in on some of the other things you did as an actor after Hot Hero?

Michael Longfield: Right after Hot Hero I did several national commercials, Taps and a silly movie called Hot Resort, I was in a Reggae Band in New York, I worked in a music rehearsal studio, moved to Aspen to be a ski bum, created a 501C3 comedy group there called The Aspen Ridiculous Theatre Company and ran a low power television station. I moved to LA to try to get back into show biz but ended up being a teleprompter operator and bike store manager. The next stop was back in Seattle where I opened my own bicycle shop then retired and moved to New Orleans, where I work on a weekly New Orleans radio show!

Ae13U: A comedy troupe in Aspen, that’s a great place with a ready tourist audience. I’d like to hear more about that.

Michael Longfield: It was like Hot Hero Sandwich almost. We would write probably 35-40 minutes worth of material every week and then we do 30 minutes of improve, and then we would buy a keg of beer from the from the venue and we would charge people $five dollars to get in, and the beer was free till it was gone, and if we would sell out every night. [laughter].

Ae13U: And that was all in Aspen?

Michael Longfield: That was all in Aspen, live every Wednesday. We actually played the very first Aspen Comedy Festival [1995], and Garry Shandling was headliner and we opened for him. We did improv, and oh God, we were terrible, terrible!

Ae13U: Tell me about the low power television station you mentioned you ran. I’m having visions of Weird Al Yankovic’s movie UHF, but I’m guessing the reality is a bit different.

Michael Longfield: It certainly wasn't in that there was not a whole lot of humor. I was the co-host of the morning show . . .  So, Bonnie, she was the hostess, I can’t remember her last name, was in charge of the whole show and I just sat there and complimented her. I would say, “Oh, you look great today, Bonnie.” So, that was what my job was.

Ae13U: How did you end up the general manager?

Michael Longfield: The guy who started the station ended up taking on a partner to bring in some cash, and the partner ended up buying him out. The day that he bought him out, the partner called me on the phone and said, “Hey, Michael, do you know how to push those buttons?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Do, you want to be the general manager of The TV station?” And I said, ”Sure,” and I started working about 80 hours a week and the only thing we had on the air was the was called “The Spinning Leaf” channel because it was the Aspen Channel and it was just the spinning Aspen leaf and, you know, classical music playing in the background, and then the morning show and the ski report.
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The Other Michael Longfield and Taps

Ae13U: You appeared in one of my favorite films, Taps (1981) with George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Ronnie Cox, Sean Penn, Giancarlo Esposito, and some other guy, I forget his name (just joking –Tom Cruise, or course). The plot was pretty intense, and Vietnam only a few years in the past at that point. Considering the cast, I wonder, can you share anything from your time on the film?  

Michael Longfield: I loved working on Taps. I was a “townie" and got to beat up Timothy Hutton! That’s where I met the other Michael Longfield.

Ae13U: There are two of you — and in the same movie?

Michael Longfield: All right, so it's a long story. My name is Michael Longfield, and that was my born name. When I moved to New York and joined [Actor’s] Equity . . .  there was already a Michael Longfield . . .  so I had to change my name, and I changed it to my mother's maiden name because I wanted to keep it in the family. . .  it was Michael Craig. . .  and then when I got Hot Hero Sandwich there was a Michael Craig in AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists], so I had to change my name again so I changed it to L period Michael Craig.

I had all of my Social Security stuff was under Michael Longfield, all of my legal stuff was under Michael. just my acting cards were under L Michael Craig. So then [after HHS] I get cast in Taps, and that was a long that was a long casting process . . . I was actually cast in a different role and then they put it on hold for a year and then came back and I was kept I was put in a different role, but they still put me in the movie, which was cool.

I go to pick up my train ticket to Valley Forge [for the film] and there are two reservations on the same ticket, one for Michael Longfield and one for L. Michael Craig and I said. “Oh, yeah, they make that mistake all the time.” So, I pick up the one for Michael Longfield, because that's what my ID says, and go ahead and just cancel the one for Michael Craig.

So, I get on the train and first night we're there, we're all having a drink — you know . . .  all the supporting cast, and all the townies and stuff, and one guy says. “Holy shit! You know, I thought I got fired. I showed up to get my ticket and somebody had cancelled my ticket.”

And I said, “Are you Michael Longfield?” And he said yes. And Is aid, “I’m Michael Longfield!”

So he said, “Well, why did you have to change your name?”  I said, “Yeah, they [Equity] changed my name because of you!”

And he says, “Oh, you know what?  I had to change my name because I was Robert Phillips and there was already a Robert Phillips in the union. They [Equity] told me I had to change my name. I'm adopted. That's my adopted name. I changed it to my birth name, which is Michael Longfield.

He says he was adopted at two and his dad went AWOL in World War II. A year later, my dad comes to visit in New York and I said, “Do you know anything about [explaining the other Michael Longfield] . . .  and it turns out my  uncle went AWOL after World War II and he had never been heard from, and so he's [the other Michael Longfield] is like my second cousin. It was really crazy and we became pretty close friends.

Ae13U: I guess acting must be in the Longfield family genes!  As long as we’re on Taps, can you share anything from your experience on set? Were there any parties with the cast like Cruise and Penn?

Michael Longfield: I think that Tom Cruise had a couple of parties . . . the supporting cast was never invited to the big parties, but Giancarlo Esposito, who's one of the coolest people in the whole wide world, probably a year and a half later, I ran into him at an audition. I don't like walking up to people and saying, “Oh, hey, I worked with you,” you know? But he came up to me and said, “Hey, Michael, how are you doing?” And he remembered who I was. And it was, I was just so impressed with him.  We had small little parts. A super cool guy.

Esposito in a more current role in The Mandalorian, and still super coo!!

Ae13U: I try to refrain from asking any questions about other actors or musical guests from the show or a person’s career, but it’s hard to resist sometimes.

Michael Longfield: Well, here’s another story I could tell you. Right after I finished [Hot Hero] Sandwich, I got about five callbacks for this one show out in LA and I was staying at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, and I'm sitting by the pool. It's about 75 degrees . . . I'm from New York. It's March, you know, so I’m really loving the pool . . . and some guy yells out of his out of his balcony, and says, “Hey! Hot Hero Sandwich! What you doing outside?” [mimicking a New York accent]. It was Eddie Money!

Ae13U: [laughter] No way! Oh, that's awesome!

Michael Longfield:  And we had some drinks. That was pretty cool, yeah.

Eddie Money in his smokin’ hot rendition of his hit “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” in 
episode 3 of Hot Hero Sandwich.

Ae13U: I love Jazz and was excited to see that you have a Jazz show on WWOZ 90.7 FM Saturdays at 10:00 am - 12:00 pm, and in New Orleans! One thing I know about Jazz DJs is that they always have a large album collection, so I have to ask, how large is your album collection?

Michael Longfield: I have about 570 CDs and over 500 vinyl records, about 1/3 of my album collection was bequeathed to me by my dad. My digital album collection is at about 9,500 (lots of artists prefer promo release on digital now).

Ae13U: That is an outstanding, and envious collection, as a fellow jazz lover I could spend another hour just talking about that, but I think I’ve taken enough of your time. Michael, I want to thank you so much for sharing some really wonderful stories and giving us some more important behind-the-scenes info on the show. It really helps put the puzzle together.

Michael Longfield: Thanks a lot, man. Take care. Hope your day is great.
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Concluding Thoughts

With my love of audio equipment and attention deficit-driven energy, I think I identified with Longfield’s Hot Hero character Tapedeck the most. His “Living in a Suitcase” segment, about the effects of frequent moves on a young person stuck with me. In other scenes, such as the three-part sketch with Nan-Lynn Nelson in Episode 10, or the “Waking Up” sketch with no lines and staging straight out of silent films, show a broad range of talent.

Longfield’s experiences as a young actor, the relentless moving, turning down a pilot to do Hot Hero, extensive stage work, creating your own opportunities — sometimes with a keg of beer involved — are excellent lessons for younger performers to keep in mind for their own journey, including finding other work when the acting opportunities dwindle.

Actors don’t always benefit from the legacy they leave behind on the stage. In trying to explain my interest in the show to Longfield, I recalled his “Living in a Suitcase” monologue and how it connected with me and stuck with me in the back of my mind, I began choking up a bit. Yeah, Tom Cruise is an incredibly wealthy and famous actor, and Giancarlo Esposito is a super cool dude, but Michael Longfield made me cry.
 
And I remembered it 43 years later.