Thursday, May 10, 2012

Playboy, Brunch, and Mark Hamill

I miss the Playboy Club.

Not the TV Show, I don't miss that, but I'm talking about the actual Playboy Club.  Not the reconstituted Las Vegas one, I've never been there.  I'm talking about the actual Playboy Club.

In the 1970's, my dad had a membership in the Playboy Club. I still have his gold card (this was after the cool keys they used in the early days).  Every so often, our family would make the 28 mile drive from our house to the Playboy club at Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, NJ for brunch.  Yes, that's right - a family outing to The Playboy Club -- they didn't do any episodes about that on the short-lived NBC series.

The Playboy Club had a brunch buffet on the weekends.  I was only about 10 or 11 at the time, so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I remember lot of food to choose from and some very nice ladies in bunny costumes would come to the table, bring beverages and occasionally pinch my cheeks.  A few years later, I would have probably been the one doing the pinching.

Eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, pancakes, french toast…  all with the unique Playboy touch.  (Okay, so there wasn't a unique Playboy touch, but you can't beat a breakfast buffet -- and I think the Playboy one was the first I had the pleasure of experiencing).

But it wasn't only about the food.  After brunch, my dad took his gold key card to the counter to pick up his magazine.  One of the perks of membership was a free copy of a magazine published by the Playboy publishing empire.  Sadly, it didn't guarantee which magazine, so most of the time they were out of Playboy and my dad went home with a brown paper bag containing a copy of "Oui," a raunchier and less literary sister publication.  While dad was having a small bunny-shaped hole punched in his card to mark the receipt of "Oui," and my mom enjoyed her post-meal cigarette (people smoked back then), I made my way to THE ARCADE.

There was big arcade at the Playboy Club in Great Gorge.  A really big one (at least it seemed big to the eyes of a 11 or 12 year-old boy).  Among the pinball and very early video games was the single coolest game I had ever seen -- a sit-down, swiveling dogfight video game.  And, in the new post-Death Star trench world in which I was living, a dogfight game (even one that had nothing to do with "Star Wars") was the game I would be stacking my quarters on (and this one took twice as many - the first 50 cent game I ever played). The vector graphics were beyond primitive, but sufficient to catapult me into the cockpit of a fighter craft.  I can't remember if it was a space game or a aircraft dogfight, but as far as I was concerned, I was Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing fighter navigating through the Death Star trench.  Later on, actual recreations of the trench run came to arcades in their own sit-down configurations, but this one was enough to make me Luke Skywalker for as long as my supply of quarters would last.

A trip to the Playboy Club made me Luke Skywalker.  My mom bought me a slightly warped lightsaber knock-off called a Force Beam at the Rockaway Sales sidewalk sale, and then my transformation was complete.

Only in the seventies could "Playboy" and "Star Wars" converge in a boy's life. It was a simpler time.  It was a time when Hugh Hefner wore pajamas all day because it was part of the Playboy lifestyle.  Nowadays, he wears pajamas all day because most people his age wear pajamas all day. The 1970s; a time before Midi-chlorians and Trade Federation Viceroys. It was B.J.J.B. (Before Jar-Jar Binks).

Many years later, I was approached about working on a pilot for an animated series.  A friend of mine had recommended me to its producer.  That producer called me one night to discuss the project.

"Hi, Craig. It's Mark Hamill"

The 11-year old inside of me couldn't stop jumping up and down, but I tried to play it cool.  We talked business for an hour, and then a few weeks later we met in person.

He was dressed all in black  All I could think of was Luke's "Return of the Jedi" look.  I glanced at his hand to see if he was wearing a black glove, but there was none -- and I'm pretty sure the hand was real and not mechanical.   The meeting went well, but the project never happened.

A couple of years later, I wrote some interstitials for Disney. One of the characters was a gruff, but loveable fat cat who was constantly plotting to sneak the snacks prepared by the show's host, a cooking dog. Who would you pick to play a fat cat?  Disney picked the man who blew up the Death Star -- Mark Hamill.

Mark is a brilliant performer and a very easy person to work with. He sold every joke.  He punched every punchline. I saw no evidence of ego.  "Tell me how you want it. Don't be afraid to give me a line reading."

Actors hate being given line readings.  Mark didn't.  But, we never really had to.  His timing was flawless, and, I should add, so was Rob Paulsen's - Rob played the cooking dog, ZeFronk, the host of the show.

I put a Jack Benny "Si/Sy/Sue" homage in one episode. Mark loved it and played it beautifully.

In another episode, I wrote a big Bollywood finale for Mark's cat character.  He sang "Snack Ho" with an unparalleled level of enthusiasm.

I never told him about my days dreaming I was Luke Skywalker, but, I think he knows. He's a Jedi, right?  The Force is strong in him.

He laughed and joked and generally had a good time during his sessions.  On breaks, he spoke proudly of his family and shared memories of appearing with Miss Piggy on "The Muppet Show."

(L-R) Voice Director Kelly Ward, Rob Paulsen, Mark Hamill, Craig Shemin

Mark and Rob both treated our little 3-minute cartoon with respect and professionalism. They came to the studio prepared and ready to go.  We got an Emmy nomination for best short-form program and I think Rob and Mark's performances had a lot to do with it.

When I was 11, I wanted to be just like Luke Skywalker.

Now, I wouldn't mind being just like Mark Hamill.

Here's a little taste of Mark and Rob at work.