Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe gets equalized!

America loves them some vigilantes. Be it Charles Bronson’s fictional Paul Kersey or real life NYC subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, the public is fascinated by characters who take the law into their own hands when the authorities prove ineffective. So it should be no surprise that a TV show featuring these qualities would have been popular, hence the CBS series THE EQUALIZER.

Getting off to a rocky debut in 1985, THE EQUALIZER slowly built a following with solid-but-not-blockbuster ratings over four seasons (this was back when Hollywood didn’t cancel a series after two bad episodes and – gasp – let it try to find an audience). Audiences tuned in weekly to check out the adventures of Robert McCall, a British ex-secret agent atoning for his past sins by helping out the needy public. “Need help? Call The Equalizer,” read the nondescript ads he ran in papers. Lucky for him, he got honest, hard working folks calling him for help in dealing with generally stereotypical villains. No problem was too tough for the 55-year-old to solve in 45 minutes (well, sometimes it took him two episodes). It was like MURDER, SHE WROTE with fists. Essaying the lead role was Edward Woodward, who previously worked as a secret agent on CALLAN in England during the 60s and 70s. Woodward was the perfect fit for the guy who used his wits and fists to bring social justice and the role garnered him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 1987 and Emmy nominations for each year of the series.

Director Tobe Hooper signed up to direct the episode “No Place Like Home” for the show’s third season. Following a montage of New York City’s homeless, the episode focuses on Bill and Wanda Whitaker (Michael Rooker and Kelly Curtis, respectively), a down on their luck couple who have just been evicted from their apartment. “We’ll manage,” says Bill right before their van, the new family home, is stolen. With their son Billy (Matthew Stamm) and child on the way, they traipse on over to social services. While mom and dad sign up for assistance, Billy seeks it in a different way as he spots The Equalizer’s ad in a paper and calls the number.

The family is set up in the fleabag Alexandria Hotel, which you know is bad news because bums roam the halls and graffiti reads “the end of the line” (subtle, Tobe). They quickly discover the law of the land as a sleazy enforcer says he will give them $500 to get out so he can house another family to scam an extra $3,000 from the city. Bill opts out and gets a beating for his stubbornness. Of course, this is the perfect time for The Equalizer to show up and do some equalizing. Now let me say, if you are getting whooped by a guy thirty years your senior, chances are thug life ain’t for you. McCall agrees to help the family and brings in some his accomplices. There is Jimmy (Mark Margolis), who digs up legal info, and watchdog Mickey (Keith Szarabajka), who thinks all folks on skid row are lazy (do you think he will learn a lesson?). Their research finds the slumlord owner is one Amar (Michael Lerner) and they set in motion a plan to oust him from his criminal, exploitation enterprise.
I remember catching THE EQUALIZER sporadically with my folks when I was a kid and I’m sure most episodes unfold like this one with everything wrapping up nicely and quickly. I’ll admit that it is somewhat surprising to see what is basically escapist television deal with such a strong topic head on, especially in the “greed is good” 1980s. Hooper lets you know right off the bat this will be a bummer with a opening montage that showcases real homeless folks all over NYC (with required gospel song to double the impact). His disdain for Yuppies displayed in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 re-appears with a guy worrying Rooker might back into his BMW a few minutes in. The hotel scenes might be a bit over the top, but they serve the purpose of getting audiences to see the main character’s plight. There is also some frank dialog by some kids when Billy see a woman send her child to school and then pull off her coat to reveal hooker’s clothes. “She’s a whore turning tricks,” said a young black kid who talks to Billy. A large chunk of the episode also deals with Billy’s anger at his dad for being “a loser” as he calls it. The Equalizer sets the kid straight in a pretty stern talk that probably wouldn’t fly with the precious snowflakes on TV today.

The shows obviously benefits from the New York City location filming and Hooper captures the city well. Also, this is Hooper's first official stab at a straight drama, so it is interesting in that regard. He has stacked the cast to play opposite the excellent Woodward with some great character actors and promising new faces. You have Michael Lerner, who flows in and out of a ridiculous accent ("In mah country, vee verk hard-ah"), as the slumlord and Ed Lauter even shows up for one scene as a dick (“I was born without a social conscience”). Hooper also saw great promise in Michael Rooker and cast him in his first seen leading role. Keep in mind that while his breakout performance in HENRY: PORTAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER was already in the can at this point, the film was released until 1990; so good job to Tobe for noticing Rooker in advance. Also, you have Kelly Curtis, Tony’s daughter and Jamie Lee’s sister, in one of her earliest lead roles. She wouldn’t be as successful as sis, but would go on to star in Michele Soavi’s THE SECT a few years later.

While a pretty good episode and technically proficient, it is interesting to observe how far Hooper had fallen in his career. Just a few years earlier he was working with budgets up to $25 million and now he was doing television episodes. Granted, the stuff he was doing at the time (this and AMAZING STORIES) was on the higher end, but I’d love to hear how he ended up in the position. In one interview I read with Hooper, he did mention that the topic of homelessness and social justice of this episode did appeal to him. Unfortunately, this career detour ended up keeping him away from the big leagues permanently. And it only got worse after this as he did the pilot for FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES. Here at VJ we like to theorize that the meeting for that went like this.
Exec: “We’re making hand over fist money off of Freddy and we’d love for you to do his origin story on the debut episode of our Freddy TV show.”
Tobe: “A chance to work on a successful franchise and deliver a dark back story? Sign me up!” *signs contract*
Exec: “Okay, great. Here is the script and budget outline.”
Tobe: “Oh shit…” *chomps cigar in half*

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