Road House Rules: The Lost Art of Being Nice

Like my father before me, I’m a fairly simple and uncomplicated man. I find more wisdom in films than books; more poetry in country music than anthologies. My favorite poet is Robert Frost, by way of The Outsiders’ Pony Boy Curtis.

It’s a poem about the fleeting beauty of innocence:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.

And my father’s favorite poet was Patrick Swayze, by way of Road House’s Dalton.

“I want you to be nice.
Until it’s time to not be nice.”

In the greaser mode of the aforementioned Pony Boy, my father was born with a heart that was two sizes too [big]. While his slow-strut and southern-like drawl suggested a countrified upbringing, he was a northeastern greaser right down to his plain-white-T and “dungarees”. The least political man I ever knew, dad had a healthy respect for politics but a disdain for political rhetoric. “Never discuss politics and religion” were the words he preached; “be nice” were the words by which he lived.

Long before Patrick Swayze made it noble to not “put Baby in the corner” and cool to “be nice”, my father had already chosen “nice” as his preferred vice. That is why I listened intently when he prophesied that social media would be “the ruination of civilization.” For my dad, social media broke all the rules. Most notably, it was far too easy to not be nice when it came to the polarizing topics that he vowed never to discuss: religion and politics.

Before my father passed away at 76 years young at heart, he was reminded daily that Elton John had erred. In dad’s eyes, “nice” (not “sorry”) seemed to be the hardest word. And I’m sorry to say dad, it’s getting harder every day. Today, nice may very well be the least appreciated 4-letter word in the English language. It lacks the hard-consonant punch of F*CK; the satisfaction of a solid SH*T; or the sexually charged sting of C*CK or C*NT. Nice isn’t sexy, and it sure as shit ain’t easy.

But to dad, nice was effortless. I guess that’s why he couldn’t quite grasp why nice was so hard for so many others. At times, it infuriated him…

  • Dad’s reaction to the unfriendly woman at the checkout counter: “Ooooh…would it hurt that dipshit to say thank you???”
  • Dad to the recipient of his kind traffic gesture:
    “Ooooh….ain’t you gonna thank me, you tick-turd???”

Determined to be one of Frost’s few outliers, dad stayed as gold as the pack of Winston Lights that used to peek from his shirt pockets. He entered every room with a smile,  and he never exited a room that wasn’t filled with laughter. In short, he always led with nice. Nice was his brand. And in the words of his cowboy hero, it was a brand that stuck.

If dad’s cigarette vice ultimately played a role in his death, then nice was the vice that fueled his 76 years of happiness. There may even be some science to back-up this claim. According to Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., “When we help others and do kind acts, it causes our brain to release endorphins, the chemical that gives us feelings of fervor and high spirits — similar to a runner’s high.” Keep in mind, my dad wouldn’t know the difference between an endorphin and a Dolph Lundgren. So I doubt he clung to nice for its health benefits like a vegan pounces on tofu. Nice just made him feel really good. So good, in fact, that he’d routinely peek through a restaurant window just to see the waiter’s joyful reaction to his overly generous tip.

“Ooooh…he didn’t even smile! That waiter’s an ass-hole!”
[See, dad also knew when it was time to not be nice. ]  

Some can argue that dad’s perpetual happiness was fueled by caffeine, nicotine, and yellow Marshmallow Peeps. I disagree! Dad’s greatest buzz came from his vice for being nice. Curious to know what dad looked like when it was time to not be nice?

If you dared to cross my father or a member of his family, he’d go OG Buford Pusser on your ass. But I digress…

My point is that dad understood both parts of Dalton’s rule. I fear that we, as a society, have forgotten the first part: Being nice starts with listening to one another. And we jump straight to the second part: Not being nice is so easy from behind the safety glass of our mobile devices. What happened? Did the endorphin response to being nice get trumped by the quick fix of a cheap laugh (eg, mean tweets) or an even cheaper like (my political views rule, your’s drool)? Or, like the gold in Pony Boy’s favorite poem, has our nation lost its collective innocence due to the endless onslaught of very real and troubling news that I only wish we could “fake” away? Sorry dad, I have no answers.

Around the time of my 45th birthday, my normally optimistic tone changed to bitterness during a phone call with my brother. Overworked and feeling undervalued,  I complained to my brother about my job. I complained about my clients. I called them every 4-letter word in the book and vowed to stop working so hard for people who didn’t appreciate me. “Ooooh…would it hurt that dipshit to say thank you???” I felt like a pushover, and I sounded like my father. Why was it so hard for my clients to be nice? And why should I bother being nice anymore?

Shortly after the call, in a moment of perfect clarity, my brother sent me a text that I’ll never forget:

“Stay gold Pony Boy.”

That text, and the conversation that inspired it, made me think about my father. It reminded me of his brand; the only 4-letter word by which he chose to live, and the brand that still “sticks” to me and my siblings. And I decided to write this post when I recalled a speech that my dad gave while accepting an award to honor his many years as a little league baseball coach. Today, the closing line from his speech reads more like his epitaph:

“And when I walk down the street, I hope a former player of mine
will look and say ‘there goes Bill Smith–he was a really nice guy’.”

He really was. And may we all remind ourselves of my dad’s speech; the poetry of Robert Frost; the golden innocence of Pony Boy Curtis; and both parts of Dalton’s Road House rules.

Let’s try to make “nice” the brand that sticks.

Stay gold my friends!


John Hughes, John Green, John 3:16


My “Song of Summer 2015” is an oddly titled countryfied pop confection from Keith Urban. He’s my favorite Australian singer who’s not a Wiggle. Lyrically, the song name-drops to illustrate Urban’s influences in life. Drenched in so much coming-of-age nostalgia, each verse culminates with this catchy hook:

Just another rebel in the great wide open,
On the boulevard of broken dreams.
And I learned everything I needed to know, 
From John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.

When I break down these lyrics, I can’t help but ask: Why in the Wiggly World do I like it so much?

  • Rebel in the great wide open? My most rebellious act was shaving my 18-year-old head like Vanilla Ice.SCN_0002
  • Boulevard of broken dreams? My boulevard has been a straight and narrow path of more broken bones than hearts or dreams.
  • John Cougar? I prefer John Mellencamp over John Cougar; Van Hagar over Van Halen.
  • John Deere? I don’t own a tractor or a mower. And I’m pretty sure that toolbox in the garage is my wife’s.
  • John 3:16? Okay, 1 out of 3 Johns ain’t bad.

Nonetheless, I sing along…much to the secondhand embarrassment of my wife and 3 kids. I belt out lyrics that recall a childhood of “backseat freedom,” “TV dinners,” and a yearning to “never grow up, never grow old.” I sing it word for word, but I tweak the final hook. It’s a shout-out to the John who influenced me as an insecure teen (Hughes), and the ones who continue to inspire me as an immature parent (Green) and an imperfect man (3:16).

In my younger years, despite the fact that I was the poster child for the All-American boy, I always felt different. And for me, the word “different”, used in any context, was horrifying.


“Shane, you’re wearing a white tux with turquoise blue bow-tie and cummerbund to an 8th grade graduation ceremony. And you’re singing ‘We Are the World’? That’s different.” 

As a late-blooming freshman in high school, I was too insecure to run with the “cool” crowd and I assumed that girls filed my name under “N” and “O” in their Trapper Keepers. More like Urkel, less like Urban, I wasn’t “baptized by rock-n-roll.” I wasn’t a “rebel in the great wide open.” And if not for the Gospel according to John Hughes, I’d have felt like a guppy in the great wide abyss of the high school fishbowl.


“Shane, you’re wearing Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants on the first day of high school? Didn’t Kids R Us have something different?”

The karma chameleon-like way that I blended into the fabric of my high school was comical. I wasn’t the brain, jock, princess, basket case, or criminal. I was a mix of all the John Hughes archetypes. I was built like Molly Ringwald; I had Ally Sheedy’s dandruff; and I longed to be the brainy, jocky version of the Judd Nelson criminal minus the dope in his locker.

Why was I insecure? For starters, I was built like 6 o’clock and I had more tics than Lewis Morris Park. But thanks to John Hughes, I took the day off with Ferris Bueller. I blew out Sixteen Candles on Samantha Baker’s birthday cake. I even partied with a Chinaman named after a duck’s dork. Through the most awkward moments of my freshman year, John Hughes reassured me (and countless other teens like me) that we weren’t so different and we certainly weren’t alone:

“We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us
are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
–The Breakfast Club

If John Hughes were alive today, I wonder if he’d appreciate that 30 years after the release of The Breakfast Club…I choose to write a blog under a masthead that his unique voice inspired. [Nah…he’d probably call me a “neo maxi zoom dweeby.”]


My view from a 30-year anniversary screening of The Breakfast Club with my nephew (a second-generation Hughes disciple).


I’m a father of 3…master of none. I try to be the best parent that I can be. I teach my kids right from wrong, but I also give them the freedom to figure out wrong on their own. Some parents lament how “connected” their kids are…fearing the many vices that their mobile device-obsessions may fuel. Not me. I think back to a time when there weren’t many social outlets for teens. If you were “different,” there’s a good chance you felt different and alone. Today, there are so many more positive ways for teens to celebrate their “differences” together.

Our world is far from perfect…but I’m encouraged to know that today’s teens are influenced by a new breed of authors who present very real, multi-layered teen characters. And there’s none better than John Green. From Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines to Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars (yep, I’ve read them all)…John Green shows zero appreciation for the paint-by-number teen archetypes that Hughes introduced.

Where John Hughes wrote characters in black and white (wait, weren’t they ALL white?), Green’s characters are more colorfully drawn than an episode of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting. We’re talking dark sienna, van dyke brown, yellow ochre, and titanium white characters who spout verbal poetry with the same ease that Bob Ross painted happy little trees.


John Green’s characters don’t only embrace their “different”, they often shout it from their own little treetops. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Green describes a super-sized football player named Tiny as “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay.” Tiny is “not the type to go around unnoticed”, and I’ll bet that’s how John Green wishes all teens could be. Further, where John Hughes was the introverted auteur with an almost creepy-uncle vibe, John Green (a self-proclaimed nerd) connects effortlessly with his millions of fans.

  • Green and his brother Frank host a popular educational channel on YouTube called Crash Course. Their Vlogbrothers channel boasts millions of fans who refer to themselves as “Nerdfighters.”
  • Green’s mantra to fans: “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.”
  • The mission of Green’s Project For Awesome Foundation: “Decrease world suck.”
  • Green also connects with fans on social media and he’s never afraid to put himself out there to help normalize different.

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Yep, being a teenager can sometimes suck. I’m grateful that my kids (and yours) have voices like John Green’s that inspire teens of all colors, shapes, and disguises. And let’s be honest: “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome” is far more inspiring than the decidedly downbeat Breakfast Club anthem, “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

JOHN 3:16
Which brings me to the “Gospel-in-a-nutshell” Bible verse:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

I’m a go-to-church-every-Sunday Catholic and the John 3:16 verse means more to me than I care to share in a mindless pop-culture blog. Like many things Catholic, however, these same words are often used to promote an elitist agenda hell-bent on exclusion over inclusion. So I guess I’m what the holiest of rollers call a “Cafeteria Catholic.” The term is applied to those who assert their Catholic identity yet dissent from some of the more rigid Catholic moral teachings.

To better illustrate, let me use the Meg Ryan deli scene from When Harry Met Sally. 


Sorry, not the fake orgasm part. The part where she’s being very particular about her lunch order.

Just like Sally substitutes food items and requests items “on the side”, Cafeteria Catholics pick the doctrines they’ll uphold from an a la carte menu at the Catholic Cafe…

“What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a number three.” 

“I’d like the pre-marital sex please with the condoms and
the rhythm method on the side.”

Waitress (writing, repeating):
“Pre-marital sex, condoms, rhythm method…”

“But I’d like the life begins at conception and I don’t want the holy days
of obligation…I want them on the side. And I’d like gay “marriage”
instead of “civil unions” if you have it. If not, then nothing.”

Yes, I’m a Cafeteria Catholic. My right wing sometimes points left, and my thou-shalt-nots are guided by my own moral compass. This makes me “different” in the eyes of the church, but well, I’ve always been a little different (see my Urkel and Vanilla Ice pics above).

In the final verse of the song that started my rambling, Keith Urban sings about the end of his journey to self-discovery:

I spent a lot of years running from believing,
Looking for another way to save my soul.
The longer I live, the more I see it,
There’s only one way home.

Along with the words in John 3:16, I like to think that the believing he speaks of is simply believing in yourself. The way to “save your soul” is to embrace your “different” and accept the differences of others. And the “only way home” is to follow your moral compass…even if it sometimes points more left than right; right than left.

If the second coming were to come tomorrow, I choose to imagine a Twitter account with hundreds of millions of followers. The first tweet would be influenced by witnessing a past century of equal parts social/moral progress and decay. In other words, there’s still too much “world suck.”

The simple message would be shaped by the most universal religious virtues of faith, hope, and love. My faith gives me hope that the tweet would look something like this:

Buddy Hinton’s Guide to Bullying

553923_416617291729992_787666550_n“Baby talk, baby talk, it’s a wonder you can walk.”
Buddy Hinton

If life were a sitcom, our worst fears and biggest problems would be introduced, pondered over, and resolved within 24 minutes. When “calm, cool, reasoning” failed to deter a bully, we’d face our tormentor head-on and he’d never rear his ugly mug again…unless his sitcom got picked up for syndication.

When I was growing up, endless repeats made Buddy Hinton the poster child for the schoolyard bully. You remember that episode, right? “It’s the story…of a lovely lady…” who comes home in tears after Buddy Hinton picks on “the youngest one in curls.” Peter tries admirably to defend his sister Cindy—the lisping Goldilocks—but he doesn’t get porridge for his efforts…just a black eye. So Mr. Brady decides that Peter must learn to defend himself. Peter does…and he knocks Buddy’s “tooth looth”…and all is right in Brady Land (until it’s time for Peter’s voice to change).


While I was never bullied growing up, I was definitely an easy target for teasing (proof: I wore Bugle Boy kaki suspender pants jacked up to my nipples on the first day of school. Not pre-school, HIGH SCHOOL)! So yes, I had my awkward, slow-to-reach-puberty teen years. And as my brother likes to remind me, I had more ticks than Lewis Morris Park. There was my “ostrich-neck” twitch, which is hard to explain and nearly impossible to watch. With whip-like force, I would lunge my neck as far as it could go from left to right. Imagine watching a mental patient trying to eat French fries off his shoulder and you’ll have a pretty clear picture. There was also my “porno grunting” habit, which began innocently as I would try to clear my throat perpetually with a “Ha-um”. Until eventually, my “Ha-um, Ha-uh-um” slowly transformed into a one-man symphony’s rendition of “Orgasm in C Minor.”

The point is, I endured my fair share of weirdness and loneliness growing up. But while this made me an easy target for bullying, I was never targeted. Was I prepared to fight a bully? Probably. Was I prepared to take flight from a bully? Maybe. But what I can’t imagine are feelings of loneliness and shame that bruise so deeply that a teen would choose suicide over subjecting him or herself to another day of merciless taunts. This is how far bullying has come since the days of Buddy Hinton telling Peter Brady to “cackle like a chicken.”

In today’s society, bullying extends outside the school bus and beyond the schoolyard. The bruises inflicted by today’s Buddy Hinton don’t heal from a slab of meat that Alice stole from Sam the butcher. The punches are often viral…thrown from a mobile device…and forwarded by others. The bruises are more often psychological than physical….and the damage often goes unnoticed until the victims finally make us notice.

In the troubling documentary, “Bully” (available on Netflix), we follow a group of teens and tweens who face constant bullying in the form of physical and verbal abuse. We meet Kelby, an out-and-proud 16-year-old who faces homophobia from students and teachers on a daily basis. We meet Alex, a 12-year-old whose daily routine includes humiliation and assault on the school bus (or whatever you call being stabbed with pencils repeatedly). Alex can’t bear to tell his parents about the abuse, and I couldn’t bear to sit by and watch grieving parents whose sons chose flight…in the form of suicide.


Yes, the film only states the obvious: feelings of loneliness are one of the most painful consequences of bullying. But what the film doesn’t say is that loneliness is often the cause of bullying. And it’s not only the socially isolated who are targeted—for every “new kid”, “fat kid”, “gay kid”, and “basket case”…there’s the perfectly ordinary kid who’s bullied for reasons only his or her tormentors know. Maybe it’s jealousy fueled by the tormentor’s own insecurities. Whatever the case may be, the bully virus doesn’t discriminate. And today, it takes more than a stiff right hook and a cup-o-chicken-soup to cure the virus.

Today, any twit can tweet, text, or post a comment that acts like a weapon of mass social destruction for an unsuspecting kid. But for reasons never explored in “Bully”, and for reasons I’ve never understood, why do we as a society fail to embrace—or simply protect—the most isolated and vulnerable kids? How do we as parents monitor bullying when the opportunities to bully extend way beyond the few times that our kids are unsupervised at school (cafeteria, recess, school bus)? Is it as simple as reminding our children that being an “innocent” bystander to bullying is in fact part of the disease?

“Bully” doesn’t offer any answers to these questions. It only offers the testimony of brave youths and heartbroken parents who still search in vein for answers. I highly recommend that you seek out “Bully” and encourage your kids to do the same. It’s time that we encourage our kids to stop being indifferent to bullying…and to make a difference—to stand up against bullying instead of standing by.

In my lifetime, I’ve known a teen and a teacher who committed suicide. I can’t be sure that bullying was the cause. But I sensed their loneliness, I assumed they were struggling, and I failed to act. Today I live with the regret of knowing that maybe all it would have taken were a few simple words of encouragement. Not from a family member whose love is unconditional…but from peers whose respect every teen yearns to earn. Maybe all it takes is a simple nonverbal cue. A wink or a smile that says “Hang in there….I’ve been there too.”

Because, let’s be honest, haven’t we all?

To learn more about the movie “Bully” and The Bully Project, visit


The Best Western

553923_416617291729992_787666550_nFor those of you who think this is an article about my favorite family-friendly hotel chain, I’m very sorry. Since my blog readership skews more toward the Women Are from Venus end of the universe, consider yourself warned. This article will have about as much appeal to women as a tossed salad served in a dust bowl.

Today I’m writing about the best “movie” westerns of all-time. I was named after one of the best, and I was practically breast-fed on the rest. Before I could even mimic a “Come back Shane!” cry, I had a holster filled with a cap gun. Then I graduated swiftly from breast milk to Gerber and onto roast beef sandwiches from Roy Rogers. You remember the old-school, saloon-looking Roy Rogers, right? As a kid, the Roy Rogers on Rte. 10 in East Hanover felt like Wild West City to me. And in my childhood fantasy, my dad was Wyatt Earp…and I imagined he was the only reason why a gun fight never broke out around the Fixins’ bar.

Seriously, nobody ever looked cooler in a pair of “dungarees”, work boots, and a flannel than my dad. If he hadn’t smoked Winston reds, we’d have called him the Marlboro man. And if he weren’t such a cool dad, maybe I wouldn’t share in his passion for a true American original: the movie western.

Now you can argue about the real birthplace of baseball (some say it’s England, not Cooperstown). You can convince me that our current president was born in Hawaii (by way of Kenya). But you can’t tell me that there’s anything more American, more inextricably linked to the world’s vision of America, than the movie Western.

And here are my Magnificent Seven westerns [sorry, Magnificent Seven came in at #8]…

7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Home for the funeral of an old friend, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) recounts the true story of the man who killed the titular villain (Lee Marvin). When the true story is finally told, the answer defines the western genre: “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Was the true legend Jimmy Stewart’s lanky, leftist-leaning lawyer? Or was it the gritty John [right as] Wayne gunfighter? Not so much a whodunit as a character study of two polar-opposite heroes (and actors for that matter). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves that in the old west, just as in today’s western world, America is at its best when people of different beliefs join forces…even if it means crossing party lines.

6. Unforgiven
It’s fitting that Clint Eastwood got to make “the last great western” some three decades after making a fistful of dollars redefining the genre. But this ain’t your father’s man-with-no-name Eastwood. Here Eastwood has a name (William Munny), he has an anti-hero past, and he just wants to settle down with his young wife and raise crops. But as another iconic Eastwood character famously warned, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

So when a couple of cowboys cut up a prostitute, the bounty on their heads is all the convincing Munny needs to saddle up with his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and seek the justice that Sherriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) cares little to provide. Eastwood’s never been better. He wears regret on one sleeve while unleashing his gun from the other.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

Unforgiven doesn’t just “blur the lines between man and myth, heroism and villainy”…it says unapologetically that sometimes the good can also be bad and ugly.

 5. The Searchers
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, but the war still rages inside him. When “Injuns” attack and kidnap his young niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) set out on a years-long journey to find her.

After years of searching in vein, Ethan’s single-minded hatred toward the Comanche appears to change his primary motivation. Recognizing that she’s probably been tainted by the “savages”, thoughts of rescuing Debbie are replaced by thoughts of the unthinkable. This is John Wayne’s greatest performance because he’s not afraid to ride his angry anti-hero dangerously close to the edge of insanity. So close to the edge, in fact, that the climactic scene feels less like a rescue and more like an attempted kidnapping. That is, until our worst fears are relieved, and the anti-hero turns hero with four simple words: “Let’s go home Debbie.”

Don’t get me wrong, The Searchers is not an easy movie to watch. It’s also a movie experience you’ll never forget.

4. Rio Bravo
“A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?”

Add Ricky Nelson’s Elvis wannabe/Love Me Tender-less gunfighter, and that’s exactly what John Wayne’s got in this classic, often hilarious western. Yes, the story and the archetypes are all too familiar. Here the under-matched good guys face insurmountable odds in order to keep the brother of a local villain in jail. But it’s not the story, it’s the cast of characters, that makes Rio Bravo so unforgettable.

As John T Chance, John Wayne essentially plays a fun-loving parody of himself. Dean Martin’s Dude is the most loveable drunk this side of Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch [rent Hoosiers]. But it’s Walter Brennan’s Stumpy who damn near steals the movie as the cantankerous old cripple assigned to guard the prisoner.

Rio Bravo is filled with so many memorable and quotable moments. My personal favorite is the “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” sing-along. Like the “Show me the way to go home” scene in Jaws, it’s that perfect movie moment where the characters forget their differences and come together for some buddy-bonding….just before the shit hits the proverbial fan.

3. High Noon
Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just hung up his badge. Now he’s looking forward to riding off into the sunset with his impossibly gorgeous bride (Grace Kelly). As western fate would have it, he picked the wrong day to honeymoon with Grace Kelly. Kane learns that Frank Miller, a man he sent to prison years before, will return on the noon train to exact his revenge.

Against his better judgment [he’s passing up a honeymoon with Grace fu**ing Kelly], Kane decides he must defend the town he no longer calls home. Unfortunately, his door-to-door calls for help are greeted with the kind of response I give a Jehovah Witness. Even his own deputy begs for a day off, to which Kane responds: “Go on home to your kids, Herb.”

My brother will never come right out and say it, but he’s not a Gary Cooper fan. So I think he downgrades High Noon on those grounds. Others, like John Wayne, came right out and called High Noon “Un-American” in its day. I argue that “the story of a man who was too proud to run” is the story of our everyday American heroes: The brave officers and  firefighters who run into burning towers when others are running out. Or how about our military heroes who risk their lives to defend our freedom every day…so I can “go on home to my kids” every night? To me, that’s the story of High Noon.

2. Once Upon A Time In The West
To fully appreciate the artistry (and some might say larceny) of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, you must first feast on this greatest of all Spaghetti Westerns. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is still everyone’s trendy pick, but Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s time-tested masterpiece. Brilliant set designs, a score that soars, and camera views that practically stick the loaded barrel between your eyes.

Steely-blue eyes have never been meaner than Henry Fonda’s. Harmonica-playing heroes have never been cooler than Charles Bronson. And bombshells have never been, well, bombier than Claudia Cardinale.

The film also features the greatest climactic draw in film history. When Frank (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) square off, their history is finally revealed to us. And when the harmonica is placed in the mouth of a mortally-wounded Frank…this same history becomes his final, horrifying recollection on Earth. I guess Frank was right: “People scare better when they’re dying.”

1. Shane
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t watch the movie I was named after until I was in high school. My defense: Shane is one of those movies that’s famous even among people who haven’t see it. In other words, I wish I had a fistful of dollars for every time some jack-wagon hit me with the much-parodied “Come back Shane!” line. For the record, it’s “Shane! Come back!”

When I finally overcame “Come back Shane” fatigue, I learned that my namesake was more than just a one-line-wonder. It’s a wonderful movie about a weary gunfighter (Alan Ladd) who attempts to hang up his guns and settle down. Shane quickly wins the admiration and employment of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a humble, hardworking homesteader whose embroiled in a fight for his land.

Shane also wins the hero-worship of young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) and the quietly obvious affections of Joe’s wife, Marion (Jean Arthur). The plot inevitably forces Shane into a fateful climax against Wilson (Jack Palance), a hired gun who looks like a Muggle-born version of Lord Voldemort. Wilson’s serpent-like features and menacing expressions make him the personification of pure evil. It’s up to Shane to confront Wilson and “clear out all the guns from the valley.”

As for the “Shane! Come back” finale…some contend that a wounded Shane rides off into those majestic mountains to die as he wanted to live…in peace. Others have suggested that Shane’s respect for Joe Starrett makes him retreat before the inevitable love triangle reared its ugly head. I think the answer is much simpler, and we can draw our conclusion from Shane’s own words: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back.”

As for Joey’s final cry out to Shane, I believe it represents the idea that a boy’s childhood heroes are fleeting. Inevitably, at some point, most boys go back to respecting the values of their first hero. “It’s a brand…a brand sticks.” And for the lucky sons like me and Brett and Joey, our favorite brand of hero is our father.

[Note to Dad: I’m proud to be named after Shane…even though I’m less gunfighter and more gunpowder puff].

[Note to Brett: How can you have a DieHard-on for a certain “Yippee-Ki-Yay motherfu**er” cop…and not love Gary Cooper’s Will Kane?]

Still Wild About Wilder’s Willy Wonka


RIP Mr. Wilder!

Blog post from March 2, 2012

When my friend Molly posted this photo of my first movie hero last week, I felt like I had just chugged a Fizzy Lifting Drink. I was sky-high and belching my way to Cloud 9.

Then I read her caption: “My most serious crush, even more than David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman.” Huh? Willy Wonka as sex symbol? When I try to describe Wilder’s on-screen appearance as Wonka, I sound an awful lot like Grandpa Howard from Sixteen Candles. You know, when he’s inquiring about the whereabouts of Long Duck Dong.

“What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see, he was wearing a [brown top hat, purple jacket, tan bow tie, and pink shirt]. Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded.”


A couple of days after Molly’s post, my brother left me the following message: “Shane, I just watched Willy Wonka again. It’s still the greatest. You’ve gotta write a blog about it.” Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded either. Brett’s a fanboy who—like me—calls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the greatest children’s movie of all-time. [Sorry Dorothy, flying monkeys creep the crap out of me].

As a little boy curled up in my beanbag chair, I remember being so captivated by the colors of Wonka World…so intoxicated by the imagined smell of the chocolate river…and so scared shitless by that riverboat tunnel ride. “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going/There’s no knowing where we’re rowing/Or which way the river’s flowing.” This same verse can be used to describe the genius of Gene Wilder’s Wonka. It is, quite simply, my favorite cinematic invention of all-time.


In his biography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Gene Wilder writes that he was hesitant to play Willy Wonka at first. In fact, he would only accept the role on these terms:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself…but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When asked why, Wilder replied:
“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And from that time on, Gene Wilder gives a chocolate factory tour-de-force performance as Willy Wonka. He’s compulsively manic, eccentric, distrustful, and quite possibly diabolical. “And almost everything you’ll see is eatable, edible. I mean, you can eat almost everything.”

I firmly believe that Gene Wilder built his performance on a simple fact. Kids are smarter than we—and Disney—give them credit for. They don’t miss a trick. The brilliance of Wilder’s slight-of-hand performance is that he’s still tricking kids some 40 years later. The trick? Kids don’t even realize they’re being fed a three-course morality meal. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is chock-full of hard lessons in gluttony, vanity, greed, bad parenting, and “gum-chewing’s fine every once in a while.”

But Wonka’s lessons never taste preachy because Wilder never lets kids get comfortable. He dismisses “bad eggs” the same way he dispenses whimsy…with little effort or concern. “It happens every time. They all become blueberries.”


As a kid, I was scared to death! They’re “gonna squeeze her like a little pimple”? Won’t she explode? Will Charlie be next? Sorry kids, no Disney shortcuts here. Your happy ending is going to be earned.

“The suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last.

The suspense lasts until the final scene. Just when you think there’s nothing left of the weary Wonka, his frustration over not finding a worthy heir boils over into a fit of rage: “You get nothing!!! You lose!!! Good day sir!!!” Then with the simple drop of an everlasting gobstopper, all that vein-popping, spit-spewing, hair-straggling rage settles into a genuine smile. That same smile, I presume, that Molly’s been crushing on all these years.

Yes, Charlie ultimately gains Wonka’s trust. And Wilder finally lets us trust Wonka….while planting a gobstopper-size lump in our throats. No more tricks. Just the treat of watching Wilder’s Wonka tell “an honest, loving child” that he’ll live happily ever after.

There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.

Willy Wonka and the Chocoloate Factory is that rare family film that hits all the magical movie marks: Delightful and funny, exciting and scary, silly and smart. And Wonka’s all these things because of Gene Wilder’s genuine work of pure imagination.

As for Molly, I have but one question: Like the gobstopper, is your Wilder crush everlasting?


Oscar Sunday: A Family Affair

553923_416617291729992_787666550_nHappy Oscar Eve!

When I was growing up, my family treated the Academy Awards like a national holiday. Not quite Christmas, but a touchdown ahead of Super Bowl Sunday. Yep, that big! We’re talking Oscar-Eve excitement on the level of “can we open one present on Christmas Eve….pleeeeease???”

Back in those days, the whole Oscar season felt different too. Less business, more show. You still had all the pre-show pomp and circumstance, but there was far less public campaigning and Weinstein-ing. There were no Vegas odds or Entertainment Weekly prognostications. And you couldn’t care less about Oscar’s ugly little sister’s Golden Globes because they were on cable. The only hype I recall was self-induced. More like panic, it was the startling realization that you’d never see all the nominated movies in time for Oscar night. But I’d catch most of them, pick my favorites, and then tune in/doze off…and dad would wake me up for the big surprise!

Ordinary People over Raging [fu**ing] Bull???” That was my reaction to 1980’s surprise. I was 8-years old.

My love affair with Oscar and all-things movies was passed down by my father. The proof is typed on the birth certificates of his two sons. My brother’s the “Brett Maverick” cowboy and I’m the “come back Shane” gunslinger. HA! “Gunslinger? You look like Chandler Bing and your review of The Vow read like a coming-out party?” True, but here’s my defense…

If you’re ever in my father’s basement “theater”, check out the permanent ass-print in his reclining movie chair. He simply loves watching movies. He prefers classic westerns, but he’ll gladly take classless comedies, hokey horror, the Van-Damme worst action movies ever made, and any rom-com with an “I want the fairy tale” ending. He’ll acknowledge The Godfather is the greatest film of all-time…then he’ll recite Roadhouse verbatim. Yes, even the “I f**ked guys like you in prison” line.

But ass-prints and crap movies aside, dad still knows Oscar-worthy from Oscar-wannabe…and he lives for Oscar Sunday.

Today, my brother and I no longer watch the Oscars alongside dad and his movie chair. But our connection to dad and Oscar night remains stronger than ever. Brett’s an actor himself, and his SAG membership privileges (“For Your Consideration” DVDs) help to lessen my pre-Oscar panic. And we make sure dad gets out to see some of the Oscar front-runners on the big screen as well. Like in 2006, when we finally convinced him to go see Brokeback Mountain with us. Then we had to convince him to sit anywhere near us. “Are you nuts? People are gonna think I’m with a couple of……….”

WTF??? Crash over Brokeback Mountain???” That was my reaction to 2006′s surprise. And I’m straight.

So this year, we’ve seen all the movies we needed to see….except for the one movie we couldn’t hear. We have our personal favorites (mine is Moneyball). The only thing we don’t have is hope for a big Oscar surprise. Seriously, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict The Artist, Clooney, Davis, Plummer, Spencer, and the French director. But I’m not complaining. I already got my crystal surprise.

“Holy shit! Billy Crystal is back as Oscar host!!!” That was my reaction to 2012′s surprise. Because I remember the last 8 times he hosted….and I remember last year’s hosts.

Last year, the beautiful and talented Anne Hathaway proved she had the smarts and personality to host an awards show. That awards show airs on Nickelodeon. Unfair? Okay, I know she was game, but her “aww-shucks, I’m not worthy” giddiness made me grit my teeth right back at her Mr. Ed chompers. Mean?

No, I’ll save mean for her comatose co-host James Franco. He tried to channel Jack Nicholson’s “too-cool-for-the-room” vibe, but he came off like a wannabe Jeff Spicoli. Here’s a thought: Maybe Franco survived 127 Hours between two rocks and played the perfect stoner in Pineapple Express because he has the personality of a fu**ing stone.


What I’m trying to say is Oscar Sunday belongs to Billy Crystal. Word of his return had me reminiscing about Oscars of old. Like the one-armed push-ups that inspired the “Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign” quip. Or the Hannibal Lecter “I’m having some members of the Academy for dinner” opening. It’s not just Crystal’s surprise openings and quick-wit, though, it’s his class (not crass, Mr. Gervais). Crystal has a healthy respect for the show, the room, and “that big terrible number that usually opens the Oscars.” Those are his words from 1990, and he’s turned that “big terrible number” into the number-one thing that we’re all guessing about this Oscar Eve. Will he go for the potentially hilarious silent-movie montage in honor of The Artist? Or better yet, will he drag Meg Ryan out of retirement (and her latest collagen treatment) to re-enact her “I’ll have what she’s having” deli orgasm scene…silently? A man can only dream.

Whatever Billy does, I’m sure it’ll surprise us, entertain us, and make it Crystal-clear to all of us why there’s a permanent ass-print in my dad’s movie chair. We simply love the movies.

Note to Brett:

When you get your first Oscar nom…be sure to score some Oscar tix for your cowboy brother and your Roadhouse-lovin’ dad. And make sure you call ahead. I heard The Kodak Theater has a strict policy against dad’s bringing their own movie chairs.