Early in an actor's career, he or she may make brief appearances in films as part of building a reputation within the industry. After they are already established they may make brief appearances for the enjoyment of working with old friends or to fill their schedules during hiatuses between television shooting seasons. Robert Picardo has a long list of such credits, playing a wide assortment of smaller film and television roles. In this column we explore these roles allowing you, our readers, an opportunity to enjoy the Brief Appearances that he has made.
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For those of us who loved Bob's performance as the tacky, egotistical "Cowboy" in the film Innerspace, there is another film in which he plays an even more disreputable character: Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). Amazon Women on the Moon is a sketch comedy considered by some to be sort of a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). The films share the producer, Robert K. Weiss, and one of the directors, John Landis. Both these films, like the earlier Groove Tube (1974), present a series of skits lampooning those things that we love to hate about television and the current social setting it represents. Amazon Women has skits lampooning such topics as jerks on blind dates, know-it-all movie reviewers, blacks without soul, fifties sci-fi flicks, late night TV commercials, and video pirates. Some of the sketches recur intermittently through the movie, as running gags, like the man in his underwear who gets sucked into his television by his remote control and can't find his way back out as his wife changes the channels and puts him into different shows. The movie gets its name from a running parody of Cat Women of the Moon (1954) that punctuates the film with bad special effects, projector equipment problems and a dopey script.
The film was completed in 1986, but went unreleased for a year. It's not clear why the film went so long between production and release. However, Bob believes that it may be related to the fact that it was made during the time that the director, John Landis, was on trial for manslaughter in the deaths on the set of the film Twilight Zone - The Movie (1983). It seems to be considered a minor cult classic in many reviews and personal movie lists on the web, held in the same esteem as its predecessor, Kentucky Fried Movie, and other broad spoofs like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) and Airplane (1979). One reviewer thought it was like "Saturday Night Live" when it was good. On the other hand, many reviewers considered it crass and largely unfunny, with some pieces being considered only slightly funnier than others.
Bob's role in this film paired him once again with director Joe Dante. In a sequence of two sketches, Bob played the sleaziest salesman imaginable, selling a celebrity roast to a widow as an alternative to a funeral before her husband's body is even cold. Bob's major scene is shown in the television-length version film, as broadcast on TNT in December 1997, as it was added to lengthen the film to a 2-hour time-slot. However, in the theatrical and home video releases, that scene is omitted, leaving only minor disconnected shots of Bob laughing in the wings at the funeral home. Two other sketches, including another directed by Joe Dante and starring Bob's long-time friend Dick Miller, were excluded in the theatrical version but are included in the television version as well. Bob explains that those scenes were "cut out because, I believe in John Landis's words - at least as they were relayed to me by Joe Dante - it wasn't the part of the movie with the famous guys in it."
The first sketch, titled "Critics' Corner" begins with Harvey Pitnik (played by Archie Hahn), a kind of every-man in a tie, arriving home from work. When his wife (Belinda Belaski) comes to greet him he pauses just before they're about to kiss to wipe a piece of mashed potato off of her cheek. Then he announces he's going to watch TV until dinner is ready and plops down in his recliner. The program he gets on the TV is a film criticism show, "Critics' Corner," with two critics finishing up their reviews of the films "Winter of My Despondency" and "Frat Slobs." In a typical Joe Dante insiders' joke, the critics are played by two famous Los Angeles radio DJ's and 70's TV variety show hosts, Al Lohman and Roger Barkley. Next they announce that they're going to do a new type of segment called "Real-life Reviews," where they critique the life of some person - in this case Harvey Pitnik. Harvey is just about to turn the channel when he notices that they're talking about him and he calls his wife over to watch with him. He watches in shock and disbelief as they play a scene from his life a year ago that seems a carbon copy of the one we’ve just witnessed (including the mashed potato). The critics pan Harvey's life as being boring and a waste, and continue that they don't care about the character, his loveless marriage or his pointless existence. They go on to say that even his death was meaningless and predictable given his poor living habits. At this Harvey stands, becoming increasingly disturbed, and starts complaining at the TV that he's not dead yet. He gets so agitated that he has a heart attack, keels over and dies.
The story transitions to the next scene, which begins the second sketch "Roast Your Loved One." The scene starts with the paramedics preparing to remove Harvey's body, and Rick Raddnitz (our Robert Picardo) enters. The paramedics try to shoo him away but he waves a bill in front of them and says that he needs to talk to the widow for just a minute. When the paramedics agree and reach for the bill, he pulls it back quickly and says, "I'll take care of you later." Mrs. Pitnick asks if he's from the funeral home and he replies no, but that he works closely with them. Then he launches into his sales pitch for having a black-tie celebrity roast instead of a funeral. As he talks he rummages through the bar, pours two glasses of whisky, hands one to Mrs. Pitnick, clinks their glasses together in a toast and downs his drink in a single gulp. Clearly distraught, she says, "My husband just died and you're talking to me about comedy?" and he replies "No need to thank me!" then takes her glass and downs it in a single gulp. In fits of crying she fumbles saying his name, and he testily retorts, "Raddnitz. Double-d, -nitz; read the card, please!" then snatches back the business card he gave her earlier and stuffs it back into his pocket. "And remember our motto, 'fun' is the first syllable in 'funeral!'" He snatches Harvey's coat that Mrs. Pitnick had been clutching and begins rummaging through the pockets, finds the wallet and starts through that. Pulling out the bills, he hands them to Mrs. Pitnick saying, "Here, take care of the paramedics for me, will you please?" then starts probing her with a rapid succession of questions for personal details about Harvey. "Tell me, did he hit the bottle? Chase the broads? How was your sex life? Huh? Once a week? Once a month? C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. We need a hook, a hook. Something we can hang some zingers on!" She sobs hysterically so he wraps his arms around her and consoles her disingenuously. Finally, at the conclusion of his spiel, he looks skyward and says, "Roast your loved one. It's beautiful, isn't it? Do you want another drink?" Bob proudly described his work on this scene; "As usual with Joe's films, I got to make up a lot of my lines and a lot of my jokes. This is true particularly in the scene in the television version where I'm kind of rifling the body for ideas on how to make fun of him. Pulling out the driver's license and taking money out of his wallet. All of that was my embellishment."
The scene cuts away to the funeral home and Mrs. Pitnick with her two children entering. Raddnitz rushes over to tell her that they have to hurry up and start the proceedings because they "need the room again at four." After she is seated in the front row, Bob announces the start, "Ladies and gentleman, this is a wake. So, let's have fun with it, eh? C'mon, everybody have a great time!" Then the curtain opens, roving spotlights play on the dais and they begin the celebrity roast with Steve Allen, Henny Youngman, Rip Taylor and other past-their-prime stand-up comics. Each of the comedians takes their turn shooting barbs at Harvey, who lies in repose in front of the dais, while we occasionally glimpse Raddnitz in the wings laughing at the jokes and checking his watch. As the proceedings near their close, Raddnitz rushes back to Mrs. Pitnick to tell her that she's on next, to do Harvey's rebuttal. She initially complains, but eventually agrees and is lead onto the stage. After a rough beginning, she gets into the swing of the roast, skewering both Harvey and the celebrities like a pro and getting big laughs from the audience. The sketch finishes with an exterior shot of the funeral home showing its marquee where the announcement says that the funeral has been held over for additional performances.
For Bob, one of the best aspects of this film was working with the famous comedians. Bob's prize possession from the film is a Polaroid of him standing next to Henny Youngman, shaking his hand. The production of Star Trek Voyager inherits a legacy from this connection. To Bob, the funniest line in the movie is after Henny Youngman stands up and says some of his old famous one-liners, then Steve Allen says, "Thank you, Henny, for that trip down memory lane." Bob began using that line on Ethan Phillips ("Neelix") whenever he tells a particularly old joke on the set of "Star Trek." Eventually Ethan started using the same line in return. Now when either of them catches the other telling a joke that he thinks is particularly overused, they'll barb each other with the line.
This sketch, like the rest of the film, has received mixed reviews. The Cinephobia review on the World Wide Web says that Dante "churns out the film's most unbearable sequence as a woman takes part in a comedy funeral." Yet Roger Ebert, in his Microsoft Cinemania review said, "I also liked the new angle that Joe Dante found for satirizing the TV movie criticism shows. The usual approach is to show the battling critics rolling around on the floor choking each other; Dante's episode has them teaming up to mercilessly criticize the miserable life of one of their viewers, who dies in front of the set and, in a subsequent scene, is buried at a celebrity roast with Henny Youngman, Rip Taylor, and Charlie Callas telling jokes over his bier." Bob, himself, has mixed feelings about the film, in part due to the circumstances under which it was filmed. He said, "My memory is that it was made when the [John Landis Twilight Zone] trial was about to happen, or perhaps shortly after the trial. I always wondered if it was sort of like a rent party, you know, to cover his legal expenses." Beyond that he said that, "It's a wonderful setup for a joke - that you would have a celebrity roast for a dead relative who's not even in show business. The basic joke is that there got to be so many roasts that were on television for a period of time that it seemed like everybody was getting roasted. If they took that concept one step further, then they would roast your mailman." But he also conceded, "I think it's an amusing conceit that goes on a little too long."
But whatever reviewers may think of the film or the sketch, Bob's performance is riveting, as he oozes nonchalant disregard for the widow Pitnick, tosses off insincere condolences, gulps her liquor without pausing for breath in his sales pitch, and paws through Harvey's effects. As Bob said, "I would say that 'unredeemably slimy' was my goal... In the context of material like that a moment of true human feeling would be wildly out of place!" You might not watch this movie for its contribution to cinematic literature, but if you're a real fan, you'll want to see Bob creating one of the more detestable characters imaginable—sign of a truly outstanding performance.
© 1998 by Chris Powell. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.