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Type A To Z

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Features reporter Jeff Wilkin on pop culture
 

Saints and Sinners

By Jeff Wilkin
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
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Long before video cassettes and DVDs, I had to rely on the charity of television station programers for old shows.

During the 1980s, the old classics were usually on late at night, after the news. That’s how I caught up with my old friend, Simon Templar — “The Saint.” The old British series was in production from 1962 through 1969.

That’s “the famous Simon Templar,” the sort-of-suave, sort-of-capable, sort-of-humorous amateur detective and trouble-shooter played by Roger Moore — a decade before Roger scored a major payday with James Bond in 1973.

When the “Saint” wasn’t wearing his bright white halo — in every show’s introduction, Roger got the nifty little special effect — he was pouring a drink. It seemed to happen four or five times every show. If Simon wasn’t mixing it up with some thugs, he was mixing up a gin and tonic, whiskey on the rocks and probably a gimlet or two. Maybe a Rob-Roy, just for fun.

Don’t remember Simon smoking that much on TV. I’m going to get to that in a second.

Back to drinking. I know college kids have played drinking games with television shows before. Like “Hi Bob,” in which participants had to sip or chug a beer every time a character showed up in the 1970s’ celebrated “Bob Newhart Show” and said, “Hi Bob.” Happened all the time. Drinking with “The Saint” would have been far more intense. I’m sure I would have been under the table after 20 minutes — I’ve never appreciated the hard stuff.

In reality, I know screenwriters were just writing these scenes to give Simon some moves when he was hanging out with a beautiful woman or a dopey police inspector. I kind of think people who write “Mad Men,” the hit series on AMC, are doing the same thing.

I’m just starting the show, which completed its fifth season last June. I just can’t pick up a show in the middle, I have to start at the beginning. And I just snared the complete first season at my favorite video rental joint, the Guilderland Public Library.

For people who don’t know the set-up, “Mad Men” follows men and women who work at a hotshot New York City advertising firm during the early 1960s. It’s a period piece, and looks great. The guys wear skinny striped ties, short raincoats, fedoras and Brylcreem. The women wear billowing dresses, perky hairstyles, push-up brassieres and lots of lipstick.

Everyone smokes ... and they smoke like fiends.

Seems like someone lights up every five minutes. Jon Hamm, who plays main ad man Don Draper, just inhales the things. It’s like he’s going to a firing squad — he smokes every Lucky Strike like it’s going to be his last. Old Don really drags on these smokes — the lighted end glows orange for two or three seconds, and he just sucks in the smoke. Sometimes, he exhales twin streams of wispy blue out his nostrils. Other times, he blows smoke rings from his mouth. Great tricks to impress wife and girlfriends.

A big part of the show’s appeal is the era. Smoking was just starting to become a health concern during the early ‘60s; drunken driving was something nobody worried about; and women were treated just lousy at home and at work. These things have all changed, and for the better. It’s just so strange to see times before enlightenment kicked in. We never saw Ward Cleaver with a martini glass or Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best” with a two-pack-a-day habit. Seems television families during the 1960s only had to worry about cold meat loaf for dinner or one of the kids getting stuck inside a giant soup cup on a billboard.

I was only 5 years old in 1960, but remember the habits of the day. Mom regularly lit Kents, and Dad often had Half & Half tobacco burning in his pipe. As we kids got older, we kind of complained about the smoke, especially the cigarette fumes. We had scented candles, air purifiers and smoke-sucking ash trays — the latter never worked all that well — all over the place.

There’s so much smoking going on in “Mad Men,” I almost feel like lighting a cigarette smoke-scented candle for atmosphere. And these people must be great actors, because it looks like they really enjoy clinking their metal lighters and firing up, puffing and grinding out butts in ash trays. My old high school friend from Rochester, Tom “Weeds” Wedow, has been smoking for more than 40 years. These “Mad” smokers make Weeds look like an amateur, like he’s still 17, on the back porch sneaking in a Winston or two.

I’ll never smoke. Never have. But I can see why people bought the whole gag during advertising glory days of the 1950s and into the ‘60s. These folks looked cool, tough, sexy and sophisticated as they cut into Chesterfields and Viceroys. Although I’ve heard Hamm smokes herbal cigarettes on the set, and doesn’t like them.

For health reasons, they’ve got to be better than the real thing. Still, I’m betting the American Cancer Association and doctors everywhere just hate the positive spin smoking gets in every “Mad Men” episode. This, during a time when grim anti-smoking ads — showing people physically ruined by cigarettes — are on TV more and more.

Who listens to reason anyway? I’ll make another bet — somewhere, someplace, college kids are playing a game during “Mad Men.”

Bet you can guess what it is.

 
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