C3P0: The Droid You’re Looking For

Next week sees the release of the final installment of George Lucas’ space opera sextet, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” And C- 3PO, ever the nebbish, returns to fret, kvetch and backseat-drive the story to galaxies far, far away.

Actor Anthony Daniels, unmasked, is surprisingly spry and bright-eyed — certainly far more animated than the staid expression of his C-3P0 mask. An Englishman, Daniels has a natural penchant for understatement and drollery, which he demonstrates when a reporter confesses to a Napa-induced hangover acquired before arriving at Daniel’s suite at the Marigold Spa and Beach in Santa Monica.

“I do get hangovers. A lot. And it’s not always to do with the amount. Sometimes it is. A lot of stuff gets put into wine that we don’t necessarily know about,” Daniels commiserates, then adds ruefully, “I don’t drink things like brandy anymore. It’s definitely a young person’s occupation.”

Daniels, 59, splits his time between London and a home 40 minutes from Avignon, near the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area of France’s southern Rhone Valley vineyard region. He was in Los Angeles shooting segments as C-3PO for a Discovery Channel program about tech innovations explored in the “Star Wars” movies. Such is the half-life of the golden droid. Likewise, Daniels has been the only actor to portray C-3PO, whereas five performers, including James Earl Jones, have gone into the character resulting in Darth Vader.

Given the success of the “Star Wars” franchise, it is ironic that Daniels initially bristled at playing C-3PO.

“I didn’t even want the interview. I refused to meet George, and my agent made me go. I didn’t want to be in a sci-fi movie, I didn’t want to play a robot,” says Daniels, smiling at the memory of it. Daniels didn’t warm to the notion of playing the droid until he had a near-mystical experience with the character’s concept art.

In the painting, a proto-C-3PO, bearing a resemblance to the android agent provocateur of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis, ” looks out from the desert terrain of Tattoine with a pitiful look on his face.

“It was solely that painting — he looked out at me very forlorn. It was weird. I’m very fond of Threepio,” says Daniels. “Threepio was always somewhere just waiting to arrive through me. He even surprises me sometimes. Yes, I make myself laugh, which is a bit sad, really.”

Much has changed in filmmaking in the 16 years between the last of the old trilogy (“Return of the Jedi”) and the first of the new (“The Phantom Menace”). Thanks to advances in digital effects, R2-D2 no longer requires the presence of Kenny Baker, the diminutive actor inside the pint-size robot for the first trilogy. Consequently, Daniels is essentially working on his own during his scenes with his comic counterpart.

“I say something, pause, then say my next line. It was a very lonely experience. To do a double act on your own is tough.” But then life has been something of double act for Daniels ever since “Star Wars” broke box office records in the summer of 1977. Die-hard fans frequently recognize him, even without his costume, and entreat him to perform the droid’s signature voice. Graciously, Daniels becomes C-3PO on the spot.

“I’ll have people come up and ask, ‘Can you do the voice for my kid?’ And I’ll ask the kid, ‘What’s Threepio sound like? Does he sound like this? Hello, I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations, and this is my counterpart R2-D2.’ And you see their face — and that is magic, really lovely,” he says beaming.

The transformation is indeed beguiling, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the known universe bringing the character to life. Lucas, however, did have others in mind when casting the voice of the character.

“I was the last choice, which is better than no choice,” says Daniels, whose competition at one time included Richard Dreyfuss, the lead in Lucas’ “American Graffiti.” In the minds of “Star Wars” fans, of course, Daniels’ twee English butler, coupled with seven milliseconds of delay, is unmistakably, irreplaceably C-3PO. “If you had received another image at the beginning, you would now say, ‘What do you mean your voice? You couldn’t have used your voice, it’s much better with an Inuit accent’ or whatever. You’re already conditioned,” says Daniels, who reshaped the character from Lucas’ original conception of C-3PO as a kind of fast-talking android used-car salesman.

Daniels’ interpretation of C-3PO, however, recalls the twittering maiden aunts of E.M. Forster novels, always in a hullabaloo about the condition of the heroine’s virtue and mortal fears about everything under the sun.

“The craven aspect, I suspect, is actually a kind of childlike honesty. He doesn’t bull. If he’s afraid, if he doesn’t like something, he says, ‘I’m afraid I don’t like this,’ ” says Daniels, tipping slightly into the iconic voice.

With the release of “Revenge of the Sith,” Daniels’ schedule is brimming with appearances and speaking engagements that he attends either as himself or as his android doppelganger, as when he was recently inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University. Outside the “Star Wars” universe, Daniels plans to content himself with remodeling and landscaping projects at home in France, where he lives with his girlfriend.

“It’s lovely. We have a huge garden — we have a gym in the house, but I never use it because the garden is partly on a hill — pushing a half- barrel of earth is great for the thighs,” he says, laughing.

“For an evening stroll we walk through the vineyards. It’s lovely,” he says, adding with relish that he often picks grapes right off the vine. “Of course, they taste like blaaa. I’m just amazed at the skill of a vintner who can work out that that rather foul-tasting thing is going to end up as something rather delicious.”

The same might be said of Lucas’ new trilogy. The first two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” were critically panned, and those old enough to have seen the original movies in the theaters — fans who had collected all the merchandise and had waited with bated breath for new episodes to be announced — turned on Lucas as if he had done something inappropriate to their inner child.

However, the latest and last installment ends with the advent of everyone’s favorite villain, Darth Vader, and promises, in many ways, to redeem Lucas’ recent foibles.

Daniels, of course, is tight-lipped about the inner workings of the franchise but lets it slip that he’s a fan of the final movie.

“How clever, how thoughtful, how sensitive, how tear-making. And guess who has the last line in the movie?” he teases. “Well, I have the first line in the next one,” he says, referring back to where it all started. “That may be a secret. I don’t know.”

It is no secret, however, that resistance to the final “Star Wars” installment is futile. Besides the delicious schadenfreude of watching pretty- boy Anakin devolve into the leather-clad lord of the dark side, there’s a rumor that a befuddled C-3PO serves drinks in this film, which is somehow a recommendation in and of itself. Regardless, millions will line up around multiplex blocks, eager to see the thing through to the end and perhaps heal the psychic wounds inflicted by the previous two films.

While in line, Daniels suggests, bring Champagne to ease the wait. “But it would be quite fun with sake as well,” he says dryly. When asked what to pair the film itself with, Daniels sees red.

“I think it would be a rather heavy Merlot or Syrah — though maybe Syrah would be too rounded. It’s got very spiky moments, so maybe something with a bit more tannin — a rather tannic red, I think. Slightly uncomfortable, this film, rather dark. Yes, so I think a rather heavy, tannic red. Mmm,” Daniels says sagely, then reconsiders his answer. “But then a rather delicious Champagne to begin or a Chardonnay would be nice. But isn’t it sad everybody got sick of Chardonnay around the same time? Unless it’s the Champagne, which is a fine way to drink the Chardonnay grape, I think. I would start with a little Champagne, then about halfway through, hit the red in a major way and leave it there.”

Daniels reflects for a minute, his eyes drifting out past the hotel’s courtyard to a slim vista of beachhead. For a moment, his thoughts return to the final “Star Wars” film, the story of which seamlessly dovetails into the first film. As Darth Vader might say, “The circle is now complete.”

“I saw the end the other day,” says Daniels, a wistful note coming into his voice. “There was something about the completeness of dubbing with George, then watching (composer) John Williams put some of the music on at Abbey Road . .. The ending just made me cry. It was not because it was the end of it all for me, it’s just so redolent of the good feeling that was in the original movie. I think you will get quite a strange feeling yourself. I certainly did. The good thing is, it does complete it. You will feel satisfied.”

Daniels lets the thought trail, sighs, then composes himself: “When you’re crying at the end, what would you drink when you’re in tears? A cup of tea, I suppose. Yes, hot sweet tea at the end to cheer yourself up.

“The Champagne would help you also.”

Joe Pantoliano: Pantsed

Joey Pants“At some of these festivals, you have ski poles in your hand. Here, you’re trying to turn on your tape recorder and you have to move your wine glass,” actor Joe Pantoliano observed while I juggled a glass of pinot noir and my Vox Box Echo-Plex Mini. We were at a private reception for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival at the Ledson Hotel two weeks ago. I was half-crocked, he was all business, there to press the flesh with journos (myself and drinking pals David “Temp” Templeton of the North Bay Bohemian, WineX’s Christopher Sawyer and KWMR’s Raul Gallyot included) and sprinkle some stardust over the pay-to-play patrons all but losing their heads over the man who played The Soprano’s Ralph Cifaretto.

Those of my generation, of course, first became acquainted with Pantoliano, or Joey Pants as he is sometimes called, in Risky Business in which he played a pimp putting the screws to an adolescent Tom Cruise. Here he was pimping a film festival.

“I love the branching out of all these little festivals. It’s at the point now that if I accepted every invitation, I’d be at a festival every weekend,” said Pantoliano. “But this one in particular, I think they’re really onto something and it’s not compromised by big corporate America taking advantage of it.”

I balked — Big Corporate America taking advantage of an independent film festival? Pantoliano kindly illuminated.

“I used to go to the Sundance Film Festival for the same reasons I come to this one, because it was something I loved to do. I love to ski, co-mingle with my friends, go to dinner. But then it became this big thing, which hasn’t enabled me to do the kinds of things I used to love to do,” explained Pantoliano.

Ah, Sundance, I’d been to Sundance, or at least Park City, UT, where the mother of all indie film fests is said to annually eat its young (though my experience was limited to scaling the sides of lodges with my cronies to get into parties to which we weren’t invited). Pantoliano did not realize that I knew he and Sundance had recently, in a way, served the same corporate master.

Volkswagen.

Not only was the auto manufacturer a third year presenting sponsor at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival but it also produced a six minute short film starring Pantoliano that premiered there.

The Check Up, starring Pantoliano and Kevin Connolly (from HBO’s Entourage) hawked VW’s new Jetta model and was later inserted into more than two million copies of the April 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly (incidentally, the day before I spoke to Pantoliano).

According to Adweek’s Karl Greenberg, “the film features a young man confronted by an agent from the Federal Commission on Adulthood [Pantoliano], who, like a parole officer, is checking in to assure he’s heading in the ‘correct’ (most mundane) direction. The character played by Connolly shows the officer a picture of the boring car he wants to buy, satisfying the agent the he doesn’t intend to get another Jetta. (He’s lying; there are shots of the new Jetta on his computer.)”

Says Heidi Korte, promotions leader at Volkswagen of America, Inc., “VW has always celebrated the spirit of the individual and we have a history of supporting emerging filmmakers, artists and musicians. The Festival is a fantastic opportunity to recognize the best in independent film.”

But does a six-minute VW commercial really evoke the spirit of independent filmmaking?

Apparently yes, says Sundance grandsire Robert Redford. The former Sundance Kid and more than 80 other “A-list” celebrities including Jenny McCarthy (what?) signed the hood of a Jetta that was later auctioned on Ebay to benefit the Sundance Institute.

Worthy way to unload a vandalized car, I suppose. But more to the point, how do I or even you get in on some of that corporate sponsorship? I remember that dullard’s turn of phrase, the first foolhardy rationalization of my inner whore gently prodding me toward the darkside: “It’s not selling out, they’re buying in.” Turns out it’s just selling out and, frankly, it’s like a goddamn fire sale over here.

Must we always patronize the patrons? Is it possible to bite the hand that feeds us while kissing the ring on the other hand? Yes, though you’ve got to use the same skill required to talk out of both sides of your mouth at the same time. I sure know I can. Hell, I can even talk out of my ass and get a three-part harmony going. That’s where the grit in integrity comes from, son. And when you can afford it, you can always buy some back ’cause it’s always on the market.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Sundance Channel already has a piece of my soul. I’ve left the sour grapes to the vintners.

“I have local friends that live here, I go see them. We have a ritual,” Pantoliano continued, listing some of the many reasons he’s drawn to the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. “I bring some really good wine, I buy some really good wine, and I GET some really good wine.”

I straightened my press pass — my license to swill the complimentary wine the actor and I were both enjoying.

In vino veritas, Mr. Pants.

Caught in the flash bulbs.Here is a picture of Pantoliano with million-heiress independent filmmaker Alexandra Kerry at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Play it again, Sam (Elliot)

Sam Elliott

“Off the Map” directed by Campbell Scott (Big Night), is a tender portrait of a quirky mid-70s New Mexico family living off-the-fat-of-the-land as well as off-the-grid in the dusty Taos desert. Joan Allen plays the sun-kissed matriarch whose notion of personal freedom includes gardening in the nude. Meanwhile, scrappy pre-teen daughter Bo (fresh-faced newcomer Valentina de Angelis) entertains herself by perpetrating low-end mail fraud schemes, while her father (played by Sam Elliott in one of his most touching roles to date) weeps his way through a clinical depression in the hopes of finding catharsis before drowning in tears.

A languid and lyrical film, I lucked into a screening of “Off the Map” at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and later had a chat with Elliott, who was on hand to meet the press. After the usual bull (“Love the ‘stash, bro,” etc.) we settled into a discussion about the differences between promoting an independent film versus a studio picture.

“It’s all about marketing with the big studios, ‘How can you make them believe there’s something there that isn’t?'” Elliott said frankly.

I replied with something to the effect of “Come now, Mr. Elliott, you don’t mean to say the studio marketing machine would misrepresent their product with flashy ad campaigns, do you?”

Elliott gave me his trademark thousand-mile stare, then (as the Cohen Brothers put it in their script for “The Big Lebowski” — prior to even casting Elliott, mind you) came “a deep, affable, Western-accented voice — Sam Elliot’s, perhaps.”

This is what he said:

“I’ll give you an example of that. Years ago — it wasn’t a big studio movie, but it got a big studio release — a movie called Lifeguard in 1974. It was one of my very first films. It was a coming-of-age kind of a thing, a guy who’s 30 years old who had been a lifeguard for 15 years, everybody in his circle, his friends and family are telling him it’s time to fucking grow up and get off the beach and he just wanted to be true to himself. He thought there was value in being a lifeguard, being like a civil servant, it was what he loved. We did that movie and it was taken real serious, made it for under a million, Dan Petrie directed it. Incredible little film. It ended up making $30 million at the box office. That was a lot of money in the 70s. Paramount sold it as like ‘Beach Blanket Bingo,'” he laughed.

Elliott said he didn’t realize the spin machine was on full-cycle until he was on the road promoting the film and speaking with reporters befuddled by the disparity between the film’s content and packaging.

“You go into all these interviews and ideally everybody has seen the movie. The opening line in every review was ‘This isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ because it was this story that was real to us, but the one-sheet for it was me in a fucking Speedo, with a big-titted girl in each arm and over the top it said ‘Every Girl’s Summer Dream.’ Like a Baywatch poster,” recalled Elliott. “‘These guys would make that comment, ‘This movie isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, how ’bout that?'” And the whole interview ended up being like that. I haven’t worked at Paramount since.”

As “Off the Map” rolls out nationally, Elliott has been on the road making media pit stops like Friday night’s appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson to promote the film. Elliott sees his role as an actor as only part of his commitment to a film. For Elliott, his job isn’t done until the film is — I’m going to say it — on the map.

“I’ve always felt that when you make a movie, part of the deal when you sign on, you got to sign on for the duration and that means until the movie comes out,” explained Elliott. “I’ve always been available for the jobs that I’ve done because I believed that. It’s not always easy to go out and do it, but when you believe so strongly in a piece, I’m not talking about it in terms of the performance one gave, but in terms of the story and characters and what it’s about and the net worth of it to the audience’s experience.”

“Off the Map” is available on DVD.

The Doctor is Out: Hunter S. Thompson

“True gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he’s writing it — or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three,” said Hunter S. Thompson of the brand of journalism with which his name was synonymous.

Indeed, Dr. Thompson had thrown down the gonzo gauntlet — heady stuff when I was a young Lumaville newspaperman. The narrative style, the experiential element, the release of the first-person from the cage of objectivity were the principle inspiration for my own bastard invention — Blonde Journalism — wherein I recounted my attempts at getting laid in Lumaville (see my Dateline Lumaville column, from November 17, 1999, in which I venture into the field to track the spread of “sexually transmitted ennui” http://daedalushowell.com/kron.html ).

These kiss and tell columns were popular with the townies, some of whom would scour the callow text for their own bold-faced names (or at least the nom de guerres I’d appoint them) to count the dwindling degrees of separation between us. A closer reading, however, would reveal a couple of lifts from Thompson’s own oeuvre — as it’s been said, “imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

A line of Thompson’s that has found its way into my columns on more than one occasion first appeared in a piece he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner called “Saturday Night in the City” (reprinted in “Generation of Swine”) in which he cajoles a colleague into getting a tattoo for the sake of a news story and his looming deadline. After the girl is indelibly inked and Thompson files the few hundred words soon line the city’s birdcages, he justifies the whole sleazy scenario with his deadpan “We are, after all, professionals.”

The line resonated with me particularly since I had just gone pro myself (my press pass and union pin always at the ready), and I gleefully paraphrased it as “After all, I am an accredited representative of the media.” The notion has remained something of a mantra for me and has gotten me cheekily through such low calorie assignments as wine country film festivals (where I see more wine than films) or when being wooed by PR sirens during fashion week in Vegas this month.

Though the term “Gonzo” is often attributed to Thompson, it was actually coined by Boston Sunday Globe reporter Bill Cardoso to describe Thompson’s work. Cardoso borrowed it from the slang of South Boston where it referred to “the last man standing after a drinking marathon.” Unfortunately, the last man standing often gets stuck with the tab and Thompson paid for his gonzo legend not just in the hard currency of brain cells but also in how seriously he was regarded as a member of the fourth estate. It is with a little squeamishness that I learned that Thompson’s last gig was filing online columns for sports website ESPN.com, a far cry from his alma mater Rolling Stone, but probably restful work for a 67 year-old journo who had long ago secured a seat in Valhalla.

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality,” Thompson penned in an essay collected in 1979’s “The Great Shark Hunt.” “Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”

Surely Thompson recognized that he himself had become a “weird hero,” if not to the counter culture at large then to every first year journalism student who sat bleary-eyed in front of a laptop after their first binge drinking experience. Thompson must also have been aware that fostering such a legend brought him precariously close to self-parody, to being a cartoon (literally, in the case of Doonesbury’s Duke). This possibility was furthered when he was portrayed by professional clowns Bill Murray and Johnny Depp in the films inspired by his work (Thompson kept up with at least one of his doppelgangers, see his final ESPN.com “Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.”) But then, Thompson was journalism’s court jester, a niche role he devised for himself and elevated to kingly heights. His reach is perceptible still, from j-schools where Thompson is required reading to the blogosphere, much of which owes a genetic debt to gonzo principles.

In the early 90s, before I went legit as a newspaperman, I published the satire tabloid SCAM Magazine, an inky humor rag, which was, as the motto went, chock full of “lies, fraud and scandal.” Sometimes a year would pass between issues and at least two of the four editions (numbered 1, 9, 11 and 12 to suggest “lost issues”) included reprinted transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s stage act, which I had acquired by the bushel from Bantam Books. There was also a mock obscenities trial penned by Geoffrey B. Cain that featured your humble narrator mired in a sex imbroglio involving a “crotchless monkey suit.” Cain’s obvious genius notwithstanding, content was not king at SCAM Magazine and I decided we needed to tart the paper up with some high profile interviews. Thompson’s outsized persona, of course, seemed like a natural fit.

A bit of legwork led me to one of Thompson’s regular haunts, the Woody Creek Tavern in Woody Creek, Colorado. I was instructed to call the bar and ask for the Sheriff. Once I was connected to the Sheriff, I was told to make the rather arcane inquiry “Is the Doctor in?”

The call went about like this:

Ring, ring.
Voice on other end: “Tavern.”
Howell: “Uh, the Sheriff, please.”
Short pause. Ruffling — the sound of a receiver being switched from one ear to the other.
Same Voice on other end: “This is the Sheriff.”
Howell: “Hullo, Sheriff.”
Sheriff: “Hello.”
Howell: “Is the Doctor in?”
Long pause.
Sheriff: “Who’s askin’?”
Howell: “Daedalus Howell, SCAM Magazine.”
Sheriff: “Uh-huh. Hold on.”
Through the muffled receiver:
Sheriff: “Hey Doctor, got a kid named Doodles from Scum Magazine on the line. Is the Doctor in?”
A voice rumbled from the background.
The Doctor: “Fuck no!”

(I still have no idea to whom I had actually spoken.)

Sadly, the doctor is out. For good. A self-inflicted gunshot wound retired his byline to the annals of history, odd terrain for so vital a personality, but a place where perhaps he can be better understood — or perhaps not. As Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”: “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”

Brenda Starr Creator Dale Messick Endured Deadlines and Sexism

Brenda Starr

“I’m a half-assed celebrity — everyone knows Brenda Starr but nobody knows me,” laughs cartoonist Dale Messick. “I still get fan letters after all these years — five or 10 a week. They all want a sketch and an autograph because people collect these things. People collect anything. That’s why I never take my [dental] bridge out — they might collect bridges!”

Messick is the creator of intrepid, fire-haired comic-strip news reporter Brenda Starr–an enduring conflux of stouthearted vixen, uber-frau, and svelte, impeccably coiffed career woman with a penchant for breaking news and difficult men.

In June, Starr will be 57 years old, but thanks to the disparity of cartoon years vs. human years, she looks little older than she did when she tumbled full-grown from Messick’s imagination. Likewise, her spry and delightful creator appears only a fraction of her ninety-something years.

In her characteristic deadpan, Messick downplays her accomplishment.

“The only remarkable thing that I think I did was that I was married twice, divorced twice, had a horrible automobile accident that almost killed me, had a baby, and in 43 years never missed a deadline.”

A Hoosier born in South Bend, Ind., just days before San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, cartoonist Messick has resided in Sonoma County near her daughter and granddaughter since the death of her husband several years ago. The walls of her Oakmont home are strewn with awards, plaques, and photographs of conventions at which she was honored. The Redwood Chapter of the California Writers Club recently named her an honorary member, and in April the National Cartoonists Society will present her its version of the Oscar.

Displayed on a far wall of her art studio is a poster-sized blowup of the postage stamp the U.S. Post Office issued to commemorate her comic strip. Of the dozens of early cartoonists so honored, Messick is the only one still alive and the only woman.

Raised by artistically inclined parents in a cultural region that little valued artistic expression, let alone that of a precocious child, Messick grew up markedly different from her childhood contemporaries. Profoundly near-sighted, the young Messick couldn’t see the looming face of the classroom clock, slowing her mastery of time-telling at an age when such skills are an important social factor (queries about the time of day still cause her a flash of anxiety). Worse yet, her spelling was atrocious, and she was left-handed at a time when that would earn one a beating.

MESSICK’S ABILITY to draw became an obvious refuge, and the talent she nurtured throughout her school years eventually garnered her a position designing greeting cards at a Chicago publishing house when in her early 20s. Later, in 1933, she migrated to New York and earned a staggering Depression era salary of $50 a week, nearly half of which she sent back to her family in Indiana.

“I had $30 a week to live it up,” remembers Messick of her windfall. “You could walk down 42nd Street and have bacon and eggs and toast and coffee and hash brown potatoes and orange juice–the works–for 25 cents.”

In the late ’30s, comic books began to swell in popularity as the appeal of dime novels and “weird fiction” pulps began to evaporate. Recognizing a possible market threat to their Sunday comics pages, large metropolitan newspapers produced ancillary comic-based publications to safeguard their readerships. To this end, the monolithic Chicago Tribune–the universal appeal of its Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates strips notwithstanding–began devising a booklet that required eight new strips.

“This friend of mine in New York gave me the tip about it,” says Messick, who had altered her given name of “Dalia” to the more sexually ambiguous “Dale” in order to thwart the male-chauvinist editors she routinely encountered. “If I sent in my stuff and they knew I was a woman, they wouldn’t even look at it. So, [as Dale] I wrote up a story and sent it in to them. They accepted my comic and gave it the center page. Out of eight unknown cartoonists, I was the only one who survived. That was my big break,” she recounts. “I went into the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate and I was the only woman…I never was really accepted.”

Brenda Starr Origins

ALTHOUGH SCIENTISTS have never bothered to note the event in the annals of astronomical history, on June 30, 1940, a Starr was born. The early Brenda was very much a mirror of her creator’s inspiration–the screen siren Rita Hayworth. Like Hayworth, Brenda was feisty, dauntless, unabashedly sexy, and, as Messick laughingly reports, “had this gorgeous red hair that could go through any sort of adventure and look great.”

In equal parts a soap opera and action-adventure serial, Brenda Starr was immediately embraced by a readership comprised of both sexes, whose tastes seldom went coed in a comic strip. Some male fans, misapprehending Messick’s gender owing to her unisexual pseudonym, even asked the cartoonist for jocular tokens of fraternity.

Says Messick, “I used to get fan letters from guys who requested a ‘daring picture’ of Brenda. Well, you know what they wanted — I had made Brenda very sexy. I’d send them a little sketch of Brenda Starr going over Niagara falls in a barrel and say, ‘I hope this is daring enough.'”

Brenda Starr joined the profusely male pantheon of comic heroes during an era that spanned the Depression, World War II, and the I Like Ike and I Love Lucy-goosiness of the ’50s. Her prosperity was, in part, a product of World War II’s strong female workforce. Like the affable Rosie the Riveter caricature, Brenda Starr was an exemplar of girl power–a white-collar analogue of the buxom factory gal.

In this atmosphere of patriotism and sisterhood, the strip flourished (after all, Brenda Starr did her part for the war effort) and compounded the early success it achieved in the 18 months before Pearl Harbor.

By the time the war ended and women workers were ousted by returning GIs who subsequently knocked them up with the Baby Boom, Brenda Starr was securely fastened to the pages of daily newspapers as far-flung as Australia, ultimately boasting a worldwide readership of 60 million.

“I’ll read strips from 20 or 30 years ago and get hooked. I wrote it, I drew it, and I forgot it. I still say that I have better stories in there than they have on television today,” avers Messick, who has maintained a collection of her entire Brenda Starr oeuvre–15,000 strips in all. “Probably after I’m dead and gone they will discover that and use my stories.”

Hollywood, however, has already heeded Messick’s counsel and in the late ’80s brought a lackluster cinematic version of Brenda Starr to the screen under the aegis of Princess Di’s Starr-crossed beau, film producer Doti Fayed. In a tragic fit of poor casting, Fayed insisted his then-paramour Brooke Shields become Suddenly Brenda.

“She really wasn’t the Brenda Starr type at all,” Messick says of Shields’ performance. “Let me tell you, the movie was so bad it never even won the ‘Worst Movie of the Year Award.’ Don’t see it, it’s awful.”

After 43 years of meeting strenuous deadlines (her strips were drawn six weeks before publication), Messick retired in her late 70s. Brenda Starr continues to be drawn by other artists for the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate–an endeavor Messick does not begrudge, though she has no compunction about voicing her criticism.

“Now it doesn’t look like Brenda at all,” Messick contends. “She looks more like she works at a bank. No glamour, no curves, no fashion — but it’s still going pretty good.”

Since her retirement, Messick has developed new strips, including a weekly one-panel series for the Oakmont Gardens Magazine dubbed Granny Glamour. The comic features a saucy senior full of such punchy, homespun aphorisms as “You’re in when your foxy grandpa’s pacemaker opens the garage door.”

“This is all I know,” Messick says simply. “All my life I’ve been creating and drawing. I don’t have much time left–I’m living on borrowed time — so with the few years I have left, I want to do what I want to do and that’s to work in my studio.”

As Granny Glamour says, “When you quit and just sit, that’s it.”

Dale Messick passed away April 5, 2005.