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Warner Bros.

Hollywood's Brief Love Affair With Young Einstein Star Yahoo Serious

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Warner Bros.

The theater owners and exhibitors attending the ShoWest convention in February 1989 had a lot to look forward to. In an attempt to stir their interest in upcoming studio releases, major distributors were showing off stars and footage: Paramount led with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Columbia had Ghostbusters II. But it was Warner Bros. that caused the biggest stir.

In addition to Lethal Weapon 2, the studio had Tim Burton’s Batman, a straight-faced adaptation of the comic, and Michael Keaton—who slipped into a screening of some early footage—was no longer being derided as a poor casting choice. Then, in the midst of all this star power, the studio brought out a 35-year-old actor-writer-director with a shock of orange hair and an Australian accent.

The man had never appeared in a feature film before, much less starred in one, but Warner was gambling that his forthcoming comedy about a Tasmanian Albert Einstein who invents rock music and runs into Thomas Edison would be a hit. It had already become the sixth highest-grossing film in Australia's history, besting both E.T. and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The man’s real name was Greg Pead, but Warner Bros. introduced him as Yahoo Serious, Hollywood’s next big comedy attraction.

To understand Warner’s appetite for an unproven commodity like Yahoo Serious, it helps to recall the peculiar preoccupation American popular culture had with Australians in the 1980s. Energizer had created a hit ad campaign with Mark “Jacko” Jackson, a pro football player who aggressively promoted their batteries in a series of ads; meanwhile, Paul Hogan parlayed his fish-out-of-water comedy, Crocodile Dundee, into the second highest-grossing film of 1986. (Serious would later bristle at comparisons to Hogan, whom he referred to as a “marketing guy” who sold cigarettes on Australian television.)

Born in Cardiff, Australia on July 27, 1953, Serious grew up in rural bush country and mounted car tires at a garage in order to pay his way through the National Art School. When he was expelled for illustrating the school's facade with satirical jokes that the faculty didn’t find particularly funny, Serious moved on to direct Coaltown, a documentary about the coal mining industry, and pursued painting.

Serious would later recall that the desire for a larger audience led him away from art and into feature filmmaking. ''It hit me like a ton of bricks one day,” Serious told The New York Times in 1989. “I remember having a cup of coffee and I went, 'Well, look, there is a giant canvas in every little town everywhere around the world. And on this giant canvas there are 24 frames of image on that screen every second and it's the most wonderful living art form.'” It was around this same time, in 1980, that Serious changed his name.

To get a feel for the language of film, Serious sat through repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; he aspired to have the kind of total autonomy over his movies that directors like Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed.

In 1983, Serious was traveling along the Amazon River when he spotted someone wearing a T-shirt depicting Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. The image is now pervasive, appearing on posters and other merchandise (not to mention an early cover of mental_floss), but it seemed unique to the performer, who was struck by the idea that Einstein was once young and never took himself too seriously. And the concept for Young Einstein was born.

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Serious's idea, which transplanted Einstein to Tasmania and imagined encounters with Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, and the atomic bomb, took years to assemble. He borrowed camera equipment and sold his car to help finance the film; he shot an eight-minute trailer that convinced investors he was capable of making a feature. His mother even cooked meals for the crew on set.

In order to maintain creative control, Serious gave up profit participation in Young Einstein, which he starred in, co-produced, co-wrote, and directed. When the film was released in Australia in 1988, it made an impressive $1.6 million at the box office and drew the attention of Warner Bros., which likely had visions of a Crocodile Dundee-esque hit. American press had a field day with Serious, who appeared on the cover of TIME and was given airtime on MTV.

Critics and audiences weren’t quite as enamored. The Orlando Sentinel suggested that "Tedious Oddball" would be a more appropriate name for the film's creator. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Young Einstein is a one-joke movie, and I didn't laugh much the first time." In the U.S., Young Einstein grossed just over $11 million, a fairly weak showing for a summer comedy. It was bested in its opening weekend by both Ron Howard’s Parenthood and the Sylvester Stallone action-grunter Lock Up.

Paul McConnell/Getty Images

Although American distributors quickly cooled on Serious, Australia's enthusiasm for the filmmaker didn’t dampen. When Serious released 1993’s Reckless Kelly, a fictionalized account of outlaw Ned Kelly, it made $5.4 million in Australia—three times as much as Young Einstein. Serious took a seven-year sabbatical, then returned with 2000’s Mr. Accident, a slapstick comedy about an injury-prone man who tries to thwart a scheme to inject nicotine into eggs. Meeting a tepid critical and financial reception, it would be his third and (likely) final film.

At roughly the same time Mr. Accident was released, Serious took issue with upstart search engine Yahoo!, alleging the site was piggybacking on his popularity. He filed a lawsuit, which was quickly dropped when he failed to prove the URL had damaged him in any way.

The amused headlines stemming from that incident were the last examples of Serious capturing attention in America. Having completed just three films, no other projects have come to fruition; Serious launched a website detailing some of his background and to air some of his Yahoo!-related grievances.

Now 63, Serious currently serves as director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an Australian aid organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of Papua New Guineans. The board’s website lists him as Yahoo Serious, which is the name he claims that all of his family and friends have called him since he changed it in 1980.

“You can choose every aspect of your life,” Serious once said. “Why not your name?”

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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
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ABC

On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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Pop Culture
August 1996: A Game of Thrones Debuts

George R.R. Martin spent a decade in television before realizing he wanted nothing more to do with it. The fantasy author, who had won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards for his fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s, had grown tired of having budgetary restrictions limit the scope of his work. And if there was money, there was little time: As a staff writer and producer for the CBS series Beauty and the Beast, Martin knew he had 46 minutes to tell a cogent story. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Calling it a “reaction” to his 10 years in TV, in 1991 Martin began to sketch out a series of fantasy novels that would feature hundreds of characters, sprawling scope, and no network ceiling. When the 704-page A Game of Thrones hit shelves on August 1, 1996, it received positive notices and respectable sales, but there was little hint of the hysteria that would follow. 

Born in 1948, Martin attended Northwestern University and pursued degrees in journalism. At 21, he sold his first piece of fiction to the anthology magazine Galaxy; a novel, Dying of the Light, followed in 1977. His fantasy was wide in scope, but had elements of the mundane to ground his stories. Other writers, Martin once observed, embraced the bigger tropes but didn’t "have the dogs in the halls of the castles scrapping under the table.” Martin preferred a lived-in approach.

In 1985, Martin was engaged as a staff writer for the CBS revival of The Twilight Zone and got his first taste of the compromises of television. Adapting a Roger Zelazny story titled “The Last Defender of Camelot,” Martin had scripted a faithful recreation of the climax where a swordsman is fighting against an enchanted, empty suit of armor near Stonehenge.

“Then the line producer calls me in and says, you can have Stonehenge or you can have horses, but you cannot have horses and Stonehenge,” Martin told TIME in 2011, “because there is no Stonehenge around here and we’re going to have to build that out of papier-mâché on the sound stage. And if we bring horses there, when they start galloping around, the rocks will shake and fall down.”

The practical demands of TV eventually wore on Martin’s nerves—even worse was the fact that he could toil on a project and then not even see it produced. On the development deals following his work on Beauty and the Beast, Martin told January magazine that “nothing ever got made … It was one of the things that ultimately frustrated me and drove me back to books.”

In 1991, Martin was beginning work on an unrelated science-fiction title, Avalon, when an idea popped into his head: dire wolf puppies in a summer snow. An entire chapter followed, and Martin was soon working on the book every spare moment he could. In 1993, he wrote a letter to his agent updating him on what he was now calling A Game of Thrones:

“The enmity between the great houses of Lannister and Stark [will play] out in a cycle of plot, counterplot, ambition, murder, and revenge, with the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms as the ultimate prize … a second and greater threat … where the Dothraki horselords mass their barbarian hordes for a great invasion of the Seven Kingdoms, led by the fierce and beautiful Daenerys Stormborn … where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn.”

At the time, Martin thought a trilogy would be sufficient to tell his story, which is how the project was shopped. Of the four publishers interested, Bantam Books made the best offer, assigning editor Anne Groell to the series. Groell, who had seen some of Martin’s work while it was in circulation, found that even non-fantasy fans working at the publishing house were talking about it. A Game of Thrones seemed like a sure thing. And if it wasn't, Martin figured it wouldn't take much time to complete. "I ought to finish ... by 1998," he told an Omni Visions chat room in 1996.

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While sales were respectable for Bantam’s first printing—known by collectors for its silver-foil cover—A Game of Thrones was not a commercial hit. When Martin showed up for book signings, some stores would be virtually empty. At one Dallas location, Martin perked up when he saw hundreds of people lining up. But he soon realized they were after a new title in the Clifford, the Big Red Dog series.

Readers and independent booksellers continued to pass around copies to friends, and those friends handed them over to others in a kind of literary proselytizing. As Martin added to the saga—three books became five, then a plan for seven—the audience grew. By 2011, more than 15 million copies of A Song of Ice and Fire, the blanket name for the series, had been sold. For the 20th anniversary, Martin announced on his blog that a special illustrated edition would be released October 18.

In 2000, Martin was asked if the reason he returned to books—the spotty predictability of film and television—might one day lead him back by offering to adapt Thrones. “I have had some interest in the book, yes,” he answered. “I don't know if anything is going to come of it.”

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