It’s a big month for Benedict Cumberbatch, who returns to big-screen action in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Doctor Strange when Spider-Man: No Way Home hits theaters on Dec. 17. The 45-year-old British actor can also be seen in a far different performance in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which premieres today on Netflix.
The Power of the Dog arrives with a promising cinematic pedigree (it made the line-up at four major stops on the festival circuit: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York) and a dark tale adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title. The story is set in 1925 in Montana but Campion’s frontier vistas and elemental conflicts are in the mode of Hollywood’s classic westerns.
I had to smile while watching Cumberbatch in action as a cruel cattle rancher because it’s the kind of role that the gifted actor has been trying to wrangle for years. Cumberbatch may have a posh aura but he's been itching for years to follow dusty trails and sit tall in the saddle.
I first met Cumberbatch in Venice Beach in the summer of 2012 when I was writing a cover story about him for the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. I was already a fan of his work on Sherlock and eager to talk to him about projects that would soon be taking him into both Federation space and Middle-earth.
The interview was in a bright little bungalow that Cumberbatch was renting at the time and I asked him if he knew that his near-neighbors included a rival in the master-sleuthing business. I was referring to Robert Downey Jr., of course, who became the big-screen edition of Holmes while Cumberbatch did his detecting on U.K. television. The Iron Man star’s sleek offices sat less than two blocks away from Cumberbatch’s sunny backyard. This was an amusing revelation to the primetime version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero.
“It’s just right over there? I should go throw eggs or do something. I’ve never met him. I think he got a few [press] questions and then, after a few more, he was like ‘Who is this kid Cumberbatch?’”
Both Cumberbatch and his Sherlock co-star, Martin Freeman, would eventually join Downey in the MCU ensemble, of course, but, in 2012, Cumberbatch would have needed the Eye of Agamotto in order to see that coming. We did discuss superhero roles that afternoon and I even mentioned two specific characters that I thought Cumberbatch would be well-suited to portray: Sandman and, yes, Doctor Strange. “I’m not familiar with them,” the actor said, “but all of that sounds interesting.”
(Later, Cumberbatch graciously acknowledged the random role recommendation and Adweek then published a story that framed the casual exchange as a prescient footnote in superhero cinema history.)
On that summer day, however, Cumberbatch was far more interested in a different genre, one steeped in history but also fenced-in by modern-day marketplace realities. “I really, really want to make a Western,” Cumberbatch told me. “I love the idea of Westerns.”
At the end of the enjoyable interview I invited Cumberbatch to an event that night. I was scheduled to interview filmmaker Michael Mann on stage at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood following a screening of his 1992 epic The Last of the Mohicans. Cumberbatch loves the film and instantly accepted the invitation. I saw him clapping at the end of stage interview that night and waved him over to meet Mann, who was in great spirits. Mann invited us to join his family for a late supper across the street at Musso & Franks, where we all joined by Grant Moninger, the film programmer for the Egyptian. The table conversation was fantastic that night and much of it roamed through the celluloid terrain of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and other masters of screen westerns. Almost a decade later, it’s terrific to see how far Cumberbatch has followed that dusty trail leading toward the next frontier of his career.
SPIDER-MAN IN THE NAKED CITY
Until this week I had never watched an episode of The Naked City, the classic Emmy-winning crime series that aired from 1958-1962, but I had read about its gritty New York street aesthetic, which you can hear in the show’s signature closing line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them…”
I came across the series on Roku and perused the episode list. When I found one featuring the late, great Burgess Meredith paired with a young, fresh-faced Alan Alda, I clicked on it. I was only a few minutes into the hard-knuckled tale called “Hold for Gloria Christmas” when I saw something on the screen that made my jaw drop. There’s a sidewalk scene with Meredith and David White (later of Bewitched fame) that shows a pair of comic books perched on a newsstand rack over the actor’s shoulder. Check it out in this You Tube video at the one-minute mark. The covers are as clear as day and instantly recognizable to any fan of classic Marvel Comics. One is Amazing Fantasy issue No. 15, which is the first appearance of Spider-Man. The other is Journey into Mystery No. 83, the first appearance of Thor. Two of the most valuable comic books from the Silver Age, just sitting there, poised and perfect, a pair of treasures-in-waiting, both sporting legendary Jack Kirby artwork that jumped off the rack then and still jumps off the screen now. The humble four-color periodicals were background afterthoughts on that day in 1962 but today they would be carefully sealed in archival mylar and handled like holy artifacts of pop culture.
At least now I have a solid answer if anyone ever asks when Marvel superheroes arrived on American televisions for the first time. It was probably Sept. 19, 1962, when the Season Four premiere of The Naked City featured a fleeting cover cameo by your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and the God of Thunder.
NORM MACDONALD VS. POKEMON
It’s been 11 weeks since the death of Norm Macdonald but the tributes to the Canadian comedian continue from both fans and peers. It’s probably strange to say this but the outpouring of recognition and affection for the eccentric Macdonald has been oddly reassuring to watch. I didn’t realize how widely appreciated Macdonald’s work had become. I only saw Macdonald perform live once (in Irvine, California, about five years ago) but I’ve been enjoying the considerable online archive of his subversive wit. I even came across this truly unexpected nugget, which was plucked from the third episode of Season Two of Norm, the ABC sitcom that aired from 1999-2001.
Yes, that’s right, this clip is a showdown between Norm and Pikachu, the pride of the Pokemon. As you think about the unlikely confluence between those two pop culture figures, consider the historic setting for that meeting. The Norm series was taped on Stage 12 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. That’s one of the most storied spots in Tinseltown lore thanks to a ridiculous number of classic productions, among them: Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, A Streetcar Named Desire, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Annie, The Goonies, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Batman & Robin, Batman Forever, The Lost Boys, Salem’s Lot, The Witches of Eastwick, and The House of Wax. It’s nice to know that Macdonald, a major history buff and student of show-biz past, went to work in a place with that kind of show-biz heritage.