One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 58
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Preempting my usual streaming rants, I wanted to offer a few words on two very likable actors on the sad occasion of their passing. They were both very reliable over the course of their professional careers, their performances always delivering well beyond what their not-always-sterling material demanded. Maybe that’s why they were given so many opportunities to make audiences sit up and take notice in the many years they appeared on screens large and small.
First, the actress JoAnna Cameron, who portrayed a modern-day woman endowed with the powers of an ancient Egyptian goddess in the 1975 kids’ TV show Isis, died on October 15 in Oahu, Hawaii due to complications from a stroke. She was 73.
Several days later, on October 18, veteran character actor Val Bisolgio died in his home near Los Olivos, California at the age of 95. Of his dozens of appearances in movies and TV shows over the course of his 40-year career, he’s probably most recognizable as the no-nonsense father of John Travolta’s Tony Manero in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. It’s a role that found him famously slapping his well-coiffed son upside the head at the dinner table.
Ms. Cameron’s Isis, who is generally acknowledged to be the first costumed female hero on television with superpowers, was perfect for her time: an empowered super heroine—her skirt wasn’t too short, her crime-fighting not too violent—who definitely came off as the sharpest and strongest person in the room. Cameron’s low-key, clear-voiced delivery and lean, athletic presence sold it.
Cameron’s most notable credit prior to Isis was a featured role in one of the Seventies’ stranger cult pictures, the kinky and bizarre comic murder mystery Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), directed by France’s sex kitten-embracing Roger Vadim (of 1956’s And God Created Woman and 1968’s Barbarella fame) and written, strangely enough, by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Starring Rock Hudson as a sexed-up high school guidance counselor who beds a bevy of beautiful female students before killing them (Ms. Cameron pops up as a senior who succumbs to all of his charms), it’s a movie that in today’s marketplace would be put out of its misery while it was still being pitched by a screenwriter.
A handful of TV guest spots, a hundred commercials and a role in a forgotten Bob Hope movie notwithstanding, Ms. Cameron will be best remembered for Isis (aka The Secrets of Isis). Though she served as that falcon-bearing foe of evil for only two brief seasons, her powers reverberated for years to come. Lynda Carter would don a costume of her own in the popular primetime series Wonder Woman (1975) just a couple of months after Isis’s premiere. And that was followed a year later by Sid and Marty Krofft’s super-duper children’s series Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976) and the primetime smash The Bionic Woman (1976) starring Lindsay Wagner.
Isis’s weekly defending of the defenseless also paved the way for the current wave of costumed female crime-fighters. Back in the day, the idea of slipping into a cape and leotard to portray a TV superhero didn’t hold the prestige that actresses like Scarlet Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen are enjoying today as the Marvel Cinematic Universe do-gooders Black Widow and The Scarlet Witch. But neither did they have to inject an overdose of moral complexity and emotional temperament into roles that began as very uncomplicated comic book figures.
The new crop of superhero films does a marvelous job of expanding the emotional range of their larger-than-life characters, yes, but there was a time several decades back when that wasn’t the case and nobody seemed to mind. (That includes the target audience of kids and I was one at the time, so you can trust me on this one.)
Like JoAnna Cameron, Val Bisoglio had a more identifiable face than he did a recognizable name. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t even aware of his name until I saw his picture ID’d in an online write-up of his passing.)
But what a face! With a look that fell somewhere between wise guyish and world-weary, New York City native Bisoglio amassed several dozen film and TV appearances in the decade prior to his “breakout” as Travolta’s dad in Fever. He popped up in everything from the legendary TV sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1971) and All in the Family (1972) to the harder-edged detective shows Mannix (1971), Kojak (1974) and Toma (1975) to crime movies like The Don is Dead (1973) and St. Ives (1976). Usually, it was as a mobster or a crooked lawyer or some other tough-talking character from the lower depths.
Bisoglio went the nice guy route for his recurring role as restaurateur Danny Tovo in the medical drama series Quincy M.E., which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1976. The show, which starred Jack Klugman as an L.A. country medical examiner, proved to be Bisoglio’s most successful gig.
He continued to hop, skip and jump to a variety of TV shows for the remainder of the Eighties, moving into the new millennium. His final credits are for a trio of installments on The Sopranos in 2002, where he portrayed “Murphy “Murph” Lupo, an aging soldier and former capo of Junior Soprano’s New Jersey crime family. A gangster ‘til the end.
Ms. Cameron and Mr. Bisoglio actually had a professional overlap, with both of them appearing on segments of the popular rom-com anthology show Love, American Style back in 1971. In his entry, Bisoglio played a jailbird looking to break out during his cellmate's conjugal visitation hour, while Cameron’s entry saw her as a newlywed whose honeymoon is ruined after she witnesses a bank robbery.
I managed to track down their brief bits on the show (a combined effort involving both YouTube and Dailymotion) and watched them both. And I wasn’t surprised when the grin on each of their faces also brought a smile to my own.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.