A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Pelham

RemingtonHollywood’s 2009 remake of the 1970s classic movie The Taking of Pelham 123 starred three actors who got their big breaks on the small screen.

Denzel Washington played Walter Garber, a New York City civil servant suddenly elevated to be the liaison to hostage takers on a subway train.  Washington, of course, was part of the terrific ensemble cast in St. Elsewhere.  As Dr. Philip Chandler, a Yale-educated physician, Washington populated the portrayals of fictional doctors in a Boston hospital for the entire six-year run of this NBC television series in the 1980s.

After St. Elsewhere ended its run, Washington performed in the 1989 movie Glory, for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

John Travolta played Ryder, the leader of the hostage takers in the Pelham remake.  ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter, a 1970s show starring Gabe Kaplan in the title role, gave Travolta a national platform that launched him to stardom as the dim-witted, girl-crazy, and self-involved high school student Vinnie Barbarino.

Kotter premiered in 1975.  Travolta became hotter than a supernova in just three years, starring in Saturday Night Fever and Grease.  Notoriety subsided, for the most part, in the 1980s.  Travolta’s comeback began with the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.

James Gandolfini played New York City’s mayor.  If managed properly, the hostage crisis could be good for his profile.  Or very bad.  After significant roles as supporting characters in several movies, Gandolfini got the role that made him a household name.

Henry Winkler had Fonzie.

Alan Alda had Hawkeye.

James Gandolfini had Tony Soprano.

In HBO’s The Sopranos, Ganoldfini played a New Jersey mafia don whose emotions ranged from tender to explosive.  When he talked about or interacted with animals, for example, Tony revealed a touching side.  His violent temper exploded when disloyalty, betrayal, and disrespect emerged from allies.

Morton Freedgood wrote the novel The Taking of Pelham 123 under the pseudonym John Godey in 1973.  A year later, the movie hit theaters, starring Walter Matthau as Garber, Robert Shaw as Ryder, and Lee Wallace as the mayor.

Pelham accurately captures the aura of despair surrounding New York City in the 1970s, triggered by crime and financial turmoil.  As in the remake, Garber is a civil servant, an ordinary man with an ordinary job in the middle of an extraordinary situation.  Matthau, in all his rumpled glory, fits the role of Garber perfectly, inhabiting the character with a sardonic wit.

In The New York Times, Nora Sayre wrote, “Throughout, there’s a skillful balance between the vulnerability of New Yorkers and the drastic, provocative sense of comedy that thrives all over our sidewalks.  And the hijacking seems like a perfectly probable event of this town.  (Perhaps the only element of fantasy is the implication that the city’s departments could function so smoothly together.)

Before they were stars, Hector Elizondo and Earl Hindman played two of the four hostage takers.  Elizondo’s career includes roles in Pretty WomanThe Flamingo Kid, and The Princess Diaries.  Hindman starred as Wilson, the neighbor on Home Improvement.

There was also a 1998 tv-movie version of Pelham.

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