Henry Winkler's Plumm Summer in Montana
Filming and Fly Fishing Are Fun for the Fonz
By Pat Hill
Hollywood is missing the boat these days by chasing the dollar instead of the audience, but this summer's Southwest Montana production of A Plumm Summer may be a welcome exception to the trend.
Set in Billings, Montana, in the 1960s, A Plumm Summer is the fictionalized tale of a real “kidnapping” that took place in the city: the victim was a TV puppet named Froggy Doo on The Happy Herb and Froggy Doo Show, a popular regional children's TV show which premiered on the small screen in Great Falls (KFBB-TV) in 1955 and moved to Billings (KULR-TV) in 1963. Henry Winkler, who gained fame as Arthur Fonzarelli (the “Fonz”) on television's Happy Days series in the '70s, is playing the role of “Happy Herb” McAllister (and the froggy voice of Froggy Doo) in the film. The independently financed film, a production of Fairplay Movies of Beverly Hills, has a small (by Hollywood standards) budget of $3.5 million, but Winkler predicts that the appeal will be large when the movie hits the big screen next year.
Winkler told the Pioneer that after being approached to play the part of Happy Herb, and watching a DVD of the original show, “I realized that this was going to be a great character to play, and a wonderfully delightful project.” The movie tells the story of two young brothers on the hunt for Froggy Doo after his kidnapping; the frog puppet was stolen from the television studio, and the thieves, who were never caught, actually demanded $150 for Froggy Doo's return via a ransom note, which caused the FBI to investigate the case. The decapitated body of Froggy Doo was found hanging on a fencepost two days after his kidnapping, and his head was recovered a month later. Though the brothers and their search in A Plumm Summer is fictional, two children did see Froggy Doo's head in the back of a car, which led to its recovery.
“It is certainly not the way it went down in real life,” said Winkler of the movie script, “but it was inspired by the real facts…I think it is a funny, emotional, compelling family film. It's got some bite to it.” Winkler also said he is impressed with the cast and crew.
“Our director [Caroline Zelder] is a first-time director…she had done a short [film] before, but this is her first feature film, and you would never know it,” he said. “She knows exactly what she wants, which is very important if you're going to direct a film…she is really good with her actors, and wonderful with the crew. As an actor, I feel very well taken care of.” Winkler said that most of his scenes are with “a wonderful acting partner” he's worked with before, Brenda Strong, who is the voice of the missing housewife who narrates on ABC's Desperate Housewives. Strong plays Happy Herb's wife in A Plumm Sum-mer.
“Our relation-ship is torn apart by Happy Herb's devotion to Froggy Doo,” Winkler said.
The produc-tion of A Plumm Summer in southwest Montana (including Bozeman and Livingston) comes on the heels of a torn relationship in the world of film in Big Sky Country: Governor Brian Schweitzer's disbanding of the Montana Film and Television Council, which was formed in part to better Montana's relationship with Hollywood. While many local film and television workers worried that the governor's decision to disband the council last spring might cause Hollywood to shy away from Montana, A Plumm Summer may help calm some of those fears. Bozeman casting director Tina Buckingham told the Pioneer that Montanans make up about 60 percent of the crew, with Big Sky talent representing about 40 percent of the cast. She said that over the next few weeks she's looking for about 650 more people to take part in the production, including men to act as stand-ins for male actors (interested parties should call the casting hotline at 599-9212).
“These people [the producers and directors] are so nice, with such kindness, integrity and love of film in Montana,” Buckingham said. “They really want to help the state get on board for better [film production] incentives.” She added that Montana is getting serious inquiries for film and television productions in the Treasure State next spring on a “weekly basis.” It seems that Hollywood is still interested in Montana, but it may take a better incentive package coming out of the 2007 legislative session in order to make the state competitive with other states and Canada, where many movies with a Montana setting have been made because of better Canadian incentive packages.
Though Winkler said he thinks film and television will succeed in Montana, he is ambivalent when it comes to that success, saying that “in a way I hope it doesn't, in a way I hope it does.”
“It is so gentle and still here...so comfortable,” said Winkler, who has been coming to Montana to enjoy his favorite past-time, fly-fishing, since the mid-'90s. “Fly-fishing is like a washing machine for your brain,” he said. “I don't want it mucked up.”