From 'U.N.C.L.E.' to 'Columbo' to 'Tap Dreams': Dean Hargrove doesn't slow down

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By Chris Betros

The taiko drums are pounding in the background, and in front kids are dancing. But this is no ordinary dancing -- these are four young Japanese showing their tap dancing skills at the 2009 Los Angeles Tap Festival. They were brought to LA courtesy of American television producer and scriptwriter Dean Hargrove as part of a project called “Tap Dreams,” which Hargrove hopes to turn into a global reality TV series, involving tap-dancing teams from all over the world.

While Hargrove’s name may not be known worldwide, there are probably very few people in the world who haven’t seen some of the TV shows he has either created, produced or written for -- “My Three Sons,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Columbo,” “McCloud,” “Matlock,” “Jake and the Fatman,” “Perry Mason” TV movies, “Father Dowling,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Jane Doe and “Murder 101,” among others.

Yet he says he has more passion for “Tap Dreams” than just about anything else he has ever done.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with Hargrove who was in Tokyo recently to film Japanese tap dancers at the Shibuya ART N Tap Dance Studio run by acclaimed dancer-choreographer and teacher Yukiko “Smilie” Misumi.

How did you get interested in tap dancing?

For a long time, I had wanted to do a short film but I didn’t have any firm ideas. In 2004, I was thinking that there was traditional tap and the new funky, improvisatory tap, which people like Savion Glover have helped to make popular. So I made a short 14-minute film featuring new and old tap together in a number. That was called “Tap Heat” and it was successful and played in a lot of festivals around the world.

The late Gregory Hines had suggested I do a documentary and film kids all over the world doing tap, but I was still busy in television at the time. In February 2009, I thought it would be time to purse this. Chloe Arnold (a renowned tap dancer and choreographer) and her sister were organizing a tap festival in Washington DC. We held an open audition and about 50 kids came in and we narrowed it down to two boys and two girls for the final.

What is your idea for the reality TV series?

It is a competition for young people into the new style of tap dancing. So the idea is that the four finalists from Washington, DC, will compete against a crew from Japan, and other places such as Shanghai, where we will film in April. We also hope to go to Rio, Australia, then LA, Chicago, and New York where finalists will compete in one large competition.

We aim to have the final by the end of the year in New York. Then we need to sell it as a series. It’s not terribly expensive; it’s not as if you are making “Avatar.” At this point, I have been paying for it myself. We have a couple of broadcasters in the States that are interested in this and once we get a broadcaster on board, we’ll fill it out to an hour. We’ll come back to Tokyo and spend more time with the kids and get to know them better. We’ll hear them talk about their lives, go to their homes or workplace, watch them work and practice.

What is your impression of Japanese tap dancers?

I wasn’t prepared for the quality I saw here. Japanese tap dancers are so advanced. Tap dancing is an American art form, and even though it was brought over here in the 1930s, it is not something that we Americans tend to associate with Japan. The kids we saw are totally dedicated to it and work very hard. When they are out of school, they are tap dancing, up to four hours a day. In Tokyo, we had around 50 who came to the audition, ranging in age from 6 to 24.

What do you think is the international appeal of tap dancing?

It’s interesting. There are big tap communities all over the world and I think kids like it because it is improvisational, not the stylized dancing you see in River Dance or movies from the 1930s and ’40s. When you talk to these young people, they feel that they are making their own music. A lot of them prefer it to hip hop, which is interpretive. Tap is percussive and they can create their own sound.

In Tokyo, some guys came in with taiko drums and did the number with the tap dancers. Tap dancing can really be done with any music. A guy in Australia does it with Aboriginal rhythms. In Brazil, they combine tap with samba. You never quite know what you are going to get when you are doing a documentary like this.

What has been the response from broadcasters in the U.S.?

It’s been good so far. Most people aren’t that familiar with tap dancing; some think it is a dying art form, but it isn’t. TV exposure will give it a boost and I feel very strongly that it will catch on, once performers like Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold become more widely known.

Has tap influenced other genres?

For sure. If you look at Michael Jackson’s videos, there is a very strong tap influence. All of his dancing was influenced by Fred Astaire’s style. I think we may see more artists trying it in their music videos.

How has “Tap Dreams” affected you?

All my life, I’ve done a lot of television, almost entirely filmed dramas. I sort of stumbled into doing this and I’ve never had a better time in my life. Music and dance are so creative. I still have a couple of TV drama projects brewing and I’ll probably have to do them, but given a choice, I’d just do this.

Speaking of TV, let’s talk about some of those famous shows you worked on. They seem to have stood the test of time.

I always thought “Columbo” was a very good show. It has been a big hit in so many countries, including Japan. It holds up well. On the other hand, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” recently came out on DVD and I did some interviews for it and I have to confess that I thought some of those episodes were better in my memory than they were when I saw them again. The “Perry Mason” movies were good. Raymond Burr was a great guy and thorough professional. He never really learned dialogue and could use a teleprompter better than anyone I have ever seen.

How has the television production industry changed since you first started?

The biggest difference is financial. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was never a big issue about how much a TV series cost to produce. Once cable TV came in, there was a proliferation in terms of options for viewers, and the networks no longer had the market corralled. Production costs became a big factor.

There are fewer television series now than there used to be. Television has been a contracting business over the last 30 years in the United States. There is an illusion because we have cable, that there are more shows. But if you look at those shows, some just run 10 episodes, others even less.

Another difference is that a lot of television taboos have changed. When you have a series about a lead character who grows marijuana to support her family or a series about serial killers, you know that television has gone a long way since the 1960s. Columbo wouldn’t know what to think and Perry Mason wouldn’t handle any of their cases.

What about quality?

Certainly, the technical quality has gone up, especially the lighting and camera work. Shows from the 1970s look a little primitive by today’s standards. However, I’m not convinced that the stories have gotten that much better. When you get into melodramas, mysteries and crime shows that are on today, I don’t think the storytelling has improved that much. In some cases, it is not quite as good. On “CSI,” which is a wonderfully done show – a lot of the time, the stories really aren’t quite that well constructed. Stylistically, it is a fascinating show to watch, if nothing else.

How come you never got into producing or writing for movies?

I started as a television writer when I was 22. That was my bread and butter and there was always the next show coming up. Your successes and mistakes were behind you very quickly. It was fun. You got to travel and work on all kinds of shows. So I never had a chance to do movies. But I wanted to do something for myself, which is why I did “Tap Heat” and why I am doing “Tap Dreams” now.

Do people come up to you, asking you to cast them in TV dramas, or give you scripts to read?

A lot of waiters in Los Angeles are actors between auditions. Where I live in Brentwood, there is a restaurant I go to, and yes, you can end up getting a lot of 8x10 glossies. One woman got fired from her restaurant job because she was going around to too many producers and writers who had lunch there. She actually flagged my car down to give me some of her work. It’s a tough life for them, so it doesn’t bother me. However, I don’t read unsolicited scripts unless they are submitted by an attorney or agent.

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This guy has given me many happy hours of viewing on DVD over the last year or so.

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