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Old is new again on WBBZ

I just saw Steve Ihnat.

"Steve! Is that you?" I yelled at the TV set in my living room as I watched an episode of "Rawhide" on WBBZ.

Answer: Yup. It certainly was.

Let me admit quickly that I know you're unlikely to care. But Steve Ihnat sightings are meaningful to me. It's the kind of nostalgia-cum-scholarship that's been basic to TV watching since I was a young boy in TV's first generation.

I fully expect that decades from now, no-longer-young males will feel much the same about stray sightings of Steve Zahn and Steve Coogan.

If Ihnat had lived, he'd be celebrating his 77th birthday on Sunday.

He never came close. The actor died at the age of 37 in 1972 at the Cannes Film Festival while promoting the film that could have established him as a major film director -- his hugely underrated rodeo film with James Coburn, "The Honkers" (which -- a distinctly minority view -- I like more than Cliff Robertson's rodeo film "J.W. Coop" and Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" starring Steve McQueen as a rodeo star, both of which have much fancier reputations).

Whatever you do, don't confuse Ihnat with Steve Cochran, the great character actor who died of a lung infection at the age of 48 on a yacht with an all-female "crew" that somehow neglected to make it into port until days after his death. (It was determined at the time that none of the women on board were competent enough sailors to get the yacht to safety during bad weather. A classic case of actorly overreach gone south.)

"The Honkers" isn't the only thing I cherish about Ihnat. In Don Siegel's great cop film "Madigan," Ihnat played Barney Benish, an immortally psycho bad guy who has a final shootout with Richard Widmark and Harry Guardino in an apartment kitchen while trying to protect himself from incoming gunfire with the open door of a refrigerator.

The great actor's detail from Ihnat that makes that action scene so good is that, amid all the bullet-riddling mayhem, Benish's eyeglasses are askew on his face, so he's blazing away at fictional cops Madigan and Bonaro and screaming crazy things at them while his glasses make him look like a character in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Quite brilliant.

Ihnat sightings are the kind of thing that has been a primal pleasure of TV right from the beginning.

Every new media technology makes use of an earlier technology's content, said Marshall McLuhan. So iPods and Napster use records and TV when it was new used old movies -- and, thank God, still does now that it's older and available countless different ways.

That's why a whole generation of us grew up able to recognize Lionel Atwill, Maria Ouspenskaya, Laird Cregar and Rondo Hatton by sight even though their careers were almost gone by the time we were born. But that's not all. We were sometimes able to debate the fine points of a great Elisha Cook Jr. performance -- in "The Big Sleep," say -- against an ordinary one while watching him on TV and devouring large chunks of mozzarella cheese.

So there was Ihnat in an episode of "Rawhide" with the show's star Eric Fleming and that great, gaunt, Lincolnesque character actor John Anderson on an afternoon show from the new WBBZ.

It's part of a canned format on the station unfortunately called MeTV.

All of this replaces what used to be on the same local station, formerly called WNGS, which was a format known as ThIS.

I liked ThIS a lot. In fact, I'm going to miss it terribly. Unfortunately, since I didn't write anything about how much I liked it while it was in full swing, I have absolutely no right to complain now that its diet of old movies has now switched to MeTV's old TV.

One might well point out that old movies are not exactly unknown on cable TV these days -- now that we've long had a cable TV company that actually permits City of Buffalo viewers to get Turner Classic Movies (as, incredibly, the Rigases' Adelphia Cable once didn't).

But the ThIS format specialized in 1960s and '70s movies not at all easy to find anywhere else -- the weirdly haunting original Charles Bronson/Jan Michael Vincent version of "The Mechanic," for instance, which was recently remade badly with Jason Statham and Ben Foster.

Let's cede that WBBZ's new MeTV format of old TV has huge pleasures all its own besides fleeting afternoon sightings of Ihnat for eccentric devotees of character actors who know the difference between Jerome Cowan and Robert Keith (the latter, for one thing, was Brian Keith's father).

I'm emphatically not a sitcom watcher, but those people who are can catch vintage great ones nightly on WBBZ -- "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Honeymooners," etc.

Station owner Phillip A. Arno is even talking about a slate of local programming eventually, with visions of a local version of "The Tonight Show" dancing like sugar plums in his head. In Jane Kwiatkowski's announcement story last week, he also mentioned trying to lure two fondly remembered local Susans of Buffalo TV -- Banks and Hunt -- to the station that has been offering us Ihnat sightings.

I'll believe any part of this when I see it, but it's hard not to be more than a little tickled by a local TV station owner even thinking that way.

In the meantime, an orgy of old TV now awaits those who tune into WBBZ.

If Ihnat's back on "Rawhide," can sightings of Harry Townes, Myron Healy and Mike Kellen be far behind?

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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