We've just gotten digital cable here at Headquarters, and with it, free on-demand access to well...almost anything as part of the cable company's come-on. So I'm switching around, and light upon...a handsome older gentleman in a cape and a beanie with an incredibly well-trained voice stalking around the stage like a rock star with a piece of chalk in his hand. I stopped dead in my tracks, put the remote down, and settled in for a wild ride. I was in the (virtual) presence of Fulton J. Sheen, in his show Life is Worth Living as originally aired by the Dumont network 1952 - 1957.

Archbishop Sheen is best known today as the source of Martin Sheen's name and licks, and as a cultural touchstone for Catholics of a certain age (read: pre-Vatican II). Perceptive viewers can see this in him: the penetrating stare and aura of calmly benign, yet absolute authority are classic Sheen-as-President Bartlett. That he deserves more than that became readily apparent: it was all I could do to remind myself that this wasn't a classic Hollywood actor portraying a priest, but something like a priest 'playing' an actor -- production values, pacing, gestures, content, were all of the quality that one would expect of a well-made film of the time -- perhaps DuMont's partnership with Paramount Pictures had something to do with this? His subject, as I recall, was the problems of modern industrial labor, which was quite the hot button issue of the 1950's. Speaking in an idiosyncratic slow-fast- slow-faster-slow format, making sure to write out key points and difficult words on his chalkboard (the Spencerian calligraphy was a joy in itself) he outlined a reasoned, erudite, and only faintly religious (he seemed to think serfdom -- which was tied to the land and implied a joint responsibility -- was better than being a servant) history of labor issues from slavery to feudalism to the (then) modern era in a way that totally fascinated me, though I usually don't find leftism at all interesting. He seemed warm, compassionate, and eerily sexy (for a priest), which seemed all the more compounded by his evident pleasure in wearing the full 17th century archbishop get-up, from purple silk satin cope to lace trimmed alb, in public. According to interested sources, he often spent up to 30 hours preparing for one of these half-hour segments, which he delivered totally unscripted and without notes -- even though I'm sure that I would have probably sit still for the Manhattan phone book if this man was reading it. And the jokes are pretty good, too.

I'd advise you to check it out. Really. And I'm not Catholic.

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