Johnny Carson may be slick, but Max Headroom is in a different league entirely. His hair is so sleek it appears to be plasticine. From the Paul Newman blue eyes to the perfectly chiseled chin, his features are perfect. Any toothpaste company on earth would pay to take credit for the gleam in his smile. And his manner is flawless.
Almost flawless. He occasionally stutters in rapid-fire bursts that sound something like the scratching you hear on rap records, he's a bit overbearing and he keeps going on about golf. But other than that, Max Headroom is so ideal he could have been created by computer.
Which, in fact, he was. "The Max Headroom Show" -- England's hippest video/talk show and a new entry in the American market via Cinemax -- is hosted by what is supposed to be the world's first computer-generated TV host. In reality, Max isn't entirely microchips: He's created by taking a Washington-born actor, encasing him in thick makeup and molded hair, shooting him on videotape and then electronically altering the tape to make Max even more charmingly artificial.
The story is explained in an introductory movie that mixes computer technology with pop culture residue in a dizzying concoction that makes the acclaimed stylishness of a stateside offering like "Miami Vice" look dowdy. It goes like this: "Twenty minutes into the future," investigative reporter Edison Carter discovers an unscrupulous network packing so much information into its commercials that some viewers explode. In pursuit of the story and chased by the bad guys, he runs into a garage sign saying "max headroom" -- that is, maximum vertical clearance.
He's knocked out and presumed dead. To cover up the disappearance, a young electronics whiz tries to duplicate Edison by computer, but creates a character who thinks his name is Max Headroom. The Max generator falls into the hands of sleazy pirate TV station operators who turn him into a 24-hour-a-day host. And Max, in his inimitable way, goes to work.
Not long ago, a crowd of L.A. party-goers got a glimpse of Max's work on television monitors scattered around the interior of Oscar's English Pub, where Cinemax hosted a party to introduce Max to America.
The screens showed rock and film star Sting at the counter of a cluttered apartment -- where, his head and shoulders visible in a TV set sitting on top of the bar, Max Headroom conducted an interview, speaking in a rapid-fire manner that's been described as "a combination of salesman, comedian, news reader and holy roller."
"Sting," intoned Max in his too-smooth, stentorian tones, "you've just released your first solo single, 'If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,' and a new album, 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' -- which I think is a strange title, but it's up to you what you call it -- and you're off on a world tour." He paused dramatically and asked his first question. "I suppose, like me, you've no time for golf."
Sting grimaced. "I have no time for golf," he moaned. "I hate golf, Max, you know this. It's an old man's game."
Max looked briefly irritated, then got down to business. "Okay," he said. "I won't take that as the personal dig I'm sure it was meant to be. Your new album has a different feel to it with . . . jazz musicians." A muttered aside: "Trendy." Then, to Sting: "Has this been a musical learning process for you?"
"I think every album you do is a learning process, Max," began Sting, intently. "I think you have to learn in order to enjoy your life . . ."
On the screen, Max yawned. Loudly. Sting looked up.
"Am I boring you?"
"No, I'm sorry, sorry," laughed Max quickly. "I just didn't get much shut-eye over the last week or two. It's just been all go here, you know: superstardom on the upswing. Kind of tires a guy out." A pause. "Now, can we deal with your shoes for a moment? Do you have any -- how shall I put it right off the top of my head? -- color preference?"
So it went for half an hour, as TV's unlikeliest talk show host, rock video emcee and budding egomaniac waltzed through another edition of "The Max Headroom Show," a certified British hit that Cinemax is showing through the end of December.
Max hasn't made similar waves in America yet, but the crowd at Oscar's was openly enthusiastic when the show ended -- all except a tall guy with slicked-back blond hair, a checked blazer and skinny tie, who looked puzzled when an onscreen credit said "Max Headroom: Matt Frewer."
"What are they talking about?" he demanded loudly. "They can't fool me. That guy's a robot, not a person."
The skeptic was, naturally, Matt Frewer himself, who knows better than anyone that Max Headroom is indeed a person: a slightly uncomfortable person who undergoes 4 1/2 hours of makeup -- "rubber cement and porridge" is how he describes it -- to change from a mild-mannered actor into Max.
"Being Max is good in a way, because you're not really associated with a character," Frewer says. "Because of the makeup and everything you're not immediately recognizable. So I can go into film interviews and they don't say, 'Sorry, no parts for rubber men today!' "
Instead, he says, "They ask, 'What have you been doing lately?' I tell them I'm Max Headroom, and that's when they say, 'Get out!' "
Max Headroom is an unmistakably English creation. Matt Frewer isn't, despite the dry wit and mock pomposity that are integral parts of both his and Max's personalities. Frewer moved to Canada at an early age; there he received a biology degree, but seven years ago moved to England to try his hand as an actor. He jumped out a window in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." He marched in "The Lords of Discipline."
Then he met Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, two commercial, video and TV directors who had been hired by London's Channel 4 and Chrysalis Video Programming.
"The original idea was to string pop videos together with wacky graphics," says Morton. A writer came up with the name "The Max Headroom Show," implying a sky's-the-limit sort of affair. Then Morton and Jankel saw a still from the 1955 B-movie "Creature With the Atom Brain." The photo showed a man with stitches across his brow and a huge forehead; that, they figured, had to be Max Headroom himself.
But Max's personality didn't evolve until Frewer was hired, when they also abandoned the sci-fi look for what Frewer calls "a satirized cartoon version" of his own features. "They chucked some sample scripts at me," he remembers, "and told me to do what I wanted with it. We just sort of mucked around with it from there, really.
"What I had in mind was to have the professional slickness of somebody like Johnny Carson with the goofy charm of Ted Baxter."
Plus an obsession with golf. "Golf is played by stars and politicians and big bankers, and Max likes to mix with those people," explains Jankel.
"He also likes the fashions," adds Frewer. "He loves cheesy slacks and bright yellow Y-neck sweaters."
Channel 4's ratings for Max's time slot doubled within five weeks of putting the show on the air -- and the attraction was clearly the host, not the videos. Some fans, says Morton, took to recording the shows and fast-forwarding past the videos.
As Max himself explained when he was interviewed live on British host Terry Wogan's top-rated talk show (Terry was in a chair, Max on a video screen), "The videos that I introduce . . . well, they're great fillers. You see, they give my audience a little bit of breathing space in between bouts of me."
Naturally, plans are now afoot to give Max something grander, perhaps even a live variety show. "Hopefully, the new series will be more of a free-for-all, anything-goes sort of audience participation show," says Frewer. "Rather than Max with videos, it will be the Eddie Ego show."
Cinemax would also like to use Max for its own ends -- provided, of course, that Frewer's up to it.
"I couldn't do him for a while because the last time we did a Max session I got a chunk of rubber into my left eye," he explains. "I got quite a nasty abrasion and had to wander around with an eyepatch on."
Morton cuts in. "But that doesn't bother us much, because if you lose your eyes we can just put bigger contact lenses in."
"That's right," nods Frewer. "I'm quite happy to do it blind. I'll do anything for money."
Jankel pipes up. "You might as well sell your legs to the body bank, you know."
Frewer thinks about it. "Yes, that's right. They haven't come in very handy for the last 18 months or so."