Hey you guys. I’ve been light on posting here at the Banter recently but I haven’t been idle. Recently, I’ve reprinted a pile of good stories at The Stacks.
[Photo Credit: USA Scanning]
Hey you guys. I’ve been light on posting here at the Banter recently but I haven’t been idle. Recently, I’ve reprinted a pile of good stories at The Stacks.
[Photo Credit: USA Scanning]
Ernie Banks, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neill, and best known as Mr. Cub, died yesterday. We salute him with this column that John Schulian wrote for the Chicago Daily News on August 5, 1977.
“Mr. Cub Remembers”
By John Schulian
He works in an office now. How that must hurt, even though the office is at Wrigley Field. When he dreamed as a young man, there was probably never a hint that he would have to stop playing the game that was, and as, his life.
But he did, and now he finds himself growing more and more apart from the new breed of Cubs. He has visited their clubhouse only once in this delicious season. The rest of the time, he has done nothing more than watch the players through his window as they leave the ballpark.
Ernie Banks says he doesn’t mind.
He is the Cubs’ group sales manager and their unofficial host, and he insists that he has all he can do to take care of those jobs. But he still leaves the impression that he would love to have someone tell him the clubhouse isn’t the same without him.
“When I walk in there,” Banks was saying Friday, “I think of where Billy Williams used to sit, and where Ron Santo used to sit, and where Glenn Beckert used to sit. It’s a real emotional jolt for me.”
In less that twenty-four hours, Banks would be playing in the Cubs’ first old-timer’s game with the men who populate his happy memories and the happy memories of fans who go back four decades and more. “It’s hard to believe I’m an old-timer,” he said.
He has already begun a campaign to make Saturday’s crowd forget that he is forty-seven years old and that his final game as an active player was in 1971. On Tuesday, he jogged a mile in Wrigley Field, sweated through a set of calisthenics, and stirred a breeze by swinging a bat big enough to fell an ox.
“Fifty-four inches, forty-eight ounces,” he said. “They don’t allow any bigger bats in professional baseball. You swing this one—just swing it—and you’ll build up the muscles in your forearms.”
Banks followed his self-prescribed regimen until Friday. Then he pronounced himself almost ready to face live pitching for the first time since he smacked a home run in an old-timer’s game in Los Angeles a year ago. What he had to do before that, though, was confer with Lew Fonseca, the attending physician for the Cubs’ hitters.
“Lew Fonseca told me a very important thing,” Banks said. He picked up a thirty-five-inch bat bearing his name from against a file cabinet and took his stance behind his desk. “Lou Fonseca told me not to swing the way I used to. I’ve got to get set when the pitcher takes his sign. Hey, I tried it. It worked beautiful.”
So Banks had the safeguard he was looking for. While he is as courtly as he has been painted, he is also unrepentantly proud of his 512 career homers and his membership in the Hall of Fame. “I want people to remember me the way I was,” he said, “not as someone who couldn’t pick up a grounder or hit the ball out of the infield.”
It is easy to see him as a man-child who may never be able to accept a role in the world outside the white lines of a baseball diamond. After all, he was so bewildered by retirement that he almost left the Cubs organization and returned to Dallas, where he was born. But P.K. Wrigley, the team’s reclusive owner, wouldn’t let that happen. He stepped in and saw to the invention of a job where Banks would spend half his time hustling tickets and the other half wandering around the ballpark, charming the customers.
It was a splendid idea with one possible flaw: The public might see Banks as the Chicago equivalent of wasted old Joe Louis greeting round-the-clock gamblers in a Las Vegas casino. Banks would have not of it Friday, however, as he signed autographs with one hand and guided a camera crew from ABC-TV news on a tour of the bleachers. The best word for his every move was dignified.
“It shouldn’t be any other way,” he said. “The fans respect me and I respect them back.”
Dignity does not translate into stiffness where Banks is concerned. After the Cubs stymied the Mets 5-0, he told everyone who approached his office, “It was Ladies Day and we made all the ladies happy.” When he discovered Dave Lamont, who occupies the desk next to his, had a prospective ticket buyer on the line from Webster, Iowa, Banks shouted, “Tell him we want all of Webster to get behind the Cubs.”
The office litany continued until Banks remembered something more important. “I better hang up my uniform for the old-timer’s game,” he said. “Don’t want any wrinkles in it.”
He reached into a well-worn duffel bag with a peeling identification tag and pulled out his uniform. “These people in Milwaukee made it for me special,” he said. “It’s just like the one I wore when I broke into the big leagues in 1953.”
He held it high and turned around to look at the blue 14 on the back. Then he stood and pulled the top on over his white shirt and striped tied. When he had zipped it up all the way, he spun slowly, modeling it for everyone in the office and wishing perhaps that he could go back to the time when the feel of a big league uniform was brand-new.
[This column can be found in Schulian’s essential collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand. And for the true story behind Banks’ famous saying, “Let’s Play Two”, dig this from Glenn Stout.]
Photo Credit: John Dominis via It’s a Long Season
And here’s another piece I’m honored to present–James Baldwin’s 1966 story about police brutality and racism:
On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’ ”
An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station. There: “About thirty-five I’d say came into the room, and started beating, punching us in the jaw, in the stomach, in the chest, beating us with a padded club—spit on us, call us niggers, dogs, animals—they call us dogs and animals when I don’t see why we are the dogs and animals the way they are beating us. Like they beat me they beat the other kids and the elderly fellow. They throw him almost through one of the radiators. I thought he was dead over there.”
[Photo Via: Renata Cherlise]
Bunch of years ago, my pal John Schulian hipped me to “The Mongoose”, Jack Murphy’s long 1961 New Yorker profile of Archie Moore. Murphy was a sports writer in San Diego–you remember, they named the ballpark after him–and this was a one-off freelance assignment. It’s a really nice, meaty piece. Reason you won’t find it in any boxing anthologies is because it’s just prohibitively long.
Enter–the Internet! It took awhile to secure the rights–a few years of hunting around, in fact–but I’m proud to finally bring it to you. So if n your interested, head on over to The Stacks and check out this story about one of boxing’s great characters:
Moore is acutely aware of his special position as a champion—and, more particularly, as a Negro champion. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he says gravely. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity, and it is tough to be a loser and let down a whole race.” In 1959, not long after the Durelle fight, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., invited Moore to try out for the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in a movie version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both Moore and his wife were leery of what they called “handkerchief-head parts,” and a Negro publication cautioned him against taking an “Uncle Tom” role, but he proceeded with the screen test, was offered the part, and signed a contract with Goldwyn.
Moore is unconscionably proud of the fact that he won the role in competition with professional actors as well as amateurs. (Among the latter was Sugar Ray Robinson, who was then the middleweight boxing champion. “Ray lost the part because he was too sleek,” said Archie. “They didn’t have sleek slaves in those days.”) Moore has boasted about how, although he was training for a title fight at the time, he memorized a sixteen-page transcript for his screen test and went before the cameras after only one rehearsal. The way he tells it, his performance in the test alone entitled him to an Oscar. At the end of the scene, as he recalls it, the professionals on the set—electricians, stagehands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause. “Tears came from the director’s eyes,” says Archie. “Goldwyn was dabbing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder. An electrician told me it was only the second time in 30 years that he had seen such emotion during a test.” However accurate these recollections may be, the director of the movie, Michael Curtiz, appears to agree with Moore’s own estimate of his talent. “Archie has instinctive acting ability,” said Curtiz. “He seems to know just the right inflection to give a line, and his facial expressions are marvelous.”
When Moore first saw the script of the movie, he noted that the offensive word “nigger” appeared in it now and again, but he said nothing about this until the part was his and the contract signed. Then he began maneuvering. “I’m not a clever man, but I know how to get things done,” he said later. “The script used the word ‘nigger’ at least nine times. I went through it with a pencil and struck out the word everywhere I found it. Then I took it up with Mr. Goldwyn. I told him I couldn’t play the part unless he would agree to the deletions. I told him, ‘You are a young man, Mr. Goldwyn, and times are changing. How could I play this part when it would cause my people to drop their heads in shame in a theater?’ Goldwyn thought about it and he agreed with me. He ordered the deletions. The man who wrote the script was furious; his anger meant nothing to me. I had saved my people from embarrassment.” (Actually, the word was used only once in the movie, and then when Moore was offstage.)
[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]
“Ford,” he says reverentially. “Fucking Ford. You’ll never see skillets and steaks like that in anybody else’s picture. He’s like the Dickens. It’s all about bigger than life. That’s what the old guys understood about movies. If it’s not bigger than life, put it on television.
“We got along from the start. Maybe I knew how to deal with him. The first day of Liberty, I was hanging around waiting for Ford to come in. Everybody told me how tough he was and not to say anything or he’d single you out and get on you the whole shoot. But as he walked in, I got up and saluted him. There was a dead silence. And then I said, ‘Well, chief, when the admiral comes aboard, the first mate has to pipe him in.’ He never got on me after that. He was a great lover of the navy, and he liked me because of it. He called me Washington. Because my family is descended from George Washington’s brother, James. Which few people know or expect.”
Which is an understatement. The standard guess on Marvin might best be summed up by a writer friend of mine who said, “He looks like he carne out of nowhere. He had no father, no mother, just spawned out there in some gulch and has spent his whole life hating the world that vomited him up.” Marvin would love that, for he’s worked hard to create his image. People don’t come over in bars with a glad hand and ruin his lunch. The reason is simple: they’re afraid if they do, he’ll kill them.
The whole world is running off to Miami for the Christmas holidays. Look around and you will have cause to wonder why all of these cities and towns even bothered to string colored lights above their streets and put lighted trees in their parks, because when Christmas Day comes there is not going to be anybody here to enjoy them. Everybody is going to be in Miami. Last week it was Willie Cue, of Baltimore, who stopped off on his way down long enough to have his Christmas savings lifted by another, more clever pool shark. And this week it was Mister Ham, General Delivery, United States.
They say a lot of these traveling men are nothing but bums, but that is one thing they will never say about Mister Ham, because Mister Ham wears a dark-blue suit and a bow tie and gold cuff links and also has a pencil-thin gray mustache. And if that is not enough class for you, Mister Ham also wears a speckled overcoat that has the inscription FRANKLIN SIMON, FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK on the label inside, a reminder of the good years. That is, Mister Ham had his Franklin Simon overcoat as late as three o’clock Wednesday afternoon.
Picture by Bags.
When David Letterman enters a small club, other young comics make way for him, and although he moves among them, he is separate. They haven’t hosted The Tonight Show and he has. The other young comics have to beg audiences for their attention at lonelier clubs, on later nights, attacking them, splaying their personalities onstage. They do imitations of Bigfoot in different dialects, they imagine the Elephant Man doing ads for the Chrysler K-car, they evoke and torture their parents’ domestic intimacies before a high, dark room full of people in Westwood or Santa Monica or Hollywood. Blinded by a spotlight, a young comic stands on a stage and calls jokes into the night, waiting for the laughter, hearing his own voice in its terrifying clarity—a sound garnished by a few low coughing chuckles from the crowd. “So you hate me,” the young man says with sweaty anger. “What do I care? Anyone got a cigarette?” He is given one. “So you hate me… so I’ll talk to my dick.” He pulls his waistband and talks down into his crotch. “Hello, Poky!” he says. “How are you Poky? Jump, Poky. Please?” There’s a silence, and the young man glares out into the black. “I always get best when I feel mean,” he says, and resumes talking to his crotch. The audience turns its head and coughs.
No such quiet fills a room when David Letterman comes through a curtain; quiet skitters away like many fleeing waiters. People yell, “Hey-yo!” and they yell, “How hot was it!” They seem to feel very close to Letterman indeed, and he stands and laughs in his white sweater and blue jeans and swings the microphone around like the old pro he’s practicing to be. “Hey-yo!” a straggler calls. “What a fine crowd,” Letterman says, and that gets the laughs it seeks. The audience is all in favor of allowing Letterman to make them laugh; they know he’s funny. He just has to talk, and they work so that he’ll acknowledge them. “This is more fun,” Letterman tells the crowd, “than humans should be allowed to have.” They laugh and clap. “Hey-yo!” someone yells.
Other young comedians come and go. They work the rooms and they yearn for their moment under the television lights—the moment that can turn them into paradigms of our age, the names cut into the marble walls of our culture halls: BRENNER. CHASE. KLEIN. Some can do dialect humor, others can simulate young people on drugs for an audience’s satisfaction, others can insult their wives. None of them will do anything that really hurts because that would keep them off television and push them into selling aluminum siding (which DANGERFIELD almost had to do).
The comedian who can make it on television is the one who can preside over the talk show landscape. He’s the comedian who can keep things going and react to the traffic of guests sitting down on and leaving a couch; he’s the comedian who represents security and durability to a network. Who knows, who even cares anymore, whether Johnny Carson is actually funny? We know that we like to laugh with him, but who knows whether he actually pushes the catch lever that leads to the joy-pain spasm? He is, more than anything, a triumphant and reassuring habit; he can react and act with the flow of the society, and because of that he’s worth more than any eight sitcoms.
David Letterman is that sort of good horse, the good choice in the morning lineup to provide thirty or forty or fifty years of solid, non-scalding comedy for national consumption. Like Carson, he knows that the long run is left to those who know to hold off and save it for the stretch. He’s not the one to wing it up toward the sun or to kill the audience a thousand times and himself last. When he works an audience, Letterman works at half speed so that he can generate while he goes; it’s the broadcast tradition of the talker. He goes on and on when he works, sending tendrils out into an audience, practicing. Just a funny guy is David L., just a firm hand who keeps his hostility in check, unsheathing, like Carson, a measured fury, and this restraint is what entitles him to the right to endure in a television age. Someone’s yelling “Hey-yo!” at Letterman, and because of that, all of that, NBC is paying him one million dollars a year. Letterman will inherit the air and the cables, gather his resources, and almost never reach for the emergency weapon—the lethal anger behind the sheet of glass—that the smartest ones keep in reserve for the moment of crisis when they doubt, and so need to demonstrate, that they are unchallengeably in charge of their audience.
[Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis]
If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.
In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.
Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.
Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.
Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.
But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.
Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.
All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”
Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?
No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?
But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.
Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.
As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”
Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.
The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.
Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”
When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”
Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
* * * * *
Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.
All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”
Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”
Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.
For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”
No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.
But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.
Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.
The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.
This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.
Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.
“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.
The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”
The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.
A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”
Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.
Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.
[Photo Credits: via various Tumblr sites and Wikipedia; Ali and Inoki, Tim Wehr ©Stars and Stripes]
He was a bit like the Eiffel Tower. You hear about it all your life, and when you finally see the damn thing, it looks so much like the postcards, it’s difficult to see it fresh. Hitchcock’s public self was so distinct that it was often impossible to know if I was dealing with the corporeal man or the invented persona. I think he sometimes got it confused, particularly in his storytelling. He was a well-known raconteur, and some of his stories were widely known and repeated–often by him. There were times when he seemed to feel obliged to tell Alfred Hitchcock stories. Sometimes he was at the top of his form and told them well; other times less so. I was aware of this and, as I came to see, so was he. With his high-waisted black suits–with trousers that rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed and with a black tie tucked into his pants–he looked positively fictional, out of Dickens, perhaps, or a banker by Evelyn Waugh.
When I was working with him, he was seventy-nine years old and was sometimes lost in the solitude of great physical pain, arthritis mostly. He moved in and out of senility and yet, for all that, he seemed in no hurry to finish his work, even though his life was clearly limited. There was always time in our work sessions for stories and anecdotes. One minute the script, the next a story about Ivor Novello’s tailor or the Tahiti steamer schedule in the Thirties. Sometimes the talk was without apparent purpose, but at other times some shred of casual chatter would turn out useful to our work. He was obsessed with detail and had a slow, meandering style.
Hitchcock had the historical good fortune to have worked from silent films through television. At his best, he was an inventor of part of the modern cinema’s grammar. But unlike any other director, he was an identifiable public figure, as recognizable as any president or movie star. Television did that for him–but long before his television show he was popping up in all his own movies, those tiny cameo appearances that audiences loved. He exploited a physique that most would try desperately to diminish. He wasn’t crazy about being fat, but he saw his body as a tool to use in the making of his career. He always claimed that “in England everyone looks as I do, and no one would remark on it.” Maybe–but he exploited his profile as effectively as any pinup.
I have one of the few jobs where the first thing people ask about is penises. Well, Reggie Jackson was my first. And yes, I was scared. I was 22 years old and the first woman ever to cover sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Up until then, my assignments had been small-time: high school games and features on father-daughter doubles teams and Hacky Sack demonstrations. But now it was late September, and my editor wanted me to interview Mr. October about what it was like not to make the playoffs.
I’d heard the stories: the tales of women who felt forced to make a stand at the clubhouse door; of the way you’re supposed to never look down at your notepad, or a player might think you’re snagging a glimpse at his crotch; about how you’ve always got to be prepared with a one-liner, even if it means worrying more about snappy comebacks than snappy stories.
Dressed in a pair of virgin white flats, I trudged through the Arlington Stadium tunnel—a conglomeration of dirt and spit and sunflower seeds, caked to the walkway like 10,000-year-old bat guano at Carlsbad Caverns—dreading the task before me. It would be the last day ever for those white shoes—and my first of many covering professional sports.
And there I was at the big red clubhouse door, dented and bashed in anger so many times it conjured up an image of stone-washed hemoglobin. I pushed open the door and gazed into the visitors’ locker room, a big square chamber with locker cubicles lining its perimeter and tables and chairs scattered around the center. I walked over to the only Angel who didn’t yet have on some form of clothing. Mr. October, known to be Mr. Horse’s Heinie on occasion, was watching a college football game in a chair in the middle of it all—naked. I remember being scared because I hadn’t known how the locker room was going to look or smell or who or what I would have to wade through—literally and figuratively—to find this man.
It’s worth your time:
I remember Pong and I remember when my Dad’s friend Marty got Atari and had Space Invaders. Then, at least in my memory, I remember Asteroids coming before Pac Man.
Over at the Daily Beast, I curated a story that David Owen wrote for Esquire back in 1981 on the Asteroids craze. It was the first magazine story Owen ever wrote and it holds up:
It’s lunchtime in Manhattan, and the Playland arcade at Forty-seventh Street and Broadway is crowded. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Playland’s traditional clientele of Times Square drifters and truant schoolboys is what appears to be a full-scale assault team from the corporate tower of nearby Rockefeller Center. You can hardly move from one end of the place to the other without grinding your heel on somebody’s wing-tip shoe. Over near the Seventh Avenue entrance, a tall thin man with a briefcase pressed between his knees is hunched over a flashing pinball table called JAMES BOND. At a change station near the center of the room, a portly lawyer type is converting the contents of his wallet into enough quarters to bribe a congressional subcommittee. There are three-piece suits everywhere. But the densest agglomeration of gray wool by far stands at the very front of the arcade by a long bank of thumping, thundering machines, where a veritable legion of young executives is lined up three deep to play Asteroids.
Asteroids, at the moment I am writing, is the most popular coin-operated game—video, pinball, or other—in the United States. It jumped to the number one spot not long ago by out-earning Space Invaders, a simple-minded but wildly successful Japanese import that swept this country after creating something close to mass hysteria (not to mention a coin shortage) in Japan. Introduced in December 1979, Asteroids quickly became standard equipment in bars, arcades, and airports all over the country. Tavern owners who had previously been scared away from coin-op games by pinball’s underworld reputation now began to clamor for Asteroids. Atari Inc., the game’s manufacturer, had trouble keeping production in step with demand. There are now sixty thousand Asteroids machines on location worldwide, most of them in the United States and most of them astonishingly popular. Machines in hot locations have been known to bring in as much as one thousand dollars a week, enough to pay for themselves in a little more than a fortnight. Operators who tend fleets of machines are finding they have to make extra trips to their locations just to empty the coin boxes of the Asteroids machines.
As impressive as the sales and collection figures are, one of the most intriguing facts about Asteroids is not how many people are playing it but which ones. Continuing a trend begun by its immediate predecessors, Asteroids has helped open up the coin-op market to a brand-new clientele: not just chain-smoking teenagers with time on their hands but responsible, well-paid men in their twenties, thirties, forties, and even fifties, who in some cases haven’t seen the inside of an amusement arcade since the days when pinball games had pins. And now these men—these sober minions of the gross national product—are backing out of expense-account lunches and sneaking away from elegant restaurants to play Asteroids.
“I’ve pretty much eliminated lunch as an ongoing part of my daily routine,” says a thirty-four-year-old stockbroker. “I’d rather play than eat. Along about four o’clock my stomach begins to growl, but Asteroids has made me a happy man.”
From the funtastic new book, The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, check out this short essay Westlake wrote about working with Stephen Frears.×
Westlake wrote a screenplay based on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for Stephen Frears’s acclaimed 1990 film adaptation, which ended up receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Screenplay. This essay was published in Writers on Directors in 1999.
Here are two things Stephen Frears said to me. The first was several months before The Grifters was made and, in fact, before either of us had signed on to do the project. We had just recently met, brought together by the production company that had sent us to California to look at the place. Driving back from La Jolla toward L.A., me at the wheel of the rented car, Stephen in the seat beside me musing on life, he broke a longish silence to say, “You know, there’s nothing more loathsome than actually making a film, and it’s beginning to look as though I’ll have to make this one.” The second was the night of the same film’s New York premiere, at the post-opening party, when he leaned close to me in the noisy room and murmured, “Well we got away with it.”
I think what attracted me to Stephen in the first place is that, in a world of manic enthusiasm, here at last I’d met a fellow pessimist. Someone who would surely agree with Damon Runyon’s assessment: “All of life is six to five against.”
Not that he’s a defeatist, far from it. For instance, he refused to let me turn down the job of writing The Grifters, a thing that never happens. The normal sequence is, a writer is offered a job, thinks it over, says yea or nay, and that’s that. Having been offered this job, I read Jim Thompson’s novel—or reread, from years before—decided it was too grim, and said nay. That should have been the end of it, but the next thing I knew, Frears was on the phone from France, some Englishman I’d never met in my life, plaintively saying, “Why don’t you want to make my film?” I told him my reasons. He told me I was wrong, and proceeded to prove it—”It’s Lilly’s story, not Roy’s,” was his insight, not mine—and I finally agreed to a meeting in New York, which was the beginning of the most thoroughly enjoyable experience I’ve ever had in the world of movies.
Here’s another thing Stephen said to me: “I like the writer on the set.” This is not common among directors, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Did he want a whipping boy? Someone to hide behind? Someone to blame? (You can see that I too am not a manic enthusiast.)
Anyway, no. As it turned out, what he wanted was a collaborator, and what we did was a collaboration. I didn’t direct and he didn’t write, and between us both we licked the platter clean.
I am not a proponent of the auteur theory. I think it comes out of a basic misunderstanding of the functions of creative versus interpretive arts. But I do believe that on the set and in the postproduction process the director is the captain of the ship. Authority has to reside in one person, and that should most sensibly be the director. So my rare disagreements with Stephen were in private, and we discussed them off-set as equals, and whichever of us prevailed—it was pretty even—the other one shrugged and got on with it.
The result has much of Jim Thompson in it, of course. It has much in it of the talents of its wonderful cast and designer. It has some of me in it. But the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the three-inches-off-the-ground quality of it; that’s Stephen.
If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it? Stephen’s right, much of the filmmaking is loathsome. Pleasure and satisfaction have to come from the work itself and from one’s companions on the journey. The Grifters was for me that rarity; everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction. I hadn’t had that much fun on the job since I was nineteen, in college, and had a part-time job on a beer truck with a guy named Luke.
The Getaway Car is on sale now.
[Copyright Donald E. Westlake. Reprinted with permission from The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.]
Paul Newman had been a star for more than two decades when he went on fantastic run. It might not be his best string of movies, but starting in 1977 with Slapshot and lasting through The Color of Money in 1986, Newman delivered some of his most impressive work in movies like Fort Apache, the Bronx; The Verdict; and Absence of Malice.
In her review of Slapshot, Pauline Kael wrote:
“Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.”
His last great performance came a few years later in Robert Benton’s adaptation of Richard Russo’s wonderful book, Nobody’s Fool.
That’s when our man Peter Richmond—whose terrific first YA novel, Always a Catch, was published a few weeks ago—caught up with him. This piece first appeared in the January 1995 issue of GQ and appears here with the author’s permission.
He answers the door in slippers, a polite and questioning half-smile set off by tortoiseshell bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. He offers toast in the kitchen of his prewar penthouse late on a Sunday morning when the New York autumn is chilled by October showers and the sky is as absent of color as the froth of hair on top of his head. He is slicing a stick of butter, very carefully, with a serrated knife, peering over his spectacles so as not to cut off his fingertips. He is talking about the weather.
“I love it,” he says. “I just think the cold is blissful”—a pause for an inside-joke smile—“in my antiquity.”
It would seem, at best, an uneasy fit: Paul Newman and his seventieth birthday, this month. But spend more time with him and it’s clear that the man and the age are a good and comfortable match.
Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Luke, all the cons in search of the angle—maybe they’d fight it, fighting the roll of the seasons. But Paul Newman—who now, finally, is none of these people—is clearly at home with his current circumstance: as no one but himself.
You knew him for the color of his eyes and the chiseled perfection of his torso, but in fact you knew nothing but the way Paul Newman looked. You have never been on familiar terms with Paul Newman the symbol, the symbol of whatever it was you wanted him to be: the defiant youth, perhaps, but without the darker currents of James Dean, or the outcast, but without the bluster of Brando, or, eventually and most memorably, the cad thief or villain eternally redeemed by a beatific smile.
But he is no symbol now. Paul Newman’s physical presence is no longer overwhelmingly compelling, a fact that leaves us—and him—with much more of the essence of the man. In his new movie, the story of nothing but the quiet emotions of an aging man, his looks are irrelevant, and he seems entirely suited to the role.
He does not pretend to have all of the answers. Questions remain. He asks them gently, in a low voice, using measured words and separated by long pauses, all of it punctuated by frequent glances at the rain patting the terrace outside the living-room windows.
“I am thoroughly and predictably concerned about what was my accomplishment and what was the accomplishment of my appearance, which I have no control over,” he says. “What was attributable to me? And what is the difference between a truly creative artist and an interpretive artist? I have not concluded anything about that, but it’s fair to ask the question.”
It’s not the usual rope-skip one expects from people of note who deign to cede a few minutes of their days to an interviewer. This is a deliberative conversation, and he tries to get as much meaning into as few words as possible. He’s never had any love for the interview process, but he is nonetheless polite enough to want to convey something substantial in a short time. Envision, if you can, a weight attached to every phrase.
“And everybody shakes their head and says ‘Oh, isn’t it too bad that he doesn’t enjoy…more of a sense of accomplishment,’ and so forth,” he continues. “But it’s not a false sense of modesty or self-deprecation. It’s really just looking at it and saying ‘Where did it come from? What do you owe it to?’”
So it should come as no surprise that the definitive question Paul Newman poses about his life is whether an entire career was forged on the pigment of his eyes.
“You’re constantly reminded,” he says. “There are places you go and they say ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to…you just want to…I dunno, um…thump them.”
He holds up his right hand—“A short chop right above the bridge of the nose”—and gives up a laugh.
“They could say, ‘Hey, its very nice to meet you’—that’s great. Or ‘Thanks for a bunch of great performances,’ and you can feed off that for a week and a half. But the other thing, which is always there, is a never-ending reminder.”
The eyes. He proposes that if we insist on putting his picture on GQ’s cover, we eschew the usual mug of shot and run one simply of his eye. His right eye. Close up. Just the eye.
“This bloodshot blue eye,” he says, and he laughs. And then he says, “Or take the engine out of a stock Ford. Have the hood up. I’ll just be sleeping in there.”
The last is not a non sequitar. It’s an allusion—a comic allusion—to an arena in which Paul Newman answered the question of how much of his success was due to talent and hard work. He was a champion race-car driver. He was good at driving; his looks didn’t matter. But that time is over now, too. Newman raced just once last year. The previous year, he’s raced in six events and crashed in five of them.
“Driver error,” he says now. “The teeth get longer. The hair gets thinner. The eyes and ears don’t sense danger as quickly as they did before. You can’t go fast, so you try and go faster.”
Madness lies that way, of course. And so on a Sunday morning when two years ago he might have been up on the track at Lime Rock, in Connecticut, he’s wending his way through The Times instead. His wife is in another part of the apartment, listening to opera. An aria winds out of the room and finds us. Newman falls silent; the conversation pauses.
But it is the most welcome of silences, too; fifteen stories above the Central Park reservoir, amid books and family photographs and very old paintings. It is so peaceful that time feels if it’s not even passing.
“Bette Davis said it best of all: ‘Getting old ain’t for sissies,’ “he said eventually. “I mean—suppose, to do it right, it ain’t for sissies.”
How do you do it right?
“Stay in the thick of it, I guess…I’ve been working on this thing on and off for seven years.”
I need a moment to make the connection: The “thing” is his current project—not Nobody’s Fool, the movie just out, but the next one—he assumes that I know what he’s talking about because it’s on his mind all of the time; it’s what binds his professional life now. It’s the script he’s been writing for the past year and a half. The film he’ll direct.
The writing is what drives him. It’s easier than getting in front of the camera, where the way he used to look has become an issue. “Which is part of why I’m directing this next film,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. But other people worry about it. And I’m at that point where…it just takes too much effort.”
They never seemed effortless, the men in Paul Newman’s catalogue. They were all highly complicated, not a flat-out, clear cut hero among them—pool hustler, grifter, alcoholic lawyer and now, in Nobody’s Fool, a man who abandoned his family because it was the easy thing to do. They were flawed and beautiful men in circuitous search of redemption, and Newman wore the characters effortlessly.
This was not luck or fortuitous casting. He did the foundation work for years, on the stage and in bad films, but so did any number of pretty young men. What Newman brought to the screen, what allowed him to blossom, was his ability to make Hud and Harper and Fast Eddie so familiar. So identifiable. Their troubles were always, somehow, real.
“I had some troubling years,” Newman says.
Newman did what many young men do. He drank; he fought. He should have known better, he says now. After combat duty in the Pacific, he put in four years at Kenyon College and a year at Yale Drama. He was kicked off the football team at Kenyon for taking part in a tavern rumble between college kids and townies—a particularly embarrassing episode, given that Newman hadn’t even been rounded up with the original arrestees; it was only when he showed up at the jail to give the quarterback his car keys that a cop saw the second-stringer’s scuffed knuckles and locked him up, too. Several years later, there was an arrest for leaving the scene of an accident in which no one had been hurt. “A mistake,” he admits. “Dumb.”
“I barely made it in my time,” he says. “And don’t forget that the acceleration of everything was much slower. We only had booze in our day—which was bad and ugly enough. We didn’t have crack.”
In the kitchen, two empty beer cans stand upside down, side by side, in the dish rack, rinsed for the recyclers—aligned in orderly fashion, in defiance of any hint of impropriety.
Did his drinking ever come close to derailing what he had going?
After a moment’s thought, he nods and nods and nods. The silence stretches on and on. Then he says, “Fortunately, that was back in the Stone Age.” Silence again. “So.”
It is neither the time nor the place to ask for elaboration. Not in Paul Newman’s living room. That is a given. The overriding theme of the hundreds of interviews Newman had granted is his discretion. He saves a special disdain for the public’s gutter curiosities. Several years ago, amid the flowering of tabloid journalism, Newman announced that he’d adopted a personal theme: Fuck Candor.
His father was the successful proprietor of a sporting-goods store in Cleveland, and when Newman speaks of him, it is with respect for nothing so much as Arthur S. Newman’s integrity: “In the Depression,” he says, leaning a little closer over his coffee, “[he] got $200,000 worth of consignment from Spalding and Rawlings because [his] reputation for paying, [his] honesty, was so impeccable.” Arthur Newman, his son says, was many things: ethical, moral, funny. And distant. Newman once spoke of his anger and frustration at never being able to earn his father’s approval.
He met and married his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in 1949, when they were members of an acting troupe in Illinois. Upon his father’s death, in 1950, Newman moved his wife and infant son back to Cleveland but couldn’t put his heart into selling sports goods. He turned the business over to his brother and took his family to New Haven, for his year at Yale; soon afterward, he was working in New York. But his ascent on the stage coincided with a muddying of emotional waters: He met Joanne Woodward in 1952, worked with her frequently and found himself being pulled toward her. Newman and Jacqueline had three children by the time they divorced. In 1958, he married Woodward, and they subsequently had three daughters of their own. His career took flight.
In 1978, Scott Newman, his 28-year-old son, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The family endowed a drug-education foundation in his name. Several years later, Newman started a Connecticut camp for seriously ill children, and now his charity work had become the stuff of legend. He has gone into the food business and has been wildly successful in it. It’s typical refutation by Newman the person of Newman the Hollywood icon: Matinee idol joins the merchant class.
“I worked in the [sporting goods] store every Saturday as a kid,” he says. “And now I’m hustling salad dressing. What is the circularity of things?”
But the answer doesn’t seem too difficult to divine. The success of his food endeavor made Newman a businessman of good refute—someone his father could admire—and by donating his considerable profits ($56 million, so far) to various charities, he has equaled his father’s reputation for integrity.
More: He derives genuine pleasure from watching something he created flourish. “I can understand the romance of it,” he says. “Where you create something. It’s kind of like writing, in a way…where you say [to your creation] ‘Just stay right there’ and it says ‘I got other plans,’ and it goes shooting off in other areas. And you say ‘Look at that little fucker go.’ “
Clearly, the greatest joy he derives from the business these days is in designing the labels—fanciful, nonsensical, joyous paeans to the simple goodness of good food, Whitmanesque in spirit: “Terrifico! Magnifico…share with guys on the streetcar…ah, me, immortal!”
He writes the copy himself. On the new Caesar salad-dressing bottle, the government has co-opted three-fifths of his label for the mandatory nutritional data, robbing him of the space needed for what he wanted to write—an apocryphal story of the time he played Caesar at a regional theater and how, after he was stabbed, an offstage phone rang and another actor ad-libbed “I hope it wasn’t for Caesar.” Instead, he settled for a sketch of the morally wounded emperor, a bloody dagger pointing to the ingredients, and Caesar saying “Don’t dilute us, Brutus.”
Newman laughs at that one. Then he pauses again. Half of the morning in pauses.
Writing—the next movie, the labels—is a sensible thing for a man grown distrustful of the camera to do. He has found, in the scripting of a very personal film, a new creative surge. “I could have given up on this thing,” he says, “a long time ago.”
Did people tell him to?
“Oh boy—writers and friends. But I really am pleased with it. The way it turned out. It has the same kind of emotional progression as Nobody’s Fool. But much more personal.”
Nobody’s Fool is personal, too. As written, the character of Sully—an underachieving, good-natured, down-on-his-luck handyman in a depressed, snow-locked upstate-New York town—allowed for a great deal of invention on Newman’s part. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression,” he admits. “[I] had to create the progression of where he was emotionally.”
In giving Sully a life, he gave the character some of his own life. And after a couple of intentionally over-the-top roles—Governor Earl Long in Blaze, a corporate shark in The Hudsucker Proxy—he may have finally come up with a way to quiet his own questions about how much of his success is the result of a craft he worked hard to perfect.
At first glance, Sully appears to be a man who finds a small nobility in living a life that requires nothing but getting through each day with his circle of small-town friends. But his story is tangled when, by chance, he meets the son he abandoned when the boy was a year old and the grandchildren he’s never met and has never particularly wanted to meet. Thereafter he is forced to examine his life: simple and reassuringly placid on the surface but rooted in irresponsibility and neglect. Sully decides to face the truth of what his negligence has sown. And to make amends.
“His bravery,” Newman says, “was that he was at that point in his life when he did not want to…deny it anymore. He no longer tries to keep his own…accessibility…away from himself. [He finally] accepts his sense of family. And the incredible magnetism of that.
“I don’t know whether the audience will get that,” he says. “They may get something else. I don’t know that they’ll get all of the things this film means to me…[the] secrets between me and the character. They are tiny discoveries. And they’re mine. I don’t know if they’ll be visible.”
It is an oblique soliloquy. The gist of it seems to be that in Sully, Paul Newman had finally found a man who has made the right decision: to face himself in his waning years.
I begin to observe that it sounds as if Sully is in microcosm what Newman himself…but that is as far as I get.
“Yeah,” he says, interrupting me. “Painfully close. As this next film will be.”
His wife has taken the dog for a walk. The radio is silent. The rain has stopped. The coffee is cold.
“The nice thing about the picture was that you didn’t have to discover where the money was—you had to discover where he was,” Newman says. “It’s an examination of the good in ordinary people. But maybe in order to be good [in movies] you have to kill 53 people. Used to be you only had to kill three or four. Now everything has escalated. The insistence on sexual, visceral gratification has become so intense…The human animal is an escalating beast.”
His expression makes it obvious that he is reluctant to be led into this old swamp, into routine condemnation of the modern age, but it would hardly be right to talk with Paul Newman without getting his take on the social pulse. He was a Connecticut delegate in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and a member of a U.S. delegation to a 1978 United Nations session on disarmament. He was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. But his activism has since been reined in. “The Sixties—I had to have my foot in everything then,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing now but through an intermediary. You know. The food company. Maybe that’s the way to go about it. You go right straight into the inferno, and when you get older, you pull back. You don’t really give up your responsibilities, but you find some less exhausting way.”
Still, when he’s led into conversation about the mores of our time, his hands tap a drumbeat on the arms of his antique wooden chair.
“It’s kind of like those little electric bumper cars where you drive around and see if you can hit the other guy. That’s exactly what the country is like now. You no longer have the sense of community. Of loyalty. It’s lost its sense of group. It has nothing to do with leadership. Everybody’s out there alone, getting his own whacks. Instead of deifying the community, they’ve deified the individual. Maybe that’s necessary in principle. In the Bill of Rights. But… ‘What’s good for the individual is good for the country’? It simply is not true. What is good for the community is good for the country. Once you put the individual on a pedestal, it’s at the expense of everything else.
“What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time,” he says. “And that I’m, satisfied with that. And that’s comforting. I did okay. It’s been good. It’s nice to finally…get it as you get into your mid-sixties. It’s better than not getting it at all. And I have seen a lot of people who go to their graves without ever…without ever getting in touch with what it is that’s the core of them. It’s very easy as an actor…you can just walk around as Hud all day long, have people marvel at your grace, your manliness, your quick-wittedness. [But] it all eats away at whatever is at the core of…your own humanity. At getting in touch with that, and being satisfied with it, and comfortable.”
Being satisfied. Being comfortable. Getting it. We’re talking about him now, right?
“Yeah,” he says.
A moment later, en route to the elevator, he amplifies. Only a bit. But enough.
“I don’t have to worry,” he says, “about being something for somebody.”
The other half of the thought doesn’t need to be spoken: Now it’s time to be him for him.
Which is why, finally, the smile at the end of the morning—back at the apartment door, in the foyer, the elevator summoned—is different from the one that greeted me. It’s not just on his lips. It’s in his eyes.
The difference is not in their color. Their color is just sort of pale-blue.
It’s the light behind them. Maybe the light I want to see behind them. The light I do see behind them. The particularly brilliant light of winter.
[Photo Credit: Toni L. Sandys]
Today gives a wonderful profile of Billy Wilder that David Freeman wrote for The New Yorker in 1993. It originally appeared in the June 21, ’93 issue of the magazine and appears here with permission from the author.
Dig in, you’re sure to enjoy.
“Sunset Boulevard Revisited”
By David Freeman
For a while in the mid-eighties, United Artists paid Billy Wilder a big salary and set him up in an office at its Beverly Hills headquarters. He was supposed to advise the studio’s executives and to give his opinion on the productions they were planning. I asked him at the time how the arrangement was working out. He told me, “Every script, I tell them the same thing: Don’t do it.”
“Do they listen?”
“They do it anyway. Nine times out of ten, the picture flops. Then it’s ‘We should have listened to Billy.’ When there’s a hit, they’re so happy they forget what I said.”
Billy Wilder is the youngest of the generation of directors who dominated Hollywood in the period that shaped American movies and consequently America’s view of itself. They were the princes of the cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Stevens, George Cukor, and William Wyler. Wilder’s immediate contemporaries were Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston. Only Wilder remains.
Wilder’s best-known movie, Sunset Boulevard, is about to become an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Wilder says of the composer-impresario, “He’s the Ted Williams of musicals—all hits!” The production, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, opens at the Adelphi Theatre in London on July 12th. Patti LuPone plays Norma Desmond, the silent movie queen who has outlived her era.
Sunset Boulevard has become a sort of rallying point for movie buffs. In Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma they seem to see a camp diva, along the lines of Callas. The initiates recite the film’s dialogue, chanting such famous Norma Desmond lines as “We had faces” and “I’m ready for my closeup.” “You used to be big,” William Holden says to her. “I am big,” Swanson replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
* * * *
After sixty years in Southern California, Wilder looks like a libidinous owl and is almost as famous as a raconteur as he is for his movies. He uses a highly personal international syntax, which doesn’t always include transitions. Wilder has a tendency to mumble and then to explode into his point, which is often a punch line. His stories of the Hollywood that was are enthralling in ways that go beyond such subjective matters as truth. He may repeat a story, but never the same way twice. Wilder’s remarks circulate in Hollywood, savored and retold for years. Before her marriage, his wife, Audrey, lived with her mother in modest circumstances. Wilder told her, “I’d worship the ground you walk on, if you lived in a better neighborhood.”
Billy Wilder’s first neighborhood was the town of Sucha, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born on June 22, 1906, during the reign of the Emperor Franz-Josef. Wilder’s mother, Eugenia, who had visited America, named her second son Samuel but called him Billy, possibly for Buffalo Bill. (Billy’s brother, Wilhelm, was born in 1904. He, too, wound up in Hollywood, as W. Lee Wilder, a producer-director in the forties and fifties.) Billy’s father, Max, was in and out of businesses, including hotels and railroad station cafes, and in and out of money. As a child in Vienna, Billy took up a pool cue, stood on a chair in one of his father’s hotels, and shot billiards for pocket kronen. He lasted a few months at the University of Vienna, then quit to become a reporter on Die Stunde, a paper he recalls as the Viennese equivalent of a tabloid. “It was a revolver paper,” he says. “They came at you with a gun.” When the paper was putting together a special edition on the subject of Fascism, in 1925, Wilder was assigned to interview Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Adler, and Sigmund Freud. He took the trolley around Vienna, pursuing the great men. “My question was ‘What do you think of Fascism and the future?’ With Freud, I got to ‘Good afternoon, Professor.’ He said, ‘What paper?’ ‘Die Stunde,’ I answered. ‘Out!’ he said.”
In 1926, Wilder went to Berlin and began to write scenarios. To earn money, he worked as a dancer at the thés dansants at the Eden Hotel, twirling older women around the floor. When the Reichstag burned, Wilder, feeling that career possibilities for twenty-six-year-old Jewish scenario writers might be limited, fled to Paris, leaving behind his family and his native language. By 1934, he was in Hollywood, with no money, no English, and no work. He has always said that he lived for a while in the ladies’ room of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. It has become part of Hollywood’s mythology, and it may even be true.
Ernst Lubitsch, a Berliner, was the head of production at Paramount for about a year in the mid-thirties—the only first-rank director ever to run a Hollywood studio. Wilder was in awe of him then and still is. “I was taught by Lubitsch you should not notice the director. He should be invisible. You should notice the characters,” Wilder said recently, reminiscing about his mentor. On being asked if such restraint wasn’t contradicted by the self-conscious style of German Expressionism, in which Lubitsch had dabbled, Wilder said, “Yeah, sure. They did all those angles and that lighting because they couldn’t afford sets. When they got money, in Hollywood, they dropped all that stuff.” Wilder has often said, “Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors can with an open fly.”
Wilder got his chance with Lubitsch in 1936, when Paramount assigned him to work with Charles Brackett, a more experienced writer, on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Brackett, fourteen years Wilder’s senior, was a novelist and a gent. He was Harvard Law, class of 1920, and had been a drama critic for The New Yorker. When Lubitsch moved to M-G-M, he hired the pair to work on Ninotchka. Seven Brackett-Wilder scripts were shot before Wilder started directing; later, Brackett produced the pictures that he and Wilder wrote together.
During the Brackett era, Wilder’s scriptwriting methods were established. While Brackett, like all Wilder’s partners to come, jotted notes, Wilder paced the room, gesturing with a swagger stick or a baton, slicing the air. Brackett’s boozy Republican gentility was often at odds with Wilder’s brash ambition. Wilder was the junior man but the more forceful personality. The partners were known for their screaming matches as well as for their scripts. “We were opposites, from different parts of the world,” Wilder recalls. “Our temperaments had to be held in check. We fought a lot. Brackett and I were like a box of matches. We kept striking till it lights up. He would sometimes throw a telephone book at me.” They walked out on each other several times, each vowing to go it alone. But, like a couple in a marriage that doesn’t quite work but won’t quite end, they kept at it, locked in productivity and combat, and came to be known as BrackettandWilder.
For Wilder, a third colleague may have been as significant as Lubitsch and Brackett. Mitchell Leisen, a staff director at Paramount, directed three Brackett-Wilder scripts, and was unwittingly responsible for making Wilder a director. Wilder couldn’t bear him and often said so, believing that Leisen, who had started as a designer, knew nothing about storytelling and cared only for the drape of a skirt or the way a shadow fell. Wilder accused Leisen of tearing up carefully written scenes on the whim of an actor or just to demonstrate his authority. “He hated writers,” Wilder says. “I would come on the set and stop him. ‘What happened to that line?’ I would say. He would say, ‘I cut it. You’re bothering me.’ He came from set dressing.” The idea of Wilder’s mellowing is unlikely, and he still finds the subject of Leisen distasteful, but he acknowledges that Midnight and Arise, My Love, directed by Leisen from Bracken-Wilder scripts, are “good pictures.” Then he mutters, “I could have done them better.”
In the spirit of Lubitsch, Wilder’s cinema is one of exquisitely constructed scripts rather than ravishing images. It is also a cinema of frequently unsympathetic leading characters and of jokes and gags, the more topical, self-referential, or exuberantly vulgar the better. There are no Fordian horsemen plowing down snowy mountains; it is a writer’s cinema. Wilder became a director to protect what he had written. He always mapped out his story with a partner, then stuck to it on the set, often shooting in sequence and allowing for only minor changes. He frequently began production with an uncompleted script, writing as he shot, and this made him hard to fire. It was his way of giving immediacy to what he had written. Contemporary directors routinely talk about “finding their film” in the cutting room. Even directors working from their own scripts often encourage actors to improvise. They’re in search of spontaneity. “Unfortunately, they often find it,” Wilder says. Of the complicated camera angles now so much in vogue he says, “Down the chimney, through the fireplace: point of view, Santa Claus. Who else would be up there?”
In 1943, Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. “Brackett did not like to deal in risqué stories like that,” Wilder says. Although the movie is an enduring work, one of the best and most popular examples of film noir, Chandler had a rough time. He loathed Wilder’s strutting ways in the office. In a letter to Harnish Hamilton, his British publisher, he wrote, “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” Brackett was a picture man, though, and knew the value of the alliance. He and Wilder were soon back together for The Lost Weekend, which won Oscars in 1945 for best picture, script, and director, and for Ray Milland as best actor.
Brackett and Wilder had patched things up, but Wilder’s marriage was coming apart. His wife, Judith, whom he had married in 1936, was the step daughter of the French artist Paul Iribe, who was also an art director for Cecil B. De Mille. The Wilders’ daughter, Victoria, was born in 1939. (Her twin brother, Vincent, died when he was four months old.) By 1942, Wilder had become involved with the actress Doris Dowling, who would later play the prostitute in The Lost Weekend. The affair was the subject of a great deal of gossip. Their friends assumed that Wilder would marry Dowling. Then he met Audrey Young, a singer, who was a bit player in The Lost Weekend. Wilder found himself separating from his wife, cheating on his mistress, and pursuing Audrey. She got the man, but her part in “The Lost Weekend” wound up on the cutting-room floor.
After the war, Wilder served with the Psychological Warfare Division of the United States Army in Germany. Among Colonel Wilder’s tasks was helping to rebuild the German film industry. To that end, he interviewed ex-Nazis, trying to decide which ones were the least undesirable. He was asked by the director of the Oberammergau Passion play to pass judgment on Anton Lang, who had played Christ before the war and had been in the S.S. Now the director wanted him back.
“On one condition,” Wilder said.
“And what is that?” he was asked.
“That in the Crucifixion scene you use real nails.”
During his tour of duty, Wilder got a look at what was left of Berlin, the city where he had served his ad-hoc apprenticeship in the movies. He had not heard from his family during the war. Now he confirmed what he had suspected: his mother, his stepfather, and his grandmother had died in Auschwitz. “What ever pain he endured privately, his response was to make a comedy, A Foreign Affair, written with Brackett and Richard L. Breen. It is serious without being in the least earnest, and it brought Wilder’s reputation for vulgarity to an early peak. Maybe no one was in a mood to make fun of postwar Berlin—no one but Wilder, anyway.
The film opens with shots of bombed-out Berlin, seen from a plane carrying a dim-bulb congressional delegation to look into the morale of the occupation troops. The team includes Jean Arthur as a representative from Iowa who brings a constituent’s chocolate cake for an Army captain (John Lund). He trades it on the black market for a mattress, tosses the mattress in his jeep, then drives through the ashen hell of Berlin while the soundtrack plays “Isn’t It Romantic?” It’s Berlin, all right, but the real locale is Billy Wilder Land. Of the choice of music Wilder says, “Paramount owned it. You were obliged to use what they didn’t have to pay for. They thought I was a good soldier.”
Lund takes the mattress to Marlene Dietrich. In some casual love play, she calls him her Führer (“Heil Johnny”), and he says, “Why don’t I choke you a little. Break you in two. Build a fire under you, you blond witch.” There’s not a lot of kitchy-kitchy-coo in the dialogue. Richard Corliss called the Movie “Wilder at his most vile.”James Agee said, “A good bit of it is in rotten taste.”
The question of “taste” has plagued Wilder. It is as if the critics, confronted with his bawdy rudeness, became Rotarians. Wilder is an ironist—that was the point of using “Isn’t It Romantic?” Movies usually trade in more readily understood situations and characters. In A Foreign Affair. Dietrich is a not quite former Nazi, mostly because a girl’s got to eat. Wilder keeps it broad enough for the groundlings, but underneath there’s a dark, anarchic vision.
For Wilder, it has always been jokes above all. He has the true satirist’s compulsion: he mocks everyone, and speaks his mind in wisecracks. Of the writers and directors who refused to testify before HUAC, the so-called “unfriendly witnesses,” Wilder said, “Two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” But, like all satirists, he has a moralist’s heart. For every swindler, there’s a patsy; for every corrupted bimbo, there’s a venal, self-serving fool of a man. His movies, like Wilder himself, are often mordant and relentlessly unsentimental.
* * * *
Wilder doesn’t own prints or cassettes of his films, and says he has no interest in watching them again He’s seen clips from Sunset Boulevard over the years. “The same clips!” he mutters. “ ‘We had faces,’ ‘pictures got small’ Who needs it?” The last time he had seen the entire movie was at the Paramount studio theatre in the summer of 1950.
As he walked across the Paramount lot on a recent morning, Wilder recalled that earlier screening, which was just prior to the release of the picture. Sunset Boulevard had suffered an unsuccessful preview in Evanston, Illinois, causing Brackett and Wilder to shoot a new opening. The movie begins, famously, with William Holden as Joe Gillis, the murdered screenwriter, narrating the action from the dead, his body floating in a swimming pool The rejected version began in the Los Angeles morgue, with corpses chatting about how they got there. After Paramount showed the re-shot version, the industry crowd milled about in the alley outside the studio theatre. Louis B. Mayer, who had not cared for the portrait of Hollywood, was heard to say, “Billy Wilder should be run out of town.” Wilder took that for the challenge it was, and told the head of M-G-M, “Go shit in your hat.”
Now, in that same alley, Wilder said, “That’s what I’ll be remembered for, a stupid insult to Louis B. Mayer.”
“Isn’t what people remember that you wouldn’t let him insult you?”
“They remember shit in the hat.”
Screening Room No. 5, where Wilder was about to have his first look at Sunset Boulevard since the run-in with Mayer, is in a tangle of editing rooms, offices, and projection booths above the theatre. It has been repainted, and the equipment is newer, but otherwise the room is unchanged since the days when Brackett and Wilder watched rushes there. Paramount is where Sunset Boulevard was written, shot, and edited; several of the locations in the film were only steps away.
“Is this going to be like the opera?” Wilder asked. When I looked puzzled, he said, “I went to see Götterdämmerung. It started at eight. At midnight, when I looked at my watch, it was eight-fifteen.” Assured that Sunset Boulevard played faster than that, he sat down, ready to see just what it was that he and Brackett had made forty-four years ago. We were seated on either side of the console, which permitted us to control the volume or speak to the projectionist. Earlier, I had reminded him that if he couldn’t bear it he could tell the projectionist to skip a reel or two. Now he had his eye on the console.
As Franz Waxman’s score boomed out and William Holden’s narration began, Wilder, who is usually animated, grew still. His mouth tightened and his lips twitched. He didn’t perk up until Holden, bemoaning his lack of work, says, “I talked to a couple of yes-men at Metro. To me they said no.”
When Erich von Stroheim, as Max von Mayerling, the butler and chauffeur, mistakes Holden for someone else and says, “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Wilder nodded approval and said, “You get those little hooks into the audience. ‘Coffin’ out of nowhere.”
During Holden and Swanson’s first big scene, with the exchange that begins, “You’re Norma Desmond…You used to be big,” Wilder looked as if he were watching a take and deciding whether to ask for another. When he called out “Good!” I half expected the film to stop and the actors to take a break.
Not until he’d had a taste of Swanson’s performance did he seem to relax. The picture depends on her. It was made twenty years after the end of the silent era, when audiences had a sense of the transition to sound. But would any of it come through now? When Norma plays bridge with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, her contemporaries, Holden calls them “the waxworks.” Wilder seemed to be looking hard to see whether the film itself now belonged in that category.
“He’s watching her,” Wilder said, meaning that Holden was watching Swanson, trying to decide what to make of this strange, pop-eyed wonder from another world. Through Holden’s eyes, the audience understands that every move and gesture Norma Desmond makes, every extravagant claim and demand, is real to her. Wilder saw that it was working, and began to enjoy himself. “That’s silent picture acting. You can’t teach somebody. Unless you grew up with it, you can’t do it.”
In von Stroheim’s first big scene, when he explains to Holden just who Norma Desmond is, he says, “There was a maharaja who came all the way from India to beg for one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it.” Wilder laughed, and said, “So preposterous.” But when the scene was over he said of von Stroheim,”He’s like a light bulb that suddenly shines on in that scene—even with that strangling stuff.” Von Stroheim was himself a legendary director of the silent era—the film that Norma runs for Joe is his unfinished Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson. He brought a director’s sensibility to his role. “It was his idea that Max wrote all the fan letters Norma got,” Wilder explained. “He had an idea about Max washing her underwear. ‘I can do a lot with that,’ he said. It was too much, I didn’t use it.” Of von Stroheim as chauffeur, Wilder said later, “He didn’t know how to drive. We had to tow the car when he comes onto the lot. He still crashed it into the Bronson Gate.”
After Wilder was sure that the central performances held up, he occasionally hummed along with Waxman’s score. He was amused by the various sums of money mentioned: five hundred dollars a week for a screenwriter, and twenty-eight thousand dollars as the value of Norma Desmond’s lavish touring car, an Isotta-Fraschini. When Norma says, “I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I’ve got a million dollars,” Wilder repeated the line and laughed.
But it was Swanson who continued to interest him. When she says, “Me, me, Norma Desmond,” in all her nutty megalomania, Wilder said, “Right up to the edge.” He meant that she had the courage to risk looking ridiculous and the skill to keep in character. A moment later, he said, “She was fifty-two. It was old then. Holden was about thirty. The chasm between silent pictures and talkies, you think there’s three hundred years between them.”
During a scene with Holden and Nancy Olson, the young screenwriter he meets, Wilder’s lips were moving, but I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I lowered the volume, and realized he was approximating the dialogue. But this was no reverie. He was apparently trying to get Holden and Olson to pick up the pace. I guessed he hadn’t liked the line readings in 1949 and didn’t like them now. Near the end of the scene, he said, sharply and loudly, “Then what happened?,” which was Holden’s line—he hadn’t got to it yet. It cued Olson’s “You did,” which ended the scene. Wilder said, “Good short line.”
Wilder took particular delight in the sequences with Cecil B. De Mille, who plays himself “He was shooting Samson and Delilah,” Wilder recalls. “We used his sets when Norma visits. We had him for one day. Ten thousand dollars. Then we required one more close-up. I asked him to come back and do it. He understood. It was the shot outside the stage where he says goodbye. He came back. For another ten thousand dollars.”
When DeMille tells Norma to sit for a moment, Wilder said, “I wanted De Mille to displace Hedy Lamarr and give her chair to Norma. She’d do it—for twenty-five thousand dollars. I said that it would be enough for Norma to sit in a chair with Hedy Lamarr’s name on it. That was ten thousand dollars. So I put her in De Mille’s chair.” While she’s sitting there, a boom microphone passes behind her, disturbing her hat and casting a shadow on her face. “Watch this,” Wilder said, anticipating the end of the shot. “Hah!” he whooped as Norma scowls at the microphone, the very thing that ended her era.
As Norma is about to make her final walk down the staircase, playing Salome to the newsreel cameras, Wilder said, “When I rehearsed this scene, very complex emotions are coming down those stairs. I rehearsed it to music.”
I nodded, and mumbled something about Strauss.
“No, no,” he said. “Strauss for the rehearsal. Then we got better than Strauss. Waxman!” When the music surged and the end credits ran, he nodded in time and hummed with the score as the lights came up. Then he was quiet. He knew that it is on this film that his reputation will rest for future generations. There were Paramount employees waiting with pictures and posters for him to sign, but no one was going to rush Billy Wilder at a time like this. Then, as always, retreating into anecdote, he said, “Willy Wyler made a picture called Hell’s Heroes. Thirty years later, he wanted to look at it again. It took them about a week to find a print. They sent it over to his house—he had a cutting room. He took a chunk out and sent it back. No one would ever see it! He wanted to improve it.”
“Do you want to recut?”
“I’m Wilder, not Wyler. We got mixed up all the time. Willy, Billy.”
“Would you like to go into the editing room with it?”
“Here, there, maybe. Some retakes. But no. There’s not much dust on it.” He was quiet again. Then he said, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cheap lunch.”
* * * *
Because Billy Wilder is a screenwriter, rewriting is in his blood. He can’t resist trying to improve something already written—or, in this case, spoken.
In a restaurant near his office in Beverly Hills, he talked more about Sunset Boulevard. “I dug out from one of the drawers a vague story about a silent era star,” he said. “More of a comedy. Mae West was a possibility. With a man half her age. As Charlie and I worked on it, I thought, maybe we need some young blood. Maybe we’re sort of pooped out So we got D. M. Marshman. He was a writer for Life magazine.”
“Were you and Brackett not getting along?”
“We had been working together thirteen years. We needed another mind in there. It was our last picture.”
Holden’s role was written for Montgomery Clift, who turned it down at the last minute, probably because it was too close to his own relationship with the singer Libby Holman. At the time, Wilder was furious, but, looking back, he says, “You wouldn’t believe Clift as a ghostwriter, even if he was hungry.”
Did he think Clift might have given a more complex performance? One could imagine him having an ambiguous reaction to his degradation.
“Holden is closer to a Hollywood writer. Not a poet of the new muse. The best actor I ever worked with was Charles Laughton—Witness for the Prosecution. He goes to a point where a tenth of an inch more and it would be ludicrous. Very few can do that. Swanson got it.” Then Wilder changed the topic without a pause. “The night shot where Holden and Nancy Olson walk on the lot, she tells how she grew up there, at Paramount. How she wanted to be in movies. That’s my wife’s background we used. Audrey’s mother worked in wardrobe. Aud grew up like that.”
Could he say what he had been thinking while he was watching the movie?
“I was involved in remembering, How did I work it? Did I get the best possible scene I could? Over all, the most comforting feeling was that, yes, I would shoot it this way again. The dialogue was not bad. I didn’t wince. I found it surprisingly believable. Only a few minutes that embarrassed me—if the picture is shown in the hereafter theatre, I’ll speed up the projectionist. Today, I couldn’t drum up such a cast. I needed Swanson, I got her. I needed De Mille, l got him. I needed von Stroheim, I got him. I was lucky. It looked pretty good. I would stand up for it. Now I don’t have to look at it for another forty-five years.”
* * * *
After Sunset Boulevard, the Brackett-Wilder partnership was dissolved. Brackett went on to a prominent career as a producer and was publicly upbeat about the breakup, but at the end of his life he told Garson Kanin that he’d never understood it. “We were doing so well,” he said. “It was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it.” After Brackett, Wilder had a series of partners. Some were distinguished, but none stayed on for a second picture until I. A. L. Diamond, who always claimed his initials stood for Interscholastic Algebra League, turned up. Born ltek Dommnici, in Romania, Diamond arrived in America at nine and grew up in Crown Heights. After Columbia, where he wrote the book for the Varsity Show for each of his four years and edited the Daily Spectator, he kicked around Hollywood writing comedies and musicals. In 1956, he hooked up with Wilder for Love in the Afternoon. Eventually, they made twelve pictures together, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie, all black-and-white gems of the American idiom, written by men whose native language was not English.
Some Like It Hot was made during Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. She showed up on the set hours after her call, and she had trouble with her lines, requiring forty-seven takes over two days to enter a room and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” After the film was in release, Wilder made some indiscreet remarks about Monroe to the press, saying that after he’d made two pictures with her (The Seven Year Itch was the first) the Directors Guild should award him a Purple Heart. The result was a public squabble. Arthur Miller called Wilder “contemptible.” Today, Wilder takes a more relaxed view of Monroe. “Not all the doctors and chemists and clairvoyants know what makes a star,” he says. “When I would be driving to the studio in the morning, I would think the whole cast would be there, two hundred extras would be there, the crew would be there. And Marilyn? Who knows where? I would stop the car and throw up. My back was always out. Except the footage looked great. I would have preferred fewer takes, but each time she said a line it was the first time it was ever said.”
“Well,nobody’s perfect,” the picture’s famous last line, was considered for an earlier scene:
JERRY: He keeps marrying girls all the time.
JOE: But you’re not a girl. You’re a guy. And why would a guy want to marry a guy?
In 1985, Diamond wrote in California Magazine that he had thought about adding, “Nobody’s perfect,” but was afraid that it “would kill the security joke.” He filed it away in his mind and later thought it might do as the last line of the movie. He remembered Wilder’s being uncertain, and saying, “Maybe we’ll think of something better on the set.”
Reminiscing about Diamond, Wilder said, “The highest compliment you could get from him would be ‘Why not?’ The Reagans once sent an invitation to go to the White House for dinner. I didn’t want it. lzzy said, ‘You’re right. If you go, then you’ll have to invite them to your house. Then back and forth. Who knows what it could lead to?’”
Diamond died of multiple myeloma in 1988, at the age of sixty-seven. “The script that was written was a completely different third act,” Wilder said. “I was fourteen years older. I was supposed to go first. He knew he had that disease four years. He never said a word. Finally, when we were talking about something I thought we could do, he said, ‘I better tell you, I guess.’ ” Then Wilder waved his hand and shrugged. Friends say he was distraught over Diamond’s death. “Flattened” is the way one put it.
Wilder had already endured a period of commercial flops. Now he had no partner. “If God would send me another Brackett or Diamond…” he said, letting the sentence trail off. The last Wilder-Diamond film was Buddy Buddy, in 1981. It was not well received. Even before Diamond’s death, more movies were doubtful. But the sheer fizz of Wilder’s personality made it unlikely that he would withdraw. He had long collected modern art, and owned works by Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, Balthus, Kirchner, and Cornell. By 1989, his collection had grown so large and the market was so good that he decided to sell. He declared himself Lord of the Tchotchkes and arranged for an auction at Christie’s in New York. The media couldn’t get enough of it. The sale generated thirty-two million six hundred thousand dollars. Wilder had been wealthy for years, but now he was a rich man. More important, he had a hit.
Wilder can’t seem to stop collecting art. The walls of his office feature works by Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella; in one corner there are odd-looking found objects, awaiting sculptural treatment. He has always been fond of objets trouvés, and now, with the help of a friend, he has been turning out highly idiosyncratic pieces of sculpture. “Stallone’s Typewriter” is an old Underwood painted in camouflage green and black, with bullets and toy weaponry attached. The platen is wrapped in a gauzy American flag. Wilder says he’s working on a script but adds, almost plaintively, “I don’t know if anyone will let me direct it.” What he does know is that film directing has become a younger person’s sport. Wilder turns eighty-seven this month. In Beverly Hills, near his office, he’s a familiar sight on the streets, where passersby sometimes point him out, like a civic attraction. The Wilders will be in London for the opening of Sunset Boulevard, as guests of Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It’s going to be expensive,” Wilder says, grinning. “After the Connaught, it’s Paris for the collections and a tiny little stop at Christian Dior.”
Critics have often written disparagingly about Wilder, pointing out the themes of venality and corruption and usually calling them cynicism. But Wilder’s recurring motif is disguise, and his real theme is identity. A young screenwriter allows himself to be dressed like a plutocrat and makes love to a woman who appalls him. A saxophone player puts on drag, then a yachting costume, and starts sounding like Cary Grant. Who are these guys?” They, and a gallery of others, reside in an exaggerated world that belongs to the quick-witted and to those who can cut the best deals—a world where everything, and certainly love, is for sale. Taken collectively, Wilder’s raucous, impolite, and often impolitic movies are the record of an exile, a man of the century, made in a medium that was virtually unknown when he was born. Like Hollywood itself, they are a very American achievement. After their alliance was dissolved, Charles Brackett wrote of his former partner, “He was sassy and brash and often unwise, but…he was in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it.”
The critics are now catching up. In 1991, Andrew Sarris published an essay in Film Comment titled “Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon.” Twenty-three years earlier, in his influential The American Cinema, Sarris had put Wilder in a category called “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Critical ideas and judgments change all the time, of course, but usually those criticized aren’t around to hear about it. Many of Wilder’s contemporaries, directors who were giants in their time, now seem like Ozymandias. But Wilder’s pictures are watched and studied by film students and professionals trying to figure out how he did it.
When I asked Wilder what he made of the critics’ coming around, he shrugged, apparently uninterested in the issue. A little later, he answered indirectly, saying, “The best insert shot ever made is in Potemkin. The sailors are going to mutiny because the meat is rank. Then there’s the insert of the meat. It’s crawling with maggots. The doctor looks at it and says, ‘The meat’s fine.’” Then Wilder laughed at the absurdity of ever worrying about what anyone says about anything. It reminded him of a story. “I told Sam Goldwyn I wanted to make a movie about Nijinsky. I explained how he was the greatest dancer ever and I told him about his career and how he ended up in a French nuthouse, thinking he was a horse. So Sam says, ‘What kind of picture is that? A man who thinks he’s a horse?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. In the final scene, he wins the Kentucky Derby.’”
[Photo Credits: Images found, unattributed via Google Images; if you know who took various shots, please let me know and I will give the proper credit; shot of Chandler and Wilder via UCLA]
For more on Billy Wilder, head on over to the great site, Cinephilia and Beyond.
Ivan Solotaroff spent much of the summer of 1988 hanging out in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. It was a different time: The Bronx wasn’t hospitable to, well, anyone back then. This was before the Disneyfication of Manhattan, before Rudy Giuliani, before Brooklyn became a Mecca of gentrification. You could go to Yankee Stadium and buy a ticket almost any night, then go smoke a joint in all but the fanciest of box seats. It could be an unnerving place, but it was not without its charms, which Solotaroff captures in “The Regulars: 1,900 Years in Yankee Stadium.” The story originally ran in the fall of ’88 in the Village Voice, and appears here with the author’s permission and his postscript, in which he reveals his subsequent clashes with his editors both at the poker table and over what exactly constitutes “journalism.”
By Ivan Solotaroff
There’s an evil-looking man with a pencil mustache in the last row of Yankee Stadium’s right field bleachers, leaning back against a 50-foot-high CITIBANK IS YOUR BANK sign. Immaculate in his tan fedora, sky-blue leisure suit, glowing white T-shirt, and white patent-leather loafers, he snorts the end of a joint through a gold roach-clip as the Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the second inning, then begins to twist his arms and hands and fingers in suave convulsions, his mouth stretching into unnatural shapes as he trains his magnetizing gaze on Jays right fielder Jesse Barfield, pacing the well-lit grass of right field 90 feet below. I’ve been watching this man for months now, casting his limp-wristed spell on every American League right fielder not born in the Dominican Republic, and I have learned to fear his power. Midway through this late-August Yankee homestand, I feel a tingle in the back of my skull every time he starts conjuring.
Teena, a paper-thin Hispanic woman known among the Regulars as the Secretary of Da Fence, sees the effect he’s having on me, and yells up at him to Cut That Voodoo Bullshit Out. “He isn’t no Yankee fan,” she assures me, tucking a loose blond curl back into her impromptu Mohawk. “Bullshit Voodoo Man. I show you what’s a Yankee fan.”
Teena gathers the wealth of gold chains on her neck, and her yellow ashtray eyes cross as she looks down to exhibit the ornaments to me: six variations of the Yankee logo in 14 or 16 karats; a small, diamond-studded baseball and bat, accompanying the word YANKEES; and the brightest is a solid-gold 31, for Yankee all-star right fielder Dave Winfield.
“I show you the biggest Yankee fan there is,” she says, taking my hand and leading me down to Row A to meet Chico, a happy 300-pounder in a cobalt-blue Yankee jacket with a homemade 31 sewn on the back. “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” is blasting on the P.A., and Chico’s rocking out an imaginary bass guitar, all 10 fingers moving in spidery patterns. “He’s been in the papers lots,” says Teena. “Hasn’t you, Chico?”
“Bellevue,” Chico agrees, keeping good time on the bass. “New York’s hometown paper. Intensive care. Times Square. Fifteen years.” At Teena’s prodding, he reaches in the pocket of his Yankee jacket for a half-dozen Polaroids of himself and an equally large woman having sex in a living room furnished entirely in red velvet.
“Motherfucking co’sucker, Jesse Barfield, maricón,” Chico screams suddenly. He takes his Polaroids back and pivots on his heel with surprising agility to rock the entire stadium, yelling, “Jesse Jesse fuck you messy” until the inning begins.
In 1973, Rick Goldfarb was my classmate at the Bronx High School of Science, a studious, awkward kid no one knew much about, except that he had a good head for numbers and a job selling beer at the Stadium. Over the years he’s kept a CPA practice going on Allerton Avenue in the South Bronx, from January to April 15; from April 16 through October, he sells beer in the third base box seats for the first four innings, and from the fifth on, he’s “Cousin Brewski,” the sweetest and loudest guy out here.
“How are you? How are you? How are you?” he greets me from 10 rows away. “I’ll tell you everything you wanna know about the Regulars. They’re the best fans out here. Class. They know everything you wanna know. Teena’s got it all: the batting averages, all the ERA’s, all the Won and the Lost. Bob the Captain knows every word of the ‘Gang Bang Song,’ the ‘Get the Puck Out Song,’ ‘Syphilis,’ the ‘Alibi Song,’ all the fabulous songs. And over there’s Melle Mel. A big rap star [of Grandmaster Flash], one of the originals.“
Rick’s mouth widens into a horse grin as Melle begins leading the Regulars in a rendition of “Camptown Races,” lyrics modified to honor Chili Davis’s alleged anal-passive tendencies. “Famous? Melle?” Rick asks himself rhetorically. “Oh-h, is he famous! Sees everything going on out here, too. The others tend to drift a little. Frank’s out here every day, brings candy”—
Rick excuses himself to go to the first row to join the second verse
Jesse takes it up the ass
Jesse takes it up the ass
Oh, da-doo, da-day
then climbs back up the concrete steps, saying, “Where was I? Where was I? Where was I? Frank brings candy for the kids, Turkish Taffy sometimes. He’s got a heart of gold out here, do anything for anyone. If he knows you. We got business students from Clark University, summer interns from The Nation. There’s Buttonhead, sells all the different buttons—RED SOX SUCK, TIGERS SUCK, A’S SUCK, METS SUCK, STEINBRENNER SUCKS. And there’s Yankee Joints, sells what he sells. They’re here when it’s 100 degrees, when it’s 40. They brought in a huge plate of Spanish rice last week, chicken with chick peas, stuffed cabbages, all those greens with the good olive oil dripping off. Just one big heart of gold, getting old.”
I ask Rick how many years these people have been coming here, a question that brings out the accountant. “Figure, say, 100, 115 individuals total,” he calculates, surveying the 12 rows in front of us. “Then, maybe 20, say 17 years apiece, average. So you’re looking at what, maybe 1,900 years out here. But those are just numbers,” he says, waving an index finger. “You gotta figure in the human factor.”
The Yankees, 2-8 in their last 10 games, come into the fifth inning down by a familiar four-run count. Frank and his friend Ike are already ingesting their time-honored slump-remedy: Many Jumbo Beers. It only takes Don Mattingly’s lead-off single to left to make them crazed. After the obligatory four notes of the Hallelujah Chorus sound from the Stadium organ (echoed by Frank and Ike’s “O! the Mets suck!”), they get the first 12 rows up and pointing at Jesse Barfield:
U, G, L, Y
You ain’t go no alibi
P, A, P, A
We all know your papa’s gay
M, A, M, A,
We know how he got that way
The entire bleachers looking on, Melle Mel decides to create some game-changing noise. Flipping his night-game shades up, tightening the doo rag on his head, he spies a newcomer in a Hawaiian shirt. “BOOK HIM,” he commands, and the Regulars obey bynah-nah-nah-ing the “Hawaii Five-O” melody in the man’s face until, with a longing look at the blue seats of the loge level, he’s up on his bench and surfing it.
“If the Yankees are the best team in the world,” Melle yells above the roar of a 4 train passing 10 feet behind the bleachers, “say Yo-o.” Hundreds agreeing—and #31 himself stepping up to the plate, 375 feet away—Melle has a moment worthy of the Great Cause. “Let me hear it, one time, for my man, Mr. Da-a-a-a-ve Winfield.” “Dave, Dave, Dave,” a huge crowd chants as Winfield looks at a strike. They’re still chanting “Dave” as Winfield whiffs on a second pitch, looks at a third strike, then lopes indifferently back to the dugout.
“That’s the greatest number of all about this sport,” Rick explains when I mention that Winfield’s strikeout doesn’t seem to bother anyone. “You fail two out of every three times, 66 percent of your professional life, and out here you’re God’s gift.”
Statisticians of the great American game would do well to analyze Ali Ramirez, a tall, white-haired man who brings a cowbell to the games in a bowling-ball bag. A serious student of the game, Ali won’t ring his bell until he feels a Yankee hit. For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting goose bumps every time Ali stands and unsheathes his bell; with the Yankees down now by four runs and two outs, no one on in the bottom of the sixth, I suddenly understand why: I’ve been hearing this bell in the distance my entire life, behind Phil Rizzuto’s hypnotizing psalmodies on WPIX, and I’ve learned to expect a Holy Cow (Rizzuto’s unfailing ejaculation for Yankee home runs), or at least a single, every time Ali rings the bell.
As Jack Clark steps up to the plate, Ali hammers out an eight-beat salsa rhythm, which is echoed by a drumming on the free seats by the Regulars that I can feel, 10 rows up, through my tailbone. He follows with a 16-count, then ends with a steady beat that gets a deafening ” Ay-oh” chant. It’s broken by an unmistakable crack of Clark’s bat, and a flurry of kids heading to the empty right-field grandstands, where Clark’s 370-foot homer soon lands 20 rows deep.
“The Gods have spoken,” yells Melle Mel, up on his seat and salaaming. “Prai-ai-se A-A-Ali!” Almost everyone in the bleachers obeys, a moving sight—350 people bowing in a wave to this quiet man wearing a barber’s shirt, cradling his bell and drumstick, already evaluating Don Slaught’s stance at the plate.
Apparently it’s rally time, for Ali rings out another eight-count. Before he can start his 16′s, another long-ball crack gets the entire bleachers on its feet. I look up in the klieg-lit sky over right field and see a baseball coming at me, then under my seat for my first baseman’s glove to catch it, then back up in time to see the ball falling in the trough penning the bleachers apart from the rest of the stadium—50 feet from Clark’s homer, and 15 feet to the left of the man with the bell.
Ali, ignoring the pleas of the Regulars, zips up his bowling ball bag as Gary Ward strikes out to end the inning. The timeless nature of baseball wafts over me like car exhaust as it dawns on me that I haven’t had a first-basemen’s glove for 20 years. Twenty rows up, the Voodoo Man is striking an Edith Piaf pose against the Citibank sign after his exertions.
By the seventh inning, timelessness has given way to insoluble tedium, and I organize a small press conference in the top rows with some of the Regulars: Bob Greco, machinist from Bergen County, and Captain of the Bleachers; Frank Herrera, a college baseball umpire with a major stutter, who talks endlessly about whom he’s willing to beat up for the Yankees; and a strange man named Big Bird, who seems to have an obsession with Australia: Tonight, he’s telling me about the difficulties of sending videos of the 1978 World Series to Melbourne. “He was there six weeks, six years ago,” Bob explains. “Still fuckin’ talkin’ about it.”
The Yankees seem to have fallen into the lull. Though they ended the sixth down only two runs, the Angels have pounded relief pitchers John Candelaria and Steve Shields for four runs. For Bob, Frank, and Big Bird, however, watching a routine single drop in the hole between Ward and Winfield for extra bases, it’s clearly not an important failure. “If you came here every day, you’d just get used to it,” Bob says as Teena climbs the steps to tell me to tell the world that every Yankee reliever makes her puke. “And you would grow to like it out here. You would see how it’s like the family unit. You yell a bunch of shit, 50 people yell out with you. Get into a fight, you got a hundred backers. Plus, you can see everything from out here. Call balls and strikes. You can see inside the dugouts ….”
“Tell him about the time we gave you a birthday cake,” Frank interrupts. “You were all choked up and shit.”
“Time out,” Bob says. “I wanna tell him about training camp in Lauderdale. So, I’m down there with Kevin and George, couple the Regulars—.”
“Tell him about the cake, you fuckin’ dick,” says Frank.
“Time out, Frankie. We’re driving from the hotel to the ball park, half an hour, 45 minutes maybe, looking at all these maps. After four days, we realize we’re half a mile from the stadium.”
Bob sees Frank standing up with a look of terminal displeasure, and decides to tell me about the cake: “So I’m out here one night and they’re singing, ‘Happy Birthday.’ They got a cake, so I sing with ‘em. But when they get to the ‘Happy Birthday, dear…’ part, they’re like, singing my name.’”
Bob pauses, to let the mystery sink in. “It’s my 32nd birthday. The cake’s got my name on it, too. It’s probably like the biggest thrill of my life.”
The Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the seventh, and Frank and Bob ask me if I’ve heard their “Mickey Mouse” cover:
M, I, C
See you real soo-oo-n
K, E, Y. Why-y-y?
‘Cause we don’t give a fuck about you
“I love that one,” says Frankie. “And, first time I heard the ‘Gang Bang,’ I was on the floor.” He stands up, glares at the air an inch above his head and five feet in front, and screams, “The Yankees suck what?” then begins punching the air. Bob shakes his head and finishes telling me about Lauderdale.
“So we get some pictures, the three of us with Dave, meet some other New Yorkers in the hotel—they weren’t there for the training, they were on some other business. The biggest thrill was with Dave. What else is new?”
“Do you guys know him?”
“Yeah, we know him. Not personally, on a social level, but he sees us on the street, he knows, ‘Yeah, the Bleachers.’ We give him a plaque last year, congratulating him for his sixth consecutive year hitting 100 RBIs. He didn’t do it, he ended up with 97, but we give him the plaque anyway.”
“I met Dave once,” says Frankie.
“Time out, Frankie. So we’re down there, waiting by the gate for Dave to come out. There’s a couple guys there, had their kids or something, and we ask, ‘Dave come out yet?’ And they’re like, ‘Don’t waste your breath, Dave don’t stop for nobody.’ So he comes out, and the three of us are like, ‘Dave, Dave, Dave.’ Big smile. He’s like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing down here?’ signing autographs. He remembers the plaque. Suddenly”—Bob pauses to savor the irony—”the guys with the kids are like, ‘Hey, we’re with these guys.’ That was like the biggest thrill of my life.”
Frankie looks hurt. “I thought it was the cake.”
“Nah, that was the biggest thrill of my life out here,” Bob corrects him, standing up and brushing off his pants as he heads down to Row A. “Talk to the man, Frankie. He’ll make you famous.”
Against the backdrop of the “Get the Puck Out Song” and the “Gang Bang Song” (a series of knock-knock jokes ranging from “Eisenhower”/”Eisenhower Who?”/”Eisenhower late for the Gang Bang” to “Gladiator”/”… before the Gang Bang”), I listen to half an hour of Frankie’s fantasy life. It’s a familiar fantasy to anyone growing up in New York: being outnumbered and having the numbers to escalate.
“I would never suggest,” he begins, “for anyone to come out to the bleachers and to hit one of the Regulars. I would not suggest that. And I would never suggest what happened here, one time, when Yankee Joints got his bag taken by some guy. He asked for it back, and five guys stood up in his face, at him. So I walked over there, and, like, 50 guys jumped up behind me, it was like a wave. I tried to explain to these guys, I got, like, 50 guys behind me, and every last one of them’s willing to hit you. They don’t need no reason.”
I ask if there are a lot of fights out here. “This dude says, ‘Whenever there’s a fight, I never see you anywhere. Why?’ Why-y? You ain’t looking in the right place,” Frank answers. He seems convinced that it was me who asked the question. “If you ever see a fight,” he says, poking my chest hard, “look under the pile. Under the pile. That’s where you’ll find me. Under the fucking pile. But, like, if, like, this guy”—Frankie points to a fan two rows back—”like, if this guy were to hit Bob or Ike or Cousin Brewski, it would be suicide. And if I stood up in … his face”—Frank points to the same fan—”and said, ‘You gonna hit me, you gonna fucking hit me?’ I swear, 20 people will come behind me.”
Frank looks at the guy suspiciously, then tells me how five enormous security guards came to the bleachers for him one day last summer. “Now, that is the most idiotic thing in the world I have ever heard. If you got 2,000 fans and 3,000 guards, then maybe, maybe you could talk. But if you got five guards, I don’t care what size they are, I’ll throw 20 midgets on you to kick your ass. But they don’t think that way over there in Security.”
I ask Frank how he came to be an umpire.
“I was playing football and I got hurt bad. I could still move around and holler, but I couldn’t ever play again. I was going home, and the bus driver asked me did I want to umpire little-league ball with him. And I enjoyed it, a lot. See, what happened was, my first game, I threw the manager out. And I said, ‘Damn, I’m 13 and I just threw this 40-year-old man out.’ So, I grew up and went to umpiring school in San Bernardino. I do college now, and the Dominican Leagues in the winter. With a little luck, I’ll make it to the majors.”
Frank looks down at the field, where the Yankees have just gone down three straight, then over at the Regulars, who are singing “Syphilis.” “One day,” he nods his head, “I’ll be umping at the Stadium, and I would have to make a close call against this team.”
Frank continues nodding his head. “See, I know that would happen,” he adds with conviction, “And the Regulars would nail me. I know that. Fuck them. I call them like I see them. And I will be a Yankee fan till the day I die. I know that.”
A 4 train rumbles overhead, and Frankie starts thinking about something, shaking his head and moving his lips with a repeated, unspoken sentence. “Everywhere I go,” he finally says it. “Everywhere I go till the day I die.”
He stands up and looks down at the first rows. “Like, I was on the subway,” he says, “wearing my cap. And this guy’s wearing a Mets cap: ‘You should get a better cap.’ Get a better cap?! What?” Frankie takes his black Yankee cap off his head and pounds it into shape. “When you win as many World Championships as the Yankees,” he tells me. “When you win as many pennants. When you win as many division championships, as many World Series as this franchise, in its history, then you come back and see me.” Frank screws his cap back on his head, shoots me a hate-look, then heads down the steps to join the Regulars. “And I’ll meet you on this train,” he yells up at me, “3,000 years from now.”
This piece was my way of hiding out for the summer of, I believe, 1988. Nothing good going on, a piece already published in the Village Voice sports section, so I got my second journalistic “assignment”: the months of July and August in the cauldron of the old Yankee Stadium’s right-field bleachers. I didn’t get to file receipts for most of the games, as they would’ve come to more than the commission. The Voice paid 10 cents a word until you got a contract, so I probably got $400 or so for the piece.
It didn’t matter. It was very well received at the Voice—a rare chance for that excruciatingly politically correct rag to publish sexism, racism, and homophobia to comic effect. Crucially, it got me into their monthly poker game as well, and they were terrible players. That amortized those unclaimed receipts several times over.
It wasn’t all good, however. The managing editor kept kvelling one game—it was getting embarrassing. When he said, “I’d love to read your fiction sometime,” I didn’t think twice, and said, “You just did.” The story’s set over one game—at 4,000 words or so, there wasn’t space for more, and I had two whole months to squeeze in. My reputation as a “piper” continues to this day, which is fine by me. I believe that all journalism is fiction. If it’s any good. And fuck them anyway.
But I did get read the riot act from my best friend at the time, who’s gay, as well as another act read (luckily before sending the story in), from another best friend, who objected to an original draft which incorporated Frankie’s stuttering. It read very funny, but it was cruel; I understood that fully only when I later learned that Frankie had passed away.
I tried to find a copy of the original story online just now, of course hopeless: Like Elvis Costello sang, “Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.” But it did lead me to Phil Bondy’s Bleacher Creatures, written after his summer spent with the Regulars, 15 years later. I was amused, would be the kind word, that he didn’t so much as reference the earlier article, as his title was lifted from the title my story ran under: That was a creation of the Voice‘s sports editor, and I didn’t much care for the inhumanity of the subjects it conveyed. If anything, I objected, they were human, all too human. When that didn’t fly, I did manage to get a bitch-slap of a title past a different Voice sports editor a decade later: on Mark Gastineau’s pugilistic career, which I entitled “Superhuman, All Too Superhuman.”
[Photo Credit: Don Rice via Lover of Beauty]
Here’s some comedy for you from Paul Slansky, a regular contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in, among dozens of publications, The New York Observer, Spy, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Soho News. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
This story on Martin Mull was originally published in The New Times, January 1978. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
By Paul Slanksy
Martin Mull’s manager has forgotten to make a reservation, so we stand in the entrance to the Universal commissary waiting for an empty table while stars like Lily Tomlin and Sly Stallone march past us to immediate seating. “I guess I’ll have to do some speed eating,” he says.” “Just run my fingers over the food.” Ten minutes into our wait, a departing couple approaches and hands Mull their lunch checks and a $10 bill. He politely explains that he is not the cashier. “When I met Martin Mull he was accepting cash and checks at the Universal commissary,” he says wryly. “There’s your opening line.”
Through six years as a singer of loony tunes that found inspiration in the mundane (“Dancing in the Nude,” “Noses Run in My Family”) and earned him a diminutive but devoted following, Martin Mull maintained a mighty sense of self. If no one showed up at his gigs, it was their loss, not his. Out of a combination of defensiveness and egomania, he created a stage persona that exuded a smug arrogance totally out of proportion to the degree of success he had achieved—a character superficially similar to, but significantly smarter than, the one Steve Martin is currently overexposing. So when he was offered a part in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a show that exalted the banal, he certainly wasn’t about to let his total lack of acting experience stand in the way.
In the role of wife-beating PR man Garth Gimble, Mull developed one of the most odious characters since Cagney smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face in Public Enemy. The damage Garth inflicted on his wife, Patty, was psychically as well as physically brutal: for Christmas he gave her a mop and pail—early, so she’d have plenty of time to use them. When a shirt button came off, Garth insisted that Patty fix it before she left for work. While she was sewing, he strolled out of the bedroom fully dressed. “You wore another shirt!” she said, to which he ad-libbed condescendingly, “A topless executive, Patty? I think that’s years away!” When Garth was impaled on an aluminum Christmas tree, he was mourned by no one but Mull fans.
Six months later Mull was back, hosting Norman Lear’s talk-show parody, Fernwood 2-Night, as twin brother Barth Gimble, a small-time hustler who had fled Miami on a morals charge, then pointed out that he has “a pretty darn good case of entrapment.” Barth Gimble was the perfect comic symbol for the seventies, a con man who revealed his ignorance even as he thought he was being incredibly hip. Here he is coming on to a nubile youngster who has been the spankee in a demonstration of corporeal punishment:
B: You have quite a talent there, Debbie. You know, we have “Rocket to Stardom” here on the show. Would you wanna be on that?
D: Well, the only thing I know how to do is sing our school song.
B: Sing! Perfect, you can come back and sing your school song. I love it.
D: It’s in Latin.
B: OK. Latin music. You guys know Latin music, huh? (The band goes into a samba.) That’s the stuff.
In the space of one year, Martin Mull brought to life two personalities who could be put into any situation and react true to character.
Martin Mull is almost famous. In the last few months he has done Merv, Dinah, Tom Snyder, the Rock Awards, Wonder Woman and Hollywood Squares. He is currently playing a disc jockey who gets laid on the air for in his first film, FM. (An appearance in Oh, God!, in which he briefly stepped in for John Denver—whom he has called “the Poland of music”—was cut from the final print.)
He is also finishing up work on his new album, I Haven’t the Vegas Idea, and a best-of collection, No Hits, Four Errors, has just been released. Next month he begins taping 13 more weeks of Fernwood 2-Night for an early-April air date. Time said he has the best sense of timing “since Jack Benny passed age 39.” Playboy wants him for the interview. So when, as he wolfed down his shrimp cocktail and beer before rushing back to the FM set, I told him that a random sample of 20 Californians turned up only five who knew who he was—plus one who thought he was “that guy who says ‘Excuse me,’ with the arrow in his head”— Martin Mull laughed. “That’s terrific,” he said. “When I walked into the house last night, everyone knew me.”
“Martin always had the demeanor of a star,” says his manager, Larry Bresner. “He’d go out and buy $200 shoes when he couldn’t pay the rent.”
“We don’t take on a lot of performances,” he continues. “You can only handle so much, and you’re really not interested in handling somebody who can’t go to the full limit of their potential, because it’s not fun. You book them into 50 dates a year and it’s boring. With Marty, there’s no such thing as boring. I’ve never met anybody that’s got a brain that’s full of more ideas. The man could be the number-one advertising executive in the country.” (When Earth Shoes recently asked him to do an ad for them, Mull came up with “Shoes: Fetish or Necessity?”)
“Martin is one of a kind,” says Al Burton, one of Norman Lear’s creative supervisors who caught Mull’s show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and signed him for Mary Hartman. “He has this unique hateful quality while still being an appealing performer.”
“Martin was a joy to work with,” he adds. “He is one of the quickest-thinking wits since the old days of wits. The nuances that he got out of those lines were incredible. I know very few actors who can make a written word sound as if it’s ad-libbed. I like Steve Martin, but I don’t think I would have gone after him the way I went after Martin Mull.”
In fact, Martin and Mull are good friends and have worked together on several projects. “There was a time when Martin and Steve seemed to osmose off of each other a little,” says comedy writer Harry Shearer, whose credits include Fernwood 2-Night. “I think Steve picked up a little of Martin’s arrogance, and I don’t know what Martin picked up from Steve—three or four good lines probably. With Steve it’s so obvious that he’s putting it on, but with Martin it’s a lot closer to home. You can never quite be sure whether he’s doing a character or whether that’s the guy, which is interesting.”
Eugenie Ross-Leming, co-producer of Forever Fernwood, is another Mull fan. “The Garth character was so grim that it was really hard on Martin,” she says. “The real tribute was that he carried it off.” How he did it, though, she’s not sure. “I don’t know, maybe Martin’s past is incredibly sordid and warped—we can hope.”
Martin Mull was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up in Ohio towns not unlike Fernwood. “Up until the age of 16, I was the same as Taft,” he says. In 1959 the family moved to Connecticut, where Martin was the star place-kicker for the New Canaan High football team. He went on to become an honor student at the Rhode Island School of Design and receive a Master’s degree in painting in 1967. That same year, he made his acting debut before the Providence draft board.
Slicking his hair back with Vaseline and sporting a lumberjack shirt several sizes too small, Mull prepared a lunch of carrots, celery and a tuna fish sandwich. Each carrot stick and celery strip was individually wrapped in aluminum foil, as was the lump of tuna fish and each slice of bread. He carried it in an oversized grocery bag with his name scribbled all over. He claimed membership in every Communist group he’d ever heard of. After his hearing test, he pretended to be locked in the booth. When the psychiatrist asked him what he thought of the draft, Mull, chewing on his hand all the while, said, “Well, actually, I think it’s sort of chilly in here. Would you mind closing the window?” The Army brought on the hook.
By this time Mull’s interests were divided between art and music. He joined a conceptual-art group whose most notorious project was Flush with the Walls (Or, I’ll Be Art in a Minute), a 1971 exhibition in the men’s room of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
“We wanted to have a show at the museum,” he says. “But generally you had to be dead to be chosen. This was a price we didn’t really want to pay. So at 8 p.m. sharp, six of us, women as well as men, went in there and put up our work with masking tape while there were still people in there using it. In a matter of minutes we had over 300 people in the men’s room, including film crews for the 11 o’clock news. It was a terrific success.”
The following year, The Umbrellas of Pitchburg (mais oui serve vous) was sponsored by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The show consisted of hors d’oeuvres in the shapes of great works of 20th-century art, such as “Picasso on Rye,” which were eaten by the guests. (One doggie bag remained for years in the Institute’s freezer.)
Mull continued to produce his Fantasia-esque paintings, and was making some money—”I priced them very much like merchandise,” he says. “It wouldn’t be $500, it would be $499.99.”—but his career as a musician began to take up more of his time. In his senior year at RISD, Mull had formed a group called Soup, a band remembered less for its musical abilities than for its demented stage show. Mull, in a chef’s hat, was Captain Soup; the other costumes ranged from pajamas to a giant cigarette carton. The group recorded one unmemorable album before disbanding.
After getting his degree, Mull moved to Boston, where he lived in a basement apartment while working at a small recording studio. He was writing songs and thinking seriously about performing. When he married artist Kristin Johnson in 1970 (they are currently getting a divorce), he quit his job, collected unemployment and hired a manager with a special talent for securing nonpaying bookings.
“We had no money,” Kristin recalls. “Martin had to take public transportation to the gigs carrying his guitar, and not get paid, and play to an empty house. But he has a very large ego, and that sustained him for a long time.”
His songs would take a bizarre premise (What if I married a midget?) and extrapolate the logical results (“Walking hand and ankle/she’s got her arm around my sock”). They were strange but basically sweet—when he poked fun at something, it was good-natured. But when he began performing, another character developed between the songs, a character from which Barth and Gimble is a direct descendent. “I first started making music during the folk music scare of the sixties,” he says, “and I always felt that messages should be sent by Western Union, not by music. I would get in front of the audience and try to play these little alternative songs, and they’d look at me like I was half-baked. So I realized I’d have to introduce the tunes, and my tongue sort of went into my cheek, because that’s who I am. And out of that, certain things got great laughs and cumulatively built into an act.”
The laughs came at the audience’s expense. If they couldn’t appreciate a song like “Partly Marion” (“She was only 17/when she cut them off in the washing machine/she just reached for the wringer/and zap went the fingers/it was no consolation that they come off so clean”), it was their fault.
“Initially it was defensive,” he says. “I’d been told for years by my folks that I could not sing, and that’s quite a lot, to go on stage doing something you’ve been told you cannot do.”
He signed a contract with Capricorn Records and was soon on the road more that he was home. Then came Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture. “Standing up there in front of a stack of amps wasn’t really satisfying,” he says. “And when I’d sit around my living room and play with some friends, that did seem satisfying. I thought, ‘Maybe the catalyst here is furniture,’ so I figured, why not try it? It made me feel more at home, which would make the audience feel more at home. So I brought my home. It was literally my real furniture.” When he couldn’t schlep his own things, he rented old tables, chairs and lamps from local Salvation Armies.
The Mulls were then living in New York on Riverside Drive, and Martin’s career began putting a strain on the marriage. “He demanded an audience no matter where he was,” says Kristin. “Even if it was just me and him. It was, ‘Listen to this, no, wait, listen to this, what do you think of this?’ If there were more people, eventually we’d just be sitting around listening to Martin’s tunes. At one point I told him, ‘Martin, we’re living in a two-bedroom apartment and you’ve got a six-bedroom ego. I feel crowded.’ But I think that’s why he’s where he is now, because he’s so proud of what he does.”
Mull recorded four albums for Capricorn, and although he became close to the president of the company, Phil Walden, Mull claims the label had no idea how to market them. (“They were putting them out in fields and hoping people would find them,” he says) He had one near-hit, a single called “Dueling Tubas,” the Deliverance theme hilariously rendered by out-of-tune tubas. He was working steadily at colleges and clubs like the Boarding House—San Francisco and Boston have always been his best markets. But he wasn’t making any money, until he signed with Rollins & Joffe, the firm which also manages Woody Allen and Robert Klein.
“At that time he was traveling around with tap-dancers, a band, horns, craziness,” recalls Larry Bresner. “We could always get him work, but if he was getting paid $2,000, it cost him $4,000 to do it. We insisted on getting rid of everybody in the band. That wasn’t Martin Mull. Martin Mull was what he did sitting in a chair. The whole key was being able to expose him on a mass level.”
Mass level equals television. Mull did a couple of Cher shows and was offered the position of band leader on Saturday Night. “At that point, I didn’t feel it was quite enough for me to do, to sit there and say two or three lines a night,” he says, and turned it down. That may be one reason he has never been asked to host the show; another is more obvious.
A few years ago, Mull went to see the National Lampoon Show in New York. He sat right up front and talked with his friend, Peter Boyle, throughout the performance. When he went backstage afterward to congratulate the cast (which included John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray), Murray went berserk. He grabbed Mull around the neck and tried to choke him, screaming, “I’LL KILL HIM, I’LL KILL THAT FUCKER, HE TALKED THROUGH THE WHOLE THING, I HATE HIM!”
“As I recall, Bill had to be restrained by John Belushi,” says Michael O’Donoghue, who worked with Mull on an aborted project titled Lincoln: The Man, the Car and the Tunnel. “When Martin left the dressing room, Billy kept screaming after him, ‘Medium talent! Medium talent!’ Of such things show business legends are made.”
“I feel very bad about that show,” says Mull. “I’d had a bit to drink” (he doesn’t smoke grass), “and quite frankly, it was more amusing at that point to talk to Peter, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. I confess to having been extremely rude, though not quite as rude as Bill Murray trying to strangle me afterward.”
Then came Mary Hartman. “I thought they hired me because I was a comedian,” Mull says. “I was kind of surprised when all of a sudden we got all this Virginia Woolfish high drama. I didn’t like the character at all. I don’t care for violence, and wife beating is particularly repugnant to me, so it was quite hard.”
When Garth was killed off, the plan was to bring Mull back as a twin brother later in the season. But Al Burton saw him as the ideal host for Fernwood 2-Night. Norman Lear, however, had never seen Mull’s stage act, so a special night at the Roxy was arranged. In the middle of his act, Martin stopped and said, “Well, Norman, do I have the job?” He did.
Fernwood 2-Night was the perfect vehicle for Mull; he had been playing Barth Gimble since the first time he appeared on stage. The character incorporated some of the most basic comic schticks: the classic Gleason/Carney relationship between Barth and Jerry Hubbard (brilliantly played by Fred Willard, of the Ace Trucking Company), the exaggerated exasperation of Jack Benny, and the disgusted stare of Oliver Hardy, as lifted by Johnny Carson. (How long can it be before Mull is perceived as the obvious successor to Carson?)
“Martin was the one who realized that the show had to be more real,” says Harry Shearer, “as opposed to just raiding the files of topics taboo for TV. There was one meeting where one of Norman Lear’s vice-presidential flunkies said, ‘This reality shit is OK for Andy Warhol, but we’re doing TV.’ That was what he was up against.”
“What we didn’t do, that a lot of television does do,” says Mull proudly, “is we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘Whoops, we’re missing the dumb-belt contingent, we better make sure we have more tits and ass, or more fart jokes.’ Occasionally I thought I would get extremely antsy because I thought some of the acts were a little bit toward a Gong Show kind of thing, and to me, you don’t have to have a grandmother who plays the tuba and tap-dances at the same time—that’s not funny to me, because it’s a reach. To me, just having a grandmother, period, come on and talk about her grandchildren and show photos is much funnier. It’s not as obvious.”
What is obvious is the appeal of the concept to Mull. Like his songs, the show started with one absurd premise—what if the town of Fernwood decided to produce its own talk show—and took the idea to its limits.
So if you’ll beg my pardon
I’m goin’ out and start a garden
It’ll just be small potatoes
Just some lettuce and tomatoes
And if either one comes up, we’ll joint the Grange
What say you and I get normal for a change.
Martin Mull’s garden is a small sod lawn that cost only $38. (“It’s just back from the cleaners,” he says.) It is in back of the modest Malibu house he shares with his new love, Fernwood costume designer Sandra Baker, her two children and two dogs; the beach is a few hundred feet away. He clearly enjoys being normal for a change.
It’s 80 degrees out in the yard, but Martin is wearing brown pants, a green turtleneck and a tan jacket with a “Bah! Humbug!” button, in preparation for a photo shoot for the cover of the Christmas issue of Ampersand, a college monthly.
“Did you hear about the three Polacks who froze to death at a drive-in?” he asks. “They went to see Closed for the Season.”
His manager calls to discuss a possible book deal. “If it works out,” he says, “I’ll be limited to books, records, TV, movies, live performances and art.”
Martin is not above poking fun at himself—the cover of his latest album for ABC, I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved, shows him reclining on a couch gazing lovingly into a hand mirror, surrounded by signed photographs of himself. He is trying to get his stage persona more in sync with his private one, which he observes, “would not totally remove the smug arrogance.”
He is excited about the return of Fernwood 2-Night, mainly because the show allows him so much creative freedom. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The stuff that makes me happy has enough in common with enough people that it can become a commodity. There are a lot of people who, given compete license, can have the time of their life and have the communication of a rock.”
The Norman Lear organization is talking about a network sit-com after Fernwood runs its course. “I would have to have enough control over the thing that it wouldn’t compromise me,” he says. “I’m still very young, I’m still looking forward to making money, as opposed to trying to maintain some sort of lifestyle by selling out.” His managers want him to come up with a screenplay that he could direct and star in.
“What I really want to do with my life,” he says, “is take Sandra and the family to the south of France, fins a little château, set up the easel and paint.”
Martin Mull is a lucky man. He is getting paid for being funny, which is like a “normal” person getting paid for breathing. He is at last getting the recognition which, in his own words, he has so desperately deserved. He is unlikely to be spoiled by success—he’s been ready for it for too long.
Two women come by to shoot the photo. He walks over to the outdoor fireplace. “I could be hanging up a pair of panty hose and hoping that Santa fills ‘em with the proper item,” he suggests. They ask for a quote about Christmas. “I’m very hard to buy for,” Martin says. “Do you want a list of things? I think I should publish my sizes. Just a simple Christmas, and if all I receive is a Mercedes-Benz 280SL, hey, I was with my folks.
[From my man John Ed Bradley. Dig his 1991 GQ story about the Neville brothers.]
Tipitina’s in the warm blue fog, squatting beneath a crescent moon so sharp and clean you could shave a wild hog with it.
Art Neville enters the famous New Orleans honky-tonk wearing a hipster’s suit and studded leather boots, his wife, Lorraine, in hand. What resembles a fishing lure dangles from his ear, a spinner bait designed to attract bass. At 53, Art’s the eldest member of the Neville Brothers, a hometown band legendary for the kind of musical voodoo it practices on whoever comes to catch its midnight show. The Nevilles play Tip’s and a spooky magic happens: Fruit juice becomes a Hurricane cocktail, the fat of foot can suddenly hoof it, the blind, by God, can see.
“I’m tired,” Art moans, upstairs now, in the roped-off section reserved for VIPs. “I mean, I’m tired tired. I’m hurting tired.”
“He got in from Europe yesterday,” Lorraine says, “and at midnight we had a candlelight dinner: a big turkey with all the trimmings. It was very romantic, even if he could hardly keep his head up.”
Like his three brothers, Art, the Nevilles’ keyboard player, has his thing on the side—the Meters, the band he took to Europe. Saxophonist Charles has a jazz group called Charles Neville & Diversity; Cyril, the percussionist, has a funk-reggae outfit called the Uptown All-Stars; and Aaron, the one with the golden pipes, has himself.
“Been four, five, months maybe, since we played Tip’s,” Art is saying. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna go tonight. We start at midnight and we’ll probably play until around four. In the old days it sometimes was daylight before we got out of here.”
Downstairs, a band called Def Generation, composed mostly of Neville progeny, is killing the hour before the brothers come on. The opening act, their sound is part jazz, part rap, part second line, the bluesy brass-band music that traditionally accompanies black funeral processions through the streets of New Orleans.
“Don’t do drugs,” one of them keeps barking into a microphone; and an occasional drunken echo from the crowd barks back “Just say no!”
It’s so god-awful loud in here you have to shout to be heard. So Lorraine shouts: “This is their place, you know. The Nevilles play Tip’s and it’s crazy. They own it. So prepare yourself. I mean it.”
Tipitina’s opened about 14 years ago, the same year the Neville Brothers formed. Named after a song by the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, the club was started by a group of folks who liked to party hard and “gator.” To the uninitiated, gatoring is a dance that imitates coitus: It’s dry humping to a drumbeat. But to these people, it’s a religious rite ranked right up there with First Communion—or Mardi Gras.
The Nevilles played their first gig at Tip’s, to an audience that gatored so long and furiously, the beer lights dimmed and dust rained loose from the walls. The Nevilles’ music, inspired by the ancestral rhythms of their city, is mostly pop, funk, and soul. One moment they’re likely to sing an original composition about wild Injuns or yellow moons, the next a Cole Porter standard or The Mickey Mouse Club song. A rap anthem lamenting racism and urban violence might follow, or maybe some gospel bit rarely heard even in church anymore. Their repertoire apparently knows no limits, nor does their energy onstage. While the debut at Tip’s is now regarded as damned near mythic, few people actually remember it. Most everyone, I understand, was drunk or stoned.
“Buy me a beer,” someone is saying now, “and I’ll give you everything you need to know about these guys—everything!“
The man introduces himself as Tyrone Lewis, a singer of gospel music. For enthusiasm alone, he’s awarded a draft with a two-inch head of foam. He winks, smacks his lips and frantically drains the go-cup.
“My new album’s called Look for God,” he says. “Me and Aaron’s son Ivan—you know Ivan, he’s a recording artist himself—we grew up together in the thirteenth ward. We used to steal shit from the Winn Dixie supermarket.”
A commotion has erupted in one of the dressing rooms, sparing me more reminiscences from Tyrone. On a wall already covered with graffiti, someone has written “AARON NEVILLE WEARS PANTYHOSE.” A couple of ladies, standing on tiptoe, are scribbling over it with eyeliner and lipstick.
“He’d laugh about it,” one of the women says. “But best he doesn’t see it at all.”
If Aaron Neville wears pantyhose, then I go for those pointy Madonna bras with little link chains hanging from the nipples. Aaron is a devotee of professional wrestling who drives an all-terrain vehicle and sports tattoos on his face, chest and arms—arms that from any angle resemble dimpled Sunday hams without the honey glaze. In 1967, he had a hit song called “Tell It Like It Is,” and two summers ago he scored big with Linda Ronstadt on “I Don’t Know Much,” a Grammy award-winning ballad that in one clean stroke seemed to resurrect the Neville name from oblivion. In the more than twenty years between the two hits, Aaron managed to pull a couple of hitches in jail, for attempting to rob a Los Angeles furrier.
Tonight he’s dressed all in black, except for his white half boots. He walks around muttering “Yeah, all right” to all the friends and family members who have come to celebrate the band’s triumphant return to Tipitina’s. He hugs his sister, Athelgra, hugs his daughter, Ernestine, hugs his niece Arthel. A man in a pinstriped business suit approaches and digs into his pocket. “Let me give you my card, brother.”
“Yeah, all right,” Aaron says.
“I tried to call you.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“But I never could get through.”
Apparently Aaron is in no mood for business cards. He accepts the token without looking at it, brushes past the man and walks right by the painted-over pantyhose rap. He enters a back room, sits at a round café table and sips from a bottle of mineral water. A curtain of smoke billows a few feet above his head, hugging the ceiling. In a minute he’ll yodel like the singing cowboys in the movies he loved so much as a kid. This, while limbering up his voice box, also demonstrates his range, which, in the idolatrous prose of than one music critic, sounds like that of “an angel singing unto the Lord.”
“Aaron and his brothers want to give a tough image,” a friend of the group’s is telling me. “It’s part of the mystique—like they could blow down the walls if they wanted to. But they’re really very nice men. They’re pussycats, in fact. You stroke them a little and they all start to purr.”
Before they cleaned themselves up, the Nevilles were thieves, thugs, and junkies. Practically everyone here tonight knows this, and most are delighted by it. The music is best heard live, and though it would be great played by a bunch of priests from nearby Loyola University, coming from a clutch of reformed outlaws it takes on an element of mystery and danger. Except for Art, the Nevilles were heroin addicts and alcoholics—hoodlums, even they have often said. Back in the neighborhood, it was not uncommon to see one of them on any given weekday morning sitting on the hood of a junked car, holding a gallon jug of high-proof wine. They fought a lot and stole things. They dressed like rogue gangsters and talked through tightly clenched teeth.
“Why didn’t Art mess up like all the others?” one of his pals is saying. “Because he was far too busy playing his music and screwing women is why.”
Def Generation is doing an encore, and the brothers, crammed into the back dressing room, are going over the payroll, ripping out checks and handing them to band members. Charles walks over to the corner and loosens up with some T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercises, Cyril’s making sure his Mother Africa outfit is all zipped and tucked, and Art, still full of midnight turkey, tries to keep from falling asleep.
“Showtime!” a yellow ponytail says now with more zeal than seems necessary.
Aaron stands and tugs at the bottom of his denim vest. “Yeah, all right,” he mutters, then follows his brothers out of the room, down a rickety flight of stairs and into the crucible.
* * *
It’s a few weeks earlier, and the brothers are staying in a Los Angeles hotel just up the street from the bare-assed Hollywood Hills. This is one of those incredibly hip places that looks like a low-rise apartment building. A hotel with attitude. Limousines line the curb; enormous men with walkie talkies mill around the lobby, looking for heads to crack. The Nevilles have come to town to play the Universal Amphitheatre as Linda Ronstadt’s opening act. This is high irony, that four hardened soldiers of the street have been embraced by a fading pop queen, but apparently yuppie chic knows no shame.
All their rooms are up on the third floor. Charles, on this resplendent morning, is telling me his life story. He’s wearing his usual beret, tie-dyed T-shirt and parachute pants. Charles is 52 and a great-grandfather, which in terms of simple mathematics is quite a feat. He has just finished relating the part about how he worked for a time as a porter in a bowling alley and how in the early ’70s he spent three years in the Louisiana state pen for possession of two joints of marijuana.
“I started using drugs when I was in the navy,” he is saying. “I started with morphine and codeine, then went to heroin. It took me more than 20 years to get out of it. When I started playing music, in the ’50s, if you were going to play bebop, you almost had to do it because all the other musicians were. To support my habit I stole; I was into shoplifting and got busted a couple of times for that. I’d steal clothes, whiskey, meat. Once, I put on a khaki shirt with ‘GEORGE’ over the pocket. I had a clipboard with a yellow piece of paper on it and a pencil over my ear. Me and this other fellow went to a store on Canal Street, strapped a refrigerator onto a hand truck and walked right out with it. One of the people who worked there actually held the door open to help us out. Just some black cats in khaki, they figured. They couldn’t be stealing.”
He tells a few more drug stories, then walks to the closet and returns with a load of books. One is on African primal religions, another on the tao of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, another on the path to total rejuvenation.
“I practice T’ai Chi every day,” he says. “It’s a martial arts form as well as a Chinese internal-healing system. T’ai Chi is internal and soft, versus karate, which is external and hard. T’ai Chi teaches you how to identify your internal life source and guide it with your mind, how to manipulate it to rejuvenate your system. Exercises in the system are called chi kong. Kung fu is not the name of a martial-arts form; it means ‘something with diligent applications.’ To learn a martial art requires kung fu.”
By now I’m so overwrought with chi‘s and fu‘s and kong‘s and kung‘s that my eyes have about crossed. But the point of it all is that T’ai Chi, along with a number of drug rehab programs and the loving support of his family, helped Charles Neville get off heroin and start his life again.
He’s talking about the music now. “I never really cared about recognition. Doing the music was the reward. I started with a minstrel show, making eight bucks a night, three nights a week. But even then there was a link with the others in the band, and it cycled around to the audience and came back, and that was the reward. It was a religious experience, and later it occurred to me that this was my way of communing with God.”
The phone rings and it’s Art, down the hall. “He wants to see you,” Charles says. “I think I’ll do more reading now.”
* * *
Art’s in room 346, talking to a maid in a neatly pressed uniform and a cardboard hat. For the last hour or so she’s been trying to get into his room to clean it. “Come back later,” he tells her. Then to me: “They’re just trying to do their job, I understand that. But I think I’ve finally learned how to keep them away.”
“Just answer the door without any clothes on. That’ll do the trick every time.”
The maid leaves, carrying her vacuum cleaner.
Art’s wearing a New Orleans Saints cap. Sitting in the den now, he says he’s a little concerned about the team’s quarterback situation but that there are too many other things in the world to worry about. The Persian Gulf mess, for one.
“It’s scary where our country’s going. I have to believe the end of the world is coming.”
Lorraine enters the room and puts a frozen cocktail on the coffee table. For the moment, at least, everything seems fine with brother Art. No war, famine, pestilence, disease, and all the hell else. But Phil Donahue comes on the television, and who is he talking about but Saddam Hussein.
“It’s all in the Bible, the Book of Revelation,” Art says. “You can see it all right there in black and white.”
As a kid Art went to Catholic schools, so it would follow that he’d know about that sort of thing. His first gig was with a drum-and-bugle corps put together by the parish priest. They marched through the neighborhood, everybody running outside to see what the racket was all about. He started a group called the Hawkettes, which in 1954 recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a song still popular around New Orleans. In 1966, he formed the Meters, a hometown group that recently re-banded and is touring again. Art isn’t quite sure whether to trust the good fortune that has finally caught up to him and his brothers.
“In Europe, they always went insane over our stuff,” he says. “But here in America, no one would book us, except in Louisiana and Texas. We had a gold record in France and were practically unknown here. Even Japan paid more attention. Once we played in Seattle, and this Japanese group was there, and it sounded just like the Meters. A girl singing with the group said, ‘America is a wonderful country, but they don’t recognize and appreciate their own treasures.’”
A commercial comes on and Art calms down. He’s sounding more optimistic. “If I had to say what really got the Neville brothers to be a group,” he begins, “it’s our Chief Jolly, our uncle George Landry. He knew that if we got together as a family, it would happen. They called him Jolly because he was always happy, singing and whistling. When he died, all the black Mardi Gras Indians came out and kissed the ground in front of his house. He had one of the biggest funeral parades I’ve ever seen. I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to have one before I die—a second line, I’m talking about. That’s if I can afford it. I’ll be up in front with an umbrella, dancing. I figure you just as soon live to see your own funeral. If the end’s coming, why not have some fun?”
Maybe Art isn’t feeling so optimistic, after all. Presently, he gets onto the subject of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana, now a state representative, who received nearly 44 percent of the vote in a losing bid for a U.S. Senate seat and is running for governor this fall.
“When l heard you were a white guy and from home, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to talk you,” Art says. “You didn’t vote for ‘the boy’ did you?”
“No,” I say. “I did not.”
“It just shows you where the spirits and minds and hearts of people, where they’re all going.” Art and his brothers have threatened to move out of Louisiana if ever Duke were elected to a higher office.
“When you have family, you can pull together in times of crisis,” Art says. “Family is what’s important. Every time I look at my brothers I see all the people that’ve passed but are still with us spiritually. l see my uncle Jolly, my mother and my father. They’re all there, as my hands and feet are there. Two of my grandmothers lived at home with us when us I was growing up, and they’d always say, ‘Son, your pa ain’t never gonna die as long as you’re alive.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about until I had my son Ian, who’s 9 years old now. I have another son, 31, and a daughter, 28. But the little one, l see immortality in him. He will never forget about his father, the way I will never forget about mine.”
Yes, Art is hopeful now. The world might not end tonight after all.
The maid is at the door again, ringing the bell.
“Come in,” he calls to her. “Please, come in, come in . . .”
* * *
The next day, Cyril shows me the books he’s been reading. They’re all there on the coffee table, lined up in a row: The Holy Bible, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Koran, The Gospel of the Red Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.
As he reaches to pick one up, his star-shaped Malcolm X medallion clatters against his necklace of wooden beads. People say this about Cyril: At 42, he’s the most outspoken and politically active of the brothers; he’s what conservative whites called a “militant black” 20 years ago. Ask him about the weather, and he’ll pound you with tales about white racism. Cyril dresses a little like a Rastafarian and almost always wears a hat, an expensive Italian job with a black velvet band and a red feather. While the hat is the kind Uncle Jolly used to wear, it also covers up Cyril’s ever expanding bald spot.
I have been in his room less than three minutes when Cyril commences what will be a two-hour-long history lesson. “Ethiopia,” he says, “was a Christian nation 150 years before Rome took it over.”
Ten seconds later, he adds, “The worship of the Black Madonna existed long before Michelangelo ever painted his things.”
Cyril is a teacher, he says, determined to pass on what he calls “the black people’s story” to future generations. Yellow Moon, the Neville Brothers’ 1989 album, includes a song he helped write thanking Rosa Parks for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Brother’s Keeper, their latest, contains a creation of his that canonizes a list of New Orleans musicians whose work inspired him and his brothers: “Saint Shine, Saint James Black, Saint James Booker, Saint Professor Longhair and Saint Gerald Tillman.”
“At one point,” he says, “I considered wearing a vest of dynamite and going into a police station and blowing up myself and as many cops as I could. Millions of black men in my generation have gotten to this point of total frustration, of committing revolutionary suicide.”
He explains that his anger is a result of the racism he witnessed as a youth. “I couldn’t walk a block away from my house without being harassed by the police—I mean humiliated,” he says. “In school I couldn’t go for them teaching me that everything evil was black and everything pure was white. The meanest person I ever met in my life was a white nun. Whatever desires you had as a young black person, the Catholic schools would pump it out of you. This is why I write the kind of stuff I do. One of my punishments was to kneel before a big white crucifix of Jesus, and sometimes it felt like the blood was dripping off of him and right onto me.”
One of Cyril’s oft-quoted lines is this: “The first shit I ever learned how to read was a ‘WHITES ONLY’ sign.” And he repeats it now, his voice filled with rage.
“I still fear for my life when I walk out of my house in New Orleans,” he says, “and I fear for my son’s life. I deal in reality, and I know that collectively in America the white man is the black man’s enemy … I have legal tablets full of names of people—black people—who are dead, locked in the penitentiary for life, or a member of the walking dead.” He points to his chest and taps it. “I could have been one of those casualties.”
This is one of the last things he tells me: “On every level, we as blacks are being attacked. At some point in the future the white Anglo-Saxon male ego will submit to the truth, and fairness will be shown.”
Cyril folds his hands into tight, hard knots and beats them quietly against his knees.
“Two hours have gone by,” I say, “and we still haven’t talked about the music.”
“Sometimes that happens with me,” he replies, sounding almost apologetic.
* * *
Aaron, down the hall, is in a different mood altogether. He looks as if I’ve just awakened him from a nap.
“No. I was watching Fred Flintstone on TV,” he says, muting the volume with the remote control.
Earlier this morning he and his wife, Joel, went driving around Beverly Hills, looking at all the beautiful houses, the palm trees that chase the sky. They themselves recently moved from Valence Street in Uptown New Orleans to a suburban-type subdivision in the eastern part of the city. Joel is here in the room, over by the bed with Aaron’s sister, Athelgra. They’re folding clothes and putting them away.
Asked if, like Cyril, he was harassed and humiliated as a kid, Aaron says, “Some drunk boys from Tulane threw eggs a few times, riding in their cars through the neighborhood, but nothing else I remember.”
He sits with his elbows on his knees, his jailhouse tattoos a pale blue against the field of copper flesh. Aaron wears sleeveless denim vests because he can’t stand to have his muscular arms confined. Of the four brothers, Aaron, 50, is easily known, mainly because of his work with Ronstadt.
“Success to me,” he is saying now, “is being together as brothers and still looking out for each other. We lived together as kids, and now we’re taking care of each other as men. I may get more attention than them, but it’s still Neville, it’s still the Neville name.”
* * *
Unlike Charles and Cyril, Aaron doesn’t have any books to show me. He likes to read, though.
“What’s the kind I like?” he asks Joel now.
“Inspirational and positive-thinking,” she replies, then names a couple of authors.
“The Greatest Salesman in the World,” he says. “You ever hear of it?”
“What about The Greatest Miracle?”
“I don’t know that one either.”
Aaron is a writer himself. Over the years, after playing Tipitina’s until early in the morning, he would scribble things down on scraps of paper and toss them under the bed. Years went by and all those scraps did was gather dust. Then his friend Dynne Batson typed them up and arranged them by subject matter. Poetic Works by Aaron Neville, she called the 4 a.m. scribblings, and placed them between cardboard covers.
He’s remembering when he first became aware of his voice, the power, the wonder of it. “I used to go to basketball games and to movies, and I’d sing to the cat at the door to get in. I had a friend named Buckwheat, and he could sing, too. They all knew us. ‘Sing us a song and we’ll let you in.’ I used to sing ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ It was pretty.”
I tell him I don’t know the song. And he starts to sing it, filling the room with his sweet, fragile tenor, shifting to a falsetto that cuts straight to the heart.
“Singing is an art,” he says, “so I guess I’m an artist. I used to sing just to do it, but then Art put together a doo-wop group. They used to sit out in the park and harmonize. I’d do a cappella. We’d beat on hubcaps and Coke bottles. We’d win talent shows at the theater. Back then when I’d try to hit a note, everybody’d say, ‘Get on out of here.’”
When he was 17, Aaron went to jail for six months for stealing a car. He sang a lot there, too, figuring it was better than the other thing people did to kill time, which was to fight. After he got out, he married Joel and landed a recording contract. Then, in 1966, he cut “Tell It Like It Is,” at a small French Quarter studio run by a fellow named Cosima Matassa.
“When I first sang it, I thought it was okay but not the best I could do. It was a simple song, real simple. And I was looking for something more up-tempo. But my brother Art was with me and he could feel it. He knew I had something. Now when I hear it, it’s like brand-new all over again.”
The single climbed to No. 2 on the charts. Aaron toured the country with Otis Redding and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But a year later he was back home in New Orleans and back on the docks, handling freight on ships bound for the Gulf of Mexico.
“I got paid for personal appearances but not for the record,” he says. “I don’t have time to be angry about it. I’m not vindictive. Sometimes now I see the guys who got all the money. I don’t tell them anything. They were friends then. But when the record came out and it was time to get paid, everyone all of a sudden claimed bankruptcy.”
He and his brothers continued to play music in a number of different bands—sometimes together, sometimes apart—mostly at college fraternity parties and high school proms, before small but enthusiastic crowds whose applause only served to remind Aaron that, come Monday, there would be another boat to load or house to paint or ditch to dig.
Like Charles before him, Aaron got hooked on heroin.
“I think back on them days and it was all supposed to be so hip,” he says. “l was taking that stuff for about ten years. l quit cold turkey a couple of times. I went through a methadone program and it helped, but then you get hooked on that. What finally kicked it for me was that I got tired of seeing all the people around me deteriorating. You saw guys with hands as big as boxing gloves from shooting up.” He pauses and holds his hands out in front of him.
“The worst time of my life was when I was separated from my wife and thought I would lose her. Then I started praying real hard. I’d go to the grotto at St. Ann’s Shrine. This is where you go up the steps on your knees. I prayed to St. Jude for hopeless cases. I made novenas. Finally, I was saved, and I can tell you it wasn’t for nothing.”
The Nevilles’ mother died in 1975, and about a year later Uncle Jolly talked them into helping him record The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album of New Orleans party music that still is regarded as some of the best work the brothers have ever done. Of the many things old man Jolly would tell his nephews, none was more vital than this: “Your mother and father always wanted to see you work together as a band. Why don’t you do it?”
“All the stuff that me and my brothers went through to get to where we are now,” Aaron says, “now we can tell people behind us, ‘Hey, man, it ain’t cool to steal and do drugs, it don’t work.’ We’ve been saved for something, and we’ve got a message. People tell me, ‘Man, I hear your voice and it’s like medicine to me.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it’s like medicine to me, too. I can hear it, and even if I don’t have any money, I feel rich.’”
He’s been traveling for months now, he says he misses New Orleans, his own house and bed. When he returns he’ll drive around the old neighborhood in his Ford Explorer, play with his grandkids, sign autographs for all the schoolchildren, who call him “Mr. Aaron.” During the afternoon and evening hours, he’ll watch professional wrestling on TV. “I know when they’re going at it and when they’re not. I’ve seen them where there’s real blood squirting out of their heads.”
He is happy; the thought of the stars of the National Wrestling Association seems to invigorate him. “If ever I give up my music,” he says, “you might see me on the tube one day with a hood over my head climbing into a ring.”
“What would your name be?” I ask him. “You’ll have to have one, you know.”
“The Spoiler,” he answers. “I already got it picked out.”
Over by the bed his wife and sister are nodding their heads.
“He’d do it, too,” Athelgra says.
“Just you watch,” warns Joel.
* * *
Back at Tipitina’s, the brothers step onto the little piece of ground they know best, entering with arms raised. A man with a bushy black mustache is shouting into a microphone “Welcome back to Tipitina’s”—but the crowd, pressing close, drowns out the rest.
Sleepy-eyed Art gets behind his piano, Charles behind his horseshoe of saxophones, Aaron behind his mighty red tambourine and Cyril behind his congas. “Hey Pocky A-Way” is what they start with, a local favorite that Uncle Jolly helped make famous. The song is mostly chants accompanied by whatever noise the brothers choose to make, but it electrifies. A capacity crowd of about 1,000 has stuffed itself into Tip’s this night, and every last one is standing. Upstairs in the balcony, they’re doing a kind of stand-up version of the gator. I tell myself to keep still, goddammit, but there I go.
After a few minutes of this wretched nonsense, Tyrone Lewis sidles up to me and throws a hand on my shoulder. “How much is this magazine paying you? Anywhere in the vicinity of $20,000?”
“Depends on how big a vicinity you mean.”
“Lookee here, my man. For 50 bucks I’ll give you the rest of the scoop. Anything you want to know, it’s yours. I’ll tell you what Aaron’s like at home by himself. I idolize the man, I’ll even tell you that.”
“Leave me alone,” I say after a while, leaning in close. “Can’t you see I’m trying to dance?”
[Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen via Hey Reverb]
At the end of Fargo, Frances McDormand’s police chief, Marge Gunderson, captures the psycho played by Peter Stormare. He’s in the backseat of her police cruiser and she talks to him as she drives. We see that she cannot fathom the evil she’s just seen.
“And here ya are,” she says, “and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” It’s as true a piece of acting as you’ll find—Marge really doesn’t comprehend a certain kind of human darkness.
I am not surprised by violence or horror but still sometimes find myself struck, not unlike Marge, in a kind of a daze, unable to wrap my head around it.
Why do horrible things happen? That is the question at the heart of this disquieting story from the most-talented E. Jean Carroll. Elle’s longtime advice columnist, Caroll is a former contributing editor at Outside and also at Esquire, which she wrote this fantastic column about basketball groupies. She is the author of four books, including Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson and Mr. Right, Right Now!: Man Catching Made Easy. You can follow her on Twitter @ejeancaroll.
In the meantime, dig into “The Cheerleaders.” The story was published in Spinback in June of 2001, featured in The Best American Crime Writing 2002, and appears here with the author’s permission.
by E. Jean Carroll
from Spin, June 2001
Welcome to Dryden. It’s rather gray and soppy. Not that Dryden doesn’t look like the finest little town in the universe—with its pretty houses and its own personal George Bailey Agency at No. 5 South Street, it could have come right out of It’s a Wonderful Life. (It’s rumored the film’s director, Frank Capra, was inspired by Dryden.) But the thriving, well-heeled hamlet is situated on the southern edge of New York’s Finger Lakes region, under one of the highest cloud-cover ratios in America. This puts the 1,900 inhabitants into two philosophical camps: those who feel the town is rendered more beautiful by the “drama” and “poetry” of the clouds and those who say it’s so “gloomy” it’s like living in an old lady’s underwear drawer.
If you live in Dryden, the kids from Ithaca, that cradle of metropolitan sophistication 15 miles away, will say you live in a “cow town.” (“There’s a cow pasture right next to the school!” says one young Ithacan.) But Dryden High School, with its emerald lawns, running tracks, athletic fields, skating pond, pine trees, and 732 eager students, is actually a first-rate place to grow up. The glorious pile of salmon-colored bricks stands on a hill looking out on the town, the mountains, the ponds, and the honey-and-russet-colored fields stretching as far as the eye can see. In the summer, the Purple Lions of Dryden High ride out to the fields and the ponds and build bonfires that singe the boys’ bare legs and blow cinders into the girls’ hair.
In the summer of ’96, many bonfires are built. The girls are practicing their cheerleading routines and the boys are developing great packs of muscles in the football team’s weight room; everybody laughs and everybody roars and the fields around town look like they’ve been trampled by a pride of actual lions. In fact, the Dryden boys display such grit at the Preseason Invitational football game that fans begin to believe as the players do: that the upcoming season will bring them another division championship. This spirit lasts until about 6:30 p.m. on September 10, when Scott Pace, one of the most brilliant players ever to attend the school, the unofficial leader of the team, a popular, handsome, dark-haired senior, rushes out of football practice to meet his parents and is killed in a car crash.
It is strange. It is sad. But sadder still is the fact that Scott’s older brother, Billy, a tall, dazzling Dryden athlete, as loved and admired as Scott, had been killed in a car crash almost exactly one year before. The town is shaken up very badly. But little does anyone dream that Scott Pace’s death will be the beginning of one of the strangest high school tragedies of all time: how, in four years, a stouthearted cheerleader named Tiffany Starr will see three football players, three fellow cheerleaders, and the beloved football coach of her little country school all end up dead.
At a home football game, Friday evening, October 4, 1996, three weeks after the death of Scott Pace, townspeople keep talking about the team and the school “recovering” and “pulling together,” but the truth is, nobody can deal. To the students of Dryden High, it just feels as if fate or something has messed up in a major way, and everybody seems as unhappy as can be.
The game tonight, in any case, is a change. Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden High cheerleaders, arrives. The short-skirted purple uniform looks charming on the well-built girl with the large, sad, blue eyes. Seventeen, a math whiz, way past button-cute, Tiffany is on the student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt.” She hails from the special Starr line of beautiful blonde cheerleaders; her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, graduated from Dryden two years before. Their locally famous father, Dryden High football coach Stephen Starr, has instilled in his daughters a credo that comes down to two words: “Be aggressive!”
And right now the school needs cheering. Though her heart is breaking for Scott, Tiffany wants to lead yells. But as she walks in, the cheerleading squad looks anxiously at her, and one of them says, “Jen and Sarah never showed up at school today.”
“What?” says Tiffany.
Tiffany taught Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney to cheer, and her first thought is that the girls, both juniors on the squad, are off somewhere on a lark. Tiffany knows Sarah’s parents are out of town and that Jen spent last night at Sarah’s house. For a moment, Tiffany imagines her two friends doing something slightly wicked, like joy-riding around Syracuse. “But then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute….’”
“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get,” says Tiffany’s sister Amber. “It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because werule.”
The Dryden High girls have won their region’s cheerleading championships 12 years in a row. The girls’ pyramids are such a thrill, the crowd doesn’t like it when the cheer ends and the game begins.
“I’m like, ‘Hold on, Jen and Sarah would never miss a game,’” Tiffany continues. “So the only thing we can do is just wait for them to arrive. And we wait and we wait. And finally, we walk out to the football game and sit down in the bleachers. We don’t cheer that day. Well, we may do some sidelines, but we don’t do any big cheers because you can’t do the big cheers when you’re missing girls.”
Jen Bolduc is a “base” in the pyramids (meaning she stands on the ground and supports tiers of girls above her), and Sarah Hajney is a “flyer” (meaning she’s hurled into the air). At 16, Jen is tall and shapely, a strong, pretty, lovable girl with a crazy grin and a powerful mind. She is a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.
“Jen is a great athlete and a wonderful cheerleader,” says Tiffany. “Really strong.And she’s so happy! All the time. She’s constantly giggling. And she’s very creative. When we make Spirit Bags for the football players and fill them up with candy, Jen’s Spirit Bags are always the best. And she’s silly. Joyful. Goofy. But she’s a very determined person.”
“Jen is always doing funny things,” says Amanda Burdick, a fellow cheerleader, “and she’s smart. She helps me do my homework. I never once heard her talk crap about people.”
Sarah Hajney is an adorable little version of a Botticelli Venus. She’s on varsity track and does volunteer work for children with special needs. “She’s a knockout,” says former Dryden football player Johnny Lopinto. “I remember being at a pool party, and all the girls, like Tiffany and Sarah, had changed into their bathing suits. And I was walking around, and I just like bumped into Sarah and saw her in a bathing suit, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Sarah! You’re so beautiful!’”
As the football game winds down to a loss, and Sarah does not suddenly, in the fourth quarter, come racing across the field with a hilarious story about how Jen got lost in the Banana Republic in Syracuse, the anxious cheerleaders decide to spend the night at their coach’s house. “And we go there, and we begin to wait.” says Tiffany. “And we wait and we wait and we wait and we wait.”
Before the game is over, a New York state trooper is in Sarah Hajney’s house. “I get a phone call on Friday night, October 4, at about—I should say, my wife gets a phone call, because I’m taking the kids to a football game and dropping them off,” says Major William Foley of the New York State Police.
Major Foley (at the time of the girls’ disappearance he is Captain Foley, zone commander of Troop C Barracks, which heads up the hunt) is a trim man in enormous aviators, a purple tie modeled after the sash of the Roman Praetorian guard, and a crisply ironed, slate-gray uniform. The creases in his trousers are so fierce they look like crowbars are sewn into them.
Sitting with Foley in the state trooper headquarters in Sidney, New York, is the young, nattily dressed Lieutenant Eric Janie, a lead investigator on the girls’ disappearance. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Bolduc because I lived in Dryden,” says Foley. “Ron Bolduc calls me because he’s concerned he’s not going to get the appropriate response from the state police. A missing 16-year-old girl—this happens all the time. So I call Mr. Bolduc back and say I will look into it. And what I do is, I ask that a fellow by the name of Investigator Bill Bean be sent. This is unusual for us to send an investigator for a missing girl. We’d normally send a uniformed trooper who’d assess the situation, but in this case [as a favor to Mr. Bolduc], Investigator Bean is the first to arrive at the Hajney residence. And hequickly determines there’s cause for concern.”
The Hajney house, a snug, one-story dwelling with a big backyard, is outside Dryden, in McLean, a hilly old village settled in 1796. The village houses are done up in pale gray and mauve and preside over lawns so neat and green they look like carpeting. Wishing wells and statues of geese decorate the yards, flags flutter on porches, and there’s a farm in the middle of town.
“There are a lot of people, concerned family members, inside the house,” says Janie. “And the first obvious fact is: There’s a problem in the bathroom.”
“There are signs of a struggle,” says Foley. “The shower curtain has been pulled down: the soap dish is broken off.” On the towel rack is Jen’s freshly washed purple-and-white cheerleading skirt. Sarah’s skirt is discovered twirled over a drying rack in the basement.
We start treating it as a crime scene,” says Janie. “Sarah’s parents have gotten the call [they are in Bar Harbor, Maine, for a four-day vacation] and are on their way back.”
The first break in the case occurs almost immediately: The Hajney’s Chevy Lumina, which was missing, is found about seven miles from the house in a parking lot of the Cortland Line Company, a well-known maker of fly-fishing equipment. “The trunk is forced open by one of the uniformed sergeants,” says Foley, “because we don’t know, of course: Are the girls in the trunk?”
The trunk reveals that the girls have, in fact, been inside. Investigators tear the car apart and find, among other things, mud, pine needles, charred wood, blood, and diamond-patterned fingerprints suggesting the kidnapper wore gloves, meaning this wasn’t some freak accident or a hotheaded crime of passion. This was planned.
Outside the Hajney home, waiting behind the yellow police tape in the cold night, is the other flyer on the cheerleading squad, Katie Savino. Small, with sparkling dark eyes and the merriest laugh, more like a sylph than a human girl, Katie is Sarah’s best friend. She watches the troopers go in and out of the house, and waits—full of hope—to speak to an official. What no one knows yet is that Katie could have been the third girl in the trunk. She had made plans to spend the night with Sarah and Jen but, at the last moment, decided to stay home.
Saturday dawns with diaphanous skies. The day is so sunny, so clear, that the natives, accustomed to clouds, find the silver-blue blaze almost disorienting. “It’s a beautiful day,” says Kevin Pristash, a student affairs administrator at State University of New York at Cortland, which is near McLean and Dryden. “And suddenly these posters go up all over town. GIRLS MISSING! It’s very eerie. Rumors are rampant. State troopers are everywhere. Helicopters are flying overhead. I go to get gas, and an unmarked car pulls up, and two guys from different police units get out. They’re everywhere.”
Gary Gelinger, an investigator with the state police, is in McLean interviewing the neighbors of the Hajney family. The first kitchen table at which he is invited to sit on Saturday morning belongs to John and Patricia Andrews. Their six-year-old son, Nicholas, attends Dryden Elementary. From an upstairs bedroom, one can look down into the Hajneys’ bathroom.
“John Andrews is not behaving appropriately,” says Janie. “Isn’t answering questions appropriately, doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. Investigator Gelinger reports back and just says: ‘Nah, this isn’t good. The next-door neighbor isn’t good at all.’”
Back when he attends Dryden High, John Andrews is a bashful boy. The love of his life is cars. His old man has won a Purple Heart during one of his three tours in Vietnam: he’s a “USA all the way” kind of religious alcoholic who believes in the belt and is strict about his rules. He beats John and his sisters, Ann and Deborah.
At Dryden, John finds a sweetheart, classmate Patricia McGory. They marry, and John joins the Air Force. At his German base, John allegedly, on two separate occasions, dons a ski mask and gloves and viciously attacks women who are young, attractive, and petite. They have long, fair hair and are his neighbors. He’s found guilty of the second assault, dishonorably discharged, and sent to Leavenworth.
When John is released, he and Patricia (who, along with his family, insists on his innocence) buy a house in McLean, and he begins working the third shift as a lathe operator at the same company where his mother is employed, the Pall Trinity Micro Corporation, in Cortland. A year later, in August 1996, the Hajneys purchase the house next door to the Andrews, and John quickly becomes obsessed with their beautiful and dashing daughter.
While the troopers are trying to get ahold of military justice records and follow up leads on other suspects, the massive search has alarmed Tiffany Starr and the cheerleading squad. “We keep hearing different rumors all day Saturday after we go home from the coach’s,” says Tiffany. “The house where I live is five minutes from the place where Sarah and Jen have been kidnapped. Of course I go wild, thinking they’re coming to get me next. We’ve been imagining that they’re after cheerleaders. And Saturday night and Sunday it’s just me and my mom at home [her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, are away at college], and everybody knows that. By Sunday, I’m freaking out. And I say, ‘Mom, we have to leave now! We have to get out of here!’ And my mom says, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And we throw our stuff in a bag. I can’t be in that house another minute. I’m terrified. I’m sure somebody is gonna break in, and we just get in the car and go.”
To fully understand Tiffany’s dread, we must turn the clock back two years, to 1994, when Tiffany is a sophomore, her sisters are seniors, and their father is the Dryden High football coach….
The Starrs live in a lovely two-story house at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in the country village of Cortlandville, which, like McLean, feeds into Dryden High. In the backyard is a swimming pool where neighborhood kids scramble and laugh, and on the garage is a basketball hoop, where Stephen Starr shoots baskets with his girls. Coach Starr is admired; his wife, Judy, is clever and good-looking, and his three daughters are the goddesses of Dryden High.
“My family is perfect,” says Tiffany. “Besides being the Dryden High School football coach, my dad is the assistant Dryden High girls’ track coach, and he is a sixth-grade teacher at Dryden Elementary. With all his jobs, it’s years and years before he finishes his master’s degree, and I remember the day he comes home; he brings champagne, and he pops it, and my mother and he are so excited! They dream about growing old together and sitting out on our back porch. Mom wants to get one of these swings so they can sit out there while Amy, Amber, and I are at college.”
“Dad’s so funny,” says Amy Starr.
“Dad sitting at dinner—” says Tiffany, laughing.
“The hat backward,” says Amy.
“One of those mesh hats,” says Tiffany, “backward, kind of sideways backward—”
“He calls me Pinny because I was so skinny,” says Amy.
“Amber he calls Amber Bambi,” says Tiffany, “and I’m Shrimp or Shrimper.”
“And mom’s Turtle, and he’s Turkey,” says Amber.
“Dad loves cookies,” says Amy. “You come down to the kitchen, and there he is in the middle of the night, standing with the refrigerator door open. He can eat awhole bag of Oreos or Nutter Butters. He loves peanut butter.”
“He dips the peanut butter out of the jar,” says Tiffany, “and then dips the spoon into the vanilla ice cream. He’s a very happy man.”
“So I’m on my way up to bed,” says Amber, “and he’s on his way downstairs, he has a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and for some reason this really overwhelming feeling comes over me. And I say, ‘Dad! Wait!’ And I say, ‘Stop! I love you!’ And I give him this really big hug, and he’s like, ‘I love you too, kiddo.’ And he goes on downstairs. And that’s the last time I see him alive.”
In the fall of ’94, a moody young boy from Truxton, New York, appears on the scene. A sulky rogue with dead-poet good looks, his name is J.P. Merchant and, needless to say, he’s irresistible to young women. But romance has a trick of turning ugly when it comes J.P.’s way, and his last high school love affair ended in catastrophe.
Then he meets Amber Starr. She is not like the clingy, docile girls he’d known before. Amber is a Dryden cheerleader and a queen. They start dating. He falls in love; she doesn’t. She breaks it off; a hole is burned into his life. Merchant starts calling. He shows up. He knows Amber’s schedule, her whereabouts, her friends. He tells her if they do not get back together he will kill himself. Amber is kind; she speaks with him for hours on the phone, “letting him down gently.” In late December, he threatens to kill Amber’s new boyfriend. Coach Starr is out of town, playing in a basketball tournament at his old high school, so Tiffany and Judy go to the Cortland County Sheriff on December 27 and file a complaint.
“Merchant is stalking my daughter!” says Judy. She asks for an order of protection. The sheriff arrests Merchant. Merchant’s family posts bail: $500. Upon his release, he calls Amber and threatens her. Again, Tiffany and Judy go to the sheriffs department, this time with Amber. It is December 28. Judy begs the sheriffs department for help and protection.
On December 29, a sheriff’s officer watches the Starrs’ house. The officer goes home when his shift ends. No officer replaces him.
“Our day raised us to be aggressive, says Tiffany. She lowers her voice in an impression of her father: “‘Where’s the aggression? Dive for the ball! Get in there!’”
“I don’t know bow many times I heard that!” says Amy.
“‘I don’t want to hear the word can’t,’” says Amber, imitating her dad. “‘That’s not part of our vocabulary in this house.’”
Late on December 29, Stephen Starr returns home, eats a plate of cookies, drinks a beer, and goes to bed. Early the next morning, as the family sleeps, J.P. Merchant shoots the locks off the Starr’s back door, climbs the stairs, and is startled to see Tiffany standing in her bedroom doorway.
He aims the Ithaca 20-gauge shotgun at her. “I am ready to die,” Tiffany recalls. “I think for sure this is it. But something as simple as shutting my door keeps me alive. He is not after me. He wants Amber. He just isn’t going to let anyone get in his way. And I don’t try. I shut my door and let him go.”
Forever after, Tiffany dreams of stepping into her closet, retrieving her baton, surging up behind him and striking him over the head. But J.P. Merchant moves on quickly—a matter of mere seconds—to Amber’s bedroom. As he tells Amber to wake up, her father comes running to protect her.
J.P. shoots Stephen Starr dead with two blasts of the gun.
Somehow the girls and their mother manage to flee the house in their nightclothes. Merchant reloads his shotgun and follows. He fires into the woods at the edge of their house, believing they are hiding there. But the family goes in the opposite direction instead, racing across the yard to a neighbor’s. J.P. starts to follow….
Amy Starr suddenly grabs the tape recorder out of my hand and yells into it. “This is reality, people!” she says. “This really happened! Okay? We were straight-A students! We had friends. We were cheerleaders. We played sports. We had great lives!”
The Starr sisters are visiting my room at the Best Western Hotel outside Dryden. We have been out for an Italian dinner at the A-1 restaurant, and now the girls are sitting on the huge double-king bed in my room, looking through their high school scrapbooks, doing their best to sort through the painful memories. They’ve since moved on, entered college (Tiffany is graduating this month from the University of Maryland), and they work every day. “We’ve not done one thing to mess up,” says Amy, who is engaged to marry a “terrific” young man next spring.
But the girls carry scars. They do not talk to strangers now. They do not give out their telephone numbers. They fasten their seat belts to drive one hundred yards across a parking lot. They bolt their bedroom doors. If Russell Crowe appears with a sword, they walk out of the theater. It’s six years later, and they still wake in the middle of the night, their hearts beating wildly. But the Starrs are prevailing. Not the growing-up sort of prevailing that most 21-year-olds experience, but the kind of prevailing that comes from being trampled and standing back up.
As for J.P. Merchant, he leaves the cul-de-sac by the Starr home and drives to the grave of his high school sweetheart, Shari Fitts. Shari had committed suicide three years earlier, while she was dating Merchant. There, he puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and kills himself.
“The biggest mistake I made was not cutting off contact with J.P.,” says Amber, who is dating now and seems quite happy. She takes the tape recorder out of Amy’s hand and starts looking for the volume control, “Now I know, and I can tell other people.” She finds the control, turns it up as high as possible, and yells:“Cut off contact and get professional help!”
There is silence for a moment. The girls are huddled together over the recorder, surrounded by pictures of themselves in their purple and white track uniforms, basketball uniforms, and cheerleading outfits, their long Alice in Wonderlandhair tied up in white ribbons. But one picture, from early 1997, is different. It is of Tiffany’s cheerleading squad. On each of their uniforms, the ribbons are black.
So is it any wonder Tiffany and Judy pack their bags and drive all the way to Tiffany’s grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania when Jen and Sarah disappear? As they’re driving, the police are narrowing the suspects down to four—the Hajneys’ neighbor, John Andrews, and three others. The hour is now approaching 10 P.M. on Sunday. A call comes in…like hundreds of other calls. It’s a woman in her early 30s named Ann Erxleben, and she holds the key that will solve the case.
Ann is a pleasant brunette, a former class officer, yearbook editor, and member of the softball team at Dryden High. “I’m working at the hospital with Cheryl Bolduc, who is a nurse,” says Ann. “And when I hear about the girls missing, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain Mrs. Bolduc’s going through. Then something strange happens.
“My fiancé, Bruno Couture, and I own a hunting camp out in Otselic. [In this part of the country, the word camp is used to describe a cabin or lodge on rustic acreage.] A friend of ours, Marcus Hutcheon, has gone up to stay there Friday night. And when he walks in, the place is dark, but he notices a puddle on the floor. A friend of his comes in and shines a flashlight on it and says it looks like blood.
“So I say, ‘I think we need to go up there and check it out.’ So we get a hold of Marcus, and we drive up to the camp. It’s a small place—a basic hunting camp, one room, a loft, a wood stove. Marcus shows us the spot on the floor. It looks like somebody—” Ann’s voice falters.
“There’s been a puddle, a dried puddle, and I’m scared. So we drive to the troopers’ barracks in Norwich. There isn’t anybody there, so we have to call somebody to come. I’m the one who calls. I say, ‘Look, we’ve found blood in our camp.’ I feel suddenly guilty. Call it instinct.
“So a trooper arrives, and we drive back up to the camp. The trooper goes inside. He’s very nonchalant. He comes out and asks, ‘Do you know any people from McLean?’ Well, obviously, Bruno has been raised there, and I grew up around there. And he asks us if anybody from McLean has been up there. And I answer ‘friends and family.’ And the trooper says, ‘Well, I’ve called the barracks in Cortland, and we need to wait for them to come.’
“The Cortland troopers come. It’s very dark now. They take a look in the camp and start interviewing Marcus. Then they interview Bruno. Then they turn to me and ask me who I am. I say I’m Bruno’s fiancée. And one of the troopers asks if any of my family and friends live near the girls.
“Both Bruno and Marcus look at me. They’re waiting for me to make the call as to what to say. I’ve decided beforehand—it’s the only way I can live with my conscience—that I will volunteer no information unless they ask me directly. And I look at the trooper and I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And the trooper says, ‘Has anybody you know that lives near the girls been up to this camp?’ And I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And he says, ‘Who is your brother?’ And I say, ‘John Andrews.’
“And the trooper flies by me so quickly he almost knocks me down. He runs into the camp and starts screaming for the senior investigator. And at that point I just want to vomit. Because my gut instinct is right. I love him, but the kidnapper is my brother, John.”
“Ann’s done the right thing, says Major Foley from behind his oak desk in the state trooper headquarters. “When the sun comes up at the camp, of course, it’s obvious. Because we start to find….”
“Parts of the girls,” says Lieutenant Janie. “Body parts.”
Foley adjusts himself in his chair and tilts his head away with a rush of emotion. “Well, I will tell you what,” he says, quietly. “Here is something we will never go into. The details of the torture of those two lovely girls.”
“We arrested John Andrews,” concludes Janie, “Monday at work.”
Three days earlier, the day the girls never show up to the football game, John Benjamin Andrews, wearing a dark T-shirt and jeans, ducks under the Hajneys’ garage door. He cuts the phone wires. Over his thinning dark hair and fleshy cheeks, he pulls a brown ski mask. He knows there is going to be a mess, so he puts on yellow rubber gloves, the kind people wear to wash dishes. The door to the kitchen is unlocked. He enters, turns, and creeps down the steps to Sarah’s room.
What does this grotesque, greasy-eyed nightmare carrying a bag holding duct tape, extra yellow gloves, and six knife blades look like to her? He weighs close to 250 pounds. His bulk must overpower the small, vibrant girl. He binds the little flyer with black plastic ties and seals her mouth with duct tape.
Is he surprised to hear the shower running? Does he realize two girls are in the house? Does he know that Jen Bolduc—whose might and muscle have tossed entire squads of cheerleaders in the air—does he know that courageous Jen will stand and fight? He must be amazed when he lurches into the bathroom and Jen claws him, kicks him, and, who knows, slams him in the face with the shower caddy. John Andrews is out of shape, but he has many knives; she is naked and outweighed by well over a hundred pounds. Sarah and Jennifer are soon trapped in the trunk of the Lumina.
Going the speed limit, the trip to the Otselic camp takes an hour. It is a curvy, up-and-down road. One of Sarah’s greatest pleasures in life is to lie down full-length in the back of her brother’s pickup, gaze up at the stars, and, as he drives round and round, guess where she is. Now they are passing June’s Country Store in Otselic. Now they are turning up Reit Road. It is bumpy. They are passing a farm. The farmer’s dog must be barking. The girls are disciplined athletes, trained to think under pressure. Are they planning an escape? Are they making a pact? They are folded together like fawns, and no matter what, as Tiffany and the cheerleading squad say, “These two girls are there for each other.”
The cabin and its pond are about a thousand yards off Reit Road in Otselic, on the edge of Muller Hill State Forest. At some point John Andrews builds a bonfire. At some point he tortures the girls. He cuts Jen and Sarah into small pieces. He drives back down Reit Road, throwing bloody body parts out the window. He heads toward a state game land and disposes of more. He sloshes motor oil over himself, the front seat, and the dash to conceal clues and leaves the car at Cortland Line Company. He tosses the yellow gloves in a trash can.
“Well, what can I tell you?” says Major Foley. “There’s a driving force. A lust. A desire. Mr. Andrews was going to attack those girls. Whether he knew Jennifer was there, we’ll never know. But he was going to commit this crime. What drove him to do it? The easiest answer is a three-letter word: Sin. People do things that are wrong because they want to. That’s all.”
“What makes us do things?” says Ann Erxleben. “What makes us not do things? What pushed my brother over the edge? The police tell us it was some kind of woman-hate crime. Because of the way the bodies were mutilated. But Johnidolized my mother.”
In 1985, John Andrews’ father, Jack, was accused of sexually abusing young girls. He killed himself three years later with a 12-gauge shotgun. Did the son blame the girls? Was he so ashamed and angry that he took revenge against young women for his father’s suicide?
Looking for answers about her brother and father has not been easy for Ann. But she is not grim, not somber. She smiles and says what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. She has baked delicious blueberry muffins for me to eat during this interview. She is relatively happy now, the mother of four comely young daughters—a toddler, twins who are athletes, and her oldest daughter, now in college, who was a cheerleader. “It’s a little scary for me to think that, in a lot of ways, we both were caring, giving people,” Ann says of her brother. “We both were raised the same way; we both were taught the same values, we both were told to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I said it’s scary because I don’t know what would make him do what he did.”
When word comes on Monday, October 7, Dryden High decides to send notes to the classrooms. “Each teacher has to read to the students that Sarah and Jen have been found and that they are definitely dead,” says Tiffany. “When the teachers read the notes to the classes, people jump out of their seats and run down the hallways, screaming. Everybody gathers in the gym and just screams and just cries and cries. And then people speed out to the parking lots, and they just, like… leave.”
Superintendent of Schools Donald Trombley is quoted in The Ithaca Journal: “It is unbelievable hysteria.”
“I’ll never get over it,” says Tiffany. “As a female, it’s the most terrifying thing to imagine happening to you. Sixteen! They are 16! Young women are so protective of their bodies, about being touched… and then the way they’re killed is so bad. And the question we keep asking is: Why does it keep happening to us, our town,our group of people?”
Before the school makes the announcement to the students, Katie Savino, Sarah’s best friend, the raven-haired, high-bouncing flyer, the third girl, is taken out of class and told privately. On hearing the news, she runs toward Sarah’s locker and collapses.
On Saturday, November 2, one day after being indicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, auto theft, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon, John Andrews hangs himself in his jail cell with his shoelaces.
Scott and Tiffany’s class graduates in 1997. Sarah and Jen’s class graduates in 1998. In June 1999, Gary Cassell, the young Dryden High athletic director and the man who became a surrogate father to the Starr sisters, dies of a sudden heart attack. Three days later, Judy comes home from work and softly knocks on Tiffany’s bedroom door. She asks Tiffany to get Amy and to come out to the living room. One glance at her mom’s pale, twisted face, and Tiffany is terrified.
“And we come out in the living room and we sit down. And mom just says… ‘Katie Savino.’”
Only two prisoners are receiving visitors today at the Tioga County Jail in Oswego, New York. One prisoner is a young curly-haired woman who is accused of killing her three-year-old child. The other is Cheryl Thayer, who has pleaded guilty to killing Katie Elizabeth Savino.
Katie graduated from Dryden and went on to the State University of New York at Oswego. When news of her death roared across the Finger Lakes region on the morning of June 11, 1999, the home of the Purple Lions was forced to shut down completely. Students simply could not believe Katie was dead.
“We felt like we’re living in the Village of the Damned,” says a student who described Katie as “the most popular girl who ever lived.” “We were mad,” says Tiffany. After standing strong through her father, Billy, and Scotty, this one was “just way too much”—she became physically ill upon hearing the news. “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
Twenty-three hundred people attended the memorial service for the cheerleader who pulled a whole school back to something like normality after Jen’s and Sarah’s deaths. “She really believed Sarah and Jen were with her,” says her mother, Liz Savino. “She was always smiling. I mean, she always glowed. Katie didn’t make friends; she took hostages. She never left a room without a hug and a ‘Bye. I love you!’ I miss her terribly. I miss her horribly.”
“Before Jen and Sarah died, Katie was so innocent,” says Tiffany. “I don’t think she’d kissed a boy until she was a senior in high school. If then. She was very smart, did really well in school, and she was friends with everybody. Then when Sarah died, Katie took a lot of her clothes and wore them. She wore Sarah’s belt every day. I think it really terrified her that she was supposed to have been [at Sarah’s house the night of the kidnapping]. And then on top of it, she lost her best friend in the most painful way that you could possibly imagine.”
Katie’s killer is tall and slender with lovely, dark, deep-set eyes, black eyebrows, and dark hair pulled high in a ponytail. Long wisps fall across her forehead as she sits very straight on her stool, her narrow shoulder blades drawn back elegantly. She is 19 and pretty enough that, even in her orange prison pants and top, she looks like she stepped out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad.
“Katie was my best friend,” Cheryl says, and immediately a large tear fills the comer of her eye. “I was leaving for California the next day, so Katie stayed and partied with me at a place in Cortland that serves kids drinks.”
The tear falls against the side of her nose and begins to roll down—not down the type of burly, pockmarked face one sees in prison movies, but the face of a young girl with her hair pulled up in a scrunchy. It is disconcerting. “Katie and I were refused service because of our age.” Cheryl says. “So we both just drank out of our friends’ drinks. We left around two o’clock in the morning. When we got to the car. I could feel alcohol in my system, so I called shotgun. And Katie would neverdrive if she’s even had one sip of a drink.
“I told the three guys we were taking home that one of them should drive,” she continues. “But the guys all said they were too wasted. So that’s how I ended up behind the wheel, even though I’m from Ithaca and I didn’t know the roads. Also the seating arrangement was weird. Katie was sitting in the seat behind me. The guy in the middle was huge. Normally, Katie would have been in the middle.
“I was driving her home first. She told me to take the back roads because they were quicker. I had no idea where we were going.” It was so dark, Cheryl had the creepy feeling that if she stuck her arm out the window she would never see it again. Curves appeared suddenly, but even worse were the hills. She missed a turn. Katie laughed and made her stop the car and turn around. Cheryl lost all sense of direction but dutifully took the road Katie told her to take. A minute later….
“I didn’t see the stop sign,” Cheryl says, “and we got hit by the truck. It was sodark!” It’s half a cry, and it strikes terror in my heart to hear it. “I didn’t know the roads! I didn’t see the sign! It’s 2:30 in the morning. The roads are deserted. And here comes this truck out of nowhere! We were dragged a couple hundred yards under the truck and the car caught on fire. As soon as the truck got stopped, the three guys climbed out. There were flames. My door was wedged closed. The truck driver pulled me out. The moment I was taken out of the car, it exploded.”
“Cheryl,” I say, “people in Dryden are saying Katie’s screams could be heard as the flames shot through the car.”
“No,” Cheryl says. She waves her hand in vigorous denial. A yellow plastic ID band circles her thin, girlish wrist. Burns are still visible on her slender arms.
“I know Katie didn’t die afraid,” says Liz Savino. “But I have many, many nightmares about whether she was awake at the end. If she was, that would have been horrific. Absolutely horrific.”
“Was Katie conscious at the end, Cheryl?”
Her upper lip trembles, but she speaks with certainty. “I think she was killed the moment the truck hit us. Katie was my best friend. I loved Katie. Everybody loved Katie. Katie was always laughing or shouting. We would have heard her if she were alive.”
Liz, a small, personable woman, says she does not want to punish Cheryl Thayer. She remembers that when Katie was applying to colleges, one of her essays talked about sitting at Scott Pace’s funeral and holding Jen and Sarah’s hands. Liz Savino would like to think “that Katie’s life was not in vain,” and she believes that if Cheryl is given a chance, she will “teach others a lesson”: Don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking. So Liz and her ex-husband, Jim Savino, working with the Cortland district attorney, have asked that Cheryl be released from prison in six months and begin five years’ probation. (She was released last summer and is taking classes at Tompkins-Cortland Community College in Dryden.)
“I tried to do what Katie would have wanted,” says Liz. “Katie was a true, loyal friend. My way of handling my daughter’s death is to live the legacy she would have wanted… to try to open myself up to others and be less judgmental. I’m not certain I’m as successful as she was, but I’m certainly trying. I truly believe she is guiding me.”
Visiting hour is over. Cheryl must return to her cell. She stands with reluctance. She squares her slender shoulders and turns to go. There is a half moment to ask one last question: Katie escaped fate the first time by not spending the night at Sarah’s….
“But fate made sure it met Katie.” says Cheryl.
Three months after attending Katie’s memorial service, her good friend Mike Vogt, the class clown and Dryden High’s IAC Division All Star middle linebacker, walks out to a cabin in the woods. Mike is red-haired, big-muscled, fast, born to play football. He’s funny, a musician, and absolutely notorious in Dryden for his pranks. Mike drinks real beer onstage in a school play. Mike takes Chris Fox’s car, parks it at the school’s archery center, and covers it with condoms he steals out of the nurse’s office. Mike loves “mudding” and buries all kinds of vehicles up to their axles in the big open fields around Dryden.
“Mikey’s my best friend since first grade,” says Johnny Lopinto, who played football with him. “I never remember doing anything without him. We could be in the shittiest place in the world, and we would hate to be there, but as long as we were together, it was like everything was a big show and we were the only ones watching it. But Mikey was complicated,” Johnny adds.
Mike was depressed by Katie’s death and probably never got over the loss of his Dryden teammate Scott Pace three years earlier. “Maybe he wanted to protect us from his pain.” says Johnny. “The morning after my 21st birthday, he walked out to the woods to the cabin that we built when we were younger, and he put a 12-gauge to his head.”
“Jill [Yaeger, Tiffany’s best friend and fellow Dryden cheerleader] called me at school,” says Tiffany. “She was hysterically crying. She was like, ‘I’m gonna tell you straight out: Mike killed himself.’ It was the last thing I thought I was ever going to hear. I never prepared myself to have one of my friends kill themselves.” She sighs. “When I think about Mike,” she says with a sad chuckle, “I can’t think about anything but his red hair.”
That is the end of the story.
The last Dryden High class that really knew Billy, Scott, Sarah, Jen, Katie, and Mike is graduating this year. And the town? “It’s weird, but young death almost seems to be the norm here,” says the mother of a Dryden Elementary School student. The town’s dead boys and girls live on in legend now. How mythic, how beloved they’ve become is seen at the graves of the three cheerleaders. They are buried together high on a hill outside McLean.
The graves are simple, but they’re laden with a blanket of every kind of memento the townspeople can carry up to the cemetery—stuffed bears, angels, flowers, lighted candles, crosses, butterflies, letters wrapped in see-through sandwich bags, photographs, lip balms [Katie was known for wearing three or four different flavors at a time], poems, ribbons, purple lions, megaphones, sparkle nail polish, and on and on.
On a cold, gray day, Tiffany and Jill agree to take me on a drive. As we go, Tiffany and Jill stare dejectedly out the windows.
“It’s gloomy here,” says Tiffany.
“It has to do with the elevation or something,” says Jill.
“It’s usually overcast.” says Tiffany.
“Too many corn fields,” says Jill.
“Tiffany,” I say, “when you get married, do you want to live here?”
“No!” says Tiffany. She smacks the steering wheel lightly.
“Jill, do you want to live here when you—”
“Absolutely not!” says Jill.
Indeed, when Tiffany pictures the future—she’s a 4.0 student with several job offers—the town of Dryden doesn’t even enter into it. She can’t afford to buy a car at present, but her “biggest freedom thought,” she says, is this:
“I see myself flying down some highway in my new Mustang convertible with the Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ blasting. I can just see myself flying down the highway, far away, with my hair blowing and just being happy and free! That will be the day that I take this cleansing breath. And life will have been good for a while. And it will be forever.”
Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form. You know, hilarious.
According to Paul Slansky, who wrote “Everybody Should Have an Albert” for The Village Voice in March 1979, Brooks owns the rights to A Star is Bought, he just isn’t motivated to re-release it. What would get Brooks to reconsider, I wonder?
C’mon, Albert: Please.
As for Slansky, his profiles, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker (where his political and cultural quizzes have been a frequent feature for the past dozen years), the legendary Spy magazine, and, among dozens of other publications, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Newsweek,The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Esquire (where he co-ordinated the annual Dubious Achievements Awards feature throughout the 1980s). He is the author of six books, including My Bad: The Apology Anthology (2006),Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues and More Idiots: Five Decades of Political Infamy (2008), Slansky also edited Carrie Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge (1987), and her most recent, Shockaholic (2011). He is currently working with legendary producer Norman Lear on his memoir.
He knows funny when he sees it which is why he was a beauty fit to write about Albert. This story appears here with the author’s permission.
“Everybody Should Have an Albert”
By Paul Slansky
On February 4, 1974, Albert Brooks walked on the stage of the Tonight Show for the 22nd time. His past performances had included some of the funniest bits ever seen on the show: an impressionist whose imitation of various celebrities all sounded like Ed Sullivan; a mime who came out in whiteface and proceeded to describe, with a French accent, his every action (“Now I am walking down ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog”); and an elephant trainer whose elephant was sick, forcing him to substitute a frog.
But this time Brooks’s normally genial face wore a troubled expression. He explained that his appearance on the show was an unfortunate mistake, that he had only come because his manager insisted it was time to do another Carson show. “Let’s just talk philosophy for a minute,” he said earnestly. “A lot of us have a game plan. We don’t want to give too much of ourselves too quickly because, you know, then it’s all gone. Here I am, five years into my career, and my game plan is all off. I have no material left. While you folks were having turkey dinner last week, I was down to my last bit.”
This was no laughing matter, as the silent audience clearly recognized. There hadbeen those rumors of a recent breakdown on stage in a Boston nightclub, and didn’t Johnny always call him “Crazy Albert Brooks?” God, was the guy about to crack up on national television? A few uneasy coughs broke the silence.
He then went through a scornful recitation of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for cheap laughs. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting an enormous (and relieved) one. Sure, he could break people up smashing eggs on his head, but who couldn’t? Sure, he could draw a funny face on his chest…
A few minutes later, with his pants around his ankles, whipped cream and eggs dripping from his head, a cake on his face, and a face on his chest, he stared into the camera and said, “This isn’t the real me.” He pulled an 8×10 glossy out of his shorts, declared, “This is the real me!” and stalked offstage a la Jimmy Durante. The audience responded with a solid minute of applause.
So whatever happened to Albert Brooks? Three years ago it looked like he was going to make it big. His short films were appearing on Saturday Night Live. He made his motion picture debut as the pushy campaign worker in Taxi Driver. His second album, A Star is Bought, received a Grammy nomination, and Timecalled him “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.” Enormous success seemed within his grasp, if only he would reach for it. Instead, he dropped out of sight.
He has spent the past three years working on Real Life, his first feature film which Paramount is distributing. Real Life is the most original American comedy in recent memory. Brooks wrote the film, with comedy writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson. He raised the money for it—under $1 million—from a man who didn’t even read the script. He directed it and spent six months in the editing room with it, designed the print ad and created the TV and radio spots. In short, total control.
“When he was younger,” says Harry Shearer, “he really sat down and mapped out five-year plans—he was like a communist government. One of the ways Albert is smarter than most of the people in the business is that he’s held out for total control over the things that are important to him.”
Brooks called Real Life “a staged documentary comedy.“ In it, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who joins forces with a scientific research institute and a major Hollywood studio to make a film about a year in the lives of a typical American family. (Remember the Louds?) Wall cameras sensitive to body heat, and portable devices worn over the heads of the film crew will capture every moment’s bit of activity.
The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona, are chosen: veterinarian Warren, his first wife Jeanette, and their two children. Unsurprisingly, their lives immediately begin to fall apart under the scrutiny. Their first dinner sets the mood, with Warren and Jeanette arguing about her menstrual cramps while cameramen diligently circle the table.
Things get worse. Jeanette visits her gynecologist, whom Albert recognizes as a baby broker exposed on 60 Minutes. Warren loses a patient—a horse. Jeanette’s grandmother dies, and Warren talks about the dead horse during her funeral service. Finally, an article about the family appears in a local newspaper, and they are besieged by TV cameras whenever they leave the house. Throughout the family’s ordeal Brooks reassures them, even as he manipulates them to ensure the success of the project. (When Jeanette says her children are afraid to go to school, Brooks counters, “That’s normal, trust me.”)
The Yeagers are victims, not villains. Their irrational desire for celebrity—and Brooks’s—is the result of society’s celebration of it as the only goal worth attaining. Real Life operates on so many levels and takes on so many subjects, with such attention to detail, that it demands to be seen more than once. Brooks’s cynicism is aimed at our affectations, not our aspirations, and he trusts his audience to join him in acknowledging—and enjoying—the utter silliness of it all.
“Albert is a national treasure,” says Charles Grodin, who plays Warren Yeager in the film. “I’m delighted that we’re alive at the same time. I’d like to see him have everything. He’s so damn good, you just have to feel that way.”
When I call Albert Brooks to set up a meeting for the following day, he suggests getting together immediately. Unfortunately, my tape recorder has a dead battery, and I don’t want to sit down with him without it.
“Maybe I should just jot down some of the things I might say,” he says. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring a tape recorder, I’ll bring batteries, I’ll even bring cassettes. What size shirt do you wear?” Twenty minutes later, he walks into the El Padrino Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a recorder and a cassette of Emmy Lou Harris’s Elite Hotel. “It’s the only tape I could find,” he says. “You’ve got 40 minutes.”
We begin by discussing the genesis of some of his early routines, including the out-of-material bit. “It was time to do another Carson show,” he says, “and I really didn’t have anything to do. So I thought, this is interesting, maybe I can get something out of this. Most of my bits come from what’s really there. You turn it into entertainment by making it a little more interesting.”
He points to a horse behind our table. “Sometimes I like to make up names for the horses of famous people,” he says. “Like if Burt Bachrach had a horse, what would he call it? Maybe, ‘Where’s Angie?’ If we stop now, you get the rest of Emmy Lou’s album, you know.”
The waiter brings my drink, and a chef’s salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. “Maybe I shouldn’t see you again before you go,” I say. “Then I’ll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece.”
“Will your editors pay for it?” he asks. “Because if they will, here’s what we’ll do. When you get to Hawaii, there’ll be a message waiting for you saying I’ve gone on to Japan. Then we’ll go to China, and…” He stops himself. “What am I talking about?” he practically moans. “I’ll never leave. I’ve been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It’s sick, it’s not healthy.” He suddenly brightens. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I’ve always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.
Aside from Albert’s comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It’s clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.
“I‘ll leave the tip,” Albert says loudly when the check arrives. “Not really. That was just for the tape recorder.”
Two days later, I arrive at Albert’s Hollywood office intending to observe an average day in his real life, but he has other plans: a trip to Magic Mountain to ride Colossus, this year’s World’s Largest Roller Coaster.
Albert calls Magic Mountain, lowering his voice in an approximation of the sort of simpleton who doesn’t find the very notion of such hype ludicrous: “Hullo, uh, I’m not going to be coming up there, but if I were, what time does Colossus open? And how long is the wait? Thank you.” He hangs up and laughs. “She said, ‘It opens at 3 and there’s a two-hour wait. Let everybody go on and then it’ll clear out and you’ll go later in the evening.’ She’s planning our evening! ‘You’ll have dinner here, you’ll buy bumper stickers, we got a hotel room for you…’ Let’s go.”
An hour later, we pay $17 at the admission gate, stop to buy Sno-Cones, and join the line about a quarter-mile from the ride. “It’s amazing how this place generates absolutely no excitement of its own,” Albert says. “The frightening thing would be if they said we could never leave here. Aside from all the things you’d never be able to do again, you’d have to eat every meal here.”
Two young girls walk by wearing Fonzie T-shirts. “I bet half the kids in this park know the name Freddie Silverman,” Albert says. “What other era could you live in where kids know the name of a head of programming?
“But I can’t think of any time I’d rather be living in, because of the technology. It’s just amazing.” (Few of his friends understand his fascination with technology, which is much in evidence in Real Life. But Harry Shearer, who shares the obsession, has an explanation: “Albert is basically an optimist, and if you want to be optimistic about the future, technology is the only refuge you’ve got.”)
“Catalina was the last place in the country to get a phone system that didn’t need operators,” Albert continues. “Everyone in town used to know each other through the operator, and now that way of life is gone, just gone,” he says wistfully, then interrupts himself. “Who cares? I wanna go on Colossus!” He breaks into a Bob Hope parody: “Now I don’t wanna say that it was a long wait, but the kid in front of me learned to read on the line. I don’t wanna say I was scared, but… you finish it.”
An hour after getting on line, we pass under the Colossus sign, and Albert begins his countdown “Six minutes, six minutes! Four minutes!” Albert screams and waves his hands in the air as our car plunges along the tracks, but the ride is unworthy of its hype. “Weightless 11 times, they said—I only counted four,” he says as we walk down the ramp. “Three good drops, no good banks. If we’d waited two hours, I would have been disappointed.”
We stop at a souvenir stand to buy buttons that proclaim I RODE IT! “We rode it,” Albert says, “but only because you wanted to know what my average day was like. I do it every day. See what my button says, I RODE IT A MILLION TIMES!”
Looking for a place to get a salad, we pass a gift shop with a rack of dresses near the doorway. “Who buys clothes here?” Albert wonders. “Hey, that’s nice, where’d you get it?’ ‘Magic Mountain.’”
The salad hunt proves futile. “I didn’t really want one anyway,” Albert says as we leave the park. “I wanted to get the button that came with it—I ATE SALAD AT MAGIC MOUNTAIN.”
“Every kid should have an Albert,” says comedy writer Monica Johnson. “He’s the kind of person you’d want to be locked in jail with. You know, you don’t have a game, you don’t have any cigarettes, what could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?”
Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus, a Greek-dialect radio comedian), finally couldn’t resist the joke—he named his fourth son Albert. “My father was very sick around the time I was born,” says Albert, sitting in the living room of his rented Benedict Canyon home and leafing through a bound volume of Parkyakarkus’s radio scripts. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t live.
“He did recover, but I don’t remember him as very active. I do remember lots of schtick around the dinner table. Generally he and my brothers and I were all laughing at the same thing my mother did not find funny, whatever that was.
“I guess I was the class clown—with a name like Albert Einstein, you don’t hide in the back. I’d read the school bulletin to the class and I’d add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good 10 minutes every morning.”
When Harry Einstein died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert, who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert Einstein were the two that he mentioned.
In the summer of 1965, after graduating from Beverly Hills High, Albert went to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to perform in summer stock. “Albert wanted to be a serious actor,” says Rob Reiner, a close friend since high school. “He went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department and he was talking about doing all this dramatic theater. We’d say, ‘Albert, you’re funny. What you do best is make people laugh.’ He fought that for the longest time, and finally he started doing it and liking it.” He left college after three years, took the name of Brooks (“It sounded good with Albert,” he says) and returned to Los Angeles to start his career.
The traditional comedy formats became his targets. The first bit he came up with was “Danny and Dave,” an inept ventriloquist act that he performed on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968. The Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan shows followed, and other offers were coming in, but even then Albert was wary of losing control of his life.
“If I’d wanted to be a big star, I could have done the dummy bit 40 times, and everyone in the country would have known me,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the dummy, so I forced myself to keep coming up with new stuff.”
In February 1971 Esquire ran an article called “Albert Brook’s Famous School for Comedians,” a take-off on all those correspondence schools that promise to turn you into another Van Gogh if you can trace the outline of your hand. The article—which Albert later turned into a short film for PBS’s Great American Dream Machine—presented the faculty (Joe Garagiola and Totie Fields, among others), key campus sites (the Don DeFont Mall) and the curriculum, which included courses in dialect, the double take, and the importance of choosing a disease to help eradicate. At the end came a comedy talent test which the reader could to take to see if he qualified for enrollment. A sample question:
Take my wife ______.
A. for instance.
B. I’ll be along later.
The magazine received over 200 serious inquires about the school.
He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”
Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.
Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.”
(Albert is reluctant to discuss his personal life, but Penelope Spheeris, who produced Real Life, says, “Albert’s women are usually real serious. His love affairs are always like The Tempest.”)
By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one.
“Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’”
Well, they were. “The Impossible Truth” featured an interview with a blind cab driver: “Damn right, I still drive. What should I do, sit home and collect welfare?” Another film had Albert fulfilling a lifelong dream—performing heart surgery. (“I pray it doesn’t hurt, I pray it doesn’t hurt,” says the patient as Albert, who has forgotten the anesthesia, prepares to make the first incision.)
But the best of the lot was “Super Season,” an elaborately filmed parody of network promotion spots previewing scenes from three “new” shows: Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small southern town); Medical Season (“But it’s unnecessary. This man does not need surgery,” a doctor says as a patient is wheeled into the operating room. Replies his colleague: “It’s too late. He’s already paid for it and we’ve already spent the money.”); andThe Three of Us, a sitcom about a man living with two women—a premise which apparently was not too ridiculous for ABC, which built a real series around it two years later.
When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.”
Instead of becoming a superstar, he went to work on Real Life. “The groundhog came out today, laughed, and scratched ‘See Real Life’ in the dirt,” he says. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“You rode the ride, now hear the commercial,” Albert says, as an ad for Colossus comes on the radio of his Honda Civic. A Mercedes with a RUNNERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS bumper sticker on its trunk moves in front of us as we drive to a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Albert’s favorite food.
“Wouldn’t it be great if cars came equipped with screens like that thing they have in Times Square that spells out the news? He asks. “You could punch out your own instant messages: WILL THE SMALL RED CAR WITH THE UGLY DRIVER PLEASE STAY A LITTLE FURTHER BEHIND?”
“Night Fever” comes on the radio. “A few months ago, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing this,” he says. “If someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Find the Bee Gees in 30 seconds,’ you could do it.”
What about his plans for the future? “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Albert says. “I haven’t started writing another film yet. I want to see what the climate is like for Real Life before I decide.
“It only makes me anxious when I think ahead. I mean, some things you have to plan, but if you think far enough ahead, you’re dead. Hey, that sounds like a slogan. Let’s put in on the bumper.”
Everything is material for Albert Brooks—a lawn sprinkler watering an area of grass the size of a paper plate, a squashed coyote on the side of the road that “might just be taking a nap,” the president of the United States saying that “as far as sovereignty goes, I have no hang-ups about it.” His comedic vision encompasses everything he sees. Nothing is wasted, not even a pit stop to buy cassettes for the drive up to Magic Mountain, as I realize days later while transcribing my tapes.
There’s Albert, talking about why he doesn’t smoke or drink, describing how uncomfortable he felt the time he leased a Cadillac, saying he’ll wait in the car while I get the cassettes.
And then there’s this: “You’re in the record store now, Paul, so this’ll be a surprise for you, because right now you’re buying tapes and we’re going to Magic Mountain. What’s going to happen is that I intend to kill you at Magic Mountain. This will happen right before we go on the ride. I’m only doing it to get new movie ideas, ‘cause, you know, I owe it to the people. Bye bye.”
Twenty-two years ago a revival of the beloved musical Guys and Dolls captured the affection of theatergoers in New York. The smash hit more than somewhat restored Damon Runyon’s vision of Broadway in our hearts and the production was lovingly captured in this profile by Ross Wetzsteon for New York Magazine.
Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the The Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works, Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He also wrote a memorable profile of Dick Young and this winning portrait ofMorgan Freeman.
Dig in to his account of “The Great New York Show.” Reprinted here with permission from Wetzsteon’s estate.
Michael David got the call in the middle of a meeting at the Dodger Productions office at 1501 Broadway. Delicate negotiations had been going on for months, the rights were notorious for being the most closely held in show business, and several other producers were anxiously awaiting the same call. “This is Biff Liff,” the caller said. “I’m sitting here with everybody—and we’ve decided it’s yours.” David thanked Liff, quietly excused himself from the meeting, walked down the hall, poked his head into his partners’ office, and, holding back for a few more seconds the surge of joy that would have everyone in the company popping champagne corks within minutes, announced as calmly as he could, “Well, we’ve got it.”
Faith Prince got the message at a pay phone on the corner of 75th Street and Broadway. Holding a bag of groceries, she called home to tell her fiancé she was having some packages delivered. “Your agent wants you to call,” he told her, so she stuck in another quarter. “The role’s been cast,” her agent said. “Who got it?” she asked nervously. “Someone named Faith Prince.” She started whooping at the top of her lungs. Everyone on the sidewalk looked at her like she was a lunatic, but she didn’t care—she wanted that part.
Nathan Lane got the call the week he opened on Broadway in On Borrowed Time and in the filmFrankie and Johnny. A gossip column had reported months earlier—long before he’d even auditioned—that he’d already been cast, and every time a news item about the show appeared, his name seemed to be linked to it. “The director’s office kept calling to apologize and tell me it was premature,” he says. “But when I finally did read for the part they finally did call to say I had it, I screamed for a minute or two, then said to myself, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can’t fight public opinion.’”
Peter Gallagher also got the call long after reading about himself in the papers. “I kept hearing I was the guy,” he says, “but that just made me nervous, because in the past that always meant I wasn’t the guy.” But when his agent finally called with the good news, he could only say “Oh, my god” and reflect that he had just a few last-gasp days of freedom before the Spartan existence of rehearsals began. “I also remember the color of the phone and my mouth hanging open,” he says, “but other than that, I went completely blank.”
No one called Jerry Zaks. They were all waiting for his call. The project had been so closely associated with his name for years that most theater people erroneously assumed he’d been in on the deal from the first. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do it,” says Zaks. “But I kept hedging. People’s expectations were so high. I began to feel intimidated. I kept thinking, what they’re really saying is,‘Don’t mess it up.’ But finally I decided either to do it or shut up about it, so I called Michael and said yes.”
Michael David knew how Jerry Zaks felt—it even got to the point where he hated it when people excitedly congratulated him on landing the rights. “Just one thought kept going through my mind,” he says. “We can only screw it up.”
* * *
Michael David didn’t screw it up; Jerry Zaks didn’t screw it up; the cast didn’t screw it up; choreographer Christopher Chadman and set deigned Tony Walton and costume designer Paul Gallo didn’t screw it up—no one screwed it up. And when, on the night of April 14, a press agent chased a New York Times truck for four blocks, managed to grab a copy of the next morning’s issue, saw the picture on the front page over the caption MISS ADELAIDE AND NATHAN DETROIT RETURN, turned around and raced back down 45th Street toward the Martin Beck Theater, dodging traffic, waving the paper over his head, screaming “We did it!”, they all realized they hadn’t just successfully staged a revival of Guys and Dolls, they’d given reverent rebirth to an icon of the American theater.
“The cherished Runyonland of memory is not altered,” said the Times, “just felt and dreamt anew by intoxicated theater artists. No doubt another Broadway generation will one day find a different, equally exciting way to reimagine this classic. But in our lifetime? Don’t bet on it.” Bells were ringing at the other dailies, too. “My heart sings, my soul roars, and I feel tingly good all over,” raved the Post. “This is a revival to treasure,” said the News under the headline WE GOT THE SHOW RIGHT HERE. And from Newsday: “Everyone always says Broadway’s a crap shoot, but this Guys and Dolls is as close as the theater gets today to a sure thing.”
The show became such a sure thing, in fact, that Phantom of the Opera no longer holds the record for opening day sales. By the time the box office at the Martin Beck Theater finally closed at 10:15 p.m. April 15, more than two hours later than usual, and phone orders were shut off at midnight, the take had reached $396,709.50, breaking the Phantom record by more than $35,000. By the end of the week, sales had topped the million-dollar mark. Adding these figures to a $1.7-million advance sale makes the Dodgers feel a bit better about their $5.5-million budget, and they are anticipating a run of perhaps five years.
In the days that followed the opening, it became clear that the revival of Guys and Dolls was not just a show but one of those pivotal events in the city’s history around which coalesce facts and fancies, statistics and hopes, newly discerned trends and long-repressed aspirations—in short, a phenomenon. The show has radiantly renewed the love affair between New York and the Broadway that for decades was a symbol of the city’s vitality and in the past several years has mirrored its “decline.”
“We were made the foster parents of an icon,” says David, recalling the problems in producing the revival. There was the steady stream of tough questions Jo Sullivan Loesser (Frank Loesser’s widow) asked of potential producers, the difficulties of casting such iconographic roles, the trauma of replacing the leading lady of a $5.5-million show two weeks into previews, the sudden wave of anxiety upon realizing, only ten days before the opening, that the show hadn’t yet come together—no, that wasn’t a sure thing at all. There were times when everyone involved would have been satisfied if the reviews had simply said “Can do, can do.” What were the odds that the producers would roll the dice and have not only a megahit but in Faith Prince and Nathan Lane two “star is born” stories in a single show?
* * *
In 1950, the Roxy was still open, and Klein’s, and Rogers Peet, and you could still find action at the Jamaica Raceway. On Broadway, South Pacific, Call Me Madam, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes were playing to packed houses—at $6.60 tops. In Times Square, you could still see, in George Jean Nathan’s words, “the cheesecake-eating, crap-shooting, bookie haunting, sartorially inflammatory riffraff of the bedizened highway of Runyon’s fancy.”
On November 24, a new musical called Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Leosser and book by Abe Burrows (based on a story by Damon Runyon called “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”) opened at the 46th Street Theater. And in the Daily News, John Chapman wrote: “Here is New York’s own musical comedy—as bright as a dime in a subway grating, as smart as a sidewalk pigeon, as professional as Joe DiMaggio, as enchanting as the skyline, as new as the paper you’re holding.”
Frank Loesser’s father was a classical piano teacher who hated popular music, so some of the first music the young boy set to words was the clickety-clack of the elevated train that ran past their apartment windows. But in Guys and Dolls, Loesser, who had flunked out of City College and worked for a time as a newspaper reporter before turning to music, recalled the classical forms his father so loved. He brought Bach to Broadway in “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”), and Handel to his mock-solemn hymn-cantata “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.” The city’s paradoxical vision of itself—innocent and cosmopolitan, courtly and corrupt, naïve and cynical—found renewed energy in Loesser’s gorgeous score and Burrow’s vivid book.
Abe Burrows was the eleventh writer to tackle the project. A radio and TV writer with no previous musical comedy experience, Burrows almost instantly solved the problems with the book. Working fabulous characters from several stories by Runyon, “the Boswell of Broadway,” into a plot line as old as Shakespeare, he created double love stories, one sentimental (between a high-rolling gambler and a sergeant from a sort of Salvation Army), the other comic (between a high-minded lowlife and the nightclub floozy to whom he’s been “engaged” for fourteen years). Since Burrows was a Times Square denizen himself, he gave the show a bustling pace and sidewalk wit that brought Runyon’s 42nd Street knights and adenoidal chorines to life in a kind of urban idyll.
Just one example of Burrow’s snappy sophistication: Miss Adelaide had originally caught her famous cold from stripping in her nightclub act, but he decided her ailment should be the psychosomatic symptom of Nathan Detroit’s resistance to marriage—and a solid number was transformed into a showstopping classic, “Adelaide’s Lament.”
Guys and Dolls ran for 1,200 performances and won a ton of Tonys—musical, score, libretto, Robert Alda for actor, George S. Kaufman for director, Michael Kidd for choreography. (Trivia question: Which actress from the original production won a Tony? No, not Vivian Blaine, for her performance as Miss Adelaide, but Isabel Bigley, for her performance as Sarah Brown.) The show would have won a Pulitzer, too, but the Columbia trustees, alarmed by Burrow’s recent run-in with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused to ratify the drama committee’s nomination. Another intriguing fact about the original is that Sam Levene, who played Nathan, couldn’t sing a lick and said so. Burrows refused to believe this until Levene started to sing to the writer in the middle of a crowded midtown restaurant. Burrows, after a stunned pause, grimly agreed with Levene.
* * *
Sold to the movies for a then-record $11 million, the musical was sluggishly directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and glamorously but crassly cast by Sam Goldwyn. Stubby Kaye, Dan Dayton, and Johnny Silvers got the film off to a rousing start with their tinhorn trio, but Jean Simmons quickly brought the show to a halt with her conventional good girl performance as Sarah. Frank Sinatra, who might have made a perfect Sky Masterson, made a perfunctory Nathan Detroit. As for Marlon Brando, for whom Loesser wrote the relatively undemanding “Your Eyes Are the Eyes of a Woman in Love”—well, Loesser actually liked his singing but found his acting lackadaisical and couldn’t bring himself to sit through the entire movie, especially when he learned that Goldwyn had scrapped several of his songs. Burrows fared just as badly—as Orson Welles told him after an early screening, “Abe, they’ve dropped a turd on every one of your lines.”
Loesser was pained by the experience of the movie, and because of that, Jo Loesser—who met and married Frank when she starred in The Most Happy Fella—has kept a tight rein on the rights. She has shrewdly allowed the numberless high school and amateur productions that have kept the show a legend in people’s memories but she has carefully monitored the commercial productions that maintain its mythic Broadway reputation.
“We considered several producers on and off over the years, all well respected,” says Jo Loesser—”we” being herself; Harold Orenstein, the lawyer for the Loesser estate; Burrow’s widow, Karen; and Biff Liff, who manages the Burrows trust. “The main thing we wanted,” she continues, “is that it be played the way it was written. I mean, even down to that line about two pairs of pants—no man buys two pairs of pants with a suit these days, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what was in the script, and that’s the way it was going to be done.”
In Crazy for You, the “new” Gershwin hit, George-and-Ira standards have been loaded in from a half-dozen other shows. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want,” says Jo Loesser with some heat. She recalled a producer wanted to revive one of her husband’s earlier shows, Where’s Charley, and asked for “more songs.” “More songs?” says Jo Loesser. “Why did he want to do it if he didn’t like the way it was? So the things I was looking for with Guys and Dolls had everything to do with not making arbitrary changes. I was more concerned with the right director than the right star.”
If Jo Loesser was as far as possible from a “Just send me the check” guardian of her husband’s legacy, Michael David and his Dodger colleagues were ready to write out whatever cheeks it took to do the show properly. “We do our damnedest to produce things with some sense of continuity,” David says of the Dodgers. Starting out Off Broadway at the Chelsea Theater Center in the early seventies, David’s producing background includes Allen Ginsberg’s Kadish and Jean Genet’s The Screens, not exactly Harry the Horse country. But after such shows as Candide, Big River, and Secret Garden, they felt “we’d paid a high enough tuition to say we’d learned how to do a big musical.
“When we learned that the rights for Guys and Dolls were going to be made available,” says David, “we got in line. Producing is a lot like fishing—you set out a number of lines and rush to the one that gets a bite.” David met several times with Jo Loesser at her apartment on the Upper East Side, and with other rights holders at the Russian Tea Room, and the Music Theater International, and the Dodger office. “The meetings were comfortable, I’d even say collegial,” he recalls, and while they weren’t exactly grilling, “everybody asked about everything—who’d direct, who’d be in the cast, what we planned for the road, how many violins we’d have in the pit.”
David and his colleagues had their own ground rules. They wanted an ensemble cast rather than a show driven by a few stars. “Remember that rumor that Tom Selleck wanted to play Sky Masterson?” he asks with a rueful grin. They didn’t want to do a cutting-corners production but the best one they could manage, and they didn’t want to fall back on a road show to recoup any losses. (A road show isin the works; it will visit some 35 cities beginning in September.) “In a sense, it was financial lunacy,” David says. “It’s almost a law around this office not to use the word ‘revival.’ No revival has ever played over two years, most under one year. And with the budget we were proposing, well, we were flying in the face of reason.”
* * *
Jo Loesser was impressed. “But then, I was impressed by almost all the proposals,” she says. “In fact, Michael and his group came in fairly near the end, and we almost gave it to another person.” For all of David’s careful presentations, her decision finally came down to something that had never even crossed his mind. “I remember seeing him at meetings of the Tony-administration committee,” she says. “I watch people very carefully at those meetings. I liked him. I liked the things he stood for. And I guess what I really liked,” she says with a laugh, “is that he always voted for the same things I voted for.”
“The more I hoped we’d get it, the more the Guys and Dolls virus or narcotic or whatever it is began to take over my life,” says David. “And then the minute we got it, I almost felt trapped. What I mean by that,” he explains, “is that when you’ve made a deal like this, when you’re given the guardianship of one of the most singular works in the musical theater library—well, you can’t be sort of honorable. It’s a privilege, sure, but it’s also an enormous responsibility—a responsibility to do it as fresh and yet as respectful as possible.”
“Fresh and respectful”—that’s the responsibility that was handed over to Jerry Zaks when he was signed on as director. Zaks had to find the delicate poise between vivid restating and slavish reenactment. “Well,” Zaks says with his usual brisk ebullience, “no one ever came to me if they wanted Shakespeare on roller skates, and yet the one thing I never want to be accused of is predictability.”
Zaks is the most audience-oriented director in the business, but when he began work on Guys and Dolls, he first had to please an audience of one‚ Jo Loesser, who wasn’t about to fade away just because the contracts had been signed. Though easygoing and affable, Zaks does have a few rigid rules—no outsiders in rehearsals and no comments on the actors’ work from anyone but him. “Even a compliment can be destructive,” he says, “if it makes an actor self-conscious.” But after sitting through the first run-through and after seeing several early previews from the last row, Jo Loesser had plenty of comments, written out in copious notes.
One thing in particular annoyed her—in the scene in which Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit he can’t tell what color tie he’s wearing, Nathan wasn’t wearing a blue tie, as in the original, but a polka-dotted tie, as in the movie. Jo Loesser made it pointedly plain she wanted that blue tie back. “And she was right,” admits Zaks. “Polka dot was trying too hard to be funny.”
Zaks listened respectfully to all of Jo Loesser’s suggestions—this wasn’t Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta, embalming her husband’s work; this was a woman as passionately committed to precision as he was. “They got it right back in 1950,” he says, “so I’d be awfully stupid not to be guided by that.” David agrees: “The more we worked on it, the more amazed we were by the thought the creators obviously put into it. Almost every time we considered even the smaller changes, we discovered they wouldn’t work as well as what was there—they’d already figured that out.”
Still, Zaks has tinkered with the text. In the original, for instance, Nicely-Nicely comes in with a bag of groceries in Act One, Scene Seven, and Zaks spent hourstrying to make the moment funny. He finally realized that it was easy for the tubby Stubby Kaye of the original to get a quick laugh and that since they’d cast a thinnish actor, it was no longer funny. Out went the scene. You’re right, said Jo Loesser. Out.
“Maybe your watch is fast,” says one of the Salvation Army-type soldiers to the general as it seems the sinners aren’t going to show up after all. “That line never got a single laugh in previews,” says Zaks. “I became obsessed with finding out why. Finally I found the answer—a couple of the soldiers laugh uproariously at the line and the general whirls on them, and that’s when the audience laughs. It’s just the tiniest thing, of course, but this material doesn’t have any weaknesses—if something doesn’t work, it’s our fault, not the creators’.”
Zaks experienced an epiphany of sorts a couple years ago, when he was looking through a book of Tony Walton illustrations. “Guys and Dolls was already firmly lodged in the back of my mind,” he recalls, “but when I saw what Tony could do with a brush—I already knew what he could do with a set—I had this sudden sense of the look that would work, the kind of quick-dissolving unity he could bring. And from that moment on, the show wasn’t just a fantasy, it was alive. And when I told Tony, he went crazy. All he could talk about for hours was bold colors.” The sets by Walton are a Valentine to Jo Mielziner’s originals; Long’s costumes, a shriek of Technicolor; and Gallo’s lighting, a brash blaze—honoring the creators not by imitating their work but by saluting it.
Zaks interviewed several choreographers before signing Christopher Chadman. “I asked them to do presentations at the Broadway Dance Center showing me their version of Runyonland,” he recalls. “And Chris had exactly the style I wanted—energetic, sexy, and with a strong sense of storytelling.”
But the success of the show was hardly preordained. Up until ten days before opening night, in fact, Zaks was afraid they might be rolling snake eyes. “The difference between clicking and not clicking is often infinitesimal, and too much wasn’t clicking,” he recalls.
* * *
They’d already gone through a traumatic cast change, replaced Carolyn Mignini with her understudy, Josie de Guzman, when it became apparent during early previews that the chemistry between Sky and Sarah was fizzling. They realized the tempo was way off on several numbers—the legendary Pat Rooney Sr. number “More I Cannot Wish You,” for instance, had to be slower, but the preceding number had to go faster. And the opening ballet between the overture and “Runyonland” wasn’t working; it was out, it was back in, it was out again. Finally Chadman fixed it days before opening night. It’s now a mere 90-second scene instead of the original seven minutes, but an enchanted 90 seconds, a bridge that allows the audience to cross over into “Runyonland.”
But worst of all, the actors were uncomfortable in their costumes, stiff on the set, stunned by the lighting. “No one was bold enough yet,” says Zaks, still sweating at the memory. (This was especially true of Peter Gallagher, say those who saw early previews.) “No one was matching the energy of the design; no one was stepping forward and taking charge. Then,” says Zaks, “at the last moment they all did.” And from the moment Benny Southstreet (J.K. Simmons), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Walter Bobbie), and Rusty Charlie (Tim Shew) open the show with the “Fugue for Tinhorns,” orchestrated and sung, as is all the music, with a kind of luminous brassiness, the audience ecstatically inhabits Runyon’s Times Square dreamscape.
Meticulous tinkering is only a small part of Zak’s genius—as theatergoers well remember from such shows as Anything Goes, Lend Me a Tenor, and Six Degrees of Separation. Comic precision, narrative conviction, ensemble performance—those are the signatures of the Zaks style.
“Jerry pulled a lot out of me I didn’t know was there,” says Prince. “He’s the greatest director I’ve ever had at breaking down comedy and finding out why things work or don’t work. He gives a ton of notes. Everything’s under a microscope. He’s so precise. So specific.” Those are the words most people who have worked for Zaks invariable use. “I’m very intuitive myself,” says Prince, “so after he makes the smallest change, I go backward for about three performances—but then I go further.
“Just one small example. In the carnation scene, where I say how I’ve been engaged for fourteen years and at last we’re getting married and the next line is, ‘Time certainly does fly.’ People were laughing, but not very much, until Jerry had me speed up the first sentence and slow down the second one.”
That little Marilyn Monroe squeak in her voice? Prince brought that to the role herself, “but Jerry monitors it very carefully to make sure I don’t overdo it.” She also sings in two slightly different voices, she says, one for Adelaide the nightclub floozy, the other for Adelaide the character, “a very cutesy Kewpie doll at the Hot Box, a very strong woman in her personal life. Linda Wier in Newsday was the only critic who wrote about that. She said I go for a ‘cross between Betty Boop and a dainty lady trucker,’ and that really nailed what I’m trying to do.”
Prince tries to avoid the two-dimensional in other areas as well. “One of the reasons for the huge success of this show is that it’s not about a chandelier or a helicopter, it goes back to the human part of theater. Adelaide isn’t just a doll letting things happen to her, she’s a complicated and centered character with a lot at stake. She and Nathan have a terrific sex life—it’s not even referred to, but it’s there. And yet she’s also very proper, very respectable in her way. She’s had a good upbringing, and for a woman to be unmarried at that time—well, she’s finally had it with Nathan; it all avalanches on her at once; those 48 hours are the most crucial time in her life. We’re playing the comedy of all this, obviously, but what really makes it work is that the comedy comes out of the drama. And Adelaide wins! We’ve made this journey with her and she wins!”
* * *
Vivian Blaine. The name keeps coming up when people talk about Prince’s performance. As one theatergoer puts it, “This is the year Vivian Blaine finally wins her Tony.” “It’s funny,” says Prince, “the way people keep saying I’ve got her down when I hardly knew who she is. My family gave me the movie for Christmas, but I barely watched it, and some of her songs are cut anyway.” And that voice with the Blaine-like accent? “I’m from Virginia. I don’t know where I got this accent, but it probably has more to do with my sister-in-law than it does with Vivian Blaine,” says Prince.
If Faith Prince seems to have emerged from nowhere, Nathan Lane has been a familiar and favorite face to New York theatergoers for close to a decade, especially in his endearingly grouchy and hysterical performances in The Lisbon Traviata and Lips Together, Teeth Apart. At 21, and then called Joe Lane, he first played Nathan Detroit at Cedar Grove’s Meadowbrook Dinner Theater in New Jersey—”The all-children’s version of Guys and Dolls,” Lane says wryly. But it seems there was another “Joe Lane” in Equity, so the young actor had to make a quick decision. Off the top of his head, he chose the name of the character he was playing: Joe Lane became Nathan Lane. “My family still calls me Joe,” he says, “but when my mother’s mad, she’ll call me Nathan in quotation marks.”
Lane talks about laughter as a matter of “grave concern.” “One of the primary rules of comedy is that the stakes are high. You have to immerse yourself in the character as if you were in Peer Gynt or Long Day’s Journey. Sure, somewhere in your head you’re aware of the technical side, too—and Jerry’s the captain of a very tight ship that way—but all the while you’re mining a scene for laughs you’ve got to base it on real truths.
“I think of Nathan as a small businessman,” Lane says. “He ekes out a living, but he can never get ahead of himself. He’s aware that what he does for a living is illegal, but he feels he’s providing a service to the community. It’s a rough crowd, but he’s a decent person—it’s just that he has this crisis to deal with, finding a place for his crap game.”
But the key to his characterization, Lane feels, is “how deeply Nathan cares for Adelaide. By today’s standards, I suppose you’d have to say they have a very successful relationship. When she finally stands up to him, he realizes he can’t live without her. And when she accuses him of not loving her, he gets mad—not funny mad but really mad. It’s absolutely crucial that I show the depth of his love—otherwise it’s just jokes.” “Comedy?” Lane asks with a rhetorical flourish. “It’s not about getting laughs, it’s about telling the story.”
Josie de Guzman’s story has a Runyonesque twist of its own—fired as a supporting actress in the season’s biggest flop, Nick and Nora, she became a leading lady when another actress was fired from the season’s biggest hit. “I went through a lot of difficult emotions,” she says, “but many great actors have been fired in this business. I was in good company in both cases.”
Her take on Sarah Brown? Like Prince she stresses strength, and like Lane she stresses love. “To me, the key moment in establishing her character is when she first meets Sky. It’s important that though she’s flustered she knows his number and stands up to him as his equal. She has strong conviction, she believes in the Mission and in saving souls, and unless I bring out that side of her, his conversion at the end doesn’t make any sense.”
Peter Gallagher and his wife danced to “I’ll Know” at their wedding, but he hardly knew the show itself until after he was cast. The movie? “I looked at parts of it,” he says, adding with wry self-deprecation, “I didn’t see much benefit in comparing myself to Marlon.” But Zaks had him in mind virtually from the beginning. “Peter has that combination of macho and sensitivity that’s just right for the part,” he says.
In the Sky-Sarah plot line, says Gallagher, an important transformation occurs: “A guy and a doll save their souls.” In Gallagher’s view, Sky isn’t just a guy who looks smooth tilting his fedora, “he’s a gambler who loves the long shot.” In fact, he’s even a kind of modern-day Orpheus, descending into the sewer to bet his life and find redemption.
* * *
There’s something ineffable about the way the success of Guys and Dolls has captivated the city’s imagination, something far beyond the arrival of one more don’t-miss show. Most members of the company—still a bit dazed from their raves—attribute the Guys and Dolls phenomenon to nostalgia for a time when criminals were colorful and the sex wars ended at the altar, or to the desire of audiences to feel good during bad times, or to the recapture of Broadway from the special effects spectacle of the Brits, or just to the fact that it’s a damned good show.
These are all part of it, of course, as are a number of other trends and events—the angry cynicism about electoral politics, the sense of paralysis about the city’s vanishing amenities, the ill-concealed West-of-the-Hudson contempt for our “helluva town,” and even the John Gotti trial, its audiotapes sometimes sounding as if they’d been written by a latter-day Runyon.
There’s no Nicely-Nicely Johnson hanging out in Times Square these days, no Harry the Horse, no Angie the Ox. There’s no cop on the beat tipping his hat as you take a 4 a.m. stroll past the drug dealers and transvestite hookers and pause to window-shop for porno sleaze. Runyon was born in Kansas, after all, and his Times Square was a fantasy even in 1950.
But for better or worse, New York’s vision of itself has always been linked to its vision of Broadway. Raucous, romantic, feisty, gallant, cutthroat, and softhearted, “people with bumps,” as producer Cy Feuer instructed the casting director of the original Guys and Dolls. “Fine, upstanding, dishonest people,” as Jimmy Breslin wrote of Runyon’s New Yorkers—for all his sentimental distortions, that kid from Kansas sure nailed us.
No fanfare—it’s only a show—but in this “musical fable of Broadway,” as Guys and Dolls is subtitled, the denizens of “the devil’s own city” find a kind of redemption and perhaps the transfixed theatergoers at the Martin Beck feel they’re hearing the faint first note of the overture to their own hopes that their sinful city can find a kind of rebirth.
[Photo Via: Masterworks Broadway]