"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 4: Gold

BGS: The Cheerleaders

darkroom

 

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.

The Cheerleaders
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….”

He stops.

“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.”

Silence.

“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.”

 

[Photo Credit: Vancso Zoltan via MPD]

BGS: Every Kid Should Have an Albert

A Star Is Bought

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 ObserverThe New York TimesNewsweek,The New RepublicRolling StonePlayboy, 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.

Ill 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.
C. please.

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.”

BGS: The Great New York Show

gallagner

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 SportsConde 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 PacificCall 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 CandideBig 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 GoesLend 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]

BGS: Magnum P(retty) I(indecisive)

selleck

Here’s more baseball-related fun for you, Pat Jordan’s 1989 GQ profile of Tom Selleck.

Dig in.

Tom Selleck is faced with a dilemma. He is being forced to make a decision that will annoy at least one of three people.

“Well, I don’t know, Esme. What do you think?”

His publicist, Esme Chandlee, who is seated beside Selleck on a sofa in his office at Universal Studios, folds her arms and says, “If it’s what you want, Thomas!”

“We could maybe try it, Esme,” Selleck says.

“I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m not bothering anyone.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at me. “What do you think? Esme really hasn’t interfered.”

“It inhibits me,” I say. “I’ve never interviewed someone with their publicist sitting in.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at Chandlee. “Gee, I feel comfortable with him, Esme. Maybe we could try it. Just him and me.” Chandlee stands up and glares at me. Selleck adds quickly, “If you don’t mind?”

“All right, Thomas,” she says. “If that’s the way you want it! But give him just ten more minutes. Do you hear Thomas?” Selleck nods like a chastised youngster as Chandlee leaves the room.

“Gee, l hope I didn’t offend her,” he says. “That’s the way she’s always done it with me.”

Esme Chandlee is in her late sixties. A savvy, schoolmarmish woman with rust-colored hair. She has been a Hollywood publicist for more than thirty years. She remembers Ava Gardner as a teenager in a halter top and tight shorts. “She breezed into the studio without makeup or shoes,” says Chandlee, “and every head turned.”

That was a time in Hollywood when actors were not actors, but stars. The stars deferred to their publicists, who kept a tight rein on their careers and lives. They built their stars’ careers less upon acting talent than on a distinctive, unwavering persona that satisfied their fans’ needs. These fans went to the movies to see John Wayne play John Wayne, not some fictional character.

It was also the publicist’s job to make sure that the John Wayne seen in the movies was consistent with the John Wayne seen in the press. Publicists often selected the magazines their stars would appear in, even setting the scene where an interview would take place (“Thomas will take batting practice with the Dodgers this afternoon,” says Chandlee. “You can watch.”) and writing the script (“Tom always hits a few home runs in batting practice,” she adds). When the scene didn’t quite play as written (Selleck swings through the first twenty pitches thrown him, hangs his head and says, “This is humiliating!”), they simply stuck to their script (“Thomas! What are you talking about? You hit some good ones.”).

They also determined the questions to be asked and not asked, and just to make sure their rules were followed, they sat in on each interview, nodding, smiling, frowning, pointing a long finger at the reporter’s notebook (“Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day!” says Chandlee) and even, on occasion, interrupted their star with a clarification (“l don’t think Tom said he was opposed to abortion. Did you Thomas?”).

Most of Esme Chandlee’s stars are now dead, like John Cassavetes, or semiretired, like Vera Miles. She still has Selleck, though, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Elliott. Her boys. She fusses over their careers, both of which were based more on masculine images than on acting ability and were established in television rather than in feature films. Television is the last bastion of the old star system. Careers are founded there—stars are made there—by forging a captivating persona that never wavers from week to week. TV stars are so closely identified with their characters (Magnum, Rockford, J.R., Alexis) that fans often refer to them by those names.

Which is fine for TV stars as long as they remain on TV, as Tom Selleck did with Magnum, P.l. for eight years. But Magnum is gone now, at Selleck’s request, and he is trying to build a film career from his new home near L.A.

“L.A. has changed a lot in the eight years I was in Hawaii,” says Selleck. “L.A. jokes are more valid now. There are a lot more people full of shit here. I don’t mean to get into L.A.-bashing, but I was lucky to be isolated in Hawaii. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I just worked.”

As a TV actor in the hinterland, Selleck was removed from the pressures and critical scrutiny of Hollywood. Television also afforded him the luxury of not needing the press, since his face appeared onscreen weekly rather than in a movie once a year. “In films, you can get a career-ending momentum from one film,” he says. Which is why movie actors make themselves accessible to the press: to keep their public presence alive in between screen appearances. Now that Selleck is solely doing films, he finds himself in the same position. “It’s new to me,” he says. “In-depth interviews. I don’t know how to do them yet.”

Selleck’s success in film has been limited. Of his nine movies, only Three Men and a Baby, in which he shared the spotlight with Ted Danson and Steve Guttenherg, was a critical and financial hit. Much of the criticism leveled at the failures (Her Alibi, Lassiter, Runaway, High Road to China) centered upon Selleck’s insistence on playing himself, or, rather, the self he had created with Magnum. Amiable. Jocky. Bumbling. Insecure. Unthreatening (to men and women). And disbelieving of his very substantial physical charms.

The problem is that Selleck’s characters in Lassiter and High Road were each supposed to have had a certain hard edge: In High Road, for instance, Patrick O’Malley was a drunken, conniving mercenary who exploits women in a way not dissimilar to that of Burt Reynolds’s film persona. (Burt and Tom are good friends. Selleck is listed as executive producer of Reynolds’s ABC-TV series, B. L. Stryker, and he is probably the only actor alive who will lower his eyes modestly and say “Thank you“ when compared to Reynolds as an actor.) But Selleck didn’t totally mask his Magnum amiability in those roles. Like Reynolds, Selleck is of the acting school that insists that no matter what character he portrays onscreen, he must never let the audience forget the image he has off-screen. “I think it’s a compliment if the audience only sees me,” he says.

It just goes against Selleck’s nature not to be amiable. “I don’t see any reason not to be nice,” he says. “It can be one way, and an effective one, of achieving certain ends. Still, it bothers me when people equate niceness with being dull and wishy-washy. It makes me sound like a wuss.”

Even the success of Three Men and a Baby was predicated on his playing… an amiable, bumbling, love-struck architect—the one twist being that rather than a 25-year-old female in a bikini his love interest was a 6-month-old female in diapers.

The Boston Globe once wrote that Selleck was the only actor who appeared big on the small screen and small on the big screen. Actors who get away with playing the same character type in movie after movie (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford) do so because they have developed compelling personas that are bigger than life, which is what moviegoers demand. More intense, passionate, mysterious, heroic, screwy, even threatening. It was precisely Ford’s nutty quirks that elevated the seemingly normal professor into the obsessed adventurer Indiana Jones. Selleck, originally offered that part, had to turn it down because of Magnum commitments.)

But Tom Selleck is mercilessly normal, either unable or unwilling to take the risk not to be. For a human being, that’s admirable. For an actor, it can be fatal. TV viewers are drawn to the normal for their heroes (Selleck/Magnum, Cosby/Huxtable) because it reassures them about their own everyday lives. TV heroes are comforting because they are not bigger than life, which is why TV actors often have difficulty taking the leap to film. Those who do either create memorable characters, like Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” or simply learn how to act, like Steve McQueen and James Garner.

In his new movie, An Innocent Man, Selleck is still playing “normal,” an ordinary guy wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

“As an actor, Tom’s underrated,” says Bess Armstrong, his costar in High Road to China. “l don’t feel the material he’s chosen is up to his ability. I believe there’s a lot of potential there that hasn’t been tapped. Maybe he’s biding his time. Tom is aware of every step, aware of staying in power. He’s very savvy. Tom always has a plan.”

* * *

Tom Selleck’s dilemma, then, is obvious. How far would he distance himself from Magnum—at the risk of losing his fans—in order to succeed in film? Rather than make that painful decision, Selleck is doing what he usually does. He is trying to maintain a precarious balance.

“My biggest fear,” he says, “is not to be wanted. I don’t know if I’ll want to act in five or ten years, but I’d really like for people to want me to work. You can be loyal to your fans without pandering to them. But you also can’t take them for granted. I’ve always felt it was easier to get women fans than men. But you have to have the guys to be successful. I’ve never liked guys who pandered to women fans.”

Many women swoon over Selleck/Magnum’s good looks and nonthreatening sensitivity, while others echo the sentiments of one of his leading ladies, who says, “What was lacking for me was a certain messiness, a certain passion. Everything with Tom is in its box.” It was Magnum’s male viewers who made the show a success; they identified with Magnum’s flaws, not his strengths. It was significant that the red Ferrari he drove was his boss’s, not his own. What was even more significant was that Magnum’s pursuits of beautiful women more often than not ended in failure, just like those of his male viewers. Selleck sustained an eight-year TV run out of those weaknesses, ultimately earning almost $5 million a year, and he is loath to lose that career now.

“Every actor gets put in a box,” Selleck says. “It’s not a curse if you’re working. If it’s a small box, though, I don’t think you can buck it. I’d just like to make my box a little bigger. I try not to approach my career as if I’m some mythical personality; because that personality changes with people’s perceptions of it.

“I like to think that every film part of mine has been a stretch. I’m very happy with them. No matter how safe people thought my choices were, they were a big risk for me. I just have to balance those stretches with my limitations. I can’t ever play Quasimodo just to prove something, but I can push my parameters or else there will be a sameness to my work. I have to be willing to fail. You can’t have it both ways. Still, I can’t do a movie without thinking of my career. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s the trap. When you start calling what you do ’a career,’ that’s when you start feeling the pressure.”

Selleck relies a lot on Chandlee to protect his career. He is loyal to her, he says, because she did a lot of free work for him thirteen years ago, when he was a struggling actor known more for his modeling (Salem cigarettes, Chaz cologne) than for his thespian exploits (he played a corpse in the film Coma). Selleck is ashamed of his modeling past and tries to distance himself from it by denigrating talk of his being a sex symbol. “I hate that!” he says. “I hate to work out with weights just to stay in shape. I never did like to throw it around. Too much muscle takes away from your character onscreen.”

Like many actors, Selleck is more than a little embarrassed by what he does for a living. He considers it unmanly. “It’s easy to stare someone down with a gun when you know that after they shoot you dead you can get up again. Now, a big left-handed pitcher throwing me curveballs, ouch! That’s real!”

Selleck, at six feet four, 210 pounds and 44 years of age, is proud of his athletic ability. He is an Olympic-caliber volleyball player and claims his greatest achievement was recently being named to an all-American team for men 35 to 45. He also likes to talk about his college basketball days, and how he could really leap. “l didn’t have white man’s disease,” he says. “In one episode of Magnum, we ended the show with me dunking a basketball. It was really important for me to do that without camera tricks.”

It’s important, too, for Selleck to take batting practice at least once a year with a major league team. He has done so with the Orioles (“l hit a few out at Memorial Stadium“) and with the Tigers (“A few players were screwing around in the outfield. When I hit one between them, they just looked.”) and, this past season, with the Dodgers. This time, it did not go well.

Selleck stood behind the batting cage with the pitchers, waiting to take his swings against the easy lobs of one of the team’s older coaches. The pitchers kidded around, occasionally including Selleck in their jokes. He laughed nervously. This was obviously an important moment for him. He had spent the previous day at a batting range in preparation and did not want to look foolish.

Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman, walked onto the field accompanied by his latest wife, a striking cotton-candy blonde. Garvey, dressed in a navy blazer and tan trousers, looked less like a ballplayer than an actor. One of the Dodgers said to another, “Who’s that with Garv?”

“His new wife.”

“How do you know?”

“She’s the one who’s not pregnant.”

Selleck went over to talk to Garvey. They chatted under a bright sun, two men who have embellished their careers by being “nice.” Finally, it was Selleck’s turn to hit. For the next hour he struggled, sweating and lunging, foul-tipping or just missing pitch after pitch. There was a lightness to his swing. He didn’t attack the ball, driving toward it with his shoulders, but swung only with his arms.

“You swing pretty good,” said one pitcher, “…for an actor.”

Selleck tried to smile.

When batting practice was over, Selleck heard a stern voice calling him from the seats behind home plate, “Thomas! Thomas!” He went over to Chandlee, who was seated alongside Selleck’s elder brother, Bob.

“That was humiliating!” Selleck said.

“Oh, Thomas!” Chandlee said. “That pitcher was throwing hard.”

“He was,” Selleck said. “Wasn’t he?”

“Pretty hard,” said Bob, who had been a pitcher in the Dodgers organization years ago. Bob is a boyishly tousled, Alan Alda sort of guy, who stands almost six feet six. Selleck is close to his brother, and to all of his family, whom he refers to as his best friends. He also has a younger brother and a sister; they, along with their father, Bob Sr., and mother, Martha, make a strikingly beautiful family. “Heads just turn when they all enter a room,” says Chandlee.

* * *

Born in Detroit, Selleck moved with his family to Sherman Oaks, California, when he was 4. His father was a real estate executive and president of the Little League. His mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts and Brownies. There was a tradition in the family that if the children did not drink, smoke or swear until the age of 21, they would be given a gold watch. Selleck got his, although he claims he did lapse a few times.

Selleck excelled in sports and won a basketball scholarship to USC. He mostly sat on the bench, but when Pepsi was looking for a basketball player for an ad, he landed his first modeling job. He began pursuing acting after that, doing a little modeling on the side, until he received his draft notice. This was in 1967—the height of the Vietnam war. After taking his physical, Selleck was told that within three months he’d probably be sent overseas. Although Selleck “firmly believed in my military obligation,” he wanted to continue acting. So his father helped him get into the National Guard. He claims it was a very scary time to be in the Guard, given all the student riots across the country. Meanwhile, he appeared on the TV program The Dating Game twice. He wasn’t chosen either time, but he was noticed by executives at Twentieth Century Fox and given a studio contract. The rest is history. Salem. Chaz. Magnum. An Emmy. People’s Choice Award for favorite male TV performer, four times. A film price that is now in the millions. In 1986, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in August, a multi-picture deal with Disney similar to those of Bette Midler, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.

It is not clear whether Selleck truly defers to Chandlee in decisions about his career or just wants to give the impression that he does. When Chandlee sits in on interviews, Selleck insists it’s her demand, not his. Yet when he did a Playboy interview some years ago, he told the reporter that a CBS publicist had to sit in because the network insisted. He didn’t want to offend them, Selleck said, because they had been so nice to him. Afterward, he called the writer a number of times to clarify a few points he had made. Selleck likes to make these personal follow-up calls. It’s his way of softening his various refusals to writers during interviews. No mention of his family. No talks with his wife. No visits to his home. No questions about his salary.

Such passive aggressiveness seems to be the way he conducts every facet of his life. “Eventually, l guess l got to know Tom,” says Laila Robins, who plays his wife in An Innocent Man. “I just didn’t feel he wanted to schmooze with me. I felt bad, because I’m a professional and know enough not to cross that personal line. He just didn’t trust me enough to let me not cross that line on my own. He always had people around to protect him, to serve as buffers. I’d go our to dinner with him and his makeup man and driver/bodyguard. I never felt they shut me out. It wasn’t that blatant. I just felt there was a point when he didn’t want to go that extra step.”

“Actors need buffers,” says Selleck. “We need people to say no for us.” Chandlee says no a lot for Selleck. It takes the burden off him so he won’t have to sully his image not being “nice.” Then, too, Tom Selleck is truly a “nice“ man who does have trouble saying no to people. Even when he does, he will do it in a way that appears so painful for him, it doesn’t really seem like a no. Back in the late Seventies, as his marriage of ten years to Jacquelyn Ray was collapsing, he couldn’t bear to go through with the actual divorce for four years. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life that we won’t be together,” he said at the time. “We’ve worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven’t made any moves toward divorce.”

When Selleck goes out to dinner with his second wife, actress Jillie Mack (they’ve a 10-month-old daughter, Hannah Margaret Mack), he refuses to sign autographs while eating. But he takes great care to explain to his fans his reasons for saying, “Sometimes, it would just be easier to sign them,” he says. “Then when they left, I wouldn’t feel guilty.”

Selleck also felt guilty when he announced he was leaving Magnum after his seventh year. He felt he, personally, was pulling the plug on his crew’s careers. So he signed for an eighth and final season (at a considerable salary increase) just to give the crew one last big paycheck, and to give himself peace of mind.

Selleck loves to smoke cigars. “Obscenely large ones from Cuba,” he says. His favorite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a man forced to choose between the two great loves of his life: his fiancee, Maggie, and the beloved cigars Maggie demands that he give up. He wavers, debating the pros and cons of each love, until finally he makes his choice:

And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-born vows,

If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

It is ironic that Selleck’s favorite poem is about a man who makes a painful decision in a decisive way. Despite his own love of cigars, Selleck won’t smoke them in public for fear of offending his fans. When he is offered a cigar while seated in the crowded Dodgers bleachers, where no one has recognized him, he looks around quickly before saying, “I’d better not.”

In his political convictions, Selleck is equally equivocal, though they are of a conservative bent. He believes that socialism is a failed economic concept that limits wealth, while capitalism breeds it. “I benefit a lot of people by making a lot of money,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I can afford to be principled now because of my wealth. If you’re struggling with a family and you sell out, it’s understandable, but if you have wealth and you sell out, there’s something wrong.”

Selleck feels that women’s lib is “just an excuse for women to get even” and that abortion is not only a woman’s issue but a man’s, too. “It takes two people to have a baby,” he says. “And since there’s been no national consensus on it, one way or another, l don’t think the federal government should fund abortions. I would never encourage anyone to have an abortion, but you won’t see me pounding the streets one way or another about it. I don’t think I belong out there just because I did Magnum for eight years.”

Selleck also resents the fact that white Americans are often given the blanket label of racist, held responsible for sins committed 200 years ago. “I’m not responsible for slavery,” he says. “When that poor girl was raped in Central Park this year, Cardinal O’Connor said we were all responsible. I’m not. O’Connor said that God forgave those kids who raped the girl. God might have forgiven them, but I don’t think He forgave them right away.”

When Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in his attempt to become a Supreme Court justice, Selleck thought it such an outrage that he sent a letter to each of the congressmen who had voted against Bork. Selleck never made that letter public, for the same reason he refuses to campaign for conservative political candidates. As he once said, “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved. Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise.”

* * *

It is the seventh inning of the game at Dodger Stadium, and Selleck has yet to be recognized as he sits in the home plate bleachers. It has been a rare treat for him to watch a game without fans assailing him for autographs. The last time he went to the stadium, he sat down below and was immediately spotted. He had to sign so many autographs that he never saw the game. He debated this time whether he should sit in the Stadium Club, where his privacy would be respected. But he rejected that possibility because looking through a glass partition is not like “really being at a game.”

“I’ve always been a private person in a public job,” he says now. “If I give all my privacy away to the public, l won’t have any left as an actor. l won’t have anything to show in my work. Still, I want to be able to do normal things, or else you get isolated and lose touch with reality. I miss all the rudimentary things other people do, like going to the beach and reading a book. I force myself to do these things sometimes, like this game. If I don’t, then privacy becomes the ability to lock yourself in your home, and you’ll never experience reality.”

Suddenly he stops talking and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, look at that girl!” He points down below to a beautiful girl in a tight sweater returning to her seat behind home plate and whistles like a schoolboy. “That’s all right!” he says. There is something of the schoolboy about Selleck when he talks about women. He claims he is “painfully shy with girls“ and often had to be set up on blind dates. When he asked Jillie out for the first time, he sat in an upstairs bedroom, sweating and hesitating before finally mustering the nerve to dial her number. He was so tongue-tied that eventually she had to say, “Do you want to ask me out?”

“Gee, I hope she gets up again to go for popcorn,” Selleck says, still staring down at the girl. Then he catches himself. “Isn’t that silly?” Despite his adolescent ogling, Selleck is almost prudish about sex. When he’s told that one of his favorite actresses, Kim Basinger, gave a magazine interview recently in which she talked brazenly about wearing a see-through skirt without underwear, Selleck just shakes his head. “That’s too bad,” he says. When his brother Bob tells him an off-color joke that ends in oral sex between two men, Selleck slinks down in his seat, scrunches up his features and mutters, “Yuck!”

The ultimate impression Selleck gives is of a man either physically unable to let himself go or of a man hiding some terrible secret. In either case, he’s still so nice that it seems a waste of his energy to be so protective. He’s the kind of guy who would probably be even nicer if he just stopped acting that way and let himself be naturally so.

Selleck sits back now to enjoy the rest of the game. He looks around. It dawns on him that the fans’ attention is glued to the action on the field. “Hey, this is great!” he says. “Nobody asked me for an autograph. I’m escaping…. Oh, my God! Maybe they forgot me already! Maybe I should stand up or something. Turn around, let them see me.”

He laughs, only half-kidding.

Opening Day Special: The Last Yankee


Matinglymo

Here’s an Opening Day treat from my pal Paul Solotaroff. “The Last Yankee” is a story he wrote about Don Mattingly for the National Sports Daily back in 1990 and at the time it rang true. Of course, this was before Derek Jeter. Still, dig this trip down memory lane as we get ready for the season to begin tonight in Houston.

 

“The Last Yankee”

By Paul Solotaroff
The National Sports Daily, July 6, 1990

It begins, of course, with Babe Ruth, the god of thunder, who invented the home run and the 12-hot dog breakfast. It runs through Lou Gehrig, the first baseman built like a center field monument, and through Joe DiMaggio, the center fielder straight from central casting. It culminates in Mickey Mantle, that beautiful wreck who played hard, lived hard, and once remarked in his forties that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d’ve taken better care of himself. “It,” of course, is the lineage of the One Great Yankee, the player who taught his generation about class and success, and set boys everywhere dreaming about pinstripes.

It wasn’t, God knows, anything like virtue that made Ruth an icon. What signified him to his age was his invincibility—he won everything in sight, and devastated teams doing it. His 500-foot shots were like bombs over Nagasaki; whenever he hit one, the other side just collapsed.

But the mythos of the Great Yankee has as much to do with heart as muscle. DiMaggio played on crippled heels; Gehrig, the last couple of years, could hardly bend to take grounders, so ravaged was he by ALS; Mantle hobbled through much of his career, his knee done in by a sprinkler head. Nonetheless, they endured like soldiers, Gehrig for 17 years, Joe D. for 13, the Mick for 18. Gehrig lasted through ’39, by which time DiMaggio was securely established; DiMaggio until ’51, when Mantle broke in. No one, alas, stepped up for Mantle but his legacy of courage and pride survived, in trust, for his eventual heir.

Beyond the monster home runs and memorable catches in center, though, what the One Great Yankee did was set absolute standards—Yankee standards. DiMaggio must have uttered all of 10 words his entire career, but his mute ferocity put the fear of God into his teammates. He once cornered Vic Raschi, who was 21–8 that year but had a nasty habit of squandering big leads, and told him that if he ever blew another one, he’d beat the hell out of him then and there. Nor was there any malingering permitted. If DiMaggio was going to go out there every day on splintered shins, then, believe it, everybody was going to play. One shudders to think what would have happened if Joe D. had ever played with Rickey Henderson.

Mantle may have been the culmination of the line—no one has ever had his combination of lefty-righty power and speed—but he was not the last of the Great Yankees. Reggie, with his drink-stirring swagger, was as true a son of Ruth as any of them. Forget the fact that he was only there for five years. They were titanic years, full of glorious theater; no one since the Babe has so enlivened the franchise.

And then, of course, there is Don Mattingly. All line drives and silence, he is the very incarnation of Gehrig: solemn and single-minded and as untaintable by George Steinbrenner as Gehrig was by Ruth. But this is where the lineage ends. When Mattingly goes, there will be no more like him. Rome is burning, the royal family disgraced. Soon, nothing will remain but the mad fiddler and his running slaves.

“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. ”I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.”

It is three hours before game time, and Mattingly, sheathed in sweat and silver bike shorts, is sitting in his corner cubicle, the place d’honneur in the Yankee clubhouse. The other players loll about, most of them still in street clothes, grazing on fruit or playing three-handed rummy, but Mattingly has already put in a fierce hour in the batting cage. His black bat propped beside him, he looks like he wants nothing so much as to go back there now, to the temple of his solemn devotions.

In the batting cage, there is the pure release of hard work, and the pleasure of attacking one baseball after another. But mostly, there is the relief of being away from this team, a collection of can’t-win don’t-care, no-account strangers, the most faceless bunch to ever set foot in here. Two years ago, this room was electric with the likes of Henderson, Willie Randolph, Jack Clark, and Dave Winfield. Now, peopled by Velardes and Leyritzes, it’s got all the flavor of a bus station. Surveying the scene, Mattingly’s eyes say, “Can these guys really be Yankees?”

“Man, oh man, this is just so tough,” he says. “It hasn’t been like this since I was 13 playing for a Babe Ruth team. We were horrible. Awful. Plus, we had bad uniforms. Ugly green things. It was terrible.”

Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard. Munson-Nettles-Jackson-Gossage. Those teams won because they were star-laden,yes, but also because they were blood-and-knuckles competitive. Year in, year out, they played as tough as pirates, tromping on good teams of lesser wills. Not so these Yankees. They give up before the first shot rings out.

“By the seventh inning we’re getting pounded again, or we’re down a run and we don’t expect to win, and you think, ‘This is another night we’re not going to get over the hill,’” he laments. “We’re not even making tough outs. . . . It’s really pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose. . . . You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”

It is hard to say which is sadder, the dismantling of all this glorious tradition, or the desolation of Don Mattingly. Once the centerpiece of the gaudiest lineup in baseball, he is, for all intent and purposes, alone out there now. In ’88, he hit behind Henderson and Randolph, who, regardless of their averages, drew 100 walks apiece, and were constantly dancing off of first and third for him. Now, he hits behind Roberto Kelly, who walks about as often as Mario Andretti, and Steve Sax, an opposite-field hitter whom American League pitchers seem to have figured out.

“It was such a different situation with Rickey and Willie,” he says wistfully. “They put pressure on the pitcher. When there’s nobody out there, the pitcher doesn’t feel any tension. The only thing that’ll hurt him is a home run.”

The loss of Henderson and Randolph, both of whom Steinbrenner essentially gave away, is only the half of it, though. The other half is the subtraction of Clark and Winfield, who combined for 200 RBI behind Mattingly in ’88. In baseball, this is called protection, and without it you stand about as much chance as a stray blonde in a biker joint. In Mattingly’s first five full seasons, only four players hit more homers than he did (137); near the halfway point of this one, he has exactly five. And nobody in baseball had more RBI over that stretch (574); to date, he has 33. Thanks entirely to George’s machinations, the Yankees are dead last in the league in hitting, slugging, runs scored, total bases, and on-base percentage. And so the team that won more games than anyone else in the ’80s stands every chance of losing 105 this year. If this were any other kind of business, federal investigators would have been called in long ago and a conservator appointed.

None of which is to exempt Mattingly from blame, or to suggest for a moment that he exempts himself. His recent castigation of the team was the first of its kind, an outburst after a disastrous sweep in Boston during which manager Bucky Dent got canned and the wheels came off this abysmal club. By nature, Mattingly is unceasingly upbeat (read, deluded) about his teammates, and brutally hard on himself. Never mind that all the talent has gone elsewhere—to his mind, the losing this season is somehow his fault, his particular responsibility. On a team batting .240, it is not enough anymore to hit the ball hard and field his position flawlessly. He has to drive in every runner, though he hasn’t had a pitch to hit in weeks; he has to turn this team around, though no one has a clue what direction it’s headed in the first place; he has to take outfield practice, extra batting practice, more extra batting practice . . .

“I have no excuses for this year,” he says, despite the built-in excuse of a chronic back problem, which flared again this week. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You haven’t been getting it done, have you?’ I’ve swung at bad pitches, I haven’t been patient—there’s a whole lot of things I haven’t done. Naturally, you try to do too much, but I’m not even doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

He bites the sentence off, chewing on his self-acrimony. He is generally about as expressive as prairie grass, disclosing as little about himself as is humanly possible. But this year he’s been even quieter than usual, stewing in a broth of exasperation. “If you’re around him every day, you can tell,”says first base coach Mike Ferraro. “He has a lot of anxiety to succeed. He’s a very intense person, a perfectionist. Mantle was exactly the same. A quiet guy, but boy, you didn’t want to be anywhere near him when we lost.”

“I can tell you exactly where this season went south on him,” says Tony Kubek, the Yankees’ color man extraordinaire. “It was about a month ago in a game here against K.C. The Yankees are getting one-hit, 3–0, it’s the bottom of the ninth, they’ve got men on first and second and Mattingly up. [K.C. manager John] Wathan runs out and tells his reliever, ‘Do what we did to [Wade] Boggs last year—walk him. I don’t care if there’s no base open and he’s the tying run—put him on. He goes back to the dugout, [Steve] Farr throws Donnie a curve that just does break over the plate, and he hits it back into the right field seats. The next day, the word goes out around the league: ‘There’s nobody else on this team that can beat you—do not pitch to Mattingly. I don’t think he’s had a ball to drive since.”

For the last six years Don Mattingly has simply been the best player in baseball. Over that stretch, he is first in the majors in total RBIs, third in hits, fourth in BA, fifth in HRs. He’s won a batting title, an MVP, five Gold Gloves, set a consecutive-game home run streak, has been the AP Player of the Year three times running and an All-Star every season. He didn’t get here on talent—not, at any rate, the sort of head-turning talent with which superstars are usually favored: the blinding bat speed, for instance, of Canseco, or the magic eyes of Ted Williams. No, Mattingly is the first self-made Great Yankee, a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville, Ind., who, through the alchemy of smarts and desire, turned modest gifts into exquisite skills.

“Don Mattingly’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen,” Kubek says, “because he practices harder than most guys play. Intensity pays in the game, and Donnie’s focused from the minute he gets to the ballpark. Offensively, defensively, he’s just so tuned in. It’s his mental sharpness more than anything that makes him so special.”

Mattingly’s hitting coach, Darrell Evans, agrees. “A lot of guys work hard. The great ones work smart, know themselves backwards and forwards. I saw that in Atlanta, with [Hank] Aaron, and in Detroit, with [Alan] Trammel. Other guys may realize their potential, but the Mattinglys exceed theirs.”

Baseball people extol the work habits of Dave Stewart and such, but no one in the sport puts in the hours Mattingly does. He grew up in the mirror, emulating his hero, Rod Carew—hands back, knees bent in that old man’s crouch—and has been perfecting and refining the stroke practically every day since. Like a guy with a vintage car, he always has it up on the blocks, sweating the little things like the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his hips.

But something has gone wrong with his swing this year that no amount of tinkering has fixed. Jumping at the bait of that enormous contract he signed in April (five year, $19.3 million), he has tried to be the savior of this team. Instead of taking what the league is giving him and lining the away pitch to left, he is contorting himself, trying to jerk it into the short porch in right. That is breaking faith with his one commandment to himself, to hit the ball hard, and never mind where it goes.

“Donnie had fallen into some pretty bad habits before I got here,” says Evans, who came over as hitting instructor when Champ Summers was fired with Dent. “Normally, he’s the most patient hitter in baseball, but this year he’s just lunging at balls. I guess it’s easy enough to see why.”

That it is, though not without a little history. In ’88 when Mattingly signed his last contract (three years, $6.7 million), he got off to his habitual slow start and was roundly savaged by Steinbrenner for “lacking leadership,” George’s code word for wimpishness. The belittlement stunned and ate away at Mattingly, and at the All-Star break he exploded, telling the national press that he’d never “gotten it [respect] around here.” A hideous snit between the two ensued; for days, the back pages were bloody with George’s threats to trade him.

The whole business deeply embarrassed Mattingly, who is, as Kubek describes him, “Yankee class from head to toe—and I mean the kind you don’t see around here anymore.” Whether Mattingly knows it or not, he is surely trying to pre-empt another strike by George, flexing muscles he doesn’t have, breaking his back to be The Man. It is an old, old story—Steinbrenner signing someone to a fat contract, then promptly and publicly impugning his manhood—but it is the last time we shall see it play out here. None but the lame (Pascual Perez) and desperate Dave LaPoint will take his money anymore, though the Mark Langstons will of course be happy to use him shamelessly to drive their price up elsewhere. Money is money, and every owner in baseball has it. What George has frittered away is the only capital that mattered: the cachet of being a Yankee.

It spoke to Mattingly this spring—”It would kill me if I left and two or three years later the Yankees won”—just as it had spoken to Reggie Jackson 15 years before him, and 50 years before Reggie, to a strapping architecture student named Lou Gehrig. “Just putting on a Yankee uniform gave you confidence,” Gehrig once said. ”It made you better than you actually were.” The pride of the Yankees was no insubstantial thing; it was the team’s precious equity, built up over time by a succession of the greatest men ever to play this game. Now it is gone, squandered by the little man from Tampa, and New Yorkers are immeasurably poorer for it. They cling to Don Mattingly, cheering even his pop flies and groundouts, because he is the last Yankee, and he is all they have left.

[Illustration from the 1986 Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue]

The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now”?

ted-williams-mcclain-flood

This piece originally appeared in the 8th issue of The Classical Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Great Seduction: The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”

Alex Belth

They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sportswriters, and a deeply committed researcher here—made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.

Richard Ben Cramer did.

He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story—”What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”—reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence—”Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those”—you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.

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It began at an editors meeting in Esquire‘s Manhattan offices. The magazine’s American Male special was up next and they needed a monster piece on which they could hang the issue. Why not Ted Williams? His hatred of the press was legendary but he had the necessary stature. Still, he’d be hard to get—impossible, maybe.

There was one guy that wouldn’t be scared off, though. If anything, Richard Ben Cramer would relish the challenge.

“They know if they really get me going on an idea, well, I just can’t come home without it,” Cramer later explained in Robert Boynton’s incisive interview collection, The New New Journalism. “It might take years, but I’ll eventually get it.”

Seven years earlier, Cramer had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. He got to the story, got people to talk to him and was a natural storyteller. Sure, his prose blushed a shade of purple at times, but that’s not the worst sin, and Cramer could be forgiven because his excesses were the product of his enthusiasm. He had a reputation in some quarters for being loose with facts, but nobody doubted his talent, or his desire to tell a good story, or, at least in the big picture, to get that story right.

Cramer turned to writing for national magazines when he’d exhausted everything he could do at a newspaper. By this time he had a clear voice and his first three features—two for Esquire, the other for Rolling Stone—announced the arrival of a major talent who was gunning for Halberstam, Talese, and Wolfe. He was a star, and he carried himself like one, and nobody much held it against him because he was self-deprecating and generous, a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with a Southern drawl picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.

But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude.

He jumped at the chance to write about Williams. Aside from a few stray newspaper columns, Cramer had never written about his favorite sport. His editor at Esquire, Dave Hirshey, called the Boston Red Sox and inquired about access. They laughed at him. Williams was such a pain in the ass that the Red Sox had long stopped trying to facilitate any publicity.

“I went back to Cramer and told him the news,” Hirshey told me, “and he was more adrenalized than ever, because he lived for outsized challenges like this. He knew he could get to anyone on the face of the planet, and since the Red Sox weren’t assisting in any way he wasn’t indebted to them.”

Impossible, my ass.

+++

“After I got the assignment from Esquire,” Cramer told Boynton, “I just went down to the town he lived in in Florida. I didn’t want to know anything, I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”

Williams wasn’t around Islamorada, a small town on the road to Key West, when Cramer arrived, which was fine by Cramer. He wasn’t on a newspaper deadline and was in no great rush. In the tradition of Gay Talese, he practiced the art of hanging out. His approach to a celebrity profile wasn’t any different from how he reported events Beirut or Pakistan, really: You see the flash and you go towards it when everyone else is getting out of there. You know it’s risky, but you want to see it—you want the truth.

Cramer had a gift for putting people at ease. “You could sit down with Richard,” his friend and Baltimore Sun colleague Tony Barberi told me, “whether it was you or me or somebody he’s interviewing for the first time, and he would sit there and smile and nod and laugh in the right places and tell you at the end this is the greatest story he’d ever heard. He was just a wonderful listener.”

“I’m gonna go one step further,” said Hank Klibanoff, who worked with Cramer in Philadelphia. “What made Richard special was that he didn’t seem to always have an end game in mind, which was writing a story. My impression is that Richard separated the two things so that people didn’t feel like they were just pawns in his writing game. They came away thinking he really liked them. And I think he really did.”

So he made himself a part of Williams’ world while Williams wasn’t there. “I met all his fishing buddies,” he said, “and I really got to know them. Once in a while I’d ask a little about Ted, but I didn’t push it. So by the time Ted comes back everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, Ted, have you heard about this odd guy who’s been hanging around for weeks?’ And pretty soon, Ted had to check me out for himself.”

Once Cramer got his hooks into Williams, he didn’t let go for three months. It didn’t matter if Esquire was paying him enough to justify that kind of investment of his time. (Cramer later claimed to have lost money on every magazine article he ever wrote.) What mattered was to get something that no one else could get, that no one else could write.

“In his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see,” wrote Cramer:

He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is ‘IT’S HORSESHIT.’ Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because ‘THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,’ after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: ‘YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.’

He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: ‘WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?’ Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.

Cramer often didn’t even take notes when talking to a subject, but he once told former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun that to capture an extended riff by Williams during a long car ride, he had Williams stop the car while he went in a convenience store and bought a small tape recorder. He returned and stuck the recorder in full view on the dashboard, making it clear that this ride was on the record and that there would be no confusion as to the accuracy of the reporting.

“Believe me,” says Klibanoff, “if he made anything up Ted Williams would have let the world know.”

Cramer stayed in Florida until he exhausted Williams’ patience. In Dan Okrent’s telling of the story, Williams drove Cramer to the Miami Airport. As they stood at the curb, Cramer thanked him for his time, explained that he might call to clarify some things that might arise in the writing, and that magazines had these people called fact checkers who would be in touch as the piece was ready to go to press. Williams looked at him and said, “Cramer, I’ve got two things to say to you. First, get a haircut. Second, I never want to see you or speak to you again.”

+++

The Williams that Cramer encountered was coarse, gregarious, and sympathetic. Cramer’s choice to capitalize some of Williams bellowing was reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s expressionistic prose style but in this case it didn’t serve to distract the reader only to punctuate character. Cramer himself appeared in the piece but only as a foil for Williams; unlike other new journalists the writer didn’t become the story.

“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” upset people’s expectations after decades of having read about Williams as remote and forbidding. Cramer humanized Williams to such an extent that you could actually imagine sitting down and having a beer with Teddy Ballgame. And Cramer plied his considerable charm to make sure he got every one of the 15,000 words he wrote into print. Hirshey says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the 1,500 words that Esquire‘s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.

“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”

The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”

+++

In The Best Sports Writing of the Century, David Halberstam picked “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” as one of four stories considered “The Best of the Best.”

“It’s hard to write a magazine piece that stands out from other magazine pieces,” Cramer’s friend, the writer Mark Jacobson told me. “At that time a lot of the best journalists were working in the magazine business. So there was a high degree of difficulty in pulling off a piece that really stood out like that. I think it’s the best thing Cramer ever wrote.”

Cramer didn’t have anything left to prove in magazines after Ted Williams. He moved on to books, first writing about presidential hopefuls in What it Takes and then debunking the popular sentiment of another American icon in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. He wrote the occasional magazine piece to pay the bills; they were solid, professional, but not etched in memory.

The Williams profile appeared in the 1991 coffee table book, Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid. After Williams died in 2002, Cramer revisited the subject for a standalone volume that included a 1,700-word introduction and a 5,800-word afterword. His return to Williams enriched the original article, and showed off Cramer at something like his full power. The coda charts the reinvention of Williams’ reputation in his later years, during which he became beloved, a living incarnation of the American century, and ties this to the man Cramer knew. Evaluating what made Williams great, Cramer wrote:

It wasn’t his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew something about it, he wanted to know it—and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That’s how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him.

It wasn’t just a love for hitting, or his old opponents, or fishermen, but his children, and his old friends, too:

He fell in love with showing his friends that he loved them. The urge grew more poignant and pressing as he lost them to old age—he outlived so many of his generation. When he lost his old Florida Bay fishing-guide buddies, Jack Albright and Jack Brothers—and then, too, his north-woods fishing companion, the Maine newspaperman Bud Leavitt—Ted fretted that he might not have told them well enough, often enough, how much they meant to him. So he’d call up their kids—apropos of nothing in particular: ‘You know, I loved your dad—LOVED ‘IM!’

This, perhaps, is why Cramer wrote so well about Williams. He loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page. (When Cramer’s charm failed to win the confidence of a subject, when the love wasn’t reciprocated, as was the case with DiMaggio, Cramer could be unforgiving, even sour.)

A small library of books are devoted to Williams, biographies that reveal more facts about the Red Sox great than Cramer’s Esquire article, even in its expanded version. And Williams is one of the few athletes who merit such lavish biographical attention.

But nothing else that’s been written in any form, at any length, has ever gotten through to Williams himself. This was no caricature. Cramer rendered the man in three dimensions. Others tried but they didn’t ingratiate themselves the way Cramer did so they couldn’t get the nuances down. They wrote from the outside in; Cramer wrote from the inside out.

“I’m out there to clean the plate,” Cramer told Boynton.

And he did.

BGS: Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band

duane

Shortly before Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, Grover Lewis spent a week on the road with the Allman Brothers on assignment for Rolling Stone. He turned in his story two days before Allman’s death. Lewis had already helped give the magazine credibility with his sprawling account of the making of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show but he’d never write another story as controversial as the one on the Allmans. Truth is, Gregg Allman hated—and still hates—the piece.

According to Lewis’ widow, Rae, “I know it was [Rolling Stone editor] Jann Wenner, not Grover, who made the decision to run the piece in the immediate wake of Duane Allman’s death. Frankly, I’ve always thought Gregg’s beef about the story—and the timing of the story—was just puerile nonsense rooted in some sentimental attachment to southern notions of valor and honor and the sanctity of the dead.  Also, and maybe I’m just being cynical here, it is much easier for someone to be pissed off about a negative story if they can shift the emphasis so that its publication becomes a breach of good taste and not just a negative story. You can’t even really blame Jann. No editor or publisher I can think of would have pulled that piece under the circumstances. When Grover’s collected work, Splendor in the Short Grass came out it was reviewed by Roy Blount Jr. in the New York Times Book Review, Gregg (or maybe it was his attorney, on his behalf) sent an irate letter about the grievous injury that story did to the memory of his late brother.  Wow, I thought, this guy really knows how to nurse a grudge.”

From 1971, originally published in Rolling Stone—and reprinted here with permission—here is one of Lewis’ most memorable stories (followed by an epilogue by W.K. Stratton, co-editor of Splendor in the Grass):

Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band

By Grover Lewis

There are sixteen seats in the first-class compartment of the Continental 747 flight from L.A. to El Paso, and the tushy blonde stewardess greeting the boarding passengers beams the usual corporate smile until she does a fast snap and realizes that a full baker’s dozen of the places are being claimed by this scruffily dressed, long-haired horde of… Dixie greasers. Her smile congeals, then goes off like a burnt-out light bulb when one of the freaks asks her matter-of-factly for a seatbelt extension and starts packing guitar cases—seven of them—upright in seat 1-D.

“Well, now, wait, I don’t know,” she stammers, fidgeting from foot to foot. “Who are you, anyway?”

“We’re the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia,” Willie Perkins, the band’s road manager, announces in a buttery drawl. He searches patiently through his briefcase and produces a round-trip ticket for the seat in question. “It’s OK,” he assures her, “we paid cash money for it. It’s the only safe way to transport our gittars. We do this sometimes six days a week. Now would you please get the extension; please, ma’am?”

Reluctantly, the stewardess fetches the cord, and Willie finishes lashing the vintage Gibsons into position. Then, just before takeoff, he does a quick head count of the entourage to be certain that no one’s been left behind. The members of the band—Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Dicky Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Jai Johany Johnson—all are present and accounted for. The three roadies—Joe Dan, Kim, and Red Dog—and the sound technician, Michael Callahan—all aboard. The proud bird with the golden tail lifts skyward to Texas.

By the time the No Smoking sign flashes off, both of the Allmans are fast asleep, their mouths characteristically ajar. Duane, whose nickname is “Skydog” but who resembles a skinny orange walrus instead, looks bowlegged even when he’s sitting down.

Dicky Betts, alternate lead guitar to Duane, whiles away the flight swapping comic books with the bassist, Berry Oakley. Butch Trucks, the group’s white drummer, pores over a collection of sci-fi stories by Philip Jose Farmer. Jai Johany Johnson, the black drummer, who’s also known as “Frown,” stares somberly out the window the entire trip.

Willie Perkins, wearing a faded Allman T-shirt, offers a fellow traveler a filter-tip and concedes that yes, there’re quite a few hassles involved with being on the road almost constantly. “Coordination is the key to the whole thang,” he says as if it’s just occurred to him. “Gettin’ all the people and the equipment to the right place at the right time. Then, too, I’ve got to mess with gettin’ us paid, all that shit. These days the band averages about $7,500 a gig, and we don’t ordinarily have no trouble gettin’ our money. When the band was younger, though, playin’ smaller clubs, sometimes I had to… well, lean on some of the shadier promoters.

“Sure, there’s a bunch of headaches. Me, myself, I wouldn’t do my part of it if it was just a pure-dee ol’ gig. I wouldn’t do it at all unless I really dug the band. Business-wise and musically, see, the boys are all equals. Unofficially, Duane is the leader—everybody looks to him for makin’ the major decisions. Family is an overused word, I reckon, but here it fits just fine.”

While a second, less nervous stewardess serves lunch, Willie points out the three married members of the group—Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley, and Butch Trucks—“Gregg just got married two weeks ago, was you aware of that? Yeah, sweet little ol’ girl, too. But the wives don’t travel with the band ‘cept on special occasions. Everybody has purty well adjusted to the situation, you might say.” Willie signals to the stewardess that he needs some help with his tray. “Would you fix this doohickey for me, please ma’am?” he asks pleasantly.

“You bet,” she says, bending to the job. “Did you fellows play someplace last night? Everybody looks pretty sleepy.”

Willie grins. “Naw, we was up all night, but we wasn’t workin’. Truth is, we up all night purty near every night.”

From the seat behind, Red Dog reaches forward to tap Willie on the shoulder, jostling Gregg awake in the process. “Hey, brother,” Red Dog asks Willie excitedly, “is that snow down there on them hills?” Gregg squirms angrily in his seat. “Kiss my dyin’ ass, brother,” he mumbles. Willie peers out the window for a second and shakes his head at Red Dog: “Naw, brother, that’s the desert. That’s a right smart of dust down there.”

As the plane makes the descent to El Paso, Berry Oakley squints down at the brown, hilly town. He nudges Butch Trucks: “Hey, my man, this is where the Kid got it, you know that?” Butch dog-ears a page in his book and yawns, “Billy the Kid?” “Naw, brother, that cat in the Marty Robbins song. Marty Robbins is my hee-ro, man.”

Inside the terminal, after Willie and the roadies have rounded up the group’s thirty-odd pieces of luggage, Joe Dan rubs his palms together in a parody of lustful anticipation. “Man,” he crows to Michael Callahan, “I can’t wait to put skates on the ass of some of these nice Texas ladies.” Callahan tells him that the night’s gig is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and that they won’t be in Texas more than a few minutes in transit. “Well,” Joe Dan says philosophically, “they got nice ladies in New Mexico, too, I reckon. We’ll put skates on their asses.”

Under a lowering sky, the entourage crowds into two Hertz station wagons for the sixty mile drive to Las Cruces. During the ride, Jai Johany plays lacy Afro jazz on a cassette machine, frowning, saying nothing. At the wheel, Willie reminisces to the fellow traveler about the band’s gig on the last paid-admission night at the Fillmore East: “Oh, my God, the boys was hittin’ the note for sure, brother. They smoked up the place till seven in the mornin’. That was a great place to play. The World Series of rock and roll.”

In the backseat, Duane leafs boredly through a copy of Cycle magazine and grumbles about the group’s travel arrangements. “It’s a drag not to have your own plane, man. That way you could go where you wanna go when you wanna go. Jesus, I’m wasted.” He falls asleep almost instantly, as does Berry Oakley. The wasteland miles roll past, and the first quarter-sized spatters of what will turn into a furious rainstorm blur the windshield.

Las Cruces is the kind of vanishing Western town where you can leave your motel room safely unlocked, except almost no one ever does because most of the people in the motels are from places where you can’t leave anything unlocked. At the Ramada Inn, where the Allman menage disgorges for a rainy afternoon of sleep, TV-viewing, card-playing, comic-book reading, coke-snorting, and pure listless boredom before the evening’s concert, there is a stenciled sign on the door to the hotel’s cocktail lounge. It reads:

N. Mex. Law:

ALL CUSTOMERS MUST WEAR

SHOES & SHIRT

Wearing neither, Dicky Betts sits in his room just before the show, strumming his guitar and softly running through the lyrics of “Blue Sky,” a muted country-style air he’s just written in honor of his Canadian Indian lady friend, Sandy Blue Sky. Joe Dan, one of the roadies, sits hunkered on the carpet across the room, sipping a can of beer, and when Dicky has finished singing, Joe Dan nods and murmurs respectfully, “That’s hittin’ the note, brother.” Betts acknowledges the tribute with a sober bob of his head; he has just cut his hair short, and he has the kind of bony, backcountry face that calls to mind the character Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity.

“Hittin’ the note,” Betts muses, cradling his guitar snug against his bony chest, “it’s kinda hard to explain to anybody outside the band. It’s like gettin’ down past all the bullshit, all the put-on, all the actin’ that goes along with just bein’ human. Gettin’ right down to the roots, the source, the truth of the music. Lettin’ it happen, lettin’ that feelin’ come out…

“See, we got a lotta blues roots, the old-timey blues players—Robert Johnson, Willie MeTell. Myself, I do a lot of the old white country players like Jimmie Rodgers, some of those fellows…. Hell, I’m a big fan of Merle Haggard. The truth be known, I bet ol’ Hag set down with his manager and schemed out ‘Okie from Muskogee’…

“Ten years from now? Well, I’ll still be playing music. That’s just in me to do. Where I’ll be at or what kinda music I’ll be playin’…shit, I don’t know. Naw, this band won’t be together by then. I don’t see what point there’d be in tryin’ to keep it together that long. Everything’s got to change. The times’ll be completely different. But I’ll still be playin’, somewheres or other.”

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Willie Perkins, rounding up the boys for the gig. It’s time to go hit the note.

But it doesn’t happen this night. At the Pan American Center of New Mexico State University, a cavernous, sweltering-hot gym where the concert is scheduled to begin at 9:45, there’s a forty-five-minute delay while Gregg Allman’s rented organ is located and installed on stage. During the wait, Gregg and Duane Allman and Dicky Betts sprinkle out little piles of coke on a table in the backstage locker room where the band is sequestered and sniff it through rolled-up hundred dollar bills. Duane calls it “Vitamin C,” and after his second snort, he buttonholes the fellow traveler in expansive praise of Betts’ guitar-playing: “Brother Dicky’s as good as there is in the world, my man. And he’s gonna be smokin’ tonight. Listen to him on ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.’ Fuck, he wrote that fuckin’ song after he fucked this chick on a fuckin’ tombstone in a fuckin’ cemetery in Macon. On a fuckin’ tombstone, my man!” The other members of the band sprawl listlessly about the room on wooden benches, drinking Red Ripple and reading comic books in a tableau that will be ritually repeated every evening for the next six days.

When the band finally files on stage and Duane kicks off “Statesboro Blues” to a scattering of cheers and applause, the principal revelation of the occasion is that Gregg Allman is not, after all, a stone catatonic, as he appears to be everywhere except in front of a microphone. His voice rises and swoops, circles and jerks the old blues staple to a frenzied, hair-raising climax that’s explicitly sexual enough to be rated “X.” The usual contingent of snowbirds and total-loss farmers, massed ten-deep in front of the towering amps, howl their pleasure—“Boogie mymind, motherfuckers!” a pudgy cockatoo in head-shop plumage screeches as the band runs through its more or less standard repertoire: “Elizabeth Reed,” “Please Call Home,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Stormy Monday,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Dreams,” and “Hot ‘Lanta.”

But the crowd in the farther reaches of the hall seems considerably less enchanted. For one thing, the sound is soggy at the rear, and a long-haired kid who says he’s majoring in Police Science (yes) estimates the crowd as “25 percent freaks, 25 percent cowboys, and 50 percent who don’t give a fuck.” The band manages one encore, “Whipping Post,” but halfway through the number the audience is busily streaming toward the exits.

Afterwards, back in the locker room, Gregg Allman morosely doles himself out another dollop of coke. “I couldn’t hear shit,” he snorts, and snorts. “Sounded like we’us playin’ acoustic,” Dicky Betts chimes in disgustedly. “Coulda been a dynamite gig, too, man,” Berry Oakley laments. “Coulda been, but it wadn’t,” Duane snaps. He sinks down on one of the benches, frowning. “I thank mebbe it was the audience,” he sighs, “but then again… it coulda just been too much fuckin’ coke. You know what I mean?” He snuffles and reaches for the coke vial.

Off to one side, Red Dog is whispering in the ear of the lone groupie who’s shown up, a big-nosed redhead with deep acne scars. The girl listens expressionlessly, then finally nods yes to whatever, sucking on a joint as if it were the last sad drooping cock in the world.

Under Willie Perkins’ persistent proddings, the Allman retinue is out of the Ramada Inn and settled on a flight back to L.A. by noon the next day. Again, most of the boys spend the travel time dozing or poring over comic books. Before zonking out on the plane, Duane shows Berry Oakley a crumpled letter he’s just received.

“Know who this is from, brother?” he crows. “Ol’ Mary—You ‘member Mary? Man, I hitchhiked 2,500 miles to see that chick one time, and then her daddy caught me fuckin’ her in the garage and throwed me out. Sheeit, I’m still in love with that chick, man… I… thank.” Within seconds, Duane is snoring, and when a saucy-hipped stewardess stoops to pick up his letter from the aisle, Red Dog leans over and says to her conversationally, “Honey pie, you got the sweetest lookin’ ass I’ve looked at all year. Lawd, I wish you could sang: We’d take your sweet-lookin’ little ass right along with us.”

“Oh, I can’t even carry a note in church,” the stewardess sings out, flustered and flattered.

Red Dog is the undisputed king of the Allman roadies. He’s been with the Allman Brothers Band since its earliest permutations—first, with the Allman Joys in 1965; then with the short-lived Hourglass, a West Coast-based studio group in ’67; still later, when the present band was formed, principally from the personnel of the earlier groups, from ’69 on. Red Dog was there toting instrument cases when the Allmans cut their three LP’s to date—The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, and The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East—and he’ll likely be around as long as there are any Allman instrument cases to tote.

Right now, he winks slyly, orders three cocktail-sized bottles of Jack Daniel’s Black Label from the stewardess, serves himself one, and pockets the other two. “Gawddamn,” he cackles to me, “I gotta whole suitcase full of these leetle fuckers. Why not? They free when you fly first-class.”

Rubbing his back, he complains that he feels achy all over, “See, I tuck and fell off the fuckin’ stage last night while I was settin’ up Butch’s traps. One or the other of us is always fallin’ off the fuckin’ stage. And I got a pimple on my ass, too, man. Hurts like hell. This just ain’t my trip, brother.”

Teasing his scruffy red beard with a swizzle stick, Red Dog remarks that the band’s success has brought some changes. “Aw, it’s still fun awright, but not anywheres the way it used to be. Time was, we’d blow our last five bucks on a case of beer in Flagstaff or someplace. Now it’s big bid-ness.” He makes a face, then laughs aloud: “I still get off behind the chicks, though. Man, we get chicks ever’where we go. What really knocks me clean smooth out is to get head. Did I tell you? This weird chick was eatin’ me on stage at the last Fillmore East blast. Naw, the audience couldn’t see it, but all the boys could.

“Another time, in Rochester, I was standin’ against the stage wall while the band was hittin’ their note and some chick come up and unzipped me and started gobblin’ me alive, man. The cat in the booth saw what was happenin’, and he flashed a spotlight on us. Shit, man, I didn’t know what to do. Three thousand people out there, see, but goddamn, it felt so good. I thought, well, fuck it, and I grabbed her ears and said, ‘Let it eat!’”

A black-suited, middle-aged limo chauffeur named Artie, self-styled “driver for the stars,” meets the band at L.A. International Airport, helps Willie round up the mountain of luggage, and drives the boys to the Continental Hyatt House high atop Sunset Boulevard. During the ride, he prattles on cheerily about what groups are playing in Vegas and Tahoe, and he looks away discreetly as Duane snorts coke through a short-stemmed surgical straw.

At the hotel, Bunky Odum greets the group with bear hugs for all. A bluff, hairy grinner with a build like a crocodile wrestler, Odum books the band in the East and South and serves as second-in-command to Phil Walden, the Allmans’ sharp young manager. In a poshy suite on the fifth floor, he seizes the fellow traveler’s hand and pumps it like a hydraulic jack. “Gawddamn, boy,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and get laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and get you laid and feed you somedown-home collard greens.

In another suite on the same floor, Berry Oakley orders a meal from room service, then kicks off his boots and plops heavily on the bed. “Tourin’,” he grimaces, “I’m gettin’ just a little tired of it, but that’s what I been doin’ ever since I could do anything on my own. Started playin’ gigs eight, nine years ago when I was about fifteen, and I been more or less livin’ on the road ever since.

“I can’t say what’s gonna happen with the band . It could be somethin’ great, and then again it might just go away like all the rest of ’em. We could do ten times more than we do, actually. There’s so much that’s in us that we haven’t played. We’re gonna have to start rationin’ ourselves out, like goin’ on the road and then goin’ home and workin’. Lately it’s been just goin’ on the road.

“All of us like to play to an audience and get response back. That’s what we call hittin’ the note. How should I say it… Hittin’ the note is hittin’ your peak, let’s say. Hittin’ the place where we all like to be at, you know? When you’re really feelin’ at your best, that’s what you describe as your note. When you’re really able to put all of you into it and get that much out of it. We just found it out along as we did it. We learned some from the audience, and they learned some from us, and things came together that way. It happens, I’d say, 75 percent of the time. There’s some special places we play where we’ve done it before, and everytime we go back, the vibes are there and it ends up happening again. We’ll end up playin’ three or four hours, and when we finish, I’ll be so high I can hardly talk. When you start hittin’ like that, the communication between the members of the band gets wide open. Stuff just starts comin’ out everywhere.”

Stuff starts coming out everywhere that evening at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, beginning with the little white piles of coke backstage. This time around, though, the acoustics of the hall are crisper, the audience is more responsive, and the band’s music flows more smoothly, although there’s little if any variation from the previous evening’s program. The crowd bawls its approval, but begins to disperse after one encore.

Afterwards, there’s a party like an open running sore in Phil Walden’s tenth floor suite at the hotel. The booze flows, the smoke blows, the coke goes up, up, and away. Around midnight, a trio of female freaks, including a Grand Guignol-painted dwarf, crashes the festivities, chanting gibberish, doing stylized little dance numbers, groping cocks. Somebody says they’re part of Zappa’s grass menagerie. When the hotel manager finally flushes them out of the room, Dicky Betts nudges the fellow traveler and guffaws: “Haw! You better get out yo’ pen and pencil and write down their names, my man!”

The next morning, while Artie and Willie Perkins are loading the black limo with luggage and instruments, Gregg Allman sidles up to the fellow traveler in front of the hotel and palms off a plastic vial containing a quarter ounce of white powder. “Hey, brother,” Gregg mutters, “hold these goods for me till we get to Frisco, will you do that? I’m scared of them fuckers at the airport, man. They got them gun detectors and all, and they down on people that look like hippies.”

On the way to the airport, more comic books and boredom. As the car passes the Super All Drugs, Butch Trucks cranes around to stare at a flamboyant leather dyke. “Well, theh’s ya big city,” he philosophizes. Willie is fascinated by the dizzying onrush of traffic. “These California people all got to be good drivers,” he drawls, “or they’d all be dead by now.”

At the airport, Duane draws Dicky Betts off to one side. “Did you hear them tapes of last night, brother?” he asks, shuffling excitedly from foot to foot. “Man, I wasinspahred. Listen, we got to get at least six more killer tunes right away. My composin’ chops are gettin’ rusty. What say when this tour is over we woodshed and write for a coupla weeks?”

“I dunno,” Dicky says, looking dubious. “I was thankin’ about goin’ to Canada to see Sandy.”

“Aw, come on, man,” Duane groans.

An hour and a half later, in a rented station wagon headed for what turns out to be a fleabag tourist warren near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Dicky is reading aloud the marquee billings along Broadway in North Beach: “Cal Tjader, hmn… the Modern Jazz Quartet… hey, Mongo Santamaria. Shit, I thank I’ll bop in there and ast ol’ Mongo when he’s gonna record ‘Elizabeth Reed.”’ He double-takes at a sign above a topless joint that reads NAKED SEDUCTION. “Crap on that stuff,” he wheezes. “I druther do it than look at it.”

Pausing at the hotel only long enough to drop their gear, Duane and Gregg and Berry Oakley race back to North Beach on a shopping binge. In a super-expensive leather shop, Duane freaks over a hand-tooled shirt with a colored panel on the front that resembles a drive-in theater facade in, say, Ponca City, Oklahoma; he eagerly pays $200 for it. Within minutes, he and Greg have dropped over $500 for a few shirts and trousers, and then Butch Trucks, accompanied by his slender, shy wife, Linda, briefly joins the group and buys a cowboy-style coat. Then Dicky shows up, looking for a maxi-length white leather dress for his Indian lady friend. After Butch and his wife have paid for the coat and drift on to rubberneck the bizarre upper-Grant Street mise-en-scene, Gregg curls his lip derisively: “Shit, you see that ratty-lookin’ coat ol’ Butch bought? Fucker didn’t even fit him.”

Duane shrugs contemptuously: “His ol’ lady probly put him up to it. She don’t know shit. She made him buy that Dee-troit car, too, man, and he coulda bought a fuckin’ Porsche for the same bread. Shit, man.”

“Yeah, shit, man,” Gregg agrees.

The band plays for a near-capacity audience at Winterland that evening. Before the music starts, while Bill Graham’s rent-a-goons are nastily hassling reporters on what seems to be sheer lunatic principle, Gregg draws on a joint backstage and mumble-explains his concept of hitting the note: “Uh, achievin’… the right… frame of mind, man. You smoke enough grass, you’ll get there. Uh… three joints, maybe.”

Ten minutes later, Gregg is squalling out the opening lines of “Statesboro Blues,” and a joy-transfixed chickie in the balcony shoots to her feet in a writhing dance.“Oh, baby,” she screams, “joy up and jump on me!”

Early the next afternoon, enter the photographer, looking cheery. An easy-going zaftig lady, she’s been promised a two o’clock shooting session with the band, but whatever else they’re doing, the boys are not hitting the note today. Half of them, in fact, are still asleep at the appointed time, and to a man they resist being roused. “Aw, Duane and Gregg’ll do that, you know,” Willie Perkins explains sheepishly. “They’ll stay up for three, four days, and then crash like they’us dead.”

Bunky Odum promises solemnly that he’ll deliver both Allmans to the photographer’s studio before the evening’s concert at Winterland. “Gawddamn, honey,” Odum booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and… uh… feed you some down-home collard greens.”

But Odum fails to deliver on his promise that evening when both the Allman brothers balk at the notion of being photographed apart from the rest of the group. They seem, in fact, outraged by the notion. They seem, in fact, like cranky, petulant children, coked to the gills. “Fuck, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,”Duane snarls. “Naw, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,” Gregg echoes. Trying to smooth things over, Odum arranges for the photographer to join the group’s swing back to Southern California the next day.

Exit the photographer, looking addled.

Exit the fellow traveler, looking for a movie far from the madding goons at Winterland.

Sleepy and hanging over, the group assembles in the hotel parking lot the next morning for the drive to the airport and an early flight to Santa Barbara. Only Dicky Betts seems in high spirits; after last night’s gig, he’d gotten a new tattoo at Lyle Tuttle’s south-of-Market studio—a dove entwining the name “Sandy” on his right bicep. “Ever’body in the band got one a these, too,” Dicky says proudly, pulling up his pant leg to show a tattoo of a mushroom on his calf. Willie Perkins nods shortly, “It’s the band’s emblem. We all got one, and we use the same design on all our litachoor, too.”

Dicky catches sight of Duane and guffaws: “Hey, brother, you got coke all over in your muss-tache.” Peeved, Duane rakes the white grains out of the hair on his lip and glares steadily at the photographer, who’s snapping individual candids of the band members. When she moves in toward him, he turns his back with a growl.

On the drive to the airport, Berry Oakley is literally holding his head with both hands. “I run into this ol’ girl last night who had a whole purseful of tequila,” he groans. “Then when that run out, we got into some Red Ripple. Jesus.

On the flight south, Butch Trucks reads the opening chapter of D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism. “You read this un?” he asks Dicky Betts. Betts’ eyes flick over the title. “Yeah, good, ain’t it,” he grunts. An hour later, one of the stewardesses remonstrates repeatedly with Duane to return his seat to the upright position for landing. Irritably, he complies, but when the stewardess moves on, he reclines the chair again, muttering balefully under his breath. “The boys are gettin’ pretty tahrd,” Willie Perkins sighs.

The band puts up for the night at the Santa Barbara Inn, a poshy beach resort for the middle-aged rich, where, once again, Duane refuses to show up for a picture session with the photographer. Looking positively shell-shocked by now, she pleads her case to Bunky Odum. “Goddamn, honey,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and feed you some down-home collard greens.”

That night’s concert is held in Robertson’s Gym at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The band plays a tight, subdued set that sets a gaggle of braless nymphets near the stage to jiggling like fertilized eggs frying in the ninth circle of hell, but the general ambience in the hall—high humidity, surly security guards, a surfeit of bum acid—gives the evening a jagged, unpleasant edge, and streams of people begin leaving before the set is done.

Duane and Dicky lope backstage afterwards to “do some sniff,” as Dicky terms it. Duane grabs a towel and mops his streaming face while Dicky spoons out the coke. “Goddamn, I’m sopped, brother,” Duane complains.

Dicky snorts the powder and bobs his head in pleasure, “Sheeit, my man, I druther sniff this ol’ stuff than a girl’s bicycle seat.”

Jo Baker, a black singer with the Elvin Bishop Group, hovers nearby, eyeing the coke. Duane fixes her with a cold stare. “Looka-here, sister,” he says loudly. “I’m sorry, but I got just a little bit of this shit left, so I can’t give you none.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Jo says, looking embarrassed. “Sure, as a musician, I understand.”

Early the next morning, “Frown,” Jai Johany Johnson, is living up to his nickname in the hotel restaurant. Slurping a triple Gold Cadillac, which is a positively depraved concoction of liquor and liqueurs, he growls, “Bullshit, my m’an. I’m into playin’ music, not this sittin’-around bullshit. Seems like when we was unknown, all we did was play. Now all we do is get publicity…. Ten years from now, if I be livin’, I expect to be playin’ music…. Naw, not with this same band…. I got my nickname, the full thing of which is ‘Jaymo King Norton Frown,’ from drinkin’ Robitussin H-C, that cough syrup. It makes you nod and frown. All the cats in the band used to drink that shit, so they finally got me to drink it, too…. Shit, I don’t know what my attitude is towards dope. I don’t guess they ever gonna stop it comin’ in the country and all that shit. Sure has caused a Iotta hang-ups, if you can dig what I mean…. Hittin’ the note is—well, that don’t be nothin’ but a phrase. What the cats in the band mean by it is… gettin’ out of it whatever you’re lookin’ for…”

Bunky Odum has again promised the photographer that he’ll line up the boys for some shots when the group checks out of the hotel, so she stations herself near the parking garage and nervously waits for them to show up. Soon, Butch Trucks and his wife join her, and Butch apologizes to her for the runaround she’s been getting. “Aw, ol’ Gregg and Duane don’t mean no harm, I reckon, but they still ortn’t to act that a way,” he mutters, looking pained. “We been on the road too long, I guess. It’s been five weeks now, and you get awful tahrd and wore out bein’ out that long, playin’ the same tunes every night and all. It gets to where sometimes it ain’t any fun. And this definitely ain’t the kind of business to be in if you ain’t havin’ no fun.”

One by one, the boys straggle out to the cars, again looking sleepy and hung-over. When they’ve assembled in a loose semicircle, the photographer explains that she’d like to get a group shot showing the tattooed mushrooms on the calves of their legs. There’s some grumbling, but they begin to fall in line and raise their pant legs. Then Duane shakes his head angrily and stomps out of camera range. “This is jive bullshit, man,” he rasps, “it’s silly.” “Yeah, silly,” Gregg echoes, and follows suit. “Jive bullshit,” Dicky Betts agrees, stuffing his pant leg back into his boot. At my teasing suggestion that it’s no sillier to shoot a picture of everyone’s tattoos than it is to have them put on in the first place, Duane coldly offers to punch me out on the spot. Well, what the fuck, hare krishna; Duane is, after all, the walrus.

The entourage crowds into two rented cars for a tensely silent ride down the coastal highway to L.A. Along the way, Duane gruffly agrees to stop for a last try at the photos on a beach road. When the photographer tries to position the group around the cars so all their faces will be visible, Duane goes out to lunch entirely. “Fuck it,” he bellows at her, “either take the fuckin’ picture or don’t take the fuckin’ picture. I’m not gonna do any of that phony posin’ shit for you or nobody else.”

He’s still grumbling and snuffling when the cars swing back onto the highway. “I don’t like any of that contrived shit, man. We’re just plain ol’ fuckin’, Southern cats, man. Not ashamed of it or proud of it, neither one. Ain’t no superstars here, man.” When he finally shuts up and falls asleep, the fellow traveler gladly crouches down toward the floorboard so the photographer can shoot both the Allmans with their mouths agape in the rear seat. It’s uncomfortable for a few miles, but it beats the hell out of getting punched.

Quartered once again at the Continental Hyatt House on the Karmic Strip in L.A., the Allman group whiles away the afternoon snorting coke, reading comics, mounting a seek-out-and-buy raid on Tower Records, and watching The Thief of Baghdad on color TV. When it’s time for the evening’s gig, Willie Perkins rounds them up and herds them toward Artie’s black Cadillac limo for the half-mile ride down Sunset Boulevard to the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. “C’mon, brothers,” Michael Callahan, the soundman, calls out as the band mills about the driveway, “they gonna eat you alive at the Whuskey-a-Dildo.”

In the upstairs dressing room at the Whiskey, amid the usual groupie babble and turmoil, the photographer determinedly tries to shoot some final pictures. Politely, she asks a busboy to replace some burnt-out light bulbs in the ceiling. When the busboy fetches a ladder and the bulbs, Gregg Allman saunters up and mumbles, “Don’t screw that bulb in, my man. I like it in here the way it is.”

“Please screw the bulb in,” the photographer entreats.

“Don’t screw the bulb in, man,” Gregg says to the busboy stonily. This happens a few times.

“Oh, screw it,” the photographer says finally in exasperation and leaves.

When the band’s set gets under way downstairs, the usually comatose Strip crowd yells its lusty approval from the first chorus of “Statesboro Blues.” By the time Dicky Betts thunderballs into his solo jam on “Elizabeth Reed,” people are standing on their chairs, yodeling cheers. As the band jam-drives to a sexy and demonic close, sounding not unlike tight early Coltrane, a flaxen-haired waitress is passing up draughts of beer to the screaming patrons in the second-story gallery. The beer is streaming amber and glistening down her bare arms, and the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia, is—what else—hitting the note.

EPILOGUE by W.K. Stratton

Back in the day, I marshaled some of the rare coins I had in junior high and took out a subscription to Rolling Stone. At the time, it came out biweekly on newsprint and unfolded into a tabloid format, so it was really not exactly a magazine in the sense of what one expected from, say, Esquire, with its slick pages. It also seemed to balance itself between a newspaper and a magazine in terms of content. Much of the material up front was very weekly-newspaper-like, but there was tons of editorial space between the ads as you moved through the remainder of the publication, and this space was filled by features, some short, some long, some very very long — and even some poetry.

I was already interested in writing at that time, reading a lot of Steinbeck, for instance, and I had a sense that different writers could write in different ways. Then as now Rolling Stone was about more than just music, and the features could take in a lot of different things that might have been of interest to young Baby Boomers, who made up its primary reading audience. The editing hand seemed to be light, allowing different voices to deal with different topics in different ways. I remember well reading the Hunter Thompson pieces, and remembering his name. I remember reading a piece by Joe Eszterhas about a band of rural hippies in Missouri and remembering his name. And I certainly remembered the bylines of Chet Flippo and Ben Fong-Torres.

But there was this one guy, who seemed to write about movies as much as anything, whose style captured my fancy more than anyone’s. I didn’t really connect with his byline until after the horrible death of Duane Allman; shortly after Allman’s death, Rolling Stone carried this long piece about the Allman Brothers Band. And it was by that guy whose style I liked: Grover Lewis. I remembered it thereafter. As for the piece itself, at the time, I thought it portrayed the band as real and it did so not in any sort of derogatory way. It never occurred to me then that anyone could see it in any other way. But I was, what, 15 at the time? What did I know about the emotions of brothers and other family members, and friends, and devoted fans?

I did not realize that the story caused a shit-storm of controversy for the magazine until I read Robert Draper’s history of Rolling Stone years later. A number  of years after that book came out, my good friend Jan Reid and I were compiling Splendor in the Short Grass, an anthology of Grover Lewis’ writing. We both read the Allman Brothers Band piece and thought it was fine, but we also thought Grover had done finer writing during his career. We toyed with the idea of omitting it in favor of some of his later work, such as the heartbreaking piece he wrote about Gus Hasford, the author of the novel that was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

But people familiar with Grover and his work insisted: We had to include the Allman Brothers piece. It was his most famous article from Rolling Stone. So we did. Ironically, when Roy Blount reviewed Splendor for the New York Times Book Review, the Allman Brothers Band article was the one he particularly pointed out. Well, within a few weeks, Butch Trucks, the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band, wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the Book Review stating, essentially, the band’s disdain for the article and Grover. No one could have been more surprised than I at the reaction. After all these years… I learned this much from working on the collection itself: The back story is that Grover never seemed to be that big on the article himself. He finished it and filed it and it was set and ready to go when Duane Allman died. He was fine with withdrawing the article under the circumstances. It was Jann Wenner who insisted that the magazine run it.

As far the prose goes, I think the article is a fine piece of writing, for my money not as good as Grover’s writing on Peckinpah, for instance, but good. Is it a fair assessment of the Allman Brothers Band and Duane circa 1971? The Allman survivors would say no in thunder. Grover, if he still walked among us, would most certainly insist yes. One thing that’s clear from Trucks’ letter is that the whole project was a bad match of writer and subject from the very beginning:“Lewis joined our tour in 1971 at the insistence of our management. We were a very close-knit group of musicians and had little use for all the interviews, photo shoots and other such nonsense that went with the image building that made for big-time rock ‘n’ roll success.” As to its place in Grover’s canon, it is indeed the best known of his Rolling Stone pieces.

[Photo Via: Phil Ochs archive]

 

BGS: The Hippest Guy in the Room

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Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.

Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster, as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.

Dig in, this is a treat.

The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.

He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”

A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.

“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.

Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.

You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.

Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.

Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.

“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.

There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.

But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”

“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”

Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.

Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.

“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn EagleJust the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”

We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.

Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.

So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”

“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”

For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spin magazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!

“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”

Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.

Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.

Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.

“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”

Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.

Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.

“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.

‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”

The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.

Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.

Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”

Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eaglewhere they set the box score on the front page by hand.

It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).

The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.

Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.

“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘

Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”

You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.

Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.

It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”

Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”

But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”

So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.

“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”

Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.

Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”

About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”

Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.

Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the MirrorShe was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.

The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spin magazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.

“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”

In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”

He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.

The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.

A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.

After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘

This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.

A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Times has a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.

As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.

Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.

The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”

So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”

We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”

BGS: Greatness Revisited

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 World Heavyweight Title

Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” 50 years ago today when he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Since then Ali has been written about more than any famous athlete. He’s what the Madonna was to Renaissance painters—every writer has to take his shot. Fortunately for them, Ali was the gift that kept on giving.

A sampler of the better efforts includes stories by such legendary sports writers as Robert Lipsyte and Dick Schaap, as well as Davis Miller and Mark Kram.

This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.

Muhammad Ali in Excelsis

By Peter Richmond

He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.

On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.

As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.

It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.

He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.

“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”

“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.

It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.

After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.

“Do you believe that phone made itself?”

No, I say.

“Do you believe the chair made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the table made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the sun made itself?”

No.

“The Supreme Being made it.”

The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.

It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.

“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.

“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.

“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.

“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”

“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.

All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.

His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.

I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.

But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.

Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.

On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.

Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.

Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.

The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.

In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.

In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.

When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.

“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.

Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.

There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.

That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.

Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.

I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.

Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.

Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.

When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.

The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.

I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

The dancing, I said. The shuffling.

“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”

He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?

Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.

“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”

And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.

What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.

“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.

“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”

Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.

“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.

What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.

It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.

It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.

And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.

Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.

So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”

Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”

The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”

I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”

And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.

We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.

“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.

In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.

My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.

He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.

“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.

He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.

BGS: Guaranteed to Raise a Smile

“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”

Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)

Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.

Dig in.

awop

 

By Nik Cohn

Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?

In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.

The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.

Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.

As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.

The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.

The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.

At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.

Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.

Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.

Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.

Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.

From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.

By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.

T

At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.

Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.

Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.

Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.

There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.

Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.

For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.

This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.

Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.

Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.

Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.

Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.

On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.

Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.

He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.

In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.

My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.

Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.

Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.

At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.

More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.

ringo

America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.

Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.

Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.

My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”

He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.

Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.

He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.

George Harrison is more problematic.

To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.

His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.

In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.

At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.

george

Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.

First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.

Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.

It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.

The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.

What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.

In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.

Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”

Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.

Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.

Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.

Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.

Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.

The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.

By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.

Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.

Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.

Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.

His major problem was anti-climax.

Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.

Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.

As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.

letit be

Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.

More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.

Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.

Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.

In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.

Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.

The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.

In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.

roof

From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.

What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.

For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?

Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.

So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.

And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.

The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?

The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.

And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.

They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.

What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.

And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.

In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.

It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.

So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.

In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.

In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.

As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”

 

BGS: Bless his Heart, Jackie Smith Must Be the Sickest Man in America

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By Tom Archdeacon

Originally published as “Smith hates for it to end like this” in the Jan. 22, 1979, edition of the Miami News. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Darrell Smith sat there and listened quietly. What he heard hurt him, but he didn’t speak. He looked down at the floor. He fidgeted and fumbled with a small Instamatic camera he had brought to the game.

Six feet away, his dad, just out of the shower, stood nude.

And the sportswriters, dozens of them, swooped in immediately and stripped him even further.

Why did you drop it?

Will this play stand out in your mind 10 years from now?”

Is this the biggest disappointment of your career?

What’s going through your head?

Are you embarrassed?

Do you think you cost Dallas the game?

Tell us about it again, will you?

Will you watch the play on films?

For 45 minutes, Jackie Smith, the veteran tight end of the Dallas Cowboys, stood in front of his Orange Bowl dressing room stall and took it. It hurt him. It hurt his 14-year-old son.

Pittsburgh had just beaten Dallas, 35-31, in Super Bowl XIII.

The biggest heartbreak of the game for Dallas had come with 2:30 left in the third quarter.

The Aftermath Of The Worst Drop In Super Bowl History

The Cowboys, trailing 21-14, had a third-down-and-three-yards-to-go situation on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Using a run offense (double tight ends), Dallas completely fooled Pittsburgh’s defense. Smith slipped into the end zone and stood there all alone as Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach floated a pass a bit low to him. It looked like a sure touchdown. But Smith slipped just as he was about to make the catch, and the ball bounced off his hip pad and fell harmlessly onto the painted grass of the end zone.

An incredulous gasp arose from the Dallas fans. Their Pittsburgh counterparts went berserk. And Jackie Smith sat there in the end zone, stunned.

The field goal unit came in and Smith walked off.

The Aftermath Of The Worst Drop In Super Bowl History


Super Bowl XIII was to be the ultimate reward for Smith.

A month shy of 39, he was the oldest man on the field yesterday. He had toiled so long and so well over the years for the St. Louis Cardinals that Cowboys owner Tex Schramm had guaranteed Smith was “surefire Hall of Fame” material.

No tight end in the history of pro football has caught more passes (483) or gained more yards on receptions (7,956) than Jackie Smith. But in his 15 seasons with the Cards, he never made it to the pinnacle of his profession.

So after last season, he retired. A Cardinal doctor had warned him that he would risk paralysis if he kept playing with the nagging neck injury he had had for two seasons. When the St. Louis pre-season camp opened this year, Smith wasn’t there. He was with his son in the mountains of New Mexico.

“My Boy Scout troop went on a 100-mile hike in the mountains and my dad went along,” Darrell said yesterday. “When he was playing with the Cards, he never got any time with us. While we were up there, I asked him if he wished he was back with the Cards and he said, ‘No,’ but I’m sure he missed it.

“But when we got back, he still took his physical. They said he flunked it.”

So Smith busied himself in civilian life. He sells real estate. He has a restaurant and bar in St. Louis called “Jackie’s Place.” And he planned to move his family into the country, where Darrell said they are going to raise horses on 20 acres.

Two clubs called Smith to see if he’d be interested in playing with them. He didn’t even return their calls. If he was going to come back to football this year, it was either going to be with the Cards or a club he felt was a sure contender.

“Then, one night, dad called me from the restaurant,” Darrell said. “He was excited. He said he had just gotten a call from coach Landry. I thought he was kidding. I laughed, but the next day he was on the plane to Dallas.”

The Cowboys needed a replacement for Jay Saldi, who had broken his arm. They felt Smith was the best of the crop of free agents available. After all, a year ago, Smith caught the touchdown pass that enabled the Cardinals to beat the Cowboys. Smith passed the physical and joined the club in early October before the first Washington game.

“I was worried when I first came to the Cowboys,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if I could get in shape. I didn’t know how I’d be accepted. I was thinking I might have overloaded myself.”

Smith caught no passes during the regular season, but he was often used when the Cowboys went to a two-tight-end formation. His blocking was still effective, so much so that after the Philadelphia game, he was presented the game ball. In the playoffs, he made three receptions including a touchdown catch in the Cowboys’ 27-20 victory over Atlanta.

After the Cowboys’ 28-0 NFC championship victory over Los Angeles, Smith said, “I looked around and I wasn’t with all those people, Irv Goode, Charley Johnson, Larry Wilson, I’d cranked up with all those years (in St. Louis). Those guys had worked just as hard as I had and they never had it happen. All those years, we’d come into camp saying this will be the year and all we got was frustrated. I had gotten so I almost hated this game (Super Bowl) because we worked so hard. Now it didn’t seem fair that I was the lucky one.”


The game was an hour past and still the sportswriters and sportscasters pushed in around Smith. They pushed past his son, bumping him, not knowing who he was.

Two writers would leave and four would fight to squeeze into the vacant spot. They stuck their notepads and microphones in Smith’s face. They stepped on his towel. They’d ask the same questions over and over.

One sportswriter, pushed from behind, began to slip. He tried to brace his fall with his hand. As he did, he brushed his felt tip pen across Smith’s back, leaving a black streak of ink on a shoulder blade.

And Jackie Smith stood and took it.

The Aftermath Of The Worst Drop In Super Bowl History

“I was wide open and I just missed,” he said. “It was a little behind me, but not enough that I should have missed the ball. Hell, the coverage had left. I tried to get down. I was trying to be overcautious. On a play like that, you want to get it in your hands and pull it close to your body. My left foot got stuck and my hip went out from under me.”

“Did you take your eye off?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t remember the ball the last few inches,” Smith said quietly. “I don’t remember. I promise you, I don’t remember. I just missed it.”

He sat down. He didn’t focus on his interrogators. The crow’s feet around his eyes made his face look tired. He pulled on his brown pants and his fancy tooled cowboy boots.

Across the dressing room, Staubach spoke of the same play.

“I saw him open and I took something off it. I didn’t want to drill it through his hands,” he said. “The ball was low. It could have been better. Chalk that one up to both of us.”

Before yesterday’s game, Smith was not quite sure whether he’d play again next season or not.

Last night, he had decided.

“I’ve decided that I don’t want to try it again,” he said. “I was looking to get away from it last year. It takes a while, but I thought I had done it and then everything got regenerated again. I hate for it to end like this. It’s part of what you do when you play the game. It’s from the intensity. You have a lot of good times and a lot of bad times. I hope it won’t haunt me, but it probably will.” His voice trailed off a bit. “I’ve still got what I’ve done, who I’ve met, but I hate going out like this. All these years, all the wait, and this is what they’ll remember.”

He was fully dressed now and had withstood the barrage.

“I’ve had about all I can take now,” he said quietly to a friend.

He picked up his belongings and excused himself from the new wave of reporters who were still probing away. He walked over to his son, tapped him on the head and said, “Let’s go.”

The two got to the locker room door, but before Smith got out, a sportscaster with a little tape recorder shoved a microphone up into his face and blurted, “I hate to bring this up, Jackie, you’ve probably answered it already, but why did you drop that pass?”

Jackie Smith sighed.


Tom Archdeacon was a national columnist at the Miami News, which folded in 1988. He nowwrites for the Dayton Daily News

Run to Daylight!

11-Vince-Lombardi

A couple of days ago I posted an excerpt of W.C. Heinz’s Vince Lombardi book, Run to Daylight!, over at The Daily Beast.

It also includes a preface by David Maraniss that can also be found in a new 50th anniversary edition of the book.

Check it outski.

Royko: Stacked

Royko

Yesterday, I brought my Stacks show on the road to The Daily Beast. I’ll have a reprint there each weekend. First up, John Schulian’s great Mike Royko profile.

Dig:

They were drinking their dinner in a joint outside Chicago. It was just Mike Royko and his pal, Big Shack, and whatever their bleary musings happened to be that night three years ago. They probably never even gave a thought to the fact that they were in Niles, Illinois, which qualifies as a suburb and therefore should have been treated by Royko as if it were jock itch. But Niles is where a lot of the Milwaukee Avenue Poles he grew up with fled when they started finding themselves living next door to neighbors named Willie and Jose. So this was shot-and-a-beer territory after all. The only thing it lacked was a DO NOT DISTURB sign.

“Hey, you’re Mike Royko!”

It happens to him all the time even though newspaper guys are supposed to be bylines, not recognizable faces with bald heads, crooked smiles and ski-jump noses. How Royko, who is a baggy-pants character no matter what he wears, cracked the celebrity lineup is no mystery, though. Nor is it a tribute to the tiny picture of him that has decorated his column in each of the three Chicago papers he has worked for. The secret is words. The words that in 1971 paid off with a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper commentary and a best-selling book called Boss, in which he dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley. The words that now appear, via syndication, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and 223 other papers. The words that always have originated in his hometown, Chicago, five times a week, year after year after year.

“I’ve read you all my life.”

Royko’s admirer was male, white, crowding 40, with a pretty wife who quickly made it known that she was a more voracious reader than her husband. Soon the three of them were so wrapped up in one another that they failed to notice Big Shack, all 220 pounds of him, lumber off to the can. But Big Shack is important to this story, first, because he is the source of it, and second, because he returned just in time to save Royko.

“The guy was choking Mike,” Big Shack says. “I guess his wife had gotten a little too friendly, and Mike, well, you know Mike. So there I was, peeling the guy’s fingers off Mike’s throat one at a time.”

Big Shack can laugh about it now.

“What can I tell you? In ten minutes Mike went from hero to bad guy.”

It wasn’t his maiden voyage.

BGS: New Year’s

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Here’s a treat from the legendary columnist, Jimmy Cannon. Originally published in 1951 and anthologized in Nobody Asked Me, But …: The World of Jimmy Cannon.

Dec. 31—Nothing will help you. You’ll get drunk and regret it with a belligerent pride. You’ll go for more money than you should. You’ll tip the captain of waiters a day’s pay to sit down close to the floor show which you’ll never see because they’ll have you out in the men’s room putting ice on your forehead when it goes on. You’ll tell the guys down at the shop about the hole the blonde’s cigarette burned in your tux. You’ll swear you’ll never do it again. It’s a pledge you’ll fracture in a year. You’ll bet you left your ring and wrist watch on the sink in the gents’ place. Your wife will contradict you and insist the cab driver rolled you when he lifted you out of the taxi. You’ll wear your eye black with the dashing pride of a company clerk showing off his Good Conduct Medal on the first furlough. You’ll be sick to your stomach.

On Saturday morning you’ll telephone your friends and describe your misconduct on the hazy night before and they’ll recite what they did. It will all sound like what happens in a hog pen at the end of a famine but it will make you proud when you relate it. It will please your wife that while you were hugging the hat-check girl the doorman leered at her with what she will confuse with desire as long as she lives. All of you know this before you start out tonight on our country’s biggest and ugliest drunk.

It will happen in farmhouses, cold-water flats, in mansions and in tenements, in apartments of all types, in houses in the countryside, in villages and in cities great and small. There will be parties in furnished rooms, in offices, in lodge halls rented for the occasion, in public places which include lunch carts and hotels.

There will be the commotion of frivolity in bars and grills, restaurants, night and country clubs, down in basements with a keg of beer tapped badly, and humid. The solvent will do it right and the bums will mooch the price of a demijohn of wine and sleep it off in doorways.

It is done unwillingly in many instances. The reason for it is economic. On all plateaus of our society being sober on New Year’s Eve lowers a man’s prestige.

The guy who can’t go to the office Monday morning and brag that he violated every dogma of indoor protocol will be considered obsolete and used-up. The junior clerks will identify this as a flaw and start scheming to grab his job before he is put on the pension and given the wrist watch for years of meritorious service.

New Year’s Eve is the time when people are deliberately rude. Normal politeness is rejected as eccentricity. I am a guy who gave up drinking for various reasons, including many defeats by guys a sick chorus girl could trim. I suffer most from sobriety on this night of mass boozing. I find myself to be the representative of conservatism at all functions pitched on this clamorous midnight. People treat me as though I were a spy among them who was there to witness their calculated gracelessness.

The most proper of my acquaintances have prepared for this night with a reluctant cunning. They protest they dread the torture of making spectacles of themselves. But they understand a man must get obnoxiously loaded on New Year’s Eve if he intends to stay socially acceptable for the next twelve months.

They cry they are being fleeced in the inns and cabarets. But they feel it is their duty to go broke getting drunk even when they have no affinity for alcohol. It is not only the amateurs and the semi-pros who do this but the real rummies.

The rummies stand against bars and control the wild impulses which whiskey instigates in most men. They preserve their dignity while under the influence of liquor every day of the year but tonight. Occasionally they knock themselves helpless with Martinis because this is the most ferocious drink ever made by man.

They go limp and their old ladies come down to the corner saloon and sweep them up like trash. On ordinary days such pass-outs shame them. They frequently go a whole hour without taking a peck at the bottle they conceal in their desk. They create alibis for these collapses and it seldom has to do with the drinking of whiskey. It is usually blamed on lack of food or an inept bartender who polluted their Martinis with the wrong brand.

On this night the saloon manners of the whole country change. Every one believes propriety is a weakness and succumbs as rapidly as he can to surliness, insensibility or the romancing of women.

Guys who can drain a quart of brandy without changing their position at the bar once have been known to put on paper hats after a tumbler full of champagne on New Year’s Eve. They throw confetti and wish people they despise a happy New Year. They roll around in the sawdust. They make passes at their best friend’s wife even when the lady doesn’t appeal to them.

On New Year’s Eve all those who drink act like demented children and a reveler is believed to be a failure at frivolity if he doesn’t insult all those who come in contact with him. But on this night it is the good drinkers I pity. The rummies suffer most.

BGS: The Playboy Interview: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks, February 1975

This article originally appeared in the February 1975 issue of Playboy. To read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com. For more Playboy, check out PlayboySFW.kinja.com.

“The rich,” according to a Spanish proverb, “laugh carefully.” They have a lot to lose. The poor, on the other hand, need to laugh in order to forget how little they have to laugh about—which may be why the Depression was the last golden age of comedy in American movies. Will the current economic recession bring on another comedy boom? Movie producers think so; the 1975 production docket is packed with laugh-it-up scripts. Film producers also acknowledge that the strongest creative impulse behind the boom is the maniacal imagination and energy of one of the very few moviemakers since Charlie Chaplin who is unarguably a comic genius—Mel Brooks.

Brooks is an American Rabelais. Short and blocky, he has a nose once described as “a small mudslide,” a grin that loops almost from ear to ear like a tenement laundry line and the flat-out energy of a buffalo stampede. His imagination is violent and boundless; and in the opinion of other comedy writers, no brain on the planet contains such a churning profusion of wildly funny ideas.

Brooks can trade “Jewish vun-liners” with any man, but his natural métier is the skit. He sees the absurd in characters, situations and themes and over the past ten years has learned to braid them all into dramatic narratives. In “The Producers” (1967), his theme was the myth of success; to expose its absurdities, Brooks told a gloriously sleazy story about a couple of born losers who couldn’t even succeed in failing. “The Twelve Chairs” (1971) was a large horselaugh at the political left—a picaresque tale in which one man’s basic greed cheerfully kicked the stuffing out of his social ideals. In “Blazing Saddles” (1974), a wild and wacky antiracist burlesque, Brooks set up middle America as the citizenry of a movie-Western town and watched what happened when they were presented with a very black sheriff. And now in “Young Frankenstein,” a grand-operatic travesty on the great old horror movies of the Thirties, he has undertaken the most ambitious theme he has ever explored: man’s mad but magnificent attempt to take over from God as the creator of life.

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Young Frankenstein” displays new aspects of Brooks’s talent. “Blazing Saddles,” a farce so low it almost made bad taste respectable, turned Brooks into a millionaire and established him, one critic said, as “the farter of his country.” “Young Frankenstein” mingles subtle jokes with broad strokes and discloses a talent for sustained high comedy at least as rich as Woody Allen’s—with an even wider appeal.

Now 48, Brooks relishes his success in movies all the more because it came so late. Born in the poorest Brooklyn neighborhood, he lost his father early, was raised by his hard-working mother, at 14 became a Borscht Belt tumeler, at 21 broke into television as a gag man for Sid Caesar. After bulling his way up to head writer, he went broke when Caesar was taken off the air, later recouped with a classic comedy record (“The 2,000-Year-Old Man”) and a spy-spoof TV series (“Get Smart!”), then hit bottom again when his first two movies thudded at the box office. Saved by the surprise success of “Blazing Saddles” (Warner Bros. figured the film was a hopeless mess and would have to be remaindered for the drive-ins), Brooks is still superstitious about his good luck. “I’ll believe it when I’m dead,” he says with a worried grin. “Five years from now, I could be back in the shit.”

Anxiety dogs Brooks like a tin can on a string. Says a friend: “Mel scares easy. Losing anything feels like losing everything. He’s a tremendously warm and loving guy, but he has to have his way. He has to be sure.” Mel makes sure by instituting what the same friend calls “a tyranny of kindness.” He controls the world around him by playing Jewish mother to everyone in sight. In the friendliest, funniest ways, he tells his producer, his cameraman, his actors and his friends what to eat, what to wear, when to cross the street, when to go to a doctor, what kind of car is best for them, how to deal with their personal and business problems. “And Mel’s advice is always good,” says one of his producers. “He’s the sanest maniac I’ve ever met.”

Brooks maintains his sanity with a careful balance of hard work and home cooking. Up at six when a film is shooting, he grabs a fast cup of coffee, pops a wad of Trident gum into his mouth and then goes at it like a buzz saw. “Mel breathes pure oxygen,” says one of his assistants. “When our chins hit the table, he’s still walking on the ceiling.” After “Young Frankenstein” was in the can, he edited the picture frame by frame at least 12 times and in the last week of production spent several hours in a recording room, gleefully snorting, grunting, snarling, groaning, sighing and guffawing to fill tiny gaps in the talk track. “The man is a demon,” says one of his editors. “Nothing less than greatness will satisfy him. He has the lonely passion for perfection.”

Brooks also has a passion for family life and he lives it out in a remarkable ménage. Brooks is married to Anne Bancroft, considered by many critics the most talented American actress now at work. “Anne is 1,000 percent actress,” says a family friend, “and 1,000 percent wife. She is Mel’s woman to the marrow of her bones. Once when we were shooting in Yugoslavia, his feet got badly frostbitten. I can still see her there on the floor, her face white with shock and her big dark eyes full of horror, rubbing his feet and sobbing as if her heart would break.”

Anne’s devotion is returned. Except when the shooting schedule requires longer hours, Brooks breaks off work at six p.m. sharp and heads home for the evening. Only close friends are invited to visit the Brookses’ house. “Where you eat,” he says simply, “is sacred.”

This insistence on privacy made difficulties for Brad Darrach, the free-lance journalist and author of “The Day Bobby Blew It” (Playboy, July 1973) and of the current best-seller “Bobby Fischer Versus the Rest of the World,” who was assigned by Playboy to interview Brooks. Brooks was flattered by our request. As the subject of a previous “Playboy Interview” (October 1966), he was about to become the first person ever interviewed twice by the magazine. Nevertheless, though always friendly and charming, Brooks flatly refused at first to discuss any aspect of his private life and, for more than a month after Darrach arrived in Hollywood, said he was too busy editing “Young Frankenstein” to take any time out for formal interviews. He allowed Darrach to watch the editing process, however, and gradually admitted him to his working family. Here is Darrach’s report:

“After five weeks, the interviews began. They were held at Brooks’s office, a large smog-soiled rectangle in 20th Century-Fox’s main office building. We had 12 sessions in all, over a period of three weeks, beginning every day at about 11:45 and lasting until about one. For the first session, Brooks’s secretary, Sherry Falk, and I assembled an audience of writers, directors, producers and their secretaries. After that, there was no need to stimulate attendance. Swiveling and grinning behind his big curved paper-cluttered desk, leaping up and shouting and mugging and scrambling around the room as he spouted sense and nonsense, Brooks had his listeners literally falling out of their chairs almost from the first word of the interview. Hearing the ruckus, people came running from all over the building. During every session, 15 or 20 people would wander in and out, while a half dozen stood grinning at the door. To preserve the frenetic flavor of the scene, I have left in the interview a few of these interruptions. In the last two recording sessions, which were conducted in private, Brooks finally revealed details of his personal life and made the powerful statements about himself and his philosophy that conclude the interview. ‘I hope you got enough,’ he said when the last session was over. ‘My tongue just died. Playboy’s gonna have to pay for the funeral and put up a statue of Mel Brooks’s tongue in Central Park.’”

Brooks: [Sucking up a fistful of chocolate-covered Raisinets and chomping them behind a Brooklyn-street-kid grin] All right, ask away, Jew boy, or whatever you pretend you are.

Playboy: As one Episcopalian to another, how about giving our readers some idea of what you really look like? There will be three pictures of you on the first page of this interview, but they won’t do you justice.

Brooks: I don’t want to be vain, but I might as well be honest. I’m crowding six-one. Got a mass of straight blond hair coming to a widow’s peak close to the eyes. Sensational steel-blue eyes, bluer than Newman’s. Muscular but whippy, like Redford. The only trouble is I have no ass.

Playboy: What happened to it?

Brooks: It fell off during the war. Now I have a United Fruit box in the back and I shit pears.

Playboy: Tell us about your ears.

Brooks: My ears are very much like Leonard Nimoy’s—you know, Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the guy whose ears come to a point. It happened like this: One night Leonard and I went out and before dinner we had 35 margaritas. We woke up in a kennel. There were four great Danes, two on each side of us. Their ears had already been clipped. And so had Leonard’s. I reached up, felt my ears and, alas, mine had, too.

Playboy: What about your nose?

Brooks: What about yours? Mine is aquiline, lacking only a little bulb at the end.

Playboy: You wish you had a bulb?

Brooks: I do; I do—one that said 60 watts on it and lit up. It would attract moths. And it would help me read at night under the blankets at summer camp. Care for a Raisinet? We mentioned Raisinets in Blazing Saddles and now the company sends me a gross of them every month. A gross of Raisinets! Take 50 boxes. My friends are avoiding me. I’m the leading cause of diabetes in California. Seriously, they make great earplugs. Or you could start a new school of Raisinet sculpture. No? Did you know that Playboy in Yiddish is Spielboychick? Is it true that I am the only person who has ever been interviewed twice [ear-piercing whistle] by Playboy?

Playboy: Yes, and we’re beginning to think we’ve made a terrible mistake. To what, by the way, do you attribute this distinction?

Brooks: To my height. And the lack of it.

Playboy: Since you’ve brought it up, why are you so short?

Brooks: You mean all of me or parts of me? OK, you want me to admit I’m a four-foot, six-inch freckle-faced person of Jewish extraction? I admit it. All but the extraction. But being short never bothered me for three seconds. The rest of the time I wanted to commit suicide.

Playboy: Now we know what you look like. What do you do for a living?

Brooks: I make people laugh for a living. I believe I can say objectively that what I do I do as well as anybody. Just say I’m one of the best broken field runners that ever lived. I started in ’38 and I’m hot in ’75. For 35 years I was a cult hero, an underground funny. First I was a comic’s comic, then I was a comedy writer’s comedy writer. When I’d go to where they were working, famous comedians would turn white. “My God, he’s here! The Master!” But I was never a big name to the public. And then suddenly I surfaced. Blazing Saddles made me famous. Madman Brooks. More laughs per minute than any other movie ever made—until Young Frankenstein, that is.

Playboy: What’s so special about your comedy?

Brooks: [Snatching up the receiver as the phone rings] This is Mel Brooks. We want 73 party hats, 400 balloons, a cake for 125 and any of the girls that are available in those costumes you sent up before. Thank you! [slams the receiver down] You were saying?

Playboy: What’s so special about—

Brooks: My comedy is midnight blue. Not black comedy—I like people too much. Midnight blue, and you can make it into a peacoat if you’re on watch on the bow of a ship plowing through the North Atlantic. The buttons are very black and very shiny and very large.

Playboy: Speaking of blue, you’ve been accused of vulgarity.

Brooks: Bullshit!

Playboy: And of being undisciplined in the comedy you write and direct.

Brooks: Anarchic, the crickets call it. My mother says, “An archic?” She thinks I’m an architect. My comedy is big-city, Jewish, whatever I am. Energetic. Nervous. Crazy. Anyway, what do Playboy readers care about comedy? They’re not reading this interview. They’re all sitting on the toilet with the centerfold open, doing God knows what.

Playboy: How did you come by your sense of humor?

Brooks: Found it at South Third and Hooper. It was in a tiny package wrapped in electrical tape and labeled “Good Humor.” When I opened it up, out jumped a big Jewish genie. “I’ll give you three wishes,” he said, “Uh, make it two.”

Playboy: Where was South Third and Hooper?

Brooks: Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn on June 28, 1926, the 12th anniversary of the blowing up of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. We lived at 515 Powell Street, in a tenement. I was born on the kitchen table. We were so poor my mother couldn’t afford to have me; the lady next door gave birth to me. My real name was Melvin Kaminsky. I changed it to Brooks because Kaminsky wouldn’t fit on a drum. My mother’s maiden name was Kate Brookman. She was born in Kiev. My father was born in Danzig. Maximilian Kaminsky. He was a process server and he died when I was two and a half—tuberculosis of the kidney. They didn’t know how to knock it out, no antibiotics then. To this day, my mother feels guilty about us being orphans at such early ages.

Playboy: What’s your mother like?

Brooks: My mother is very short—four-eleven. She could walk under tables and never hit her head. She was a true heroine. She was left with four boys and no income, so she got a job in the Garment District. Worked the normal ten-hour day and then brought work home. Turned out bathing-suit sashes until daylight, grabbed a few hours of sleep, got us up and off to school and then went to work again. My aunt Sadie, God bless her, gave us some kind of a stipend that kept us alive. And then my brothers worked. Irving was the oldest, then Leonard, Bernie and me. Irving and Lenny went to work at 12 and put themselves through school and brought the family out of ruin into food and clothing.

Peter Hyams [a trim young man with black hair, poking his head in the door and looking confused]: Excuse me, is this the sex-education class?

Brooks: Here comes Peter, folks, the well-known director of Busting and Fat Chance, hopping down the bunny trail. You know everybody here, I think, Peter, and everybody knows and despises you [rising and screaming] AS A FILTHY, DEGENERATE CHILD MOLESTER! No offense. [sits down, smiling sweetly]

Hyams: Mel, why are you so wishy-washy?

Brooks: I can’t stand hurting anybody’s feelings.

Playboy: You were talking about Irving and Lenny.

Brooks: Right. Irving worked all the time: that’s how he put himself through Brooklyn College night school. Close to ten years to get his degree. He’s a chemist and doing very well now. Has his own company; makes paramedical equipment. Irving was like a father, very strict. No cursing in my family. If I even said “bum,” Irving would hit me. Bernie was short—he’s five-foot-five now, tops—but he was a great softball pitcher. A great hitting pitcher, too. My brother Lenny used to catch for him. Lenny has a joyous, charming personality. Good singer. Should have been in show business. Bernie owns a bookstore now in Riverside, California. Lenny worked for the Veterans Administration—retired now and living in Fort Lauderdale.

Playboy: Did your mother have time to look after you?

Brooks: I was adored. I was always in the air, hurled up and kissed and thrown in the air again. Until I was six, my feet didn’t touch the ground. “Look at those eyes! That nose! Those lips! That tooth! Get that child away from me, quick! I’ll eat him!” Giving that up was very difficult later on in life. My mother was the best cook in the world. “I make a matzoh ball,” she used to say, “that will sweep you off your feet!” And she did her piecework in the kitchen, too. All night she would sit up sewing, pressing rhinestones, going blind. Wonderful woman! She’s 78 now and still running to catch planes. I took her to Las Vegas not long ago. She loved the lobbies, to hell with the big stars and the gambling. She liked the lobbies. Jews like lobbies.

Playboy: Did you get your sense of humor from your mother?

Brooks: More from my grandmother. She could hardly speak English, but she made up bilingual jokes. “Melbn? Es var yenge mann gegange for a physical, OK?” A young man went for his Army physical. “Geht zurick und sagt, ‘Momma, ich bin Vun-A!’” Tells his mother he’s One-A. “Momma hat gejumped in the air mit joy. ‘Vunderbar! You vouldn’t go!’” “But Momma! One-A means perfect! I go!” “Bubele! Vat you talking? How dey can teck you mit Vun-A?” Well, the joke was, I discovered finally, that A sounds like ei in Yiddish. Ei means egg and egg means testicle. How ’bout that for Grandma?

Playboy: Not bad. Do you have any other—

Brooks: Freeze! Don’t move! Time for a well-known Quotation from Chairman Mel’s 2,013-Year-Old Man record. Tadaaaa! “IF PRESIDENTS DON’T DO IT TO THEIR WIVES—THEY’LL DO IT TO THE COUNTRY!” You were saying?

Playboy: Any other memorable relatives?

Brooks: Yes, Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe was a philosopher, very deep, very serious. “Never eat chocolate after chick’n,” he’d tell us, wagging his finger. “Don’t buy a cardboard belt,” he’d say. Or he’d warn us—we’re five years old—”Don’t invest. Put da money inna bank. Even the land could sink.” He’d come up and tap you on the arm while you were playing stick ball. “Marry a fat goil,” he’d whisper. “They strong. Woik f’ya. Don’t marry a face. Put ya under.” He had great similes. “Clever as a chick’n” was one of them. “That guy’s got da eyes of a bat. Never misses!” Later, we’re in our teens, we’re horsing around outside the candy store, he’d come up to us. “What you talk’ ’bout, boys?” “New cars.” “Hmmmm.” He’d stroke his chin. “As far as I’m consoined,” he’d say finally, “dey all good!”

Playboy: How did you and your friends pass the time?

Brooks: Played stickball, chased cats. I was always running. Skinny, stringy little Jew with endless energy. One day we were playing punchball—like stickball, only you used your fist to hit a Spaldeen or a bald tennis ball. There was a ’36 Chevy parked on our street and I took off my new camel’s-hair-looking Yom Kippur sweater and put it very carefully in that nice dip in the front of the fender where the headlight was. Then I got a scratch single and a bad throw sent me to second. Suddenly I see this beautiful black ’36 Chevy pull away from the curb and take off. Whoosh! I went after it. “Foul!” they were yelling. “Balk!” But I was gone, the hell with the game. What was that compared with a Yom Kippur sweater? For 20 minutes I chased that car—way into Flatbush. Finally, I flagged it down around Avenue U. Jesse Owens could not have made that run. Only a ten-year-old Jewish boy built like a wire hanger. But when I got my sweater, I was lost. No idea how to get home. I took the Nostrand Avenue trolley. Got off in a tough Irish neighborhood. “Hell-OOOOO, Yussel!” I didn’t wait around to hear any more. Like in The 400 Blows, I ran till I hit the sea. Coney Island. Ten miles I ran. It took me an hour and a half to get home on the trolley. But I had my camel’s-hair-looking Yom Kippur sweater.

Playboy: Did you ever run away from home?

Brooks: I don’t think Jewish boys did that. Run away to what? But we hitchhiked a lot across the Williamsburg Bridge in search of jobs. We’re 11 and we’re going to get jobs in New York. So we’d walk around the Lower East Side and for four cents we’d buy a ton of sauerkraut and gorge ourselves and be very sick. Then we’d walk back; nobody would give you a ride at night. It was a 20-minute walk over the bridge. Somewhere over the middle, we’d get scared and begin running. Six hundred feet below is water—right—and Jews on both sides. If you fell in, who would rescue you? Jews in those days couldn’t swim.

Playboy: Why not?

Brooks: Only place to swim was McCarren Park, which was in a gentile region of Brooklyn. We could only go there if there were six to twelve of us. Otherwise, we’d be attacked. Like, we’d be in the locker room and a gang of Irish or Polish or Italian kids would be there and they’d inspect you. They’d see you were circumcised, so they knew who was what. In those days, gentile kids were not circumcised. Then they’d follow you out and pick on you.

Playboy: Did you carry weapons?

Brooks: Never. Because then they’d panic and get a hundred people. No weapons in those days.

Playboy: Did you ever commit a crime?

Brooks: Yes. I stole salt off pretzels in Feingold’s candy store.

Playboy: You were a wild kid.

Brooks: Not only that, there were Penny Picks—chocolate-covered candy, white inside. If you got one that was pink inside, you got a nickel’s worth of candy free. We would scratch the bottom of the chocolate with our thumbnails until we found a pinkie. Poor Mr. Feingold. He could never figure out how we found so many pink ones. Which reminds me—Raisinet? Take two.

Playboy: No, thanks. No juvenile offenders in your neighborhood?

Brooks: Sure, me! There were these Japanese yo-yo experts who used to do exhibitions at the Woolworth. They were great and even the managers would take their eyes off the counters to watch them “walk the dog” and “shinny up a pole” and all that. “OK,” we’d say, “the coast is clear.” Then we’d steal something. One time I was with Muscles Mandel and I was caught lifting a 20-cent cap pistol. The manager grabbed me and said, “Gotcha!” I ripped the gun around and said, “Stand back or I’ll blow your head off!” He jumped back. Everybody jumped back, and with this toy gun I made my getaway—stealing the gun at the same time! Those idiots! They knew it was a cap gun and still they backed up! I used that gag later in Blazing Saddles. What the—[Brooks looks up, startled. An actor wearing a "Planet of the Apes" mask is strolling down the corridor outside Brooks's office, as though there were nothing in the least unusual about his appearance. He glances casually into Brooks's office. Just as casually, Brooks gives him a nod.]

Hiya, kid. Workin’? [The actor does a startled take, then moves on.]

Playboy: How did you do in school?

Brooks: I got hit a lot by teachers. Mr. Ziff carried a stop watch on a leather lanyard, like Captain Queeg. If he saw you cribbing or even looking at somebody else, you’d get a sharp whack across the eye with that lanyard. Mrs. Hoyt would give you the base of her palm against your forehead very hard, snapping a few small bones in your neck. Mrs. Adela Williamson would twist your ear until you had to go with it or lose the ear. Everybody in her class was either a potential Van Gogh or an acrobat. I learned how to do back flips because of her.

I was a bright kid and I was bored, so I’d try to yuk it up. They’d ask me about Columbus. I’d say, “Columbus Cleaning and Pressing, Fifth and Hooper.” The class would laugh and I’d get hit. But by then I’d be laughing so hard I couldn’t stop. Slapped, grabbed by the hair, dragged to the principal’s office, couldn’t stop laughing. Hit by the principal, kicked down the stairs, bleeding in the gutter, couldn’t stop laughing.

Playboy: What were you good at in school?

Brooks: Emoting. When I had to read a composition, I would turn into a wild-eyed maniac, fling out my arms and announce in a ringing soprano: “MY DAY AT CAMP!”

Playboy: What were your favorite books?

Brooks: Dirty comics. Eight pagers. Short attention span. No. Actually, I liked Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, the usual things. But I wasn’t a big reader. Couldn’t sit still long enough.

Playboy: How about Hebrew school?

Brooks: Shul, we called it. I went for a little while. About 45 minutes. We were the children of immigrants. They told us religious life was important, so we bought what they told us. We faked it, nodded like we were praying. Learned enough Hebrew to get through a bar mitzvah. Hebrew is a very hard language for Jews. And we suffered the incredible breath of those old rabbis. They’d turn to you and they’d say, “Melbn, make me a brüche. A brüüüüüüche!” You never knew what they said. Three words and you were on the floor because their breath would wither your face. There was no surviving rabbi breath. God knows what they ate—garlic and young Jewish boys. Terrible!

Playboy: Did you go to the movies much?

Brooks: Are you kidding? The dumps would open at ten o’clock Saturday morning and I’d be there. We’d get in for 11 cents, loaded down with Baby Ruths and O’Henrys and Mars bars. No Raisinets in those days. Sherreee! Bring Raisinets! Playboy is looking a little peaked! No? Goy bastard! No offense. So, anyway, in the movies, even before the lights went out, paper clips would start to slingshot all over the place. You’d get a shot in the back of your head—it would lodge in your brain—and you’d hear them hitting the screen like rain through the whole movie. Then about 11 o’clock at night, there’d be a light in my eye. An usher would be slapping me awake and a Jewish woman screaming behind him, “Melvin! You have to eat!”

Playboy: What was your favorite movie?

Brooks: Horror movies. Frankenstein gave me nightmares. I’d be sleeping on the fire escape in the summer and the monster would climb up to get me. And just when he’d put his hand on my face and I couldn’t breathe, I’d see the gleam of that metal rod in his neck and I’d wake up screaming. “Frankensteiiiiiiiin!” I’d yell. Scare everybody in the house. I’m still yelling it. Don’t tell anybody, but I watch Young Frankenstein from behind my fingers. [Phone rings] I’ve got it, Sherry. Hello? Cleavon Little! The talented black star of Blazing Saddles! I love your face! Your obedient Jew here. How are you? What can I do for you?…You’re looking for a part that will make you a millionaire? I’ve got it! Play Blanche du Bois. Right, in A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d be the first black guy ever to play Blanche. Tennessee would love it. But do it right. Go to Denmark, have the operation. You could open in Mobile, Alabama, to sensational reviews. Police dogs. Sirens. With a little luck, you could become the first transsexual martyr!…Yes, Cleavon, yes! Don’t be strange! I love your feet! [hangs up] Speak, Playboy.

Playboy: You were talking about growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression. Somehow you make it sound almost a happy place.

Brooks: Are you kidding? Terrible things happened. Poor people died like flies. The worst thing was when a woman killed herself by leaping from the roof of a building at South Fifth Street and Hooper. It was a mess, terrible, they had a sheet over her, police cars all around. We all ran to see; it was like a neighborhood panic. Tragedy, everybody! Anyway, that night my mother had decided to work late, but I didn’t know that. So when I got to the body, I saw these shoes sticking out from under the sheet and they looked awfully like my mother’s shoes. God, that was the worst moment I ever experienced. I just stood there and the whole bottom fell out of my life. Then my friend Izzie made a tasteless joke: He said it couldn’t be my mother, because my mother was so heavy she would have broken the sidewalk. But you know, it helped a little bit, it really did. I said, “Yeah, that’s right. The legs are skinny.” It gave me a little hope, just a little. But oh, God, those hours while I sweated it out until I saw my mother! I ran up to her and threw myself upon her. “Why are you hugging my leg? Let me up the stairs!” Such relief! Incredible! It was a magic moment.

Playboy: When did you find out that you could be funny?

Brooks: I was always funny. But the first time I remember was at Sussex Camp for Underprivileged Jewish Children. I was seven years old and whatever the counselors said, I would turn it around. “Put your plates in the garbage and stack the scraps, boys!” “Stay at the shallow end of the pool until you learn to drown!” “Who said that? Kaminsky! Grab him! Hold him!” Slap! But the other kids liked it and I was a success. I needed a success. I was short, I was scrawny. I was the last one they picked to be on the team. “Oh, all right, we’ll take him. Put him in the outfield.” Now, I wasn’t a bad athlete, but the other kids were champs. In poor Jewish neighborhoods, every kid could hit a mile. They could be on their back and throw a guy out at first. They were great and I was just good. But I was brighter than most kids my age, so I hung around with guys two years older. Why should they let this puny kid hang out with them? I gave them a reason. I became their jester. Also, they were afraid of my tongue. I had it sharpened and I’d stick it in their eye. I read a little more than they did, so I could say, “Touch me not, leper!” “Hey! Mel called me a leopard!” “Schmuck! Leper!” Words were my equalizer.

Playboy: Where did you hang around? In the schoolyard?

Brooks: Are you kidding? We couldn’t wait to get away from school. We hung out in the street—and on the corner. I mean, we didn’t hang out there just because the street came to a corner. We weren’t driven sexually crazy by a building coming to a point. We met there because there was a drugstore or a candy store on the corner. We’d all stand out on the sidewalk in warm weather and duel verbally, tell jokes, laugh it up. Girl watching was part of it, and so was having an egg cream. But the main thing was corner shtick, we called it, and in our gang, I was the undisputed champ at corner shtick.

Playboy: Would you give us a sample?

Brooks: The corner was tough. You had to score on the corner—no bullshit routines, no slick laminated crap. It had to be, “Lemme tell ya what happened today.…” And you really had to be good on your feet. “Fat Hymie was hanging from the fire escape. His mother came by. Hymie!’ she screamed. He fell two stories and broke his head.” Real stories of tragedy we screamed at. The story had to be real and it had to be funny. Somebody getting hurt was wonderful. “You hear what happened with Miltie and the Buick?” “What? What?” “He was doing an eagle turn on his skates.…” “Yeah? Yeah?” “OogahOogah! Miltie thought it was applause, didn’t bother to look. Bam! Buick got him right in the ass. Did a somersault. Crunncch! Out like a light, took him away, Saint Catherine’s Hospital. The nuns are with him now.” The nuns are with this little Jewish kid, right? And then you visit Miltie, propped up on pillows, very cool. “Who are these penguins?” he says. “And why do they want me to pee all the time?”

Playboy: We’ve heard that medicine is kind of a hobby with you. How did you get interested in it?

Brooks: I always thought it was great to be able to make people feel better. It was a little like being God. So I started to take charge when anybody got hurt playing ball. “Get the Mercurochrome. Put a Band-Aid on. Quick! Flappy fainted. Bring an egg cream!”

Playboy: An egg cream has healing properties?

Brooks: An egg cream can do anything. An egg cream to a Brooklyn Jew is like water to an Arab. A Jew will kill for an egg cream. It’s the Jewish malmsey.

Playboy: How do you make one?

Brooks: First, you got to get a can of Foxs U-Bet Chocolate syrup. If you use any other chocolate, the egg cream will be too bitter or too mild. Take a big glass and fill one fifth of it with U-Bet syrup. Then add about half a shot glass of milk. And you gotta have a seltzer spout with two speeds. One son-of-a-bitch bastard that comes out like bullets and scares you; one normal, regular-person speed that comes out nice and soft and foamy. So hit the tough bastard, the bullets of seltzer, first. Smash through the milk into the chocolate and chase the chocolate furiously all around the glass. Then, when the mixture is halfway up the glass, you turn on the gentle stream and you fill the glass with seltzer, all the time mixing with a spoon. Then taste it. But sit down first, because you might swoon with ecstasy.

Playboy: But there’s no egg in an egg cream.

Brooks: That’s the best part. That’s the wonder and the mystery of it. Talmudic sages for generations have pondered this profound question. Why is there no egg in an egg cream? Well, 1,000 years ago there may have been egg in egg creams. Joe Heller is very bright and he thought so. But Georgie Mandel and Speed Vogel are bright, too, and they applauded Julie Green’s reasoning. He said, “Egg creams are called egg creams because the top of a well-made egg cream looks like whipped egg white.” I can’t offer you an egg cream right now, but how about a Raisinet? If you scrape the chocolate off 5,000 of them, you could have an egg cream.

Playboy: How much does an egg cream cost?

Brooks: Three cents or six cents, depending on how big it is—or they did when I was a boy. Increments of three. Of course, if you were Izzie Sugarman, you would save all week for a 12-center. I mean, the glass was the size of a bucket, and every kid on the block would be there to watch it go down. Then we’d wait for the first belch. Go-O-O-O-O-orch! Up it would come like Old Faithful, and then two or three more little ones. If you stood too close, you’d get sprayed.

Playboy: What does an egg cream do for you?

eggcream-architect-305x450

Brooks: Physically, it contributes mildly to your high blood sugar. Psychologically, it is the opposite of circumcision. It pleasurably reaffirms your Jewishness. But what is all this with egg creams? Isn’t this a Playboy Interview? When are you going to ask me about sex?

Playboy: Mr. Brooks, what is your attitude toward sex?

Brooks: How dare you ask me such a filthy question? What do you take me for—an animal? Kindly change the subject! I prefer to speak about Cossacks. I live in terror of Cossacks. Also of cars and narrow places. And I don’t like to make turns when I walk. At night I keep the lights on in the closet. Mice eat closets.

Playboy: You don’t have a cat?

Brooks: I am a cat. As a boy, I could make the greatest cat sounds in the world, and I’m still very good. There may be better cat-sound makers, but they have not come to my attention. In Young Frankenstein, there is a scene in which Gene Wilder throws a dart and misses the target. A second later you hear the greatest cat-in-pain scream ever heard on film. It was performed by your obedient servant.

Playboy: Were Jewish cats different from gentile cats in your neighborhood?

Brooks: You mean, did they wear yarmulkes? No, but Jews were different. When I was a little kid at home, I thought the whole world was Jewish. Even when I was allowed out to play, I still thought Italians and the like were very rare. We used to try to capture them to study them. It was a shock when we saw their penises and they all had those funny tips. Looked like anteaters. Did I tell you that for years I thought Roosevelt was Jewish? No kidding. I mean, the Nazis called him a Jew bastard, right? I loved him. I thought of him as my father. I’m always stunned when I find out that people like Roosevelt and Tolstoy weren’t Jewish. How could I love them so much?

Anyway, after a while, I realized it wasn’t only our penises that were different. Jews looked different. My image of a Jew has always been that of a short, funny-looking guy with kinky red hair and milk-white skin with lots of freckles and he’s usually hiding under a bed, praying for his life in Yiddish while the Cossacks go thundering by. When I was a little boy, I thought when I grew up I would talk Yiddish, too. I thought little kids talked English, but when they became adults, they would talk Yiddish like the adults did. There would be no reason to talk English anymore, because we would have made it.

But even in English, Jews talked different. Gentiles have Rs. Jews were not given Rs by God. Gentiles said, “PaRk the caR.” Jews said, “Pahk the cah.” Jews in Brooklyn learned their English mostly from the Irish. Anybody who says, “I wantida go ta da terlit on T’oid Avunya” is mixing a Jewish-immigrant accent with an Irish brogue.

Playboy: Were there any Jewish princesses in Brooklyn in those days?

Brooks: Sheila Rabinowitz. Jewish princesses are a second-generation thing. First-generation girls were scrubbing floors and helping out. Second-generation parents could afford to support royalty. But Sheila’s father was a coriander importer; he made it big in coriander; so Sheila was a first-generation Jewish princess. She lived two blocks away from school and she took a cab. She had four chain bracelets with different names on them, two on her wrists and two on her ankles. And all the names were gentile, just to put you in your place: Bob, Dick, Peter and Steve. They happened to be Jewish guys, but the names were gentile. Sheila came to class in a Pucci, and Pucci wasn’t even in business yet. Sixteen years old and she wore a turban with a rhinestone in the middle of it. And the accent! “Why, helloooo, theahhh. How aahh you?” What the hell is coriander, anyway?

Playboy: What became of Sheila?

Brooks: Don’t know. She was dreaming of the great world beyond the ghetto. I was happy where I was. When I was a kid, I was very confused by what the Jew was in the outer world. I knew what he was in Williamsburg. He was a runner and a rat and scared as hell. But Jews in the outside world I heard different, conflicting things about. First of all, I heard that they were the Communists, overthrowing all the governments in the world. When I was in high school, I thought a Jew’s job in life was to throw over every government. The other thing I heard was that the Jews were capitalists and had all the gold and the banks and that the Jews’ job was to kill all the socialists and the radicals. So I never really figured out what the Jewish mission was. Should I kill the capitalists and take their money? No, I’d be killing Jews. Should I stamp out the radicals so that we could keep our money? No, I’d be killing Jews. Very confusing. BUT [leaps to his feet] ENOUGH OF JEWS! I WILL SPEAK NO MORE OF JEWS! IN FACT, I WILL SPEAK NO MORE OF ANYTHING! [Ripping off several strips of Scotch tape, he seals his lips tight and then, in a frenzy, rolling his eyes and squealing wordlessly, slaps sticky ribbons of tape over his ears, over his nostrils, over his hair and finally, eyelids stuck shut, goes staggering around the room, dragging one leg, gurgling and mumbling] Look! Look wha’ th’ G’rm’ns did t’ me! [He tears off the tape] They stole into my foxhole at night and covered my face with Scotch tape.

Playboy: In your movies, you make fun of Germans. Don’t you like them?

Brooks: Me? Not like Germans? Why should I not like Germans? Just because they’re arrogant and have fat necks and do anything they’re told so long as it’s cruel, and killed millions of Jews in concentration camps and made soap out of their bodies and lamp shades out of their skins? Is that any reason to hate their fucking guts?

Playboy: Certainly not. Have you ever been in Germany?

Brooks: Only to kill Germans. I was in the Army, World War Two. Seventeen, I enlisted. Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Basic training, right? Make a soldier out of the Jew boy. Left, right. I tried to explain to the sergeant, walking is not good for Jews. He felt otherwise. Then one day they put us all in trucks, drove us to the railroad station, put us in a locked train with the windows blacked out. We get off the train, we get on a boat. We get off the boat, we get into trucks. We get out of the trucks, we start walking. Suddenly, all around us, Waauhwaauhwaauh! Sirens! Tiger tanks! We’re surrounded by Germans. It’s the Battle of the Bulge! Hands up! “Wait!” I say. “We just left Oklahoma! We’re Americans! We’re supposed to win!” Very scary, but we escaped.

I spent a lot of time in the artillery. Too noisy. Could not take the noise. All through the war, two cigarette butts stuck in my ears. Couldn’t read, couldn’t think, couldn’t even make a phone call. Bagharrroooooommmmm! Brrllaggghhaarrooooooooooommmmm! And then they started shooting. “Incoming mail!” Bullshit. Only Burt Lancaster says that. We said, “Oh, God! Oh, Christ!” Who knows, he might help. He was Jewish, too. “MOTHER!”

I was a forward observer. Couldn’t learn the artillery argot. You’re supposed to give them map coordinates: “Alpha 38 point 27. Correction. Beta 2 point 3.” But I’d say, “No, no! You’re missing it! You’re going over, dummy! You’re not even near! Aim for the big tree by the church! Say, listen, did the chow come up yet?” Very unmilitary. I didn’t last long as a forward observer.

Playboy: What did you do when you got out of the Army?

Brooks: Wait! You’re going too fast! At the end of the war, I did Army shows. First for the Germans, then at Fort Dix I did some camp shows. We all rolled up our pants and were the Andrews Sisters. One of us is still doing LaVerne in the East Village. Anyway, after I got out, I had three choices. I could go to college and hang out a shingle and make $10,000 a year. Another thing for a Jew to do would be to become a salesman. Hipsy, pipsy, lotsa pep, you know? White-on-white shirt, black-mohair suit, Swank cuff links and, if you made it, a cat’s-eye ring on the pinkie. And on the other pinkie, your bar mitzvah ring. That was the big Brooklyn jewelry artillery. Shine in everybody’s eyes at a party.

Playboy: And the third thing?

Brooks: Show business. But you got to understand something: Jews don’t do comedy in winter. In summer, all right. You’re a kid, you work in the mountains. That’s how I got started years before—as a pool tumeler. A pool tumeler is a busboy with tinsel in his blood. For eight bucks a week and all you can eat, you do dishes, rent out rowboats, clean up the tennis courts and, if you beg hard enough, they let you try to be funny around the pool. I’m 14 years old and I walk out on the diving board wearing a black derby and a big black-alpaca overcoat. I’m carrying two suitcases filled with rocks. “Business is terrible!” I yell. “I can’t go on!” And I jump in the pool. Big laugh—the Jews love it. But I don’t laugh—because the suitcases weigh a ton and like a shot I go to the bottom. The overcoat soaks up 20 gallons of water instantly. I run out of air, but I can’t lift the suitcases—and I can’t leave them in the water. They’re made of cardboard, in two minutes they’ll dissolve, and I need them for tomorrow’s act. God bless Oliver, that big goy! He was the lifeguard—Jews don’t swim, remember?—and every day he’d do a little swan dive and haul me up.

Playboy: What happened after pool tumeling?

Brooks: I joined a Borscht Belt stock company. They let me play the district attorney in Uncle Harry, a straight melodrama. I’m 14 and a half, but I’m playing a 75-year-old man. My only line was, I pour some water from a carafe into a glass and say, “Here, Harry, have some water and calm down.” But on opening night, I’m a little nervous, right? So I dropped the carafe on the table and it smashed and this flood rushed in all directions and made a waterfall off the table and all over the stage—such a mess! The audience gasped. I don’t waste a minute; I walk right down to the footlights and take off my gray toupee and say, “I’m 14, what do you want?” Well, I got a 51-minute laugh, but the director of the play came running down the aisle and chased me through five Jewish resorts.

Playboy: So how did you become a comedian?

Brooks: I became a drummer, that’s how. When we moved to Brighton Beach, I was 13 and a half and only a few houses away lived the one and only Buddy Rich. Buddy was just beginning with Artie Shaw then, and once in a while he would give me and my friend Billy half a lesson. When I went back to the mountains after the war, I played drums and sang. [Eyes suddenly dreamy, begins to patter rhythmically on his desk with finger tips as he sings] “It’s not the pale moooon that excites me, that thrills and delights me. Oh, nooooo.…” Oh, I was so shitty. You’ve no idea.

Anyway, one time in the mountains I was playing drums behind a standard mountain comedian. Wonderful delivery, but all the usual jokes. “I just flew in from Chicago and, boy, are my arms tired.” “Was that girl skinny—when I took her to a restaurant, the waiter said, ‘Check your umbrella?’ ” Anyway, one night the comic got sick and they asked me to go on for him. Wow! But I didn’t want to do those ancient jokes, so I decided to go out there and make up stuff. I figured, I’ll just talk about things we all know and see if they turn out funny. Now, that day a chambermaid named Molly got shut in a closet and the whole hotel had heard her screaming, “Los mir arois!” Let me out! So when I went on stage, I stood there with my knees knocking and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen…LOS MIR AROIS!” They tore the house down.

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Playboy: You continued to improvise your act, night after night?

Brooks: Crazy, huh? But I did. Look, I had to take chances or it wasn’t fun being funny. And you know, there was a lot of great material lying around in the Catskills, waiting to be noticed. Like Pincus Cantor. He was the manager where I was working, an old-fashioned Jew from the Polish shtetl. He couldn’t handle the loud-speaker system at the hotel. Technology was beyond him. He was never sure if he had the speaker off or on and he usually had it on at the wrong time. It’s a peaceful sunny day in the mountains, right? People are snoozing in deck chairs, people are rowing slowly across the lake. Suddenly, a tremendous shout booms out. For ten miles in the mountains, you could hear it: “SON OF BITCH BASTARD! FILT’Y ROTTEN! HOW DEY CAN LEAVE A SHEET SO FILT’Y! THAT SON OF BITCH! LAT HIM SLEEP IN IT! I VUDN’T IT’S VAAAAT? IT’S ON? OYYYYY!” Click.

So I did Pincus Cantor onstage—big hit. But I wasn’t a big hit, not at first. The Jews in the tearoom, the Jewish ladies with blue hair, would call me over and say, “Melvin, we enjoyed certain parts of your show, but a trade would be better for you. Anything with your hands would be good. Aviation mechanics are very well paid.” I’d walk by a bald guy, Sol Yasowitz. “Well, what did you think, Mr. Yasowitz?” I’d ask him. “Stunk.” With a little smile. You could never get a kind word out of the Jews. And you know, maybe I was terrible. I had this theme song, wrote it myself. [Does a Donald O'Connor walk-on as he sings] “Dadadadat dat daaaa! Here I am. / I’m Melvin Brooks! / I’ve come to stop the show. / Just a ham who’s minus looks / But in your hearts I’ll grow! / I’ll tell you gags, I’ll sing you songs. / Just happy little snappy songs that roll along. / Out of my mind, / Won’t you be kind? / And please…love…Melvin Broooooooks!” Terrible, right? After that, you surely need a Raisinet, right? Wrong. But think it over. Believe me, there are very few things that work as well when covered with chocolate. Anyway, I wanted to entertain so badly that I kept at it until I was good. I just browbeat my way into show business.

Playboy: We read somewhere that you did seven two-hour shows a week while you were working in the Catskills.

Brooks: That’s true. But we thought nothing of it. We thought that’s the way it is in show business. After that, the big time was a cream puff. One show a week on television, one picture a year in the movies. Are you kidding? I’ve spent the last 20 years catching up on my sleep.

Playboy: Didn’t you meet Sid Caesar when you were working in the mountains?

Brooks: Yeah, but before I went into the Army. He was a saxophone player and a really terrific one. He could have been world-famous on the sax, but he started fooling around in the band and he was so funny they turned him into a comedian. After the war, we met again in New York and he got me into television. Sid was a genius, a great comic actor—still is—the greatest mimic who ever lived. Only he didn’t impersonate celebrities; he did types. He would do a harried married man or an old horse on its last legs or a bop musician named Cool Cees or a whole Italian movie. He was imitating life and he had these tremendous insights over a huge range. And there was always a needle. Sid had this terrific anger in him; he was angry with the world—and so was I. Maybe I was angry because I was a Jew, because I was short, because my mother didn’t buy me a bicycle, because it was tough to get ahead, because I wasn’t God—who knows why? Anyway, if Sid and I hadn’t felt so much alike, I would have been a comic ten years earlier. But he was such a great vehicle for my passion.

Playboy: Is it true that everybody hated you on Your Show of Shows?

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Brooks: Everybody hated everybody. We robbed from the rich and kept everything. There was tremendous hostility in the air. A highly charged situation, but very good. We were all spoiled brats competing with each other for the king’s favor, and we all wanted to come up with the funniest joke. I would be damned if anybody would write anything funnier than I would and everybody else felt the same way. There were seven comedy writers in that room, seven brilliant comedic brains. There was Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. Then I came in. And spoiled everything. Then Joe Stein, who later wrote Fiddler on the Roof, and Larry Gelbart, who writes and produces M*A*S*H. Mike Stewart typed for us. Imagine! Our typist later wrote Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! Later on, Mike was replaced at the typewriter by somebody named Woody Allen. Neil and Danny Simon were there, too, but Doc was so quiet we didn’t know how good he was. Seven rats in a cage. The pitch sessions were lethal. In that room, you had to fight to stay alive.

Playboy: From what we’ve heard, your competitive relationship with the other writers was nothing compared with your troubles with Max Liebman, the producer of the show.

Brooks: Max hated me. I was a pretty snotty kid. But I hated him right back. When Sid first asked Max to hire me, Max wouldn’t do it. So Sid gave me $50 a week himself and I’d wait in the hallway outside where Sid and Max and Mel and Lucille were writing the show. After a while, Sid would stick his head out and say, “We need three jokes.” So I’d give him three jokes, but Max wouldn’t let me in.

Playboy: What didn’t he like about you?

Brooks: He didn’t like my fast mouth. When I’d sass him back, he’d throw a lighted cigar at me—right at my face! I’d duck. One day, we were standing on the stage. I yelled, “Pepper Martin sliding into second! Watch your ass!” And I ran straight at him at full speed and then threw myself into a headfirst slide. Slid right between his legs, sent him flying in the air, scared the shit out of him. We laugh about it now, but it was rough then. He’s a great showman, though; unconsciously, I think I still copy him.

Playboy: Didn’t you once scare the shit out of General Sarnoff?

Brooks: True! One day they had a big conference in the RCA Building. All the big shots. General Sarnoff, the chairman of the board of RCA; Pat Weaver, the president of NBC; Max Liebman and Sid. When I tried to walk into the room with them, the door was slammed in my face. But I wanted to know what they were planning. Would there be a new show? Should I buy a new car? So I put on a white duster and a straw hat and I crashed through the door into the meeting and jumped up on the conference table. “Hurray!” I yelled. “Hurray! Lindy has landed at Le Bourget!” This was 1950. And I whipped off my straw hat and skimmed it across the room and it sailed right out the window and has never been seen since. Then I burst into the Marseillaise while General Sarnoff clutched his heart and Liebman picked his eyes up off the floor. Weaver was white as a sheet. Sid was the only one who laughed; staggered around, holding his gut. Liebman said, “And now, if you will kindly leave us, Mr. Brooks!” But I said, “Don’t you understand? Lindy made it!”

Playboy: So much for your off-screen material. What did you write for the show?

Brooks: Masterpieces. Best work I ever did. We did eight comedy items a week. Live. No taping. Big classy items.

Playboy: Would you run through a skit?

Brooks: I remember the first one I wrote for Sid. Jungle Boy. “Ladies and gentlemen, now for the news. Our roving correspondent has just discovered a jungle boy, raised by lions in Africa, walking the streets of New York City.” Sid played this in a lionskin, right? “Sir, how do you survive in New York City?” “Survive?” “What do you eat?” “Pigeon.” “Don’t the pigeons object?” “Only for a minute.” “What are you afraid of more than anything?” “Buick.” “You’re afraid of a Buick?” “Yes. Buick can win in death struggle. Must sneak up on parked Buick, punch grille hard. Buick die.”

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Playboy: Who were the show’s other stars?

Brooks: Imogene Coca, brilliant lady. Carl Reiner, greatest straight man in the world. And Howie Morris! Howie had the best nose ever given to a Jew. No job. His own nose. A miracle! On the nose alone he could pass. Also a genius. Didn’t know a word except in English but could speak any language—German gibberish, Italian gibberish, Russian gibberish. Amazing ear for accents. You’d think it was the real thing. But the best thing about Howie was that he was the only guy on the show who was shorter than me! Gave me this incredible feeling of power.

So one night, just after he came on the show, we were walking along MacDougal Alley in the Village, chatting about the show, getting acquainted. Lovely evening, just getting dark. So I decided to rob him. No, really. I slapped him around, knocked him against a yellow Studebaker. “This is a stick-up!” I said. I had my hand in my coat pocket with my finger pointed like a pistol. “Gimme everything you got or I’ll kill ya!” My eyes were glittering, I looked crazy. He went white. I took his wallet, his watch, even his wedding ring. Cleaned him out. Then I ran away in the night. He staggered to a phone booth, called Sid. Sid said, “Oh, he’s started that again, has he? Whatever you do, don’t call him up or go to his house, he’ll kill ya.” Howie said, “But when do I get my stuff back?” Sid said, “Ya gotta wait till he comes to his senses.”

Well, for three weeks, Howie waited. No wallet, no watch. Had to buy another wedding ring. I’d say hello to him every morning like nothing had happened. “Hi, Howie. How ya doing? D’ya like the sketch?” He’d say, “Very good, Mel. Like it a lot.” Then he’d go to Sid and say, “When’s he going to remember? My license was in my wallet. I haven’t been able to drive for three weeks.” And Sid would say, “Wait.” And then one day I stared at Howie and hit my head. “Howie! Oh, my God! I robbed you! I’m so sorry! Here’s your wallet! Here’s your money! Here’s your ring!”

Well, it was the longest practical joke in history, because three years later—by now we’re the best of friends—we’re rowing on the lake in Central Park at lunchtime. Lovely sunny day. Butterflies making love, the splash of the oars. Howie is rowing. We go under a secluded bridge. Perfect place for a holdup. I stand up, put my hand in my pocket, slap him in the face. Howie’s smart. The prey always respects the predator’s prerogatives. So without a word, he forks over his wallet, his watch, his ring, takes off his shoes, ties them around his neck, jumps overboard—the water’s up to his chin—and wades ashore. Well, that time I gave him his stuff back in a few days. But I intend to rob him again someday, ladies and gentlemen, because robbing Howie is what I do best.

Playboy: Over the years, what was your main contribution to the show?

Brooks: Energy and insanity. I mean, I would take terrifying chances. I was totally willing to be an idiot. I would jump off into space, not knowing where I would land. I would run across tightropes, no net. If I fell, blood all over. Pain. Humiliation. In those pitch sessions, I had an audience of experts and they showed no mercy. But I had to go beyond. It wasn’t only competition to be funnier than they were. I had to get to the ultimate punch line, you know, the cosmic joke that all the other jokes came out of. I had to hit all the walls. I was immensely ambitious. It was like I was screaming at the universe to pay attention. Like I had to make God laugh.

Funny, I remember one year at the Emmy-awards ceremony, they gave the award for comedy writing to the writers of The Phil Silvers Show, and they had never ever given an Emmy to the writers of Your Show of Shows. So I jumped up on a table and started screaming, right there in front of the cameras and everybody. “Coleman Jacoby and Arnie Rosen won an Emmy and Mel Brooks didn’t! Nietzsche was right! There is no God! There is no God!

Playboy: You know, you’ve described a lot of really wild behavior. Are you sure some of it wasn’t actually a little crazy?

Brooks: I’m sure it was. I went through some disastrous times when I was a young man. After I was hired by Your Show of Shows, I started having acute anxiety attacks. I used to vomit a lot between parked Plymouths in midtown Manhattan. Sometimes I’d get so anxiety-stricken I’d have to run, because I’d be generating too much adrenaline to do anything but run or scream. Ran for miles through the city streets. People stared. No joggers back then. Also, I couldn’t sleep at night and I’d get a lot of dizzy spells and I was nauseated for days.

Playboy: What brought on all this anxiety?

Brooks: Fear of heights. Look at what had happened. I was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood, average family income $35 a week. I felt lucky to be making $50 a week, which is what Sid was paying me. And then, on top of that, I got a screen credit! “Additional dialog, Mel Brooks.” Wow! But when I was listed as a regular writer and my pay went to $250 a week, I began to get scared. Writer! I’m not a writer. Terrible penmanship. And when my salary went to $1,000 a week, I really panicked. Twenty-four years old and $1,000 a week? It was unreal. I figured any day now they’d find me out and fire me. It was like I was stealing and I was going to get caught. Then, the year after that, the money went to $2,500 and finally I was making $5,000 a show and going out of my mind. In fact, the psychological mess I was in began to cause a real physical debilitation. To wit: low blood sugar and underactive thyroid.

Playboy: You—underactive thyroid?

Brooks: Everybody thinks, Mel Brooks, that maniac! The energy of that man! He must be hyperthyroid. Au contraire, mon frère. To this day, I take a half grain of thyroid—and an occasional Raisinet. Now, seriously, have you got kids? How’s about taking a couple boxes Raisinets for the kids? They’ll love ‘em, and—

Playboy: But chocolate is terrible for their teeth.

Brooks: Are teeth so good for chocolate? Let’s be fair.

Playboy: Thanks, but—

Brooks: Take your time. It’s a big decision. Maybe you should call your lawyer. Use my phone, OK? Where were we?

Playboy: What straightened you out emotionally?

Brooks: Mel Tolkin sent me to an analyst. Strictly Freudian. On the couch—no peeking. But the man himself was kind and warm and bright. Most of my symptoms disappeared in the first year, and then we got into much deeper stuff—whether or not one should live and why.

Playboy: Did you find any answers to that?

Brooks: The main thing I remember from then is bouts of grief for no apparent reason. Deep melancholy, incredible grief where you’d think that somebody very close to me had died. You couldn’t grieve any more than I was grieving.

Playboy: Why?

Brooks: It was connected with accepting life as an adult, getting out in the real world. I was grieving about the death of childhood. I’d had such a happy childhood, my family close to me and loving me. Now I really had to accept the mantle of adulthood—and parenthood. No more cadging quarters from my older brothers or my mother. Now I was the basic support of the family unit. I was proud of doing my bit, but it meant no longer being the baby, the adorable one. It meant being a father figure. Deep, deep shock. But finally I went on to being a mature person.

You often hear, you know, that people go into show business to find the love they never had when they were children. Never believe it! Every comic and most of the actors I know had a childhood full of love. Then they grew up and found out that in the grown-up world, you don’t get all that love, you just get your share. So they went into show business to recapture the love they had known as children when they were the center of the universe.

Playboy: Are you saying that analysis changed you from the wild man who did a Pepper Martin slide at Max Liebman into the mature man who wrote and directed Blazing Saddles?

Brooks: I’m saying that you should stop trying to be funnier than the Jew. What changed me was success and having to solve the problems of success. At that time of life, no matter what you do, you’re getting your education, what Joseph Conrad called the bump on the head. I got mine from the analyst and from Mel Tolkin. Between them, they were the father I never had. Sherreeeeee! Bring me some Trident gum! I gave up smoking, folks, on January 3, 1974. In lieu of eating my desk, I chew gum. ‘Cause the mouth still wants to inhale. Already I’ve inhaled a Bell telephone; that’s how fierce the desire is.

Playboy: Can you give some advice to someone who is trying to quit smoking?

Brooks: Suck somebody else’s nose.

Playboy: Thank you. Now about Tolkin…

Brooks: Tolkin is a big, tall, skinny Jew with terribly worried eyes. He looks like a stork that dropped a baby and broke it and is coming to explain to the parents. Very sad, very funny, very widely read. When I met him, I had read nothing—nothing! He said, “Mel, you should read Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Turgenev, Gogol.” He was big on the Russians. So I started with Tolstoy and I was overwhelmed. Tolstoy writes like an ocean, in huge, rolling waves, and it doesn’t look like it was processed through his thinking. It feels very natural. You don’t question whether Tolstoy’s right or wrong. His philosophy is housed in interrelating characters, so it’s not up for grabs. Dostoievsky, on the other hand, you can dispute philosophical points with, but he’s good, too. The Brothers Karamazov ain’t chopped liver.

Playboy: What about Gogol?

Brooks: Now you’ve said it. Perfect. Comedy and humanity, and he knew what he was talking about. Dead Souls is a masterpiece. I love Gogol’s great eye for idiot behavior. Gogol said that life is so tragic, so stupendously sad that we’d better laugh a lot and enjoy ourselves. You either get a sense of humor going or you go under.

Playboy: So there’s a big Russian influence in your work.

Brooks: Big. The Russian novelists made me realize it’s a bigger ball park than the Bilko show. Right from the moment I read them, I knew I wanted to achieve more than Doc Simon and Abe Burrows did. I wanted to be the American Molière, the new Aristophanes.

Playboy: Were you influenced by other comedians as well as by great writers?

Brooks: Powerfully. I thought Chaplin was wonderful. Liked Laurel and Hardy even more. Keaton was the greatest master of physical comedy. Fields was a genius at skit construction. And Fred Allen showed me new kinds of irony.

Playboy: So you got rich, cultured, secure—then what happened?

Brooks: And then the roof fell in. There I am, strolling around in silk shirts and thinking, I’m cut out for greatness. Television’s too small for me. How am I going to get out of this lousy racket? And suddenly I am out of it. The show is off the air. One day it’s $5,000 a week, the next day it’s zilch. I couldn’t get a job anywhere! Comedy shows went out of style and the next five years I averaged $85 a week. Five thousand a week to $85 a week! It was a terrifying nose dive.

Playboy: What about the money you had saved?

Brooks: What money? Are you kidding? I was married! I was so much in debt I couldn’t believe it! All I had was a limited edition of War and Peace and an iron skate key. I kissed the skate key four times a day just to have something to do.

Playboy: How about the record? Didn’t you and Reiner record The 2,000-Year-Old Man not long after the show folded?

Brooks: A year later, the record came out. Saved me. Sold maybe 1,000,000 copies. And we did two others, 2001 and the Cannes Film Festival. We’d been doing the act for nothing at parties. We’d go to Danny’s Hide-A-Way in New York and Carl would say, “Sir, I understand that you were living at the time of Christ.” I’d say, “Christ? Can’t place him. Thin, nervous fella? Yeah. Came in the store, never bought anything. Little beard, cute. Wore sandals, right?” We did it once at a big party at Carl’s house and Steve Allen said we ought to make a comedy record, there was money in it. “What? Money in it?” So we got a shipment of black Russian health bread—you know, the round, flat kind. Ripped the shit out of it trying to make grooves, but the reproduction is pretty good, don’t you think? And if you don’t like the jokes, you can put cream cheese on them and eat them. Anyway, it was a good thing the record took off. In the meantime, my marriage had fallen apart and alimony and child support were eating me up.

Playboy: What was your first wife like?

Brooks: Nice person. Florence Baum was her name then. A dancer. She was dancing in a Broadway show and I was dating a friend of hers who went off to Europe for the summer. Florence consoled me and I married her. She liked my jokes. We had three children together, but we had married too young. I expected I would marry my mother and she expected she would marry her father. It reached the point where it was irreparable, and the best thing to do for the entire family was to separate. It was done mutually. I think she did a splendid job with the children. They’re healthy, terrific kids and it’s all due to their mother’s upbringing. Stefanie’s 18, Nicky’s 17, Eddie’s 15 and they’re all very gifted and lively.

Playboy: How often do you see them?

Brooks: That’s the thing that sickens my heart the most. I live in California and my three children, who are of an age now to really be my friends on a more adult level, are living in New York and I can’t see them enough. We’re lucky if we see one another three times a year for a week or so at a time. It’s not enough. I really enjoy being with them. They’ve helped me with everything I’ve written. I bounce ideas off their good, young, supple minds and they say “bullshit” or “sensational.” They don’t think I’m a kook. They know I’m a serious human being who is a humorist.

Playboy: You wouldn’t be happy without children?

Brooks: Certainly not. Think what a barren existence it would be without the constant asking for money and the sarcasm and the laughing at you and telling you, “Pop, there’s all kinds of stuff hanging out of your nose.”

Playboy: How many children would you like to have?

Brooks: Eight. That’s enough to carry me to my grave comfortably when I die of the heart attack they’ve brought on. No. So far, the kids have turned out good. But sometimes I think I’m getting a little old. “Run out for a pass, Dad.” “Sure, kid. Wait till I get the car started.”

Playboy: What did you do with yourself after you and your first wife broke up?

Brooks: Like a schmuck, I said, “Take everything, I don’t need a penny. All I need are my Tolstoy and my skate key. Give me these and I can live.” Ha. I could live about half an hour. I forgot that a haircut cost two dollars, that your heels wore out—that’s one-fifty. God forbid you should get a rip in your pants—that’s the end. Eight-fifty for dungarees. I moved into a fourth-floor walk-up on Perry Street for $78 a month. And I couldn’t furnish it, my alimony and child support were too high. I got fruit boxes. That’s how poor I was. I used to go through garbage cans. “Hey, there’s a cup! Just chipped a little. Clean it up. What the hell, how many germs could it have?” I really lived like a bum.

Playboy: How did you meet Anne Bancroft?

Brooks: Anne Bancroft? Never heard of her.

Playboy: Famous actress, beauty of stage and screen, star of The Miracle Worker, Two for the Seesaw, The Pumpkin Eater, featured in the forthcoming film version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, married to some Jewish comedian.

Brooks: Oh, that Anne Bancroft. Yes, I am a great fan of hers—and of her husband’s. When did I meet her? Let’s go back to February 5, 1961, four o’clock in the afternoon. I went to the rehearsal of a Perry Como special, and there she was, singing in a beautiful white gown. Strangely enough, she was singing Married I Can Always Get and when she finished the song, I stood up and clapped loudly in this empty theater. “Bravo!” I shouted. “Terrific!” Then I rushed down the aisle and up onto the stage. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Mel Brooks.” I was really a pushy kid. And I shook her hand and she smiled and laughed.

Anyway, she said she was going to the William Morris office to see her agent, so I said, “Oh, by chance I happen to be going there, too.” Big lie. “Let’s all take a cab together.” Vrrrrrreeeeeet! I gave this great New York whistle. It stopped a cab. Later she said that really impressed her. We went to her agent’s office. I said, “I haven’t seen The Miracle Worker yet, but I hear it’s great.” She said, “Want me to do it for you?” I said, “The whole play?” She said, “Yes.” She obviously liked me, too. Well, she did the whole play! A one-hour version right there in the office! The fight scene and everything. And then Waaaa! Waaaa! The screaming at the end, the buckets of water, she did everything. I was on the floor. I was in tears, screaming with laughter, stunned.

I called and called her that night. She wasn’t in. Next day I called her and went over with my record album and we sat for six hours in the living room and talked. That night she was going to Village Vanguard. I managed to be there. Then I went to a closing party for The Miracle Worker. Everybody was crazy about her. Me, too. I really loved her. I just fell in love. I hadn’t fallen in love since I was a schoolboy. She was just radiant and beautiful and when we talked, I saw how bright she was. And her humor!

I asked her about dates and she said that very few men asked her to go out. And I realized that a man had to be pretty sure of himself, because she was quite an illustrious person. Just normal males who wanted to be big shots, wanted to hold their own, they couldn’t deal with that. She was a very hard woman to dominate if you wanted to be Mr. Male. But I wasn’t interested in dominating.

So we started going out and I told her, “OK, you’re very bright. You’re going to be my foreign-movie date. We’ll go see foreign movies together.” We went to the Thalia because it was 99 cents, and to dozens of recording sessions. All I could get into for nothing was recording sessions. Sometimes we ate in Chinatown for a buck-twenty-five. We walked, we held hands. I saw her every day. She would cook a lot, to save money. Great cook. Eggplant parmigiana and lasagna, wonderful Italian dishes. After a while, we just didn’t see anybody else. Not because we said “Let’s go steady” but because nobody else was as fascinating as we were to each other. Finally, I got a couple of TV spectaculars, as they were called then. An Andy Williams show, a Jerry Lewis show. Then the record began to save my life. But it was Get Smart!, a TV series I did with Buck Henry, that made it possible for us to get married.

Playboy: Was it tough to bring yourself to the point of asking?

Brooks: I never did. We were staying out at Fire Island and my mother had come to visit us, and her parents, too, and we were staying in separate rooms but still living in the same house. Didn’t look nice for the parents. So suddenly Annie said, “Why don’t we get married? It’ll be so much easier for the folks to deal with our relationship.” And I said, “Oh, absolutely. Fine.” And she nearly fainted. Then she got scared. “Well, I don’t know if I want to do this—really get married.” She had been married before and it hadn’t been good.

Anyway, we got married in 1964, on my lunch hour. It was a civil ceremony. Annie is Italian and I’m Jewish. We were married by a Presbyterian. There was a black kid waiting in the anteroom and I asked him if he would stand up for us. His name was Andrew Boone. He had no idea that it was Mel Brooks marrying Anne Bancroft, because her maiden name is Italiano and she was married under that name. I didn’t even have a wedding ring for her. Annie had an old earring. It was made of very thin, bendable silver, looked like a piece of wire. I just twisted that around and gave her that. The clerk was very upset about that; he liked regular rings. Afterward, I had to go back to work and that night I went to her apartment for our wedding dinner. Annie made me spaghetti. It was great. Just the two of us.

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It’s been like that to this day. My wife is my best friend, and I can’t think of anybody I’d rather be with, chat with. We live way out here in California now, in a foreign place, so we need each other, a little more. We’re even closer. We have plenty of fights; I mean, we’re married, right? But for me, this is it.

Playboy: Do you have an active social life?

Brooks: Only on weekends, and then not that much. Week nights we stay quietly at home and worry about how we’re going to get rid of all our Raisinets. Sometimes a little jai alai in the living room with ripe guavas for balls and live pelicans for baskets.

Playboy: And so to bed?

Brooks: In New York it was five a.m. In California I’m asleep by one-thirty, two o’clock. L.A. is a sleepy town. Whatcha gonna do at night—go to Wilshire and Hauser and walk around? In New York I’d go to Chinatown, have a bowl of noodles. Call the guys. There are 17,000 cafés in the Village where we’d have some espresso and talk all night. Or we’d walk around and get mugged a little. Sometimes out here I long to see a cat pee in the street. Something real.

Playboy: Speaking of reality, isn’t it about time we discussed sex?

Brooks: [Rising indignantly] I beg your pardon. We hardly know each other, and besides, I’m already married. You were proposing? Anyway, I’m not in favor of miscegenation. Later for sex. Let’s keep that guy on the toilet turning the pages. I think’ I’d rahthah discuss AHT. Why don’t we talk about The Producers?

Playboy: Your first movie, 1967. What made you decide to get into movies?

Brooks: Lacking work in television, I had to find another outlet for my God-given brilliance. Even while I was still in TV, Paddy Chayefsky was always encouraging me to write a longer piece, a play or something, and I really thought it would work out this way—Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and Mel Brooks. The mantle would fall on my shoulders and I would carry it till a younger Jewish-American would take over. But what happened was that somewhere in the Fifties, Broadway began reducing itself to musicals and five-character, one-set comedies, and to an audience whose intelligence, taste or numbers I could no longer take seriously.

Still, I did fool around with Broadway. For New Faces of ’52, a landmark revue, I did a satire on Death of a Salesman and Elia Kazan’s superheavy direction. Then a show I’m very proud of, Shinbone Alley, based on the Archy and Mehitabel stories of Don Marquis. Talked about social inequity, social hypocrisy. Rather Brechtian. But then, in the Fifties, the great foreign movies began to arrive. Rossellini’s Open City, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, films by Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, the French New Wave. The power and greatness of the medium were revealed to me and I began to see my future as a film director. I went out and bought a beret and a paperback entitled How to Direct le Film.

Playboy: How did you get The Producers off the ground?

Brooks: With 12,000 German slaves and lots of ropes. I had this idea about two schnooks on Broadway who set out to produce a flop and swindle the backers, and the flop was to be called Springtime for Hitler. I wrote the script in nine months, with the help of my secretary, Betty Olsen, and then couldn’t think of anybody to direct it. So it had to be me. But I hated the idea of directing, and after four pictures I hate it even more. Directing is a terrible, anxious process. It’s all collaboration, and if you have a dream, it’s diluted very quickly by the slightest ineptness in any of your collaborators. They’re supposed to help you, but too often they help you into your grave. Your vision can never achieve perfection. If you want to be a moviemaker, you’ve got to say, “All right, I’ll chop the dream down. I’ll be very happy if I get 60 percent of my vision on the screen.”

Playboy: Why do you direct if you don’t like it?

Brooks: In self-defense. Basically, I’m a writer. I’m the proprietor of the vision. I alone know what I eventually want to happen on the screen. So if you have a valuable idea, the only way to protect it is to direct it.

Playboy: How did you get to direct The Producers?

Brooks: I went to all the big studios with Sidney Glazier, my producer, and said, “I’m going to have to direct this.” They said, “Please get out of here before you get hurt.” There were physical threats. Finally, someone at Universal Pictures said, “You can direct, but it has to be called Springtime for Mussolini. Nazi movies are out.” I said, “I think you missed the point.” Then I met Joseph E. Levine, a plain person from the street. “You think you can direct it?” “Yes.” “OK.” Shook hands. That was it! In the middle of the night, I woke up in a cold sweat. “Foolish person! You had to open your big mouth.”

One play was all I’d directed. In Red Bank, New Jersey. But simply seeing movies, you pick up a good deal. I always knew what actors should say to each other and how they should look, and I always understood stage business. That is, should they have a pencil in their hands or be brushing their teeth or peering up a drainpipe when they say “I love you”? As a kid in the street, I’d say, “Benjy, take your finger out of your nose. You look like a jerk.” I’d say, “Izzie, don’t be plebeian. Iron your shoelaces.” I was a born director. I would put warm water on two dogs making it. I knew. Cold water, they’d bite some kid the next day to get even. Hot water, they’d never screw again. Why give them a trauma? Where are we going to get our dogs from?

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Playboy: Did you make a lot of beginner’s mistakes?

Brooks: Only the picture itself. No, I did dumb things, even though I had tremendous help from my assistant director, Michael Hertzberg. First day on the set, first scene, sound men are ready, cameras are rolling, the director is supposed to say “Action!” But, being a little nervous, I say “CUT!” Everything stops. They all look at me.

Playboy: Still, you brought it in on schedule.

Brooks: And under budget: $941,000. I won an Oscar for the Best Screenplay of 1968. And the picture died at the box office. Anyway, that’s what Avco-Embassy said. Their motto is emblazoned in Hebrew letters on the office wall, “We Make the Money. You Try and Find It.”

Playboy: But The Producers was a critical success, wasn’t it?

Brooks: Never believe it. Today everybody calls The Producers a classic. But at the time, you never saw such vitriolic reviews. What can I tell you? Some critics are emotionally desiccated, personally about as attractive as a year-old peach in a single girl’s refrigerator. It’s easy to say shit is shit, and it should be said. But the real function of a critic is to see what is truly good and go bananas when he sees it.

Playboy: With your first picture a financial flop, how did you finance The Twelve Chairs?

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Brooks: Minimally. I got $50,000 for writing, directing and co-producing the picture and it took three years to make. After the tax bite, I got about half of the $50,000, so that means I was living on $8,000 a year and the good nature of several banks. We shot the picture in Yugoslavia, which saved us a lot of money but gave us a lot of headaches. When I went to Yugoslavia, my hair was black. When I came back, nine months later, it was gray. Truly. To begin with, it’s a very long flight to Yugoslavia and you land in a field of full-grown corn. They figure it cushions the landing. The first thing they tell you is that the water is death. The only safe thing to drink is Kieselavoda, which is a mild laxative. In nine months, I lost 71 pounds. Now, at night, you can’t do anything, because all of Belgrade is lit by a ten-watt bulb, and you can’t go anywhere, because Tito has the car. It was a beauty, a green ’38 Dodge. And the food in Yugoslavia is either very good or very bad. One day we arrived on location late and starving and they served us fried chains. When we got to our hotel rooms, mosquitoes as big as George Foreman were waiting for us. They were sitting in armchairs with their legs crossed.

The Yugoslav crew was very nice and helpful, but you had to be careful. One day in a fit of pique, I hurled my director’s chair into the Adriatic. Suddenly I heard “Halugchik! Kakdivmyechisny bogdanblostrov!” On all sides, angry voices were heard and clenched fists were raised. “The vorkers,” I was informed, “have announced to strike!” “But why?” “You have destroyed the People’s chair!” “But it’s mine! It says Mel Brooks on it!” “In Yugoslavia, everything is property of People.” So we had a meeting, poured a lot of vodka, got drunk, started to cry and sing and kiss each other. Wonderful people! If they had another ten-watt bulb, I’d go there to live.

Playboy: What happened when Twelve Chairs was released?

Brooks: The movie was released at Meyer Roberts’s apartment in Evanston, Illinois. Sixteen people attended the world premiere. Meyer himself couldn’t make it; he had a date. We were all fingerprinted and booked by the police. No, the picture did pretty well in New York, but it couldn’t get across the George Washington Bridge. Taught me something. There is no room in the business now for a special little picture. You either hit ‘em over the head or stay home with the canary.

Playboy: And Blazing Saddles was designed to hit ‘em over the head.

Brooks: No. Actually, it was designed as an esoteric little picture. We wrote it for two weirdos in the balcony. For radicals, film nuts, guys who draw on the washroom wall—my kind of people. I had no idea middle America would see it. What would a guy who talks about white bread, white Ford station wagons and vanilla milkshakes on Friday night see in that meshugaas?

Playboy: How did you hit on the idea for Blazing Saddles?

Brooks: It’s an interesting story; I don’t think I’ll tell it. Can I interest you in a Raisinet? No? Maybe you’d like a chocolate-covered Volkswagen? Do you have a dollar on you? I hate to answer questions for nothing. [Accepts a dollar] Thank you. For two more I’ll sell you my T-shirt. See this little alligator on the pocket? I understand that in the Everglades, there are alligators with little Jews on their shirt pockets.

We were talking about Blazing Saddles. It was Andy Bergman’s idea. He sent Warner Bros., a rough draft of a screenplay called Tex-X. What grabbed me were the possibilities of a modern black man arriving in the traditional West. Like, he’d say, “Right on, baby!” And they’d say, “Consarnit!” Then I realized that at the same time I could make fun of Westerns and the West. So I called Bergman and said, “Do you mind if I despoil your script?” And he said, “Can I help?” David Brown at Warner’s called me and I told him I wanted to write it the way we wrote Your Show of Shows—lock a bunch of weirdos up together and come out with a great script. We called in Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger, a Jewish comedy team, and Richard Pryor, a black person of outrè imagination. Then we turned on the tape recorder and started bullshitting. Pryor wrote the Jewish jokes, the Jews wrote the black jokes. Nine months later, we had a finished script.

Playboy: Which you promptly tore up and—

Brooks: No way! A lot of crickets said the film was chaotic—kitchen-sink school of drama. Not true. Every scene and damn near every line in the film were in the script. Even the farts were in the script. It was calculated chaos. Something a lot of people don’t yet realize about me: I am a very well-trained maniac. Making a movie is like making an ocean voyage, and the script is your ship. Blazing Saddles was a breakthrough comedy. It carried the audience into territory that film comedy had never entered before—kinds of satire, kinds of special vulgarity—and some critics felt confused and disoriented. So they thought that because they were confused, we were confused. We weren’t.

Playboy: What was the point of the vulgarity—the farting scene, for example?

Brooks: The farts were the point of the farting scene. In real life, people fart, right? In the movies, people don’t. Why not? When I was in high school, I knew a kid, won’t mention his name—Robert Weinstein—who when he let one go, you could get in it and drive it away, that’s how firm. But before Blazing Saddles, America had not come to terms with the fart. Wind was never broken across the prairie in a Ken Maynard picture. In every cowboy picture, the cowboys sit around the campfire and eat 140,000 beans, and you never hear a burp, let alone a bloozer. For 75 years these big, hairy brutes have been smashing their fists into each other’s faces and blasting each other full of holes with six-guns, but in all that time, not one has had the courage to produce a fart. I think that’s funny. I think the farting scene in Blazing Saddles is funny because farts in our world are funny. Farts are a repressed minority. The mouth gets to say all kinds of things, but the other place is supposed to keep quiet. But maybe our lower colons have something interesting to say. Maybe we should listen to them. Farts are human, more human than a lot of people I know. I think we should bring them out of the water closet and into the parlor, and that’s what I did in Blazing Saddles.

Playboy: At the end of the farting scene, the character called Mongo, the super-brute who later knocks out a horse with one punch, takes a huge mouthful of beans—but he never farts. Think what a climax that would have made.

Brooks: Please. That would have been in bad taste.

Playboy: Oh. Was anything else cut out in the interest of good taste?

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Brooks: Yes. A scene between Cleavon Little, the black sheriff, and Madeline Kahn. The scene takes place in the dark. “Is it twue vot zey say,” Madeline asks him seductively, “about how you people are built?” Then you hear a zipper. Then you hear her say, “Oh! It’s twue! It’s twue! It’s twue!” That much is in the picture. But then comes the line we cut. Cleavon says, “Excuse me, ma’am. I hate to disillusion you, but you’re sucking my arm.”

Playboy: Why did you use the word shit so often in Blazing Saddles? Isn’t it sort of a cheap laugh?

Brooks: I got nothing against cheap jokes—if they work. Funny is money. Shit is good pepper. Loosens ‘em up, helps the next laugh. And the more unusual swear words are still good for a huge laugh in the movies. In Blazing Saddleswe get a gasp and then a tremendous laugh when the preacher lifts his eyes to heaven and says, “Oh, Lord! Can we accomplish this great feat in one night? Or are we just jerking off?”

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Playboy: What happened when you previewed Blazing Saddles?

Brooks: Disaster! We showed it first to the studio brass. Ten of them in a small screening room. Now, the first really big joke in the picture comes when the white cowboy says, “How ’bout a good ole nigger work song?” And the black labor gang, as one man, begins to sing in a sophisticated style, “I get no kick from champaaaagne.…” That’s a tremendous joke. But in the screening room, nothing. Gornisht! Not a titter. I said, “We have just entered cabin 4C on the Titanic!” The next 90 minutes was a non-laugh riot. When the lights went up, I had sweat circles the size of Rhode Island under my arms. Two years of my life I had spent on this picture and now disaster! I said to myself, “This is the worst moment of my life. My talent and my judgment are gone!” I went back to the editing room and just sat for 20 minutes. Then Mike Hertzberg said, “We booked a public screening for tonight.” I said, “Cancel it!” Mike said, “No! Invite more people. Let normal people see it. Then we’ll know.”

So eight o’clock that night, the place was packed. Two hundred and forty people in the screening room. Seating only on the floor. First big joke: “I get no kick from champaaaagne.” Children were thrown into the air. The most laughing you’ve ever heard in a moviehouse. Nonstop screaming. The following night, a big sneak preview in Westwood. The place went bananas. The more people you got together with this picture, the more insane the reaction was. Eleven hundred people dancing in the aisles. One guy was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe. As he fell under the seat, he told his wife, “G’bye, honey, the policies are in the top drawer.” Almost two years later, the picture is still running.

Playboy: What happened to your life and your career after Blazing Saddles?

Brooks: I became John Carradine. Aquiline nose, face long and aristocratic, voice deep and vibrant. Thinking of running for the U.S. Senate.… Frankly, I’m in demand and it’s great. I can take my best shot and take it under the best conditions. I have a three-picture deal at Fox that gives me everything I want.

Playboy: Which brings us to Young Frankenstein. But first, a little bone to pick. Why, why do you always have so little sex in your movies?

Brooks: What? Who? Avoid sex? Oh, that word! To whom are you speaking, sir? My name is Kaminsky.

Playboy: In The Producers, for example, the closest thing you had to sex was a Swedish secretary with big boobs.

Brooks: Ya gotta admit that’s pretty close.

Playboy: And looking at Twelve Chairs, you’d think the Soviet Union was populated by 250,000 people without glands. Even in Blazing Saddles, which is obviously intended as a comic saturnalia, there are plenty of anal jokes but hardly any genital jokes.

Brooks: What about Lili von Shtupp? We almost called the picture She Shtupps to Conquer.

Playboy: German sex is the best you can do? Mr. Brooks, some people say your humor is prepubescent. What do you say to that?

Brooks: I say, if I may quote a comedy writer named Joe Schrank, I can hardly believe my hearing aid. I say in a couple hundred years cabs will be so low to the ground you’ll have to step over them and get in from the other side.

Playboy: We say let’s talk about Young Frankenstein.

Brooks: I’ve got a better idea. I’m surprised you haven’t asked me. Let’s talk about sex! Are you ready out there, all you goys? Lock the bathroom door! The Jew is going to talk dirty! Speaking of pornographic movies, the trouble with them is, you’re watching them do all these wild things on the screen, six girls with big tits and a guy with a schwanstucker like the Chrysler Building, and you get all hot and bothered, but you can’t do anything about it. I’d like to see a porno flick if I could do something about it. Like, if there was an intermission at dirty movies, so you could go get your Goobers—or Raisinets, for that matter. Tell me, have you ever considered the possibilities of a Raisinet as a sex object? Think what you could do with a ton of Raisinets. Doesn’t tempt you? No? Incredible! Are you impotent?

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Playboy: We’re into M&M’s. Moving right along, do you consider sex a serious matter—or is it funny?

Brooks: Both. I don’t want to laugh when I’m really excited. But before and after, yes. I think there should be a lot of jokes during foreplay and a lot of postcoital laughing. “Ha-ha, wasn’t that funny when you missed? That was a riot! Next time tell me, I’ll help ya.”

Playboy: Did your mother ever discuss sex with you boys?

Brooks: Never. Completely taboo. There was no sex. Children arrived because of affection. You had a terrific bout of affection with each other and suddenly there in the kitchen was a baby at the table, eating. Wonderful! A miracle! I really believed that until Morris Steinberg told me in seven B. His nose is not the same, because I gave it a punch and said, “Not my mother! No, sir!” It was a tough thing to hear. But once I knew the score, I got busy.

Most sex in Brooklyn was in the back of a Buick; a Ford was too small to move around in. And most sex was petting. A lot of hallway jobs. Banging against each other in those hallways was terrible and you gotta watch hitting the bells, because you’d get the whole tenement shouting down the stairs at you. So we sneaked up to the roof. My first affair was on the roof of 365 South Third Street. And there was a guy flying pigeons who we saw later watching us. It was late at night, but I heard—ha-ha-ha—a little laughing. Very embarrassing. But there wasn’t very much sex for teenagers. We were shy and it was taboo. You got married and had sex.

Playboy: What years are you talking about?

Brooks: Late Thirties, early Forties. In the clubrooms, we used to try feeling up girls. “Did she let you feel her boob?” “Well, she did and she didn’t.” “What do you mean?” “Well, we did it, but we didn’t realize we did it.”

Playboy: Everything but.

Brooks: Not really. There was never any unzipping. Everything in pants, in dresses, never showing. Just a lot of pain and torture. Going home and being unable to walk. Struggling into your bed and crying. Terrible. And it’s hard to masturbate, because your brothers are in bed with you. You’re in between Bernie and Lenny, and at four in the morning, even Lenny looked pretty good!

Playboy: Was there anything kinky going on in those days?

Brooks: Not that I knew or heard of. Nothing hip or weird or sensational like today. It was thrilling because we were very young, but it was very straight. I mean, no two guys and a girl, none of that.

Playboy: Do you think Jewish sex to this day is generally straight?

Brooks: American sex is generally straight. It happens at 11 o’clock Saturday night. In the rural areas, it happens at nine and it happens pretty fast. Got to get up the next morning, especially if there’re kids. Can’t make noise, either, wake the kids. Don’t want the kids finding out.

Playboy: What about Jewish girls—are they puritanical?

Brooks: The best thing about Jewish girls is, they can tell real jade. No, I don’t go for those jokes about “What do you mean, she’s dead? I thought she was Jewish!” Jewish women are very exciting, as exciting sexually as any other group. Even so, my advice to a young man marrying a Jewish girl would be to have three and a half years of foreplay. Of course, most girls in every group are reserved about getting down to it. They don’t usually do it right away. But once they do it, women are bananas. They don’t wanna do it, you can’t make them do it, there’s no way they’ll do it—but once they do it, they don’t let you alone. Then it’s “OK, Murray, let’s do it till we die!”

But Playboy readers, I think, are different. I think they’re either single or have single dreams. Singles bars, single girls. They have sultan fantasies, 26 chicks coming at them, screaming and biting them. In real life, I mean, you’re lucky if your wife will do it with you.

Playboy: You don’t like sexual fantasies?

Brooks: Depends on the kind. When the poets clean sex up, it’s bullshit. I have no patience for it. “Ah, yon bough and that white breast and body, that I could love and fuse together, that an orgasm of shiny friendliness.…” I don’t want that. I want gardens of filth. I grew up poor and even analysis didn’t break down my conditioning. There are neurograms in my brain, and they say that when it’s dirty, it’s good. And only when it’s dirty and when there’s a lot of yelling and cursing and filth and all the other things that I thought were taboo—then it’s very sexy and very hot for me. I must be arrested sexually, because panty hose I hate. Can’t stand panty hose. I’m into that old, wonderful French look. Black stockings with garters. That’s terrific for me. If it’s clandestine, it’s good. If it’s a little dirty, a little immoral, a little irreligious, it’s exciting. I mean, walking naked through the meadows should be the best. But who gives a shit? I want to meet at the Dixie Hotel in New York, with a bottle of Southern Comfort. I want to get drunk, and then yell at each other across the room. And maybe a dirty book so we’ll both read it together. I’m 14 years old sexually—and it’s terrific!

Playboy: What about orgies?

Brooks: No, I’m Jewish. Besides, at orgies there are too many people. You’re naked and you hardly know each other. “Are you Mel Brooks?” “Yes.” “I loved Springtime for Hitler.” “Thank you.” “Did you write the lyrics as well as the music?” Who cares? And orgies would be embarrassing. You meet somebody later that you’ve seen at an orgy; you don’t want that. Maybe in Romania you’d never see anybody again. But think of the plane fare.

Playboy: What about sexual apparatus—such as vibrators and dildos and electrical—

Brooks: Please, you’re talking to a Jewish person. Electrical apparatus would scare me. God gave us enough apparatus to get the thing done. I understand in Japan, though, they make rubber people you can go to bed with. A whole rubber person, supposed to be sensational. Costs as much as a Toyota, but you can’t back up in it. OK? Enough sex? Would you like me to expose myself, Mr. Filth?

Playboy: Thank you, no. But there is one side of sex we haven’t discussed. Your pictures all have happy endings, but you may have noticed that boy never gets girl.

Brooks: True. At the end of the first three pictures, boy gets boy. Zero Mostel gets Gene Wilder, Frank Langella gets Ron Moody, Gene Wilder gets Cleavon Little. It’s a remarkable coincidence, and I’m not sure what it means. But I’m pretty sure my need to have my male characters come together and be close is not some sort of a sexual need I’ve displaced into these people. I think it goes back a lot further than sex. All the way back to my father, whom I never really knew and can’t remember. I can’t tell you what sadness, what pain it is to me never to have known my own father, who died when I was two and a half. All I know is what they’ve told me. He was lively, peppy, sang well. Isn’t it sad that that’s all a son should know about his father? If only I could look at him, touch his face, see if he had eyebrows! Maybe in having the male characters in my movies find each other, I’m expressing the longing I feel to find my father and be close to him.

Playboy: But in Young Frankenstein, even the monster gets a girl.

Brooks: Yes. I’m turning straight. In fact, there’s a lot of heterosex in Young Frankenstein. There’s lust on a lab table, rape in a cave and a big double-wedding-night sequence. But sex isn’t the point. What we had in mind was a picture that played on two main levels. One, we wanted to make a hilarious pastiche of the old black-and-white horror films of the Thirties. Two, we wanted to offer sincere and reverent homage to those same beautifully made movies.

Young Frankenstein is nothing like Blazing Saddles. It’s in black and white; the photography by Gerald Hirschfeld is magnificent. Everything is back-lit and bathed in antique radiance. So often, the image on the screen looks like a Rembrandt. And the story is very strong, very serious and noble. It’s based on Mary Shelley’s book and it’s the story of a scientist who challenges God by creating life; you could also interpret it as a story about womb envy. This creator loves his creature so much that he risks his sanity and his life to help his brainchild survive. In our picture, Dr. Frankenstein starts out like Yahweh and winds up like Christ.

That’s the serious side. But the funny side is terrifically funny, though not in the same way as any other movie I’ve made. There’s a lot of dangerous laughing in this movie. You got to have good strong veins to watch it. And when you’re not laughing, you’re shivering. But everything is done in the grand manner. The actors move like singers in a grand opera. I take my time and work for big moments. What can I tell you? I really think we’ve delivered a landmark film, a never-to-be-forgotten movie. Maybe even good.

Playboy: How much of it is you, how much is Wilder?

Brooks: A big, big part is Gene. He wrote the screenplay in collaboration with me and he plays Dr. Frankenstein.

Playboy: How did you write together?

Brooks: We holed up in the Bel Air Hotel, where Gene was staying, and we acted all the parts out. Sometimes he’d be the monster, sometimes I’d be the monster. “Rraawwrr!” “No! No! Back! Back!” We really had fun, we were like a couple of kids. When I’m writing a script, I don’t worry about plot as much as I do about people. I get to know the main characters—what they need, what they want, what they should do. That’s what gets the story going. Like a child, I listen to the characters. “Oh, so that’s what they want! I hope they get it. I love them!” You can’t just have action, you’ve got to find out what the characters want. And then they must grow, they must go somewhere.

I think every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin. And the talent of a writer is directly related to his ability to give them separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living within him. That’s why we like Tennessee Williams’ plays so much. He does all this so well. But I think Gene and I did it pretty well, too. Anyway, only after the characters are developed and the main action laid out is it safe to add the gimmicks: Kenny Mars’s wooden arm, Cloris Leachman’s wart—which, by the way, she ate. Fell in her tuna-fish salad and was swallowed in a glob of mayonnaise.

Anyway, Gene and I worked very hard and the rewrite took about three months. Then we showed the script to Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman and they said count them in. Peter plays the monster and Marty plays Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant. Then we got Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr and Cloris and Kenny.

Playboy: How do you pick your people?

Brooks: I like people with big talents and small neuroses—not always an easy combination to find. I’ve discovered that if the neurosis is too big, it diminishes the talent and you wind up working too hard for what you get. I reserve the right to be the only psychotic on the set. I also try to surround myself with people I love—make a family out of the company. So I tend to use the same people over and over. There’s a sort of Mel Brooks Repertory Company. Gene has been in three of my four pictures. Madeline and Kenny have been in two.

Playboy: Do you direct each performer differently?

Brooks: Completely. Gene is a natural. Gene acts like a bird flies. Learns all his technique and then leaves the earth and flies around the set like a crazy Jewish bird. And his instincts are always right. Gene as Dr. Frankenstein is Promethean! He is still the great hysterical prey that God made him, the victim in all of us, but he is also a great leader, a great genius. His acting is very big and thrilling and Chagallian.

Playboy: And Peter?

Brooks: Peter had a difficult and special problem. As the monster, he had to wear extremely complicated make-up, which limited his facial expressions, and on top of that, he had to try to look like the walking dead. Also, he wasn’t allowed to speak. For 90 percent of the time, his speech consisted of “Hmmmmmmmmmmm!” But Peter managed wonderfully to communicate the love, fear, wonder and astonishment of a seven-and-a-half-foot newborn baby having his first experiences of the world.

Playboy: Why is there a zipper in Peter’s neck?

Brooks: Why not a zipper? It’s as good as a metal rod. And it really works.

Playboy: You can get in there?

Brooks: That’s right. There’s a lot of diodes and things you can fix in his neck. Don’t let this get out, but we also found mascara in there when we opened him up. Something for his lashes. One of those wonderful little Revlon combs.

Playboy: Hmm. And how did you direct Feldman as Igor?

Brooks: First I tried to find out where he was looking. His eyes stare in about 19 different directions. They look like hard-boiled eggs that somebody painted eyeballs on and didn’t paint them on right. So first I’d get in the path of his vision and try to signal him down. Then I’d say, “Marty, be very good.” He’d say, “All right.” And he was. After Marty, there will never be another Igor. They’ll have to retire the part. He’s it.

Playboy: What’s the difference between directing comedy and directing a serious picture?

Brooks: I’ll tell you that after I call Sherry. Sherreeee! Take a letter, please, to this guy who calls Blazing Saddles “an artless and vulgar display” and says he and his wife saw it only because they were “unwary tagalongs.” “Dear sir: Blazing Saddles has been rated R. The R is there to protect people like you and your wife from unwittingly attending adult movie fare. I don’t think it’s fair of you to walk into an R-rated film and then criticize it for containing sophisticated material. I also don’t think that the excuse of tagging along relieves anyone of culpability. One doesn’t wander into a brothel and then attack the establishment for not being Howard Johnson’s. Sincerely yours, Mel Brooks.” Where were we?

Playboy: Directing comedy.

Brooks: There’s one thing you’ve got to understand before you can direct comedy. Comedy is serious—deadly serious. Never, never try to be funny! The actors must be serious. Only the situation must be absurd. Funny is in the writing, not in the performing. If the situation isn’t absurd, no amount of hoke will help. And another thing, the more serious the situation, the funnier the comedy can be. The greatest comedy plays against the greatest tragedy. Comedy is a red-rubber ball and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively. Vershteh, goy bastard? No offense. Very, very few people understand this.

Playboy: Does Woody Allen understand it?

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Brooks: Woody Allen is a genius. His films are wonderful. I liked Sleeper very, very much. It’s Woody’s best work to date. The most imaginative and the best performed. I was on the floor, and very few people can put me on the floor. He’s poetic, but he’s also a critic. He artfully steps back from a social setting and criticizes it without—I suspect—without letting himself be vulnerable to it.

Playboy: And you?

Brooks: I’m not a critic. I like to hop right in the middle, right into the vortex. I can’t just zing a few arrows at life as it thunders by! I have to be down on the ground and shouting at it, grabbing it by the horns, biting it! Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you’re quiet, you’re not living. I mean you’re just slowly drifting into death. So you’ve got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy and colorful and lively. My liveliness is based on an incredible fear of death. In order to keep death at bay, I do a lot of “Yah! Yah! Yah!” And death says, “All right. He’s too noisy and busy. I’ll wait for someone who’s sitting quietly, half asleep. I’ll nail him. Why should I bother with this guy? I’ll have a lot of trouble getting him out the door.” There’s a little door they gotta get you through. “This will be a fight,” death says. “I ain’t got time.”

Most people are afraid of death, but I really hate it! My humor is a scream and a protest against goodbye. Why do we have to die? As a kid, you get nice little white shoes with white laces and a velvet suit with short pants and a nice collar, and you go to college, you meet a nice girl and get married, work a few years—and then you have to die? What is that shit? They never wrote that in the contract. So you yell against it, and if you yell seriously, you can be a serious playwright and everybody can say, “Very nice.” But I suspect you can launch a little better artillery against death with humor.

Playboy: But it’s a battle you can’t win.

Brooks: You can win a conditional victory, I think. It all boils down to scratching your name in the bark of a tree. You write M.B. in the bark of a tree. I was here. When you do that—whatever tree you carve it in—you’re saying, “Now, there’s a record of me!” I won’t be erased by death. Any man’s greatness is a tribute to the nobility of all mankind, so when we celebrate the genius of Tolstoy, we say, “Look! One of our boys made it! Look what we’re capable of!”

So I try to give my work everything I’ve got, because when you’re dead or you’re out of the business or you’re in an old actors’ home somewhere, if you’ve done a good job, your work will still be 16 years old and dancing and healthy and pirouetting and arabesquing all over the place. And they’ll say, “That’s who he is! He’s not this decaying skeleton.”

I once had this thought that was so corny, but I loved it. It was that infinitesimal bits of coral, by the act of dying upon each other, create something that eventually rises out of the sea—and there it is, it’s an island and you can stand on it, live on it! And all because they died upon each other. Writing is simply one thought after another dying upon the one before. Where would I be today if it wasn’t for Nikolai Gogol? You wouldn’t be laughing at Young Frankenstein. Because he showed me how crazy you could get, how brave you could be. Son of a bitch bastard! I love him! I love Buicks! I love Dubrovnik! I love Cookie Lavagetto! I love Factor’s Deli at Pico and Beverly Drive! I love Michael Hertzberg’s baby boy! I love rave reviews! I love my wife! I love not wearing suits! I love New York in June! I love Raisinets! Which brings me, Mr. Interlocutor, for the last time, to the question: Would you or would you not care for a Raisinet?

Playboy: Sure. Why not?

Brooks: Sorry, kid. They’re all gone.

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Brad Darrach,was a freelance journalist for Playboy and best-selling author of “Bobby Fischer Versus the Rest of the World.” Top images by Carl Iri.

BGS: Tyson the Terrible

From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.

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By Pete Dexter

Back in the early Sixties, when Floyd Patterson was still heavyweight champion of the world, an intelligent and high-spirited boxing writer named Jack McKinney was passing an afternoon in Darien, Connecticut, with Cus D’Amato, talking, among other things, about Patterson’s upcoming fight with Sonny Liston. D’Amato, of course, was Patterson’s manager.
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In its way, it was a melancholy conversation. The question was not if Liston would win but if Patterson—a limited fighter—would be maimed. D’Amato cared more for the fighter than the title.P

“Cus had vision,” McKinney said, “but he didn’t need it to see what was about to happen to Patterson.”P

And then, after they talked about Patterson and Liston, and the way things were and the way they ought to be, D’Amato leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling and began to talk about a different kind of fighter.
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He told McKinney that if he could find the right athlete—someone with intelligence, concentration, hand speed, coordination and courage, who had never boxed a minute—he could turn that athlete into a world champion.P

The guess is that my friend McKinney—who had once disappeared from his job at thePhiladelphia Daily News for most of a week, only to surface in Sandusky, Ohio, knocking out a professional middleweight fighter in a four-round preliminary—began to think this might be his own shot at the title. But no.P

“He wanted someone fresh, who hadn’t been around boxing,” McKinney said. “Usually, by the time you were good enough to be noticed by Cus, you had acquired habits that couldn’t be changed. Things had been set in motion.”P

D’Amato eventually got such an athlete into the ring, but nothing came of it. At least, not right away.P


Six or seven years after that conversation in Connecticut, a child was born in an unhealthy part of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant to a woman named Lorna Tyson. He was the youngest of her three children and the most like her—timid, soft-spoken, shy. He played mostly with his sister. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was sometimes called “little fairy boy,” and no place outside his apartment was safe for him. When the boy was ten, his mother moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brownsville, which is also in Brooklyn. The neighborhoods are different in that in Brownsville, the weak and the timid are not teased, they are eaten. The boy was beaten up again and again; his shoes were stolen; the little money he had belonged to whoever saw him first.
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He kept pigeons on the roof and called them his “babies.” I am thinking now of his square, dimpled hands stroking and feeding his babies; I am thinking of the revelation that must have come when he finally used them as weapons. The story, of course, has been told. Ten-year-old Michael Tyson, who would turn over his shoes or his coat or his money, drew the line at his pigeons.
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An older boy tried to take one of them away, and Michael began to swing. The revelation was not so much that he won the fight but how much he enjoyed it.P

“I was beating the shit out of this guy,” he said, “and I was so happy. To this day, it makes me happy. The fight itself, when all the talk is over and there is nothing left to say, nothing else to do but fight. That’s the best part, in the ring. The rest of it, being the champion, I don’t get so much pleasure from that as you might think.”P

So young Michael kicked the shit out of the kid who had tried to steal his pigeon; then he kicked the shit out of some of the kids who had stolen his clothes and money; and then he kicked the shit out of a bunch of people who just seemed to need the shit kicked out of them.P

Noticing this, members of the Brownsville community began to include him in their activities. “They held the guns,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1986.”I just put everything in a bag. I was 11.”
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The stealing bothered Michael’s mother, and it bothered the cashiers in the stores that were being held up, and eventually it bothered the police. And so, just when he’d finally adjusted to Brooklyn, Michael found himself moving to the Tyron School for Boys in Upstate New York, which is sort of a prep school for youngsters trying to get into Attica.P

And it was there, at the age of 13, that he met Bobby Stewart, who taught him the fundamentals of boxing. Five years before, Stewart had been the 178-pound national Golden Gloves champion, which is to say he could fight. Within a few months, however, Tyson was giving him all he could handle.P

Stewart took the boy to his friend Cus D’Amato, who watched him spar three rounds, talked with him a few minutes and saw the fighter he had been waiting for all his life.P

D’Amato had become reclusive in the last years, at least as distrustful of the Don Kings and Bob Arums as he had been of guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo back when they owned and operated the sport. He lived in a large farmhouse outside Catskill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and trained his fighters in the gym on the third floor of Citizens Hose Company, in town.P

He educated the boy in his house and in his gym; and if you were looking for the difference between Mike Tyson and the other fighters D’Amato had taught, it probably lay in the depth of Tyson’s understanding of the things D’Amato was teaching him.P

It is one thing to know what words mean and accept them, it is another thing to believe them. You may understand intellectually that courage is not a constant in anyone and that discipline is—or can be. Discipline will get you through the times when your courage fades. But for discipline to help when everything inside you is suddenly calling in sick, you have to believe it. It has to be true, or it’s useless.
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So what I mean by teaching is not that D’Amato put anything inside Tyson but that he showed him where it was and how to use it. At any rate, Tyson stayed with D’Amato in the house overlooking the Hudson until the old man died on November 4, 1985. He was 77 years old. Tyson was 19, a professional fighter for only eight months. His mother was dead. He had fought 13 times and knocked 13 people out. Nine in the first round.P

The funeral for Cus D’Amato was held at a Catholic church in Catskill, and among the pallbearers were two men who would guide Mike Tyson the rest of the way to the championship, Kevin Rooney and Jimmy Jacobs. Rooney had been one of D’Amato’s fighters, too—a tenacious welterweight who had fought successfully without exceptional tools—and would take over as Tyson’s trainer.P

Jacobs was one of Tyson’s co-managers and was as devoted to the old man in his way as the kid was. He is the owner—along with Tyson’s other manager, Bill Cayton—of the greatest collection of fight films in existence. The number is close to 26,000. He and D’Amato used to show up in Philadelphia from time to time and show them at benefits for retired fighters. He was also arguably the greatest handball player who ever lived, and perhaps because of his own success as an athlete, he could appreciate boxing and its players the way D’Amato appreciated it—in a pure way, for the sport itself. Jacobs did not need to see himself in its reflection—not now, not back in the Sixties, when D’Amato had talked with him, just as he had talked with McKinney, about taking an athlete who had never fought a round and turning him into a world champion. The difference being that the athlete D’Amato had sought was Jacobs himself.P


A year and two weeks after D’Amato’s funeral, Jacobs and Rooney had Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the Las Vegas Hilton with a heavyweight fighter named Trevor Berbick, whom you would call undistinguished, except that he happened to be the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.P

Berbick had once survived 15 rounds with Larry Holmes—the first man to do that after Holmes became champion—but he hadn’t tried to win, only to last; and in the end, the distinction of staying 15 rounds was forfeit to his lack of ambition.P

At any rate, it was the wrong night for Berbick to try to make things right. The wrong night and the wrong ring and the wrong opponent. You never know what gets into somebody else’s head, but Berbick went right at Tyson—a man with twice his ability—tried to back him up, and in two rounds he was gone.P

And Mike Tyson, 20 years old, was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. That night, he said he felt Cus watching.P

I don’t know.P

I’ve never been much of a believer in being watched by the dead, but I do know that Michael Spinks, the man who had taken Larry Holmes’s International Boxing Federation title, was watching at ringside and shortly afterward backed out of the contract he had signed with Home Box Office to fight the winner of a heavyweight-champion elimination match between Tyson and the World Boxing Association champion.P

On one hand, you cannot fault Spinks. One minute, you’re fighting Tyson, the next, you’re up there with Cus, watching the doctors work over your body.
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On the other hand, what Spinks did seemed to drop him into the same category as the other heavyweight “champions” of recent years—guys like Berbick and Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith and Michael Dokes—who had cheapened what was once the most prestigious title in sports until it had no meaning.P

You cannot talk about cheapening the heavyweight title, of course, without mentioning the three ruling bodies of boxing—the W.B.C., the W.B.A. and the I.B.F., each of which has the integrity of a Cleveland pimp. In the long years since boxing was divided into ruling bodies, you sometimes forgot that being heavyweight champion of the world was once a serious job.P

And part of what Tyson holds out is a return to that. It is part of his appeal, a return to a time when the heavyweight champion of the world could fight.P

The night I decided to write a piece on Mike Tyson, I was sitting on the couch watching theDick Cavett Show with my dog McGuire. I have been trying to teach the animal the rudiments or house watching for a long time, without results.P

The scarier somebody looks, the friendlier he gets. A Hell’s Angel once gave him a hamburger at a Burger King and he never forgot it.P

So you start at the other end, with a twerp.”You see that guy in the suit’” I said to him when Cavett came on. “Anybody like that comes near the house, you fuck him up, all right? Him and his suit.” P

McGuire studied the set a long time, memorizing Dick Cavett. I had the sudden thought that l might get him on David Letterman’s show, which features a segment called “Stupid Pet Tricks.”P

“Well, Dave, McGuire here fucks up Dick Cavett…” and they bring Cavett in, and the dog breaks his legs. Then I take him to Burger King as a reward.P

And so, not wanting to distract the dog from Dick Cavett, I left the television on and went into the kitchen for some Oreo cookies, which McGuire loves. If a Hell’s Angel had given him an Oreo cookie, he’d be riding around on the back of a Harley right now.P

Anyway, by the time I got back to the couch, Cavett was talking with Mike Tyson, dazzling him with that precious twerp wit. And then Cavett, in as memorable an attack of little man’s disease as I have ever seen, stood up, in front of a television audience that must have run into the thousands, and induced Tyson to try to hold on to his (Cavett’s) wrists.P

Tyson moaned. You could see he did not want to grab Dick Cavett’s wrists; you could see he was embarrassed by what was happening.P

Cavett insisted.P

Tyson took his wrists.P

“Now hold on,” Cavett said.P

Tyson held on.P

Cavett made an oblique reference to his 80-some-year-old martial-arts instructor and then moved his arm against the place where Tyson’s thumb met his fingers and pulled free. This, obviously, is invaluable stuff to anyone grabbed by the wrists on television and, just as obviously, means that hidden underneath the wonderful suit and all that wit is a very dangerous guy who can probably handle himself with the ladies, too.P

And I wondered, sitting there as McGuire finished the Oreos, what a 20-year-old kid made of rich little white guys who wanted him to hold on to their wrists, and decided to ask.P


I caught up with Mike Tyson a month or two later in Catskill, New York. It was two months before the fight with Bonecrusher Smith, his first day in the gym since taking the title from Berbick.P

The gym had once been an auditorium, and Tyson was undressing in a room off to one side of the stage. Jeans, a sweat shirt, tennis shoes. I think there was an American flag in the corner. One of the truly horrifying things about Tyson is that in loose clothes, he looks pudgy, like somebody you might pick on in a bar. Alright, that is not exactly all of it.P

What is horrifying is the similarity to the movie Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver and a bunch of ordinary guys are sitting around having lunch in space when all of a sudden, one of them goes into convulsions and this awful thing eats its way out of his chest and leaves him lying there in his plate. I mean, you’re just naturally terrified to find out somebody you might know has something like that inside. P

And there is something like that inside Tyson, and he isn’t the one who gets eaten.P

Anyway, thoughts of pudginess disappear as he takes off his shirt. He is not the most muscular heavyweight I have seen, but there has never been another, at least to my knowledge, who carried as much muscle and could fight as long without seeming to tire. A lot of that is conditioning, of course, but a lot of it is simply a gift, like speed or natural power.P

Tyson covers his chest and arms in grease and then slips into a black leotard. “I like this,” he said. “It feels good.”P

I ask him then, while he’s tying his boots, what it’s like to grow up in the streets, get saved by Cus D’Amato and turned into a professional fighter, fight all the way to the top and knock out Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the title and then have Dick Cavett get up on national television and ask you to hold his wrists. P

“That didn’t bother me much,” he said in that familiar soft voice. “I think they must pay him to act like that; I don’t know why. There’s always somebody wanting to tell you something about a fight they had—might go back to sixth grade. I don’t pay too much attention. Or they tell you how bad they were, but their mother made them stop boxing. I don’t know what to say to somebody like that. I don’t even know for sure what they want.P

“I’m a serious person, but I don’t take this for more than it is. I like the fights themselves; I love that moment before it starts when you’re scared and excited and you know it’s time. The talk doesn’t mean much. I’m not going to tell anybody how bad I am; I’ll do that in the ring.P

“And when I’m through in the ring, that’s it. I’ll find something else. You’ve got such a short time. You can’t go around being the legendary champion because that’s what people expect you to be.” P

That is one of the things that bother Tyson about his celebrity—the obligations to people he does not know. “Society puts these things on you,” he said. “Some of them are saying you are insensitive to be part of this brutality; they don’t know the first thing about who you are. At the same time, here are all these articulate people they look up to, sitting in the best seats at the fight. What about that?P

“I do not see that I’ve got to be the focus of a bunch of bullshit. I do what I do. You’ll never hear anybody leaving this camp thinking anything bad about me. I don’t try to hurt anybody in the gym; I leave the 16-ounce gloves on, even if somebody else is wearing 12s. I will always put myself at the disadvantage; that’s when you learn. P

“I have my fights, and people say things about them. About me. But you can’t confuse that with what I am and what I do. Fighting is all I do, but I’m something else besides the fighter.”P

And somehow, that is at the core of things. Think of the heavyweights over the past 30 years. Patterson, who hid behind beards and sunglasses after Liston beat him, and never really quit hiding. Liston, dead from an overdose, probably murdered. Muhammad Ali, the best and the brightest, fogged in and showing up from time to time with Evil Knievel. Joe Frazier, who never learned to live with his losses to Ali, sending his own kids into the ring with Larry Holmes and then with Tyson, when the kid had no chance. Holmes, who has never learned to live on the same planet as Ali, and, assuming his comeback fight with Tyson comes off, never learned from him, either. Leon Spinks.P

All of them out of place in the world, because after the ring they had no place.P


A few minutes later, Tyson is in the ring. The fighter with him is a new sparring partner, who has come in with his trainer. I do not know exactly what the fighter and his trainer have in mind for the afternoon, but as soon as they see that Tyson spars without headgear, the sparring partner removes his.P

He begins the round moving to his left, away from Tyson’s hook, throwing jabs. There is some feeling that Tyson is vulnerable to a fighter who moves and can jab, and the sparring partner is clearly here to take some rounds from the champion. P

Fifteen seconds into the round, however, Tyson throws a jab of his own—it is not a slow punch, but it carries all his weight—and staggers the sparring partner. The sparring partner is shocked; I am shocked. Tyson isn’t supposed to have a jab.P

The first fighter who took Tyson the distance, in fact, was a man named Quick Tillis, and Tyson went 10 rounds that night without throwing any jabs that I remember. If he had thrown jabs, Tillis would not have been there at the end.P

The hand is gone from the sparring partner’s face less than half a second when it returns from the side—a hook, and then a right hand. A minute and a half into the round, the new sparring partner is holding his head, defenseless, and Tyson, not wanting to embarrass him, pulls his punches and holds, giving him time to recover; but the new sparring partner has lost interest, and Tyson stops altogether.P

For the ten or 15 seconds it takes the sparring partner to get through the ropes, Tyson ignores him. It is exactly as if he wasn’t there.P

Another sparring partner comes into the ring, a good-natured journeyman heavyweight named Irish Mike Jameson, who goes the rest of that round and two more. Jameson is not quick enough, but he takes a punch well and is not afraid to mix it up.P

He is the kind of fighter who makes Tyson look unbeatable, which right now he may be. No one in the division boxes well enough to keep him off—witness Tyrell Biggs—no one with enough power and speed to stand in one spot and trade.P

Three times in Tyson’s career—against Quick Tillis, Mitch Green and Bonecrusher Smith—he has been taken to a decision, but each of those opponents gave up on winning early (if any considered winning) and held on to Tyson for the entire fight.P

You cannot win like that, of course, but you get to live.P

At least for now. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Tyson reacts better to holding, giving up some of the powerful arc punches for shorter, straighter jabs and rights. It is a harder proposition to hold on to someone who is three feet away, on the other side of the fist, than it is to hold someone who is standing under your chin, trying to reach your head with off-angle hooks. But I’m going to leave that end of things to Tyson and Rooney.P

What I am more interested in is what happens after that.P

Tyson is still a kid.P

He seems to know things that 21-year-old kids shouldn’t know, and some of that—most of it—comes from Cus D’Amato.P

In the end, though, you drive your own wagon. When the training and the fighting are over, when things are not clean-cut, the way they are in the ring, and the old man’s words are not so fresh, it will be easier to talk about who Tyson is. I know this much about it—there will be something to talk about.P

Tyson is smart; he feels things; he has standards.P

D’Amato did not teach that; he helped him find it.P

The old man was a visionary, and it did not begin or end with boxing. When he saw Tyson, I think he saw the rarest kind of heavyweight there is:P

The one who would not break his heart.P

[Photo Credit: Richard Harbus/Corbis]

The Power and the Gory

Here’s a powerful story from my pal Paul Solotaroff. It originally appeared in the Village Voice (1990) and it is presented here with the author’s permission.

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“The Power and the Gory”

By Paul Solotaroff

Half the world was in mortal terror of him. He had a sixty-inch chest, twenty-three-inch arms, and when the Anadrol and Bolasterone backed up in his bloodstream, his eyes went as red as the laser scope on an Uzi. He threw people through windows, and chased them madly down Hempstead Turnpike when they had the temerity to cut him off. And in the gym he owned in Farmingdale, the notorious Mr. America’s, if he caught you looking at him while he trained, you generally woke up, bleeding, on the pavement outside. Half out of his mind on androgens and horse steroids, he had this idea that being looked at robbed him of energy, energy that he needed to leg-press two thousand pounds. Nonetheless, one day a kid walked up to him between sets and said, “I want to be just like you, Steve Michalik. I want to be Mr. America and Mr. Universe.”

“Yeah?” said Michalik in thick contempt. “How bad do you think you want it?”

“Worse than anything in the world,” said the kid, a scrawny seven-teen-year-old with more balls than biceps. “I can honestly say that I would die for a body like yours.”

“Well, then you probably will,” snorted Michalik. “Meet me down at the beach tomorrow at six A.M. sharp. And if you’re like even half a minute late …”

The kid was there at six A.M. pronto, freezing his ass off in a raggedy hood and sweats. “What do we do first?” he asked.

“Swim,” grunted Michalik, dragging him into the ocean. Twenty yards out, Michalik suddenly seized the kid by his scalp and pushed him under a wave. The kid flailed punily, wriggling like a speared eel. A half minute, maybe forty-five seconds, passed before Michalik let the kid up, sobbing out sea water. He gave the kid a breath, then shoved him down again, holding him under this time until the air bubbles stopped, whereupon he dragged him out by the hood and threw him, gasping, on the beach.

“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last fucking breath,” sneered Michalik, “then and only then can you come talk to me.”

For himself, Michalik only wanted two things anymore. He wanted to walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on November 15, 1986, professional bodybuilding’s Night of Champions, and just turn the joint out with his 260 pounds of ripped, stripped, and shrink-wrapped muscle. And then, God help him, he wanted to die. Right there, in front of everybody, with all the flashbulbs popping, be wanted to drop dead huge and hard at the age of thirty-nine, and leave a spectacular corpse behind.

The pain, you see, had become just unendurable. Ten years of shot-gunning steroids had turned his joints into fish jelly and spiked his blood pressure so high he had to pack his nose to stop the bleeding. He’d been pissing blood for months, and what was coming out of him now was brown, pure protoplasm that his engorged liver hadn’t the wherewithal to break down. And when he came home from the gym at night, his whole body was in spasm. His eight-year-old boy, Steve Junior, had to pack his skull in ice, trying to take the top 10 percent off his perpetual migraine.

“I knew it was all over for me,” Michalik says. “Every system in my body was shot, my testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first.

“See, we’d all of us [professional bodybuilders] been way over the line for years, and it was like, suddenly, all the bills were coming in. Victor Faizowitz took so much shit that his brain exploded. The Aldactazone [a diuretic] sent his body temperature up to one hundred twelve degrees, and he literally melted to death. Another guy, an Egyptian bodybuilder training for the Mr. Universe contest, went the same way, a massive hemorrhage from head to toe—died bleeding out of every orifice. And Tommy Sansone, a former Mr. America who’d been my very first mentor in the gym, blew out his immune system on Anadrol and D-ball [Dianabol], and died of tumors all over his body.

“As for me, I couldn’t wait to join ‘em. I had so much evil in me from all the drugs I was taking that I’d go home at night and ask God why be hadn’t killed me yet. And then, in the next breath, I’d say, ‘Please, I know I’ve done a lot of terrible things—sold steroids to kids, beaten the shit out of strangers—but please don’t let me go out like a sucker, God. Please let me die hitting that last pose at the Beacon, with the crowd on its feet for a second standing O.’”

Michalik’s prayers might better have been addressed to a liver specialist. Two weeks before the show, he woke up the house at four in the morning with an excruciating pain beneath his rib cage. His wife, Thomasina, long since practiced at such emergencies, ran off to fetch some ice.

“Fuck the ice,” he groaned. “Call Dr. Ludwig.”

Dr. Arthur Ludwig, a prominent endocrinologist who had been treating Michalik on and off for a number of years, was saddened but unsurprised by the call. “Frankly,” he told Michalik, “I’ve been expecting it now for ages. Your friends have been telling me lately how bad you’ve been abusing the stuff, especially for the last five years.”

That he certainly had. Instead of cycling on and off of steroids, giving his body here and there a couple months’ recuperation, Michalik had been juicing pretty much constantly since 1976, shooting himself with fourteen different drugs and swallowing copious amounts of six or seven others. Then there was all the speed he was gulping—bennies, black beauties—to get through his seven-hour workouts, and the handful of downs at night to catch four hours of tortuous sleep.

There, at any rate, Michalik was, doubled over in bed at four in the morning, his right side screaming like a bomb had gone off in it.

“You’d better get him to New York Hospital as fast as you can,” Ludwig told Michalik’s wife over the phone. “They’ve got the best liver specialist on the East Coast there. I’ll meet you in his office in an hour.”

At the hospital, they pumped Michalik full of morphine and took a hasty sonogram upstairs. The liver specialist, a brusque Puritan who’d been apprised of Michalik’s steroid usage, called him into his office.

“See this?” he pointed to the sonogram, scarcely concealing a sneer. “This is what’s left of your liver, Mr. Michalik. And these”—indicating the four lumps grouped inside it, one of them the size of a ripe grapefruit—”these are hepatic tumors. You have advanced liver cancer, sir.”

“I do?” grinned Michalik, practically hugging himself for joy. “How long you think I’ve got?”

“Mr. Michalik, do you understand what I’m telling you?” snapped the doctor, apparently miffed that his news hadn’t elicited operatic grief. “You have cancer, and will be dead within weeks or days if I don’t operate immediately. And frankly, your chances of surviving surgery are—”

“Surgery!” blurted Michalik, looking at the man as if he were bonkers. “You’re not coming near me with a knife. That would leave a scar.” The doctor was with perfect justice about to order Michalik out of his office when Ludwig walked in. He took a long look at the sonogram and announced that surgery was out of the question. Michalik’s liver was so compromised, he would undoubtedly die on the table. Besides, Ludwig adjudged, those weren’t tumors at all. They were something rarer by far but no less deadly: steroid-induced cysts, or thick sacs of blood and muscle, that were full to bursting—and growing.

He ordered Michalik strapped down—the least movement now could perforate the cysts—and wheeled upstairs to intensive care. The next twenty-four hours, he declared, would tell the tale. If, deprived of steroids, the cysts stopped growing, there was a small chance that Michalik might come out of this. If, on the other hand, they fed on whatever junk he’d injected the last couple of days—well, he’d get his wish, at any rate, to die huge.

Michalik knew it was the liver, of course. He might have been heedless, but he was hardly uninformed. In fact, he knew so much about steroids that he’d written a manual on their use, and gone on the Today show to debate doctors about their efficacy. Like the steroid gurus of southern California, Michalik was a self-taught sorcerer whose laboratory was his body. From the age of eleven, he’d read voraciously in biochemistry, obsessed about finding out what made people big. He walked the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, knocking on physicians’ doors, begging to be made enlightened about protein synthesis. And years later he scoured the Physicians’ Desk Reference from cover to cover, searching not for steroids but for other classes of drugs whose secondary function was to grow muscle.

Steroids, Michalik knew, were a kind of God’s play, a way of rewriting his own DNA. He’d grown up skinny and hating himself to his very cell level. According to Michalik, his father, a despotic drunk with enormous forearms, beat him with whatever was close to hand, and smashed his face, for fun, into a plate of mashed potatoes.

“I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man made no bones about loving him and hating me,” Michalik recalls. “The minute I walked in from school, it was, ‘You worthless little shit, what are you doing home so early?’ His favorite way to torture me was to tell me he was going to put me in a home. We’d be driving along in Brooklyn somewhere, and we’d pass a building with iron bars on the windows, and he’d stop the car and say to me, ‘Get out. This is the home we’re putting you in.’ I’d be standing there, sobbing on the curb—I was maybe eight or nine at the time—and after a while he’d let me get back into the car and drive off laughing at his little joke.”

Fearful and friendless throughout childhood—even his brother was leery of being seen with him—Michalik hid out in comic books and Steve Reeves movies, burning to become huge and invulnerable. At thirteen, he scrubbed toilets in a Vic Tanny spa just to be in the presence of that first generation of iron giants—Eddie Juliani and Leroy Colbert, among others. At twenty, stationed at an Air Force base in Southeast Asia, he ignored sniper fire and the 120-degree heat to bench-press a cinder-block barbell in an open clearing, telling the corps psychiatrist that he couldn’t be killed because it was his destiny to become Mr. America. And at thirty-four, years after he’d forgotten where be put all his trophies, he was still crawling out of bed at two in the morning to eat his eighth meal of the day because he still wasn’t big enough. As always, there was that fugitive inch or two missing, that final heft without which he wouldn’t even take his shirt off on the beach—for fear that everyone would laugh.

And so, of course, there were steroids. They’d been around since at least the mid-1930s, when Hitler had them administered to his SS thugs to spike their bloodlust. By the fifties, the eastern bloc nations were feeding them to school kids, creating a generation of bioengineered athletes. And in the late sixties, anabolics hit the beaches of California, as U.S. drug companies discovered that there was a vast new market out there of kids who’d swallow anything to double their pecs and their pleasure.
The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic variations of the male hormone testosterone, they enter the bloodstream as chemical messengers and attach themselves to muscle cells. Once attached to these cells, they deliver their twofold message: grow, and increase endurance.

Steroids accomplish the first task by increasing the synthesis of protein. In sufficient quantities, they turn the body into a kind of fusion engine, converting everything, including fat, into mass and energy. A chemical bodybuilder can put on fifty pounds of muscle in six months because most of the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he eats a day are incorporated, not excreted.

The second task—increasing endurance—is achieved by stimulating the synthesis of a molecule called creatine phosphate, or CP. CP is essentially hydraulic fluid for muscles, allowing them to do more than just a few seconds’ work. The more CP you have in your tank, the more power you generate. Olympic weightlifters and defensive linemen have huge stockpiles of CP, some portion of which is undoubtedly genetic. The better part of it, though, probably comes out of a bottle of Anadrol, a popular oral steroid that makes you big, strong, and savage—and not necessarily in that order.

Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.

The obstacle here was his immune system, which was stubbornly going on about its business, neutralizing these poisons with antibodies and shutting down receptor sites on the muscle cells. No matter. Michalik, upping the dosage, simply overwhelmed his immune system, and further addled it by flooding his bloodstream with other drugs.

All the while, of course, he was cognizant of the damage done. He knew, for instance, that Anadrol, like all oral steroids, was utter hell on the liver. An alkylated molecule with a short carbon chain, it had to be hydralized, or broken down, within twenty-four hours. This put enormous stress on his liver, which had thousands of other chemical transactions to carry out every day, not the least of which was processing the waste from his fifty pounds of new muscle. The Physicians’ Desk Reference cautions that the smallest amounts of Anadrol may be toxic to the liver, even in patients taking it for only a couple of months for anemia:

WARNING: MAY CAUSE PELIOSIS HEPATIS, A CONDITION IN WHICH LIVER TISSUE IS REPLACED WITH BLOOD-FILLED CYSTS, OFTEN CAUSING LIVER FAILURE. . . . OFTEN NOT RECOGNIZED UNTIL LIFE-THREATENING LIVER FAILURE OR INTRA-ABDOMINAL HEMORRHAGE OCCURS. . . . FATAL MALIGNANT LIVER TUMORS ARE ALSO REPORTED.

As lethal as it was, however, Anadrol was like a baby food compared to some of the other stuff Michalik was taking. On the bodybuilding black market, where extraordinary things are still available, Michalik and some of his buddies bought the skulls of dead monkeys. Cracking them open with their bare hands, they drank the hormone-rich fluid that poured out of the hypothalamus gland. They filled enormous syringes with a French supplement called Triacana and, aiming for the elusive thyroid gland, shot it right into their necks. They took so much Ritalin before workouts to psych themselves up that one of Michalik’s training partners, a former Mr. Eastern USA, ran out of the gym convinced that he could stop a car with his bare hands. He stood in the passing lane of the Hempstead Turnpike, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, bracing for the moment of impact—and got run over like a dog by a Buick Skylark, both his legs and arms badly broken.

Why, knowing what he knew about these poisons, did Michalik continue taking them? Because he, as well as his buddies and so many thousands of other bodybuilders and football players, were fiercely and progressively addicted to steroids. The American medical community is currently divided about whether or not the stuff is addictive. These are the same people who declared, after years of thorough study, that steroids do not grow muscle. Bodybuilders are still splitting their sides over that howler. Michalik, however, is unamused.

“First, those morons at the AMA say that steroids don’t work, which anyone who’s ever been inside a gym knows is bullshit,” he snorts. “Then, ten years later, they tell us they’re deadly. Oh, now they’re deadly? Shit, that was like the FDA seal of approval for steroids. C’mon, everybody, they must be good for you—the AMA says they’ll kill you!

“Somehow, I don’t know how, I escaped getting addicted to them the first time, when I was training for the Mr. America in 1972. Maybe it was because I was on them for such a short stretch, and went relatively light on the stuff. Mostly, all it amounted to was a shot in the ass once a week from a doctor in Roslyn. I never found out what was in that shot, but Jesus, did it make me crazy. Here I was, a churchgoing, gentle Catholic, and suddenly I was pulling people out of restaurant booths and threatening to kill them just because there were no other tables open. I picked up a three-hundred-pound railroad tie and caved in the side of some guy’s truck with it because I thought he’d insulted my wife. I was a nut, a psycho, constantly out of control—and then, thank God, the contest came, and I won it and got off the juice, and suddenly became human again. I retired, and devoted myself entirely to my wife for all the hell I’d put her through, and swore I’d never go near that shit again!”

A couple of years later, however, something happened that sent him back to the juice, and this time there was no getting off it. “I’d bought Thomasina a big house in Farmingdale, and filled it with beautiful things , and was happier than I’d ever been in my life. And then one day I found out she’d been having an affair. I was worse than wiped out, my soul was ripped open. It had taken me all those years to finally feel like I was a man, to get over all the things my father had done to me … and she cut my fucking heart out.”

Michalik went back to the gym, where he’d always solved all his problems, and started seeing someone we’ll call Dr. X. A physician and insider in the subculture, for two decades Dr. X had been supplying bodybuilders with all manner of steroids in exchange for sexual favors. Michalik hit him up for a stack of prescriptions, but made it clear that he couldn’t accommodate the doctor sexually, to the latter’s keen disappointment. The two, however, worked out a satisfactory compromise. Michalik, the champion bodybuilder who was constantly being consulted by young wannabes, directed some of them posthaste to the tender governance of Dr. X.

“They had to find out sooner or later that the road to the title went through Dr. X’s office,” Michalik shrugs. “Nobody on this coast was gonna get to be competition size unless they put out for him—that, or they had a daddy in the pharmaceutical business. The night Dr. X first tried to seduce me, he showed me pictures of five different champions that he said he’d had sex with. I checked it out later and found out it was all true. Nice business, isn’t it, professional bodybuilding? More pimps and whores than Hollywood.”

Michalik didn’t care about any of that, however. Nor did he care if he went crazy or got addicted to steroids. “I didn’t care if I fucking died from ‘em. All I cared about was getting my body back. I was down to one hundred fifty pounds, which was my natural body weight, and no one in the gym even knew who I was. Big guys were screaming at me, ‘Get off that bench, you little punk, I wanna use it!’ Three months later, I’m two hundred pounds and bench-pressing four hundred, and the same guys are coming over to me, going, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steve Michalik? When did you get here?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘I’ve been here for the last three months, motherfucker. I’m the guy you pushed offa that bench over there, remember?’”

By that third month, he recalls, he was hopelessly hooked on steroids, unable to leave the house without “gulping three of something, and taking a shot of something else. I’d get out of bed in the morning feeling weak and sick, and stagger around, going, ‘Where’s my shit?’ I was a junkie and I knew it and I hated myself for it. But what I hated much, much more was not getting to Dr. X’s office. He had the real hot shit—Primobolan, Parabolin—that you couldn’t get anywhere else. They were so powerful you felt them immediately in your muscles, and tasted them for hours on your lips. My heart would start pounding, and the blood would come pouring out of my nose, but he’d just pack it with cotton and send me on my way.

“Suddenly, all I was doing was living and dying for those shots. I was totally obsessed about seeing him, I’d have terrible panic attacks on the subway, my brain would be racing—was I going to make it up to his office before I fell down? I was throwing people out of my way, shoving ‘em into poles, practically knocking the door down before we pulled into the station.

“Understand, there was no justification for the things I did; not my wife’s affair, not what had happened to me as a kid—nothing. I was an adult, I knew what I was doing, at least at the beginning, and when you add it all up, I deserve to have died from it.

“But I want you to understand what it’s like to just completely lose yourself. To get buried in something so deep that you think the only way out is to die. Those ten years, it was like I was trapped inside a robot body, watching myself do horrible things, and yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I couldn’t even slow down. It was always more drugs, and more side effects, and more drugs for the side effects. For ten years, I was just an animal on stimulus-response.”

He flew to London in the fall of 1975 for the Mr. Universe show, already so sick from the steroids and the eight meals a day that he could scarcely make it up the stairs to the stage. “I had a cholesterol level of over 400, my blood pressure was 240 over 110—but, Jesus Christ, I was a great-looking corpse. No one had ever seen anything like me on stage before, I had absolutely perfect symmetry: nineteen-inch arms, nineteen-inch calves, and a fifty-four-inch chest that was exactly twice the size of my thighs. The crowd went bazongo, the judges all loved me—and none of it, not even the title, meant shit to me. Joy, pride, any sense of satisfaction—the drugs wiped all of that out of me. The only feeling I was capable of anymore was deep, deep hatred.”

Michalik went home, threw his trophy into a closet, and began training maniacally for the Mr. Olympia show, bodybuilding’s most prestigious event. He’d invented a training regimen called “Intensity/Insanity,” which called for seventy sets per body part instead of the customary ten. This entailed a seven-hour workout and excruciating pain, but the steroids, he found, turned that pain into pleasure, “a huge release of all the pressure built up inside me, the rage and the energy.”

And with whatever rage and energy he had left, he ran his wife’s panicked lover out of town, and completed his revenge by impregnating her “so that there’d be two Steve Michalik’s in the world to oppress her.” Spotlessly faithful to her for the first ten years of their marriage, he began nailing everyone he could get his hands on now, thanks in no small part to his daily dosage of Halotestin, a steroid whose chief side effect was a constant—and conspicuous—erection. He was also throwing down great heaps of Clomid and HCG, two fertility drugs for women that, in men, stimulate the production of testosterone.

“Bottom line, I was insatiable, and acting it out all over the place. I had girlfriends in five different towns in Long Island, and one day I was so hormone-crazed I fucked ‘em all, one right after the other. Suddenly, I saw why there was so much rampant sex in this business, why the elite bodybuilders always had two or three girls in their hotel room, or were making thousands of dollars a weekend at private gay parties. In fact, one of my friends in the business, a former Mr. America, used to get so horny on tour that he’d fuck the Coke machine in his hotel. Swear to God, he’d stick his dick right in the change slot and bang it for all he was worth. I’m telling you, my wife saw him do this, she can vouch for it. He fucked those machines from coast to coast, and even had ratings for them. I seem to remember the Chicago Hyatt’s being pretty high up there on the list.”

Hot, in any event, off his win in the Mr. Universe, and absolutely galactic now at 250 pounds, he was the consensus pick among his peers to put an end to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as Mr. Olympia and begin a five- or six-year run of his own. He had even prepped himself to follow Ahnuld into show business, taking two years of acting lessons and a year of speech at Weiss-Baron Studios in Manhattan. One of the networks approached him about hosting a science show. George Butler and Charles Gaines filmed him extensively for Pumping Iron, the definitive bodybuilding flick that put Schwarzenegger on the map in Hollywood.

And then, driving himself to the airport for the Mr. Olympia show that November, Michalik suddenly ran into something bigger than steroids. A tractor-trailer driver, neglecting to check his mirror, veered into Michalik’s lane on Route 109 and ran right over the hood of his Mustang. Michalik was dragged twenty yards into an embankment; the Mustang crumpled up around him. When they finally sawed him out of it two hours later, he had four cracked discs and a torn sciatic nerve, and was completely paralyzed from the waist down.

The bad news, said the surgeon after a battery of X-rays, was that Michalik would never walk again. The good news was that with a couple of operations, the pain could be substantially mitigated. Michalik told him to get the fuck out of his room. For months he lay in traction, refusing medication, and with his free arm went on injecting himself with testosterone, which had with him in a black bag at the time of the accident, and which the hospital had so thoughtfully put on his bedside table.

“It was hilarious. The idiot doctors kept coming in and going. ‘Gee, your blood pressure seems awfully high, Mr. Michalik,’ and I’d just lay there with a straight face and go, ‘Well, I have been very tense, you know, since the accident’

“Meanwhile, for the one and only time in my life, the steroids were actually helping me. They speeded up the healing, which is actually their medical purpose, and kept enough size on me so that the nurses used to fight over who was supposed to wash me every day. I started getting a little sensation back in my right leg, enough so that when the doctor told me he’d send me home if I could stand up, I managed to fake it by standing on one leg.”

There, however, the progress halted, and Michalik, unspeakably depressed, lay in bed for a year, bloating on steroids and chocolate chip cookies. He got a call from the TV people, telling him that they’d hired Leonard Nimoy to replace him on the science show. He got another one from the producers of Pumping Iron, informing him that he’d been all but cut out of the film. Worst of all, his friends and training partners jumped ship on him, neither calling nor coming by to see him.

“So typical of bodybuilders,” he sneers. “‘Hey, Michalik’s crippled, I gotta go see him—nah, it’s Tuesday, chest-and-back day. Fuck him.’ But the real reason, I think, was they couldn’t stand to see one of their own hurt. In order to keep on doing what they’re doing—the drugs, the binge eating, the sex-for-money—they’ve gotta keep lying to themselves, saying, ‘I can’t be hurt, I can’t get sick. I’m Superman. Cancer is afraid to live in my body.’”

About the only person who didn’t abandon him was his kid brother, Paulie, an adopted eight-year-old who utterly worshipped Michalik. “He used to come into my room every day and massage my legs, going, ‘You feel anything yet? You feel it?’ He’s stubborn like me. He just refused to give up, he kept saying, ‘You’re a champion, Steve, you’re my hero, you’re gonna be back.’

“And then one day we’re watching TV, and a pro bodybuilding show comes on. This was 1978, and the networks had started up a Grand Prix tour to cash in on the fad after Pumping Iron. I’m watching all the guys and just going crazy, wishing I could just get up on stage against ‘em one more time, and Paulie goes, ‘You can do it, Steve. You can come back and whip those guys. I’ll help you in the gym.’”

Aroused, Michalik called an old friend, Julie Levine, and begged him for the keys to his new gym in Amityville. The next night, he got out of bed at 2 A.M. and scuttled to the window, where Paulie assisted him over the sash. Crawling across the lawn to his wife’s car, Michalik got in the driver’s seat and pushed his dead legs back, making room for his little brother beneath the steering wheel. As he steered, Paulie worked the gas and brake pedals with his hands, and in this manner they accomplished the ten miles to Amityville.

In the gym, Paulie dragged him from machine to machine, helping him push the weight stacks up. Michalik’s upper body responded quickly—muscle had remarkable memory—but his legs, particularly the left one, lay there limp as old celery. After several months, however, the pain started up in them. Sharp and searing, it was as if someone had stuck a fork in his sciatic nerve. Michalik, a self-made master of pain couldn’t have been happier if he’d hit the lottery.

“The doctors all told me it would be ten years, if ever, for the nerve to come back, and here it was howling like a monster. I kicked up the dosages of all the stuff I was taking, and started attacking the weights instead of just lifting ‘em. Six months later, the pain was so bad I still could barely straighten up—but I was leg-pressing seven hundred and eight hundred pounds, and my thighs were as big as a bear’s.”

And a year after that, he walked on stage in Florida, an unadvertised guest poser at the end of a Grand Prix show. The crowd, recognizing a miracle when it saw one, went berserk as Michalik modeled those thirty-four-inch thighs, each of which was considerably wider than his twenty-seven-inch waist. Schwarzenegger, in the broadcast booth doing color for ABC, was overwhelmed. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” he gasped. “It’s Steve Michalik, the phantom bodybuilder!”

There Michalik should have left it. He was alive, and ambulatory, and his cult status was set. Thanks to Arnie, he would be forever known as the Phantom Bodybuilder, a tag he could have turned into a merchandising gold mine, and retired.

But like a lot of other steroid casualties, Michalik couldn’t stop pushing his luck. He had to keep going, had to keep growing, testing the limits of his skeleton and the lining of his liver. If he’d gotten galactic, he figured, on last year’s drugs, there was no telling how big he could get on this year’s crop. A new line of killer juice was coming out of southern California—Hexalone, Bolasterone, Dehydralone—preposterously toxic compounds that sent the liver into warp drive but which grew hard, mature muscle right before your very eyes. Sexier still, there was that new darling of the pro circuit, human growth hormone, and who knew where the ceiling even began on that stuff?

Instead of pulling over, then, Michalik put the hammer down. He joined the Grand Prix tour immediately after the show in Florida and began the brutal grind of doing twelve shows annually. Before the tour, top bodybuilders did five shows a year, tops—the Mr. Olympia, the Night of Champions, and two or three others in Europe—which gave them several months to recuperate from the drugs and heavy training. Now, thanks to TV, they had to do a show a month. The pace was quite literally murderous.

“Not only did guys have to peak every month, they had to keep getting better as the year went on. No downtime, no rest from the binging and fasting—you could see guys turning green from all the shit in their systems. As you might expect, some of them were falling by the wayside, one guy from arrhythmia, another guy from heart attacks.

“As for me, all I knew was that I was spending every dime I had on drugs. It cost me $25,000 that first year just to keep up, and that was without human growth hormone, which I couldn’t even afford. The sport had become like an arms race now. If you heard that some guy was using Finajet, then you had to have it, no matter what it cost or where you had to go to get it. It actually paid to fly back and forth to France every couple of months, where you could buy the crap off the shelves of some country pharmacy and save yourself thousands of bucks.

“Needless to say, those five years on the tour were the most whacked-out of my life. My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll, and I became an enormous, lethal caveman. The only reason I didn’t spend most of that time in jail was because two thirds of the cops in town were customers of mine. They belonged to my gym, and bought their steroids from me, and when I got into a little beef, which was practically every other day, they took care of it on the QT for me.

“Once I was on Hempstead Turnpike, on my way to the gym, when some guy in a pickup gave me the finger. That’s it, lights out. I chased him doing ninety in my new Corvette, and did a three-sixty in heavy traffic right in front of him. I jumped out, ripped the door off his truck, and caved in his face with one punch. The other guy in the cab, who had done nothing to me, jumps out and starts running down the divider to get away from me. I chased him on foot and was pounding the shit out of him on the side of the road when the cops pulled up in two cruisers. ‘Michalik, get outta here, ya crazy fuck,’ they go, ‘this is the last goddamn time we’re lettin’ you slide.’”

Word quickly got around town that Michalik was to be avoided at all costs. That went double for the wild-style gym he opened, which did everything but hang a sign out saying, STEROIDS FOR SALE HERE. There were plaques on the walls that proclaimed, UP THE DOSAGE! and pictures not of stars but of twenty-gauge syringes.

As for the clientele, it ran heavily toward the highly crazed. There was the seven-foot juice freak who stomped around muttering, “I’ll kill you all. I’ll rip your guts out and eat them right here.” There was the mob hit man who drove up in a limo every day and checked his automatic weapons at the door. There was the herpetologist who came in with a python wrapped around him, trailing a huge sea turtle, for good measure, on a leash. There was the former Mr. America who was so distraught when his dog died that he had it stuffed, and dragged it around the gym from station to station.

“I had every freak and psycho within a 300-mile radius,” Michalik recalls. “At night, there’d be all these animals hanging around outside my gym, slurping protein shakes and twirling biker chains—and every single one of ‘em was afraid of me. That was the only way I kept ‘em in line. As crazy as they all were, they knew I was crazier, and that I’d just as soon kill ‘em as re-enroll ‘em.”

If that sounds like dubious business practice, consider that a year after opening, Michalik was so successful that he had to move to a location twice the size. But for all the money he was making, and for all the scams he was running—selling “Banana Packs,” a worthless mixture of rotten bananas and egg powder, as his “secret muscle formula” for $25 a pop; passing himself off as a veterinarian to get cases of human growth hormone at wholesale for his “clinical experiments”—he was still being bankrupted by his skyrocketing drug bills.

The federal heat had begun to come down on the steroid racket, closing out the pill-mill pharmacies where Michalik was filling his ’scrips. The national demand, moreover, for the high-octane stuff—Hexalone, Bolasterone, etc.—was going through the roof, which meant that Michalik, like everybody else, had to get on line, and pay astronomical prices for his monthly package from Los Angeles.

Constantly broke, and going nowhere fast on the Grand Prix tour—”where in the beginning I’d been finishing third or fourth in the shows, by 1983 I was coming in like eleventh or twelfth”—Michalik began caving in emotionally and physically. He’d come home from the gym at night, dead-limbed and nauseous, and suddenly burst into tears without warning. Cut off from everyone, even the stouthearted Thomasina, who had finally thrown up her hands and stopped caring what he did to himself, he sat alone in a dark room, hearing his joints howl, and dreamed about killing himself.

“I was just lost, gone, in a constant state of male PMS—the hormones flying around inside, my mood going yoyo. I just wanted an end to it; an end to all the pain I was in, and to the pain I was causing others.

“I mean, of course I had tried to get off the drugs, and always it just got worse. The depression got deeper, the craving was incredible, and those last couple of years, I was worse than any crackhead. As crazed as I was, l’d have killed to keep on going, to get my hands on that next shipment of Deca or Maxibolin.”

As for his body, it was finally capitulating to all the accumulated toxins. By 1983, he was bleeding from everywhere: his gums, kidneys, colon, and sinuses. The headaches started up, so piercing and obdurate that he developed separate addictions to Percodan and Demerol. And worst of all (by Michalik’s lights), his muscles suddenly went soft on him. No matter how he worked them or what he shot into them, they lost their gleaming, osmotic hardness, and began to pooch out like $20 whitewalls.

His last two years on the tour were a run-on nightmare. He almost dropped dead at a show in Toronto, collapsing on stage in head-to-toe convulsions; the promoters, disgraced, hauled him off by the ankles. There was a desperate attempt in 1985, after his cholesterol hit 500, to wean himself from steroids once and for all. His testosterone level plummeted, however, his sperm count went to zero, and all the estrogen in his body, which had been accruing for years, turned his pecs into soft, doughy breasts. Such friends as he still had pointed out that his ass was plumping like a woman’s, and tweaked him for his sexy new hip-swishing walk.

He ran to one endocrinologist after another, begging them for something to reverse the condition. To a man, each pointed to Michalik’s liver reading and showed him out of his office. Leaving, he had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him.

And so, after weighing his options—a bleak, emasculated life off steroids or a slam-bang, macho death on them—Michalik emphatically chose the latter. He packed a bag, grabbed his weight belt, and caught a plane for L.A., winding up for nine months in the valley, where all the chemical studs were training.

Just up the freeway, a cartel of former med students were minting drugs so new they scarcely had names for them yet. The stuff ran $250, $300 a bottle, but pumped you up like an air hose and kept you that way. It also made you violently sick to your stomach, but Michalik didn’t have time to worry about that. He simply ran to the bathroom to heave up his guts, then came back and ripped off another thirty sets.

His hair fell out in heavy clumps; a dry cough emanated from his liver, wracking him. Every joint was inflamed; it was excruciating even to walk now. But at night, in bed and in too much pain to sleep, it cheered him to think that he would finally be dead soon, and that it would take eight men to carry his casket.

He came back to New York in the fall of 1986, on his last legs but enormous and golden brown. All along, he’d targeted the Night of Champions, to be held that November at the Beacon Theater, as his swan song. It was the Academy Awards show of bodybuilding. Everyone would be there, all the stars and cognoscenti, and it would consolidate his legend to show up one last time, coming out of a coffin to the tune of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Of course, it would really help matters if he could drop dead on stage, but that seemed too much to hope for. All that mattered, finally, was that he go out with twenty-five hundred people thundering their approval, drowning out, once and for all, his old man’s malediction that he’d never amount to shit.

And then, two weeks before the show, he woke up at four in the morning with his liver on fire, and that was the end of all that.

Happily afloat on morphine and Nembutol, Michalik drifted for seventy-two hours, dreaming that he was dead. In the course of those three days, however, his extraordinary luck held up. The huge cysts in his liver stabilized and began to shrink, though they’d so eviscerated the organ already that there was practically nothing left of it. Short of a transplant, it would be months before he could so much as sit up and take nourishment. His bodybuilding career, in any case, was finished.

When Michalik awoke in intensive care, he was inconsolable. Not only was he still unaccountably alive, his beautiful body was dissolving and going away from him. His muscles, bereft of steroids and the five pounds of chicken he ate a day, decomposed and flowed into his bloodstream as waste. In three weeks, he lost more than 100 pounds, literally pissing himself down to 147 from a steady weight of 255.

Predictably, his kidneys began to fail, functioning at 60 percent, then 40, then 20. His black hair turned gray, and the skin hung off him in folds. His father came in and told him, with all his customary tact, that he looked like an eighty-five-year-old man.

In the few hours a day that he was lucid, Michalik wept uncontrollably. Out of the unlikeliest materials—bad genes, a small bone structure, and a thoroughly degraded ego—he had assembled this utterly remarkable thing, a body that no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger once venerated as the very best in the world. Now he was too weak to lift his head off the pillow. He lay there inert for months and months, the very image, it seemed to him, of his old man’s foretelling.

“I was just like Lyle Alzado, who I went to high school in Brooklyn with: weak and broken-down, leaning on my wife to keep me alive. She came and fed me every day through a straw, and swiped the huge bunch of pills I was saving to kill myself. To thank her for still being there after everything, I sold the gym and gave her all the money from it. I didn’t want any of it, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to lie in bed and be miserable by myself. I was so depressed I could hardly move my jaws to speak.”

Finally, by the spring of 1988, he’d recovered sufficiently to get out of bed for short stretches. Possessed by the sudden urge to atone for his sins, Michalik called every promoter he knew, begging them to let him go on stage in his condition and dramatize the wages of steroids. Surprisingly, several of them agreed to the idea. They brought Michalik out, a bag of bones in a black shirt, and let him turn the place into a graveyard for ten minutes.

“All these twenty-year-olds would be staring up at me with their jaws hanging open, and I’d get on the mike and say, ‘You think this can’t happen to you, tough guy? You think you know more about steroids than I do? Well, I wrote the book on ‘em, buddy, and they still ate me up. I’m forty years old and I’m finished. Dead.”

The former proselytizer for steroids got some grim satisfaction out of spreading the gospel against them. He dragged himself out to high schools and hard-core juice gyms, using himself as a walking cautionary tale. But whatever his good works were doing for his soul, they weren’t doing a damn thing for his body. He still woke up sick in every cell, poisoned by the residue of all the drugs. The liver cysts, shrunk to the size of golf balls but no further, sapped his strength and forced him to eat like a sparrow, subsisting on farina and chicken soup. His hormones were wildly scrambled—a blood test revealed he had the testosterone level of a twelve-year-old girl—and it had been two years since he’d had even a twinge of an erection. Indeed, his moods were so erratic that he had his wife commit him to a stretch in a Long Island nut bin.

“I wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do. All day long I just sat there, consumed with self-hatred: ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ I mean, even when I was huge, I never had what you would call the greatest relationship with myself, but now it was, ‘You’re weak! You’re tiny! You’re stupid! You’re worthless!’—and what the hell was I going to say to shut it up? The only thing I’d ever valued about myself was my body, and I’d totally, systematically fucked it up. My life, as you can probably guess, was intolerable.”

It was here, however, that fate stepped in and cut Michalik a whopping break. Halfway across the world, an Australian rugby player named Joe Reesh somehow heard about Michalik’s plight and called to tell him about a powerful new detox program. It was a brutally arduous deal—an hour of running, then five hours straight in a 180-degree sauna, for a minimum of twenty-one days—but infallibly, it leeched the poisons out of your fat cells, where they’d otherwise sit, crystallized, for the rest of your life.

Utterly desperate, Michalik gave it a shot. He could scarcely jog around the block that first day, but in the sauna, it all started coming out of him: a viscous, green paste that oozed out of his eyes and nostrils. By the end of the first week, he reports, he was running two miles; by the end of the second, his ex-wife verifies, his gray hair had turned black again. And when he stepped out of the sauna after the twenty-third and final day, his skin was as pink and snug as a teenager’s. Liver and kidney tests confirmed the wildly improbable: he was perfectly healthy again.

“Everything came back to me: my sense of humor, my lust for life—hell, my lust, period. Don’t forget, it’d been almost three years since l’d gotten it up—I had some serious business to take care of. But the greatest thing by far was what wasn’t there anymore. All the biochemical hatred I’d been walking around with for twelve years, it was like that all bled out of me with the green stuff, and I had this overpowering need to be with people again, especially my son, Stevie. I had tons of making up to do with him, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It kills me that I could’ve let myself get so sick that I was ready to die and leave him.”

Michalik went to his wife and told her he was going back to bodybuilding. It was his life, his art, he couldn’t leave it alone—only this time, he swore on heaven, he was going to do it clean. She understood, or at least tried to, but said she couldn’t go through with it again: the 2 A.M. feedings, the $500-a-week grocery bills. They parted amicably, and Michalik returned to the gym, as zealous and single-minded as a monk. In the last two years he’s put on 60 pounds, and looks dense and
powerful at 225, though he’s sober about the realities.

“There are nineteen-year-olds clocking in now at two sixty-five,” he says, shaking his head. “The synthetic HGH [human growth hormone] has evolved a new species in five years. By the end of the decade, the standard will be three-hundred-pounders, with twenty-three-inch necks that are almost as big as their waists.

“But all around the country, kids’ll be dropping dead from the stuff, and getting diabetes because it burns out their pancreas. I don’t care what those assholes in California say, there’s no such thing in the world as a ‘good’ drug. There’s only bad drugs and sick bastards who want to sell them to you.”

Someone ought to post those words in every high school in the country. The latest estimate from a USA Today report is that there are half a million teenagers on juice these days, almost half of whom, according to a University of Kentucky study, are so naive they think that steroids without exercise will build muscle. In this second stone age, the America of Schwarzkopf and Schwarzenegger, someone needs to tell them that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, bigger is deader.

 

BSG: Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream

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Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers.

Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.

“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”

By John Schulian

Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.

Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.

Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.

All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.

Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.

No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.

Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”

Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”

What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?

The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.

Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.

“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.

It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.

But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.

 

John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Elston and Paolo Di Lucente via MPD]

BGS: The Called Shot Heard Round the World

Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers. It’s an excellent collection, and this week we’ll be selecting a story every day to give you a taste. First up: Westbrook Pegler’s “The Called Shot Heard Round the World,” from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1932.

There, in the third ball game of the World Series, at the Cubs’ ball yard on the north side yesterday, the people who had the luck to be present saw the supreme performance of the greatest artist the profession of sport has ever produced. Babe Ruth hit two home runs.

Now, Lou Gehrig also hit two home runs, and Jimmy Foxx of the Athletics or any other master mechanic of the business might have hit three or four home runs and you would have gone away with the same impression that a factory tourist receives from an hour of watching a big machine lick labels and stick them on bottles of mouthwash or pop. The machine might awe you, but would you love it?

The people who saw Babe Ruth play that ball game and hit those two home runs against the Cubs came away from the baseball plant with a spiritual memento of the most gorgeous display of humor, athletic art and championship class any performer in any of the games has ever presented.

The Babe is 38 years old, and if you don’t know that he is unable to hike as far for fly balls or stoop as nimbly as he used to for rollers coming to him through the grass, that must be just your own fault, because he would not deceive you. As an outfielder he is pretty close to his past tense, which may mean that one more year from now he will be only a pinch-hitter. He has been breaking this news all year to himself and the customers.

Why, when Bill Jurges, the human clay pigeon, hit a short fly to him there in left field and he mauled it about, trying for a shoestring catch, he came up off the turf admitting all as Jurges pulled up at second.

The old Babe stood up, straightened his cap and gesticulated vigorously toward Earl Combs in center. “Hey!” the old Babe waved, “my dogs ain’t what they used to be. Don’t hit them out to me. Hit to the young guy out there.”

The customers behind him in the bleachers were booing him when the ball game began, but they would have voted him president when it was over, and he might not be a half-bad compromise, at that. Somebody in the crowd tossed out a lemon which hit him on the leg. Now there are sensitive ball players who might have been petulant at that and some stiff-necked ones who could only ignore it, boiling inwardly. But the Babe topped the jest. With graphic gestures, old Mr. Ruth called on them for fair play. If they must hit him with missiles, would they please not hit him on the legs? The legs weren’t too good anyway. Would they just as lief hit him on the head? The head was solid and could stand it.

I am telling you that before the ball game began the Babe knew he was going to hit one or more home runs. He had smacked half a dozen balls into the right-field bleachers during his hitting practice and he knew he had the feel of the trick for the day. When his hitting practice was over he waddled over toward the Cubs’ dugout, his large abdomen jiggling in spite of his rubber corsets, and yelled at the Cubs sulking down there in the den, “Hey, muggs! You muggs are not going to see the Yankee Stadium any more this year. This World Series is going to be over Sunday afternoon. Four straight.”

He turned, rippling with the fun of it and, addressing the Chicago customers behind third base, yelled, “Did you hear what I told them over there? I told them they ain’t going back to New York. We lick ‘em here, today and tomorrow.”

The Babe had been humiliating the Cubs publicly throughout the series. They were a lot of Lord Jims to him. They had had a chance to be big fellows when they did the voting on the division of the World Series pool. But for a few dollars’ gain they had completely ignored Rogers Hornsby, their manager for most of the year, who is through with baseball now apparently without much to show for his long career, and had held Mark Koenig, their part-time shortstop, to a half share. The Yankees, on the contrary, had been generous, even to ex-Yankees who were traded away months ago, to their deformed bat boy who was run over and hurt by a car early in the season, and to his substitute.

There never was such contempt shown by one antagonist for another as the Babe displayed for the Cubs, and ridicule was his medium.

In the first inning, with Earle Combs and Joe Sewell on base, he sailed his first home run into the bleachers. He hit Charlie Root’s earnest pitching with the same easy, playful swing that he had been using a few minutes before against the soft, casual service of a guinea-pig pitcher. The ball would have fallen into the street beyond the bleachers under ordinary conditions, but dropped among the patrons in the temporary seats.

The old Babe came around third base and past the Cubs’ dugout yelling comments which were unintelligible to the patrons but plainly discourteous and, pursing his lips, blew them a salute known as the Bronx cheer.

He missed a second home run in the third inning when the ball came down a few feet short of the wire screen, but the masterpiece was only deferred. He hit it in the fifth, a ball that sailed incredibly to the extreme depth of center field and dropped like a perfect mashie shot behind the barrier, long enough to clear it, but with no waste of distance.

Guy Bush, the Cubs’ pitcher, was up on the top step of the dugout, jawing back at him as he took his turn at bat this time. Bush pushed back his big ears, funneled his hands to his mouth, and yelled raspingly at the great man to upset him. The Babe laughed derisively and gestured at him. “Wait, mugg, I’m going to hit one out of the yard.” Root threw a strike past him and he held up a finger to Bush, whose ears flapped excitedly as he renewed his insults. Another strike passed him and Bush crawled almost out of the hole to extend his remarks.

The Babe held up two fingers this time. Root wasted two balls and the Babe put up two fingers on his other hand. Then, with a warning gesture of his hand to Bush, he sent him the signal for the customers to see.

“Now,” it said, “this is the one. Look!” And that one went riding in the longest home run ever hit in the park.

He licked the Chicago ball club, but he left the people laughing when he said good-bye, and it was a privilege to be present because it is not likely that the scene will ever be repeated in all its elements. Many a hitter may make two home runs, or possibly three in World Series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth made these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a World Series game, laughing and mocking the enemy with two strikes gone.


Westbrook Pegler (1884-1969) was one of America’s most widely read sportswriters during the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s. He then turned to political reporting, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for articles on union racketeering, and wrote columns that were reviled in many quarters for their mixture of personal invective and right-wing politics. 

BGS: The Better Man

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“The Better Man”

By Juan Williams

Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.

I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.

When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.

And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.

If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”

For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.

At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.

The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.

Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.

My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.

In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.

Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.


Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.

The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.

Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.

At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.

The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.

Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.


Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”

Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.

Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.

Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.

Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.

The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them offIt slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.

Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.

No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.

When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.

After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”

The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.

This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.

In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.

The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.


All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.

Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.

Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.

Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.

The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.

Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.

Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.

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But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.

In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.

My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?

Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.

Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.

In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.

Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!

By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.

Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.

Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.

In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.

My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.


As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.

I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.

The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”

At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.

But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.

There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.

Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.

Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”

Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.

I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”

I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.


Postscript

I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.

When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.

Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.

Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.

The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.


Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.

[Featured Image by Joe Maloney]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver