In Praise of Semi-Famous Men
My best friend, Roger Hunt, esq., has a thing about dead guys. Not all dead guys, though he is like me in that he reads the obituaries every day. Not so strange. You can find some interesting/heart-warming stories in there every day, made even more interesting when you realize that being born in San Francisco in 1915 means you've seen some massive changes in your hometown. It means when you were a kid, the Sunset was all sand dunes. Also means you had more than 50 good years of this town before the hippies came in and screwed it all up.
R. Hunt mostly enjoys -- though that may not be the correct word -- take time to mourn, rather, the deaths of b-level celebrities. It was a sad day when Richard Mulligan died, for example. That day we sent at least ten emails back and forth recalling his classic turn as George Custer in "Little Big Man", and then his reprisal of that role (sort of) for "Teachers." After all, Custer is to Richard Mulligan as Mark Twain is to Hal Holbrook.
Last weekend was bad for b-level actors. In the span of three days, we lost Don Knotts, Darin McGavin and Dennis Weaver. For anyone whose childhood world included Barney Fife (in reruns), Mr. Furley, Kolshak the Night Stalker and McCloud, it was correct and honorable to take time out of your day to reflect on these three actors' work.
As usual, Hunt and I rushed to see who would tell the other of the latest death. On Thursday, I texted him the simple message: "Don Knotts." He understood immediately: "No. Really?" A few hours later he came back with, "RIP Kolshak." Most people, media outlets included, led their McGavin obits with mention of his role as The Old Man in "A Christmas Story." I can't speak for Roger Hunt here, but I feel pretty safe in saying that we both consider that to be a Johnny-come-lately reference, sort of like if someone knows Bea Arthur from "Golden Girls" instead of "Maude." Karl Kolshak , the Night Stalker, made a huge impact on our little kid brains. He solved crimes, it is true, but they were creepy crimes. With "Dark Shadows" off the air, and "The Sixth Sense" too scary for me to watch without having bad dreams, Kolshak filled the important prime time supernatural creepiness gap (already capably filled during the day by endless "Twilight Zone" reruns).
I'm not a huge "Andy Griffith" guy, and R. Hunt, who once went to law school at Loyola and as a result had some L.A. entertainment industry friends, told me that Don Knotts was a miserable person, but I always appreciated the singular uniqueness of Knotts' talent. Barney Fife could be overplayed, but his turn as Mr. Limpet was classic, as was his uncredited cameo in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." And though I'm more of a Mr. Roper guy, Furley had his place in the "Three's Company" pantheon.
Dennis Weaver, honestly, I could take or leave. I whistled the theme song to "The NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie" a few times, but to be honest, I never really watched "McCloud." We were a "McMillan and Wife" family. My mom liked that Rock Hudson, even though she somehow already knew that he was gay. How, Mom, how did you know? Is this a secret perceptive mom gift that comes in a rush when your first child is born? Of course, though, Weaver was great in "Duel."
I'm reading this all back and thinking that maybe it's no mystery at all that I've gotten to 40 without establishing a beachhead in any career. I sure can go on about TV and minor celebrities, though. As I once told a grad school professor, "Forget Ginsberg. I saw the greatest minds of my generation memorizing the lyrics to 'The Brady Bunch' theme song."
Hunt always says that these b-list celeb deaths are "sad." His emails and texts are heavy and morose. But I don't know. Weaver, Knotts and McGavin made it into their 80s. They did some good work. What's kind of sad, or at least melancholy, to me, is that as each of these guys goes, we lost a link to a time that's never going to come back. I read McGavin's bio. It's full of all of the familiar stories about guys who came of age in the 1940s and 50s -- fought in World War II, came to New York (or L.A.) with $10 in his pocket and sold pencils on the street corner, was a bartender, washed dishes, etc. before finally getting his big break.
What's it going to look like when some present-day b-lister dies at 82? How are we going to remember Ashton Kutcher or Chris Klein? "Went to high school, college for a year, modeled for Ralph Lauren. Got a part on a sit-com, became a Scientologist, hooked up with numerous equally famous babes, did some bad movies, made so much money that by the time he was 25, his life in no way resembled any of ours. Dodged paparazzi and showed up in roped-off VIP sections of briefly "hot" nightclubs.
So in that respect, Roger Hunt, I join you in mourning these men.