After a few years of doing theatre in and around New York, I go out to Hollywood to do a television pilot in which I play a country doctor. The pilot doesn’t sell, but the producer puts me under contract to Filmways, and I become a recurring character on Green Acres — as Eddie Albert’s law partner and redundant straight man to Eva Gabor’s Hungarian malapropisms.
The producer likes me so much he takes me to dinner one evening and tells me his new pilot idea, spinning off Arnold the Pig, the real star of the show anyway. I will play Arnold’s lawyer and Arnold will inherit a lot of money, and I will accompany him on worldwide tours.
I tell my agent that I’ll walk out on my contract if such a project materializes, which it doesn’t. Virginia hasn’t raised — erratic as her childrearing techniques are — any kids dippy enough to think it’s a clever career move to be seen by millions as the international sidekick to a pig.
Back in New York and before this, I study Shakespeare with several first-rate acting teachers.
I’m not bad, they say. But it turns out I never act in a Shakespeare play. I’m better at light comedy. That’s how I’m cast and that’s how my career goes. The lesson I’ve learned by the time I’m permanently settled in Los Angeles is: Look as cool as possible, playing beautiful, light-comedy death scenes that never actually risk death; but on the other hand, don’t be so dumb as to get caught acting with a pig — no matter how big a star he is.
One time, after Jessica and I have bought our house in Beverly Hills, I’m offered an okay Shakespearean role (Oliver) in As You Like It, at the outdoor Pilgrimage Theatre in Los Angeles. The cast includes Roscoe Lee Brown, Kristoffer Tabori, Penny Fuller, and a handful of other excellent actors.
I’m not in it because the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, is going to do a play of mine in their new play series. Michael Kahn, the artistic director, will stage it. I can’t miss a chance like that. The play is about a Shakespearean actor who falls apart because he isn’t being hired anymore and moves into a squalid hotel, where he spends an hour-and-a-half of the audience’s life feeling theatrically forlorn. The actors are David Rounds and Caroline McWilliams. The show gets rave reviews, or rather the actors do, and it moves on to New York, where it has a limited run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Later, Kahn directs a taping of it for Connecticut PBS.
I see it in a motel room in Connecticut. Unfortunately, it doesn’t gather enough interest to be distributed nationally to the other PBS stations. So I lick my minor wounds, not worrying much about it, because I’ve told myself things are going well for me back in California. I return to Beverly Hills, where I sit in my bathroom, staring down at Jacqueline Bisset and glancing from time to time at the script for an episode of Love American Style that shouldn’t be this hard to learn.
I get a call from Jessica. Abigail is missing.
Missing! There are no words to describe my feelings, hearing that — knowing the company she’s been keeping — hearing that she’s . . . Jesus, missing. She’s entered an expensive LA rehab facility, then, as soon as she’s checked in, disappears. No one knows where she is — other than on the street somewhere. Her drug is crack cocaine. She was given her first taste of it by a famous rock singer, whose name I can’t say, or bear to think of.
Abigail has had a four-year high (mostly natural) as the lead singer/songwriter of a band called Swamp Boogie Queen. The producer, Phil Ramone, has also produced Ray Charles, Sinatra, Streisand, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Bono, and many others. He has signed Abigail and “her boys” and for a while, it looks as if they’re going to have a wonderful career.
It doesn’t pan out. It’s a good group, the songs are exceptional, Abigail has the passion of Janis Joplin and the voice of an angel, but the music business is as certain as whatever the opposite is of death and taxes, and the band breaks up. She has cared more about her singing than anything in her life. And now it’s gone and she’s been on crack for a year and in my mind, she’s alone out there. Her “friends” occasionally die from what she’s doing.
I spend the night watching television, channel surfing, and glancing every once in a while at my liquor cabinet. I go to the telephone and stare at it. I can’t think of a single thing to do. I watch an infomercial that’s selling songs from the ’50s and ’60s, mostly about how tragic it is to be a suburban teenager in love. I make and sip at a small martini, and remember a night when Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino were at our house, and Al spent the entire evening playing with Abigail, ignoring everybody else there, including Jill. He was preparing for his role in Scarecrow with Gene Hackman and, in his Actors Studio single-mindedness, I guess, didn’t feel like talking to adults.
He talked to Abigail, who was three.
Years later, when Abi is about twelve — I shouldn’t have allowed this — I watch Godfather II with her. As the film nears the end, I realize she’s been looking more and more crestfallen. She’s remembered Al sweetly and can’t believe he can be so mean.
Naturally, I figure her drug problem is Al Pacino’s fault.
Remembering that Robert Mitchum told Abigail, “Your grandfather could knock ’em back pretty good,” I fix myself just one more tiny martini, then find my copy of the superb The Making of Casablanca by noted film historian Aljean Harmetz. I wonder if Abi knows what her grandfather designed for his own gravestone. It seems to me, as I read it again, there was a sad wistfulness for life as his was coming to an end from liver disease:
1889 — 1967
ALL THINGS ONCE
ARE THINGS FOREVER.
SOUL, ONCE LIVING,
For what seems like a year, although I guess it’s only a few days, I don’t know where Abigail is, but oddly it feels as if I do. It’s as if I can see what she’s seeing, feel the blues she’s feeling, lost, standing in the middle of a street full of strangers. She knows she’s due someplace, but she doesn’t know how to get there. She doesn’t know where to go, so she sits down on the curb, rests her chin in her hands, and stares. She’s huddled up inside her coat like the Little Match Girl, feeling a pain she can’t put a name to.
We come home one night during this time and find the following message on our machine:
Dad? Linda? Are you there? You don’t screen your
calls, do you? No . . . no, I know you don’t. Daddy, I
I was hoping to talk to you. I don’t know where to go.
I mean I can go to a couple of “safe” places. But I
wouldn’t know what to do there. . . . Television. I can’t
read right now. Fucking television! I’m sorry. I don’t
mean to talk to you like that. Not to you. But anyway,
I was hoping you could give me some advice about . . .
About . . . I know, I probably wouldn’t act on it . . . but . . .
but at least I could think about it and, you know, begin
to make some really . . . good decisions, do something
constructive, get out of this hole and, I don’t know —
Live. That’s all I want to do. I just want to live!
I tell Linda, “We should have been here!”
She holds me for a long time, then pats my face dry with the scarf she wore out tonight, takes off her coat, goes into the kitchen and makes a pot of coffee.
I feel aloneness, although I’m not alone. I don’t know if it’s about Abigail, or Linda and me, or if this one’s simply my own. Ann Stuart chafes at my mind again, but I don’t draw anything like a conclusion from it. The ache of isolation is a topic nobody can really make sense of, not therapists, not preachers, not blues singers, nobody.
After my marriage is over, I check into another hotel that features a lobby like the axe murder lobby. There’s not much to do in the cheerless rooms of these places, so I end up getting pissed on either gin or vodka. I’ve always preferred my liquor clear — I want to be sure it isn’t concealing something poisonous, something that might mess with my sense of time, which reminds me to wonder which marriage has just ended. It has to be the second one.
I turn on the television. They don’t do news anymore, or if they do, my point of view has gotten so bent around that I can’t tell the difference between the real news and the showbizzy kind. I see a press conference in which the police chief or the sheriff of the municipality in question in some sniper murders names all the people who’ve worked on the case. It screams out show business. He recites a long list of deserving peace officers and detectives.
But I keep expecting acceptance speeches. “I’d like to thank the commissioner, my sleuthing coach, my producer; and Mom, Dad, this is for you!”
“Richard!” I feel John Rival’s voice go into pleading overdrive. “There’s a lot of bad feedback coming in about your drinking. Sid (Sheinberg, the head of Universal Studios, with whom I’m now under contract) heard you’re doing booze and pills.” How the hell would Sid Sheinberg hear that? How would anybody? I don’t call around and announce this stuff. There’s a pause. “That can kill you.” He breathes into the mouthpiece. “I’m concerned for you.” More breathing. “Richard?”
For a moment, I wonder if he’s got the wrong number. Then I remember my professional (not to mention otherwise) identity crisis: that I’ve been switching my stage name back and forth, between my given one and my Casablanca-prompted one. I’m billed as “Richard” in The Shootist and a few other things.
“They want to test you for that pilot. Can you do a test?”
“John, right now, I couldn’t learn the names of the other agents in your office.”
“Goddam it, Richard! Richard?”
Maybe he’s always called me that, I can’t remember.
“I care about you.” Oh, bullshit. You care about money. “I’ll messenger you the script. You want it messengered to your home?”
“I don’t have a home, John, and messenger is not a verb.”
“Where shall I send it?”
“Just a second. I’ll switch you to the front desk. They’ll give you the address, if somebody hasn’t decapitated them.”
As if he’s just come up with the perfect, penetrating question, he says, “Rick? Is it simply that you’re lazy? Is that the problem?”
“No, John, I’m not lazy at all. I’m terrified, which can sometimes be confused with lazy.”
I hang up the phone and light a cigarette from the one I’m already smoking and wonder if I have a little dementia coming on, because I’m standing in the middle of Linda’s and my backyard on one of the highest pollen count days of the year, smoking a cigarette that I don’t know where I found. In my other hand is a bottle of Hendrick’s Gin, which is very expensive — too expensive to guzzle directly from the bottle, apparently what I’m planning to do. It’s the middle of the day.
The telephone rings. I drop the bottle.
What a waste.
Abigail asks if I’ll come pick her up. She’s gives me an address near the Staples Center.
When I arrive, she’s waiting outside of one of those drug houses you hear about. She looks haggard, can’t weigh over ninety-five pounds. I take her to a park, where we sit on the grass, and I try to convince her to go into a rehab Jessica has researched, called Beit T’Shuvah. I tell her if she doesn’t go somewhere, where she can get real help, she’s going to die. She tells me she’s fine, just not quite herself right now. She wants to come stay with Linda and me for a while.
I can’t think of any way to tell my daughter she cannot come to my house.
I tell her to get into the car, then drive her to Beit T’Shuvah.
As we pass a strip mall on the way there, Abigail asks if she can have an ice cream cone. We stop, each of us gets one, and we eat them at one of those heavy plasticky tables with an umbrella over it. We don’t say a word. We’re both crying.
At Beit T’Shuvah, the woman responsible for making the decision asks Abigail if she thinks she can do this, does she have spiritual resources because she’ll need them.
Abi glances at me, and with a longing that breaks my heart, says, “My father and I are very spiritual.”
This is news to me.
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