My ex, about whom I have written with affection and bitterness, in equal measure, is dealing with his father's impending death. He's going to go visit him during his final days. This merely seems like common filial duty, but it involves a long trip to a foreign hellhole, and a ton of emotional baggage that must be checked at the gate, so to speak. My thoughts are with him. He never had a father figure in his life. Life dealt me a different hand. I had an overabundance of fathers.
I've posted a lot about my dad Tony. I don't want to slight him today. However, he's passed on for nearly six years, and wouldn't mind if I spent a little time talking about this guy. Tony loved him too.
This is going to be an unapologetic paean of love. The man had his faults and weaknesses, he was human, but not in my eyes as a child. Even as an adult, looking at him with as unbiased a view as I can muster, given my adoration, I can't say that his sins were ever those that harmed anyone but himself. That alone sets him apart from anyone I've ever met.
Professional history, with varying degrees of accuracy and detail: link #1 , link #2 , link #3, link #4, link # 5 , link #6 (and note that omitted from the list of cast members with whom he worked in that cinematic masterpiece "Crash Landing" is Nancy Davis, aka Nancy Reagan -- who at the time of filming, 1958 or so, was still widely known as "The Best Blow Job In Hollywood") , link #7 (which proves his international appeal) . . . etc. etc. I've made my point. (Photo gallery to right courtesy of Spookytoms, with much gratitude.)
I've said it before, I come from a family of Z-List actors. My parents, Hal, and his wife Ruth, toiled together in little theater years before I was born. They eventually became best friends. Childless, Ruth and Hal (when a toddler, I had a blanket name for them both: "Uncarootenhal") were anointed as my godparents, and took the job seriously. They were primary residents of the village that it took to raise this child. After my parents divorced when I was quite young, Hal took it upon himself to visit me weekly, even after my mother remarried. He never talked down to me, was never "too grown up" to happily join in whatever I wanted to do, was probably the only person whose love for me I never doubted, and vice versa. I learned more from him in an offhand way than nearly anyone else in my life. There's too much for me to say about what he meant to me, and this isn't about me (well, of course it is, it is ALL about me, 24/7, it's my damn blog).
Hal was born in the piney woods of some backwater town in Georgia. He got out early. He was handsome as hell, tall, powerful, and was drawn to acting, after some stints as a boxer and, rumor has it, a moonshine runner. He had a perfect deep baritone actor's voice, and lost the Georgia accent quickly (although he dipped into it when telling a joke or when he patiently read all the Brer Rabbit stories to me, with a different voice for each character.) After his time in community theater, he did get some film and TV roles in the late 50's-early 60's. Mostly in the rash of sci-fi-horror films of the time -- giant bugs, space invaders, zombies, you name it. He was a good enough actor for classic theater (and I'm sure he would have preferred it), but he viewed his career with philosophical good humor. Actors take what they can get. (That's Hal as lead zombie towards the bottom of the poster to the left.)
One acting story: he was on the studio lot for one of these roles at the same time Elvis was making a movie. Hal's path to the parking lot at the end of the day took him past Elvis's trailer, and the King was leaning against it, bored. Elvis called out a greeting, and Hal replied, lapsing back into a semi-Southern accent, instinctively, I suppose. Recognizing another good old boy, Elvis invited him into the trailer for a conversation that lasted for nearly an hour, full of humor, memories of the South, and love of music (Hal played a passable guitar, Carl Perkins as a favorite). Hal said there was no pretension to the man, in fact he seemed to genuinely appreciate Hal's own friendly, unpretentious nature. They were two of a kind. Elvis could have used a Hal in his life.
He was a wonderful, wise witty gentleman of the old school. Everyone, and I mean everyone, loved him from the moment they met him. Even people who generally disliked all of humanity made exceptions for Hal. Like many actors, he was secretly very shy, self-effacing, and more than a little insecure, I realize now. But he was so charming and entertaining, both one-on-one or at parties, that everyone else in the room receded into the background. His secret was how special he made you feel, which is the key to true charm. (Hal is to the left, and my father to the right, of some actress in the photo to the right.)
Hal never went to college (a very poor background), but he was brilliant. His favorite reading, which he would try to explain to me even as a child, was Civil War history and quite advanced works on physics, cosmology, and the higher reaches of mathematics. I understood a little more as time went on, but when he got to theories of relativity and the search for the Unified Theory, he lost me. When I was about 10, I had to write a science report on a topic of my choosing to read aloud to the class. My first choice, "color" was rejected, which demonstrates my limited grasp of even what science was. The only source available was Hal, and I remembered him talking about relativity, so I asked him to tell me about it. As beads of sweat formed on his brow from the impossibility of the task, he essentially dictated a child-accessible description of Einstein, relativity, its proofs and effects. I took it down verbatim, and actually understood it in a dim way at the time. When I read it to the class, the silence was deafening. Everyone, including the teacher, had the glazed-eyed expression that told me that I had just recited Swahili. I got an A, I suspect because of its incomprehensibility to any layman, anyone not actually hearing Hal's version. ("Uncarootenhal" to the left.)
He was intensely loyal. As I said, until I became a blase teenager, he visited me weekly (always greeting me by pressing his face to mine, nose to nose, eyes open, and exclaiming, "We're stuck!") Some jokes are funny once. Some are funny every time, and if it came from Hal, its humor was inexhaustible. So we had an entire catalog of shared rituals, stories, jokes. Even when I was in my impossible teens and despised all adults, his regular visits -- no longer overtly to spend time with me, but just a family visit -- I found a reason to hang out, casually, pretending to ignore everyone, but hanging on his every word.
I'm not revealing anything here by saying he adored my mother. Their completely platonic love affair lasted nearly 50 years. No one ever talked about it, but it was the world's most poorly kept secret. Every childhood visit to me was concluded with several hours, and many drinks, with my mom. They'd laugh, and drink and smoke and simply bask in their affection for each other. None of their spouses were threatened. It was chaste and pure and perfect. It formed an ideal for me, and I think I have something similar with another friend, or I hope it can become an approximation. (Mom and Hal onstage during their theater days together to left and below right.)
He even tried to create with my little brother (half-brother, technically, my mother and her second husband's son) the same kind of relationship as he and I shared. He largely succeeded, as Steven loved him with the same intensity I did, and to this day cannot talk about him without a crack of loss in his voice. Steven chose a different path for his life, and I can't say what lessons he learned from Hal. Still, I'm grateful for Hal's efforts with Steven.
Random memories: Hal sitting on a tiny chair in my tiny playhouse (he was 6'2" and the ceiling on the playhouse was maybe 5 foot tops) pretending to eat with all due respect something I had concocted from mud, weeds and a few artfully placed pebbles (even before Martha Stewart, I knew presentation was everything). A Halloween when I dressed up as a Beatle (back when they were cute mop-tops in black suits) and he plucked the Official Beatle Wig from my head and placed it on his own, picked up my play guitar, and sang "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah." My mother has the photo of this, or it would be here for your enjoyment. A full hour when we crouched together in the back yard, watching from beginning to end the process of a spider building its web, with his quiet commentary illuminating the remarkable beauty and complexity of nature even in its most common events. That is possibly my favorite childhood memory. Hal's tender, abashed, response when I asked him an appalling question. I went through a period of questioning my paternity in my early 20's. The most eligible (and hoped for) candidate was Hal. After liquoring myself up for courage, and him for in vino veritas, I asked him if he was my biological father. He did not flinch, but blushed, and said softly, "I'm not, honey, but I wish I was."
I filled the role of daughter for him and Ruth; family is largely what we make it.
His last years saw a frightening decline in health. There's no question that he was an alcoholic (of the kind that simply grew a little quieter and unsteady, never loud, abusive or foolish) all his life. He constantly smoked unfiltered Chesterfields (but in a rakish holder, one of his few vanities). By the time he was 65 or so, it caught up with him. The robust, physically magnetic man shrank, the voice became weak, his mind remained sharp, but his presence was so much smaller, the hidden insecurities and shyness now visible. It was painful to see. I was young enough (mid-20's) and callow and stupid enough to avoid him. It hurt too much and I couldn't muster the decency to push aside my feelings, to stop taking and start giving. In terms of karma, it worked out. My shame in deserting Hal gave me the strength to stand by my father during his last years, and his own sad descent into Alzheimer's.
He eventually developed lung cancer. I had lived in San Francisco for several years by that time and had seen him rarely during that time. It was inoperable, terminal, and quick. My mother called to give me the news, and reported that he wanted no visitors or calls, he wanted to go with dignity and not leave anyone with memories of his difficult end. I could not let him leave the earth without trying to express what he meant to me. I wrote a letter, something along the lines of this post, but shorter, more to the point, and full of all those old in-jokes we shared. Ruth, his widow-to-be, remained at his bedside in the hospital, and a few days before he slipped into a coma, she received the letter. She read it to him. He asked it to be repeated several times, and according to Ruth, tears rolled down his cheeks. He then asked her to put it under his pillow, where it remained until he died shortly thereafter.
Hal, I hope there is a heaven full of wonders for you, spiders building webs, audiences cheering your Shakespearean performances, endless golf games, many children of all ages with whom to share your gifts, large frosty glasses of bourbon and branch that never make you ill, and when it's my time, I hope with all my heart I join you there.
Happy Father's Day.