“A Television Is a Box that Sits In Your Living Room and Fails to Live Up to Its Potential.”
My mother never watched an episode of Simon & Simon. My father was killed long before I ever amounted to anything, but my mother lived to see Simon & Simon take its brief place at the top of the television ratings. She used to comment to me in amazement about the number of people who would talk to her about the show as she ran errands in her little town in Vermont. She seemed flabbergasted to see her only son’s face smiling out at her from magazine covers in the supermarket. But she never watched the show.
I only once asked her specifically to watch an episode. It was a script written by the late Mike Piller and it was—and still counts as such—one of the best scripts I had the privilege of reading in over a quarter of a century as an actor. It was the kind of script that created a little electric current of excitement not only in me and in Mackie, my co-star, but in everyone involved with the show. We knew it was exceptionally good, and as we filmed it we knew we were doing good work. It was going to air the Thursday before a long weekend when I was planning to fly back East to visit my mother, so I made a point of calling and telling her about it, about how good it was, and how proud we all were—cast, crew, director, producers, all of us—and asking her to watch it. But after I arrived, when I asked her how she had liked that episode, she said, “Oh, well dear, your stepfather wanted to watch an opera on PBS, so we watched that instead.” I never asked her again.
I know from snippy comments made by my mother’s sister and various cousins that my being an actor was considered a source of embarrassment by them, that being a successful actor was a greater embarrassment, that being a successful actor on television was an even greater embarrassment, and that being a successful actor on a popular, lightweight, intellectually insignificant television show was the greatest embarrassment of all. I think my mother’s feelings may have been more ambivalent, but if I had ever had any question about her reaction to Simon & Simon, it was forcefully dispelled at her funeral when her oldest and best friend came up to me and said, “For God’s sake, when are you going to quit that dreadful show and do something worthwhile?” At my mother’s funeral. Since the lady who said it was someone to whom my mother spoke and confided in regularly, it gave me a pretty accurate assessment of what my mother must have thought.
I’m honestly not sure why this was the family reaction. I think it had to do with the concept that success should be limited to either intellectual, public service, or—least significantly—financial fields, and that popular entertainment was insignificant at best and distasteful at its worst. One of the phrases I most often heard from my mother when I was growing up was, “fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places,” which is probably—at least in part—why she was so flabbergasted to see my face every time she bought groceries.
So when Simon & Simon became a hit and I started getting large amounts of fan mail I was very flattered, but not quite sure what to make of it all. And then one day I got a letter, the first of many such during the course of my former career, from a lady who described herself as a “shut-in” and thanking me for taking her mind off her troubles. I have no idea what she specifically meant by “shut-in,” or what her condition or disability was that caused her to be shut-in, but I remember thinking that if that was all Simon & Simon ever achieved, if the only claim to fame we could ever make was that we helped someone get her mind off her troubles for an hour every week, that wasn’t a bad thing. And more: it was all the justification we needed for doing the show.
Now I find myself in the role of shut-in. It’s a temporary thing, of course, and not even completely accurate. I am supposed to do a certain amount of walking every day in my orthopedic boot, and I can do that outside on the path from the front door to the carport, back and forth, back and forth, like a prisoner in a cell, until my broken leg begins to protest. We were warned, Darleen and I, to be very careful—any fall might have serious consequences—so for the first week Darleen would walk with me, her hand on my good arm. Then she switched to sitting on the front patio and monitoring my slow and awkward walking until I would finally collapse into a chair beside her, and we watched the horses in the pastures below the house while the dogs dozed at our feet, occasionally snapping at flies or lifting their heads to contemplate the lizards doing their pushups in the sun.
So I’m not, literally, a shut-in the way so many less fortunate people are. But it is such a radical and sudden curtailment of my normal range of abilities that I find myself having trouble adjusting. I am slow and awkward in every movement, not just walking. Reaching for a glass of water or cup of coffee, turning on a light, standing up or sitting down, all these things, these most natural of movements, require forethought. Darleen must cut my food for me, and then the process of eating, of getting the cut food from the plate to my lips with my left hand, becomes an exercise in eye-hand coordination. Trying to avoid spilling food from the fork means feeding myself with agonizing slowness, taking very small bites, thinking ahead about how best to actually get the food on the fork and not on the floor. I was raised in an era when one was supposed to clean one’s plate (“Think of the starving Armenians,” was a sentence I heard constantly, though that was clearly a leftover from my mother’s youth, the Armenian holocaust having taken place over thirty years before I was born.) and now, apart from no desire to eat, the mechanics of getting all the food off my plate are more than I can master. The discomfort and difficulty of eating are greater than any discomfort of hunger.
I tend to sleep a lot—part of the body’s healing process—dozing off in my chair, and while I had thought this would be an ideal time to catch up on much of my reading, my energy level is so low that I usually find it hard to concentrate for more than a few pages at a time.
Enter the television. The medium I once starred on, where I once provided comfort and distraction to others, now provides both to me. Darleen and I watch a lot of news during the day, alternating between rage and laughter as we listen to the arrogance and mendacity of the people whose salaries we pay. If I had ever hired anyone to help me build a fence or weed whack my property who was half as dishonest and contemptuous and incompetent as the politicians and bureaucrats who thumb their noses at the American people every day, I would have run the son of a bitch off my property. But apparently on a national level, those behaviors only lead to success. When our blood pressure levels begin to reach dangerous highs, we turn to Turner Classic Movies. Darleen, having grown up in the business, is constantly amazed at how limited and ignorant I am when it comes to classic old movies, but the result is that now it is a delight to discover gems I have never seen. His Girl Friday and The Seven Year Itch nearly put me back in the hospital I laughed so hard. I’d never before seen The Searchers, considered to be possibly the greatest Western ever made, and based in part on the kidnapping of the mother of famed Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. (Not a close relative of mine, alas.) Cactus Flower, with the incomparable Walter Matthau, Libeled Lady, I Love You Again (and who couldn’t love Myrna Loy?), Kind Hearts and Coronets (and who couldn’t lust after Joan Greenwood with her delicious purring voice?). The Sunshine Boys was a marvelous revelation to me, and a trip down memory lane for Darleen, because vaudeville was where her mother grew up and honed her skills. Life With Father, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, How Green Was My Valley were the kind of sweet and nostalgic period pieces I am sucker for. And there were occasional bombs. I would have sworn it was impossible for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn to collaborate with director George Cukor and still turn out a dreadful piece of Gothic garbage, but after we watched Keeper of the Flame, I realized even the greatest talent sometimes takes an inexplicable nosedive. It actually cheered me up a little, because it put some of my own disasters into perspective. There are also the more recent movies, from the last twenty years or so, that both of us somehow missed: Master and Commander; Dirty Dancing (and I remember Cynthia Rhodes, laughing and endlessly cheerful and professional on the set, weeping in her hotel room in Cape Town, slim and lovely in a bikini on a beach in the Indian Ocean, longing for her boyfriend, singer Richard Marx; where is she now, is she happy, is she well?); Four Feathers; All the Pretty Horses. And we happily watch movies we’ve already seen, but are delighted to watch again: Breathless; The Fortune Cookie; The Apartment; An American in Paris, The Wrong Box, Gaslight, Mister Roberts, The Thin Man, so many others.
Sometimes we watch Cesar Millan and marvel at his extraordinary patience with people who seem to have lower IQs than their dogs. We watch some of the real-life crime shows, most of which involve people who don’t appear to have grasped the fact that divorce is safer, easier, and ultimately less costly than murder. Sometimes we watch Jon Stewart, who has the rare capacity to find humor in the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the American political system. Masterpiece Theater, Austin City Limits, occasional nature shows on National Geographic, re-runs of Seinfeld and Frazier, I am grateful to all of these. For a few hours every day they have all helped me take my mind off my own troubles. And that’s not a bad thing.