A Sentimental Fool

The only good to come out of having so much of my material accidentally deleted is that in going over the recovered posts, I realize that some need a lot of revision. This is a revised and greatly expanded version of the original post.

Karen Allen two

Have you ever had one of those sensory memories that transport you through time and space? It’s like being outside on a dark night, out in the country, away from any town lights, and having a flash of lightening illuminate a landscape known and remembered, but unseen, where every sense—except the one that transported you—is heightened, intensified. It happened to me in the grocery store the other day.

 

Darleen had a cold and I was doing the shopping. I was heading for the meat counter, pushing my cart up an aisle between tinned soups and tinned fish, neither happy nor sad, thinking—to the extent I was thinking at all—about not forgetting anything on my list, just absorbed in the unfamiliar routine of the mundane. And suddenly, as suddenly as a flash of lightening, I was three thousand miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over thirty years ago, sitting in a makeup trailer, on a tall, canvas-covered folding director’s chair, the wooden arms hard and smooth under my fingers. I could smell the pancake makeup, hairspray, even the deodorant of the makeup man. I could feel the welcome warmth of the lights on my face, the colder raw early spring weather on my back every time the door opened. I could see all the round pancake containers, eyeliners, little brushes, glue, mascara, tubes with unknown contents, spray cans, sponges, all laid out on a white towel on the Formica counter, the large square of the mirror, surrounded by lights, the face of the makeup man—he had a graying moustache—a man I haven’t even thought of since that time and that place. I could see my own face looking back at me, improbably young, in a blond wig and with a blond moustache glued on. And, most important of all in this split-second flash, I could see in the mirror the incomparable Karen Allen, getting her makeup done in the chair next to me, Karen Allen, intelligent, beautiful, sweet, charming, cheerful, remarkably free of both ego and neurosis in spite of her staggering beauty and talent, singing softly along to—

 

And I was back in the grocery store, standing between the soup and the sardines, shopping cart in my hands, listening to Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers singing What A Fool Believes:

 

He came from somewhere back in her long ago

The sentimental fool don’t see

Trying hard to recreate

What had yet to be created…

 

And it was that sense, a song unheard, or at least only unconsciously heard, piped in for the customers, that had for one brief, startling and magnificent moment transported me back to Cambridge, back to a beginning I once thought would last forever.

 

There were other songs that long ago spring, but in my memory it is always What A Fool Believes playing on the radio in that little makeup trailer, What A Fool Believes that Karen always sang softly along with, smiling happily if she caught you watching her going for the high notes.

 

It was spring in Massachusetts, spring in my life, spring in hers, spring in poor Brad Davis’ life, who wouldn’t live even to see his own summer, but who died with rare courage and dignity. The movie we were filming, A Small Circle of Friends, turned out to be a disaster. Not the movie itself—that was fine, certainly not great, but better than its fate—but its anti-war themes offended somebody high up at United Artists and they buried it. I went on to do Simon & Simon, Brad died of AIDS only a few years later, and Karen, God bless her, went from triumph to triumph: all the Indiana Jones movies, Starman, Shoot the Moon, with Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, a boatload of other movies and plays.

 

She was, when I worked with her, in a relationship with the musician/singer Stephen Bishop, and while I had a major crush on her, her relationship and my then marriage to a very pregnant wife precluded that crush ever being anything other than something both distant and unspoken, even unacknowledged. Besides, for all her easy friendliness and kindness there was a quality of the unknown and unknowable about her, a sense that she kept her heart firmly and wisely in check. Beyond all that, it was my period of intimidation. It was my first experience, as an actor, of slapping up against my own limitations, the narrow confines of my talent as weighed against the wide extent of my dreams and ambition. It was the first time I became aware of being in way over my head, working with other actors I felt were so much more talented than I. That dawning awareness made me feel very intimidated, by her, by the director Rob Cohen, by the fact of the film itself and the importance everyone attached to it (none of which it lived up to), by Brad and his wild, incandescent, unpredictable talent which sadly coincided with his equally wild, incandescent, unpredictable life. But most of all I was intimidated by my dawning recognition of own limitations as an actor.

 

As if by way of compensation, it was also the spring of my living dangerously. I was heavily into karate in those days, and whenever I had an evening free that coincided with the nearest dojo being open, I would walk up Columbus Avenue (I think) for a couple of miles to train and spar. For some reason, on one particular night John Friedrich decided to accompany me. I don’t remember why now; possibly he was interested in karate, but if so, the events of that evening almost certainly discouraged him from ever pursuing it. (And whatever happened to John Friedrich? He was so immensely talented. Why did he quit? Where is he now? Is he well? Is he happy?)

 

We had just passed from the relatively elegant environment of the Back Bay area into the less than elegant area of Boston proper when we saw trouble ahead. A girl was being followed and molested by four teenaged boys, and as we got closer I saw one of them grab her up underneath her skirt. She screamed, not a loud scream for help, but rather a sound of fear and despair. But she got help. I was still young enough to believe I was a lot tougher than I really was or ever would be, and I intervened. There’s no point describing it all in detail. It was an ugly and interesting and dangerous few minutes, and when it was finally over, the girl long gone, the boys—vicious little urban punks—finally backing down, I turned around and saw John’s face, and only then understood how much danger we had both been in.

 

The next day we were filming in an alley somewhere and a man, an ordinary man in an ordinary car, started to drive down the alley as grips and various crew members were trying to move light stands and dolly track and all the other paraphernalia of the business. The Business. God only knows what happened—I don’t—but suddenly the man stomped down on the accelerator, driving over equipment as crew members dove for safety. Rob and I were at the end of the alley, rehearsing a scene, and as the car sped toward us I only remember being angry, outraged at such outrageous behavior. I stood my ground and held up a hand (oh, imperious and majestic Jameson Parker!) for the driver to stop. He didn’t, and at the last moment I jumped, slapping the hood of the car with my hands, my body bouncing off the windshield, and I ended up on the asphalt. The driver actually slammed on his brakes, backed up beside where I was lying on my back, aired out but unhurt, and said, “You’ve got good reflexes, kid,” and he was gone before anyone had the wit to make a note of his license plate.

 

Two nights later, Brad Davis and Karen Allen and Gary Springer (another nice and talented actor vanished from the business) came to my room to party. Poor Brad was heavily into cocaine at that time, but Karen and Gary and I were sharing a bottle of Cognac, and when Brad and Karen left for their respective bedrooms, Gary and I decided to finish the bottle. So we were both feeling no pain when I walked out into the hall with Gary, very late or possibly very early the next morning, to say goodnight. My room was at one end of the hall, next to the laundry chute where the maids would drop the dirty sheets and towels, and the elevators were down at the opposite end. As we said our goodnights, we both noticed smoke at that far end of the hall.

 

Marijuana was even more ubiquitous than cocaine in those days, and Gary, who was as funny off-screen as he was on, made some joke about somebody having a party and why hadn’t they invited us, but even as we laughed, we could see the smoke was increasing. Gary came to his senses quicker than I.

 

“Jameson, I bet somebody’s fallen asleep in bed with a cigarette. We better go put that out.”

 

“Good thinking. Let me grab a blanket off my bed in case we need it.”

 

I didn’t really think we would need anything that dramatic, but I had once smothered a small household fire with a blanket, and I’ve always believed in being over-equipped. But as we turned around we saw smoke starting to come up out of the laundry chute by my door.

 

Never have two actors sobered up so quickly. For a moment we stood, staring, and then, like some old vaudeville routine, we each grabbed at the other, saying, “Oh, my God,” in unison. There was no mistaking the implications of what we saw.

 

I turned to Gary. “Go sound the alarm. I’ll start banging on doors and waking people up.”

 

He took off running for the far end of the hall. I started hammering on doors. It was after midnight, so people were asleep and discombobulated about being woken up. As each door opened, I would calmly, or as calmly as I could, explain that the hotel was on fire, that they needed to get out quickly, use the fire escape at this end. And each time, to a man, and to a woman, the response would be, “Oh, let me go pack my things!” And each time I would have to say, “No! Grab a coat and get out!”

 

The one exception was a guy who was totally naked. The alarm was screaming, and the smoke was so thick by this time that I was crawling on my hands and knees down the corridor, banging on the doors. A door opened and because of the thickness of the smoke, all I could see, from my perspective, were two very hairy legs and a penis. I did my little spiel and he immediately started down the corridor, gloriously naked and hirsute. I had to yell at him. “Hey, Mister! It’s only about forty degrees outside. You might want to grab a coat.”

 

We got everyone out in our hall, Gary hammering on the doors on one side as I went down the other. Then we crawled back down to my end of the hall, where the emergency door now stood open to the fire escape. Smoke was pouring out the door and we stood out on the metal platform of the fire escape, helping people (I remember an elderly lady in a bathrobe, with permed white hair, who could only step down on one leg, and the agonizing slowness with which she moved) trying to calm them, urging them all to hurry as best they could.

 

And then we heard a woman’s voice, back through the smoke at the far end of the hall. “Help me! Help me! Please help!” We looked at each other.

 

“Don’t do it, Jameson.”

 

“I have to. I have to try.”

 

I thought I could do it. I really thought I could be a hero.

 

I took a deep breath and ran into my room, which was right by the fire escape. I quickly soaked a towel in the sink, then ran back outside, took a few more deep breaths, clamped the wet towel over my mouth and ran down the corridor. I knew I could hold my breath for a full three minutes, but I forgot to take into account the fact of running, of physical exertion.

 

The electricity had gone off and emergency lights at either end of the hall had gone on, but the smoke was so thick that all you could see was dim, gray haze. I couldn’t even see the doors on either side of me as I ran. My eyes were tearing up so badly that I couldn’t see much of anything. At the far end of the corridor, my hall T-boned into another. It was even darker, the smoke even thicker down there. The voice had stopped calling.

 

“Hello! Where are you? Hello?”

 

Nothing.

 

“Hello! Does anyone need help? Hello!”

 

Nothing.

 

I must have taken an involuntary breath, because I began choking and coughing. I clamped my wet towel back over my mouth and took a deep breath. And learned when smoke is that thick, a wet towel doesn’t do you a damn bit of good. I knew immediately I was in trouble.

 

I started to run back toward the fire escape, but the hotel suddenly tilted on its side and I ran up against the wall, running and sliding until I fell. I was on my feet in an instant, running again, but this time the hotel tilted the other way and down I went again, the hotel now rocking and spinning around me like some horrible and malevolent carnival ride. I tried to get my feet under me, but the best I could do was crawl, and then Gary was there, his hand under my arm, half dragging, half carrying me to the fire escape, gasping, choking, coughing, wheezing, crying.

 

It was a terrifying moment. I really hadn’t understood how quickly a man could be overcome by smoke.

 

It was far more terrifying for others. Two people burned to death. Dozens of others were hospitalized for burns, for smoke inhalation, for broken bones as they jumped for their lives (including our sound mixer, who broke both legs). Rob Cohen hung by his hands from the window ledge of his room, screaming, for five minutes before he was rescued by a fireman on a ladder, and he was not what you would call a strong or physical type. I know it was five minutes because our producer, Fred Zimmerman, was crouched on the ledge of his room and timed him as something to take his mind off his own danger.

 

Finally, toward dawn, with the fire out, everyone rescued or accounted for, the Copley Plaza made arrangements for other, temporary accommodations, sending some people to a Sheraton up the street and the rest of us to some other hotel. Pity the poor devils who went to the Sheraton. It turned out that the fire had been deliberately started by a disgruntled former Copley employee, and that son-of-a-bitch went to the Sheraton and bragged to his uncle, who worked there, about what he had done. The uncle, not unnaturally, didn’t believe him, so the son-of-a-bitch set fire to that hotel, compounding the nightmare.

 

So, the spring of awareness, the spring of intimidation, the spring of living dangerously. It was also the spring of new beginnings. My oldest son was born just a few days later. I flew down to New York and got there in time to welcome him into the world. It is a delicious, intoxicating feeling, the birth of your children. Any newborn thing, cat, cow, horse, dog, whatever, fills you with wonder about the miracle of life on this abused old planet, but your own children add to that a sense of the divine order of things, of infinite, glorious possibilities and bright, confident new dawns. Manhattan twinkled below me as I floated back to my apartment on West End and 70th. The next day I was back in Boston, filming.

 

All these memories and many more as I ticked off items from my shopping list, walking between the eggs and the lettuce, the bread and the oranges.

Karen Allen three

Karen Allen. So beautiful, so talented. Always kind, always even tempered, always smiling.

 

Being a sentimental fool myself, I went on-line to see how she was doing and what she was doing, and found—to my delight—that she is apparently thriving. She has a son, writes plays, has a yoga institute, designs clothes, and has a website where she sells handmade cashmere clothing of her own design. I have added it to my favorites; if you buy something from her, give her my love and tell her I wish her well. Tell her I saw her in a small-town grocery store on the other side of the continent.

 

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale

Never coming near what he wanted to say…

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I always enjoy reading your blogs, and especially love it when you discuss movies and actors you have worked with. You have a beautiful way with words. I’m not sure you you and Darleen have access to Netflix or not. If you do, House of Cards with Kevin Spacey is a terrific show, and I was very happy to see your Mackie in it! He is doing a terrific job, y’all should check it out if you get a chance. Hope you have a terrific week.
    Amy
    Frisco, TX

  2. Anonymous says:

    Love the way you write, sir. Greg says you guys have settled in and are staying. I’m so glad. Sending love and hugs to you and Darlene.

  3. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/usSzNwYUKNQ

    Karen Allen played Marion Ravenwood in “Raider of the Lost Ark”
    I do remember her in the movie. I especially remember the part where she slaps Indiana Jones on the face. I saw the other movies and I don’t remember any of the other leading ladies so she made quite the impression on me. She reprised her role in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” I think Shia LeBeouf played the son Indiana don’t know existed

    I know what you mean about certain songs. A song that I heard when I was young will bring me right back to the memory associated with it. Most people will remember the songs of their youth. Which explains why I like music of the 60s, 70s, and the 80’s. One song that brings back vivid memories is the song “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. It will bring back a memory of me walking through the Freshman dorm common area. There were a large number of students having a party and dancing. On the stage was a band playing that song.

    http://youtu.be/qe1ScoePqVA

    Another song I remember is one that I learned in grade school. Back then we had a music teacher and that teacher taught all of us the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” Did I mentioned we were in grade school. Several years later some one told me that the song was about Pot. I have no idea if that is true or not.

    On a different note you certainly seemed to have a lot instances where you came close to death. Either you have a very good Guardian Angel or a lousy one. I can’t decide which one it is.

  4. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/5n3C2XI9Ths

    Sentimental Journey.

    I must have heard this on one of parents’ records.

  5. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/3jmdLpsK_k8

    When the Beatles 50th anniversary going special was on I got the chance to watch it. So when they came to the song “Yellow Submarine” I had to laugh. It took me back to the time when we were visiting relatives in New Jersey. When ever we did this we had a family Reunion on my mother’s side of the family . At some point after all of the food was eaten the kids started to get restless. So one adult turned on the TV and the movie “Yellow Submarine” was on. I will say this we were all grade school kids or younger and we were watching the movie cartoon “Yellow Submarine” I think that even some of the adults were watching and no one had any clue what the Beatles were really singing about. I still do not have a clue except that it seems to be about some sort of drugs. Ok, now every one sing “We all live in a Yellow Submarine, Yellow submarine”

  6. Anonymous says:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/11/welles-crowther_n_3909792.html

    The story of the fire reminded me of this story that happened on 9-11. It is tragic, sad and heroic in equal measures. Not many people would even consider going back up into a burning building. The fact that you did in order to try save some one else really shows your courage.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was a big fan of “bad” Brad on OLTL. I watched all of your movies, and followed you to Simon and Simon. I read your book, “Accidental Cowboy,” and found it wonderful, and now that I’ve found your blog, well, I’ve been reading it all evening, and I know I’ll be back for more.

  8. Anonymous says:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/senior-citizens-the-new-face-of-aids/

    Even though this news video is a little older I still thing it has valuable information for older people. I don’t seem to hear much about HIV or Aids now. People need to realize that this disease has not gone away.
    I do remember hearing about the large number of people who died from Aids in the eighties. Some of them were famous. Celebrates like Rock
    Hudson, Liberace and Freddy Mercury just to name a few. Others like Ryan White who never wanted the attention got it because of blood transfusions.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Oscars are on March 2nd. Are you going to write any more reviews about the nominated movies before then?

  10. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/Zicw_dVwhfM

    The Beatles

    In My Life. “There are places I remember….”

  11. Anonymous says:

    Why would a studio stop the movie “A Close Circle of Friends” because of the Anti-Vietnam sentiment? By 1980 every one knew that the war was a mistake and it was over. Also, in 1979 the movie “Apocalypse now” was in theaters. That movie had far more Anti-Vietnam sentiment than “A Close Circle of Friends.”

  12. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    last week I read this post, more exactly I actually glanced over it. I thought I knew it already… Big mistake 😉
    Now I´ve reread it again and realized how much I´ve missed. And I almost feel like I should apologize because my short comment doesn´t do justice to it at all.
    Karen Allen seems to be an outstanding person. There is no reason to judge you for having a little crush on her. You´re overwhelmingly honest again. You know, many men don´t consider beeing married as an obstacle. I appreciate this strength of character very much.
    And I´m surely not the only one…. 😉
    Well, you really have a talent to bring yourself into danger. Who would have thought so…. 😉
    I can´t judge you for trying to to stop that mad driver in the car on the set. I once stopped a gallopping horse in a similar way. I was called nuts but it worked. So much for that.
    Your experience in that burning hotel is much harder. With your writing skills you really manage to bring me into fear although I know it´s all over long ago already. Oh my, your life hasn´t been easy so far at all.
    But I love what you wrote about the birth of your son. There´s so much love and admiration for new life in it. You found so heart-warming words… No one could ever have said it better.
    I know why I always keep returning to your blog 🙂
    Thank you.

    Best wishes
    NW

  13. Anonymous says:

    http://youtu.be/85LSmnSFe1A

    Ever since I read this blog this song has been going around and around in my head. Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? So, I found the song on YouTube. It is called “Sentimental Lady.”

  14. Anonymous says:

    When I was a child I was nearly hit by a car and I could have died. This incident happened when I was learning how to ride my bike without training wheels. When a child is first learning how to ride a bike it is not unusual to fall down or lose control of the bike. That what happened to me. I was riding up and down the sidewalk when I lost control of the bike and went down our driveway and fell right in front of a car being driven down the street . All I heard were brakes squealing and the car stopping. I looked up and saw the front bumper right above my head. Another few inches and I would have died. Of course, the driver, my mother and other neighbors came running out of their houses yelling and screaming. They probably thought that the car hit me. The driver ran around the front and I remember some people helping me up. I I was more stunned then scared and I don’t think I had any injuries expect some skinned elbows. After that the bike went back into the garage and I spent the remainder of the day inside the house.

  15. Anonymous says:

    C’est vrai qu’une simple musique, odeur ou paysage peut nous faire resurgir beaucoup de souvenirs !!!!! Il y quelques mois, dans un grand magasin, il y avait la vidéo des Rolling Stones qui avaient été invités par Muddy Waters dans un club à Chicago. Cela se passait en 1981. Lorsque j’ai entendu la musique, j’ai eu l’impression que c’était hier alors que c’était il y a plus de 30 ans. Je me suis rappelée des moments heureux que j’ai pu passer avec mon ex-mari et mes enfants qui étaient très jeunes à cette époque……
    Vous avez vraiment eu une vie très tumultueuse. Vous n’aurez jamais assez de votre vie pour tout écrire !!!!! Ou alors, il faudra vivre jusqu’à 150 ans…..
    Et je vous rassure, votre QI m’a l’air tout a fait correct 🙂
    Anita

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