Did you watch the Oscars? Of course you did. It’s part of the shared American experience, like watching the Super Bowl, or the running of the Kentucky Derby, or the State of the Union address—entertainment on a grand and glorious and unbelievable scale.
But watching it, especially in the light of today’s world, where stars and paparazzi total their cars trying to avoid or catch each other, where the stalkers—who used to be a relatively uncommon danger back when I was plying my trade in the Hollywood bell jar—require every star to have the kind of security that used to be reserved for presidents, reminded me of the downside of fame. Make that plural; the downsides of fame, which are many and manifold.
I had a taste, early on in my career.
I was playing Brad Vernon, Brad-the-Cad, on One Life to Live. Doing a soap opera was a lot of fun, but it was also a sixty-hour week, so when I had time off, I took advantage of it. I had gone down to Washington, DC for a week’s holiday to visit some friends, an elderly couple who had been friends of my parents, and on the second day I began to get sick. I will spare you the unpleasant symptoms, but I proceeded to get weaker and weaker very quickly, and things came to a head when I began to pass blood. I was taken to Georgetown University Hospital.
A nurse in the emergency room made me lie down on a gurney, which I thought was rather strange. Almost instantly—or I may have passed out—a doctor appeared, looked at me, and said, and these were his exact words, “Jesus Christ! Get an I.V. in this man immediately.”
For some reason, possibly because I was pretty much out of it by that point, this struck me as unbearably funny, and I started to laugh. The doctor leaned over me and said, not remonstrating, but kindly, “You’re a very sick man,” the double meaning of which I found absolutely hysterical.
They put me in a room with a man who had just had some kind of painful kidney surgery that he told me about in equally painful detail, and they began running tests. The first tests came back showing that I had dysentery, but since no one contracts dysentery in Washington, DC, they decided that it might be a form of intestinal cancer and proceeded to run more tests, and then more tests and then still further tests. They all said the same thing.
Dysentery—for such it turned out to be, contracted from some recalled cheese that my elderly friends hadn’t heard the recall notice about—is not a romantic disease. You don’t die gracefully and beautifully, like Greta Garbo as Camille, or Ali McGraw in Love Story, or Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, about which Oscar Wilde famously observed, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” (It occurs to me all of these are women; do women die more gracefully than men?) Dysentery is a nasty, dirty, smelly, yucky way to die, and believe me, all you want to do is die, preferably in private. And privacy was the one thing I was not allowed to have.
I had been recognized as Brad-the-Cad, and for the first time I got a taste of just how unpleasant fame can be. Nurses kept coming in to ask me questions about the story line, or sometimes just to look at me as if I were a curious sideshow exhibit. An orderly with theatrical ambitions, used to come and sit at the end of my bed and play the guitar and sing at me, auditioning, hoping I would be his big break into Show Biz, offering improbable suggestions for how I might work him into the storyline of the soap opera, for God’s sake
When I had to get scoped (an extremely unpleasant, undignified, and damned painful process in those long ago days before flexible tubes and min-cams were developed) the doctors were accompanied by a gaggle of medical students—a university hospital, remember—some of whom recognized me and proceed to identify me, as if I were a specimen, for the edification of those students who didn’t waste their time watching soaps.
“Is he the lawyer who’s married to…?”
“No, no. He’s the tennis pro who stole the money from…”
“Oh! The one who’s dating Jenny!”
“That’s right. And his father is the guy with…”
“So he’s the one who raped Karen!”
An especially hard thrust of the scope.
Of course, how any of them recognized me is a mystery, since when you’re having a scope run up you, the part of you that is most readily visible isn’t your face.
This nightmare dragged on for almost a week while they kept denying that I could have dysentery. Finally, as a sort of grand finale, they decided to do a complete barium series on me.
A complete barium series is the sort of thing that Attila the Hun might have reserved for his most hated enemies. The first half consists of drinking barium, which I can only compare to drinking liquid lead, only not as pleasant tasting. The second half, the really fun half, consists of having the barium pumped up your backside.
I was still so weak that that I couldn’t get out of bed unassisted. I hadn’t shaved or showered in almost a week, and dysentery is not a clean way to die. I had used my—what? fame? notoriety? whatever—to get two hospital gowns, one on normally, the other on backwards, in the hopes that this might give me a little more dignity. It didn’t. No one looks dignified in one hospital gown or two or twenty. I had been issued a pair of paper slippers that were disintegrating on my feet. And, just to cap things off nicely, they couldn’t find a wheelchair with an I.V. hook, so I had to hold my own I.V. over my head as I was wheeled down to the dungeons where they were going to do the second half, the fun half, of the barium series.
The nurse who wheeled me down there was an enormously stout woman, probably a sweet and kindly lady under normal circumstances, and a comfort to her mother, but the excitement of Show Biz had gone to her head. She clearly regarded me as her personal show-and-tell, and as she pushed me along she would call out to friends, acquaintances, co-workers, hell, anybody she saw, identifying the filthy, feeble wretch in the wheelchair for their interest and edification.
“Hey! You know who this is I got here?”
“Clarissa! Look over here. Who you think this is in this wheelchair?”
“Hey Sally! Look who I’m taking down to x-ray.”
Oh yes, by all means, do look. Put a quarter in my ear and I’ll dance for you.
Most men have probably had fantasies about being in the hospital with a bevy of beautiful young nurses doing various intimate things to them. It is an indication of just how far gone I was that, as this public ordeal went on, the thought crossed my mind that, for once, I hoped and prayed the nurses in the x-ray room would be more than exceptionally plain, preferably elderly and downright ugly.
So of course they were three of the prettiest, sexiest little things I have ever laid eyes on. Not only pretty and sexy, but ardent, die-hard fans of One Life to Live.
All during the miserable process, as they pumped barium up my ass and took x-rays of my tortured intestines, they kept up a lively conversation with me.
“Did you really rape Karen?”
“Are you going to return the money you stole?”
“Why don’t you and your Dad get along better?
“Are you going to marry Jenny?”
“Didn’t your mom used to be on As the World Turns?”
“What’s going to happen to Susan’s baby?”
And even as I answered their questions I kept up my own interior monologue.
“Please, God, let me die. Let’s just get it over with. Angel of Death, take me, please, right now.”
Finally, after the last humiliation—the natural expelling of some of the barium into a bed pan held by one of the pretty young things—as the enormously stout carnival barker started wheeling me on the homeward leg of my grand tour, I holding my I.V. bag over my head like the Statue of Liberty in extremis, one of those nubile little nurses ran down the hall after us with a piece of paper in her hand. She actually wanted my autograph.
I shall leave you with Henry Dobson’s Fame and Friendship:
Fame is a food that dead men eat -
I have no stomach for such meat.
In little light and narrow room,
They eat it in the silent tomb,
With no kind voice of comrade near,
To bid the feaster be of cheer.
But Friendship is a nobler thing –
Of Friendship it is good to sing.
For truly, when a man shall end,
He lives in memory of his friend,
Who does his better part recall,
And of his fault make funeral.