What I remember most is laughter.
We would be on the set, waiting in our chairs, or rehearsing, or, most likely of all, actually filming, and one of us, usually Mackie, would ad-lib something or come out with some one-liner and off we would go. God only knows how much film was wasted on shots of one or both of us becoming suddenly incoherent with laughter, roaring, gasping, eyes tearing, legs weak, stomach muscles burning as we staggered out of frame, howling.
I remember fatigue, rare bursts of temper, occasional adolescent behavior, some misbehavior, even tears. I remember famous names and famous faces, as well as glamorous ancillary events that our own fame brought us, events I feared and despised. I remember anonymous names and faces, many greatly loved, many dead now. I remember press junkets that made me feel like a much prized frozen hamburger—catered to, the center of attention, pampered, and absolutely indistinguishable from the hamburger ahead of me or the hamburger behind me. Or the undiscovered hamburger still to come a few years hence. I remember girls, lots of girls. I remember feeling lost, unsure of who I was, and trying to forge an identity that had nothing to do with me or reality.
But most of all, I remember laughter.
I attended a convention a few years back in New Orleans, a huge, Outdoor-industry thing, exhausting in its size and scope. I had made plans to meet Mackie there—somewhere, somehow—prior to our having dinner that night at Galatoire, his favorite restaurant, on Bourbon Street. I hadn’t seen him in many years. We missed each other repeatedly at our agreed upon meeting spot and I was weaving my way through the crowd when, suddenly, there he was, standing still, just as a cat might freeze before it pounces, watching me with the old bemused look I know so well. It is a look that says: Gotcha, I saw you first. And: I have a half-dozen quips ready on my tongue. And also: Let’s see what you come out with. It is a look both welcoming and challenging, as if humor, even kindly humor, were a competitive thing, a weapon of civilized war.
He is heavier now, and grayer in both face and hair, the unhealthy gray of the heavy smoker he used to be. In certain lights, at certain angles, I could see in one eye the tell-tale flat and fishy iridescence of potential cataract problems, a gleam I recognize from professional boxers I have known over the years, a gleam that speaks of blind spots and trouble ahead. But the handshake that greeted me was as strong as ever, the tongue as quick, the tilt of head as confident.
I know this man. I know him as well as it is possible for one man ever to know another. For eight years I spent more time with him, day in, day out—and many a long night too—drunk and sober, working, playing, camping, hunting, the vast portion of each year, more time than I spent with my then wife—and in some ways as intimately, too, for acting, like jazz, involves an intuitive interplay that is almost like making love—until I know him so well I can detect nuances that tell me instantly when he is honest or false, sure or uncertain, happy or sad, lying to me or lying to himself.
I have known him in good times and bad. I have seen him craven in the face of circumstances, physical and moral, that left me unfazed. And I have seen him show towering grace and dignity in circumstances that would have undone me. I have seen him indulge in ridiculous pettiness. And I have seen him show real and royal generosity. I have seen him show childish immaturity, and singular wisdom. I have seen him, in short, at his best and at his worst, as he has seen me. And, for better or for worse, like it or not, we are forever linked in the public memory, like Fric and Frac, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Like Simon and Simon. Whenever I am recognized and asked for an autograph, invariably I will hear, “What’s your brother up to?” “Where’s your brother?” “Why aren’t you doing another show like your brother?” My brother.
Auditions are the worst thing, the most excruciating thing. Auditioning for a play, on a brightly lit stage, staring out into a darkened and empty auditorium—empty of all but disembodied voices that offer neither help nor hope—is perhaps slightly worse than auditioning for a movie, which is characteristically done in an overcrowded office where you can actually see the boredom on the faces you are trying to impress, but we’re only talking degrees here. It’s like saying: Being roasted over hot coals is worse than being boiled in oil. There is a reason why actors who reach a certain stage of preeminence refuse to audition anymore. They may argue, and rightly so, that they don’t have to because of their stature and reputations, but it is also because they don’t like the diarrhea-inducing agony any better as stars than they did as wannabes.
But back in those days—this would have been late ’79 or early ’80—producers generally had greater respect for and empathy with the desperate and terrified actors who paraded before them and it was customary to chat for a few moments and give the actor a chance to stop hyperventilating.
So when I walked in to audition for a pilot at that time called Pirate’s Key, I was introduced to the writer and executive producer, Phil DeGuerre, and to Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris who were representing Universal Studios. After we had shaken hands, Phil made the mistake of asking me how I liked the script.
“God, I love it. It’s got a great energy to it, a wonderful blend of tension and humor. The relationship between the two brothers is inspired. It’s as if you took the character from…” and I named the hero of a famous series of detective novels “…and divided him into two people, Rick and AJ, and then added some of the sense of humor of…” and I named a highly successful television detective series.
All three men froze. There was a long silence during which all the blood drained from Phil’s face. He looked like a man who realizes, too late, that he has just swallowed a bad oyster. The silence continued and all three of them looked at each other.
I started to laugh. I realized that I had, quite by accident, named the precise sources of inspiration for Pirate’s Key. Stealing is routine, a way of life in Hollywood. The rule of thumb back then was: The better the source you are stealing from, the better your end product is likely to be, so steal from the best. (Obvious examples: West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet; Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness.) There is nothing wrong with it. Shakespeare stole from other sources for most of his plays. The key is, if the original author is still alive—and consequently in a position to sue—make sure you change things around enough to avoid messy litigation. Clearly, all three men were now wondering if, in fact, things had been changed around enough.
Phil pulled himself together first. “Don’t ever say that outside of this room.”
I read for them and either because the script was so good that no one could mess it up or because I now felt somewhat in a position of power, I did an excellent job. I read so well that the upshot was that I was offered whichever role I preferred. Since I looked barely out of my teens, it would have been an act of madness to take the role of the older brother, even though I felt it was better written. Instead I chose AJ and a few days later Phil called and asked me to read with the actors auditioning for Rick. I was delighted to be asked. I was delighted to do it. I had no idea what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be.
I thought it was going to be very easy. I really did. The script was so well written, the patterns of speech and rhythm of delivery so intrinsic to the character, so obvious, I thought, that it would be a simple matter to find a Rick. Instead, we were at it for weeks. It seemed we auditioned everyone in Hollywood. If they were breathing, sentient, capable of getting in and out of the room under their own steam, and male, we auditioned them. I read with famous stars who had had their own highly successful series, and with unknowns who had just gotten off the Greyhound bus. I read with one Tony award winner, and with an actor who went on a few years later to win an Emmy. I read with poor devils who seemed to have cleft palates and dysphasia (though, to be fair, I have given that impression myself at more than one audition). I read with men who looked enough like me to pass as my twin. I read with men who resembled me only to the extent that they had the normal accompaniment of appendages. I read with men who towered over me and with men I could have used conveniently as a coffee table.
Then, finally, after several weeks of this, we were sitting in the office one day when Phil stopped pulling out fistfuls of hair and got a thoughtful look on his face.
“You know, I remember an actor who worked with us a couple of years ago on Baa Baa Black Sheep who was very good. What the hell was his name? McRaney! Gerald McRaney. Let’s see if we can locate him.”
He leafed through his Players Directory and made a call. (The Players Directory no longer exists, driven into oblivion by the internet, but it was a sort of studbook for actors. It was divided by sex, obviously, and then further divided into categories: Children, Characters, Comedians, Young Leading Men, Leading Men. I never understood the tacit implication that if you were funny, you couldn’t be a leading man. Or if you were a character actor, you couldn’t be funny. I was always disappointed that they didn’t have an Aging Roué category, but that would probably have taken up too much space.)
“We’re in luck! He’s right here on the lot, doing an episode of The Incredible Hulk. Let’s walk down and see him.”
In those days, Universal hadn’t yet figured out that they could make more money as a theme park than as an actual working studio and there were many TV shows and movies constantly in production on the lot. On any given day you might see Jim Garner cracking jokes with his crew, Jack Klugman reading the Racing Forum, Rod Taylor with a six-shooter on his hip, Angela Lansbury dining in the commissary, or even, once, Robert Redford talking quietly to Sidney Pollack in an alley between two stages. There was a constant hum of activity and it was all very heady and exciting for a young, naïve, star-struck actor only recently arrived from New York.
We went down to the Incredible Hulk set—I caught a glimpse of poor Lou Ferrigno, painted green from head to toe and looking about as happy as you would under those circumstances—and asked for Gerald McRaney. In due course a man came out of the make-up trailer and walked over to us. I took one look at him and knew immediately, beyond any possible shadow of a doubt, that this guy was all wrong for the role of Rick. He was skinny (Mackie was always thin in those days, but he was just getting over a bout of stomach flu and was positively cadaverous), balding, and because he had shaved his moustache for the role he was playing and was wearing a suit, the general impression was of a preternaturally serious Certified Public Accountant. A CPA with a secret sorrow and an upset stomach. There was no hint or trace of Rick in him and I knew this was never going to work.
Nevertheless, we shook hands and chatted for a few moments and he took a copy of the script and agreed to come read for us later that afternoon.
As we walked back to the office Phil peered at me.
“What do you think?”
“Well, Phil, to be honest, he isn’t at all what I had in mind, physically. I mean, he’s incredibly thin and he just doesn’t look like what I thought Rick would look like.”
“Yeah, but he’s a good actor. Let’s see how the reading goes.”
Well, we had already auditioned some very good actors. We had already auditioned some award-winning actors. On the other hand, I happened to know my afternoon was free.
He didn’t look any better out of make-up. In fact, the poor devil looked like he still had the stomach flu, which, of course, he did, though we didn’t know that. We took our scripts and stood in the middle of the room. Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris smiled politely and tried hard not to look as if they were bored to tears. Phil leaned forward in his seat. I took a breath and we were off.
Thirty-two years later that moment remains, etched on the copper plate of my memory. He was perfect. All the rhythms and shadings and inflections I had heard in my head, that I knew were there in the writing but that no one had been able to reproduce before, all of them were suddenly being spoken. The scene that had been creaking ponderously, dustily along in other hands now crackled to life with humor and energy. Phil looked ecstatic. Milt and Robert were blinking like men who have had blindfolds removed in bright light.
Several days later we read again for the CBS executives. According to protocol—after all, CBS was going to be paying for the show—we gave them two possibilities. I read first with a very nice, amiable, Famous Actor who had just finished a six-year run starring in his own series. He was as good as anyone and better than most and was, at that time, a household name. Then I read with Mackie. Again, he was perfect.
They left and a few minutes later Phil came out into the hall.
“Which of these two guys would you rather work with?”
I thought about it. I liked them both. The Famous Actor was a nice guy and I felt vaguely embarrassed for him, for I knew what the right choice was. But I also knew that if we went with the Famous Actor, the odds of making it onto the air were infinitely better and I said as much.
“Phil, if we go with [Famous Actor] we’ll be on the air in the fall. If we go with Mackie, we may not make it on the air, but at least we’ll have made a hell of a good movie of the week. I’d rather make a good movie of the week than a bad series.”
Phil smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’m going to go back in there and fight for Mackie, but I may need your help, so stay close.”
He didn’t need any help. The CBS executives were no fools; they knew what they had seen. I knew even then, and time as proven me right, he was a far better actor than I.
Buster Welch is the legendary grandfather of cutting horse trainers, the best there ever was. He is the man novelist Tom McGuane, himself in the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame, has described as an oracle. In an interview, McGuane once quoted Buster Welch as saying, “Every really good horse is a freak. Anybody who sets out to do something unique is going to acquire the status of a freak in his own family.” Mackie is the freak in his family.
He was born a story teller, a raconteur, a master of the amusing anecdote, the unexpected quip, in Collins, Mississippi. Curiously, he always talked more about his grand-parents and older brother than of his parents and sister. In particular the brother, Buddy, loomed larger than life in his anecdotes, so that I had a vision of a towering titan of a man, a heroic, two-fisted swashbuckler. When I met him, I was surprised to meet a quiet lawyer smaller, physically, than Mackie, but just as charming, just as funny. Many years later, when we did a Simon & Simon reunion movie, Buddy played a judge, and it was easy to see why Mackie became an actor.
His father was a builder of spec houses and Mackie started working with him very young, eight or nine years old. Then, in junior high Mackie hurt his knee playing football and with a combination of a free school period and knowledge of what to do with a hammer, someone suggested he help build sets for the school play. Someone else put him in the play. It was like giving crack cocaine to an addictive personality.
“I loved it, right from the start,” he told me recently. “And then a year or so after that I saw the film of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, the one John Gielgud directed as a dress rehearsal, and the light bulb went on. I thought: That’s what it’s all about.”
He made a show—probably the only bad performance he has ever given—of following in his older brother’s footsteps and went to Ole Miss, but he dropped out and moved to New Orleans where he built a life around working half the year in a repertory theatre and the other half on off-shore oil rigs. After five years he lit out for Hollywood.
Mackie and I were both essentially mischievous children and we settled into a routine of bedeviling each other and the crew of Simon & Simon with practical jokes in a variety of amusing ways. Amusing for us, anyway. Some of it was completely juvenile (jacking the producer’s car up onto apple boxes so that it looked as if everything were normal, but the wheels had no traction; breaking into the same producer’s office one night and carefully reversing everything in his office, so that the picture on the right side of the desk was switched with the one on the left, the contents of the right-hand drawer switched with the left-hand drawer, and so on) but some things were more imaginative.
We were filming a scene in a bank, down in San Diego, and as we were well ahead of schedule, we persuaded the director to let us have some fun. The scene consisted of Rick and AJ questioning a crooked bank manager. When the camera was on us, you could see the extras playing the tellers and bank customers over our shoulders. One extra who worked with us fairly regularly, a kindly, gentle man in real life, was enormous, and had one of the most threatening, villainous faces I have ever seen. We gave him a prop gun, a .44 magnum with a six-inch barrel, and instructed him to rob the bank while we were doing the scene. So what you saw, while the camera was on us, was Rick and AJ earnestly and obliviously interviewing the bank manager as a robbery took place behind them.
It was a very funny sequence. After we saw it we decided, just as a joke, to cut it into a complete version of that episode, to be sent to CBS as if it were intended for airing. Predictably, what we got the night the CBS executives screened it was frantic phone calls. Even after we explained that we had a real version standing by, appreciative laughter was conspicuously absent.
Mackie’s birthday preceded mine by about three months. The first year I did something pretty benign, put some balloons in his trailer, gave him a bottle of wine, something like that. But the second year I started going down a road which was ultimately to have disastrous consequences.
That second year, prompted by some mischievous little gremlin that lives inside me, I came early to the studio with thousands of balloons. I had made arrangements to have a canister of helium standing by and with the help of some of the crew, I was able to get all of those balloons filled up and crammed into Mackie’s trailer, crammed from floor to ceiling, crammed so that he couldn’t even get in, crammed so thickly that even with a knife it would take him about twenty minutes to fight his way in. It was fun. Mackie was suitably amused.
The third year, for reasons that are now obscure, I decorated his trailer with scores of Playboy centerfolds and all the flimsy, trashy lingerie our wardrobe mistress could lay her hands on, which was quite a lot. I also had some rather less subtle, ancillary items lying around. The general effect was of an exceptionally tacky bordello the morning after the night before and prior to the cleaning lady’s arrival. Every man on the crew had to stop by and take a look. It was fun. But Mackie wasn’t quite as amused as he had been the year before because his then wife, who had tendencies towards jealousy, was following him to the set to spend part of the day with him. The only reason she hadn’t arrived with him was because she had gotten caught in traffic. Mackie showed a turn of speed I had never seen before, hastily tearing down centerfolds, cramming bras and panties into my and the wardrobe mistress’s arms, hiding stuff under pillows and in drawers. Mackie wasn’t quite as amused, but I was immensely gratified.
The next year I guess I really did go over the top. We were filming in Freemont Place, a gated, highly exclusive enclave within the already exclusive neighborhood of Hancock Park. When we were on location, we were picked up in our motor homes and so I was unable to do anything to Mackie’s trailer. Instead, I hired a stripper-gram. She arrived shortly after lunch and preceded to sing, after a fashion, Happy Birthday, while doing what she had been paid to do, as the cameras kept rolling. The director had conniption fits, convinced that if the neighbors reported us, we would lose our filming permit. The crew turned out in droves and had hysterics. The young lady finished her rendition with very little left on, sitting in Mackie’s lap, running her hands through his hair and making cooing sounds. And the cameras kept rolling.
Mackie was suitably mortified. I was laughing so hard I could barely stay upright. But when the young lady finally let him up, Mackie looked at me through narrowed eyes and breathed heavily through his nose. “Oh, are you going to pay.”
Well, forewarned is forearmed. When my birthday rolled around we were filming on location in a dance studio somewhere in Hollywood and I was very much on my guard. The morning passed uneventfully and I was just beginning to relax a little when I noticed Mackie’s stand-in, Scott, standing next to a very tall, not pretty, but highly sexy redhead. Warning bells went off and as soon as I had an opportunity I confronted Scott.
“Hey, Scotty, who’s your friend.”
The son-of-a-bitch never missed a beat. “Oh, she’s one of my clients.”
When he wasn’t working as a stand-in, Scott was a small arms instructor, and I knew he prided himself on his ability to teach ladies how to fire handguns. But still I was suspicious. I turned to the girl.
“What kind of handgun do you shoot?”
But Scott was ready and he jumped right in. “She’s just starting. I’m going to let her try a bunch of my guns, different ones, and see what works best for her.”
Well, damn it, that’s exactly what a good instructor does, so I let it go.
A few minutes later we broke for lunch. I noticed that Scott and the redhead had disappeared, but before I could give it any thought my stunt double, Randy Hall, suddenly stepped in front of me as I was walking out to my trailer, a length of rope in his hand.
“Hey, JP, do you know how to tie a Turk’s head knot?”
And without further ado, he started tying one. But he clearly hadn’t mastered the damn thing because he couldn’t tie it for beans. Finally, after innocently watching this pathetic charade for several minutes, I said, “Randy, that’s absolutely fascinating, but maybe we could do this after lunch. I haven’t got much time.” And I pushed past him.
I walked out into the street and over to my trailer. I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. My lunch had already been put on the counter and I was focused on that. I was dimly aware, out of the corner of my eye, down a little corridor, that something was on the bed in the back, but our wardrobe man would frequently lay my next costume change out on that bed, so I really didn’t pay any attention. Just then, with exquisite timing, there was a knock on the door and as I turned around I got an eyeful of what was on the bed.
It was the redhead, and the only thing she was wearing was a Happy Birthday card propped up between her spread legs. She was a real redhead.
The door opened and there was my then, now ex, wife, bottle of champagne in one hand, present in the other, stepping in the door.
There may be men who can deal gracefully and imaginatively with the unexpected and simultaneous conjunction of a wife and a naked redhead. I am not one of them. With great presence of mind I said, to the world in general, “Jesus Christ! There’s a naked girl on my bed!”
My ex laughed and closed the door and came up the stairs as the redhead rose up from the bed. She was very tall and had a lovely body.
I believe I mentioned that Mackie’s wife was jealous. My ex made his look like Saint Rita of Cascia, the patroness of marital fidelity. Under these circumstances, it would be hard to find any spouse who wouldn’t display at least some ruffling of feathers, and I felt confident that feather ruffling was about the very least thing that I could expect now from my spouse. She looked at the redhead, who was walking down the little corridor with a wavy motion, and her jaw sagged. Then she turned on me. She threw the champagne and the present at my feet and hissed: “You bastard!” She managed to get more “s’s” into both those words than I would have believed possible. And then she ran out of the trailer, slamming the door behind her.
Meanwhile the redhead walked up next to me. Her breasts were practically in my face. “Happy Birthday,” she purred.
Well, I admit I wasn’t handling things very well at this point. In fact, it would probably be safe and accurate to say that I had totally lost my grip. “Oh, thank you. Thanks. Thank you very much. Thanks. Thank you,” I babbled. It then occurred to me that my marriage was ending and that it might behoove me to find my wife before things got too completely out of hand.
“Would you excuse me? I think I better go find my wife.” I actually said that. I actually said that to a naked redheaded hooker. And I vaulted out of the trailer.
My wife was nowhere to be seen. She was nowhere to be seen for the very good reason that she was hiding in Mackie’s trailer where the two of them were laughing their damn fool heads off.
After that I called it off—no more practical jokes. Clearly, if Mackie was going to be that devious, that underhanded, that treacherous, not to mention low enough to enlist outside help, there was no telling where it all might end. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything to top him.
Apart from talent and a sense of humor, Mackie has a quality I greatly admire. It’s a quality best expressed by Big Daddy (a role Mackie is finally old enough to play, a role I would love to see Mackie play) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “A pig squeals, but a man keeps a tight mouth…”
A man who keeps a tight mouth wouldn’t want his troubles hung out on the internet for all to see, so I will only say that in thirty-two years life plays many jokes on all of us, some kind and amusing, some not so. Mackie has known death and loss and sorrow and the duplicity of that false housewife Fortune; he has experienced all the unexpected shocks we all expect from life—physical, emotional, personal, professional, financial—but through it all he has kept a tight mouth. He shares his joys and triumphs, never his reversals. Even when I called to commiserate with him about his lung cancer, he remained positive and upbeat, and sprinkled the conversation with enough one-liners to make me laugh.
He beat the cancer. He also beat the odds in the riskiest crapshoot of any career a man could choose, and has worked steadily for over forty years, starring not only in Simon & Simon, but in Major Dad, Promised Land, Jericho, Deadwood, a host of movies and TV movies, on Broadway, off-Broadway, directing, producing, winning awards in the career that was born of an injured knee in junior high. There is now a Gerald McRaney Street in Collins, Mississippi. There is also an historic marker in the town, showing the site of Mackie’s birth place. Those are admirable things and he deserves them, but when I see him next, I will have many unflattering comments to make to him about a man who is old enough to have a street named after him, not to mention an historic marker. Historic, for God’s sake.
It won’t matter. He’ll top me.
What I remember most is laughter.