My Year of Maladies — Vs. 2.0

Yoni, in the bubble-wrap suit, presented him by friends, for Halloween, 2018.

For those of you who subscribe to my blog (and bless those of you who do), you probably know how physically traumatic 2018 has been for me. I’ve written about the complications caused by my first surgery of the year, what should have been a fairly simple, double hernia. Unfortunately, as I learned subsequently, it seems I have an unusually small larynx, something the anesthesiologist failed to note when putting whatever contraption he placed down my throat to inject the anesthesia.

The result of this faux paus was the loss of my voice for the better part of nine months, including a second surgery, this time on my throat, to try and mend the left vocal cord, damaged by the anesthesiologist during surgery #1. It took another five-plus months after the surgery on my throat, before I started to see beneficial affects, and was able to start talking again. My voice is now somewhere between 60 and 70% recovered. If I talk for long periods, it gets hoarse again, and begins to fade. And I still can’t sing, something that disturbs me to no end.

As those who’ve known me since childhood will happily tell you, when I was born, I was most likely vaccinated with a phonograph needle (for any young’uns reading this, ask your elders about that reference). Talking (and singing), is, and has always been, a major part of my life. It’s also been my prime source of income since I was 20. So not being able to talk was not only frustrating, it was terrifying.

Had that been the only problem I suffered this year, I might not feel so much like someone put a hex on my body. But it didn’t end there. On my birthday — August 1st — I was reaching for something on the butcher-block unit that sits in the middle of our kitchen, when I heard a snap in my left shoulder. I thought to myself, “well, that can’t be good,” so I started testing my arm, to see how it felt. Surprisingly — no problems. An hour or two later, I was sitting at our dinner table when a stabbing pain went through my shoulder, like someone sticking a knife in, and twisting it all around. Whoopee! A birthday trip to urgent care.

The P.A. who saw me, put my arm in a sling, and ordered an X-ray, which, as expected, showed nothing. As suggested, I followed up with my primary care physician later that week. He did a 15-minute evaluation, moving my arm (as best he could without me screaming in agonizing pain) this way and that. At the end he said he thought I might have torn my rotator cuff. He ordered an MRI for me, which my insurance company promptly rejected. They wanted me to do six weeks of physical therapy first, to see if that would help. So I made an appointment, and went to see the physical therapist whose office, as it happened, was directly across the hall from my doctor’s.

The therapist was a very nice woman, who spent about half an hour testing my shoulder, seeing where my pain was, moving my arm about, assessing what she thought could be done to help me. At the end of her evaluation, she asked me to wait a minute, and disappeared. Ten minutes or so later, she returned, my doctor in tow. She had actually gone across the hall to his office, and asked him to come over, which he did, even though he was in the middle of a very busy day. For the record, my doctor is the kind of guy you could imagine still making house-calls (again, kids, ask your parents and grandparents).

Anyway, the physical therapist told us there was nothing she could do for me. The damage was too extensive, she said, and physical therapy would only increase said damage. My doctor, being the wonderful person he is, gave a little whoop of satisfaction, and said, “well, now those bastards at your insurance company have got to approve the MRI.”

They didn’t.

It seems, United HealthCare — my insurance company — has a policy that once they reject a request, you have to wait 45 days to make the request again (I can only imagine how that policy might affect someone suffering a potentially terminal illness). So my doctor referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, figuring, if a specialist ordered an MRI, policy or no, they couldn’t deny those findings.

Say it with me — oh yes they could!

The orthopedist I saw, did a somewhat cursory (I thought) evaluation, gave me a shot of prednisone (a steroid meant to relieve pain) in my shoulder, and ordered the MRI, which was promptly rejected by UHC.

So we’re now into October, my arm is still in a sling, and the voice that’s only now returning is going raw from my screaming bloody murder about the lack of care insurance companies — again, in this case, United HealthCare — extend to sick or injured patients.

By this point, I was so disgusted by the entire mess, I was ready to walk around with a bum shoulder for however long it took for it to just fall off. I decided, fuck it! I’m not even going to wear my sling inside the house any more. What’s the point? It only get in the way.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 28. I was already in a volatile state of mind, which is putting it mildly. But the added rage I felt over the massacre which had taken place at Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, the day before, as well as the Nazi-like ginning up of hatred and violence toward minorities being used as propaganda by the current occupant of the White House (whose name I refuse to say or type), had me somewhat out of my mind.

So much so, when I tried to reach for a book on the top shelf of a tall bookshelf in our family room, and couldn’t quite reach it, I was so insanely angry, I jumped for it and just yanked the fucker!

Not my greatest move, ever.

Along with the book, the entire shelf, obviously not well balanced to begin with, toppled over, falling directly on me. I was slammed with books, shelves (one of which, hit my head, causing me to black out), and other items we had on the shelves. But here’s the kicker — as the bookshelf was falling, my immediate instinct was to raise my now slingless arm, to try and protect myself. As the shelf hit, it also slammed my arm and, in turn, my shoulder.

When my wife, Tanya, walked into the family room looking for me, all she saw was a toppled bookshelf. It took a second before she realized I was under the shelf, at which time I believe she screamed, before rushing to pull the shelf off me.

A short ambulance trip later, I found myself in the E.R. at a nearby hospital, where a CT scan was taken, to make sure my brain (such as it is) wasn’t bleeding, internally. Unfortunately, by the time the E.R. doctor ordered an MRI for my shoulder a number of hours after I’d arrived, the entire radiology department had gone home for the night. So even in the E.R., no MRI.

There’s a reason a group of my friends in Chicago, gave me a bubble-wrap suit for Halloween, this year. I should worn the fucker, full-time!

Two days later, I had a previously scheduled surgical follow-up with my ENT (that’s the throat surgeon, for the uninitiated). This was the first time I’d seen him since my voice had started to return, and I was excited as hell to show him my progress. However, what ended up being even more interesting than the exam, was a conversation I had with his scheduler, after my visit.

The scheduler, a very nice guy, and I had chatted before because, like me, he used to play baseball, and had gone to a very progressive high school where he took classes in film production, giving us something else in common. But that day, he pointed something out, no one else had bothered to mention. What he said was, “you know why your insurance company is pulling this crap, don’t you?” “Cheap bastards,” I responded. “No,” he said. “You’ve met your deductible for the year. They’re putting you off, so in case you do need surgery, you won’t be able to get it until next year, when you’ll have to meet your deductible again.”

Well, my jaw just about hit the floor. I don’t have a lot of respect for the overlords of the medical industry in this country, specifically, the insurance companies raking in billions, under-treating and over-charging patients for something I believe we have an inalienable right to — medical care. But as much as I despise medical insurance companies, it had never occurred to me, the company my wife and I are paying a fortune to, on a yearly basis, would play that kind of game with my welfare.

Naturally, I did what I always do at times like this. I went fucking ballistic!

So, once again, back to my primary care physician, who, after hearing all that had occurred since last we’d met, reacted exactly as I expected — he went ballistic, too. He grabbed a piece of paper, quickly wrote down a name and number, and told me, “go see this guy — tell him I sent you. And I want you to tell him the entire story. He’ll make sure you get your MRI!” My doctor was sending me to another orthopedic surgeon, one he thought would be able to push through United HealthCare’s bullshit.

So, this past Monday, Nov. 5, I went to see the new orthopedic surgeon, telling him the entire story, as my doctor had instructed. As it turned out, the new orthopedist was a homey. He had grown up in Yonkers, NY, not far from where I grew up. He and I had even had our tonsils removed at the same hospital, so talking to him was like old home week. In any event, after doing his evaluation, he gave me yet another referral for an MRI. However, this time he said something the other orthopedist hadn’t — “don’t worry about your insurance company. I know the exact wording to use so they can’t deny you.”

And damn if he wasn’t telling the truth! At long last, tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 9, I will actually be getting an MRI, which United HealthCare finally approved! The only remaining question is, what will the results show? Will I need yet another surgery before the year is over? And if not, how the hell do I get myself off this fucking treadmill, with a working (and pain-free) shoulder?

My only thought — c’mon 2019!!!!

Addendum: As I was writing this blog, I found myself so hung up on my voice (or lack thereof) and shoulder problems, I forgot this was also the year of ambulance rides — two, in fact. The first two times in my life I’ve ever been in an ambulance. The Bookshelf Incident (as I’m going to call it), was the second. The first came early this past Summer. I was standing in my bedroom, one afternoon, doing G_d knows what, when I felt a pain in my side, like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I went down like a shot! And with no voice, I was screaming my ass off! And this pain kept growing and growing to the point, I truly thought I might die.

After an incredibly painful (and, thankfully, brief) Uber ride to my doctor’s office (we are a one-car family, and Tanya had the car that day), my doctor took one look at me, felt around the left side of my abdomen, and said, “well, you’ve either got a nasty kidney stone, or a burst appendix. Either way, you’re about to take an ambulance ride.” And then, my doctor just sat there, telling me jokes, trying to take my mind off the excruciating pain, until the ambulance could get there. The man should be nominated for sainthood (and that’s coming from a Jew)!

Interestingly, my first ambulance ride was not quite what I expected. As the vehicle headed toward the hospital, there I am, lying on the gurney, screaming (quietly) in agony, and the EMT sitting in the back with me, casually asks if I’ve got my wallet. He needed to see my ID and insurance card. Talk about surreal.

Fortunately, once they got me to the hospital (a relatively new facility, not even fully-staffed), I was hooked up to a morphine drip which, after the initial rush — a feeling I fucking HATE —the pain eased, somewhat. Following this, they took blood and did a battery of tests, coming back with the verdict I had a nice big kidney stone, which was working it’s way, down my body.  

For entertainment value, the E.R. nurse told me about her kidney stones (yes, plural). She said it was more painful than giving birth, and she had three kids! She also told me she needed surgery for the first one. Then, the week after the surgery, she had another kidney stone. If that was supposed to comfort me, we’d have to term it an epic fail!

In any event, they kept me hooked up to the morphine, waiting to see if the stone would pass, which, eventually, it did. If you’ve never had a kidney stone, and someone tells you it’s the most painful thing they’ve ever felt, believe them! I NEVER wanna go through that again. No one should have to go through that kind of pain. Now I understand why women in labor scream, “EPIDURAL, GODDAMNIT!!”

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When Outrage Meets Despair, Moves Toward Anger & Settles On Rage!

So the motherfucker who molested me when I was a child, is dead.

Sic Semper Tyrannis!!!

The childhood friend who shared this information with me, couldn’t find out how, or where he died, just that it happened 10 years ago. Personally, my hope was, he was dropped out a 30th floor window, head first, by — I dunno — maybe the adult version of someone like, oh, say, me!

I also found out, the father of another neighborhood child — this one a girl — actually confronted the fuck’s father when he found out what happened to his daughter (I never told my parents — how could I? I’d suppressed the fucking memories). But for a while, I felt good about all this.

It doesn’t change what happened then, nor does it change the other things that have happened to me, since. But the bastard who started it all is, and has been dead for 10 years. That’s closure, right. I feel better.

No, I really don’t.

When I started writing about this last week, all the new realizations and memories, I thought, this is good, I’m purging. I’m getting all this out of my system. The only problem is, I live in a country that just put a mother fucking molester and rapist wannabe, who they all fucking knew was guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of — they all know he actually perjured himself in front of Congress. So what did these noble statesman and woman do? They put this cock-sucking, son-of-a-bitch on the goddamn Supreme Court of the United Fucking States of America!!! Not only did they put him where he has no business being, they actually started blaming the victims for putting this poor, ignorant, temperamental, over-privileged, white piece of shit, through such a traumatic hearing.

And, why? What’s the real reason behind all this? To help Republicans — many, more corrupt than the newly annointed, Supreme molester — to pass the kind of laws they want. Laws that will set this country back 50 years — if not more! Laws that feed the rich and starve the poor. Laws that strip rights away from any group who isn’t them! And let’s not forget that all-time-favorite reason (the actual reason this incompetent was nominated in the first place) — because Brett Mother-Fucking Kavanaugh, will protect his fellow molester, the orange fuck, sliming his way around the White House, with a Get Out of Jail Free card, because, you know — you can’t indict a sitting president.

That person (and I use the word “person” with the greatest of contempt), in Kavanaugh’s feeble,

Supreme Scumbag

narcissistic, partisan swamp of a mind, is ABOVE THE FUCKING LAW!!!! In a country where everyone is supposedly “equal” (what a croc that is!), let’s watch as they demonstrate just how big a pile of bullshit our system of “justice” is, by demonstrating the most vile, corrupt, contemptible, disgusting excuse for a human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, is so busy doing “the people’s work,” he can’t possibly face the same laws that every other person in this country does (at least, the ones not in orange jump suits).

So, yeah. I felt better for about 10 minutes. Now, like the millions of women, and other men like me, around the country, I feel violated all over again. And this time, it’s 100 times WORSE! Because this time, a bunch of people sitting in Congress, along with that piece of walking, talking shit in the White House, stopped any real attempt at an F.B.I. investigation, and brazenly told the American people to go fuck themselves! This country belongs to them, not us. We have to follow the rules; not them! And what did the mainstream American media do — same thing they usually do — not a goddamn, motherfucking thing! The NY Times sat on a story about Twitler’s criminal lifetime in NYC for months, released it, and then — like magic, it disappeared! Why? Because like the rest of the corporate American media, they jumped on the “hey people, go fuck yourselves!” bandwagon. Lookee here — we got us a brand new Supreme Court Justice!

So no, I’m not outraged. I’m well beyond despair. I crossed anger a few miles back, and am now living in a pure unadulterated homicidal rage! And if this rage — which I’ll be taking into the ballot box with me, later this month, or in the pieces I’ll continue to write so maybe, just maybe, SOMEONE out there may actually hear me — doesn’t have the effect I pray it will, then you can Ghandi me, or tell me how we need to be above it, or better than them, all you like.

But if you even think of uttering any of those phrases, or any other stupid fucking phrases of pacification my way, be forewarned — you’re also going to be one of the first people to see what I’ll be capable of, if this homicidal rage, burning my heart, mind and soul, grows any fucking deeper, and more intense, than it already has.

Molestation — When Will Enough Be Enough?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this blog for days. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to say. I’ve just been trying to think about how to make it cohesive, easily understood, and not written in a way that gets me pilloried by anyone who only reads part of this (although, I suppose I should be happy when anyone reads any part of my posts).

I wrote a blog back in June, 2016, after the political insanity and outright viciousness within the Democratic party during the primaries (from both Sanders and Clinton supporters) did something to my psyche, that awakened a memory I’d been suppressing for 50+ years.

Between the ages of five and seven, I was molested, repeatedly, by the older kid (male), who lived next door.

It started with two of them — the Protestant fuck next door, and his Roman Catholic buddy across the street. They both came from rabidly anti-semitic families (my family was part of an influx of newly middle-class Jews from NYC, to the suburbs), with the kid next door being the son of a member of the John Birch Society (an organization not particularly keen on anyone to the left of Attila the Hun). But the kid across the street declined to participate after the first time, so it was the guy next door who was the real molester.

After regaining these memories, I can’t begin to state the level of emotional trauma I went through. There was a point I even questioned my memories, my own sanity — did these events actually happen, or was my psyche just losing it.

Fortunately, after posting the blog, I received a call from someone whose identity I’m still protecting. This person told me about the trauma and guilt they’d lived with for most of their life, because they had been witness to this motherfucker molesting several other neighborhood kids (in this case, girls). The trauma came because, as a five-six year old, they hadn’t done anything to stop what they didn’t even have the capability to realize was happening at the time.

Nevertheless, dealing with the trauma of my recalled memories, plus a few other major events going wrong in my life around the same time, I ended up spending 72-hours in a psych ward, on a suicide watch (an experience almost as traumatic as the molestation, which I also wrote about).

However, with the advent of the #MeToo movement, which I feel very much a part of, I’ve been very involved, as I have for most of my life, in fighting for the rights of women. I thought the rage I felt at what women have been, and are continuing to be put through (I’m talking to you, “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” the Republican members of the Senate, and the serial molester in the Oval Office), had to do with having been brought up by my feminist mother. Until recently, it never occurred to me there were deeper reasons, other than my love and respect for women, for my particular passion for this cause.

But social media can have a funny effect on one’s feelings. For example, while a number of women (minus one truly nasty person) truly supported my right to consider myself a member of the #MeToo movement, and while I understand that probably 98% (or more) of the sexual harassment, molestation and rape in this country is perpetrated on women, by men, still, I felt the boys and men who had suffered through these same things, were being given short shrift.

Granted, I have skin (pardon the expression) in this game, but over the past week or two — possibly because of the particularly disgusting treatment received by Dr. Blasey Ford, at the hands of the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, that orange shit in the White House, and Mr. Kavanaugh himself — the fact there were boys and men who had suffered equally, was getting lost in the shuffle. I would also point out, being this is the (supposed) United States, while taking nothing away from any of the women who have shown courage in telling their stories, it’s no easier for men to tell theirs.

So, yeah — I was feeling the small percentage of men who’ve gone through these traumas, were getting lost in the shuffle, among the huge numbers of women who had.

Then, listening to women talk about how they had never told anyone, or honestly believed (at the time, anyway) they did something to deserve what happened to them, a thought occurred to me which hadn’t, before. What happened to me as a child, wasn’t my only experience with what could be deemed, at best, harassment, but also, molestation.

When I was 20 years old, and just starting my acting career, I spent a short period of time, working in the psychiatric department of a hospital in Queens, NY. Every morning, I would hop on the express subway from East 86th St., near my apartment, down to 59th St., where I would transfer to the RR or N line to Queens. When I was 20, especially clean shaven, I looked closer to 15 or 16 years old. And if you’ve ever taken a rush hour subway in NYC, you know what it feel like to be a sardine, packed in tin.

One day, as I was making my way downtown from 86th St., there was this very strange looking man standing in front of me. He was tall, dirty, with long, straggly hair, and an unkempt beard. If you’ve ever seen the album cover of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, that’s pretty much who I was facing.

In any event, “Aqualung” was kind of moving up and down, with a very strange expression on his face — to put it bluntly, he looked like he was cumming. Then, I realized I was feeling something I shouldn’t have been. I looked down, and realized this guy was rubbing his hand over my crotch. The subway was too packed for me to move, and I was beyond way too shocked to say anything. But as soon as we hit 59th St., I pushed my way out of that car — fast!

I’ve told that story over the years, thinking of it as a really strange, if very NYC subway, experience. In all the years since, it actually took until this very week for me to — or, maybe, accept is a better word — I’d been molested.

My second subway story was also kind of strange. On another day, I was one of only two passengers on this particular RR car, headed toward Queens. The only other passenger in the car, was an old man in a long, black trench coat. For anyone old enough to remember Artie Johnson’s dirty-old-man on the bench character from the 1960s sketch comedy show, Laugh-In, that’s about as close a description as I can give of this guy.

Anyway, as the subway pulled out of the 59th St. station, I was seated on one end of the car, the old guy at the other end, across the aisle. But as the subway started moving, so did the old man. First he moved halfway up the car, in my direction. Then, he crossed the aisle to my side of the car. Finally, on this otherwise empty subway car, he sidled up next to me. And by next to me, I mean he was leaning into me. As soon as we hit the first stop, Queens Plaza, I jumped off that train. Again, I thought it was just another typically bizarre NYC subway story.

The final story I want to recount regarding these events, may be the strangest. A number of years ago, my wife and I were driving cross-country. We’d either stay in cheap hotels overnight, or, if we had friends in the area, we’d crash with them. In one city, we crashed with a friend — a woman — who was kind enough to give us her bed, while she took the bed in her son’s room, since he no longer lived at home.

The following morning, my wife woke before I did, and went to take a shower. A few minutes later, I woke to find our host — nice person, but not someone I was sexually attracted to, in the least — in bed with me. To say it bluntly, I woke up to find her sucking my dick! That brought me to consciousness, really quickly. I stopped her, trying to be polite and not offend her, saying I didn’t think my wife would appreciate walking in on that. In truth, I was repulsed. But as we’ve all heard and read in so many variations, I was a guy, and she was a woman, so it had to be a misunderstanding. It couldn’t possibly be considered molestation…or, g_d forbid, rape!

I recount these last three stories, because up until this week, it never occurred to me what these events really were. I have no idea if it was denial, or because I was an adult male, or what. The point is, realizing all this regarding myself, I believe I now understand much more clearly, why, every time I hear a similar story from a woman who’s been put in a similar situation to those which I was, I go into something of a homicidal rage that’s not pleasant to feel, or be around.

As those who’ve been there during these times can attest, were I within striking distance of, for example, a Chuck Grassley or Orrin Hatch, especially while they were questioning Dr. Blasey Ford, or even making their disgusting, misogynistic comments about her (and all the women victimized by men) to the press, I would happily take a baseball bat, and break every fucking bone in their worthless bodies.

The final story I want to recount in this saga, kind of goes in a different direction. I want to preface this by saying how incredibly grateful I am, to have had the parents I was blessed with. I believe it was their deep love, care, concern and respect for each other, that helped my brothers and I become the men we are.

When I was 29, I was performing in a show at a regional theatre. When working away from home, it’s natural to bond, and spend time with your cast-mates and crew. But at this particular theatre, there was a young lady working in the box office, who I would speak with regularly. She was cute, sweet as could be, and the mutual attraction was fairly obvious.

So one night, after the show, I asked if she’d like to go to a nearby diner and get something to eat. She said she’d like that very much. So off we went to grab a meal. Over dinner we talked about a myriad of subjects — me, what it was like being an actor; her, why she enjoyed working in a theatre so much. We told each other a little about our lives. She was only 19 or 20 at the time, and had graduated a very strict, all-girls Catholic school. I told her about my life and aspirations, and we got to know each other a little more.

Afterwards, she drove me back to my hotel, where I asked if she’d like to come up to my room, which she did. We talked a little more, before we started kissing. The kissing developed into more intense kissing, followed by a bit more than kissing, ending up with us naked on my bed.

This is where the story becomes kind of an inversion of the usual way this would go. I was on top of her, ready and more than willing to proceed. But I looked at her face, and could tell there was something wrong, so I stopped. I didn’t know if she was scared, felt she wasn’t ready for this step, or whatever. So I asked her what was wrong. She told me she really liked me, and wanted to, but was also scared, and not sure if she was ready to take this step. So I got off her and said, “then we don’t have to do this.”

Here’s the part that freaked me out. It seems she felt, since she’d gotten me “excited,” and we’d gone this far, it wasn’t fair to me, and she didn’t think she had the right to stop at this point. To say I was totally shocked by that comment would be the ultimate understatement. I mean, this was the 1980s, for crissakes!

I held her for a minute, looked at her and said, “listen to me. It doesn’t matter how excited I am. I could be halfway inside you. If you decide you’re not ready or don’t want to do this, you say, no — and I stop! No questions, no arguments, no nothing. And, I added, this didn’t apply to just me — it applied to anyone.” Her response stunned me — she asked, wouldn’t it make me mad? Wouldn’t it make any guy mad?

I responded with, if I was the kind of person who got angry over something like that, then I have the right to not see, or go out with you again. I’d be a dick if I did, but you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, or are not ready to do. And if anyone ever tries to make you think you have to, or you owe it to them for some sick reason, fuck them (I know, ironic choice of words)! And get away from them, immediately!

What was unfathomable to me at the time — and still is, all these years later — was the fact I had to explain this to her. How did we get to the mid-1980s, with women, even young ones, not understanding they have the right to control what they do, and don’t do, with their bodies. The fact that, to a frightening degree, that lack of understanding still holds true today, is something I cannot comprehend.

In any event, I held her for a while longer, we talked some more, and she left. We remained friends for the run of the show, but the relationship never gained any traction after that, mostly, I think, because she was embarrassed. But I have never forgotten that night, and will forever be grateful to my parents for helping make me the kind of person who reacted the way I did.

It is often said, as justification by men who believe women exist to service them — people like the orange pig whose name I refuse to say, the Brett Kavanaugh’s, and their ilk, “a hard dick has no conscience.” That’s very convenient thinking if you’re an over-entitled, spoiled, narcissistic, misogynist. But that hard dick is attached to a human body, with, hopefully, a brain attached. One that understands right from wrong. Unfortunately, as we have seen all too clearly in the year 2018, that is far from the case.

A Different Story, Inspired By the Events of September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 marks a date most of us will never forget. There’s no need to repeat the sights, sounds and heartache of that day, when so many, far more eloquent than I, have done so since that tragedy. I don’t even want to discuss the politics of that date, and the days following, most of which has also been reported, over and over, fairly thoroughly.

For me, September 11th started a few years or so before the actual event. That’s the story I have never talked about publicly before today.

Sometime in 1998, my wife and I were informed the rent on our tiny, 12′ x 17′ studio apartment on the upper-East Side of Manhattan, was going to be raised to $1200, a figure we simply could not accept. So, like many New Yorkers in the same boat as us, we decided it was time to look for someplace else to live.

We started the hunt in Hells Kitchen, an aptly named neighborhood, stretching from around 34th to 59th Streets, on the very west side of the City. In an effort to make the area sound a tad classier, real estate brokers called the neighborhood, Clinton. How better to justify the exorbitant rents.

At this point, for those who’ve never lived in NYC, I should explain how the game of renting even the shittiest apartment, worked back then (I say back then, as it’s the last time I had to deal with it).

A number of years earlier, the owners of apartment buildings in NYC realized they could make a killing by having a second party — usually a friend or relative — open an apartment rental agency, which would then represent all the apartment buildings owned by friend or relative #1. That way, you couldn’t rent directly from an apartment building’s owner. You had to go to the agency “repping” a building (or, more often, buildings).

Why would they go through this charade I hear you ask. Simple, a rental agency’s fee for “finding you” an apartment was, legally, anywhere from 15-25% of a year’s rent. To be fair, most agencies charged 15%. So to rent an apartment in NYC, you had to come up with first and last months rent, plus a 15% fee to the rental agency (more often than not, owned by the owner of the buildings you were looking at).

If you figure a small studio apartment (like ours) went for around $1200 a month at the time, that means to rent it, you needed to come up with $2400, plus a non-refundable agency fee of $2160. That’s a total of $4560 before you movie in. But that’s not all — most agencies wanted you to prove you earned at least 52 times your monthly rent — in this case, $62,400, per year. And if you happened to own a dog, as we did, there would also be a non-refundable pet fee ($500), plus, in some cases, you actually had to pay an additional rent for the dog (cats, you could sneak in).

If you work on Wall Street, that number might sound minuscule. But if, like my wife and I (and thousands of others), you’re an actor, never knowing when your next real job will appear, it means you’re also waiting tables, doing clerical work in an office, or something to help you survive. In that situation, you usually won’t have pay stubs, or a tax return proving you earn at least $62,400 a year. To get around this obstacle, what many of us did back then was, forge the documents.

So, for all this, what were we shown (and by “shown,” what I mean is, if an agency has an apartment you want to see, you leave them your driver’s license, or a credit card, they hand you a key, and you go look)? More studios apartments, only in these places, you had little innovations like the tub also serving as your kitchen table (you just pick the top off, and bathe). We were shown shithole after shithole, some claiming to have been recently remodeled — maybe a new fridge, or stove — more often than not, it simply meant a new paint job.

Being a tad frustrated, we were talking to another actor friend one day, who said, you need to come look at Jersey City! Jersey City? You mean, like, across the Hudson…in Jersey?

You have to understand, to me, a native New Yorker, New Jersey might as well have been another planet. If someone told you they lived in New Jersey, the immediate response was, what exit? Again, for those unfamiliar with the east coast, Jersey is known for it’s exits along I-95 and the Garden State Parkway. New Yorkers did not cross the Hudson.

But, being desperate, we decided, what the hell. What we didn’t know was, there was a subway we’d never heard of (or bothered to notice), called the PATH, running from Herald Sq. (in front of Macy’s), running down to Greenwich Village, and then under the Hudson, to Jersey City. At the time it cost less than the subway, and was a lot cleaner. So, surprisingly, we were off to a good start.

The trip ended with the second stop in Jersey City, at Grove Street. It had taken about 20 minutes from Herald Sq., which was kind of amazing as it took us a 15-minute walk from our studio on the very East Side, to even get to the subway going downtown. Being so close to the City, Grove St. was kind of a shock, as, at the time, it had much more of a small-town feel. But, there was a pizzeria and Duncan Donuts right there at the PATH station, which we found somewhat comforting.

Anyway, a two-minute, block and a half walk down Grove Street, took us our friends’ building. He was living in a studio there, as well. But when he opened the door and we looked in, what we saw was a cavern! This studio was HUGE! We could easily have fit three of our studios into his. He had high ceilings, and it was bright. So I asked, how much are you paying for this? $500 a month, came the answer. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I asked if there happened to be any other apartments available in the building. So, my friend looked out his rear-facing window, into a small backyard, where a family was having a barbecue. He opened the window, and shouted down, “Hey Moustafa, you have any apartments available?” As it happened, he did — a 3-bedroom on the top floor.

My wife and I almost choked, knowing there was no way we could afford a 3-bedroom, but our friend said, what the hell, you can at least take a look. So we did. When Moustafa, the landlord, opened the door, we both almost passed out. The room we saw — a combination living-dining room — was huge. It had new carpeting, and recessed lighting in the ceiling. On the other side of the room, was the kitchen. Not a narrow, NYC kind of kitchen you couldn’t fit two people in, but a real kitchen! Tons of shelf space, and — oh my g_d! — a dishwasher!

The first bedroom was also off the living room. It was a pretty fair-sized bedroom, almost the size of our entire studio, overlooking Grove Street. But it also had a closet running the entire width of the room. Then, we proceeded down the hall. The first thing we noticed was a cubbyhole for a stackable washer-dryer. We didn’t have a washer dryer, but this freaking apartment had a place for one. Movinging further down the hall, we came upon a very nice bathroom — full tub, toilet, sink with vanity — no kitchen table. And roomy. Okay. Beyond that were two doors. We went through the one on the right, first. The second bedroom was bigger than the first, and, like the other, had a closet running across the entire width.

But the most incredible part came when we looked out the window. There, stretched before us, was the entire skyline of NYC, with the World Trade Center prominently visible in front of us. We just stood there a moment, looking — kind of like tourists seeing Manhattan for the first time.

Then we went into the third bedroom. It was huge. I mean, really big, with high ceilings, and the same breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. But i this room, the closet was different. Instead of running along the entire wall, this bedroom had a seven foot-deep, walk-in closet, with racks and shelving on both sides. But, no, that wasn’t it for this room. We had one more surprise in store. This bedroom had it’s own bathroom! A second, full, master bathroom. And, holy shit!!! The tub had jacuzzi jets!

By this point I was salivating. But I knew this was also the point where the fantasy would come crashing down. So, not really wanting to hear the answer, I asked Moustafa, how much the apartment rented for? He said, I’m asking $1200 a month. Before I could say a word, my wife turned to me and said, “but we said we didn’t want to pay more than $1100.” Before I could say, are you out of your fucking mind, Moustafa said, “I like you two. I’ll give you the first year for $1100 a month.” I turned to my wife and said, “write him a check.” I was not about to let this palace get away. So I started to take out all the forged paperwork I’d created to prove we made enough to afford this place. Moustafa just shook it off. I don’t need to see all that — I trust you.

And that is how we left the city of my birth, and moved across the Hudson, to Jersey City, and an incredible apartment with the most amazing view of Manhattan you could ask for, with the World Trade Center prominently featured.

One of the more unexpected, and kind of breathtaking things we learned, on days the Hudson got fogged over, the WTC seemed to disappear. Then, as the fog lifted, like Brigadoon, it would magically reappear. It was cool, beautiful and, at the same time, somewhat eerie.

After having lived in Jersey City for a year or so, my wife found a day job at a financial institution with offices in the WTC. It was an incredibly short, if crowded commute. Two stops on the PATH train, ending right underneath the twin towers. Two-minute walk to the PATH. Five minutes underground. That was her daily commute.

During the year, we had also gotten ourselves a roommate, which helped cut our expenses. The second bedroom, next to ours, we turned into our home office, where I worked, when not teaching or acting in the City. It was truly ideal.

But all of that changed one unbelievable day in the year 2000.

Tanya, my wife, and I spent the entrance to the new millennium with my family in Norfolk, VA. My brothers, Richard and Ethan, were then running 2nd Story Theatre, a non-profit stage company the three of us had started, number of years before. It was a nice way to ring in the new year, and we had a wonderful time.

Back home, I was working on the script for a television pilot, my friend Joe and I were writing. Things were looking very up. Then, as so often happens, we lost the funding for our pilot.

At this point, I should mention — I have a certain degree of psychic ability. I have no control over it, but sometimes I know things are going to happen before they do. It also helps me read people — who they are, their thoughts and dreams, and, sometimes, their intent. The one person I’ve never been able to use this gift to help, is me. When it comes to predicting my future, I haven’t got a clue.

I mention this because, one night, a few months into the new year, I had what I can only describe as the most vivid dream of my life. In the dream, I saw the southern tip of Manhattan immersed in smoke. I didn’t know if it was from a bomb, an earthquake or something else. But in the midst of all this smoke and destruction, the most frightening aspect was, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were no longer there. They, along with pretty much everything in the area, were destroyed.

I woke up with a start, my breath coming in heaves. The first thing I did was look out at the window, to ensure myself the twin towers were still there. But I couldn’t shake the dream/vision I’d just had, and felt nothing other than a complete and utter sense of danger.

I slowly walked into our home office where Tanya was working on the computer. As usual, she greeted me with the loving smile that always melts my heart. But this time, I couldn’t push back the dream I’d just had. So I pulled another chair up to the desk, took Tanya’s hands in mine, and told her about my dream. I finished by saying something I hadn’t really known I was thinking. What I said was, “I don’t think we’re safe here, anymore. I think we have to get out of here.”

There are people who would have looked at me as if I was crazy. There are those who would have said, “are you insane? Our entire lives are here. Our careers are here.” And who would have been able to blame them?

But that’s not Tanya’s and my relationship. Our love, and our understanding of each other goes much deeper than that. having heard me out, she looked at me quite seriously, and said, “then I think it’s time we leave.”

A few days later, I received a call from my brother, Ethan. He was calling on behalf of himself and Richard. And the timing of what he had to say simply fit the moment, perfectly. “Rick and I are totally burnt out running the theatre. Is there any chance you and Tanya would be interested in moving down here and taking over the theatre for us?”

Exactly 60 days from the date of my dream, an army of our friends came over, and helped us pack a truck being supplied by one of our friends. We put all our belongings in the truck, and whatever was left, into our car, and left our beautiful Jersey City apartment, for a new home in Norfolk, VA, an apartment we’d never seen, which my brother, Richard, had rented for us.

When we got to Virginia, and went over to the theatre, a loft on the 2nd Story of a building (thus the company name), we found a company in total disarray. Grant applications had not been finished, loose contracts lost us the next play scheduled in the season, and the script for the play after that, was not only unfinished, what had been written was a disaster. The final blow our first week there, was finding out our landlord was cancelling our lease, leaving a theatre company with no home.

We did our best, managing to find a new space, which turned out to be temporary and changing the name of the company to the Actors Repertory Theatre.  We managed to produce the East Coast premiere of a wonderful play, Supernormal Clutches, which Tanya co-starred in, and I directed. But after a series of further disasters, we decided our only choice was to relocate ourselves, and the company. So we moved to Frederick, MD, Tanya’s hometown, northwest of Washington, DC.

As we were working to get ART up and running in Frederick, Tanya took a temp job, to help keep us afloat until we were back in production. That was where she was on the morning of September 11, 2001. I woke that morning, to a shaky call from Tanya, who told me to turn on the television — quickly. Five minutes later, with the first WTC building already in smoke and flames, I watched as a plane rammed into the second twin tower.

The rest of that story is known by everyone, especially our friends who were nearby, or helping as first responders. Tanya came home a short while later. Her temp job had let her go, because they didn’t approve of her reaction to what she’d witnessed — the destruction of a building which, up until we’d left Jersey City and Manhattan less than a year and a half earlier — where she’d worked. Had we still been there, Tanya would have been arriving at the WTC subway stop, under the twin towers, just as the first plane hit.

In the years since, Tanya has said (on multiple occasions), my dream probably saved her life. No question life would have been much different had we stayed.

The events of that day, ended up changing the lives of millions of people. Not just those who perished that day, their families, and the entire City of New York. Not just the people who died when the plane hit the Pentagon and their families, and not just the people of flight 93, who crashed their plane in Shanksville, PA, to save others, and their families. It affected all Americans, and eventually hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, as well.

But for Tanya and I, while we feel the same anger, sadness, and sense of loss felt by all Americans, there is also something else. A feeling of gratitude that, for whatever reason, some power — whatever you want to call it — I find no need to define it, warned us well in advance, and saved us. It allowed us to share the strange ride we’ve taken ever since.

It was something special, and it kept us together.

 

 

The Best Laid Plans

I had planned on writing a blog about the craft of acting, today, but, as the saying goes, the best laid plans…

The change in my subject matter began, as so much does these days, with a Twitter debate (I’m putting it kindly), regarding the 2016 election. I was attempting to have a rational conversation with an anonymous anti-Clinton, seemingly Sanders-‘Til-Death person. I figured, we agreed on a number of points. I was a Sanders supporter during the primaries. Even though I voted for Secretary Clinton in the election, I absolutely consider myself a Progressive. Surely we had enough in common to have a rational discussion.

Silly me.

I am still learning that, engaging with those to my left, can be every bit as filled with vial and vitriol as trying to do the same with someone on the far right. But I really wanted to try and understand this person who thinks having a narcissistic, racist, homophobic, criminal, with delusions of dictatorship in his eyes, occupying the Oval Office, was better than having an experienced, knowledgeable person, who has served in government most of her adult life, and might, however remote you believe the possibility, do some really good things for the country.

But, as we all know, Hillary Clinton is actually Satan incarnate. (Side note to Agolf Twitler & Co: If you want to know what an actual with hunt looks like, how’s this?):

25 solid years of investigation after investigation, and hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars — all brought to you by your friendly neighborhood GOP. But wait! There’s more! All of this bullshit, is capped off by an 11-hour Benghazi “perjury trap” on live television. But, hell! At least they got her, right! Oh wait — how many indictments did all that congressional time, and OUR money net them? Oh, right — not a single motherfucking one! But, oh, those emails…

Naturally, the conversation got ’round to a point I keep making, over and over — Hillary Clinton did not lose the election. She won the popular vote, by a plurality of almost three million people. Not only is that the most votes ever won by a “losing” candidate, no winning President, other than Barack Obama has won that much of the popular vote.

But then there’s that silly Electoral College, which, even without voter suppression or Russian interference, gives smaller and less populous states (who contribute far less than, oh, say, California or New York do, to the Federal budget) more say in the Electoral College than do the larger and more populous states. That makes sense.

So that’s where we were, when my debate opponent asked the following snarky question:

“So who’s fault was it? Jill’s? Bernie’s? Russia’s? Electoral College? Who we blaming this week? Space Force?”

I really wanted to let the conversation die, right there. I knew I should. After all, I had already had it hammered home, there was no difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party. There was no way I was going to get through to a Democrat who had a) voted for Twitler; b) stayed home & didn’t vote at all; or c) voted for Jill Stein.

Naturally, I responded. What I said was the following:

“I’ll say the same to you as I say to Democrats who refuse to admit Hillary Clinton & the DNC fucked up, too. GET OVER IT! We have a fucking Nazi in the White House, & fascism taking over this country. So you can either get over your righteous anger for the moment, or you can help the Nazi.”

This is what I, a registered Democrat since 1973 — a Proud Progressive — believes. No one in our party has the right to self-righteousness. Yes, it is my firm belief that any Democrat who voted for Jill Stein, or stayed at home and didn’t bother to vote, in protest, or, worst of all, actually voted for the orange cretin, beyond being semi-certifiable, is, at least in part, responsible for the mess we’re in.

However, don’t get too cocky, Clintonians. Secretary (who should be President) Clinton, and the DNC are also culpable. They were unquestionably arrogant and dismissive toward Progressives who already felt abandoned by the party; who believe the party and most of its candidates are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Wall Street. This smug attitude (and the Bernie-bro’s bullshit, not to mention — but I will — the, if you don’t vote for Hillary, you’re a misogynist, crap) helped give lefter-leaning Progressives, all the excuse they needed.

And I’m sorry, but the choice of Tim Kaine as running-mate, was a slap in the face to every Progressive in the party. The Bernie-wing, as it was being called, were promised inclusion, and then quickly kicked to the curb. The DNC was so sure the election was a shoe-in, they felt secure in flipping the bird to Progressives.

How’d that work out?

There are no angels, or paragons of virtue in this scenario. We all fucked up. Accept it, own it, and get the fuck over it! At least, for now.

Hopefully, we have reached the point where most of us realize, every Democratic vote, and voter, counts. Like it or not, we are in a fight for our lives — in my opinion, quite literally. The very soul of this country and its people are at stake. This country is currently controlled by an obsessively tweeting psychopath, who has surrounded himself with sycophants and people so greedy, they’re stealing every penny they can, before the walls of D.C. come tumbling down.

The Republican party, which still has the unmitigated gall to call itself the party of Lincoln, is filled with racists, craven cowards, and jack-booted thugs who think the Constitution, and the oath they took to defend it, are a joke. They are terrified of Twitler, and his army of lemmings and racists, a situation of their own creation. There will be no help there.

Yes, to my friends on the left, the DNC has treated Progressives like shit. The leadership doesn’t really want to see the future of the party, because they know they’re not it. I don’t know if Hillary Clinton would have been able to change things for the better, or simply maintained the status quo. Right now, though, that status quo is looking pretty damn good.

As pissed off as you may have been, and as much as you would like to deny it (I would love to be able to), the Russians did interfere with the 2016 election (and are now attempting to do so with the mid-terms), handing it to their stooge. There are many who still see this claim as part of a grand conspiracy against Progressive change. To those of you who actually believe that bullshit, I urge you to open your minds, and take a real look. If there is a conspiracy, it is between the Russians and the Republicans, who just want to maintain their gravy train, and don’t care where the gravy’s coming from.

In the coming mid-terms, if Progressives who want real change, stay home, or make protest votes in petulant righteousness, believe me — you’ll get change. The exact same change Germany got in 1933. Don’t fool yourself into believing it can’t happen here — it already is. So put aside your anger, your disenchantment, and your disgust. We can fight that out, later. I’ll be there with you on that fight. But right now, we don’t have that luxury. Everyone has to GET THE FUCK OVER 2016, get the fuck over self-righteousness, or the fact there is no such thing as the perfect candidate!

Right now, the real fight is for our lives.

Addendum: Shortly after writing this, I saw another pissed off Progressive venting his/their (it was a band) anger at me, because I was sucked in and voted for Hillary. I am frightened by the unbelievable refusal to comprehend what is happening to this country, by people who, on most counts, I agree with. They simply cannot, and will not see the threat. To them, the only threat is the DNC, and the arrogance (their word) Hillary Clinton showed during the campaign. They keep saying and/or implying the DNC is a bigger threat than that greedy, narcissistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic asshole in the Oval Office. They are wrong. I only pray they don’t end up being tragically wrong.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Comedy! Part Two

As with many of my generation (especially boys), my first major comedy influence was The Three Stooges. Yeah, yeah — I can already hear the groans! There’s an old saw which says, boys (especially from my generation) love The Three Stooges. On the other hand, girls hate them. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in my experience, more often than not, the rule holds true .

Thanks to my mother, who kept files of everything having to do with her four sons throughout our childhoods, I have a paper written in 1962 (1st grade/2nd grade — who remembers). It was (and I’m being kind here) a picture I drew of a man (more of a stick figure) standing between what I assume are two large klieg lights (and for some strange reason I can’t remember, what looks to be a big plant next to him). At the top of the page I wrote the words, “I want to be an actor. When I see the Three Stooges, I get an iden (yes, my six-year-old self misspelled the word, idea) I want to be an actor.

A few years later, I was introduced to four complete and utter maniacs. Their names — Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — The Marx Bros. I couldn’t get enough of them (still can’t) — The Cocoanuts, A Night At the Opera, Duck Soup, and then, the miraculous re-release of Animal Crackers, unseen for years. What The Stooges started, The Marx Bros. completed. I would be a comic actor, fate sealed!

Comedically, I’ve had numerous influences through the years. I’ve probably appeared in, or directed more Neil Simon plays than I can count. It is my firm belief, Simon is a genius, especially when it comes to dialogue. I find it sad so many of Simon’s stage plays didn’t transfer all that well to the screen (with notable exceptions, The Odd Couple being a major example). And the team of Richard Dreyfus and Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, is as good as romantic comedy gets.

On stage, it was Simon and Murray Schisgal, followed later by writers like Paul Rudnick. And Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which was rerun throughout the 1970s, was sheer brilliance. Then came the films of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen (both graduates of the Sid Caesar school of comedy, as was Simon), and so very many others. These people and their work, taught me more about the crafts of acting, writing and directing than any college or professional program ever could.

I was also fortunate enough to grow up in the age of Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, Peter Cooke & Dudley Moore, SCTV, the original National Lampoon gang, and, a little later, the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

How all of this brings me to two comedic gems I feel have been woefully overlooked, I’m not sure. But both are films that have stayed with me through the years, and which I re-watch when I’m feeling the need for inspiration. The first of these films is, No Way To Treat A Lady, written by John Gay (from a story by the immortal William Goldman, whose resume is too long to recount, so I’ll just mention two — Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride). The film was directed by Jack Smight.

The second film, Where’s Poppa, with a screenplay by Robert Klane (based on his novel), was directed by the comic genius, Carl Reiner, yet another Show of Shows veteran, as well as creator and cast member of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Both films share one major thing in common — their leading man. George Segal, currently known to television audiences as “Pops” Solomon, the grandfather on ABC’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, was, in the early and mid 1960s, known as a “serious” actor. His turns in Ship of Fools, King Rat, and Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (opposite Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), for which he received an Oscar nomination, cemented that reputation. But it was his work in No Way To Treat A Lady, and Where’s Poppa? which quickly led to other screen comedies, including The Owl & The Pussycat (opposite Barbra Streisand), The Hot Rock and Blume In Love, all of which helped cement his reputation as one of the top comedic leading men of the 1970s.

Another thing both films have in common is, there’s a darkness within the stories, which, somehow, makes the humor even funnier. In No Way To Treat A Lady, Segal plays Morris Brummel, a NYC detective on the hunt for a serial killer, played to perfection by Rod Steiger. Steiger’s character, Christopher Gill, who comes from a theatrical family, is a master of disguise and accents, which makes tracking him down incredibly difficult. Gill takes an interest in the detective hunting him, and begins calling Morris, taunting him. As I said, the story is dark. The movie is funny.

A tremendous part of the humor comes from the wonderful Eileen Heckart, as Mrs. Brummel, Morris’s mother (who he still lives with). In Heckart’s capable hands, what could easily have become a one-dimensional caricature of the standard Jewish mother, becomes a fully realized multi-dimensional human being. The gorgeous and talented Lee Remick, who becomes Segal’s romantic interest, is the one-person who has seen Gill, making her a witness, as well as a potential victim.

There’s a lot going on in this film. In lesser hands, it could easily have become a mess. But the combination of incredible acting, a superb, funny and, at times, thrilling screenplay, and Smight providing a light directorial touch, firmly places this movie on my list of Must Sees.

I have a sneaking suspicion, No Way To Treat A Lady may have led Segal to Where’s Poppa? Once again, we have Segal as NY attorney, Gordon Hocheiser , who still lives with his seemingly senile mother (the amazing, Ruth Gordon). What keeps Hocheiser home, is the deathbed promise he and his brother, Sidney (the hysterically on point, Ron Liebman) made their father, to never put Momma in a home.

When Gordon falls in love with the ethereal, almost angelic, and absolutely shiksa nurse, Louise (Trish Van Devere, perfectly cast), hired to care for Momma, Hocheiser determines the last thing he’s going to do is allow Momma to screw this one up — no matter what he has to do to prevent it.

That’s the set-up. As in No Way To Treat A Lady, we’re dealing with a dutiful Jewish son, with an overbearing mother, who falls in love with a beautiful shiksa (for the uninitiated, a shiksa is a non-Jewish woman). That’s where the films diverge. Where’s Poppa is filled with so very much more — Sidney’s nighttime runs through Central Park, an unbelievably funny courtroom scene with a pre-All In the Family Rob Reiner doing battle with the ultimate war-hawk, army Colonel, played by the great Barnard Hughes, just to mention two.

From the very first moment, Reiner the elder, directs this fast-paced film to perfection. There are moments so hysterically funny, situations so easily relatable (especially if you’re from NYC, and Jewish), you have to be careful not to laugh so hard you miss out on some of the fun.

While both films are very much of their time (late 60s to 1970), the humor stands up. Funny is funny.

In any event, these two comedies are on my list of movies you have to see — unless, of course, you have no sense of humor and don’t like comedy. I’d also like to give honorable mentions to two other films from that same time period. Harold and Maude, a story about a very rich young man with social anxieties (Bud Cort), who falls in love with a 70-something, free-spirited woman (once again, Ruth Gordon) who teaches him to enjoy life. All I can say is, it’s a wonderful, funny and even poignant film.

The other honorable mention goes to The Loved One, based on a novel by British satirist Evelyn Waugh. This comedy deals with the very profitable funeral industry in Los Angeles, and stars a young Robert Morse (fresh off the smash Broadway musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying), the always brilliant comedy of Jonathan Winters, the stunningly beautiful, Anjanette Comer, and, once again, the incredible Rod Steiger. There’s also an all-star guest cast that’s a veritable who’s who of 60s comedy.

All four of these films remain fresh and funny. They still make me laugh. And they continue to teach me about my craft.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Comedy! Part One

When I began writing today’s blog, I had no intention of making it a two-parter. But as I went on, I realized it was getting longer and longer. And while the through-line of the entire piece was comedy, there seemed to be a dividing line between my musings on the art of acting, writing and directing comedy, vs. my original intention, discussing two films I consider underrated comedy classics. In any event, maybe it’s because I’m just so in love with the topic, I had a lot to say; or possibly I just love having the ability to use as many words as I like, without having to edit my thoughts to fit in Twitter’s allotment of words per tweet. Either way, this is part one of two.

As an actor-writer-director (and sometime, producer, although that’s far from being my strongest area of expertise, as anyone who’s worked with me will attest), I have spent the past (G_d help us) 43 years, performing and directing everything from the heaviest of dramatic works, to musical theater (where I got my professional start), to works of complete & utter slapstick farce. And while I enjoy doing dramatic works (the only acting award I’ve ever won was for playing Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s, Angels In America: Millennium Approaches — not exactly lightweight material), it is comedy that lights my life.

While you would never guess it from the films, plays and performances nominated for Academy and Tony Awards, both of which, year after year, demonstrate a clear preference for drama over comedy, and dramatic performance over comedic, a not so little secret pretty much everyone in the business knows is, comedy is a shitload harder than drama.

There is a famous theatrical “deathbed quote,” attributed to everyone from the great British stage actor, Sir Edmund Kean, to the British film actor, Edmund Gwenn (best known for his role as Kris Kringle in the movie, Miracle On 34th Street), and even Groucho Marx, which bares restating. And while the identity of who actually said it remains a deep, dark theatrical mystery, the line was never uttered more truthfully, or with greater comedic affect than by Peter O’Toole in the film, My Favorite Year.

As movie star, Alan Swann (loosely based on Errol Flynn), O’Toole explains to young comedy writer, Benjy Stone (loosely based on a young Mel Brooks, and beautifully played by Mark-Linn Baker), “Comedy is such a mystery to me. I feel the way Edmund Kean did. On his death-bed, Kean was asked how he felt. He answered, Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

It may lose a little something without O’Toole’s beautifully-timed delivery, but as far as I’m concerned, that line states an under-appreciated truth. It is much more difficult to write, act, and/or direct a successful comedy — one that has audiences rolling in the aisles — then the somewhat cheaper effect, of bringing them to tears. For me, working on dramas is something I do, to remind others of my versatility (and/or because I need the work).

Another sad truism of the entertainment industry, especially as practiced in the United States, is, people love to pigeon-hole actors, writers and directors. Have a successful comedy, that’s how people in the industry see you from then on. Likewise, act, write or direct a successful drama, and that becomes your niche.

As an example, think about how difficult it was (and still is), for actors and directors to try their hand at something different, without pissing off their audience. The two easiest examples that come to mind are Bill Murray and Woody Allen. Both attained their success as comics, or comic actors (and, additionally in Allen’s case, as writer/director).

In Murray’s case, his work on Saturday Night Live, and in films like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters, established him as a major comedy star. But when he tried his hand at something different, The Razor’s Edge, a serious project which he lobbied hard to get made, Murray was slammed! While not a great film, The Razor’s Edge was certainly a decent enough one. And Murray’s performance was pretty damn good. But his fans, the box office, and Hollywood (as the box office goes, so goeth Hollywood) didn’t want to see a serious Bill Murray. And it took years before he was finally accepted as a terrific actor — period.

Woody Allen began his career as a comedy writer on The Sid Caesar Show (a later version of Your Show of Shows), one of televisions all-time classic comedies, and the precursor of shows like SNL. Allen then moved into stand-up comedy, and from there into screen comedies he wrote or co-wrote, directed and starred in. The resulting films, What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, Take The Money and Run, Bananas, Play It Again, Sam (which started as a Broadway comedy), Sleeper and Annie Hall, cemented Allen’s reputation as a comic genius. And while a number of Allen’s subsequent dramadeys have met with great success, people do not respond anywhere near as well to his serious works. Those who remember, long for the days when Woody Allen was just funny.

As for me, given the choice, 99 out of 100 times, I’d rather act in, or direct a comedy. As a writer, I’m not even sure I would know how to begin writing a “serious” work. My writing mind rebels at the thought. Comedy is what I know and love. It’s the way my mind works. As an actor and director, I’ve found no greater challenge, and no greater satisfaction than when my work brings howls of laughter to an audience. Not to get too hyperbolic about it, but laughter feeds my soul.

Okay — so what’s the point of all this (I hear you say — if you’re still here)? The point is, I want to discuss and highlight some of the great comedies that have inspired and influenced me as an artist. Some, like Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, are obvious choices. While these three Brooks films are totally different in tone, tenor and subject matter, as well as the growth of Brooks’ sophistication as a director, they share one thing — they’re all hysterically funny.

They’re also incredibly well known comedies. In Part II of this post, I want to discuss several lesser-known screen comedies which, as far as I’m concerned, are comic masterpieces. They’re films I first saw in my teens, and, due to the combination and quality of screenplays, acting and directing, had very direct and major influences on me, comedically.