August 2006 Archives
In the fall of 1997, when celebrity comings-out were becoming commonplace, whether it was Elton John or Ellen De Generes, it occurred to me that the sports world still remained pretty mum, pretty closeted. And nowhere more so than in the National Football League. So I called Dave Kopay, at the time one of two NFL players ever to come out (both after they were out of football), to see what he had to say on the subject. Kopay was a trailblazer, talking openly about his sexuality in the mid-1970s, before even Elton was ready to. As you’ll see in the paragraphs that follow, Kopay was (and remains) a kind man and an agreeable interview, but in no way was he happily reconciled to his lot.
One great postscript... A few months after this article ran, Kopay gave an interview to the Advocate in which he related the following story: “In the GQ article, I was quoted, accurately, saying ‘Would I do Troy Aikman on Sunset Strip? Yes! That would be my fantasy!’ Well, a couple of days after the article was published, I was flying to Dallas for a buying trip or something. Into the terminal in L.A. comes Troy Aikman. We both got sidetracked and were the last people on the plane. I wanted to introduce myself, but he was being bothered by kids. He was being gracious but obviously wanted privacy. He is as gorgeous in person as he is on TV. So I went up to him and said, ‘My name is Dave Kopay, and I used to play pro ball.’ Then I told him what I said in the article. I said, ‘I don't apologize for what I said, but I do apologize for it if it caused you pain.’ He just smiled and said, ‘Dave, don’t worry about it. I look forward to reading it.’”
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There’s a whiff of comic novelty to meeting a gay football player. Dave Kopay’s apartment in Los Angeles has the requisite ephemera of a finished sports career: the team photos, the plaques, the display of helmets over the big-screen TV, one for each team he played for—the San Francisco 49ers, the Detroit Lions, the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers. (Unrepresented for some reason are the New Orleans Saints, with whom he spent one season.) But in the course of the grand tour, a bedroom cabinet is opened to reveal a poster of meat boys in underwear, and the kitchen bulletin board is a collage of photos Kopay and male friends romping nude or nearly nude by the pool outside his weekend house in Palm Desert. Somewhere in the collage is a dorsal-view portrait, clipped from a magazine, of an unclothed male rock climber.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s just a butt I liked,” he says.
Twenty years ago, Kopay was a sociological phenomenon, the first National Football League player, active or retired, ever to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. Today he is a 55-year-old flooring salesman at Linoleum City, a store in Hollywood whose catchphrase is “Sears is next to us.” He’s a nice guy, with a mirthful, gabby way about him—“Would I do Troy Aikman on Sunset Strip?” he mused, unbidden, the first time we ever spoke on the telephone, answering, “Yes! That would be my fantasy!”—but he’s also prone to fits of pique where his body goes taut with frustration and anger and there’s just no consoling him. What causes these fits is not his current station in life, which is more edifying and lucrative than it sounds, but the nagging idea that to this day it’s still pretty much just him: “lonely old me,” as he rails in one of his paroxysmal moments, “Dave Kopay–the-gay-football-player.”
Since he took his great leap, he has been joined in the annals of known gay football pros by precisely two people: his old Redskins teammate Jerry Smith, an all-pro tight end who went to his grave without publicly disclosing his sexual orientation but whose death from AIDS in 1986 occasioned posthumous discussion of his homosexuality, and a former guard with the New York Giants named Roy Simmons, who outed himself on Donahue in 1992, nine years after he left football, and promptly disappeared from public view.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Everywhere else in the culture, it seems, there’s a rah-rah gay consciousness afoot: Last autumn, at the same time the vice president’s praise of Ellen was catching more flak for being an act of desperate opportunism than for being an endorsement of sexual deviance, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement imploring parents not to turn out their gay sons and daughters, because “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is a homosexual.” In & Out was the nation’s leading film comedy; Elton John was cracking self-twitting queer jokes on Leno. By these measures, you’d expect Kopay to be on Nike billboards today, a totem of cool, as fashionable to praise for barrier breaking as Jackie Robinson. You’d expect somber speeches at father-and-son banquets about how tormented double lives have been consolidated into full-scholarship single ones because twenty years ago a courageous soul by the name of Dave Kopay demonstrated that being gay and a gamer were not mutually exclusive. You’d expect some team’s badass corps of defensive backs to be known as “the Lavender Posse.”
In the NFL, though, it remains inviolably 1957: Queers just aren’t talked about, which means Kopay isn’t talked about, which means a whole new generation has come up never knowing that there was this gay guy who played football. It’s as if enough time has elapsed without another such incident that the whole Kopay saga has been deemed erasable, like points on a driver’s license—whatever little spore of gay positivity he might have implanted in the NFL’s mind-set has been eradicated. To wit:
–At last spring’s predraft scouting combine, Jim Druckenmiller, the star quarterback of Virginia Tech, blithely informed reporters that he lifts weights with his offensive linemen because “I think it gives them a feeling that I’m not a little pansy back there in the pocket.” (Druckenmiller now backs up Steve Young in, of all places, San Francisco.)
–Such is Barry Switzer’s animus toward Troy Aikman that, according to the sportswriter Skip Bayless’s recent book, Hellbent: The Crazy Truth About the “Win or Else” Dallas Cowboys, the coach has implored reporters to out the quarterback, believing that that would sabotage Aikman’s career. (Aikman, for the record, insists he is heterosexual.) “[Switzer] and his compadres came to me and other media people,” Bayless told The Advocate, “saying, ‘Why don’t you have the courage to stand up and tell the truth about this guy,’ as in, he’s gay.”
–Last August, at the Washington Redskins’ training camp, Stephen Davis, a running back, taunted Michael Westbrook, a wide receiver, with what the Washington Post later referred to as “a homosexual reference.” Westbrook, a young player with a reputation for volatility, became enraged and showered punches upon Davis, leaving him with multiple bruises and an eye swollen shut. A clip of the attack aired repeatedly on the local news, Rodney King–style, and Westbrook was roundly condemned, forced to apologize and pay a $50,000 fine. Davis, on the other hand, was praised for the gracious way he accepted Westbrook’s apology and was lauded by teammates and the press as a “gentleman” with “class.” Lost, somehow, in all this was the original offense—that Davis had called Westbrook a “fuckin’ faggot.”
You could be forgiven for having supposed in the late ’70s that the late ’90s would turn out differently for Dave Kopay. He was a demicelebrity back then, crisscrossing the country to make speeches, popping up on The David Susskind Show and Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, appearing in bookstores to sign copies of his bestselling autobiography, The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation. When he settled in San Francisco after his book tour ended, he was the toast of the Castro district, embraced by the city’s emergent gay glitterati. Armistead Maupin, the author of Tales of the City, put him up in a spare room; Randy Shilts, the journalist, and Harvey Milk, the celebrated city supervisor, became his friends.
“Without sounding pompous, we were part of a new breed—not only openly gay and well-known but well-known for being openly gay,” says Maupin. “I loved walking into bars with Dave, because you could watch every head turn. He was a major babe and a hero to every gay person.”
Kopay’s lasting achievement, in fact, is the pride he swelled within the gay subculture, even among men who, like Maupin, have “a chemical aversion to sports.” In this regard, he remains a living legend, marching in pride parades, being invited to administer the athletes’ oath at the Gay Games, eliciting letters of cathartic unburdening from closeted teen jocks. But in the mainstream, Kopay is a marginal figure—at best, a dial-a-quote source for journalists writing about “gays in sports”; at worst, the correct response to question number four in the November 14, 1996 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Cheese Quiz”: “Who was the former Packer player who declared in his autobiography that he was gay?”
This is what it has all come to: literally, the answer to a trivia question.
“Jesus, will you look at that? I can’t stand that crap!” We’re watching a 49ers-Panthers game, and, as is often the case these days, a bunch of players are celebrating steroidally, jiggling their limbs like jackhammers because one of them has made a routine tackle on a kickoff return. Kopay is repulsed: “If you’re a real man, you act like you’re used to success.”
He has the jutted slab features of the Paleozoic NFL, when the game was populated by Nagurskis and Robustellis, yet his gray-blond hair is styled into a center-parted salon quiff, and he looks at least ten years younger than his age—not quite in playing shape, but gym-fit. Kopay was a journeyman but a good one: an undersized running back who hung on for ten years in the league because he was a capable backup, an excellent blocker and a kamikaze on kickoff coverage—a “special teams demon,” in sportswriterese. John Brodie, the 49ers’ star quarterback of the ’60s, nicknamed him “Psyche” for his lunatic intensity on the field. Vince Lombardi, who coached Kopay in the former’s last-hurrah season with the Redskins, called him “Attaboy Dave.”
Psyche Attaboy Dave is glad to have my company: He has only one buddy interested enough in sports to come over and watch football with him—which is a shame, because he’s completely up on the game and provides TV-worthy color commentary on the action; he seems familiar with the roster and front-office personnel of every team. Pretzels have been set out, and in lieu of beer we’re drinking some Cabernet from the Clos du Bois winery—one of the official sponsors of the October ’96 Candlelight March on Washington, you know. “I can’t tell you who’s gay here,” he says, surveying the game on TV. “I’ve heard rumors, and I’m sure you have. But I don’t know. People are always asking me if this player or another is gay. I always say, ‘Unless I’ve slept with him, I couldn’t tell you.’” Just the other day, it transpires, the supermarket tabloid The Globe called, asking Kopay to spill whatever her knows about closeted football homosexuals. He told them to shove it.
Our conversation, really more like a Kopay monologue with occasionally interjections, toggles herky-jerkily between the poles of his identity: He’s been out to see the AIDS quit in D.C. every year they’ve shown it; he thinks George Allen, who cut him from the Redskins, was a despicable man. He’ll be going up to San Francisco soon to attend a benefit for the city’s new Gay and Lesbian Community Center; he’ll be going up to Seattle soon to attend the University of Washington’s annual Big Apple game against Washington State (he was cocaptain of the Huskies’ ’64 Rose Bowl team). He was thrilled to meet Ian McKellen at a recent function; he can’t get over how Eddie Murray is still a placekicker in the NFL—God, the guy must be like, 50.
He’s got some activist-type ideas, too. His NFL pension has just kicked in, and he’s aware of this arrangement you can make where you set aside part of your annuity for your spouse to collect after your death. “So why couldn’t this benefit be adjusted for a significant other instead of a wife? I’d like to make an appointment with Mr. Upshaw”—Gene Upshaw, former Oakland Raider great and current executive director of the NFL Players Association—“to talk about this.”
Eventually, the talk wends its way around to the subject of one of his friends—a photographer who lives in New Orleans and who “was an influence on Mapplethorpe.” Before I know it, my host is dashing out of the room, returning to hand me an artful photograph of his naked self. The picture shows him seated with his legs bent in front of him, upturned thighs coyly obscuring his groin, except that his penis is peeking out, flopped on the floor.
“Clearly, you’re not shy about nudity,” I say.
“No, to me the body is a beautiful thing.”
When he says this, it kicks in that maybe the hombre skin parade on the kitchen bulletin board isn’t such a novelty. He is, afterall, a jock, with a jock’s body cultism and heightened sense of carnality—a point driven home when a muscular guy in shorts flashes across the TV screen, a shaving commercial or something, and Kopay goes, “Whoa!”
“Dave was, if anything, more identifiably jock than identifiably gay,” says Maupin, recalling their time as roomies in San Francisco. “Even his boyfriends—they were like blond trophy boyfriends, the equivalent of blonde cheerleader types.” Indeed, spending time with Kopay is like warping into a bizarre world of inverted jock norms: Substitute Rebecca Romijn for the Atra Man, a St. Pauli Girl poster for the meat boys, and we could well be in Brett Favre’s rec room.
As comings out go, none could have been purer in intent, or more unsavvy by current standards: He didn’t call a press conference; he had no book to promote, like Greg Louganis, no TV show to plug, like Ellen DeGeneres, no battalion of agents to vet his words before he uttered them. He didn’t even telephone his devoutly Catholic parents to forewarn them. “I hope it might help some people,” he said at the time, “especially younger people who are going through similar experiences and haven’t had anyone to talk to about it.”
The impetus came on December 9, 1975, when the now defunct Washington Star newspaper ran the first article of a four-part front-page series on homosexuality in sports, written by a young reporter named Lynn Rossellini. The article was accompanied by a sidebar interview with an unnamed football star who called himself “bisexual” and angrily complained that he couldn’t come out for fear of getting kicked off the team and destroying his off-season business. Kopay, two years out of the NFL and living in Washington, D.C., instantly recognized the anonymous source as Jerry Smith, with whom he had once had sex. Astonished and exhilarated—and he says, mindful of Coach Lombardi’s sage advice that a back should always “run to daylight”—Kopay felt the only right thing to do was call Rosellini and tell his story. It’s probably the only outing Lombardi ever facilitated.
“Kopay was a godsend,” says Rossellini, now a senior writer with U.S. News and World Report. “After the first article appeared, I was getting accusations of muckraking and yellow journalism for using anonymous sources. I’d spent almost three months reporting the series, trying to get someone to talk on the record. And suddenly here was someone calling me! I was stunned.”
The article ran under the headline DAVE KOPAY—OUT IN THE OPEN. It was picked up nationwide, and the blitz of talk shows and articles and indignant and euphoric letters began. The publication two years later of The David Kopay Story, written with Perry Deane Young, a protégé of Christopher Isherwood’s, touched off a second wave of interest and scrutiny. Phil Donahue booked Kopay opposite a surprisingly supportive Paul Hornung. Penthouse ran a boozy, chummy profile detailing Kopay’s attempts to arrange nightcap trysts, three-ways and four-ways, along the stops of his book tour. The New York Daily News selected Kopay to go one-on-one with Anita Bryant, the Grand Wizardess of American queer haters, in a debate headlined DO HOMOSEXUAL ATHLETES TARNISH SPORTS’ IMAGE? (Mais oui, said lacquer-haired Anita, reasoning: “If ‘Gay’ is good, then more ‘Gay’ would be better, and all ‘Gay’ would be best. And there would be no sports, no spectators, and no human life.”)
Memoirs are habitually blurbed as being “unflinchingly honest,” but The David Kopay Story is among the few that live up to the cliché. Though earnest to the point of humorlessness, the book is a painstakingly frank document of the pre-AIDS ’60s and ’70s, of free love and sexual experimentation. Kopay comes off as a confused, hunky sexual innocent to whom strange things happen; he’s like Joe Dallesandro in an Andy Warhol movie. Dave bangs a sorority girl to fit in at his fraternity at the University of Washington; Dave finds himself drunkenly, furtively conjoining with his best frat buddy in a roadside motel; Dave is conquested by a female go-go dancer who invites him back to her hotel room, where she displays an array of lubricants with which she creates “all sorts of new and strange feelings, including those from a massage of my prostate”; Dave and his girlfriend get involved in a three-way with a male aide to a conservative southern congressman (Dave is more aroused by the man); Dave discovers gay bars; Dave is given a lucrative off-season junior-executive position on the condition that he “provide certain sexual favors” to his male boss; Dave enters into a short-lived sham marriage; Dave goes to a hypnotist to try to “cure” himself of homosexuality.
The book spent ten weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, enhancing Kopay’s public profile and bank balance. But, ultimately, it failed to precipitate any widespread rethinking vis-à-vis football. The machinery of history simply wasn’t calibrated to Kopay’s advantage. The love-ins accorded today to those who come out were unheard-of, the vogue for “shocking” memoirs was twenty years away, gay issues were still largely the province of ghettoized gay publications, and major news organizations were inclined to go no further than they had to when it came to homosexuals. The Times sports columnist Dave Anderson went out on a limb to devote a whole column to the book, tacitly endorsing it by writing, “Some people will abhor it. Some people will enjoy it. Most people will try to ignore it, but they can’t. David Kopay has provided a serious sociological document.”
But the column was killed. Ostensibly, it was unsuitable for the Times’ sports pages because it dealt with a book, and books were the bailiwick of book reviewers, not sportswriters. But Anderson grants that the Kopay column is the only one he’s ever had yanked, “and I’ve written thousands of columns.”
The NFL offered no comment on The David Kopay Story, just as it had no place for Kopay once his playing career came to an end in 1973, when the Oakland Raiders cut him from their taxi squad. In the next couple of years, before his official coming out but after his homosexuality was common knowledge among former colleagues, Kopay wanted nothing more than to get into coaching—a not unreasonable goal for someone who had put ten years of service in the NFL. Alas, for all the letters he sent out, only Bart Starr, then the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, even bothered to respond with a “No, thank you.” Feelers put out to San Francisco State University’s football program proved similarly futile. “And they had a reputation had a reputation as a gay-friendly school,” Kopay says.
Pro football has had its troubles, but it has never found itself deep in crises of self-worth, like baseball, nor has it approached the overwrought crack-binge hysteria of Davids Stern’s NBA. This is because the NFL has never needed to sell itself; we fans are hooked for life. Watching football is a refuge, a form of psychic release. Even when our team loses or we’re watching two other cities’ teams, the sheer unburdening of emotion is satisfying—whether it’s sentimentalism about a Jim Plunkett/Ottis Anderson comeback, exhilaration over a Young-to-Rice completion for a TD, ursine savagery in response to a Bruce Smith sack (“Aaaaaagh!”) or vengeful glee at the sight of Jerry Jones’s cracker ass in a tizzy because his Cowboys have gotten whupped bad. There’s also a reassuring undertow of Eisenhower propriety to the NFL: the Paul Douglas and Van Heflin look-alikes who populate the front offices; the enduring usefulness of fat white men; the hearthside nuclear-family Sunday ritual. Beloved players are hailed as “throwbacks” or “workhorses” or “lunch-pail kinda guys”—terms evocative of thriving northern mill towns that no longer exist.
In this kind of environment, the NFL is not exactly champing at the bit to initiate a gay-outreach program. “In general, the gay issue is not something that concerns us. If it relates to our game, we’ll address it,” says Greg Aiello, the NFL’s director of communications. “But someone’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to our operations.”
For the cult of football, Aiello has a point. The entire game is built on tradition, which is part of its allure. It’s hard enough to deal with the advent of two-point conversions. Do we really want the whole ethos of football tampered with? Do we really want issues of social justice to impinge upon our loutish, Kramdenesque three-hour Sunday getaway from reality? Even if we are more liberal than the next guy, do we really want football players to be out and proud and loud? Wouldn’t it spoil the whole…football-y effect?
The hard answer is yes, it would, temporarily. It would become a cumbersome issue, dividing locker rooms between live-and-let-livers and God-squadders; it would elicit untold torrents of epithets from sauced fans in the stands and result in canceled endorsement contracts and ad nauseam media coverage. But just as they did in the day of Jackie Robinson, human rights trump tradition. The question is not whether sexual orientation is “relevant” to NFL operations but whether NFL operations are relevant to athletes’ sexual orientation—and clearly they are. Consider the private loathings of Jerry Smith, who was forced to maintain a double life, and who made clear to the Star’s Rosellini that it made him miserable: “I don’t think people can understand the pressure of my profession, how important it is to be discreet,” he said, his voice rising. “[My nonfootball gay friends] urge me to be more open, but I can’t be.”
So, yes, of course, football should change; Dave Kopay is on the side of the gods. And, yes, of course, when change comes, it will cause an ungodly commotion. But eventually the ruckus will die down, and football will return to being just a game again.
Kopay, then, is not naïve or wrong to try to effect change. Where he is naïve, and has been for a long time, is in failing to realize how delicately these shoals of tradition must be navigated. A compulsively candid man, he hasn’t learned the skill of holding back when it’s the politically expedient thing to do. He makes no delineation, for example, between candor about his sexuality (laudable) and candor about his sexual activity (iffy). Armistead Maupin remembers taking his parents to a cocktail party at Kopay’s after the latter had found his own apartment. “It made me proud to take my gruff old conservative father to meet a professional footballer who was just like me,” Maupin says. “But at one point, Dave took my father aside into his bedroom to show off these Polaroids he had of men and women he’s slept with. My dad walked out confused and said to me, ‘What’s the matter with that boy—doesn’t he know he’s queer?’”
So it is today: Kopay doesn’t understand why I challenge him when he says “I don’t believe in monogamy” or why my eyebrows arch upward when he talks about a three-way he was in some years ago with an affianced heterosexual couple in Florida. “I don’t look to see if people are carrying a ‘straight’ card or a ‘queer’ card,” he tells me scoldingly. “You’re asking me to define something, and I don’t like that. They liked me and I guess you could say I had a relationship with them. The gal thought it would be interesting for a boyfriend to have a different sexual experience; she set it up. I was attracted to him—he was a marine, an athlete who had been through the intensity of training. We understood each other.”
It never seems to dawn on him that this is precisely the kind of admission that would not sit well with the league office on Park Avenue.
You had to comport yourself a certain way as a gay man on the Washington Redskins. When I ask Kopay how well-known it was among the ’Skins that he and Smith were gay, he takes me over to the 1970 team portrait that hangs on his foyer wall. “Walter Rock—he knew. Vince Promuto—he knew. Len Hauss—he knew. Pat Richter knew; he’s now the athletic director of the University of Wisconsin. I’m sure Brig Owens knew—he was Jerry’s best friend on the team. Larry Brown knew. Ray Schoenke knew. They knew and had ways of making me know they knew. I was always being kidded about it by Walter Rock: Where you and Jerry going tonight? Anyplace we can go?’”
Still, the tenets of football behavior dictated that even known gay players stay closeted. Smith’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” style was the right approach; Kopay’s tentative forays into candor and flared-trouser fancy dress were the wrong approach. This is borne out by a sad, telling episode involving Jon Jaqua, a defensive back. Jaqua was a charismatic rookie who, Kopay claims, caused a sensation in the Redskins’ 1970 training camp because “his features and build were so finely drawn, he looked like a Greek statue come to life.
“You had guys looking at a young specimen, not necessarily sexually, but admiring the beauty of his body,” Kopay says. “Jaqua made the team because of that.”
One morning in camp, Jaqua, looking pale and flustered, approached Kopay and told him that Smith had hit on him the previous night. Kopay counseled Jaqua not to demonize Smith and felt compelled to disclose his own homosexuality. Jaqua was put off by Kopay’s revelation and, ironically, ended up being good friends with Smith while giving Kopay the cold shoulder.
Nearly three decades after the fact, Jaqua, who is now the executive director of the University of Oregon Foundation, says he doesn’t regret how he treated Kopay: “Jerry, once he had made that one attempt to see if I was receptive, never mentioned it again. It was easy to put that behind us. In David’s case, he wanted to talk about his problem, and I quite frankly didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to deal with the psychological aspect of his dilemma.” As Smith and Kopay dealt with their homosexuality in different ways, so did their teammates treat them differently. “Jerry no one bothered,” Jaqua says. “David was the butt of a lot of jokes. He was teased a lot. See, Jerry didn’t dress as flamboyantly as David did, and, also, he saved the other guys’ bacon. He was a star on the field—that’s what mattered.” A pause, and then his thoughts crystallize into a point: “People legitimately liked that guy.”
Kopay’s naïveté stretches far and wide, and he says he knows it. It’s not only the free ticket he grants to anyone who wants to hear about his sex life but the way he spends his time just wishing, as if wishing hard enough will get the job done. He’s fond of using phrases like “in a fantasy world” or “in an ideal world,” as in, “In a fantasy world, I would cut back on my time at work and take days off to go around and lecture kids under the aegis of the NFL. That would be ideal. I could do it at colleges, too, as a sensitivity-training type of person.”
This is fantasy-world stuff because, with that one gigantic exception in 1975, proaction has never been his thing. He’s not an activist by disposition, as he admits. Linoleum City, where he’s worked since 1981, is his life’s work. He doesn’t even solicit interviews or speaking engagements: “People just find me.”
He reserves the right, however, to get pissed off about the lack of progress. He’d like to see Gene Upshaw of the Players Association “make some kind of statement in support of gay rights, about the dignity of men and women, and that the bashing should be stopped.”
I ask him what kind of occasion Upshaw could possibly have to make such a statement.
“Doesn’t have to be an occasion—it’s what’s right. You’re being dismissive.”
Not dismissive, I say, realistic. The NFLPA, just issuing a progay statement out of the blue, of its own volition? What’s in it for them? Don’t you think you need to be proactive, that you need some sort of prepared plan, something you could fax right over to Upshaw the moment you got off the phone with him?
“Look,” says Kopay sharply, “I am not comfortable with trying to be a full-time organizer for gay rights, yet I’m totally committed to it. Harvey Milk, he said to me, ‘David, are you ready to become a professional fairy?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’” His voice shrinks; his body goes taut. “I guess that’s where I’m a failure. I’m not a professional activist. I’m not a professional fundraiser. I’m not a professional anything…a salesman, I guess. I guess you’re right. You’re right; I’m a failure. You’re right.”
A grown man in a 13-year-old’s sulk. I had come in with the assumption that because he had made his name by speaking out, he would be spokesmanlike—tidy, rehearsed, in control. By now I know better—he really isn’t a professional activist. I try to tell him that I never meant to imply that he is a failure, that all I meant was—but suddenly, paroxysmal Dave is back, breaking in furiously, momentum regained: “It seems like the only fuckin’ place discrimination is totally legitimized is with gays and lesbians! And it’s disgusting! It seems to me if the NFL is standing up for the star-spangled banner and liberty, they should stand up for gay rights! They way they stand up for black people, which they’re incredibly sensitive about!”
He regains his composure, apologizes, says it’s nothing to do with me. He starts talking about how he once narrated a film documentary on human rights that included a clip of him in his 49ers days. “It was so effective,” he says. “I’d love to go speak at schools and have a little documentary, a little highlight reel of my clips. I’d love to be able to show a film of me and Jerry. If you could just have a short segment to show I’m not just another gay activist…But NFL Films owns all the rights.”
But when asked, he says he’s never called NFL Films to request permission. “I’m afraid to, I guess,” he says. “Fear of rejection. Fear is a big part of it.”
A couple of weeks later, he sounds more upbeat. He says that rather than dealing with Upshaw, he’s been talking to some D.C. friends, activist types, about getting in touch with an attorney who might lobby the Players Association and the league on his behalf. “I’ve kind of decided I wouldn’t just go and be confrontational. It wouldn’t get anything done. I’m going to talk to this attorney. Maybe that’ll be more effective. In a fantasy world, though, you’d think the NFL would automatically take the high road.
As surely as there is a loaded revolver in some Dallas Cowboy’s glove compartment, there are gay men playing right now, this season, in the NFL. Getting one of them to talk on the record about his sexuality is one of the great unrealized scoops in journalism, kind of like that pot-o’-gold J.D. Salinger interview everyone wants. It’s a delicate business even to begin to negotiate. For a couple of years now, ESPN has been slowly, gingerly preparing a documentary on gays in sports, carefully approaching NFL figures on the rumored-to-be list. It’s such a precarious process that the principals involved at the network are reluctant to have their project mentioned in this article, lest a potential interviewee be scared off.
It will happen, the great uncloseting, only because it has to happen. When and how, though, are a mystery. “If I ever had a client who was gay, my advice would be never to discuss it unless he had a strong enough personality to handle it,” says the sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents, among others, the quarterbacks Troy Aikman Steve Young, and Drew Bledsoe, and who has done his share of damage control in response to gay rumors about some of his clients. “Jackie Robinson, to do what he did, had to have such a Martin Luther King-Mohandas Gandhi, turn-the-other-cheek way about him. That’s the level of provocation this athlete would have to endure. This person would have to singularly bear the burden.”
Robert Lipsyte, the Sunday sports columnist for The New York Times, offers an ingenious, entirely plausible scenario. “What could bust the whole thing,” he says, “is if a Nike athlete comes out in a Nike ad. More and more, Nike has set the agenda for social issues in sports coverage. It’s like Tiger Woods, or the Charles Barkley I’m-not-a-role-model thing, which was fucking brilliant, because it made him a role model. If you had this athlete saying, ‘Let me show you what a gay man can do…’”
But the point is, we do have this athlete. He exists. He knows what it’s like to singularly bear the burden, to pay the price of ostracization from the game he loves. He was out there ages ago, before there was such a thing as gay chic, with nothing to gain but his own sense of well-being. He may not have been the greatest, but he was good at what he did. He has survived, found a kind of happiness, even remained in love with the game in spite of everything that’s happened. So why not?
The scene: The Mojave Desert. Sunrise. There’s a speck on the vast landscape, a muscular figure in tank top and shorts, doing deep knee bends. Music from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts plays on the sound track.
VOICE-OVER: “Don’t think I didn’t hear their cracks. I did.”
He’s close-up, doing abdominal crunches now. You can hear the grunt that accompanies each one, in sync with the following words.
Cut to a Ken Burns–style pan across an old black-and-white photo of Kopay, with the Washington Huskies, running over the University of Illinois’s Dick Butkus.
V.O.: “But I showed them when I ran over Butkus.”
Return to the Mojave. Kopay is doing push-ups. Then cut to file footage of Kopay catching a pass from Sonny Jurgensen in the flat.
V.O.: “I showed them when I connected with Jurgensen.”
Back to the Mojave. Kopay is jogging, accelerating slightly. Cut to a montage of headlines of his coming out: DAVE KOPAY—OUT IN THE OPEN, etc.
V.O.: “ I showed them that it didn’t matter what they said, that what mattered was what went on between the chalk marks. Now let me show you…”
Kopay accelerates further in the Mojave, kicking up dust, cleared for takeoff, faster and faster, music rising…
V.O.: “…what a gay man can do.”
Screen goes black, save for a lavender swoosh and three words: “Just do it.”
There was this great British indie movie that I fell in love with while in college (circa ’87-’88) called Withnail & I. It never did that well at the box office, but by the mid-’90s, when I wrote this article, Withnail & I had become a full-fledged cult among young men in Britain and America. I seized the opportunity to write about this wonderful film, and, to my delight, was invited to spend the night at the gorgeous Herefordshire farm of Withnail’s brilliant but reclusive writer-director, Bruce Robinson. I also got to live out every Withnail-er’s fantasy by spending lots of time with the movie’s three principals, Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (“I”), and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty; Griffiths would later achieve greater American fame as Harry Potter’s mean Uncle Vernon). At the time I wrote this article, I was that much younger than I am now, and I still had a bit of Withnail-wannabe in me: a put-on misanthropy, an eagerness to impress, a faked Britishness. But I still like this piece, and it evokes happy times.
GQ, October 1995
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Rather ridiculous, the images brought to mind by the words of cult following: pallid misfits organizing their lives around figments of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination; tie-dyed refugees mourning the loss of their paunchy old Haight-Ashbury godhead; runaways wearing their underpants over their trousers so they’ll be let into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for free. The cult of Withnail & I is different, though—bereft of the usual loserish underpinnings of cultism and rife with clever, hygienic, intelligent individuals who know brilliance when they see it. Or so I’ve liked to think ever since I discovered that Withnail & I, a relatively obscure British film comedy, was not just a personal favorite of mine but a full-fledged transatlantic underground phenomenon—in other words, a cult.
Noninitiates will have dim memories of the film at best. Low budget and offbeat, it was perceived at the time of its release in America, 1987, as just another well-reviewed art-house flick, something along the lines of Babette’s Feast or Rosa Luxemburg or any other film of the period that didn’t have William Hurt in it and was made someplace other than the United States. But when the film was subsequently released on video, Withnail proved to be something more—“the perfect film, as shallow as you want it and as deep as you need,” in the words of Mark Ellen, the author of a dissertation-length appraisal of Withnail’s merits that appeared earlier this year in Empire, a British movie magazine.
The segment of humanity that shares Ellen’s view is small but passionate. For those whose Anglophilia manifests itself as an appreciation of great British comedy (as opposed to an appreciation of Crabtree & Evelyn’s soaps and soporific BBC-produced adaptations of Waugh), Withnail ranks with the finest output of Ealing Studios, the Monty Python troupe and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. For those in middle age who once claimed the counterculturist banner, Withnail, the story of two young men fumbling through the waning months of 1969, affords a remarkably authentic look back at the period, with none of the conspicuously prosthetic sideburns and implausibly hit-laden sound tracks of Hollywood’s ‘60s pageants. For those still in the throes of libertine youth, Withnail is an inspiring paean to last-gasp, preadulthood irresponsibility—a British analogue to Barry Levinson’s Diner, another film whose levity and humor belie its emotional resonance. Like Diner, Withnail is very much a guy’s film—women hardly figure in the picture, just like in freshman year—but it appeals to a different constituency: more the scrawny arts and humanities major than Diner’s ball-capped sports-bar fella.
The film’s story concerns two out-of-work actors, Withnail and Marwood (the “I” of the title, identified by name only in the screenplay). On the verge of turning 30, getting evicted and succumbing to alcohol-and drug-induced dementia, they decide to leave their squalid North London flat, and embark on a disastrous countryside holiday. The Byronic Withnail (Richard E. Grant), at once a rebel against his upper-class background and a champion of the very upper-class notion that the world owes him a living, is everyone’s fantasy of what he or she is like when drunk: profoundly funny, venomously eloquent, glamorously disheveled and able to tell people off without violent consequences. Various individuals who cause him displeasure are called “silage heap,” “shag-sack” and “you terrible cunt!” Marwood (Paul McGann), steadier and sturdier, supplies the quietly hilarious voice-overs that give the film its literary tone. Here’s his description of a dreary public house he and Withnail are shown entering: “It was like walking into a lung. A sulfur-stained, nicotine yellow and fly-blown lung. Its landlord was a retired alcoholic with military pretensions and a complexion like the inside of a teapot.”
Rounding out the film’s principals is Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the owner of the country cottage to which Withnail and Marwood alight. A sozzled, portly squire whose flair for gracious country living predates the emigration of Martha Stewart’s people from Poland, Monty rescues the hopelessly urban boys from certain starvation and the rural neighbors’ enmity by paying Withnail and Marwood an impromptu visit. He tidies up the house, produces fantastic wines from his cellar, cooks wonderful meals—and takes a proprietary interest in the handsome Marwood. Late one night, while a drunken Withnail snores obliviously across the hall, Monty, Rouged and wearing an enormous paisley robe, bursts into Marwood’s bedroom and attempts to seduce and rape him: “I mean to have you—even if it must be burglary!”
Marwood manages to elude Monty, who flees in disgrace. A few days later, word comes that Marwood has been cast in a play and must leave for Manchester immediately. The film concludes with Marwood and Withnail bidding each other good-bye in a miserable downpour in Regent’s Park—the former going off to begin a new, respectable life as a legitimate actor, the latter returning to juvenile depravity. The film’s cumulative effect sneaks up on you: What has seemed at times like a loose, affably shambling druggie comedy reveals itself to be a tightly constructed, poignant story about the precise moment in life when one grows out of youth and the friendships that go with it.
That said, it’s the film’s silly moments that hook people. Like This Is Spinal Tap and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Withnail is full of memorable lines its more pathetic adherents are ont to utter at high volume in public. Whereas the Tap fan’s clarion cry is “Hello, Cleveland!” and the Python fan’s is “This is an ex-parrot!” the Withnail acolyte favors Withnail’s lament “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” or Uncle Monty’s fretful response to his cat’s misbehavior, “Yet again that oaf has destroyed my day!”
It was the absentminded tossing off of such a line that first clued me in to the breadth of the Withnail phenomenon. “Wait, you’ve seen it, too?” said someone I barely knew, responding to the involuntary expulsion from my lips of the words “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops” (another Montyism). The virtual stranger told me he and his friends watched Withnail religiously. Soon I heard of others like him, and still others, and the usual hallmarks of cult-film status became evident. Withnail, it transpired, was playing in collegetown revival houses. Young fans with literary aspirations were churning out unauthorized Withnail stage adaptations and sequel attempts. Sly allusions to Withnail were turning up in pop culture: The singer Morrissey called his second most recent album Vauxhall & I, and Ralph Brown, an obscure actor who in Withnail plays the perpetually stoned Cockney drug dealer Danny—the inventor of a clarinet-sized spliff called the “Camberwell carrot”—materialized in Wayne’s World 2 playing essentially the same character. A school of hard-core Withnail-ologists emerged, peeling away the layers of meaning supposedly hidden within the film. In the final scene, for example, when the abandoned Withnail recites a portion of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy in Regent’s Park, his declaration “Man delights not me, nor women, neither” is interpreted in some quarters as a coded admission that he and Marwood, purportedly heterosexual best friends, are actually lovers.
Further investigation revealed that whatever small pockets of Withnail fanaticism exist in America are nothing compared with what’s going on in England. Last year, the premiere issue of Loaded, a Britsh men’s magazine, called Withnail “the biggest cult in British film since A Clockword Orange.” The magazine detailed the rules of a popular new British pastime known as the “Withnail & I drinking game,” wherein players watch the film on video and attempt to match the bibulous characters drink for drink in real time; never mind that the film’s action takes place over the course of a week. The London Times reported that pilgrimage-minded young people are besieging Penrith, the quaint Cumbrian burg where, in the movie, a ferociously drunk Withnail and Marwood terrify the elderly clientele of a tearoom.
“They are always male,” a spokeswoman for the Penrith Tourist Information Center said of the pilgrims, “usually two or three of them, quite polite and slightly trendy looking.”
It wasn’t even necessary to go to Penrith to find Withnail pilgrims. In Regent’s Park, I was told, you can stand by the wolves’ cages, where Withnail recites his Hamlet soliloquy, and find Withnail-esque young men milling about. On a trip to London, I gave it a try, planning myself along the wooded path one afternoon like a retiree waiting for squirrels to feel. Sure enough, two of them emerged, fashionably undernourished teenagers with palpable buzzes on, snickering, dangling on the wrought-iron fencing and wreaking havoc on Shakespeare’s sentence “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”
There was more: Hilary Davis, who handles UK theatrical distribution for Hand-Made Films, the company that produced the film, said her office had been getting “loads of calls about Withnail & I. Mostly nutters, asking ‘Where’s the pub? Where’s the scene in the Lake District?’ ”
After hearing all this, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the actors themselves have become prime targets of Withnail-related comments and queries. “I first noticed it a few years ago,” Paul McGann told me. “I was in Mothercare buying nappies—we’d just had our first child—and some students stopped me as I was leaving. They couldn’t have been more than 17. They said, ‘Guess what we did last night? We had a Withnail & I theme party.’ It was some dressing up and smoking Camberwell carrots, cooking onions. They were in the full gear. It was incredible.” Richard Griffiths said he’d been approached by several AIDS hospices requesting that he go public with his homosexuality and act as a spokesman for their fund drives. They were disappointed, he said, to learn there is a Mrs. Griffiths. He added that it is not uncommon for him to be approached in the street by young autograph hounds carrying the Withnail & I videocassette on their person, much as Mark David Chapman toted around The Catcher in the Rye. “People have got them in their pockets!” her said. “What they’re doing with them, God knows.”
But no one receives more fanatical Withnail & I-related attention than Ricard E. Grant. His dynamic, vitriol-spewing portrayal of Withnail has made him the idol of an awful lot of schoolboys, and when I first got in touch with him, he was about to address the Oxford Union, the university’s famed debating society. “They sent me this wonderfully popous letter,” he said. “ ‘The last people to speak here were Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton, and you’re next on the agenda!’ ” Though exams were on at Oxford when Grant made his appearance, the hall was thronged. “Withnail becomes a bonding thing the first weeks of college,” explained David Pinto-Duschinsky, the Oxford Union’s 21-year-old president. “I had never heard of it when I got here. By the end of my first year, I’d seen it six times. At every party, it’s like, ‘Right, we’ve got to see Withnail.’ ”
Grant acknowledged that playing Withnail has rewarded him with more than a guaranteed living on the college lecture circuit. He attributed his being cast in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the largesse of Withnail fanatic Winona Ryder, who starred in both films: “She and Johnny Depp knew most of the movie by heart, and I met here at a party and she said, ‘You’re gonna be in Dracula!’ I was like, ‘Sure, sure,’ but she was true to her word.” He offered a list of other Withnail-ites he has encountered in his Hollywood travails: Robert Altman, Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Keanu Reeves, Tom Waits, Gus Van Sant, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, among others. Modestly, Grant averred that much of the adulation directed at him should be directed at Bruce Robinson, the film’s writer and director: “It’s a slightly daft thing, because it’s Bruce who should be the one reaping the benefits. He is the real brilliant wit.”
Indeed, what of this Bruce Robinson? He followed up Withnail two years later with How to Get Ahead in Advertising, another vehicle for Grant. This time the actor was a nefarious, barking yuppie advertising execturive who, stumped in his efforts to come up with a campaign for a new boil cream, develops a huge talking boil on his neck. Though the film isn’t the through-and-through artistic success Withnail is, its release signaled that in Robinson, England had found a promising new filmmaker, one who could be counted on to pump out wonderful, quirky comedies starring Richard E. Grant for years to come.
And then, nothing. Withnail’s auteur, who had appeared out of nowhere, seemed to have disappeared just as precipitously. What happened? Who was he in the first place? A rummage through a handful of film encyclopedias and guides turned up a variety of credits for someone named Bruce Robinson: There was the writer-director Bruce Robinson of Withnail and Advertising; an actor Bruce Robinson who played Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet and seven years later starred opposite Isabelle Adjani in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H; a screenwriter Bruce Robinson who was nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for scripting The Killing Fields. The final entry for Bruce Robinson was from 1992: writer-director of Jennifer 8, a competent but unmemorable American-made cop thriller starring Uma Thurman and Andy Garcia.
All of these Bruce Robinsons turned out to be the same person—an intriguing figure, now 49 years old, whose name provoked rapturous, evangelical testimonials from those who had worked with him. “I, like lots of people, I assume, developed an instant crush on him,” said McGann. “It’s something you can’t help.”
“I think Bruce is a fucking star of the first order,” said Griffiths. “I’d word with him like a shot. Anytime, anywhere. Like a shot.”
Most emphatic was Grant, Robinson’s disused mouthpiece. “He will draw out of you as much gush as you can come up with,” he said. “He will draw it out of you! It’s absolutely involuntary.”
Grant seemed hurt that Robinson, to whom he readily admits he owes his career, had forsaken him and the British indie-film milieu to make Jennifer 8 for Paramount Pictures. “His talent has been in writing character-driven British comedies,” Grant said. “He knows that I would literally knock off a limb to go and work with him again. He’s very possessive towards me. He’d probably deny this, be he doesn’t like that I’ve worked for other people, Scorsese and Coppola. I say, ‘Bruce, I got these movies because of your movies! It’s only because you’re not making more movies for me to be in!’ ”
Hear, hear. So where on earth had Robinson gone off to, and what was he doing?
Some weeks after I put word through to Robinson’s Los Angeles “people,” a call came my way, all the way from the remote hills of rural Herefordshire, England, near the Welsh border: “Hello, this is Bruce Robinson. I’m as baffled by Withnail’s return from the dead as you are. You’re welcome to come by and stay over if you like.”
I was greeted at the Hereford train station by what appeared to be an aging rock star: wraith-thin, longhaired and black-leather jacketed, his face creased and angular like Mick Jagger’s or Steven Tyler’s, but much more handsome. We got into his spotless 1961 Aston Martin DB 4 (no seat belts) and set out at face-flattening speed for Cwm Farm, the homestead he shares with his wife, Sophie, and their two young children. En route, he mentioned that there were several local types about, shepherds, who were not unlike Withnail’s sour rural groteseques in their suspicion of the strange, urbanized interloper in their midst. Robinson told me he had earned the enmity of his neighbors by refusing to let their sheep graze on his land.
“Do the locals have a nickname for you?” I asked.
“ ‘Arsehole,’ I should think.”
To spend time with Bruce Robinson is to realize just how much Withnail & I is the essence of his being, his soul rendered in celluloid. His speech is richly, sidesplittingly misanthropic. He drinks prodigiously, siphoning the contents of two bottles of “vino rosso” in the course of an evening. When nature calls, he announces, á la Marwood, he’s going out back “for a slash.” As a youth, he really did weep in butcher’s shops.
Goblet in hand, Robinson furnished for me an abridged version of his life story: born in ’46 to a lower-middle-class family; directionless student; thought he’d found his salvation in acting; went to drama school in the mid-‘60s; got a few parts in plays and movies; lived with the actress Lesley-Anne Down for a while; realized in 1970 that what he really wanted to do was write; became a protégé of British producer David Puttnam; several screenplays sold but never made; finally got his big break with 1984’s The Killing Fields. Flush with that film’s success, Robinson was approached by producers asking him what he wanted to do next. He dusted off an unpublished novel he had written fifteen years earlier and set about turning it into a screenplay: Withnail & I.
That the film’s original story dates from the time in which it is set—the final months of ’69—explains Withnail & I’s glorious authenticity. When Robinson pecked out the original manuscript on an old typewriter in his kitchen, he really was a struggling actor on the dole, living in a freezing-cold flat. He really had embarked on a disastrous country sojourn (albeit with a different friend than the one with hom he shared the flat). He really had been propositioned by a middle-aged homosexual who asked him, as Monty asks Marwood, “Are you a sponge or a stone?”
Withnail & I went into production in 1986. As a director, Robinson brooked absolutely no improvisation and insisted that lines be read his way. “He said, ‘Boys, look, say it like this, because I’ve had this thing knoking around in my head for fiteen years—I know how it should sound,’ “ McGann said. He issued orders to Grant, in real life a teeotaler, to get “totally arseholed” so that he would have a “chemical memory” of what it’s like to be deathly drunk. “I poured myself a tumbler of vodka, about thee-quarters of the way up, and topped it off with Pepsi Cola to try and get it down,” Grant said. “In rehearsal, I manged to get through about an hour of the script. I was falling over and crying, I tore my clothes, I got through the dialogue, and then there was this blinding moment where I had to get out the French doors into the garden because, you known, a Persian carpet was coming out of my mouth. I passed out and woke up the next day at home. Paul McGann and Bruce told me afterward that I would never again be that funny in my life.”
Robinson first became aware of his film’s burgeoning cult a couple of years ago, when he was living in Los Angeles. One day, Robinson recalled, he received a call from his friend David Dundas, who composed the music for the film: “He said, ‘Christ, you’re not gonna believe this! I was in Blockbuster Video in Piccadilly in London and there was this huge display of Withnail & I tapes!” Then last summer, not long after we moved here, we went to this remote pub in Wales, in the middle of nowhere. There were these young guys outside, surrounded by ducks from the garden. I don’t even know why I spoke to them, but I just said, ‘Oh, look at those ducks.’ And then, in unison, they came back with, ‘Raymond Duck—a dreadful little Israelite! Four floors up on the Charing Cross Road and never a job at the top of them!’ ”—Uncle Monty’s words, describing the agent he employed during his brief, youthful flirtation with acting. “These boys looked like undergrads—20, 22 years old—and they had no idea who I was,” said Robinson. “Now I’m looking back at them in my mind and realizing they all had long scarves on and clapped-out old coats—they were in the Withnail world.”
Late at night, after talking for several hours, we fell into silence, sitting opposite each other in armchairs while the wood in the fireplace crackled. Looking at me languorously, Robinson finally spoke.
“Do you like cocks?”
I must’ve gone white. Thousands of miles from home, in the middle of nowhere, not a chance of reaching the police. And everybody knows that when it comes to Englishman, the fact that they’re married means nothing. I’d expected some Withnail-esque moments, but nothing like this. A swirling torrent of disquieting mental playback:
You can’t help but develop an instant crush on him….
He will draw out of you as much gush as you can come up with….
Even if it must be burglary…
“I said, ‘Do you like clocks?’ I collect them.” He motioned to the several antique specimens chiming away in the room.
A double lungload of exhalation. Relieved, I owned up to what I thought he’d said. This sent him into prolonged, hysterical laughter. When he recovered, he showed me to the guest room. “Good night,” he said. A pause, and a crooked smile. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
Robinson’s move back to England from L.A. last year was precipitated in part by the earthquake, the fires and the race riots that propelled many an Angeleno eastward, but his career was also stalled. Jennifer 8 had been a miserable experience. When HandMade Films collapsed in 1990 (it has since been purchased by a Canadian company and revived), Robinson felt he could no longer get the financing to make small, character-driven British comedies. He singed a deal with Paramount to make a cop thriller because it seemed the opportune thing to do. “This was the time when everyone was doing those dreadful ‘Fatal Instincts’ and ‘Brutal Attractions,’ ” he said. Soon after filming on Jennifer 8 began, the artiste-versus-studio tensions kicked in: “I felt completely in control on the set with my actors, but I knew nothing of the politics and mechanics of working with the studio. Every day a new Armani suit with a phone coming at you, and you’ve never seen his face. You get to the point where you say to them, ‘Can you fire me?’ and they say, ‘No,’ and you say, ‘Well, fuck off then!’ It literally got that heavy.”
But with his Hollywood cautionary tale behind him, he could now start afresh on humorous Richard E. Grant vehicle number three. Right?
Apparently not. Jennifer 8 soured Robinson on filmmaking—not so much the actual directing but the process of pitching ideas to moneymen and abiding their interference. Since his track record as a screenwriter brings him a steady stream of lucrative writing work, Robinson could afford to walk away from directing. In fact, the movie he was writing when I visited him, an occult thriller called Blue Vision, has been commissioned by none other than Steven Spielberg. “It’s nothing I could ever direct. I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “But I do think it’s quite an original take on a genre movie.”
Ugh. Citing the perennially worthy contributions of low-budget British filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and Mike Newell’s out-of-nowhere success last year with the relatively low-budget Four Weddings and a Funeral, I asked Robinson what prevents him from making another small, character-driven British comedy.
“Even smaller British money. I can’t get any money,” he said.
This seemed implausible, given the level of excitement Withnail & I has caused in England. I tried another tack: “You know, Richard Grant said he’d lop off a limb to work with you again.”
“I’d love to work with Richard.”
“And with the resurgence of interest in Withnail & I, there’s demand for that. So if it’s so obvious, why isn’t it happening?”
“Maybe because—see, my career had a very late start. I’m almost 50 years old now, and I’m not as aggressive as I was. If someone came along to me in England and said, ‘We have a film fund here—have you got anything? Because we can probably finance it for 2 or 3 million pounds,’ I’d leap at it. But no one is saying that, you know. And because of my family, my age and all those things, I’m not getting on the train and knocking on doors.”
And despite clamoring from fans and Grant’s comments in the past that he would be game for Withnail 2, a sequel is impossible for one simple reason: In Robinson’s mind, Withnail is dead. A final scene, written but never filmed, has the “I”-less Withnail returning from the park to the flat. “He’s got the shotgun from Uncle Monty’s cottage and two bottles of Monty’s wine,” Robinson said. “He opens both bottles and pours them down the barrels of the shotgun. He drinks from the shotgun and blows his head all over the fucking room.”
Robinson dispensed with the suicide scene because he wanted to leave the audience with Marwood’s sense of hope, not Withnail’s sense of despair. “You can’t live your life like Withnail and ‘I,’ ” he said. “You can’t be Byron. If you’re Byron all your life, you end up fucking dead like Byron. That moment where Marwood acquiesces and accepts that he’s got to become part of society or die, to me, is hopeful.”
Maybe realistic is a better word than hopeful. It’s part of our biological makeup that the proportion of Withnails to Marwoods in the population falls off considerably after 25. This is called growing up, and most people willingly, relievedly give in to the process. Perhaps it’s unfair of the Withnail cult to ask that Robinson retain a little more of Withnail than the rest of us, that he not acquiesce to society—or, in his case, to mainstream, compromised, dull-as-dishwater Hollywood.
“Do you consider yourself finished as a director?” I asked.
“No. No, I don’t.”
“So you will direct again?”
“I don’t know that I will again. I really don’t. A friend of mine said to my wife before I made Withnail that he had a premonition that I was going to direct three films in my life and never do another one. And I’ve done three films. Maybe he’s right, you know. Maybe he’s right.”