GQ Archives

My Father, the Car (GQ, November 2005)

A valentine to my dad on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday.

Was there ever a better automotive sales team than the classic DeAngelis Buick lineup of the ’60s and ’70s, that veritable Murderers’ Row of the Central Jersey motor trade? You had Jack Moskowitz, Dick Summers, and Rene Abril on the showroom floor, and holding down the sales manager’s office, Seymour Kamp. The same four guys for twenty years, almost—you just don’t see that kind of dynastic continuity anymore. I had the pleasure of watching this team in action, and let me tell you, there was never a quartet more charismatic and scrupulous in its pursuit of making its customers’ V8-engine fantasies come true.

DeAngelis had a magnificent Art Deco showroom—the skinny tip of a long, trapezoidal building that occupied its own triangular island between French Street and Jersey Avenue in downtown New Brunswick—and these men, in their John Weitz suits and ASK ME ABOUT BUICK VALUE lapel pins, worked it with appropriate dignity, strolling up to customers casually, never in a caffeinated hustle. Kamp, especially, was extraordinary: a magnetic force with his booming voice and football player’s build. (He played tackle on both offense and defense for New Brunswick High in the ’40s.) People bought six, seven, eight cars from him and sent their friends to do the same—“Whatever you need, see Seymour!” the newspaper ads said. Those who didn’t recognize his face from the paper knew his voice from the radio commercials he did on WCTC-AM, in which he pluggerooed the latest Electras, LeSabres, and Regals in a rat-a-tat delivery so rapid that the copywriters had to give him twenty-six lines of text to fill a minute of airtime rather than the requisite twenty-four. Even today, Jack Ellery, the radio host who manned the drive-time shift on CTC in that era and intro’d the ads with an offhand “Now let’s hear from Seymour Kamp—Mr. Buick,” ranks Kamp as one of Central Jersey’s top three all-time merchant celebrities of the airwaves, along with the clothiers Wally Steinberg of Steinberg’s Men’s Shop and Norman Miller of Miller’s on the Mall.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Beautiful Loser

Another in my series of loving profiles of character actors: Paul Giamatti, in this case. The peg of this piece was Cinderella Man, an old-fashioned, Cagney-style boxing weepie that was pretty good but tanked. Paul is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet.

 

The feel-good cine-story of 2004: Sideways, a low-budget road movie about two male buddies’ calamitous trek through California wine country, triumphantly closes out the New York Film Festival in October. There’s praise not only for the writer-director, Alexander Payne, a mensch outsider for whom a crit-love drumbeat has been building for years, but also for the film’s unlikely cast, which includes two veterans of the Hollywood grind who were thought to be past their sell-by dates, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, and an Asian Canadian actress, Sandra Oh, who is playing neither a geisha nor a ninja but a straight-up American broad. But the most effusive gush is reserved for the cast’s de facto leader, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti’s been scrapping around for ages, endlessly, tirelessly—Sideways is his twenty-ninth movie in twelve years—and only recently has he begun to register in the public consciousness. A year earlier he was extraordinary in the lead role of American Splendor, a mesmerizingly odd film about the schlubby underground-comix author Harvey Pekar, and now this new picture is cementing his status as one of our acting treasures. The physical descriptions of Giamatti are never kind—“paunchy,” “schlumpy,” “chinless,” “balding,” “stooped”—but the critics kvell over his acting chops, calling him a revelation, a virtuosic line reader, a master of nuance and body language. His role is thankless—a depressive, divorced failed novelist and wine snob who steals cash from his mother—but Giamatti, restive and resourceful, turns in an electric performance that transcends the film’s drab, indie-sludge trappings.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Only the Ball Was Brown

Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. I was curious about the black men who integrated what is today America’s most black-identified sports league, the NBA. And I was delighted to learn that Earl Lloyd, the very first black man to play in a regular-season NBA game, in the fall of 1950, was alive and well in Tennessee. So in 2001, I went down to his house to spend some time with him, and I also interviewed most of the other surviving black players who broke into the league in the 1950s. As it turns out, this story didn’t have the deep drama of Robinson’s, but for a fascinating reason: Whereas the white world of baseball was heavily populated by poorly educated yokels unused to being around blacks (and more inclined to be openly racist), the NBA in the 1950s was largely the domain of educated urbanites, what you might call white ethnics–Jews, Italians, Irish and Polish Catholics–who were used to being around blacks and less inclined to make a big deal of integration. Still, it was a tough road for most of the black guys who played professional basketball in the ’50s, as this story–inexplicably, one of the most obscure in my back catalog; no one read it–shows.

P.S. The headline for this story was devised by the late Art Cooper, then GQ’s editor, as a wink to Robert Peterson’s history of baseball’s Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Have You Seen This Man?

Philip Seymour Hoffman probably wouldn’t want to be described as a character actor anymore. But for me, this is my favorite kind of actor: all those guys who appeared in supporting roles in Preston Sturges movies (e.g. William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn), all those Italian-Americans used by Coppola, Scorsese, Lumet, and David Chase (e.g. John Cazale, David Proval, Vincent Curatola), all those doughy, waddly guys who pull their big weight in small roles (e.g. Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Kenneth McMillan). At the time of this article, four years before Capote, Hoffman was in transition from beloved character actor to alternative male lead.

GQ, January 2001

Around my house, we had a special word—well, it was my brother’s special word—for an actor who steals a scene, or even an entire movie, with a great performance in a smallish role. Such an actor was called a Moe—for making the MOst of his MOment. The archetypal Moe was a decrepit old codger who turns up in one scene of the 1987 film Barfly. He’s shuffling down a littered street, apparently at death’s door, when the Mickey Rourke character asks him to light the Faye Dunaway character’s cigarette. Momentarily buoyed by having a purpose in life, the codger brightens and revives as he proffers the light, tremulously addressing Dunaway as “my lady”—only to return immediately thereafter to stricken despair as he shuffles out of the frame. It’s a throwaway moment but a magnificent one, a seriocomic gin-mill playlet enacted by an anonymous geezer giving his all. Recently, my brother looked this guy up on the Internet Movie Database and discovered his name to be Fritz Feld. He is credited as “Bum.” He was 87 at the time, performing in the third-to-last film of a 131-movie career during which he seldom rose above the level of bit player. To this day, my brother longs to hold a Moe Awards ceremony at which statuettes in the image of Fritz Feld (as Bum) would be conferred on those actors who, in his words, “nail their bit so decisively as to create a permanent movie memory.” Bronson Pinchot would win a Moe for his fey art-gallery employee in Beverly Hills Cop. Benicio Del Toro would get a Moe for his wigged-out, offed-in-the-first-reel hoodlum in The Usual Suspects. Judi Dench would get a Moe for her brief appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, a more proportionately appropriate award than the Oscar she actually won. Further Moes would go to Christopher Walken for playing Diane Keaton’s tightly wound brother in Annie Hall, to Mason Gamble for playing Jason Schwartzman’s half-pint sidekick in Rushmore and to whoever played the barkeep in My Darling Clementine, who, when asked, “You ever been in love?” by an anguished Henry Fonda, responds, “No. I been a bartender all my life.”

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

That Joke Isn’t Funnies Anymore

I grew up reading the comics in the afternoon paper. Good lord, doesn’t that sound like the reminiscence of a 75-year-old? But even in the 1970s and ’80s, the newspaper funnies were still an intrinsic part of childhood. In early 2000, as the ’Net was on the rise, newspapers were on the wane, and Charles Schulz was meeting his maker, I sensed that the whole comics universe in which I'd immersed myself as a boy was on the brink of obsolescence, so I tried to reach as many of the old-time syndicated cartoonists–such as Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker and The Family Circus’s Bil Keane–as I could. I would like to say that my criticism of Garry Trudeau in this piece–that he’d lost his initial passion and allowed Doonesbury to become stale–is no longer valid. The Iraq war reanimated his muse, and his strips about B.D., the injured vet, are good stuff.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

The NFL’s Closet Case

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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August 20, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

The Curious Case of ‘Withnail & I’

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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August 14, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

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