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.
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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I reveled in being the son of Mr. Buick. (Prince Buick?) It wasn’t even so much that his customers admired his honesty (though he was honest, and cringed at TV portrayals of loud-jacketed, sleazy car salesmen) as they valued his friendship and company. They brought him things—steaks, Knicks tickets, bottles of scotch he never drank—and he kept in touch after the sale, making house calls when their cars wouldn’t start, dropping everything to hurry over with the jumper cables he always kept in his trunk. The man was verily invested in his burg, being a member of two synagogues, the junior chamber of commerce (president, 1956–57), the Rotary Club (chairman, program committee), the Elks (Lodge #324), and the Masons (Lodge #240), and he knew his Buicks inside and out, studiously attending the training sessions up in Union where men from Detroit explained the latest about wheelbases and gas-tank capacity. These twin faiths—to community and brand—conspired to make Mr. Buick the consummate local salesman, a trusted neighborhood vendor like your green-grocer, butcher, or dry cleaner, except his goods weighed two tons apiece and arrived on a trailer from Flint, Michigan.
The showroom was mine to roam whenever I visited, its boattail Riviera coupes mine to climb into and pretend-drive. (I liked the Rivieras best because they came with whitewall tires and had the highest sticker price.) I loved the aspirational gleam of the place, though I wouldn’t have called it that then—the way its crenellated outer walls made it look like a castle and the way its sparkly, speedlined, sunny interior, with exposures to the north, east, and west, suggested an open vista of happy motoring. Having a car-salesman father, furthermore, did wonders for my standing in school. For one thing, the other kids found my father’s job more tangible and fundamentally uplifting than their fathers’—exactly what does an arbitrator or a professor of mechanical engineering do? For another, my father was, well, Mr. Buick, with all that it entailed. They heard him on the radio as they ate their breakfast in the morning, tagged along as their parents bought cars from him, wrapped their textbooks in the protective book covers he supplied to the schools (featuring prints of antique-model Buicks, naturally), and envied us Kamps for the fact that we got a new car every single year, even if it was a dealer demo that technically wasn’t ours.
At home, we lived a life of intense Buick loyalty. We knew that the Buick wasn’t tip-top of the line, that General Motors considered Cadillac its marquee luxury brand, and that the very word Buick was absurd, a reliable laugh-getter for comedians. But Buicks suited us, their quiet respectability simpatico with our unpretentious way of life. Our basement was festooned by my sister, brother, and me with surplus paraphernalia from the dealership, its support pillars adorned with DeAngelis bumper stickers and labels that said BUILT WITH GENUINE GM PARTS, its walls papered with circular posters bearing the words THE NUMBER ONE LITTLE ONE, leftovers from a promotion for the Opel, the crapola German-manufactured compact that gave Buick a foothold in the small-car market.
Seemingly half of our worldly possessions were the booty of sales contests put on by the Buick Motor Division, redemptions of the gift points my father accrued for every car he sold—our beds, our camping equipment, our clocks, our record player, our Lenox china, the little cordial glasses with the words BUICK SALESMASTER etched into them (which we used as ceremonial wineglasses during Passover seders), and the huge, chunky gold rings with tigereye insets, each more elaborate than the next, that my father received every time he surpassed another sales milestone. And also the binoculars in the dimpled-leather case autographed by Muhammad Ali. My father spotted a Rolls-Royce convertible on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike one day in 1971, pulled over, and saw who the driver was. “Car trouble, Champ?” he asked. “Naw,” said Ali, “it’s just gettin’ cold! I’m puttin’ the roof up.” Dad had a ballpoint, but neither he nor Ali had a piece of paper. The binoculars case had to do.
Your friendly DeAngelis sales staff: Jack Moskowitz, lean and affable, looked to me like Gene Rayburn; Dick Summers, white-haired and a little aloof, was Johnny Carson; and Rene Abril, diminutive, suave, and ethnic (Cuban, actually)…well, maybe he was Fred De Cordova. That I saw them in these roles, of unreconstructed midcentury men hanging on in the jive-turkey 1970s, is revealing, for I realize now that the world I was witnessing was already an anachronism, a spectral glimpse of what America used to be—not unlike the Doc Severinsen–conducted swing band that Carson stubbornly kept on his show even as the whole world around him went druggy and electric. The DeAngelis showroom was redolent of cologne, hair tonic, and cigarette smoke, a man’s province; the “girls” who answered the phones did so from segregated balcony offices that overlooked the sales ﬂoor. It was all so irretrievably adult, with no heed paid to the fun-fun-fun teenybop car culture that was migrating eastward from California, no acknowledgement of an impatient, capricious “youth market” that needed to be ﬂattered and dazzled with sweet rides and kustom-kool stereos. A swinging door behind Dick Summers’s cubicle led back to an even more time-warped world: the cavernously dark body shop, which was populated with gnarled mechanics straight out of Walker Evans photographs, some of whom had been with the dealership since it was DeAngelis Nash in the 1930s. These apparitional ﬁgures kept up the illusion—within the walls of the strange, sarcophagus-shaped building, anyway—that New Brunswick remained a vital industrial city.
But half a mile from DeAngelis Buick, in the heart of the city’s commercial district, the urban rot had set in. Albany Street, the main drag of my father’s boyhood, had become a blaxploitation thoroughfare of head shops, empty storefronts, and glorious old Deco cinemas reduced to showing porn; you half expected everyone to be walking in slanted, freaky gaits like R. Crumb characters. The original Tops Appliance store had been on Albany, its proprietor another local merchant-celebrity, Les Turchin, the man whose ubiquitous newspaper ads depicted him as “Topsy,” a pointy-hatted cartoon ﬁgure with Hebraic features so grotesquely rendered that he looked like some hateful caricature out of Der Stürmer. But Les, ambitious and savvy, could see that Albany Street was going down the tubes; he moved his whole operation to a strip mall in Edison, where his giant new store, renamed Tops Appliance City, begat further mall megastores that siphoned business from New Jersey’s dying downtowns. This circumstance so panicked the city’s administrators and Johnson & Johnson, its major corporate presence, that they would eventually level the whole strip and replace it with an antiseptic complex of office buildings and esplanade shops, a faithful re-creation of some lame-ass urban planner’s diorama.
DeAngelis Buick somehow held fast against all this decay-renewal tumult, even as its customers, the children of the Hungarian, Italian, and Jewish immigrants who’d settled the neighborhood in the early twentieth century, forsook the inner city for split-levels and neocolonials in the former farmlands of the “other” Brunswicks, North, South, and East. The six DeAngelis brothers and their partner brother-in-law, known collectively as the Seven Thieves, were Old World guys whose American-dream optimism buffed up the place and kept it shiny; they’d emigrated from a village outside of Rome (“the other side,” as my father put it), started out in bicycles, moved up to Nashes, and ﬁnally to Buicks and prosperity. My father, the son of another immigrant, a baker from Poland, was a kindred spirit. Shortly after his return from service in Korea in ’54, he answered a “Salesman Wanted” ad in the paper, was hired on the spot by the DeAngelises, and immediately demonstrated a facility for ﬁnding good homes for the Specials, Centurys, Supers, and Roadmasters on the ﬂoor. He was anointed sales manager in ’57, when he was just 26. Over the decades, his fame and his customer following grew and made him a wanted man, forever courted and ﬂattered by other car dealers, who were eager to lure him from the DeAngelises’ relatively small inner-city showroom to the airier, bigger, newer dealerships on the white-ﬂight highways out of town. But Kamp resisted—he and DeAngelis Buick were synonymous. In their vestigial wonderland in a fraying neighborhood, Seymour and the Seven Thieves kept up appearances and ideals, championing cars as a means to a better life.
By the time I became a sentient human being, at the dawn of the 1970s, the Moskowitz-Summers-Abril-Kamp team was a veteran group, in place for a decade. I had no idea that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of something, namely, my father’s favorite time in the car business, and that over the next ten or ﬁfteen years, Mr. Buick would endure some rough patches.
The thing about America’s being a car culture is, every time this culture undergoes a tectonic shift, car families like ours get knocked around and thrown to the carpet. The energy crisis of 1973 was one of those times. I remember idling in fumey gas lines, and I vaguely registered the TV reports of the OPEC oil embargo, but it wasn’t until Dad delivered the shocking news—that he was leaving the car business and taking a sales job at his friend’s sporting-goods company—that I understood its immediate ramiﬁcations. As Dad explained, he’d been accustomed to selling twenty, thirty cars a month. Now he was struggling to sell six or seven. His loyal clientele, stuck in those gas lines and hurting for cash themselves, were putting off their new-car purchases or, apostasy of apostasies, buying Japanese compacts. The energy crisis introduced me to the concept of parental fallibility. I couldn’t help but notice how strangely downcast my parents were as we opened our Chanukah presents in 1973, me not quite understanding why they considered it a comedown for us to receive “just” colored pencils and new jean jackets. What I did understand was how weird it felt to have to ride around in a used car like everyone else.
In ’74, with the energy crisis in remission, my father returned to DeAngelis, happily reporting to us that the gas-guzzling Electra 225s were “big as ever, like nothing happened.” But six years later came another jolt: I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him, “So, Seymour, what’s it like to go from working for the Seven Thieves to working for an A-rab?” Thus did I learn that the DeAngelises were selling out to Richie Malouf, a Lebanese American who’d been in the car business in Central Jersey for almost as long as my father. With his pompadour, mustache, and visually assaultive plaid jackets, Richie looked more like your central-casting car salesman than the Sinatra-natty DeAngelises, but to his credit, he respected Mr. Buick and asked him to stay on.
Nevertheless, the change of ownership, and Richie’s desecration of that gorgeous Art Deco showroom with rec-room veneer paneling, marked the end of the charmed, tinsel-and-bunting world in which my father had come of professional age. Cut loose from his DeAngelis moorings, jostled awake from his pleasant ’50s dream, my father discovered that it was morning in America and decided, in the parlance of the Reagan era, to go for it. For years, Ray Catena, the luxury-car magnate, the ultimate big shot of the Central Jersey auto trade, had been after Dad, imploring him to come on board at Catena’s Mercedes dealership and make the big bucks he so richly deserved. Over and over, Dad had turned Catena down. But in 1983, he relented. Like George Bailey lowering himself into the sunken chair across from Mr. Potter’s desk, my father entered Catena’s office and sat silent as the maestro put on his show, ﬂipping through the pay stubs of his Mercedes salesmen, noting aloud that these guys made twice what Dad made as a Buick sales manager. Seriously, what was he waiting for?
But Catena’s staff was mostly younger guys, a generation younger than my father, with foul mouths and Mamet tics; they didn’t appreciate collegiality, and they sure as hell didn’t care for Mr. Buick, with his nice manners and one degree of separation from every human being in Central Jersey. He was out of there in less than a year.
Dad, worldlier and sadder, returned to Buicks, his true love. He got old with them, becoming a granddad as Buicks became granddad cars, no longer the dream luxury objects of sharp young guys on the make. (The median age of the 2005 Buick buyer is 61.) And he began to wear down. Late in 1984, he suffered a heart attack and missed a few weeks of work. I was with him in his room at the Robert Wood Johnson hospital when who should come calling but Norman Miller of Miller’s on the Mall, jovial and schmoozy in his shorty gown, in for bypass surgery—the two former WCTC merchant-personalities, reunited in the cardio ward by the tsuris of keeping up with the ever-mutating world of retail. Norman chatted with us for a while and then bade us farewell. He died on the operating table a few days later.
Seymour healed and still did okay saleswise. But while he had always prided himself on his ability to sell cars to any member of any ethnic group, he was palpably frustrated at his inability to forge an emotional connection with the latest immigrants to make their mark in heterogeneous Central Jersey: the Indians from the Gujarat region, whose numbers were swelling the populations of Edison and Woodbridge. “They don’t want to make any conversation,” he said forlornly when I visited him one day. “They just get right down to business. [Indian accent] ‘I want veddy—goot—deal!’ ”
But this had to be the capper: His urban-professional son—who had reaped the beneﬁts of his father’s Old World ethos, which dictated that the material beneﬁts and advanced degrees should be deferred to the next generation; who had seen his father work ﬁve days and three nights a week, including Saturdays, so that his child would have the freedom to pursue a life of the mind and get paid to think up clever thoughts from the comﬁness of a Herman Miller ergonomic chair—chose, in an appalling act of demographic conformity, to make his ﬁrst car purchase…a Volvo.
Dad didn’t take the news well. In fact, he tried to kibosh the deal, accusing the Connecticut salesman over the phone of swindling me, and attempted to hook me up with one of his used-car buddies in New Jersey. It was awful, fraught, even harder than when I had to tell him I wasn’t marrying a Jewish girl.
But he got over it; the very personability and compassion that made him Mr. Buick precluded him from holding a grudge. (He grew to respect the Volvo and love the bride.) What’s strange is, in this time of agony for General Motors, as they cut jobs by the thousands and shut down factories, I feel more bereft than he, now 74 and retired. To my surprise, I haven’t lost the Buick pride that was instilled in me in childhood. I’ve found myself again coveting those boattail Riviera coupes and eternal Electras, both for how they look (fantastic, still) and, I suppose, for what they evoke: that safe, strong world of dads going about their dad business in dad style. They’re still out there, these jumbos, in vintage showrooms and on eBay auctions, but I’m gun-shy about actually consummating any deal. What I really want—though I know perfectly well that it’s too late—is to buy a Buick from Seymour Kamp.
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
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As the weeks
progress, the whole Sideways thing just keeps snowballing: This
modest picture is suddenly being touted as an Oscar contender, up there with
Martin Scorsese’s megabucks epic The
Aviator, and Giamatti is considered a shoo-in for a best-actor nomination.
He’s enlisted to host Saturday Night Live
(with musical guest Ludacris!) and invited to partake in a Newsweek cover-story roundtable discussion with A-listers Jamie
Foxx, Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Annette Bening.
Meanwhile, the movie’s wine-country theme begets its own phenomenon, a
veritable oeno-porn explosion, with restaurants nearly selling out their stock
of the boutique wines mentioned in the movie, with fetishistic fans re-creating
the characters’ tours through the vineyards of
And then, in
January, the Academy Award
nominations come out. Sideways is
nominated for ﬁve Oscars, including best picture, best director, best supporting actor (Church), and best supporting
actress (Madsen)…but Giamatti is not among the anointed. Well, isn’t
this just too damned perfect! That they can’t acknowledge the work of the
paunchy, schlumpy, chinless, balding, stooped guy who holds the whole picture
together, because the ossiﬁed geezers of the Academy have to pay
obeisance to the creaking Rushmore majesty of Clint Eastwood! The Giamatti faithful of the chat rooms are outraged, mystiﬁed, indignant.
There are murmurings that perhaps Giamatti, a New Yorker, won’t even show his
Well, it turns out that he does make the trip, but mainly for the purpose of attending the Independent Spirit Awards, where he is up for best actor. The Independent Spirit Awards ceremony is a casual affair that takes place the day before the Oscars. I’ve arranged to meet Giamatti that day, in the morning.
He is hunched in a
booth at a Los Feliz breakfast joint, reading a giveaway
“Uh…which elephant?” he says, smiling nervously, spreading his palms across the table. “I mean, there are a lot of elephants.”
Giamatti immediately relaxes. “Look, man,” he says, in that familiar conﬁding-cabbie voice of his. (The very sound of it evokes tweed caps and lumbar rolls.) “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and those things have never seemed like a particularly real thing to me—they’ve seemed like a different profession, almost. I mean, you sit there going, ‘Boy, it’d be great if that happened.’ But I wasn’t disappointed, and I wasn’t surprised. I also think, frankly, and I’m not being Mr. über-Modest, that I don’t really deserve a nomination anyway. I mean, the hardest part of this, honestly, has been the soft hand on the shoulder I get from a lot of people—that pursed-lipped, stick-with-it-pal kind of thing.”
He’s a better-looking man in real life, without the humiliations the wardrobe and makeup departments have inﬂicted upon him—the hair fuller, the face thinner. He looks his actual age, 38, instead of the cirrhotic 41-to-55 he appears to be on-screen. “The camera, they say, puts ten pounds on you,” he notes. “It puts about twenty-ﬁve on me.” But even cleaned up, with the beard trimmed and a pair of Libeskind-chic eyeglasses on, Giamatti still reﬂexively refers to himself as the “fat guy with glasses” or the “funny fat guy.” He tells me he was genuinely befuddled by the Newsweek experience and the photo shoot with the likes of Swank, Winslet, and DiCaprio: “I mean, what’s wrong with this picture? Who doesn’t quite ﬁt in here?” Even to the indie crowd, he says, he was an outcast until recently, since a lot of his small parts came in big-budget movies like Saving Private Ryan, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Planet of the Apes. “I was more of a Hollywood-cheese guy to them,” he says. “Couldn’t get arrested for an independent ﬁlm. Wasn’t cool enough.”
He calls his two-picture-strong run as a terriﬁc leading man a “ﬂuke,” and when I ask him in a later conversation what sort of tasty part he’d love to land, expecting some rumination about playing Willy Loman on Broadway or doing his own Mr. Holland’s Opus, he mentions the roles played by Dann Florek and S. Epatha Merkerson on Law & Order: “The angry-lieutenant guy,” he says. “You know, you get to say, ‘Bring ’em in for questioning!’ or ‘You got twenty-four hours—don’t blow it!’ You get to have choice scenes of outrage, but it isn’t so much to do. Which would be ﬁne with me.”
This is a man for whom unassuming might be too forceful an adjective. Indeed, Giamatti has made a career of playing ordinary men. Not Everymen, those idealized American archetypes embodied by Tom Hanks and Gary Cooper at their most populist, but mere scufflers, guys who exist on the fringes of the camera frame—dudes who spend their time in betting parlors and back offices, eating Fritos and thinking about what’s on Fox tonight. Giamatti has played scores of these guys, in roles tiny, medium, and, recently, large, and the trick he’s pulled is never to repeat himself, never to fall into a stock-character performance, even when it’s all the script demands. This is partly by design: “The one thing I’ve successfully tried to avoid,” he says, “is the script where I have to sit down at a terminal and be Geeky Computer Guy, doing this [mimes furious keystroking] and tracking the hero as he’s ﬁghting terrorists: ‘Get outta there, Spike!’ ”
But Giamatti is also remarkably chameleonic, transmogrifying from harried nebbish to sleazy conﬁdence man to loyal best friend to orangutan (in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) like a career criminal perpetually on the lam. Ron Howard had already cast Giamatti in his latest ﬁlm, Cinderella Man, an old-fashioned boxing yarn that opens this month, before the director realized that this was the same actor he’d loved six years earlier as Howard Stern’s apoplectic nemesis, NBC radio programming executive Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton, in Private Parts. “I sort of backtracked to Pig Vomit after the fact,” Howard says. “I saw Paul in American Splendor when I was casting Cinderella Man and thought he was perfect for the Joe Gould part. But I hadn’t linked Harvey Pekar to Pig Vomit in my mind.”
As Joe Gould, the ringside sage who engineers the unlikely 1934 comeback of Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), a real-life heavyweight contender from New Jersey who was reduced to working on the docks when the Great Depression hit, Giamatti is more dapper than usual—his hair slicked with Brylcreem, his body draped in bespoke woolens and gabardines—but his performance is pure Boy-jess Meredith, all salt and snarl. (When Braddock gets entangled in the ring with the heavyweight champ, Max Baer [Craig Bierko], Giamatti-as-Gould shouts, “Hey, Maxela! You gonna punch him or pork him?”) It’s funny just to see Giamatti opposite Crowe, who is at his most stoic as Braddock—like watching a hummingbird ﬂit spasmodically around a sequoia. Gould may be the sophisticate to Braddock’s rube, but it’s still another case of Giamatti as a mere mortal, watching from the sidelines, cockeyed and pear-shaped, as the chiseled hero has his date with destiny.
twist on this premise is that Giamatti’s life has been anything
but ordinary. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, as the youngest son of A.
Bartlett Giamatti, the beloved Yale English professor who became the
university’s youngest-ever president in 1978 and served in that position until
1986, when he left to become the president of baseball’s National League and,
subsequently, commissioner of the entire league. Bart Giamatti died on
education was heavy-duty—Choate, followed by Yale undergrad, followed by the
Yale School of Drama—and he spent his childhood in the company of some of
America’s greatest public intellectuals, who just happened to be his dad’s
colleagues and buddies: the literary critic Harold Bloom, the architecture
critic Vincent Scully, the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. I put it to
Giamatti that his performance as Harvey Pekar, my favorite, must have been
inﬂuenced by knowing Bloom. I’ve seen the latter shufflng around the
Of his upbringing
among the all-stars of academe, Giamatti protests that he can’t view his youth
as having been anything but normal, since it was all he knew. “These were just
guys my dad worked with,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s not special. The place,
physically, to grow up in, was amazing. I can remember playing with Robert
Thompson’s kid, sneaking into the
But to hear it from others, Giamatti was not the nonentity he makes himself out to be. Ron Howard says that a former executive at his production company, Imagine Entertainment, was a classmate of Giamatti’s at Yale and told Howard that “the whole student body went to the theater when they heard that Paul Giamatti was in a play.” And Robert Thompson recalls being struck by Giamatti’s performing gifts at an early age. “Once, when he was a kid, I gave him a French-language phrase booklet,” says Thompson, “and he instantly turned it into this hilarious performance: ‘I need a hospital! I need an ambulance! I have a fever! I need a car! I need gas!’ Later on, he took my course The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition, and he sat way in the back, in the hip row, where Jodie Foster also sat, and I called on him when I needed a pithy response, something that had some humor. I think that with Sideways, the inevitable happened. Eventually, he will play Tom Cruise roles. Mark my words.”
Thompson doesn’t see it as a stretch to liken Paul, the sleepy-eyed homunculus who plays losers and says frickin’ a lot, to Bart, the Renaissance man who “spoke the baccalaureate in this resonant tone.” Bart, for all his magnetism and intellect, was a rumpled eccentric—a smoker who would ﬁsh a half-spent butt out of the pocket of his suit jacket before launching into a discourse on Carl Yastrzemski—and Paul has inherited his appealing combo of smarts and unpretentiousness. “The genes are the closest we get to immortality,” Thompson says, a palpable longing for his late friend in his voice, “and when I watch Paul in movies, I see and hear Bart.”
Giamatti lost his mother, Toni, last September, on the eve of Sideways-mania. “My sister and I are constantly saying the irony is that the person who would have most enjoyed all the hoopla would have been my mom,” he says. “In a funny way, that might have contributed to my feelings about the Academy Award stuff,” he continues. “I’d had something much worse happen to me, very recently. So I was kind of like, ‘On the list of the worst things that have happened to me, [the snub] is pretty low.’ ”
So where does the hoopla lead? I express my concern to
Giamatti that he might go
“The short answer to that is no, I won’t be doing that anytime soon,” he says. “There’s a part of me that feels like I actually have a mission to look like crap on ﬁlm. In a way, I’m glad I look the way I look. I’m not ashamed of it—you read some things and would think that I look like a wild boar or something. But if there was a viable reason in the script to lose weight—’cause I’ve been starving in the desert for years—I would do it.”
I bemoan to Giamatti the oppressive ﬁtness of movie stars, even comic actors. “Ben Stiller is really buff,” I say, “and he has no business being buff.”
“I know!” he says. “And then when you see him in a movie, you’re kind of like, ‘Now it’s not funny anymore.’ It really happens with women. They get all hard and muscly and sunken cheeked, with those broad James Caan shoulders. But the pressure on them is a thousand times worse. I’m lucky. I get to just look like crap.”
Giamatti, he hasn’t spent much of the capital, monetary or professional, that
his recent success has brought. His sole extravagance, if it can be called that, is
Should Giamatti choose to go ﬂagrantly commercial, however, there is the still unsubsided Sideways phenomenon. These gastro- and oeno-porn things have legs, I tell him, as the Toujours Provence and Babette’s Feast legions can attest. “Somebody did say to me the other day, ‘Dude, you should get on that bandwagon. You should be Orson Welles. Go up and make appearances at wineries,’ ” he replies. “At this point, I am not choosing to milk that. But I suppose, if times get lean for me, I could. For, like, ten years, I bet, I could ride that out.” He chuckles and shakes his head. “How sad would that be?”
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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The National Basketball Association, spring 1950. The season just ending is the league’s first under the NBA moniker, which came about when the Basketball Association of America (BAA), an East Coast–based league, absorbed six teams from the defunct National Basketball League (NBL), which had served the Midwest. There are seventeen NBA teams, six of which—the Chicago Stags, the St. Louis Bombers, the Denver Nuggets, the Anderson (Indiana) Packers, the Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Redskins and the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks—will not scrape together funds to continue into the 1950–51 season. There are 200-odd players playing. Every one of them is white.
The game is played in sateen shorts cut as high as majorettes’ pants, in ringed white socks pulled up to just below the knees, in arenas built for hockey and in dingy gymnasiums borrowed from high schools. It is played by men named Stanczak and Sadowski and Schatzman and Zaslofsky. The Rochester Royals, one of the league’s premier teams, have two big men named Arnie, both of whom are fed passes by a canny little guard out of CCNY, name of Holzman, whose shoulders are as furry as a chimp’s. The league’s biggest star, literally and figuratively, is a six-foot-ten Illinoisian who, with his steel-rimmed glasses and Rockwellian cowlick, looks like nothing so much as an elongated pharmacist. His name is George Mikan, and though he’s the center for the champion Minneapolis Lakers and averages more than twenty-seven points a game, he does not dunk. Dunking is something players do for fun during pregame shoot-arounds, but never, ever, during a game—that would be hotdogging, unsportsmanlike. Scoring is executed by completing a layup or a two-handed set shot. The contagion of the jump shot has only just begun; it is a new technique, embraced by younger players but regarded with suspicion by some coaches because, after all, how can a man control his body if he’s airborne?
Though it barely stretches west of the Mississippi, the NBA is the first truly national league for the second-tier sport of basketball, which, since its invention by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, has led a Balkanized existence of regional leagues, semipro leagues and unaffiliated clubs that barnstorm from city to city. The Philadelphia Warriors, one of the current NBA teams, are holdovers from this murky past, having begun their life as an offshoot of a fierce barnstorming outfit known as the SPHA—short for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association—who, in the ’20s, enjoyed a rousing rivalry with the mighty Cleveland Rosenblums. Joe Lapchick, perhaps the mightiest Rosenblum of them all, is now the coach of the New York Knickerbockers. The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Pistons, another current NBA team, were once the NBL’s Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, so named for the owner, Fred Zollner, whose company manufactures pistons for automobile engines. Taking a nickname from one’s sponsor was until recently a common practice; hence, in the 1940s, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, the Fort Wayne General Electrics, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids and the Chicago Duffy Florals.
It is not uncommon to see black men playing alongside white men on integrated teams at college-basketball double-headers at Madison Square Garden, or to see all-black college squads playing each other in the South. But the only black men playing professional basketball right now are the Harlem Globetrotters, they of the striped shorts and whistled renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Until recently, there were also the New York Rens, but they folded last year. In their time, the Rens, so named for having played their early games in the Renaissance ballroom on 128th Street in Harlem, were the greatest of the barnstorming teams, compiling an astonishing record of 2,588 wins against 529 losses in twenty-seven years. In 1939 they defeated the NBL’s reigning champs, the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars, to win the first World Professional Basketball Tournament, an unofficial “basketball World Series” sponsored by the Chicago Herald American newspaper. Nine years later, as the NBL was foundering in its final season, the Rens were invited to take the place of the league’s just-collapsed Detroit franchise, the Vagabond Kings. But the Rens were by then an aging and rickety collection of men; playing out of Ohio as the Dayton Rens, they went 14-26 and called it a day.
The Globetrotters are not, in fact, from Harlem but from Chicago, their misnomer imposed upon them by their sixty-three-inch-tall fireplug of an owner, Abe Saperstein. As a young man in the late 1920s, Saperstein, a tailor’s son, persuaded a promising group of black South Side players, then known as the Savoy Big Five, to let him manage them. Saperstein rechristened them the Harlem Globetrotters to evoke black cosmopolitanism and, more to the point, encourage comparison with the Rens, who had already acquired a national reputation. His father stitched together the striped shorts. Although the Globetrotters quickly emerged as a competitive force to be reckoned with—and defeated the Rens en route to taking the 1940 World Professional Basketball Tournament title—they are most renowned for their clowning and trickery: spinning balls on their fingers, performing virtuosic dribbling displays, dumping buckets of confetti on their opponents, etc.
This flair for showmanship has made the Globetrotters the biggest draw in pro basketball. When they came to the Minneapolis Auditorium in March of 1949 to play an exhibition game against Mikan’s Lakers, then the reigning champs of the NBL, the reported attendance of 10,112 was the highest in Lakers history—and shall remain so until the Lakers move to Los Angeles in 1960. The fledgling NBA, desperate for coattail business, has taken to putting its games on double bills with the Globetrotters’ contests against college All-Star teas and patsy semipro outfits. These circumstances have conspired to give Saperstein formidable leverage: If you’re an NBA-team owner and want to pull crowds, you talk to Abe. If you’re a black man and you want to be paid to play basketball, you talk to Abe.
But at the 1950 NBA draft, held in a Chicago hotel on April 25, something surprising happens. When the time comes for the Boston Celtics to make their second-round pick, the Celtics’ owner, Walter Brown, confers with the 32-year-old coach he has just hired, Arnold “Red” Auerbach, and then announces, “Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne.”
Cooper, better known as Chuck, is an all-American forward who happens to be black. Light-skinned, but certifiably Negroid.
“Walter,” says someone in the room, “don’t you know he’s a colored boy?”
“I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka-dot!” says Brown. “Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne!”
“Uh-oh,” says Eddie Gottlieb, the coach of the Philadelphia Warriors and a chum of Saperstein’s. “Abe’s gonna go crazy.”
Seven rounds later, in the ninth, the Washington Capitols select Earl Lloyd out of West Virginia State. West Virginia State is an all-black college, so this time no one attempts to ascertain the team owner’s knowledge of his draft pick’s skin pigmentation. Lloyd, in fact, has recently spent a week touring with the Globetrotters as a sort of trial run, to see if he’s suited for a life in striped shorts.
Upon hearing the news that Cooper and Lloyd have been drafted, Abe does indeed go crazy. He retaliates by announcing that the Globetrotters and their boffo gate receipts shall forever be withheld from the cities of Boston and Washington. But Walter Brown withholds his ground. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “Abe Saperstein is out of the Boston Garden right now.” Cooper and Lloyd are NBA-bound.
So, by summertime, is Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a 27-year-old member of the Globetrotters. Clifton has incurred Saperstein’s wrath by informing his teammates of a discovery he has made: The white collegiate All-Stars against whom the Globetrotters are competing on their current tour are being paid more per game than the Globetrotters are. Saperstein decides to offload the ingrate Clifton to Lapchick and the Knicks, who are happy to purchase his contract.
And so the 1950-51 season begins with Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton poised to integrate the NBA. Cooper and Clifton are northerners, from Pittsburgh and Chicago, respectively, and have mixed with whites all their lives. Lloyd, by contrast, has spent most of his twenty-two years in segregation, having grown up in an all-black enclave of Alexandria, Virginia, having attended an all-black college in the mountains of West Virginia, having never even engaged in a conversation with a white man until arriving at the Capitols’ training camp and meeting with his new coach, Horace “Bones” McKinney. But owing to a scheduling quirk that dictates that the Capitols open their season before the Celtics and the Knicks, it so transpires that on October 31, 1950, in an away game against the Rochester Royals, Lloyd, the son of a Virginia coal-yard worker, becomes the first black man ever to play basketball in the NBA.
“I MEAN, HERE YOU ARE,” SAYS LLOYD, LEANING FORWARD IN AN armchair. “You’re a young black kid from a very small town, extremely segregated—the cradle of segregation—and you’re picked to play in the NBA. Which is basically a white league. I’ve never sat next to a white peer, never had a conversation, never exchanged a pleasantry. And your first major contract with white people has to be at this level of competition. Even though you don’t want to admit it, it’s frightening. You’ve been treated inferiorly all your life, so it’s very easy to believe you’re…what? Inferior. And the first question you ask yourself—you know, quietly—‘Do I belong here?’”
Lloyd is 73 now, the only living member of the original trio, and he spent much of the past NBA season on a league-sponsored victory lap, appearing at various ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the league’s integration. Belonging, obviously, is no longer a concern, nor is the novelty of interacting with white folks. He lives with his wife in an acutely Caucasoid golfing development in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, a circumstance that he acknowledges is rather rich given his background and even richer given that he doesn’t golf. He lives in this place simply because he’s retired and “the livin’ is good here, as I think you’ll find.” His overall audiovisual self-presentation is typical of a senior in such a community: the paunch of contentment, the propensity to recline, the easy volubility, the cushiony arch-support sneakers over white socks—although the retiree-high hitch of his trousers serves to emphasize the uncommon length of his legs, making him seem even taller than his Official NBA Encyclopedia height of six feet six.
Lloyd’s tenure with the Capitols was short-lived, but only because he was drafted into the army seven games into his rookie season—which was just as well, since the lowly Caps folded a few weeks later, reducing the league to just ten teams. Upon completing his military duty, in 1952, he was welcomed back into the NBA and played six years for the Syracuse Nationals, winning a championship with them in ’55, before finishing his career with the Pistons, who had moved to Detroit in 1957. Thereafter, he spent most of his adult life in Detroit, working for the Pistons as a scout, assistant coach and briefly, head coach and then as a member of the city’s board of education.
That Halloween night in Rochester proved to be oddly unepochal. Lloyd says his fears of not belonging were overcome weeks earlier in training camp, when he was accepted without incident by the other players and made the team despite his low-pick status. The Caps lost to the Royals in that first game, but Lloyd led all rebounders with ten. “In all honesty, that particular night was uneventful,” he says. “You’re in Rochester, New York. You’re in a town where the university is integrated, the high school is integrated. So as a consequence, the newspaper didn’t play it up. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t there with ropes and robes and stuff.”
So that’s it—a debut, a career, a landscaped split-level in eastern Tennessee. No mythology, no wide-screen epic of struggle overcome, no Jackie Robinson–style breakthrough for the first black man to play in what is now America’s most black-identified professional sports league, a league that has borrowed from hip-hop vernacular for its new slogan, IT’S ALL GOOD. In fact, comparison with Robinson makes Lloyd indignant: “Man, you can’t compare the first black player coming to pro basketball with Jackie Robinson! I’m not gonna even dignify that. That man was a world-class track athlete, all-American football player, the leading scorer of the Pacific Coast Conference in basketball. And he makes the Hall of Fame in his worst sport? You’re kidding, man!”
Lloyd is right: He is no Robinson, and there’s no single incident in basketball’s history that compares with the vortical momentousness of Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But he, Cooper and Clifton were part of an incremental, under-the-radar process that ultimately proved every bit as important, since basketball would come to be, as Nelson George put it in his book Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, “the prime arena after World War II for black athletic innovation” and the main showcase for what George calls the “modern black athletic aesthetic,” that identifiably African-American fusion of flamboyance, improvisation and intimidation. Beyond that, the integration of basketball would have massive cultural implications. For anyone under 50, it’s hard to contemplate that there was ever a time when basketball was not a black-identified sport; trying to do so is a mind-warping exercise, like trying to contemplate what the universe was like before earth was formed or what being dead will be like. Basketball is today, along with hip-hop, one of the tent poles of African-American cultural identity. And since young white America takes its cues from young black America, basketball is, when you get right down to it, a cornerstone of American cultural identity. But when these men came up, basketball carried no such weight. They were the unknowing instigators of a cultural sea change.
One of the reasons no one foresaw this transformation—and why no news organization sent its ace correspondent to cover the breaking of the NBA color barrier—is the NBA was no big deal at the time, a poor relation to Major League Baseball, the National Football League and even the National Hockey League. (Indeed, as recently as 1980, the NBA was sufficiently unimportant that the decisive Game 6 of that year’s Finals was broadcast only on tape delay on the East Coast, well after prime time. That game happened to be the one in which the Lakers rookie Magic Johnson stepped in for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to torch the Philadelphia 76ers for forty-two points, sealing his stardom.) “Baseball was the sport in the ’50s,” says Lloyd. “I mean, basketball was, like, ho-hum. Even to me. I was a big Joe DiMaggio fan.”
The lack of a basketball figure comparable to Robinson is further explained by the fact that, technically speaking, Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton weren’t the first blacks to integrate a professional basketball league. The NBL, volatile and small-market though it was, was a genuine pro league, and it had admitted black players in dribs and drabs throughout the 1940s. Blacks were playing in the NBL as early as 1942, when the league’s Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and Chicago Studebakers, their ranks depleted by the World War II draft, signed black players to short-term deals to shore up their rosters. Among those signed by the Chevrolets was Bill Jones, a former University of Toledo star who later logged some time with the Globetrotters and is now an 87-year-old ex-schoolteacher in Los Angeles. “I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was the first African-American to play in the National Basketball League,” he says. “I played four games, and then on December 15, 1942, Jim White disbanded the team.”
If any one player deserves the designation “the Jackie Robinson of basketball,” it’s Bill Russell, the NBA’s first black superstar, who altered the balance of the league when he joined the Boston Celtics in 1956 and led them to eleven titles in the next thirteen years—and, every bit as important, never took any guff from anyone, about his game, his race or his (then controversial) goatee. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the men who paved the way for Russell—Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton, along with eighteen other blacks who entered the league before he did—are so unsung. Although they might not have faced as difficult a road as Robinson, it still took some kind of drive and turn-the-other-cheek fortitude to enter a league in which they were a microminority, dispatched night after night into potentially hostile environments. It’s telling that most of these players were college graduates and that most of them went on to have an afterlife of eminence, to emerge as men of great standing and good works—Bill Cosby ideals of black achievement. Cooper returned to school after his NBA career fizzled, got his master’s degree in social work, and later became a Pittsburgh businessman and the city’s Parks and Recreation director. Jim Tucker, who became the Syracuse Nationals’ second black player, in 1954, won a fellowship to Harvard and wound up an executive at Pillsbury. Jesse Arnelle, a Penn State star who spent one season in the mid-’50s with the Pistons, later founded the largest minority-owned law firm in the United States. Bob Wilson, Jr., who followed the original black trio into the league in 1951 with the Milwaukee Hawks, was, until his 1995 retirement, the executive vice president of the YMCA Retirement Fund, where he managed $2 billion in assets.
The campus pedigrees of these men underscore the one unmistakable advantage they had over Robinson: They were operating in a realm in which not only were they college graduates but their white peers were as well. None faced a situation as acute as Robinson’s vis-à-vis his teammate Dixie Walker, a revered, popular Dodgers veteran who organized a petition to keep Robinson off the team because he feared infection and contamination from using the same facilities as a Negro. “Most of the people who played baseball at that time were from below the Mason-Dixon Line, and most of ’em never seen a college,” says Lloyd. “I mean, you got some guys from down south—hell, their first pair of shoes were baseball shoes! But my teammates were very intelligent, man. Dolph Schayes was a smart, kind of absentminded-professor kind of guy. I mean, anybody finishes NYU with a degree in engineering at 19 years old, you gotta be kind of smart.”
Red Auerbach recalls that his white players greeted the news of Cooper’s imminent arrival with admirable magnanimity. “As soon as we drafted him,” he says, “a couple of guys came to me—Bob Cousy was one of them—and said ‘Can we room with Chuck?’ ” That same year, Cousy, a Queens-born Catholic kid who’d starred at Holy Cross, took umbrage when a hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Celtics had played an exhibition game, refused to let Cooper stay there. So he walked the streets with Cooper for hours until they could catch a 3 A.M. sleeper train back to Boston. Sweetwater Clifton, so nicknamed for his fondness for soda pop, was similarly embraced by his teammates, says Ray Lumpp, a Knick in the late ’40s and early ’50s. “Sweets was one of us,” he says. “My wife and I socialized with him and his wife, and my kids used to call him Sweet-wawa.”
The NBA’s early days abound with such stories, touching evidence of the vanished outsider alliance between blacks and white ethnics. Basketball, long before it was explicitly a black-identified game, was more broadly an urban-identified game, embraced by the Irish, German, Italian, Jewish and black populations of inner cities and therefore by people used to living in heterogeneous populations. Not coincidentally, the college basketball teams of the Northeast attracted dedicated followings well before the pro teams did, especially at integrated schools such as St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall, Duquesne, the City College of New York, New York University and Long Island University.
But mid-century America was still too unforgiving in its racial attitudes for the NBA’s integration to have been a heart-warming tale of pure uplift. Draw Lloyd out on his experiences, get into the details, and his recollections become less facile and more pained. The same goes for his fellow pioneers, and in the case of one player, Hank DeZonie, the bitterness preempts any jovial wasn’t-that-a-time reminisces whatsoever. DeZonie is a kind of footnote to Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton, a former New York Rens star who led that team in scoring in its final, miserable season in Dayton and then briefly played in the NBA in ’50-51, the same season the original trio made their debut. He landed on the roster of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, a particularly unstable team that played out of Moline, Illinois, and eventually morphed into the Atlanta Hawks, with stops in Milwaukee and St. Louis along the way. Though he was at the peak of his basketball powers, DeZonie played only five games for Tri-Cities. Today he is retired from the restaurant business and living in Harlem. “I ain’t too hot on the subject, ’cause it ain’t about nothin’,” he says of his abbreviated NBA career. “It’s a story that every black athlete went through: If you can’t do what you can do in your time, when can you do it? It’s not pleasant to talk about.” And that—click!—is all you’re going to hear from Hank DeZonie.
THE GREAT INTEGRATION EXPERIMENT OF 1950 did not exactly precipitate a gusher of black talent into the NBA. When Lloyd returned from military service in 1952 to join the Syracuse Nats, he found just two more black players than before, both with the Baltimore Bullets: Don Barksdale, the former UCLA star who in 1948 became the first black gold medalist on a U.S. Olympic basketball team, and Davage Minor, another UCLA alumnus. Barksdale was arguably the league’s first black glamour figure, telegenic and savvy in the Michael Jordan–Magic Johnson vein; he had his own off-season TV and radio programs in his native Oakland, and the Baltimore Sun reported that the “6-foot-6 Negro hoopster” had signed the richest contract in the city’s professional sports history, paying him even more money than the $18,000 that Y.A. Tittle, the Colts’ quarterback, reputedly made. But Barksdale’s pro career was relatively short-lived—he lasted four years in the league—and Minor’s was even more of a blip, just two seasons.
Another black player, Lloyd’s old West Virginia State teammate Bob Wilson Jr., had already been and gone in his buddy’s absence, spending the 1951-52 season with the Milwaukee Hawks. Had circumstances panned out differently, Wilson would today be mentioned in the same breath as Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton. The Chicago Stags had acquired rights to him in 1950, the year of integration, but the team folded before the season began. Expecting his first child and leery of the NBA’s instability, Wilson accepted a teaching post in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, oblivious to the fact that his rights had been transferred to Tri-Cities, whose front office didn’t know where to reach him. When the Blackhawks finally found him, they invited him up to their 1951 training camp. “I don’t know how much you know about Moline or Davenport, Iowa, but it was a very prejudiced place,” he says. “It was late at night, and I had driven all the way from West Virginia. All of the players were staying at the YMCA. And when I showed up at the Y, they said I couldn’t stay at the Y.” (This to a man who would later serve as an executive for the very same organization.) At training camp, Wilson discovered yet another disorganized team that was on the verge of folding. At the last minute, the team moved to Milwaukee, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks. When the smoke cleared, Wilson was the only black player on the roster.
Wilson spent one rough season with the last-place Hawks, forging an unlikely friendship with his Mormon roommate, Mel Hutchins, and enduring a misery of hostile hotels that grudgingly let him stay but expressly forbade him from eating in their restaurants. Doxie Moore, the Hawks’ sympathetic coach, forewarned Wilson when a segregated NBA city was coming up—the dreaded ones were Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Baltimore—but Wilson couldn’t help responding with caustic gallows humor: “I said, ‘Doxie, you know what’s gonna happen one of these days? They’re gonna segregate me. They’re gonna have a separate basket that only I can shoot at. And I’m gonna score a hundred points!”
Wilson’s career effectively ended when, late in the season, he was tripped in a game against the Philadelphia Warriors and injured his knee. He returned for the ’52 training camp but didn’t make the team. “They said I wasn’t cutting it because of the knee,” he says. “It wasn’t really that. It was the new coach who’d replaced Doxie, Fuzzy Levane. I don’t think he liked me from day one. He was a racist sucker.”
The 81-year-old Levane is flabbergasted when Wilson’s charge is put to him. “Jesus, I’m just the opposite!” he says. “Oh shit! Hey, if she was good enough to play, I woulda played my grandmother! Tell him I cut a lot of white guys too!” Levane, who is of Italian extraction, notes that when he played with the Rochester Royals in the NBL in the late ’40s, he, Red Holzman and the black former Long Island University star Dolly King roomed together at the city’s Hotel Seneca. “A paesan, a Jew and a black,” he says, “and we all got along famously.”
By the mid-’50s, black players were still just trickling into the NBA, but now enough of them were in the league—including three all-Americans who’d followed in Chuck Cooper’s footsteps at Duquesne University, Jim Tucker, Dick Ricketts and Sihugo Green—to constitute a sort of informal support group, a b-ball brotherhood. Players exchanged information on navigating hostile cities—Indianapolis and St. Louis were where fans were most likely to spit on you and call you “nigger”; St. Louis had a cafeteria called Miss Hulling’s where you could get served without contempt—and they sometimes even put up out-of-town opponents for the night, to spare them the ignominy of hotel hassles.
By dint of his age and experience, Lloyd emerged as an elder of the brotherhood. “I mean, it was kind of a tacit responsibility,” he says. “You got to step up. I’d call ’em and say, ‘Hey, look, man, what you want to do after the game? These are some of the things happening right now. If you choose to go out, I’ll pick you up and take you home’—the whole thing.” In Syracuse this often meant dinner at Lloyd’s home in the Fifteenth Ward, the city’s black neighborhood, and a trip to his favorite haunt, a jazz club called the Embassy. As a general rule, in fact, jazz clubs were a good postgame option. “Downbeat was my bible,” Lloyd says. “Every city I went to had jazz clubs Downbeat had rated. That’s where I spent my time. I never got lonely. Lonely people get lonely, boring people get bored. There’s too much to do, man. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon…”
Lloyd surmises that he handled the racial adversity on the road better than Cooper and Clifton because, having grown up in the segregated South, he was never surprised by a slight. “In exhibition season, you played a lot of little tank towns, towns like Alton, Illinois, or Mount Vernon, Illinois—you know, they’re not user-friendly for people like me. For Chuck, it was a kick in the groin, man, sleeping in a hotel but not being allowed to eat there. But here I am, from Virginia…. Man, I was shocked they let me sleep there.” Lloyd’s approach stood in marked contrast to the righteous agitation of later black players, such as Russell and Elgin Baylor, who chose to boycott exhibition games in southern cities rather than sleep in Negro hotels or accept the sleep-yes, eat-no arrangement offered them in white hotels. (Baylor told a white teammate, “I’m a human being. I’m not an animal to be put in a cage and let out for the show.”)
But Lloyd never thought of this as a matter of accepting second-class status, being the docile “good Negro.” “I was not a subservient type of person,” he says. “You have to pick and choose the issues that you want to fight for. You don’t want to win battles and then lose the war. And with three guys in the league, it’s like pissing into a hurricane. What the hell you gonna accomplish? Chuck, Sweets, myself—what could we say? I mean, how am I gonna pave the way for somebody else if I’m thinking in this vein and I get fired? Because if Syracuse cuts me loose, and they label me a rabble-rouser or a clubhouse lawyer, who’s gonna pick me up? I mean, they’re scared to death of you anyhow.”
“IN ATHLETICS, YOU KIND OF FORGET ABOUT race,” says Willie Naulls, a black Knicks and Celtics stalwart who joined the league in 1956. “You concentrate on the mission of a team. It’s on of the great things about sports.” He adds, rather tetchily and pointedly, “Race was not much of an issue within the team. It was more something brought up by sportswriters.” But in Bill Russell’s bracingly blunt first memoir, Go Up For Glory, published in 1966, when he and Naulls were both with the Celtics, race is the topic that won’t go away; it’s forever insinuating itself into the narrative. One chapter is titled “It,” the two-letter pronoun denoting the constant, lurking presence of racial prejudice and its potential to erupt into a “situation” (“Another place ‘it’ happened was in Marion, Indiana…”). Russell’s anecdotes of “it” aren’t limited to the usual 1950s villains, the redneck fans and snippy waitresses. Indeed, the book functions partially as a thorough catalog of the racial slights inflicted upon him by teammates, coaches and executives. Red Auerbach, we learn, was unequaled in his embrace of black talent but too willing to accept segregated conditions down south and offensive in his naïve expectations that Russell would have heard of an obscure North Carolina College prospect named Sam Jones because “he’s a schvartze…I thought you’d know about him.” Even bighearted, principled Walter Brown, who never did wrong by Cooper, Russell or any of the other Celtics’ black players, is portrayed as delusional in denying Russell’s public claim that the NBA had an unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.
It’s true that race was hardly ever talked about within the confines of locker rooms and team trains and planes, but the issue was always there, subtly affecting the dynamics among players. “It wasn’t discussed, but you felt it,” says Jackie Moore, the first black player on the Philadelphia Warriors, who says he never developed a close friendship with anyone on the otherwise all-white team. “You got the feeling sometimes that you weren’t wanted on the team. And I heard racial slurs from time to time in game situations.” Lloyd, for his part, can think of an instance in which he wishes race were talked about more openly. “Syracuse played an exhibition in South Carolina, I think in 1953, and I couldn’t make the trip because they don’t allow blacks and whites to play against each other in South Carolina,” he says. “And not one person on that team ever said, ‘If Earl can’t go, I’m not going.’ The question I would ask now: Why would you schedule a game when all your players can’t go? What are you saying about how you feel about me?”
The response of the 1950s white players is generally one of remorse and contextualization. “In those days, it was a little different,” says Al Bianchi, one of Lloyd’s white friends on the Nats and later the general manager of the Knicks. “It never really sank in until later on. When I think back at it now, I think, Jesus, why didn’t we say, ‘Hell, we ain’t goin’!’? But then it was an accepted part of life.”
Then there was the whole thing about playing defense—about how, if you were the black guy on the team, you were there to block, guard, rebound and foul out in the cause of the shooters and playmakers. This was a subliminal sentiment, never uttered aloud and perhaps not even consciously thought by coaches, but there it was: the beast-of-burden stereotype made manifest. “The early perception was that black players were enforcers,” says Tucker, who, at six feet eight and a mere 180 pounds, was not built for enforcing. “I was an offensive player at Duquesne—the plays were designed for me and my roommate, Dick Ricketts. When I came to Syracuse, they didn’t know what to do with me.”
With their offensive games held in check, a lot of the early black players suffered serious career consequences, unsure of their roles, disenchanted, or dogged by the perception that they were merely “role players.” Tucker never really adjusted to his new “enforcer” role and lasted little more than two seasons with the Nats, averaging just 4.1 points per game. Ricketts, despite being the Milwaukee Hawks’ first-round pick from that year, Jesse Arnelle, lasted all of thirty-one games with Fort Wayne, averaging 4.7 points a game despite being, to this day, Penn State University’s all-time leading scorer. Cooper made more of a go of it, lasting six years with the Celtics, the Hawks and the Pistons, but he, too, felt his style had been cramped. “There was a sense of bitterness about Chuck,” says Tucker, who remained friends with Cooper after both men were out of the league. Before his death in 1984, Cooper told an interviewer, “There were things I had to adapt to throughout my career that I wouldn’t have had to if I were white. I was expected to play good, sound, intensified defense and really get under the boards for the heavy dirty work.”
Of all the black NBA players in the early 1950s, the ex-Globetrotter Clifton had the most manifestly “black” game as we think of it today, incorporating no-look passes, behind-the-back dribbling and graceful moves to the basket—what Lloyd summarizes as “Globie flair” (whereas Lloyd was, in his own words, “a traditional basketball player who happened to be black”). Although he averaged ten points a game over an eight-year career and made the ’57 All-Star team, Clifton bristled at the limitations placed on him. “When I first came to the Knicks, I found I had to change over,” he said. “They didn’t want me to do anything fancy. What I was supposed to do was rebound and play defense.” This de facto prohibition against showy play produced an ironic situation in which, as Nelson George wrote, “the prime exponent of what is now considered black style was a skinny white Catholic kid from Queens,” namely the Celtics’ Cousy. It was OK for Cousy to dribble between his legs and look one way and pass another, but if Clifton tried this kind of stuff he was being uppity. In one preseason game against the Celtics in the early ’50s, Clifton riled Cousy’s teammate Bob “Gabby” Harris, a white player from Oklahoma, by putting some Globie moves on him. “He said where he came from, people didn’t do him like that,” Clifton recalled. Clifton, not thrilled by the implications of this statement, knocked out a few of Harris’ front teeth. But this was an atypical episode for Clifton, who is generally remembered as a gentle, eccentric soul: “He had a nice soft voice, almost like a gay guy,” says Tucker. Clifton spent his post-basketball career happily working as a cab driver in Chicago, resisting all entreaties from his NBA and Globetrotter friends to take a basketball-related job. He died of a heart attack in his taxi in 1990.
THE SPECTER OF ABE SAPERSTEIN CONTINUED to loom large in the 1950s, even after integration. In 1956 more black men were on his three traveling Globetrotter squads than in the NBA, and if you were a Negro college hoops star whose graduation was imminent, you could do worse than to take a meeting with Abe. Among the NBA’s early black players, opinions of Saperstein are mixed. On the one hand, he provided well-paying jobs in a well-run organization unburdened by the financial difficulties of the NBA clubs. On the other hand, being a Globetrotter meant incorporating clowning into one’s game, the very notion of which evoked an unpalatable Stepin Fetchit-ism in some players’ minds, and it also meant working for a man whose conviction that he held first-look rights to all black players bordered uncomfortably on the…proprietary. “I did feel that if Saperstein had wanted to keep me out of the NBA, he could’ve,” says Tucker, who played on a summer tour for the Globetrotters after graduating from Duquesne and briefly rejoined them after he left the Nats. “He even said to me, ‘I’ll see to it that you don’t go to Syracuse.’ But he ended up being very nice to me. He was almost like a relative.” Wilt Chamberlain was also a Saperstein fan, calling him a “dear friend” who rescued Chamberlain from his misery at the University of Kansas and gave him a job in an era when underclassmen were not allowed to jump straight from school to the NBA. Biding his time with the Globetrotters in 1958 and ’59, Chamberlain had “the most fun of his career,” and then, NBA-eligible at last, signed with the Philadelphia Warriors.
But the man who made negritude unequivocally acceptable in the NBA didn’t do it for Saperstein. “He asked me to sign with him, but I never even considered it,” says Bill Russell. “I came in from a different place than most black guys. I conducted myself as a star. I didn’t have the approach that I was lucky to be here, that it was a privilege. I wanted to play professional basketball in the NBA, because I thought I was the best basketball player in the world.” Nevertheless, Russell, who had led the previously obscure University of San Francisco basketball team to two NCAA titles in a row, in ’55 and ’56, went through the motions and met with Saperstein before graduation. “He asked me and my coach to visit him,” Russell says. “Then he starts talking to my coach about the ‘social advantages’ of playing for the Globetrotters. I figure, Well, I guess he wants to sign the coach! That, or he thinks I’m not smart enough to talk to.”
Russell worked out a deal with Walter Brown to join the Celtics partway through the 1956-57 season so he could play on the 1956 Olympic team. Naulls, who was also a rookie that season, remembers that when Russell finally caught up with the Celtics, eighteen games into their schedule, his impact was so immediate, his dominance so profound, that the league was instantly severed from its past. “He was the difference; he changed the NBA,” says Naulls. “All the mediocrity that had been succeeding was pushed out of the league. It opened up competition for everyone, especially people of my color.”
In the next thirteen years, the Celtics would be the winningest and most racially progressive of the NBA teams, drafting or acquiring, among others, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Russell’s old roommate at the University of San Francisco), Bennie Swain, Tom “Satch” Sanders, Naulls, John Thompson and Wayne Embry. The game too would change. The introduction of the twenty-four-second shot clock in 1954 had already picked up the pace, eradicating the old, collegiate, stalling-oriented half-court game. Abetted by the twenty-four-second rule and bolstered by their swelling ranks, black players felt freer to play a more open, fast-break game; “Globie flair” was no longer taboo, nor was the up-tempo schoolyard style that had developed in black urban neighborhoods. By 1958 the Lakers had a new star in Elgin Baylor, the proto-Jordan, and by 1960 the Warriors had Chamberlain and the Cincinnati Royals had Oscar Robertson. The lodging and dining hassles didn’t disappear overnight, nor did the suspicions that fans wouldn’t come out to see four or five Negroes in a starting lineup, but the identity of the league, and the game, had started to shift.
Few of the NBA’s early black players lasted long enough in the league to play professional basketball by the time it had become a black-identified sport. Lloyd, in fact, would argue that none of them did. “It was in the ’70s, when you start seeing teams throughout the whole league with nine black players and three white players, or ten and two—that’s when,” he says. “Like when the Knicks had twelve black guys. You know what they called ’em? They didn’t call them the New York Knicker-bockers. You know where I’m going with that.”
But Russell is secure in his belief that the complexion of the game changed, literally and figuratively, in 1960, when he and Wilt Chamberlain began their personal rivalry, the greatest center matchup and arguably the greatest one-on-one player matchup in basketball history. “Oh, it was the confrontation between Wilt and me,” he says. “Everyone accepted that: You’ve got the two best players in the league, and you had to take sides, and you couldn’t take the side of a white guy because”—a pause for a chuckle—“there wasn’t one!”
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.
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-inthe-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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Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor we’ve come to celebrate, has reached a point in his career where he need no longer accept roles small enough for Moe qualification. But his reputation has been forged of Moe-worthy moments, of virtuosic little turns in movies he wasn’t technically the star of. Time and again in the late ’90s, we emerged from the Bijou or the Octoplex marveling over yet another terrific performance by that guy, the seemingly ubiquitous character actor with the straw-colored hair, florid complexion, heavy build and wet, crumpled voice. We may not have registered his name, but his work always made an impression, whether he was the sad-sack porn-movie crewman who lusted after Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, the officious majordomo to the titular gazillionaire of The Big Lebowski, Patch’s exasperated med-school roommate in Patch Adams, the Mark David Chapman–ish obscene phone caller in Happiness, the bullying blue blood who tormented Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley or the saintly home-care provider to Jason Robards’s dying TV producer in Magnolia. It really wasn’t until late last year—when Flawless, in which Hoffman had his first bona fide lead, opened within weeks of Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley—that the name became a Name and that guy became Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor: a Moe no mo’.
Now the parts are getting bigger and the assignments more high-profile. In Joel Schumacher’s Flawless, Hoffman daredevilishly took on the role of an unlovable drag queen who gives singing lessons to a cop recovering from a stroke (a cop played by Robert De Niro, no less). In David Mamet’s State and Main, out this month, he’s the romantic lead, a hapless screenwriter on a cursed production who finds solace in the arms of a small-town shopkeeper (played by Rebecca Pidgeon, Mrs. Mamet). For a change of pace, he’s also the narrator-host of Last Party 2000, Donovan Leitch’s documentary about the recent presidential campaign, which will be released to coincide with the inauguration. And he’ll be in almost every scene of the picture he’s about to begin work on, Love, Liza, a small film written by his older brother, Gordy, that’s being made in large part because the producers were able, in the parlance of the industry, to “get Phil Hoffman attached.”
This is the 33-year-old Hoffman’s initiation into the brotherhood of alternative-male stardom, where Kevin Spacey, John Malkovich and William H. Macy ply their trade. (Even his most recent small role—a relatively brief appearance as the rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous—seemed less a Moescapade than an abbreviated star turn, like Burt Lancaster’s in Field of Dreams.) Like Spacey, Malkovich and Macy, Hoffman is a guy who came up through the ranks pegged as a character actor, neither glandular nor vacant enough to be a traditional male lead, but who commanded increasing amounts of camera time through sheer irresistibility—you simply like the movie more when he’s on-screen. The Talented Mr. Ripley, to cite an acute example of this phenomenon, springs to life when Hoffman speeds into it in his little coupe—addressing Tom Ripley as “Tommeee! Tommeee!” in a contemptuous Locust Valley lockjaw—but goes all diffuse once he meets his violent end. And like the great serial Moes of the past—Akim Tamiroff, Eugene Pallette, John Cazale—Hoffman has a gift for infusing all his characters, even the unsavory ones, with a certain lovability. Different people I know have likened seeing him crop up in a movie to discovering a prize in a box of cereal, receiving a bonus or bumping unexpectedly into an old friend. Donovan Leitch says he’d never met Hoffman before the Last Party 2000 project and pursued him “because I just kind of liked him—it was just something I felt deeply from watching his movies.”
“People love you,” I tell Hoffman when we meet. “You’re a beloved person.”
He blushes. At least he appears to—it’s hard to tell, given his coloring. “Well…no,” he stammer-demurs. “And…it’s good. Yeah, I like that.” He pauses to regain his syntactical footing. “I have to say: I think people are really genuine. And, really, I’m extraordinarily flattered every day that I meet someone who…feels that way?” (The last three words loft up into the interrogative, as if he’s not entirely convinced of what he’s saying.) “Hopefully, it’s a response to the fact that I’ve tried to, you know—and I mean this—I try to really respect the people I play. I try to, like, not judge them. I try to give them as much humanity as possible. Even if they’re not good people. And hopefully that’s working—and I think that is what’s working—and people are thankful for that.”
We’re in a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, where Hoffman has lived the past several years. In person he’s a resolutely ordinary presence—janitorial, almost. For starters, he’s “Phil” colloquially; there was already a Philip Hoffman registered with the Screen Actors Guild when he came along (“I’ve actually met him—he does musical theater and stuff ”), so he was fated to be known forevermore by all three of his names, a grandiose formulation for someone so unassuming.
At the time of our meeting, he has at least a week’s worth of beard growth and is layered in the drab utility wear of someone making oil deliveries on a cold morning in his native Rochester, New York. You have to squint real hard to recognize the movie actor underneath all that visual interference—there’s also a pair of McGeorge Bundy glasses to get past—and Hoffman likes it that way. He’s still unused to people recognizing him and doesn’t particularly relish the experience. “It is shocking,” he says. “How do they know who you are? I’ll have to catch up to myself, I guess, in the fact that a lot of work has been out in the past couple of years that I’ve been in.”
But it isn’t just a matter of quantity—there have been periods in the careers of Michael Caine and Brian Dennehy when accepting movie work was almost a mad compulsion—but the fact that so many of Hoffman’s roles have come in…films of significance. This is a man who, in the space of three years, has acted in the service of the Coen brothers, Anthony Minghella, Todd Solondz and, most notably, Paul Thomas Anderson, the young visionary behind Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson, clearly a Moe enthusiast himself, has a penchant for giving large parts to terrific actors who don’t conform to the conventional notion of a Hollywood lead: the chubby Hoffman, he perpetually addled-looking Macy, the boyo-faced John C. Reilly, the puffy-eyed Philip Baker Hall (and, well, the perfectly lovely Julianne Moore). In so doing, he has built up a crack repertory company that’s currently without equal in film—the Pacino–DeNiro–Duvall-Keitel-Cazale axis of the New New New Wave. When Hoffman and Reilly were tapped to star in last spring’s Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, it was an act of recognition, an anointment: Here they are, ladies and gentlemen, two of America’s finest young actors—the exact phrase used, in fact, by New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his ecstatic review of the production.
Hoffman considers the True West experience, more than any movie, the highlight of his career so far. In the early months of 2000, New York City was papered with posters of Hoffman and Reilly looking out at the world cavalierly, as if saying, “We rule, it’s our time, and you will no doubt emerge from the theater gobsmacked at what we’ve done.” Actually, says Hoffman, “we both had moments [in rehearsal] of being very scared about ‘Well, this could blow up in our faces.’ ” True West is a tricky play—“a big algebra puzzle,” in Hoffman’s words—about two brothers, a successful, seemingly normal screenwriter and a ne’er-do-well drifter, who square off to the point of near fratricide when they’re left alone together for a few days in their mother’s house. In the wrong hands, the show can very easily degenerate into shouty histrionics, but the result of the Hoffman-Reilly version was beyond bravura—not only did they carry it off; they switched roles every few nights, taking turns playing Austin, the screenwriter, and Lee, the drifter.
HE IS AN ACTORLY, theaterly, workshoppy kind of actor, Hoffman. He majored in drama at New York University, participating in its Tisch School of the Arts theater program, and thereafter built up his résumé in regional productions, finding a mentor in Austin Pendleton, the actor-director known for his involvement in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and his aching portrayals of forlorn dweebs in such pictures as The Muppet Movie and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.
“In the spring of 1989, I was conducting auditions for the Williamstown Theater Festival,” says Pendleton. “Phil came in, straight out of college, and he was just exceptionally far along in his work. Some people you take credit for discovering, but Phil—anyone in the room would have hired him.” Pendleton gave him parts in productions of Henry IV and King Lear. More theater work followed, and in 1992 Hoffman won a small part in the Al Pacino movie Scent of a Woman, which led to small roles in Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Twister (1996). The rest, as they say, is Moe-story.
Currently, Hoffman is the co–artistic director of a small company in New York, the Chelsea-based LAByrinth Theater Company, and recently directed a play for it, Jesus Hopped the A Train. He professes to be “more comfortable in the theater than I am on films.” Which is fine—it’s what makes him, and theater-trained guys like Spacey, Malkovich and Macy, so utterly resourceful and nuance-attuned in their film work. But in Hoffman’s case, it also lends him a theater person’s seminarian gravity. Smiling and affable he may be, but he’s not a barrel of chuckles to talk to—not a quip-tastic anecdotalist like Ben Affleck nor a Tarantinoid spewer of big ideas. He tends more toward actor chat, that studied language of “choices” and “motivation” and “preparation”—the kind of stuff you hear stars yammering on about to that bearded man with the inky dye job on Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio.
When I comment that it must have been fun to play all the roles he’s played, the kooks and oddballs and victims, Hoffman seems mildly peeved, as if fun is too trivial a term for the work for which he has sacrificed his blood and sweat. “We want you to have fun,” he says. “I would not say that working hard as an actor is necessarily fun all the time. Especially, like, during that play. It’s not pleasant to have John Reilly fucking holding a beer and screaming right into your ear that you’re a fucking asshole and a loser.”
“Phil’s a sweet fellow, but he’s a pretty sensitive guy—it’s very easy to hurt his feelings,” says Bill Macy. Macy, who rates the Hoffman-Reilly True West as “up there in my top ten theatrical experiences,” has costarred with Hoffman in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and State and Main. “We have a long-standing argument,” he says. “Phil does research and all this emotional preparation for his parts. I say all that stuff is poppycock. He says, ‘C’mon, Bill, you must do some preparation.’ I don’t. I think acting is fun. It’s a gas. That’s what I bust his chops about.”
But Gordy Hoffman, Phil’s screenwriter brother, is more simpatico with his sibling’s outlook. A sometime actor-director, with a theater company of his own in Los Angeles, Gordy holds that “acting’s the hardest thing—it’s like digging ditches” and declares that True West was as harrowing for him as it was for his brother. “You see a sibling going through something so believable and you feel a degree of trauma,” he says. “My little brother in pain, suffering. Boy, that shit’s hard to watch!”
The Hoffman brothers and their two sisters grew up in a Rochester suburb, in a family that Phil says would have been “upper-middle-class if my parents had stayed together. But they got divorced, so it became basically middle-class.” The children lived with their mother, who is a lawyer. (Their father is retired from Xerox, one of the region’s major employers along with Eastman Kodak, though Phil isn’t quite sure what his dad did: “Something spooky or something. He traveled a lot. Basically dealt with upgrading systems all over the country when computers started, in the ’70s and ’80s. Old-school-meetsnew-school–type stuff.”) “Phil was a jock,” says Gordy. “Most of his identity was attached to athletics. He’s a natural athlete.” Phil insists he was “not the type with a varsity jacket and a cheerleader on my arm,” but he played three sports a year until his sophomore year in high school, when a neck injury incurred during a wrestling match forced him, under doctor’s orders, to quit sports. With time on his hands, he decided to try acting—with the added motivation that a girl he had a crush on was in the school play.
As Gordy Hoffman sees it, his brother’s athletic background, his innate physicality, has lent him an advantage most actors don’t have. Gordy cites a scene in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, a relentlessly acrid yarn about inwardly roiled suburbanites, in which Hoffman’s loser character sits in a diner booth while his date, a correspondingly hefty loserette played by Camryn Manheim, recounts a preposterous tale of how she was sexually assaulted by her doorman, whom she proceeded to murder, dismember, freeze and methodically dispose of, bit by inconspicuous bit. “That’s almost an impossible speech to react to,” says Gordy. “And yet he reacts with no English at all—just mumbles, shifts and shrugs. That is celluloid friggin’ gold.”
Hoffman’s reactions are equally evocative in the advance footage I’ve seen of Last Party 2000. Whereas Robert Downey Jr., the narrator of the previous Last Party documentary, filmed in 1992, was all puckishness and winks at the viewer, Hoffman trundles through the political theater as an earnest naïf, growing ever more queasy as the vacuity of Campaign 2000 sinks in. When he takes in George W. Bush’s empty oratory at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, his mouth falls open in wonderment/shock, and he looks uncannily like Scotty, his character in Boogie Nights, in the scene in which he watches Dirk Diggler, his idol, throw a coke-fueled shit fit that derails his career.
The mouth-open thing is, Hoffman admits, a trait he shares with his characters. “That’s how I am,” he says. “When I was doing David Mamet’s movie, he had to keep telling me to keep my mouth closed. I told him, ‘That’s what happens to me.’ This friend of mine does this imitation of me where he opens his mouth and his tongue hangs out. When I’m intently listening to someone, I start turning into this, you know, Labrador retriever or something.”
But generally Hoffman resists any conflation of his characters and himself. I get the sense, in fact, that his occasional tetchiness springs from his reputation as a character guy, that he thinks there’s a public supposition that character actors don’t have to work hard at inhabiting their characters. You know—they can simply revel in their untucked, overweight characterliness and just be. This very subject comes up when, in passing, I mention that my all-time favorite character actor is the late John Cazale, best known as Fredo in the first two Godfather movies. “You watch him in Dog Day Afternoon, and you think, Oh, that must be just him being him,” Hoffman says. “And then in The Deer Hunter, he’s totally different! You know, it’s work. You have to respect that.”
He’s pretty strict about this, even in situations where the Phil-being-Phil theory would flatter him. Paul Thomas Anderson, in a gesture of uncommon warmth, wrote Hoffman’s Magnolia part especially for him, even naming the character Phil to emphasize how closely he identified the part with the actor. Magnolia is Anderson’s big, sad “Eleanor Rigby” riff on all the lonely people in the San Fernando Valley, and Phil Parma, male nurse, is the only person in the movie who is utterly at peace with himself—a kindly, empathetic man of tender gestures, such as mouthing a kshhht sound as he pantomimes lighting the cigarette of his terminal patient (who’s too out of it to notice he’s not really smoking) and going to extraordinary lengths to track down the dying man’s estranged son for a deathbed rapproche rapprochement. But Hoffman, while “honored” by what Anderson wrote, insists, “That’s not me. Not by a long shot. I’m not nearly as good as Phil Parma.”
I’m in no position to judge that assessment. But giving us what he’s given so far—making the MOst of his Moment time and again, movie after movie—is, in a funny way, a moral act, a Phil Parma–like display of generosity. Certainly, it’s what explains Hoffman’s belovedness. “I’ve been with celebrities who get recognized before,” says Donovan Leitch, “but Phil really touches people on a deeper level.”
Love and ubiquity: the way of the serial Moe. There’s a telling moment in Last Party 2000 when Ralph Reed, of all people, eagerly shakes Hoffman’s hand. “Oh, I’m a big fan of yours!” Reed exclaims. “Are you the actor that’s been in, uh—you were in, uh—I mean, you’ve been in everything!”
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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For any American born after 1950, the comic strip Peanuts was as intrinsically a part of life as the sun’s rising; you woke up, the earth had rotated, and there in the newspaper were Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, et al. So when Charles Schulz put an end to the daily strip in January, then died a month later, the effect was jolting. The sudden disappearance of both cartoon and cartoonist pulled us abruptly into the reality that even the funnies—as comfortingly staid and unchanging as they seem—are as subject to change as everything else.
The strange thing about the comics page, given its youth-associatedness, is that it has long been anchored by men of the World War II generation. The Family Circus’s Bil Keane is 77, the same age Schulz was at his death; Mort Walker, of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois fame, is 75; Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham is 80; Tiger’s Bud Blake is 82; and B.C.’s Johnny Hart is 69. These old-timers have displayed a remarkable stick-to-itiveness over the years—no wussy Garry Trudeau sabbaticals for them!—but frankly, they don’t have that many working years left. As for the younger talent, it’s much less reliable, tending toward either mediocrity (Luann, Sally Forth, One Big Happy) or supernova brilliance that burns itself out after a decade or so (The Far Side, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, all of whose authors—Gary Larson, Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson, respectively—have quit and retreated into Salinger seclusion). A few members of the old guard, such as Keane and Walker, have arranged for their children to perpetuate their strips beyond their lifetimes (as Blondie’s Chic Young and Hagar the Horrible’s Dik Browne did before them), but this model isn’t likely to persist. “Comic strips are more of a personal statement than they once were,” says Lee Salem, the editorial director of comics giant Universal Press Syndicate. “Most strips will not continue beyond their creators’ desire.” It all adds up to a time of transition: Realistically, there’s bound to be some sort of shakeout in the next few years, and a new direction for the comics.
Salem and Jay Kennedy, his counterpart at rival King Features Syndicate, use the same word—“edgy”—to describe the tenor of the new strips they’re developing. “We have Zits, Mutts, Baby Blues—lots of edgy strips in their formative years,” says Kennedy. “Zits is the fastest selling strip in the 105-year history of comics. It’s a contemporary-teenager strip, very in touch with youth culture. And we just started a new one called Six Chicks—six days a week, each day focusing on a different woman character.” As for Universal Press, Salem touts an “edgy new comic to watch” called The Big Picture and has already scored a hit with The Boondocks, a controversial year-old strip detailing the adventures of two wisecracking black kids who’ve moved to the white suburbs. The Boondocks is the creation of Aaron McGruder, a 25-year-old self-described “member of the hip-hop generation.” He, for one, applauds the syndicates’ new direction. “We need to get away from oversanitized strips,” he says. “I don’t want everything to be like South Park, but there’s room for provocation and even vulgarity, as long as it’s not just vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake.”
Actually, I’m not so sure about this. To me the most remarkable and endearing thing about the comics is that they’re the last remaining cell of popular culture not to have been infected by the prevailing in-your-face, attitudinous, willfully vulgar ethos of our era. In Blondie, Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey, and even in newer, allegedly hipper strips such as Dilbert and Get Fuzzy, the vibe remains reassuringly Eisenhowerean. Families are nuclear, hair is short, the milieu is picket-fence suburban, and the humor tends toward the gentle and anti-ironic. Even in the 1970s, when I was growing up, there was a queer out-of-time-ness to the funnies: to the neat Levittown lines of Peanuts’ nameless suburb; to Aunt Fritzi’s radio-chorine ’do in Nancy; to the helmet-like flip worn by The Family Circus’s mom (which Keane updated only four years ago); to the very army-barracks premise of Beetle Bailey. These elements have been in place for so long now that, far from seeming backward, they seem iconic. And by sticking to the everyday rather than the topical, and adhering to a clean, uncluttered, correspondence-school drawing style—by being so resolutely un-edgy—the older cartoonists, wittingly or not, have created a kind of timeless ComicsWorld, governed by its own set of rules. Who cares if every other adult in the country takes showers? Taking a bath is just what Dagwood Bumstead does.
Dean Young, the author of Blondie and the man who sends Dagwood to that tub time and again, sent me a current promotional booklet that includes a history of the strip from its 1930 inception by his father, Chic, to the present day. Young concludes the booklet with a mini-manifesto headlined “Advice to Aspiring Cartoonists.” “A comic strip,” it advises, “should not lend itself to propaganda, its sole purpose being the amusement of the reader. Politics, religion, and racial subjects should be avoided for obvious reasons…. References to liquor should be avoided…. Divorce, infirmities of the body, sickness, and other such unpleasant subjects do not lend themselves to satisfactory humor for comic strips and should not be used. The material used should not be localized. Remember, when it is snowing in New York, people are swimming in Florida and California….”
Now, you’d think that any strip that hews to such tenets would be the most joyless experience in the world, but, in fact, Blondie has a delirious screwball energy, and is terrifically drawn to boot; it’s like a little loop of Preston Sturges every day. (I have a particular weakness for any plotline involving Dagwood’s boss, Mr. Dithers, the pince-nez’d forebear of The Simpsons’s Mr. Burns.) No other cartoonist holds himself to Young’s extreme credo, but a lot come pretty close. “We syndicated cartoonists pride ourselves on being the last frontier of good, decent, clean American humor,” says Bil Keane, whose Family Circus is rife with Christian morality and smiling apparitions of dead grandparents. This cleanness is partly a function of the cartoonists’ sensibility and partly a function of the medium their work appears in. “We have to keep in mind that a newspaper appeals to a broad readership,” says Salem. “When I watch TV, I’ll watch something different from what my mother-in-law watches, but when we both pick up The Kansas City Star, our eyes are falling on the same thing.” The result is that the syndicates, loath to offend, err on the side of caution. “The standard for what you can get away with in comics is completely different than anywhere else,” says Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. “I just saw a Web-site commercial where a guy was saying, ‘This movie really blows!’ If I put a line like that in a strip, the wouldn’t run it. They won’t even let me say ‘heinie’ in my strip.”
The older cartoonists pride themselves on staying topical—“I take care to mirror contemporary society: Dagwood’s got a computer,” says Young—but it’s topicality that causes their weak moments. Peanuts’ rare forays into pop-cultural references, as when Snoopy pronounced his love for Twiggy and Charlie Brown brought up the name of Olivia Newton-John, were always jarring and ill-considered, while Beetle Bailey’s much-ballyhooed tackling of social issues seems forced, an unwelcome intrusion by the real world on ComicsWorld. When leering old General Halftrack underwent sensitivity training three years ago to get over his lust for Miss Buxley, his comely young secretary, it made for a good news story, but it was a blow to the strip. “I’ve lost a lot of fun in that—making fun of old fogies who are over the hill but not over the thrill,” admits Mort Walker. He explains that in his case, a lot of the up-to-date stuff is done under duress. A couple of years ago, Kennedy, his editor, responding to protests by women’s groups, ordered him to eliminate Halftrack altogether. Walker was within a hairsbreadth of doing so—“I wrote a series of strips getting him out, retiring him and replacing him with a new, younger egotistical general, a Patton type,” he says—when his sons intervened. “They sad, ‘Dad, he’s one of the readers’ favorite characters!’ ” The sensitivity-training story line was a compromise.
Walker complains that there’s a double standard at work as the syndicates try to keep up with the times. “The other day in Zits,” he says “they had a kid farting into the telephone. I called Jay Kennedy and said, ‘How’d you let the cartoonist get away with that?’ And he said, ‘He’s more cutting-edge than you—it’s part of what he does.’ ”
I get what Kennedy and Salem mean when they say they want “edgy”—they want stuff that’s engaged in the present day and not as dorky as Garfield—but I’m also wary of anything that consciously tries to posit itself as “cutting-edge.” The magic of the late, lamented Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes was that they were innately weird and iconoclastic strips, authentic reflections of their oddball creators’ oddball psyches—they were the dream hybrids of old-style innocence and new-style funkiness that everyone’s casting about for. Whereas the current legion of Far Side rip-offs—The Quigmans, Bizarro and The Fusco Brothers, to name but three—are transparently, desperately self-conscious, straining fruitlessly to re-create Gary Larson’s skewed, bovine freakiness. They’re also dated; like faded wine-cooler posters in a liquor store, they seem the last sorry embers of a trend begun in 1986. As for the vaunted Zits, it’s ugly to look at, unfunny and as repellent as its name. Of the “cutting-edge” strips, only The Boondocks seems to be the genuine article: distinctively, attractively drawn (in a style its author describes as “Japanimation blended with Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson”) and simultaneously funny and astute. McGruder, like Chris Rock, doesn’t buy into the P.C. notion of a solemn, perfect black brotherhood and has made delicious fun (and bitter enemies) of Bob Johnson, the head of the BET network, and Ward Connerly, the black anti-affirmative action campaigner.
That said, McGruder has his work cut out for him. As Mort Walker notes, “Cutting-edge strips attract attention, but only for a short period,” invariably because their authors can’t sustain their initial freshness and intelligence. Even the smart, hyper-engaged Doonesbury has succumbed to staleness. Garry Trudeau’s strip was amazing in the era of Watergate and Vietnam, but in this apolitical age it’s merely spinning its wheels: the retread-retread adventures of debauched old Uncle Duke have grown pretty tiresome, while the look-at-me-I’m-current plotlines about L.A. talent agents and the Net are just lame.
Any debate about the content of the comics becomes academic if no one’s reading them. And while the funnies are not under any imminent threat of extinction, there is cause for concern. “The newspaper editors have a feeling that kids read the comics, That’s not true—kids watch television,” says Walker. “It’s different from back when I grew up, when the only entertainment we had from day to day was comics and going to the library.” A few months ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette conducted a survey of its reader’s comics preferences, and of the 11,000-plus people who responded, only 4.2 percent were 18 and under. Granted, these were the results of an unscientific survey rather than a scientific poll—and Kennedy blithely asserts that adults have always made up the better part of the comics-reading audience—but I can’t get over my nagging suspicion that comics readers are a finite resource. In thirty or forty years, when we start to lose the last generation of people who grew up reading the funnies every day, will anyone want the funnies anymore?
The unignorable subtext of this question is this country’s declining newspaper readership, and its dwindling number of newspapers. (The afternoon paper, which was where I got my after-school comics fix, is in particularly steep decline, from 1,141 papers in 1989 to 781 in 1999.) You could argue that in the future many people will turn to the Web to read the comics—The Boondocks, in fact, started out online before it made it into national newspapers—but the Web is user-driven, meaning you go in and choose which cartoons you want to read, whereas in a newspaper you read whatever selection the paper’s editors have laid out for you. As such, it will only get harder for new, unheralded strips to gain a following. “The window is shrinking every year,” says Adams, whose Dilbert, a rudimentarily drawn but cleverly observed chronicle of corporate-cubicle life in e-mail America, is the last strip to have caught on big time. “Even Dilbert wouldn’t have broken,” he says, “except that it hit the Zeitgeist at just the right time.”
I suspect that it will also be harder to hook people on a simple, four-panel, black-and-white comic strip in an every more high-tech, bell-and-whistle-filled world. Already some newspapers have decreed that a black-and-white daily comics page is a primitive twentieth-century nuisance not to be countenanced in the twenty-first, and have used their shiny new printing plants to colorize the daily strips (much to the chagrin of a lot of cartoonists). This is probably just the beginning. For all his declarations of fealty to the old format, Kennedy, one of the most powerful men in comics, envisions a day when there will be on-line strips that are not static but “five-second animated cartoons—animated jokes.”
This sounds rad enough, but it would be horrible if the pen-and-ink comic were consigned to quaint antiquity like the general store and the bootblack, superseded by some widgety electro-gimmickry that owes no debt to Charles Schulz. The comics deserve to persist in their slow-moving, square way, as a safe haven where coolness is moot, irony is anathema and happiness, indeed, is a warm puppy.
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.
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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.”