Lost on the Prairie With James Garner

James GarnerWe were somewhere in the middle of Alberta, James Garner and me.

Actually, there were a few dozen crew members around as well, not to mention Stuart Margolin, Garner’s long-time friend and a frequent co-star on The Rockford Files. But when you were in Jim Garner’s presence, he had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the world.

Garner was in the wilds of the Canadian west making a low-budget drama titled Pure Escape, directed by Margolin. Garner was co-starring with Billy Dee Williams as a favor to his friend. It was late at night, and we were in a barn. Garner, bearded for his role, was doing a scene involving, if memory serves, a calf. My experience with movie stars on a movie set to that point was as follows: the movie star ignored the visiting reporter until the unit publicist corralled the movie star, at which point you were led to the star’s trailer to receive a few well-chosen words.

Jim Garner, it must be said, was unlike any other famous actor I ever encountered. That night he would finish a scene and then saunter over and start-up a conversation. He was open, friendly, radiating warmth. Hanging around in the middle of the night with James Garner and a calf, you might get the impression you were his best friend in the world.

Garner that is, not the calf.

You weren’t his best friend, of course. But for a few hours you could be fooled. Ah, yes, you could be wonderfully fooled.

“The thing about Jim is that from the movies and television you expect he’s going to be the nicest guy in the world,” noted Quinn Donoghue, the publicist on the film. “And he is. But what an awful disappointment it would be if that turned out not to be the case.”

With Sally FieldQuinn was certainly not alone in his assessment. Garner was hugely popular with just about everyone. Julie Andrews said he was  her favorite leading man. Sally Field, who co-starred with him in a quirky little comedy titled Murphy’s Romance (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) said the best screen kiss she ever received came from Jim Garner,.

When I interviewed him, he was going through a difficult patch. He was in the midst of a legal battle with Universal over his unpaid share of the profits from the Rockford Files (Universal, as was typical of the studios, insisted Rockford, one of TV’s biggest and longest running hits, was still in the red). It was a case that would make its way through the courts for years, but which would result in Garner finally collecting millions. “They think if they can drag this on long enough,” he said to me at the time, “I’ll get tired and let it go.” He paused and grinned. “They don’t know me.”

He had separated from his wife Lois, temporarily as it turned out, and was said to be dating Lauren Bacall, with whom he had co-starred in a little-seen thriller titled The Fan.

But you certainly got no intimation of any difficulties during our time together. When I asked him about Bacall, he just grinned and insisted they were friends—which, as it turned out, was likely the case.

Shooting when on until nearly midnight, but Garner was up early the next morning joining Margolin and myself for breakfast. Later, we retreated to his hotel room and spent the afternoon chatting. There was a lot of talk about how television had cheated him, beginning with Maverick, the offbeat western hit that ran on CBS, and which made the young Korean War veteran an overnight star, but kept him indentured to Warner Bros. for years on a weekly salary (I think he said) of only three hundred dollars.  Little wonder he had little love for the studios that made him famous—and why he went to such lengths to ensure they finally paid up.Maverick

We talked about his curious career, this see-saw professional life he led, bouncing between television and the movies. He could slip from romantic fluff like The Thrill of It All (with Doris Day) to The Americanization of Emily, the Paddy Chayefsky classic (his favorite, co-starring Julie Andrews) that was one of the most powerful anti-war movies of the era (not to mention cuttingly funny), to big studio-big cast extravaganzas such as The Great Escape and Grand Prix to the small-scale comic inventiveness of Support Your Local Sheriff. In between, he jammed in what sometimes seemed an endless succession of quickly forgotten TV movies. Like most stars who work a great deal (hello, Michael Caine), he was not always judicious about the projects he chose.

“I like working,” he explained that afternoon. “I like being on a movie set. I feel very at home on a movie set.”

He was best as the amiable rogue, the easy-going con man who would rather run from a fight, but somehow triumphed at the end anyway. For those of us of a certain generation, he will always be Bret Maverick, the slick western gambler who became the template for the kind of anti-hero he would play over and over again.

Garner in WinterWhen I think about it, that character had an enormous impact of me. Growing up, James Garner was my kind of unwilling hero, and when it came time to create a private eye for The Sanibel Sunset Detective novels, I envisioned a sixtyish Garner in the role and drew shamelessly on the anti-hero persona he established so long ago on television in black and white.

But all of that was a long way in the future. At that point, out there on the prairie, he was simply one of my childhood heroes, and, all grown up, I was a bit in awe. It was a pleasure to be briefly in his company. He may not have been the nicest guy I ever met.

But he came awfully close.

 

James Garner’s death yesterday at the age of eighty-six brought back memories of the time I spent with him. However, shortly after I left the set, Pure Escape ran out of money and shut down. It was never completed, and does not show up on the resumes of either Garner or Stuart Margolin—an all-but-forgotten footnote in a great actor’s long career.

Lucky Man: Remembering Hartley Steward

???????????????????????????????When Hartley Steward was the London correspondent for the Toronto Sun, he got to be friends with Vic Chapman, the Canadian who at the time was the press secretary to Prince Charles.

Vic and his wife were provided with the sort of beautiful apartment near Buckingham Palace that you usually see only in movies about the British aristocracy. One New Year’s Day while I was staying with him, Hartley dragged me around to Vic’s place for a drink.

We found the Chapmans huddled in a couple of badly furnished rooms off a dazzling set of sitting rooms full of priceless Queen Anne furniture. They were so afraid of damaging these irreplaceable antique pieces, they never ventured near them. They were not living in luxury; only living adjacent to it. The four of us sat together, having a drink, laughing at the ridiculousness of Canadians trying to adapt to a Royal lifestyle without sitting on the furniture.

Memories like that came flooding back yesterday afternoon when I heard that Hartley had died. In addition to being the friend who changed my professional life any number of times, Hartley was also one of the country’s great editors, a guy who at different times in his long and varied career was the publisher of the Toronto Sun, the Calgary Sun, the Ottawa Sun, and editor of the Toronto Star.

For good measure, he was also a formidable writer who wrote elegantly for the Canadian magazine in its heyday. I was dazzled by him. He seemed to move through life with such cheerful effortlessness that you could not help but be attracted to him. Even though he held some of the most powerful jobs in Canadian journalism, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t like–no, love–Hartley.

You can count me among the lovers–although he might not care for the way I worded that sentence.

I met Hartley when Sun publisher Doug Creighton brought him in to fix up the fledging but badly stumbling Sunday Sun. I was writing for the paper’s magazine section. What had started out as a tremendous opportunity to create Canada’s first Sunday newspaper, had quickly become something of a journalistic embarrassment.20121027firstsun

Hartley sort of floated onto the scene, a handsome guy, slightly stooped, with dark brown hair, and tinted glasses, armed with an offhand sense of humor and a casual style that immediately put you at ease.

In no time, with remarkably little kicking and screaming on anyone’s part, Hartley worked the Sunday Sun into shape so that it actually resembled a newspaper containing real news stories. Given the circumstances, it was an amazing transformation.

He was my boss but soon after we discovered we were neighbors in the Beach area of Toronto, we became friends. Hartley enjoyed good writing and sitting around with a drink in his hand talking about good writing. We did plenty of both in those days–the drinking and the talking.

We saw each other through a number of incarnations over the years. When he left the Sun to freelance, he convinced me to become a magazine freelancer as well. When he went to the Star to start  a magazine called The City, he pressed me into writing the first cover story (about then-mayor David Crombie).

When I needed a shoulder to cry on, Hartley was there. A broken marriage, a futile love affair, a professional setback, he showed up with a calming voice and pretty good advice. That’s how I ended up in London. “You’ve got problems,” he said on the phone. “There’s no way you’re spending New Year’s alone. Get on a plane and get over here.” Good old Hartley.

Another time I was sitting in the depths of depression, unexpectedly single and miserable about it, the freelancing business going steadily south. Then the telephone rang. It was Hartley, by this time (I believe) managing editor at the Toronto Star.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m going to take advantage of your misfortune.”

His idea of taking advantage was to hire me as the paper’s movie critic. That phone call not only saved my professional life, it also gave me the job I had coveted since I was a kid. Once again, Hartley to the rescue, this time making a life-long dream come true.

Now Hartley wasn’t perfect by any means. Much to the astonishment of everyone who knew him, he married five times. Even in the chaotic world of journalism where no one ever seemed to stay married for too long, that was something of a record.

He never took particularly good care of himself–although he always looked great–and he had heart problems throughout his life. Once he was onboard a cruise ship when he suffered a heart attack.

By the time the ship docked and Hartley got to hospital his current marriage had fallen apart. I found out he was back in Toronto and recuperating alone, just up the street from me.

I insisted he move into my apartment. I was on my way to Paris to write a movie and the place would be empty for a couple of months. Hartley could recuperate there. He moved in, and after a week or so of deep discussion about the vagaries of life and love–and reaching no helpful conclusions on either subject–I headed for France.

Hartley RemeberedBy the time I got back to Toronto, Hartley had met someone new. I couldn’t believe it. I ended up being the best man at the wedding. Alas, that marriage didn’t take either.

When I last saw him, he was happily remarried to the second Mary in his life. We promised each other we would keep in touch, but we didn’t, and now it’s too late. The guy who enriched my life with his friendship, warmth, and endless generosity, is gone.

Despite all his success, he never took himself too seriously. He remained a kid from Northern Ontario who never lost that boyish sense of himself. He counted himself, I think, a lucky man.

But not nearly as lucky as I am to have known him. Go well old friend, and safe journey…

 

Misfits and Inglorious Bastards

???????????????????????????????I went back to my past a few weeks ago–and discovered they were tearing It down.

The past had been safely housed for over forty years inside the old gray stone monolith that was the Windsor Star on the corner of Pitt and Ferry Street in downtown Windsor.

My misspent youth was spent in the smoky, noisy confines of the second floor newsroom, the sounds of the police radio on the wall (“One down on Beaubien. Units responding”), the clack-clack of teletype machines and Underwood typewriters, editors in white shirts, their sleeves rolled up, yelling “Copy!” Those were the days, my friend. We thought they would never end.

The newsroom in addition to being filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, was populated by a colorful band of misfits and inglorious bastards, larger-than-life characters, rogues–okay, there may have been a few normal people too, but they somehow got lost in the much colorful crowd. They reveled in the common knowledge that no one outside the newspaper business would let them in the door, let alone actually hire them.

I felt right at home.

When I came to the Star I was a nineteen-year-old kid recently dropped out of high school. I had nowhere to go but down. My future was as bleak as the interior of the bus carrying me to Windsor that night in 1968.The Youthful Reporter 002

As the bus came along Wyandotte Street, Windsor’s main thoroughfare, I was presented with a view of distant towering spires. Like just about every other first time visitor to Windsor, I thought these skyscrapers were part of the city. My heart leapt. This really was the big time.

The spires actually belonged to the Detroit skyline, as I soon learned when the bus deposited me on Windsor’s empty streets, and I wandered down to Dieppe Park, overlooking the Detroit River.

It was still dark when I plunked myself down on a park bench. I wasn’t due to be  at the Star until nine o’clock that morning. Dead tired, I stretched out on the bench.

The next thing I was being roused out of a sound sleep by a police officer with a flash light. Around me, the homeless men occupying other benches were also being shaken awake. The cop in charge of me took note of the jacket and tie I wore. “What are you doing down here?” he demanded.

I explained that I was in town to be interviewed for a job as a reporter at the Windsor Star. He shook his head and said, “The Star, eh? Well, good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”

I straightened myself around and walked up the street to the paper. The editor, a buck-toothed character named Norm Hull, inspected my resume me, looked me up and down, and said, “You don’t have a drinking problem, do you?”

I sputtered assurances that I most certainly did not. “Okay,” Hull said. “You’re hired.”

It might have been better if Norm Hull had asked if I drank like a fish–just like everyone else at the paper. I had walked into a world that was not quite out of The Front Page, the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about the wild and wooly days of Chicago newspapers–but it was pretty darned close

Windsor’s proximity to Detroit made the Star unique–an otherwise conservative, mid-size Canadian newspaper next door to a big, troubled American city that in 1968 was very much a reflection of the turmoil roiling the United States.

There were race riots, violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations, a polarizing presidential election (Nixon versus Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace thrown in for good measure).

What’s more, Detroit was known as Murder City. We were told not to go to downtown Detroit after dark. Naturally, we made a beeline for downtown Detroit after dark.

So a bunch of young reporters who at any other Canadian newspaper would have had to content themselves writing about local courts, nonagenarians celebrating birthdays, the odd traffic mishap, and city council, ended up, thanks to an accident of geography, with a front row seat on the most tumultuous era in post-World War II American history.

For a teenager freshly escaped from high school and the confines of small town Ontario, working at the Star became the unexpected magic carpet ride to adventure–literally. I had never even been on an airplane before the newspaper put me on one (I flew all the way to Ottawa).

I narrowly escaped being clubbed by a cop during one of several riots the paper sent me to cover, watched in amazement as supporters of George Wallace collected campaign donations at a Cobo Hall rally in used Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and interviewed far too many young Canadian kids who had enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam (they all strongly defended the war).

Playing Santa 002I wrote obits (badly; the job almost got me fired), played Santa Claus, and hitch-hiked across Canada with a high school buddy and twenty dollars in my pocket for a series of articles.

I shook Teddy Kennedy’s hand, hung around one afternoon with Jimmy Hoffa (not long before he disappeared), lunched with Ray Charles, accidentally tripped Lauren Bacall, got yelled at by Ella Fitzgerald (she didn’t like the questions asked by a young snot of a reporter), and sat out in the backyard with Neil Armstrong’s mother.

Best of all, I made friends and those friendships have endured for a lifetime. We were, to say the least, an unruly rat pack, but what a talented bunch as it turned out. You could look around the newsroom and if you were prescient–which, of course, none of us were–you would see three future newspaper publishers, a  platoon of future Toronto newspaper editors, a couple of famous columnists, at least one award-winning television producer, a celebrated Canadian author, and a future London theater critic.

Alas, not everyone turned out so well. One of us ended up, good grief, as a movie critic. I won’t mention any names.

As you might imagine, those times at the Windsor Star are regarded as the stuff of legend–at least they are by those of us who were there. It’s all long gone now, except in fondly held memory. Many of the misfits and inglorious bastards who enlivened my youth have left for good. The newspaper business we all loved is no longer the newspaper business we all loved.

A visit to what’s left of the Star was a stark, sobering reminder of just how much the business has changed, and that nothing is what it was. The lively, chaotic command center from which we were launched on various adventures–and misadventures–currently resembles a bombed-out building in Beirut. Eventually, a corner of the old façade will be part of–as the sign out front says–The University of Windsor’s School of Social Work Centre For Professional Education.

I’m not certain what that means–other than it sure as heck won’t be the Windsor Star. As former Star publisher Jimmy Bruce observed, looking at the broken façade you feel as though part of your soul has been torn out.

Your soul and your beating youthful heart, too.

Revisiting the Windsor Star

 

 

 

 

 

How Barbara Walters Seduced Me

Barbara WaltersAfter she seduced me, Barbara Walters wrote me a letter.

I thought of the letter this week as television’s best-known interviewer, turning eighty-five this year, officially retires from the business of asking famous people questions.

Mind you, her final “gets” have been  V. Stiviano, Donald Sterling’s “archivist,” and Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly. Not exactly on the level of Anwar Sadat or  Fidel Castro. Those final interviews serve as reminders that talking to the famous ain’t what it used to be. Given the state of television journalism, Walters may be getting out just in time.

I went looking for that long-ago letter, and, to my amazement, found it near the bottom of a cardboard box full of yellowed newspaper clippings and fading copies of the magazines I used to write for.

Barbara Walters' BookIt is fair to say I barely knew who Barbara Walters was when I went to interview her in Detroit. I knew that she was part of NBC’s very popular Today show, and that she had recently authored a book titled How to talk to practically anybody about practically anything. It was based on the fact that as part of the Today show she had already interviewed a lot of famous people, and had decided to impart some of the lessons learned to readers.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Walters did not actually write the book. It was ghost-written by a Canadian freelance journalist, June Callwood, who years later became a friend, and who always spoke ruefully about her experience with Walters. The relationship had been surprisingly limited. June said she ended up using  her own experiences doing magazine interviews to flesh out the manuscript.

Of course, when I spoke to her, Walters gave no hint that anyone other than herself had toiled over a typewriter.

When I walked into the conference room at the local NBC affiliate, I was confronted by a dark-haired woman, attractive, smartly dressed, but hardly glamorous. At the time, there were not a lot of women on television, and those who did get in front of a camera tended be blond and carefully manicured. Walters was neither.

That morning I happened to be outfitted in a cherry-red shirt (hey, it was the 70s). When she saw me, Walters lit up. “I love that shirt,” she announced in the raspy voice with the slight lisp that was to become so familiar over the years.

Being young and highly susceptible to any kind of flattery, I immediately fell under her spell.

We had a cordial conversation. She talked about the book, about the difficulty of being taken seriously in what was still very much a male-dominated television news world. Beneath the surface charm she exuded with seemingly so little effort, there was an unexpected strength. You sensed she was ambitious, confident, and determined to break a few glass ceilings.Today show 1973--Gene Shalit, Barbara Walters, Frank McGee

I would not claim  any prescience about her based on our encounter, but later that day, I did witness the most amazing display of Walters Power, the like of which I had not seen before and have seldom seen since.

Intrigued by her, I decided to attend the speech she was giving to a Detroit women’s club. The hall where she was speaking was filled to capacity. A few minutes later, Walters appeared onstage and began to talk–again touching on her experiences and her difficulties making it in male-dominated profession.

Here is where a well-worn cliché can be put to use: as she spoke, you could literally hear a pin drop in the room. I have never seen anyone control an audience the way Barbara Walters did that afternoon. It amounted to a master class in public speaking. The audience was enraptured, and so was I.

Needless to say, I went back and wrote a glowing piece about her. Not only was it enthralling to watch her, I had learned something about how to speak to practically anybody about practically anything–lessons I’ve been trying to put to use ever since.

A few weeks after the story appeared, the letter arrived. In those days, the only means of communication other than a phone call, was by mail, and no celebrity ever wrote a reporter for a local Canadian newspaper. Who would care?

But Barbara Walters cared. Here is what she wrote:

Dear Mr. Base:

A viewer was kind enough to send me the article you wrote on me last month.

I cannot tell you how much it delighted me, especially since I remember you and your shirt very well. My gratitude for your warmth and generosity.

Most sincerely,

Barbara Walters

In the years since that encounter, Walters far exceeded any expectations I might have held for her, although her triumphs did not come easily. For example, as popular as she was on the show, she did not become an official co-host on Today until 1976, years after I interviewed her.

A couple of years later, she became the first female anchor on the ABC Evening News, but that did not work out well, thanks to the animosity of her co-anchor, Harry Reasoner.

Today, TV screens are filled with female journalists and anchors, thanks in no small part to her ground-breaking efforts, efforts that  I happened to be an early witness to.

She has been famous for so long that she has become something of a cliché, lampooned on Saturday Night Live (Barbara Wawa), and made fun of for her questions–to Katherine Hepburn: “If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?”

Like many others, I’ve been of a number of minds about her over the years. You have to wonder if, in changing the face of television news, she didn’t also aid in the creation of the celebrity-obsessed atmosphere in which it now exists.

Still, I think of the afternoon she so easily held a roomful of women in the palm of her hand, and beguiled a youthful reporter in a red shirt.

And I am seduced all over again.Barbara Walters Letter 001

 

Remembering Farley Mowat

farley_mowatMany years ago, a young reporter trundled off to Port Hope, Ontario outside Toronto to interview Farley Mowat.

The best-selling author of such ground-breaking Canadian non-fiction as People of the Deer and   Never Cry Wolf was deathly ill with the flu that afternoon. Nonetheless, he and his wife Claire rallied around, fed the reporter lunch, and then Farley sat for hours into the evening, engaging in the most delightful and plain-spoken conversation.

Back then it was unusual to hear anyone railing about the environment. Farley railed. He was delighted and proud that the Americans had refused to let him into the country. He said it was all right with him if he never went back there.

Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and he and his then-wife Margaret had visited Farley at his summer place on Cape Breton. By that time, Farley was ambivalent, if not downright critical of Trudeau. Even so, he went about making the prime minister and his wife feel at home.  During their visit, Margaret had abruptly sat up, opened her blouse, and breast-fed baby Justin.

The sight of Canada’s first lady breast-feeding in Farley’s sitting room while the prime minister of the country chatted away, filled Farley with a certain awe. The reporter has often speculated since at Farley’s reaction as that baby grew up to become the leader of the Liberal Party.

Farley was opinionated and feisty that afternoon in Port Hope but also warm and generous. You didn’t have to spend much time with him before you started thinking you had made a friend for life. Well, perhaps not a friend, but certainly an acquaintance. For years afterward the reporter would run into Farley at various events, and Farley always remembered. Farley in 2010

The young reporter is not so young any more and now Farley is gone, and so is one of Canada’s most original characters. In his long writing life Farley published over forty books that sold seventeen million copies, likely making him Canada’s best-selling author.

He was part of a now almost-extinct breed: the literary celebrity. He was at the spear point of a ground breaking generation of authors–Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Peter Newman among them–who formed the early  backbone of CanLit, and against all odds helped keep Canadian book publishing alive. That group is mostly  gone now. Only Atwood and Newman survive.

Nearing the end of a long, wonderful afternoon, Farley admonished the young reporter to be as critical as he wanted; he hated puff pieces, he said.

The reporter tried hard to be critical, he really worked at it. But he could not quite pull it off.

 

Bouncing Off The Walls With Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney“Mickey,” Jackie Cooper was saying as he drove onto the lot at the CBS Studio Center, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice, and failing. “We’ve known each other since we were kids, and he’s always been, well…Mickey.”

Mickey was Mickey Rooney, once the biggest star at MGM, and Jackie Cooper was directing him in a TV movie titled Leave ‘Em Laughing. Andy Hardy and America’s Boy, as Cooper was once known–the movies’ two most famous child stars, all grown up and working together.

Kind of working together.The Mick circa 1981

Sort of.

Cooper had just eighteen days to shoot the true story of a professional clown named Jack Thum who raised thirty-seven at-risk children in Chicago before dying of cancer.

Mickey, of course, was playing the clown. He seemed oblivious to the pressures Cooper was under, a pear-shaped dervish whirling around the hospital ward set showing off the under shorts he wore beneath his hospital gown, keeping everyone laughing, particularly six-year-old Danny Lance who was  supposed to be looking glum as his pal Jack Thum faded away.

Mickey wasn’t much interested in fading. He jumped into his hospital bed announcing, “I’m here for a height transplant.” He turned to Danny and the crew members, everyone trying their best not to break up. “Did you hear the one about the woman who got out of the limo–”

“Come on, Mick,” Cooper interrupted. “I’m trying to get  this kid going, and he’s laughing at you.”

“Sorry, babe,” Rooney replied, deadpan. “Didn’t know the kid laughed.”

At that point, Mickey Rooney was sixty years old and riding high once again after decades in the show business wilderness. He had revived his career on Broadway in the hit musical Sugar Babies, and the year before he had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Black Stallion.

“Until recently, Mick was pretty bitter,” Cooper said. “He was never trained for anything but acting. I was luckier, but his dry spell amounted to half his life. He’s only sixty but he’s spent half his life in the crapper.”

Copper had just published a memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog. The title was taken from a notorious incident filming Skippy, the movie that made Cooper a star at the age of eight. When director Norman Taurog couldn’t get Jackie to cry, he threatened to shoot the boy’s beloved dog. The tears immediately flowed.Jackiecooper

“It’s impossible to be a child star and be happy,” Cooper said. “Every child star, if they are not dead or drunk or in jail, they are hiding out or working as male nurses or as restaurant greeters some place. Or they’re addicts.”

Such gloomy talk was immediately dismissed by the Mick, as everyone called him. “What bull,” he told me later, slumped into a wheel chair between takes. “We were working, that’s what counted.

“When I was fifteen I’d been working for thirteen years. Why would it be detrimental? Those years were the detonating points of our careers. It was just great.”

“That’s baloney, of course,” Cooper countered. “But that’s part of his charm. He won’t ever tell you he suffered.”

Spending an afternoon with the Mick as he merrily bounced off the walls of a soundstage  at the CBS Studio Center, it was hard to imagine he was once the biggest star in Hollywood, more popular than Clark Gable or Shirley Temple.Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland

When you now watch Shirley Temple, who died in February, there is a slightly uneasy feeling, and you recall Graham Greene’s acid assessment: “Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.”

But the young Mickey Rooney, well, that’s something else again. Even today you can’t help but be astonished at his talent. In the most run-of-the-mill MGM confections (cue the fifteen Andy Hardy movies) Mickey jumps off the screen. Like his close friend Judy Garland, he could do everything–sing, dance, act, and do those things better than just about anyone else.

As the critic Jim Bawden points out in his lovely remembrance, when asked to name the best actor in movies, James Mason, no slouch in that department himself, instantly threw out Mickey Rooney.

But he was a handful as Jackie Cooper found out filming Leave ‘Em Laughing. Getting the Mick to settle down, and concentrate on the scene was akin to herding cats. The job was not made any easier by the difference in the personalities of star and director.

-Jackie_Cooper_(1989)Cooper was sober-sided, no-nonsense, somewhat shy, the former child star who had learned how to survive in the Hollywood jungle, starring in two hit TV series, becoming a successful production executive, and then transforming himself into an in-demand TV director (interrupted every so often to play Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman movies).

The Mick by contrast was the undisciplined live wire, the extroverted performer who was always “on.” He wasn’t so far removed from his own rambunctious childhood or from Jack Thum, the clown who, no matter what, always wanted to leave ‘em laughing.

“Let’s go before my wife calls and says I’m being sued for divorce,” the Mick announced bouncing back onto the set after lunch. “I haven’t been sued for divorce for two years.”

He climbed back into the hospital bed for the next shot, still talking. “I used to go out with Gloria De Haven,” he said. “I was twenty-one when I walked in there. I was forty-three when she finally came down.”

Only when he spoke to the press, did the Mick take on a kind of subdued gravitas, as though he had been up all night rehearsing the speeches he would give during an interview. His early training at the hands of MGM studio publicists had taken a toll on spontaneity–he was much better at reciting other people’s dialogue than he was at doing the talking himself.

However, when he spoke of Judy Garland, he immediately discarded the rehearsed lines and became surprisingly emotional. “The greatest performer who ever lived,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.

Despite his on-set antics, the Mick got great reviews when Leave ‘Em Laughing aired on CBS in April 1981. “Vintage gutsy Rooney,” pronounced John J. O’Connor, the TV critic for The New York Times. “Leave ‘Em Laughing probably won’t leave a dry eye in living rooms across the country.”

Jackie Cooper continued to direct TV until he retired at the end of the 1980s. He died in 2011 at the age of eighty-nine.Mickey at 93

The Mick outlived just about everybody. He kept going on until his death this week at the age of ninety-three, the last of the great Hollywood legends–maybe the greatest when it comes down to it–still bouncing off the walls, a performer to the end, and driving everyone crazy.

 

 

 

Down and Out in Beverly Hills: Jogging With Eartha Kitt, Lunch With Zsa Zsa Gabor, Escaping Fire With A (Half) Naked Blonde…

Springtime in Beverly HillsMemories of my years spent down and out in Beverly Hills flooded back the other day when I read that the town is celebrating its hundredth anniversary.

The Westside Los Angeles enclave, formerly a bean field transformed in the 1920s into a kind of sun-kissed Olympus for cinema gods and goddesses, remains the best known small town in America. The words Beverly Hills still resonate with all the clichés of Hollywood opulence. Even though I was probably the town’s poorest resident, people always look impressed when I tell them I once lived there.

beverly_hills_sign1Ostensibly, I moved to Los Angeles  to write  a book about movie stardom (it was eventually published in the U.S. titled, If The Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part). However, there were other, more complicated reasons having to do with divorce, leaving a job, reinventing oneself. I was, as it turned out, in the world capital of self reinvention. Everyone there was from somewhere else. Everyone wanted to be something other than what they were.

I was right at home.

From the outset, I decided that if I was going to live anywhere in L.A., it was going to be Beverly Hills. As a kid from small town Canada who had grown up fascinated by the lore of Hollywood, I couldn’t imagine residing anywhere else.

Together with my longtime pal and soon-to-be roommate, Alan Markfield, we found an apartment at 320 North Palm Drive. At that time, the California economy was in such bad shape, rental units were going begging– they even gave us a month’s free rent in order to induce us to move in.

One of the many great things about having Alan as a roommate–other than the fact he was a pretty fair cook–thanks to his job as a movie stills photographer, he was seldom in town. I had this big, airy apartment overlooking North Palm Drive pretty much to myself.

One of the residents at three-twenty had written a screenplay about a talking baby. Another arranged flights for American businessmen to fly to Moscow to meet eligible Russian women looking for husbands. A petite young woman with a gravelly voice had once been a child actor on a popular kids’ TV show.

The white-washed four-story apartment building in which we all resided surrounded an open courtyard and featured a rooftop swimming pool right out of the 1940s. I would swim in the pool in the afternoons, and it didn’t take much to imagine Esther Williams doing laps alongside me.

North Palm Drive was the loveliest street I ever lived on. Each spring about this time, the Jacaranda trees lining either side of the street would break into bloom and form a violet-colored canopy.???????????????????????????????

At dusk, the crimson light that is so special to Los Angeles–the Chinatown light, I used to call it–would filter through the flowering Jacaranda and Beverly Hills would be turned into a beautifully lit, enchanted land where surely all your dreams could come true. Never mind that by the next morning they wouldn’t. For that one brief nighttime moment, you could believe anything, and life didn’t seem so bad at all.

Every morning, I jogged through the strip of parkland running along Santa Monica Boulevard where once the denizens of Beverly Hills rode their horses. You would encounter the most unexpected people on these morning runs: the actress Linda Hunt, also out jogging; Eartha Kitt, dressed head-foot in black strolling along the park’s pathway; the actor Gene Barry (the star of TV’s Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law) also out for a walk, nodding hello.

I never once drove along Sunset Boulevard in my rattletrap Mustang without thinking excitedly, “Gee, here I am, driving along Sunset Boulevard!”–evidence you can take the kid out of small-town Canada, but you can never quite take small-town Canada out of the kid.

Grauman's Chinese TheatreI unfailingly got a charge out of seeing a movie (however bad) at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now called the TCL Chinese Theatre) that has dominated Hollywood Boulevard since 1927 and in whose forecourt you could stop to view the foot and handprints of Hollywood’s greatest stars–including Trigger’s hoof prints.

The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was no longer quite the place to see and be seen, but it was so full of history it didn’t matter.  Middle-aged screenwriters led by Carl Gottlieb, the guy who wrote the script for Jaws, gathered regularly at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood  to grumble about their lot in movie life.

Friday nights I would go up the street to meet my old Windsor Star colleague Ray Bennett at Dan Tana’s restaurant where he and his journalism pals from the Herald Examiner and the Hollywood Reporter held court at the bar, rubbing shoulders with regulars such as actors James Woods and Dabney Coleman.

At lunch you could spot the director Billy Wilder engrossed in conversation–and marvel at being able to sit there staring at the legend who created Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. Zsa Zsa Gabor would be at the next table. Not far away, Arnold Schwarzenegger lit a cigar in the days before he became The Governator of California. Milton Berle entered wearing a fedora and, of all things, an overcoat.

It seemed to me every time I ate out in the neighborhood, George Hamilton managed to show up. And here was Pierce Brosnan wandering around Book Soup, the best bookstore in Los Angeles–and there he was again entering the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive, just around the corner from my apartment.Pierce Brosnan

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Northridge earthquake marked the beginning of the end of me and Beverly Hills. The worse earthquake in the modern history of Los Angeles struck at 4:31 A.M., shaking me out of a sound sleep.

With the whole building trembling violently, I hopped out of bed in my darkened bedroom. Not knowing what else to do, I stood in the doorway, vaguely recalling that a reinforced area would provide some protection.

It didn’t–and it is exactly the wrong thing to do, as I discovered when the door frame shook as badly as the rest of the building. No sooner was I thinking that this was a mistake, and wondering what to do next,  than the shaking stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I had survived an earthquake in Beverly Hills.

I hurried onto the street  where the rest of the neighborhood was already gathering. The power had gone out, but someone had a transistor radio tuned to coverage of the earthquake. One broadcaster noted, “It was like being shaken around in a shoe box.” Exactly what it was like.

Despite the widespread damage–including a freeway collapse just south of where I lived–I had escaped unscathed. By the time we were allowed back into the building, it was a beautiful Los Angeles morning. With nothing else to do, I went up to the rooftop and lay beside the swimming pool, reading a book.

Suddenly, the door to the penthouse apartment on the far side of the pool opened and a lovely blond-haired woman burst into view dressed in nothing but a thin bathrobe, and–I kid you not–high-heeled slip-ons. As she raced toward me, she started yelling something I couldn’t understand.

“What is it?” I said.

“Fire,” she cried. “There’s a fire!”

I couldn’t believe it. What fire? Frantically, she pointed behind me. I turned to see black smoke billowing up from the courtyard. Someone had left a candle burning in their apartment and the flame had ignited sheets of plastic.The apartment building was on fire.

The half-naked blonde and I made our escape down a flight of stairs.

Again, my luck held. Half the apartment building was destroyed–but not my half. I didn’t even suffer any smoke damage. Still, as it was for so many that morning, the earthquake acted as something of a wakeup call.

What was I doing with my life? I asked myself that question a lot over the following days. I was thousands of miles from home and family, down and out in a strange place where one moment the Jacaranda trees were blossoming and the next moment, the whole world was shaking.

Not long afterward, I met my future wife, Kathy. She made it very easy to decide to leave.  Beverly Hills floated into Jacaranda-scented memory.californication

These days, the closest I get to Los Angeles is via the Showtime television series Californication. It’s a raw comedy about the life and loves of an L.A. writer named Hank Moody (played with a certain insouciant charm by David Duchovny).

Hank is a troubled soul but irresistible to endless numbers of beautiful young women with perfect breasts who can’t wait to get him into bed.I tell my wife that’s exactly what my life was like when I lived in Beverly Hills.

She rolls her eyes.

Tales From the Tour: Old Girl Friends, Movie Moguls, Sad Stories, and a Blind Raccoon

 ???????????????????????????????If I’ve learned anything the past couple of months it is this: Do not do a book signing with a blind raccoon.

Trouper is the raccoon in question. Kyle Miller has written a children’s book devoted to Trouper’s adventures. She brings him along when she does a book signing. Guess who gets all the attention? Suffice to say it is not authors, ahem, of a certain age, flogging mystery novels.

TrouperRaccoons aside (although blind raccoons are difficult to put aside), you encounter the most fascinating people in the course of promoting The Sanibel Sunset Detective novels in South Florida, and you come away with the most amazing stories–cops and movie moguls and widowers, even a bittersweet reminder of a long ago teenage romance.

A Republican state senator, Judy Lee, who has represented a North Dakota district since 1995, buys a book, as do the charming parents of Emma McLaughlin, one of the authors of the mega-selling The Nanny Diaries.

A speechwriter for, among others in the President Obama Administration, U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, drops by. You meet former staff sergeant Charlie Willis who saw action in the First Gulf War, and ended up in communications at the Bill Clinton White House. What did he think of Bill and Hillary? Charlie grimaces. “Not much,” he says.Charlie Willis and Ron, Feb.8, 2014

Then there are the husband-and-wife Chicago police officers, Marti and Ed. When they met, it was as patrol car partners. They were called to an incident involving an armed man. When they appeared, the gunman opened fire.  Ed stepped in front of Marti and took the bullet intended for her. Badly wounded, Ed  nonetheless had the wherewithal to shoot and kill the gunman.

Marti saved his life by getting him quickly to hospital and then stayed with him until he recuperated. While she was sitting there hour after hour caring for the man who risked his life to save her, she began to think, This might be the kind of guy you could marry.

After he recovered, they did just that.

You meet so many fellow authors, to the point where you begin to suspect there are more authors than readers. Technology really and truly has changed the landscape for writers. The most unexpected people now publish their own books.

David PickerAt the Big Arts Center on Sanibel Island, Hollywood mogul David V. Picker has a book to flog, a memoir of his years running United Artists and then Paramount and Columbia Pictures, rather awkwardly  titled Musts, Maybes, and Nevers.

Picker self-published his book through Amazon’s CreateSpace. It’s a very good book from the man who ran United Artists at a time when it was the most innovative studio in Hollywood. Picker oversaw the acquisition of the James Bond franchise, and green lit such classics as Tom Jones, A Hard Day’s Night,  Midnight Cowboy, and Last Tango In Paris.

Even as he delighted in his hits, Picker made certain his audience knew about his misses as well, particularly the George Stevens disaster, The Greatest Story Ever Told, one of the great financial flops of the era. Picker said he knew he was in trouble when John Wayne, portraying a Roman centurion, appeared on the screen.

The Duke looked down at Max von Sydow, who was playing Jesus Christ, and intoned in his trademark American drawl: “Surely, this man is the son of God!”

Doing book signings, you never quite know who is going to walk into your life or what ancient memories will be stirred. In high school in the Eastern Ontario town where I grew up, I dated a teenage beauty named Gabrielle. She soon dumped me for a guy with a sports car. I only had a Volkswagen Beetle with no fuel gauge. I was crushed.

Years later, in Toronto, single at the time and now driving a car with a fuel gauge, I encountered Gabrielle again. Destiny, I thought. We were meant to be, after all. I asked her out. She readily agreed.

At dinner, she began to cry. Was it me? Usually it took more than one date to start people crying. No, she said, she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and was still getting over it. Okay, I thought, we will get past this. After all, this is destiny; we were meant to be.

Another dinner. Gabrielle cried more. I began to think this wasn’t so much destiny as a woman in love with another guy. I departed the scene. Gabrielle returned to her boyfriend.

Now I am standing at the Fort Myers airport, silently lamenting my recent ill fortune at having become, against my will, a senior citizen, when I am approached by a small, sinewy man. He recognizes my name, but from where exactly?  Robert became successful selling cars  in Toronto, but before that he worked for a radio station in Brockville, Ontario. Well, I was from Brockville, I said.

Maybe that was it, he said. Maybe the girl he dated in Brockville had mentioned my name.

Oh, yeah? I said. What was his girlfriend’s name? Gabrielle, he said.

This was the guy! Robert was the boyfriend who had caused the dinner tears, the guy who had defeated my sense of  destiny. As it turned out, he and Gabrielle were not destined to be either, but he still stays in touch with her. She is in her sixties now–hard to imagine–an interior designer, apparently none the worse for surviving all these years without either of us.???????????????????????????????

Two ex-boyfriends thrown together on the concourse at the Fort Myers airport can only shake their heads and laugh at the improbability of this encounter. I do what any author would do under such circumstances–I sell him a book.

And then there are the sad stories.

People tell you about the heartbreak in their lives. At the airport again, I talk to a woman on her way to bury her son-in-law who has died unexpectedly of cancer. A sad-looking white-haired man named Jeffrey wanders by, looking a little lost. We begin to talk. He has been on Sanibel Island trying to put himself back together again after the death of his wife three months ago.

They were in New York celebrating their anniversary. She was tired, but there was no other indication anything was wrong. Then she collapsed. Rushed to hospital she died sixty hours later. A rare auto immune disease. You love someone for so many years and then she is gone, Jeffrey said. What do you do?

What do you do? The author is left speechless. And in tears.

All of a sudden a book signing with Trouper the blind raccoon doesn’t seem so bad.???????????????????????????????

The Detroit Auto Show, A Woman Name Michele, A Failed Romance

1970-chevrolet-display-at-auto-show-at-cobo-hall-photo-381628-s-520x318The Detroit Auto Show got underway yesterday, and in the way I have lately of linking these things, the show always makes me think of a woman named Michele and the romantic, embarrassing mess of an encounter I had with her so many years ago–an encounter that defined my naïve adolescence and which to this day, at this time of the year, makes me shake my head.

Michele ClarkShe said she spotted me as I wandered through the auto show. She was one of the models employed to make the cars look better, I suppose. But I didn’t meet her until a few days later when I attended a party in Detroit for author Harold Robbins. No one much talks about Robbins now, but back then he was the world’s bestselling author of such sex-saturated tomes as The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers.

By the time I met him, Robbins had started to run out of gas on the bestseller list, so he was hitting the road promoting his latest novel. Michele—although she called herself Mickie then—was one of the models hired for the occasion to help promote Robbins as the real life incarnation of the irresistible sexual stud he wrote about. The deception did not work. Robbins turned out to be a charmless blowhard who grabbed at his crotch a lot and made lewd comments. The women stampeded away.

Mickie was sleek and doe-eyed, African-American, and, to my astonishment, interested in me–thanks apparently to that first sighting at the auto show. Even Robbins sensed there was something happening here, and stayed away.

She was from Chicago, she said, and worked part-time as a model and also as a ticket agent for American Airlines. Ah, youth. I was smitten. After that first night with her,  I called her regularly for several weeks. We had great phone conversations, that deep,  purring voice late at night on the line from Chicago. Finally, she  invited me to visit for a weekend. I couldn’t wait to get on a plane.

Mickie picked me up at O’Hare Airport and checked me into a hotel on Chicago’s South Side. Her apartment was nearby. She was warm and welcoming. I was nervous and trying to act a darn sight more mature and worldly than I was, this being the first time I had been in Chicago or been on a weekend date.

Saturday afternoon we met some of her friends. They invited us to a party that was happening that night. Mickie looked nervous and  immediately demurred. Man of the world that I was, everyone’s pal, I insisted we attend. Her friends were delighted. Mickie looked more nervous.

The party was held in a well-to-do, snow-covered Chicago suburb full of grand two-story homes. As soon as I walked in the door I understood why Mickie might have been trepidatious. I was the only white guy there.

Everyone was friendly enough, but you could not help but feel a certain tension. This  was 1970. Martin Luther King had been assassinated barely two years before. There had been race riots across the country. America was a much different place back then—a fact I should have been a lot more aware of than I was.

Still, everyone was friendly, and the evening seemed to be unfolding pleasantly. Then a well-dressed, middle-aged man sauntered over and said something about Mickie. I didn’t think I had heard him properly. Must be nice, me being a white man out with a black woman. Something like that. Then he got nastier, always in a friendly tone, but increasingly unpleasant. I tried to move away. He followed me. Mickie tensed, but she said nothing. In fact, no one said anything. No one tried to stop the guy. It was just me and him.

To say I was unprepared for this verbal assault is to severely understate the case. I was aware that I had been transported out into the suburbs with no idea where I was, and with no car. Mickie and I were trapped in a house full of people I didn’t know, with no means of escape.

Finally, the people who brought us decided to leave. Mickie no longer seemed present. Her face had become a lovely mask, showing nothing.  I was numb. No one spoke on the way back into town.

They dropped me off at my hotel and then drove Mickie home. I spent a sleepless night playing out scenarios that had me responding to the confrontation a whole lot better than I actually had.

The next morning, I called Mickie’s apartment. No answer. Then came a knock on the door. I opened it to find her standing there looking perplexed. She wanted to talk. She came in and sat down and said she was distressed about what happened the previous night. She was particularly upset by the way I handled it. “Why didn’t you do something?” she demanded. I was stunned. What was I supposed to have done?

“You should have done something,” she insisted.

But I hadn’t, and it was obvious she thought much less of me for it. The rest of the day passed in blur. In retrospect, I can’t imagine why we did, but for some reason we drove to her mother’s place. She had been active in Chicago’s civil rights movement, a lovely woman in an apron, probably wondering what the hell this complete stranger was doing in her living room.

Later, we went back to the hotel. I collected my bag, she kissed me perfunctorily, and I got in a cab to the airport—devastated.

I never heard from Mickie Clark again.

Two years later, Michele, as she now called herself, had graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism and become a reporter for WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago. Shortly after that, she was  hired as a  correspondent for CBS News. Beautiful, assured, articulate, with that deep, resonant voice I remembered from our phone conversations, she was a rising star on Walter Cronkite’s newscast.

She was one of the reporters covering the Watergate scandal that would destroy Richard Nixon’s presidency. In December 1972, she boarded a United Airlines flight from Washington to Chicago accompanying Dorothy Hunt, the wife of E. Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars.E. Howard Hunt

On its descent into Chicago’s Midway Airport, the plane crashed, killing forty-three of the sixty-one passengers on board. Hunt’s wife was among those who died.

So was Mickie Clark. She was twenty-nine years old.

Officially, pilot error caused the plane to go down. But over the years there has been speculation that the CIA wanted to silence Mickie and Dorothy Hunt and thus somehow orchestrated the crash.

Of all the Watergate figures the Nixon Administration might have conspired to kill, they would seem to have been marginal players at best. But who knows?

Mickie certainly is not forgotten around Chicago. They have even named a school after her–the Michele Clark High School.

And every year about this time, I do think of my brief, fumbling encounter with her. I think of what a short a short distance I have come, what a long distance she might have traveled. To her, I was probably a mistake one weekend in Chicago. For me, it remains the romance brought down by youthful shortcomings.

Age hasn’t given me much insight as to what I would do differently. Maybe today I would be smart enough to read Mickie’s signals and not go to the party in the first place. Would that have made any difference?

I still wonder.

Officially Old In The Real World; Forever Young In Paris

Paris at duskI didn’t used to be officially old, but now I am. If you are going to get old anywhere, it is best to do it in Paris, because Paris is ageless, and in Paris you are forever young.

My wife Kathy and I have come here to ease my trauma at officially becoming what we call a senior. I know I am a senior because the Canadian government will now send me money. They call it–gulp!–the old age pension. Kathy so far appears to forgive me for being old, but then again, we are in Paris where just about everything is forgivable, even age.In Paris, dec. 2013

We are staying in a one bedroom apartment on the colorfully named Rue des Deux-Ponts on the Ile Saint-Louis. The windows are of stained glass, the ceilings high and beamed, the lampshades a mustard-color, casting the apartment in an amber light suggesting the ghosts of the belle époque might be lurking in the shadows.

I have been coming to Paris in search variously (according to my age and mood) inspiration, enlightenment, good food, and a good time for over thirty years. I lived here for a time in order to write a not-very-good French movie titled Jesuit Joe for the blue-eyed son of an Arab billionaire (you can’t make this stuff up). 

Kathy lived in Paris for two years, loves the city even more than I do, and speaks fluent French. Wandering around with her is always a treat since she sees things I never see, remembers streets and restaurants I never remember, and generally corrects my faulty French.

?aris OperaIt is rainy and misty in Paris at this time of the year so we escape to the Paris Opera or the Palais Garnier as it is more formally known, Charles Garnier’s masterwork whose gilded opulence leaves a first-time visitor slack-jawed, and nearly drowns out the thinner pleasures of a ballet called Le Parc .

Later, we crowd inside Café de Flore, an old Hemingway haunt that’s been situated on a corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain since 1885. This Saturday afternoon, the waiters can’t move, you can’t move, the air is warm, the windows steaming.

Outside, cobblestone streets are slick and wet the way they should be when you are walking the boulevards gloomily contemplating a life lived–what? Fully? Isn’t it too early for this kind of review?

But then you are old, aren’t you, with less ahead and much more behind. Easier to look back these days then it is to see forward. The future, even in Paris, is more opaque than the windows at the Café de Flore on a rain-whipped Saturday.

Everything is fine now, you tell yourself, but there are dark tunnels ahead, and the reality is that no matter how hard you try to defeat it, old age has arrived and all you are going to do from here on in is become older and less healthy.

At a time like this I can’t help but think of the actor Henry Fonda. I interviewed him when he was sixty-five, and he looked terrific: still movie star lean and lithe and handsome. This was a guy who didn’t smoke, drank a single Scotch after a stage performance, and arrived at the Mayo Clinic every year for a week-long checkup.

Yet when I interviewed him again five years later, Fonda had been transformed into an old man, gray and wan and suffering various heath problems. A few years after that second interview, he was gone at the age of 77.

And he took care of himself. Where does that leave me? I’m trying not to think about it.Old Pals: Alan and Ron

Thankfully, at least for now, Paris doesn’t allow much time for thoughts of mortality. We are in town with my pal Alan Markfield and his delightful wife, Christine Lalande. Alan and  I met in Israel thirty-five years ago, young guys on the loose in the Holy Land, Markfield the ambitious photographer, Base the freelance magazine writer waiting around Eilat, hoping Tony Curtis might talk to him (Tony finally arrived astride, no kidding, a white stallion. You really can’t make this stuff up).

Since Israel, Alan and I have shared adventures around the world: we snorkeled in the Red Sea; ate the dog meat in China (okay, we tried the dog meat in China); stood in a snow drift in Barkerville, British Columbia; shot two movies together in Toronto.

He has dragged me out of more than one bar, and in the dead of night when I was single, he often served as the calming, reasoning voice on the phone as one relationship or another skidded into disaster. We even lived together for a couple of years in Beverly Hills, before Christine came along and took him away from me.

I’ve watched Alan develop from a struggling freelancer into one of the most successful stills photographers in the movie business. He has shot the still pictures for everything from Elf to Bond movies, to  Escape Plan and the latest X-Men movie.

We’ve seen each other through a lifetime of marriages, divorces, and deaths. So here we are in Paris, the Boys together again, their poor wives forced to listen to oft-told stories dragged from the mists of time and retold, occasionally with something approaching accuracy..

On New Year’s Eve, we gather at L’Arpège, the Michelin three-star restaurant on Rue de Varenne, recommended to Christine by–not to drop names here–the actress Kathy Bates with whom Christine has worked on the TV series, American Horror Story.

The chef, Alain Passard, is regarded among the top five French chefs working today. He concentrates on vegetables grown in his own biodynamic vegetable gardens, and he has banned red meat, perhaps knowing that an aging Canadian who no longer reacts well to it, was on his way to the restaurant.

Passard emerges from his kitchen to warmly greet the evening’s guests, and then hurries back to oversee a New Year’s menu that includes Gratin d’oignon doux à la truffle noir (sliced onions with shaved black truffle), Velouté et crème souflée au Speck (a vegetable soup), Grand Rôtisserie d’heritage (a capon) and Pêche côttièr lotte (Monkfish).

The meal is not a meal but an epic production running over four hours, complete with a warm-hearted, witty cast of servers, midnight kisses all around, Chef Passard reappearing at the stroke of twelve to wish all his guests a “bonne année.”

Never mind that the cost of the evening is enough to make even a now officially old guy who sometimes (erroneously) believes he has seen it all, gasp, we float from L’Arpège after one o’clock having experienced one of the great meals of a lifetime, into a waiting taxi that transports us through rain-slicked Paris streets, still thick with celebrants unwilling to give up.

I hold tight to the woman I love so much, lost in ageless Paris, full of great food and good cheer, feeling, perhaps for the last time, forever young.