So Long, Dear Friend

The death of Valerie Harper this week got me to thinking about TV characters and the people who love them.

This is Us.

You see what I did there.  Even in writing about television a TV reference sneaks in.

For those too young to remember, Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’s talky, funny, Jewish best friend forever neighbor on the famed Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.  She was so popular she was later spun off as the star of her own show, Rhoda, where she was given a fuller life, less catastrophic dates and, finally, a hunky man who became her husband in one of the highest rated episodes on TV at the time.

Picture Perfect

Of course, television being what it was/is, she eventually had to get divorced (Note: for no good reason, in my opinion) so the whole cycle of jovial unhappiness could begin again.

I grew up with Rhoda and she meant a lot to me, mostly because I knew her.  In the seventies there were 0.0 young Jewish New Yorkers on hit television shows and certainly none as instantly recognizable and human as Rhoda.  We all not only knew her, we were her on any given day.

And who wouldn’t want to be?

The head scarves alone!

Rhoda joked about her life being a mess but she wore vibrant colors, had perfect one-liners for every occasion and was smart.  Moreover, she was a survivor.  You always knew Rhoda would be okay and even if you couldn’t literally be her or have her physically in your life you wanted her to at least be in your living room or bedroom or wherever you watched television, with you, whenever possible.

Much of this was due to Valerie Harper’s ability to embody a well-written sitcom role, take her beyond the laughs and make her feel real.  It was just impossible to believe that in real-life she wasn’t Jewish, didn’t speak with a trace of a New York accent and had never appeared in a TV comedy before she became Rhoda.  But she wasn’t, she didn’t and she never had.

Yes way! #acting

Certainly, you don’t have to be a Jewish New Yorker to play one but back in the 1970s, and even now, many performers become so obsessed with playing us that they get the accent and the mannerisms exactly right to the point where they are not playing anything else.   They (nee we) become wawking, tawking hand-waving neurotics ready to mow down anything and anyone that gets in our way.

Okay, sure, we are all of that.  (Note: See Larry David on any given day, even though he long ago transplanted to L.A.).  But there are times when we also do color outside our given lines.  Rhoda always did that and without a very special episode where a beloved relative gets hit by a car and she has to deal with it seriously.  Or one where she’s chastised by everyone around her for making a bad joke about the accident. (Note: See Larry David again).

See? Relatable.

Of course, this phenomenon stretches across all ethnic, sexual and religious lines.  As a gay man I’ve cringed, ranted and left the room numerous times over the years as some straight actor badly pretended he was a certain type of homosexual male and then went on to win an award for said performance.

What? Who? #shade

Name your minority group and I bet you could, too.

Meaning, we all need our Rhodas.

Luckily times have changed and, with it, the level of writing, especially on what is now broadly considered to be contemporary television.   Given where cable and streaming series have taken us, it is not unusual in these times for many actors to transcend their actual selves and portray believable niche characters that bear little relation to whom they truly are in real life.

But they exist in a 2019 world where the roles are a lot deeper and niche is the new…Black? Asian? Jewish? Gay? Hispanic?

…or if you’re Andre Braugher: Black, Gay, and a Police Captain for the NYPD

It is also a world where, ironically, the brilliant work Valerie Harper did might today almost be required to be done by a New York, Jewish actress.  See if that gets you to thinking a whole host of non-PC as well as PC thoughts.

This is exactly the point where, for me, television comes in handy.  Every time things get too heavy or confusing in my life I know l can feel comfort in being able to wander onto the couch – or if it’s really bad, a bed – and spend minutes or hours with a whole host of non-existent people who, in those moments, are as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met.  By my count over the years:

Lucy Ricardo’s determination made show business not seem all that bad.

 Murphy Brown allowed me to hold out hope that in the end journalism would get the last  laugh, and word.

Let’s just not talk about the reboot, OK?

 Olivia Benson on the street reinforced to me that on balance there is someone to protect those of us who somehow managed to survive against all odds.

 Don Draper shamed me back to the gym for fear we (or the actor playing him) happen to meet on a busy NYC street (or preferably empty stuck elevator) during one of my yearly trips.

working on my time machine right now

Walter White scared me into always protecting myself by reminding me there can still be great danger around the corner because anyone could break bad.  

Liz Lemon made me feel sane and well adjusted, by comparison.

Jack Pearson helped me imagine a world where I really did want to spend time with every member of my extended family, and

Midge Maisel made me laugh, cringe and sometimes cry at seeing all of my dead relatives and their friends on the small screen in ways that I could never have imagined in the days when I first met Rhoda.

What is it about funny ladies in good headwear?

RIP good friend.

I will still miss you even though I can see you tomorrow and every day of the week for the rest of my life.

Rhoda Opening / Closing Credits Season 1 

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Starting Over

Thirty years ago I attended the Grammy Awards when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won album of the year and I  watched as Lennon’s widow and sometime collaborator, Ono, walked across the stage to accept the honor.  The irony of the moment was not lost on us attendees or the many millions of people watching worldwide.  The monster hit single being played from the recording as she made her way to the podium was Lennon’s “Starting Over” and its message of new beginnings was especially poignant.   Lennon had been murdered a year before at point blank range in front of his NYC apartment building right after the initial release of “Double Fantasy” and his death required that not only his wife but his legion of worldwide fans would somehow have to heed the advice of the song and begin to finally and fully absorb the shock of living in a world where one of the most iconic artists of that time – or pretty much any time – was gone.

Click for full video

As the very petite and very soft-spoken Ms. Ono stood at a clear podium that seemed to engulf her very presence amid thunderous applause that definitely engulfed the very room, I remember thinking three things  – a. “how is she doing it?”  b. “she’s so much smaller than I imagined” and c. “it’s sad that this is what it takes for people in this business to forgive you for some large perceived misdeed (in her case it was  the lingering unjust accusation that she had caused the break up of the Beatles).

As for part b. —  well, most very famous people are not as “larger than life” as they appear to be – both physically or in any other way – and in terms of part c. – human beings are often much more comfortable if we can blame a person or an institution for something we didn’t want to happen instead of blaming ourselves, life or the fickle finger of fate more commonly known as bad luck.

But as for part a. —  I’m still trying to figure that out, though I’m much closer to the answer than I was in 1982 – a time when I was sure I’d be spending the rest of my life with the music industry person I was dating whose personal history did not include one long term (or even short term) happy relationship. What was I thinking?   Hell if I know.  (Though if you really think about it you probably can guess).

But what John Lennon knew at that time and probably before most of the rest of us did, is that starting over is a way of life – a state of being – something indigenous to the human condition, and often to the sometimes inhuman condition, known as show business.

This week a student who was about to graduate college and venture out into the world for the first time without the safety net of academia came to me fairly terrified and only a little excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

“I feel like it’s going to be like starting college all over again, only different and scarier,” said the student while trying not to fidget.

“It is,” I answered, all smiley and knowledgeable, “except instead of paying with money you’ll pay in a lot other ways.”

Okay, I didn’t say that last part because I’m not that cynical and I try to be encouraging in the same way I like to think John Lennon would be.  But part of taking on any new project; stretching yourself to try or be anything you never were before; or even reinventing that which is already there, means a change in strategy.  It means looking at it with fresh eyes.  It means pulling out a blank slate and pretending you’re brand new at it.  Or – if you’ve never, ever done it before – it’s asking yourself the basic questions that all aspiring people, especially creative ones, need to ask.  What is my goal (nee objective) and what is the best, though not necessarily fastest, way to get there?

the evidence of hard work

This question is at the core of teaching in the arts.  As a screenwriting teacher it often comes down to what does your hero want; what are the obstacles in his or her way; and in the end, does he or she get it or don’t they get it?  Really good actors know that they’re reading a really good part in a play, movie or TV show if their character is actually DOING something about GETTING something, rather than just thinking about it, and that even though this thing they’re after might be difficult or near impossible to get, what the audience will be mesmerized by is the journey that this actor will personify.  They know, as do writers, that what’s really interesting is not so much the ending but the struggle to get there.  If something is too easy to get then it’s not worth watching.  If the goal is not worth pursuing or not particularly mesmerizing (which doesn’t mean it has to be lofty), then why are we wasting our time anyway?  And what all writers and all actors need in order to make the goal, the obstacles and the ending convincing is -– drum roll –  you guessed it – a beginning.

give yourself the green ight

The actor and writer always need to start somewhere in order to do their jobs.  It’s the question every creative person must take on and forge through in the fictional world of the “story.”  And just as each new story starts at some point so do the many and various cycles of our lives.

Certainly, this territory has been covered before in numerous:

  • a  Self-help books
  • b. Oprah episodes
  • c. Places of worship and
  • d. Psychiatrist’s couches across the country.

But for some reason it’s easy to forget this simplest of facts when dealing in our real lives.  It’s normal to be uneasy when you’ve never done it or lived there before but it also has the potential to be more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced.  (Note:  I believe this applies to every situation except death and bungee jumping).

  • Start a new job?  Oh God, what if it sucks?  Or worse yet, if I suck?
  • Begin a new relationship?  I’m getting nauseous at the idea of letting one more person in my inner circle who is going to screw me over unless, well…they really know how to scr…I mean, fit into my inner circle.
  • I can’t move to a new _______, begin a new __________, or even venture into another ________    _________ without some kind of assurance that I won’t be met with failure, hurt or disappointment once again.

Well, as Samuel Beckett once advised, “Fail.  Fail better.”  Or as an acting teacher once proclaimed to me, “do you know what FAMOUS MALE MOVIE STAR and FAMOUS FEMALE MOVIE STAR had in common?  They BOTH loved to audition.”  On this last point, I didn’t believe it about the movie stars either but I have since had it confirmed by several sources so I’m fairly confident that it’s true.

Long before he co-created “The Simpsons” but long after he created the seminal 1970s TV situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks wrote the screenplay for a film called — wait for it —  “Starting Over.”  It was a sort of comedy/drama about a divorced man who falls in love but somehow can’t get over his ex-wife.  Candace Bergen, who up to that point was consistently cast as the beautiful but not terribly three-dimension female heroine in various films, played the unforgettable, somewhat twisted ex-wife and it was with one specific moment of reinvention that she redefined herself as a comic actress, the kind she will forever be known for, like in the hit series “Murphy Brown.” But before “Murphy Brown” there was —

No one had ever seen Bergen like this – foolish, off tune, and, when it came down to it, real and funny because she was bold enough to play a crazed ex-wife as…well… kind of crazy.  By all accounts it could have been pretty crazy career-wise…

As crazy as it probably seemed to many a decade later for someone with the pedigree of James L. Brooks (who had since become a double Oscar winner for writing and directing a little film called “Terms of Endearment”) to spend his time co-creating a TV cartoon series that started as a sort of throw away segment on an early half hour Fox comedy series called “The Tracy Ullman Show.”  Something three generations of college kids (and counting) have grown up on called – “The Simpsons.”

And he’s got a sense of humor to boot…

That’s high class starting over but in no way imagine that on some level it wasn’t the same blank page or screen or new life chapter we all face many times over.  When you begin you don’t know what your “Simpsons-like” ending will be – or if you’ll even come close to having one.  All you know is the blankness of the beginning and that you’re scared shitless.

To put it another way – and as crazy as it might seem — sometimes the secrets of life can be simplified to a half century old voiceover from an old 1960’s TV show like “Star Trek.”

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’m no Trekkie but those are, I think, our marching orders.  Over and over again.  However, if you do run into any tribbles, it’s probably best to not say hello and just keep walking.