Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fond Farewells

I recently attended two very different celebrity memorial services here in L.A. The first was for the always hilarious, Dom DeLuise and the other was for stand-up icon, George Carlin.

I knew Dom a little. About ten years ago, his wife, Carol Arthur (a wonderfully talented performer in her own right) replaced an actress in a play I had written (and was also performing in). Since the director had returned to New York, I drove out to Carol and Dom’s house in Pacific Palisades to rehearse with her in her living room. Dom sat in and acted as de facto-director. He and Carol (having been married for 35 years) had a terrific shorthand and he was great at helping her nail the jokes. Once she started performing in the show, Dom made sure their friends showed up en masse. He was wonderfully supportive of the whole enterprise and for a time wanted to option the play and develop it into a TV series. That idea never panned out; I think in part because Dom was already experiencing some fairly serious health problems.

Not having seen them in a while, I was hesitant to attend the memorial until I ran into a friend of Carol’s who’d understudied the show. “Carol would love it if you came,” she assured me. The memorial was held in a large theater on the Westside and was packed to the rafters. Dom’s sons (all of whom followed him into the family business) had created three short video montages of their father’s work dating back to the start of his career. Many old friends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, delivered loving, hilarious tributes and there were lots of heart-warming references to Dom looking down from above and smiling on us.

Carol was given the star spot at the end where she read a funny and touching letter she’d written to Dom. We all shuffled out into the sunshine, drank lemonade and traded stories. There were grandkids, neighbors and lots of stars from the 70’s (including two different women who’d both been famously involved with Burt Reynolds - which might have explained why Burt himself was not present). It was clear that Dom was a guy who had worked hard to make people happy and even marginal friends like me were made to feel like a part of the family.

The next event was a memorial for George Carlin on the one-year anniversary of his death. I had only met George once when my friend Ray was moderating a tribute to him at the Museum of Broadcasting in Beverly Hills. I was invited to tag along and was shocked when I found myself standing in the green room actually hanging out with George beforehand. Still razor sharp at 71, he was completely accessible and welcoming. I could barely believe I was reminiscing about the “Hippie-Dippy Weather Man” with the guy who’d actually created the character. Six weeks later, he was gone.

His memorial was held in a comedy club in Hermosa Beach and was set-up as a fund-raiser for a charity founded by Kitty Bruce (daughter of Lenny Bruce) to help homeless kids. At the top of the show, George’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, a very funny writer herself, warned everybody that the last thing her father would have wanted was for people to say stupid things like “I’m sure he’s looking down on us from above and smiling…” In fact, she said he would probably have preferred it if nobody talked about him at all. So nobody did. Instead, a high-powered string of extremely funny stand-ups took the stage and delivered their best “ten minutes.” In keeping with George’s pioneering spirit, the material was as edgy as it was hilarious. The evening ended with clips from George’s long career, starting with his early performances in the 60’s, all the way to his most recent HBO special which just aired last year. It was a great night.

As I enter into the second half of my life, I expect to be attending more and more of these memorials. It’s just how it goes. Show business farewells are quite a bit different than civilian affairs. If the person was known as a great dramatic actor, you can count on the memorial being filled with big, tearful remembrances. If the individual was a comedian, you can count on a really good show. I suppose some people would be mortified by all the jokes, but I find them very reassuring. They make sense to me. Show business is a life lived on the edge and the concept of some form of “death” is never far away.

Because I’m a writer and (occasionally) an actor, it’s hard not to let my imagination drift into what I hope will be the distant future; that day when it will be my memorial service. All I can say is I hope it will be crowded, funny and brief. My fingers are crossed that when the moment comes, I’ll be granted a quiet and reasonably dignified demise. Hopefully nothing that involves drugs, animals or sex workers.

The good news is you won’t have to worry about trudging out to Forest Lawn since I’m a big fan of cremation. If there’s a memorial, I’d like it to have that same fun, glitzy feel that most Hollywood events do. A red carpet would be nice and maybe a few photographers. Lots of kibitzing. Some decent hors ‘d oeuvres. And plenty of networking! God knows nothing would make me happier than if somebody at least got a job out of it.

People like mementos, so I’m thinking that at the end we could hand out gift bags - which might start a whole new trend (“Funeral Swag”). The bags could contain a couple of DVD’s of some of the work I did and maybe a few coupons from local merchants. Maybe a fragrance sample. And just to give it that personal touch, perhaps a small, tastefully packaged vial of my ashes.

I love this idea since it would allow my friends to take away not just their memories of me, but a little bit of the real article as well. They could then sprinkle them into a favorite house plant, toss them off their balcony or release them into the wind, off some cliff in Malibu. Some folks might want to hang them off their rearview mirror (sort of like those fuzzy dice that used to be so popular) or depending on my popularity at the time, sell them on E-Bay. None of these outcomes would bother me. I’ll be dead. I won’t even know it’s happening.

I have zero wisdom on the subject of how to spend one’s life – although I do suggest trying to have as few regrets as possible. One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from British poet, Ted Hughes; a guy who certainly had his ups-and-downs, including being married for a time to Sylvia Path, who was no barrel of laughs. The quote goes: "The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated…And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all."

I think Dom and George certainly measured up in that department. For my money, I can’t think of anything more fun than a life spent entertaining people (as often and as fully as we can). So go out there and make some memories this week, Hollywood! Give your friends some good stories to tell about you after you croak. It’s a short ride. Enjoy it!

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

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