JUNE 24, 2012
Over the next few months, everything was fine, her illness in partial remission. Although she refused to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Harriet stopped drinking and began seeing Marvin Berman on a twice-weekly basis. Thanks to her lawyer the charge for resisting arrest was dropped, as long as she agreed to plead guilty to drunk driving, which she did. She received a $350 fine and was put on probation for six months, but her license was not suspended, which meant that her daily activities — grocery shopping, taking Jesse on outings to the park, meeting my mother for lunch, etc. — were not hindered. For much of this period she appeared to be almost happy although sometimes a little ethereal, which I assumed was somehow associated with her medication. There was only a single instance of behavior that I would classify as odd: she spent one 24-hour period doing nothing else but reading John Barth’s eight-hundred page allegorical novel, Giles Goat Boy. When she finished — it was in the middle of the night, and when she woke me up her eyes were shining too brightly — she said that it was the best book she’d ever read.
“I’m not kidding, John. The only book that even comes close is Catch-22.”
Not long after this incident, furious with ambition and laboring in earnest, I finished my original screenplay, Marcus Stone Begins!, a dark and symbol-laden comedy whose protagonist, a Los Angeles tax lawyer, abandons his wife and teenage daughter to live in a hippie commune in the mountains of Big Sur.
Harriet asked to read it, and when she was done, she said, “It’s good but a little hard to follow.”
“Did you laugh?” I asked her.
“Not out loud.”
Neil was more enthusiastic, encouraging me to show it to Bruce Geller, the producer who had created Mission Impossible. “Take him up on his offer.”
“He’ll think it’s crap.”
“So what? It’s worth a shot.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Just do it.”
The first time we met in his office, when I told Bruce that I had previously worked at David Wolper Productions, he regarded me in silence for several seconds, seemingly bewildered. When he asked me how I ended up at CBS in Program Practices, I launched into a lengthy explanation — more like a ceaseless outpouring of complaints and accusations — but, by the end of my rant, I made sure he understood that my ultimate goal was to write original screenplays.
Bruce looked at me with his eyes shrewdly narrowed when I paused to take a calming breath. Then he sat forward in his chair. “If you ever want me to read something,” he said, “let me know. If I can help you, I will.”
I gave Bruce Marcus Stone Begins! on a Friday, and I was surprised — no, make that startled — when he called me on the following Monday. He told me that he’d read my script from start to finish on Saturday night, after his wife had gone to bed. “I found your characters engaging. Your dialogue rang true. And the story, though far-fetched in many aspects, was highly original. That’s the good news. The bad news,” he said, “is that structurally it’s a mess. From scene to scene it was almost impossible to follow.”
“That’s what my wife said.”
“Your wife’s right. The script needs work, lots of work, so I wouldn’t show it to anyone until you get it in shape. The next time we meet I’ll give you my notes and, if you want, you can do another draft. It’s up to you. Oh yeah,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “I think you’ve got some real talent.”
Over the next few weeks I spent several hours in Bruce’s office while he conducted story conferences with his staff, sometimes followed by one-on-one sessions with individual writers. For me this was like taking a master class in the art of dramatic writing. Not only was Bruce an exceptional person, he was also a wonderful teacher: self-effacing and totally unpretentious, with the kind of objectivity — as opposed to unquestioned admiration — that writers require if their work is to improve in a meaningful way. Everyone in that room was a professional but me. Still, even as an initiate, I was shown the same respect as, say, Mann Rubin, who had written for such distinguished shows as The Defenders, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and the Goodyear Playhouse.
By the way, if it isn’t already obvious, Bruce not only challenged me to work up to my potential, but he also made me see that my dream — to actually become a writer — was within reach. Even today I can still remember the tremulous relief I felt after he’d read my script, the final words of that phone call still as meaningful to me now as they were then: I think you’ve got some real talent.
(FLASH FORWARD: On May 21, 1978, almost exactly ten years from the day we first met, Bruce, an expert pilot, took off from Santa Monica Airport in a Cessna twin-engine Skymaster. This was a pleasure trip to Santa Barbara, and he was flying north, staying close to the shoreline, when he ran into a low ceiling of fog and crashed into Buena Vista Canyon in the suburb of Montecito. Also found dead in the wreckage with Bruce was a man named Stephen Gentry, a highly respected entertainment executive at ABC. A decade before this tragedy, when I was passed over at CBS, Stephen Gentry was given the job I was promised. We never spoke. I walked past him in the hallways unnoticed. He never even knew my name. But I knew his. I knew everything about him, and when I heard the news of his death — by then I was living in Mill Valley with my son, and the second film I had written, American Hot Wax, was scheduled to be released in a month — I didn’t want to entertain the possibility that my life had been spared by fate. But, with a sudden startling sadness, that’s exactly what I did.)
At the same time that I was revising Marcus Stone Begins!, Neil gave our sales presentation for On The Dark Side to Seymour Berns, a good friend of his and the highly respected producer of The Red Skelton Show. Impressed both with the idea and the writing, he offered to pass it along to Creative Management Associates, the powerhouse talent agency that had represented him for many years. The presentation got passed around to the various departments until it eventually landed on the desk of Jack Chutuk, a television agent who packaged shows for the syndication market.
Neil said, “He loves it and thinks he can sell it. The only problem is clearing stations in the south. But even if we can’t, we’re still okay, as long as we get all the major markets on board.” I told Neil that I was starting to get excited. “You should be. Jack’s a heavy hitter. He just might pull it off.”
Suddenly what a few weeks earlier had only seemed like a splendid fantasy, an excuse not to focus on the uncertainty of my network promotion, now seemed like an imminent possibility. But this new satisfaction I felt, this anxious optimism for my future, was quickly dimmed by a meeting I had with Charlie Pettijohn. It took place in his office on the day I had spoken to Neil. Sam Taylor was sitting on the couch, and I remember Charlie giving his ever-smiling loyal aide a broad wink as I took a seat in front of his desk. For a few moments we all sat in an uncomfortable silence, glancing at each other nervously, until Charlie reached across his desk and passed me a sheet of paper. It was a brief departmental memorandum written by his boss, Tom Downer, assigning me to the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Beginning with the upcoming taping on Saturday, I would be “assisting Sam Taylor in all matters regarding the show.”
Charlie said, “As you know we’re having problems, mainly with Tommy. He’s become increasingly difficult to reason with, especially now that the show is a hit.”
“He thinks we’re all fuddy-duddies in this office,” Sam said. “Not only that, he thinks we’re purposely out to sabotage his show, squeezing him creatively out of spite. In the first season we could hash things out, but now there’s no respect or give and take. It’s become a personal vendetta, him against us.”
“So we thought you might be helpful,” Charlie said to me.
“As a buffer. You’re around his age. He might be more willing to listen if you gave him notes.”
I looked at Sam and he looked back at me appealingly. “I could use your help, John.”
“Sam will be at all the tapings. He’ll still be in charge,” Charlie said. “But we think another point of view would be helpful.” I told Charlie that I was politically left wing and fervently against the war. “We’re aware of that.”
“What if I say no?”
“Then you’ll probably be fired.”
In the year that the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour had been on the air, I’d watched bits and pieces of the show, usually during rehearsal, when Neil and I would wander into the studio after getting loaded in his office. Unlike Red Skelton or Danny Kaye, whose sketches and musical guests appealed to an older, more provincial and conservative demographic, their material was gleefully topical. But neither of us was that impressed. In fact, my feelings had not changed from when I first saw their act back in 1961: they made me impatient to be away from their company.
Only once during that first year did I force myself to watch the show from start to finish. I was home sick with the flu on a hot Saturday night in September when The Who, fresh from their triumphant performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival, appeared as the musical guest. They were a dangerously unpredictable band known for destroying their instruments at the conclusion of their performances, and this time they miscalculated: drummer Keith Moon barely escaped serious injury when a stage hand overloaded his kick drum with gun powder. The ensuing explosion shattered his cymbal and singed Pete Townsend’s hair, and Townsend later admitted that the blast was responsible for the partial loss of his hearing.
At the conclusion of this segment, I remember hearing my son crying in his bed, roused from his slumber by the clamorous noise coming from the television. Harriet, who had been completing a jigsaw puzzle in the dining room (more about this later), lifted him up and walked him through the house with his head against her neck, whispering to him tenderly. When she saw me sitting on the couch in the living room staring at her, she smiled at me in a way that made her mysteriousness all the more impenetrable. I asked her whether she wanted me to hold Jesse and she just shook her head, still smiling while she turned and continued back down the hallway to our room. A moment later I heard the back door open and close, and when I went to look outside I could see her sitting on the swing set in the backyard, rocking back and forth. The air outside was warm, and through the open window I could hear her humming the melody from “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” the recent hit by Herman’s Hermits. And then, very softly, with her eyes raised toward the sky, she began to sing the chorus:
Baby baby can’t you hear my heart beat
You’re the one I love
QUICK AND HARD
Although we didn’t speak that often, and our roles by definition were designed to be contentious, I was always taken aback by the level of defiance and latent aggression that Tommy would bring to our discussions. Because he’d swiftly become more successful and powerful than he’d ever imagined, he seemed to be convinced that his newfound public fame, which was ratified by the Nielsen ratings, meant that his side of any argument had to be unimpeachable. Increasingly, it became all about winning every point, even when relenting a bit and giving a few away might have bought him enormous goodwill. But he remained pugnaciously recalcitrant to the very end. And by the time his show was finally canceled, he had devolved into a charmless fanatic.
I’m not sure how much Tommy knew about my background — he seemed indifferent to my personal life — but it was common knowledge around the building that I had a close friendship with Neil, whom everyone knew (or at least suspected) was a major drug user. In fact, Neil twice supplied a casting assistant on the show with marijuana, both times in my presence, and when she found out that I was a censor, she was almost as surprised and confused as Smothers’ writer Murray Roman would be halfway through the second season, when he saw me, along with Neil, standing in the alley behind the Whisky a Go Go, sharing hits of cocaine with J.W. Alexander and “Soul Man” Sam Moore, who made up half of the fantastic rhythm and blues duo, Sam and Dave.
At the Friday rehearsal, Murray, who was by far the hippest writer on the show — he idolized Lenny Bruce, and in his stand-up career once opened for the Doors — drifted over to where I was seated. Slipping into the chair next to me and speaking almost in a whisper, he said:
“Didn’t I see you the other night at the Whiskey?”
“On Monday. You were getting high with those spade cats.”
I didn’t admit that I was taking drugs, but I didn’t deny it either. And, as our conversation progressed, I could see Tommy standing on the stage conferring with his brother, both of them occasionally flicking a glance in our direction, until Tommy finally caught Murray’s eye and said, with a kind of theatrical disdain, “No fraternizing with the enemy, Murray.”
For a moment the air in the studio seem charged with a suppressed hostility, all of it directed toward me. I remember Murray briefly laughed before he looked at me with his brow creased, and the impression I got was that he was more puzzled than embarrassed, because until that moment he had no idea I was working for the network as a censor.
Still keeping his voice low, he said, “What the fuck are you doing in this job?” I tried to explain the circumstances of my employment, and I was a little surprised when he cut me off. “You got conned. End of story. My advice? Quit. If you really want to write, you should be writing full time.” Then, after stealing a glance in Tommy’s direction, he suggested I create some material for the show. “If I dig it, I’ll get it to the producers.”
I told him that I appreciated his support, but I was working on another project. “I’m trying to finish a screenplay. And do me a favor,” I said. “Don’t tell Tommy that you saw me using drugs. He could use that against me with the network.” Murray gently squeezed my elbow and gave me a complicit smile, and before he got to his feet — by this time his smile had turned sly — he asked me if I could score him some blow. I told him that I’d look around, but I couldn’t promise him anything. “If I come up with something, I’ll give you a call.”
Murray rejoined the rest of the writers, most of whom were sitting in the front two rows, dressed casually in jeans and shirt sleeves, laughing and throwing out lines, intoxicated by the interplay of their inventiveness. Even now I can summon up the envy I felt as I imagined how deeply stimulating and exciting it would be to work as a creative partner in an atmosphere like that, one that seemed so lighthearted and endlessly enthusiastic. Instead I was floating in this destabilizing state of limbo: a kind of no-world of thwarted choices at work and irresolvable issues at home.
I should also mention here that Steve Martin had recently become part of the Smothers Brothers writing staff, landing his job through the help of his ex-girlfriend, one of the dancers on the show. The story was that she gave some of his material to Mason Williams, the head writer, and — Boom! — just like that this twenty-three year-old kid from Garden Grove had a career that, as it turned out, was all upside. Forty-five years later, just typing his name makes me feel reflexively competitive.
Does that mean I remember speaking to Steve Martin or interacting with him in any meaningful way? No. But just his presence — his potential achievements at such a young age: the sheer unfairness of it all — exacerbated my already raw feelings of rejection and inconsequentiality. Through the haze of memory I can recall a moment when I was speaking with Sam Taylor in the rear of the stage. A dress rehearsal was in progress, and we were probably discussing whether a scene, or a line of dialogue, or maybe even a parody song lyric, might be something that should be flagged for taste. The particulars are unclear. But in the middle of our discussion, in my side vision, I noticed Steve Martin staring at us from the wings. On his face was an interested expression, as if we might be speaking about something he wrote.
What I remember happening next has always remained planted in my memory: Steve Martin smiled at me. It was not, however, a smile of kindness or one that signaled a future friendship, but a smile that was blazed with superiority: the self-revealing smile of someone who needs to belittle, to undermine, and to conceal. That’s what I remember most about Steve Martin at the moment of his single-minded rise to fame and riches: that smile of controlled arrogance and self-admiration, containing an almost imperceptible element of contempt.
The following week, mere hours before the show was to be taped, I had to speak to Tommy about a joke that needed to be fixed. I don’t remember the exact line, but it was one that the producers had already agreed to excise. Unfortunately for me the word had not filtered down to the writers, and the joke in question, likely a drug reference, was still in the script. In most cases when the clock was ticking down to air, Sam Taylor would handle these disputes. But on this evening he’d been called away for what he described later as a “family emergency.”
I walked backstage and approached Tommy while he and Dicky were tuning their guitars. He seemed to know what was coming and, knowing we were being watched, he projected an air of calculated affability. But when I asked him to make sure the rewritten joke was inserted into the sketch, he declined.
He said, “I’m keeping the original line in.”
“Because it’s funnier,” Dicky said.
I told Tommy the line would never make it on the air. “They’ll cut it upstairs. Not that I give a shit either way.”
“Really? You don’t give a shit?”
I just shrugged. “Not really.”
Tommy looked at me with one eyebrow arched, his lip curled into a smile of secret amusement. But there was something in my voice and in my manner — a cheerful lack of fear, an unwillingness to be intimidated — that I could tell pissed him off. I noticed a twitch in his neck, and his face became taut and red with rage. He was working himself up to something, though I had no idea what. I didn’t think he would throw a punch — even in extreme anger that was hard to imagine — but just in case I took a step backward, feeling strangely excited and yet careful not to let my guard down, my eyes fixed on his shaking shoulders. After what seemed like forever, a stagehand pulled Tommy aside and told him he was needed in makeup.
Physically, Tommy reminded me of Ray Lancaster*, this wiry kid I knew in high school. Ray was a schoolyard bully with a cocksure attitude who derived real pleasure — almost a diabolical joy — in tormenting the weak and most vulnerable. Almost every morning during my sophomore year I would see him swaggering down the hallway, his face thin and narrow like a rodent’s, looking for a prospective victim, a boy he could catch by surprise with a “friendly” shove or — if he was really feeling mean that day — a punch driven into his shoulder, a punch that would later leave a purple bruise.
I was never one of Lancaster’s targets, but I was half-frightened of him anyway, and that infuriated me; I outweighed him by twenty pounds and, although I’d never been in a real fistfight, I didn’t consider myself a coward. It took my older brother Mike to clue me in. At the time he was a senior and one of the toughest guys in my high school.
He said, “Here’s what you do if he ever bothers you. Nothing. Just ignore him.”
“And wait.” Mike said that in a fight the most important thing was to strike first and with maximum violence. “Just walk up to him when he isn’t looking and hit him in the face. And hit him as hard as you can.”
“What if he hits me back?”
“That won’t happen if you hit him hard enough. He’ll quit.”
This conversation took place behind the gym in the student parking lot, and one my brother’s friends, a dangerous and unpredictable kid named Phil Booth* asked me, with deep interest and an unnerving smile, if I carried a knife. I said I didn’t.
“Get one,” Booth told me, and he whipped out his pearl handled switchblade. With a flick of his thumb the blade shot out. “You don’t have to use your fists. Show him this and he’ll fucking back down.”
Mike said, “Don’t listen to Phil. He’s crazy. Just cold-cock him.”
Ray Lancaster died in a car crash later that semester, rolling his ’50 Merc off a cliff on Mulholland Drive just east of Coldwater Canyon. He was alone and there was no evidence that he was drinking, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t high on something. By then he’d already been kicked out of our high school, so it took a while for the news to filter back. When it did, no one seemed to care.
In my memory what ties Ray Lancaster together with Tom Smothers was the tremor of fear and aversion I always seemed to feel when I saw their faces bearing down on me, either in the hallways of my high school in 1958 or, in 1968, at CBS. These were faces that cried out to be punched.
In Tommy’s case I wasn’t there when it happened, but I heard about it. The incident, witnessed by scores of people, took place at the Playboy Mansion during a closed-circuit telecast of the Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton fight. Tommy, who sometimes presented himself as the ethical consultant for the planet, was hectoring Bill Cosby, accusing him of not speaking out loudly enough on the issue of civil rights. Cosby tried to ignore him but Tommy wouldn’t let up, demanding an explanation while he followed him around the Mansion, snapping at his heels like a noxious terrier. Cosby finally ran out of patience and, to preserve his dignity and self-respect, turned and slugged Tommy in the face, knocking him unconscious.
Of course, Tommy claimed he’d been “sucker-punched,” and that in a “fair fight” things would have ended differently. But in my high school and, presumably, in the projects of Philadelphia where Cosby grew up, there were no rules governing a street fight. As my brother told me: “Get in quick. And hard. The only thing that matters is winning.” If you hit a guy in the stomach, you didn’t wait until he caught his breath before you finished him off. On this particular night, Tommy Smothers was that unlucky guy.
In the summer of 1968 I learned that CBS had hired Steve Gentry to work in Program Development. It was now official: he would be filling the slot that I was promised. In the days that followed I was never able to confirm the exact reason I was overlooked. Neil thought Gentry’s father had connections with someone on the East Coast, maybe even William Paley, the president of the network.
“But it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Yes, you got fucked. And it was my fault. But we’ll both be gone as soon as we sell our show.”
Neil spoke to Jack Chutuk regularly, and he was always optimistic, but when he was pushed to set up meetings with potential buyers he snapped at Neil, telling him to back off, that he knew what he was doing.
He said, “Selling a show hosted by a black guy with two rookies locked in as producers is not exactly falling off a fucking log.”
Around the same time, but without our knowledge, Seymour Berns had given a copy of On The Dark Side to Lee Schulman, the general manager of KNBC, the local NBC affiliate. They were looking for a team to develop a show that would fill Johnny Carson’s time-slot — 11:30pm-1am — on Sunday evenings. There was only one guideline, Schulman said: It had to be fresh. As we found out later, Seymour told Schulman, “I’ve got your boys.”
But our meeting with Lee Schulman and the job offer that would follow did not happen for six months. During that interval, Harriet’s mental state once more began to deteriorate. Part of it was alcohol addiction, a diagnosis that she never fully accepted, but she began to turn inward as well, shutting herself away from me and the world. She ceased to be interested in my frustrations at work or my feelings in general. Other than caring for Jesse and occasionally preparing a meal, she committed a ridiculous number of hours to working on jigsaw puzzles.
The puzzles were so huge — often 5,000 pieces — that they almost completely covered our dining room table. But the pictures decorating the front of the boxes were not pastoral landscapes or facsimiles of paintings like van Gogh’s Starry Nights or Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, both favorites at the time. No, the puzzle I remember best, the one that Harriet labored over for several days, was called “Storm.”
“Storm” consisted solely of a black ocean roiling beneath a dirty gray sky. That was it: no whitecaps in the sea or white-masted ships, no bright moon above, no cottages with lighted windows on the shoreline, just an ominous sky pressing down on horizontal lines of black waves. The puzzle was impossibly hard and the picture reproduced was as mournful and cold as a winter funeral.
One evening I asked Harriet why she chose it. She said, “It looked like it would be fun to put together.” I told her it looked gloomy. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, John. Just go away and let me do this.”
“What about Jesse?”
“Jesse’s fine. He’s asleep.”
“What about during the day? You’re either reading, drinking, or working on puzzles. It worries me.”
“I’m sorry if it worries you,” she said, with a strange indifference. She was kneeling on a chair, her hand outstretched, poised to fit a piece into the half-finished puzzle. “And please don’t watch me while I do this. It makes me nervous.”
“I get nervous at work when I think about Jesse.”
“I told you, Jesse’s fine,” she said, and once again I saw the lifelessness in her face, which had recently taken on a sickly pallor. When I told her that she looked too thin, she made a dismissive gesture and turned away. “I’m fine and Jesse’s fine. Okay?” Then her angular face broke into a smile as she found the proper location for the tiny cardboard piece in her hand. “See? There’s nothing to worry about.”
SOMEONE TO TALK TO
A few days after this conversation I received a call at work from our next door neighbor, an attorney named Dan. His voice, soft and reasonable, belied the exasperation he must have been feeling. He said that his wife had just phoned his office. She told him that Harriet had borrowed their ladder and used it to climb onto the roof of our house. “She’s drinking beer and tossing the cans on the driveway. Susan said she could hear Jesse crying in his room. She’s extremely concerned.”
I was standing by my desk, and I remember feeling dizzy as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do. Finally, I said I was coming right home. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Susan thinks she should call the police.”
“John, this is not something trivial. Your son—”
“I’ll be right there,” I repeated, but now I was shouting over his voice, which was also raised but still respectful. “Don’t call the police.”
After I hung up, I called Neil, and he met me in the parking lot. He saw that I was too anxious to drive so we took his Bonneville and while he was speeding across town, careening dangerously through traffic, he spoke to me rapidly, in a voice that was both intimidating and reassuring. He said that we were on a mission of mercy — he didn’t use those exact words, but that’s what he meant — and that I needed to act calmly. Don’t say anything that could freak her out: that was his message.
As we drove up and parked, I saw Susan standing by her living room window holding a phone to her ear. Harriet was still sitting on the roof with her back resting against the chimney. She was wearing dark glasses, and strands of windblown hair lay over her face, which was tilted toward the sun. Beer cans littered the driveway and “Ruby Tuesday” was playing on the transistor radio balanced on her knee. Neil moved toward the ladder while I went inside to check on Jesse, who was lying on his back in his crib, awake and smiling. His smile grew wider when he turned his head and saw me in the doorway.
Through the open window I could hear Neil’s voice as he gently and patiently coaxed Harriet down from the roof. He sounded like a proud father teaching his daughter how to walk: “Come on, sweetheart, one step at a time. That’s a good girl. Easy does it, babe.”
Before I joined Neil outside I called Marvin Berman, Harriet’s shrink. His service picked up, and I told them that my wife was a patient. “I need to speak to the doctor,” I said, but when I started to explain the situation I was interrupted by the woman on the other end. She said, “Is this an emergency?” “Yes,” I said. “It’s urgent.”
After I gave her my name and number I went back outside, where Harriet and Neil were sitting on our front lawn, sharing a cigarette. Harriet was explaining in too much detail the intricate and intersecting plot lines of The Crying of Lot 49, the Thomas Pynchon novel she’d just finished. Nothing that she said made any sense to me, but Neil nodded along companionably to the cadence of her words, endorsing her ideas with occasional murmurs of approbation.
The question I was about to ask — Harriet, why were you drinking on the roof in the middle of the afternoon — I quickly aborted when I caught Neil glancing at me with evident apprehension, as if he could read my mind. Wasn’t the answer obvious? She’s lonely, that’s all. She just needed someone to talk to. That’s what his eyes seemed to insist, as I heard the phone ring inside my house.
It was Marvin Berman. Apparently I’d interrupted a session with a patient, and at first he sounded annoyed, but once I outlined the situation and he understood my concern, he told me that it might be wise for Harriet to be confined for a while: “For her safety and the safety of your child.” As I recreate his voice in my ear, it seems to me that he was just as confounded by her unknowability as I was. It sounded, too, like he found her just as irresistible.
He told me that I should check her into Barrington Manor, a psychiatric hospital in West Los Angeles, which was only a short distance away. “I’ll call and make the arrangements.”
“What if she doesn’t want to go?” I asked him.
“Then she’ll have to be involuntarily committed.”
I paused for a moment before my next question. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Harriet remained at Barrington Manor for a month, spending the first week in a locked ward, where she became good friends with Ryan O’Neal’s first wife, Joanna Moore. Ryan and I were friendly in high school, but when we saw each other during visiting hours we avoided speaking — though I think we both derived some quiet comfort from the similarity of our circumstances, wondering silently if the lives of our wives, who sat side by side in the day room, their faces pale and withdrawn, their eyes looking out at nothing, could be salvaged.
For the month that Harriet was hospitalized, while I fell into a trench of despair, Jesse lived with my parents, where he was exuberantly spoiled and protected from his mother’s mad flights of fancy. I spent most of my days either driving around Hollywood in an endless loop or drinking at Ernie’s Stardust Lounge, a topless bar on Hollywood Boulevard just east of Western, the same bar where Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, hung out while he was on the run. I rarely showed up for work, and when I was questioned by Charlie Pettijohn about my absences, rather than seeking his tolerance and understanding, I responded with indifference, adding that I no longer wanted to deal with Tommy Smothers.
“Take me off the show, Charlie.”
He said, “I can’t do that, John.”
“I’m not a censor.”
“You accepted the job.”
“I was conned,” I said.
“If that’s true, and it may be, I had nothing to do with it.”
I asked him for some time off, at least until Harriet was released from the hospital, but he turned me down. He said that although he sympathized with my predicament, he had a greater responsibility to keep the department running smoothly. He also said that if I continued to slack off, he would have no other choice but to report me to personnel.
“And then,” he said, “it would be out of my hands.”
But it wasn’t just Harriet’s mental decline that worried me and added a sense of unreality to my daily life. The war in Vietnam weighed heavily on my mind, and every time LBJ gave a major policy speech I was glued to the TV, straining to hold myself together, expecting him to announce that he had decided to call up the Marine reserves. If that did happen, which I was never quite ready to believe, it would only be a matter of weeks before my infantry unit would be in the Mekong Delta slogging through the rice paddies, my helmet just another dot in the darkness that a Viet Cong sniper had in his sights. Although I inwardly cheered when the Smothers Brothers spoke out against the war, it bothered me that, compared to myself, they had so little at stake. As far as I knew, outside of Mason Williams who had been in the peacetime Navy, no one else on their staff had served.
When I mentioned this to Neil, he said, “Tommy’s dad was career army. He died in a prison camp during World War Two. So you might want to give him some slack.”
“What do you hear from Chutuk?” I said, changing the subject.
“Nothing. He’s not taking my calls.” We were sitting at the bar inside Nickodell’s, and I remember Neil looked at me and shrugged, not wanting to appear dismayed or unduly concerned, but I could tell he was faking it. “I’ll give him another week. If I don’t hear from him, we’ll cut him loose.”
“We’ll find someone else,” he said, but there was something unconvincing in his voice. Then, out of the blue, he told me he was quitting his job. “I’m giving them notice this afternoon.”
“What’re you going to do about money?”
“Collect unemployment. Maybe sell some weed. You should quit too.”
“I don’t have to,” I said. “I’m getting fired.”
While Harriet was still in Barrington Manor, I completed a new draft of Marcus Stone Begins! — one that contained (and was embellished by) all of Bruce Geller’s suggestions. He gave it a fast read and, other than a couple of minor cuts, he seemed genuinely impressed.
“Hey, you know what?” he said. “You might actually be a writer, after all.” Giddy with the prospect, I did something presumptuous that I now regret: I asked Bruce to show my script to his literary agent. Looking back, that he turned me down flat makes perfect sense. “Do the footwork like I did. Get used to rejection,” he said. “You can use me for a reference, but other than that you’re on your own. Then, if things work out for you, you’ll know you deserved it.”
So that’s what I did: I made phone calls and pounded on doors. I submitted my script to at least thirty agents before I got a bite. Then it took me four years and four more screenplays before a film that I wrote, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, finally went into production. That it actually happened is — even now — barely believable. But it did.
THE DAILY OBSCENITY
The last time I saw Tommy Smothers in L.A. was in September of 1969, not long after his show was cancelled — or murdered, depending on who was speaking. It was at a gloriously vapid public relations party he threw for Donovan, the British singer-songwriter, who was celebrating the end of his U.S. tour. The spacious two-story house, with a swirling iron staircase and an irregularly shaped pool, sat atop a hill overlooking the Sunset Strip, giving the guests — rock and roll stars, actors, dope dealers, underground journalists, and the usual assortment of freeloaders — a wide-angled view of the city, which was spread out below them in a sea of multicolored lights.
Waiters in red vests strolled the grounds dispensing champagne and hors d’oeuvres, the poolside deck surrounded by huge tables crammed with cold cuts and seafood, including fresh lobster and crab and king-sized shrimp. Familiar looking faces arrived and circulated through the crowd, smiling a little too extravagantly. Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Mama Cass were here, along with two Monkees, a Byrd, and the lead singer of the Animals, Eric Burdon. I remember watching Peter Fonda share a joint with Joni Mitchell at one of the little tables around the pool, their hands knotted together and their stiff and unsmiling faces tipped forward in a conversation that seemed unduly serious.
How I came to be at this party is still a mystery after more than forty years. The printed invitation with a stub for a door prize had been mailed to my home, but by whom? At first I thought it might have been Tommy, in an unsuspected moment of generosity, a way of apologizing for how I’d been treated while working in Program Practices, but I quickly rejected that possibility. Actually, I considered it laughable: making amends wasn’t part of Tommy’s acidic style. Although I have no proof, I concluded that it probably came from Murray Roman, whom I’d run into a few weeks earlier at the Troubadour. We were both there to see folk singer Hoyt Axton, and when I told him I’d finished my script he seemed impressed and genuinely happy. He told me not to forget him when I became a famous writer.
“I’m serious,” he said, grabbing my shoulder as we parted. “Let’s stay in touch.”
I brought Harriet to the party, which was probably a mistake. She’d been out of the hospital for a while and was on the wagon, but this new version of herself — too raptly attentive and rigidly postured — seemed like some barely-held-together construct of impulses and emotions, a painfully human sculpture that was, as it turned out, only a misplaced comment away from breaking apart.
Somehow we got separated for a few minutes, and the next time I saw her she was standing by the edge of the pool with her teeth bared, screaming at Ken Fritz, Tommy’s manager. The people standing nearby were frowning in puzzlement at this public display of anger, and when someone — I think it was “Papa” John Phillips — tried to pull her away, she threw a fist at him that grazed his cheek.
Before things got completely out of hand, I pushed my way through the crowd and grabbed Harriet around the waist. As I attempted to bring her whirling emotions back under control, she was still twisting and screaming, and I was told by a member of Tommy’s security staff that we had to leave. Once we were escorted off the grounds and away from the baffled frowns and disapproving stares, I could feel the boiling anger that had seized Harriet start to recede, to exhaust itself. Then, on our way home, she told me what had happened.
“I was getting us some food from the buffet when this guy hit on me,” she said. “When I told him I was married, he asked me what you did. I said that you were a writer.” Apparently that’s when Ken Fritz, who was standing nearby eavesdropping on the conversation, became curious. “He wanted to know your name, and when I told him he made this sarcastic face and started to laugh. He said, ‘John Kaye isn’t a writer. He’s a fucking suit.’”
“And that’s when you lost it.”
Harriet smothered a giggle. “You mad?”
“Of course not.”
“I was sticking up for you.”
“I know you were,” I told her, as we pulled into our driveway. “Thanks.”
Although I was already home and not a witness, Donovan described the incongruous but strangely satisfying event that followed our exit in The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man:
Before I returned home, Tom Smothers threw a party for me. The guest list was as long as the press party with more faces. […] At the poolside there was a raffle and the protest singer Phil Ochs won it. Everyone cheered as he went up to the microphone, but he was not pleased. He gave us all a tongue-lashing about Vietnam and the senselessness of Hollywood, this party, me included. Raising the huge basket of fruit he had won, he tossed it into the pool and left in disgust.
Not that what he did made any difference in the end — “the party went on regardless,” as Donovan noted — but Phil Ochs exposed what had always been obvious to me: the hypocrisy of a bunch of swaggering, unquenchably ambitious, long-haired celebrities wearing ultra-freak clothes, guzzling champagne and chowing on lobster and filet mignon while they decried the daily obscenity of the war.
At Tommy Smothers’s house in the late summer of 1969, only a month after the Manson killings, I felt like I was in a gathering that was conscience-proof and free of obligation. And even if all Tommy was doing was spreading a little joy, the lasting image from that night, the one that seems to speak the loudest (thanks, Donovan) is a basket filled with apples and bananas and pears bobbing on the surface of a swimming pool, surrounded by sodium lamps, stunned faces, and a white mist.
The next time I saw Tommy was five years later at a party in San Francisco. It was hosted by Brian Rohan, a brilliant and famously sardonic music attorney who represented most of the major bands that came out of the flower-power underground in the sixties. When I moved to Mill Valley in 1973, I became part of Brian’s ever-expanding network of friends, a wide-ranging menagerie that stretched across the San Francisco Bay Area, and they were all there that evening, a steady stream of people in fancy clothes — rock stars (Grace Slick), North Beach poets (Michael McClure), cartoonists (R. Crumb), movie makers (Francis Coppola), society debutantes, etc. — garrulous and vivacious, their faces filled with a sort of false modesty.
Midway through the party I came face to face with Tommy on the landing between the first and second floors. I had let my hair grow down to my shoulders since we last saw each other, so it took a while for him to place me. When he finally did he looked puzzled and slightly taken aback. There was a long moment of silence, of awkwardness, and although he remained mute, I got the impression from his narrowed eyes — the way he was scrutinizing me — that he thought I was a party crasher masquerading as an invited guest.
I initiated the conversation that ensued, and it was brief, taking place while we were jostled by partiers trooping up and down the stairs. I’m not sure how it came up, but I mentioned that a movie I’d written had just finished shooting in Arizona. “Warner Brothers is releasing it in the fall,” I told Tommy, who seemed to be smiling inside at the improbability of this idea: John Kaye wrote a movie? Surely he must be joking. Standing nearby was a pretty girl in a black leather jacket. She asked me who was in the film, and I proceeded to proudly rattle off the names of the actors: “Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, Mackenzie Phillips, and Harry Dean Stanton.”
“Cool cast. What’s it called.”
“Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.”
She said, “Are you excited?”
Distracted by the girl — Daphne* and I ended up as a couple for the rest of the summer — I didn’t notice Tommy walking away. And when I finally did it seemed like he was never there.
Harriet died in the spring of 1992. Her body was found on the floor of her tiny one-room apartment in the Canal area of San Rafael, California. The coroner’s report said that she had a blood-alcohol level of .48, concluding that she had died of alcohol poisoning, a death that was ruled a suicide. But as I write these words, I don’t see a woman at the wretched moment of her deepest desperation. I see a woman who was unconditionally kind, unwaveringly loyal, and impossibly beautiful, and if she was not exactly sane that’s too bad. She did the best she could and never looked for anyone’s sympathy. Bottom line: she loved me and I loved her back, no matter how deranged she became. I’m just sorry I was never able to say goodbye.
If she could hear me now, I would say, “Remember when we met, Harriet? Anything seemed possible. I still feel that way, sweetheart. I’m not sure if there is a heaven, but if there is an afterlife maybe one day we’ll be together again. I really hope so. I miss you, Harriet.”
And, as anyone who has read this far knows, she will always be in my heart.
(End of the three-part series. Although the names of a few people (*) in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy, most have remained intact; conversations have been reconstructed and certain moments condensed.)