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Growing up and living most of one's life in Southern California makes having a number of so-called "Brushes with Greatness" inevitable.
Sunday, I saw Tony Shaloub in Larchmont Village, but since I had recently seen him at Los Angeles International Airport AND spoken with him at Logan International Airport, I refrained from accosting him again, lest he think I was stalking him or something.
And just yesterday, I rode up an elevator with Florence Henderson, who looks great, by the way.
So the fact that I once met Art Carney is, in and of itself, not particularly remarkable. But his passing seems an appropriate time to relate this story.
In the mid-seventies, I was in Junior High. I read a LOT. I had somewhat eclectic, and geek-leaning tastes, but most of what I read were mystery novels, especially mystery novels that were part of on-going series. One such series was Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small mysteries. (This is a series that I highly recommend. The more recent books aren't quite as strong, but the original seven are terrific.) Each book's title began with the day of the week. And the first mystery was called, "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late."
One day, I came home from school and found that my street was, as they say, "bustling with activity". An army of humans and trailers and equipment had descended on Queen Florence Lane. In the seventies, in the San Fernando Valley, this was still something of a rarity. But in any event, I was fascinated. They were filming a movie in and around the house directly across the street from ours.
Soon, I discovered that the movie was a telefilm called, "Lanigan's Rabbi". It was an adaptation of "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late." I'm not sure how I managed this, other than persistance and the chutzpah that comes with not knowing anything at all, but I kept telling people that I had read the book that the movie was based on. At some point someone grabbed me and introduced me to the director. I have no idea if he was humoring me or truly interested, but he asked me a number of questions about the original novel, claiming that he -- and that in fact NO ONE on the set -- had actually read the thing. There were, I was told, certain things in the script that weren't tracking for him. So I answered his questions and told him how the mystery played out in the book. He took it all in and seemed grateful for the insight.
In any case, he then did something fairly astounding. He let me hang out. That's it. But I was allowed to watch filming. I was allowed to get food from the catering truck. I was allowed to sit with the actors and talk with them. Now, this couldn't have gone on for very long. It's not like I was employed by the movie company or anything. I didn't follow the shoot to its next location. But they spent at least three or four days in the cul-de-sac where I lived. They gave me a copy of the shooting script, which I then had autographed by the movie's two leads.
One of those leads was Stuart Margolin, who's probably most famous for playing "Angel" on THE ROCKFORD FILES. "Lanigan's Rabbi" wound up spinning off into an on-going series, and for some reason Margolin didn't end up playing Rabbi Small in the series. But he was terrific in the movie. And he was an extremely nice guy, who didn't seem to mind chatting with a thirteen-year-old, who was hanging around the set.
But the part of Police Chief Lanigan was played by Art Carney. Now Art Carney is a certified genius. Emmy winner. Oscar winner. Of course his performance as "Ed Norton" in THE HONEYMOONERS is nothing short of brilliant. His on-screen teaming with Jackie Gleason, a match-made in sitcom heaven. Among other things, Ed Norton was the clear inspiration for any number of cartoon characters, ESPECIALLY "Barney Rubble". People often forget, however, what a wonderful dramatic actor Carney was. How he brought a touch of humanity to every role he played. Rod Serling knew this. Art is unforgettable as a drunken department store Santa in "The Night of the Meek" episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. A part that Serling wrote especially for Carney. He is also truly wonderful in a number of movies: "Harry & Tonto" and "The Late Show", among others.
I knew almost none of this at the time. I didn't even know Ed Norton. In New York, the Honeymooners has probably NEVER been off the air, but Los Angeles was and is an I LOVE LUCY town. It would be nearly a decade before I would move to New York and learn to appreciate Ralph and Ed and Alice and Trixie.
What I knew at the time, all I knew at the time, was that this was a big time star -- in the middle of shooting a movie -- who spent time with me. Time by the catering truck. Time on the set. He explained how things worked. He explained why things were done the way they were done. He was just so damn nice -- nice enough that as ignorant as I was -- I didn't take it for granted. It impressed me even then.
A few days later, they were gone. Stuart, Art, all of them. The movie finished shooting in my neighborhood and moved on. Some time later, the movie went on the air. We didn't have a VCR back in those days, so I don't have a copy. I followed along on my shooting script and took note of all the little changes in it. It seemed to me (though I might have been seriously kidding myself) that the final version of the film leaned a bit closer to the original novel than the shooting script in my hand. I was certainly kidding myself when I took credit for that somewhat dubious conclusion. And without a doubt the coolest moment was watching Rabbi Small and Chief Lanigan (Stuart and Art, as I called them) walking down the hill of my street and turning a corner and suddenly being at the Rabbi's Temple. There was no temple around the corner from Queen Florence Lane, but the transition was so seamless, it seemed miraculous. A true bit of movie magic before I understood movie magic. Before I was even vaguely jaded.
I just now spent a half hour looking for that shooting script. I couldn't find it. I hope it turns up eventually. I'm sure I wouldn't have thrown it out, but there's a good chance it was in one of my boxes that was in my parents' basement, part of my past which was destroyed by a flood caused by the Northridge Earthquake. I hope not. I haven't thought about any of this in years, but now it's something I'd like to revisit in more detail.
I wrote about Bob Hope a couple of months ago, when he passed, and I suppose this is a very similar kind of tribute. Others will, I'm sure, write more important, more personal and more informed things about Art Carney in the next few days. But I wanted to add my bit.
Not just for the incredibly talented performer, a loss we should all feel, though not too intensely as he has achieved a meta-Xanatosian immortality through the many great performances we will always have to rewatch time and again. And not for the friend and/or family member, because he was none of these things to me, and I was none of these things to him.
But oddly, I wanted to write a tribute to the stranger. To the nice man, who was patient with a dopey know-it-all kid. He was warm and funny and made me feel welcome.
And for that I am truly grateful. Thanks, Chief.