I’m starting to write this on my way back home from Los Angeles in Morro Bay, a lovely town on Highway One halfway between the northern and southern termini of this trip.
I want to mark what feels like a transformational few days. This was the first trip to L.A. I’ve made in over ten years, as far as I can figure. Since I cancelled my trip to China in March last year, I’d not travelled further than the East Bay. But, having been invited by the UCLA Cinema and Television Archive to participate in a tribute to the late filmmaker Robert Altman, I decided to stir myself and drive down to my former home town.
My former home town and site of my former career in “The Industry” as it’s called. That’s the movie/television industry, of course, which is in the process of becoming something more like the streaming-or-downloadable/on-demand/digital-content-industry. Before making his breakthrough film, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman had been an iconoclastic director of TV shows such as Combat and The Whirlybirds. A World War Two Air Force pilot from Kansas City, he was notorious for his outspokenness and rebellion against any cinematic conventions that he thought were clichéd or pointless. He’d been fired at least once from Universal Studios when he got hired by 20th Century Fox in early 1969 to direct the irreverent comedy based on a novel about American combat surgeons in Korea in the fifties.
After casting three young up-and-coming actors as the leads – Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, René Auberjonois and Roger Bowen in supporting roles, he began looking for actors who had improvisational experience to form an ensemble of surgeons, nurses and orderlies who would populate the MASH unit (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) that gave the film its title.
When I met him, Robert asked me about my work with The Committee, the San Francisco improv group that had started a second company in L.A. in 1968. I was actually working with a group (with the late-sixties name, “The Synergy Trust,”) that had grown out of the workshops in improvisation that members of the Committee were teaching. A couple of days later, my agent told me I was hired.
That began a two-year, three-film association with Altman that included Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which got me to Vancouver where I wound up living for a year. (That story needs a post of its own).
I took two days to drive down for the MASH screening, on the slower highway 101 – the coast route – rather than trying to make it in one day on the brutal interstate 5 through the central valley. No question: it was the right choice.
One of my oldest friends in L.A., Judy Chaikin, who had been in the Synergy Trust and is now an accomplished documentary film maker, invited me to stay at her vintage 1936 Studio City ranch house. I got there on Friday and was amazed by the abundance of olive and citrus trees, roses and wisteria surrounding her house. I hadn’t been there for nearly forty years, and in those days, I never paid much attention to landscapes or gardens. After I moved to the Bay Area, China Galland, whom I married in 1987, taught me about such things.
As soon as I arrived, Judy and I began a long, rambling conversation about the old days, improv, music, people, film, family and theatre that lasted until I left on Monday morning. Judy had been married for many years to her high school sweetheart, Jules, a musician, music contractor and producer who had worked with pretty much everyone in the L.A. music, TV and film worlds for more than fifty years. Though he died two years ago, his presence still permeates the house.
Shortly after his death, Judy completed a monumental documentary film called The Girls in the Band about the dozens of great women jazz instrumentalists who were central to the music in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties but who have mostly been forgotten in that male-dominated world. It’s a world that Judy knows thoroughly. Using rare archival footage and new interviews with exceptional musicians, The Girls in the Band restores a vital part of American cultural history to our collective memory.
Judy also spent an afternoon listening to me play some of the songs I’ve been working on. She gave me some valuable feedback of exactly the kind I need as I continue developing the solo music-theatre piece most of you already know about (from my last blog post).
The MASH screening was a new sort of experience for me. Now that I am truly a Hollywood outsider, I felt less alienated from the scene than I used to. Having nothing to prove at this stage of my life, having no ambition to be noticed by a producer, agent, star or casting director was a relief.
The former colleagues from MASH – actors Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould and Fred Williamson, editor Danford Green, Robert Altman’s son, Michael, and his widow, Catherine, were gracious and warm as was Shannon Kelley and the other Archive staff members.
I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety since its release in 1970. I was humbled to realize that I had been part of a project that did much to bring a formerly marginalized esthetic and political sensibility into the American mainstream. MASH was an unapologetic satire of U.S. military leadership. It used “Korea” as a transparent stand-in for the war in Vietnam. Its surprising success contributed to the confidence of the growing anti-war movement. Moreover it introduced a new, highly layered style of cinematic narrative to the world.
On Sunday and Monday I spent time with more close friends of my youth – Harvey Perr, Burke and Peggy Byrnes, Norbert and Tandy Weisser and Melissa Converse Ewing. Between these affectionate reunions and constantly coming across buildings, streets and names from the first 37 years of my life, I experienced a near-continuous flood of flashbacks, living in several times simultaneously.
Bill Mumy and Sunshine
The culmination of the trip was the extended jam Bill Mumy and I had on Monday afternoon. Bill is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever known. When we met he was nineteen years old and I was twenty-eight.
I had been living in Vancouver for a year, where I’d made my first original piece of theatre (Crow, based on a poem-cycle by Ted Hughes). Then I was cast in a TV movie, Sunshine, adapted from the journals of Jacqueline Helton, a young, single mother who was dying of cancer. It was the first “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, though I believe it transcended the genre it’s credited with spawning. I was cast in one of the more unusual and interesting roles I ever did on TV: a drop-out-rabbinical-student-guitar-player who was part of a three-man acoustic folk-rock group fronted by the guy who winds up marrying the single mom (who’s dying). My character performed a wedding ceremony, in Hebrew, in the heroine’s hospital room. Bill Mumy played the other guy in the band. Cliff de Young was the romantic lead. Bill and I were the comic relief and Bill was the musical center of it all. The cast included a lot of gifted actors like Meg Foster and Brenda Vaccaro. It was produced by George Eckstein, one of the most intelligent and generous people I’ve ever met in the world of commercial TV, and directed by the pioneering TV director Joe Sargent.
Bill might have only been nineteen, when we met, but he was already the best all-around musician I’d ever met. He played guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano and sang beautifully. He also was – and is – a terrific arranger and producer.
Maybe one of the reasons we immediately bonded was that I was only vaguely familiar with his previous identity as the child star of the iconic TV series Lost in Space. Bill started working on TV when he was six, in 1960. He went on to play major roles in Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and in Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and the Children. I simply knew him as a fellow guitar picker who shared my love of traditional music and quirky lyrics.
To our surprise, Sunshine, the TV movie, was followed by Sunshine, the TV series, which took up the story of the young widower raising his daughter and still struggling to make a living as a “folk-rock” musician. Though never made explicit, the show hinted that the hero, still played by Cliff de Young, was an American draft-resister living in Vancouver, where both the first movie and the series were set. I made a point of making my character’s Jewish identity as richly detailed as I could and found ways to use a Yiddish expression or two in almost every episode. When Bill and I pitched an idea for an episode to George, he liked it and even hired us to write it.
The series was cancelled after thirteen weeks, though it had been lauded by critics. The ratings sucked and that was all that concerned NBC. Unlike MASH, Sunshine was not able to pull the “mainstream” audience into its unconventionally populated world.
But the following year, we had another surprise when NBC ordered a second TV movie as a Christmas special. Two fine New York actors Pat Hingle and Eileen Heckart played Cliff’s parents and Barbara Hershey played his old flame.
During and after the Sunshine gigs, Bill and I played a lot of music together, sometimes on camera or in the studio (we made an “original soundtrack album” for the first TV movie), but most enjoyably, on our own. We collaborated on a few songs and I learned an enormous amount from young Bill.
I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years when we got together. I went to his house with my guitar, he took his Martin off its hook on his guitar-filled wall and we played old and new songs for each other. Bill remembered parts of several of our old collaborations, more than I did. His new songs are even lovelier that the old ones and have a depth that comes from many more years of living, marriage and parenting.
Driving home, I listened to several of Bill’s CDs which are gems of contemporary acoustic songwriting , singing, playing and producing. Reconnecting with Bill has been a heartwarming and inspiring gift.
As I drove west on the Richmond Bridge, crossed the Bay to Marin County and caught sight of Mount Tamalpais, the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, began to play. My iPhone was on “shuffle.” Strangely I only have two Randy Newman tracks on the device, though I’ve loved his music since the sixties.
I couldn’t believe the universe’s shameless sentimentality in coming up with that song at the very moment I saw the mountain that has become, over the last 34 years, the emblem of “home” for me. The chorus of the song says: “…Feels like home to me / Feels like I’m all the way back where I belong ...” And, yes, it did bring tears to my eyes.