When you even just try to do good, maybe good things can happen. Driving over Traverse Ridge one morning last summer I followed a spiffy blue convertible with a young couple in it. The driver was wearing a cowboy hat like mine and I watched closely, trying to discover his secret for keeping the hat from blowing off of his head (not “blowing off his head”). Suddenly he tossed out of the window a candy-wrapper-sized light-colored object. It settled at the side of the road and I pulled over to pick it up, thinking that he would see me in his rear-view mirror and feel very ashamed and come back to apologize and I would counsel him and his admiring girlfriend about the beauty of the earth and stuff. But it was an apple core, and by the time I got there it was already bio-degrading. I was a little deflated-but right at my feet by the apple core was this really pretty rock, really smooth and a nice shape, all cream-colored with ripples of caramel through it, and so I picked it up and own it now. So, ya see?
From my journal, 22 June 1986 (Actual journal stuff is italic.)
Some weeks ago in the morning I prayed for an opportunity to grow as an actor, to prepare to be of better service. That afternoon Kathy (Biesinger, an excellent Shakespeare scholar and director) called asking me into the cast of “King Lear.”
Here’s the funny part: The prayer to which the Lear’ casting seemed to be the answer was that I might be better prepared to respond to a call to act for the church specifically. I can’t imagine what that acting might be.
Remember that for a minute.
28 June 1986
Up all night with Kathy cutting together sound cues for “Lear.” I appreciate her trusting me with this role. (The role was the Earl of Gloucester, loyal friend of the king, who is, just before intermission, tied to a chair by Lear’s rebellious daughter and her treacherous husband, all the more easily to dig his eyes out. We knew the scene was effective, because on the “Lear” nights of the Park City Shakespeare Festival, intermission sales of jelly donuts plummeted. (I think I’ve told you this story before.) One cool thing, though, about playing this blind character is that I didn’t have to learn any blocking for the rest of the play. I was always led around by my good son, the wild and crazy Edgar. Until I fell off a cliff. (Am I remembering this right?))
Slept a couple of hours, got up and cut me a staff of elm wood (for the blindness) and drug myself up the mountain.
We opened the show on the sixth of July, a Saturday. On the following Monday I got a strange phone call. Here’s the story, written a couple of days later.
8 July 1986
After auditioning hundreds of guys (I was not among them) they cast me as “Everyman” in the long-planned remake of “Man’s Search for Happiness,” a film I watched in the mission field until it played on the backs of my eyelids. If you want it to rain, wash your car; if you want to get cast in a church film, grow a beard.
Now most church films are scriptural and beards are a plus. Some of my more conservative brethren in the church would be surprised that once in recent years the church actually paid me to keep mine, just in case something came up. “Everyman” couldn’t have one, of course, so I took the role on the condition that LDS Motion Pictures would provide me with a false beard to wear in “King Lear” for the rest of the summer. They gladly agreed and I still have it, telling only a chosen few that it was previously worn by Deity. (Well, a chosen few until right now, when I’m telling about 50 obsquatillion people (counting all the sentient species throughout the Universe that wait with bated breath (or bated whatever they do in lieu of respirating’) for their monthly ration of Backstage Graffiti. (In this way alone will some people consider Backstage Graffiti to be “rational.”).)
I have to tell you this quick story. Marilee Van Wagenen, a really super actress and great lady, played “Everywoman.” (In the script she was called “Everyman’s Wife,” but I think that isn’t seemly.) She told me that after the Church saw the effectiveness of the original film among folks with European roots, they made a Japanese version. Apparently at that time there wasn’t a vast talent pool among Japanese Latter-day Saints, so they cast as “Everyman” a nice-looking local who played the part just fine. Then missionaries were troubled when Japanese audiences began tittering every time “Everyman” appeared on the screen. It turns out that the actor was, in fact, some kind of porn star. Who knew?
One more Marilee story from my journal:
18 July 1986
“Everyman” and his family are wrapped out of the film. Through the project, we’ve wrestled fairly constantly with the children (not our own) and Marilee has always been patient, full of songs and rhymes and reward treats, and even caught a lizard for our “son” and cooperated with “Uncle Karl” Wesson (Key makeup artist) in the capture of one for our “daughter”-all as incentives for following direction in the shots. This morning, as little Jessica was being particularly or’nary (the director-Peter Johnson-and crew were on a distant ridge getting a long shot of our family hike (presumably toward happiness), communicating with us by radio, and Jessica had just had it up to here with the desert and filmmaking and the higher purposes of the kingdom), her kind Everywoman mother (“Everymother?”) smiled into her fictional child’s eyes and softly said, “Jessica, if you don’t straighten up and do just what Peter says, so we can get this shot right, I’m going to kill your lizard.”
It was surprisingly effective.
Well, I asked you to remember this part from before: The prayer to which the Lear’ casting seemed to be the answer was that I might be better prepared to respond to a call to act for the Church specifically. I can’t imagine what that acting might be.
“Man’s Search” called on Monday and we started shooting on Wednesday. Maybe the guy they cast through the exhaustive audition process was discovered to be a reformed porn star. I didn’t ask, and when they grabbed me at least one of The Brethren, follicle-challenged as many of them are, is reported to have enthused, “At last-a leading man who looks like us!”
I was just trying to do something good (act and pray), and boom (“Man’s Search”)!
In the 25th chapter of Matthew the Savior tells us about sheep and goats. Sheep are good, goats are bad (this is only metaphorical-I hasten to point this out, on the possibility that there may be some species in Meridian Magazine’s inter-galactic readership that are to any degree goat-like, or “caprine.” Hey, it could happen.). At Judgment, the goats are all cast out into an eternal reward that only a goat could love. The sheep, on the other hand (the right hand, as it is), are invited into their exaltation. When they begin to realize the beauty of the reward they’ve been given, they are filled with a certain surprising emotion: surprise.
They are all surprised. All of them are asking, “Wait! When did we serve you in a way that would warrant this glory?” And the Savior answers. (Whole other column.)
Now, I know a few folks in the church who will be pretty surprised if they aren’t exalted. But the sheep were just trying to do something good, and boom! Very good things happened.
That’s the lesson for this month.
But before we part, I need to share portions of yet another “Man’s Search” journal entry, mainly because a lot of you watched me write it on-screen. (And if you didn’t, I wouldn’t recommend a google search-I just tried, and when I got to about page 13 I finally found a Japanese-dubbed version (me, not the porn star), then the entries began to degenerate into things like “Man’s search for happy dachshunds” and “Men search for Krazyglue…” and stuff like that. (While we’re on the subject of the seeming decline in the perceived relevance of this film, I have to share my favorite rumor before people get to the stage of “Who’s Search For What?” It was reported to me (admittedly, decades ago) that someone was going about loudly whispering that the baby born in the first film, made in 1964 (the film-and the baby), grew up to be the “Man” in the remake. Well, the “Man” in the remake was, in 1964, stalking Christine Welch in the halls of El Monte High School and telling his friends that this Bob Dylan guy was going to be the next big thing.))
10 June 1986
In Memory Grove, pondering on camera the central questions of life. I somehow missed the transition from “rehearsal” to “performance” (it’s a master shot and the camera is thirty yards away), so I was caught on film writing in this book, whereupon the director determined that it’s a useful prop, a good image for contemplation. So some of what I write here over the next few hours may slip in and out of focus. I can’t just pretend to write, because my pen nib will dry out.
A remarkable difference between the two projects I’m on right now (“Lear” and “Man’s Search”) is that for one of them it takes me twenty minutes to rush through my lines, allowing for no cues, responses, or action. In this film I have no lines at all. But there’s acting. If there weren’t, it might be “Mannequin’s Search for Happiness.”
I’m writing rapidly because to match with the master shot this left page needs to be full and I need to be writing on the right-hand leaf. They’ve dressed me quite drably. In this version, they’re concerned about avoiding any images of opulence. I hope I can get away with using this pen, which is definitely upper, upper middle class, if not downright aristocratic.
Here I am on the proper page, and Gordon Lonsdale and his camera crew are on the verge of dollying in. That turned out just right. In the original film, Everyman (Bryce Chamberlain) played this opening contemplation scene standing on a footbridge watching a duck whose leg was tied to a stake pounded into the bottom of the pond so he’d stay in the shot-the duck, that is, not Bryce.
This suggests that the converse of my thesis may be true as well. Just as in if you try do something good, surprise good things may happen, if you try to do bad, like leaving an important scene before it’s over, surprise bad things might happen. You could get staked to the bottom of a pond.