It was 1960 … I was 14 years old. I had etched into my psyche, imagery of a Father, his Son, and a loving Friend. The Father was Ed Wynn, the comic; the son Keenan Wynn, an actor; and the Friend, Red Skelton. They were telling the true-life story of their interactions surrounding the filming of a famous movie (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”), produced in 1958.
That movie was of no consequence to my early-teen-age mind. The particulars, of the presentation of this story, held no significance for me. (I only learned yesterday, that it was a presentation of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and was entitled “The Man in the Funny Suit.”) What was, profoundly significant to my hungry young mind, was the legitimate and intimate offering of the struggles known to a Dad and his Son as they combated the forces of life tearing at their identities, and their relationship, with jaws of circumstantial demands and situational expectations.
What was meaningful in the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy, was this presentation of someone else’s actual battles to maintain a bond of familial respect and honor in the mêlée’ of the world’s requirements and insistence. This I could relate to. This I lived every day of my own life. This struggle with, and for, Identity, I remember with absolute clarity … right up to the 20th day of November, 2008. For, My Dearest of Friends, this is where the Soul of this boy has lived.
So … here is what the whole ‘deal’ was all about. Ed Wynn and his son were telling the story (in this later-produced portrayal) of the painfully trying experience that was theirs as Ed tried to play a dramatic role in the “Heavyweight” movie. Ed had never done anything, in his professional life, other than Be the “Funny man.” Or, as this presentation of the story, by Westinghouse Desilu, labeled him, “The Man In The Funny Suit.” So as filming efforts were made, and Ed encountered moments of unfamiliar slip-ups or confusions, he would fall back on what he was familiar, and comfortable, with … his comic persona.
But this was a dramatic and very intensely ‘heavy’ story … no place for silly comic behaviors. The tension and concern mounted as the time for final film ‘takes’ came closer … and Ed was increasingly doubtful of his ability to ‘play his role.’ So, he sought out his life-long Friend and fellow-Comic (who had, with some measure of success played various roles in film and stage) … Mr. Skelton. “You have to ‘not be Ed Wynn’, but be the character that you are portraying.” Mister Skelton coached. “Forget that Keenan is your son. He is that Character that he is portraying. And your Character hates that Character played by Keenan. So you, in Character, must (as that Character) hate him.” was his advice.
This story struck home with that guy watching his family’s black-and-white television screen’s presentation. That 14 year-old boy was being told to play ‘Roles’ in life … even as a teen-ager … that were contrary to who he felt himself to be. His peer group … his church … his relatives … his neighbors … his school administrators and teachers … all had scripts that demanded performances that he felt “out of character” in. And he was living in a place of unhappy discomfort … that he saw portrayed by these men playing out their own real-life conflicts … right there in his home … on his television set. And it struck home in his Soul.
As I reflect on this happening of my Yesterday; and the successes and notable career that became Mister Red Skelton’s; it occurs to me that he became that Man of fame and note, known to us today, because he made the choice to … Be … Red Skelton. He elected to be that Person that he was so beautifully created to Be. Even in all of his silly ’roles’ portrayed in skits of hilarious memory … it was always Red Skelton doing his ‘bit.’ There was never any reference to the character portrayed as the Identity being referred to. His fame was in playing out the scripted role in life that had his own name on it. He was a marvelous success at Being Red Skelton. Methinks that there is a bit more than a small message in that.
And, for his place in the minds and hearts of all whose lives have been uplifted and sweetened by the Presence of Mister Ed Wynn on our shared stage of life … he, too, is remembered and revered for Being himself … the incomparable Ed Wynn. You will have great difficulty finding anyone who recalls his role ‘played’ in the ‘Heavyweight’ movie. All of the anguish and pain so eloquently portrayed in the Westinghouse Desilu presentation was such a waste of effort … unless you give value and worth to what it meant in the Mind … Heart … and Soul, of a solitary teenage boy who hungered for every morsel of insight and inspiration that was delivered to his small home in Tampa, Florida, on that day in 1960. You can then compound that value for every time that he recalled that story (and there have been many) over the ensuing years, to this present day. Life has such a beautiful way of providing what we need. [smile]
Thus, My dear Reader, I had all of this stuff washed to the surface of my awareness last night … and as I awakened with its presence this morning. In reflecting on the story (with an extraordinary Loved One) last night, in the moments following our shared search for the identity of that long-displaced set of circumstances, that left only the vague impressions of the individuals mentioned, and their interpersonal challenges … I was impressed with the core truth that the elements of the whole matter that had a lasting effect on me were the intimate and personal matters of each of the participants lives. I had no recall of names of movies, programs, dates, situations, or any other of the details that would be the stuff of note to anyone caught up in the fascinations of entertainment trivia. I had the lasting residue of the 'people stuff’ as my companion. For, you see, this is what matters to who I am … the People Stuff. Not the Detail stuff.
And this is the ‘stuff’ that makes up the props and setting surrounding the Character of John-Michael. In embracing my role in Life’s script, I have, as the elements of my life’s ‘set,’ the inner aspects of the lives of those with whom I am blessed to share Life’s stage, in any given moment. And I have given all of my Self to Being the John-Michael (that Life has cast me to be) in my responses to each ‘cue’ and ‘prompt’ that life’s Supreme Creator/Producer/ Director gives.
I listen with expectant ear, for a whisper of need, desire, or openness for nurture or succor, from every other Player on my life’s stage. I hear and feel the rhythms and themes of Life’s orchestral accompaniment as it plays out varying aspects of living’s spectrum of possibilities. I weep genuine tears and issue forth unmeasured laughter in honest response to the demands of each moment’s situation and circumstance … lest I lose the depth and richness of that instant’s significance. And all this is possible because I am in character … with my Self. I am neither torn nor confused by the distractions of standing in for some other role or character. Oh no! No longer!
When I review my performance … as we must all, someday do … I will celebrate my Soul’s recall of my responses to and fulfillment of all of the moods, themes, spirits, and intents of The Director in each scene that I was part of. For I am in that role … I am that Character … I am fulfilling the requirements of the script for my Being … in this day’s presentation of my life’s Play. And I tell you this, Dearest of Friends and Most-Faithful of Readers, in the hope that I can encourage, challenge, and stimulate you to set aside all conflicting Roles being offered to, or thrust upon you … and Be that magnificent Character that is singularly yours to play.
In this effort, I hope that I can be that ‘Red Skelton-like’ Friend who you can be uplifted by in loving and caring support. For, don’t you know, I play, for You, that wonderfully satisfying “supporting character role” in this scene of our shared Play. And I like it! For I do, indeed, love You. And I long to see your name “up in lights” on Life’s marquee.
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