Good Gosh Almighty
Published 11:37 am Wednesday, May 13, 2020
It’s odd, isn’t it, that truism that ‘celebrities die in threes,’ as recently, we’ve witnessed the passing of three greats within the entertainment industry: comedian Jerry Stiller, Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, and both preceded by the iconic Little Richard.
It must be disconcerting, frankly, being very famous, as when word comes of two stars dying, one must wonder if they will be next. This reportedly was a very real fear for George Carlin. For someone like me, it was never even a consideration. But the good thing about having been a character actress was the opportunity to work with ‘big’ stars, celebrities you grew up watching, iconic, enormous, glittering stars. And sometimes, in the oddest places.
I had been hired to do an episode of The Drew Carey Show and having known Drew from stand-up days, looked forward to being on his set after 7 seasons on ‘Coach.’ I hadn’t seen the full script, only the pages that contained the character I was to play and the scenes I would be in. I had no clue that that episode, ‘Drewstock,’ would also include musician Joe Walsh, comedian Martin Mull and…Little Richard?
In a nutshell, ‘Drewstock’ was about Drew and his gang having gone belly up on a beer they had brewed and tried to sell. A dismal failure, they instead decided to have a blow out, give away the beer, and ‘invite a few friends’ to hold ‘Drewstock’ in his Ohio back yard. My character was the female doppelgänger of ‘Lewis’ (Ryan Stiles). And Joe Walsh and Little Richard were the ‘invited friends’ to perform for the local neighborhood crowd.
When you shoot a sitcom, it’s generally done in 5 days. You show up Monday, have a table reading with the script and put the episode ‘on its feet’ during rehearsal. For the next four days you rehearse as the script is repeatedly tweaked until Friday, when you film before a live audience. There’s an awful lot of down time that’s spent sitting around tables while scenes are blocked, camera angles confirmed and lighting secured. My time was mostly spent sitting around a table with Martin Mull (a lovely man) and Little Richard. Joe Walsh hung out by himself in his dressing room which was certainly his right so to do.
How many times in ones life might one find themselves sitting between Martin Mull and Little Richard, I ask you? And that’s why I adored all 15 years that I spent in Hollywood because that’s just freaking crazy, and yet also just another day the office.
It’s important to stress that I didn’t ‘know’ Richard. My memories of him come from a few days working together. We never went out for a meal, I never was invited to his home, and so I’m not saying for a moment that I ‘knew’ him in any other capacity. But in those few days I found him to be kind, authentic, easy to talk about and although I cannot remember any of the conversation, the three of us talked about everything and nothing. The business. Gossip. Politics. The show. The script. He was funny and he was also humble and devout. For him, this was just another gig out of thousands. For me it was…well, it was Little Richard.
My most vivid memory, besides the one of being shocked to discover the man, in the flesh, truly hadn’t seemed to age from his early years in the industry, was that he had two personal assistants: two very tall men in impeccable suits who stood a few feet away behind him, with their hands clasped in front of them, legs slightly apart, as if having been told, “At ease, soldier.” They never shared the table with us. They only stood. When I would try to include them in conversation or simply make eye contact with them it wasn’t returned. I couldn’t quite figure out if they were body guards or personal assistants. Until…
“Bring me a Coke, please.” Richard said softly, not turning, but beckoning with a finger. In a flash, one of them departed and returned with a cold scarlet can.
“Now you know I’m not going to drink that out of a can,” Richard admonished, gently. This time a cup filled with ice was brought in haste. Placed before him, Richard nodded his approval and the man, whom I now gleaned was a personal assistant, took two broad steps backward and remained standing, ready for duty, hands, again, clasped before him, head ducked.
Wow. Just…wow. I’ve seen plenty of personal assistants—most stars have them—but I’d never seen anyone with two personal assistants. Maybe one was in training, I don’t know, all I do know is that was the only thing I saw them do all week. I’m sure they also returned phone calls, carried luggage, arranged travel. But in that moment, it was if I were seated next to royalty.
Although for the life of me I cannot imagine the Queen requesting a Coke. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t drink it out of the can, either.
The best part of all was that the musical number, the final scene, was rehearsed a couple of times, and I was in that final scene, as were the rest of the cast, crowded around the musicians. I seem to remember being positioned directly behind Joe Walsh’s left buttock as he stood atop a table playing and singing “Rocky Mountain Way.” Richard accompanied him on piano, performing with gusto, complete with his trademark, ‘woo!’ and reading the lyrics of the song from a teleprompter.
It was magic. It was audacious. It was pure Richard.
And I’m sorry it took his death to revisit such a cherished memory.