Robin Williams — The Pagliacci of Comedy

Sigmund Freud once said that a person’s disposition is often set by the age of five — and perhaps this was true of Robin Williams. Born and raised in a wealthy suburb of Detroit, his father was an executive with one of the auto industry’s Big Three car companies, but neither he nor his wife spent much time with Robin, who was an only child. Years later, he would recall that left alone to play with dozens of expensive toys, he tried to break the solitude by giving them all names and voices. Later, as a small, chubby child in grade school, he would often use humor to disarm schoolyard bullies; so despite a privileged background, and perhaps from an early age, he came to regard life as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Luckily for him (and most of the rest of the world, as well!), he discovered that he did greatly enjoy acting, and after high school enrolled at the Julliard School in NYC, where he became best friends with Christopher Reeve. Many years later, after Reeves’ fall from a horse had left him crippled for life, the handsome actor would recall that his good friend was the first to visit him in the hospital, storming into an intensive care unit fully dressed in a doctor’s scrubs, sporting a foreign accent and announcing to Reeves that he was a Polish proctologist there to conduct a personal examination. Reeves later said that had he not been strapped to a table, he would have fallen to the floor with laughter.

The mold had been set, and it was only a matter of time before the comic was hired on Mork and Mindy, which soon became one of the most successful TV shows of all time, often playing to some 60 million viewers each week! In another great stroke of luck, Williams would meet Jonathan Winters, who became his idol, mentor and fellow space traveler, but whose own life would end sadly.

Winters, though a great improvisational artist, lacked the younger actor’s depth and range, talents that would eventually bring Williams many of the entertainment world’s most prestigious awards. But there was more at work here than mere critical and financial success. A famous French writer once said that up until age 40, God is responsible for what we look like; after that, we are. Ultimately, Robin Williams came to look like the man he had become: a noble humanitarian, spokesman for the disenchanted and disenfranchised and a proud vessel harboring a talent for the ages.

In his relatively brief lifetime, he raised tens of millions of dollars for the homeless, this among many other worthwhile causes — and like Oscar Wilde, another unique talent, he knew that if you purport to tell people the sad truth, the best way is to make them laugh. In doing this, he became like a great clown who could make people’s eyes dance with mirth even as his own filled with tears.

My first thought upon hearing that this magnificent human being had committed suicide was of Frank Capra’s immortal film It’s a Wonderful Life. Made in 1946, the movie is today a perennial holiday favorite with TV audiences all over the world. For those unfamiliar with the story, it deals with a small town businessman who believing that his life has been a total failure finally attempts to kill himself. But he is saved by an “angel,” who to prove to him that he is not a failure, takes him back in time to show him that he did far more good than he had ever known. His life had touched so many others whose own lives had become better because of him. The original inspiration for the movie’s script had been a single sentence from a 1930’s greeting card: No man is a failure who has made at least one friend in his life.

Robin Williams made tens of millions of them, but still he who had brought so much joy to so many people could no longer find it for himself. Where was Capra’s angel when we really needed him?

MEXICO: Life Can Be a Bitch

LifeI first arrived in Chapala some twenty-five ago with a motor home, two cars, two dogs and a distinctly dismal-looking future. I was coming off a couple of years in Hollywood where I had developed an acute case of the Midas Touch in Reverse and had finally decided that if I couldn’t change my luck, at least I would change my location.

Quite by accident, I found a lovely little trailer park right down by the Lake Chapala where a space cost only sixteen dollars a month. The park was owned by a Mexican family that had been there since 1936, and in accordance with ejido law, was still farming a small portion of the property. Continue reading

REVIEW: Hooray for Morrie Schwartz — and Mitch Albom, Too!

SchwartzThough it is not our custom to review books, exceptions are what prove the rules. Such an anomaly concerns Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. The book falls into the category of “spiritual/inspirational,” and ordinarily we would not venture within ten miles of this genre. Books such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions, and The Celestine Prophecy, all of which are, in our opinion, the intellectual equivalent of baby food, have long since served to inoculate us against this species of literary virus. Such books, straining to be “inspirational” often arouse little more than boredom—and as someone once said about writing, while there are no rules, there are sins, and cardinal among these is dullness.

However, the book under discussion was recommended by a woman with impeccable taste and a no-nonsense attitude toward all things, literary or otherwise. Thus, with something resembling a slight chip on our shoulder, we began to read and within only a few pages, the author, as well as his subject, Morrie Schwartz, had straightened us out.

Many years before the birth of the book, Mitch Albom had been a student at Brandeis University, where one of his teachers was Morrie Schwartz, a Professor of Sociology. The fun-loving and gregarious Schwartz was greatly admired by all his students, though he forged a special bond with Albom, the man who 20 years later would immortalize him in a book which has become an international best-seller.

Even so, after graduation, the younger man had drifted away, eventually becoming a well-known sports columnist and local TV celebrity in a faraway city. He had not seen his old college professor for almost two decades when one night, quite by chance, he was amazed to see him being interviewed on “Nightline.”

By this time, Professor Schwartz had developed the malady today known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an affliction that melts the nerves until the body is about as functional as a pile of wax. Watching the program, Albom decided that very night to fly hundreds of miles to visit his old mentor, hoping to see him before the teacher had taught his “final class.”

Their reunion was joyous and within an hour they decided to enter into a collaboration wherein Albom, who despite his professional success, had lost his way in the world, would document the thoughts and feelings of the older man, who would soon be leaving that very same world. They agreed to meet each Tuesday of every week, until the collaboration was complete, or . . .

Morrie Schwartz wanted to live out what remained of his life with as much dignity, courage, humor and composure as he could muster. He came up with plenty of each, though sadly, dignity is usually the first thing diminished by the grip of impending death. Yet, with little or no attempt to handle any intellectual heavy-lifting, the old professor taught several beautiful and humorous life-lessons as he inched toward the day of his last lecture. The writer was there to record it, and soon after his friend had gone on to his reward, Albom completed what is as inspirational a book as this jaded observer has read in many a moon.

Mitch Albom’s life was greatly enriched by the experience — and it’s a good bet that anyone who reads his valuable little book will someday be able to say the same.

POLITICS: The Nine Words that Changed America

Bill of RightsIn 1734, in a small town outside New York City, the editor of a newspaper called The New York Weekly Journal was walking across the village square when he noticed a man who, having been severely flogged, was still out on public display, his arms bolted into wooden stocks. The editor, whose name was Zenger, asked the prisoner what his crime had been.

He had spoken out against the British Crown. The case had never gone to trial, yet the man had been severely punished. Outraged, the editor wrote an article about the matter, and was soon arrested himself. Left in jail for several weeks Continue reading

On the Nature of Political Dissent

We the peopleA journalist friend of mine recently wrote an article for a foreign publication, condemning various Hollywood celebrities who had come out against the war in Iraq. The article implied that these individuals were not patriotic Americans. The writer is not unique in taking this attitude. The Bush administration has for months been doing the same, as have many far right-wing publications in the U.S.

The article further declares that the celebrities in question “demean the values of their own country.” Obviously, the journalist knows very little about the United States of America. Continue reading

The Electrifying, Yet Stultifying Thomas Edison

EdisonIn any roll-call of the most important people in all of American history, Thomas Alva Edison (the “Alva” has been traced to Hispanic ancestry) would have to be ranked near the top. Edison was of an era, however, that saw Samuel Morse invent the telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell the telephone.

Yet even against such scientific geniuses, Edison stands alone, and the company that he founded more than one hundred years ago is today among the largest and most influential in the entire world: General Electric. By the time of his death in 1931 at age 84, Edison had patented over 1,000 inventions, including (among his less-known devices) a stock market ticker, a mechanical vote recorder and a battery for an electric car. Continue reading

MEXICO: Salma and Frida Meet the Mexican Press

FridaRemember the story about all the crabs in a barrel, and how as soon as one of them had almost made it out, the others pulled it back down? I was reminded of that story when I read of how the national press has reacted to a movie about the life and career of the painter Frida Kahlo.

The film’s star, Salma Hayek, might have thought she was returning in triumph to her homeland, but as surprises go, it must rank up there with General Custer’s shock at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In a country noted for its sense of decorum and polite manners, the journalists were outrageously rude, many of their press-conference questions not only hostile but irrelevant to boot. They resent that Hayek has pursued her career in Hollywood Continue reading

HOLLYWOOD SOUTH: Director John Huston

HustonFrom the day I arrived in the movie capitol way back in the mid-1960s, it seemed Hollywood was not really a town, but rather a shrine to the film business, its inhabitants fervent believers who had come, much like those who still journey to Lourdes in France, in search of benediction and acceptance.

Yet as the Bible says, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” and for the first few years in Tinseltown, I came to know the place while working as an insurance claims adjuster. In this job, I met several people who while not famous themselves, had at least occasionally flirted with the famous: the actress who once played a sizable role in the movie Viva Zapata, and whose tiny apartment was a veritable memorial to the picture; an elderly carpenter who proudly led me to a small sound stage on the Columbia Studios back-lot, where the mock-up of the airplane which had crashed in the Himalayas in the unforgettable Lost Horizon lay still half-buried in fake snow. The old-timer had worked on that 1937 film, and it was obviously his proudest achievement; the middle-aged men and women who while never having done anything of distinction themselves, had been the friends or mistresses of people who had achieved cinema celebrity. Movies were the narcotic of choice, and everyone wanted to stay close to their “connection.” Continue reading

HOLLYWOOD: The Genesis of a Writer

Novel GenesisAlmost everyone who has a novel published has been asked what the initial inspiration for the book had been. Not an easy question to answer, as many books often subconsciously gestate for years before blooming forth into a palpable notion. Of the seven novels I have written, I can think of only two where I can recognize the always elusive muse. I relate one of them here in the hope that its Mexican-American history might be of interest to our readers.

In the early 1970’s, driving through the small agricultural town of Delano, California, I noticed that the United Farm Workers were holding a rally that evening. Thinking there might be an interesting story in it, I decided to attend the meeting.

The atmosphere in the hall that night was charged with high-wire tension. The workers were preparing to go on strike and one speaker after another inflamed the crowd of some 2000 people with vituperative, anti-grower speeches. Continue reading

IMMIGRATION: To Die in the Desert

JunkShe and her 13-year-old daughter had ventured to the United States like tens of millions before them, in search of a better life, a new start, a chance of getting an education or learning a skill, and most of all to escape the vicious cycle of poverty that was their soul-searing lot back in their home-country. But the smuggler they had hired to get them safely to a point in the U.S. where any of their aspirations might come true abandoned them just north of the border. With virtually no water and almost no shade, the mother soon perished. When she was finally found, her young daughter, in a near catatonic state, was kneeling next to the body, which authorities estimated had been lifeless for more than two days.

An unusual story? Sadly, no. Since 1995, the number of similar deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border has increased by a whopping 700%! There are now dozens of mortuaries along the northern side which do a booming business in returning migrant remains to grieving families in Mexico.

Yet as the statistics get grimmer each year, and the chances of ever realizing their dreams become only slightly better than their odds of winning a million dollars in Las Vegas, they still keep coming. But often, they never make it out of even their own country. The border is now infested with bandits who rob them of their money, food, even their shoes. (Shades of the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!)

Yet even after such attacks, many migrants make another attempt to enter the U.S., some carrying little more than a pack of tortillas and a canteen of grape juice to sustain them. Warming up the tortillas is easy in the soaring desert heat which often hovers near 110 degrees; placing them on a small sheet of tin more than does the trick. Would that the migrants had such a simple solution for their far more serious problems.

Last year, 409 undocumented immigrants died in their attempt to enter the United States. Yet over the past several decades, millions of them have made it. The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has never been greater — 9.7 million by a recent estimate — even while the Border Patrol has tripled in size, and is now equipped with high-tech innovations like motion-detectors which when triggered alert agents at the nearest Border Patrol station. But this has had an unexpected, and most unwelcome (from every perspective) result.

An expert on Mexican immigration states: “We’ve dramatically militarized the border…but people are just going around the built-up areas. There are two consequences: it reduces the probability that they’ll get caught, but it increases the probability that they’ll get killed.”

A few months ago, this column lauded President George W. Bush for his espousal of a new guest worker program. That plan would offer legal status, at least temporarily, to many undocumented immigrants, and would allow additional workers to enter legally for three-year visits. But as Tyche Hendricks, writing tellingly on this issue for The Herald Mexico says, “…The Bush proposal and others on the table are still little more than concepts, while the flow of immigrants, and the risks they face, are excruciatingly real.”