Collateral Role Model Damage...
This one’s going to be a longer than usual, very personal and intimate entry to my blog, so please be kind and bear with me.
“When I grow up, I want to be like so-and-so”.
How many times did we say that as kids?
As I’ve grown older, I’ve got to thinking more and more about who my formative years’ heroes and role models were and, more importantly, why.
What was appealing to me? What did I admire about them? What influence did they have on the person I am today?
These will include fictional characters or people who made a monumental impact on how I saw myself at the time, and probably had a role in shaping who I am today.
I was never much into sports, so there are no athletes here. This doesn't mean I didn't have any interest in sports figures. Nadia Comaneci, Miguel Marin, the Harlem Globetrotters, Terry Bradshaw and Pele come to mind, however none were remotely impactful enough to make the list. My apologies to all the sports’ buffs, I guess I was more of a geeky kid.
As for historical figures and artists, I admire quite a few of them, but they seemed somewhat distant. So even when some of them definitely had a big influence, they were not relatable enough to be considered "a role model".
For someone like me, a hardcore movie buff since childhood, the list will focus mostly on actors and characters. You might say I was a bit superficial in that sense.
Among many, many others, this is the very short list of the ones that truly stood out for deeply personal reasons, and now I will share it with you, you lucky reader, you!
So grab my hand, follow me across two long-gone decades and meet the most influential performers and fictional characters from my early life.
I hope it will be entertaining for both of us.
Kolchak, The Night Stalker / Darren McGavin
Carl Kolchak, the character, was a by-product of 70’s TV movies and the preceding monster craze from the 50’s and 60’s. And, at about 5 or 6 years old, I sooo wanted to be like him.
I guess this had to do with my very early attraction to horror stories and my desire to face and overcome the childish fear towards things that go bump in the night (this might also explain my fascination with Scooby Doo).
Instead of the caricature he was meant to be, and could have been in less capable hands, Carl Kolchak was a truly likable character, portrayed with a self-conscious wink in the eye. He was funny, righteous, sarcastic, idealistic and a bit headstrong. He did whatever was necessary to uncover the truth, even if that sometimes cost him his reputation or got him in trouble with the law.
He also forced himself to fight all kinds of creatures, even when it seemed he was truly scared when he faced the monster-of-the-week at the end of the story. He sometimes even screamed out loud, much like I would have done, when things got particularly hairy.
He gave six-year-old me a masterclass on how to face your fears, and I will forever be grateful to him about that.
Which brings us to the actor behind the character: Darren McGavin (1922-2006). After becoming a fan of Kolchak, I started watching every TV movie he appeared in (even the more adult-themed ones that I shouldn’t have), and was amazed at the range this man had. He could be funny, cold, vulnerable and even slightly evil, depending on the part he was playing, up to his definitive, tough but heartwarming portrayal of "The Old Man", Ralphie’s dad, in A Christmas Story.
He was a brilliant actor, and that earns him his rightful first spot on this list.
Cornelius / Caesar – Roddy McDowall
I’m a huge fan of the original Planet of the Apes movies, and Roddy McDowall (1928-1998) had everything to do with that. Setting aside the natural childish appeal of watching talking apes on the screen, I loved the characters of Cornelius and Caesar as portrayed by him.
In the original Planet of the Apes (1968) Cornelius was and ape archaeologist and the cautious husband of Zira, a headstrong chimpanzee doctor (Kim Hunter). He was forced by his wife into becoming the reluctant defender of Taylor (Charlton Heston), the talking human astronaut.
By the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), the character grew exponentially, becoming a fierce and valiant protector of his wife and his unborn offspring, ultimately sacrificing his life for them. Zira tragically follows the same fate, not before managing to trick their enemies into killing the wrong baby ape and thus saving Caesar’s life.
Caesar, portrayed with slightly different make up as a young chimpanzee by the same Roddy McDowall in Conquest for the Planet of the Apes (1972), starts out as a loving, fearful, idealistic and slightly naive ape, but gradually becomes driven, headstrong and fierce by the hostile environment he is forced into.Caesar could have become a victim of circumstances, but his rage, cunning, courage, disgust against slavery and thirst for justice pushed him to the brink as a somewhat ruthless leader and liberator.
As with Darren McGavin, because of Roddy McDowall’s work on the apes’ franchise, I started following all his other performances, enthralled by the infecting intensity, sense of wonder, elegance and humanity he projected. His characters were sometimes flawed, prone to rage and flamboyancy, but at their core, they were vulnerable and relatable.
I spent my teenage years in the ‘80’s and, if you had met me back then, you would definitely recognize these as huge influences.
Magnum, P.I. (Tom Selleck)
“I know what you’re thinking. And you’re probably right.”
Sporting colorful Hawaiian shirts, a Detroit Tigers’ baseball cap and driving a red Ferrari while waving his bushy eyebrows behind dark glasses, this was the kind of guy I wanted to be when I grew up: manly, clever, brave, easy going, with a sense of humor and, above all, tremendously loyal.
Even after having fought in the Vietnam War, he was determined not to take things very seriously and allowed himself to have a beer with his buddies between dangerous cases. Above the pain and vulnerability, Thomas Magnum never lost the twinkle in his eye.
As far as I can remember, Magnum P.I. (1980-1988) was the longest running TV show I religiously followed at the time, simultaneously watching the new seasons on Cable TV as well as the Spanish dubbed previous seasons on open TV (remember, there was no stream binge watching or DVD collections then).
Looking back, I think I liked the show so much because it managed to surprise me beyond expectations. When they launched it and I saw the original promos, I thought this was going to be a show about a hunky womanizer driving a Ferrari around Hawaii.
Tom Selleck created a character much deeper than that: he was the friend you wanted to hang out with, the kind of guy you wanted to be, and the ally you wanted by your side when shit hit the fan.
I know he’s kept busy performing, but I honestly believe Tom Selleck is the most underappreciated and underrated actor of his generation.
Chevy Chase / Fletch
I discovered Chevy Chase in the early 80’s and became an immediate fan of his portrayal of Clark Griswold in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). He was the dad I envisioned I would become (and it seems I succeeded, according to my kids… I’m not so sure that’s something to be proud of).
I loved his various characters’ sarcastic sense of humor, the slapstick, the pratfalls, the smart play on words and the way they seemed to overcompensate not being too bright with overwhelming confidence.
To Chevy's on-screen persona, he was a ladies’ man. And even if the ladies in question tended to disagree at first, they usually succumbed to his confident charm and witty personality.
In real life it seems Chevy was (and still is) a very proud and smart man, which may have branded him as “difficult” to work with and ultimately slowing down his career. No matter how he might be in his personal life (I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the man to have an opinion), I’ve nevertheless admire him as a comic genius and a brilliant, very politically oriented family man.
I watched Community (2009-2015) because of him, and it turned out to be an extraordinarily written comedy show with a great ensemble cast (Donald Glover / Childish Gambino, anyone?) but I strongly believe it was Chevy's participation that elevated the show to a completely different level.
So, yes, I admire Chevy Chase very much and he was a tremendous influence on me as a person, but the truly defining moment was when they announced he would be playing Fletch, the wise-ass investigative reporter from the late Gregory McDonald (1937-2008) novels.
I picked up the first book before watching the film and ended up plowing through the series. Fletch, the written character, struck a deep chord within me: he was smart, non-conformist, a bit of a loner, had a very ironic sense of justice, was very resourceful, fought for freedom of speech, was against the establishment and, yes, he was also a smart aleck. My young, rebellious self very strongly identified with him as a character and with Gregory McDonald as a writer.
As a coda, I coincidentally just finished reading one of his last books, Flynn’s World (1999) -based on a spinoff character from the Fletch novels- and found it as enjoyable an experience as I remembered from my teenage years. The guy was brilliant and his style inspired me to write my first (unpublished) short novel, Brauer (if you happened to be a very close friend of mine at the time, you might have read it).
I loved Chevy Chase’s portrayal of Fletch and I believe it’s considered one of Chevy’s best, but as wonderful as it was, the impact was far more superficial than what Gregory McDonald’s books did for me.
So this one goes to the amazing Chevy, for the many years of laughter, and for his pivotal role in introducing me to Gregory McDonald's literary world.
If you had met me in the late ‘80’s or early ‘90’s, you would have known how passionate I was about the man (as were many other moviegoers at the time).
Sean Connery gained international stardom originally because of his definitive interpretation as the original Agent 007, James Bond, from 1962 to 1971 (and then in 1983 in the non-official Never Say Never Again).
I didn’t come to appreciate him as Bond until later because, when I was a kid, Roger Moore was the current 007 and, to be honest (and a lot of people will jump on my neck for writing this down) I prefer Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character (there, I said it).
When I was a kid I saw some of Connery’s Bond films, but I actually became a HUGE fan when he made a spectacular come back as a seriously popular actor in the early-to-mid-eighties (at age 59 he was named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1989).
He also had a very interesting, admirable backstory: he was born in Edinburgh to a working class family and worked very hard, and studied even harder, to gain the level of culture and education he needed in order to become a serious actor and a proud representative and advocate of his beloved Scotland.
True to himself, outspoken, sometimes tough and short-tempered, he portrayed the leading characters and leaders I dreamed about becoming someday, and he always seemed to be comfortable with his own age (at MY age, that's something to look forward to!)
I was particularly influenced by his portrayals as the elegant thief Edward Pierce in Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (1978), William of Baskerville in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) and Jimmy Malone in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987) -for which he won an Oscar as best supporting actor.
And, of course, he played Indiana Jones' dad, Doctor Henry Jones, in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
“Let it go, Indiana” is an oft-quoted favorite line of mine.
I always dreamt about one day meeting him but never had the opportunity; however, I have the small consolation of having handled the marketing campaign in Mexico for his last big movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
The Batman trifecta: Tim Burton, Danny Elfman and Michael Keaton
Now this is a story I’ll save for another time, but if you really know me, you’d know I was cheating if I didn’t at least make a mention of it here.
Batman has always been one of my favorite comicbook characters and, after watching Beetlejuice and learning that Tim Burton, Danny Elfman and Michael Keaton were involved in bringing the character to the big screen for the 1989 film (with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, to boot)... I guess that’s the closest I’ve ever been to a nerd-gasm in my life.
As I said, I’ll leave the details for another blog. Suffice it to say people thought I was nuts about how much of a fan I was during my first years in college (a classmate suggested I was just jumping into the bandwagon of the second Bat-craze, which now that I think back on it, was a very rude and insulting comment).
So there you have them. The most influential actors and characters from my early life.
I guess the traits I picked up from each of them are fairly obvious from what I hightlighted. The only thing left I believe I should mention was that both the characters of Fletch (in the novels) and Magnum exercised regularly, and Sean Connery was a bodybuilder and participated in the 1950 Mr. Universe Contest. As I mentioned before, I was never particularly "sporty" as a kid, so reading about and watching someone you idolize take care of themselves, actually motivated me into keeping in shape myself. I hate jogging and don't particularly care about exercising, but I force myself to do it regularly and have kept in shape throughout the years, in no small part because of them.
If you are still here with me, I thank you for having joined me throughout this trip.
Thinking back about this made me think of many warm, happy memories and the people I shared them with. And now, looking at my kids, I wonder about who their role models are and how these will affect their lives.
I encourage you to do this exercise; it might teach you something about yourself (and, if you are so inclined, share it with me).
It’s amazing how actors, movies and TV shows sometimes shape and reflect who we are. I sometimes wonder if they realize how much of an influence they can be.
It’s a helluva responsibility and, I guess, a source of huge satisfaction.
That’s one of the many reasons I love showbiz.