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Standing Up for My Father

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My father was a man of reason. Like many post-WWII Naval officers, he majored in engineering and then went on to Harvard Business School. He took over the family business as expected -- manufacturing flush valves for toilets. Our family motto was, "It may seem like shit to you, but it's our bread and butter." But he was also a wildly romantic Irishman. I learned that when I was nine and found the diary he had written when he was 16. I read about how hurt he was that his sister Joan's girlfriends ignored him, his weekly reviews of the triple feature matinees that he went to every Saturday in Brooklyn and his first experience with death when a classmate died right in front of him on the track field. It really shook him. I think he was an altar boy at the funeral. Jack Delany was a typical Connecticut Cheever man of the 60's. He struggled with the conformity of suburban family life.

Even though he drove to the factory in Brooklyn every day, his dream was to be an architect. He loved to dance and taught me to Lindy as I perched on top of his feet. When the hullabaloo came out we learned it together from a book. He played "Red River Valley" on the guitar when he came home from work but not until he had his scotch. He was the first in the plumbing business to wear a Van Dyke (helped hide the Irish chin) and he loved the movies. He introduced me to French films. He was mad for Arletty in Les Enfants du Paradis. And I was mad for my dad. I memorized every crew list from his book The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures by Bosley Crowther -- hence my dubious expertise at Celebrity Jeopardy I think the last film we saw together was Steve Martin's The Jerk which made him laugh like a teenager. It would have pleased him to no end that I made a movie with Steve Martin 13 years later. I am an actor because of him.

In August 1980 I was in rehearsals in Edmonton Alberta for A Life, an Irish play by Hugh Leonard. It was a pre- Broadway tryout. My sister left a message on my service that I needed to call Dad. He very calmly told me that the pain that had been misdiagnosed for months turned out to be pancreatic cancer. It was inoperable and he had three months to live. I wanted to go to Virginia to be with him. He said no, he and Pat, his new wife of a year could manage and I needed to rehearse. He wanted to see me make my Broadway debut in December.

The rational side of my father researched every treatment available at that time. He decided against chemo for quality of life alone. It was the same year that Steve McQueen was in his fight against cancer. Being the movie buff, my father considered going to Mexico for the coffee enemas but ended up at the Kushi Institute in Boston. He was praying that a macrobiotic diet could cure him. Now you have to understand, my father was not a granola type. Maybe a Negroni or a Harvey Wallbanger type but... and yes, it was the tail end of the 70's, and he had a new younger wife, but to see my Dad eat daikon and seaweed was pretty laughable if it wasn't so tragic.

However, for whatever reason, he had very little pain and it gave him an extra six months. He had time to make peace with himself and his world. For a man who had lived with a lot of inward rage, my father died with grace and tenderness. And he did see my Broadway debut. I was 24 and he was 56. After he died, I thought "OK. That's what happens when you grow up. Your parents divorce, you graduate from college and your father dies. Shit happens. Life goes on." But in 2008, when I was standing proudly onstage for the groundbreaking Stand Up 2 Cancer special and I saw Patrick Swayze come out and speak with such beauty and strength about his battle with pancreatic cancer, I thought, "He's the same age as my father was. How is it possible that 28 years later, this is still going on? How is it possible that 75% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are still dead within a year?"

And a year later, Patrick was gone.

And now, this week, Laura Ziskin, one of the founders of Stand Up 2 Cancer and my friend, is gone. When she called me up three years ago and asked me to participate in the program by having a mammogram on live TV, I did not hesitate. Because she told me she was going to cure cancer, and I still believe she will. Thanks to her and SU2C, 18 million dollars has gone to pancreatic cancer research. Launch a star in memory of someone you love at www.su2c.org. I love you Daddy, but this one's for Laura.