It's hard to believe that it's been 24 years since I picked out a Father's Day card. I always enjoyed that ritual of choosing just the right one--funny or loving--that I knew my dad would enjoy.
He passed away in 1991, and not a day has gone by that I don't miss him. His strength of character. His passion for everything. And his bottomless sense of humor.
But, as we all do with the people we love, I continue to treasure the memories I carry of our times together. I was a pretty lucky kid to grow up with a man as powerfully loving--and powerfully funny--as Danny Thomas. And on the third Sunday of every June, all of those stories come roaring back like a big, beautiful tidal wave.
Take for instance when he was trying to teach me how to ride a bike. I was about five, and we were practicing on the sidewalk outside our house at the corner of Elm and Elevado. I hit a bump and fell down, skinning my knee. I began to cry, holding my knee as the blood trickled down my leg. He ran over and stooped down next to me. "Oh, sweetie, don't cry," he said. "It could be a lot worse."
"How?" I wailed. "How could it be worse?""
And he said, "It coulda happened to me." I couldn't help it. I laughed through my loopy tears.
Dad's ability to make me laugh was part genetic (his hilarious Uncle Tonoose was his idol and comedic mentor), but it was also forged in the countless years he'd spent on the nightclub stage, captivating his audience. His respect for that audience was his compass. And I remember sitting with him at home, listening to tape recordings of the performances he'd given on the road. It was like a crash course in comedy. "Did you hear that, Mugs?" he'd say to me. "That's a big laugh, but the one after it is weak. You have to pace the laughs. I'm gonna put a song in there to make it work better."
Then when I got older and became an actress, he continued to educate me about the work ethic of the profession we shared.
"You can never lie to the audience," he'd tell me. "They'll follow you down any yellow brick road as long as you don't lie to them. Once you go off that road, you've lost them."
But most important, Dad instilled in me the same kind of self-direction and hell-bent confidence that he himself possessed. I'll never forget when I was a 19-year-old struggling actress, and landed my first starring role in a summer theater production of "Gigi." It was all very exciting. But then all of the reviews and interviews kept mentioning--and even comparing me to--my famous father.
Would I be as good as Danny Thomas? Was I as funny? Would I last as long?
I was shocked. I hadn't expected it. Fearful that I wouldn't be able to escape from under this overwhelming shadow, I went to my father in tears. "Daddy, I said, "I never thought I would say this: I love you. But I don't want to be a Thomas anymore. I want to change my name and run far away from all of this."
My father looked at me with his warm, brown eyes.
"I raised you to be a thoroughbred," he said, "and when thoroughbreds run they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead, with no distractions. They hear the crowd, but they don't listen. They don't look at the other horses. They just wear their blinders and run their own race. That's what you have to do. Don't listen to anyone comparing you to me or to anyone else. You just run your own race."
And that's what I've tried to do.
I guess the overriding lesson of all these memories is that my father made me emotionally bilingual in life. Through his heartfelt support of the underprivileged (from bullied kids to the critically ill children of his beloved St. Jude Children's Research Hospital), he demonstrated to me how he'd turned the experience of his own impoverished immigrant childhood into something positive and uplifting and lasting.
And from his finely honed--and immaculately timed--sense of humor, he also taught me how laughter can triumphantly cushion life's most unexpected blows. I can live to be a million years old and never receive such a wondrous gift as that.
So on this sixteenth Father's Day of the new millennium--and in memory of my own dear pop--let me wish all of you dads the most loving and most raucously funny Father's Day ever.
And to my own guiding star--ever-blazing and everlasting--I send you my heart, as always. Happy Father's Day, Daddy.
In honor of today, here's a special video I made. I could have gone on much longer (I had so many more stories I wanted to tell!), but I could hear Dad's voice in my head saying, "Give 'em your best stuff, Mugs, and say goodnight."
Happy Father's Day, everyone.
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