David Frost was fearless even when choosing guests for his syndicated TV show. His passing brought back a memory I recently shared with readers in Memoir of an Independent Woman; An Unconventional Life Well Lived. It had to do with Christy Brown, the author of the novel Down All the Days later turned into the Academy Award winning film My Left Foot. Christy, one of 21 children born in the slums of Dublin, was diagnosed at a young age with a rare type of cerebral palsy. His body was misshapen, partially paralyzed and he could barely speak. Unable to hold a pen, the only way he could express himself in print was by manipulating the toes of his left foot and tapping out letters in code which one of his sisters then put into a meaningful order. To say that Christy was not an author TV hosts would vie to interview understates the reality.
In the summer of 1970, I was Director of Publicity at Stein and Day Publishers who, impressed with its literary quality, agreed to both publish Down all the Days and bring Christy over from Ireland to promote it. Novels were difficult to promote in the best of situations. One whose author who was visually unappealing and whose words were barely comprehensible might have qualified as the worst. I was almost ready to hand in my resignation.
That was before I met him. Christy Brown turned out, in his own way, to be utterly charming. There was something electric about him. His joy at being in New York, at just being alive was contagious. He loved to laugh, didn't shy away from people and never asked for pity. His courage and determination were wondrous and I quickly became committed, despite the odds, to make Down All the Days a success.
That we would get press coverage when the book first came out was a given; Christy was a curiosity, a "freak" as one book reviewer let slip, and as long as he brought along a family member to act as interpreter, I had no trouble getting print interviews. Appearances on national TV with someone who was palsied and, until one got used to listening to him, almost impossible to understand, was another matter. My friend Malachy McCourt, a well known raconteur and soap opera actor, owned a drinking establishment I frequented in Greenwich Village and it occurred to me that once he had read the book he and Christy might find each other of interest. The author was delighted to meet an authentic Irish barkeep. The first meeting at Malachy's Bells of Hell began around 9 p.m. and continued long after "last call." The affection between the two was palpable; they had an uncanny ability to make each other laugh and for the first time I realized how I could get Christy on television. All I needed was a talk show host brave enough to invite a genius with handicaps to appear onstage with Malachy, who would then read aloud moving excerpts from Down All the Days. What an inspiration that would be!
This is where David Frost comes in.
I had placed a number of writers on his show through the years and was well known to him and his staff. I knew that David had a good heart and decided to bypass his producer and make the pitch to him directly. It would be a different kind of television to be sure, I acknowledged, but it would also be a first. The first time a TV talk show host unapologetically stood behind his own humanity. Think of what Christy's appearance would mean to so many handicapped people in the world. I assured him that If Christy had a few drinks before the show (Malachy would make sure there wouldn't be too many) once the camera was on him he would be able to respond to the segments that Malachy read in a semi-understandable way. It would certainly get all of us (Christy, David and Down All the Days) attention.
I could tell by the way he didn't immediately kick me out of the office that he was at least open to giving it some thought. The negative reactions from his staff the next few days only served to convince him he was right. He dared to be different and this was one way he could prove it.
And so the negotiations began
David: "Maybe they shouldn't drink before the show."
Tania: "If they don't, there's no show."
David: "What if Christy falls off his chair?"
Tania:. " We'll strap him in. If the strap breaks, we'll take a commercial break, focus on Irish musicians we'll hire for background music, pick him up and proceed from there." We all knew by then we could count on Malachy to improvise and make it work. And work it did! The show was a raving success and talked about for weeks. David subsequently told me it was one of the shows of which he was most proud!
He will be missed.