Since last week's "Parts and Labor" entry was about Hollywood memorial services, I was hesitant to write another column about celebrity deaths, but Thursday's news about Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett left me without much choice. When icons of that stature pass away it does leave a mark and I'm of a generation that remembers the trajectory of both of those entertainers vividly.
I was nine years old when I first saw Michael Jackson and his brothers on "The Flip Wilson Show." My family had just moved from Kentucky to a small factory town in Southern Ohio. I'd gone from a school with just one black kid to a school with quite a few. And unlike the black kids in Kentucky (who rarely opened their mouths) these kids took no shit from anybody and would kick your ass if you looked at them wrong. Although, racial equality hadn't quite arrived on the national scene, it was in full force on the playground of Margaret Heywood Elementary. I was getting a fast education that the racist attitudes of my uncles (who would turn off the TV whenever a black person appeared on screen), had no bearing on the real world.
Since I wasn't much of a ballplayer or rough-houser, my first few weeks were mostly spent getting beaten-up. The first safe haven I found was in a totally unexpected place. Every day at recess, a group of very resourceful little black girls would run an extension cord from the door of the gym out to the playground where they would then plug in a portable record player and dance to Jackson Five records. One day as I saw an ass-kicking coming my way, I jumped onto the imaginary dance floor with them. Denise, Gloris and Athena initially thought this was hilarious, but eventually accepted the skinny white kid since none of the other boys would come near this deadly "sissy zone." Dancing daily to "ABC" and "Stop! The Love You Save May Be Your Own," bought me a little time until I eventually found my place in the pecking order.
To me, what made little Michael so extraordinary was that he sang like a grown-up. When I watched him on "The Ed Sullivan Show," I found it hard to believe that he was just a little older than me. By the time he reemerged as a mega-solo act in the 80's, I was even more astounded because he seemed so, well... girly. He spoke in a high, effeminate voice, wore make-up and dressed in the most outlandish, over-the-top outfits imaginable. In interviews, I remember wishing he would butch it up a little. But as it turned out, he didn't need to. His talent surpassed anything that could be said about him. I can still remember the Motown 25th anniversary special when he electrified the audience and then the world. In the blink of an eye, he was the most famous, successful (and ultimately bizarre) entertainer the world had ever known.
When his eccentricities (and inappropriate behavior with children) overtook his fame, I began to feel sorry for him. In the early 90's, he donated a chunk of change to an elementary school near where I currently live. To express their gratitude, the school put up a sign (using big stainless steel letters) on the west side of the building, marking the entrance to new "Michael Jackson Auditorium." When news of the first child molestation charges broke, the school covered the sign with a large plywood box. When the charges were dropped, the box came down. After the second set of accusations, the box went back up again -- this time permanently. Hollywood tour buses still stop outside the school to let tourists snap pictures of the awkward-looking plywood box covering Michael's name.
His sudden death last week (on the verge of what may have been his big comeback) brings to a close one of the strangest, saddest and most extraordinary stories in pop culture. Apparently, unimaginable fame and wealth don't buy stability, direction or love. I suspect that when the toxicology reports come back in a few weeks there will be more bad news about the last days of King of Pop. And that will be sad. The tragedy seems complete already.
Thursday also brought the news that Farrah Fawcett had lost her long and very public battle with cancer. As a teen I'd been a big fan of Farrah's. Mostly because she was so perfect-looking. The teeth, the hair, that body. I first noticed her in commercials plugging tooth paste and shampoo, plus I also belonged to a whole generation of boys who owned that famous poster of her in the red bathing suit. I'd watched her skyrocket to stardom on "Charlie's Angels" and witnessed her fall from grace after leaving the show. After floundering around for a while in some really bad movies, Farrah announced that she was going to New York to try her hand at acting in an off-Broadway play.
By that time, I was an overly-earnest young actor struggling to be taken seriously in the rugged world of New York theatre. We hardcore theatre types looked down on Hollywood and were used to seeing TV and movie actors come to town in an attempt to legitimize themselves on stage. Most of those attempts ended disastrously and we took a certain glee at seeing these lightweights banished back to the west coast with their tails between their legs.
Farrah had made the seemingly suicidal decision to replace the much-praised Susan Sarandon in a controversial play running in a small theatre on the Westside. The play ("Extremities") was an incredibly intense, very physical show that opened with a graphic and horrifying rape scene and just got worse from there. I had seen Sarandon do the show and it was harrowing. The idea that Farrah could pull off such a wrenching and physically demanding role seemed laughable. As expected, the critics were kept away for a few weeks while the new star got her bearings. But then rumors began to circulate that she was actually good in the role. In fact, not just good, but really good. When I finally saw her, I was floored. Farrah delivered a raw, emotionally charged performance that set everybody's hair on end. She made us eat our words.
Soon, big deal TV projects like "The Burning Bed" and "Small Sacrifices" came her way. Amazingly, she landed the movie version of "Extremities" (over Sarandon) and would go on to other films earning the praise of co-stars like Richard Gere and Robert Duvall. Nobody was laughing anymore. The most unimaginable thing had happened. Farrah Fawcett was an actor. Like many women of a certain age (especially those blessed/cursed with incredible looks) roles became scarce and personal problems increased. There was the obligatory reality series ("Chasing Farrah"). And then the diagnosis.
It always makes me a little queasy when people opt to have something as personal and gruesome as a battle with cancer documented for the world to see, but when "Farrah's Story" aired on NBC last month, the response was huge. There was an outpouring of love and support and it was inspiring to see Farrah's spirit so intact. She seemed plucky and oddly fearless. Right to the end.
I only saw her once in person. It was at a loud and slightly raucous party out in Malibu several years ago. Determined to meet her, I sailed over and asked her for a cigarette. She gave it to me, but didn't seem terribly interested in talking. I didn't blame her. I'm sure she spent her entire career deflecting gawkers like me. She gave me a light, but that was about it. What I wanted to tell her was that I was happy for her. She had gone from being a contestant on the "Dating Game" to Poster Girl to Angel to legitimate actor (complete with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations). She'd held on, fought hard and kept herself viable and afloat for three decades in a town where that's no small achievement. And she still looked great. I don't know that Farrah's posthumous fame will last as long as Michael's, but for those of us who grew up with her, she'll be remembered for a long time to come.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor ("Boston Legal") and screenwriter ("Kingdom Come") who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv