The recent arrest of "North Pond Hermit" Chris Knight -- a forest-dwelling loner and serial thief who is said to have committed 1000 burglaries over the past 27 years in Maine -- turned him into something of a pop-culture hero. The story got huge press and hit a worldwide cultural chord, yielding songful tributes ("How he kept alive in winter is a mystery to me"), bail money and marriage proposals. A deli sandwich called "The Hermit" was created in Knight's name, an honor usually reserved for comics rather than the comical.
The New York Times reported that Knight "had lived in someone else's woods, undetected under camouflage-colored tarps and completely off the grid; he paid no taxes, had no address and never used a cellphone. He told the police that he had not spoken during his decades of self-exile except for one day in the 1990s when he uttered a greeting to a passing hiker." Perhaps the hiker failed to return the greeting...
Knight was admired for all that. An old high school friend said that because Knight took only what he needed, "He's got this kind of Robin Hood aura about him."
This celebration of a Robinesque forest-dweller brought to mind the 1989 film Fellow Traveller, now airing on HBO. Written by Michael Eaton, directed by Philip Saville and starring Ron Silver, it's the story of a fictional blacklisted writer in the 1950s who flees an FBI subpoena by going to London to write episodes of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, a real-world show that ran for five seasons on both sides of the pond during the heyday of the red scare (1955-59). The film and the TV series showcased the bravery of brigands -- a blacklisted writer and the character Robin Hood -- risking it all, fighting the system for the greater good.
The connection between The Adventures of Robin Hood and the Hollywood blacklist was profound. The series was created and produced by Hannah Weinstein, an American journalist and left-wing activist (in FBI/HUAC lingo, a "concealed communist") who moved to London in 1952 to avoid the perils of McCarthyism. She surrounded herself with more than a dozen stellar blacklisted writers, including Waldo Salt and Ian McLellan Hunter. Ring Lardner Jr. wrote the first episode as "Lawrence McClellan."
Lardner, a member of the Hollywood Ten, went to jail because he refused to give up the names of other Hollywood heavyweights with ties to communism, however tenuous. Careers of writers and actors could be ruined even if they'd attended a single Communist Party meeting years before.
Lardner and company turned out to be quite proficient at writing for kids. But while we youngsters were enjoying Robin's arboreal trials and triumphs, those of our parents who were also watching may have detected a certain subversiveness in the plots. This was, after all, the '50s, when the notion of a champion of the poor redistributing wealth might have been viewed as part of, well, a communist conspiracy. Lardner later said that Robin Hood provided him "with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America."
The theme song for The Adventures of Robin Hood featured a refrain that, nearly 60 years later, remains lodged in the synapses of millions of boomers even as we repeatedly lose track of the location of our iPads:
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad/loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood
I got a preview of the tune before my six-year-old friends did because I was sitting under the piano in our living room when my dad, Carl Sigman, wrote the words and music -- in one afternoon. The song became a pop hit on both sides of the pond in 1955, as sung by Dick James (with Stephen James and His Chums), who would become the Beatles publisher, and produced by George Martin, who would become the Beatles' producer. That same year, "Robin Hood" served as the b-side of Nelson Riddle's No. 1 smash "Lisbon Antigua." It was later parodied by Monty Python -- the Beatles of comedy -- with an inept Dennis Moore standing (or riding) in for Robin. Other coverers have included Frankie Laine and Deep Purple (!).
Fellow Traveller's Michael Eaton, still fascinated by the transgressor as cultural touchstone, has come full circle, having written a play about Charlie Peace, a Victorian burglar and murderer whose real-life exploits turned into legend after his capture, trial and execution -- turning him, some would say, into, yes, a Robin Hood figure. It's scheduled to premiere next year in Nottingham, just a few miles from Sherwood Forest. Plus ca change...
Those who glorify the North Pond Hermit for his skin-deep connection to the Robin Hood myth ought to consider this before arguing for a Chris Knighthood: Knight was nailed, finally, for stealing marshmallows and other treats from a camp for the disabled.