Met Him Twice

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

When Harry Dean Stanton passed away Friday at age of 91, thus ending a film and TV career that spanned well over six decades, many people still needed a point of reference, i.e. his picture, and then they could say, “Oh, yeah, THAT guy.”  “That guy” was in 115 films and 84 TV shows, including one stint guest-hosting “Saturday Night Live.” He was also a musician and singer, showing those abilities in the first movie I ever recognised him from, “Cool Hand Luke,” playing a fellow prison inmate who sings “Plastic Jesus” while Luke (Paul Newman) is being enslaved by the prison guards. That movie was nearly 50 years ago, when Stanton was only in his early 40’s, though he looked older. He continued to play older-looking, weather-beaten characters right up to the end.

My first encounter with him was in early 1986, when I was barely two months into my solo career. It was one of those extremely rare times where I was hired to emcee at LA’s Comedy Store as well as do a set. For the most part, I sucked at MC’ing, and was relieved I didn’t have to do it too often, never having to do it in all in UK. Fortunately, I only had to bring up two acts after doing my own 15-minute set. The first act’s name totally escapes me, but the other was the late Sam Kinison. Sam by now was getting nationally famous, having appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and David Letterman show, and had brought some celebrity friends to see him. They were Lorne Michaels (longtime producer of “SNL”), Harry Dean Stanton, and Paul Simon.

After Sam’s set, I back-announced him and brought up the next MC, whom I also can’t remember. I then went over to the club’s bar area to get a beer, passing by Sam and his celebrity friends. As I’m standing at the bar, I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and it’s Lorne Michaels, asking me if I’d like to join their group. I was of course floored, but nervous, especially since I mostly talked to Paul Simon, and about how the stand-up realm is still new to me, having worked in a duo all this time, and babbling on, to which Paul finally interjected, “I had a partner once.” Yep, I had a bona fide attack of stupid there, but redeemed myself a bit by saying that I’d gone to see Simon & Garfunkel in 1967 at the Carousel Theatre in West Covina, where their opening act was The Buckinghams (“Kind Of A Drag” from early 67 was their biggest hit), and it was the only time I ever went with my parents to a Pop Music concert. He remembered the concert, and remarked that he was a bit flattered when whole families came to their shows. Stanton, meanwhile was fully gracious, telling me he liked my performance, my singing, AND my guitar playing!

This story would go further, as Michaels told me he was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and to call him there the next day, as he wanted to talk to me. Next day I called the hotel, and got that very Hollywood-ish reply, “Oh, he’s out for his jog right now, could I take a message?” Yeah, sure, I left my number, but two hours later, amazingly, he DID call back. He wanted me to come to New York and be on the show. Yikes! Two weeks later, I was on a plane for New York, paid for by NBC, with special showcases set up for me at The Comic Strip, where Eddie Murphy had gotten discovered. The head writer for the show came to see me, and name drops keep falling, it was none other than Al Franken (now Senator Al Franken). He was obviously very tired from working on the show all day, but was very kind nonetheless. The whole two days I was in New York, I actually talked to Lorne Michaels for about 30 seconds. The rest of the time, when I wasn’t performing, I did virtually nothing, but at least I got an all-expense paid trip to New York. I only wish it hadn’t been January, but let’s not quibble.

Bottom line is nothing further happened, though Lorne came to see me again at the Store, and I had a good set, but by then it was autumn, and SNL had already been cast for the next year, with Dana Carvey and the late Phil Hartman being added. That would be the last I’d see of Lorne, and I remembered when he initially made the offer to me in January of that year thinking, “Well, if this happens after only two months of working solo, I’m sure bigger things are to come.” Well, sadly, no. I did work continuously for a long time, did some big rooms, mingled with big names, worked a lot on the road and occasionally on TV, making decent money, but never again did I ever get an offer as potentially life-changing as that one.

In the early 90’s I met Harry Dean Stanton again, and it was at the rival club to The Comedy Store, The Improv on Melrose Avenue. After my set this one particular night, there was Stanton sitting in the back of the room, motioning me over to his table, where he was sitting by himself. He was very complimentary, telling me much the same things he’d said 5 or 6 years earlier. It was only when I reminded him of the company he was with that he remembered seeing me.  He went so far as to say, “I was hoping you’d do a whole song, cause your voice is so varied, I think you could sing anything.” Our conversation didn’t really go much beyond that, as we were in the showroom, and couldn’t really talk much, since another comic was on. But that one compliment, along with his incredible longevity and talent, is how I best want to remember Harry Dean Stanton.

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