Oh, Captain. My Captain. You were more than an idol, more than a hero. You inspired me. You taught me. You helped me grow into the person I am today.
Carpe Diem. Tom Shulman may have written the words, but you made me believe them. You were Mr. Keating to me, that magical once in a lifetime teacher who opens students’ eyes to new wonders and makes them believe they deserve to stand up for themselves. The teacher who makes you fight for what’s right, the teacher that allows/forces you to think for yourself, not to follow the herd. Oh me, oh life.
I am so grateful for the many excellent teachers I have learned from in all areas of study and on my lifelong journey as an actor. There are so many to thank, including but not limited to, – from childhood: Sharp, Klein, Stewart, Head; from college: Lank, Lutz, T., O’Connor, McCrory, Flauto, Snow; and adulthood: Johnson, Green, Hill, Kloss, Cackowski, Grace, Skov, and so, so many more. However, the person I most want to thank right now, in this moment, is a teacher I only had for two weeks at a gifted and talented summer camp in 1989. Dr. Marti Runnels taught my Theatre Arts class at Texas Tech’s “Shake Hands With Your Future” camp that year. One evening, he took our class on a field trip to the movies to see Dead Poet’s Society – a moment that would greatly impact the course of my entire life.
It was a magical time, the summer camp, the class, the movie. At barely 14 years old, I was overflowing with all the stereotypical teenage doubt, insecurity, desperation and fear that plagues most people during puberty. What I didn’t know at the time was my genetic predisposition to mental illness. I didn’t know that my angst wasn’t something I would grow out of, that I would continue to battle my depression for the rest of my life and that bi-polar disorder would strike hard in my family resulting in a catastrophic loss. All I knew then was that movie got me. It got to me, it spoke to me, it understood me and expressed everything I was feeling and wanted to be. Carpe Diem. Make your life extraordinary. My best friend from home, whom I was already deeply involved in a community theater teen troupe with, was also in the camp and at that movie with me. From the moment we saw that wisp of smoke and Neil’s father cried, “My boy, my boy!”, she and I were sobbing and did not stop for about three or four hours. I left that theater saying, “I will never give up. No one will ever stop me from being an actor. Never.”
The next day before Theatre class, my best friend and I organized the rest of the class to thank Marti for the outing. We arrived early and were all seated at our desks. When he walked in the room, we all stood up, and one at a time stepped onto our desks to speak those words, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” It was AWESOME! Just like it was the only thing Todd could do to express himself to Mr. Keating, this was the only way I could sum up how moved, inspired and grateful I was. Thank you, Dr. Runnels. Thank you.
And this is why, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” was the first and only response I had to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. This is why losing him hurts so much and feels like I really lost someone I knew and loved, who loved me in return. He’s part of me becoming me. Carpe Diem became a national catchphrase for the early 90’s and a concept that burrowed its way deeply into my psyche. This became my motto, my mantra and the fuel for my adventurous spirit. That Christmas of 1989 I received a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words. I still have it. See what remains of it in action HERE, just one example of how Carpe Diem and The Captain have impacted my life and my work today.
I meant what I said leaving Dead Poet’s Society: nothing or no one would ever keep me from being an actor. Unlike Neil, I have extremely supportive and nurturing parents who never deterred me from my dream. (Thanks again Mops & Pops!) That was one obstacle I didn’t have. But there’s nothing easy about this carer path and, at 14, I was already hearing from directors that what I couldn’t be was a fat actress. Except for the one time I got to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (thank you, Mr. Sharp), I was basically told I could never be the leading lady unless I was thin. From a mole, to a rat, to a tugboat, I spent my teen years as our company’s go to “character actor,” very often crossing gender. This was disheartening then, as it is now, but I’m not complaining. (Nothing and no one will stop me!) I would’ve played anything, as long as I got cast, as long as I got to act. Ah, the heady days of the 80’s and 90’s, getting high on the smell of greasepaint and spirit gum.
All my life, through rejections, heartbreaks, starving artist poverty and the worst of all, losing my brother, performing has been my safety net. The stage is my home, my church and my security blanket. Like the Captain himself said to Marc Maron in 2010, “The only sanity clause…, the idea is going on stage is the one salvation.” Yes, Captain. You know. When I am performing, there is no depression. Well, in the darkest times, it is at very least held at bay. It may linger or lurk, but it cannot consume me. The stage is a salve for open wounds,(see Healing Improv by my dear friend Bart Sumner) a place to be free and a chance to live. It’s not about getting to be someone else, it’s about getting to be ME. Getting laughs is also a drug. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s more addictive than crack.
Actors. I know it’s rough, I know you’re in pain, I know you’re struggling and starving (sometimes literally). I’ve been there, I am there. It’s time to shut up that ugly voice of doubt inside you. Shut up and take care of yourself. We actors are often sensitive and emotional, which leads to self-criticism, which leads to self-destruction. I have lost too many heroes and idols and far too many of them were taken by drugs or mental illness. One in four adults struggles with some form of mental illness. There is no shame in admitting that you’re human. Go to therapy. I love therapy. It has saved my life more than once. I firmly believe that every person on this planet would benefit from counseling, and especially actors. (We love to talk about ourselves, right? Kidding. Or, am I?;) ) Get help. Take the medication that is prescribed to you, as prescribed. Do not abuse that medication. Take care of yourself mentally and physically.
So many heroes are gone, but recently I met someone who is a new kind of hero. LA Connection, the improv theater where I perform and teach, provides improv shows for summer camps, birthday parties and other events. A few months ago, we were hired to perform for a 90th birthday party. The party was held at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, a beautiful residential facility for seniors from all aspects of the entertainment industry. One guest and fellow resident at this party was Connie Sawyer, a spitfire old gal who may reside at an assisted living facility but is far from retired. At 101 years, Connie is the oldest living and WORKING member of SAG/AFTRA. Her credits begin in 1954 and continue up to today. They include classic TV such as The Jackie Gleason Show, Bonanza, The Donna Reed Show and The Andy Griffith Show. More recently she worked on ER, Dumb & Dumber, Pineapple Express, The Office, How I Met Your Mother and many, many more. Many of her characters for the last twenty years are simply listed as “Old Lady,” Elderly Lady” or even “Oldest Woman in the World,” which she played on an episode of New Girl that just aired in March. Most recently, she has appeared in a recurring role on Ray Donovan (which aired two weeks ago!) and plays a lead in a just completed short called Entanglement about a love triangle at a retirement home. She will turn 102 in November.
Our short form improv shows generally involve a good deal of audience participation, but particularly when we do these private ones we get guests up on stage with us as much possible. We are used to the challenges of doing kids parties. An event where the median age of the audience was around 90 offered an altogether different set of challenges. Here came Connie to the rescue. Her friends essentially volunteered her for every piece that required an audience member on stage, which she was more than happy to oblige. And she blew me away. She was quick, spry, witty and funny. Oh, and that old lady was dirty! We usually try to keep these type of shows PG, but, hey, if Connie’s gonna bring up some kinky sex stuff, then all bets are off. Connie Sawyer is not a star or a household name, but she is the kind of actor I want to be. She works.
She has inspired me now to take care of myself even more. I want to still be working at 102 years old. I do a good job of managing my mental health and now my physical health must receive the same priority. I’m not planning on a dramatic weight loss, but I do need to be more mindful of my blood pressure and other concerns. I get regular blood tests and while I am not at risk for diabetes, my cholesterol is higher than ideal. I will take better care of myself.
There have been many public figures whose passing felt like a big loss (partial list below), but I have never wept so much or so hard for someone I didn’t actually know as I have for My Captain. It has been a rough few days, and obviously, the whole country and much of the world feels this loss too. We’re all trying to understand why and how and what could have been done. In the end though, there will never be a satisfactory answer and there will never be anything we could have done differently. It was up to him. He gave us so much, more than we knew to ask for, more than we could have imagined and probably more than we deserved. He gave and he gave. We took and took, and maybe the one thing we could have done differently was to give something back. Celebrities often talk about “giving back” charitably, which The Captain did a thousandfold. When they “give back”, we take yet again, but what do they get? I’m not talking money, awards, accolades or even gratitude. If only we could give them back what they give to us, emotionally and spiritually. The work an actor does must be whole-hearted giving, like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You have to share yourself with your fellow actors and with the audience. Truly great, one-of-a-millennium actors, like The Captain, give everything of themselves, everything. He gave his whole heart, his whole mind, his whole soul, his very life, so that we could learn from his genius. He gave everything and what he didn’t do was save enough for himself. Mr. Keating taught me to fight for myself, no matter how hard the battle, and that is the lesson I will also take away from this wrenching awfulness. Even in death, he teaches.
I will continue to mourn, but I will take care of myself. I will seize the day.
You made my life extraordinary. Be at peace, Oh Captain, My Captain.
A Partial List of Other Heroes I Have Lost Too Soon
- Gilda Radner
- River Phoenix
- Phil Hartman
- Chris Farley
- Heath Ledger
- Brittany Murphy
- Phillip Seymour Hoffman