On February ninth, in response to a post about two veteran cowboy movie actors freaking out at the prospect of performing in front of a live audience, ever-welcome commenter Ms. Zaraya inquired:
“Do you have examples of seemingly meek people acting tough?”
To which, my answer, and the genesis of the title for today’s post, is…
Not just because I like talking about me. But also because I have no idea what actors I’ve worked with had to overcome in order to deliver the goods. Not once, after a performance did any actor come up to me and say,
“I’m actually quite meek. And look what I did!”
So I don’t know about anybody else. I barely know about me. And the little I do know about me, I may actually have wrong.
For current purposes, I shall interpret “acting tough” and “acting boldly”, more specifically – since my about-to-be-described “actions” were, with one exception, verbal rather than physical – “speaking up.”
My qualifying list of such behaviors is embarrassingly short. The following are six occasions on which I – whose needle on the “Assertiveness Gauge” hovers precariously close to “Empty” – spoke up. I acknowledge, however, that these examples of “Speaking truth to power” can just as easily be categorized as inappropriate outbursts, bordering on Aspergers.
(I have, in truth, mentioned many of these before, but I welcome the opportunity to house them in a single post, so they don’t get lost. My outbursts are precious to me.)
Okay. Here we go.
- On the very first “show night” of The Cosby Show, when asked by the star if I had any suggestions for improving his performance, I replied,
“I really wish you’d learn your lines.”
- During a show we were working on together, singer Robert Goulet would habitually punctuate his jokes by punching me in the shoulder. Finally, having had enough, I reflexively punched him back, punctuating my reaction with the words,
“Don’t punch me!”
(Two-example “Summary of Effectiveness”: Robert Goulet never punched me again. Bill Cosby never learned his lines.)
- When asked by the iconic Canadian comedy team “Wayne & Shuster” who’d been performing together for over thirty years what they could do on their next TV special to re-invigorate their act, I replied to Johnny Wayne, the Alpha Dog of the duo,
“This time, why don’t you stand on the left?”
- After pitching a pilot idea to a Conference Room full of CBS executives, the network president told me I’d be contacted about their decision. When I inquired if he would be calling me himself, the CBS president pointed way down the table to a lower level executive, indicating she would. To which I replied,
“Oh, right. That way, everybody has a job.”
- While working on a Public Affairs-type show, the pretend-muckraking host offered to ask any question the writing staff wanted him to of his guest, union strongman Jimmy Hoffa, who had recently been cleared in a high profile, jury-bribing case. I immediately proposed,
“Ask him if he bribed the jury.”
- On first meeting Republican pollster/slash/consultant Frank Luntz who informed us he was currently devising ways to maximize the damage to then President Clinton as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I wondered, though not silently,
“How did you ever get to be so scummy?”
It is arguable that none of these are examples of a meek person acting tough. My responses could be equally characterized as rude, unnecessarily hurtful, show-offy, impulsive, or, at the very least, unwise.
But how about this one?
April the Twelfth, 1974. It’s a Friday afternoon.
I am at the Toronto airport, about to fly to Los Angeles, to, one, work during the upcoming weekend on a previously co-written Sanford & Son script that needed fixing, and then, on the following Monday, join the writing staff of a Lily Tomlin special (a staff which included, among other writers, the incomparable Christopher Guest.)
I was assured that my work permit authorization would be registered at “American Immigration” at the airport. I would not have to lie and pretend I was “traveling for pleasure.” I had an actual job, the appropriate paperwork had been completed, and it was absolutely clear sailing.
“Mr. Hollywood Working Man” would be winging to the Coast.
Except that the American Immigration Officer had no idea who I was. No paperwork. No work permit authorization. Too late to pretend I was “traveling for pleasure.”
My first reaction was panic. I’m meek. How do I know that? Do the logic:
“Meek people panic in a crisis.”
“I panic in a crisis.”
“I’m a meek person.”
“They told me you’d have the paperwork.” “We don’t have the paperwork.” Normally, that’s “Game Over” for me. I’d say something like, “That’s weird” and would promptly return home.
Not this time.
Instead, superhumanly adrenalized and refusing to be denied, I raced over to a bank of pay phones (and I don’t normally race anywhere; even on colonoscopy “Prep Day”, I saunter.) I call the Department of Immigration in Los Angeles. (I do not recall where I got the change for the pay phone. I may have ripped it from the hand of a young child waiting at a concession stand to purchase some Smarties. I was in the state of mind to do that.)
On the phone, I demand (!) to speak to the official handling my paperwork, and once I get him, I insist (!) he remain on the line. I ask my friend who has driven me to the airport (and whom I’d asked to stick around “just in case”) to hold the receiver. I then race – again, race – back to the Immigration Officer, interrupt him in the performance of his duties, grab him by the sleeve, and virtually drag him to the pay phone, where he receives confirmation of my legal working status – which they had accidentally forgotten to pass along – I have my paperwork stamped and authorized,
And I get on the plane.
I am sixty-seven years old.
Number of times when I legitimately acted tough:
I’m not certain about this, but I have the sense that to escape from the “meek” designation?
You need at least three.