Ron Miller Here Today, Where Tomorrow? Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the set of his autobiographical movie from 1973 It's better to be unknown than be famous for a moment and fear Richard Lamparski will call
By RON MILLER
Just the other night, after a late meal that included a jalapeno quesadilla, I had this bad dream that the phone kept ringing and my wife finally struggled out of bed to answer it.
"It's some guy named Richard Lamparski," she said. "He wants to know what ever happened to you?"
Well, once I woke up, I realized it was just a bad dream. Though it's true that Lamparski, the guy who wrote all those "What Ever Happened To " books, is still around, I knew he'd never be calling me to ask that question. He only asks that question of famous people who are no longer in the spotlight.
I'm now quite comfortable with the knowledge that I'm not famous -- and probably never will be. Oh, I had my hopes once upon a time, but I knew I was a slow-starter, so I gave myself plenty of time to make it. I decided to shoot for fame sometime before I was old enough to collect Social Security. But now that I'm just a few months away from that deadline, I may have to set another -- or just give up on the darned thing.
So, even though that dream was unsettling, it was a long way from being the genuine nightmare it might have been to some people, like, for instance, somebody who really was famous for at least the 15 minutes the late Andy Warhol said all of us should expect in this era of instant celebrity.
Imagine, for instance, how it would feel to be really famous in your youth, then have to live the rest of your life as a "has been"? Think about a guy named Jimmy Boyd.
When he was just a freckle-faced youngster, Jimmy recorded a song that became one of the all-time holiday hits: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." It sold in the millions -- and that was about 50 years ago when selling a million records was something few superstars ever did.
But Jimmy never had another hit like that. Worse yet, he hit the puberty wall and got geeky-looking just at the time when he had a shot at movie stardom. He made his screen debut in 1954 as a stable boy in "Racing Blood," a low-budget horse movie at 20th Century Fox, then played ever-smaller roles in pictures like "Platinum High School" before falling off the celebrity map for good.
You can believe Jimmy probably reached a point where he took long trips into the Mojave desert around Christmas time, just so he wouldn't be around when "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" got its annual air play.
Another one is Tim Hovey, the cute little Bay Area kid who was Charlton Heston's foil in "The Private War of Major Benson" and made a few other pictures, like "Toy Tiger," at Universal in the 1950s. He grew out of cute and disappeared before we ever saw him as a teenager. I know Hovey dreaded the spotlight ever finding him again as an adult because I spent a month or so chasing him for an interview in the late 1960s and never caught up with him.
Here's another instant celebrity whose whole life became a trivia item: Pete Rademacher.
Pete was one of the very best amateur boxers of the early 1950s. He should be remembered as the Olympic heavyweight gold medal winner from the 1956 summer games, but somebody's dumb idea cost him his chance at enduring fame. You see, Pete was older than most amateur boxers and looked even older than he was because he was prematurely balding. Though a "white hope" heavyweight coming out of the Olympics should have been worth his weight in gold in the late 1950s, Pete's advisers told him he was too old to fight his way through the professional ranks to become the world heavyweight champ.
So, Pete Rademacher became the first boxer ever to fight for the world heavyweight championship in his very first professional fight. Staged in Washington state, his home territory, the bout pitted him against champion Floyd Patterson, who was undefeated. Amazingly, Pete put Patterson on the floor once before the champ pounded him out in the sixth round. As a fight, it wasn't exactly a work of art.
But Rademacher continued to fight, sort of working his way down the list of contenders instead of up. He was quickly kayoed by Zora Folley, then the No. 1 contender, in his second fight, but eventually he started to win and by the time he finally retired from the ring it was clear that he might have made his mark if some idiot hadn't talked him into the match that made him a trivia item forever.
Here's another example of a "flash in the pan" who might have been a lot better off if she had to struggle for her fame like everybody else: Francoise Sagan.
Sagan was a very young French writer whose first novel, "Bonjour Tristesse," became a literary sensation around the world. Because she wrote about what she knew about -- young French girls in love -- Sagan was especially famous in America in the 1950s because she represented a sexually liberated society that America was trying to catch up with after years of June Cleaver-style values.
The best-selling novel was filmed in 1958 with a distinguished cast that included David Niven and Deborah Kerr and her follow-up best seller, "A Certain Smile," also became a big movie the same year, spawning a title tune by Johnny Mathis that topped the pop charts. (Ironically, Sagan's heroine in "Bonjour Tristesse" was played by Jean Seberg, the Pete Rademacher of acting, who was cast in the leading role of Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan" in 1957 without ever appearing in a movie before. (She won a nationwide talent search.)
Sagan continued to write, of course, and remains a cherished name among the French, but her instant fame faded within a year or two and nobody in America paid much attention to her subsequent novels, no matter how good they might have been.
Another likely pair for late-night calls from Richard Lamparski: Actress Genevieve Waite and director Michael Sarne.
Waite was the offbeat, kooky star of Sarne's first big movie, "Joanna," a light, goofy British film of 1968 that followed Waite's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20something character around fab London. It was a cheeky, typically "mod" 1960s British picture and Waite was very engaging, becoming one of the decade's hot prospects for long-term stardom. But she became less and less engaging in subsequent films, including the awful "Move" with Elliott Gould in 1970. She later married musician John Phillips and slipped into obscurity.
Sarne exchanged being famous for being infamous because his next feature film after "Joanna" was the notorious "Myra Breckinridge," the catastrophic 1970 adaptation of Gore Vidal's sex-change best seller, starring Mae West, John Huston and film critic Rex Reed as the transsexual leading character who has an operation and turns into Raquel Welch. Now widely considered to be one of the contenders for worst movie of all time, "Myra" sank Sarne's career overnight and made him a trivia item for the ages.
Finally, give a moment's reflection to the most famous seagull of all time: Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He was the principal character in Richard Bach's enormous best-seller "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and, in 1973, became the first seagull to ever star in his own autobiographical movie -- complete with a score by Neil Diamond. Hip enviro-freaks really got into Jonathan, seeing all kinds of metaphorical twists and turns in his story. A sexy young actress named Barbara Hershey even legally changed her name to Barbara Seagull in his honor.
Because Jonathan was the sensation of his time, I naturally pressed for an exclusive interview and finally got one while "Johnny" was filming on location in Big Sur. As I recall, he had little to say, but flapped his wings a good deal. As it turned out, the movie was a bust. I took my parents to see it and was nearly disinherited. Jonathan's celebrity began to molt. Ms. Seagull quietly changed her name back to Barbara Hershey.
Privately, I believe Jonathan was seriously broken up over his fall from fame. I can't confirm this, but I'm told Richard Lamparski couldn't leave his house for several years for fear of being "whitewashed" from the skies by a deranged seagull.
So, I've been reflecting on some of these unfortunate folks a bit lately. Frankly, knowing I'm not one of the formerly famous makes me confident I'm going to sleep much better tonight.
© 2000 by Ron Miller
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