When news of Ed McMahon's death came on Wednesday, my first thought was, who will be the other two.
I know it's an unrealistic superstition that show biz deaths always come in threes. But nonetheless, they often seem to. At least when it comes to the famous ones. And McMahon was pretty famous.
Though it was an odd kind of fame. It seemed to stem mostly from his laugh on the Tonight Show through the decades of Johnny Carson hosting it. I wasn't crazy about that laugh, it seemed forced or phony to me most of the time. I also wasn't crazy about the ways he bragged about having been a Marine and about being such a great salesman he could sell anything.
Salesmen always seemed like phonies to me, at least the kind that bragged about being great ones. McMahon reminded me too much of a certain type of back slapping older Irish-American men I grew up around who would call you "pal" or "buddy" and leave the impression they didn't ever really see you because they lived in a cocoon of self-protection, using their smiles and loud guffaws (both of which often seemed faked to me) to keep others from seeing who they might really be.
Though McMahon's friends insist that what you saw was real with McMahon, and may well have been, I dug him most when he played against type. He wasn't famous for that, but it's what made me sit up and notice him as more than a sidekick. Like as the corporate bad guy in an underrated film from the late '70s (if I remember correctly) starring Jane Fonda and George Segal—FUN WITH DICK AND JANE.
I remember leaving the screening of that flick thinking how great McMahon had been in his small role and how much I had underestimated the guy's capacity for anything beyond that famous laugh, that always seemed to me to harbor some deep resentments never truly expressed but leaking out through the hail-fellow-well-met facade.
At any rate, the man led a long and successful life, and seemed, especially toward the end, to genuinely be grateful for it. So maybe what he was hiding, at least the way I saw him, was simply the fear that anyone would have who built a their fame and fortune on not much more than a smile and a deeply resonant laugh that had to be delivered on cue.In the end, my take on him was that he was a pretty great actor who put most of that talent into one major role—Ed McMahon.
After Marylin Monroe seduced me on screen when I was a kid, and in still shots in newspapers and magazines or in the famous interview on Edward R. Murrow's black-and-white TV show that invaded famous people's homes with their cameras and microphones for remote interviews from the CBS studios (a phenomenon that seemed as amazing at the time as landing a man on the moon would a few years later) I was never that taken by the usual blonde suspects again.
So when Farrah Fawcett came along, I wasn't a big fan of the poster that made her famous. there was something a little scary in that bright white toothed smile for me. Though I did find her attractive both physically and personality-wise on CHARLIE'S ANGELS, the TV show that made her even more famous than the poster did (I think they say it's the best selling pin up poster of all time).
But I met her several times over the years, when she was in NYC doing her first play (that I knew of) EXTREMITIES, and later during my almost two decades in Hollywood. And she was always unpretentious and surprisingly unselfconscious for someone so famous. I liked her.
Though her features and frame were delicate, in person she came across to me as a very powerful presence, almost with a kind of peasant earthy strength that seemed to contradict her looks. I don't know what her actual family was like, but on the set of THE BURNING BED (which my wife-at-the-time was in) she made me believe, even off camera, that she knew that kind of trailer camp lifestyle and deep disappointment and tragedy.
I liked her, and respected her attempts to prove she was an artist worthy of respect for her acting talent and not just her face and that famous smile. I'm sorry her last years were so difficult with a kind of cancer that had to be about as painfully uncomfortable as any illness could be. Doing that in public, whether by choice or not, has to have been an enormous challenge, which she seemed to face as seemingly fearlessly as she did the other challenges in her life.
Enough is being said about him. But I just wanted to add my perspective, which is simply that despite the damage his childhood traumas created for the grown man (and for others in his life obviously), there is no denying his talent and originality.
He was one of the great innovators in popular music, as not just a singer (that child-voice yelp has been imitated ever since he first emitted it, among other unique addition to a pop singer's techniques) and songwriter and bestselling recording artist, as well as live entertainer and especially dancer, but also as an innovator in the broader racial story of this country.
Yes, he ended up looking more like a wax representation of an older white woman with too much make up on, but initially—back when he was more obviously "black"—he bridged the still huge gap between African-Americans and other hyphenated and even WASPy Americans, with the kind of personality attack that paved the way for Obama's electoral victory.
Not in an easily defined categorically political way, but nonetheless politically. he played the politics of the entertainment business better than most, and at a very early age, and deliberately elevated that game to a higher level that incorporated the entire world into the ultimate victory he pulled off. By creating a worldwide audience that could not be denied, he transcended the limitations put on most "Black" performers, or any other kind of celebrities, at the time and forced the "white" establishment in this country to deal with him (the famous scene of Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House with "the gloved one" etc.
He was obviously a person who was hurting a lot of the time when he wasn't on stage, and who seemed to be sincere in his protestations of "love" for his fans, something that most of us can't fathom, how do you "love" an unknown mob of people? People you may never even see up close let alone talk to or get to know. Well, some entertainers truly do feel love most when presented with fans who obviously have the same kind of love for them, someone they never get to see up close or talk to or get to know outside of the performance arena and the media that fetishizes some of those who conquer it, no matter how briefly or ephemerally.
Though the latter two things don't apply with Jackson. Even if self-applied, he truly was "The King of Pop" far longer than anyone else since Elvis. And it's obvious from the outpouring we've seen in the media (and I witnessed first hand last night from an African-American woman in her twenties or thirties who kept passing by me and some family members outside the poetry reading I did last night in a library down the Jersey shore—she was loudly singing what slowly became clear was her own medley of Michael Jackson songs and smiling through her tears) that there are still plenty of folks who still feel that way about him.
He obviously had his faults (some of which may have even been criminal, though never proven), but as an entertainer, he was unique and in race relations in this country he was an important factor as a beautiful young black man, before he made himself into something that he obviously felt transcended, or attempted to transcend all that sad legacy.
[Here's links to two (here and here) of the best things I read about Jackson since his death.]