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Retiring from TV (sort of)

In the spring of 1990, I got a call from my agent’s office. A new series, Over My Dead Body, starring Edward Woodward, was beginning production for the upcoming fall season. They wanted as many names as they could get to guest star in the first six segments, to help push the ratings up and get the show recognized. "And they’d like to meet with me?" I asked.

"They want you to read for them," said the young lady who was a sub-agent.

I paused for a few moments in thought. "I believe you’re new at the office," I said.

"Yes, I’ve been here only a few weeks."

"I’m so sorry we haven’t had the opportunity to meet," I said.

"Oh, but I know who you are," she answered.

"Then would you do me a favor?"

"Of course."

"Call them back with this message: I have done about forty stage productions and have the Theater World Award from Broadway, plus a TV Guide award for a series called Combat! I’ve starred or co-starred in thirty-five features, starred in two television series and have in the neighborhood of four hundred television shows under my belt. Combat! is playing on several channels in the Los Angeles area, and some of my old movies can even be caught on cable. Oh, and English is my first language. I — Don’t — Read!"

About ten minutes later, the head of the agency called. "Rick, what’s the matter?"

"Nothing. Why?"

"Well…" yat tata yatta ta yat ta ta, "…and let’s face it, so these young producers are all twelve years old. But Rick, TV is eighty percent of the business."

"Ronnie, before I knew half as much about acting as I do now, the biggest directors I ever worked for, among them Orson Welles and Frank Tashlin, as well as Peter Bogdanovich, never even suggested that I audition. My business is not to make up for these new one’s lack of imagination. My job is to get a different spin on some material that’s a little stale and that they’re positive is new and original. And I can’t do that at a cold reading."

"But —"

"Ronnie, have we made a lot of money for each other these past twelve years?"


"While we still like each other, send me a release from my contract."

I continued doing voice-over commercials for several years, a lot of fun, and what I like to think of as legal thievery. Like a race horse put out to pasture, I missed the smell of a sound stage and the first cup of coffee at seven in the morning while the make-up man smears his sponge around your face as gently as he can (those people are the best psychologists in the world).

Several years ago, I had to reactivate my AFTRA card when I was engaged to shoot some videotaped intros for a couple of marathons of sixteen hours of Combat! on a satellite channel. They brought a crew to the house and I did the intros, as well as a series of short reminiscences to be aired between the shows. We shot from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon, with a break for lunch, and I didn’t find it at all tiring.

It was fun working in front of a camera again, perhaps because I realized how easy it’s become. As with everything, there’s a technique to it. Jackie Cooper told me a long time ago that after forty or so years, he was able to act standing on one finger with his eyes closed. I finally understood what he meant. Of course, he started out as a child actor, but after fifty years under my belt, I think I may have caught up. I can do fifteen takes and still give the sixteenth the energy and spontaneity it needs. Like an old war horse, I guess if someone offered me work, and the price was right, I’d dust myself off and do it. Actors egos are too big to ever really retire, and it sure is nice to be wanted.

I don’t wonder what it would have been like had I followed my father’s initial admonition and joined corporate America. I might have made a lot more money, but I wouldn’t have had half the fun. There are advantages to celebrity. It certainly makes traveling a hell of a lot easier, and going out to eat gets you a better table. But that’s not the sum and substance of it — how hollow if that’s all it meant.

I did some things that still entertain and that move those who watch. I was given that opportunity. I will always believe it was in spite of myself, for which I am truly grateful. I’m married to the most wonderful of all women who has kept me laughing for more than sixteen years, and more importantly, knows how to handle me.

Aria passed away some years ago, and I was informed by Jutta’s eldest son that his mother, too, had died. I haven’t heard about Shirley in a great many years, and Pat seems to have faded away somewhere, along with my Costa Rican parrot.

I look forward to the year 2003, when I’ll turn eighty. Yui Mei asks me teasingly sometimes, why I don’t act my age.

My invariable answer is, "Don’t know how. I’ve never been this age before." I think I look more than fifteen years younger than seventy-seven, and I guess I move about like ten years younger than that. I have to lose some weight and get on to those roller blades I bought a while back. Get myself padded up, bend the knees and lean forward while I learn a new balance, and when I can stand up straight and just wear the elbow and knee pads (and helmet), go out in the cul-de-sac and show the kids how it’s done. That ought to be fun.

Another reason I have to get in shape: we bought a new German Shorthair Pointer puppy, named Foxy, last year, and I have to be as ready as she will, to go hunting in this new millenium.

Meantime, I wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow . . . .

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