The roles of a lifetime, redux
If I’m allowed to play fast and loose with the word “formative,” ignoring biology and sociology and psychology and essentially using it any way I like, I’d say that I spent my formative years in Arizona.
I was born in southern California, actually, but we were very familiar with our neighbor to the east. There’d been a fair amount of state switching in our family between the two, and many commutes across the desert on visits, but in 1969, just before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon and I turned 11, my father got a new job in Phoenix and I started forming.
I return fairly often to Phoenix, still having family and friends there, although it’s a drastically different place.
Besides earning its reputation as a city strung out on growth hormones, a city that apparently never stops spreading, building suburbs where once only snakes and Saguaro cacti dared live, Phoenix is far less green than it was in my formative years.
Water is a precious commodity, particularly in a city of a million and a half inhabitants built in a desert.
There are still plenty of swimming pools visible from the air as I fly in, but the green lawns I remember from my time there appear mostly replaced by rocks. Rocks that don’t require watering.
My time there, on the other hand, felt cinematically suburban.
The community I lived in when I went to high school was a fairly new development, and my walk to school took me past houses that resembled ours, with those green lawns and basketball hoops over the garages, parks and ball fields.
Plop a person down in my neighborhood, I used to think, and there’d be few if any signs that they’d just arrived in a desert.
Unless it was summer, of course – 110 degrees will never give you a break.
But it was mostly just ordinary, middle-class suburbia, the place where I grew up, so it feels a little ironic that one of the biggest influences on me during my time there came from a couple of cowboys.
They weren’t really cowboys, although they had nice hats. The hats alone had a big influence.
“We’re going to see a guy named Butch Cassidy,” my father said one evening, my parents doing their usual dance, taking the family to a drive-in movie but not telling us until the last minute, trying to keep the household calm.
Movies were a big deal, and drive-in theaters were where we mostly went, convenient and affordable for a family of five.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was a critical and box office success in 1969 when it premiered, boosting Paul Newman’s already-impressive career and making a bona fide movie star out of Robert Redford, although none of that mattered to an 11-year-old in the backseat of the family car.
It was a joyous film to me, and it was there and then that my life became clear. I’d figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Not a turn-of-the-century outlaw. Although, as I say, the hats were pretty cool.
I didn’t want to be Butch or Sundance, in other words. I wanted to be Paul or Bob, either one or preferably some combination. I wanted to be an actor.
It’s crossed my mind over the years to wonder about that, to remember that from the night at the drive-in until my late 20s, my formative years in a way, throughout my teenage time and a few years into being a husband and a father, “actor” remained the working definition of me.
It wasn’t a hobby or a passion; it was just what I did, in high school and college, some adventures in Hollywood, some professional productions when I moved to Seattle in 1983.
And then I stopped. I took a bow one night, exited a small stage and never entered again.
I can give you half a dozen reasons that may or may not be true, but facts are facts: I stopped one night and never restarted. What had formed me and informed most of my choices, good and bad, just disappeared.
It might be poetic to think of it as a dream that died, but it never felt that way. It just felt as though I’d moved on, trying to feed a family, buying a house, carving out an entirely unremarkable life in a completely unremarkable way, almost forgetting that I once sat in front of mirrors and applied fake noses and pancake makeup, wore costumes and pretended to be somebody else.
Butch and Sundance remained in freeze-frame, just an entertaining, anachronistic Hollywood version of the aging Wild West, a guilty-pleasure movie I watched sometimes when I had a notion, nothing more.
And when old friends or family would ask if I missed acting, or ever thought of doing it again, I laughed and shook my head. Somebody would have to literally pick me off the street, based on nothing but a gut feeling, and offer me a part, and even then I’d probably turn it down.
Life is tricky, though. Somebody did. And I didn’t.
So I start acting again this week, filming a movie, made by passionate people who needed a man of a certain age. It feels funny, but familiar. I’ll let you know how it goes.
And if they let me, I have the perfect hat.