But it's time for another confession. You know... confession being good for the soul and all that: I am corrupting my girls.
Those who are acquainted with my extended family of Woodys will instantly recognize perhaps the root of all that is insidious in our gene pool. We have some of the quirkiest senses of humor that God ever put on this earth, and I point the finger of blame squarely at my father. This is, of course, no surprise. I always blame Dad for my sense of humor because a) it happens to be true, and b) he ain't around to defend himself anymore. Yeah, sure, I'll have to deal with all of this on the other side of the veil at some point, but I'd like to see him wiggle his way out of it.
Now, according to my mother (who is still around to defend herself), I started life as a very sweet, innocent little boy. Quite angelic, in fact. I even had strawberry blonde hair that would melt the heart of any martinet who might happen to cross my path. (She usually reminisces about the "sweet and angelic" part immediately preceding her memories of what a brat I was every time we visited the doctor and wore out every nurse who tried to stick a needle in my back during allergy tests. Go figure.)
At some point, however, I turned from a sweet and innocent boy into a crazed, megalomaniacal dictator of a big brother who ruled by open intimidation (Mom always forgets this part... my siblings do not) and even sported, of all things, a cackle that was vaguely reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash.
You see, Dad had chosen to take us to see a movie one night, and that movie was [CUE: theme from "Psycho!"] "The Great Race."
From that moment on I began channeling "Professor Fate."
Those of you who remember the movie will hopefully understand its attraction to me. It was a campy melodrama in the "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" vein, and the over-acting was quite deliberate. Tony Curtis couldn't have been a more perfect "Great Leslie," and in my mind, Jack Lemmon should have won every acting award Hollywood had to offer just for his performance as "Professor Fate." It was inspired casting all around.
It was, however, Lemmon's delivery that tickled the funny bone of a nascent young actor. When the movie came out (1965) I was still a good four years away from my first experience as an actor, but I had all the makings of one even at that tender age. Lemmon inspired me. We saw the movie only once or twice, and it wouldn't appear on television again for a few years after that. But I found myself making Fate's insane cackle my signature laugh. I got to where I could do a fairly passable imitation of the Professor on demand. I even
[NOTE TO ASPIRING YOUNG ACTORS WISHING TO KNOW THE SECRET OF WOODY'S SUCCESS ON STAGE: What follows is it. This is what made me the actor I became. Follow this advice at your own peril.]
practiced Fate's facial expressions, including the eyebrows, in the mirror religiously for hours every day of my young life. In point of fact, if I had spent anywhere near as much time on my homework as I spent in front of the mirror, I would be President of the United States today. Lessons to the would-be wise.
Last Saturday, while waiting for Olympic coverage to once again take over our alpha brain waves, I looked for something to watch that wouldn't require much attention on my part. I decided to put our "Great Race" DVD in the player because I haven't watched it for a couple of years now, and thought it would be fun. I wasn't disappointed, and soon found myself guffawing at all the classic Professor Fate antics and wishing that Hollywood would make movies "like that" once again. Then, all of a sudden it seemed, my Woodyettes were sitting on the couch with me, watching just as intently as I was.
I was a little puzzled, because this isn't exactly their kind of entertainment. Their entertainment usually consists of young children, preferably at least one blonde and one brunette, involved in some sort of life-or-death exercise involving, at a minimum, one pegasus. There are no children in "The Great Race" except for the urchins who are scribbling graffiti ("Fate loves Fate") on Fate's gate to his property, or the kid who punches Max in the gut because Fate popped his balloon before the start of the race.
Then it dawned on me. It's not the movie that has them riveted. It's Daddy.
Years ago, when my Dad took his brood to the theater to see "The Great Race," I remember listening to Dad chuckle his way through the movie. Almost invariably he was chuckling at Professor Fate, and this made a great impression on me. Even years later, watching the film on television (which became a Woody tradition in the days before VCRs), Dad would chuckle heartily at Professor Fate and Max. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Dad chuckle. It had a nearly narcotic effect on me, and I found myself wanting to be an actor just like Lemmon so I could make Dad chuckle. It worked, sometimes. When I wasn't being an idiot teenager, anyway.
So I suspect that, more than anything else, my Woodyettes like to hear their Daddy laugh. It must be a comfort thing, when you stop to think about it. If Daddy is laughing, things must be right with the world. It's a signal that all is well, and Daddy isn't stressing about anything at that moment, which means Daddy won't be yelling at them for any reason in the immediate future. I think I understand this now.
Thus Daddy has resolved to do more to make his girls feel more comfortable with life. Oh, I can't realistically expect that I will never show the stresses that I sometimes feel. One can't really be an adult without feeling (and occasionally showing) stress. But if I make that an exception in my life, rather than a rule, my family will benefit accordingly.
I need to make my girls laugh. Guess I'd better spend more time in front of the mirror.