[ fiction - july 10 ]
It wasn't entirely on whim that I went backstage to see Bobby Hardin. I tried to fool myself into believing it was, but you can't fool a fooler. Actually, I went back after much forethought.
Most of the rest of the world, of course, knows him as Robert Hardin. They've seen the movies. But those of us who went to school with him in Trenton still refer to him as Bobby. Even those who didn't know him well - especially those who didn't know him well.
Truth is, I don't think anyone knew him well. He was one of those kids whom it wasn't easy to know. I certainly didn't know him well. But, at that, probably better than any of us, because, by sheer accident of alphabetization, I sat next to him - or him to me, as our classmates would have put it - in many of our courses up through 10th grade when I went away to prep school.
I'd like to be able to say I was just an all-round good guy and therefore the one who didn't give in to routine grade-school cruelty as did so many of my contemporaries. (At that time of life, the greatest force on the planet is, despite what Newton claimed, peer pressure, and few are graceful under it.) In the interests of honesty, I'll only say I was no worse than the others.
And we were a snot-nosed crowd. Rich, privileged, given to referring to ourselves as God's gift. Without humor. Once, when we were handing a substitute teacher a particularly hard time - unison humming or some such time-honored classroom torment - she stopped what she was doing, gave us a narrow look and said, "You children think you're so special. Let me tell you, when substitutes are assigned to this school, their blood runs cold."
That shut us up, but not for long.
We weren't, incidentally, all rotten in that uppity way. There were kids who didn't have what the rest of us did. Bobby Hardin was one of them. Always a skinny, unathletic boy with a bad complexion, he came from that sliver of our school district where the projects hunkered down. We all knew his father was a plumber and his mother worked at one of the local factories. Very beneath our station, since most of the pack I ran with were the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and businessmen and their well-turned-out wives.
We all also knew - or thought we knew - that Bobby wasn't very bright. Nowadays we'd probably recognize his problem as dyslexia, but we didn't have the word then - only the undiagnosed condition. (Just as it was only years later that the penny dropped and we all understood Neva Marcus's mysterious affliction was anorexia nervosa.)
Most of the time I didn't bother to talk to Bobby, but occasionally, because of how we were seated in our classes, one or another of the teachers would ask me to help him out with something.
What was I going to say? I had my bogus reputation as a good boy to uphold. So I helped. Minimally. There were other times when I helped passively by choosing not to notice his cribbing from my papers during exams.
It was hardly kindness or sympathy on my part but something else entirely. It was my joke on the teachers whom I had decided were incompetent. I figured that if they weren't going to keep up their part of the bargain - to know sufficiently more than I did about the courses they were teaching - than why should I keep up mine to play fair and square?
This isn't something I ever discussed with Bobby, but I suspected he knew and appreciated my gesture. I suspected that was why he would occasionally give me a quick nod and mutter something vaguely chummy in my direction before slinking off to be by himself and do whatever he did in his inexpensive (Robert Hall?) but neatly laundered shirt and trousers when school let out. Once, when I was running for president of the ninth grade, glad-handing everyone I passed in the ringing corridors, I suppressed my disdain and asked Bobby for his support. He said he wasn't planning to vote, but since I'd asked, he'd think about it.
When I left for Phillips, I lost track of Bobby. He wasn't someone I was likely to ask about when I was home on vacation catching up with my (self-declared) hot-shot friends. I remember going to the movies one New Year's Eve with a group of six or eight people and having one of them say with typical nastiness as we were leaving the theater, "If it isn't Trenton's rebel without a cause." I looked and there Bobby was in an ill-fitting jacket, alone and crossing the street to get away from the throng as quickly as possible.
The irony - or one of the ironies - is that Betsy Erickson and Pat Woolard were with us, both of them still recuperating from James Dean's death, both mourning the emblematic misfit they wanted so vociferously to mother while remaining entirely oblivious of the causeless rebel in front of their noses.
I sometimes wonder what they thought when that Bobby Hardin became a latter-day James Dean.
Who'd have thought it?
No one I knew. As far as I recall, Bobby never so much as auditioned for a class play. I know, because I auditioned all the time and landed major parts in which I was always slightly embarrassed and therefore more than slightly wooden. I've jogged my brain to remember whether Bobby even turned up to stage manage or paint sets. Nothing comes back to me.
That's why it was such a surprise when I got a call some years later from one of my friends who stayed in Trenton after so many of us scattered.
Dougie Rhoden wanted to know whether I'd gone to see this off-Broadway play he'd read about and whether I could tell him if the Robert Hardin in it was our Robert Hardin. Our Bobby Hardin. I laughed and said it couldn't be. I inanely pointed out that "Robert Hardin isn't that unusual a name," and, hanging up the phone, quickly forgot about it.
Until a couple months later when I picked up the Village Voice - this is before I became a sometime contributor - and learned that Robert Hardin had won an Obie. Adjacent to the list of winners was a picture of some of them holding their citations. Standing at one end, looking as if he longed to be somewhere else, was our Bobby Hardin.
It was unmistakably he. I'd have known that open-parenthesis posture anywhere, known anywhere that narrow close-parenthesis face with the sullen expression. Needless to say, I decided I'd better see for myself. Too late. The play, an early Donald Markowitz piece, had already closed, evidently because Bobby Hardin was to leave to make a movie and was considered irreplaceable(!) by the producers.
I suppose you could say the rest is show biz history. The explosive film debut, including an Oscar nomination and the cover of Newsweek. The succeeding string of hit movies and amorous leading ladies. The panting coverage on Entertainment Tonight and Good Morning America, the likes of Cindy Adams cozying up to him in print. The two-year defection to the Himalayas. The triumphal return to the screen. The hullabaloo when, after a number of so-so box offices numbers, he decided to end a 25-year absence from the stage and come back in Richard III. The generally ecstatic response, save Orville Betts's unkind cuts about age and diction.
Tickets were scarce as hen's teeth, but there I was one matinee day, passing the Booth Theatre with time on my hands and nothing to lose by stopping. My good luck, a lady with only slightly tinted blue hair was tentatively holding up a ticket she needed to sell - her friend Lillian Rabstein was "having mouth trouble" and had to run to the dentist. She sold me the seat at face value and with, I think, the implicit understanding that I chat with her during the intermission.
Not the worst bargain; so in I went.
I'd seen Bobby's movies, of course, or most of them. And I'd long since realized he was a proficient actor, but I'd never seen him on stage and was unprepared for his startling presence. Remember I'd known him during a time when his greatest talent was for fading into the woodwork. But, taking stage as Richard III, he was the model of self-confidence, the kind that holds everyone around him in thrall. From the moment he crept out of deep stage shadows to deliver Richard's opening monologue, he was witty and irresistible, making evil an altogether attractive attribute.
He didn't play the king with a pronounced hunchback but with an exaggerated version of his own bent posture. Bowing and bantering with twinkling malevolence and skulk, he explained by way of deft performing the allure and tragedy of a certain kind of glossy malevolence I could see what Betts had meant about age - perhaps Richard III should ideally be taken on by a younger man. As for understanding what Richard was saying, well, no, it wasn't a polished accent. But the pleasure of seeing such a skilled characterization outweighed, for me at least, the miscasting.
When the audience stood on its feet for Bobby's half-dozen curtain calls, my seatmate - the relatively unbothersome Mrs. Bress - and I stood along with them. I wondered whether any of the kids with whom I went to school had shown up for this and done the same thing. Did they also think how loudly we all would have laughed at anyone predicting years ago that one day this homage would take place?
Throughout the performance I'd flashed on what I would do when it was over, would I go back? Would Bobby know who I was?
I reckoned the most I'd suffer was an awkward dismissal. Something I could withstand. Hadn't Bobby suffered as much and worse during those many long-ago school years?
Though there were autograph hounds at the stage door, they seemed an unusually docile gathering, and it occurred to me it was likely they were responding, knowingly or unknowingly, to something in Bobby.
The subdued crowd parted easily and allowed me to pass through to a beleaguered doorman who asked my business. I didn't say I was an old friend of Mr Hardin - that would have been stretching it - but simply said my name. The doorman gave the impression he would shrug me off, as I'd half-expected, but, no, he turned and disappeared up a short flight of stairs.
He was back in seconds to say I could go up, a left at the top of the stairs and first door on the left.
I followed directions and came to a dressing-room with its door slightly ajar. Through it I saw two men chatting and an intense young woman busy hanging clothes up. Bobby was the man facing me. When the man with his back to me turned around, I recognized him as the director Harlan Prine. I also had the distinct impression that, chuckling agreeably, Bobby was hurrying his accomplished guest out the door. Prine shook Bobby's hand and gave me a brief smile as he exited into the hall.
Alone after all this time with Bobby Hardin.
"I hope you don't mind my barg - ," I started to say.
Bobby began talking as well. "Danny Freund," he said. "Here. Sit down."
There were only two chairs in the decidedly unswanky room. A flimsy wooden chair just inside the door and a battered stuffed chair at the dressing table. I made for the wooden chair, but Bobby, picking clothes from the seat of the stuffed one, said, "No. Please. Sit here."
"This one's fine," I said.
"No. Please. Take this one."
As we played out the Gaston-and-Alphonse vignette, there was a knock on the open door and Harlan Prine stuck his bearded face in with unmistakable deference. He gave me another quick smile, clearly meant as an apology for the intrusion, and said to Bobby, "I just wanted to double-check we're all right for lunch Friday."
Bobby said it was all right with him, and again Prine disappeared.
"Harlan Prine," I muttered. It was something to say.
"He's got a play he wants me to do," Bobby said. "But I don't know."
We were both still standing, Bobby making it plain he was refusing to take the stuffed chair by the dressing-table. I relented and sat down on it. The young woman, who was wearing shapeless clothes and whose hair sat on her head like underbrush, continued arranging paraphernalia and paid no attention to what was going on.
"Look," I said, "I just wanted to come back and tell you how good you were. I've seen many Richards, but you were terrif - ." This was already sounding like blather, so I cut off. "But I'm sure you know that."
Bobby folded himself into the wooden chair, one leg painfully wrapped around the other. I knew the pose from grade school.
"No. I don't know."
"Well, if you don't, the critics must have convinced you."
"I don't read the critics."
It seemed to me I was making Bobby uncomfortable. I stood up to go. "I know you're busy - another performance tonigh - ."
Bobby leaped up from his chair and stood in front of the door. "No, no. I just have a few things to do. Then I was going to get something to eat. Maybe you could join me."
Again we were both standing. For no good reason I checked my watch. I was due nowhere. "I don't know. I have to - ."
"I wish you could..." He trailed off. "I'm sorry. You have somewhere to go."
I suddenly wasn't in the mood for a social lie. "Well, no. I don't have to be anywhere immediately. Sure. Thanks."
"Then that's settled." For the first time he spoke to the young woman with the cartoon hair. "Vida, you can get the programs now." Vida put down what she was doing and started to leave the room. "Oh, by the way, this is Danny Freund. I went to school with him."
Something in the way Bobby said that caught my attention. He went to school with me. Not I went to school with him or We went to school together. Vida turned around deferentially and nodded in my direction without changing her preoccupied expression. Then she left.
"I only need to change," Bobby said and began to get out of his costume in the unself-conscious manner actors in dressing-rooms have. I wasn't quite sure where to look and then thought to myself, What am I being coy about? Bobby Hardin undressed is something I must have been seen dozens of times a few decades back when we all took gym. Here it is again.
Bobby wasn't saying anything as he shucked his clothes and threw them over the back of the wooden chair. I took the opportunity to look around the room. Framing the dressing-table mirror were bits of paper that had been cut out and taped there - what looked like epigrams, aphorisms, quotes he apparently found useful, notes to himself. There was a cluster of make-up pots and sticks. A rack with his costumes neatly hung - Vida's work. Stacked in a corner were books, all of which looked well-used and which, I realized when I looked closer at their spines, were connected with Shakespeare and with Richard III - AC Bradley, Harold Bloom, Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. Leaning against one wall was a 10-speed bike I supposed belonged to the taciturn Vida but then remembered must have been Bobby's. It was how he got around town, his clippings pointed out. There wasn't much else, no framed pictures of celebrities, nothing speaking of luxe or star status.
"Here," Vida said, reentering the room. She was holding a pile of programs and, mixed in with them, photographs. She put the heap on the dressing-room table and pulled a pen out of her shirt pocket. Bobby, in his underwear and buttoning a denim shirt, stopped dressing and went to the table.
He looked at the clump and then at me. Abashed, he said, "It's easier this way. Otherwise they'd wait out there until...I don't know why. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that they do. It's just it takes me a long time to get out of the theater. So Vida tells them I don't go out between shows. This way, I give autographs with less hassle. They leave and..." He scribbled his name quickly on whatever was in front of him - program, photograph, scrap of paper. When he'd dealt with one, Vida pulled it away so he could go on to the next. It was assembly-line autographing.
He finished in a few minutes and turned to me with his pen poised. "You?" I'd been holding my program without thinking about it. The request flustered me - did he mean it?
Bobby chuckled a raspy chuckle I'd heard from the stage not twenty minutes earlier. "I'm just putting you on." Vida apparently thought he might be serious as well, since she'd started for the door but stopped when she heard his question to me. Bobby waved her on and smiled.
I'd watched him smile as Richard III throughout the play. A thin smile, a smile that didn't include the eyes, an appropriately chilly smile. This wasn't the same smile. It was a smile I hadn't seen before. Ever. I realized that when we were kids, I'd never seen Bobby smile.
He resumed dressing. That is, he pulled on a pair of worn jeans and a pair of expensive snakeskin boots. When he'd done all he was going to do, he held his arms out at his sides and said, "That's it. We can go now." As I stood, he said to Vida, "I'll be back at half-hour. If you need me before then, you know where I'll be." He looked at me and said - with that altogether open smile - "Okay then."
I followed him out the narrow corridor, down the stairs and into Shubert Alley, which was busy with pedestrian traffic - matinee crowds chatting at each other, representatives of the New York work force cutting across on their way to the Port Authority. Bobby moved quickly, as if he were trying to slip through raindrops. Keeping up with him, I understood his speed: it was a function of celebrity.
I don't spend very much of my time with the rich and famous, so it hadn't occurred to me what might complicate even the shortest walk. I do remember once reading a remark David Niven made about staying close to the curb when he walked around Manhattan so as not to be noticed. It was his theory that on Manhattan streets most passers-by face in.
Bobby didn't favor the curb - possibly because so many others were at it hailing taxis. He hugged the buildings with only a glance back at me to assure himself I was keeping up. But even at his pace he was noticed. People did takes and double-takes.
A few pointed. Some even threw him abrupt comments, and when they did, Bobby mumbled a swift thank you.
(I thought of Bobby making his shame-cloaked getaway on that long ago New Year's Eve.)
All of this, mind you, took place over a course no longer than 150 feet, since Bobby's destination was a nearby actor's hang-out, Intermission, just down and across the street from the Booth. It was a place I'd been to many times to meet people before a show. When we entered, I recognized the affable maitre d', who, of course, recognized Bobby.
"The table in the back?" he asked. Bobby nodded. The maitre d' - Craig, in his own right a Broadway fixture - led us to a table for two at the very back of the room.
Bobby pointed at the seat facing the back wall and said, "You don't mind if I sit here, do you?" I said I didn't. We took our respective seats. "It's just - you know." He gestured around the room to indicate the semi-privacy his position accorded him. I followed his gesture and noticed a few of the patrons had already focused their attention our way. There were some knowing looks, some people maintaining blank expressions, some blatantly showing satisfaction that they were breathing the same air as someone well-known.
Craig said, "Don't worry, Bobby. You know me. I can run interference with the best of them." He left, tossing a professionally warm smile over his shoulder at me.
I was beginning to understand that there's a look celebrities reserve for the anonymous friends of other celebrities, a smile that says, I don't know who you are, but I'm sure you're somebody special if my famous friend is choosing to spend his valuable time with you.
Bobby said, "I didn't ask where you wanted to go. I hope you don't mind, but the food's okay here, and they know me. I can relax."
I thought to myself, they know you everywhere, but I understood what he meant. He unwound by leaning back in his chair and sticking his legs into the aisle. He crossed his snakeskin boots at the ankle and looked over at the menu - a blackboard, with the specials scrawled almost legibly in chalk, that hung on a nearby brick wall. He took it in quickly, looked back at me and said nothing. Just smiled another of those smiles I was unfamiliar with.
A tall waiter came over and put a cup of coffee down in front of Bobby, said, "Hi, Robert, the usual?"
Bobby said, "Scott. Yeah, thanks."
It was my turn. I asked for soup and a spinach salad. Scott repeated the order - the way waiters often do, to make sure we both knew what we were talking about - and left.
Bobby resumed looking at me.
For the first time since I'd met him in the dressing-room, I took a good look at him. What I expected to see, of course, was the school boy I knew. I didn't. The shape of his face hadn't changed, nor were his lips less sensuously curved or his nose less long and broad. But he was lined - he had crow's feet, and furrows carved from his nostrils down past his mouth. As often happens when you run into someone you haven't seen for some time, however, the altered face melt like a movie lap dissolve into the face you've always known.
I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to say. So I said, "I -uh - ."
"Danny Freund," Bobby said. "Dan Freund," he repeated, this time with an odd edge. Then, "Thanks for coming to the show."
I registered that show was the noun he picked to describe his lauded appearance as one of Shakespeare great villains. I have to say it more or less threw me. Nevertheless, I thought of the standing ovation and said the pleasure had been mine.
Then I said, "Who else has come back to see you?"
"From Trenton?" Bobby shifted his position. "Nobody." When he'd finished shuffling, he had one leg wrapped tightly around the other in that signature posture and was leaning over the table.
"I guess they're intimidated," I said. "You know, you're - ."
"Intimidated? I don't think that's what it is."
"No? After all, you're, you know, a movie star - ."
"I suppose I am to the rest of the world. A movie star. Whatever that means."
"I don't see why you wouldn't be a movie star in Trenton as well. Or to anybody from Trenton."
"I guess in a way that's true," he replied slowly, He was obviously thinking it over.
There was an outburst of loud laughter from across the room. I turned to see who was making it.
"Did you know they had a Robert Hardin Day?" he asked. "A few years back?" The irony floored me, but I didn't let him see it. At least I don't think I did. "Yeah.," he went on. "Hard to believe, isn't it? Robert Hardin Day." He gave the words a sardonic reading. "In Trenton."
"What was it like?"
"I don't know. I wasn't there."
"When they wrote me about the plans, I ignored the letter. When they sent a second letter - signed by the mayor and all - I had my assistant write back and tell them to forget about it." (Hollis Adler was Trenton's mayor then, had been for years, not so much because he was popular as because he was willing.) "I think I put it more politely. They went ahead and did it anyway."
"Weren't you curious?"
"Curious? Yeah, I suppose I was curious. They sent me the newspaper coverage. I looked at some of the pictures. There was a parade. A few cars. Pictures of me on long poles carried across the West State mall by drum majorettes. It was embarrassing. Yeah, I was curious."
"But not curious enough to go?"
Bobby unwrapped his legs and leaned closer to me.
He wasn't smiling.
"Funny you should ask me that, Danny." Only people from Trenton called me Danny, just as only Trentonians from back then would fall into calling him Bobby. "Let me ask you. Can you think of a reason why I'd want to go to Trenton?"
"Sure. Why not? You - ."
The waiter - Scott - arrived with my soup. He also set a plate in front of Bobby. I looked at it.
"Scrambled eggs and toast," Bobby said. "Bland foods. It's all I can eat when I've got a show to do." William Shakespeare's Richard III - "a show to do." "You were always a straightforward guy, Danny. At least, that was my take on it: Honest. As honest as kids that age were likely to be. I figure you're still a nice-enough guy. After all, you came to the show. No one else did. None of my other friends did."
He smiled again, but this time it was one of his Richard III smiles; his curved lips flattened and became hard.
"You don't know that," I said.
"I know that if they did, they didn't make the effort to come back and say hello. And, by the way, I'm using the word friends loosely. So let me ask you again. My folks are dead, and I wasn't that close to them anyway once I got out of Trenton. Can you think of a single reason why I'd want to go back?"