I've Never Met an Idiot on the River, page 5
All was right with the world and the karma of the water, so I was able to move past and give up my frustration and embarrassment and my need to control the situation. What I realized was the Zen concept that submission is power. If you don’t blow into the boat of frustration’s sail, the boat can’t move anywhere. My wacky son was enjoying himself, so why not let him?
There is power in letting go like that, and often there are unexpected rewards. Today Max is a USC film school graduate, a director, and a screenwriter with great promise. He has written and made a couple of films and sold one to a distributor. Still, we’ve discussed the possibility that if the Hollywood thing doesn’t work out for him, he can always find work as a singing fishing guide in Montana.
Better yet, my children have a father who has learned to love them and accept them for who they are. They still surprise me from time to time, and I like that. As a matter of fact I look forward to those moments. Years ago I’d also tried to get Max interested in horseback riding on our Montana trips. Initially he informed me that he did not like riding atop horses and added, “I don’t like the sport and I don’t really like the animal, either.”
I didn’t try to force horses or trail riding on him, and in a very short while he decided on his own to join us on our Montana trail rides. He even wears cowboy chaps he bought at the ranch, and he has learned to like “the animal” so much that trail riding has became one of his favorite Montana activities. And that makes me an unbelievably gratified, happy dad.
I even encourage Max to sing on the trail, but I make him stick to cowboy songs.
Hooked, Soaked, and Happy as a Clam
I wandered afar from my usual Montana fishing haunts a few years ago. Expert fisherman and television host John Barrett asked me to appear in a segment of his popular long-running show, Fly Fishing the World. Other celebrities who have fished with John over the years include supermodel Niki Taylor, actors Liam Neeson and Kevin Costner, and rocker Huey Lewis (apparently the News do not fish).
As you might guess from the show’s title, each of us casts lines in a different part of the world. My destination, I’m happy to say, was New Zealand. I took my son, Jed, a very good fly-fisherman, to one of the country’s beautiful Pacific islands for the taping. We were hoping to see some hobbits since they made The Lord of The Rings trilogy there, but no luck.
We didn’t see many fish, either. The weather was unusual for this island nation, rainy and gloomy, more Gollum than Frodo. When we didn’t catch a single trout on the first day, I decided that the secret to fly-fishing in New Zealand is “never give up.” That just happens to be my own secret to success in life, one that has served me well in my fly-fishing adventures, my acting career, and all my other endeavors.
So I did not give up on the fish in New Zealand, and I finally caught a very nice five-and-a-half pound trout on our second day there. I also took a little tumble for John Barrett’s camera crew while walking on the rugged riverbed. I’ve been known to fall into the water at least once a day while fly-fishing, no matter where I am in the world. I have this magnetic attraction to river bottoms. Then again, I’ve been known to trip and fall in the bathtub, too.
My self-dunkings do not discriminate between countries or states. There are rivers in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Tennessee, and, of course, New Zealand, where I have plunged. Oh, and let’s not forget Canada, where somehow my waders ended up upended and full of river water. And because I am so addicted to the sport, I can’t bear to just clamber to shore, dry off, change my pants, and empty my waders. Instead I remain waterbound: standing in water, surrounded by water, covered in water, and fishing my soggy little heart out.
While gravity is cruel to me, I should note that natural laws are not the only laws involved in my fishing exploits. My fishing is also governed by Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The Winkler Addendum to Murphy’s Law is “while Henry is fly-fishing.”
Murphy’s Law seems to come into play particularly when I am casting. If there is a tree on the riverbank, hanging over the riverbank, sticking out of the river, on the other side of the river, just beneath the surface of the river, or possibly in England, my fly will find it, land on it, and lodge itself for eternity.
No spider known to man can weave a web as massively tangled as the one I can create with one simple cast of my line. As it passes from behind me, over my head, and past the bow of my boat, my line can resemble abstract art, or a train wreck, depicted in microfilament. Sometimes these entanglements stop the boat dead in the water. When this occurs, I turn most gratefully to my guide and always smile as I say, “Oh, Rowan, have I got a PROBLEM for you!”
Moving targets are also mine to hook. If there is a clump of grass, a leaf, or a mere twig floating by, my fly will snag it like a heat-seeking missile.
Henry’s hooks of horror do not end there. I’ve also proven adept at snagging myself, my guide, and total strangers, some of whom made it abundantly clear that they did not enjoy our hookup. I once snagged my own facial cheek so thoroughly that the end of the hook went all the way through the aforementioned cheek and protruded from my mouth. I had never had the slightest desire to taste or feel what a trout tastes and feels when hooked, but after that experience, I can say unequivocally that it is not the least bit enjoyable.
Since a fly-fishing hook is not barbed, the age-old, time-tested process for removing it from human flesh is to yank it out with the help of fly-fishing line and a steady hand. When I caught my cheek, my guide came to the rescue. He told me this procedure would not hurt, and I wanted desperately to believe him. My intention was to be manly and brave. That was my intention, but not, in fact, what happened.
Winkler whimpers echoed through the woods. Still, thanks to my guide, unhooked I was. This was not an experience I would ever wish to reenact, though it did give me the right to say forevermore that not only do I practice catch and release, but also catch and release has been practiced on me.
My fishing follies are a show that never ends. I fish, therefore I snag. And I go splash so often Stacey has asked me to wear water wings. Still, no matter how many times I go down, I always come bobbing back up. Tenacity is another tool in my reel. Like anyone else, I’ve had my ups and downs, but my determination has served me well in fishing and in life.
In speeches to schoolchildren, teachers, and other groups, I often quote author Theodor Herzl, who wrote, “If you will it, it is not a dream.” (I’m fond of that quote, as you may have noticed.) I read his words for the first time decades ago, and they resonated with me. I still keep that saying on display in my office for inspiration.
Believing that my dreams could become my reality is a cornerstone of my life. Each of us has to take responsibility for preparing and striving, to the best of our abilities, to make our dreams into our realities. Staying committed to this idea has allowed me to do so many things and to overcome so many obstacles. And I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can inspire others not to be intimidated and to move ever forward toward their dreams.
Somehow I knew this, even at a young age. My dyslexia had made me insecure and fear ridden as a child, but I managed to overcome those fears of failing and being ridiculed. Mostly what kept me alive during those years was determination. I was one determined kid. My grade school principal once said I needed to focus so I could be a better reader. So focus I did, or at least I tried. I bought every neon yellow highlighter in Manhattan and, as I read my schoolbooks, I highlighted every letter, every word, and every sentence.
In world history class, I highlighted the entire Middle Ages. In other classes, I highlighted the U.S. Constitution, the Iliad, AND the Odyssey. My hands glowed neon yellow at night. I was that focused. But after all that highlighting, I had no idea what I had just read. For me, that defines the word FRUSTRATION.
My struggles with learning continued despite my valiant efforts. I once earned a C and declared that day a national holiday and threw myself a party. The onl
Thankfully I had some wonderful teachers, including Donald Rock and Michael Sicilian at McBurney School for boys in Manhattan. It was a tough school, very rigorous academically. We wore blue sport coats and ties and sang Gregorian chants. (I was heavily advised to lip-synch from the eighth grade on. When my voice changed, it left my body. When I sang, it sounded like the dying quacks of a mortally wounded duck.)
Mr. Rock saw that my self-esteem was low because of my poor grades and my inability to chant in key. I took a lot of flak, some of it in Latin, which I didn’t understand. One day he told me something that made a huge difference in my life. He said, “I promise you, Henry, when you get out of here, you will be fine.”
Mr. Rock was my rock. He was that rare adult who believed in me, and his confidence in me was contagious. I made it out of McBurney and through high school, mostly thanks to drama class and theater productions and great teachers like Mr. Rock.
Then I applied to twenty-eight colleges and universities. Only two of them were willing to take on the sketchy Winkler kid. I focused on the closest, Emerson College in Boston, a very, very liberal arts school. I chose Emerson in part because I’d heard it was founded as a “school of oratory.” I looked up the word oratory and saw that it meant “public speaking” or “speechifying.”
That sounded so good to me. No more highlighting! Just speechifying!
College wasn’t quite that simple, of course. I struggled with many classes, but my theater major helped me survive. Today you will find my name on Emerson’s website under Notable Alumni, alongside Jay Leno, Spalding Gray, Denis Leary, and Norman Lear.
Of course, many of my teachers didn’t think I was so notable when I was on campus, but I’m glad they think that now. They even gave me an honorary PhD in Hebrew literature a few years ago. Reading Hebrew is a real challenge for a dyslexic, so I’m glad I didn’t have to earn that degree the usual way.
I did manage to graduate from Emerson in the allotted time and then, miracle of miracles, I was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at the Yale School of Drama! First thing I did was tell my parents. Well, I didn’t tell them so much as throw it in their disapproving faces.
I called home and said, “Dumb dog just got into Yale!”
My mother did not exactly jump for joy. She responded wearily with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, in her heavy German accent: “Oh, sis is nice. Tell sis to ir vater.”
She quickly handed me off to my father. He was equally underwhelmed.
Very supportive people, my parentals. They were not impressed, either, when I was one of only three applicants accepted into the Yale Repertory Theatre company three years later.
Despite my lack of a home cheering section and my reading and writing challenges, I came to an absurd conclusion at a young age: I simply felt I could accomplish anything I wanted to do.
Not only was I a raging optimist, I was absolutely driven. I had to accomplish everything I wanted in life. So I learned to never give in to fear or negativity. If I never gave up, if I replaced negatives with positives, and if I believed that my dreams could become realities, I was sure I could do anything. Anything!
And I felt I had to do it on my own because my parents just didn’t get me. At all. My father, who had an international lumber brokerage and could trade timber in eleven languages, wanted me to sell wood for the rest of my life.
They had no respect for my dreams of becoming an actor.
Then, as a young actor, I did thirty commercials. Still not impressed.
A big role in my first movie, The Lords of Flatbush, hardly merited a yawn from my folks. And when I landed a recurring role in a network television series, they barely batted an eye.
Only after my Happy Days performances won critical and popular acclaim did my parents accept me as their successful son. In fact, they became lobbyists. They would go sit in the lobby of Palm Beach hotels and wave at anyone who passed, telling them in a heavy German accent, “Ve are der Fonzie’s parents!”
By that time, I no longer needed their acceptance or approval. I’d learned to make it on my own. Then, in 1973, I had the distinction of opening and closing on Broadway—all in one night. My starring role was in a play called 42 Seconds from Broadway. Forty-two seconds was actually longer than it lasted.
Still, I did not give up on my dream of performing in a Broadway show. I made a promise to myself on opening-and-closing night, while walking back to my apartment, I’m going to make it right! I will return to Broadway one day. I had no idea at the time how I would accomplish this goal, but I’d come to see myself as one of those blow-up cowboys or clowns with sand in the bottom that you knock over, only to have it pop right back up. I might fall down, but I always stand back up, dust myself off, and keep moving forward toward my dreams.
And so, twenty-six years later, Broadway called me back. I think it must have lost my number for a while. The call came from Broadway’s most successful playwright, Mr. Neil Simon, who has written more plays than Shakespeare.
“Would you like to read my play aloud with an ensemble so I can hear it performed?” Neil Simon asked.
To an actor, this was like a royal invitation; a chance to perform for the king.
“Send me the script as soon as possible,” I said.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I’m dead meat!
The greatest and most prolific playwright in the history of Broadway had just asked me to read a part in his play in front of him and his team. I should have been thrilled, right?
By that time, I’d put in ten years on Happy Days and three years on Laverne & Shirley, not to mention movie roles in Night Shift, Scream, and The Waterboy. I was a well-known actor who’d won some big awards, so I should have been supremely confident.
Nope. It’s strange how old insecurities refuse to die. Once again, the “dumb dog” label lifted a hind leg and peed on my self-esteem.
This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me! worried the whiner within.
My fears had some justification. Because of my dyslexia, I have difficulty reading aloud from a script. To compensate, I’ve learned to memorize most scripts before performing them, even in rehearsals. I was terrified that I would become tangled up and tongue-tied in front of Neil Simon. War raged within my psyche as I came up with excuse after excuse for doing a no-show at the read-through. It was my worst nightmare. Scared Henry thought, I don’t have to do this. What do I need this for?
Determined Henry countered, Are you crazy? This is Neil Simon, you schmuck! This is your passion!
Finally, it was Daddy Henry who took control of the situation. I didn’t want my children to see their father give in to fear. I preach to them day and night that they have to have the courage to make their own dreams reality. I had to walk the talk.
I read for the Bard beater, and what do you know, I didn’t embarrass myself. I think he laughed aloud at least once. I felt good about the reading. We shook hands, and I went home. Months later, Broadway called again. Only this time, it was off-off-off Broadway.
“Do you want to do the play downtown at the L.A. Music Center?” asked Mr. Neil Simon’s representative.
“Yes, most certainly!” I responded.
I needed to do this show. My career was, shall we say, in a lull. This was a chance to work with some great actors, including my old friends John Ritter, Ed Herrmann, Penny Fuller, and Veanne Cox.
Rehearsals were wonderful. My late friend John Ritter was so funny during rehearsals, breaks, lunches, rides home; it didn’t matter where we were, he was razor sharp. We had so much fun.
Then came the dress rehearsal when we actually had to perform for an audience. The venue was the Mark Taper Forum theater, which has an intimate design, placing actors close to the crowd.
I had done mostly television and film acting up to that point. I’d let it slip my mind that in theatrical productions, you act in front o
“I’ll just real quick hire another actor and teach him my lines and movements so he can take over from here,” I told the director. “Then I’ll just go home and buy a ticket online.”
He looked at me as if I was a nine-headed Hydra beast.
So two days later, we rehearsed in front of real people on the new set. I got by with a little help from my friends on stage. Not a single tomato was thrown. Because of the warm response, the producers opened the play for paying audiences. They came. They saw. They weren’t nuts about it.
Based on the so-so reviews, the New York producers decided not to produce it in New York. “Thanks, but no thanks,” they said.
That was January 2000. The new millennium was not starting out so hot, even though I loved doing the play with John Ritter and I loved the fact that I performed before a live audience without crumpling to the floor and balling up into a fetal position.
Two months later, another call came from Mr. Simon. This time he said the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., had an opening in its theater schedule. They wanted us to perform The Dinner Party in July.
I decided to do it for three big reasons: First of all, the lull in my career was hanging on like a nasty cold. Secondly, the wonderful Broadway star Len Cariou joined the cast. And finally, Neil Simon is not only a brilliant writer, he’s a genius rewriter. When The Dinner Party was not well received in L.A., he took out his pen and revised the script—eight times. Each time it was Simon-ized, the play improved.
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