January 15, 2009
Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.
Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist. But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology. “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him. “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says. “Your teacher.”
Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead. He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb. What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy.
Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one. It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession. What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again. So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen.
A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere. A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play. But look at what Gilborn does with that moment. He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise. There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath. Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.
I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990. I was thirteen. My mother watched it too. Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting.
I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows. He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe. Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years. I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts. It never happened. At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father). It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.
I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him. All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290. It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself. During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video). The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students. Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.
Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers. Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types. A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors. One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.
The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor. Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years. “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities. “The math teacher who died.”
At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?” She had not yet mentioned his name. I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her jaw dropped, literally. I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before. The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak. So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.
I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too. I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background. He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age. Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors.
For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day.
Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?”
On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly. If a phone interview counts as knowing someone. (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.) Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.
My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass. My mother had something to do with that, too. Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character.
Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended. But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.
Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties. That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances. These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.
I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye. In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak. This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on. It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.
Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys. One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit. Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.” But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be.
Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town. He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live. Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right. Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.” Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.
I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years. And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview. This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle. I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes. But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known. He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman. He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.
If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together. A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done. There have been too many of those.