Tags Posts tagged with "Memoir"

Memoir

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel 

“I had a couple of script pages in my hands (my palms were also good and sweaty): I had six lines to read. The show, titled Happy Days, was to revolve around a group of wholesome high school kids in 1950s Milwaukee. The character I was reading was the group’s one renegade. His name was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz.”

Henry Winkler fittingly opens his extraordinary autobiography Being Henry (Celadon Books) with his audition for the television sitcom that would make him one of the most memorable cultural icons of the 70s. Happy Days would run for eleven seasons: Winkler (along with Tom Bosley) would appear in all 255 episodes.

But Winkler is not solely defined by this. In a nearly sixty-year career, in addition to a wide range of acting, he has been a producer, a director, a philanthropist, and a children’s book author. With Being Henry, Winkler offers an honest, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining memoir. At that heart is a man who “can’t remember not feeling an intense need to perform.”

Born in New York City to German Jewish immigrants who fled Berlin in 1939, Winkler shares his difficult childhood with emotionally distant parents and dyslexia—undiagnosed until he was thirty-four. He “was the kid who couldn’t read, couldn’t spell, couldn’t even begin to do algebra, or geometry, or even basic arithmetic.” His failing grades led to humiliation; his parents referred to him as dummer Hund—dumb dog. With these challenges, he marvels at graduating from high school and college (a BA in drama from Emerson College, with a minor in psychology) and a Masters in acting (Yale School of Drama). 

From there, he paints a portrait of a struggling New York actor working in commercials to support low and non-paying theatre. His film break came with The Lords of Flatbush. Soon after, he moved to Hollywood, making a memorable guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Continuing through rounds of auditions and disappointments, he landed the role of Fonzie when he was twenty-eight.

The career-defining rebel eventually became a bit of a trap, but Winkler shows enormous gratitude for Happy Days. He is particularly generous in praise of his colleagues on both sides of the camera. He is forthcoming about his relationship with the cast, especially Ron Howard, who was the original focus of the series. Howard’s frustration with the shift from ensemble to a Fonzie-centered show moved him towards his directorial pursuits. Winkler and Howard maintained a personal and professional relationship, with projects spanning from Night Shift to Arrested Development.

He claims many of his initial movie jobs came from fame and not necessarily talent; he spent years trying to escape the shadow of the Happy Days persona. “The truth was that the Fonz aside, I was half-baked as an actor. Self-conscious.” Few performers are as brave and self-reflective. 

Winkler is honest about his insecurities, his frugality, and even his occasions of obliviousness. He addresses the double-edged dangers of stardom. He talks about his verbosity, which increases when he is insecure or nervous. He admits when he feels disconnected or unsure, he talks too much.

He finds humor in his early failed romantic forays and smartly lets his wife, Stacey, speak for herself in various junctures in the book’s narrative. He does not shy away from his guilt and frustrations with intimacy and communication, something he did not fully deal with until therapy in the last decade. (He has been married to Stacey since 1978. He helped raise a son from her first marriage, and they have two children together. In addition, they have six grandchildren). 

After the Happy Days run, he did not act for seven years. Rather than retreating, he embarked on new vistas. He started a production company, began directing, and developed into a sought-after voice artist. Years later, he added best-selling children’s author, collaborating on twenty-eight “Hank Zipzer” novels about an elementary school student with dyslexia. The books became a well-received television series. 

Eventually, his acting career blossomed again. Scream, The Water Boy, and Royal Pains, along with “a string of authority figures lacking authority,” were hallmarks in later years. He returned to the stage, appearing in two Broadway productions, including a Neil Simon premiere.

His most recent sensation, HBO’s Barry, rewarded him with a much-deserved Primetime Emmy Award. (Note: He had already received two Daytime Emmy Awards.)

Winkler analyzes his initial meteoric fame and values its many gifts; he remains humble in his over half a century of remarkable and unique achievements. He is philosophical, embracing “that you couldn’t have known then what you know now. That only the process of living gets you there: you must do the work in order to eat the fruit of growing—of being.”

Henry Winkler’s beautiful account is, of course, a book for Happy Days fans. But it is also for readers seeking to understand the world of show business as told through a transparent and often profound narrator. And finally, Being Henry should be read by every actor or artist who has ever questioned their own value.

Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond is available on Amazon and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Waxing On, subtitled The Karate Kid and Me (Dutton Books), is a smartly written memoir of the career-making role that raised Ralph Macchio from up-and-coming actor to teen icon. He shares his professional arc in the tightly written chronicle, emphasizing the Karate Kid trilogy and the current Cobra Kai. And while he accepts that Daniel LaRusso may have pigeon-holed him in the industry, he consistently expresses appreciation for the opportunity and the people he met along the way.

Ralph Macchio with a copy of his new book@RALPH_MACCHIO (INSTAGRAM)

Before The Karate Kid (1984), Macchio appeared in a handful of films, most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, as well as a recurring role on television’s Eight Is Enough (1980-81). He was living on his native Long Island when he landed the audition for The-Karate-Kid. Dubious, given the cartoonish title, he flew back to Los Angeles. He then began the round of auditions, callbacks, and martial arts training before being officially cast in the role (originally surnamed Webber but changed to suit Macchio’s “East Coast” quality). 

Eventually, after reading with possible co-stars, producer Jerry Weintraub contracted Macchio for the original film and potentially two sequels. (Among noteworthy Daniel contenders were Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr., C. Thomas Howell, and Kyle Eastwood.)

The Karate Kid’s screenplay took its inspiration from a newspaper article about a picked-on boy and how martial arts helped him deal with his bullies. The script relied on the twin themes of bullying and mentorship. The universality spoke to a large swathe of the potential audience and helped maintain its unflagging popularity for nearly forty years.

Macchio is a straightforward, entertaining storyteller, open and direct. Whether discussing the casting process that was months in limbo or the hours of physical training, his descriptions are vivid and personal, presented with warmth and gratitude.

He devotes three chapters to each of his co-stars: Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi; Elizabeth Shue, his love interest, Ali Mills; and William Zabka, Daniel’s nemesis, Johnny Lawrence. He makes clear his love and admiration for the three individuals as actors, collaborators, and people.

Morita, in particular, is singled out for his contribution. At the time, the actor was best known as a stand-up comedian and for his stint as Arnold on Happy Days. During his audition, Morita introduced the famous hachimaki (headscarf), explaining its significance. Along with the crane, the cloth became one of the film’s most memorable images. Eventually, Morita won the role of the Okinawan sensei, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Macchio attributes much of the film’s success to Oscar-winning director John G. Alvidsen (Rocky, Save the Tiger, Lean on Me) and writer Robert Mark Kamen (Taps, Gladiator). He generously praises both men’s patience and support of the young actor, often recrafting the role around Macchio’s persona. “As an actor you often want to ‘disappear’ into a role. You feel you can demonstrate your range by losing yourself in the character. In this circumstance, ‘disappearing’ meant not being able to discern where Ralph ended and LaRusso began.”

He acknowledges The Karate Kid as a movie of its time, referencing John Hughes as well as Back to the Future. “There was an innocence, an adolescent openness and vulnerability, that we don’t often see as much in films today. Perhaps it was a simpler time. Perhaps it was a superficial representation, but it certainly had its place.” 

Macchio reflects on the 1984 release at the height of blockbusters. The Karate Kid shared the same summer with Ghostbusters and Gremlins, just on the heels of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 

The Karate Kid was a “small” movie in comparison. And yet, it landed big due to the approachability of the Daniel LaRusso character. “For whatever reason, I felt far more like a local hero and much less like a movie star. I was treated like the guy who won the high school football game on Friday night. The kid who lived next-door. Not a celebrity you would see on the red carpet or in magazines.” 

For years, Macchio resisted a return to the franchise even though many ideas (some downright bizarre) were proffered. “Without actual material to judge, I wasn’t willing to take a next step and get involved, officially, on any project connected to The Karate Kid. It was always easier (and safer) to say, ‘No, thank you.’” He feared that anything that “missed the mark” would tarnish the legacy. 

He writes candidly about the 2010 remake, the How I Met Your Mother appearances, and the YouTube The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully. He acknowledges these and other cultural moments kept the characters alive. 

Writer/creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg changed his mind with the proposal of Cobra Kai. The team’s respect for the source and welcoming involvement of Macchio’s and Zabka’s insights and expertise helped the project progress. In 2018, the excellent series debuted on YouTube Red before finding a home on Netflix, with the fifth season released this past September. 

Much of the latter part of Waxing On focuses on the new incarnation. The experience has been a joyful one: “I can’t express how much fun it is to play the yesterday in the today of these characters.” 

Throughout the memoir, Macchio meditates on a range of topics, including the cavalier dismissal of Shue’s character between the first and second films, his scandal-free life, the impact of the crane kick, career dry spells, and even the filming of the famous fly catching bit. 

As Macchio stated in a recent panel discussion: “When you make a movie that twenty or thirty years later people still obsess and debate about, therefore continuing to keep it relevant and important … it’s awesome!” In Waxing On, Ralph Macchio offers a welcome, often funny, and always engaging glimpse into the world of one of the most enduring family films.

Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me is available at your local Barnes & Noble or online at www.barnesandnoble.com or www.amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Hi, it’s me – Shellbee!” Thus begins “Shellbee’s Story,” a tale of a dog (no pun intended) as told by the dog and “recorded” by her “Mommy,” Port Jefferson resident Jennifer Flynn-Campbell. “My story,” continues Shellbee in the first lines, “has been put into words so humans see the world through my eyes, hear the sounds of emotions, and come to understand the purpose behind the adventures of my life.”

Related in a series of almost three dozen letters, Shellbee tells her own story from pup to forever home and beyond. It is funny and touching, clever and honest. In this unusual journey, Flynn-Campbell has chosen to endow the black Lab with extraordinary insight; by the end, she has artfully convinced us that it is Shellbee relating her life’s story.

The author with her mom, Jennifer Flynn-Campbell

The book — a hybrid of memoir and fiction and something all its own — is not just for dog lovers but for anyone who has ever been touched by a pet (and, this would most likely encompass just about everyone). Shellbee makes us reflect on ourselves as keepers of these innocent souls — the pleasures and the joys of companionship but also the deeper responsibility. It is about unconditional love on both sides or, in Shellbee’s words, it is “the story of my heartfelt love festival on earth.”

From the get-go, the “Hi, it’s me — Shellbee” that opens each letter captures the voice we imagine our canine companions to have. It celebrates the “it’s-me-it’s-you-I’m-so-glad-your-here” enthusiasm that dogs project.

We are treated to her earliest memories and the routines that root her life. Everything — from parties to pools and canoeing on the lake to staying in hotels — is described in childlike wonderment and appreciation. Shellbee compares country life with city living and ponders with puzzlement her first snow. She vividly relates the terror of getting lost and the relief of being found. 

And, of course, at the heart of her thoughts is food, food and food. Food, needless to say, is the focus and center of Shellbee’s life, but it is presented in a manner both humorous and believable. (Even the success of a wedding is measured by how much food is dropped on the ground.)  

The Labrador retriever details her training (most notably under the person she refers to as “Dogman”). She does have concern that she wants to maintain her individuality and not become a “Stepford Dog” (which she most certainly does not). She frames the “training” as “companion connection” and “obedience” as “comfort connection.” Shellbee (Flynn-Campbell) has clear ideas about how dogs should live and be educated. She even does work as a therapy dog, here described from her appropriately simple perspective.

The cover of Shelbee’s book

Shellbee imparts her responses to all of the creatures she comes across — both human and animal, viewing them as one world — all her “littermates.” She even assigns humans to different dog breeds, categorizing them on looks and personality including a hilarious description of her first visit to Santa: “The first time I saw him I was creeped out: a big, fluffy, hairy-faced human yelping, ‘Ho Ho Ho!’” It is an accurate assessment from an outside point of view.  

Shellbee also likes galleries because she has “plenty of room to wag [her] tail while viewing the artwork.”  

Flynn-Campbell also introduces some interesting references to studies that have been done — most notably about “declarative memories” and how and why dogs remember the people with whom they’ve crossed paths. In addition, she writes about scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s work on “morphic resonance,” which explains how dogs are aware when their people are coming home. These small digressions further enhance an overall perspective on what it is to have these dogs so present in our lives.

The book deals with serious health issues — both of Shellbee’s as well as both of her human parents. How they support each other in these difficult times is related in tender and touching passages, showing the pain and emotional confusion, and the pure happiness of being reunited. Furthermore, the important topic of animal abuse and the responsibility we have to end it, is highlighted briefly but pointedly: “Humans put a lot of work into helping heal animals who have been hurt on earth.” It is a statement, but, more importantly, a reminder.  

There are many photos of Shellbee with her family in various places. They are not portraits but snapshots that capture her in all her day-to-day adventures. Credited to Ariana Boroumand, they make a welcome addition to the narrative.  

Shellbee continually comes back to the fact that love will conquer all. Ultimately, it comes down to family. “Knowing you can trust someone is a wonderful feeling.” The book builds to a powerful and inevitable conclusion. While you know it is coming, you cannot help but be moved. Shades of the Rainbow Bridge and spiritual connections are present but are neither saccharine nor maudlin: They are a celebration of all Shellbee was. The ending is one that transmutes grief to hope, loss to recovery.  

In the final letter, the sole written by the humans, there is genuine expression of complete appreciation: “Your presence in our lives enriched us in ways that only Shellbee Ann Campbell’s unique soul could. You found a way to break through the struggles we face as humans. Somehow, you always knew just the right thing to do to bring smiles and comfort to everyone you met. Your gift to make tears stop flowing and erase fears from hearts seemed to come naturally to you. You faced each day with effortless happiness, excited for any and all possibilities.”

“Shellbee’s Story” gives a true and poignant meaning to “a dog’s life.”

“Shellbee’s Story” has been featured in Modern Dog magazine as one of its picks for Best Reads and is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Shellbee posthumously appears weekly in her own blog: www.doggyletters.com and has a popular Twitter account, Facebook page as well as an Instagram account.

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By Elof Carlson

For the past four years I have participated with a writing group at Indiana University’s Emeriti House, where old-timers like me gather and once a month discuss what we have written. I much enjoy listening to the stories told.

A Norwegian opera singer described his youth near Oslo on an island in a fjord and how that idyllic childhood was shattered by the Nazi occupation. A linguistics professor discussed what it is like to eat with one’s hands in Kathmandu where table manners are very different than the world of knives and forks or chopsticks. A Spanish teacher described her adventure learning how to chop wood with a wedge. A journalism professor described sailing a boat alone from New England to Florida and back. Along the way we learned that some growing up experiences were frightening, especially those who were refugees during WWII in the Baltic states.

A different opportunity arose recently when my daughter Christina located the granddaughter of my Uncle Charles Vogel. I had seen him a few times as a child when my mother would visit him at his home in Brooklyn. He sold clothing door to door and he gave me about a dozen ties so I could wear them to my high school. My mother said he sold to gangsters. I never knew if this was part of my mother’s psychotic beliefs or real, but I downloaded this previously unknown relative’s manuscript called “Charlie’s story” based on a 1985 interview she had with her grandfather. It turned out he sold men’s clothes to Al Capone, Gaetano Luchese, Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia. He also survived a disastrous childhood accident in Bound Brook, New Jersey, when he was hit by a car that had him hospitalized for a year. Later he ran away to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus until his father located him. These family stories are usually oral and then forgotten after a couple of generations. But if someone types them up after an interview, they can be part of the delight of tracing our ancestors and seeing how things change over several generations.

Social history decays rapidly, and many of us have only scattered memories of our childhood. We know virtually nothing about our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives. If we have our DNA examined for selected genetic markers, we can identify different ethnic components (Asian or African or Middle Eastern or Native American). Each person who has a European ancestor is related to virtually every person in Europe if one goes back 2,000 years (something difficult to do for those who do not have a royal lineage).

All Native Americans in the western hemisphere are related to ancestors who lived in eastern Siberia about 15,000 years ago. The genetic crumbs of information of this past ancestry tell us little about who these people were and what they did. But what we preserve as memoirs can last for many generations delighting our descendants. Every time I open up a volume of Samuel Pepys’ diary the world of the 1660s shifts from history to eyewitness narrative.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.