I WROTE WHAT FOLLOWS IN NOVEMBER 2006. I had reason to think about it recently, but when I searched Beats Talking to Myself realized I'd written it soon after John Gilbert's obituary appeared, three entire years before I had the blog. I found my essay using the search function on my computer and am publishing it now--nearly seventeen years later. But the man doesn't deserve ever to be forgotten, so better late than never.
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|John Gilbert PR shot as|
character in unknown role
John Gilbert was a college friend whose influence I still feel. For the first few years out of college we remained close. By the time we had turned thirty, our friendship had waned for a variety of reasons, our contact dribbling away to a hello and a hug whenever our paths crossed. A passerby, glimpsing us on a street corner as we did our quick catch-up every few years (“How are you, nice to see you”), might imagine we were old work buddies, next-door-neighbors, or once-removed mutual friends of someone else. There was little residue visible of what had once been.
How can I explain what John meant to me? He was the first agnostic I ever met—at least the first person who admitted to being one. I was eighteen. He lived a life of Secular Humanism and explained to me what that meant within days of my first encounter with him in a freshman drama class. I was dazzled by him. At age twenty, he already was showing the beginnings of a receding hairline, but compensated for it by growing the most beautiful, full beard I think I’ve ever seen. He rolled his own Bull Durham cigarettes and wore ratty, tattered clothing and work boots to his college classes. In the late ‘50s, that was nearly scandalous.
In addition to being an extraordinarily talented actor, John was an exceptionally gifted intellectual. He challenged his professors in a way, I suppose, they either relished or loathed. John resisted taking things at face value. Instead, he dug deep to reconcile in his head each particle of information. His acting was self-assured, intense, genuine. He could be chilling onstage—Hotspur in Henry IV, as well as hilarious— the drunken livery driver, Malachi, in The Matchmaker. He was never better than he was as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, a part he felt was custom-made for him. His Jamie in Long Day’s Journey into Night was spectacular; his brooding Hamlet at Seattle Repertory Theatre was an audience gripper, and regionally he will never be forgotten as the meanest-ever first-act Scrooge ever in The Christmas Carol, only to become a big-hearted softy in the final act.
I was in awe of his talent and enamored of his intellect. I also found him mysteriously attractive in an out-of-bounds kind of way. He exuded an underlying chemistry of rage that sizzled and felt dangerous to me. In my freshman year, I yearned to be in his crowd and worked hard at my acting to gain entry. As a sophomore, he was a mentor to me as I worked at becoming educated in the arena of social justice and philosophy. During my junior year when he began to seriously date a girl, I realized I was a little-bit in love with him, now that he was off limits. By the time I was a senior we had established an easy friendship—confiding in each other, discussing serious topics and arguing fiercely as good friends often do. As a graduating senior, one of my proudest moments was standing next to John to receive our citations for outstanding acting.
After we were both married, he and his wife and my husband and I enjoyed occasional social evenings—drinking and discoursing into the wee small hours. In the mid-sixties, the upstairs apartment in the house we were renting became available. The location, only three blocks from the theatre where John was part of the repertory ensemble, made the apartment exceptionally appealing, so he and his wife became our immediate neighbors. It was wonderful for us because we could get together on the spur of the moment and didn’t need a babysitter to just run upstairs for a few minutes.
In the capacity of neighbor, John became an easy visitor who often dropped in to chat on afternoons when he had a break from his acting job. Sitting in our living room with my toddlers bouncing like Mexican jumping beans, he’d smoke a cigarette (so different from today’s sensibilities) while he drank a cup of coffee, chattering away with my small children in a way that was comfortable and homey. “Uncle” John loved to open their brightly colored picture-books and read aloud to any or all of them.
I remember one afternoon when he rapped on the door loudly, then burst into our living room with a newly purchased LP, and asked me to play it on the Hi Fi. As we listened together to the newly released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he proclaimed—way ahead of the critics—that the creative brilliance demonstrated in this album would put the Beatles down in history as some of the most extraordinary popular musicians ever to live.
He was the person who opened my eyes to social injustice and taught me to be outraged at socio-economic prejudice in a way it had never occurred to me to be. He was cynical, smart, passionate about life, and an active socialist. He drank heavily, smoked non-stop, brooded regularly, and stroked his beard incessantly. His eyes crackled with intensity; his mouth twitched with energy. His laugh was infectious and his voice deep and resonant. John was a character many people recognized on the street in his Greek fisherman’s hat and Levi’s jacket, and the way he carried himself and strode—wound-up, spring-loaded—was unique.
By the 1970s our friendship had slowly deteriorated, diluted into a watery imitation of what it had once been. One of the last times we had a social evening together John began to shout about Malcolm X being a saint. My husband was arguing with John and I was cringing over the use of the word saint applied to anyone advocating so much violence. A part of me wanted to protect my young children from people like John. My parent-formed values had evolved into something very different from those of my socialistic and atheistic friend, John Gilbert.
It’s been nearly forty years since that time. So why was I so upset at the notice of his death? Because it was flat, written in expository sentences without color. It read like the story of a man who hadn’t mattered. Oh, it ticked off a few of his accomplishments, but gave him little credit for his passion, his commitment, his search for truth and his willingness to stand up for what he believed at the expense of others’ opinions of him. That man changed the course of my life, and certainly others’ lives, as well.
A person couldn’t be indifferent to John. One way or another, he changed you. And that’s what I wanted so much for the readers of the paper to know. The last sentences written about him in death should wield the same kind of power he had over life.
R.I.P. John Gilbert, 1939-2006