It’s been a sad week for me, Gentle Reader. Two men, each one an important part of my life, passed away over these past few days, within hours of each other. They were both in their 90s, and had come to the end of long and fruitful lives – which doesn’t negate the pain of their loss in the slightest.
The first of these men, the one whose lost hurts me the most, is my grandfather. Carl Larson. When I first started performing, back in college, he and my grandmother made the five hour drive to be in the front row of all of my shows. He was my first audience member. But more to the point, in introducing me to British comedies and Universal horror movies and the like, he helped turn me on to storytelling itself. It hurts like hell that he’s not here anymore.
The second of these men, who passed away the day before my grandfather, is the actor Earle Hyman. Distinguished stage actor, Cliff Huxtable’s dad, and the number one television star in Norway (a fact that never fails to bring a goofy smile to my face). I’m fortunate enough to be one of the many actors who worked with him, and was lucky enough that the show on which we collaborated was the show on which I happened to get my Equity card. The Classical Theatre of Harlem production of The Cherry Orchard, in which I played a handful of tiny parts. Earle was the old servant Firs, stalwart defender of a vanishing way of life, who ends the play alone on stage, forgotten by the others, in what’s left of the abandoned estate.
The opening night of that production happened to be the night that Ossie Davis passed away; the news of it reached us all just hours before we were set to go on stage. Many members of that company had worked with Ossie Davis, and knew him personally, Earle foremost among them. Earle was already in advancing age and delicate health, and we could see that the news was taking a physical toll on him. The show went on, and Earle was his usual marvelous self, but with every shaky gesture and every quaver in his voice (all of which are crucial to the role of Firs), I found myself just a little bit worried.
Then came the end of the show, which I watched from the wings each night as I prepared to go on for curtain call. There was Earle, alone in his chair, as always. But this time, something was different. Something was wrong. He spasmed, he grabbed his chest, and as the lights went out for the end of the show and the house began to applaud, he slumped backward into the chair, nearly falling out of it.
Oh my God, I thought. He had a heart attack. The news was too much for him and he had a heart attack. Oh my God there’s nothing I can do for him what are we going to do…
And just like that, Earle Hyman bounded up out of the chair, spry as a teenager, and went offstage to prepare for his curtain call. The old rascal had been trying out new business for opening night.
That story always makes me happy. And at a moment like this, I find it inspiring as well. Because Earle was in genuine grief-stricken pain that night. And he carried on like a trooper despite it, using it to fuel his art, transmuting it into something beautiful. And that’s the example I carry with me, as I wrestle with my own grief.
Thank you both for everything.