My Other Biggest Fan

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My mom, actress Marion Ross, has been a fan of mine for a long time.  Since I used to dance around our house in the Valley in my pajamas to Gaîté Parisienne.

The photo above is from breakfast this morning; Tamra made some waffes and mom popped by to visit and to wish me luck on America’s Got Talent next week.  I leave in two days.  OMG.

When I was in High School (Taft High, Woodland Hills) Marion mortified me by awarding me the best actor prize at our yearly Creation Fair, for my rendition of Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew.  She was the only judge.  I happened to be the student artistic director of the fair, who also auditioned all the acts, rather like AGT, for their chance to be onstage.  When I “won” the prize that night, thanks to mom, I think I lost a lot of friends.

Her justification, stated at the mic in front of everyone there was, “I’m awarding the Best Actor prize to Jim Meskimen because I taught him everything he knows.”

Strangely, no one ever has said a word to me about this event.  I’m beginning to think that I may have imagined the whole thing.  I hope so.

If I go through to the Semi-Finals in New York, I will have to get mom, Tamra and Taylor out there for it, and maybe mom can have a word with the judges for me… Or not.

 

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Paul Michael Remembered

This week we said goodbye to our dear friend and family patriarch, actor Paul Michael.

Paul was not my biological father, but he and my mom were constant companions, and effectively a married couple for over twenty years. They met on a play in Los Angeles and instantly fell in love. They continued to work together, touring the world and enjoying life and each other’s company. He always said, “Marion is my hero.”

Paul was born in Providence, Rhode Island to Lebanese parents. Among his many talents was cooking, and he introduced us all to Lebanese cuisine, which we are all now hopelessly addicted to. Every family holiday get together was complemented by Lebanese dishes which I know how to say, and ask for seconds of, but not how to spell.

He was a hardworking stage, TV and film actor who spent literally years of his life onstage. The last show he did was last summer, performing with my mother in a play written expressly for them by Joe DiPietro. Joe has since won a few Tony awards for other productions, and could have easily won another for Marion and Paul’s play, The Last Romance, had it made it to Broadway. It still may someday, but now, sadly without Paul. (Sadly for audiences, since his rendition of the role was something marvelous to behold.)

Paul was going to be 85 this year. He and my mother did eight shows a week at the Globe Theater in San Diego, two acts with only one other character. It was a crowning triumph of a truly stellar career. And he was SO funny in the role. The audience, attendance by which broke all records for that venue, was crying with laughter or pathos throughout the play.

I never got to act with Paul, but I was lucky enough to direct him in several audiobook recordings, and he was a complete professional, and brought all his characters to vivid life. I’m glad his wonderful voice will live on in those stories.

Paul was a gentle man, but very tough as well. He was very strong physically, even when he was quite advanced in age. Once he grabbed the arm of a pickpocket who was trying to rob Marion somewhere in Italy, and held him unyieldingly against a wall like the buttress of a cathedral until he dropped what he had taken from her purse and was allowed to flee. Paul was probably a good 75 years old then.

Paul was of course also an extraordinary singer, and had enough power to reach the back of large theatrical venues without amplification; he was, in other words, a trained Broadway singer. He in fact appeared in many, many Broadway productions, and in touring companies of shows like Zorba, and Fiddler on the Roof, where he carried the leading roles. He was that sort of actor, a Tevye, a Zorba, a bigger than life character that audiences wanted to watch and listen to.

He would sing anywhere, anytime, and his booming bass voice would resonate in your chest and echo through the house, or the great outdoors. He sang opera to Marion once on one of their trips abroad, in an ancient Roman amphitheater.  He sang to her in romantic places around the world…

He told me one time he estimated he had done professionally over 10,000 live performances.

But he also could have claimed his greatest role was that of Marion Ross’ soul-mate. Only it wasn’t really a role to him, it was a calling, a cherished post and a pleasure.

Paul had many endearing habits and abilities that make him memorable and lovable. For example, puzzles. He would spend time every weekend doing the most difficult puzzles in the New York and Los Angeles Times, and always to completion. His vocabulary was remarkable– he had studied Latin for years in his youth and had a very complete understanding of word derivations and definitions. He would show us the puzzles afterwards, explaining the challenge, and then his mind boggling solutions. He said he did it to keep his mind sharp, which it certainly did.

His understanding and love of words extended across languages, and he was fluent in at least five languages, including Arabic, which he loved to use in his travels and in certain restaurants in the states. He would sometimes eavesdrop on waiters who spoke Arabic and then surprise them by answering them in their own tongue.

His facile mind was also a ready clearinghouse for jokes, which he could tell by the dozens if the social setting was appropriate. He probably knew over a thousand jokes by heart, and could instantly recall them, or adapt them to work them into a conversation.

Marion would sometimes play a game with him at parties where she would challenge him, “Tell them the joke about the apple” and he would instantly provide some story that was loosely related to her suggested topic: “Well, there was this circus acrobat that loved apples, and he wanted to leave his wife for the bearded lady…”

One joke that I remember him telling often, (and it was always funny) he said was the great Johnny Carson’s favorite joke:

A man goes to visit his brother in the hospital. His brother has been in a terrible accident, and he is basically just a head laying there, no body at all. His brother says, “Johnny, it’s your birthday, and I wanted to come by and visit, and I got you a present.”
The brother on the bed looks at the present, sighs and says, “Another hat.”

I will never forget Paul’s laughter. It was as robust as his songs. Often, something would strike him so funny he would come apart laughing, tears filling his eyes with delight.

Paul was a gracious advocate of my character, Professor Knestor Jackdaws, and at family gatherings he would always throw out wonderfully supportive suggestions for painting titles for Knestor to describe; The Pharaoh’s Dog was one I’ll never forget.

For the last couple years, Paul has been having health problems and had been on a steady decline. Last year was a very difficult one, in the season following his triumph with Marion onstage in The Last Romance. In truth, he seemed to have been working on a gracious exit from the larger stage of his life since then, and there were numerous emergencies and trips to the hospital, where they patched him up again so that he could return home to Marion and their beloved Happy Days Farm, his puzzles, his kitchen and his cigars.

The final act was what they call a “Classy” one. On the Fourth of July weekend just finished, he cooked an extraordinary breakfast feast of french toast with bacon for about ten people down in Cardiff, where Marion and my sister Ellen have adjacent homes. Take my word for it, it was delicious. The way he made bacon, so that all the fat was baked off… and the french toast… well, it was pretty damned magnificent.

The next day he drove himself and my mother home to Los Angeles. Safely.

Then on Wednesday, July 6th, he enjoyed a cigar in the garden, spoke lovingly on the phone with his son, Matt, said he’d see him that night, then went into the house, took off his shoes and lay down on the couch.

That’s where Marion found him.

So, we are thankful today to Paul Michael for the many years of companionship, love, entertainment, of sustenance, of friendship, and of laughter that he gave us, and the many, many warm memories.

Here a giant trod
Here a great soul walked
Here a spirit dwelt
and ever in our hearts.

“Thunder, Thunder, THUNDER…”

If you happen to know the next couple of utterances that follow that repetitive call, then you may not know it, but I had a big effect on your childhood.

It’s generally not well known that in the 1980’s, when I lived in New York, I had a job at Rankin/Bass productions. (Yes, the same Rankin/Bass of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” fame; his cute little articulated figure was in a special case at the office.)

I was the chief character designer of their hit animated show, Thundercats.

I was not only the chief character designer, I was the ONLY illustrator on the premises.

The main heroes, Lion-O, Snarf, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro and the main antagonists, the “Mutants”, and the villainous Mumm Ra were all designed by another artist before I got my job. My job became designing all the new characters that populated “Third Earth”, and a lot of weapons, devices, vehicles, and strange plants and animals.

Originally, I had been hired to do storyboards, based on my experience, much inflated by me, of working at Hanna Barbera studios in Hollywood, which I did in 1978. I was totally undeserving of the job of storyboard artist, as I was entirely untrained, really had mostly just darkened with #2 pencils the blue-pencilled storyboards of my senior, Don Rico.

I knew about as much about telling a story visually with a storyboard as I did about whaling.

Perhaps that became apparent in my first weeks at Rankin/Bass. In any case, for some reason that was intensely satisfying to me, I was taken off storyboards, and told to design CHARACTERS, starting with a character named “Pumm Ra”, a half man, half puma.

Now THIS I could do.

Every Thundercats script contained new “guest characters.” I got to envision them, and once approved, they were sent along the assembly line. The schedule for some reason was not very intense, or if it was, I didn’t notice it, because most of the characters were approved very quickly with minimal changes if at all.

I would draw them, sitting at my lone artist’s desk next to the accountant and the head writer, and then use a new piece of technology called a “Fax machine” to transmit the designs to the animators and artist in the Pacific Rim studios that were producing the finished animation.

In New York (at 53rd and Fifth Avenue, above the old Museum of Broadcasting) the scripts were written, the recordings were organized, and the character designs were done. Overseas, the actual animation was done, the in-betweens, the layout, the camerawork… and all long before digital anything.

I worked with a pencil on paper, and some watercolor pens. Oh, and white-out.

My mother had given me a little stone “Chop” with my name in Chinese, so I would put that stamp on my drawings before faxing them. That the recipients were not Chinese didn’t ever occur to me.

The Thundercats recording sessions were where the fun happened.

The voices of the actors playing the principal characters were recorded down near Grand Central Station in the Graybar building, at Howard Schwartz recording.

I visited a Thundercats session one day and watched the series regulars Larry Kenney, Bob McFadden, Earl Hyman, Earl Hammond, Peter Newman and Lynn Lipton run thru the script and goof around on mic.

“THIS is the job!” I epiphanized.

I worked at Rankin/Bass about a year, then continued to work for them as a freelancer, on a new series they followed up with called “Silverhawks” . I think my greatest contribution as chief character designer was to bring on as my successor the great cartoonist Bob Camp, who cut his animation teeth on Silverhawks before going on to put his indelible mark on shows like the hilariously subversive “Ren & Stimpy”.

In about 1985, I moved on from my life as a professional illustrator/cartoonist/designer to enter the world of acting fulltime. One of my first big jobs was doing voices for a Rankin/Bass cartoon series called “The Comic Strip”.

I never pursued character design ever again, and Thundercats left my mind utterly.

But, just a few short weeks ago I received a call from my voiceover agent. The excellent animation director Andrea Romano requested that I provide some character voices for the latest version of the Thundercats series, now being produced at Warner Brothers by a young artist and producer named Dan Norton, who was a big, BIG fan of the show.

I don’t know if Andrea knew of my early relationship to the show when she hired me, but I know she sure does now! I’m telling EVERYBODY.

So now at this point I have worked twice as a voice actor on the brand new Thundercats, some 25 plus years since I started working for Rankin/Bass on the original Thundercats…

Pretty cool.

And the funny part?

I’m actually allergic to cats.

Here are some of the designs I did for the show:

Meskimen creature design

Creature Tabbut by Meskimen

 

Creature design Capt. Shiner by Meskimen

Goodbye to Area 51

Jim Meskimen in a mysterious vein

Today marks my 51st birthday, or the end of my yearlong excursion into “Area 51”.

I find I have a lot to admire and be thankful for. First of all, being alive and still a part of this incredible experience called living. I enjoy life very much, even when it is more or less insufferable. How is that even possible? Only in a world like this, where irony seems to be the underlying glue holding everything together.

I have a magnificent family. My wife Tamra is simply a goddess. My daughter Taylor brings me so much joy, and I have been thrilled to watch her truly come into her own this last year, as she left the house and began her career, with all the enthusiasm and earnestness that such great beginnings require.

My incredible mother, now 82 (!), is just now wrapping up a record-breaking five week run of a play with her husband, the magnificent actor Paul Michael, down in San Diego at the Old Globe Theater. We’ve gone to see it twice. (Knestor Jackdaws did, too.) Starring in a wonderfully funny two act play written expressly for her and her mate by Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro, Marion continues to pull off the impossible, setting a marvelous example for performers everywhere.

I even have a brand new niece, my brilliant sister and brother in law’s daughter Roxanne, just a few weeks old today.

I have so many friends who delight and inspire me, they are far too many to list.

I have all my teeth, even the wisdom ones that I was supposed to have gotten rid of decades ago.  (And I even have Knestor’s teeth!  Two sets!)

I enjoy my many creative outlets and have many plans for future shows, paintings, films and on and on.

Life is a tremendous challenge and I strive to play the game better and better. That is going to be the theme of my 52nd year.

Right now I’m just very cognizant of the fact that life is easy to take for granted, that the thin gloss on existence that makes it all seem orderly and assured can wear away in a breath, and that people and their endless abilities to share and enjoy one another’s company is the single redeeming thing in a cold universe.

Yikes!

As Professor Knestor Jackdaws once said (five minutes ago), “The more I look at art, the more I recognize that the boundary between all life and what we commonly view as works of art, is practically nonexistent. When one leaves the gallery or the museum, one simply enters the larger gallery of Life itself, with it’s rotating collections, its special exhibitions, and its permanent installations.”

I am very happy to share my time in this splendid gallery with you.