I had also gotten involved with an acting coach during my time on the variety show, and thank God I met this man. When I was still very little, I decided to adopt him as my uncle. Aside from my grandmother, he was a source of stability in my otherwise chaotic life. I still remember the first time I met him – I walked into his studio and found him sitting in an overstuffed chair. He kinda looked like Paul Newman, but with voice that rumbled with depth. I always thought he sounded a little like a lion. He was one of the few people in my life who talked to me as an equal, even though I was just a kid. It was one of the great lessons I learned from Uncle Richard – nobody is any better or worse than you. Treat them all equally.

He was also one of the few people (one of only three, actually) that Mom had any respect for. If she was flipping out, he could bring her back down into some semblance of normalcy. Usually. But this wasn’t even the main reason I’m grateful to have met him. He gave me a gateway to escape my difficult home life by instilling in me a love of books. He was probably the most voracious reader I have ever met – he was usually reading two or three at once, and had a studio whose walls seemed to be made from books. At his insistence, I read classics and discussed them with him at length. By 8, I had read the entire works of Shakespeare (and had memorized quite a bit). As a gift, he gave me an Illustrated Edition of Shakespeare, which I still have. I took on his habits and became a voracious reader – I don’t think I was ever without a book in my hand. I read at the table over dinner, I read in the car, I read before lessons with Russ, I read in the waiting rooms of casting offices. I learned, and my world expanded – it was an important aspect of my future. But more immediately, it provided a buffer from the insanity. If Mom said she saw or heard something nuts, I could be off the hook by (truthfully) saying I was reading at the time and didn’t know anything about it. If I didn’t feel like hashing and re-hashing her wild theories about people dressing up like Russ (which was often), I could stick my nose in a book. I used to (and still do) spend hours in a book store. When I used to walk in as kid, I could almost feel myself exhale. I took my time selecting something – the larger the book, the better. I got to the point where I could plow through a 1,200 page novel in a week.

Uncle Richard also taught me comedy – this ended up being another one of my ways to deflect Mom. If I could make her laugh when she was bawling her eyes out, or get her mind off of some obsession, great. He was actually a comedian himself – a rising star in Vaudeville during prohibition. He would do 3 shows a night sometimes, and make sure the material was new every time. Someone suggested to him that he should just recycle his material from previous shows – after all, the crowds were totally different. “Not totally,” Uncle Richard said, pointing at the theater staff.

He was a boxer, a painter, a poet, and a playwright. I don’t think there was anything this man didn’t do. I once asked him how on earth he ended up in the Philly suburbs instead of making movies or having his own TV show. He stroked his mustache and his blue-grey eyes peered at me thoughtfully.

“I used to have an alcohol problem.” He left it at that, but I later learned that he had a child with Downs – something he felt his drinking was responsible for. I guess considering medical science at the time, it was a plausible enough thought. Anyway, he ended up quitting to take care of her rather than have her institutionalized (something all too common at the time).

Mom confided in him about Russ, eventually – she would usually send me out of the studio for these lengthy (and no doubt completely loony) discussions. As I got older, I was allowed a bit more access and got to see Uncle Richard’s reactions to her. He would sit on his overstuffed chair, arms folded, and listen carefully to everything – no matter how obviously delusional. I don’t know how he managed it, but he would often always say something wise and insightful.

“You don’t need Russ to be happy.”

“Sometimes, if you’re too close to something it’s difficult to see the whole picture.”

“Why don’t you take a break from Russ? See how you feel in a couple months.”

Mom would consider these things, but ultimately her obsession was too strong – she just couldn’t walk away from something that enveloped her so thoroughly.


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