Monday, November 07, 2005

Fleeting Meetings With Famous Folk

We all have a story or two to tell regarding the famous folk we've either met or caught a glimpse of in some otherwise mundane locale. Here are mine.


Some of you may be too young to remember Phyllis Diller, or you may have heard the name but not seen a performance. She was one of the first (if not the first) female stand-up comedians to gain nationwide acclaim. Every woman plying the trade nowadays owes her a debt of gratitude for opening the door.

Diller's trademarks were fright-wig hair, garish clothes and make-up, and a wholly self-deprecating brand of humor. She played on her trumped-up bad looks, supposedly horrendous housekeeping skills, and total inadequacies as a wife and mother. In reality, she was (and is, I'm sure) a very kind and genteel lady. So much so that, when I met her, it was not readily obvious to me who she was.

I was traveling with my father. He was employed by an airline at the time, so we had first-class tickets and were in the VIP lounge in Hong Kong, waiting for our flight to be called. In walked this very petite and demure older woman. She was extremely well-dressed and when she spoke to one of the attendants in the room, she was so soft-spoken that I didn't hear a word of what she said. Not that I was paying strict attention, mind you. To me, she was just another traveler; nothing out of the ordinary. My father, however, recognized her. And, since he was never the shrinking violet type, he immediately went up to her and introduced himself. He called me over and introduced me, as well.

Another of Phyllis Diller's trademarks was a loud cackling laugh, funny in itself but used more as a placeholder in her act, as she timed the audience laughter and readied her next joke. This woman, though, was nothing like her stage persona. Some comedians are always "on", and their stage presence isn't far removed from their everyday demeanor. Phyllis Diller was sweet, charming, listened to both of us attentively, threw in a mild joke or two (but just normal conversational humor - nothing like what she did on stage) and meeting her in that setting made me realize what a tremendously talented individual she actually was. Truth be told, I wasn't much of a fan before that meeting. I found her act a bit grating. However, after meeting her, I had a whole new appreciation for what she did on stage. She utterly transformed herself when working and this aspect of her career has fascinated me ever since.

I'm delighted to be able to tell you that she is still working. I wish she was working more, as I'd love to see her in person again, but this time doing her act. Unfortunately, I've never had the pleasure of seeing her live on stage.


I didn't really meet Ms. Gayle, but I did share a blackjack table with her one time in Las Vegas. That's about all there is to it. I was too busy with my own fortunes to notice her much.

Well, OK, it was hard to miss her, what with that hair, but I had money on the line.


Bob was big stuff in Boston at one time. He was the lead sportscaster for Channel 7 news, as well as host of the improbably popular Candlepins For Cash. I was on a church softball team and we played Channel 7 on the field on the Boston Common, to raise money for charity. The thing I most remember concerning Bob was that not one single hair on his head ever got out of place during the entire game. And he wasn't trying to keep it in place, especially. He played the game as one would, running the bases and swinging the bat hard, etc., but his hair never knew it was in an athletic contest. Obviously, as the photo at left shows, he didn't keep up his hairspray payments.


Attending broadcasting school as I did, I had the pleasure of meeting quite a few local newscasters, DJs, and others from the Boston area associated with the media. Many were my teachers during that time.

Probably the most educational part of my school experience, and not something that most of my instructors directly taught, was coming to the realization that the job market I was trying to enter was so competitive and tight that folks whom I had imagined as being at the top of their chosen profession, and making very big bucks, were in reality teaching on the side to make a decent living.

Probably the most famous of my instructors was Johnny Most, the radio voice of the Boston Celtics. Johnny was at a crossroads at the time. He was no longer the lead broadcaster for the Celtics. And, while it was a distinct pleasure to learn from the man, he was nearing a tragic circumstance in his personal life (though none of us knew it at that time.) Johnny was a very heavy smoker - multiple packs of non-filtereds a day. It was probably a major contributing factor to what he had to endure not long after I had him as a teacher, which was that he had to have both of his legs amputated. I certainly wasn't privy to his private life, in any way whatsoever, but publicly he handled this setback with as much grace as anyone might muster under the circumstances.

Others local luminaries who taught me (or tried to, anyway) were Larry Miller, Jerry Goodwin, and John Rodman.


This wasn't so much a meeting as it is a regret.

I was about seven years old. My Mom worked downtown, at the Prudential Center, and I was with her at work this day. I'm not sure why. In any case, her workplace abutted the Sheraton Hotel. We were going through the lobby of the hotel, either to or from her work, and there at the bottom of an escalator stood the heavyweight champion of the world, engaged in conversation with someone else.

At the time, he had recently made known his wish to be called Muhammad Ali, but most people were still calling him Cassius Clay. This was between the first Liston fight and the rematch. Some may remember that the second match was scheduled to be held in Boston, but was later moved to Lewiston, Maine, because of concerns in Boston about racial unrest.

Anyway, there he was. And my Mom urged me to go up to him and ask him for an autograph. Understand, I was this real skinny little red-headed very white boy. And I had recently heard nothing about Ali-Clay except that he had decided to become a Black Muslim. I knew almost nothing about what this meant, except I had heard that this meant he hated white people. And he was, to my little eyes, a huge and scary man. So I never did go ask him for his autograph, despite my mother urging me to do so. I've regretted it ever since.

And, last but by no means least...


Best-selling author and noted drug war casualty. I met Peter when he was the main banquet speaker at a Libertarian Party convention in Washington, DC, to which I had been sent as a delegate from Massachusetts. Peter had recently joined the Libertarians, as he had come to the realization that we were the only party in total agreement with his own philosophies concerning consensual (aka victimless) crime.

He was a kind and gentle man, generous enough to give every person attending the banquet a free copy of his marvelous book, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do. This must have cost him a decent buck, as it amounted to several hundreds of copies. He also stayed after the dinner long enough to autograph the copies for everyone who asked, doing so for perhaps two hours. He engaged every person in conversation and kept a cheerful countenance throughout - no small feat for a man who was quite sick, and unable (due to being outside of his home state of California) to legally use the marijuana which had been so helpful in keeping his nausea, from other meds, at bay.

I won't detail Peter's long struggle with AIDS and cancer, nor his resultant legal battles concerning his use of cannabis as medication. Suffice to say that his death may be almost directly linked to the government's drug war. It is as good a reason as there is to oppose that vile waste of both resources and human life.

Here is something written by William F. Buckley, Jr., noted conservative columnist. I don't believe I'm breaking any copyright by re-printing it. If I am, I apologize and will remove it upon notification. In any case, it expresses my feelings perfectly.

Eulogy - June 2000

By William F. Buckley, Jr.

Peter McWilliams is dead. Age? Fifty. Profession? Author, poet, publisher.

Particular focus of interest? The federal judge in California (George King) would decide in a few weeks how long a sentence to hand down, and whether to send McWilliams to prison or let him serve his sentence at home.

What was his offense? He collaborated in growing marijuana plants.

What was his defense? Well, the judge wouldn't allow him to plead his defense to the jury. If given a chance, the defense would have argued that under Proposition 215, passed into California constitutional law in 1996, infirm Californians who got medical relief from marijuana were permitted to use it. The judge also forbade any mention that McWilliams suffered from AIDS and cancer, and got relief from the marijuana.

What was he doing when he died? Vomiting. The vomiting hit him while in his bathtub, and he choked to death.

Was there nothing he might have done to still the impulse to vomit? Yes, he could have taken marijuana; but the judge's bail terms forbade him to do so, and he submitted to weekly urine tests to confirm that he was living up to the terms of his bail.

Did anybody take note of the risk he was undergoing? He took Marinol-a proffered, legal substitute, but reported after using it that it worked for him only about one-third of the time. When it didn't work, he vomited.

Was there no public protest against the judge's ruling? Yes. On June 9, the television program "20/20" devoted a segment to the McWilliams plight. Commentator John Stossel summarized:

"McWilliams is out of prison on the condition that he not smoke marijuana, but it was the marijuana that kept him from vomiting up his medication. I can understand that the federal drug police don't agree with what some states have decided to do about medical marijuana, but does that give them the right to just end-run those laws and lock people up?"

Shortly after the trial last year, Charles Levendosky, writing in the Ventura County (CA) Star, summarized: "The cancer treatment resulted in complete remission." But only the marijuana gave him sustained relief from the vomiting that proved mortal.

Is it being said, in plain language, that the judge's obstinacy resulted in killing McWilliams? Yes. The Libertarian Party press release has made exactly that charge. "McWilliams was prohibited from using medical marijuana - and being denied access to the drug's anti-nausea properties almost certainly caused his death."

Reflecting on the judge's refusal to let the jury know that there was understandable reason for McWilliams to believe he was acting legally, I ended a column in this space in November by writing, "So, the fate of Peter McWilliams is in the hands of Judge King. Perhaps the cool thing for him to do is delay a ruling for a few months, and just let Peter McWilliams die." Well, that happened last week, on June 14.

The struggle against a fanatical imposition of federal laws on marijuana will continue, as also on the question whether federal laws can stifle state initiatives. Those who believe the marijuana laws are insanely misdirected have a martyr.

Peter was a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous, affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy. He courted anarchy at the moral level. His most recent book (his final book) was called "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do." We were old friends, and I owe my early conversion to word processing to his guidebook on how to do it. Over the years we corresponded, and he would amiably twit my conservative opinions. When I judged him to have gone rampant on his own individualistic views in his book, I wrote him to that effect. I cherish his reply - nice acerbic deference, the supreme put-down.

"Please remember the Law of Relativity as applied to politics: In order for you to be right, at least someone else must be wrong. Your rightness is only shown in relation to the other's wrongness. Conversely, your rightness is necessary for people like me to look truly wrong. Before Bach, people said of bad organ music, 'That's not quite right.' After Bach, people said flatly, 'That's wrong.' This allowed dedicated composers to grow, and cast the neophytes back to writing how-to-be-happy music. So, thank me for my wrongness, as so many reviews of my book will doubtless say, 'People should read more of a truly great political commentator: William F. Buckley Jr.'"

Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn't let him have a toke. We have to console ourselves with the comment of the two prosecutors. They said they were "saddened" by Peter McWilliams' death. Many of us are - by his death and the causes of it.

Note: Write to William Buckley at Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111. His column appears in many newspapers.

If you would like to read any of Peter's own works, they are all available for free online. Please go to:

He was an excellent writer and a very nice man, dead before he should have been.

In my own life, I've used many illegal drugs, almost wholly for recreation, yet I was lucky enough to never do time or otherwise feel the wrath of the establishment. Peter used Marijuana, as a medication and strictly within the laws of his home state, and he lost his life as a result.

Sometimes life has little to do with reality.


Sassy said...

You've met some very interesting people in your life! I got Harry Connick Jr's autograph, but the venue wouldn't let us take pictures (the BASTARDS, did they not KNOW how deep my love for him goes??)...and I saw John Stamos at Disney World and Terry Bradshaw at a Denton HS football game back home..but I wouldn't exactly call those two "encounters." Oh, and we saw the guy who plays Lumberg on "office space" at the Chicago airport two years ago. :)

Anonymous said...

As long as there are billions to be made keeping pot illegal and jobs to be had at the DEA, FBI, State & Local levels it will never be legalized. Also... those who toke don't vote!

Suldog said...

"Also... those who toke don't vote!"

This is, unfortunately, generally true.

I have spent many hours of my life trying to convince certain types of people that there is value in voting. Some listen, most don't.

Of course, it's particularly galling when the topic is MEDICAL marijuana. Then it isn't about getting high; it's about saving some people from immense suffering. And still, it's near impossible to get some people off of their asses and down to the polls. Pitiful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for re-posting William F. Buckley's tribute to Peter McWilliams. I've re-posted the touching tribute as well and wanted to tell you about a brand new site (100% Peter's Mom-Approved) dedicated to honoring Peter's memory.

"Peter's Page" was created January 3, 2010 with loads of love and

Please contact me via Myspace if you'd like or via my email:
(hope I don't get spammed)

Thank you so much for your remembrance of a remarkable writer and human being.

Peter's Page