I think many of us carry the mantras of our parents or guardians throughout our lives. MESSAGES that continue to resonate within us.
Tonite, I’m remembering one from my childhood. My mother would often say me, if I went out alone, “Now Tuck…don’t show off.” I look back now and wonder what was that all about? Yeah, I had a big mouth, I was a precocious kid, growing up in segregated Washington D.C.; I lived in foreign countries and learned to speak their languages. Perhaps Mom was concerned that my talkativeness could generate resentment or danger. I’d imagine that all times are dangerous when it comes to your children…
My father was passionate about opera and classical theater; Sophocles, Aristophanes, Shakespeare. He insisted that I memorize Marc Anthony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar…when I was in the 6th grade. You all know it. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Dad had received a Fulbright professorship, to teach English at Anatolia College in 1955. When we sailed to Greece, Dad ‘persuaded’ me to recite that speech for the SS Constitution’s talent contest. My fathers’ persuasion was somewhat coercive. Without ever issuing ultimatums, he’d impart the distinct impression that noncompliance would earn his disapproval. I think I may have won something that night; possibly this – which somehow I still have.
Dad was an impressive and accomplished man. His diction and grammar were precise, no trace of the Mississippi/Louisiana roots in his vowels. He spoke more clearly and distinctly than most white Americans of that time. My father was a university English professor…and he spoke like one. I remember a wonderful story, shared by Roscoe Lee Brown. When people said that his speech sounded “white”, he’d respond with a twinkle, “Well, we had a white maid.”
I can’t recall any instance where I regarded my father’s facility with the English language as “showing off”. But I suspect some people, both black and white probably did. To be different, to excel includes attracting the attention of others.
After his passing, I had all of Dad’s 8mm home travel movies converted to VHS and made copies for my family. I watched myself as a child, clambering over the tiered stone seating of ancient amphitheater ruins in Italy and Greece, pausing occasionally to strike a dramatic pose. I don’t think I then regarded that as showing off. I imagine some part of me enjoyed it…and I was always eager to please my father. Dad and I visited many historic sites together. Delphi, Rome, Athens, Ephesus, Pergamum, Troy…
At that time, the early days of integration, in my fathers’ estimation, there were only four acceptable professions for a black man. Minister, Teacher, Lawyer, Doctor. By then he’d already achieved two; he became a Lutheran minister before earning his Ph.D. in English. Despite my early promise as a scholar, as I continued through high school and college, I became a somewhat less accomplished student. Distracted, unfocused, perhaps reluctant to stand in any spotlight…and my lack of purpose was a disappointment to my father.
My early years were filled with praise and attention and approval. My big sister Angela, four years older, taught me to read when I was three. (Today happens to be her birthday. Happy Birthday, Angie!) By five I had my own library card, I was miles ahead of the other kids. In kindergarten, some whispered that I had memorized the dictionary, so facile was I at looking up words. My childhood test scores were apparently unprecedented, for a child of any race. Words like ‘gifted’ and ‘genius’ were whispered, I was skipped from first to third grade. From time to time I was paraded around Lucy Slowe Elementary School, along with Karen Jurgenson, my first crush, cute as hell…and also gifted. We were their show ponies. I remember once, we were taken up to the sixth grade and asked to solve their math problems…which we promptly did. Can you imagine how insufferable that must have been for those sixth graders? It’s a miracle I didn’t get my ass handed to me that day, after school. “Now Tuck…don’t show off”
When I returned home from Greece for the 9th grade, that first week, I had a run in with a classmate, Walter Battle. Aptly named. “I’ll see you after school!” WTF? No idea what I’d done to piss him off; probably answered a question in class or maybe his girlfriend had smiled at me. I got picked on some as a kid, I had my share of fights. I didn’t win that many and mercifully, none of them lasted that long…but I would always fight. And my father, having grown up poor and black in New Orleans, become a Golden Gloves middleweight contender. You’d think he’d have given his son some fucking skills, right? Nope. Mercifully, there were no guns around in those days.
I showed up at the playground, he showed up, his friends gathered round us in a circle…but somehow, nothing happened. Maybe I talked us out of it. Later in high school, we became good friends, both cadet officers. But other strangers would decide I was too big for my britches and needed to be taken down a peg. Or somebody said the Magic Word. At college in Munich, I soon learned the German word for black is “negar”. A little close for comfort but I soon learned to distinguish a descriptive term from an insult. However, in the southern town that was Washington DC in the 50’s, if some white kid tried to intimidate me or insult me, somebody was gonna get hit.
So I grew up the eldest son of a very accomplished and dignified black man. I imagine, given his uncommon success, despite growing up poor in the segregated South that Dad always lived under a spotlight, too. Much was expected of me…and I think I began to shrink from all that attention, all that expectation, all that potential. I showed early promise in academics, music, languages; I lived to feel the sunshine of my fathers approval. I worshipped him. I still do. He was not overly demonstrative with his affections…but sometimes, he would call me Man. Not the hipster term but an expression from his own childhood. My father had grown up without a father. He would place his hand gently upon the nape of my neck when he wanted to express our special bond…and I can still feel his hand there, to this day. He grew up in a time when men, at least black men were sparing with their expressions of affection. Perhaps he wanted to prepare me for a world that would not always be kind or fair or respectful.
Years later, after Vietnam and the EST training I said to him, “Dad, I have never doubted for one moment your love for me. Sometimes I need to hear the words.” And thereafter, whenever we met, he never failed to offer them.
One night in 1970, from my hospital bed at Walter Reed, I wrote to Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse and I asked for an interview. I had decided to study acting. I wasn’t expected to live too much longer, why not? That week I left for Vietnam, a girlfriend had taken me to see an off-Broadway play. Big Time, Buck White. It starred Dick Anthony Williams…and later, Mohammed Ali. I was transfixed by the energy on that stage; I’d never seen anything like it. Years later, I worked with Dick at Lincoln Center and got to tell him how his work had influenced my life.
So at 26, I become an actor. Of all things… How ironic for someone so ambivalent about attention. My ambition then and now was to be a working actor, regarded by his peers as a professional. Hardly a profession my father would have earlier encouraged or approved…but my parents were so grateful that I’d somehow survived war, they became incredibly supportive.
In my book, RETURN TO EDEN, I wrote how astonishing it is, the attention Google devotes to my modest achievements…I’m equally astounded by the absence of regard for some genuinely accomplished men, like my father. His life preceded this social phenomenon but I’m certain he would have handled any such attention with his customary graciousness.
I’ve known Morgan more than 40 years, Denzel and Sam, more than 35. Each has deservedly enjoyed great success and acclaim. What I respect most about my friends is the grace and poise with which they have handled themselves, given the madness that is modern celebrity. There was a point in time when we were peers…and then I lost my bearings. Perhaps, a blessing in disguise. I was never wired like them…I doubt I would have handled that kind of attention with such grace.
I am ever so grateful to have done The Work, for so many years…and I still think about my Mom’s message…
Now Tuck…Don’t show off.