How Psychic Roots Became an Unsolved Mystery
After what seemed like a zillion years away from show- business, I found myself back on prime-time television - just because I wrote a genealogy book of all things!
I had thought that that part of my life was behind me. I never really meant to return to the tube. I had left it a decade before by choice after a twenty-year career as a character actor. I'd had a pretty good run, playing mostly wimps and nerds in situation comedies and Disney movies. But, after all, how many times can you "lose the girl" and not let it bother you? In my heart, I was Tom Cruise - but everybody else seemed to think of me as Rick Moranis.
Besides, climbing family trees and chasing "dead Germans" were taking over my life. Family history research was a heck of a lot more fun than having to wake up and stagger to the studio for a 5 A.M. make-up call. So, I made my choice - and, hands down, it was GENEALOGY!
But then, as fate would have it, NBC and Unsolved Mysteries made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
Here's what happened:
In their July 1994 issue, OMNI Magazine published a nice article about my new book Psychic Roots: Serendipity & Intuition in Genealogy. As luck would have it, the writer of the piece, Sherry Baker, had worked at one time in the past for the popular Unsolved Mysteries program. Thinking that my own story as well as some others in the book might be "naturals" for the show, Sherry pitched the idea to the producers. After hardly any time at all, deals were made, contracts were signed, and - good grief - I was back in show business.
I was ready for anything! And I was wary. After all those years in front of the camera, I knew that the unexpected was the norm, and that if anything could go wrong it often would. In fact, my whole career was a myriad of mishaps. For instance:
Of the eight movies I did for Disney Studios, my favorite role was in Walt's last personally produced film, Blackboard's Ghost. Because of my rather unusual appearance (I was so skinny at the time, I barely photographed sideways), they asked me to do my own stunts.
That was their first mistake. The climactic moment of the film took place in a college stadium. It was quite a scene. Hundreds of extras, all yelling and screaming, urging me on to win a big relay race and bring glory home to the alma mater. The script called for me to seemingly run the race in midair, mysteriously held up by the invisible ghost of Blackbeard (played by the inimitable Sir Peter Ustinov). To accomplish this effect, the studio technicians attached me to their fabled "Mary Poppins wires" which gave the illusion that I was flying.
Unfortunately, Mr. Murphy's Law was in effect that day. Something went terribly wrong. I'm ashamed to say that I have the dubious distinction of being the only actor in Disney history whose wires broke mid-flight. I was racing the entire length of the sound-stage, ten feet off the ground, when I fell.
But I couldn't just fall, get up and continue like a normal person. Oh no - I landed right smack on poor Peter Ustinov with a thunderous crash and then proceeded to bleed all over his expensive pirate costume. But - not to worry. After being mopped up, sponged down, and re-wired, we repeated the scene ten more times until we finally got a perfect take.
But I suppose I was a slow learner. I was pretty-much like the man in the circus who swept up after the elephants and said -
"What - and give up show business??"
And in my litany of disasters, I certainly can't forget Day In Court. This was back in television's infancy when some programs were broadcast live throughout the country. I had a courtroom scene where I played a young rock-and-roll singer. He believed his parents were trying to steal his money and was suing them to stop their chicanery. As the trial reached its emotional peak, I stopped the proceedings cold. Jumping up from my chair, I shook my fist at my parents and, at the top of my voice, screamed for all America to hear,
"YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A VUNCH OF BULTURES!!!"
They never asked me back on that show.
I wonder why?
But I guess my ultimate claim to fame in the blooper department took place years ago on the old Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. My singing partner, Dean Kay, and I were co- stars of the program, broadcast every weekday on ABC-TV. You may remember that we closed every show by singing a hymn. It was sort of Ernie's trademark - he had that wonderfully rich, bass voice and great sincerity that would send the chills down your spine whenever he sang. Although we had loads of fun and could cut-up on other segments of the program, it was an unspoken rule that we never kidded around during the hymn.
One particular day just prior to the closing, Dean and I sang a musical number from our then-current RCA album. We were dressed in casual outfits for that song, but then had to dash backstage for a quick change into the suits we were to wear for the hymn. Unfortunately, in the rush, I neglected to zip one very crucial part of my apparel.
Thinking that all was well, I ran onstage unawares and stood next to Ernie, ready to sing. We looked especially distinguished and dignified in our dark suits that day, standing with our hands folded in front of us against an illuminated cross as our backdrop. Immediately, the floor-manager began to count down, "5, 4, 3 - ."
At that precise moment, Ernie happened to glance over at me. He looked down, did a double-take, and whispered urgently out of the corner of his mouth -
"DON'T WAVE BYE-BYE!"
But it was too late - we were back on the air, singing our little hearts out. I don't know how we got through "Peace in The Valley" without "losing it," but somehow we did.
The panic of that moment has sort of made everything a blur, but I do remember one thing: I kept my trembling hands clasped tightly in front of me, and when it came time to wave bye-bye -
it was the quickest wave you've ever seen!
But in spite of these past embarrassments, I tried to keep a positive mind-set. After all, hadn't I stressed in Psychic Roots that "pessimists make lousy genealogists?" I kept telling myself Unsolved Mysteries didn't have to be another ride on the Titanic.
It started well. Sherry Baker had done her homework and was very familiar with all the stories in my book. We put our heads together and came up with six of the best that might translate well to television. I gave her the six genealogists' addresses and phone numbers to contact, and we were off and running.
Next, Mike Mathis, who was to be the director of the episode, flew down from Los Angeles to meet me at my home in San Diego. He had studied Sherry's breakdown of my book, and we spent the afternoon just getting to know each other and talking in depth about my own personal experiences in genealogy. A delightful man - savvy, sensitive, and funny - I knew in an instant I was in good hands.
I had expected that the show would be filmed somewhere in the Hollywood area. I even looked forward to working at one of my old studio stomping grounds and being able to inhale that wonderfully musty sound-stage smell again that I missed so much.
WRONG! Mike looked around the house, cased-out my large genealogical library, and decided they'd shoot my interview right there in my home.
At first, I was a bit reluctant to agree. Having had firsthand experience seeing coffee spilled, dents poked, and doors scraped on other location shoots in the past, I knew that some crews could care less about damaging someone's home. Sometimes things could go very wrong. In fact, I had heard from the horse's mouth the ultimate disaster story along these lines. It was told by producer Hal Roach at a dinner I attended in 1971:
In the 1920s, Roach Studios rented a house to use for the Laurel & Hardy film Big Business from a studio worker who was going on vacation. The script called for Stan and Ollie to engage in a tit-for-tat feud with an irate neighbor (their marvelously mustachioed "triple-take" foil, Jimmy Finlayson). The conflict built slowly, then grew to absolute mayhem. It finally culminated in the total destruction of the premises.
As the last scene was being shot, the man from whom they rented the house returned from his trip. All that was left to see was rubble.
"My God, Mr. Roach," he exclaimed. "That's not my house - My house is the one next-doori"
CAN YOU IMAGINE!!??
But why dwell on location horror stories, I thought? And Mike did assure me that the Unsolved Mysteries crew would leave our house spotless and just the way they found it. So I gave the ok.
A few days before my actual interview was to be filmed, the location manager came by to take detailed still photos of our home. He canvassed the neighborhood and put out flyers announcing that "a national television show would be filming in the area, and that they were sorry for any inconvenience this might cause."
I crossed my fingers. My wife Bonnie and I live in the quiet San Diego suburb of Scripps Ranch, sort of an idyllic Southern California version of Mayberry, RFD. I sure didn't want the hubbub to disturb any local Aunt Beas or Opies!
But before I had time to worry, the big day finally arrivedl
Three immense, unmarked yellow trucks pulled up in front of our house. The crew - "best-boys," sound-men, gaffers, and "go-fers" - piled out and started unloading what looked to be enough lights to illuminate the Statue of Liberty during the Bicentennial Celebration. A catering truck arrived. The chef proceeded to set up a complete kitchen and dining facility right there in our front driveway. It looked like he had tables and chairs to feed the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Within five minutes, our front lawn reminded me of an ant-farm - everybody running around in organized chaos.
But - not to fear - Bonnie had prepared well. She had always been proud of our home, and, with her gift for interior design, had decorated it tastefully with lovely furniture and beautiful handpainted porcelains and antiques. By the time the crew arrived, it was immaculate and looked like something out of House Beautiful. "Gee," she told me, "our home is going to look so pretty on camera!" As a matter of fact, I thought she was more excited about seeing our house on television than about seeing me!
But when the director, cameraman, and crew finally came in the front door and started working, the real world of television production arrived with them. The favorite phrase of the day became, "LOSE IT!" Within a few minutes, the living room was emptied of most all of Bonnie's carefully arranged chairs and tables. The antique porcelains were quickly removed from their shelves, and all the other decorations and accessories were taken away. Our house began to look like it did on "moving day" before we had moved in! Even the chandeliers were raised or taken down so that they wouldn't be in the way of the booms and cameras.
The metamorphosis of the house continued. The windows soon were covered with blackout tape, hiding any possible view of our front yard or backyard patio. On the lawn outside, lights were placed on twenty-foot pole-stands to help illuminate the interior scenes. My desk, which I had tidied up so neatly, was purposely i//7tidied and put in disarray to make it look "used." And when a young pony-tailed member of the crew looked at the door to my genealogical library and said, "Lose it!" - Bonnie and I both gulped.
My poor wife! I must admit that in order to get her to agree to the filming I'd minimized the traumas that the day might bring:
"Oh no, " I told her, "You won't even know they're here!"
Bonnie "covered" well and was her usual sweet and friendly self to one and all. She appeared to be nonchalant about everything going on around her. But it didn't take long for her to figure out what was really happening: I knew - and she knew -
This was an INVASION!
As all this was going on, the neighborhood was waking up. The man across the street, whom we hadn't seen for two years, mysteriously decided that that particular day was the day of all days to hand-water his front yard. It was a great way to satisfy his curiosity and sneak looks at all the action going on. So he proceeded to water - and water - and water his lawn, until the flood started backing up the gutters in the street. At least he had a good view!
Another neighbor didn't receive the flyer announcing the filming. When she saw all the strange people with unmarked trucks moving things in and out of our house, she too wondered what was going on. So to try and get more information, she kept walking her dog back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our home. As night fell, exterior lights were shown through the windows to give the illusion that it was still daytime outside. Then our curious neighbor's suspicions really were aroused! She thought perhaps some gang might be in the process of robbing us. We found out later that only a chance conversation with another resident who knew about the filming prevented her from calling the police.
Amidst this zoo-like atmosphere, Mike sat me down in a chair, rolled the cameras, and began asking me questions about my book. To make a long story short, the interview went pretty well. I was secretly afraid that, because of my time away from the cameras, I might turn into "Mr. Mushmouth." But, after a few false starts and thanks to the director's skills, everything turned out all right, and they seemed pleased with the results.
But then came the dreaded BEDROOM SCENE!
In Psychic Roots, I told how I would dream occasionally of the Palatine emigrants' ancestral origins in Germany, and how those locales I dreamed about, in a few cases, proved to be the correct home villages when we finally found the families overseas. Unsolved Mysteries thought this was an important part of the story and should be dramatized on the program.
They knew that I had been a professional actor. So rather than have someone else recreate my experience, they asked me to play myself in the episode.
As my look-alike (Robert Redford, of course) was unavailable, I agreed. I guess you could say they got a "Hank Jones type." They wanted to shoot the dream sequence in our upstairs bedroom. So I donned my best pajamas, tousled my hair, and plopped into bed, waiting for the cameras to roll.
"Something's not quite right," Mike, the director, said. "It should look more natural, more real." He thought about it a minute, and then you could almost see the light bulb pop on over his head with inspiration:
"Oh Bonnie," he called. "Come here, will you? Would you mind taking off your clothes and putting on your nightgown?"
I'm afraid I'm the "hambone" in our family. No matter how hard Mike pleaded or cajoled, there was no way he could convince Bonnie to jump into bed and make her national television debut from under the sheets. I even offered her chocolates (her weakness), but she still refused.
DRAT! Once a lady, always a lady!
Next time they rerun the show again on cable-TV, take a look at that particular bedroom sequence. You'll see me there, leaning over the nightstand and writing down my dreams on a note pad. And next to me in bed, hidden under the covers, if you look hard - you'll see a very attractive lump.
No, it's not my wife -
It's just three of our fluffiest pillows making their debut on national television!