Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (6 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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When you're nearly sixteen, days seem endless, especially when
you're charming a bunch of young women in a greasy spoon in Hollywood. I must have been really on that day, too, because as I joked around, a middle-aged guy walked past the booth and put a note on a napkin in front of me on the table and walked away and right out the door. The girls all stopped chattering; I looked at the guy's back as he left, then did a prototype of Chandler's double take, getting more laughs.

“Well, read it!” one of the girls said.

I carefully picked up the note as though it were covered in poison, and slowly opened it. In spidery handwriting it said,

I want you to be in my next movie. Please give me a call at this number.… William Richert.

“What does it say?” another girl said.

“It says, ‘Could you be more handsome and talented?'” I said, deadpan.

“No,” the first girl said, “it does
not
!”

The tenor of her disbelief caused another round of laughter as I said, “Oh, thanks
very
much,” but once the laughter died down, I said, “It says, ‘I want you to be in my next movie. Please give me a call at this number. William Richert.'”

One of the girls said, “Well,
that
sounds legitimate.…”

“Right?” I said. “This movie is going to be shot in the back of a windowless van.”

At home that evening, I asked my dad what to do. He was on his third vodka tonic—there was just enough cogency left in his tank to get a useful answer. By now, he was starting to get a little frustrated by the fact that my career was beginning to percolate; he wasn't jealous, but he was aware that I was younger than he was, and that the road was rising to meet me, and that if I played my cards right, I might have
a better career than the one he was having. That said, he never showed anything but support—there was no “Great Santini” going on here. My dad was my hero, and he was proud of me.

“Well, Matty,” he said, “can't hurt to call.”

But whatever my dad said, I knew I'd call that number. I'd known it when I first read the note. This was Hollywood, after all—that's supposed to be how it happens, right?

It turned out that William Richert didn't want to make a movie in the back of a van.

Richert had been watching me perform for the girls that day in the 101 and had seen enough of
The Matthew Perry Show
to want to cast me in a movie he was making based on his novel
A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon.
The novel and the movie are set in Chicago in the early 1960s; Reardon is a teenager who is being forced to go to business school when all he really wants to do is get enough money to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii, where his girlfriend lives. I was to play Reardon's best friend, Fred Roberts, who, like Ed in
Charles in Charge,
was well-off and a bit snobby, and suffered from chronic virginity. (I could relate.) I ditched the preppy look once again, as Fred was to be dressed in a gray felt flat cap and leather jacket over a dress shirt and tie, oh, and black leather gloves. In the movie, the character of Reardon sleeps with my girlfriend, but that's OK, because playing Reardon would be someone it would be a privilege to be cheated on by.

The list of geniuses who were ahead of their time is too long to detail here—suffice to say, near the top of any such list should be my costar in
A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon,
River Phoenix. This movie was my first job, and I'm acutely aware it would be a better story if the movie was a huge hit, but all that really matters is that I learned how to make a film, and I got to know River, who personified beauty
in every way. There was an aura around that guy. But he made you feel too comfortable to even be jealous of him.
Stand by Me
had just come out—which he
excelled
in—and when you walked into a room with him, his charisma was such that you instantly became part of the furniture.

The movie was shot in Chicago, so there I was, just turning seventeen years old, and heading to the Windy City, sans parents, sans anything, once again an unaccompanied minor, but this time it felt like freedom, like what I was born to do. I had never been so excited in my life. It was in Chicago, and on this movie, and with River Phoenix, that I fell deeply in love with acting—and the cherry on top of this deeply magical time was that River and I became firm friends. He and I drank beer and shot pool on North Rush Street (
The Color of Money
had just come out, and pool was the thing to do). We had a per diem; we flirted with girls, though that's as far as it went for me because, well, you know.

River was a beautiful man, inside and out—too beautiful for this world, it turned out. It always seems to be the really talented guys who go down. Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us? River was a better actor than me; I was funnier. But I certainly held my own in our scenes—no small feat, when I look back decades later. But more important, River just looked at the world in a different way than we all did, and that made him fascinating, and charismatic, and, yes, beautiful, but not in a Gap ad kinda way (though he was that, too)—in a there-is-no-one-else-in-the-world-like-him kind of way. Not to mention he was rocketing to stardom, yet you would never know it.

And somewhere in all that magic, River Phoenix and I managed to shoot a movie together.

Later, River would say that he wasn't happy with his performance in
Jimmy Reardon,
claiming he hadn't been the right person for the role.
But to me he was the right person for every role. He could do anything. I remember seeing him in the movie
Sneakers
—he was making choices no one else would make. Not to mention holding his own with legends like Robert Redford and the wonderful Sidney Poitier. (If you haven't seen it, you should—it's highly entertaining.)

The movie
we
made would eventually tank at the box office, but it didn't matter. We'd been somewhere beautiful and magical, even if it was just North Rush Street in freezing Chicago. And it was the best experience of my life—I knew it, too. My work was done in about three weeks, but they (probably River, actually) liked me so much that they kept me on the movie till the end. Things didn't get better than this.

One night, alone in my tiny room at the Tremont hotel, as things were drawing to a close, I knelt down and said to the universe: “Don't you ever forget this.”

And I have not.

But magic never lasts; whatever holes you're filling seem to keep opening back up. (It's like Whac-A-Mole.) Maybe it was because I was always trying to fill a spiritual hole with a material thing.… I don't know. Either way, when it came to the last day of shooting, I sat on my bed in my Chicago hotel room and cried. I sobbed and sobbed because I knew even then I would never again have an experience like that—my first movie, far from home, free to flirt and drink and hang out with a brilliant young man like River Phoenix.

I would sob again seven years later on Halloween 1993, when River died in front of the Viper Room in West Hollywood. (I heard the screaming from my apartment; went back to bed; woke up to the news.) After his passing, his mom wrote, in reference to drug use, “the spirits of [River's] generation are being worn down,” and by then, I was drinking every night. But it would be years before I understood exactly what she meant.

With
Jimmy Reardon
in the can, I flew back to LA from Chicago
and returned to planet Earth in the form of high school. I was still auditioning for tons of things but wasn't getting much traction. I was booking mostly comedy stuff, and I ended up guest starring on just about everything. My grades still sucked, though. I graduated with a 2.0 average, exactly. All that I asked for my graduation was that my mother and father both attend, which they kindly did. The incredibly awkward dinner that followed seemed only to underline the fact that the child they shared was destined to be uncomfortable as a default, even though he was also usually the funniest person in the room. But that night at dinner I was only the third funniest, and the third most beautiful. At least a childhood dream of them being together had come true, if for one night only, and even then, if only in embarrassing silences and barbs passed back and forth like some angry cosmic joint.

I am grateful to my parents for attending that dinner—it was an incredibly kind and completely unnecessary thing for them to do. But it crystallized something for me that I had not anticipated. It was
right
that they weren't together. They were not to be. They were correct to be apart. They both subsequently found the person they were meant to be with. And I am incredibly happy for both of them. Matty no longer needed to make the wish that his parents would be together.

It would be decades before they were in the same room together again. And then, for a very different reason.

The acting roles, and the quick mind and mouth, and the friendship with River, and the denim jacket over plaid shirt all combined to help me land a beautiful girlfriend named Tricia Fisher. (Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens's daughter—that's right, Carrie Fisher's half sister. This girl was no stranger to charm.)

The rhyming poetry of her name alone should have made her irresistible—plus, I was eighteen now, and was pretty sure everything
worked, except when I was in the company of another human being. I carried impotence around with me like a great ugly secret, like I carried around everything else. Accordingly, as my relationship with Tricia Fisher deepened, thoughts naturally turned to a physical consummation, but I announced confidently that like a Roman Catholic, I wanted to wait—not many eighteen-year-old males say that, by the way, nor should they. This, of course, caught her interest. When she pressed me on why, I said something about “commitment” or “the future” or “the state of the planet” or “my career,” anything, in fact, to avoid telling her that I was softer than the caramel-colored booths at the 101 Coffee Shop when push came to shove. And I couldn't let push come to shove or my secret would be out.

My firmness, at least in my conviction to wait, lasted two months. But dams burst, and the make-out sessions that didn't lead anywhere were beginning to cause us both to hyperventilate. Tricia Fisher made up her mind.

“Matty,” she said, “I've had enough of this. Let's go.”

She took my hand and led me to the bed in my tiny studio apartment in Westwood.

I was horrified, and also excited, though I was still haunted by an inner dialogue of fear:

—Maybe this time, and with someone I care deeply for, my previous inabilities will dissolve.…
Dissolve—bad word.

—Should I have a stiff drink beforehand?
Well, stiff's the problem, pal.

—Maybe it won't be as hard as I feared.
Not as hard? Matty, stop doing that.…

Before this brief dialogue could turn into a threepenny opera, Tricia had disrobed both of us and pulled us into bed. I distinctly remember the foothills of lovemaking as pure bliss, but like a neophyte
mountaineer, I feared that beyond a certain base camp, no amount of oxygen would help me get any higher. And so it proved to be. How else to put it?—I just couldn't get that thing to work right. I thought of everything, spinning complex, erotic images through my addled brain, hoping to land on something—
one thing, that's all it will take!
—that would firm up my commitment to future bliss. Nothing worked; nothing. Horrified yet again, I forsook the loving arms of Tricia Fisher and padded my slim, naked body over to a chair in the apartment. (It was like you could bend me in half if you wanted to.) I sat there, soft, and sad, my two hands cupped over my lap like a nun's during Vespers, doing my best to cover my embarrassment and maybe a tear or two.

Tricia Fisher was once again having none of it.

“Matty!” she said. “What the hell is going on? Don't you find me attractive?”

“Oh, no, of course I find you attractive!” I said. The physical issues were bad enough, but worse, I could feel an escalating sense of abandonment slipping in through the windows of that room. What if Tricia left me? What if I wasn't enough, like I always wasn't enough? What if I was destined to be unaccompanied again?

I was desperate; I really liked her; and I really wanted to believe that love could save me.

There was only one thing to do. I had to tell her everything.

“Tricia,” I said, “back when I was in Ottawa, I was so nervous about making out with a girl that I drank six beers.…” I left nothing out; told Tricia the whole, shameful tale, and I ended by admitting that I was impotent, and always would be, that it was no use, there was nothing to be done, that my desire for her could never be matched by anything solid, anything worthy of the name. But I was desperate for her not to abandon me, too, so if there was anything I could do to keep her, all she had to do was ask and on and on and on I went, burbling like a little river in the spring.

Dear Tricia Fisher—she let me babble on and on, as I tried my best to convince her that no matter how beautiful she was—and she was very beautiful indeed—it didn't matter: I was destined to repeat that night in Ottawa for the rest of my days.

Eventually, I wound down, and took a deep breath. Tricia said very calmly, very simply, “Come with me. That's never going to happen again.”

With that, she walked over to me, took my hand, led me back to bed, laid me down, and sure enough … sheer glory, for two whole minutes! That night, by the dint of a miraculous universe and the ministrations of a beautiful young woman who deserved better, I finally first misplaced my virginity then lost it altogether, and impotence has not been part of my vocabulary since, just as she promised it wouldn't be. Everything about me—at least physically—works just fine.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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