A Very Special 'Three's Company'
I picked a heck of a day to visit the set of Three's Company.
There was, at that time, tension on the set due to the excessive popularity of Suzanne Somers, but that was of peripheral interest to me. I was only twenty-four at the time, but I was savvy enough about show biz to see the in-fighting for what it was: a blip on the radar screen of TV hi-jinks and hilarity.
What caught my eye was Norman Fell. Mr. Roper.
He was off behind a potted palm, off to the back of the rehearsal room, a greasy and mangled script in his liver-spotted hands, his thin grey hair tousled with the slight regard of the elderly. I approached him from behind with stealth - deliberately, like a cat burglar (I was, as it were, acting as a consultant on the set for the upcoming episode in which the roommates become cat burglars to pay for a birthday cake for Larry - I was a cat burglar in those days, and was working as an independent contractor). (The episode never aired.)
Norman was repeating his lines over and over, with different inflections, sometimes with different dialects, oftentimes bungling them. And when he made an error, oh, mercy! What a round of self-flagellation he subjected himself to! Here was an actor who needed to work himself into a froth simply to learn his lines. So diligent; so beleagured, this Norman Fell.
I knew what he needed in an instant.
"Norman, if I may," I said, approaching him with a gentle smile.
"I'm not playing a cat burglar, so save your breath," he barked at me, his cheeks reddening at being discovered in such a vulnerable state.
"Norman, I'm not here to help you learn to burgle," I said with all the fatherly concern I could muster, though, ironically, he was aged and decrepit and I was young, with all life's opportunities stretched out before me. There was no appeasing him with gentle words, so I offered him a butter toffee from a secret pocket in my catsuit.
Norman slobbered the toffee down and, grudgingly, lent me an ear.
"I used to teach acting outside the Sorbonne," I intoned with authority. "In the parking lot. I had a class of sixty. Various schools begged me to come indoors and teach in a proper room, that's how popular my class got. I never left that parking lot, though, and that parking lot has never left me. It's in my heart, and mine is a heart filled with memories of acting glory, all of them inspired by my guiding hand.
"And I can't help notice that you're simply learning your lines, rote, and doing a poor job of it besides. Norman, why don't you try learning about your lines?"
Norman looked off over his shoulder, skeptically, eyeing a fight between Joyce DeWitt and Ms. Somers with feigned interest.
"Here's what I mean. Don't just repeat your lines over and over. Give a thought to what it is you're saying, and what it is you're trying to express to the character you're speaking to. An example. Say you have a line in which you tell the family doctor, 'Doc, there's more to life than chitlins and skeet shooting. There's bunnies. And tire swings. And other things that make a childhood, well, childlike.'"
Clearly I improvised a hell of a line, because Norman was instantly rapt.
"Now, why on earth would I be saying that to a doctor? Surely I went to him for medical advice -- and all of a sudden I'm asking him to remember the splendor of childhood? What led to this? And why is it important for him to remember bunnies, rather than chitlins? What did bunnies mean to me? What did tire swings mean to me? Did my character have a tire swing when he was a child? Did he have a bunny as a pet, a furry one with a pink nose who used to scurry under the bed when company came and hide in a nest made out of discarded socks and sheet music? You need to make the lines mean something to you, and I mean every word, even articles, even punctuation. That's the mark of greatness. And you can be great, if you dare. You are great."
Norman was smiling, but suddenly he ran out of the rehearsal hall.
I gave chase.
But when I emerged from the rehearsal hall and into the pearly Los Angeles sunlight, there was no sign of Norman. I wandered about the lot for a while, looking for the poor, conflicted character actor.
Then something caught my eye. A note, attached hastily to the windshield of my car with a thoroughly munched piece of gum. I loosed the paper and read: It was too much. My heart can't take you. What are we going to do? - Norman
I'm sorry to have to say this, it's so gauche, but my heart stopped. I felt a chill run through me, and I held the note close to my ear. A door had been opened in my life that I had never even seen in the blueprints. I thought I knew every door...
...But then something danced in the light just out of my line of sight. I turned and my gaze fell on a collection of tall bushes, some bearing fruit, collecting in a median of the parking lot. And the profile of a familiar face - cheek, nose, and eye - peeked out from the side. It was Norman, watching me. Tentative and meek, like a puppy or a shy Southern girl. This was, perhaps, his way of reaching out to me. And I realized, I was officially on a journey of wonder and discovery that I would never forget.
About the author:
Christopher Hickman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, but a different part of Brooklyn -- he moved in May. He made some hard decisions while packing regarding his cassette collection. Among the tapes that didn't make the cut: Pink Floyd's The Final Cut, Lou Rawls' Millenium Collection, the Soundtrack to Anyone Can Whistle, and all five Chanticleer collections.