In 2000, Pay It Forward, a movie starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Hayley Joel Osment, made an indelible impression on me.
I believe every occurrence in every moment of our lives is open for us to learn something from it—if we can just figure out what that lesson is, whether we like it or not. We can then pay it forward in how we live our lives.
So it’s the start of the new year, and we’re doing what we do every year—comparing lists of bests and worsts, wins and losses of the previous year. One list I’m always both ready and reluctant to see: celebrity deaths.
The older I get, the more I notice that lots and lots of people I used to “know” are gone: movie stars, local heroes, famous leaders and friends. But instead of lamenting losses, I’ve decided to celebrate lessons learned and pay them forward.
Jonathan Winters died this year at the age of 87. He was the reason my late husband, John Aylesworth, came to Los Angeles from New York, to produce one of Winters’ television series. Although I never met him, “Jonny” had an enormous impact on my life. He was the first comedian I had ever seen who played out his childlike stream of consciousness. We all have it; we just don’t often “see” it, and hardly anyone can express it in real time. (OK, Robin Williams can, but he didn’t die this year.)
Sometimes, when I’m noticing every little thing that distracts me from what I’ve set out to do—those flowers need more water; I should spot-clean that rug; better put those shoes away; have to mail those letters; where are my keys—I think of the way Winters made each of those tiny observations funny: by sharing them, using characters to mock them, taking our obsession with them to its absurdity, and making us laugh at ourselves through him.
I try to catch myself and verbalize—even if I’m alone—the games my mind is playing. I laugh out loud. Thanks for that, Jonny.
Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich died in 2012, but to me, it feels so recent. He was very smart about how the tribe made local political contributions—generally to support likely winners, so that tribal interests would be heard. Milanovich and I met when we participated in several events on the same stage; we always were glad to see each other. He was a warm and charming man.
When I announced I would run against Sonny Bono in the 1996 election for Congress, everyone assumed it was unlikely that I would even make a decent showing against such a well-funded and high-name-recognition politician/celebrity. The chance that someone like politically sophisticated Milanovich would support me seemed impossible—but he was an early, quiet supporter, without being asked, with great warmth and encouragement. I’ll never forget that. I learned that it’s not enough to hedge your bets; it’s also important to do it with sincerity and class. Richard Milanovich was a class act.
Local philanthropist, socialite and TV-station owner, Jackie Lee Houston, known for her pile of blonde hair and her amazing presence, died in 2011, but that, too, seems like yesterday. I didn’t “know” Jackie Lee, but I did meet or see her a couple of times—and each time was significant for a different reason.
My first meeting with Jackie Lee was at a birthday party for singer Jack Jones. The crowd was glittery; the atmosphere was festive; the private home was lovely. A chair—situated somewhat to the side of the crowd, strategically and beautifully placed near a small table with a slender lamp on it—looked like an ancient throne of some kind, festooned with ribbons. I noticed it when I arrived, and it had remained empty.
Then, all of a sudden, there was a subtle shift in the air, and Jackie Lee was magically seated in “the chair.”
I am nothing if not brash—to the point of occasional not-socially-correct behavior—and I figured since we were at the same party, it would be neighborly to say hello. So I approached “Mrs. Houston,” introduced myself with a couple of lame local references, and commented that I had been wondering for whom the throne had been placed.
She laughed heartily and remarked that she knew she had forgotten something—“my crown.” For the remaining moments of our ensuing conversation, I was completely at ease. Now that’s a skill to pay forward to everyone you encounter!
My other lesson from Jackie Lee Houston was about her husband. I’ve never officially met Jim Houston, but at several events at which I was in their company, I saw the kind, loving, compassionate and totally supportive role he played on her behalf. That is the appropriate way to show true loving concern for someone you care about. I remembered that example when my husband was ill.
The 1955 film was highly controversial at the time, and was denied the Motion Picture Association of America seal because it dealt directly with drug addiction. It also starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. (When I was in my teens, there was nobody I wanted to be more than Kim Novak!)
Parker’s performance in that movie has never left me. Her insecurity and the irrational fear of losing her relationship with her drug-addicted husband led her to a manipulating dependence that was debilitating and totally destructive. I never forgot the lesson Parker’s character taught me: Co-dependence goes in both directions. I’ve remembered that with the alcoholics and druggies and vampires I’ve encountered over the years. Thank you, Eleanor!
Finally, we lost actress Julie Harris in 2013. She was brilliant, and I remember seeing her in The Member of the Wedding back in 1952. I identified with her spirit and her frustration at what it means to have to grow up.
In 1955, Julie Harris again stunned me in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, playing opposite James Dean. Any man who has not seen that movie should do so. If ever a script expressed the frustration of brotherly competition, and how one figures out what it means to be a man, this is the one.
I most remember Harris’ plaintive tone of voice, her fragility combined with enormous strength and determination, her yearning to bring healing to a distressed family, and her compassion and love for a man struggling to find himself.
The lesson from Julie Harris in East of Eden? Love is the only thing that matters, and it has to begin with knowing how to love yourself.
Pay it forward. Happy New Year!
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.