Sep 2010

Arthur Penn - 1922 - 2010
by adg on Thu Sep 30, 2010 8:11 am
I was scrolling through the news yesterday and thought I'd misread the headline that Arthur Penn had passed away. I read the story a few times before it actually sank in. I had called him a few times recently checking in on his recovery from a short hospital stay in New York. I am so thankful I got to hear his voice again a couple of times. I loved the guy.

I remember first seeing him in 1968 as we began preparing to turn my song, "Alice's Restaurant" into a full length feature film. I'd gone to visit Arthur and Peggy Penn in their lovely home in Stockbridge quite a few times during that year. I knew nothing at all about the making of films. I was just kid about twenty years old and I was not very knowledgable about such things. Nevertheless I was very excited and also extremely nervous at the thought of being in front of a camera. I had no training as an actor and no way of preparing myself in time before the filming actually began. I was not comfortable in my own skin in real life, let alone on camera. Arthur assured me it would all be okay. I began to believe him. He was so easy to trust I just left it all in his hands.

The very first scenes we filmed were with Bill Obanheim - Officer Obie himself! The same guy that had arrested me was playing himself in the movie. I couldn't believe it. We started out having to work together at the scene of the crime - a hill with garbage strewn all over the place. The tension was unbelievable. But, after a few days Bill walked up to me and said "If you hippies can get up at four in the morning, go through all the make-up and wardrobe crap and work all day until the sun goes down, well… Ya can't be all that bad." Bill and I became lifelong friends until he passed away.

I wondered what Arthur Penn was thinking putting Bill and me together in the first scenes being shot. It occurred to both Bill and myself that Arthur just wanted to see what would happen - Like a science project - with an unknown outcome. It could have gone badly. The gleam in Arthur Penn's eyes as we filmed the first few scenes together was unmistakable. He filmed two real life adversaries becoming lifelong friends. That lesson has stayed with me throughout my life - that enemies and friends are sometimes just a different set of circumstances.

The film came out in 1969 and I went on to other challenges. It took me about twenty years to want to get in front of a camera again. But eventually I eased my way back doing some work as an actor on a few TV shows and small parts in films I thought would be fun. It was like riding a bike - but this time I wasn't a kid. Whatever lessons (and there were quite a few) I had learned working with Arthur Penn were adapted to meet other situations. Eventually in 1994 I had a steady role on ABC's "Byrds Of Paradise" TV series. It was probably one of the best times of my life and definitely the most comfortable time I'd ever spent being someone else.

At some point a couple of years ago one of my daughters and I were talking about overcoming things in your life and she mentioned that I had overcome a stutter I'd had as a young man. I looked at her and told her I'd never had a stutter. She said "Of course you did, Pop." I couldn't figure out where she'd got that into her head. "It was in the movie!" she said.

I was laughing hysterically as I told her that I never stuttered in real life, but only in the movie, generally when I couldn't remember my lines. It gave me time to recall what I was supposed to be saying. She'd have none of it and was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person in the film was her father as a young man. To this day I have no idea if she believes what I told her.

Oddly enough, about that same time I was walking down the street in New York City and ran into Arthur Penn. He appeared a little older but otherwise had the same gleam in his eyes I first saw over 40 years ago. We chatted a bit and agreed to meet up in Stockbridge at the first opportunity. I wanted to take a few moments of his time to share some real life stories - that things were generally good. And that the few months I'd spent working with him so many years ago had become distilled - aged. It had ripened into the person I am. I am comfortable in my own skin. I simply wanted to thank him for his kindness and patience during the slow evolution of my becoming me.

I knew he was not in great health over the last couple of years. The last time we talked he laughed about coming close to deaths door couple of times and returned more or less alive. We never got to meet in Stockbridge, but we did talk a few times on the telephone. It will have to be enough.

I still don't know very much about films, but I do know a friend when I see one. I will hold what memories I have close to my heart and remain thankful for the chance to have met and worked with Arthur Penn. My thoughts now are with his lovely wife, Peggy, their family and close friends. I know they'll have stories to tell and moments to share far beyond my few offerings. I just felt like I had to add a little something - a few words thanking you all for sharing your husband and father with the rest of us.

Arlo Guthrie
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