Was the Dumb Looking Guy with the Wire-Rimmed Glasses
By Rick Cleveland
I was 23 years old and still very much a struggling playwright in
Chicago, my father passed away of complications due to liver failure.
I hadn't seen him in almost 10 years. A Korean War veteran with
an alcohol addiction that got the better of us all, he spent the
last years of his life living in flophouses and on the street, passing
his days riding the same city bus line he himself used to drive.
the long drive back to Ohio to arrange his funeral. He was buried
in the military section of a small cemetery in Brooklyn, Ohio. At
the time there wasn't even enough money to give him a full-blown
gravesite ceremony, and my uncle, my sister, and I helped a couple
of workman unload and carry his casket off the back of a pickup
truck in the rain.
months later, when I finally had the courage to go through what
few personal items he left us, I found his military records and
mementos. He had served in the Marine Corps with the First Infantry
Division of the Second Battalion during the Korean conflict from
1950 to 1953. He came home a Staff Sergeant, blew almost all his
muster pay in a three-day poker game, and then went to work in a
factory making corrugated cardboard boxes and later as a bus driver.
Among his military decorations were a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential
Unit Citation, a United Nations Service Citation, and a Purple Heart.
I didn't know it at the time but subsequently found out that I could
have had him buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
a long time I thought I might try and track down all my father's
old war buddies to see if anyone could actually remember him from
a time in his life that must have in some significant way shaped
the hard-luck case he would become. He was my father, and I didn't
know (not many people did for that matter) his story. I still think
I might do it, but for the time being my own life keeps getting
in the way.
1995, shortly after its commemoration, I visited the Korean War
Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the place has haunted me ever
years ago, I worked as a co-producer on the writing staff of The
West Wing, and the earliest draft of my first episode was titled
"Bellwether," which was the name of the episode's problem
cat I had given the First Lady as a pet. (I also hoped that as a
title it might prove to be a good omen for scripts written by other
members of the writing staff.) The cat never made the final cut
of that episode and the title got changed, but my "A"
story about Toby's (Richard Schiff's character) attempts to get
a homeless Korean War veteran buried in Arlington stayed. So did
some funny stuff I wrote about Stephen Jay Gould's opinions about
the upcoming millennium, as did some stuff about C.J. (Allison Janney)
discovering that her Secret Service code name was Flamingo. (Actually,
my wife came up with that--a lot of my best stuff I steal directly
from her, and so far, God bless her, she's been inclined to let
me get away with it.)
Sunday, September 10, 2000, the day my twin sons, Gus and Charlie,
turned 18 months old, I won an Emmy for co-writing the above-described
episode, now titled "In Excelcis Deo." That day also happened
to be my grandmother's birthday, as well as my wife's grandparents'
might not remember me from that night. I was the guy wearing the
little wire-framed glasses, standing directly behind Aaron Sorkin.
I had a dumbfounded smirk on my face, and I imagine I must've looked
a little like a member of Sorkin's security detail. When he was
done speaking, he kind of ushered me offstage with him, and, dumbly,
at the table where they ask you to sign your name in the book so
you can take your Emmy home with you, Sorkin was standing, busy
watching [director, co-executive producer] Tommy Schlamme's acceptance
speech on one of the monitors. The nice lady behind the table looked
at me and said, "Mr. Sorkin is going to have to sign for his
Emmy." I realized at that moment that she must have thought
that I was Sorkin's publicist or assistant. I looked at her kind
of sheepishly and said, "Aren't we supposed to get two of them?"
She looked at her book and saw the second name in that category--my
name. She looked back up at me and said, "Is Mr. Cleveland
here this evening?"
know when you've just been dealt a somewhat humiliating or embarrassing
blow, and it doesn't occur to you what you could have said or should
have said until afterward? This for me was one of those nights.
It just happened to happen in front of 40 million people -- and
then it happened again backstage.
in mind the notion that the best quarterback is a Monday morning
quarterback, if I had it to do over, this is what I would have done
differently. I would have waited until Sorkin was done thanking
everyone for their work on the pilot. And when he stepped away and
headed off into the wings, I would've boldly stepped up to the microphone
and said the following:
I'm Rick Cleveland. And I just wanted to take a moment to thank
the other writers on The West Wing staff. Paul Redford, Peter Parnell,
Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., Diana Son, Laura Glasser, Jeff Reno, and
Ron Osbourne. They read all my early drafts. They all gave me great
notes, and I share this honor with each."
then if I was feeling cocky and didn't hear the music starting to
swell in an attempt to cut me off, I would have thanked the following:
John Wells, Tommy Schlamme, and the cast; I might have singled out
Richard Schiff for carrying what was essentially my father's story
with such quiet and moving grace; my agents at UTA, Larry Salz,
Sue Nagle, and Elana Barry; my wife, Mary, for both putting up with
me and believing in me, for giving me our three beautiful children,
and for coming up with C.J.'s Secret Service nickname.
wished my grandmother a happy birthday and Ada and Rudolph Kohnert
(my wife's grandparents) a happy anniversary. And then I would've
thanked my mom, back in Ohio. She always wanted to be a writer but
wound up working pretty much her whole life as a drill press operator,
a steel mill worker, and a long-term caregiver for people with Alzheimer's.
then, last but not least, I would have remembered my dad.
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