FRESH YARN presents:
Was the Dumb Looking Guy with the Wire-Rimmed Glasses
When 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.
I made 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.
Many 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.
For 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.
In 1995, shortly after its commemoration, I visited the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the place has haunted me ever since.
A few 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.)
On 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' wedding anniversary.
You 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, I followed.
Backstage, 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?"
You 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.
Keeping 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:
"Hi, 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."
And 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.
I would've 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.
And then, last but not least, I would have remembered my dad.
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