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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Prepared yet Stunned

When I received word from a Frid family member that my friend Jonathan Frid had died, I felt two things at the same time: relief and punched in the stomach.

Relief because my very independent, physically strong friend had been in deteriorating physical health for quite awhile, especially the past two years and more so the past year.  Cognitively he was also on the decline.  None of this is unusual for someone in their mid to late 80s.  But in the case of Jonathan, even the inevitable decline seemed to be surprising.  I don't know why as there isn't any rational reason for that to be true.  I suppose it's because to me, Jonathan was always strong and pushed forward no matter what.

As a writer for his production company, his personal assistant and later producer of several one-man show charity performances, I had seen him in literally over a thousand rehearsals and hundreds of performances over the past twenty-five years I have worked and known him.  I knew when he was performing while ill, upset, insecure, and tired.  Only once did I ever see his emotional or physical state negatively affect a performance.

When he decided to buy his first house and car upon moving back to his native Canada in 1994, he had just turned seventy.  Most people would not want the experience of car ownership or owning a house for the first time at the age of seventy.  Naturally, he was able to hire people to help him develop and nurture his beloved garden and lawn but he did a lot himself.  He deliberately bought a push mower for the purpose of exercise and into his early 80s he was using that push mower to tend to his lawn.  I would stand there and scold him for insisting on mowing the grass in the high heat of a summer afternoon but, of course, he just waved me off, saying he would be done in a few minutes.

Going to visit Jonathan required an eight hour drive for me, a drive I actually enjoyed.  When I would get there on a Friday night, sometimes not until 10 p.m., Jonathan would be up waiting for me, having prepared a little snack and night cap.  Then we would sit down and talk and before you know it the time had gotten to 4 a.m.  We went to bed.  The guest room was near a skylight from an angle I could see the stars if they were out.  The next morning, I would open my eyes at 7 a.m. out of habit from work and frequently see Jonathan walking by my window, carrying a bunch of hose cord around his shoulders and arms evidently already out and about dealing with the lawn and garden.  The guy was 35 years older than I and yet he was all bright eyed and bushy-tailed and I just wanted to stay in bed.

He just struck me as heroic sometimes.  No matter what was going on in his life, he pushed through.

Jonathan took his first really bad fall around 2005 while playing with his cat, Sam.  He was down in the finished basement, on a wheeled chair playing with the cat and slipped off it, falling right on his tail bone.  Long story short, the doctors did not expect him to recover from that for well over a year, be able to walk well, etc.  Well, dear Jonathan was walking rather well within a few weeks.  Sure, he moved a little slow and clearly was hurting but he was walking when he had been told that was a distant success.

When Jonathan decided to do a play with his friend and former assistant, Dean Hollin, in 2000, he asked me if I would come up to Canada and stay with him for a month to rehearse and see the show through.  I wasn't working at the time, he was offering employment, so up I went.  Now, if you know me, you are aware that I have a lot of energy.  I wear other people out.  But here in this environment, a man older than me by thirty years, put me to shame.  "MASS APPEAL" would play in Hamilton for a limited run and then move to the prestigious Sterling Play Festival.  Jonathan was playing the older priest and Dean the younger one.

The daily schedule was like this: get up at 7 a.m. and have breakfast.  Jonathan made breakfast and I ran lines with him while played Julia Child in the kitchen.  We would then sit down for breakfast and run lines some more.  We went into Hamilton for rehearsal which started at 10 a.m., I took all the notes that I could from my perspective and anything the director said.  We broke for lunch around 12:30, went out to eat and ran lines some more.  Back at the theater after an hour, more rehearsal, home by 5 p.m.  We had dinner but did not run lines.  I spent dinner discussing with Jonathan the notes I had and the ones the director had given him during the rehearsal.  After dinner, we went back to Jonathan's house and ran lines until about 7:30 p.m. Then we had a snack and cocktail hour before retiring to our separate rooms.  Jonathan went to study lines and my notes for a few hours.

And the next day, it all started over again.  I didn't always hear the alarm and Jonathan would stand at the door of my bedroom, and click the timer back and forth to wake me. He was such a gentleman he would not actually come into the room to give me a push, but stand there and click the timer back and forth.  My own Big Ben.  I don't do mornings well.  I would manage to get to the dining room table and listen to him run lines and sometimes doze off.  He would tap my head upon realizing I had fallen asleep "HEY!!" he would chide.

One thing I learned about Jonathan while working so closely with him, he had some form of dyslexia.  He had to read things over and over again to read them right and sometimes when he said something, a word got misplaced.  I later learned from a family friend that he had trouble in school because of this.   I realized then that his problems in learning lines stemmed from this handicap.  But he struggled with it anyway and did not change his craft because of this major handicap.  How can you not admire someone like that?

Jonathan was onstage 90 percent of the time in MASS APPEAL and obviously had lots of dialogue.  It became apparent that there was no way he was going to remember all of that dialogue.  I suggested his wearing a "wire" in his ear while performing and I would be in the "booth" and could say lines in his ear when he "went up."  He was uncertain of how well that would work - trying to create a character and some disembodied voice speaking in his ear.  Dean and the director weren't sure either.  But Jonathan needed this assistance and that was a fact we could not get away from.  "How will I know he needs a line?" Dean asked me.  "I know when he's in trouble just by watching him," I explained.  "I have seen him rehearse and perform under every kind of condition.  I know when he's in trouble."  Jonathan said he would also give a certain signal from the stage to aide me.  Turns out that it all went fine.  The audience never knew the difference.  Jonathan gave one of his greatest performances as Father Farley and hearing my voice in his ear did not affect his performance at all.  That is something for an actor to overcome such obstacles and make it work.  Granted, Jonathan was used to my voice having heard it much for the 15 years prior to MASS APPEAL's staging.  As a writer for Clunes Associates, his production company, his personal assistant and later his friend, he had asked me to accompany him on performances that were going to be stressful for one reason or another.  Everyone said I kept him calm.  I didn't see that but that's what others said.  For me, he kept me riveted to what he was doing and knowing the stresses involved, he was always so very good.

When MASS APPEAL moved to Sterling, we only rehearsed a few times on stage.  The rest of the time, I was with Jonathan in the house rented for us.  Jonathan would study lines in his suite, emerge around lunch, out we went and didn't discuss the play, back in the afternoon.  He took a nap, I woke him up for a very light snack before going to the theater.  After the show, we had dinner and ran lines some more.  His preparation never stopped.  I was exhausted and he was like the energizer bunny.

Jonathan's larger than life personality and will make it all the harder to accept his death, though I actually prayed for it when learning of his hospitalizations and other problems.  Many nights sitting in Central Park, admiring the bright stars he talked about death, his lack of fear about dying, and his wish that he could die in his sleep.

I am so happy that work out for him.


Queen_Isis said...

Wonderful! I wish I got to meet such a great man

Patrick Lynch said...

You sound like a person who fully understands how blessed they were by a particular friendship. That it was Jonathan Frid only more so.

Thank you for your words about the lion in winter. It was hard sometimes seeing him so frail when the image of him in his late 40's burned so brightly in my mind or on my television set. From everything that I've read about him, it seems to me that he lived his life very well. We should all be so lucky.

I also offer you my condolences on the loss of your friend. It's harder to be left behind than to cross over. I'd like to think that the other side presented some delightful surprises to Mr. Frid and that he's surrounded by those who love him and with his health restored...

StokesOfDS said...

Thank you for a little more insight into the life of your friend Jonathan Frid, Nancy. He sounded like someone wonderful to know. Very sad that he is gone, but know exactly what you mean about being glad that he didn't have to go any further in this life when it would have been more of a misery to him than a joy. Thanks again!

Debbie K. said...

What wonderful stories you have about Jonathan! I was fortunate enough to see Fridiculousness 3 times and I just loved his one-man shows as well as DS. When I met him he was exactly like I always pictured him to be-intelligent, witty and very charming. VERY nice to all the fans. My thoughts are with you-this is a tragic loss for you. You were such a good friend! You were lucky to have each other.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy,

I think that it is very important to reminisce about Jonathan's life. One cannot just put aside or forget what someone meant in a few weeks or a few months, or ever. I just became a fan of John Frid in 2011. I perceived him to be strong or wished it to be so; so I was unprepared and stunned by his passing. I have so many thoughts; and I think they are just meant to be shared, perhaps in no particular order. It sounds as though he had a really very wonderful 'retirement', attending the symphony, enjoying his own lush grounds--his own sanctuary, a place, that as you say, he could be in control, a place to which he belonged. I totally understand that sense of belonging to a place, as well as not belonging to one! I was very, very sorry, that he had to make that final move at all. I wonder if it was far more distressing then he let on. You have said he didn't like to behave emotionally (unless acting). Ah, but I meant to steer more toward the happy ideas of his good retirement years in his own place. It is rather hard to imagine him cooped up in an apartment in NYC! I would like to say that I am a Vermont native, so I have a bias against city life. Forgive me! Kristine R.