Amidst the headlines announcing the deaths of legendary actors during the past week -- Cicely Tyson, Christopher Plummer, Cloris Leachman -- there was a smaller news item noting the death of yet another actor: Mike Henry.
Mike Henry was a former football star at USC and with the Los Angeles Rams before turning to acting. He starred in three Tarzan movies, was Junior in the "Smokey and the Bandit" films and appeared in a number of other films, television shows and plays onstage in Los Angeles. Our paths crossed in 1972 when we both were cast in a revival of the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes", a production starring Gavin MacLeod, during his tenure with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and before he became the captain of "Love Boat."
|A backstage photo of me during "High Button Shoes"|
It has been decades since I let go of my acting career and aspirations, but the announcement of Mike Henry's death took me back to another time and place when I was a twenty-something actress known professionally as Kaylin McCoy because there was a "Cathy McCoy" already in the union and I wasn't allowed to use a name -- such as my full name "Kathleen" -- where anyone might be tempted to call me Kathy. So I combined my first and middle names Kathleen Lynne to be Kaylin, though no one ever called me that except Gavin MacLeod. It was a painful time for him, long before he discovered the comfort of religion. He was dealing with the end of his first marriage and, while appearing in "High Button Shoes", he had fallen in love with Patti Steele, the choreographer for the show, who would become his second wife. Gavin would occasionally sit beside me at cast parties and sigh "What does all this mean, Kaylin? What do our lives mean, really?"
And I would look at him, at bit embarrassed, shake my head and say I didn't know.
I was in my own cocoon of pain -- in the process of making the decision to let go of my passion and my dream for an ongoing career as an actress. I was beginning to realize that, while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. I knew that, as a young character actress, my chances were slim in L.A. for a sustained career. I didn't have the looks, perhaps not the talent nor the drive to carve an ongoing niche for myself in acting. I had seen enough highly talented, middle-aged actors hanging onto their dreams well past the time when there seemed to be any chance of success. I didn't want to be one of them and was equally passionate about writing. In fact, I was making a steady, if modest, living primarily as a writer. The rationale for my choice to quit was clear, but still it hurt to think of letting go of a dream I had nurtured since childhood.
It would be another year before I actually quit -- and during that time I did a few voiceovers and another play "Dylan" in the role of the one woman even Dylan Thomas, serial womanizer that he was, didn't find attractive. That show was a great way to end my brief career: I loved the play and everyone in it and even got a nice review in Variety ("a delightful young character actress"). I walked away without regret and have rarely looked back.
But Mike Henry's death this week took me back to that time as I remembered his gentleness, his kindness and his generosity when we worked together. He hosted several cast and crew parties during the run of the show at his lovely Valley pool home. And one night toward the end of the show's run, he was my hero.
Someone had knocked a fire extinguisher off the wall backstage and it had sprayed a small spot of foam that no one, including me, had noticed. Getting ready to dance onto the stage for the curtain call, I had slipped in it, dislocating my left knee and falling hard on my right hip. I slid onto the stage area and, in my shock, got up, took a bow and exited, only then starting to feel the full brunt of my pain. In a moment, Mike was in the dressing room with a bag of ice and a first aid kit. Patti helped me remove my tights and put her arm around me as Mike sat beside me, my left leg in his lap. He popped my knee back in place, iced it with one hand, wiped my tears with a tissue in the other hand, and then taped my knee so expertly that I never missed a show. "You're going to be okay," he said, looking into my eyes with such gentle reassurance that I believed him at once.
Sadly, life didn't turn out quite as okay for Mike. In 1988, he retired from acting due to neurological symptoms that stemmed from repeated concussions during his football days and from Parkinsons disease that doctors thought might also be due brain trauma caused by football. He suffered for 32 years of neurological decline, a fate made bearable in large part by the presence of his devoted wife Cheryl, who was by his side for 36 years and who described him in an interview after his death as "a lovely, lovely man."
Yes, he was. Although I never saw him again after "High Button Shoes" closed, I have always been grateful for his kindness. And I quietly said "Goodbye" in my heart to this lovely man, a sweet memory from a past I let go nearly 50 years ago.
Traveling back in my memory to that time has made me think once again of Gavin's question "What does this all mean?"
From the vantage point of age, life means so many things -- and letting go is a prominent part of this meaning.
It means letting go of the dreams that no longer serve to advance one's growth as a loving, giving person and finding new and better dreams.
It means making a habit of forgiveness, not holding onto grudges and even political divisions, giving others the benefit of the doubt and remembering to forgive yourself, too, for being hopelessly human.
It means paring down your life, as time goes by, to the essence: what soothes your soul, what brings joy and fulfillment, what enables you to contribute in significant ways to the lives of others.
It means rejoicing in the successes and the happiness of others as well as your own blessings.
It means embracing failures, disappointments and setbacks as learning opportunities.
It means living with gratitude for what is and what was, for friends and family who have been fellow travelers through all the phases and transitions of your life.
It means treasuring all the love in our lives -- including love that didn't last and love that has been constant, love that we've received and love that we've given, love expressed with gentleness and kindness that endures in our warm memories and brings joy to our lives in this moment.