Sunday, February 7, 2021

Letting Go

 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."


In the 1972 revival of "High Button Shoes", Gavin MacLeod is in the foreground,
Mike Henry is in the back row, second from left. I'm in the back, third from right, with only
my right eye and a portion of my hat visible in this photo taken during a performance.


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.


  1. Kathy, a side of you I did not know about since we have been only FB friends for a few years. I find this post very touching. Thanks for sharing. Also, how is the foot healing/therapy going? I didn't see a recent update. Maryanna Levenson

    1. I'm almost at the one year mark post surgery and am walking very carefully minus a walker or cane. Still have a lot of pain in the foot but it is a LOT better. The doctor says I'll reach maximum recovery in six months. I'm close to that already. Just hoping for less pain as time goes on. But whatever the ultimate outcome, I'm very grateful to be walking again! Thanks so much for asking!

  2. A lot of people in the creative arts have to let go of their dreams because as you know it's a competitive cut-throat business. You did better than most, by far. And it must have been find working with Gavin MacLeod; I always liked him.

    1. It was. He's a delightful person, even though I knew him at a time in his life when he was in a lot of pain, experiencing a divorce. But he had a great sense of humor and I have to say he has excellent taste in women. I knew his first wife Rooti slightly and liked her a lot. I knew Patti much better, having worked with her in the show, and always thought the world of her. She and Gavin are a wonderful pair. I've always admired the fact that he never blamed either of his wives for divorce and marital woes, always taking responsibility for their problems himself. You don't see that a lot, especially with actors.

  3. Kathy, I remember you acting in high school and you were sooooo great. You have many talents and although you didn't continue your acting career I think you would have been fantastic. God has blessed you with many talents. In parting, I must say your advice about forgiving and moving on is well stated and we do need to enjoy every moment no matter how small.

    1. Thanks, Pat! I loved acting, but the business is so ferocious. And I was on the scene before the ascendance of wonderful younger character actors like Kathy Bates and Linda Hunt. But even so, I don't think I was temperamentally cut out for life in show business. I got hurt too easily by face to face rejection. At least in writing, you tend to get rejections in the mail! Not so bad. I've never been sorry that I choose writing over acting.

  4. Oh, this is lovely. It could be a chapter for the sequel to your memoirs with the what-does-it-mean lessons as the final, beautiful twist. We are so lucky to know certain people in our lives, aren't we -- even if they are only there for a small part of time and then gone away. But they hold a spot in our hearts. I'm sorry for the loss of a friend but grateful you were able to share him and your story here.

  5. Thanks so much, Jeanie! Isn't it strange that I didn't include the acting part of my life and the tough decision to quit in "Crocodiles"? I think there was a passing comment about quitting. I guess it ws a small part of my life overall. But yes, some of the people from that time do hold a spot in my heart. A few have made the transition with me through the years and are still in my life today. Many more are memories and I think of them with such gratitude.

  6. Kathy, once again I am struck by your generosity in sharing the wisdom you gain from both joy and pain. With you being as kind as you are, it does the heart good to hear about times like these, back in the day of “High Button Shoes” when I first knew you, when your own kindness comes back to you in such fullness as this.

    1. Thank you, Mary! Who knew then that the very best thing that happened in my life that year was meeting you?

  7. Once again, Kath, I am struck by your generosity in sharing the wisdom you’ve gained from experiences of both pain and joy. It does the heart good to hear of the times when all the kindness you extend to others returns to you. I am blessed to go all the way back to “High Button Shoes” with you!