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Sunday, January 24, 2016
The New Year
The New Year has been haunted by a grim drumbeat of death thus far. We've lost Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zigsmond, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and now Glenn Fry -- each brilliant in their own way, each a huge loss for those of us who basked in their light.
Much has been written about the lives and careers of these luminaries, but having met none of them, there's little I can add to the conversation. I saw Haskell speak after a screening of Blaze at the AFI back in the early 90's, then traded a few e-mails with him early last year while ordering one of his "12 On/12 Off" hats -- when he was gracious enough to throw in a DVD of his documentary "Who Needs Sleep?" All he asked in return was a photo of me wearing that hat on set, which (with the help of veteran still photographer Bruce Birmelin), I sent a few weeks later. I've heard some great stories about Haskell, Vilmos, David Bowie, and Glenn Fry over the past few days from people who worked with them -- stories that made me wish I'd been there too.
That's how life goes. None of us gets to do it all in Hollywood or anywhere else.
But today's post isn't about any of those giants -- this one's for Penny. It was hard to write, but I had to do it, if only just to work things out in my head. I can't seem to write anything else until this one is done… so here goes, whether or not it means anything at all to you.
In other words, feel free to click on over to Facebook and watch a few cat videos. As the Aussies say, "no worries, mate."
The industry lost another bright light late last year, a friend I enjoyed working with on two shows. She wasn't the first friend I've lost over the years in Hollywood -- far from it, unfortunately -- and probably won't be the last. I wish I could say I'm getting used to it, but I don't think we ever get used to Death walking amongst us, taking our friends. Beyond her family, personal friends, and the readers of her blog, Penny didn't make a big splash outside the circled wagons of the television industry. As one of the invisible legions who toil below decks in Hollywood, neither her name nor face were famous, which is why her untimely passing didn't send so much as a ripple across the media waters of this star-crazed town.
Well, to hell with the media -- if you'd ever had the pleasure of meeting Penny, you'd understand the depth of our loss. A lot of industry people knew, liked, and respected her. She was one of the Good Ones, and more to the point, she was one of us.
I first ran into Penny Nickles (yes, that was her name) working on The Bill Engvall Show back in 2007. Penny was a veteran stand-in, one of the most misunderstood and least appreciated jobs in the film and television industry. What I wrote a few years ago about "Second Team" (as they're known throughout the biz) still holds: good stand-ins are worth their weight in gold, and Penny was a thoroughly professional stand-in.
We met again on that first long (thirty episode) season of Melissa and Joey, where I got to know her better. Having noted her taste in literature (she always had a good book in her bag) and the fact that she did the daily New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, I asked if she'd ever considered writing a blog about the life of a stand-in… at which point she informed me that she'd been doing exactly that for several years. I read her blog and liked it -- but since she was then laboring in the digital backwoods of Yahoo, I suggested that she take a look at Wordpress or Blogger, both of which offered a much more sophisticated platform. She checked it out, then made the leap and never looked back, occasionally asking for advice on how to navigate this shiny new digital flying carpet. We bonded over a mutual appreciation of good writing, and the similarities in our paths to the blog-o-sphere. Among other things, we'd each written novels that went straight from the word processor/printer to our respective closets, there to gather dust for eternity. She had no regrets about that, and neither do I -- if you want to learn something, you've got to put in the work.
Penny didn't limit One Red Cent Trying to Make Sense to stories about the Industry. She gleefully (and sometimes ruefully…) related the trials, tribulations, indignities, and joys of her experiences on set, but was equally comfortable writing about doing jury duty for LA county, her periodic battles with an extremely uptight landlord, or suffering the terminal frustrations of trying to maintain a meager-but-crucial income stream via unemployment checks during the inevitable lulls in work, all the while grappling with a brain-dead EDD bureaucracy that couldn't seem to understand that receiving a residual check for $2.12 from a show that first aired five years ago didn't actually mean she'd gone back to work.
Those blog posts were pure expressions of Penny's sunny personality, her appreciation for the absurd, and a grin-and-bear it attitude towards life. Although their styles were very different, the lyrical tone of her writing reminded me of the late, great Stanton Delaplane, whose wonderful columns ran in my hometown San Francisco Chronicle for many years.
I have a book by Delaplane that I kept meaning to give her, but never got around to it… and now it's too late.
Then came a particularly good set of posts describing how she'd finally grasped the brass ring every stand-in lives for -- she landed a speaking part in an episode of her show. This was a dream come true: suddenly it was Penny in the hair and makeup chair, Penny out there in front of the bright lights and cameras performing for a live audience, and Penny taking a well-deserved curtain call at the end of the show with the rest of the cast.
I was so happy for her, and really thought her ship had finally come in -- because Penny was a terrific actress: sharp and funny, with perfect comedic timing. She was so much more than a great stand-in, and would have been terrific in a role as the ditzy girlfriend, wife, sister, or neighbor in a sit-com -- a modern-day Ethyl Mertz to Lucille Ball's "Lucy." After two decades of toil in this town, she'd gotten her big break at last. But Hollywood is nothing if not a dream-crusher, and after that brief stay in port, her gleaming ship sailed off over the horizon, leaving Penny on the dock. She returned to the fold as a stand-in -- Cinderella after the ball -- a rudely underpaid pro in a cruel and uncertain game that promises nothing more than one days work at a time.
I last saw her in the winter of 2015, when she was suffering through a serious lack of work. I sent an e-mail offer to buy her lunch at our local Astro Burger. It was a cold, blustery day as I waited at a red light, then felt a nudge on my elbow. There was Penny, fashionably dressed in a dark winter coat and looking every inch the big city girl on her way up in the world. It was good. We talked about work, life, and writing, and the craziness of depending on such an unreliable host as Hollywood to make a living -- then I walked her back to her apartment, gave her a hug, and promised we'd do it again.
I got busy with work, and when not toiling on a show, spent months back on the Home Planet dealing with a series of family obligations. I kept up with her blog, though, and she seemed to be doing okay. But by late summer, the posts stopped coming. That being the peak time of the TV season frenzy, I figured she was just crazy busy working. During a hiatus week before the holidays, I sent another e-mail lunch invitation, but there was no reply. Back in town after the New Year, I followed up with an "Are you all right?" e-mail. Nothing. Then I messaged a mutual friend on Facebook, who delivered the bad news -- Penny had passed away in late August due to causes that still remain murky.
When Michael Jackson died, the entire world knew exactly how and why in 24 hours -- but when a stand-in passes away, the mystery lingers six months later. So it goes in Hollywood.
To say I was shocked is a massive understatement; I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach by a mule. We had a platonic relationship -- with a twenty year gap between us, it could hardly have been otherwise -- but we liked each other. Penny was only 45, with so much life ahead of her, and way too young to die. I still haven't quite wrapped my head around this -- it just doesn't seem possible.
But there it is, yet another cold, harsh reminder that nothing is promised to any of us in this life, and that we really can't take tomorrow for granted. Still, Penny's blog always made me realize the importance of not taking this business, or life, too seriously. Despite getting the back of the hand more than once by above-the-liners who were too stupid or myopic to understand just how talented she really was, Penny managed to maintain an upbeat attitude -- a stance that resonated in the last line of her final blog post:
"Unplugging everything for a few hours, but always hopeful for a better tomorrow!"
That was Penny, always with a smile, always hopeful for a better tomorrow.
You're gonna have to bear with me here, kiddos. This has knocked the wind out of my sails, and I'm not really sure when the next post will go up -- maybe next week, maybe not. I've lost too many friends in this town… the kind of good, smart, funny people who make the world around them a brighter, better place. And when they go, they leave the rest of us in a world that's colder, darker, and a lot less fun.
So long, Red. Rest in Peace...