Monday, May 7, 2018

Harry Anderson: Good Night, Magic Man

photo by Alan Light
I'm not sure how we choose our idols.  Actually, I'm not sure if we choose them at all.  Like falling in love, we encounter the right person at the right time and something clicks inside of us.  And maybe no one else sees it, but that's okay.  You can see your heroes as heroes and that's enough.

Of course I had plenty of people I idolized as a child: Bruce Lee, Luke Skywalker...

And Harry Anderson.

Again, I don't quite know how it happened, but Harry Anderson became very important to me.  I probably first saw him casually watching an episode of Night Court.  But casual turned in to devotional and I never missed an episode.  I even bought his book Games You Can't Lose: A Guide for Suckers.  As far as I know, I was the only person in 8th grade who had it.

I sometimes look back and it seems so odd.  Why him?

Harry Anderson was a street magician who wanted nothing more than to make a living making magic.  And it wasn't like he was limited.  Valedictorian of his high school class, Anderson had wide vistas.  But he went with his passion and as luck would have it, he made a good living at it.

He is best known for playing Judge Harry T. Stone on Night Court.  And while co-star John Laroquette received most of the accolades and awards, for me the show was all about Harry.

It's especially easy when you're young to blur the lines between fictional character the real life actor behind them.  And yet I always had the sense that Harry Stone and Harry Anderson weren't all that different.

His look was of a classic era of sharp suits and fedoras.  Way before it was cool to be this retro, Anderson embraced this style, giving him an sense of class that elevated him.  Since my teens I have donned the fedora as a tribute to him.  I even tried to be a magician like him.  I spent so many hours trying to learn the most basic tricks.  All I was ever able to make disappear was my dignity as I humiliated myself in front of my friends and family.  I'm sure Anderson may have felt this way when he told the people in his life that he wanted to pursue magic.  But he didn't care.

At the same time, he was wonderfully juvenile.  He popped with a child-like innocence that was so endearing to me as a kid.  He would go from a pun to a card trick to a pratfall with expert timing.  It always felt like the jokes he told were just for me.  You have to remember that back in the 80's, adults did not embrace the pop culture of their youth.  When you became a man, you put aside childish things.  But Anderson refused.

I suppose I could try and analyze what factors caused me to be this way.  My parents divorced when I was in grade school.  Perhaps I experienced some kind of arrested development that caused me to cling to the familiar toys and comics of youth well in to adulthood.  Maybe I found adult concepts like divorce too dark and dreary for me and I wanted to rebel against those two horribly bleak words: "growing up."

In Harry Anderson I saw a man who loved the silly joy of youth while still taking on the burden of being a man.  He was informal, but not callous.  He was goofy, but not flakey.  He was a practical joker who made you feel like you were also in on the joke.  That was the magic of his Harry T. Stone: he could bring the light of wonder and innocence to a cynical world.

Years later when I would read Chesterton, his words felt wrapping myself in a warm and comfortable blanket.  It felt so familiar to me because Anderson projected in his characters an idealized Chestertonian life of wisdom and innocence.  If growing up meant losing your innocence, then I wanted no part of it.  But I saw in Anderson someone who could live in the world, contend with the world, but not be overcome by the world.  I wasn't foolish enough to imagine him saintly.  But there was still so much there for that lonely, lost boy to admire in him.  He could make smile from ear to ear with his pranks, pratfalls, jokes, and jibes.

And now like that man that I saw on my TV, I am surrounded by the toys and trappings of youth, try to be quick with a joke, and do my best to look at life with child-like wonder.

Whether or Anderson really lived this or if this was just a persona, I do not think I shall ever know.  He was never able to capture the success he had with Night Court.  He starred in another sitcom, Dave's World, and had a memorable turn in the TV movie It.  And when the starring roles no longer presented themselves,  he stepped into the shadows without complaint.  He was content to make his living making his magic until he passed away on April 16th, 2018.

Mr. Anderson, I pray that you are now resting with the Lord.  And though we never met on this earth, please know that you were a bright spot of joy for me and that you helped in some way form me into the man I am today.

And to me, that is truly magic.

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