In the mid-1990s, all of my friends in Los Angeles were searching for a way into the film business. Except
He was searching for a way out.
Gary had a long résumé out of New York, but he’d relocated and was dating my friend Christine. They were in a play together. When the lights went down and the curtain came up, a lean, hungry shadow took the stage, prowling like a coyote. I glanced at the playbill to see if it was Gary.
“You ain’t gonna find the answer in that program, green shirt!” he barked.
I sat bolt upright. Was this part of the play? Nope. He was speaking to me through the fourth wall. I closed the playbill and returned it to my lap. The show went on. I gave it my full attention.
Gary was, as actors like to say, in the moment. Impressively so.
Christine and Gary fell in love. They moved in together and I started hanging around their house. They welcomed me as a third wheel. It wouldn’t be quite right to call Gary the elder brother I never had, but male friendship comes in more varieties than is frequently acknowledged. It isn’t all football, beer and crude talk. Sometimes it’s competition, sometimes admiration, sometimes just a shared sense of humor.
By then I’d had a few small successes as an actor—a notable independent film, a lucrative TV pilot—but things were cooling off. I was beginning to realize Hollywood wasn’t the place for me. I was only 24. Acting was all I’d ever wanted to do. Walking away was hard to imagine.
Christine urged Gary to take me out and lift my spirits. We went to see “Year of the Horse,” a
concert film. It was long and loud. My interest waned in parts, but I woke up when the mostly empty theater started shaking. It felt like an earthquake, but it was only Gary. He was stomping his feet on the floor in time with the beat, totally rocking out, rattling the chairs in the row in front of us.
My mind was elsewhere. He was in the moment. Always.
When someone from the old circle reached out recently to tell me that Gary had died at 69, I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. But then a GoFundMe popped up to confirm it. He’d fallen in the night, perhaps because of his heart, and hit his head. Christine tried to revive him, but he was gone.
After I’d left Los Angeles, they got married, had a daughter, and opened a yoga studio. In a note, she said that whenever their business hit a rough patch, he’d always tell her, “We have to go on. It’s important.”
My brief friendship with Gary expanded my vocabulary. He introduced me to books and music I didn’t know about. He had been where I wanted to go, or thought I did. He’d worked with
He’d been in a
movie. This was the height of the indie-film craze. Most of my friends would have committed contract murder to be in a John Sayles movie.
The most important thing I learned from Gary is that the world doesn’t end if you don’t make it as an actor. American lives do have second acts. Sometimes third and fourth ones, too. But when the lights go down and the curtain goes up you have to give it your full attention.
Stay in the moment. Always.
Mr. Hennessey is the Journal’s deputy editorial features editor.
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Appeared in the January 12, 2022, print edition.