I WANT TO DIE PEACEFULLY in my sleep, like my Uncle George, not kicking and screaming and clawing at the backseat like my cousins. - Old Teamsters Joke
We were tooling along Hollywood Boulevard on a bright, only semi-smoggy day, when Chris said, "Isn't that the movie joint that almost killed us?"
He was indicating the Pantages Theater, where we had once fallen a little too deeply in our cups with a girl whose name I'm too much of a gentleman to remember. I don't remember the movie either, but it was so bad we had nipped at a flask of brandy more than we should.
"We ought to have taken a fucking cab," Chris said.
"With what money?" I said. "We'd already hocked my accordion and your Luger and even if we'd had anything left there wasn't a pawn shop open at one in the morning."
The near early demise of Bunch & Cole that we were speaking of had occurred sometime in the early - going on the mid - Sixties. Chris was home on leave from the Army and we had gone on a royal toot that had left us physically and financially whacked out.
On the way home from the Pantages, we were all stunned into silence by the booze and the awfulness of the flick, and after a bit the girl fell asleep, head on my shoulder. Soon I, too, drifted into nearly permanent Slumberland.
At some moment Chris - who was driving - nodded off as well. Suddenly, I was jolted awake by a horrible screech of brakes and one of Newton's Really Scary Laws Of Motion was shoving me and the girl forward. I dug my knees into the glove compartment, held tight to the girl, and looked up just as the car met the freeway's chain link fence.
Chris' car was a 1960 Bonneville which weighed well over four thousand pounds, not counting the weight of two big lugs named Bunch & Cole, plus the girl, who although shapely, was not petite.
We were probably going at least 65 mph when the Pontiac and the Chain Link Fence decided that a First Date was more than enough time to get to know one another, and attempted to mate.
The car plowed on and on, ripping through the fence, a suddenly conscious Chris grasped the wheel, meanwhile doing his damndest to ram the brake pedal through the floorboards.
My knees felt like they were buckling the dash, but I held onto the girl, pushing away, away, away from Newton's firm desire to mash us against the windshield. (Did I mention that in those days nobody outside a race track possessed seat belts, much less wore them?)
I looked up just as the main cable running along the top of the fence cut the roofline - just where the roof and the windshield met.
It went through it like a cheese-slicer through Mozzarella, and I watched in awful fascination as it transformed into a horizontal guillotine, just missing our heads, but taking off the roof.
And then we were motionless. No sound but the ticking of the engine cooling in the night air.
The girl said, "Wow!"
My reaction, but in fewer words and cleaner language.
A wild thought of great selfishness popped up: at least we were in Chris' car, and not my brand new tastefully blue Ford Ranchero with the black vinyl interior and really cool radio that automatically hunted for the best rock and roll stations.
Then reality and a modicum of humanity returned and I said, "Everybody okay?"
Everybody was, including Chris, who said, nonsensically: "I thought you were fucking driving, Cole."
I heard sirens in the distances, so I started plucking leaves from trashed freeway landscaping, saying, "Chew some leaves quick. Maybe they won't smell the booze."
Thankfully, the cops who showed up just seemed happy that the three shaken kids who looked like they came from nice homes, were miraculously unhurt. Underscored by the car roof that was peeled off all the way to the trunk, with the freeway cable still taut against the underside of the remains.
Eventually, Chris' mom and dad came to get us - accompanied by their pretty 13-year-old daughter, Kathryn, whom I would marry some fifteen years later.
Those events flashed through my mind as we passed the Pantages Theater, former venue of a film so awful that it had almost killed us. I know Chris was thinking the same thing, because he said, "What a stinkeroo."
Then we were turning left on Cahuenga and a minute later we were surrendering the BMW (the successor, many times over of the ill-fated '60 Bonneville) to a valet outside the Cahuenga Theater, where Joe Piscopo's new movie - Dead Heat - starring Joe and Treat Williams, was being screened before a group of Hollywood Big Shots.
We non-Big Shots were there by invitation of the two producers who had hired us to write the next Joe Piscopo movie. As I mentioned in the previous episode (Screwed By The Mouse), we were under the gun timewise because of the looming Writers Guild strike.
Dead Heat proved to be a very funny movie and when it was over, Joe was there to shake hands with everyone. When he got to us, one of the producers said, "These are your new writers, Joe. Chris Bunch and Allan Cole."
Grinning, Piscopo asked, "Which is which?"
Chris pretended to look confused. Turned to me, saying "You're Bunch, right? So, I must be Cole." Shook, his head. "Wait, wait, you're Cole and I'm Bunch. Or, is it my turn to be Cole? And your turn-"
Piscopo laughed, clapped my partner on the back, saying, "I've heard all about you, Chris. And I see that every word of it is true. We chatted briefly, then he said, "How about you guys come out to Jersey and visit with me? I'd like to set the movie there, and we could scout locations, drink beer, shoot the breeze, and get acquainted. What do you think?"
Chris mock frowned, replying, "Gee, I don't know, Joe. We only just met. Hope you don't think we're that easy."
Then Piscopo did the damndest thing. His features started to change and suddenly we were looking at somebody who sort of resembled Robert De Nero. DeNero/Piscopo fixed us with a glare and shook a finger at us. He said, in a perfect De Niro voice, "What? You lookin' at me? You lookin' at me? 'Cause if you're fuckin' lookin' at me, then youse'd better get this straight... I'm the fuckin' comedian around here. Get me?"
We broke up. Laughing to beat the band. Finally, Chris managed to gasp through laughter, "Gotcha, Bobby!"
Piscopo transformed again - back into himself. Huge grin on his face. This was when Joe was at his biggest - ripped with muscle. But instead of looking menacing, or formidable, he came across as a big goofy kid. We liked him immediately. And it was quickly agreed that we'd visit him in the wilds of Jersey.
The nice thing about flying on the Studio's dime is that it's champagne and canapés all the way. Rich Piscopo, Joe's younger brother, met us at the airport and soon we were humming along in Joe's spanking new, tricked out 4X Ford Bronco that had all the trimmings... tow package, roll bar, chrome running boards, power this and power that, topped off with a blast-the-windows-out stereo system.
Remember that Bronco.
As we drove along the turnpike, we filled Rich in on the project. Basically, the storyline was about a small town Jersey kid, who ends up being a cop in New York, mainly working undercover. (Using Joe's formidable talents as an impressionist.) He burns out there, nearly loses his partner in an operation, does lose the bad guys, then quits and heads home. This all happens in the first few minutes, because the real story - and adventure - takes place in his home town, which is being ruined by big city developers.
Rich said, "Joe's notion is to turn Long Beach Island into his character's home town. It's practically empty in the off season, plus the Pine Barrens are right across the Causeway."
"The Pine Barrens?" I said. "Chris and I are in the middle of researching that area back during the Revolutionary War days. It was a total wilderness. And full of pressed German soldiers who'd deserted the British Army."
"It's still pretty much a wilderness," Rich said. (A former teacher, he was helping to manage Joe's career.) "Smaller of course. And those German soldiers married into a lot of Irish families, and some of their descendants still farm the area. There's bogs all over the place. Some wild, but most run by cranberry canneries. Ocean Spray is big here. And the people... well, wait until you meet them. You'll never know you're only a few minutes away from big city life."
"Bogs?" Chris said. He grinned. "Don't the Wiseguys use Jersey bogs to dump people they've whacked?" Rich agreed that they did. Chris looked back at me. "We can do something with those bogs, Cole," he said.
I said, "Remind me not to eat any cranberries while we're here."
Soon, we were driving through the pine barrens, and they were just as Rich had advertised - the woods were thick, the air scented with pine, the road was empty, and besides the lights of a few farm houses off in the trees, the sole illumination was the bright moon overhead.
Then, it was across the Causeway, pleasure craft and fishing boat lights winking in the distance, and a sparkle from the homes of the natives. And then we were moving down quiet avenues, through the shadows of empty beach cottages, until we finally came to the Piscopo family retreat.
When we exited the car, Rich said, "Hope you guys don't mind, we're just going to get some pizza for dinner."
At that moment the cottage door opened, and we heard - quite distinctly - the voice of Jerry Lewis call out, "Ehh, you want we should have some anchovies with that?"
The light came on and there was Joe Piscopo, wearing a muscle shirt, big arms crossed like Mr. Clean. But when he spoke next, out came the voice of Dean Martin, singing:
"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore..."
Well, we were just floored. Goggling at him like fools. But before we could speak, he strode toward us, and in the dead-on voice of Frank Sinatra he sang, "Strangers In The Night, exchanging glances...."
But Chris had his moves back and before Joe could go on, he said, "You wouldn't want my mother to hear that. She hates Sinatra. My Dad, on the other hand, thinks he's great. So you'd be stuck in the middle of a big Bunch family fight."
Joe was caught short. Then he started laughing and it was bear hugs all around. We trooped into the house, where Joe popped some beer and we gathered around a big dining table, drinking, and exchanging insults, while Rich called for some pizza - with Bunch's order fresh in his mind that there was to be "... no fuckin' anchovies... I hate anchovies...."
We stayed up to all hours, unaffected by jet lag, swapping stories and lies. Chris and I were intent on getting a really good handle on Piscopo. The movie we were doing had to be tailored just for him, calling on his comic repertoire to the Nth degree. It wouldn't be a role than anyone else could step into.
Joe told us that he and Rich were the sons of a successful attorney, whose dad had his heart set on Joe following him into the business.
"When it was obvious that their son was a clown, and would always be clown," Joe said, "they got behind me all the way." He drank some of his beer, reflecting. Then grinned, "Course, my dad still teases me, sometimes, asking when I'm going get a real job. And I come back with...' Come on, Dad. I need people, not law books. And then I give him this..."
And Piscopo's face takes on a whole new look - very feminine and somehow familiar, but not Joe Piscopo familiar. And he belts out in a perfect impersonation of Barbara Streisand: "... People who need people.. Are the luckiest people in the world..."
Another slug of beer. Back to normal voice. "Stops him cold every time."
There was a National Enquirer-worthy scandal percolating at the time about Joe and his former baby sitter, and he said that, yeah, he understood why people were mad at him. But, he really loved the girl and intended to marry her - when his divorce was final. (We met her later at their engagement party at Spago's in LA and she was/is a knockout!)
The only thing going around that really ticked him off were rumors that his muscular physique was due to steroids. He told us he'd been lifting weights since high school (West Essex High in Jersey - Go Knights!), and that in the early 80's he'd been stricken with a deadly form of Thyroid cancer. Underwent all the treatments, chemotherapy, etc. and was told that even if he was cured, there was a good chance his voice would be ruined forever. And there would go his career.
"Never mind that I hate all drugs," he told us. "But anybody who thinks I'd put steroids in my body, fooling around with the chance of tumors, or whatever, has got to be just fucking crazy, or ignorant, or both."
DISSOLVE TO: NEXT DAY - THE CRACK OF FUCKING DAWN... I hear somebody doing a bad job of trying to be very quiet moving about the cottage. Whirr of a blender. (Protein shake?) Beat, beat... Front door opens, closes, car engine fires up. Back to sleep. Awakened by the smell of coffee some hours later.
Chris was grumpy and red-eyed, ditto yours truly and Joe's more sensible brother, Rich. Joe, meanwhile, was whizzing about like a hyper active kid. Informing us that he'd already been to the gym, lifted weights, then it was on to a five-mile run in the sand.
He did a couple of impersonations, but stopped when Chris raised a hand. "Do anybody you like," he said. "Andy Fucking Rooney. Barbara God Damned Streisand. Whatever. But if you make with the squeaky-assed voice of Jerry Lewis - hung over though I may be - I will double turkey stomp your Jersey ass and sink your body in some fucking cranberry bog along with the stinking Wise Guys."
"Here, here!" Rich and I chorused.
It had been a long speech for a hungover Chris Bunch, and he staggered to the fridge, got a beer, popped the top and gulped the whole thing. Stood very still for a couple of beats - arms outstretched for balance - while the world revolved around a few times.
When he felt steadier, he said "Okay. You can do Jerry now... if you absolutely, positively feel fucking compelled."
Joe chuckled. "What's the matter, don't you like Jerry Lewis?" he said.
Chris glared. "Let me put it this way," he said. "Anybody the French love, I loathe. And dumb... Jesus... the Froggies are dumb... after all these years living next to the Germans you'd think the French would've learned that if you invite a German for dinner, better set the table for ten thousand."
In a Froggie waiter's voice, Joe said, "Will monsieur require one tank, or two with his café?"
The day commenced with a trip in the Bronco across the Causeway to the Barrens. It was an even more amazing place in the daylight. Impenetrable forest, broken here and there by country lanes, stretches of cranberry bogs, and a whiff of manure coming from some farmer's field off in the distance.
Chris said, "Man, some of these woods look really old. Wouldn't be surprised if a forest buffalo stuck his head out of the bushes. Not how people think of Jersey at all."
Joe, who was driving, said, "We get a bad rap. We're like second class citizens, stuck between two major cities, New York and Philadelphia." Waved an expansive hand at the wilderness, "But look at this, man." Took a big breath of the pine-scented air. "Beautiful. Beautiful. Love to ride my bike here."
Chris perked up. "That's right," he said. "You're into motorcycles." Chuckled. "You and Springsteen. Ought to start your own club - the Jersey Outlaws." He turned to me. "Maybe put the character on a bike," he said. "Make it his main ride."
I glanced around, liking what I was seeing. The twisting road, occasional farm vehicles lumbering along. "We could get a good car versus bike chase out here," I said. "Put it at night, and it could get really scary." I was thinking of sparks shooting out, as our hero's bike leaned into a curve, metal parts grinding against the pavement.
Here and there we happened upon small, wood-framed businesses tucked into the trees and we stopped to visit a few of them. The people were agog that a famous Star had happened among them, and addressed Joe shyly. A few came up to him not just for autographs, but to thank him for the nice things they'd heard him say about his native state in TV, magazine and newspaper interviews.
We lunched at a restaurant next to a country store and the waitress was almost giddy in Joe's presence. But, he was amazingly gracious; the perfect gentleman, coming across as just an average... well, you know... Joe.
The general store sat well off the ground and it was ringed by a big porch, where the old timers hung out in bib overalls, smoking pipes, or spitting tobacco. They eyed us warily, although they clearly recognized Piscopo. They reminded me of taciturn old timers I'd met in remote little villages in Wales.
In other words, they took a bit to warm up. Joe did it gently, buying a few things in the store, then we sat on the steps drinking soft drinks and chatting quietly. When he thought it was time, Joe addressed a few questions at the elderly gentlemen, cracked a few jokes, and pretty soon there were toothless smiles all around and we were made welcome.
One of the men passed us a clay jug of what proved to be home brewed cranberry brandy, and it was amazing stuff. Chris honked some down, eyes tearing up, and he passed it on to me, gasping, "That'll clear the grease."
Off we went again, winding our way back to the island, laughing and joking, a little high on the cranberry brandy. We started talking cars and Joe bragged on his Bronco. His first four-wheel drive vehicle. It soon became apparent that when it came to cars, he was strictly a city boy.
And that became doubly apparent a minute later, when he shouts, "Let's try this baby out!" Whips the wheel over, and charges off the road.
I shout, "Wait, Joe!"
But, he keeps going, bounding into the underbrush. And I mean, bounding. Rich and I were in the back, and the Bronco's springs were more than a little lively and we go bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, and Joe goes faster, the Bronco jerking back and forth, and our heads are being slammed against the roof.
"Fucking stop, Joe!" I shout. "You're gonna kill us!"
Then Chris realized that Joe had sort of lost control, and he reached over and turned the ignition off.
We came to a sudden stop.
"Aw, Jesus," I groaned. Then, to Chris, "Take the keys, Bunch. You fuckin' drive."
Joe was chagrined, as you might imagine. He apologized, but couldn't help but giggle now and then; reminding me of Mr. Toad in Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Finally, he cozened Chris into handing over the keys and he very... gently... eased out of the woods, onto the road again.
All was forgotten, except for the bruise on the crown of my head, and pretty soon we were cruising back along the Causeway onto Long Beach Island.
We poked around here and there, checking out different sites for possible locations. There was a little Marina and we decided on the spot that Joe's character would have an old boat, which he would live on. So, this was really coming along. He was a burned out ex-cop, who drove a motorcycle and lived on a boat. Throw in a love interest and the bad guys and we would have our movie.
Joe said, "I know just the place for the bad guys."
He took us to the back end of the island where there was a huge old house crouched on the dunes overlooking the Atlantic. Joe said that it was a (very expensive) summer rental, and that we could probably get it pretty cheap off season.
The rear entrance of the house was surrounded by tall fences, perfect for our Mr. Big villain to post his thug guards.
"For the big blow off," I said, you could maybe bring that little boat in at night, swim ashore and rescue the girl."
Joe laughed. "Hey, that's right. Us Leading Men get the girl, don't we?"
"Bang my partner's head on the car roof again," Chris warned, "and you'll have to settle for a nice lady sheep with long eyelashes."
"Remember what I said about who the comedian is around here," Joe admonished him.
"Okay, okay," Chris said. "I get it."
But I made him trade seats with me, just the same, and climbed in next to Joe. Piscopo reversed out of the alley and headed to a sign that said: Beach Access. There was a smaller sign beneath it, that I couldn't quite make out.
When we got there, I thought we were going to park, then walk across the dunes to the front of the house.
Instead Joe gave another one of his mad laughs, shouted, "Four Wheel Fucking Drive," and stepped on the gas.
Now, anybody who has ever driven on sand knows that four-wheel drive isn't worth a diddly squat, unless you stop, let some air out of the tires, then proceed on flattened out, sand-gripping tires. It soon became obvious that Joe was not cognizant of this bit of automotive lore, because he continued forward, barreling toward the sand just as I shouted - too late:
He didn't wait. Kept going, and now I could see the smaller sign, beneath the one that said, Beach Access.
The words flashed by me, something about pedestrians only, and much larger letters reading: $200 Fine For...
And again I made with the, "Joe, wait!"
And he didn't, and now he was moving out on the sand about forty feet or so, waves crashing ahead, and he gives another wild laugh, gooses the accelerator, and suddenly the rear tires start to sink.
Again, with the rules of driving on sand. If you start to sink, stop! Don't accelerate! The faster the wheels turn, the deeper you'll dig in the vehicle.
One final, futile attempt: "Joe, wait!"
But he tromps on the gas and a split second later we were dug all the way down to the crankshaft. Wheels spinning uselessly in the sand.
"Shit!" Joe said.
We piled out of the Bronco. Looked things over.
"Oh, man," Joe said. "We are really stuck!"
We all agreed with his diagnosis. Looked around. Every house on the beach showed nothing but empty windows. Nobody home for miles.
"Okay," Joe said, "we just need to find a phone, you know?" (These were the Neolithic Eighties, when we had barely mastered fire, much less invented cell phones.)
We tromped off the beach, then started investigating the neighborhoods, moving along several streets, all of which presented the same houses with empty windows.
Joe said, "Maybe we should make this a zombie movie." Waved at the spooky houses. "Perfect place for it."
Finally, we saw a house with a kid's bike outside. Hmm. Another good sign: the glow of a TV set reflecting in the window.
As we walked up the steps, Joe said, "Maybe I'd better go first. They'll think we're a bunch of thugs, or something."
He knocked at the door. A minute later, a pretty young woman opened it. She looked at Joe, then at us. A little tentative at first.
Joe said, "Excuse me, ma'am my name is..."
The young lady broke in, eyes going wide. "Oh, my Gosh," she said. "You're Joe Piscopo."
Joe blushed. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "See, we're in sort of a fix. My car's stuck out there on the beach and..."
The woman said, "Come in, come in. Oh, my. Oh, my. Nobody's going to believe this."
We entered and Joe said, "If I could just use your phone, ma'am. We'll get right out of your way."
But, the lady wasn't having any. In a flurry, she told us that (a) she was sorry the house was such a mess. (actually, it was spotless) (b) Her husband wasn't going to believe it when she told him. (He didn't) (c) Her kids were asleep. (They were, but not for long) and (d) Would we like some coffee or something. (Yes, please) And finally, (e) The phone's in the kitchen.
She led us to the kitchen, where we sat around the table, gratefully accepting coffee, while Joe looked up the number of a towing service. There was only one and since this was an offseason weekend, the Yellow Pages said this would be an emergency call. He called. The guy who answered didn't believe it was Piscopo talking, so Joe put the lady on who knew the guy and told him it was okay.
Then the call was done and while Joe joined us over the coffee, the lady phone her husband. Much excited chatter. Now it was her turn to hand the phone to Joe to swear to hubby that he was who she said he was.
Minutes later, we going out of the house to meet the tow truck. By now, the kids were up and dancing up and down in excitement. As we stood on the front steps, we suddenly started seeing people coming down the street. Whole throngs of them. Cars were coming up, and dumping still more people out.
I whispered to Joe, "Maybe we're actually in that zombie movie!"
The people crowded around Joe, grinning shyly, snapping pictures, shoving scraps of paper and notebooks forward for him to autograph. He was very gracious to one and all. Signing his name. Standing beside people for the pictures. Making jokes about how stupid he was to get himself stuck in the sand.
At one point, he indicated me, and said, "My buddy, there, told me to stop. But I didn't listen."
Then we went down the street, the crowd following us, numbers swelling as we progressed. Joe joked that he didn't know that many lived on the island full time. More laughs. At the Beach Access sign the tow truck was waiting.
A Fat Boy got out. Too-short tee-shirt, belly hanging out. Smiling, but it was one of those avaricious smiles you recognize right away. Like one of those greasy losers from high school, who would just love to stick it to you if they had the chance. And this guy was seeing his chance, in handsome, successful Joe Piscopo, with his adoring crowds, and expensive new Bronco stuck in the sand up to the floorboards.
Turned out he was the only guy in miles with a tow truck built to rescue folks dumb enough to drive - illegally - on the beach. And that'll be three hundred bucks, Joe.
We were startled. Three hundred dollars!?!
Joe shrugged, reached for his wallet, "Okay, I was stupid. Guess I deserve this."
He whipped out a credit card, but Fat Boy shook his head. "Cash," he insisted. "Only take plastic from locals."
"But we're locals," Rich broke in. "Our family has been coming here for years."
Fat Boy chuckled. "Well, I don't know you."
Some of the people came forward. "But, he's Joe Piscopo!"
Fat Boy shrugged. "I hear lots of famous people are broke. Maybe he's broke." Turned back to Piscopo. "Gotta have cash. Upfront."
Joe patted his pockets. Didn't have that much cash on him and it was a long way to the island's sole ATM machine. We all dug in and came up with the necessary. Joe handed it over to the driver, who grinned, climbed into the truck - fat bobbing in a way that reminds you that gelatin is made from the by-products of elderly herd animals.
We were about to follow the truck, when a four-wheel drive black and white police vehicle pushed through the crowd.
I heard Fat Boy shout, "Oh, yeah. Forgot to say. I called the cops."
Joe tried to look good natured about it. He even made with a Cagney impersonation: "This is it, boys. I'm for the Big House."
Laughter from all of us, including the two cops who came strolling over from their vehicle, huge grins on their faces.
Well, they joked with Joe, who joked back. And by the time the Bronco was hauled out of the sand, and he'd signed the ticket for the no-driving-on-the-beach $200 fine, plus gave the cops autographs, the local press had shown up: a young reporter, bearing a camera.
Joe said some amusing, self-depreciating things to the reporter. Let the cops restage the ticketing for the camera, then posed more shots.
And then we were on our way, waving out the window at the nice people of Long Beach Island.
When things had calmed down, Chris, who was not easily impressed, told Joe, "You are a gentleman and a scholar, Joe Piscopo."
For a change, Joe didn't have a comeback. He seemed bewildered by this out of the blue compliment from a guy who was clearly not one to throw around compliments.
Joe said, "What'd I do?"
Chris said, "Everything right, babe. Everything right."
NEXT: BAD BOY BOBBY BLAKE