I just found out that Eileen Brennan died today. I cried. I hadn’t seen Eileen in fifteen years, but I still cried. There was a time when I spent hours sitting around a kitchen table with Eileen and her three Pugs. She was a feisty woman. She had a raspy, no-nonsense way of saying things. She could stare you down, her eyes pinning you to a wall. You pretty much knew better than to ever fuck with her. But, she also gave some of the best hugs in the world, and she was always the last to let go.
I met Eileen when I was 28 years-old. We had a mutual friend. Frankie was his name. I met Frankie because I was in a play he wrote that ran for several months in Hollywood. Frankie and Eileen had been lovers back in their heyday, and when the romance wore off, they remained great friends. I ended up living with Frankie – renting a room in his house in West Hollywood – and that meant I got to see Eileen almost every day.
This is going to sound overly-dramatic, but if it weren’t for Eileen and Frankie, I wouldn’t be a writer. Frankie gave me the guts to sit down at a typewriter and Eileen gave me notes on everything I wrote. I’ll never forget when I finished my first play, Tiger Lady, I actually had the balls to ask her to play the supporting role of the mother (should I ever find a producer.) I told her I had written the part just for her. (That was the truth, I had.) She took the play home with her that night and came back the next morning. She tossed the script at me and said, “I’ll do it.”
“You will?” I asked, barely able to contain my excitement.
“On one condition,” she said.
“I die at the end of Act One,” she said, crossing her arms.
“But, Eileen, your character is all through Act Two. You can’t die at the end of Act One.”
“You’re the writer,” she said, “Fix it.”
I spent a week fixing it. I realized (finally) that she had said her character had to die at the end of Act One, not that her character couldn’t be in Act Two. That is how I came up with the idea that the character would be a ghost in Act Two. It was a brilliant stroke and I owed it all to Eileen.
As a sidenote: Eileen accepted a role in a Broadway play and didn’t get to do the staged reading The Actor’s Studio did of my play. Instead, the reading starred Shelly Winters and Valentina Quinn! But that’s another blog.
Eileen and I both acted in the same movie also. Frankie wrote the movie and it was called “Joey Takes a Cab.” Eileen played a grandmother who was a prostitute. I played the ingénue. We both had long monologues with lingering close-ups. I sat with Eileen at the lunch table right before I was to film my part. I confided to her how nervouse I was. “I’m afraid I’ll forget my lines as soon as the camera zooms in close.”
“You memorized your lines?” she said. “What are you, trying to show me up?”
I laughed and that put me at ease. By the end of the day, my footage was in the can and so was hers. And, she hadn’t been lying. She carried her monologue on a sheet of paper, that stayed in her hand off-camera. And if you watch the film, you can’t tell that she reads from it.
Another time Eileen helped me was when I had received a death threat in the mail. It sounds unbelievable to me even now, but when another play of mine opened, I got a letter delivered to the Tamarind Theatre that, in part, read, “Death to Gardner! The streets of Los Angles will flow with her blood if this play opens.”
The FBI was called in and it became such a big deal in the papers that the play sold out for the first three months without even a single review!
Anyway, I was very shaken up by this turn of events. I went to see a play in Hollywood that starred Eileen and Charles Nelson Reilly. Afterwards, I got to visit with the both of them backstage. When I told Eileen about the death threat, she surprised me by saying, “Congratulations, Kid!”
“Congratulations?” I stammered. “Why?”
She laughed. “You’re not a real writer until you piss somebody off. Getting a death threat means you’re doing something right.”
I didn’t understand. Charles Nelson Reilly sat down next to me and wrapped an arm over my shoulders. “Listen, Sweetheart,” he said, “being an artist mean taking chances. It means doing things differently. It means standing out, saying things people don’t want to hear. And that makes people mad. You can play it safe and write what has already been written, or you can take a chance and be different. But being different comes with a price. Look at me, I oughta know. I’m the queen of different.”
Then he asked what size shoe I wore and could he borrow my heels.
Eileen went on to tell me that not a week went by that she didn’t get a death threat. “And you know what I say to them?” she asked.
I shook my head. “What?”
Eileen and Charles looked at each other, nodded and then said in unison, “Fuck ’em!”
We all laughed. Then Eileen sat down on the other side of me and looked me in the eye. “You just remember this, kid. You’re making art. You’re contributing something to this world. When you go, you will have left something behind. What have those people done? Bupkis, that’s what.”
Eileen was right. She left behind a whole helluva lot of art. And the world loves her for it. I have to say, with Eileen and Charles Nelson Reilly both gone, the world is a little less funny place. But I vow to do my best to make up for those lost laughs.
And, Eileen, if you’re reading this, I know this may be the end of Act One, but I still hope to see you again in Act Two.