Almost Famous

I was almost famous once. Years ago. Even today I’m occasionally reminded of this. The very phrase sounds funny to me. I mean, one is either famous or unknown, not almost famous. That’s sound like being almost pregnant.

To be clear, I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’ve spent time with some very famous people, and it seemed fame is a huge hassle and occasionally a danger.

I was on the set of “Best Friends” when somebody stole Norman Jewison’s lucky hat, the one with pins from all his many previous films on it. That threw Norman and the entire cast and crew into a tail spin, an act of cruelty that only somebody impressed with fame would do. Some member of his crew found a picture of him wearing his lucky hat, and transformed it into a pin for him to put on the new hat they gave him. It was a nice, caring, creative gesture, but not the same as having his lucky hat with pins from all his past work.

Fans and idiots will steal anything a famous person has owned, or even touched. The latter is perhaps forgivable. Who cares when somebody pockets Natalie McMaster’s beer glass at the bar. But when somebody stole David Carradine’s white cowboy hat, it caused, at the very least, a moment of anxiety, a small frisson of emotional pain. Hats seem to be a favourite target of those impressed by fame.

And then there is the danger. I remember sitting in an outdoor restaurant with David Carradine and Bo Svenson when a stranger approached us. Bo was instantly on his feet to bark a warning at the stranger to back off, long before I had registered any threat. I commented that he was overreacting. Bo assured me that he wasn’t. Bo had much more experience of being famous and among the famous than I had. I suppose you could ask John Lennon whether being famous is dangerous. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. He’s dead. Shot by some nutter for no other reason than he was famous.

As the star of “Kung Fu”, David Carradine was once, in my presence, approached by a slightly drunken man in a bar. I ran interference. The guy wanted to know whether David could really do kung fu. I told him gently, in a tone of voice I hoped made him feel foolish, that David was an actor. The last thing I needed was for my star for the next day’s shooting to get into a bar fight.

No. Influence and money and even power have their place. I could never see any value in fame, other than it sometimes helps a person to get influence and money.

There have been moments when my almost fame has surprised me. Years ago I left a message on a girlfriend’s answering machine which included my name. When her room mate heard the recording she apparently responded with “Was that THE Zale Dalen”. Imagine that. In somebody’s mind I was “the Zale Dalen”.

Long after my phone had stopped ringing and my career was a fading memory, my daughter was working in a call center. One of her coworkers said “Hey, your dad had something to do with the film business. I’m trying to find a movie called “Terminal City Ricochet”. Do you think he’d know how to find it.”
My daughter’s response: “He might. He directed it.” That made me feel good, but it was hardly fame.

At the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo, a congregation my wife belongs to, one of the members went embarrassingly giddy on learning that I had directed “Skip Tracer”, my first feature length film. Forty some odd years on, she remembered the movie and sang its praises. I’m really glad she liked my first movie, and very surprised she remembered it. But the truth is, Having once been almost famous is somewhat embarrassing. I sometimes feel that my past movies, while mostly unknown and none big money makers, or even small money makers, follow me like a record of incarceration. They feel like such a small, almost accidental, achievement for all those years of trying.

I remember talking to a middle aged female actor in Los Angeles years ago. She had once been truly famous as one of the leads in a popular TV series. But that fame had gone away, and now she was truly forgotten. Fans no longer approached her in restaurants, asking for an autograph. She seemed bemused. And relieved.

And that was real fame, not my pale and shabby almost fame.

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