21 Questions with Richard, the child actor who played Tom in TV's "High Feather". As originally questioned on my post of Feb 12: Whatever Happened To Teddy Fatenstein?
Q1. What were the actual dates that "High Feather" was taped? It was very 70's, but when exactly? RL: "High Feather" was shot during the summer of '79. Part of what makes it "very '70s" is the clothing, of course. We all wore our own stuff, which meant in my case that the clothing was probably a year or two older. To this day, when I see shows that feature polo shirts with wide horizontal stripes and detached collars, I get misty-eyed. What we wore on each take was carefully logged by continuity director J.T. (check the name -- Tamaguchi? Takiyuki?).
Actually, I think there were a few gaps: "Ann Campbell" wore a pair of braidholders in "Lost in the Woods" that changed color between scenes... J.T. never did tell us her first two names. Every time we asked, she said it stood for "Jive Turkey." Seventies enough for ya?
Q2. When/where were you born? What did you do before "High Feather"? RL: I was born -- honest injun! -- in Manhattan, which is why I don't have a strong New York accent. When I'm tired, my fadduh's Bronx comes out very lightly. I was 11 when we filmed "High Feather," so I suppose I did normal kid stuff, or at least, normal fat kid stuff. Sports were never my thing. The few times I played whiffle ball or softball, I played right field -- and every fat kid in America should be able to identify with that. (Unless you were fat, strong and fearless, in which case you were probably made catcher.) I was always a voracious reader, which didn't involve a lot of movement. Suited me fine. If you're asking about acting, the answer is "only in summer camp." But since you ask about that later, I'll hold off on answering now.
Q3. How did you end up on a super show like "High Feather"? What's the story?
RL: Jacqui Allen, who played "Leslie" in "High Feather," went to my elementary school and high school. Somehow -- I have no idea how she knew this -- she found out that I had done a little acting and suggested that I read for the part. I kid you not -- I never thanked her properly, and I have always felt very ashamed of it. I said thanks at the time, sure, but that was about it. Alas, I've lost touch with her, but if I ever get the chance, I'm going to buy her and her family the best meal in NYC I can afford. Even if she wants the "biggie" fries. I owe her at least that much. At any rate, I went to read for the part. I think my main competition was a very large, intimidating kid. (He probably would have been a catcher.) Had he been cast, there is no way he could have portrayed a victim and been credible. He looked like he would have cheerfully torn the heads off anyone who commented about his physique. I got lucky in that a) I think there had already been a round of cuts by the time I first read for the part, and b) one of the production assistants (her name was Mary Ann, unless it was Maryann) thought I was adorable and told the producers so. (I'm ashamed that I don't remember her last name, especially since I had a crush on her in the way that an 11-year-old can have a crush on a woman twice his age. It may have been Sullivan.)
I also remember asking Susan Gabarini, another P.A., if she had a deck of cards while I was auditioning (hey, those damned auditions took a long time, and I've never claimed to have the composure of a professional actor). She cut me dead with a remark along the lines of "No, this isn't a casino."
Susan turned out to be a sweetheart once the show started, though: She had a birthday while we were filming and I gave he a small stuffed animal. A squirrel or something. She named it "Nibbles." Not quite "Swifty," but you can see the way the food theme permeated everything. I kept in touch with her for a while after shooting stopped. She wound up at a show called "F.Y.I." Come to think of it, most of the P.A.'s were pretty cool. Can't say there was an **** among the bunch, which is pretty rare for any random group of half-a-dozen or so people. How they ultimately came to choose me remains a mystery, although I have a vague recollection that not being a member of the actor's union helped. If it's true, I'm sorry about that, for anyone who belongs in any union -- as a former U.A.W. member (through the National Writer's Union) I've become a lot more sympathetic to union causes. Q4. When you were cast as "Tom", did you know they were going to focus on your weight? Did you realize you would be a role model for geeks and fat kids across America? RL: Sure, I knew that I was being cast as the fat kid. In fact, I put on a fair amount of weight during the summer. When my parents came up to visit me halfway through the shooting, they were dismayed by how much I had put on and threatened to pull me out unless I got it under control. Alan and Judy Seigel (Siegel?), who directed/produced the show, had to beg them to let me stay, which they did. Did I realize that I would be a role model for geeks and fat kids across America? If it's true, I'm honored. I had no idea. I really didn't have the most professional approach going in. I'm no actor, and I think a five-minute viewing of any of the shows I'm in will reveal that. I just thought it was a cool way to spend a summer (it was.)
Q5. What's up with that theme song? Did it ever get stuck in your head? RL: We wrapped in late August, 1979. I haven't gotten it out of my head since.
Q6. Who were the cast members exactly? I honestly can't remember all of the girls. Also, who was your favorite cast member? What were the relationships like on the set?
RL: At best I'm going to be able to give you first names with most. Here goes, character's name first, or at least as much as I remember:
Domingo Ramos -- Tino Zaldavar
Stan -- Brian Goldberg
Tom Page -- Richard Levey
Leo Bartlett -- Virgil (don't remember his last name. Should.)
Suzanne (Breakstone?) -- (Was her name Cindy? Perhaps.)
Leslie -- Jacqui Allen
Cindy (?) -- Emily
Ann Campbell -- Tasha
Most of the character names came from food. As the story went, Alan Siegel went to his cupboard and just started picking plausible last names. Guess they didn't have any Goya beans, or Domingo would have had a different last name. As for whether we were friends... We were kids. Relationships ranged from strained to bosom buddies, depending on which way the wind was blowing. My favorite cast member wasn't one of the other kids. It was Robert Chung, who played Kim the counselor. I kept in touch with him longer than any other person involved with "High Feather," with the exception of Jacqui Allen, with whom I went through high school. Robert Chung actually left acting to become an undercover cop. I'm comfortable saying that now because he was profiled during the early 1980s in a New York magazine article as such. (1982? 1983?) The article talked about his acting career, but focused (I think) on his stage acting. It didn't bring up "High Feather," I suspect because it was a permanent record of what he looked like, which for an undercover cop would've sucked. The article profiled about half a dozen rookie cops, and Chung was the only one not photographed. The only reason I mention it now is that since the show is 23 years old, he probably looks a little different. Q7. Were the girls as cute in real life as they were on TV? Were they nice?
RL: They were cuter. Were they nice? They were pre-teen and young teen girls. Are pre-teen and young teen girls generally nice? We were all pleasant enough. I made an ass of myself by acting immaturely. That was the summer I went through the "change of life." Hormones were kicking in, I was both young-looking and generally juvenile, and I didn't necessarily act as coolly as I could have. During the last week of shooting in Peekskill, New York, where most of the episodes were filmed, I developed my first pimple. I didn't realize it until I approached Associate Producer Terry Taylor about something or another and he looked down at me and shouted "Richard! You've hit puberty!" I liked Terry very much, and am glad that he's won an Emmy or two, but I've always sworn that I would get him back for that. He's another one with whom I should have kept in contact. (I think he's morphed into "Terrence Taylor" since he won his Emmy.)
Q8. What kind of candy bars did you like during "High Feather"? In the episode "Swifty", do you remember what kind of candy bar you got out of the machine during the practice race?
RL: Hey, I thought you said you were once a fat kid! A fat kid's favorite candy bar is the one within arm's reach: Your "Teddy Fatenstein" picture on the piece you wrote more or less caught the spirit of it... Here's the dirty little secret about that machine: It didn't work. The candy bar was laying in wait in the tray, and the sound effect you heard was added in post-production. See? You really can't trust the bastards for anything. Regarding the brand of candy bar: All of the candy bars on the show, along with all the cookie packages and the like, had to have the brand names obscured. The P.A.s spent a lot of time wrapping those candy bars with contact paper. Rolls and rolls of contact paper. We had one room in the Peekskill Motor Inn for props, and about two-thirds of it was filled with multi-colored contact paper. The production assistants had way, way too much fun naming and renaming the stuff, and although it's not readily apparent many of the cookies in "Going Home" were named "Mungy Cookies" or some such. I have no idea what was under the contact paper. Possibly a Baby Ruth. We almost ran into trouble in one episode because of the whole "no brand names" issue. It was during one of the first three (it might have been "Swifty"), when Leo yells out "Hey, they've got Mars Bars!" I remember pointing out to Alan Seigel that there actually was a candy bar called Mars Bars. (A fat kid knows his candy, right?) The line was changed to "Hey, they've got Star bars!" Naturally, we later found out that there is a candy bar called Star bars. I think it's English.
Q9. Did you ever think the writers should be strung up by their toes for their blatant exploitation of your weight? RL: On the contrary: I think they should be celebrated for creating a role for a pudgy little dumpling like me. It's like the classic Hollywood complaint: Why aren't there any good roles for older actresses? If one gets written, is it exploiting the actresses' age? I realize that it was a star turn for Mike Myers to play "Fat Bastard" along with the other two roles in the second Austin Powers movie, but corpulent actors should have demanded that one of their own be chosen for the part. Or at least they should have made Myers earn his breasts the way we all did -- by blowing every spare cent we had on Chocodiles. Q10. What's the story with Domingo? RL: I have no evidence that the rumor about his currently being a capitano in the Medelin cartel is true, and cannot and will not comment on it.
Q11. Why'd they end the show? Did they run out of healthy messages to portray at the expense of the actors? RL: No, they ran out of healthy actors to portray at the expense of their messages. Fame and fortune weighs especially heavily on the young: Both Mason Reese and Rodney Allen Rippey will testify to that. The show was slated to be a limited run from the beginning. Ten episodes. Even before the part was cast my character was only supposed to be in seven of them -- but if you take all the face time in "Swifty" and "Going Home" I think we all wound up with equal time.
Q12. How'd you feel when the show ended? Did you keep in touch with any of the other cast members? RL: I honestly don't remember how I felt. I think I was still reeling from being a star (at least, in my head) but my mother quickly corrected that misapprehension. It was a buzz, for a while. Terry Taylor wrote me a great letter that I should have responded to, as did the girl who played Suzanne. I've mentioned Robert Chung. I used to call Allan and Judy Seigel every once in a while after the show ended, but while they were very nice I suspect they were confused by the calls and rather happy when I outgrew doing so. Virgil used to call me now and then and rap. Literally. This was in the glory days of the Sugar Hill Gang and he would call me up and just spew knockoff lyrics into the phone. Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.
Q13. How old were you when the show ended? What did you do after that?
RL: I was 11, just about to turn 12. In terms of acting the only thing I did since was to play "Grandfather" in a high school production of "The Good Woman of Szechuan" or however you spell it. That role, combined with what I did a few years earlier at Buck's Rock camp (see below) convinced me that I was in danger of being typecast as an old man, so I gave up the floodlights forever.
Q14. You said that "High Feather" was the end of your acting career. Why?
RL: How do you top something like that? Harper Lee had the good sense to write one great book and quit. (I think I stole that sentiment from Hunter S. Thompson -- but what the hell, if you're going to steal, steal from the best, right?) I think the most enduring lesson from "High Feather" (for me) was learning that I'm not an actor by any stretch. The idea of losing myself in a separate character just doesn't appeal to me -- and anyone who has every fancied himself/herself an actor just had a cold shudder go up his/her spine. I certainly wasn't trying to build a character for Tom Page, which is a shame -- a little coaching might have been fun. But that wasn't what the experience was about. At this point the only stagework that appeals to me is either sketch or improv comedy. I'd love to take a writing class for sketch, and a technique/games class for improv. But I'm not going to be the next Dan Aykroyd: It would be more for my own enjoyment.
About seven years ago I did some sketch comedy writing on spec for a gal in Chicago who was trying to get a pilot show together. She abandoned the project and left a lot of pissed-off writers and actors in her wake, but it was a good experience for me. I didn't want to act, but writing the sketches was fun. I think some of them hold up well, although the piece I wrote about a girl obsessed with Quentin Tarantino is unfortunately dated. I did have a little training in voiceover work about five and a half years ago. I've got a pretty good baritone and wouldn't mind getting into that racket as a sideline once the economy turns around. I took the V.O. class a hell of a lot more seriously than I did any acting training I've had.
Q15. Have you ever been to summer camp? RL: Yeah, I spent most summers at summer camp: Day camps until I was 9, sleepaway camp when I was 10 and 11. I did "High Feather" when I was 12, and I worked every summer since then. No more acting -- usually it was whatever office/clerical position I could scrounge. The last two years of sleepaway camp gave me my only other acting experience of any note. When I was 9 I went to Forest Lake, an all-boys camp. The Forest Lake Players (or whatever they were called) did a production of W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw." I tried out for every part except the one female role, which was also the lead, or damned close to it, based on sheer number of lines. One guess, given my youthful look and relatively high voice, as to which part I got. Standing in front of an entire boys' camp in a dress and a hair bun, playing a woman (in a British falsetto, no less), is probably the closest thing to real acting that I've done. Remember, this wasn't a comedy, so I couldn't do the whole Monty Python drag bit. Had to play it straight. The year after that I played "The Mathematician" in "Tiger at the Gates" at Buck's Rock. For this I got to wear a lot of latex on my chin, which kept a fake beard in place. How DARE anyone say I don't have range?
Q16. Ok, so let's jump ahead a little. What're you doing now? I hear you're writing something.
RL: I'm a full-time reporter at a business trade publication. College turned me on to the joys of writing (I wrote for both the humor magazine and the newspaper) and I've been in publishing since graduating, which probably explains why I am STILL wearing some of the same clothes that I wore while shooting "High Feather." Most reporters can't afford Armani -- at least, the honest ones can't. I also compile and write a biennial guide to congressional election foibles, missteps and misstatements for liberals. It's a hell of a lot of research and a hell of a lot of fun.
Q17. What kind of music were you fond of in the "High Feather" days and what kind are you listening to now?
RL: Wow, is this embarrassing. I don't know what I was into when I was 12, but I am sure that when I was 10 my three favorite groups were The Beatles, The Bee Gees and Kiss. (Side note: When I was about 14, in a fit of false maturity, I gave away all my Kiss albums. At 34 I have spent about 14 years kicking myself for doing so.) We did about a week's worth of shooting in New York City toward the end of the summer, when we shot "Going Home." WABC-Radio used to have the "Top Five at Five," and the number one and two spots were usually claimed either by Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" or Blondie's "Heart of Glass." If I could demonstrate that I knew my lines for the next day, I was allowed to have the radio on during the ride home.
Brian Goldberg (whom I still think played "Stan") and I lived with Neal (Neil?), one of the production agents. (Each of the P.A.'s got to bunk with two of the youths, which must have been wonderfully pleasant for them.) Neal had an incredible collection of mix tapes, which included music by Traffic and The Tubes, to name two. I had my horizons opened up plenty by those tapes, and to this day Traffic is still one of my favorite bands. He even put this huge (gorgeous) poster of Debbie Harry on the wall of the room. Hey, you want '70s? You got it, pal. At the end of the filming I found out he had given his tape collection to Richard Crudo, one of the other P.A.'s. I was pissed as hell. Never said anything to him, but I would loved to know what other music was on those tapes. For some reason I want to think he had Parliament or Funkadelic on 'em, but that may be because the only thing that can chase the "High Feather" theme from my head for any length of time is "Flashlight."
Side note on Richard Crudo: First, his name was pronounced "Crew-dough." I don't remember anyone overly busting his balls about his last name. Second, because of him, I became "Little Richard" for much of the off-screen time. I hated it, as I hate any derivation/diminutive of my name. Few people call me "Rich," "Richie," "Dick" or any such unless they have known me for a very long time, and then usually only if they are looking to bust my chops. (Had I been a bit more savvy, I would have realized the possibilities of "Little Richard," however. Awopbobalulop,
awopbamboom!) Richard Crudo's nickname was "Animal," which he seemed to like, so I became "Mad Dog," which I didn't mind. I think he was the only one who called me that consistently, though. I don't think I've thought of that for at least 20 years.
During one of the scenes in High Feather, I'm on a top bunk in a cabin. I'm seen shifting around a stack of magazines. Most of those are Circus and Creem (Cream?), from the late 1970s. I had no idea what I had -- I think both Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh were still writing for them. I wish I had read them. (They belonged to one of the P.A.s -- my guess would be Neal/Neil.) As for music now: Most Oldies and Classic Rock stations suit me just fine. The Doors, The Beatles and Bob Dylan are big favorites, as are the Sex Pistols. My big complaint for many years has been that there are virtually no radio stations that would play The Velvet Underground and music of similar ilk. Which brings me to my current evangelical mission: Touting Little Steven's Underground Garage, a radio show hosted by Steven Van Zandt. In New York City it's on Q-104.3 FM every Sunday night from 10:00pm to midnight. Not only does he play the Velvets, he also plays The New York Dolls, deep cuts> from the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and generally a great mix of bubblegum/punk/British new wave. Van Zandt has a Web site. It should have all the stations that play the show throughout the country. Check it out. Q18. Do you still have "High Feather" fans? How many would you say you've met over the years? RL: Do I still have "High Feather" fans? You tell me! I was getting recognized on the street for several years after the show, by fans that cut across ethnic, gender and age lines. It was exhilarating and frightening at times. When I think about the number and diversity of people that approached me, I realized that those government figures that say the average American watches eight hours of television a day are probably, if anything, low. Hasn't happened in nearly 20 years, though, which is nice: I'd hate for someone to still spot Tom the Fat Little Kid in me now: I'm about a foot taller, thinner, with a few strands of gray hair amid all the brown ones.
Q19. In your opinion, what are the implications of "High Feather" on today's more body conscious society? Would a show filled with diverse young adults that stresses health and physical fitness be deemed acceptable in the politically correct and reality TV based television culture of today?
RL: How long was "Ally McBeal" on the air? I think that answers your question. Oh, all right, I'll play nice. I really do think that quality will find its own. Even on television. Witness NBC's fight to keep "Hill Street Blues" on the air during its first season, when it wasn't pulling in the ratings. A "High Feather" today would work if it were good. But if you're talking about the concept... There's a lot less innocence around today. I'm not making a judgment about that, I'm just stating (what I see as) a fact. A lot of the plot situations in "High Feather" arose out of being non-confrontational. And people are more confrontational these days. They're also a lot more sophisticated. A show like "High Feather" today would have to rely a lot less on preachy adult authority figures and more on preachy peer figures -- because kids today know more and are more preachy. And maybe, as Martha Martha Martha says, that's a good thing. I'm not one for innocence, myself: I think it's a form of self-delusion. Kids that are raised in overly protective environments are in for rude awakenings, sooner or later. Q20. Could this type of show create a risk (for example anorexia or bulimia) in young female viewers who have an unhealthy body image?
RL: Not if it's done right. Your question asked about preoccupation with health and physical fitness. Look at the "Ballerina" episode. That wasn't about health and fitness, it was about self abuse. Healthy people have muscle. They even have a little body fat. They don't look like they just stepped out of Dachau.
Q21. Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom to share with fans, as well as, those not familiar with the show?
RL: I don't think I've offered any words of wisdom up until this point: Why break a perfectly good record? No, wait a minute. You're offering me a soapbox and I should take you up on it. So here goes: As important, if not more important, than any diet or exercise program is a sense of humor and self-perspective. I firmly believe the secret to living to a ripe old age is taking several good belly laughs a week. Really good deep ones. It's also not obsessing over food -- laugh hard enough and you can have the steak, ice cream and bourbon (in moderation) without doing too much damage. Get some exercise a few times a week (I walk to and from work, which is about 1.5 miles each way) and don't eat like a damned fool. But if you do exercise you can indulge reasonably often. And what's the point to trying to live to 105 if you can't? This is starting to veer into Richard Simmons/Leo Buscaglia territory, which is pretty scary.moreless