My brush with greatness, again

By Chuck Sigars | Feb 13, 2013

I don’t want to get too inside baseball here, or pull back the curtain too much, or give away trade secrets, or show you how the tricks are done. And I certainly don’t want to generalize about you, the reader.

But you will forget what you’re about to read.

You will, too. Probably. I’ve done this for a dozen years, and I have empirical proof. The people who know me best, love me most, care about what I do and what I don’t, the people who are connected to me through bloodlines and marriage certificates: They will forget. They already have.

My wife, for example, will occasionally unintentionally remind me of my ephemeral job. “I remember someone once wrote, somewhere…” she’ll begin, and I’ll stomp around and wave my arms and otherwise look like a crazy person.

“That was ME!” I’ll scream. “I’M THE ONE WHO WROTE THAT!”

Sometimes she will ask for proof. But you get the point. I’m forgettable.

That’s fine, too. As long as you have something to read while you enjoy your meal or wait for your coffee, I’m glad to be of service.

This will, though, occasionally lead to me repeating myself, since I forget, too. Although, not in this case.

In this case, I’ve told this story twice over the past 12 years. It’s OK if you don’t remember. It makes it easier, actually.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when the Screen Actors Guild gave their annual Life Achievement Award. You know these award things; there’s one every couple of days, and who can keep up? I had no idea there was even such a thing as the SAG Life Achievement Award, although I’m sure they consider it carefully.

On Jan. 27, though, the award was presented to Dick Van Dyke, and that got my attention. I’m a fan of Mr. Van Dyke, have been for as long as I can remember, from my earliest memories of lying in bed, listening to my parents enjoy “The Dick Van Dyke Show” from the other room.

I saw his movies, and always at least checked on his other television shows to see what he was up to.

And this would have been the case, I’m sure, regardless. I think he’s a wonderful talent, an American treasure, a man who always makes me smile.

But our paths crossed once, me and Dick Van Dyke, a very long time ago, and that makes it personal. And so I tell the story again.

I spent my teenage years in Phoenix, Ariz., coinciding with a period in which Dick Van Dyke also lived there.

In the early part of 1973, a time that feels as dusky and ancient to me as it does to you, some local folks persuaded Mr. Van Dyke to emcee and produce a benefit, a variety show to raise money for a worthy cause. They decided to hold open auditions, a casting call to anyone in the area who had talent.

And some who were mistaken about that. Of course.

I was 15 years old. I’d done a high school play, and had been cast in another, with no discernible talent that could particularly be transferred to a variety show. I could sing a little. I could act a bit. I couldn’t dance if you paid me.

But I made my family laugh, with jokes and impressions of famous people, and I was 15, and it was Dick Van Dyke. I worked up an act. I went early one Saturday morning to the audition. I had hope.

I also had a long time to wait. Hours, as it turned out, since everybody in the Phoenix area apparently shared my enthusiasm for show biz.

Morning turned into afternoon, and then late afternoon. People continued to do their acts, although the producers were starting to yank them after about 30 seconds. The day was getting away from them.

And away from me. As I mentally rehearsed my act, over and over, and watched the others take their 30 seconds of hope and then exit, I had no idea of what to do.

When my time came, I started at the beginning of my act, and I felt the tug on my arm and a nice lady gently thanking me for my time and leading me off. I was done, my hope was gone, my chance to impress a big star over.

I have no explanation. I’m not an aggressive person, and I definitely wasn’t at 15. I was, actually, just 15, insecure and dreamy and unrealistic, but I pulled away, looked down at the exhausted Dick Van Dyke, thought about my big finish, my Peter Falk impression, and I begged.

“Please let me do Columbo,” I said, and this nice man nodded and smiled. Let him do it, he said, and I did.

And for whatever reason, they picked me for the cast, the only comedy, maybe the youngest performer of all. I got to spend a few weeks with a personal hero, who turned out to be just what you’d imagine.

A kind, sweet, sort of shy man who gave me suggestions on my act and otherwise went about his business, friendly and helpful to everyone.

So I’m happy so see Dick Van Dyke’s latest honor, and happy to see that he seems healthy and enjoying his life. And happy to remember my big moment, nearly 40 years ago.

Now start forgetting already, so I can tell this again next year. Enjoy your coffee.

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