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An '80s Story
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WHEN I BEGAN to consider writing a book about my Brat Pack days, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to recall many of the details from so long ago. I wondered if I would need to call upon old friends and work colleagues to fill in the blank spots. Then, as I began to write, things came back. My perspective on some of the more obviously significant moments shifted—certain memories acquired added heft, while others fizzled under the weight of scrutiny. A few “aha” realizations illuminated patterns of behavior I had previously not imagined. Eventually, things strung themselves together into the narrative we have here. In the end, I didn’t call upon anyone for their recollections, since what I found myself most interested in was making sense of the version of the past that I have lived with, invested in, and evolved from over the years. What did my story, from my perspective, have to teach me? Groupthink couldn’t aid me in that process.
Yet memory can prove unreliable; it can be elusive; it’s pliable. Does that mean any attempt at a self-reckoning must be put down as some kind of auto-fiction? Is it all just a semi-true story? Luckily, there are some indisputable facts that can be relied upon. How these things came to pass and how they would influence all that would come after is the subject of this narrative.
What I claim here is not a definitive truth but my experience of the truth, a truth that has informed and shaped my life over the decades. What happened to me during the course of a few brief years, when I came of age within a certain pop culture environment, irretrievably altered who I would become.
Some years ago I wrote a travel book. In truth, it was more a book about coming to terms with my then impending second marriage as I traveled the world far from home. More specifically still, it became a book about how I would come to terms with two very disparate notions that resided firmly inside me—namely, a strong yearning for solitude and an equally strong yet seemingly incompatible desire for a deep and intimate loving connection with another human being. How well I wrestled with these two emotional alligators went a long way in dictating the course of that book (and continues to do so in my marriage).
Only after I was deep into this project did it dawn on me that two seemingly opposing forces had been strongly at play during my youthful success as well. I had a powerful wanting—I might almost call it a vision for myself, except what I was after was something I couldn’t quite see but rather a feeling, a knowing, that I experienced when I moved in its direction—coupled with what seemed an equally strong desire to pull away, to hide. It was a familiar yin-yang pattern that probably should have always been obvious to me and yet it wasn’t. Perhaps that’s because in so many ways I simply ran from my youth. I survived it and wanted to move on. What makes my story any different from others is that mine was a youth that so many might have wished for, myself included. So why run?
This book is an examination of a time that I had willfully ignored for so long—albeit a generation of moviegoers would not always make that easy to do. Sometimes things happen, we live with their result, and then occasionally, a long time distant, we try to make sense of them. The following pages are my attempt to do just that.
Awash in It
MOLLY’S WISDOM TEETH had just been pulled. Cheeks still puffy, she bypassed the red carpet. But she was there. John Hughes was there, too, in a pink sport coat with padded shoulders, a large music clef pin on his wide lapel. His mullet was blow-dried into a flip just above the shoulders. Jon Cryer was happily mugging for the cameras wearing a Western-style string tie, shirt collar turned up. Annie Potts was all smiles. And there were others, celebrities not associated with the movie, eager to be seen at the showbiz event du jour. Cher, Michael J. Fox, a bare-chested George Michael.
Pretty in Pink was my fourth movie and my first Hollywood premiere. I had just been flown in from New York. I was filled with the to-be-expected feelings of excitement as well as a less easily understood sense of dread. It seems probable that one of the studio publicists working the event made sure that someone snapped my photo as I slid along the edge of the red carpet, my eyes on the ground. Yet I’m not aware of a single photo of me from the screening. There were certainly no paparazzi shouting out my name, clamoring for just one more shot.
I had been to Mann’s Chinese Theatre before and placed my hands in the cement imprints made by the old-time movie stars in the courtyard out front: Jimmy Stewart’s fingers were a little long; however, Steve McQueen’s hand fit just right. But I’d never been seated among an audience of a thousand savvy industry types to watch a movie in which I appeared. About two-thirds of the way back in the packed theater, I took a seat as near to the aisle as I could get.
Not long after the lights went down and the opening credits began, I mumbled apologies, climbed over several sets of knees, and darted up the aisle. A few stragglers were getting their free popcorn in the lobby when I pushed open the glass door and lunged out into the cool late-January night. The red carpet, site of such excitement just a short while earlier, was deserted. The velvet ropes that had held dozens of photographers at bay now stood guard over nothing.
Nearby, a few clusters of tourists were laying their hands on the imprints of the immortals, laughing, taking snapshots with clunky flash cameras. At the curb, giant klieg lights still beamed up into the heavens. In my ill-fitting black blazer and skinny tie, I searched up and down Hollywood Boulevard, looking for a place to hide. Directly across the street was Hamburger Hamlet, an old-school Hollywood institution long past its heyday. I hustled by the leather-clad booths and made directly for the deserted bar. Over the next ninety minutes I downed more than a few straight vodkas on the rocks and kept my head down.
The after-party was at a nightclub called the Palace. Laser lights slashed through the smoky room as that ’80s beat filled the air. The club was full. People clustered by the bars, danced; everyone shouted to be heard. I wafted through the party on a cloud of alcohol and cigarettes. Eventually I was corralled, along with James Spader, for a quick on-camera chat. James and I had become close during filming. He was a fellow East Coaster; I felt comfortable with him. For reasons that made sense only in a world created by MTV in the 1980s, Fee Waybill, the lead singer of the Tubes, was conducting interviews and had the unenviable task of trying to get James and me to speak coherently about the movie—or anything at all. James rambled on in his charming, patrician fashion about a car he had once owned. I swayed back and forth, drunk and anxious, blowing cigarette smoke and trying not to appear frozen by the few benign questions that were lobbed my way. In a career of bad interviews, this one was particularly inept. It didn’t matter. The movie was about to become a hit—and success would land hard upon me. Over the next several years I would ride high and get tumbled and tossed in the backwash. What would happen over that brief time would grow to define me in the eyes of a great many—as well as in my own estimation—for a long, long time to come.
AS A NINE-YEAR-OLD fourth grader at Lincoln Elementary School in my hometown of Westfield, New Jersey, I had little theatrical ambition. Not even after I saw the entire sixth grade gather on the stage of the school’s gymnasium to perform Three Dog Night’s recent hit, “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” (more properly known, of course, as “Joy to the World”). My oldest brother, Stephen, was the one in the third row wearing the multicolored bell-bottoms, of which he was rightfully proud. The class sang along to a record, but only their exuberant voices could be heard. They were a smash hit and became instant stars around the water fountain.
All through this year of 1971, I had a wild crush on Dana Crawford. It was my first experience with distracting preoccupation and inexplicable longing, and I kept my feelings secret, especially from Dana. She sat at the desk directly in front of me and I remember staring, transfixed, at the back of her collar-length blond hair from nine to three, five days a week. Naturally, we rarely spoke. But after the sixth graders’ show, either Dana or her best friend, whose name is long gone from my memory, decided that our class should get up and sing along to a song at the next assembly.
Most of the details are foggy, but the key facts remain forever in my mind. Instead of the entire class—some twenty-five or thirty kids—getting up to sing, it would be only Dana, her friend, another young boy, and me performing. No auditions were held. No one else wanted to participate. (How did the teacher allow this to move forward?) I can only be sure that the reason I went along was that I would have done anything to get close to Dana. And in that I was lucky. On the day of the big show, we huddled together in the cramped coat closet of our classroom for our one and only rehearsal. I had never been in such close proximity to the object of my affection. I could feel her sweet breath on my face. My nervousness was compounded by the fact that, beyond the classic opening line, I didn’t know any of the lyrics to the song we were to sing in front of the entire school in a half hour’s time.
Perhaps a little choreography might have helped. Instead, Dana and her friend sat on the edge of the stage, their feet dangling off the front, knee socks pulled up high. The other young boy and I stood in front of them, exposed to the entire school. We were introduced by one of our classmates and I grew incensed when he mentioned the boy who would be spinning the record. What did that kid have to do with our performance? And why spoil the magic by alerting the audience that all the instrumentation and vocals were not ours alone (even though we held no instruments)?
The guitars kicked in. Then so did we—“Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy.” After that I was lost. I mumbled along for a few bars. Soon the others fell silent as well. Only the Ohio Express could be heard, belting it out. I stared at the gymnasium floor for two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
Silence greeted us as we returned to our seats. Mercifully—and for this I will forgive them almost anything—neither of my two older brothers, Stephen or Peter, who must have been in the audience that day, has ever mentioned this humiliation. But the shame of that afternoon still lands on me like a wet towel slapping down on my shoulders whenever I think of it, and the embarrassment I feel all these years later in writing about it is strangely acute. It’s a wonder I went on to a career in performing at all.
On a bright afternoon not long after this fiasco, my mother appeared, unannounced, in the doorway of my classroom. I was surprised, then frightened, to see her there. What had happened? But rather than anything being wrong, she had come to liberate me. And she had a plan. We took a bus into New York City, to the recently opened TKTS booth just above Times Square, to buy half-price tickets to see a Broadway show—whatever show had any seats left. I don’t know where my mother got such an outlandish idea.
On a few prior occasions she had picked me up after school and taken me—and only me—to a small, deserted amusement arcade out on Route 22. These trips usually coincided with one of the many days when I wept before school, not wanting to leave the safety of home. Young children rarely see their parents as anything beyond an extension of their own lives, yet on these outings I was privy to a loneliness residing in my mother—a loneliness that sprang from her own childhood with an unloving mother and an elderly father—a loneliness usually masked by the busyness of life. We drifted through the arcade in a wash of quiet solidarity.
My mother loved to play Skee-Ball, and together we would roll the wooden ball up the ramp in hopes of scoring a center shot. I don’t remember what we were trying to win; it wasn’t important. I never saw my mother more unburdened than when she was leaning forward, swinging her arm to send that ball on its way. Memories of those trips to the arcade when I had my mother all to myself are bathed in a warm and melancholy gauze.
But our trip to Broadway was one of pure joy. Tickets procured, we sat down in the front row, center two seats, my mother on my right. I had never been in a Broadway theater before. The lights went to black and the music began. A dozen pairs of hands—seemingly suspended in air—appeared. Caught in a single beam of light cast from one side of the stage to the other, the hands began to move in a strange, mesmerizing pattern. The musical was Pippin. The next few hours passed in a hallucinatory whirl of sensory overload. I had never experienced anything remotely like it.
My usual universe consisted of a tight orbit around our home, which sat at the top of a small rise in the center of the block, bound on one end, eight doors down, by the Kings’ home and on the other corner by the large gabled house in which, rumor had it, an old woman had died some years earlier and not been discovered for days, maybe even weeks. It was a typical suburban existence now gone, one of absolute afternoon freedom, bike riding and driveway basketball games, the only limitation to be home by six for dinner. Occasionally my mother asked me to look after Justin—my younger sibling by eight years—for a short while during the afternoon. I felt proud to show off my baby brother around the neighborhood, but one day I arrived home solo just in time for dinner. I walked through the door, and my mother asked where Justin was. I froze. At that moment the phone rang: Mrs. Mulholland from across the street was on the line. She had pulled into her driveway and stopped short when she was confronted with an unattended baby stroller. The baby inside looked a lot like ours.
“I was playing hide-and-seek with Julie and Margie.” I shrugged. “I forgot.”
My mother shook her head: “My little daydreamer.” Had it been either Peter or Stephen who misplaced Justin, it’s unlikely she would have been so easily forgiving.
Unsurprisingly for a family with four boys, sports were king in my house. Peter was our star, leading his baseball team to the town championship in consecutive years. My skills were not nearly as pronounced, but because I had an older sibling on the team, when I was ten I was “drafted” onto the Athletics. I was quickly deposited out in right field—where the least amount of action could be expected—and left there. This set up a dynamic where I would exist comfortably in Peter’s shadow and, more importantly, under his watchful eye throughout our school years.
My eldest brother Stephen’s baseball skills were nearly as modest as mine, and he was quick to abandon his mitt for a set of golf clubs, which better suited his more cerebral temperament.
My father was an umpire around the league. He was famous in town for his low strike zone and his loud, aggressive calling of balls and strikes. A pitch down the center was greeted with a singing “Steeeeee-RIKE!” while an offering off the plate was dismissed with a turn of his head and a digusted bark of “Ball!” Whenever he called a game in which my brother or I was involved, my father went out of his way to be impartial. One afternoon, with my mother in the bleachers holding my little brother in her arms, Peter was at the plate with two strikes. The next pitch bounced in the dirt several feet before home plate. “Steeeee-rike THREE! Yoooooour out!” my father sang as Peter’s mouth hung open. My mother shocked us all by letting out a loud and long “Boooo!”
On the occasions when my mother attended my games, I found the pressure too great. After I struck out three consecutive times, I begged her to please stop attending. She agreed, but not before whispering that I should swing at the first pitch each time I was at the plate. “That way,” she assured me, “you won’t get too nervous being at bat for too long.”
Life shifted dramatically in the fifth grade. My brothers and I were transferred from our public schools just down the road to a prep school a half-hour bus ride away in Elizabeth. I don’t recall any explanation given by my parents for the move. I was to attend Pingry for the next eight years, until I left for college. I took two things away from my experience there: (1) I was not very smart, and (2) I was going to be an actor. The first realization took me a long time to recover from; the second, I never did.
Initially, my mother insisted that Peter sit beside me on the bus home every day. Near the end of our first week I turned to him and said, “Look, we always get the emergency seat.” I nodded toward the small placard below the window instructing that the glass be pushed out from the bottom in case of emergency. Peter stared at me. “They all are,” he said, and pointed out the small signs below each of the windows around us. Humiliation crept up my back as I sank low in my seat. I didn’t speak until we got home, where I informed my mother I didn’t need Peter to sit beside me anymore.
Another equally momentous event centered around the bus a few years later. In seventh grade I was infatuated with Mary Ann Butler. Mary Ann was tall and already quite busty. Aside from my best friend Marston Allen, I was the smallest kid in the class. As such things matter greatly in the seventh grade (and beyond), I was shocked when I got word that Mary Ann liked me as well. For days that felt like weeks, I struggled to summon the nerve to “ask her out”—the parlance for going steady in New Jersey in the 1970s. By Friday afternoon the idea of having to endure another weekend with this monumental task hanging over me was too much. I rushed up to her bus, which, along with ten others, waited out front of school at 3:00 p.m. to scatter kids to their various homes in various towns. Mary Ann lived in tony Short Hills, while my hometown was more modest. She was already seated near the back, but when she saw me rush up to the side of the bus, Mary Ann leaned across the person next to her and stuck her head out the window.
“Do you want to go out with me?” I blurted out.
She shrugged. “Okay.”
I called her once over the weekend. Sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed while they were downstairs watching TV, Mary Ann and I struggled through a few minutes of conversation. She told me that she was watching a show and I should watch it, too. I replied that my parents were watching something else. There was a pause on the line, then her voice was incredulous: “Don’t you have another TV?”
We did not. I wanted to crawl under my parents’ bed.
Over the next two weeks I did everything I could to avoid her. I skipped lunch; I feigned a sprained ankle to avoid gym class. At the end of those two weeks I approached Mary Ann at her locker. I had prepared a speech in which I explained how, although I was very fond of her, I thought perhaps we were not an ideal match and it was best if we broke up. When I was finished with my prepared remarks, Mary Ann just looked at me. At last she spoke: “That sounded like a speech.”
The names would change, and the details alter, but I would go on to a similar level of success with each of the several girls I fancied throughout my high school years.
As for my academic career, it was over even as it began. Early on, my mother sat with me at the dining room table each evening after dinner, bent over mathematics that neither of us could decipher. By the time I was forced into a special weekly meeting with my adviser, Mr. Baldwin—a terrifying old man with thin and wispy white hair, sharp features, translucent skin, and an unsympathetic manner—I was looked upon as a student who needed extra attention. Perhaps I did, but it was my lack of assertiveness with Mr. Baldwin that fueled his frustration with me. I would spend my entire youth—and years into adulthood—believing that my introverted temperament was a problem, something I had to “get over,” “work through,” and hopefully “outgrow.” My solution as far as school went was to simply disengage and stay as close to the academic periphery as possible. The back-row corner seat quickly became my spot of choice. It remained so for the duration of my education.
The discovery of marijuana in the ninth grade, and my subsequent (and substantial) usage, did nothing to improve my studies.
What caused me significantly more worry than my low grades was the fact that I was late to physically mature. For a brief but intense time I feared there was something biologically wrong with me—that I was missing some inherent gene that I needed to make me a man. On some evenings I stood in front of the mirror, staring into my baby-faced reflection, wishing—begging—whoever was on the other side of the glass to let me see what I might look like in five years, so afraid was I that I would never mature. I have never understood the appeal of Peter Pan.
With my long hair and high voice, I was often mistaken for a girl. Even more worrisome than my small and delicate stature was something about which I became extremely self-conscious: my lack of manly hair in places other than my head. On the basketball team, in which I was briefly and surprisingly excelling despite my size, I developed a shot where I never raised my arms above my head, so that others would not see my still-bare armpits. It may have been strange to behold, but it was oddly effective.
My father rarely missed a game I played that year of ninth grade, and whenever I scored a basket, he could be heard calling out from the stands, “THAT’S MY BOY!”
His shouts of support humiliated me—which is natural enough for a teenager—but there was something else about his cheers: they rang hollow to me, as if more a performance for the benefit of others than any true expression of pride—something more for him than for me.
My father was a charming, gregarious man, well liked around town and known by name at all the shops. He would chat freely with anyone at any time. Vain about his full head of black hair and long sideburns, his blue eyes invited attention. My father’s temper was fearsome in the confines of our four walls, with my oldest brother, Stephen—who never shied from confrontation with our father—often the recipient of the brunt of his aggression. Sitting in the den, watching television one afternoon, I heard them going at each other in the kitchen. I burrowed myself farther down into the couch. A chair scraped hard against the linoleum floor, then Stephen came racing into the den. Without slowing, he made a perfectly judged dive headfirst through the open window and out into the yard, my father in hot pursuit. My dad’s anger was usually confined to verbal aggression, but I don’t know what might have happened had he caught Stephen on that day. I could never understand my brother’s persistent need to confront our father, and I looked on him with a combination of awe and resentment for his constant desire to hit our family’s emotional hornet’s nest with a stick.
On occasion I would lie in bed and hear my father shouting at my mother downstairs. One night, after a door slam that let me know my father had left the house, I snuck down and discovered my mother crying at the kitchen table. In a rush she wiped her tears and informed me, not for the last time, that children shouldn’t see their parents cry.
With me, my father was less overtly aggressive. What I experienced was a more subtle shadow of disregard. So when the film The Godfather came out and he began calling me his “consigliere,” I was surprised. After he explained to me what the term meant, I was even more shocked. I had never experienced myself as his trusted confidant or adviser. Had I been old enough to see the film, perhaps I would have perceived this new (and short-lived) intimacy as an embodiment of the don’s famous advice to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
A few years later, when I was an early teen, he took to calling me “Slick.” We behaved as if the nickname were an affectionate one and ignored the simmering hostility we both knew it carried. “I love you because I’m your father, but I don’t like you,” he once hissed at me in disgust. He meant the remark in only transitory anger, but hearing these words—which I experienced like a slap—was an unlikely relief, confirmation of something I had always felt.
My father’s rage always put him squarely in the wrong, while my overtly sensitive reactions placed me firmly on the emotional high ground—my mother couldn’t help but always take my side. No wonder he disliked me.
But by all accounts, my parents’ early years were happy ones. They met when my father, having just returned from his stint in the army, walked into a bakery in Brooklyn. My seventeen-year-old mother was behind the counter. That night she told her parents, “I met the boy I’m going to marry.” And at nineteen she did. At twenty she had the first of their four sons. Despite all that would happen between them over the years, my mother still maintains—with a distinct edge but watery-eyed nonetheless—“he was the love of my youth.”
- “With wit, wisdom, and a depth of honesty that will resonate to your core, Andrew McCarthy lays down the armor of an unknowable scared boy to shine light on the complex and conflicting pieces that make up the intelligent, introspective, compassionate, and wise man who is even more lovable than the boy we first fell in love with.”—Demi Moore, actress and New York Times bestselling author of Inside Out
- “How lucky we are that Andrew McCarthy, such a key player in the Brat Pack phenomenon, should happen to be so naturally gifted a writer and so piercingly, ruefully, and hilariously wise, intelligent, and insightful a chronicler of that wild ride. He somehow survived the madness, and the result is a truly rewarding addition to the bookshelves of film lovers everywhere.”—Stephen Fry, writer, actor, and comedian
- “Andrew McCarthy is one of the best. He’s a dogged character: witty and wry, self-abnegating, always questioning his success. Thanks to his prodigious talents, he succeeds beautifully. This unlikely leading man explores masculinity, success, the dangers of fame, ambition, and cigarettes in this elegant and humorous coming-of-age story of a Brat Pack actor turned director and writer.”—Candace Bushnell, bestselling author and creator of Sex and the City
- “My only quibble with this absorbing, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest memoir is with the title; McCarthy is anything but a brat. He is certainly an unlikely movie star, and the story of how this diffident and insecure young man found himself at the center of the culture in the 1980s—and then decided to walk away from it all—makes for a fascinating read.”—Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and The Good Life
- “[A] heartful memoir…McCarthy is clear-eyed and unsparing about Hollywood but takes the emotional intensity of the actor’s craft and life seriously. The result is a riveting portrait of the artist as a young man.”—Publishers Weekly
- PRAISE FOR ANDREW MCCARTHY
- "Soulful and searching . . . McCarthy's prose shines with intelligence and intimacy . . . A long, strange trip on the direction of full-throttle love."—Cheryl Strayed, New York Times Book Review
- "McCarthy ponders some of the biggest and most frightening questions surrounding intimacy: How does a loner connect? How does a traveler settle down? How do we merge into families without losing ourselves? The answer seems to be that all these things are impossible...and yet somehow we do it anyway. There is much to be learned, and much to be admired, in this elegant, thoughtful story."—Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love
- "A candid, touching, and often humorous new memoir."—San Francisco Chronicle
- "Combining the best aspects of Paul Theroux's misanthropy in books like Old Patagonian Express and Elizabeth Gilbert's emotions in Eat, Pray, Love, this book is hard to put down. Bound to be popular, this compelling and honest chronicle will not disappoint readers."—Library Journal
- "Andrew McCarthy treks from Baltimore to the Amazon, exploring his commitment issues as fearlessly as he scales Mount Kilimanjaro."—Elle
- "Brave and moving. . . McCarthy's keen sense of scene and storytelling ignites his accounts...[t]hreaded with an exemplary vulnerability and propelled by a candid exploration of his own life's frailties."—National Geographic
- "This is not some memoir written by an actor who fancies himself a world traveler. McCarthy really is a world traveler - and a damned fine writer, too...To readers who think, "Andrew McCarthy? Really?" the answer is a resounding and emphatic yes. Really."—Booklist
- "Rarely have I seen the male psyche explored with such honesty and vulnerability. This is the story of a son, a father, a brother, a husband, a man who finds the courage not only to face himself, but to reveal himself, and, in so doing, illuminates something about what it is to be human, fully alive, and awake."—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
- "It's hard to write books that are both adventurous and touching, but Andrew McCarthy manages to pull it off and more! A smart, valuable book."—Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan
- "Where lesser writers might reach for hyperbole and Roget to describe such exotic lands as Patagonia, Kilimanjaro and Baltimore, in The Longest Way Home, McCarthy leans on subtlety, a straightforward style and hard-won insights to allow his larger stories to unfold. It's not hard to imagine him as the solitary figure in the café, scribbling in a notebook by candlelight, making the lonely, tedious work of travel writing look romantic and easy."—Chuck Thompson, author of Better Off Without 'Em and Smile When You're Lying
- On Sale
- May 10, 2022
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing