Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


A birthday celebration


Today is my friend Tom Boyle’s birthday. He would have been 59.

Tom died on April 12th after a hard-fought year-long battle with cancer. He was a tough guy, stubborn and strong, and I know how much he wanted to be here. I’m sorry he isn’t. But today I’m celebrating that he ever was here, and that I got to know him. I’m grateful.

Tom and I were friends for about 25 years. I can’t quite remember whether I met him before or during the buildout of Moving Arts’ first theatre space, in 1992, but I think before. I was sure that if we just rented out this tiny space and spread the word that we were building a theatre, people would come help, and Tom alone proved that to be true. Good thing, too, because while I had some carpentry skills inherited from my family, I had zero knowledge of electrical. But Tom brought his writing partner, Rodger Gibson, who knew about wiring, and soon we were pulling wire and hand-building a lighting panel for clamp-lamp stage instruments and installing ceiling fans and flourescent lighting fixtures, along with everything else necessary to build what was (and is) probably the smallest theatre in town, still proudly functioning 23 years later. Without Tom, and Rodger, and Marcy our head carpenter, and everyone else who came to build out the space, we would have been nowhere. At some point, Tom told me that if you’re ever going to be stuck on an island, you want theatre people with you, because they can do anything: as resourceful people used to no budget, they’re trained to make a lot from very little. He lived that example. Where Tom learned to do half the things he could do, I don’t know, but over the years, I grew to assume that he could do anything.

Just seven years later, Tom and I were building another, additional, theatre, when we took over an abandoned space on the fifth floor of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and turned it into a black-box theatre. I had trouble getting some actual company members to come down and pitch in, as was a requirement of their membership in the acting company, but Tom, who wasn’t a regular in the acting company? He came. Of course. In recent years, here’s part of what I was planning on for retirement: I thought Tom and I would build a third theatre, and do more shows together. With our more-lucrative work safely behind us, we would be free to return to the fun.

In the same timeframe as he was helping to build our first theatre, Tom was also in rehearsal for our first production, a play of mine called “Then What?” that was produced as half of two one-acts of mine put together, “Now This…Then What?” So, imagine: Working a day job, building a theatre some nights, and rehearsing or learning your lines the other night. That level of effort alone tells you a lot about Tom. In “Then What?” Tom played a ranting pedantic out on a ledge protesting all the injustices of modern civilization, including our overbearing celebrity culture, to great comic effect. A seeming suicide, he really wanted to be heard. Tom found every laugh in the script and brought more on his own. The show played to packed houses (all 36 seats) and got extended, then got extended again. It was just a terrifically fun play, with Tom being a huge part of that.

So Tom was in our first show. He was also in our second show, a co-production with a troupe he had just formed. Tom was also a writer. And a director. The troupe he put together, Smugly Absurd, did live “non-radio radio shows,” in which they performed multiple roles in original comedies in the fashion of old-time radio comedy, complete with live sound-effects creation, right there on the Moving Arts stage, starting at 10 or 10:30 at night. They’d wheel in what looked like enough sound equipment for The Who, roll out a carpet, and set up all manner of speakers and cables and percussion pieces and sound instruments in record time. Sometimes we’d have a full house; sometimes we’d have six or 10 people. Tom wrote the scripts with two of the other performers, Roberta (who later became his wife) and Gene, and then directed the action. Sometimes the troupe was doing its own version of classic fairy tales; sometimes they were following the “real-life” adventures of the entity known as Death; sometimes they were spoofing classic Hollywood melodrama. Every show was a treat. You just had to admire the craftsmanship — writing, directing, playing multiple roles, generating live sound effects — and the care.

Over the years, Tom was in many, many more Moving Arts shows and also staged readings and workshop productions. Whenever I needed someone reliable, professional, easy to work with, and funny — in other words, almost all the time — I would see if Tom was available. When I directed a workshop production of a play called “Big Bear and the Other” and I knew it had to be funnier, I called in Tom. It worked: He was funny, and the show got funnier with him. I also directed Tom in his last stage performance, a remount of our friend Trey Nichols’ stage adaptation, “Murphy’s Xmas.” Tom was, of course, great to work with, and I now cherish the memory of his playing an old, ill, dying man giving a younger man advice.

If he wasn’t shackled to comedy, it was still what he was known for in our circle. Tom had a Wallace-Shawn-in-“The-Princess-Bride” quality — a comic exasperation that always worked to his benefit. In fact, I saw Tom mistaken many times for Wallace Shawn — in his earlier years he looked somewhat like him, and he sounded very much like him. He’d protest that no, he wasn’t that “Inconceivable!” guy, and other person would insist, and Tom would deny and deny and deny, and then finally say, “o-KAY” and give up.

As longtime friends, we spent a lot of time socializing together. Of course we went out for drinks after our shows. We also played a lot of games. Poker, naturally, but also the board game Civilization, or Oxford Dilemma, or, more recently, Cards Against Humanity or something else. He would come for our Halloween parties, our New Year’s Eve parties, our backyard cookouts, and every other occasion when we’d have people over. We had a cookout last week and I have to say, part of me kept looking around for Tom; it just felt like he should have been there.

In March of last year, I was just back from a business trip to San Francisco and was lying on my downstairs couch when my cellphone rang. It was Tom. He was calling to tell me he had cancer. As he talked to me about it, I felt myself sinking into the couch. Finally, I struggled off the couch and moved my end of the conversation outside. He sounded strong and determined to fight — of course! This was a man who, about 20 years ago, got mugged in Silver Lake by three guys and so furiously fought back that they ran away. Again: strong, and determined. For the next year, he fought his fight, against increasing odds. I spent as much time as I could with him because I was already aware how much I’d miss him. I would shuttle him from the hospital back to his home after a treatment or a blood transfusion. I took him out to dinner at Taylor’s Steakhouse in downtown, during which he disappeared into the men’s room for a long, long time. Getting sick, I believe, although he returned determined to appear well and making an effort to eat a little more from his plate. And I put together a group of us and we went out to the movies every month or so and saw a lot of great films, “Locke” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” among them.

As he grew weaker and weaker, there were more incidents. After seeing “Chef” at the Arclight in Hollywood, he collapsed, pulling the standing table over with him and smacking his balding skull full-force with a sickening sound on the polished cement. My first thought was, “Well, now Tom’s dead. When we pick him up, there will be a pool of blood there.” But there wasn’t, and he insisted that he was fine. Then he did it again, so we called an ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, he kept saying he was fine, and to his credit, he did seem better, but we were insistent, and the EMTs arrived and strapped him to a gurney and trundled him off to the hospital, where tests revealed that he’d been dehydrated, due to his treatments. He was back out the next morning.

The last time he came to my house, two months before he died, Tom’s hair was gone, his skin was the wrong color, and his voice was a whisper. Our 89-year-old friend Ken said to me in an aside, “Tom doesn’t look so good.” Anyone could see that. But he and Roberta stayed for hours and we played a lot of games, with a lot of laughs. (Nothing beats hearing a mild-mannered 89-year-old former CIA agent read filthy, filthy “Cards Against Humanity” responses aloud in his thick Boston accent, while your dying friend laughs uproariously.)

Two weeks before he died, Tom was back in the hospital. Somewhat reluctantly, I went to visit him. Reluctantly not because I didn’t want to see him — I did! — but, as I wrote about here, because I had never before visited a friend in the hospital. But once we started sharing stories, the time sailed by. When his dinner arrived, it sat there like a hubcap, cold and untouched by the side of the road, but as Tom started recounting various theatre stories (performing, one last time, his impression of a sled dog from his role in the stage adaptation of “Call of the Wild”; sharing the story of the director who told us, “Okay, okay, that’s good. Now all we have to do is make it funny.” And on and on), and I started laughing, he came alive. His voice gained strength, his color returned, and he popped the lid off his dinner and started picking at it, before finally taking a knife and fork and digging into it. He was back on stage, and I was the grateful audience. At one point, I looked up and I was startled to see that visiting hours were over. Time to ring down the curtain. So I bid farewell. My parting words to him were these: “I’ve got to tell you, Tom, you seem good. So if you want to fight, you should fight.” I knew he would fight — I had never known him not to — but I thought he needed to hear it. I knew he wanted to be here. He did fight. But he was going to anyway.

I was certain at the time that it would be the last time I’d see him, and I was right. It seemed a good way to end. I saw the closing performance.

On the morning of his death, after the phone call I had with his brother-in-law Vic, who is also my friend, I took my family to the Renaissance Faire. It seemed fitting; Tom loved the Renaissance Faire. He loved the swordplay and the costumes and the customs. I thought about him all day, of course, but it didn’t feel like he was gone. It still doesn’t. When I took him out for that steak dinner, I kept a pledge I’d made long ago, when my father was dying, to ask people when the time seemed right what they thought about death, and what happened after. Here’s what I can share happily among those of us who loved Tom: No, Tom didn’t have religion — but he had science. He told me that he believed in quantum physics, which has it that time is constant and ever-branching, and that therefore each of us is always splintering off into new versions of ourselves created by different paths taken, and that each of those is always here because time is flat. If this is true, then Tom is still here, and perhaps many Toms, and among those many Toms, one of them right now is building that third theatre with me.

I wonder what we’re rehearsing.

8 Responses to “A birthday celebration”

  1. Peggy Says:

    Thank you Lee. That was lovely
    Peggy (Tom’s sister)

  2. Don Randall Says:

    a more fitting tribute I cannot imagine,thank you for sharing such a intimate illumination of your very good friend. Only knowing of Tom via your memories,I can only say thanks for allowing all who read this a small glimpse into the heart of what friendship & art creates.

  3. Claire Warfel (Another sister) Says:

    Thank you so much for being so transparent, and allowing a window into your friendship and experiences with Tom. It is obvious you gave Tom a great gift through your love and deep, lasting friendship. What a blessing to have you as a friend. You have comforted me in sharing this blog. :).

  4. Mary Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I so enjoy reading what ever anyone wants to say about Tom. It is always entertaining and an inspiration to me. What a gift he was and still is to me

  5. Joan Kovats Says:

    This is wonderful Lee. I thought of him on his birthday also. How wonderful to share those memories. I will share it with Rodger Gibson; I know he will enjoy it also. Even though I no longer live in LA, we kept in touch, and he was such a good friend. I miss him.

  6. Jim Markley Says:

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. There is little that I can say that you have not already more eloquently shared. Thank you for sharing some of wonderful moments that make up friendship that both of you cherished. My prayers for you and his family.

  7. Michael Kranes Says:

    Thanks Lee for these words. I enjoyed learning more about Tom and your deep friendship. I had no idea Tom had passed. I just learned today from FaceBook posts, I believe left on what would be his 60th birthday. He was a wonderful actor and person. I am so grateful for his work and yours on Big Bear and the Other. He brought his own genius to the role of Bishop Bob. What a great spirit. He is missed by many.

  8. Lee Wochner Says:

    Thanks, Michael. Yes, I loved him, and I loved him in your play. Directing your show was meaningful for me in many, many ways.

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