As presumptuous as that sounds, I stand by those words. Would I be saying that if he hadn’t passed away this last weekend? Am I swayed by my immediate grief to elevate him to such a high standard? Not at all. The real truth is that losing someone as important as Dennis was in my life gives me the right to place him on any damn pedestal I want because, frankly, he deserves it. And let’s face it, no matter how smart or sophisticated we think we are, we always fall for the same thing. We don’t realize what we have until it’s gone.
What makes someone legendary? One answer might be that people will talk about you long after you’re gone. Certainly this will be the case for D.W. and he had the talent, personality and character to back it up.
I knew Dennis for over thirty years, our paths first crossing at the Pollardville Ghost Town. It wasn’t until 1979 when the place was re-branded as Tule Flats and for the relaunch, he became the entertainment director that we became better acquainted (even dating the same woman at one point). He was directing and overseeing the gunfights, naturally casting himself in some of the best roles. No one could begrudge him that since nobody was better as it than he. He threw himself into every aspect of the gunfights, living out his childhood dream of being a real cowboy (minus the horses). Dennis was quick on the draw with his six-shooter and probably the best stunt man out there. None of us were trained to do the things we did-falling off buildings, tumbling in the dirt or engaging in fisticuffs, But Dennis’ instincts were better than the rest of ours and gave his all every single time. In fact, I named one of his “patented” stunts after him. When he’d get thrown out of the saloon, he’d always throw a flip into it, tucking and rolling as he went. I called that a “landing ham”. And as far as I know, he never suffered any real injuries in the gunfights save for the occasional scrape,cut or powder burn. At least, nothing permanent. Later on, he probably felt those falls as they have with all of us. It's taken us all a little longer to get out of bed in the morning since then...and it ain't just age.
On one late Sunday afternoon, Dennis played the outlaw Clay Allison in a gunfight called Wanted Dead or Alive as a summer storm began to brew in the distance. Near the end, Allison breaks free and prepares for his final showdown with the sheriff. At same moment, a wind gust blew down main street, lightning flashed and thunder crackled , echoing through the landscape-sensational all-natural special effects propelling this show to above and beyond anything that hit ever that town...and Dennis along with it. Talk about motivation.
Dennis gave up the Ghost Town for awhile returning back to the other end of the property, that being the Palace Showboat. He began his directorial debut on that stage, Seven Brides for Dracula, which, coupled with a second half of Goodbye TV, Hello Burlesque,became of one of the very best shows ever produced on the Palace Showboat stage. A couple of years later, D.W. asked me assistant direct The Ratcatcher's Daughter, a show that gave me the confidence to redeem myself after a difficult time I spent with The Legend of the Rogue and Life is a Cabaret. The second half of Ratcatcher was a traditonal vaudeville, the first since Goodbye TV, called Hello, Vaudeville, Hello directed by Ray Rustigian. It turned out to be my favorite show and Dennis was undeniably the top banana of the Palace Showboat. It was always a pleasure to watch him work and boy, did he ever. he must have burned off a couple of gallons of perspiration per night. Then again, I used to say that Dennis would sweat in the shower.
On the second go-around of The Scourge of Scrubby Vermin, Dennis played the title role and while I got the role of the one and only Dr. Percival P. Hackemgood. In our big scene together set in Scrubby's shack, Dennis kind of juggled the pages of the dialogue each night, somehow going from point A to point W, then back to point B and point F. I was proud of the fact that I could always follow him and get us back on track no matter where he took us. One night, near the end of the melo in our last scene together, it was my turn. I went up on my lines so far that I couldn't even see them again. I had no idea where I was, a definite vaporlock. Of course ,I turn to my trusted friend, colleague and co-actor for help. He just held his chin down and shrugged his shoulders slightly as if to say, "I dunno. You're on your own, pal." My buddy. Maybe he was getting even for that shower remark...
I had such a blast with D.W. in the second half of that show, Vaudeville Tonight, performing "The Doctor Sketch" with he and Carmen Musch and "Take a Pea" with he and Tom Amo. Comedy came easy to Dennis. Dancing, however, not so much. Whenever chorographer Kim Keifer tried to stage a number, there was Dennis, just off-stage, going over every step until he got it right. "5...6...7...shit! 5...6...shit! 5...shit!" Finally, he got the footwork down when Kim would exclaim, "Okay, now we're going to add the hands..." Dennis exploded. "HANDS?! HANDS?! NOW YOU WANT HANDS??!!"
When he left the Ville for other stages, his mastery of character acting came into play with so many diverse roles in such shows as Oklahoma!, Biloxi Blues,Wife Begins at 40 and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Nothing was better or more chilling like his portrayal of the main villain in Wait Until Dark. I think this might have been his favorite role. He loved creeping an audience out, taunting the blind girl heroine without her knowledge and definitely scaring the crap out of everyone when he leaped out of the darkness when he was supposed to be killed.
Dennis' mastery at villainy translated to the screen as well when he was cast as a bad guy in three Ron Marchini ultra low budget action flicks, sharing much deserved screen credit with the likes of Adam West, David Carridine and Stuart Whitman. I was so glad I was able to make that connection with Marchini for him. That was the kind of give and take relationship we had. In this case, I was able to get him a role in a feature film, that being Return Fire: Jungle Wolf II. (Yes, there was a Jungle Wolf I) To return the gesture, he got me job as a lab courier.
Hmmm...doesn't sound like much of a trade-off, does it? Film immortality vs pee jockey. But hey, look at the result. I ended up writing a book based on my courier days with SmithKline. So if it wasn't for Dennis, there would be no Red Asphalt. (I also based a character on him in the book) Besides, working with Dennis on a daily basis was what got me through that job. I used to relish our times spent in the break room at the lab talking about everything under the sun and laugh about...well, most of it anyway. It was actually during that period that I really got to know Dennis as a person. We had kind of a stupidly macho guarded friendship, the kind where we didn't tell each other how we felt about one another, but I can say that I grew to love the man and found what a good friend he could be. He was always supportive in anything that any of us did artistically. He was always in the audience for our shows. In fact, he was the only member of the audience during a matinee of The Long Pavement Overcoat at Hutchins Square. When the cast came out for our curtain call, I just looked at him and said "You'd better give us a standing O, you son of a bitch. We outnumber you."
During that period we worked on a couple of video projects with Tom Amo, Backstage Pass (filmed at the Ville) and The Revenge of Chris White, where we were able to capture his great Godfather impression. A running joke for us was the Marlon Brando greeting which was simply kind of drawn out raspy groan. "Uhhhhhhhhhhh...." It was like Aloha. It meant both Hello and Goodbye. Sometimes at work, if I would get a call on the radio for an out of the way stop I would have to make or from a boss neither one of us much cared for, I could always count on D.W. sending a faint "Uhhhhhh...." over the airwaves and it would ease the stress of my day. Later on, after I moved to Oregon, there's nothing that would make me smile more than to hear on the other end of of my phone a long distance "Uhhhhh...." We'd even open and close our e-mails the same way. It was our signature.
Now he's gone. That has been a tough thing to finish. Not to write, mind you because there's plenty to say and to relate as far as D.W. Landingham went. I haven't even scratched the surface. It's just that I feel that when I finish this, well, it's all over. But that's a dumb way to feel and I know that. Obviously, I'm not alone. His family and friends feel his loss as well, but we've all been better people to have been able to know him at all. And we have a wealth of memories to work from.
Reading the comments and tributes from everyone else in the news stories and online reminded me of a line from The Wizard of Oz when the Wizard tells the Tin Man:
"A heart is not judged by how you love, but by how much you are loved by others."
That sure rings true of the one and only D.W. Landingham, a legend in our own time.
For my friend, I give one last salute...