Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Special Guest Star: Peter Breck

The recent death of actor Peter Breck prompted me to finally chronicle this tale from the days of my youth (also known the Dawn of Man). Of course, I realize that many of you may not recognize the name Peter Breck anymore than you would, say, mine.

Peter Breck was an actor who worked almost exclusively in episodic television in the Fifties and Sixties, mostly in the western genre, a very popular genre back in that era. Nowadays, a TV western pops up once every ten years. (Last decade it was Deadwood, now it’s Hell on Wheels.) Back then, cowboys were all the rage and dominated the airwaves. Breck starred in 1959’s Black Saddle, but his big claim to fame was The Big Valley portraying the often hot-tempered Nick Barkley. That show, undoubtedly inspired by the huge success of Bonanza, was another family oater saga starring Barbara Stanwyck in the Lorne Greene role. Her kids were Nick, Jarrod (Richard Long), Heath (Lee Majors in his first major role) and introducing Linda Evans (Audra). If you’ve ever seen Airplane!, this will explain the reference of the gag “Nick! Heath! Jarrod! There’s a fire in the barn!”

The Big Valley of the title referred to California’s San Joaquin Valley and, in particular, the one and only birthplace of yours truly, Stockton-famed in song, story and foreclosure notice. The show was one of the last of the big westerns and aired on ABC from 1965-1969. It was only natural the Barkleys of Stockton past should visit Stockton present, that present being 1967.

Two stars from the show were set for guest appearances at a Stockton Ports home game, the hometown minor league baseball team. The Ports had played in Fat City in one form or another almost sine its inception, all the way back to the 1800s, ironically the Barkley’s stomping grounds. Legend has it that Stockton could very well have been the Mudville that Ernest Thayer created in his epic baseball poem Casey at the Bat. (Holliston, Massachusetts makes the same claim. They even have a damn statue) And that is what Peter Breck and Richard Long would be performing at a pre-game show with Long narrating the poem and Breck at the bat as The Mighty Casey.

In those days, the Ports played right down the street from my house at Billy Hebert Field, a baseball diamond in Oak Park. I had seen many a game there, mostly after the seventh inning when they opened the gates for free. I also shagged foul balls, standing outside the front gate and chasing them down in either the parking lot or Oak Park itself. The Ports paid fifty cents for each returned ball, major bank back then (We’ve already established that I’m old. Shut your hole, young ‘un.)

On this epic Sunday, the stands of Billy Herbert filled to the brim, but without me. I wasn’t interested in seeing another Ports game. I just wanted to see some celebs and certainly didn’t want to pay a jacked-up admission just for that privilege. So, I opted for the old school approach: peeking in from the left field fence. The pre-game show wasn’t due to start for awhile, so I decided to wander over the clubhouse just behind center field and an easy access from the softball field right next door to see what I could see.

As I approached, I noticed a limousine parked right by the clubhouse entrance and sitting in the back seat, I spied Richard Long. Holy cannoli! A real TV star right before my twelve year old eyes! I had seen this guy for years on all kinds of shows, not just The Big Valley. He was on Bourbon Street Beat, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and some of my favorite movies from way back then like House on Haunted Hill and Cult of the Cobra. Long always had that well-bred, prep school look about him, the kind of guy who always wears a pullover sweater under a sport coat and knows all the lyrics to “The Whiffenpoof Song”. It was only natural that he had been cast as Jarrod, the Barkley family lawyer, kind of a Tom Hagen of the Old West. And now there he was, live, in person and not four feet from me.

We locked eyes; mine being star-struck but also a little confused. Wasn’t he getting out of the car? Was he leaving? Long, in turn, seemed startled to see this kid gaping at him disappointedly as the limo drove off and he avert eyes in apparent embarrassment. My pre-teen brain put two and two just like that. THAT was the look of a guilty man and probably, a coward. Who did he think he was? How dare he duck out on his commitment? If I had my druthers, would have broken his saber over my knee like Chuck Connors in Branded. But at that age, I didn’t know what druthers were so I didn’t know if I had any or not. I didn’t have time anyway. Besides, I had to find a spot at the fence. Casey at the Bat was about to start.

Standing with the rest of the neighborhood freeloaders who didn’t want to pay admission either, I found a peephole just as the pre-show began. Players from the Stockton Ports took the field, portraying the opposing team in the Casey saga and pantomiming their actions as the poem began, narrated by some unknown substitution for the missing in action Richard Long. Then the star of the show (now pulling a solo since Long took it on the lam), Peter Breck in full 1800s Mudville regalia stepped up to the plate as The Mighty Casey, garnering very loud cheers from the stands. His portrayal of Thayer’s immortal character was spot on, burlesqued with great restraint as only a professional could. At the climax, Breck as Casey swung in slow motion, and then froze in position. The Stockton Ports walked to home base, picked his stiff body up and carried him to the dugout as the narrator read: “There was no joy in Mudville/Mighty Casey had struck out.”

The crowd inside and outside the stadium laughed and cheered Breck’s performance. He was our hero, our very own Casey who did not strike out that day, but hit a grand slam home run.

After a fashion, I wandered back to the clubhouse to see if I could get a glimpse of the star of the show. If I got a chance to actually meet him, I had a message for him to deliver when he got back to the set of The Big Valley. I had no problems walking right inside the locker room, security being very lax in those days. Seated on a bench and stripping off his Mudville baseball uniform was Mr. Peter Breck himself, all sweaty and disheveled not unlike his character in the grips of insanity in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Then again, he had just finished a performance in the hot Stockton sun.

As a representative of the Ports organization spoke to him, he flamboyantly bellowed, “Right, baby!” and gestured toward him, pointing his finger at him like a gun. As he removed his cleats, there were mutterings about what happened to Richard Long, prompting him to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, that son of a bitch!” Catching himself, he looked at the small audience that had gathered in the locker room and apologized, “Pardon my French, everybody.”

While others looked about awkwardly, I saw an opening and went for broke. Stepping right to him with a head full of immature righteous indignation, I said proudly, “Mr. Breck, when you see Richard Long again, you tell him the show must go on.”

Yep. That’s what I said all right. Feel free to roll your eyes at any time.

Peter Breck looked at me with kind of woozy startled expression on his face at this declaration. He smiled slowly and said, “I will. I’ll tell him that. Come over here, son.”

I walked over to him, expecting a handshake, but instead Peter Breck sat me on his knee. Now I was twelve yeas old. I hadn’t sat on anyone’s lap or knee since I visited Santa Claus for the last time maybe five years before. But I figured it was okay. He wasn’t a priest or a scoutmaster and besides, there were witnesses. What could be the harm? While basking in the privilege of having some quality time with a major TV star, something else began to waft in my general direction-the distinct odor of alcohol tainting his breath and perhaps even his pores. While I sat on my new Uncle Peter’s lap as he exhaled the fumes of Bacchus upon me, his voice grew very solemn as he confided in me some words of wisdom.

“Now, I wanna tell you something and I want you to remember this. Your mommy and your daddy…are always right. Okay? You remember that now, alright? You’re a good boy. Now GET on outta here!”

On the word GET, he hauled off and spanked my butt so hard it propelled me off his knee. I grabbed me stinging cheeks and wailed an “Ooh!” as I jumped to my feet. Some polite, but not necessarily gregarious laughter filtered out from the others in the clubhouse. They seemed uneasy at best. Somebody mentioned the time to Breck and he answered loudly with another “Right, baby!” and resumed undressing. Those who didn’t belong at that point were ushered out of the locker room right then and that was last I ever saw of Peter Breck. As for his words of wisdom, well…he was on the spot. And hot. And bombed. I didn’t care. This was better than an autograph.

As I left the clubhouse, I saw my friend from school, Ronnie Carter on the way out.

“Your mommy and daddy are always right!” he mocked with that stupid half-smirk he always had on his mug.

“Shut up, Ronnie,” I told the little asshole. He was just jealous. And a little asshole. It was his nature.

I should talk.

“The show must go on.”

What the hell did I know about it? What did I know about anything? I had no idea what made Richard Long travel all the way to Stockton, only to flee the scene of the crime before it even began. To my twelve year old mind, this was a moral issue and for this man to run away made him a creep in my book for years to come.

But as I grew older, I finally began to doubt my perception of that day. I had to wonder what happened when Peter Breck returned to the set of The Big Valley.
“Hey, Richard! I gotta message for you from a little boy up in Stockton. He told me to tell you that the show must go on!”

“Really, Pete? You and that kid can go fuck yourselves. Maybe you shouldn’t be so shit faced when you make a public appearance….especially with me.”

It might not have been the first time, but I’ll bet that as far as Richard Long was concerned, it was the last. But again, who knows? He could have shown up to Billy Hebert, assessed the situation and made a snap decision. Unfortunately, in avoiding possible embarrassment that day, Long ended up embarrassing himself by running away. His co-star, while in his cups, ended up pulling it off. Breck turned out to be the conquering hero while Long became the goat. How could he know that? It was pretty much a lose-lose situation for him to be placed in and over the years, I’ve learned to cut the man some slack.

When The Big Valley ended its run in 1969. Richard Long went on to star in the sitcom Nanny and the Professor and guest starring on several other shows. He died of a heart attack in 1974.

Peter Breck also appeared on a lot of episodic TV series over the years, though he never landed another regular series role, having moved to Canada to open his own acting school, The Breck Academy The last time I remembered seeing him on screen was in the 1980s swashbuckler The Sword and the Sorcerer wearing an unfortunate hair perm or unfortunate curly wig. Either way, it was unfortunate. He passed away on Feb. 6 of this year from complications due to dementia.

In the 1980s, the Stockton Ports asked the Palace Showboat Theater, another place near and dear to my heart and soul, to help recreate Casey at the Bat at Billy Hebert Field once again, which we did for about three separate years. When I directed it, I added Peter Breck’s piece of business to the ending. That final freeze after Mighty Casey strikes out then is carried off by the other players worked as good then as it did in 1967. I put it because it was good. Maybe sub-consciously, I intended it to be an homage to the TV star I met at that very baseball stadium doing the same exact show.

While our version was also well-received by the audience and the Ports organization, Casey at the Bat was a tough show to play on a Sunday afternoon in the summer after two performances of our own production-and the hard partying that followed. (You see, the moral fiber of that self-righteous kid began to unravel soon after puberty) But we sucked it up and performed like champs because there was one thing we at Pollardville understood, just as Peter Breck did:
The show must go on.

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