Thursday, April 28, 2011



FRANK: I was 18 years old, and I had finally realized that I needed to do something with my life. I considered joining the military, but my Achilles’ injury wasn’t allowing that. Then, thanks to the magic of television, I had an inspiration.

GWEN LASTER: Francis had come to me all excited, I remember, and he said to me, “I know what I want to do with my life. I want to drive the big rigs.” I, at first, didn’t know what he was talking about, but he had seen a commercial on the television about a class that taught people how to drive 18-wheel trucks. I was fearful for his health, but I knew that when Frank has something in his heart, he would be totally committed to that idea.

FRANK: I still had some money from the Gravy years, but that wasn’t going to last forever. I needed a career, something to be proud of. Truck driving has a kind of nobility about it.

BIG IRV DELAHANTY, OWNER, BIG IRV’S TRUCKING SCHOOL, MORGANTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA: At first I didn’t recognize Frank as being a guy from the TV. I just thought that he was one of those punk kids that didn’t want to go to college. Hey, more money for me, right? But Frank, despite being all Hollywood and that, was committed to his craft. Driving an 18-wheeler takes discipline, focus and determination, and Frank had all three. When I found out that he used to be on TV, I told him that as soon as he graduates and gets a legitimate driving job from our class – and 82 percent of all of our graduates do get a legitimate driving job – that I would hire him for a TV commercial. He told me that he would only do it if he was able to hold onto a driving job for at least three months, as he didn’t want to shame my fine program. That’s a class act.

FRANK: You’d think that driving an 18-wheeler would be an easy thing, but it is very hard work. I compare driving a big rig to conducting a symphony, and Big Irv Delahanty, to me, is like the Igor Stravinsky of truck driving.

BIG IRV DELAHANTY: Yeah, he tried that compliment on me before when I was teaching him, but it didn’t stick. I’ve never been much for analogies, anyhow. But if he was going to go with a classical music analogy, I don’t feel that Stravinsky would work. Truck driving is a very exact science. It’s about discipline, and Stravinsky’s work was more about being a revolutionary, as he wrote in a complex harmonic and rhythmic style and he was always breaking new ground. Now, Johannes Brahms, he would be a better fit to Frank’s analogy, as his was a classical style, more about tradition, discipline…I used to listen to a lot of public radio when I was a driver.

Shortly after graduating third in his class of twelve, Frank was able to get a job with the Allied Peanut Company as a driver.

FRANK: I was responsible for delivering peanuts to carnivals from Ohio to Maine. A lot of people may not know this, but there are two kinds of peanuts that get sold – the regular ones that people eat, and then the substandard ones that get fed to elephants at circuses. Allied handled the latter. I guess they were a wholesale distributor or something like that. They’d buy the low-quality ones in bulk and then work out deals with the traveling shows. I never understood why carnivals would give substandard peanuts to elephants. They’re the stars of the show, the Michael Jordan’s of circus entertainment. People always want to see the elephants at the circus, so treat them right. That’s all I’m saying.

Life on the road meant a lot of alone time for Frank, which was not always easy.

FRANK: You’d sometimes have a 1000-mile circuit, and that meant a lot of time to be alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t used to that, at first. I’ve always had people around me. But I used the time to create. I started writing poetry that I would think out in my head and then write them down in diners or at rest stops. Since I was a recovering lozenge addict I couldn’t take greenies like the other truckers did, so my verse was all that I had.


Mile 80 of 659
Too many distractions
speedbumpspeedbumpspeedbumpspeedbump meadow
I pray the ground is solid
Reverse slowly and begin anew
The lonesome era rambles down I-71

FRANK: I also came up with a modern dance piece in my head that I called The Lost Trucker of Cedar Creek. I would sometimes draw some stick-figure sketches just to keep the ideas fresh. I knew that I’d never get to perform it, which was sad, but it kept my wits about me. Also, on the CB, I’d tell stories to the other drivers about my time in acting.

CLARENCE “IL GATTO” MELCHIORE, TRUCK DRIVER: We used to call him Hollywood, I remember. He’d sometimes have thirty or forty drivers listening to his stories. We all became experts in behind-the-scenes network television issues, so much so that two of the drivers went to L.A. and are now producing shows for Lifetime Television.

While on his route, Frank started to hear stories about a person which he had completely forgotten about.

FRANK: Whenever I would stop at a carnival, people wouldn’t say that they remember me from television, they’d say, “Hey, are you related to The Flying Belmondos?” It made me realize that I wasn’t led to truck driving as a job opportunity, but perhaps it was a vision quest of sorts, one that would bring me back to my birth father. At each carnival that I’d show up to I’d check if Stephen Belmondo worked at it, and after eight or nine trips, I found the right one.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: We were in Maryland at the time. Marla, my fourth wife, was working on new ways to throw me. All four of my wives have had the same role in my show. I’ve had over 900 pounds of wives in my lifetime, and that should count for something, don’t you think? And I am still as limber as I was as a kid. Go ahead, get someone to throw me and I’ll show you!

FRANK: I walked in, and immediately he recognized who I was. He asked his wife to put him down and he walked over to me and gave me a big hug.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: I told him that I did what in my heart I felt was right. If Frank had stayed with me at the circus it would have been all that he would have had. He deserved a normal life…which he didn’t end up having, I understand that, but he at least had the opportunity to have one. What he had was better than a mother in the pen and an acrobat for a father.

FRANK: We sat and talked for three hours. He was very honest about his past and about what he thought about my career choices. He always followed my career, and he had kept all of the articles he read about me.

STEPHAN BELMONDO: I said to him, I said, Frank, you are no truck driver. You are an entertainer. It is in your blood. You cannot deny that. I had followed his career and while I didn’t agree with every decision he made, I was very proud of him. Now he is shuttling peanuts across state lines? That is not acceptable. Be what you are meant to be.

FRANK: I took what he said to heart. I wasn’t going to make a quick decision, but I would think about it. We then talked about my birth mother, being in prison for murdering all of those people…I decided that I wasn’t ready for a reunion on that one. One reunion at a time, please!

Frank did take Stephan’s words to heart, but he continued to drive for Allied Peanuts while sorting out his life.

BEN LEDBETTER, OWNER, THE ALLIED PEANUT COMPANY: Frank was a good employee, but you can tell when somebody has the “wandering eye”. Not when somebody’s eye is crooked and he looks like he’s looking at you even when he’s not, per se, but when they’re thinking about leaving. That one.

BIG IRV DELAHANTY: After Frank finished three months at Allied, I kept my word and put him in a commercial for my school. You could tell that the idea of performing again excited Frank.

FRANK: With my birth father’s words, and that commercial, I had regained the energy to appear in front of the camera. I even wrote and directed the commercial for Big Irv.

BIG IRV DELAHANTY: Frank used my trucking school as a symbol of salvation in times of an unstable economy. While artistically I felt that he was effective in his presentation of the message, I also felt that his message would be lost with the high school dropouts that would be watching this commercial on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. His performance in the spot was good, though. Overall, I’d give him a “B”, maybe a “B-minus”.

FRANK: Big Irv said that sometimes it’s not the message being told, it’s to whom you’re telling the message that is most important. I never forgot that.

BIG IRV DELAHANTY: I had a professor when I was doing my undergrad studies at Bennington College who told me that, and it’s true. Three months after Frank’s commercial aired, I ran one with a guy in an ape suit and I ended up getting three times the enrollments than I did during the time Frank’s spot ran. You have to always know your audience.

With the commercial completed, Frank realized what he had to do, and with whom he had to share his decision.

FRANK: I told Ben at Allied Peanuts that I needed to go back and follow my dream in Hollywood. He said that he understood. He could tell I had a wandering eye – not when somebody’s eye is crooked and he looks like he’s looking at you even when he’s not – but more like I looked like I was thinking about leaving.

BEN LEDBETTER: I think that Frank could have been a great trucker if he gave himself the time. I could’ve seen him moving up to transporting perishable items like fruits and poultry, where time is of the essence. He knew how to put down the hammer and get to a place on time, but he also knew how to be patient. You can’t teach that. That’s an instinct.

JEREMIAH LASTER: Frank came to us and said he couldn’t give up on his acting career. I wasn’t happy with that decision, but Frank was all grown up and he could make up his mind on his own. I respected his decision.

FRANK: Actually, he nearly disowned me. I even think that he called me Judas at one point. I was able to calm him down, though, and we stayed on speaking terms after that.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: When Frank called me to tell me he was coming back to Hollywood, I was very excited. I had always felt that I didn’t get the most out of his career that I could have, and I wanted to be part of the Frank Belmondo Renaissance. I got the cabana out by my pool ready and I welcomed him back.

FRANK: I wasn’t expecting to come back and be an overnight sensation for a second time, but I was still young and I believed that I still had talent, so I felt that should keep me clothed and fed.

For the next two years, though, acting roles were few and far between for Frank, and that led the young actor to take some gambles that almost ruined his career.

(To see Chapter 10, click here)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

20 Books This Year Project/#9: In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks, by Adam Carolla

A guide for today's man becoming a man again. Okay, I didn't agree with every idea he had (don't see myself peeing in the sink any time soon), but I laughed more times than I didn't, and he definitely had some clever points. A good read for when you're sitting on the can. Trust me, there are books that are better suited for this than others - imagine trying to read "The Canterbury Tales" in its original Middle English while dropping a deuce. Yeah, I thought so. Grade: B

Thursday, April 21, 2011




Shortly after his intervention, Frank checked himself into the Charles Durning Institute for Over-the-Counter Drug Addiction, just minutes outside of Palm Springs, California.

CHARLES DURNING, ACTOR/OWNER OF THE CHARLES DURNING INSTITUTE: I myself have never had any issues with addictions of any kind, and I actually see people who become addicted to any kind of substance as being emotionally weak. But I had seen many people…many of my friends, in the industry…suffer from addictions to what many people would think are safe, common medications. I wanted to help my friends. And besides the whole helping people thing, it was a great financial opportunity for me. That place in its first year bought me a house in Tahoe, three bed, two bath.

FRANK:        There I was, nearing my fifteenth birthday, and I already had my first addiction. Most child stars don’t have drug problems until they are 18, maybe 21, even, when they are more grown up and are going through a transition period into full adulthood. But not me, I had to do it at 15. I was ashamed of myself, but I was also determined to get back to normal. Whether or not I was going to get back into entertainment was not my concern…this was about being able to live a normal life.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON, CHIEF THERAPIST, THE CHARLES DURNING INSTITUTE:            The first thing we have to do is get any memory of the drug – in the case of Frank it was the lozenges – out of his system. Unfortunately for Frank, he had taken so many cough drops that the smell of them was practically trapped in his pores. So, for the first two days of his visit, we had him in our sweat lodge.

FRANK:        After two days of constant perspiration, I was at my ideal weight and the lozenge smell was gone. It’s amazing how much you let yourself go when you’re not working regularly.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    Frank was an active participant in our group therapy meetings, almost too much. Sometimes, it was like he was in an audition.

FRANK:        Hey, the place was owned by an actor, there were a lot of people in the industry staying there, so you have to be on any time there is an opportunity to impress. Besides, they videotaped all of the therapy sessions – who knows who might see it?

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    There’s no truth to the rumor that we videotaped the group therapy sessions and then kept them in an archive. I don’t know where that rumor started.


The group therapy session took place four days after Frank checked into the institute. In the room were Frank, Lynnette Rodrigues-Samson, and four patients, who will be known as John K., Mary Y., Tom K. and Linda C.

FRANK: Hi, my name is Frank.

ALL (IN UNISON):      Hi, Frank.

FRANK: Many of you may know me as Jeffrey from Who Took the Gravy? (pause, as he waits for a response that does not come). Anyway, I have always had this deep voice, and I reached a point where I became increasingly frustrated with it.

JOHN X:            Yeah, having that voice would irritate the hell out of me.

LYNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:                        John! Frank, please continue.

JOHN X:                        I’m just saying that I understand.

MARY Y:           Your running commentary is not necessary.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:         Can we get back to Frank?

FRANK: I was at a low point, lower than I had ever been. And I had to ask myself, what do lozenges do? Maybe they shrink my liver, do they? Maybe they pickle my kidneys, yeah. But what do they do to the mind? They toss the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Lynnette, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

LINDA C:          Wait a minute, I recognize that speech. That was from Lost Weekend, that old Billy Wilder film.

TOM K:              Really?

LINDA C:          Well, not exactly the whole speech, but pretty much the gist of it.

TOM K:              I never saw that film.

LINDA C:          Oh, it’s really good. Ray Milland was in it.

FRANK:             You’re, uh, I—

LINDA C:          Dude, you’re such a faker!

FRANK:             I don’t know what you’re talking about.

LYNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:            Frank, did you just do a monologue from Lost Weekend?

FRANK: (long pause) Alright, you caught me. But it seemed so apropos.

JOHN X:             That sucks, man.

FRANK:             What, me doing the monologue, or my performance?

FRANK:        After that, it took a few days for the other patients to take me seriously once again.

One of Frank’s best moments in the institute was his introduction to Wendy Peski, another patient at the institute.

WENDY PESKI:      I was 16 at the time, and I had developed an addiction to Neo-Synephrine, a popular nasal spray at the time. At one point I was going through three bottles a day - it practically became an inhaler for me, except that it was going into my nose, but whatever. One of the other patients introduced me to Frank on my second day at the place. It was Luau Night at the institute, which was done every Friday. I remember they served a lot of pork, which I didn’t like and I almost didn’t go to the event because of that, but I just decided to show up and hang out. I never had watched Frank’s TV show, but I had heard of him. He seemed nice.

FRANK:        Wendy was…she was genuine. I was attracted to her the first moment that I saw her. She had this thing where she was constantly sniffing all the time, like she was trying to keep her nose from running, but somehow I found it to be cute. Love makes you do some crazy things.

WENDY PESKI:      The first thing that attracted me to Frank was his presence. He filled up a room. Maybe his voice had something to do with it, but it was more than that. He was just comfortable with himself, which is saying something when you’re in a rehabilitation center.

FRANK:        For the rest of the time I was there, we were side by side. She became my first girlfriend. I liked the fact that I was dating an older woman.

WENDY PESKI:      My first time was with Frank. It was the first time for both of us, I believe. We almost got into trouble because he couldn’t stop moaning, and everyone told me they could hear this low “Ooooooohhhhhh….” throughout the halls.

LYNNETTE RODRIGUES-SAMSON:    We do not encourage the coupling of patients, but we’re not going to stop them from fulfilling their needs…except for their need of over-the-counter medications, of course.

FRANK:        We got some teasing for my moaning, but I got some pats on the back, too…although getting a pat on the back from a 38-year-old VapoRub addict for getting laid can be a bit creepy. But it was all in good fun, I guess.

After six weeks of treatment, Frank was free to go. But it also meant saying goodbye to his first love.

FRANK:        She had five more days left in her treatment cycle, and although she lived in Southern California, the Lasters had decided that I needed to come home to West Virginia to continue my recuperation. I understood why they wanted me to come back, but I was disappointed.

WENDY PESKI:      We tried to write to each other, and we’d talk on the phone once in a while, but that doesn’t last. We decided to end things about two months after we last saw each other at the institute.

Back in West Virginia, Frank had to deal with being the fallen hero returning home.

FRANK:        There was some disappointment, sure. People expected a lot more, perhaps too much, perhaps, as I thought I had accomplished a lot. Most of the 15-year-olds in my town were lucky to have a job at K-Mart, and they’re making fun of me? Please.

The urge to fall off of the wagon hit him hardest when Wendy ended their relationship.

FRANK:        I started hanging out at the local Woolworth’s, looking at all of the lozenges they had displayed. But I held firm.

ANTHONY CLEMENTS, STORE MANAGER, WOOLWORTH’S:  We wouldn’t have sold him cough drops even if he wanted. We trained all of the cashiers to not sell them to him, and all of the people in town were told not to enable him by buying them for him. But he never tried to buy them. He was close, but he never strayed.

FRANK:        Occasionally I’d take a couple of hits of Neo-Synephrine, just to remember Wendy, but it wasn’t the same.

Frank occasionally used his celebrity for good within the community.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        We had Francis speak a couple of times on Sundays, and he was a constant visitor at the youth center. We were starting to see the old Francis again.

FRANK:        I even started a workout regimen. I had gotten a copy of The Jane Fonda Workout at a rummage sale at the church on VHS, and I really got into getting into shape.

GWEN LASTER:     It was good seeing him working out, but the leg warmers he wore were a little too much.

FRANK:        Hey, when I get into something, I go into it full-tilt.

As summer headed into fall, Frank was about to face his biggest challenge yet – high school.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        We were concerned about such a sudden life change – he hadn’t been in a regular classroom for several years – but we felt that we had to get him back into a normal life.

FRANK:        I thought that my previous celebrity might help me have a smooth transition, but not being around people my age for some time, I didn’t realize that about 90 percent of all teenagers are pure, concentrated evil.

JIM BUCKNER, TEACHER, MONROE HIGH SCHOOL:      Frank was good in the classroom – actually, I would say he was ahead of the curve. Socially, though, his celebrity was greatly resented.

FRANK:        I found out what a “swirlie” was about 17 times.

Frank’s high school career lasted a grand total of 27 days.

FRANK:        I decided to get my G.E.D., and I was a naturally inquisitive person, so I did a lot of independent reading. I’d read any book that the church wasn’t burning. I got my G.E.D. on the first try. And I decided that I would lay low for a little while, figure out my next step.

Frank’s “laying low” period lasted over three years.

[1] Videotape obtained from a former employee of the institute whose name is withheld in order to protect his identity.

(To see Chapter 9, click here)

Thursday, April 14, 2011




LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     The Esquire for Kids interview didn’t help matters. Other actors thought that it was great; writers, too. It was like he was a hero. But writers and actors don’t write the paychecks – studio executives do. Also, Frankie turned down dozens of scripts – dozens. He always had impossibly high standards. He could’ve been in The Great Muppet Caper, for crying out loud! You don’t turn down the Muppets!

FRANK:        I just felt that the script left something to be desired, that’s all. It was formulaic. I would’ve loved to do a duet with The Great Gonzo, just like they wanted, but I wasn’t going to do a duet with The Great Gonzo unless the material lives up to both of our standards.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     Also, you could tell that he was getting a big head from all of the praise that he was getting. He now wanted to be called “Frank” instead of “Frankie”. He now wanted script approval on Who Took the Gravy?, which he didn’t get, and he sulked around the house for two weeks afterward.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        Francis came home for a few weeks in the summer, and he had obviously changed. I was ready to bring him back home, but he had already signed a contract for season two of the show, with Buck signing as his guardian. A man, or a young boy, has to honor a contract.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     The producers of Gravy didn’t help matters any, either.

SAMUEL PROCTOR:        We knew that we had a hot commodity, and whenever you have a hot commodity in Hollywood, people tend to go the overkill route. Here was a young boy who spoke his mind, and not only that, he was the most eloquent kid that I ever met. So with the beginning of season two of the show we started to have him say really controversial things, talking about race and sex and things like that, sort of like a pre-teen Archie Bunker. And to add to it, we stole a page from Norman Fell from Three’s Company. You remember when Mr. Roper would come up with a good dig on his wife, and then he’d look at the camera and snicker? We tried that with Frank’s character. It was a bad idea.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         People saw it as a blatant rip-off. People liked Frank, but he’s no Norman Fell. Fell was beloved. Fell was…Fell.

The fourth episode of the second season, entitled “What’s with Swedes?”, was an especially nasty moment in television history. In it, Frank’s character, Jeffrey, starts verbally assaulting the Whitman’s new neighbors, the Jorgenson family.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         The episode was written by one of our staff writers, Tor Jensen, who was Danish and had this unhealthy resentment of Swedish people. I never figured out why,

TOR JENSEN, FORMER STAFF WRITER, WHO TOOK THE GRAVY?:     I had an incident happen to me in Sweden. They are not nice people. Do not believe what you may hear about them.

FRANK:        When you’re a young kid, you can be influenced very easily. Tor used to tell these Swedish jokes all of the time, and, hey, I thought they were funny. When they decided to make my character more controversial, Tor saw a big opening.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         Listen, the episode was well-written. I’d argue that it should have been nominated for an Emmy that year. So I championed it. But the viewing public was not yet ready for it.

FANNIE FLAGG:    Boy, I knew that after that episode aired that we were in big trouble. I should have distanced myself more from the episode, but I was shocked that it even made the air.

SAMUEL PROCTOR:        Our censor had a really bad cocaine habit at that time, and he just wasn’t paying attention. Also, the show was doing so well at the time that we just kind of let it run on auto-pilot. We learned from that mistake.

A group called the Swedes Who Extremely Dislike Ethnic Stereotypes (S.W.E.D.E.S.) began bombarding the show with letters of protest and with sit-ins outside of the studio. There was also a ban of all programming by Swedes toward CBS.

SVEND TORBERTSON, CHAIRMAN, S.W.E.D.E.S.: We were mostly successful with getting Swedes across America from watching CBS, but we couldn’t get them to stop watching The Price is Right. They just loved that show, especially when the mountain climber would go up the incline and yodel, which is Swiss, I know but they still liked it. We had to make concessions with our members.

S.W.E.D.E.S.’s anger centered not on Tor Jensen, the writer of “What’s with Swedes?” Instead, their anger was squarely focused on Frank.

FRANK:        So, at one time, I had Swedes, handicapped people, Baptists and Catholics all pissed off at me. At that moment, I knew that I was skating on very thin ice.

In order to shake things up, the writers and producers of the show created a special two-part episode that they hoped would get the show back on track.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         We created a cliffhanger episode for the 14th show of the season. Since we were going to have a two-week hiatus due to NFL football and a Hallmark movie, we thought that we would give the viewers a reason to talk about the show for a few weeks, get them excited. So, at the end of the 14th episode, it’s raining outside, and Tuck says to Teddy, “Where’s Jeffrey?” Teddy says, “I told him I’d give him a dollar if he gets my Frisbee out of the oak tree out front.” Tuck runs to the front window and says, “Why’s he got a metal rake in his hand in this kind of weather?” Next thing you know, you see a flash of light and a big explosion. Tuck yells, “Jeffrey!” He runs outside. End with “To be continued…” (pause) Okay, I admit that it was a little far-fetched.

SAMUEL PROCTOR:        For three weeks, we were all the buzz. It was before the time of the Internet so there weren’t any leaks about what happened the next episode, and we could keep the whole thing a secret until the airing of the show. Right before the next episode, “What happened to Jeffrey” was on everyone’s lips.

The only problem was that the nation was extremely divided over what they wanted to see happen to Jeffrey.

MATT GINSBURGH, TELEVISION HISTORIAN:     The character of Jeffrey became a bit of a hot-button issue. Politicians saw the opportunity and used Jeffrey as an example of what was wrong with the nation’s youth at that time. Kids were seen as smart-mouthed, disrespectful and sullen. It always comes in cycles, and Jeffrey was a catalyst for a new morality movement.


37%                LET HIM LIVE
35%                LET HIM FRY
2%                  NO OPINION

(Poll of 900 people; +/- 4% margin of error)

FRANK:        I never understood people who would call into a poll to say that they had “no opinion”. It used to cost money back then to call.

MATT GINSBURGH:         As with most things that get over-hyped on television, the resulting episode was disappointing, to say the least.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         It wasn’t something that we were planning to do until the fifth or sixth season, after we got syndication and we were running out of ideas. But the network felt like we were losing our grasp with the viewing public and that we needed a shock to the system, as they put it. Hey, if it had worked, who knows what would have happened?

FRANK:        The next episode comes, and the opening of the show ends like the last one, with Tuck running out of the house to check on me. Then, Tuck backs into the house, completely in shock. I walk into the house, without a wheelchair. Also, I’m all of a sudden no longer a Catholic. As the episode continues, I’m sitting around the house reading the Torah. Suddenly, I’m now into Judaism. That episode just got hammered by the critics.

MATT GINSBURGH:         The show had jumped the shark at that point. It wasn’t getting up from that one.

SCOTT KANNBERG:         Frank was now getting protests from, let’s see, handicapped people organizations, who didn’t want to give false hope and have people in wheelchairs go out into a thunderstorm with a metal pole; you had Catholics who were upset that their religion could be considered disposable; Baptists didn’t want a part of him – they were like the Catholics, only it happened to them first; Jews felt like someone asked to the prom by someone who had asked eight girls already; and don’t forget the Swedes, who were sitting outside of the studio. Frank was getting it from all sides.

SAMUEL PROCTOR:        With all of the protests going on you’d think that was why the ratings had gone into the tank, which they did. No, the reason the ratings went down, according to our testing, was that people just found the whole lightning thing to be ridiculous. They bought the lightning the first time, but not the second. I guess lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. I’m sorry, was that too corny?

The show’s ratings dropped precipitously, falling to 59th during their second-season finale. Due to significant raises negotiated in the cast’s contracts if a third season was produced, and the low potential of the show gaining back any momentum, CBS cancelled the show after 46 episodes.

FRANK:        I was devastated. The Lasters wanted me to come back home, but I was determined to make things work in Hollywood. Going back home, that would’ve meant admitting defeat.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     Frank was a fighter, he was, but for almost two years, he was seen as damaged goods. So we started to work with his strengths. From that, we were able to get a pilot with ABC and the American Sportsman people.

FRANK:        It was called Young American Sportsman. It was to be hosted by me, and I would have an adult guide to show safety tips, and every episode we’d bring a young celebrity onto the show. The National Rifle Association loved the idea. For the pilot we were able to get Alyssa Milano, who had just started on Who’s the Boss? That was a bit of a coup.

ALYSSA MILANO, ACTRESS:   Honestly, I don’t know what my agent was thinking. He was friends with Buck Fenita, I guess, Frank’s agent. I would never hurt an animal, much less hunt one down, so I don’t know why they thought that I would work.

FRANK:        We were hunting rabbit, and when Alyssa realized what was going on, she was hysterical. We had made it real easy for her, too, tying a rabbit to a tree so she’d have a clean shot, but that didn’t work.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     If there was ever a quick way to get a young girl interested in joining P.E.T.A., that day would’ve been it.

FRANK:        I was going to ask Alyssa out, too, but she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Too bad – we could’ve been a cute couple.

When the offers continued to not come for Frank, he became worried that the one thing that was his trademark was the thing that was holding him back.

FRANK:        I know that my voice got me through the door, but I was afraid that I could not extend my range as an actor with it. I felt like my only hope to continue working was to change my voice.

DR. DARRYL CUSAMOTTO, OTOLARYNGOLOGIST, ST. JOHN’S HOSPITAL, SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA:  I remember Frank coming to my office. He had such acute damage to his vocal cords that I was surprised that he could even talk. Any surgical procedure would’ve been high-risk, and Frank wasn’t willing to scar himself unless the surgery was a full-on guarantee. I couldn’t promise that. So, he chose to look into alternative methods.

CHIEF WHINNYING GOAT, ZUNIRILLA TRIBE, TAOS, NEW MEXICO: He was a young man with a big voice. When a lion cub gets his roar at too young of an age, he is confused. His roar tells him that he should lead the pride, but his body is not yet ready. Young Frank was this way. He needed a drastic change in his inner self. I gave him an elixir made out of yak’s blood and cactus, brought to a boil over a fire while we do a dance called the Wamphona for twelve hours. This would help him to refocus his spiritual energies.

FRANK:        The stuff tasted terrible – it tasted like piss…or Red Bull – and it didn’t change a damn thing in my voice, and ever since drinking that stuff I got this small patch of hair on my chest. I have practically no hair on my body, except for this one-inch square of hair near my right nipple. It’s like shag carpeting, I tell you, it’s so thick. You need sheep shears to trim it. It’s like thickets! Imagine what that was like having that on me while going through puberty.

CHIEF WHINNYING GOAT:       The Wamphona is a very precise dance, and if you make even one mistake during the entire twelve hours, it could all go wrong. That’s why we don’t really do it any more. The kids these days, they don’t want to put in the effort to make it right.

Frank decided to create his own method of healing by taking cough drops - lots and lots of cough drops.

FRANK:        I was going through three packs of lozenges a day. I’d try them all – Ludens, Sucrets, Hall’s. I really liked the soothing power of mentholyptus. And maybe I was letting myself believe that they were working, because I kept on taking them. I was on a constant sugar high and I smelled of cherries. Then, to make matters worse, there was a guy at a nightclub I hung out at who introduced me to The Ginger.

BUTCH GARRETT, OWNER, HARD CANDY NIGHTCLUB, 1983-1989:   I had owned this underage nightclub in Redondo Beach in the mid-to-late 1980s. We’d occasionally get young celebrities coming into the place, and Frank was one of the regulars. He’d always get a lot of attention at the place, sometimes good, sometimes bad. When people noticed that he had this lozenge habit, one of the kids that hung out there - I think he was named Stuart, the punk - he introduced Frank to these cough drops from India called Gingrayou, or The Ginger.

FRANK:        You couldn’t get Gingrayou in the U.S. The guy that got them for me had a contact in India who would send boxes of them to him. I thought that it was just made out of ginger root, but I guess that there was this chemical in it that would speed up your heart rate. Since the packaging was in Hindi, I wouldn’t have known, not that there would have been an Indian Surgeon General’s warning on the package.

BUTCH GARRETT:           Frank was paying a pretty penny for a bunch of cough drops, and right away you could see a difference in him. He would be buzzing around my club like a B-1 bomber. He became more annoying than Robert Downey, Jr.

FRANK:        Actually, the kid that sold me the lozenges could’ve gotten a lot more out of me – either he was just not looking to screw me over or he was a really bad businessman. It was obvious that he didn’t take Drug Dealers’ 101, that’s for sure.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     There were times when I’d see him shaking, just a bundle of nerves. It actually got him work, though. On three different cop shows – Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Hunter, he played a young junkie on all three of them. Small roles, but good ones, ones that showed off his dramatic range. But I couldn’t let the fact that he was getting regular work stop me from making sure he was healthy. I had to think of his long-term career…and his long-term health, too, of course.

JEREMIAH LASTER:        Gwen and I were summoned to Los Angeles as Buck told us that Francis needed help. Buck brought in a few people from the TV show – Patsy McArdle, Scott Kannberg, Fannie, Arthur Stanville – and we had an intervention. When I saw Francis, it was just painful to see.

LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA:     He reeked of ginger and had a glassy look in his eye, like Kathy Ireland would if you asked her, “Quick, what the square root of 64?” We brought in an intervention expert who did a bang-up job, truly wonderful.

DIRK O’DOWD, INTERVENTION EXPERT:  In all of my years as an intervention expert, I had never dealt with someone who was addicted to cough drops. He had all of the traditional traits of an addict, however, so I was able to work from there. I have to say, though, to hear a kid with that deep a voice talking so fast, it was the strangest thing that I have ever heard. It was like listening to, I guess…take Barry White and shoot an electric current up his ass, that’s what it sounded like.

FRANK:        We were in the room for about four or five hours. I was really impressed with Patsy being there the whole time since the Irish Sweepstakes were that day and he chose to miss them for me. They made me take a good, hard look at myself in the mirror, and I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t like the person that I saw in that mirror. That wasn’t Frank Belmondo, or Francis Laster, for that matter. It was someone else, and that someone else took away my dignity. And you don’t take down Frank Belmondo’s dignity without some kind of a fight. And to fight, I had to admit that I needed help. I went and got that help.

(To see Chapter 8, click here)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

20 Books This Year Project/#8: Shopgirl, by Steve Martin

Earlier this year, I had written about Martin's newest book, and I enjoyed his writing style so much - so graceful, witty, and rhythmic - that I decided to read one of his earlier books. Again, the story is a minor one - a Neiman Marcus girl and the two men in her life, a young slacker and and older millionaire - but the writing is so well-done it comes off like a modern fairy tale. The characters are all deeply flawed, yet still likable. It is not a book if you're looking for huge laughs, but it's a smart read, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Grade: A-

Thursday, April 7, 2011




In 1980, Esquire magazine tried to expand its readership by launching Esquire for Kids, a monthly periodical targeted for boys 8-16 that looked at the life of leisure for young men. Seen as a way to lure young men into reading their parent magazine as they got older, the magazine lived a short life, closing its doors after only three issues due to low readership, as well as a caustic focus group of preteen boys, who in their review of the magazine called it “stupid” and “lame”, with one 14-year-old saying, “What do kids need to know about leisure? We spend most of our time sitting on the couch, watching TV and playing Atari, that’s leisure. How’s that going to fill 12 issues a year?”

The most memorable moment of Esquire for Kids’ short history, however, was its interview with Frank in the July issue, an issue guest-edited by Eight is Enough star (and future Scott Baio sidekick in Zapped and Charles in Charge) Willie Aames. In the interview, Frank spoke openly about his career in acting and the Hollywood system, in whole.


Frankie Belmondo has been through a lot in his life – left behind by circus folk as a baby; adopted by a Baptist minister and his wife; becoming an acclaimed modern dance prodigy, then tearing his Achilles’ tendon in a freak accident after a ground-breaking performance; then moving to Hollywood and becoming the coolest star on the hottest new TV show, all while withstanding a barrage of fiery protests from social groups regarding his controversial character.

And, oh, yes, he’s only ten years old.

In an exclusive interview with Esquire for Kids, Belmondo speaks about his life, his career, and what makes him tick.

ESQUIRE FOR KIDS (EfK): The first question has to be one that I’m sure you get asked all of the time: your voice.

FRANKIE BELMONDO (FB): That wasn’t really a question, but that’s okay. I get it. My voice. That comes from being dropped down a well as a baby. Whether it was the cold water or the damp conditions, it strained my vocal cords so severely that I now have this voice. Luckily for me it became my gimmick, my schtick – that’s the word that my agent uses to describe it.

EfK: Fascinating.

FB: But I do not recommend that parents start dropping their kids down wells in order to get them into show business. I’m actually one of the spokespeople for A.A.E.P.A. – Actors Against Extreme Parents and Acting. Did you know that there are twelve deaths a year from children being put into extreme acting situations? Our organization and our chairman, Mickey Rooney, would like to stop that.

EfK: You are extremely mature and self-assured for a child of your age.

FB: Well, thank you, Merrick. I have to be. I’ve been put in situations where I have had to be the adult, the leader. Also, I am a big reader. My tutor, Patsy, always tells me that he’s amazed how much reading I do. And I try to work on my vocabulary constantly. I have a Word-a-Day calendar. I skip ahead whenever I can.

EfK: When you were a dancer, how was that experience?

FB: To tell you the truth, Merrick, that is my true love. I wish that I could go back to it, but the doctors have told me to forget about it. Acting’s good, though. It keeps me from having a real job.

EfK: But you’re only ten. You don’t need a real job.

FB: True. Well, you know what I mean.

EfK: Fannie Flagg, your co-star on Who Took the Gravy?, has said that you are, and I quote, “more inquisitive than a junkyard dog after spring cleaning.” Care to comment?

FB: I have no idea what that means. That must be something Southern, I guess. I like Fannie, though. She’s good people.

EfK: What is your relationship like with your parents?

FB: Which ones?

EfK: Let’s go through all of them, shall we?

FB: Okay. I don’t know my birth parents. Someday I’ll try to find them, but not now. I’m not ready. As for the Lasters, I think of them as my real parents. They’re in West Virginia. I see them every few months. They are really nice and they support me being out here, but I miss them and I get homesick. My dad, he’s a minister and he talks about God all of the time. I try to be religious here but it’s hard here. Too many parties. Buck, my agent, he’s currently my guardian at the moment. He’s different from my dad, but he’s okay.

EfK: What personality traits do you think you have obtained from all of them?

FB: Um, as I said, I didn’t know my birth parents, but I guess that I got my dancing from them. The Lasters can’t dance and before me they actually thought about banning dancing in their county….hmmm…that might make a good movie. I’ll have to remember that one. A young, rebellious kid teaching a whole town that dancing is okay…nah, that would never work. From the Lasters I learned a love of God and to always have a positive look on life. Buck…well, he keeps me working.

EfK: Have you thought about doing anything more with your acting? Movies?

FB: I have talked about movies with some studio people, but they seem to come to me with the same ideas all of the time. Half of the ideas start with “You can play a kid with a really deep voice who…” Yes, I have a deep voice. I get it. Either that or they want me to play a handicapped kid who overcomes adversity, that’s how they put it. I have to say it, most studio guys wouldn’t have an original idea if it, pardon my English, smacked them in the butt and yelled “Hey, this will work!” The one role I have considered is playing Froggy in a Little Rascals movie. I like the Rascals, especially Buckwheat.

EfK: Aren’t you biting the hand that feeds you?

FB: What?

EfK: I’m sorry…aren’t you insulting the people that write your checks?

FB: Maybe. But my father – Reverend Laster, not my birth father – he always said, “Always have pride in what you do.” Most studio guys work in fear. They only give ideas that everybody else gives. You find me a studio executive with a spine and I’ll give you the Holy Grail. Take a chance! Be proud!

EfK: So what original ideas do you have?

FB: Me? I’m only ten. The studio guys, they are adults. They went to college. I may have a twelfth-grade reading level, but I’m not William Shakespeare. They pay me to act. And there are good writers – the people on my show, for example, they are very funny. Our head writer, Scott Kannberg, he has this great script that he is working on about an alien who becomes the manager of a punk band. He calls it Anarchy in the U.F.O. The name has something to do with a punk band that he likes. Scott’s a good guy. We play Dungeons and Dragons together. I have an eighth-level Paladin named Glendor who has a plus-5 Holy Sword. He’s only a fifth-level Cleric (laughs). I always have to come in to save the day.

EfK: Going back to your comments about studio heads wanting you to play another handicapped character; you have received a lot of controversy about the character that you play on Who Took the Gravy? Let’s talk about Jeffrey.

FB: Okay, let’s…oh, that was a question? Really? Boy, some lazy interviewing, Merrick. Fine. Jeffrey is a great character, and I don’t think that I’m insulting anyone by playing him. I am Jeffrey. The only difference between him and me is that he is a wheelchair and I am not. Well, he’s also Catholic, and I’m a Baptist, but that’s not such an incredible stretch, as both believe in the same God. That might upset some Catholics and Baptists, but let’s face it; they’re all just trying to be good people and they both read the Bible. As for the protests…I don’t know. I’m sorry if I have offended anyone, but comedy is supposed to offend, to break barriers. Therefore, the critics can stuff it.  That’s all I have to say on that matter.

EfK: Do you think that your talents have been fully utilized?

FB: Not quite. I am a unique talent, one that should be fully appreciated. Am I the most talented cast member on the show? I didn’t say that. But I may be the most unique talent they have, and that should be rewarded financially, and given opportunities to shine creatively. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.

EfK: A question that we always ask with Esquire for Kids, what do you like to do to relax?

FB: Oh, I like to stay at home and watch TV. I play board games. I used to crossbow hunt a lot, but you can’t really do that in Los Angeles. By the way, if there are any crossbow hunting groups in Los Angeles, readers, please let me know! I read a lot, as I said before. Frisbee golf. I love Frisbee golf.

EfK: Where do you see your future taking you?

FB: I don’t know. Somewhere good (laughs), I guess. That’s my hope.

EfK: Any hopes or fears that you have?

FB:  I hope that I get to continue to do good work, and that maybe I can be a good role model to young people. As for fears, my only fear is that I’ve had to mature so fast that maybe I’m going too fast. I’m afraid that maybe I’ll just stop maturing one day, or maybe I’ll go backwards. Not that I’m going to shrink and become a midget, I’m talking emotionally. I don’t know, is that even possible (laughs)?

(To see Chapter VII, click here)