BIG RIGS, FREE VERSE, CARNIVAL FOLK: THE LONESOME ERA
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.
LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY TO SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA
Mile 80 of 659
Too many distractions
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)
(To see Chapter 10, click here)