FALLING OFF OF THE GRAVY TRAIN
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.
LOS ANGELES TIMES POLL, JANUARY 9, 1981:
WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN TO JEFFREY?
37% LET HIM LIVE
35% LET HIM FRY
26% WHO ARE WE TALKING ABOUT, EXACTLY?
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)
(To see Chapter 8, click here)