Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Two People I Didn't Think I'd Miss So Much

I was surprised by my reaction to the death of Gary Coleman. I had never been a fan of his, or even remotely interested in his career. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” But when I heard that he was in critical condition with a head injury, I fervently hoped he would pull through. When I learned the next day that he had died, I was overcome with a sadness I wasn’t expecting.

I think it was partly because he was a grown man who the whole world pretty much thought of as a child, and partly because he never really got his act together and I still wanted to think that he had a chance to. I think I expect life to follow the pattern of drama, and in particular, the kind of drama were troubles get resolved and troubled people find redemption. Of course, they don’t always, and it’s a brutal reminder of what life really is when they don’t.

My response to Dennis Hopper’s death, the very next morning, was more what I would have expected: “What? He should still be here!” He was 74, but it seemed, not yet finished. Or maybe we, his audience, were just not yet done watching him. I was never an aficionado, in fact I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never even seen “Easy Rider” (although I’ve just moved it to the top of my Netflix queue).

I first noticed Hopper in “Blue Velvet” and saw him in a few other roles throughout the years. He wasn’t an actor I followed closely, but he did make a big impression, and I soon came to the conclusion -- based on little data and never having met the man -- that Dennis Hopper believed that there was something very very wrong with himself. That he was fundamentally flawed; not like everyone else in some bad, bad way. He became my working definition for the term “neurotic”: “Being neurotic means believing at a deep deep level that there is something very wrong with oneself. When there probably isn’t. Like Dennis Hopper.”

Of course I have no earthly idea what Dennis Hopper believed about himself. Only he knew that. But it is what he projected -- to me anyway. And I believe that whatever it was I saw is what he chose to confront in his work. Because in the end, the impression he leaves us with is that of a man who really took himself on. One who confronted his own demons and was, as Jesse Walker so aptly puts it, “...willing not just to stare into the abyss but to fall into it, climb out, then merrily dive back in.”

Gary Coleman, on the other hand, seems to have taken the opposite path. The one that doesn't go anywhere near the abyss. Rather than taking himself on, Gary built a life on taking on everyone else, blaming them for everything that went wrong in his life and living in an anger directed at things he could not control. He probably never even recognized that some of the demons he was so angry at were his own. Dennis Hopper may very well have left this life never having fully vanquished his demons. But I’d be willing to bet he left knowing that he had lived life to the fullest wrestling with them. And Gary? My guess is Gary spent too much of his life looking for demons outside of himself to ever do any serious wrestling. And that he left this life the poorer
because of it.
--Bretigne Shafer

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