I always look at the celebrity birthday listings in the paper. It tells me two essentials: how old my celebrities are getting; and how out of touch I am with new celebrities.
The subsequent conversation with my wife goes like this:
“Wow. Kim Basinger is 62!”
“Yeah ... Wallis Currie-Wood is 24.”
“Yeah ... Who is Wallis Currie-Wood?”
A lot of my celebrities have been dead longer than the current crop have been alive. Take Leo Gorcey. He was my idea of a celebrity when I was a kid. He died 46 years ago and 22 years before Wallis Currie-Wood was born. (She plays Stevie in the CBS drama “Madame Secretary.” You can look it up. I did.)
Leo Gorcey was Slip, the big cheese of the 41“Bowery Boys” movies made from the mid-1940s through the mid-’50s. They re-ran them on television during bleak winter Saturdays in New York. I watched them endlessly.
The “Bowery Boys” were a collection of wise-guy New York City kids with a vocabulary punctuated by “dems” and “dees” and “dos.” With an exaggerated New York accent, Gorcey had a host of malapropisms, explaining how he had made a “clever seduction” (deduction) or that something was an “optical delusion” (illusion). Cheap laughs. The plots involved Slip and the boys helping the cops solve a bank robbery or mixing it up with smugglers, gamblers or ghosts. Their home base was Louie’s drug store and soda fountain. Louie was played by Gorcey’s father, a former vaudevillian.
I assumed the kids in the movies were all Catholic. Gorcey’s character had a full name of “Terence Aloysius Mahoney.” In real life, he said of his parents: “Russian Jew and Irish Catholic. That’s about as mixed up as you can get without trying too hard.”
The genesis of the “Bowery Boys” actually was a 1935 New York stage drama where Gorcey got his start. But the highlight of those early years was in 1938 with the movie “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Gorcey and the boys were billed with Pat O’Brien, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
Cagney played a convict going to the chair, with Pat O’Brien as the priest trying to get him to show fear for the fate of his soul at the end so the boys wouldn’t worship his criminal ways. Cagney goes to his death weeping and wailing, and the reformation of the boys begins.
From there, Gorcey went on a string of fluffier movies until 1945 brought the first “Bowery Boys” and Slip.
As time went on for Gorcey, things didn’t go well with the things that matter. He was married five times, and after his father died unexpectedly, the drinking that had a pretty good grip on him tightened.
He quit the “Bowery Boys” franchise in 1955 and had the alcoholic’s curse of more than enough money to feed the beast. He had a few forgettable roles after that, though he did make an appearance in Stanley Kramer’s classic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in 1963.
He would famously refuse to allow his mug to appear on the celebrity-filled album cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” unless he was paid. He was airbrushed out.
The booze finally killed Gorcey in 1969. He died of liver failure at the age of 51.
The Holy Father’s Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us to embrace God’s mercy. I hope Gorcey embraced that mercy in his last days. That’s a hard task when the bottle still has you.
Remember to be kind to yourself this year. And remember those who need your kindness. You never know the demons they are wrestling. Even celebrities.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.