Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I had an idea for a podcast. Then I put together this pitch:
I’m sure I’m not the only person who opens the New York Times and goes straight to the obit section, or whose favorite issue of the Times Magazine is the last one of the year, the all-obit “The Lives They Lived.” I invariably encounter interesting, surprising stories of people I have not heard of, have barely heard of, or forgot I’ve heard of. Consider the ledes of just a few of the obits the Times has run recently:
- “William J. Lombardy, who was one of the most talented and promising chess players of his generation, winning titles and accolades while he was still a teenager, but who all but gave up the game at the height of his career to become a priest…”
- “Bob Schiller, a longtime television writer who had a hand in putting Lucy in a vat of grapes, getting Maude memorably slapped, and pitting Edith Bunker against a rapist…”
- “Arthur Janov, a California psychotherapist variously called a messiah and a mountebank for his development of primal scream therapy — a treatment he maintained could cure ailments from depression and alcoholism to ulcers, epilepsy and asthma, not to mention bring about world peace…”
Another one began: “Tom Alter, an Indian-born character actor of American descent who spent his career playing Westerners in Bollywood films, died on Sept. 29 at his home in Mumbai. He was 67…
“With light skin, blue eyes and blond hair, which later turned bright white, Mr. Alter was an incongruous figure in Bollywood. But he spoke Hindi and Urdu fluently, making him a natural fit for roles like slick diplomats, British colonials, priests and police officers.
“You name it, I’ve played them all,” he told The New York Times in 1989.
As you read each of these obits and others you find irresistible facts and anecdotes, texture, drama, humor, and pathos.
They’re such great stories that, to me, the question is inescapable and obvious: why not tell them before the person has died? That’s what I propose to do in a podcast series, “The Lives They’re Living.” The premise is simple. Find people who, if they died tomorrow, would warrant a Times obituary. Then tell their story today—through interviews, archival audio, and narration.
The selection of subjects would not be quite as simple as I’ve framed it. I would disqualify anybody who’s too famous or claims too much of our attention—the Paul McCartneys, Jimmy Carters, Gloria Steinems on the one hand, the Ted Cruzes and LeBron Jameses on the other. The subjects would not have to be old, but I’d say as a rule of thumb that their claim to fame should have happened twenty or more years ago. And some people who would clear the Times bar—say, from having served in a presidential cabinet—wouldn’t qualify for this podcast, unless there was also some peculiar or distinctive thing about them.
And the premise is a bit more than a series of life stories. There would be an overarching emotional and thematic subtext: what is the meaning of a life, of having made a contribution, of having put one’s imprint on the world? Part of each piece, as well, is the subsequent story of the person’s contribution. In Arthur Janov’s case, for example, that entail charting the fortunes of his primal-scream idea as a therapeutic technique. For some subjects, there would also be the issue of how a singular moment—the claim to fame—resonated through their life, and how they approached Act II.
Such questions emerge, and become more pressing, over the course of one’s own life. For those of us in the Baby Boom (at 65, I’m smack dab in the middle), they’re more and more on our mind.
The lives would form themselves into themes, which might correspond to episodes (say, an hour containing three stories) or, to think optimistically, seasons of the series. Below are four such themes. I imagine that on average the real lineup of subjects will be less well-known than the examples given below, but they give a taste of the idea.
Innovators. People who started something big, and aren’t as known for it as you might think.
- Aaron Fechter, who may or may not have invented Whac-a-Mole (Barack Obama’s favorite foreign-policy metaphor) but definitely invented the life-sized singing animals of Showbiz Pizza and Chick E. Cheese’s. (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a18927/the-man-who-made-the-whac-a-mole-has-one-more-chance/)
- Maury Wills, the modern master of the stolen base.
- Aaron Beck, who invented what’s generally considered the most effective form of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and who, at 95, is still practicing in Philadelphia.
- Speaking of Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who invented The Philadelphia Sound.
- Alan Kay, who among other contributions developed the technology that led to the laptop computer, the tablet, and the e-book.
One Shining Moment. People known for one big event, usually relatively early in their lives.
- Felix Rohatyn, who in 1975 played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corp. (MAC) and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors
- Charles Portis, who wrote the acclaimed novel True Grit in 1968 and then pretty much disappeared from public view—the Arkansan Thomas Pynchon (who I would say would not be a good subject for a show—people talk and speculate about him too much already).
Third Wheels and Fifth Beatles. They were overshadowed by their comrades and colleagues, but they have persisted, and have their own stories to tell.
- Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, overshadowed for most of his life, who has come into his own as an interpreter of American standards.
- Bernie Taupin, who for forty-six years has provided the lyrics to every Elton John song.
- John Milius. In a 1978 interview, Steven Spielberg said that Milius was the key member of the group of young filmmakers that included himself, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola: “John is our Scoutmaster. He’s the one who will tell you to go on a trip and only take enough food, enough water for one day, and make you stay out longer than that. He’s the one who says, ‘Be a man. I don’t want to see any tears.’ He’s a terrific raconteur, a wonderful story teller. John has more life than all the rest of us put together.” But with the exception of Jeremiah Johnson, Conan the Barbarian, and a handful of other notable films, Milius’s career has never reached the peaks of the others. In fact, he’s had more influence in the movie characters that were inspired by him: John Milner (Paul La Mat) from American Graffitiand Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski.
The Long and Winding Road. If icons weren’t a cliché, that’s what I’d call them. So we have to come up with another word.
- Lee Friedlander, the documentary photographer who emerged with Garry Winograd and Diane Arbus, outlived them by thirty years or more, and is still doing innovative work at the age of 83.
- Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote as many great Brill Building songs as Carole King and Gerry Goffin but somehow didn’t get the fame.
- Lalo Schifrin, who personified the arrival of jazz into television and film scores and wrote the most iconic TV theme of all time: Mission Impossible.
- W. S. Merwin, who, with the recent passing of Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery (both of whom would have been fine “The Lives They’re Living” subjects), is the last living poet of a splendid generation.
- Sandy Koufax. Period.
- Elizabeth Spencer, Southern short story writer and novelist, author of The Light in the Piazza, who published new work between 1948 and 2014. (http://www.elizabethspencerwriter.com/index.htm)
I’d like to get moving on this as soon as possible, since time is a-passing.
And that was the pitch. Time indeed a-passed: since I wrote that, some of the people mentioned as possible subjects have died.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what happened to the pitch.