On a late Tuesday, as I took the subway home from work, I made my twenty-seventh appearance on the Merv Griffin Show. Merv’s guests that afternoon (in addition to me) were Phyllis Diller, who looked great, and Joan Embry from the San Diego Zoo.
Phyllis was telling in her piercing, shrieking, bird-in-agony voice—which I’ve always found a great comfort—new tales about her husband and how much and in how many ways he does not love her. Merv does not diagnose. He just lets her talk.
As for Joan, I don’t see why she continues coming on the program with her zoo inmates. She is so sane and stable, managing the zoo, handling the animals. She and Phyllis do not get along, and Phyllis never finds any of the animals interesting or cute or worth a glance or a comment. Merv always maintains an engaged attitude, of course.
I, however, am only interested in visiting animals that are very dramatic, so those are the only ones that go on my talk show appearances. Once a ring-tailed monkey slipped Joan Embry’s grasp, and it scampered over the heads and shoulders of the gasping and shrieking audience. Merv just sat there, shaking his head and chuckling. He has a lot of patience with monkeys. So do I. But if the animal is merely adorable, I can’t find any use putting it on the show, for I have pets at home. Somehow it’s important to have at least some on-air chaos.
Merv asks me, “How are you?” in that deep, sandy voice coming through that giant tanned head with its graying slab of hair. And you know he has a lot of other things going on but I always believe he cares because he asks his questions so well.
“I’m pretty good, thank you,” I say. “I’m all right.” Merv he never cocks his head like a cop; he believes what I say. It’s nice.
And he says, “I understand you have a new film coming out.”
I forgot to mention that during these talk show appearances I am sometimes a movie star (or actress as I prefer to think of myself). Sometimes I run a philanthropic foundation; sometimes I’m a candidate for a high political office. Doing this seems to make the appearances more reasonable, though I know they are not.
“Yes,” I say. “We’re very excited about the new film. It’s called The Godfather and it’s based on a novel about an Italian crime family. It’s a saga.”
“A saga! I love those.” Merv’s voice cracks slightly with enthusiasm. No tightness at all.
“I think people enjoy them,” I say.
“And I understand your role is a bit of a departure for you.”
“It is,” I say. “Actually, I play the Don, the Godfather himself.”
“That is a new kind of role for you.”
“It is. I hope that people can accept me in it. After all, it’s not really me. I’m only acting.”
The audience applauds. I feel accepted. I never talk about my films with my therapist.
Merv cuts to a commercial break as I stop in the Store 24 for a half-gallon of skim milk. I cross the street, only a few blocks more to my apartment.
We’re back. Merv crosses his legs and looks down at his expensive shoes. I know now that an emotion-packed question is coming. He looks up at me. “I understand you’ve gone through a rather difficult time recently.”
An expectant hush through the audience. I’ve heard this sound before. “Yes,” I say. “What happened was that at my father’s funeral four months ago, I forgot to give a eulogy. I mean, a proper one.”
The audience emits quiet sounds of sympathy, which devolve into a few agitated murmurs from those audience members who continually demand to be amused by all things. I expect this: I shouldn’t have forgotten. Though actually I didn’t forget because I never had it in my mind to begin with.
I go on, though I hate this part. “I had been so busy with all sorts of arrangements. Flowers. And I was looking for a good photograph of him to put up. I found one from when he was skiing in Switzerland.”
Merv asks if I skied. I say that I used to. Merv nods.
“Anyway,” I say, “the priest said I had to address all the people, the mourners. You know, I was so stupid really because I hadn’t even thought about it. It’s unbelievable, but I hadn’t. And I’m usually pretty tidy about things. But it was just like I was gone, even though I was there, of course.”
“You were in shock,” Merv says and reaches across Phyllis and pats my hand.
I go on. “The priest took me into a little room in the funeral home, he handed me a Bible, and he drew a pencil mark alongside a passage from the Book of Lamentations. My brother, who was as unprepared as—”
Merv interrupts. “Your brother—I don’t think many of our viewers know—is Bruce Jenner, the great Olympic athlete.”
The audience applauds; there are even a couple of oohs. I love my brother, but sometimes I choose to have him become different people, just for kicks. Once he was the Incredible Hulk, but that was too disruptive.
“That’s correct, Merv. And Bruce also read a passage from the Book of Lamentations, except he ended up calling it the Book of Laminations.”
The audience laughs nervously. I can’t blame them.
I go on. “So I got up after him and read something—this passage, about what I can’t even remember—which meant nothing to me and said nothing that I understood about my father. I couldn’t tell you a word of what I read, except ‘lamentations.’ And now it’s too late. The mourners are gone.”
Merv, marvelous Merv, says, as usual: “Well you can give the eulogy here.”
The audience applauds, not wildly, like when Elizabeth Taylor walks out. But respectfully. I start to give the eulogy.
Only it doesn’t seem to matter how much I prepare or don’t or do, I run into this same problem as before. It’s like a rerun; and, after so many visits, it’s getting frustrating. I start to say that I loved my dad, that I miss him every day. Then I want to describe things, but I can’t seem to get started on anything sensible. Thoughts get too jumbled, and one memory collides with an emotion. Before I know it I’m back to the beginning, with my mouth open like an empty cave, like I don’t speak any language at all.
It’s frustrating, even partly tragic, but I keep doing this because I know my Dad is watching the show.
Merv says, gallantly, “You know you’re welcome back any time. Any time.” He pats my hand, then winks at Phyllis, whom I like more and more every time.
Well, that was about it for the day. Merv reminds viewers that my movie The Godfather is coming out next week, and that tomorrow’s guests will be Indira Gandhi, Angie Dickinson, and, unbelievably, Joan Embry from the San Diego Zoo with a pair of baby panda bears. No doubt I will be appearing as well.