Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mark Perry Remembers Zelda

As I read the obits and tributes that began to appear in the wake of our Zelda’s passing, I was struck by all the adjectives used to describe her: diminutive… petite… tiny… small… little… and one website even used the word “wee.” Those of us who knew her can chuckle at those words, because we know that whatever the divine Ms. Z. lacked in physical stature, she more than made up for with heart.

For a little person, Zelda was larger than life.

How truly blessed were we that she took a shine to us? For me, it began on the set of Picket Fences back in ’92. It was my second TV show as a writer, and not a very satisfying gig creatively given that the series creator wrote all the episodes. Sadly, I don’t recall the circumstances of my very first encounter with Zelda, a lapse of memory I can only chalk up to the mutual feeling that she and I had always been friends. Thankfully, for whatever reason, she took me under her sizable wing. The only line of dialog I ever wrote for her that actually made it to film was in a story about Human Growth Hormone. Zelda’s character staged a protest, chanting over and over: “Hell no! We won’t grow!” Honestly, I consider that a milestone of my career.

It wasn’t long before we were meeting for dinner at her beloved Orso, or she was coming to the parties my former wife and I would throw. I remember vividly the night she stood in our kitchen when I came out to her. She had a very emotional reaction, immediately concerned about my well being and my wife’s, and when we assured her that we were getting through the transition, and had waited to tell our friends until we were ready, she smiled sincerely and offered her love and support to both of us. I had no idea at the time what a unique and fierce advocate she had been for the gay community – a group I had just publicly joined. Perhaps the greatest honor of all was having her at our wedding in 2008, when my partner Mark and I officially became, in Zelda’s words, “the Marks Brothers.”

I survived one season on Picket Fences, and left after that, often saying that the only good thing to come out of the experience was our friendship. I was deeply honored when she said the same.

The hardest thing about her passing is that Zelda was such a constant in my life, as I know she was in all of her friends’, which makes her absence all the more achingly palpable. The phone calls were frequent, as were the dinners. Oh, and those spectacular birthday parties she’d throw for herself. I was further blessed on those occasions when she’d attend my own birthday party and grace us with a bawdy, ribald song. No one could sell it like Ms. Z.

It was always a delight to hear that incomparable voice on my answering machine when she’d leave a message for us, “Hi Mark, hi Mark, I feel like I’m the ditto girl. I just wanted to say hi and find out how you guys are doing and what’s new in your lives that’s exciting to report. All right my darlings, be of good cheer…”

How lucky have we all been to receive those messages from a woman who apparently counted friends above all else?

I still have Zelda’s last few messages on my answering machine. There are maybe a dozen or so, and I just can’t bring myself to delete them. True confession: I’ve saved more than that. And now I’m glad I’ll be able to indulge myself on my birthday by hearing Zelda sing “Today today today today today today’s your birthday…”

I think she would have wanted it that way.

I miss her terribly. Her naughty and wicked sense of humor. Those filthy jokes. The words of love. The nick names. The long chats. Those hugs that were genuinely filled with love and seemed to last for hours.

For me, one of the saddest things about her passing is that after years of talking about it, I had finally written a part for her that was tailor made for Zelda Rubinstein. I’m currently working on Ghost Whisperer, and pitched an idea to have Zelda guest star as the evil ghost of a medium from the 1920s. A fierce and formidable presence in a vintage wooden wheelchair. The role was written to make it as physically easy as possible for Zelda, despite her health concerns, to deliver a real tour de force. I even had the character at one point saying “Don’t go into the light!” When I ran that by Zelda on the phone, during one of our very last conversations, I expressed my worry that I might be exploiting her fame from Poltergeist. Zelda actually laughed and said, “Oh, I’ll say it honey,” and then, in a chillingly dramatic delivery, she acted out the line for me on the phone in that inimitable voice:

“Don’t go into the light.”

While I was finishing the script just prior to pre-production before the holidays, Zelda left another message: “Mark, I’ve had a heart attack…” When we visited her at Hollywood Presbyterian, we talked about her getting out in time for the shoot that started the first Monday in January. I honestly thought she’d bounce back in time to do the role. I honestly believed that if anyone could recover from a similar ordeal, it would be our Zelda. There was just no imagining life without her.

But she finally let go. God knows she tried not to, hanging in there for as long as she possibly good. I remember telling Mark while she was drifting in and out that whoever or whatever was the keeper of Death’s Door, they were getting an earful from Zelda as she tried to talk her way out of crossing over. She was so unbelievably fortunate to have David at her side, looking out for her, and we are now incredibly blessed that he has become such a good friend to all of us. But then, Zelda had a knack for collecting the most amazing people.

Finally, we had to cast the Ghost Whisperer role with someone else. To her credit, the actress we cast was wonderful, and I never once told her that the role had been written for the iconic Zelda Rubinstein. But please tune in to Ghost Whisperer for our 101st episode later this year. It’s called Old Sins Cast Long Shadows and the role of Madame Greta was supposed to be Zelda. It’s eerie to watch it now and realize how brilliant she would have been, but if you do, just picture Zelda in the role. She would have been astonishing.

Goodnight Zelda. Mark and I love you. We thank you for the priceless gift of your friendship.

Be of good cheer…

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