Friday, June 27, 2008

A Word about My Sponsor: A Tribute to John Boylan

When I was twelve, I got baptized at a Catholic elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. Why so late in life? As the son of a pair of non-Catholics, I attended a local public school through the fifth grade, where the habitat was oddly reminiscent to that of the Lincoln Park Zoo. The summer before sixth grade, my parents decided to send me to Ss. Simon and Jude. They wanted me to get a good education, I wanted to not get tarred and feathered on the playground every day -- our interests coalesced.

S&J was a good school, and I was treated well during my two years there. But the nuns who ran the joint also wanted to save my soul, so in the spring of sixth grade we had a baptism ceremony in my honor. In addition to my parents, friends and peers being there, I had to have two sponsors who were of the faith. One was Mrs. Kinney, a friend of the family who had been a neighbor in an apartment complex at one time. The other -- a man some may recognize in the blurry photo above -- was John Boylan.

Mr. Boylan was a dapper, charming man over the age of seventy who was in one of my mother's art classes. I didn't know much about him at the time, but now I know that he had lived most of his life in Canton, Ohio, working in a steel mill for forty years. In what must have been an odd combination, he also ran and performed in a local theater company. After retiring from the mill, Mr. Boylan devoted himself full-time to acting, art and other interests. He had been an extra on the Lee Majors television series The Fall Guy and gave me a piece of fake glass he had collected after one of that show's many, many action scenes that featured shattered glass. At an age where I was developing a growing interest in movies and TV shows, Mr. Boylan was the closest thing I knew to a celebrity. Late in life, his acting career was starting to bloom.

The last I saw of Mr. Boylan, in the mid-80s, he excitedly announced he had scored a minor role, his first with dialogue, in a movie called Kidco. A few years later I saw the film on videocassette. Based on a true story, Kidco is about a group of rural kids who go into the fertilizer business, where hijinks ensue. (Ah, shit jokes; where would be without you?) It was bad, but Mr. Boylan was funny in his bit part. As his character, a court clerk, reads the deposition in the climactic trial between the child entrepreneurs and an evil fertilizer corporation, Mr. Boylan paused and let out a big yawn, which reflected my own feelings about the film while simultaneously stealing the scene.

We lost touch with Mr. Boylan following several moves. In truth, I hadn't really thought of him for almost two decades until recently, when on an impulse I checked out his filmography and realized I had stared him in the face several times in the late-80s and early-90s and hadn't known it. He was the elevator operator who gives Meg Ryan a few crucial extra minutes atop the Empire State Building in the last scene of Sleepless in Seattle. He played a janitor in the first scene of American Heart, telling Jeff Bridges' ex-con that he's in the way of his restroom cleaning duties. Most significantly, he was Mayor Duane Milford in approximately eight episodes of Twin Peaks, most of them during the second season before the series got cancelled. I was never a fan of Twin Peaks, gave up on it like many viewers halfway into season two, right before Mr. Boylan's role expanded. Recently I reviewed a few episodes I had missed: in them, Mr. Boylan was light and droll playing an elderly man with a trophy girlfriend, embroiled in a bitter rivarly with his brother, the elected head of a town without the slightest idea of what was going on in it. No small feat in David Lynch-land, he was good at downplaying the oddities and keeping things real.

This obit, written after his death in 1994, covers much of the same ground I have here. On a personal note, I would add that it's a major irony, a fitting circularity of sorts to currently live so close to where he spent most of his own life. I also see John Boylan's life as an illustrative example for how the creative impulse can take hold of someone at any age. It's somewhat chagrining to pay tribute to somebody who passed away fourteen years ago; but then again, that's a testament to the beauty, the staying power of art. Thanks for being a part of my life, Mr. Boylan. I'm a fan.

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