Heaven Can Wait
My Time With The Great Jack Warden
I’ve been writing for TV for 40 years and I haven’t been impressed with many actors. Nor am I a star fucker—although I’ve tried to have my way with various “starlettes” but I’ve always been unsuccessful.
But I’ve digressed. There actually was one actor that once impressed me. He was the redoubtable, Oscar winning, all-around good guy, Mr. Jack Warden.
I didn’t meet Jack professionally, but we were introduced on a tennis court and soon became buddies. I’ve never met an actor like him. He was without artifice and accessible to everybody, probably because of his background.
Jack was born in humble circumstances in Hoboken, N.J. When he was 18, he was shipped out in the Merchant Marine and spent the next 10 years in the world’s oceans. He once told me there wasn’t a deep sea port on earth in which he hadn’t got “stinkin drunk in.”
Somehow during that rough and tumble time he realized he was made for something other than fighting, drinking and drifting around the world as an able body seaman. He realized he wanted to be an actor, even though he had never even seen a play!
Jack quit the Merchant Marine and took odd jobs around New York City. At one time he was a salesman at Bloomingdales, a Salvation Army Santa, and of course, he worked sporadically as a waiter and cab driver like most actors do. But unlike those want-to-be actors, he clicked right away and started getting small parts that kept getting bigger and bigger.
I know why he was almost immediately successful. He approached acting as he did life—honestly. I mean, who can forget him as the coach in Heaven Can Wait?
But there was more to Jack than appeared on stage. I remember taking a bus with him after his car broke down. His fellow passengers were immediately aware of his presence. There was the usual stifled “ohs and ahs” and sly stares and hard stares, and finally, one of the passengers spoke up. She was a little, old lady with a foul mouth.”What the fuck are you doing here, Jack?” She asked.
“The same thing you are dear,” Jack said, “Ridin’ the bus.”
“But why?” I think she actually said, “But why the fuck are ya doin’ that?”
Jack answered truthfully. “Because I have too many DUI’s and they took away my license.”
“But you should hire a fuckin’ chauffeur.” The old lady said.
Jack replied, “I don’t go in for that fancy fuckin’ stuff.”
And the entire bus, including the driver, broke into applause.
One time, I too applauded Jack in public—or kind of in public. We were at his beach house in Malibu when a contingent of 20 picnickers showed up at his front door— steps from the Pacific Ocean. Jack’s house in The Malibu Colony was patrolled and guarded. It was a safe haven for the movers and shakers and stars of Hollywood. Jack’s then wife, who was termagant of the worst order, went crazy. She got on the phone to the guard shack and demanded that a contingent of rent-a-cop come to her rescue and rid of the offending sight of “50 Mexicans eating tamales in front of my window.”
Jack immediately cancelled that order and he and his harridan of a wife had a terrible fight. I’d never seen Jack this angry, but he won, and that’s when I applauded. The harridan wife then demanded that I leave the house. Jack would have none of that. He said, “My buddy stays right here.”
And his wife said, “It’s either him or me.”
“That’s no contest. He stays and incidentally I’ve invited a few friends for dinner,” said Jack. And with that, he opened the doors to his house and invited all the interloper picnickers inside.
By the way, the tamales were delicious. And shortly after that picnic, Jack filed for divorce.
When Jack was 80, he quit acting and moved to North Carolina and lived with his extraordinarily beautiful and understanding new wife on the beach. I never visited him there, but I’m sure if any stray beach goers camped in front of his beach front door, they were welcomed.
That’s just the kind of a guy he was. Jack died a few years ago and the theatre and movies goers, bus passengers, and beach wanderers are missing a great man.
And so am I.