THRILLVILLE: Will "the Thrill" Viharo's weird, wild world of Pulp Fiction, B Movies, & the Lounge Lizard Lifestyle.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Halloween with Mickey Rourke & Sean Penn

Dateline: LA, October 31, 1982

Backstory: Mickey Rourke bought me my first car when I was 19. It was a 1964 Thunderbird painted white with little dice on both front doors. I had just obtained my driver's license in Houston - barely. I flunked parallel parking. I think they just wanted me to get the hell out of Texas (my mother was Miss Houston 1960; didn't matter). Eventually I left LA in shameful exile as well. But that was later.

The actual car, but repainted by its new owner, Greg Vargas
About the car: One afternoon in 1982 I went to a screening of The Wild One with Marlon Brando (by bus, of course), at a revival theater on Wilshire Blvd. I don't mean I went with Marlon Brando, I mean he starred in this 1954 biker classic. Back then my friend Mickey, who was like a surrogate big brother to me, lived in a one bedroom apartment on Maple off of Wilshire in Beverly Hills with his wife at the time, Debra Feuer, who was like my sister (she later starred in the terrific crime flick To Live and Die in LA as Willem Dafoe's femme fatale). I stayed with them for a time, during my youthful wanderings. I met Mick when he picked me up from Neiman-Marcus in Beverly Hills one day in 1979, along with Sandra Seacat and her daughter Greta whom I'd known since childhood. Mick and I hit it off right away. He was already doing TV movies. At the time I was gainlessly employed as a busboy. I remember working in some god damn restaurant and hearing his name after he'd scored big with Body Heat and Diner (I even ducked into a Westwood movie theater with Debra and him once to see the latter, which I loved - it marked the first time an Elvis song, "Don't Be Cruel" was licensed for use in a non-Elvis flick. Mick was very proud of this.) Anyway, I hopped off the bus to go visit Mick and Deb and noticed there was this slick car parked out front of their apartment building. I ran upstairs to tell them about it, since, like me, they liked cool old cars, Elvis, and stuff like that. Mick said let's go check it out, so we went downstairs, along with Deb and some of "the guys" (actors Lance Henriksen and Lenny Termo were in Mick's inner circle back then, along with me, the busboy from South Jersey with lofty literary aspirations.) While admiring it together, Mick handed me the keys and said, "It's yours." We all piled in and I got behind the wheel, shaking. We literally had just turned the corner when a Beverly Hills cop pulled us over. The car hadn't been properly registered yet, so I got my first ticket after driving my first car around the first block.

The Wild One?: That October 31, Mickey dressed me up as Marlon Brando. At least that's what he told me. At the time he had just filmed Rumble Fish for Francis Coppola, starring as the Motorcycle Boy. I remember we were walking around Beverly Hills one day when he spotted some European tourist kid with a funny haircut. We approached him and took him out for coffee, Mick introduced him to Coppola, and got his permission to use this spiky hairstyle for his role in the film. ( I actually auditioned for Rumble Fish, running lines with Mickey, for the role that went to Vincent Spano. During the meeting with co-producer Fred Roos, I got a bad case of dry mouth. My tongue kept sticking to the roof of my mouth, making a weird noise. Obviously, I didn't get the part. If I had, this would be a very different memoir. I'm a writer, not an actor. Too bad - aspiring thespians would've killed for these purely incidental connections.) Anyway, the Motorcycle Boy was also somewhat inspired by Brando's character Johnny in The Wild One. Mick gave me a cap, leather jacket, and leather pants that were way too big for me, so I could dress up as "Johnny" for Halloween. Later I figured out Mick was having fun with me, decking me out as a hustler on Christopher Street back in New York. Man, was I naive.

Linda: For some reason, I was designated driver for the evening, I guess because back then I didn't drink. I didn't do anything. I was frighteningly innocent. I think that was part of my appeal. I don't remember if Mickey or Debra dressed up, to be honest. I think I was the only in our entourage who was "in character." Others in the group included Sean Penn, already famous for his surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; his squeeze at the time, Pamela Springsteen, Bruce's younger sister who looked a lot like him; and Linda Kerridge, an Australian actress who starred in Mickey's first theatrical film Fade to Black in 1980, as a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Mickey played a tough bully who picked on star Dennis Christopher, who later got revenge by dressing as Hopalong Cassidy and gunning Mick down in an alley.) Ironically, it was me who introduced Linda to Mickey and Debra. I was obsessed with her; I saw that flick over a dozen times when it came out, begging Mickey to introduce me to this blond vision. I met the director, Vernon Zimmerman, who was supposed to arrange a meeting but frankly I was acting too much like the guy in the movie, a wacko who lived in a cinematic dreamworld, divorced from reality, so it didn't happen. Earlier in '82 I went to see a double bill of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry a Millionaire at the Nuart in West LA. Linda sat directly in front of me; she was with her friend Daryl Hannah. Recognizing (and misinterpreting) this incredible coincidence as Kismet, I shakily introduced myself to her as her biggest fan, and we became friends, sort of. Anyway, she was in the T-bird with me, Mick, Deb, Dean and Pam as we cruised around Hollywood and Beverly Hills on the night of Halloween, 1982. (Cue John Carpenter's theme music...)

My father Robert Viharo (left) at Mickey's wedding to Debra, '81
Driving with the Stars: The night is a vivid blur in my memory. We hit a few hipster parties in the hills after driving around Hollywood Boulevard. I kept annoying Sean by mimicking his stoner surfer character from Fast Times. "Just hit him," Mick said. He didn't, though later I heard stories that he was indeed fast with his fists. He gave me a break, I guess. I began drinking a bit at some of the parties, even though I generally didn't drink back then. I had my first taste of alcohol in Houston a few months before, getting totally shitfaced on Kamikazes with beer chasers, throwing up all over my grandmother's living room. I think I called her a lesbian. Anyway, I was definitely buzzed by the time we hit the Beverly Hills Diner (owned by a butt-kissing asshole named Larry Parker), where I was working as a busboy. Or maybe a waiter, I didn't the know the difference, one reason why I had trouble staying employed by anyone back then. It was a hell of a night. I felt strangely at home, yet oddly out of place with all these movie stars. But due to an odd confluence of circumstances, there I was. It is one of the unique nights I'll think of when my life passes before my eyes, many years from now.

The Night I Nearly Killed Tom Waits: this wasn't the only celebrity experience I had in my first car. Mick knew singer/songwriter Tom Waits because they both worked on Rumble Fish. I actually hung out with Tom and his wife, Kathleen, a few times. They were both very nice, humble folks. One night they took me to a screening of a short film by their friend Steve DeJarnatt, who later made Miracle Mile, a terrifying film about the end of the world (or at least LA, close enough). After the screening Tom and Kathleen took me out to dinner at Musso & Frank's, still my favorite restaurant in LA. I remember I was wearing this really stupid shirt Mick bought for me that looked like the American Flag, because he said I was the "All American Boy." Maybe on Christopher Street I would be....anyway, I was driving Tom and Kathleen in my T-bird up a hill, Kathleen between us in the front passenger seat. I couldn't quite see past them so I suddenly swerved left into the perpendicular street, and we nearly got sideswiped - by a cop. If the cop had not slammed on his brakes in time, he would have sideswiped us and Tom, in the passenger seat, would have been Buddy Holly. Instead, he went on to a long, fruitful career, no thanks to me. The cop didn't give me a ticket, though - I remember Tom said to him, how can you give a ticket to the All-American Boy?

Playboy Express: Later my father, actor Robert Viharo, started borrowing my T-bird when he went to Playboy Mansion every weekend to watch movies and whatnot (the "whatnot" was the fun part.) Hugh Hefner was a friend of his because one of Pop's ex-wives had been a playmate. I never got to go. Too innocent, I guess. Anyway, the car was a lemon. It would die on me at intersections. Eventually I sold it to my pal Greg Vargas, who sank a fortune into it. I had the car maybe six months total. But I certainly got some mileage out of it.

Coda: Years later, in the summer of 1986, after a year living in a San Francisco North Beach hotel, writing unpublishable novels, surrounded by small time criminals, angry Viet Nam vets and skanky strippers, I returned to LA and ran into Sean with his wife Madonna at Musso & Frank's. He had jet black Elvis hair, and hers was dyed Marilyn platinum (they had just filmed Shanghai Surprise). Ironically, I was with Linda at the time. He was very nice to me, and introduced us to his famous wife. He gave me a phone number to call him. I was living in a cheap Hollywood hooker motel at the time and had to call him by payphone the next day. The number had been disconnected. I was working for Mickey that summer as his personal assistant, and living in his Mandeville Canyon house, where Debra and Linda lived as well. Mickey had just filmed Angel Heart and was working on Barfly. I remember Bukowski's signed books lying around the office. Mick told me I would love Angel Heart (still my favorite of his flicks). He told me it was about a 50s PI who sold his soul to Satan. "So it's a fantasy," I said. "No," he said very seriously, "it's not." I answered all of Mick's fan mail, mostly composed of adoring letters from Japanese and French fans, a few claiming they wanted to learn English just so they could speak with him someday. People like Frankie Valli would call on the phone, or guys like Treat Williams and Andrew "Dice" Clay would swing by the Maple St. office pad. Everyone wondered who the hell I was. I was beginning to wonder that myself. I moved to the Bay Area and haven't look back since, though I did trash Barfly in one my first published movie reviews for The Daily Californian in Berkeley. I like it now, though. I think I was just pissed off at Bukowski for being both a bum and a successful writer.

In 1989 a movie called Homeboy came and went. It was based on an amateur boxer Mickey knew back in Miami, and it co-starred his soon-to-be-ex wife Debra. I worked a bit on the script with Mickey years earlier. He was very passionate about this very personal project. The screenplay is credited to "Eddie Cook". That's Mickey. I haven't heard from him since 1996, when I sent him a copy of my one published novel, Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me (optioned for a film by Christian Slater.) He left me a phone message saying he was proud of me, and he was "taking it to the gym to read." Click.

Sean and Monica, Nov. 2001: "Will who?"
The last time I saw Sean was in 2001, at the Mill Valley Film Festival debut screening of Rob Nilsson's film, Scheme C6, starring my beautiful wife Monica Cortes Viharo, AKA "Tiki Goddess of Thrillville," as the female lead. Sean showed up, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. I asked him if he remembered me. Nope. I gave a few hints and he finally nodded, Oh yea yea yea, that's going way back. Felt just like yesterday to me, though. We chatted a bit but it was very awkward. We no longer ran in the same circles, to say the least. He praised my wife in the film, though, which made her night. I'm still not sure he really remembered me. I mean, he is a great actor...

Lately I am heavily flashing back on my first car and Halloween 1982 because both Mickey and Sean are up for Oscars this year, for The Wrestler (which reminds me a lot of Homeboy) and Milk, respectively. And there I was, way back when, their long forgotten leather-clad chauffeur. At least I'm not a busboy anymore. Or a waiter, whatever. Good luck, guys. Cheers.

Excerpt from the 2014 documentary The Thrill Is Gone, directed by Jeff M. Giordano:

These experiences inspired my 1987 novel, Lavender Blonde