A moment of personal privilege today.
I found out yesterday that my friend Jeff Wright passed away on Monday. It wasn't from the coronavirus -- Jeff had gotten pounded by cancer 2-1/2 years ago and battled strongly against it, going through lots of procedures, having it come back, and fighting it again, but ultimately it was just too much.
I knew Jeff for 30 years. We weren't in close, regular contact -- we spoke or sent emails a couple times a year, and every once in a while we would have lunch...though it was a treasured friendship that lasted for 30 years, well-worth keeping up for three decades specifically because he was an absolutely wonderful guy. Truly nice, just gentle and selfless, decent almost to a fault. Really.
No, really -- so decent that it genuinely was almost to a fault. Sometimes you'd almost have to shake him silly to stop being so freaking decent. Really. Jeff was a very talented writer. Years back, in the very early days of his career, he co-wrote the first draft of a screenplay with another guy I know (who we'll call Ralph). Ralph had a touch more experience and credits, and told Jeff that it would be far beneficial to both their careers if he, Ralph, took sole credit on their draft so that when he and another highly-established writer did the second draft, Ralph's stock would rise more separately than as a team and allow him to bring Jeff along when they did their next script together. Jeff knew it would be important for him to get credit, but with his ethereally good, selfless nature didn't want to stand in the way of the insistence of his slightly-more experienced partner, didn't want to block the project which was moving forward when the new writer got involved, and agreed on the future benefit. (I found all this out after the fact.) The movie got made, was moderately successful, and Jeff was paid, but deeply warm-hearted Jeff never got that boost on their next "we're partners" script together, since it never occurred, But whenever I see the movie every time it shows up on TV -- and it periodically does -- I think of it as Jeff's script, as much as anyone's.
Okay, another screenwriting story on his decency almost to a fault, though fortunately with a better ending. Jeff had written a lovely children's adventure screenplay and gave co-story credit to the person who typed the script. I couldn't understand -- Jeff explained that he didn't have enough money to pay her in full what she deserved but she'd given him some feedback on the script, so he said he'd give her co-story credit. He knew full-well that giving feedback was not even remotely writing, but...he'd given his word. However, when I made clear that he'd never be able to use the script as a sample of his work with someone else's name also on it and kept pounding that in relentlessly against his insistence that he'd promised, he'd promised, "but I promised," he finally agreed to change the title page, worked things out with the typist and thank goodness took his proper full credit.
Happily, Jeff did get a co-writing credit on a fairly-high profile movie that made it to the theaters, though it didn't do well (long story about that...), the comedy BASEketball from David Zucker that starred Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park. That was back in my dark days of PR and I did the publicity on the film -- the screenplay was a lot of fun, unfortunately the filmmakers just mucked it up trying to make a sweet PG movie into something R-rated, which they acknowledged later.
Aside from being so nice and decent, Jeff also loved baseball. So, he gets a double-bonus on being an absolutely wonderful guy. As I said, we didn't get together often or talk often, but it added up to a lot over 30 years, and every time we did I just felt better afterwards. I'm just better for knowing Jeff.
The last time I saw Jeff was last year when we met for dinner at a restaurant in the Silverlake district that made Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It also gave me the chance to finally meet his wife Laurie. They'd married a few years back, but schedules never worked out. Boy, did he marry well. Just an absolutely lovely woman who Jeff adored, and who was a total, impressive, loving Rock of Gibraltar during his last very difficult couple of years. It wasn't the proper ending, but -- sorry, I've got to use the pun because it fits too well -- it was the Wright life.
I'd met Jeff when I was hired to be the publicist on the Naked Gun films, and Jeff was working with the Zucker Bros. company. And since they tended to put people around them in small roles of their films, Jeff was in a bunch of them. In fact, because he'd started out as an aspiring actor before becoming a writer, he actually got lines!
And so, here he is in Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear. Jeff plays a stock boy who comes in around the 30-second mark.
However, the walk-on role that Jeff got the most attention for came in the original The Naked Gun film -- because it involved the famous, hugely-popular sequence when Leslie Nielsen pretends to be opera singer Enrico Pallazzo and destroys singing the National Anthem. Jeff played the Dodger Stadium usher who has to go get Signor Pallazo and bring him to the field. That's Jeff coming down the hallway at the 2-minute mark.
So, happily, Jeff Wright will live on in film. But of course SO far, far, far more he will live on for his profound decency, warmth and glowing kindness in all those people who so-dearly admired and appreciated him.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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