Happy Birthday, Frank Hardy
May 29, 2012
He’s an alumni of the Catskill fraternity of neurotic, cantankerous old-timers, from way back when stand-up comedy was still considered counterculture. I was told he’d worked with Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan. “He’s a big deal,” his people insisted. Yet the person I see before me looks like an elderly man with a cane, a gruff demeanor, and a ravenous appetite for craft service. I catch him sampling our office lunch spread while he waits for his turn to audition. I wonder why we have chosen to write an eighty-year-old character into a show mainly intended for teenagers.
The role calls for an actor to channel Don Rickles. Frank Hardy limps in and nails it. Of course he does: look at him. He’s the reason they invented the archetype of “grumpy, old men.” His quick and surly wit has me laughing pretty hard, but not enough to throw around the word “legend” like everyone else. I wonder if he’s smiling at me because he can’t tell whom it is he’s supposed to impress. I wonder if that makes him resentful.
Before he leaves, Frank Hardy asks us to forgive the cane – a few days ago he was hit by a car. It wasn’t that a car struck his car; a vehicle actually knocked him over as he was crossing the street. “Does the cane make me look old?” he asks the room. “Or is it my face?” It’s funny because of the answer, but the answer saddens me. I wonder if Frank Hardy has been walking because he isn’t allowed to drive anymore. I wonder if the driver was in a rush, and if he slows down now, wary of what’s around the corner.
Throughout the week of table reads, run-throughs, and rehearsals, Frank Hardy’s scenes continue to garner the biggest laughs. I’ll be the first to admit, his flubs are brilliant. The man is a consummate performer with over fifty years of experience entertaining the world. In between his scenes, I find Frank Hardy snug in a director’s chair, parked right beside the craft service table. No one ever comments on this. We navigate around him awkwardly in order to pick through the dry cold cuts and rubbery cheese cubes. I wonder why someone Frank Hardy’s age would need this job. I wonder why he shows up every day, unaccompanied, in such frail condition. I wonder why old people are always so hungry.
His final day on set, Frank Hardy finishes his last scene and receives a warm round of applause. On a silent count of three, three things happen simultaneously. 1. A large sheet cake is wheeled out. 2. Everybody starts to sing “Happy Birthday.” And 3. Frank Hardy merrily joins in. He furtively looks around, masking his confusion by belting out the familiar lyrics and pretending to be in on it, whatever “it” is. What is it that consummate performers do? Oh right, they roll with the punches.
It takes almost a full minute for Frank Hardy to register that the hoopla is for him. Today happens to be his eighty-sixth birthday. When he finally realizes what’s going on, his face sags a bit, and his singing trails off. He begins to blink too fast, squinting a few times. He presses a hand over his eyes, as if a stampede of emotions can be coaxed back inside. In this moment, Frank Hardy is every grandfather, father, husband, brother, and son I’ve ever known. He is the funny man who made thousands, if not millions, of people laugh for over half a century. He’s not quite a legend, but – he is a big deal.
Were it not for the eventful life of Frank Hardy, he would not be here, alone in this place full of strangers, trying not to cry. I wonder why I had never noticed how similar tears of joy are to tears of sorrow. I wonder if others wonder this too. I wonder if Frank Hardy himself can tell the difference, or if he has always just known.
* Names have been changed to protect identity.
Vivien Cao is a writer based in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. She spent several years working in film and television, and is currently an MA candidate at Brooklyn College. She has a dog named Bowie who looks like Mick Jagger.