It's 1977. My throat's dry, my body is jumping. There's too
much going on. Too many new people coming at me from every direction. Too much business, too many contracts, too
many projects, too many requests, too many tempting beautiful women everywhere. I can't go anywhere without being
recognized. Everything's happened very fast. I'm overwhelmed. Agents want to promote me, managers want to
handle me, reporters want to quote me on everything from Mao's death to who I was with last night. This spotlight.
I'm in over my head.
It feels like only yesterday I was living in a basement with a sink as my bathtub and a toilet in
the rooming house hall shared by a tenement full of waywards rehearsing a Shakespearean monologue for some obscure theater
group in the bowels of Brooklyn.
Now there are plays I can do, movies I can make. It's all there, all in front of me; I
can see it but not clearly, taste it, feel it. But what I want, what I really need now, is a drink.
The drink that will help take the edge off. The drink that will get me through all this another
day. The drink that will dull my senses and make it palatable for a moment - only a moment.
It wasn't long ago I was helping my friend Charlie up from an alcoholic blackout in a doorway, where
he had decided to take a rest. Where was that? When was that? I can't remember. Was it a year ago?
A year since he had decided to become sober, to give up what we had shared for so many drunken crazy years. Charlie,
my acting teacher. Charlie, my mentor. Charlie, who walks across the Manhattan Bridge with me in the wee hours
of those freezing February nights, broke and undaunted, as we quote everything from Villon to Shakespeare. Charlie,
always with my best interests at heart. Charlie, who sees something in me I don't see myself. He'd stopped drinking
a year ago. I can't believe it. I am abandoned. What will I do?
I call him. We meet. We sit down in the Lion's Head Cafe in Greenwich Village. I
will never forget the moment. We sat across from each other at a wooden table, where I had my vodka and lemon peel backed
by a good strong stout on the side. Charlie just sat on the other side empty handed, a glass of cola somewhere in his
vicinity. He looked at me in a way that I have never seen him look for all the years I've known him. He smiled.
There was a sadness in his smile. He watched me sort of swaying in the chair. He leaned over and said, "Al, please.
Just be aware of what you're doing." Somehow those words rang. I don't know why to this day. I don't know
why. "Be aware that you're taking that glass, you're lifting it to your lips, you're sipping it. You're swaying
in your chair. And this is what you're doing," Charlie said. "You continue to do it. If you wish.
But be aware that's what you're doing. It's not something everybody does. It's not breathing in and out.
It's an action. Don't take it for granted. Just give it some thought. Please, Al." Those words could
sound, I guess, preachy or whatever had they not been delivered with such compassion. And such a sense of love and fear.
Even though I thought I was in control, I knew what I was doing. I still took heed somehow. I hear him.
I down the glass and look into Charlie's eyes. My friend's really talking to me. He is concerned. I've made
five movies now. He wants to see five more. Maybe ten. Maybe fifty.
I look at the half empty glass. At the half-filled bottle. How is it possible a person
can do something and be so naturally oblivious, so utterly unaware of the very act of doing it? It took me a few months
but finally I got it. I saw to what degree this thing had taken over my life. How it occupied me, owned me.
I capped the bottle. I became conscious. I was aware. It was time.
Ten years later. It's 1987. I'm in the audience at Carnegie Hall waiting for Sinatra to
come out and sing. It's early. Buddy Rich comes on first to open the show. He's sixty-five years old.
He gets behind his drums and my mind begins to wander. I'm thinking about all the drinks and drugs I haven't had since
that day Charlie made me aware. Not a day goes by...but I know this: I'm still here. I may not have been
otherwise. Listening now to Rich play the drums while I wait for Sinatra. My eyes are closed and my mind wanders.
What am I hearing? It sounds like the ocean. Like there are two drummers. Does he have brothers playing
I look up to check it out. It's just Rich, moving so fast it seems like six sticks are hitting
the drums. The drums are talking. Then the cowbell. Now he's slapping just his two sticks together.
I've never heard or seen anything like it. Carnegie Hall is filled to capacity, and one lone drummer is holding us captive.
Is anyone even breathing? Where is he going to go with this?
Just how much can you do with two sticks? And then it happens - that transcendent moment.
He lifts both sticks in the air way above his head and suddenly, swiftly, separates them. There is a visible inch between
the tips. There is a total silence in the Hall. Then a roar. The approval is overwhelming. I'm standing
with everyone else. Bravo! Bravo! Sinatra, the legend, has to follow this? And when he comes out he pauses,
then looks at us and acknowledges our awe. For what we just heard from Buddy Rich. And he simply says, "There's
something to say for keeping at a thing, isn't there?" That's all.
Sinatra is on the money. There is something to be said. For keeping at a thing.
For being aware.
Charlie was right. Thank you, Charlie.