Jack Gilbert: Our George Bailey

A month ago I had milestone birthday, one of those digits that officially disqualifies you from making another youthful blunder, like wearing a miniskirt or growing a hipster beard or thinking you have forever to live out your dream.

I have terrible timing. I left the Groundlings comedy troupe, to pursue an MFA in screenwriting so I could learn to write stories beyond the “three-minute sketch with wigs.” Right after I left, several of my cast mates got hired on Saturday Night Live, as actors and writers. Yay! But I finished my MFA at age 34 … whereupon a writing guru told me that if you don’t make it as a comedy writer by 30, you’re considered over the hill. I moved to New York to pursue a writing job that promptly fell through. Years later, I moved back to LA to revive my acting career, just as the movie Searching For Debra Winger was released – a documentary featuring a bunch of A-list actresses who couldn’t get work after age 40. I had just turned 41.

And I just found out that the year my book came out, 2009, was one of the worst years for book sales. (Wall Street meltdown, consumers didn’t have the money to buy and publishers didn’t have the money to publicize). Ah, so maybe THAT is why my book made only “respectable sales” and why my publisher passed on my second book. It’s not enough to be respectable; you need to be a hit. I’m considering taking a nom de plumeand writing Amish fiction. Or Amish vampires.

Regret can destroy you. You will spend your life like Lady Macbeth, trying to wash away the evidence of your guilt and failure. You will look for others to blame or blame yourself. You will tell yourself you’re a loser.

I have been able to teach. It doesn’t replace your longing to DO the thing you’re teaching. But you get out of your own drama, you get to help and encourage others. And actually your own work gets better in the process. Everybody wins. Over the years teaching, I’ve gotten to know Jack better – that writing guru who sounded the post-thirty comedy death-knell. Jack wanted to be a screenwriter and never made it; but he became a well respected teacher and mentor. At one point he ran the Warner Bros. writing workshop. Two years ago I started teaching at the same Christian college where he had become a fixture. And I started to catch a glimpse of the scores of hopeful writers he taught, prodded, mentored, and loved.

The day before my birthday, Jack emailed to say he couldn’t make my party; he’d come down with pneumonia. I decided to visit him the following week. I’d had plenty of casual encounters with Jack, from church retreats to writing seminars to group lunches in the college cafeteria. But this time I could sit with him a while, share stories, and pray for him. And it might be the first one-on-one conversation I’d had with him in years.

The day before I was due to stop by Jack’s place, our mutual friend Jan texted me to say she was taking Jack to the hospital. I couldn’t visit him there, his immune system couldn’t risk much exposure to bacteria. Over the next few days Jan sat vigil at the hospital, keeping his friends updated, getting out the word to pray. By the end of the week a thousand-member facebook group was praying for Jack to get better.

But Jack got worse. I asked Jan if I could come to the hospital to visit her: she’d been there nearly 24/7 the past five days. She and her husband were on a writing deadline, shuttling kids to and from school, and trying not not fall apart.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon during a downpour. Jan’s husband arrived a while later. Jan was pacing the halls, trying to unlock the password on Jack’s phone. She needed to call Jack’s friends, she said. They needed to come to the hospital. They needed to say goodbye.

We prayed for a miracle. The world needed Jack – the world and all the young hopeful writers who needed someone with Jack’s wisdom and decency, who’d tell them the truth about their work, and how not to miss those deadlines and how to be a decent human being in a field where decency was scarce. But sometimes you don’t get the miracle you asked for.

It was my turn to go say goodbye. I told him how I was angry at myself for the time I’d seen him in the cafeteria, sitting alone reading, but didn’t go sit with him because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. I asked Jack to go fin my father and my mentor Les, a comedy writer who’d come to Jesus just a year before his death. I know they would have a lot of laughs together. I also asked Jack if he would go find my cat, Honey and pet her, and tell her I would see her soon. Well, soon on their timetable. Forever on mine.

If you’ve ever had to do this, to say this kind of goodbye, it defines the meaning of “surreal.” It is above and beyond normal reality. It’s shocking, yet it is the very definition of what is solid and true: this is where life ends and your faith begins. Either you’re going to see this man again, or you’re not. If these precious moments ideas we have about heaven are just that? Ideas? What if there is no resurrection from the dead? Then we are all screwed. And even the happy stories of the world end in tears.

I touched his hand, turned and left.

The ICU waiting room began to fill up with Jack’s friends. I knew some of them fairly well, some not at all. But we recognized each other: we shared that same face: slackjawed with shock and impending grief. And we had Jack in common. We’d all been mentored or taught or befriended or loved by the same man.

Jack died Monday night. I was teaching at Pepperdine when I got the call.

Tuesday afternoon I had to go teach Jack’s classes. These were undergrad kids, some no older than 18. This may have been the first time they lost someone who mattered to them. We spent the time sharing what we’d learned from Jack. One student said that Jack could always find the thread of gold in the mountain of garbage that was his script. Another one said she didn’t know if she could write at all. But Jack told her she had talent and she needed to work at it – because she was worth it.

A few nights later a group gathered to share our memories about Jack. Two stand out to me.

The first was something Jan’s husband, Lee, said back at the hospital. “Jack was Best Man in our wedding…I don’t know if I was Jack’s best friend, because he had so many. But he was definitely my mine. ” He paused a moment. “Jack was George Bailey.”

George Bailey is Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” who sacrifices his own dreams for others, but without whom the world would have been a meaner place. Lee was right. Jack was George Bailey. Without him we’d all be living in Pottersville.

The other was shared by a TV comedy producer who’d known Jack when they were both at Warner Bros. Fred is Jewish and hadn’t had much exposure to Christianity. But as a child he’d seen the film, Green Pastures, a black gospel musical. God was played by William Warfield, the commanding baritone who sang “Old Man River” in Show Boat. “I met William Warfield years later. When I saw him I thought, that’s what God looks like! And when I met Jack Gilbert I thought, that’s what Jesus looks like.”

There’s an old short story by J.R.R. Tolkein titled, “Leaf By Niggle.” Niggle is a painter. He is obsessed with a tree he sees in his mind. The tree is magnificent and expansive, harboring birds, and through the branches he can glimpse the mountains beyond. But he can’t get the tree onto the canvas. He’s got bits and pieces here and there. One beautiful leaf he’s able to draw.

But he keeps getting interrupted by people who need him. There’s the farmer down the road who needs his help; his wife is sick and needs to be driven to hospital some miles away. And then the neighbor’s roof leaks, and it’s making his wife dangerously ill. So the government comes and takes Niggle’s canvas to patch up the neighbor’s roof. Time goes by, Niggle never gets the painting done. His neighbor dies and so does the wife. Niggle dies eventually. He never finished the painting. All that remains is one exquisitely painted leaf. A library has the artwork framed. But then it’s lost in a fire. There is nothing left on earth of Niggle.

But up in heaven, Niggle is there. So is his neighbor, who didn’t believe in heaven until he saw it through Niggle’s actions. They stand there enjoying a tree – the very tree Niggle imagined in his mind but could never realize. There it is, in all its magnificent reality: birds nesting in its branches and magnificent mountains shining in the distance. And it’s Niggle’s to sit and enjoy.

I imagine right now Jack is collaborating with Les on some screenplay soon to begin filming. Maybe my father is laughing along, adding a joke here or there, delighted to know his daughter made sure Jack looked him up.

Jack Gilbert was George Bailey and Niggle.
And we miss you, Jack.

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