By Joseph P. Kahn
This article was published on 5/2/96, although I can't find the original newspaper source.
Nice to see everyone this morning. Anybody care for fresh squeezed? An Evian, perhaps?
Fine. Let's start.
Here is the pitch. Half-hour drama/sitcom. Killer concept. Your typical post-yup, up-mobiled urbans, only they have this odd couple deal going that nobody can quite figure out.
He is a best-selling author, gumshoe genre. Not a King or a Clancy, maybe, but a franchise player. Bulletproof sales. Network spin-off. Cranks out a book a year, hundred thou hardcover, regular as the federal budget. Swarthy, sixtysomething guy - I can see Brian Dennehy here - who pumps high priced iron and likes a Euro-Beer with his ballgame. Thinks going to the ballet is something you're sentenced to when Dershowitz won't take the case.
She plays Felix to his Oscar, only it's even weirder than that. Moves and shakes in the local arts scene, has already lived nine different lives and keeps making them up as she goes. Housewife, mother, cancer survivor, student, teacher, author, administrator, screenwriter, do-gooder. It's like a case of multiple personality disorder, only she's not on heavy meds and is more like Cybil Shepherd than Sybil. Looks like a socialite, talks like a Longshoreman. Shorewoman? Whatever.
It gets better. They have two grown sons, both gay. One's a dancer, the other acts. It's "Birdcage" meets "The Addams Family," only the whole clan is thick as thieves, so it's like Pat Buchanan's vision of nuclear winter. Not only are they all out of the closet, they're all in therapy. Even the dogs. Well, maybe not everyone. But they've all been in therapy. Shrink bills up the wazoo. More couch time than the Jordan's furniture boys.
Speaking of the Addamses, this couple lives in a rambling Victorian off Harvard Square - Laura Ashley meets Dashiell Hammett? - but they keep separate apartments. Wild, huh? She lives upstairs, he's downstairs. And they date. Not the help. Not around. Each other.
The pilot is a slam-dunk. These are actual quotes. He says, "I never want to sleep with my wife again, but I hope to continue making love to her forever." She says, "If my marriage had been based on the size of my breasts, I would have stayed single."
It's a love story.
Who wants to go first?Edit
Out in the real world. Joan Parker is sitting in a sunny corner of her top-floor studio in Cambridge, sipping on a Coca-Cola. Rose, her dog, keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings. Parker is dressed in fashionable gray and black sweatclothes. After a vigorous morning workout - how many 20 year-old linebackers, much less 63 year-old women, sprint up and down the steps of Harvard Stadium every day? - she is revved up to talk.
About her 40-year-marriage to "Spenser for Hire" creator Robert B. Parker, in whose famous shadow she has often toiled. About Community Servings, an organization that helps people with AIDS into which Joan Parker now pours her considerable energies. About Hollywood, which she finds loathsome, and cancer, which she fears, and motherhood, which took a wrong turn past Ward and June Cleaver's driveway but somehow found the right garage anyway.
"Even now," Parker says, addressing to pesky marriage question first, "the relationship takes eternal vigilance. That's why getting this house was so pivotal. Bob and I are such different people, I can't imagine how the hell we lived together as young people and parents. Working together as we do now would have been completely impossible in our first marriage."
Shaking her head, she runs off a list that sounds like Oprah introducing a show on "Couples Who Marry From Other Planets."
"He goes to bed early," Parker recites, "I go to bed late. He hates to entertain, I like to. He likes the air-conditioning on high, I like it low. He eats early, I eat late. There is no area in which we share interests, except the vital ones like basic value systems, taste in friends and sense of humor."
During times when their relationship was more troubled, she says, the smaller differences became magnified, the basic values threatened. "So this living space has been clarifying to our relationship."
Clarifying, in 1982, the relationship - this is no secret, it's been made public before - clarified the way butter clarifies in a hot saucepan. The Parkers wound up separating for two difficult years. Both spent much of that time in therapy. She had an affair. He was severely depressed, to the point of being suicidal. Control - his over her - was a paralyzing issue. In time they reconciled. When they did, they first lived not just in separate apartments but in separate towns.
The split came only a few short years after Parker's first bout with breast cancer, which resulted in the first of two mastectomies, and publication of a book written by both Parkers about surviving the cancer ordeal, a project that turned out to be an ordeal in itself. During publicity tours, Joan was hammered with questions like "How does it feel to be disfigured?" Or "Isn't your husband a saint to have stood by you?"
As opposed to what? she wondered. Running off with a cocktail waitress?
The strain of being under the media microscope might have doomed most marriages. Their situation was even dicier, Parker admits. Here was a marriage that still inspires Spenser fans to speculate where the real-life Joan Parker leaves off and Susan Silverman (Spenser's steady galpal) begins. Scrutiny also came when one partner was at the top of his professional game - and fame - while the other was groping to find a sense of herself after part of herself had literally been lopped off.
"I was trying to take something from the experience that wasn't threatening," Parker admits, looking back on the book tour from hell. "But then other people would call me up and say, "Well, you had it too easy. You're rich." Or, "My mother died of breast cancer. How can you make light of it? How come you're alive?" It finally eroded my confidence and led to at least some of the reasons why Bob and I separated."
That the Parkers are not like most couples should be obvious by now. There are the dual (but not dueling) living spaces. The money and fame. The mismatched social schedules. The fact that they collaborate professionally, under the corporate umbrella of Pearl Productions. The curious coordination of stubbornness and tenderness that pushed them back together, emotionally if not architecturally. "Nothing would have surprised me," says Daniel Parker, the younger son, "except my mother becoming a housewife again. That would have been a nightmare scenario."
Says brother Daniel, "I never saw them as happily marrieds to begin with. The only reason it works is because they broke down all the conventional ideas about marriage and put theirs back together one step at a time."
What is less obvious, perhaps, is how forcefully she has emerged in recent years as a player to be reckoned with in her own right - in a partnership that has its public side along with its intensely private one.
"She made a life separate from me because she had to," says Bob Parker, sitting in his ground-floor office a few weeks before the debut of his 23d Spenser novel, "Chance." He and Joan met when they were both 3 years old and living in western Massachusetts. They dated in college before marrying in 1956.
"She grew up at a time," he observes, "when being Mrs. Somebody was the primary purpose of being female. Slowly she burst out of the straitjacket the world had put her in, which after all was my expectation for her too. I didn't try to thwart her, but I've had nothing to do with her emergence as a person."
Beaming, he says, "We have only one rule, that we're faithful to one another. And dammit, she's held me to that, too.
Of Bob, she says, "I'm his best cheerleader. But I'm also jealous and competitive, very competitive. It's something we talk about at the end of the day. I'm not sure exactly where his celebrity fits in all of this.What's grounding is we have a lot of friends who knew us when.
"And Bob is an unpretentious guy. Of all the people I know, he's assimilated his celebrity as gracefully as anyone.
"So if it was a factor," she says, "it was more the way I experienced his success than the way he did."
Branching out, taking offEdit
Ask friends and relatives about Parker and phrases like "amazing energy" and "fiercely loyal" float effortlessly to their lips. Not to mention Parker's salty vocabulary, which can make the Nixon tapes sound like a Raffi album. Says John Marsh, a Lynnfield guidance counselor and longtime friend and former neighbor of the Parkers, "She was in Bob's shadow to some extent before, as a homemaker. But then she branched out and took off. Whatever she's undertaken since, from early childhood education to interior decorating, Joan does flat out."
Charna Levine was teaching at Tufts when Parker started staking courses there in childhood development, 30 years ago. At the time, Parker was having difficulty with her older son, David, who was moody and withdrawn although obviously bright and gifted. She tried to refer to herself sarcastically as "Holly Housewife," Levine recalls. A woman who fretted about being a good mother and yearned to be something more.
"For Joan, academics came easy," says Levine. "She's extremely smart but it was her humor that attracted me. 'You know what that [expletives] husband of mine did,' Joan said when we met. He paid someone a hundred dollars to type up his manuscript."
Dede Ketanie, executive director of Community Servings, met Joan Parker at a fund raiser two years ago. Daniel Parker was bringing his dance troupe to Boston for a performance produced by Joan. She wanted to host a benefit dinner at Michela Larson's restaurant in Cambridge for patrons of the event. Larson told Parker that any proceeds from the dinner should go to Community 'Servings, a nonprofit group providing hot meals to homebound AIDS patients.
Parker had never heard of the organization, Ketanie had barely heard of Parker. When the two met it turned out to be an ideal mesh of motive, opportunity and personality.
The first four-letter word out of her mouth, and "I knew it was kismet" giggles Ketanie. "Our styles went together perfectly. No bull.....no games."
"Dede is probably the most evolved person I know," says Parker, who in addition to serving on the board of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, is now co-chairing (with Bob) a $1.3 million capital drive for Community Servings. Will the Parkers be putting the squeeze on old friends?
"I don't know how to say this nicely," says Parker, with a laugh that nearly shakes poor Rose right off the sofa, "But the old friends don't have any money."
Boston Globe item from last month. "Robert and Joan Parker have got four - count 'em, four - Hollywood projects in the works right now." Among the fab four, "Wilderness," from a Robert B. Parker novel, set to star Oscar nominee Richard Dreyfus, and "All our Yesterdays," a CBS miniseries based on Parker's sprawling, non-Spenser novel about four generations of Irish Americans. "Its all bull," Joan Parker confesses. "Nothing ever happens. It's Hollywood."
Hollywood, that magical place where the Parkers used to spend three months a year, only now they're unloading the Westwood condo and bidding adieu to La-La land. Hollywood. The industry town that green-lighted four "Spenser" movies after the network series faded away into syndication - and shot all four in Toronto, not Boston - and butchered the Parker's scripts to the point where they were unrecognizable. Hollywood. Populated with what Joan Parker, a silent partner on her husband's novels but a full collaborator on the couple's screenplays, calls without hesitation the "most dishonest, duplicitous, mean spirited, chuckleheaded group of people I've ever worked with. And that includes the state Department of Education."
Take a Meeting, Part 1Edit
"Bob loves the Old West," she explains. "Long before the hideous Kevin Costner movie came out, we pitched a Wyatt Earp movie to a major studio. We had to orchestrate what we were going to do very carefully, because Bob is very prickly about those things. He tends to sit through meetings scowling, with his arms folded across his chest. I have to do the talking.Which is bad, because he's the writer."
Parker earned a co-writer credit on two episodes of "Spenser for Hire," the ABC series starring Robert Urich in the title role and Avery Brooks as Spenser's sidekick, Hawk. At the time, she was making $42,000 a year managing discretionary grant money for the state Department of Education. Her first script brought in $50,000 - more than her annual salary. Whoa, she thought, what's wrong with this picture? On a Wednesday, Parker quit her job and took early retirement. That Friday, ABC cancelled "Spenser" for good. Ugh.
There is hope for Spenser to return as a major motion picture. In her dreams, Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte or "ER" stars George Clooney plays the brawling but erudite detective. Christine Lahti would do nicely as Susan.
Take a Meeting, Part 2Edit
"What people in the entertainment business say is beyond stupid," she says, "and yet you try to dignify their stupidity with an answer. Bob and I have actually sat there with a producer saying, 'But this [script] isn't Spenser.' And Bob, who wrote the damn thing, is sitting across from him. Or, we're discussing 'All Our Yesterdays,' which to my mind is Bob's best book, and someone complains that it's too Irish. Well, why the [expletive] did you buy it? Or they say, 'It's too long. Would you mind cutting out two generations?"
"Here's what you should say," Her eyebrows do a couple of ab crunches. "Give me back my book, slug. And die."
"Slug" being a substitute for a more colorful expression.
For gay son, 'dream' momEdit
"When she found out her sons were gay," Bob is saying, "Joan threw herself into the gay world. I'm not opposed to that. But that's not the way I am. She is. She went out and did it because her sons are gay. And the happy byproduct of this is you learn that gay people are both as interesting - and as uninteresting - as straight people are." Dan Parker: "Every gay man struggling to come out of the closet should dream of having her as his mother."
It was five summers ago, and the invitations were already printed for David Parker's wedding. He had been going out with his fiancée for nine years. Mom, dad and son went out to dinner one night. David turned to Joan at one point and said, "Mom, do you realize when you get married, that's it? That's your partner for the rest of your life? Don't you think that's depressing?"
She said, "Yeah, a little. But there are trade-offs."
He. "I think I want to have an affair."
She "Now? Right now? An affair?"
He "Guess who I want to have an affair with? You'll never guess."
She "I bet I do know."
He "No, you'd never guess. Never, ever guess."
She "Bet I would." And she said the name. A man's name. David nodded, surprised.
And she said, "Listen, Dave. Don't you for one moment consider walking down the aisle with [her] as long as this is in your head. You have to stop everything. Do not screw your life up. Or hers."
Four days later, Parker went in for a checkup. Doctors found a tumor in her remaining breast. A mastectomy was scheduled immediately. "I remember thinking 'Oh Jesus, I do not have time for this,'" she says. "After the first one, this cancer seemed rather gratuitous and unnecessary."
"My father died at 58, my mother at 72. So it scares me I've had cancer twice. When I go for a checkup now, that level of fear is there. But otherwise I'm in excellent health. Much more physically able than I was in my 20s."
She bursts out laughing. "Not that that's saying a hell of a lot."
So there you have it. Ten years down the road from splitsville and Susan's back with Spenser and the Parkers have polished this upstairs-downstairs thing until it glows like the sun off a brass doorplate, or maybe a short barreled Smith & Wesson .38, that's more like it. He's still famous and she's still restless, but the story here is how they went through hell and found themselves and then each other again and now, guess what, she's moved into the lead, not just the penthouse, and whatever time she has left on God's green earth its gonna be Mrs. Parker's turn to step out and dance.
"She never could stand being a trophy wife," comments David Parker. "She was not cut out to be sucked into my father's fame."
"It wasn't Bob I wanted, it was Joan," says Dede Ketoiver. "She is the most singularly focused person I know."
Half-hour. Nine, 9:30 time slot. I'm thinking "Friends" meets "NYPD Blue" at the O.K. Corral.
Like I said, a love story.