Jan-Michael Vincent Seventeen Years Later
By Steve Fenton
By Steve Fenton on December 27, 2009 | From sfenton2008.blogspot.com
I first met Jan-Michael Vincent in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico in October of 1992. We sat by a pool and talked about surfing and the days in Baja long before anything resembling a highway could get you to the most remote, virgin surf spots. What I noted was how at-ease he made me feel--almost immediately. He was just as interested in my life as I was in his.
Me and Jan-Michael VIncent, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, October 1992
Last November, I saw someone whom I believed to be him in a dark restaurant in the French Quarter in New Orleans late one night. This is my account of our second, chance meeting seventeen years later.
November 18, 2009
New Orleans, LA
On a tip from the woman at the hotel desk where we were staying in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Holly and I found the seasoned, dark-wooden doorway on Decatur Street. Our momentum was hindered for a moment at the entrance where we waited for a slower moving and somewhat older man, while his companion helped him to clear the threshold of the doorway. I studied the room for a good seat. We had to settle for a table near the doorway as I watched the man in tow, led by the younger woman to the only other decent table in the place.
While Holly studied the menu, I glanced around the room and found my eyes wandering back in the direction of the man and the woman who had taken our spot. There was something about the man that intrigued me. His posture was beyond his years and he sported a rather undomesticated look. The hair struck me as somewhat long for his age, shoulder length and combed straight back--though it seemed to follow character. He had a refined look about his face, particularly his eyes--a steely, piercing gaze one could pick out of a crowd a hundred yards away.
By the time I had become aware that my interest in the man might appear awkward, his eyes looked up from his menu and caught my stare. Our eye contact was a fraction of a second, yet long enough to determine that we’d met somewhere once before. Only how? Where? When?
Holly had been trying to figure out what dish from the white-chalk lettering on the blackboard wall might be mild enough for her sensitive palate. “I think I might know that man over there,” I told her. “We're two-thousand miles from home. How would you know him?” She quizzed. Before I could reveal my hunch, the waitress appeared ready to take our order. I interrupted her. “Do you know that man over there? Is he a regular here?” I asked. “Never seen him before,” she said, casually tossing a look in his direction. We gave the young waitress our order and she disappeared. Now Holly understood that my interest in the man was more than curious.
“I met a well known actor from the ‘70s and ‘80s on a fishing trip in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in 1992 named Jan-Michael Vincent . We talked for at least a couple of hours, just he and I, drinking beers and trading cigarettes by the pool at the Solmar resort. He told me all about his early surf days when he and his buddies would pile into a VW van and look for perfect breaking waves at beaches that had never seen a surfboard, all along the Baja Pacific Coast. He was in Cabo for a celebrity fishing tournament. I ran into him again the next day at the marina, where he told me all about their boat catching fire at sea, then another day back at the resort where my girl friend took our picture. I’m pretty sure that’s him.”
“That guy doesn’t look like any movie actor I’ve ever seen. I think your way off on this one,” Holly teased.
On a whim, only a few months earlier, I had googled the man's name to see if he was still acting. He was my favorite film actor when I was just a guppy and at one time was one of the biggest box office draws in the film industry. I knew that he’d been in and out of rehab with some legal scrapes and his drinking had pretty much scuttled his career since we first met. A bad accident had fractured three vertebrae in his neck. He had retreated into relative obscurity.
The man sported a rather thick-framed pair of black reading glasses but his eyes were unique and unmistakeable. Disregarding my own policy about cell phones in restaurants, I discreetly googled JMV's name and turned my Blackberry around for Holly to see the actor’s most recent known photo, though it was from some years back. The stunned look on Holly’s face confirmed my hunch. “Oh my God, your right! That’s him!” Holly doesn’t often get excited so I knew I was on the money.
Our waitress returned and began dropping hot plates in front of us. ”I’d like to buy an anonymous round of whatever that couple is drinking,” I said, gesturing toward the former stranger. "Why do you want to remain anonymous to them?” Holly asked. “I just don’t want to intrude. The guy obviously wants his privacy and I don’t think he’s looking for an audience these days. He’d never remember me, anyway!”
The waitress managed a smile as she returned some time later to the table. “The couple that you bought a round for wants to know who bought them,” she announced. Before I could assemble the verbiage to declare that it would be better to leave it as such, the two figures from the prime seats stood and began making their way toward us. I immediately thought about the first time I'd met JMV in Cabo. I hadn't wanted to intrude then either, but my girlfriend embarrassed me by going to him when I told her who he was. By some sort of cosmic imbalance, he insisted on coming over to sit next to me by the pool. Within minutes we'd discovered a common interest and began squakking about surfing. We had surfed many of the same spots up and down California, from Laguna Beach to Santa Cruz.. Now, Seventeen years later, Jan-Michael Vincent was again walking toward me.
The woman who was with JMV was a rather attractive looking blonde with shoulder length hair, hazel eyes, and by my guess, in her mid fifties. She smiled with misguided excitement and came at me with her arms open, anticipating a hug while calling out a name I did not know. I stood to meet her, explaining “We don’t know each other, but I met Jan many years ago while on a fishing trip in Cabo San Lucas. I didn’t intend to intrude but only wanted to send a 'Welcome to New Orleans' beverage your way.”
She stopped just short of me and instead extended her hand but kept her smile. “You’re not with the Ashton Kutcher people from “Punked?” “I’m afraid not. I’m Steve and this is Holly. We’re just here grabbing a bite,” I said. At that moment, Jan-Michael Vincent came up from behind and moved face to face with me, extending his hand. “We met many years ago while in Cabo San Lucas, out by a pool, sharing stories about surfing and the early days in Baja,” I explained, realizing that I hadn’t bothered to take a breath. Instead of a dubious scowl, he studied my eyes and softly said in a strained voice, “Yes, I remember you. Many years ago! How have you been?”
I introduced him to Holly and she returned a smile with a warm “Hello.” He then troubled himself to take a seat next to Holly as he could venture himself welcome. He introduced “Anna” his wife just as she was scurrying away to some unfinished business with another party near their table. Anna seemed sincerely relieved that we were only a couple of harmless admirers, and not a TV crew trying to perpetrate some cruel hoax for a cable reality show.
Mr. Vincent was now a guest at my table. Holly smiled with amusement at the notion that I would have anything remotely interesting enough to engage JMV in any kind of meaningful dialogue. I had recalled however, just how easy he was to talk to. He asked me about my occupation and said that although he’d never operated as a general contractor, he had designed and built four custom homes and had a healthy respect for the trade. We talked about our fathers and their time in the service during WWII. Both our fathers had been pilots in the Army Air Corps and had flown B-25s. His economy with words was evident yet his speech was clear and direct. “Your face reminds me of my father’s. I’m not saying that you look old, but you have some similarities to his, especially the eyes,” he said.
I didn’t quite know how to respond, but I considered it a compliment considering the source. He commented on my watch, a thirty-dollar Casio I bought at Costco. He showed me his, a rather unadorned, but large faced Seiko. His demeanor is abruptly disarming from the moment he invites dialogue. The way I had remembered JMV was exactly as it was now—it’s not all about him. He is as interested in your world as one might be in his.
Watching his eyes light up as they did when we talked about aircraft and quite aware of his most famous role as "Stringfellow Hawk" in the TV series Airwolf, I considered that he might be interested in what I had to share with him. I showed him a photo I had stored in my BB. "This is me with one of my clients. You might remember him and his flying boat adventure landing a jet on the Hudson River last January." JMV leaned forward, his eyes squinting to fine-tune the small image of Sully and me. The million-dollar boyish grin that I'd seen so many times on film, joined the wrinkles where a life of smiles had been. "He's one of your clients?" he asked. His eyes were wide like those of a child watching his milkshake in motion. "Yes, I've completed several projects on his home over the years. I installed the custom french doors behind us in the photo so he could have an office to write a book. He lives in my hometown in Danville, back in California. Nicest guy you could ever know!" I added.
As the time with our incidental table guest began to lose dimension, I realized that it would be limited. Though he gave no indication of losing interest in our small talk, I remembered the photo I still had of our first meeting in Cabo San Lucas. When a pause occurred in our shares, I asked if he’d mind a photo as a footnote to our re-encounter. He eagerly agreed and asked Anna to manage the camera so that Holly could be in the picture. Anna had been buzzing back and forth between tables and the request employed some consideration. She eyed the abandoned food and table wear in front of us. “We’ll have to move to a clear table,” declared Anna. (I’d created an imposition and began to regret the request.)
Anna directed the three of us toward a table next to where they had been sitting. I slid in next to JMV, and Holly, next to me. The camera at hand was nothing more than my Blackberry. I'd have offered my kingdom to have my Nikon that I'd left at the hotel. With every camera flash I noticed a subtle, perhaps second-nature, realignment of the contour of his face—his eyes to the lens as a marksmen’s target in the cross hairs.
Our waitress now approached introducing herself as “Stefanie” and offered to work the camera so that Anna could be in the photos. Anna flanked Holly and me with JMV on the far end. Anna was vigilant about not letting JMV sign anything when Stefanie asked for an autograph, mentioning something about his signature having been used unscrupulously in a business transaction that had cost the estate hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The single photo request had grown into a full blown photo shoot with the waitress now taking a seat next to JMV and Anna back behind the camera. A woman who had been politely standing a few feet back now asked to have a photo taken as well. The bar had come alive with gossip about our table—most not old enough to have seen the actor’s work or if they had, would never have connected the faces, but tonight somebody was at Coop’s.
JMV, me, and Holly, New Orleans, November 2009
Anna now sat hip-to-hip with me on my left and I found myself trying to politely manage two very different conversations at once. Anna began to describe the documentary about “Big Wednesday”, a 1978 film starring Jan-Michael Vincent with Gary Busey and Bill Katt. They were in New Orleans working with some producers on the documentary.
The conversation turned back to surfing and long boards. JMV told me about a secret surf spot on a ranch he owned above Santa Barbara that had no public access but would make arrangements if I would let him know. Anna talked quite closely into my other ear, describing the project and the cooperation with some of the original actors from the film. Eager to appear fair to both storytellers, my head rotated constantly back-and-forth. Holly found humor in my precarious state.
As the story sharing continued on for a couple of hours, toward last call with Anna in my left ear and JMV in my right ear, something unexpected occurred. He put his hand on mine. "Why are your hands so cold?" He inquired. I could not offer a worthwhile explanation, but he extended his other hand, cradling both my hands now, to warm them. Now Anna moved her hands over ours as well. Feeling rather sheepish, I looked over to Holly for a reaction. She smiled in bewilderment, as if to say, "Now I've seen everything!"
Stephanie, our waitress, had for the most part abandoned her other tables and the bartender was now indicating "Last Call" while urging Stefanie to get up and help with closing. Before I could get to my feet, Anna asked if I would be kind enough to settle the bill and calculate the tip for her as she handed me her credit card, adding "We've included your check as well!" I heartily thanked her for the generous gesture but I had to decline.
Stefanie, Jan-Michael and Me
Holly and Anna exchanged emails, we said our goodbyes, and left the couple to wait for their driver to come for them. Walking out into the balmy night from the cozy darkness of Coop's and up Decatur Street, there was a quiet moment of reflection on the way that our Cajun-dinner-adventure had ended up.
"I'm glad that we were able to stop them from paying for our dinner, when we were the ones that had sent a round to their table," I said.
"Steve, I don't think it would have been awkward at all. I think that it was their way of showing their delight and appreciation to share some short stories and long laughs with a nice couple. One thing that I noticed about them was how they take care of each other. You have to consider that just about everyone they come into contact with wants something from them. Even though you sounded like a ten-year-old asking for a photo, somehow he remembered you and seemed pleased that you asked. The pride that you thought you were reserving probably would have been outweighed a hundred times by the pleasure it would have given them to pick up our tab. You could have told your future grandchildren that Jan-Michael Vincent bought you dinner!" Holly teased.
Holly had a knack for putting things in naked perspective, while not offering a towel.
At a loss for any suitable reply to Holly's lecture, it was now clear--as we passed night clubs and bars that had closed for the evening--why the Voodoo shops stay open all night long here in New Orleans.http://www.zimbio.com/Jan-Michael+Vincent/articles/b6T1MdWgd12/Jan+Michael+Vincent+Seventeen+Years+Later