The following was written in 2010, to be read at the memorial service for my father, Robert Katims:
Robert was an actor but he was also a salesman. They say a good salesman can sell ice to Eskimos. But that’s not what a salesman is, not how Robert told it anyway. A salesman is a man who turns doorknobs.
Being a salesman made a man out of me. That’s what he told me, very recently, when the two of us were sitting around his living room, right where I am now as I write this, chewing the fat and, as always, arguing. (What joy there was in arguing with my dad! I will never enjoy arguing with anyone as much as I enjoyed it with him!)
Being a salesman made a man out of me. Not the army. Not the untimely death of his own father, still a young man. Not the divorce of his parents. Not having children or getting married. Or any of the other things he might have pointed to as having made a “man” of him. Being a salesman. And by way of explanation he spoke of the courage it took to turn a doorknob when you weren’t invited and had no appointment and had no idea what was waiting on the other side. That moment when you puffed up your chest and chased your own inner demons long enough to turn that big brass baby and stride on into a room and say Hi, I’m Robert Katims and I have something for you. And he told me that he once sold to a guy who broke down in tears and bought a lot of stuff because, he said, You remind me of my dad.
A dad who was a salesman.
My dad was a salesman and in the words of Arthur Miller,
for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.
Turning doorknobs. A salesman needs to turn a lot of those doorknobs if he’s going to make a living. And the doorknobs don’t come to you either. You have to go find them, way out in the blue. And while he was out there we were at home. Me and my brother and sister, and my mom. We were playing or fighting or arguing or shopping or cooking or watching TV and he was elsewhere.
Then there would come a moment when we heard a sound and the salesman would turn his own doorknob and a cry would go up like Christmas morning. Daddy! Daddy’s home! I can see him smiling and setting down his big briefcase as he prepared to receive me in his arms. Daddy’s home! And the smell of tobacco and cologne and Brylcream, the scratch of his beard on my little boy cheek, his thick black curly hair in my fingers as he picked me up in his arms and held me over his head. Daddy’s home! Oh what a moment!
As I grew to be thirteen or fourteen and suddenly knew everything, I came to understand that being a salesman was my dad’s selling out. He had really wanted to be an actor but he didn’t have the courage to pursue his dream. He had a wifey and little kiddies to worry about so he went and got a day job. I accused him of giving up. I used all my powers of cross examination (which under his tutelage had already grown to be formidable) to get him to confess that he missed acting. But he never broke. He told me he didn’t miss it one bit. He told me that selling was acting anyway and he was giving the performance of his life, ten times a day. He told me he didn’t care. He told me that if he missed acting he would go back to it. He told me just about everything and the exact opposite of just about everything and I didn’t believe him. I would not be fooled. In this and many other arguments, I exposed him. I ridiculed him. I mocked him. I cajoled him. I cornered him. I evinced him. Almost entirely. Almost to my own satisfaction. But he never broke. And he never backed down.
It was as if acting were a dirty little secret. The 1953 review my mom had saved, yellowed already back in 1971 when I found it, in the shoe box in the basement. Robert Katims in The Penguin! A stellar performance by a new young talent. My father was upset when I unearthed it. He didn’t want his children to know he had been an actor. Why? Was he trying to hide what he thought of as his failure?
Let us understand at least that when my father gave up acting it was also out of disgust with the entertainment industry as a whole which had caved in to the House Un-American Activities Committee and had named names. And here was this kid who was just starting out, just hoping to break in to that very industry.
You see, the secret within the secret was that my dad was a “leftist” or a “fellow traveler” or whatever. A damn commie, in the eyes of Joe McCarthy’s crew. So if he was ever lucky enough to break into the movie or the television business in the 1950s he could expect to be called by the Committee and what then?
So maybe when he told me that he didn’t miss acting one little bit he was being sincere after all. Who would miss that?
Nobody asked salesmen to name the names of their fellow salesmen and managers who were sympathetic to the communists. (Or did they?)
And my dad was sympathetic to the Soviets. All his life. With the Khrushchev and the Castro and the Hugo Chavez. Probably he was so sympathetic that he blinded himself to the contradictions of those charismatic leftist leaders and the crimes those contradictions led to, at least in some cases. Not in all, by the way. My father was not a complete apologist for Stalin. It is not good for us to over-simplify the opinions of others, it is not good for our health. Especially those who can no longer rise in protest.
My father rose in protest. He stood up in the Brooklyn Democratic Club meeting and said the club should only endorse a candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam. This was sixty-five and the candidate was for the office of mayor of New York City! The mayor of New York has nothing to do with foreign wars. Abe Beame wasn’t saying a damn thing about Vietnam one way or the other. But Bill Ryan was. Ryan was saying U.S. out of Vietnam. And that was good enough for my dad. He rose and took the unpopular position that if you didn’t oppose the war in Vietnam, openly and categorically, you had no business running for public office in New York City in 1965.
And so my dad got up on top of a car in a vacant lot across from 47 McKeever Place and introduced Bill Ryan to an enthusiastic throng of about twelve and said over a bullhorn, Ryan for Mayor! and I watched from the eleventh story window in the living room of our apartment at Ebbets Field. That’s my Dad! On top of the car talking into the bullhorn with everybody listening! Making a very convincing sales pitch! A regular actor!
Rise in protest. Go ahead. Stand up and take an unpopular position, then come back and tell me if it’s easy. Not even in public. Just try it at dinner. Then we’ll talk.
I say it takes doorknob courage. The same kind of courage my dad was talking about. I say it will make a man out of you (or a woman).
My father (like my mother) did not simply support the civil rights movement. He joined the Committee to Defend the Black Panthers and called for the liberation of all political prisoners, organized events to raise money for their defense funds. He and a bunch of folks from the neighborhood. Ruth, Abbie, Mimi, Lou, Mary, Evelyn, Reed, Joe… His best friends were those who rose in protest, who weren’t afraid to say what they thought and wouldn’t back down from a good argument. Nathan was his best friend.
I say it takes doorknob courage to be a white Jewish man in America and stand up and say If you’re black in America and you’re not paranoid then you must be crazy! and my father said that. And I am so proud of him for saying that.
And saying these things had consequences. Who knows exactly what consequences by the way. Henry Graubart, a member of that same Committee to defend the Panthers, turned out to be a spy and an FBI provocateur. Old J. Edgar Hoover thought that what my dad was doing was important!
As a salesman, my father could make lots of time for annoying J. Edgar Hoover.
Maybe giving up acting was a refusal to sell out, did you ever think of that?
What joy there was in arguing with my dad. Especially when I had driven him to distraction with all my dazzling argument and he finally, breathlessly begged me, Michael, just shut up a second and listen, will ya?
In any case, as with most of the arguments we had, I was right! He did miss acting! I can prove it: He went back to it as soon as his children were more or less grown. He made movies and TV and performed in the theater in New York and Los Angeles (and other places too). I was right!
Later, how proud he was of being an actor. And if you went to a restaurant with him in Pacific Palisades or Santa Monica and there was somebody famous sitting at the next table, Robert would turn and say “Hi we’re in the business! I’m an actor and my son here is a TV producer! And my other son here speaks French! And my daughter is a very important business executive!”
If he spotted a customer, my dad would try to sell himself and me. And my brother and my sister. And my mom. And anything and anyone else he could possibly think of to sell. And often it was embarrassing for us but many, many times, people were buying it.
He was a pretty good actor, but to my mind he was a better salesman.
He was an actor and a salesman, a political activist, a bridge and tennis enthusiast, a Met fan. You could go on and on. The life of a man is not one thing. He was also a taxi driver who once got out of his car and punched another driver for blocking his lane. He was also a waiter on the graveyard shift at an all-night restaurant in Manhattan. Did he ever tell you how he stopped putting sugar in his coffee? How many times did he tell you?
On the last day of his life I was driving his car toward the hospital when his wonderful nurse called me on the phone and said “I don’t know what you have planned for this evening but you may want to spend it here.” Everywhere he went, my dad made an impression and Barlow Respiratory Hospital was no different. Alia and Dr. Hwang and Aimee, they were his friends already after spending all those months with him. That phone call was an errand run for a friend more than a professional courtesy to the family of a patient. By the time I got there, his blood pressure was terribly low. His eyes were open and he was moving them from side to side, as if watching a tennis match projected on the ceiling over his bed in the ICU. I told him I knew how he must be suffering and I told him it was OK for him to go. I’m sure he heard me. According to his nurse, his blood pressure went back up when I spoke. Probably he wanted to argue with me. Anyway, six-thirty comes rolling around and it’s time for the nurses to change shifts. They throw the visitors out during the shift change. I got up and left and I said to my dad, see you later. Though he did not speak, I could hear his answer, clear as day: “See you later, old buddy!”
When I came back, with my brother Jason, he was gone. Alia tearfully apologized to me for throwing me out just before he died. I said Alia, don’t you see? He was waiting for me to leave. As long as I was in the room with him he couldn’t die. That would be like backing down, that would be like losing the argument!
There comes a moment, as every good salesman will tell you, when the best thing to do is to stop talking. Never sell past the close.
Or, as my father would put it: “Michael, shut up already, will ya?”
Ok, Dad, but I’m going to say one more thing, because now at least I get the last word!
The doorknob has turned and the salesman has gone through another door. Daddy’s home!
Santa Monica, July 2010