From the author: When was the last time you were truly happy?
Herman Hodges was a bit actor who played Uncle Kemble in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Gables. When he auditioned for the part, he was seventy-five years old, a widower, and dying from a degenerative heart condition. He didn't tell the casting director any of that. She laughed when he said he was a very mature twenty-nine, but she didn't turn him away.
Herman had always wanted to be an actor. He never forgot the joy of his first speaking role, as a magical pumpkin in his fifth grade Thanksgiving pageant. He had always looked forward to Halloween, but he'd never thought to build a whole character and not just a shell. His Halloween costumes became more elaborate all through high school, complete with backstory, motivation, and even a little skit he would perform while trick-or-treating.
But as Herman grew older, he found fewer and fewer opportunities to act. His parents and friends and wife and children always dismissed his interest as frivolous. Their doubts undermined his passion, and he gave up that dream and focused on making a home and raising a family. He never regretted that decision.
Years later, after his children had moved away and his wife had died, the now-retired Herman sold his house and relocated to a nursing home. Without anything or anyone to care for but himself, he drifted through his days, going where the staff directed him and doing what they suggested. It was better than nothing.
One night, Herman's nursing home organized a Shakespeare reading--The Merchant of Venice--and the participants drew straws for parts. Herman got Shylock and stage fright. He forced the unfamiliar words through his trembling mouth, hoping he wouldn't faint before they got through the whole play. Had he ever felt this nervous in his life? Not when he proposed to Edith, not even when he had the "birds and bees" talk with their son Brian.
But partway through the reading, Herman stopped feeling nervous. In the play, Shylock's daughter Jessica eloped, and Herman remembered when his own daughter, Abigail, had married her first husband. She had been adamant about wanting to be with him, and her father's disapproval had only hardened her resolve. Herman understood how Shylock must have felt, and he knew how wrong both he and Shylock had been. Herman was angrier with himself than he had ever been with Abigail.
He let his anger pour out in his performance. Everyone had applauded at the end of the reading, and Herman felt something he hadn't felt in a long time.
He had always thought he enjoyed acting because it allowed him to be a different person. Now he realized that he had discovered himself in those characters. Even when he had played a pumpkin--trapped in one place, unable to move, always subject to the will of others--he had found the truth of it in his own fifth grade existence. Herman had allowed himself to feel more deeply on stage than he ever had in daily life.
Herman's first television role was in a thirty-second commercial for a local hardware store, playing the grumpy old neighbor who complains about his inadequate gardening tools. It took him a little while to adjust to acting for the camera, doing the same lines over and over again, but it wasn't difficult. Herman only needed a few seconds before each take to summon the memory of Saturdays spent in his family vegetable garden. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that the heat of the stage lights was the afternoon sun, and he almost expected to hear Edith calling him in for supper.
The casting call for a recurring character in The Five Gables' second season premiere came out just before Herman's seventy-sixth birthday. He had done several commercials by then, and played bit parts in a couple of sitcoms. He had earned a reputation for taking direction well. One of the nurses from the home drove Herman to the Gables audition in her own car. Herman didn't mind that she wandered off, hoping to catch sight of some movie stars on the studio lot, while he waited in a hallway. He didn't even care if he got the part or not. He just liked acting.
Nobody was prepared for the immediate popularity of Herman's character, Uncle Kemble. The day after the season premiere aired, the nursing home phone lines were jammed with calls for Mr. Herman Hodges. After his second episode, reporters from three different local newspapers and two wire services came to interview him. They were all turned away.
"One hit and he's already a prima donna," one reporter muttered while leaving.
"Give him a break," another reporter said. "The guy's old. I hear he's got a weak heart."
Herman was, at that very moment, fighting to inhale oxygen from a face mask and wondering how much longer he would be able to continue acting. He could feel his insides giving up a little more every day, but he still remembered how it felt to be Healthy Herman Hodges, and he could play that part very well. Nobody needed to know how bad it really was.
"It isn't fair," he whispered to himself late one night, unable to sleep. "I shouldn't be dying when I feel so alive."
Herman felt it happening the next day, on set. They were shooting the last scene of his third episode, a mid-season script titled "At Long Last, Love." The show had originally featured a guest character, an old family friend who came to visit the Gable sisters and discovered that his childhood sweetheart lived right next door. After Uncle Kemble made such a splash with critics and audiences, the writers had changed the script so that it was Uncle Kemble who discovered the Gables' new next-door neighbor was the girl he had almost married fifty years ago.
Several of the cast and crew members had shed tears at the table read the week before, and many of them had congratulated Herman on scoring such a plum part so early in his acting career. He had gone home that night and listened to a recording of the Cole Porter song from which the episode took its title. Herman could remember hearing Frank Sinatra sing it, on the radio in his car, during one of his first dates with the girl named Edith who would later become his wife. She had died seven years ago in a car wreck, blindsided by a drunk driver. Herman hadn't been with her. He hadn't gotten to the hospital in time to see her before she went into surgery. He had never said good-bye.
The final day of shooting ran long. It was easy to lose track of time inside the soundstage, with huge lamps producing artificial sunlight. Herman was amazing that day. He didn't flub a single line, and they never had to ask him for a second take unless it was to try something different or fix a technical issue.
The last scene took place on the Gables' front porch, where Uncle Kemble and his childhood sweetheart, Gwen, said good-bye to each other. They had spent the entire episode getting reacquainted, and the TV audience would see their romance flowering again over the course of the hour, only to find that Gwen had a terminal illness. The director shot five takes before he got the scene in the can. He had to keep cutting because the camera operator's sobbing was stepping on the actors' dialogue.
Herman didn't mind waiting while they reset and did the scene over and over again. Angela, the actress playing Gwen, was quite attractive. He didn't mind looking into her eyes and begging her to stay with him. Her eyes were a bright, pale blue--the same as Edith's. He enjoyed the memories that came flooding back as he looked into those eyes.
"I can't stay," Angela said five times. "I'm going to get worse. I don't want you to see me at the end."
"I love you," Herman said five times, with the face of a man at a loss for words.
"It isn't fair," Angela said. "I shouldn't be dying when I feel so alive."
Herman reached out and took Angela's hand. She looked down, then up, and nodded. He smiled at her for the fifth and last time.
"Print that!" the director cried, once. "That's it! We're wrapped!"
Everyone applauded. Herman closed his eyes.
Herman Hodges, a bit actor who played Uncle Kemble in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Gables, passed away while doing something he loved. He was seventy-six years old. He lived before he died.
This story originally appeared in From the Porch Swing.