After doing interviews for over a decade or so, it dawned on me one day that I would inevitably find out that one of the actors I had interviewed had passed away. Never in my most horrific nightmares did I imagine that the first one to leave us would be the one I was closest to.
When my dear friend David Dukes died on location during the filming of the miniseries Rose Red in October 2000, it was the most numbing shock I had ever experienced. I coped by scribbling down every wonderful memory I had of our twelve-year friendship with the intention of publishing the pages as a memorial tribute. After reading them over, I decided they would best remain as a journal entry. Now after recently looking at them for the first time in almost twenty years, I have realized that no written words can truly encompass the importance that my friendship with David had on me because I know now that he was one of the best friends I have ever had, and I have never had a friend like him since.
For someone who turned out to be the person who knew everything about me, our first meeting should have wound up being our last. A classmate of mine wanted to go after a Wednesday matinee of M. Butterfly on Broadway to speak to his co-star, and David came out first. She told him how much she enjoyed the show, but I proceeded to scold him about a quote he gave to a newspaper about his acting technique. As I recall, “Why would you say something like that?” was just one of the cringeworthy remarks that flew out of my mouth. David very patiently explained what he meant and that was the end of that.
If not for the admonishment I received from my friend during the 25 blocks-long walk all the way back to school, I never would have gone back the following week to apologize for my rudeness. David was pleasantly surprised by the gesture and invited me back inside to talk. We sat in his dressing room for quite a long while as he asked me questions about who I was, where I was going to school, what my major was, etc. and offered unsolicited advice on how I should see as many plays as possible to learn about acting and watch the films of Sidney Lumet to learn about directing.
When we left, I asked him if I could interview him for my school newspaper, and he told me to come back again after next Wednesday’s matinee. On the day, David had an appointment scheduled with his agent, and in the days of pre-cell phones, there was no way of letting me know, so we rescheduled for the following Wednesday. That day I stayed home sick and went back the following Wednesday, and of course, he was not available that day. Again and again we rescheduled, but something always kept us from sitting down to do the actual interview: David was too tired after his matinee, I forgot my tape recorder, he had an appointment, I had to go straight to school for a project, famous friends would surprise him backstage, etc.
Through all of the delays, the one constant was that we always managed to have a great conversation, and as the weeks went by, I stopped asking if it was a good day to do the interview and just showed up almost every Wednesday afternoon to talk to my new friend. After talking for over an hour sometimes, I would say, “Y’know, we could have done the interview today,” to which David would suck the air out of the room with that incredible laugh of his and always reply, “Maybe we can do it next Wednesday.” That day finally came years later after a matinee of another Broadway play, and neither of us knew then that it would be one of the last times we would see each other.
Whenever I am asked how do I decide which actors I want to interview, I always say that there are only three criteria: They must be a good actor (of course!), a good man, and a good person. Yes, those are three different things, and David Dukes was the epitome of all three and the gold standard by which I measure every actor I have encountered since knowing him.
He never became a huge star, but David was in many films and guest starred on countless television series for over thirty years. He was also one of the most sought-after and respected actors on Broadway, where his talent shined the brightest. He was a beautiful man who was oblivious to the women who would fawn over him outside a stage door, but whose eyes would light up with giddy joy and adoration every time he spoke about his wife. He was the only person who knew all my hopes and dreams and fears, and who proved time and again that he was a better friend to me than I ever had the chance of being to him.
It would have been my absolute pleasure to write a great part for him to play or to direct him in a project. That was not meant to be, but I will continue to honor David—and every actor I knew who is no longer with us—for the rest of my own days.
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