Yesterday would have been the 74 birthday of my late friend, the legendary comedy writer, Michael O’Donoghue who died 20 years ago of a massive brain aneurism. He always said his brain was going to explode and he wasn’t wrong. I met him in the mid-80s and we became fast friends. He was the original head writer for Saturday Night Live, back in the day (next year it will be 40 years!) and before that he was the genius writer for National Lampoon, the last truly funny humor magazine. But beyond his brilliant writing, he was a great friend, to me especially. He changed my life, in more ways than one. When I was fed up with magazines in the early 90s, he hired me as his art director, with zero experience, on an HBO pilot called TV and I moved to LA for 3 months. (a young Ben Stiller came to interview as a director, I remember) I was a frequent guest at his brownstone on West 16th Street along with his famous friends. (James Taylor, Angelic Huston, Bill Murray, Margot Kidder, Mitch Glaser & Kelly Lynch and on and on…) I would “practice” being normal around these famous people in a small social setting. It actually worked and, with the rare exception, today I don’t act too much like an idiot around celebrities.
He and his wife, Cheryl Hardwick (who was the music director on SNL for many years) had a spectacular Georgian estate in the west of Ireland, called Garranbaun House, that I was lucky enough to visit for weeks at a time on more than one occasion. It was beyond beautiful there and when I arrived, I would spend half a day gathering flowers from the garden and using every available vase, even the umbrella stand, making arrangements for all 15 rooms. Michael & I would get ready for parties in our assumed roles, I was Monsieur Le Fleur and he was Monsieur Ambiencé. Sounds pretty gay,huh? You’d think he might be gay from his interests, but he very much liked the ladies. I always assumed he was somewhat of a perv but I knew he was also a romantic and a gentleman. His longtime assistant knew when a date was afoot when he would be sent out for candles, Polaroid film and ice cream.
He was BRILLIANTLY funny and wrote MANY famous SNL sketches, some of which he appeared in, like Mr. Mike’s Least Loved Bedtime Tales (with a young Jodi Foster on his knee.) He was an actor and a screenwriter, as well (you can see him in Manhattan with Diane Keaton in the MoMA date scene) and his best known film Scrooged is a modern holiday classic now. When he was a screenwriter in Hollywood on the back lot of Zoetrope Studios, all of the producers had lavish offices with Picasso’s and Warhol’s adorning their walls. Michael was annoyed by this pretentiousness and his own blank walls, so he bought two paint by number painting at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet for 50 cents. He bought a few more and people began to give them to him. He later said to me that he would like to exhibit his collection some day, so I asked my old friend Paul Bridgewater and we mounted a show of more than 200 of them in ’92. When he died 2 years later, suddenly, his widow gave me the collection and now I have some 3000 and I’ve made them my life’s work.
He was could be SO funny – and he could have the cruelest wit (when a hated ex girlfriend’s cancer went into remission he wrote, “You used to be able to count on cancer…”) but he really was the sweetest guy – if you remained a loyal friend. If you betrayed him, you were dead. DEAD. Personally, I like that kind of loyalty in my friends. So, I miss him, of course – we all miss our friends when they’re gone. What I remember and miss the most is was what a true “appreciator” he was. He appreciated and celebrated so many diverse things; beauty, aesthetics, ingenuity, oddities, luxury, talent, freaks, intelligence… the list goes on, but that IS something to aspire to in my book. Appreciate things in life and point them out. (I guess that’s what I try to do here, huh?) I’ll finish with another of Mr. Mike’s aphorism; “Life isn’t for everybody.” (Top, with Diane Keaton, who shares a birthday with Michael, in Woody Allen’s Manhattan; Dennis Perrin’s biography; on the very first SNL, “Wolverines” cold open; with a pre-pubescent Jodi Foster on SNL in “Mr. Mike’s Least Loved Bedtime Tales”; with Garrett Morris in SNL‘s “Mr. Mike & Tina Turner Review” and in a cameo role in Scrooged, which he co-wrote with Mitch Glazer)