Of all these profiles I expect to write – and as you will come to see, there are far too many – this one is the one I want most to get right because, even after more than 30 years since we last spoke across a restaurant table in the East Village, I still miss him. I miss his broad smile and the dimples that framed it, his bright eyes and sharp wit, the way he used to shake his head full of dark-blonde hair back and forth when he was happy, and his amazingly expressive face. And, the tragedy here is that we are all – you and I and everyone else – missing the brilliant work he would have done, would still be doing, for George Falkenberry was a profoundly talented actor well on his way to fame and fortune when AIDS came to call, but I get ahead of myself…
[NOTE TO MY READERS: This is the second in my series of Profiles in Grace, written to illuminate the wonderful lives led by my too-many friends who were simply stopped in their tracks by AIDS during the 80s and early 90s. If you missed it, I encourage you to read the full introduction to and rationale for this series at the beginning of the first of these profiles here: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/tbtgts1-randall-robbins-actor-teacher-leader-friend/ ]
How We Knew Each Other:
It was the first week of the 1970-’71 school year at Birmingham-Southern College, and I was standing near the student union sharing summer stories with a friend when I saw someone I’d never seen before bouncing across the quad in a joyful, “glad to be here” way that got my attention. His gait and bearing said, loudly, ‘I’m no freshman’, so, as the newly elected yearbook editor who thought I knew everyone who had been there for more than a semester, I was intrigued. “Who is that?” I asked the person standing next to me who just happened to be a drama major.
“Oh, that’s Bud. Bud Falkenberry. He just transferred in from some art school in North Carolina. He’s from Selma.”
But, what I had seen in that fleeting moment, what I had recognized instantly without even so much as a word to go on, was something I had long since given up any hope of ever finding: a younger brother. We would come to realize almost instantly, once we met, that we were cut from the same cloth, bathed in the same waters and reared in much the same way by our upper-middle-class progressive southern parents. Our vocabulary was identical, and we could finish each others’ sentences from the start.
I was blessed with two sisters who are and always will be stars in my eyes, but the second boy my parents wanted never came along, leaving me to wonder in my youth just what having a brother would be like. Until I met George. We bonded faster than superglue the moment we met, and remained fast and cherished friends until he withdrew to the woods at the end of his run, fourteen years later. (And, for those of you who knew him in earlier times, I always called him “George” because that was the way he introduced himself to me, even though everyone, up to then, had always called him by his nickname, Bud, and many still do. I think, looking back, that I may well have been the first of his new Birmingham friends to be so honored. I suspect that after an unhappy freshman experience, he was more than ready for a new script, a new role, a new name, and what better place to start than as a new student in a new school?)
George and I were both born to rock-solid Alabama parents – couples proud to have done their part in WWII and even prouder to have found peace in a place where they could explore their own possibilities and raise their families – who were so secure in their own selves and beliefs, that the very idea that anything “wrong” could spring from their partnership was simply inconceivable. And because they felt that way, and loved us so much, even when we began showing signs of idiosyncrasy that other parents might have found alarming, they had the confidence and wisdom to allow us the freedom to grow into our own personalities without limit, however it may have perplexed or concerned them, and however it may have been frowned upon along the ultra-conservative ground from which we sprang.
At base, I believe this was the reason that we bonded so swiftly as friends, and why our friendship only grew more firm and secure through the years. That said, there were three specific occasions that helped to confirm our affection for each other, any one of which might have been enough to keep us close for life.
The first instance happened later in the same school year and involved a road trip to Selma and that yearbook. As with most annuals, the one I produced began with a light, fun section showing candid shots of students in various activities and poses around campus, and one of those photos was a shot of Sam Hobbs, also of Selma, one of the brightest, most thoughtful and popular Seniors, caught sleeping soundly on one of the couches in the student lounge. I chose it because Sam had a great sense of humor, and he happily went along when I proposed using it.
But then, over the Christmas holidays, tragedy struck. Sam was killed while doing what he loved most – riding full out on his Motorbike across a New Mexico desert. Well, I immediately did what I could to pull the photo from the yearbook, but those early pages had been submitted months before and were already printed, trimmed and ready for the bindery. There was nothing I could do, aside from adding, at the end of the book, a black-bordered remembrance of Sam written by a fraternity brother who, as it happened, had also taken the earlier photo.
Nevertheless, I knew that Sam had paid for his copy of the yearbook in advance, and that it would have to be delivered to his family, and I simply couldn’t allow a situation to happen where his mother or father, unaware, might turn to that opening page to see Sam lying there, his arms across his chest in such an all-too-prophetic photo. So, I turned to George, who had known the Hobbs family his entire life, and asked if he would accompany me to Selma to deliver that yearbook in person to Sam’s mother. And so he did, and though it was a sad, sorrowful meeting, Mrs. Hobbs was as gracious as she could be to both of us.
And, of course, we were both somber as we were driving away, when George said, “Turn around, Tommy, and let’s go to my house. I want to show you something.”
“Okay,” I said as I made a u-turn, “What is it?”
“Vivien Leigh,” he said.
Now, I already knew that he thought Vivien Leigh was one of the finest actresses ever to hit stage or screen, so it was no surprise, really, when he told me that some years earlier he had painted her portrait – as Scarlett O’Hara – and he was rather proud of the way it had turned out.
He’d been away from home for a couple of years by that time and the portrait had been relegated to the attic, so I stood at the foot of the folding ladder while he went up to get it. It really was very good for such a singular effort, and I told him so, before he returned her to her gable and we headed north, once again, to Birmingham. It may seem a simple thing, but, to me, showing me his handiwork that hot spring day was another affirmation of our brotherhood. We each wanted the other to know our souls.
Our second bonding experience was much more straightforward and took place the next school year when we were both cast in a major school production of Marat-Sade. He, by then, was the departmental star, and there was never any doubt that he would be cast in the leading role as Marat, and I, as the only Birmingham-Southern student who played the flute, was cast as the piccolo player written into the script. I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity to watch him work in those rehearsals and performances. I already knew he was good, and I began to understand just how talented he was.
But, of course, both of these experiences pale in comparison to the third one, which made it an absolute certainty that our friendship would be lasting. In the most studious and cautious way possible – for these were days when it was truly jail-worthy – we approached our mutual friend who we knew was well-versed in these sorts of things (after all, she did gigs with Nell Carter at Society’s Child in downtown Birmingham on weekends and knew all the local jazz musicians) to help us procure some marijuana. In spite of being a college graduate, I had never tried it, but now that I was out of a dorm and into my first apartment, the coast was clear. And George was as eager as I was to see what all the fuss was about. And so we did.
Well, we laughed for at least two weeks. We laughed at funny things and we laughed at not-so-funny things, and when we were done laughing, we made up more jokes to keep it going. Those were surely the most astonishing, uplifting, revelatory weeks of our times together and also, without doubt, the most ‘brotherly’ few weeks we were able to spend together. About the second or third day, he came into the apartment already laughing and said, “Tonto Jokes!”
“What?” I asked.
“What you call,” he then rejoined in broken English, “two-thousand pound digit?”
“What?” I asked again, mystified.
“TON TOE!,” he said, very pleased with himself.
And so, for the next two weeks, we sat on the floor of my still unfurnished Southside apartment and made up Tonto jokes. They were really terrible, and not even all that funny, but we laughed till our sides split, and then came up with another one and laughed some more. “What does prime minister’s spouse say when prime minister talk too loud?”
“I don’t know.”
“GOLDA! MY EAR!”
Childhood and Family
As the son of a drama teacher and newspaperman, George, like I, was blessed with sympathetic parents. Oh, they may have done their best to harden our skins, but, for the most part, they allowed us to bloom as God intended and we were both mindful of just how fortunate we were. But, that said, George’s family was considerably more newsworthy than mine, for want of a better way to say it, because George’s father, Roswell Falkenberry, had become the editor and publisher of the Selma Times-Journal during tumultuous times – beginning in 1963, two years before the march to Montgomery, and continuing until his retirement in 1974. Personally, I cannot even imagine the pressures he must have had to endure – the slings and arrows coming from every direction – and yet, in all that time, he remained steadfast in his support of peaceful and level-headed
integration at a time when all the forces around him were doing their best to defeat it. His stand was courageous and, really, heroic (for which he received the Alabama Press Association’s “Journalist of the Year” award in 1965 – the year of the March – for “his policy of unbiased reporting” and, only three years ago, in 2013, he was posthumously inducted into the APA’s Hall of Fame).
Mr. Falkenberry stirred up a bit of a ruckus in 1965 when he was quoted in Jet Magazine saying of Dr. Martin Luther King, that “personally, I think he’s a great man… One of the greatest men in the world when it comes to what he’s trying to do.” So, it is perhaps no surprise that it was also in 1965 when the Ku Klux Klan came calling to burn crosses in George’s front yard. He was only 14 at the time, and one can only guess at how frightening that must have been for him, but I have little doubt that he found a way to use the experience to add yet more range to his acting, to enhance his reservoir of emotions in ways that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
And what a range it was! I might despair of telling just how expressive he could be, but as it happens, George, like Randy Robbins who was the subject of my first TBT/GTS profile, also had a movie to his credit, although unlike Randy, whose part in Ordinary People was the last best achievement of his budding career, in George’s case, the movie role came while he was still in high school, arising out of the fact that Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was filmed in Selma, and the producers used as many local actors as possible to enhance the authenticity of the piece.
George’s best scene is a three-way conversation between him, Sondra Locke, and another Selma fellow (who, quite coincidentally, is another good friend from ‘Southern). And even though I’m illustrating here a few screen shots to demonstrate the range of George’s facial repertoire, I could have taken another twenty rapid fire photos and had another score of completely different facial expressions to show you.
After Leaving Home
Today, the North Carolina School of the Arts is a well-respected institution that has, over the years, produced hundreds of performing artists who populate the stages of Broadway, opera houses and dance companies around the country, but it was still finding itself in 1969, when George enrolled, and by all accounts his time there was not happy. And, so, the next year, he transferred to ‘Southern, which was not only the school that both of his sisters and his father had attended, but also, as fate would have it, sported a theatre
department that, under the august leadership of Dr. Arnold Powell, was not only as good as any small school in the country, but was also receiving national attention for its brand-spanking-new, state-0f-the-art theatre facility with a split/revolve/lift stage that was the first of its kind in the world.
And, as soon as he landed on The Hilltop, as BSC is colloquially called, George had found his home. Every college theatre department has its favorites, its stand-outs, its stars, and from the moment of his first audition for his first part, there was little doubt that he would be filling that role during his time there. He played a succession of leading parts during those years, culminating as Marat in Marat-Sade (me with my piccolo off to the side), before graduating in 1973.
Following graduation, George moved in Birmingham theatre circles for a short while before striking out for Atlanta where, if memory serves, he worked with a children’s theatre company for a couple of years before finally heading for New York. We were both well settled in our minds and hearts, long before we met, that we would end up in New York City. It was, in many ways in those days, our only option if we truly intended to live our lives out to their fullest extent. The only question was which one of us might make it first. Who might be there in time to pave the way for the other?
Well, as it happened, between taking two years off after ‘Southern and then my law school years in Tuscaloosa, George arrived a couple of years before me, and by the time I rang his doorbell on March 2, 1978 – his 27th birthday as it happened; I arrived in the middle of the party and a 28″ snowstorm with two large suitcases and $350 in my pocket – he was already well ensconced, with three other Birmingham-Southern theatre graduates, in an enormous parlor-floor, floor-through on West 68th Street, only half a block from Central Park. Because his roommates, Bobby Thompson and Wren Rolison, were also my friends, and my arrival was timed to coincide with the departure of the fourth roommate, Glenn Shadix, who had decided to move to Hollywood to seek his fortune in the movies, I had a bed to use for a few weeks until I could find a place of my own. (Glenn did, in fact, make quite a name for himself in several Tim Burton movies, and returned to New York for a season, about fifteen years ago, to live with Richard and me while filming a television pilot for Fox that never, ultimately, made it to air. Unfortunately, Glenn also succumbed following an accidental fall from a wheelchair a few years ago, so even he is Gone Too Soon.)
To be honest, I can’t remember which school George chose for his acting classes (there were several great options in those days), but he was always busily pursuing his craft, with fellow students coming over nightly for readings and rehearsals, and he had even found a way to expand his professional network with his “day job” – found through the LendAHand cleaning service – as the three-days-a-week “maid” of Louise Lasser, whose turn as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman had kept the country doing belly laughs for a couple of years by then. Indeed, when I arrived I was quick to comment on the original Hirschfeld drawing of Ms. Lasser hanging on the apartment wall, and was told by George that “Louise asked me if I would please hang it here since she hates it, but this
way she can say she has it up.” (I did reach out several times to Ms. Lasser for this article, but she did not respond.)
And so, for the next six years, George and I continued to grow along our personal paths – I in the public relations arena and he with his acting. Wren moved back to Alabama and Bobby’s boyfriend, the poet Tim Dlugos, moved into the floor-through, until they gave it up in the early 80s and moved to Long Island City across the East River in Queens. At the same time George moved south to 4 East Fifth Street, where he lived in the only pink-painted brownstone in the city, as far as I know. He took the Hirschfeld drawing with him, and it continued to hold pride of place in his living room for as long as he remained there. I assume, by now, it’s back with its rightful owner.
And, then, one summer day in 1984, George called and asked me to meet him for lunch. That was a first for us, but I was delighted to do it. At that point, I was also living in a downtown apartment, so it was an easy walk to the diner where we met. And there, over salads, he was the first of my friends to tell me he was diagnosed with HIV, was already showing symptoms of AIDS, and had made the decision to leave the city and move into a friend’s country house in Greenwood Lake, NY, where he could “die in peace.” I saw many friends fall in those years, and no two of them did it quite the say way, but of all of them, George’s goodbye was the most abrupt. As he told me, if he couldn’t be his best self, then he didn’t want to be in New York, and his good friend Harry Endicott, who would be his generous care-giver for the rest of his life, had been kind enough to make the offer. I never saw him again. He died three years later.
Unlike many of his peers, George’s final years in the country were peaceful ones according to his elder sister Anne. “His ashes are scattered there in the lake. His last year he spent gardening and cooking, and the spring after his death, all the bulbs bloomed in profusion!”
She also told me that Harry also died, a few years after George, but not before sewing a bright-blue panel for the AIDS Quilt.
And the painting? Well, a few years ago, after both his parents had died, the Falkenberry home was broken up and all the furnishings divided between Anne, Rennie and George’s brother John, but since no one had a good place for the portrait, they decided to donate it to the Old Depot Museum (Selma’s local city museum) for a silent auction. There, Stephen and Carol Brooks were so enamored of it that they not only purchased it, but hung it over the fireplace in their historic home, the George Baker House,
which is not only on the Register of Historic Places, but infamous as one of Alabama’s most haunted places. As the story goes, a civil war skirmish took place in the yard during the Battle of Selma, and a wounded Union Soldier crawled up under the stairs to die. It is said that the blood is still visible, and the house is featured on the Alabama Ghost Trail.
I think George is delighted about that. He surely did love that painting.
I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of several people in the preparing of this profile, including Anne Falkenberry Knight, John Falkenberry, Rennie Falkenberry Edwards, Wren Rolison, P. Vaughan Russell, Esq., and Carl Stewart. Thank you all very much for your help.
© 2016 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.