I suppose Kevin McCarthy has shaped a great part of my life the last seven years.
When my friend Nicole called last weekend to tell me that Kevin had died, it took the wind out of my sails. Father Time gets the best of us all, in the end, and he’d eventually caught up with Kevin at the grand old age of 96. I’d come to think of Mr. McCarthy much the way I had thought of my maternal grandmother; until she actually passed away on her 95th birthday, I just sort of took it for granted that she was never going to die. Not because I have any illusions about immortality, but because when elderly people hold up into their 90s, it tricks me into believing they’ll always be around. But sure enough, I went on the net and found several short articles about how Kevin McCarthy had succumbed to pneumonia, and man, was I bummed.
My experiences with Kevin McCarthy on the screen go way back to my early childhood, when I first saw INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and was afraid to sleep for weeks (perhaps he’s responsible for my adult bouts of insomnia too, but I won’t hold it against him). Later, I would come to know him from Joe Dante’s films, many of which he co-starred in, right up through LOONEY TOONS BACK IN ACTION (and I won’t hold my feelings for that debacle of a film against him either, as he portrays a black-and-white Dr. Miles Bennell in it). There he was, in PIRANHA and THE HOWLING, older, but still distinguished. And speaking of distinguished, I fondly remember seeing him with my first ex-wife in Eddie Murphy’s THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN, and reflecting back on BODY SNATCHERS. Here and there, I’d see him on an episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE or THE GOLDEN GIRLS, and every time I watched him on TV, I would have the same smile. I always liked Kevin McCarthy, no matter what role he was playing. Dr. Bennell would always be the role that immortalized him, so much so that he reprised the role briefly in the 1978 remake. But no matter the part, he had a certain charm, a dashing manliness and a suave style that I found very inviting.
On a personal level, my association with Kevin grew in April, 2004, the first time I met him in person at the Chiller Theatre show. My friend X had been trying to get me to go to horror conventions for years, but some circumstance or another always got in the way. When he told me to go online and check out the guest list for that particular show, I figured it would be no different. Man, was I wrong. There were 3 people I wanted to meet: Caroline Munroe from MANIAC; wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper; and Kevin McCarthy. Even if Munroe and Piper hadn’t been on the list, I would have gone just to meet McCarthy. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS has always been one of my favorite horror/ sci-fi hybrids, and much of the reason for that has always been because of his portrayal of the good doctor.
You have to understand, at the time I was absolutely star struck at the concept of meeting celebrities. Here were people who had entertained millions, been on the silver screen, world-renowned gods and goddesses, and I was going to meet them, everyday guy Phil Fasso. It took me at least a year of conventions before I started to feel relaxed and realize they were normal people just like you and me. But if you had told me on that day in April that I would years later be interviewing some of them, I would have thought you insane. On that day, in the tent in East Rutherford, I was absolutely in awe, and at the epicenter of that awe was Kevin McCarthy.
There he was, near the entrance to the tent. Even at 90, he was a handsome bastard, still looking suave after all these decades. Seeing him there, I fled. I did several laps around the center area of celebs, trying not to tell myself that I was right on the edge of meeting a legend. It took me several minutes to shake off the butterflies fluttering all over my stomach, relax my heartbeat, and step up to him. And did he ever deliver. I found myself confronted by scores of different 8x10s all, not in piles but scattershot all over his table. With so many options, I naturally chose a shot of him and actor Larry Gates conversing over a pod. All these years later, it’s still one of my favorite autographs. As for Kevin himself, the years had definitely taken their toll on him. His wardrobe was a little slipshod, and at times, his mind seemed as scattershot as his photo layout. But those faults made him even more cool. There he was, smiling for all the world, upbeat and as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. When he mentioned that he had friends in Patchogue, where I had lived a short time prior, it made him even easier to relate to. I walked away from his table, heartbeat racing again, with a beaming smile that lasted for weeks. My first brush with celebrity had me jazzed.
I met Kevin several times after that, at Chiller, and at other shows. Every time he was on a guest list, I swore I’d get him to sign something, and to get a picture with him (that first time, I didn’t have a camera with me, but I wouldn’t make that mistake again). Over the years, I had him sign stuff from PIRANHA, LOONEY TOONS, THE HOWLING, his TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Long Live Walter Jameson,” and of course, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. I would have met him at the TWILIGHT ZONE convention in New Jersey as well, but his health wasn’t well at the time, and he cancelled. Every time, there he was, a crumpled, old man who sometimes had trouble putting a sentence together, but a gracious, and yes, still dashing gentleman.
Meeting Kevin at that first Chiller gave me convention fever. I started to attend lots of conventions every year. I’ve travelled to Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Worcester, MA, New York City and as far as Dallas, Texas to meet and greet horror’s stars from George Romero to... yes, Joe Dante himself. The last time I met Kevin was outside of Pittsburgh in the summer of 2007, at the Monster Bash. For that convention, I did my very first piece for Icons of Fright, a report in which I praised McCarthy. It’s led to many great things for me, given me the ability to review DVDs, cover other conventions, and interview some of those stars I would have been afraid to approach back in 2004. I owe all that to Kevin, because without that first show, I wouldn’t have had so many of the opportunities I’ve had the last seven years. If everything comes full circle in life, then it’s fitting that I’m posting this piece about my memories of him on Icons of Fright. Not knowing that last time I saw him would be the last, I never got a chance to thank him, for so many great memories already lived and those yet to come. But if you believe it’s never too late...
My paternal grandmother turned 96 a few days back. She's succumbed to illness the last few months, and I don't know if she'll be with us that much longer. Reflecting on her long life in the days after Kevin's death, I've come to the conclusion that people can shape the course of your life, and sometimes not even be aware they've done so. I hope Kevin enjoyed every last minute of the life he lived, because he made my life that much better.