"You want some of this?"
This is a phrase I will forever associate with our dearly beloved, dearly and tragically departed, friend and comrade Kevin Smith. Usually it was delivered whilst flexing a couple of biceps that looked like two VW Beetles looking for somewhere to park. Inevitably it was delivered with an evil twinkle in the eye. Sometimes it was delivered at the wrongest time possible, in the wrongest situation possible and those who knew Kevin well would have to step in and stop things before they got well out of hand, as sometimes they did. Other times it was delivered simply because he'd missed a two-foot putt and he needed to cover the mocking of the same friends.
First impressions were unavoidable when it came to Kevvy. Usually the impression was of a God-like man, called Kevin, which always struck me as an odd name for a God. I have seen grown women go weak at the knees and leave the room when they caught sight of Kevin. I'm sure the same thing happened with grown men, but I never saw that.
But first impressions, as usual, never tell anything near the full story. They don't tell the story of what a wonderfully down to earth guy he was - modest beyond all belief and simply (mostly) about the politest human being I have ever met. Except on a golf course, of course, where he turned into some kind of demon, raging at the inherent unfairness of the universe and endangering anyone (and any tree) that happened to stray into his path.
And then there was the talent. By crikey was there talent in that boy. Kevin Smith was an actor who could do it all; from the melodrama of a Tennessee Williams play, through the swords and sandals of a Xena: Warrior Princess, to the gentle, romantic lead of something like Double Booking, Kevvy was up for anything and pulled it off with wit and style and substance.
And he could sing. Holy cow could he sing. His eye-watering vocal performance on the Wide Lapel's version of Promises' 'Baby It's You' will live long in the memories of those privileged enough to witness it. The pieces collected here represent snippets of a career cruelly cut short. There should be more. There should be a lot more. To this day, there are times in casting meetings when words along the lines of "you know who'd be perfect for this role? Kevin bloody Smith" are muttered by various directors, writers and producers.
But the only way Kevin stays alive on many of our programmes these days is as the voice of the guy who thanks New Zealand On Air for their funding, after the closing credits. And here, of course.
So enjoy these bits and pieces and appreciate what a great talent the man was and how sorely he is missed.
"You want some of this?"
Yeah, we did Kevin. In fact, we wanted more. Shitloads more, mate.
But thanks anyway, thanks for what you left us.
Kevin was a funny, warm, intelligent man whose presence on a set or in a rehearsal room was always a welcome one. But he was also extremely focused and had his eyes on the prize.
He and I spent a day in a bar in LA once - I was editing an episode of Hercules at Universal and he was sleeping under a table at his friend's house and spending his days going from one audition to another with a car full of clothes so he could change for each one. He was missing his wife and kids but he still had two more weeks of pilot season and he was clear that to get what he wanted he had to do the hard yards.
I directed him in several theatre productions. Cabaret was one. Kevin could really sing, a beautiful tenor, and he was brilliant in the show and totally committed to it. Then he played Othello in a production we did at the Watershed Theatre. He agonized over it. He was a visceral kind of man in that he felt things fully and quickly. If things weren't going well, or if he thought he wasn't "getting' it, he would literally start to punch things - the floor, a wall, a table, whatever. He once said to me that he needed the "immediacy of shock".
In Hercules and Xena, it was always a riot when Kevin was around because (and I think I can speak for many people here) he made you want to be naughty. He had a streak of madness that seemed to call to everyone's inner lunatic, and my memories of working with him throughout this time are of both laughter and insanely hard work.
Directing Kevin was great. He would do anything. He was so polite and he would really want to get it properly. He would go hard and he would try anything if it would make the scene. If you watch the end titles of Love Mussel you will see him standing in a room under a microphone making little crying noises - short little girlie gasps of pain - and then cracking up. This is because it was about two in the morning, we were all exhausted and I had asked him, for our sound mix, to make the sounds his character would make (he was playing himself) having electro therapy to his testicles. And Kevin stood there dutifully squealing at erratic intervals with total conviction for about three minutes until it was all just too funny.
You probably had to have been there.
That was the last time I worked with Kevin - Love Mussel. I think he is brilliant in it. Kevin had no fear of undermining his own image at all and so was just really funny being a kind of well-intentioned celebrity dickhead. Comedy came effortlessly to him, and if you can do comedy, then you can do tragedy. We had talked about other Shakespeares - he really wanted to play Macbeth - and how fantastic it was that we were able to do what we do.
He was really happy.
I feel privileged to have not only worked with Kevin Smith, the actor, but also known Kev, my mate. I still miss him greatly and visit him regularly to talk with him and have a beer. I always take his favourite drop and pour it over him. Just to snuff a rumour. He's not buried in Timaru.
We met on May 11th (I think) 1987 when we gathered for a press conference to announce the cast of a big touring production of Are you Lonesome Tonight, a musical about the final days of Elvis Presley. It was Kev's first professional acting job although he had been on stage for years as a musician and singer with various bands, most notably Say Yes To Apes, who were the first NZ band to release a double album apparently.
He was playing a bodyguard and understudying the Young Elvis character played by Pat Urlich of Peking Man fame. I was playing the older Elvis character's long time bodyguard (based on Red West) who wrote a tell all book after leaving Elvis's employment. We just seemed to hit it off immediately and from that show forward pretty much lived with each other until he passed. I either flatted with him and his wife Sue when I was in their town and he would stay with me or my Mum when he was away from home.
As anyone in the industry will tell you, and this will be reinforced by friends and associates outside the industry, Kev was the most approachable person and would go out of his way to be friendly to everyone. Co-stars, 1st ADs, 2nds, 3rds, runners, catering, gaffers, grips, safety guys, stunties, admin people. They all got a smile and a hello and a chat if they wanted to.
And the public was no different. Whether wondering through the shops or roaming the streets late at night looking for a burger or hotdog he would not ignore a "gidday" or a "hey, you're that fella off TV eh?" and to his and our cost sometimes. We apparently weren't suitably humble enough for one crowd of young guys one night and Kevin and myself got king hit from behind because "you think you're tough TV star". Lots of blood and bruises and Teresa Healey screaming made for quite a night. But those occasions were rare.
We loved our BBQs, sports, watching the All Blacks and the Crusaders or Canterbury. Well he did. I barrack for Wellington or the Hurricanes. Lots of good head-to-head banter and sledging went along with that. At his memorial I mentioned that we had closed a lot of shows and venues. Are you Lonesome... closed early. We were working at the Mercury when that collapsed. TV shows we'd done got cancelled or never made it past the pilot. We called it "K.O.D." or "Kiss Of Death" and often wondered which one of us was cursed with "K.O.D.". Well I can now state fairly certainly that it was him as nothing that I can recall since he passed has closed prematurely on my account. Not even a bar.
I miss his humour. I miss his friendship. I miss his incredible talent. I miss drinking late at night with him and then having to get him home and get him inside "cos if you're with me Suzie won't growl me". I miss watching him play golf, really badly.
Not that I miss watching him play golf really badly. He was just a really bad golfer. And I miss ringing him at 3 or 4am, wherever he was staying (took some tracking down sometimes) on Xmas morning as I returned from a Xmas eve night out and wishing him and Sue a drunken Merry Christmas.
We all lost something on February 15th 2002, but he is still with us. At the time he died I think some people felt a little cheated at not being able to say farewell because they were excluded or kept out of the loop but at the time it was the right thing to do for the sake of his boys and the rest of his family.
But now I think the time has come for people to be able to visit him and say a few words. If you know me give me a call and I'll take you to visit.
Kevin Smith 1963-2002
I'm looking at three images: the posters for The Blue Room and A Streetcar Named Desire and the brochure shot for The Rocky Horror Show. And there he is. The Heart-throb. The Hood. The Mad Transvestite Scientist. Talk about range! But of course, he had range to spare. Artist; athlete; warrior; wag; joker; juve-lead; larrikin; lord. He was all of these and more. Those movie star looks. That rock star voice. And such great legs, even in fishnets and high heels as big as canoes. Kevin Smith. Kev.
Along with most of New Zealand, I met him first in 1989 when he joined the cast of Gloss. Producer Janice Finn had scoured the country in search of testosterone with talent and couldn't wait for us to meet this gorgeous hunk she had found in Christchurch. Could we wait?! Soon enough, in he walks: smouldering definition of "tall, dark and handsome". Sleepy-sex eyes. Improbable lips. Marlon Brando, only younger and taller. How you wanted to hate him.
Turns out you just couldn't. Turns out this eyeful barely glimpsed a man whose content was more beautiful than his form. The brain outboxed the brawn; the humour was sexier than the smile; the heart was bigger than the chest that contained it; the spirit more generous than the lips. Misquoting lyrics from a show he would never sing: "What a guy! Makes you cry! Und I did: KEVEEEE!!"
We shared the sad histories of the end of Gloss and the end of the Mercury. I can see him at the wake for the Mercury, standing at the back, arm around his bosom-buddy Geoff. Both are swaying with the booze and singing actor-songs of injustice and farewell. A couple of years later, they did this double-act sober as the Handsome Princes in Into the Woods "Agony: how it cuts like a knife!"
During the 90s, he grew his hair and became the star. Hercules; Xena; websites; fan-clubs; action dolls; Beverly Hills; swimming pools; movie stars. He was voted New Zealand's Sexiest Man. Every year! For 10 years! Our paths crossed only a couple of times, but nothing had really changed in him. A little grey around the temples, but he still lived in Ellerslie. His own tribe had increased. Three sons. And he still wore jandals the size of canoes.
Millennium comes. Hercules goes. He signs for The Blue Room and A Streetcar Named Desire. I can see him at the poster shoot for The Blue Room with his pal Danielle. Both so beautiful and both couldn't care less. They shriek and shout obscenities and cry with laughter before moving in for the shot that will sell us 10,000 tickets. He was nervous about returning to the stage. It had been a while and the script demanded 10 characters of different status, age and love-predicament. He needn't have worried. His 10 men have dignity, danger, desperation and desire. Fans fly in from around the world to catch him in his Calvins. On one night of unscheduled audience participation, a punter worse for wear snatches them during a scene change. He takes it in his strides. On the final night, I sit with 900 people and watch them dance through it. It doesn't get any better. Anywhere. When the Calvins hit the floor for the last time he turns. A millisecond flash and it's gone. There is an audible gasp from the crowd. A swoon. Outrageous. Hilarious.
And then Streetcar. You get to know people when you direct them, their essence and their demons. Some deny access. Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danielle Cormack, Michael Lawrence. And Kevin Smith. Kev. Fearless. In the broken world of this subtle disturbing masterpiece, they take no prisoners. We rehearse the inevitable showdown. In he comes as Stanley Kowalsky, "survivor of the stone age".
As the scene plays, his eyes get darker and the veins in his arms swell until it seems they will explode. And then he snaps. Combustion. Over goes the table and there stands the animal ape, an aweful, awesome, raw beauty. He backs her into a corner and is over her. She is pleading for her life, but he is overpowering, the sound coming out of his mouth primal and terrifying. He hoists his prey aloft, carries it to the bed and then forces his savage brutal victory. End of scene. Ghastly silence.
Amid the rehearsal room wreckage of tables and crockery lie the two actors. Finally, and with such delicacy, he lifts himself off her. So gently, he offers his hand that eventually she takes. As they put our world back together again, the two consummate actors embrace in love and respect for a job well done.
He sang at our 2002 season launch. It was the last time I saw him. I'm on the podium introducing the end-of-year musical The Rocky Horror Show. I know he's up next, but I haven't seen him in costume. The lights snap out. The RKO fanfare plays. Then, suddenly in the spotlight, there he is. A vision. Beads. Corset. Suspenders. Fishnets. High heels as big as canoes. "Whatever happened to Fay Wray, that delicate satin-draped frame?" The voice is satin-draped. Wicked. Beautiful. He segues into "Don't dream it. Be it'" slowly building intensity with each repeated refrain, in total command of his talent and his audience, bidding us to follow him. "Don't dream it. Be it. Don't dream it. Be it."
Gone now. Precious boy. Rarest of men. He gave more than he took He was blessed and we shared his blessings. A Prince. Kevin Smith. Kev.
I leave it to Shakespeare.
Goodnight sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Published courtesy of Simon Prast, first published in The Listener.