Johnny Carson, television talk-show host and stand-up comedian, famously was often caught sneaking drags of a cigarette after coming back on camera from commercial breaks. Sometimes, especially in the early days, he would just sit talking and smoking. Carson also just as famously used to say that he wished he could quit smoking because he knew the habit was killing him.
The King of Late-Night Television did live to the fairly ripe old age of 79. I don’t know if I’ll make it that long. But to die of emphysema cannot be a pleasant way to go, and I can appreciate Johnny Carson’s lifelong love-hate relationship with tobacco.
I smoked for 45 years. I quit so many times, unsuccessfully. Mark Twain had a joke that went something like, “Quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
Finally, I did quit smoking six years ago. A pulmonologist has monitored my lungs over those six years, and this year he pronounced my lungs clear, a few spots of interest having finally disappeared.
Yul Brynner, most famous for his portrayal of King Mongkut in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, began smoking at age 12. Just before his death from lung cancer at age 65, the age I am now, he created a public service announcement that appeared a few days after his death. I remember that knowing he had already died made the piece all the more poignant, haunting. Brynner looks into the camera and says, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.”
I’m a huge fan of TCM, the Turner Classic Movie channel. While I find great pleasure in watching all the old films, there is a downside. Of course, many if not most of these actors are gone now, but it is horrible to know that so many of them died so young from smoking or smoking-related illnesses.
It’s funny, strange funny, how smoking came to be such an integral part of the whole Hollywood movie scene. Apparently, actors were constantly puzzled about what to do with their hands while they were on camera, and someone came up with the bright idea of having them hold cigarettes. That kept their hands busy in a “natural” way. This idea caught on, and soon it felt as if every movie you saw was packed with smokers.
I feel great aloha and empathy for all the actors who have died of smoking and smoking-related causes, and a special note to those that died at a younger age than I am now:
Steve McQueen, Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Robert Taylor, Robert Ryan, Humphrey Bogart, and the rest of you fine artists, I know it’s fruitless to imagine what kind of work you might have done had you lived longer, but the tragedy of not ever knowing, of course, that’s certain.
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Today’s word is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece as a comment below. I’d love to read it : )