“[Sammie Mays is] an exceptional writer and natural born actor who can snap onto any scenario.” –Philip Burton, Shakespeare Scholar, Writer, Director, Professor
Little Urn on the Prairie
I am a firm believer that in this life we eventually get everything that’s coming to us – good and bad. It was after breaking into (I use that term loosely) Marion Super Max Penitentiary – scoring Sports Illustrated Best of Year Photo of Pete Rose in the pokey – that I became a made member of the elite group of Foreign Legion of Journalists and given ‘the Gonz’ as some covert identifier. Most of us don’t know what a Gonz is or what it even means. For years I didn’t. Didn’t care. I just passed it off as some silly British something or another. I never once gave it a second thought as it had no effect on how I feel about myself or how I react in situations. However, and more importantly, along with the name calling, I was given a full-time paying gig on the celebrity desk of the most notorious newspaper on the planet, the National Enquirer. I say show me the money and call me what you like.
During my Hollywood years the tabloid claimed to have sold more papers per week than any other publication in the world sold in a month’s time. But never in the tabloid’s history had an issue sailed off the stands more quickly than the issue with Elvis In The Coffin on the cover. So when Michael Landon, star of television series Little House on the Prairie, died, to duplicate or possibly surpass their Elvis In the Coffin numbers, the National Enquirer decided to run a photo on the cover of the deceased beloved father-figure. Dead. The unflinching plan was to accompany the morbid image with a bold headline reading: Landon On The Slab! Nothing was more exciting at 8730 Sunset Boulevard than beating the opposition in uncovering the grisliness of a good celebrity death.
I was chowin’ down on cold leftovers from Chin Chin when the phone rang. It was headquarters calling to bait me into doing some dirty work. True to style, like a skinny hunting dog kept caged out of season, for insurance purposes the editors left me just hungry enough so that I’d do things for them that I normally wouldn’t do for a payday. At the center of this crude story lay the incentive of a big fat $25,000 cash bonus. That is if moiré can manage to obtain the photo in time to meet the tabloid’s two-day Monday deadline.
According to “Q” the location of the body was unknown, so to get the starving bitch on the scent I made a few quick calls to contacts. Within minutes I got a bite worth sniffing out and followed the scent to Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City where, with no time for an elaborate plan, with no appointment with the funeral director, I was going to have to barge in and wing it.
Fact or fiction: Does desperation breed inspiration? I’m about to put it to the test.
Arriving at the funeral home, under the Hillside sign, placed prominently so you can’t help but see it, is the Star of David, which posed a problem. This being my first dead celebrity assignment I was not told nor did I think to ask the faith of the deceased. Turns out, this particular funeral home only interns the Jewish faith. Was Michael Landon Jewish?! I didn’t know that.
Personally, I’m a Seven Day No-a-Goist because I was made confused by my family, not born that way. It was to appease my father’s side of the family that on Sundays I was dropped off at Southern Baptist Sunday School and Monday thru Friday I was dropped off at Catholic school. Heck I wouldn’t know a gefilte fish if I were to be slapped in the face with one. For all I know I may have even misspelled the word. Writers know it to be true, that, if given the chance, Siri will damn sure fuck you up.
Here, now, I have to focus on the words of Woodward and Bernstein: “All good reporters land on their feet” – especially when there’s $25,000.00 for a measly two days’ work at stake. I have stepped into the picture. The secretary has announced my presence. Momentarily, the director of the funeral home will walk through his office door where I’ve been asked to wait. In no way am I prepared to converse with this man on the subject of Jewish faith and funerals. No time, no choice but to wing it. It’s hard to mess up a greeting, it went well. I begin to speak and am flat-out amazed to hear how naturally, from my mouth, across my lips, flow the saga of my wealthy, terminally ill, old Uncle Abe – married to my dear sweet Southern Aunt Alice, who is too distraught to make the final arrangements for her beloved.
The words could not have been better chosen. I am certain it was the words “rich” and “terminally ill” that prompted the director to lean in from across his desk. His eyes shifted left-to-right making sure no one was in hearing distance of the secret he was about to divulge – perhaps concerned that a tabloid reporter might be lurking nearby. And, in an attempt to nail down the business of my rich old Jewish uncle, under his breath the director whispered, “We’re handling the arrangements for Michael Landon.”
Bingo! Confirmation established!! The body is in the building!!! My poker face hid my enthusiasm. I responded as though I hadn’t a clue who he was even speaking of, nor did I care. I was too upset over the impending death of my poor ole Uncle Abe to be concerned with the dying loved one of others. No offense.
Time to end the charades, skedaddle and regroup. I stood up. The director handed me a packet of options and financials to take to Aunt Alice. He shook my hand as he encouraged an early return of the signed material, emphasizing, “Any day is a good day except Sunday when the security guard is the only one here.”
On Sunday I returned. In the parking lot of the funeral home there was just one car, presumably the guard’s: a lowrider, metallic, primarily copper in color. The sun reflecting off the patina gave me a headache. I banged back a shot of courage, freshened my breath, straightened my pants, brushed my blazer and locked Martha Raye’s car. Aware of the cameras, I walked without purpose toward the backdoor and knocked.
Before the guard ever opened the door I was in full California meltdown, sweating bullets. When it flung open I couldn’t see a-thing other than three-hundred lbs of distended caution. Wrapped around his blubbery girth, his thumb was stuck down inside his belt. His fat fingers appeared relaxed, yet plausibly placed to quickly pullout his shooter. Outwardly, I don’t believe he could tell that inside he was killing me with that thuggish go-ahead-make-my-day look on his face. You could tell that he was needing a little action, he needed to earn his keep. I opened my mouth and in a low scratchy voice I let the dreaded words fly, “I’m a reporter with the National Enquirer, and I need a picture of Michael Landon, and I’m willing to make it worth your while.” This for me is the hairy, scary part of the business. Uttering the Enquirer’s name, connecting yourself to the vile and vicious brotherhood can go only one of two ways – and in no way can you tell what, with the information, the opposition might do.
Deep into my eyes, the armed guard stared long and hard. I allowed him his fill, never blinking or losing eye contact. The guard took his time getting his read on. Finally, he cracked. “Ooooo I knew you’d come. I knew the National Enquirer would come!!!” The guard commenced to doing a buck dance and like the Grinch having tricked Cindy Lou Who, I just grinned and starting counting my bonanza.
Armed with a bottomless pocket full of tabloid payola, I intended to give that guard everything he asked for. “I really like that watch you’re wearing,” he said. “Can I have that watch?” I also happened to like that watch. Figuring I’d be reimbursed, I slipped the Rolex beauty off my arm and handed it over to its new owner. The deal is sealed.
The guard and I did not speak as he led me through the frigid funeral home while fiddling with his new gadget. The odor of what I thought to be embalming fluid, mixed with the sweet smell of too many flowers, permeated the air. I thought about puking but I was too pumped to puke and too busy thinking. If all went according to the Enquirer’s plan, I was about to be at the center of another scandalous image.
The guard abruptly stopped. I nearly hit him from the rear. He unlocked a door that looked to me to be a broom closet and motioned me into blackness. “This is bullshit!” I thought to myself. “Why would they store the body of Michael Landon in a broom closet???” And then it hit me . . . it’s an ambush! This gorilla with a gun was going to lock me in the closet and wait on LAPD to come and make the arrest – and for evidence he has my Rolex, he has a National Enquirer reporter video and likely a big fat-ass bonus from his employer for a security job well done. The storyline has been flipped.
Impervious to the guard’s persuasion that the dead man was in the closet, I feared he was preparing to draw his pistol. With one eye on the guard and one eye on the dark hole, the guard made a move toward me. He was going to grab me. I wanted to faint before being shot but couldn’t. He stepped past and disappeared into the hole. He called me in, but there was no way in hell I’d walk in there on my own accord. There was just no goddamn way. Before my brain could process the scene, he flipped on the overhead light switch. With my jaw slack, I stood horrified by the wall of urns before me.
“So where’s Michael,” I demanded in a low rough voice to power myself up.
“Second row from the top, third urn from the left. That’s Mr. Landon,” he pointed out. “Yesterday he was cremated. Go ahead…take all the pictures you want.”
I took photos but let’s face it, the headlines accompanying an image of Landon In An Urn just didn’t have the same impact, that same national cover appeal, that a photo and headline of Landon On The Slab would have.
Needless to say, there went my bonus, my cover story, my Rolex and about a year off my life. In the dog-eat-dog world of yellow journalism the drive back to WEHO left me to ponder the events of the assignment, and, as I pondered, I scratched my head and wondered if these Hollywood years were some kind of warped reward or some strange form of punishment. It was then that I decided if ever I should write the book, the backstories of my tumultuous years spent inside the vile and vicious secret brotherhood, I think I might just have to title this chapter, Little Urn On the Prairie.