Dom DeLuise and The Knucklehead

One of the hardships a Knucklehead is forced to endure is when his Dadofknucklehead has a really good story that he can’t help repeating. And since The Knucklehead is a captive audience (this is especially true on long car rides), he gets to hear a story more often than anyone. Seriously, there are plenty of times when I find my own company tedious, so my heart goes out to you, kid. Hence, blogging. An opportunity to get stories out of your system before you turn to your Knucklehead to watch his eyes glaze over as you say, “Did I ever tell you about…?”

But this is a good story, and one of the great things about it is its secondary lesson, which is this: as a parent, teacher, friend, or human being, always keep your ears open, because you never know from which ridiculous place your next lesson is coming. In this case, it came from a decades-old “Tonight Show” interview.

Now, this was back sometime in the late ’70s, maybe early ’80s, when Johnny Carson was still hosting, and the show was still an hour and a half. You can tell that Johnny is giving serious thought to bumping all his other guests that night, because sitting on the couch next to him are Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, and everybody is having a high old time. Reynolds was still in his heyday as a 1970’s Errol Flynn, with a good measure of Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris thrown in. Dom DeLuise, if you didn’t know him, was a jolly, rotund, self-deprecating, slightly effeminate (or at least asexual) actor and raconteur, who would often pop up in Burt Reynolds movies as the comic relief. He was perfect in that role, because he was everything Reynolds was not, so he made the perfect sidekick. Reynolds film characters could relax around this guy, because it was absurd to think of him as any kind of competition. DeLuise sure as hell wasn’t going to get the girl, so why worry about him being around? And apparently, this relationship was mirrored in real life, because they’re not there to plug a movie, they’re there to entertain us all with stories of going on a whitewater rafting trip together, in real life.

Reynolds had called up a bunch of buddies to go on a Deliverance-style rafting trip, all well-muscled, bearded and mustachioed gents such as he. The Boys. And Dom DeLuise. They shoehorned him in among all these frat types, and somebody took pictures of their progress down the river. Johnny’s holding up pictures of the raft in some truly ferocious whitewater, and the crowd is howling. They’re howling, because you can’t see Dom DeLuise in the picture until Dom points himself out. The reason you can’t recognize the widest man in the boat is because he is literally cowering. He’s hunched up on the bottom of the raft in the geographical center of the thing with his hands over his face. All you see of him is the top of his helmet.

DeLuise has taken over the narrative of the raft trip story at this point, and the audience loves him for it. I don’t remember if Dom actually said, “and here I am crapping my pants” but you could safely infer it from his retelling of the trip. He’s recalling every minute of screaming Nancy-Boy terror, and Johnny, Ed, and the audience are lapping it up. It’s a technique I recognized immediately as a young Knucklehead myself at the time: get ahead of the laughter by leading the taunting at yourself. If you’re the intentional cause of the laughter rather than its victim, it’s a kind of victory. And everybody’s in tears at the way DeLuise is recounting his cowardice. Dom’s got the audience in the palm of his hand, and Johnny knows he’s got a show for the vaults.

Except Burt Reynolds is sitting there, and he’s not laughing. He’s not even smiling, he’s looking straight at DeLuise, and at a break in the story, Burt quietly says, “Actually, you were the bravest man on that raft.”

It stops everyone, but only for a second. DeLuise looks at him and laughs, like Burt’s setting him up for some new schtick. The audience starts quietly tittering, like this is all part of the act but they’re not sure how, but Reynolds still isn’t smiling. Instead, he looks DeLuise right in the eye and repeats, “You were, by far, the bravest man on that raft.” And he’s dead serious, and it shuts everyone up, especially Dom DeLuise, because you can tell he has no idea where Reynolds is going with this.

I don’t remember Burt Reynolds’ exact words that night, but the gist of what he said was this: my buddies and me eat stuff like this up. We love the rush of whitewater rafting, we’d do it every day if we could. We think it’s a blast. So for us to head down that river takes zero courage whatsoever. We can’t wait to get out there. You, however, are completely out of your element. You don’t love the thrill of it, you’re terrified of drowning or injury every second of the way. You’re not comfortable hanging out with He-Man jock types, and you’re completely insecure in a situation where guys are measuring their dicks (like I said, I’m paraphrasing). But you did it anyway. You came along and endured it even though you were freaking out. For us, it was nothing. You were the only one who had to overcome fear. That makes you the bravest man on that raft.

It was an astonishing moment (at least it remains so in my memory all these years later). It stopped the show cold. Carson had no idea what to say, and DeLuise was completely floored – it’s the only time I ever saw him at a loss for words. Reynolds had stepped completely out of character at that moment to come to the aid of a friend. I remember watching from home, and thinking two things: 1) I have a whole new definition of “courage” I’d never considered before, and 2) wow, maybe Dom DeLuise has a better friend in Burt Reynolds than any of us thought.

Somehow, Johnny got the show back on track, and Reynolds once again slipped into the Good Old Boy persona we all wanted from him all along. But I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the years. It was a story I found useful with The Knucklehead when he had his own moments of facing his fears. It was a glimpse of honest friendship (at least as far as I could tell). And it came from the damnedest, most unlikely wellspring of ethical content you could think of: late-night celebrity television.

So, be ready, because good ideas seem to jump out at us from unaccustomed places sometimes. And relax, Knucklehead. You ain’t heard the last of this story.

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One Response to Dom DeLuise and The Knucklehead

  1. Donna Martin says:

    I just finished re-reading “Deliverance” and the reading “Summer of Deliverance” by Christopher Dickey. He offers some good insights into Burt Reynolds’ character.

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