That evening, Mom brought in meatballs, calzones, and a Caesar salad from Lombardi’s. I waited until we had devoured all the food before I reminded Mom of Hope’s ill-temper and childish behaviors.
“What bothers me is that Aunt Sheila hardly ever corrects her. Not even a slap on the wrist or a ‘Go to your room.’”
“Aunt Sheila does what she has to do.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “If Al Capone had been Sheila’s child, she would have sent him to bed early without his hot cocoa and biscotti and have come up with some lame excuse for his murder spree.”
“Oh, Haskell, parents may treat their children a little differently in California, and she’s not six any more. Hope is nearly nine years old. Wait and see. You’ve never had a sibling. It will be a healthy change.”
My anxiety worsened. What did I know about living with a nine-year-old? I hadn’t been with a nine-year-old since I was nine. And what would it be like living with an aunt and an uncle? I’d never lived with a “father” figure before. My dad called me periodically, like once a year, but I rarely ever saw him. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d get along with Uncle Ted, since all he ever talked about was baseball. What would we have in common?
I felt a headache coming on.
And then Mom did what she often did in her real estate negotiations: she sweetened the deal.
“So, you were saying that you just did an exercise where you played a villainous cowboy? Is that right?”
“Yes, and it went well.”
“I think I found you a screen test in Hollywood for a part in a TV Western.”
“You’d be playing a pioneer kid in the Old West who has been living alone most of his life. The Cartwrights find him wandering in the fields, and they invite him in.”
“Are we talking Bonanza?”
I was excited. This was TV’s number-one show.
“Could this lead to a regular part?” I asked eagerly.
“No, I don’t think so. Turns out the kid’s a bit twisted. Gets in fights all the time, and he ends up drowning at the end of the episode. Still, what a great way to start your adventures in Los Angeles!”
My father, Tony Pawlikowski, whom I had met a half a dozen times, had connections with the company that produced Bonanza. It was a Western about a three-time widower and his three adult sons living on a big ranch called The Ponderosa, and every week they’d face numerous challenges. Sometimes they were silly stories, such as the time when one of the sons, Hoss Cartwright, fights a tribe of leprechauns. Most often, though, the episodes were more serious. In this one, I’d be playing a maniacal orphan who apparently can’t swim.
My initial instincts? After six months in Miss Hogan’s class, I could tackle this role.
The only problem was the kid was supposed to be short and rather tough and extremely handsome. I was none of those things. I was tall, weighing less than 150 pounds. A real beanpole. I wasn’t exactly tough either, and with my big ears, I was certainly not handsome.
“Mom, I don’t think this will work out. My physical appearance is all wrong.” I pored over a description listed in the classified section of Variety. “He twirls a gun in the air?”
“We’ll get you a gun tutor.”
“There’s no such thing. Come on!”
“They have gun tutors all over Los Angeles. We’ll look them up in the Yellow Pages. An actor can transform himself into any role,” my mom said, her face gleaming, mimicking my acting coach. “If they like you, they’ll make adjustments.”
“No one is going to take me seriously as a handsome, rugged boy in town. I’m too scrawny.”
“Perfect! Your mom’s dead, remember? So, she’s not been around to feed you.”
Maybe she’s not dead. Maybe she just went to Antwerp, I thought.
“And I’d probably need to ride a horse, right? It even says here. ‘Horse riding experience necessary.’ You have to read the fine print, Mom. I’ve never ridden a horse. I’ve never even ridden a bike! I don’t even roller skate!”
“They’d probably bring in a stunt double for those scenes,” she said, dismissing my concern with a wave of her hand. “Well, if you don’t want to try out for that part, that’s fine. I have another great idea for you.”
“Sheila is good friends with the mother of a boy about your age who is also into acting. He attends the same high school you’ll be attending, so he’s someone you can hang around with when you arrive in Encino. He’s quite the talent, apparently.”
“What’s his name?”
“Her last name is Stoneman.” She grabbed a piece of paper from her purse. “And his name is Henry.”
“I never heard of him.”
Yes, I lied to my own mother. I had, in fact, seen his name mentioned in Variety. He had won a small part recently in a Disney film.
“We’ll arrange for you boys to meet, and you can take it from there. You two have so much in common. It will be wonderful.”
That night, I dug through my latest copies of Screen Magazine and spotted a photograph of Henry Stoneman. Quite handsome, wearing black jeans and black shirt with rhinestone buttons and a cowboy hat. He was in John Wayne’s last movie, so he could probably ride a horse, use a gun, and speak fluent Apache. He had eighteen film and TV credits. Eighteen!
I fell into a deep, angry, solid funk, desperately hoping my mom might change her mind and this California nightmare would dissipate into dust.