Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Dog Named Beau

Thirty years ago tonight, the world was anticipating the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in a matter of hours.

And, in fact, an estimated audience of three–quarters of a billion people the world over tuned in to watch Charles and Diana's wedding. Millions of those viewers were Americans who got up early — or stayed up very late, if they were on the West Coast or in Hawaii — to watch the ceremony.

I must admit now, I was one of those people who got up early to watch the proceedings from London. It was a memorable sight, a "fairytale wedding," said some, the "wedding of the century," said others.

Yes, sir, it was a memorable moment — but it wasn't the only one.

I was a bit more blurry–eyed that morning than I had expected to be, even with the alarm going off at around 4 a.m. I had had every intention of getting to bed earlier than usual the night before, but then I heard that actor Jimmy Stewart would be a guest on The Tonight Show the night before the wedding — and I decided I had to stay up long enough to see that.

American TV viewers had a different kind of memorable moment when Stewart, mostly retired by that point, recited a poem he had written in tribute to his deceased golden retriever, Beau.

When he finished, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the studio — or in America. Certainly, there wasn't a dry eye among those viewers who had ever loved a dog.

The poem probably was, as Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon, later recalled, "forgettable." Stewart had a folksy style that was endearing in its way, but the words of his poems were far from profound, and it isn't likely that you would find any of them in an anthology of great literary works.

"[B]ut Johnny was moved by the way Jimmy Stewart delivered it," McMahon wrote. "Jimmy was a blend of great actor and great person. Both Johnny and I were in tears. Just a couple of maudlin mutt mourners."

They weren't alone.

I think the truth is that Stewart was just being himself, the same guy he had always been. He just didn't know any other way to be.

"I've always been skeptical of people who say they lose themselves in a part," Stewart said once. "Someone once came up to Spencer Tracy and asked, 'Aren't you tired of always playing Tracy?' Tracy replied, 'What am I supposed to do, play Bogart?' You have to develop a style that suits you and pursue it, not just develop a bag of tricks."

What America saw on The Tonight Show 30 years ago tonight was no bag of tricks.

It was Jimmy Stewart being himself — the same guy who once threw tennis balls to Beau and stroked Beau's head when he climbed into Stewart's bed.

And that was a priceless gift.

So, too, is the memory of watching two of the truly gentle gentlemen — Stewart and Carson — together.