Updated: Sep 16
For my beloved brother on his birthday. תנוח על משכבך בשלום
During the summer of 2000, my brother Robert came to visit me while I was living in Los Angeles. We had planned his visit around us being able to try out for "Jeopardy" at Sony Studios. At the time, being on "Jeopardy" along with our scheduled pilgrimage to the oldest operating McDonald's in Downey, California were his two highest priorities after finding out the Hollywood Wax Museum didn't have good parking.
I treated the "Jeopardy" tryout as a job interview; I wore my only suit with a tie. My thinking was that, if by chance I passed the test, the producers would be assessing me, to see if I fit the profile of the typical "Jeopardy" contestant. I wasn't taking any chances. I had blown a shot to be a production assistant on a sitcom when I wore ripped jeans to the second interview, foolishly confident that I already had the job. While theatrical and commercial auditions do offer a bit more creative latitude, I learned the hard way that semi-corporate Hollywood is basically no different from the rest of America when it comes to office attire.
Robert, however, hadn't given "costume" much thought. In fact, he had packed only two changes of clothes for his weekend stay. He did remember to bring me an old pair of his warn out underwear as a gift, a most cherished Robert tradition of which I was usually the lucky recipient.
So he didn't bring a "Jeopardy" outfit, per se. In the stained baseball cap, Wrangler jeans, and plaid shirt he had worn on the flight from Philly, Robert was wearing his "these are the only clean clothes I had" outfit. To be fair, there was nothing earth-shatteringly wrong with his get-up but, when I mentioned that producers might measure contestant worthiness by choice of wardrobe, he produced a wry smile and, as if reacting to a dare, walked into my closet and grabbed a party tie festooned with party balloons to finish off his ensemble.
Of course, I was not surprised. It was that one small action -- the last-minute addition of a ridiculous tie -- that so captured the essence of my brother. On his best days, he was the subversive jester, Groucho with a little more introspection and self-deprecation. He loved playing the role of contrarian. I'm not sure if I'd call him a John Cougar Mellencamp “When I fight authority” kind of contrarian or even a Ralph Waldo Emerson “Whoso be a man must be a non-conformist” kind of contrarian, but he sure as heck could name both of them on a trivia test.
My theory is that he was simply programmed that way. Robert had a congenital heart defect and, from the time he could walk, my parents worked hard to keep him from participating in any sport that demanded intense activity. They were cautious, and perhaps overly protective. But neighborhood sports were entirely too tempting, and Robert soon began ignoring those parental rules. It’s my belief that those early restrictions helped to consciously cultivate a kind of rebellious personality while subconsciously instilling the notion that life could be short and should be lived with passion and purpose.
For Robert, this likely meant creating a unique identity. It meant leather jackets, tattoos, earrings, and collecting and riding motorcycles. It meant unburdening himself from conventional career choices and becoming an actor. It meant developing a supreme confidence, charm, and fearless wit which made him seem, at least to me, unSchiller-like, as if his DNA had been switched at birth.
And it also meant pursuing dreams.
In Philadelphia, Robert waited tables, went to auditions, took acting jobs, and played in softball, volleyball, and touch football recreational leagues year round. But he had also become an amateur Quiz Master, hosting his own games every Tuesday night at Rembrandt's, a popular restaurant-bar not far from Philadelphia's Art Museum. He was so good at creating unique and challenging trivia contests that his sessions often led out-of-town celebrity nerds like Will Shortz, the New York Times' crosswords editor, to stop by and participate. For most aspiring actors, hosting a Quizzo would be just another gig. For Robert, it had become a weekly production and a special way to exercise his performance skills, to be around people who shared his passion for trivia, and to make friends. So no one who knew Robert was surprised that appearing on "Jeopardy" had become his dream gig.
So we went. It was us and about 150 other hopeful "Jeopardy" candidates on a ginormous Sony Studios backlot stage, where the show's producers administered a 50-question paper-and-pencil test; the questions had been pre-recorded, and were displayed one at a time on a large television screen. We were told that each question represented a different subject category, and was the hardest (and highest valued) question in each category.
Neither Robert nor I had ever tried out for "Jeopardy" before but, like so many watchers at home, I possessed an irrational confidence that I would do well. I had seen thousands of contestants on TV, and they didn't strike me as anything special. After all, I had won a few Trivial Pursuit games in my time and I reasoned that, although I might be the low man on the smart-guy totem pole in the brainy northeast of the United States where I grew up, I'm pretty sure I can beat these flaky LA actor/screenwriter wannabes.
Well, um, I ended up getting 23 questions right; I had been humbled. Or as they say on Jeopardy, "Who is the flaky actor / screenwriter wannabe now?"
Robert, on the other hand, aced the damn test!! 50 out of 50!
So after weeding out all of us potential "Price is Right" candidates, the producers invited six people to stay and play a few mock games of "Jeopardy" and Robert was one of them. As I recall, Robert, the actor, went up against a medical doctor and college professor. Both of them, like me, were wearing suits. Robert, on the other hand, stood out having successfully harmonized the mid 90s slacker style with the always in Krusty the Clown look.
Dress aside, Robert did well: he had the second most points of the six candidates who had been rotated in and out of the practice games. However doubtful they may have been about his togs, they definitely had to respect his playing ability. After the fake games were completed, a producer announced that, if "Jeopardy" was interested in any of those six participants, the show would call them within a year. All in all, Robert and I left the Sony Studios lot feeling good about his tryout. We next set our sights on fast-food history, and drove off to have a burger on the hallowed ground of the oldest operating McDonald's in Downey, CA.
Well, a year went by and Robert never got "the call." Not even a "thanks for participating" card or letter! Perhaps the time that had passed had diluted his interest, because the lack of a call-back didn't seem to bother him. I remember asking him whether he intended to follow up with "Jeopardy," and his answer was simply "No." His attitude appeared to be that, if they didn't want him, he wasn't going to chase them. And besides, he had already moved on to other endeavors.
In the years that followed, I would occasionally ponder why "Jeopardy" didn’t pick my brother Robert. He was definitely one of the two best players that day. Didn't he deserve a chance? Did his unapologetic humor work against him? Was he a victim of demographics? Did they not like him?
But they never tell you why you didn't get the gig. Even if it was your dream gig.
My beloved brother Robert passed away in August of 2007 (RIP). Although he never got his "Jeopardy" gig, I'm guessing he knew that life doesn't always deliver our dreams. But judging from the way he lived his, I'm guessing he also knew that it's the pursuit of our dreams that sustains us, keeps our passion alive, and allows us to thrive. And in a world that too often divides people into winners and losers, that's a bit of "knowledge" not often found in a "Jeopardy" answer.