Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fathers and Sons: The Pickle Family Lives On

Ever hear of the Pickle Family Circus? It was a purebred Northern California creation from the 1970s, evolving out of the satirical San Francisco Mime Troupe and adding a whole lot of juggling. One of the Pickles was Bill Irwin, who later clowned on Broadway in Fool Moon and then won a Tony for a deadly serious role in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (On film, he was the dad in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married; children know him as Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street.)

I knew about Bill Irwin. But not until I saw Humor Abuse at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum did I ever heard of  Larry Pisoni. Humor Abuse is a fascinating one-man show in which Larry’s son, Lorenzo Pisoni, grapples with his father’s legacy. Lorenzo’s parents, Larry and Peggy, were Pickle Family founders. From a very young age, their young son was incorporated into the show, performing intricate and sometimes dangerous clowning routines. Lorenzo loved circus life, but winning favor from his hard-to-please father was sometimes tough. It was only in later years that Lorenzo came to realize the scope of Larry’s personal failings, and the extent to which they kept his dad from having a happy life.

An important point comes out late in the show: when a baby boy was born to the senior Pisonis, Larry gave Peggy two name choices for the new arrival: Lorenzo or Geppetto. As it happened, Larry’s own clown name was Lorenzo Pickle. And when pint-sized Lorenzo was old enough to perform, he joined his father for a Pinocchio routine, in which the spotlight was on Larry in the Geppetto role.  So, whichever name Peggy had chosen, she would have been naming her new son after his dad’s alter ego. Poignantly, when his circus years were long gone, Larry started introducing himself socially as Lorenzo. The real Lorenzo, of course, was disquieted by this borrowing of his personal nomenclature. So a play that’s chockfull of fun and games turns out, after all, to be an exploration of identity, and what it means to be a father’s son.

Seeing Humor Abuse made me realize how many father-and-son pairs exist in Hollywood. Some have been mutually supportive. (See, happily, Tom and Colin Hanks.) Others have had relationships that are fraught with tension. Peter Fonda, always at odds with his famous father Henry, consistently chose roles that the older Fonda would have found offensive. Just try imagining what the heroically all-American Henry Fonda, who’d starred as Abe Lincoln and Tom Joad, would have thought of his son’s renegade biker roles in The Wild Angels and Easy Rider. Many’s the Hollywood son who has never managed to live up to his father’s level of accomplishment and acclaim. (I’m thinking of Patrick Wayne, who was given forgettable roles in his father’s The Searchers, The Alamo, and The Green Berets.) But it also can be awkward when a son far surpasses his father’s screen achievements. Harry Hoffman, father of Dustin, was once a set decorator for Columbia Pictures. When a scene in The Graduate was being shot in the lobby of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, Harry was invited to watch. As Dustin, in his first big movie role, cringed with embarrassment, his dad tried to get involved, offering his advice on the filmmaking process to anyone who’d listen.

Rance Howard was and is a working actor, one of those familiar faces that pop up in small roles in big films. His son Ron became a celebrity at age 5. More later about their very special relationship. (Maybe I’ll save it for Fathers’ Day.)


  1. Fathers and sons in the film industry - there's certainly no shortage of them. John and Nick Cassavettes. Alan and Adam Arkin. James and Scott Caan. Leo and Sean Penn. Kirk and Michael Douglas. Chuck and Mike Norris. Sean and Jason Connery. Lon and Creighton Chaney. Joel and Jody McCrea. Rex and Noel (RIP) Harrison. Fred Olen and Christopher Ray. I think their stories can certainly be fascinating - especially when the levels of fame and success are far apart across the generations.

    The Pickle Family sounds fascinating. I've been a fan of Bill Irwin since seeing his wild stand up act in the 80's on late night shows - his incredible mime bits - with the "walking downstairs in a trunk" my favorite. He's also famous for clowning with Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin in the "Don't Worry Be Happy" music video. A couple of years ago he chilled me to the bone as a particularly evil serial killer across several episodes of CSI (the Las Vegas one). What an incredible talent!

  2. Thanks, Mr. C, for reminding me of Irwin's participation in the "Don't Worry Be Happy" video. He's a rare talent. As for other fathers and sons, you left out one very interesting pair, Martin and Charlie Sheen. (There's also Emilio Estevez, who recently made a heartfelt film that starred his father, Martin Sheen.) The Huston family deserves a mention too. And I could go on and on (and on . . . )