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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Little Sleep

I WAS SIX FEET tall by the time I turned 13, so I didn’t experience much bullying once I was in junior high school. And the only significant event I remember from elementary school had such a sudden and fortuitous finish that it begs no sympathy.

Richard Pryor and Erland van Lidth de Jeude,
from
Stir Crazy
When I was seven, my parents moved us from New Jersey to Connecticut, fulfilling my father’s long-held dream. He was a mechanical engineer, transitioning to a company in Stamford, and my parents picked tony Ridgefield as the place to settle because it promised, among other things, a good school system.

This moved me mid-term to an all-new second-grade class. Thanks to my parents’ competitive efforts to fill me with learnin’, I was reading at some stunningly advanced level and parsing math problems with Euclidian gusto. In other words, I was an academic misfit. I also was a shy, shy kid, to the point of being a social misfit. Soon I was skipped into third grade, aggravating every aspect of my misfittedness.

So it was that I found myself in the Ridgebury Elementary School playground one autumn afternoon, soon after the move, friendless and feeling sorry for myself. When some older kids approached, I took heart. I already was big for my age: perhaps they saw in me a potential crony.

Not quite. They grabbed my arms and spun me to the ground. One of them sat on my chest. I don’t recall their objective – I believe it was more an exercise in taunting the new kid than trying to steal lunch money. I was terrified. Nobody seemed to be near, and I feared that crying for help would escalate the punishment.

Then the face of the kid on top of me was eclipsed by a much larger form, and my captor was mysteriously levitated off of my chase and into a mid-air dangle. He was being suspended by the back of his shirt collar. The person holding him was the largest boy I’d ever seen. The other bully fled.

“So,” said the large boy to my oppressor. “You want to sleep maybe five, six minutes?” He made a threatening fist the size of a sports car. He spoke in an melodious foreign accent.

“No! No!” the wriggling kid screamed. “Put me down!”

“Now you know how it feels like,” said my rescuer, releasing the little wretch, who vanished fast enough to set a speed record.

“Thanks!” I said. “I just – ”

But the boy waved away my speech. “I am Erland,” he said, and walked away. I saw him in person only rarely after that, and never spoke with him again.

He was Erland van Lidth de Jeude, and he and his family had moved, the year before, also from New Jersey – although Erland lived in his native Holland until he was five. He was grades enough ahead of me never to end up in any of my classes, and his family, including brother Philip and sister Philine – moved to New Hampshire after he graduated from high school.

Erland was an improbably combination of professional wrestler, opera singer, and computer specialist, making his money in computers as the other pursuits gained momentum. He settled in Manhattan where, in 1979, a casting director saw him working out and got him a role in Philip Kaufman’s movie “The Wanderers.” His most famous appearance was in the non-speaking role of a prisoner in the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy “Stir Crazy,” in which, ironically, Erland’s character is supposed to sing a poignant “Down in the Valley.” Because of a union dispute, he wasn’t able to record the voice track and, to the disgust of those who knew Erland’s voice, it was dubbed by someone else.

He was profiled in a 1981 People magazine article that said of him:
. . . amazingly, acting is just one of many accomplishments that seem as outsize as Erland's Dutch name—and his 6'6", 380-pound physique. At 26, van Lidth de Jeude is an MIT graduate with a 160 genius-level IQ, a wrestler who was an alternate on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, and a promising operatic singer. “I’ve spent my life breaking stereotypes,” understates Erland. “The film career just fell into my lap, but I enjoy singing more than anything.”
It was a lot to hang on his outsized frame. In 1987, shortly after wrapping “The Running Man” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he died of a heart attack.

In the late 1970s, I worked in a restaurant in downtown Ridgefield. One of the waiters pointed out to me an older couple just arrived for dinner. “Those are the van Lidth de Jeudes,” he said. “They have two sons who are opera singers.”

I went to their table and introduced myself. Given the aspect of Erland I remembered, they looked improbably tiny. I told them how their son had rescued me from bullies when I was in second grade and would accept no thanks. “That’s Erland,” his mother said in sweet, thickly accented English. “He’s very shy, but he’s always trying to help.”

7 comments:

Lily Whiteman said...

Oh my god! That's so cool. I didn't realize the photo at the beginning was actually the guy who rescued you. I thought at first it was merely to illustrate human size discrepancies.

Susan Whiteman said...

This was a very sweet story that reminds us that good hearts come in all sizes

Kirby Underhill said...

I remember him fondly. He left a left a large footprint on the floor of our pool in Ridgefield. Mostly I remember his shy quiet demeanor. Gone way too soon but I guess God needed a new soloist.

Harry Minot said...

I remember him, too. But I had never heard your rescue story. I recall my feeling of fat guy kinship with him. It's a feeling that continues to this day, every time I see a fat guy. Just yesterday I had a lovely, connective moment with such a guy. I shouldn't have to digress to identify myself as totally hetero, but I am. And, damnit, the magnificence of fat people has an analogue in their spiritual magnificence. I miss my own fatness profoundly, but I'm grateful that I had it for as long as I did. This account of kindness is extremely potent.

doug denslowe said...

I googled Erland while watching the Running Man.I first saw Erland in the Wanders,at the theater,and along with Ken Wahl and Karen Allen,Erland made an indelible mark in my memory.I did see him in Stir Crazy,but the reason I'm writing this,as I did on several other blogs,is to mention that the Daredevil villain Kingpin was based on Erland.The Kingpin was seen in Spide-man comics before his Daredevil appearances,but Frank Miller is the writer/artist who made both Daredevil and Kingpin the famous characters they are today.Frank Miller said Erland was the guy Kingpin was modeled after in an interview,way back when.

Stephen Bridges said...

I lived in the same dorm at MIT as Erland. He was a great guy and had a wonderful voice.

Ken Benjamin said...

I hired Erland as a computer programmer in Manhattan when we needed some extra help. I'll never forget the day during our interview as he eclipsed the guest chair while sitting in my office. I never felt smaller while riding an elevator being next to Erland nor safer while walking down the street in Manhattan. He was truly a gentle giant. He left us when he had to go off to an acting assignment. It was my priviledge to have met him.