|Richard Pryor and Erland van Lidth de Jeude,|
from Stir Crazy
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.”