Fifteen years ago, I sat in a local restaurant across the table from David Ogden Stiers. My friends had bid on the lunch at a fund-raiser and were kind enough to invite me along. That afternoon we sipped wine and ate food of which I have no recollection and talked about all sorts of things — “M*A*S*H,” of course, and ‘The Dead Zone,” the TV show he was working on at the time. For some reason, the two of us hit it off from the start. I recall talking about my Dad, Toby, who was a Korean vet and a huge fan of “M*A*S*H,” and whose life had once been saved in a MASH unit.
As we were finishing the lunch date, one of the gentlemen with us — a man of some stature in his own circles — inquired if Stiers might be interested in getting together occasionally. You know, cocktail party kind of things. Stiers politely nixed that notion. But then he asked if I had paper and a pen. I pulled my little Moleskin and pen from my purse and slid them to him. He flipped to the last page and wrote his email, adding, as he handed it back to me, a few words about keeping it private. Later, when my friend and I talked about that afternoon, she would say, “He loved you,” which was a stretch at best, but we did get along, and for years after, we occasionally emailed or talked by phone. He called me Tobias and referred to himself as Stiers. Usually the conversation was about a community event, but talk always lead to other things — books, writing, news, acting, the occasional bawdy joke. Once at a silent auction fundraiser, I’d bid on a signed photo of him. I was the high bidder, but auction organizers somehow read my name as John, which was how he signed it. Later, after the whole matter was cleared up, he sent me the signed photo with a note, “and just who is this John guy?”
In March when he died I wanted to write something, but it had been some time since we’d talked and I couldn’t seem to come up with the words.
Then, an editor asked me to write about the gifts Stiers had left to community nonprofits in his will.
As I interviewed some of the people who’d benefitted from his benevolence, my memories of Stiers sharpened. That first lunch, the packed NOAA press event when he couldn’t find a seat and joined me instead in the press box, and, most significantly, the year I wrote about his performance of “A Christmas Carol,” a biennial tradition in our little town. After the first night’s reading, we joined him and friends off stage, where he teased me for “flitting” about while the hubs stood quietly away from the fray. Then he commiserated with Chan, also a big guy, about crowded rooms and having to stand to the side, lest he inadvertently step on someone.
As I prepared to write the feature on his generosity to the community, I looked for the “Christmas Carol” newspaper piece, but it wasn’t on the internet. Then, on a whim, I began looking through old computer files and there, dated December 20, 2007, was our interview.
Reading back through my notes, I instantly heard that rich voice, the laughter, the surprising candor. He talked about the nerves he suffered even now before performing — upset stomach, insomnia. And yet, he said, “Then suddenly it is time to do what I am supposed to do and I come out of it. I love nerves. I have performed without nerves and stunk on ice.” He talked about making sure the tea he kept at hand on stage was hot and needing to remember to bring his own stool “because it knows my bottom well.”
When I mentioned that the newspaper would send a photographer, he kindly, but firmly put the kibosh on the idea, explaining why he “strenuously” requested no cameras.
“This is not a photo op,” he said. “This is you and your heart and the time of year and a reason to lift up your arm and put it around the person next to you. The notion of seasonal sharing. You get together and go see the same thing at the same time, live. We walk away having shared something completely ephemeral. It cannot be replayed. It can only be re-given.”
And that, he certainly did.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.