When you get home on a Tuesday evening and have to double-check your own address because there’s a line of valet parkers out the door, one of whom hands you a ticket, and when you enter your house or find a crowd of people-dressed people, some of whom you most of you don’t know, and an orangutan sitting in your chair at the head of the table – if all this happens and you’re not really surprised, there’s a better than average chance that you are married to Arleen Sorkin.
The occasion that Tuesday was a hastily organized fundraiser for a South African human (and animal) rights organization, and the orangutan was certainly not the only luminary I was surprised to find in my chair in the three decades I spent working with my great man spent. kind woman.
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Wasn’t it just six months earlier that I had opened my door to find Fayard Nicholas (seated) and his brother Harold (mopping his brow) – the legendary tap dancing team of the Nicholas brothers, then in their eighties, who, Arleen had decided, needed a fundraiser. They had just expressed their gratitude.
Arleen’s charitable streak had been known to me since literally the day we met, as sitcom writers. During lunch she came to me. “My name is Arleen and I am an empath. I hear a clicking in your jaw that may be TMJ. Here is the number of a dentist who can help you.”
In the weeks that followed (we clicked, the jaw stopped) I learned details of her impressive background. High school in a rough part of DC, where her dancing talents earned her the protection of some of the tough girls… a career as a shoe model in which her legendary “perfect foot” led shoe designers to send her hundreds of pairs for her Cinderella-esque review …a long stint in a women’s cabaret group in New York….her casting for “Days of Our Lives” in the comedic role of Calliope Jones.
But that first day I was both enchanted and mystified. She has already been on the center stage of ‘The Hollywood Squares’. Why was she worried about a stranger’s TMJ? I found out she was worried about everyone. That often meant buying items in bulk that “someone might need.” Although I grew accustomed to opening my front door and, for example, walking into a concert given by a newly outed, 300-pound former NFL lineman whose singing aspiration she had decided to champion, I never quite got used to to open a concert. cupboard door and twelve defibrillators fell out (“who knows who might need one – they’re good to have!”). Other cupboards contained quantities of baldness-reversing combs, battery-powered fly swatters and reversible belts with digital message displays (“could help someone break the ice on a first date”). As a comedy writer, I should be ashamed to admit that I missed the irony when an opened cupboard nearly buried me alive under fifteen earthquake preparedness kits.
I suppose I was almost unsurprised by the time I walked through the plate-glass window that had become my front door and found a lugubrious woman dressed in black now sitting in my chair, with several heavy folders on the table. “I’ll take seven,” I heard my wife say. “Seven what?” I asked. “I never spend money on jewelry and maybe we need this for people,” she said. A healthy woman, with two healthy parents and a healthy husband, had just purchased seven burial plots.
In the years that followed, while raising two boys, Arleen’s career blossomed, though her ego never did. She once had a business card made for her wallet that simply said, “What’s her name… from that show.” She continued to act, producing an off-Broadway play and co-creating the sitcom “Fired Up” and co-writing the Jennifer Aniston film “Picture Perfect,” among other credits. And the crowd of special guests who occupied my seat when I got home never stopped.
For example, who was the woman with the big knuckles who was nervously kneading her handkerchief? A recently incarcerated former roller derby queen who was desperate for work and ended up being hired by Arleen as, what else, our kids’ nanny. (Home run to that: she would have taken a bullet for those kids and her
Who was the prominent Pakistani in a ceremonial white suit drinking sweetened tea? An interviewee for the documentary on Benazir Bhutto Arleen somehow ended up on the production (“people need to know her story!”), which would earn her a Peabody Award.
And who was the mysterious Austrian in trifocal glasses who laid out a bunch of small tools that could have been part of an archaeologist’s arsenal? Well, that’s a simple story.
Arleen’s father, a balding dentist from Maryland, had harbored a six-decade dream of a career as a Hollywood producer and regularly flew out to persuade his daughter to arrange meetings for him to pitch his ideas. Favors were called, with God knows what promises extracted from Arleen and many an executive when they entered his waiting room and saw an 80-year-old dentist holding a thick stack of papers and standing next to, say, a dark hood with a cap sat. figure holding a scythe might have had to wait a while before deciding who to engage first.
The ideas were mostly bad, but her father wouldn’t give up, and neither would his daughter’s wonderful love. She just couldn’t bear to see his dream not come true. And there was that one idea that was, well, kind of good: the true story about the surgeon and his unskilled African-American assistant who together revolutionized the surgical treatment of blue babies.
For seven years, Arleen spread this idea around Hollywood, seeing it almost sold, then not, then sold and almost made, and then not. And then, against all odds, “Something the Lord Made” was recorded, aired on HBO and won her father an Emmy.
He was credited as co-producer and wasn’t entitled to a statuette, but she couldn’t bear to tell him that. And he had already planned a party to display his trophy. Thus began the odyssey of finding an old Emmy, polishing it up and having his name engraved on it, all in time to ship it back east. The statue fell halfway into the UPS box. Which brings us back to the mysterious Austrian at my table, who is a
master jewelry restorer and who started operating the Emmy recumbent bicycle. If she had been blue instead of gold, it would have been a tableau straight out of the movie.
One of the last times I sat with her at that dinner table was at brunch last Father’s Day, where, rest assured, an Uber driver who had recently taken her to a medical appointment made his calypso singing debut as our accompaniment.
By then, the disease she had been battling for twelve years had sapped much of her strength. I don’t know by what heavenly fate fate decided to reserve the worst disease for one who, upon hearing that our boys’ tap dancing teacher had been shot, provided him with emergency medical care, away from danger, and a place to recover for two months (he was still alive to tap and called her every day on Mother’s Day). If she hadn’t received fairer treatment, this woman who once pulled off a Solomonic trifecta when she resolved a dispute between parents during the school holidays by having the Year 5 students show up in costumes she made and attached to one side had a Christmas theme. On the other hand, a Hannukah theme – and the job given to an old client friend who needed the work? But that’s how it was. She was, this power, weakened.
But her spirit never wavered. She loved people, believed in them. I’m not sure that Harley Quinn, the now world-famous character based on Arleen and whose original voice she provided, wasn’t defined by that same quality, that aching loyalty, an unwillingness not to lead with her heart no matter what.
Two Sundays ago we gathered to say goodbye to our dentist, doctor, friend, husband and mother of so many. Between the tears there was one last surprise. She had bought not seven, but nine cemeteries. There could be no doubt about where she would go. The middle.
Our center square, once and for all.
Christopher Lloyd, co-creator and executive producer of “Modern Family” and 12-time Emmy winner, was married to actor-writer Arleen Sorkin for 33 years. Sorkin died on August 24 at the age of 67.
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