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Life Arts

A Genuine Actor: Francesco Serpico

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From commons.wikimedia.org: Serpico movie logo {MID-234324}
Serpico movie logo
(Image by Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org))
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From flickr.com: serpico {MID-234966}
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"There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors." -- Friedrick Nietzche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

"Any artist [person] who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist [person] in him." -- Albert Camus, "Create Dangerously"

"It ain't me you're lookin for, babe." -- Bob Dylan, It Ain't Me, Babe

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The set was real but illusionary: A legendary old New England hotel dressed festively for Christmas and the holiday season. Norman Rockwell's magical realism. The lobby full with merriment, the cozy fire dancing to the sweet sound of violin and piano Christmas music mixed with a subtle alcoholic fragrance. Main Street U.S.A. Snow on the street and the classic strains of "White Christmas" in the inner air. A mythic setting for meeting a legendary actor.

But as I entered the dimly lit set, the legend was nowhere to be seen. I approached the spot where the musicians were playing and didn't see him in the room opposite. Then, as I was greeting two actors with bit parts that I knew (unconscious actors, I should add), out of the shadows came a laughing Russian spy obviously dressed as a Russian spy, one red star on his hat, walking stick in hand. He and I were there to have a drink and enjoy the music that would allow us to talk privately without being overheard. A few hours earlier he had sent me a strange message from Epicurus: "It is impossible to lead a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly ('justly' meaning to prevent a person from harming or being harmed by another)."

What did this cryptic message mean? The day before I had met a leading expert on the CIA on the same set and we had discussed the criminal activities of the Agency, how they dissembled and lied in their self-declared mission to defeat communism everywhere, even where it didn't exist. Those people were great at creating false myths, counter-myths, and Hollywood/media narratives to discombobulate a public already lost in an entertainment culture. Now I was meeting this crazy Russian whom I heard say to some passing actors that he was a communist, and then he said something in Latin that totally perplexed them, which made him laugh. A woman approached him and said she liked his hat. Again he replied in Latin with a Russian accent and her face dropped. Then we all laughed. She blushed, the scent of flirtation in the badinage. Was this guy serious or a comic having fun?

Off to the bar he and I went for some vino, wisecracks spewing from the mad Russian's mouth. Heads turned to watch our passage, for even on this movie set, his costume stood out.

The True Man

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As we settled in a corner with our drinks, a joyous warmth enveloped us. Play-acting was fun. Francesco was good at it. Here in the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, no one took him for the legendary New York City Detective, Frank Serpico, shot in the face for being a whistleblower before the word became commonplace, and made mythic through the 1973 movie, Serpico. To the people surrounding us, he was just an amusing guy in an interesting hat, a man having fun with a buddy.

At a round table in front of the chairs we were sitting in, a group of six middle-aged adults sat playing cards. They were not conversing. Frank mentioned that they reminded him of those pictures of dogs playing cards. He got up and asked them if they were playing for high stakes. They laughingly said no, just for amusement. And what game were they playing? I asked. A children's game, the woman said. It was a perfect scene from a spoof, and Frank whispered to me, "The masses are deluded with TV, Hollywood, and children's games. Let's bark."

"Become who you are," advised Nietzsche. Frank had done that; had always done it, despite decades of having to escape the mythic masked man Hollywood had made of him when Al Pacino played him in 1973, creating the legendary persona behind which the real person is expected to disappear, held hostage by the mask. While all persons are, by definition, masked, the word person being derived from the Latin, persona, meaning mask, there are those who are nothing but masks -- hollow inside. Empty. No one home. Unconscious and involuntary actors living out a script written by someone else. Not Frank Serpico. He has consistently been an unmasker, a truth-teller exposing the fraud that is so endemic in this society of illusions and delusions where lying is the norm.

The Lone Ranger

Frank has always understood masks. When he was an undercover cop, he used his play acting skills to save his life. In the recent documentary film, "Frank Serpico," directed by Antonino D'Ambrosio, he says he told himself: "You're going on the stage tonight. The audience is out there. I told myself I was an actor and I had to sell my role. I got my training in the streets of New York where I played many roles from a doctor to a derelict and how well I played those roles my life depended on it." His acting skills were his protection, but these acts were performed in the service of protecting the citizens he had vowed to protect. Genuine acts.

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Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is http://edwardcurtin.com/

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