As a young boy, I loved the Saturday afternoon matinees at our neighbourhood movie theatre. Whenever I could earn or scrounge the twenty-five cents needed for admission, popcorn, and a soft drink, I’d be there, wide-eyed in the dark, lost for a couple of hours in the fantasies played out before me.
The matinees usually consisted of a serialized short, with a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode, a cartoon, and a main feature. At some point along the way, all but the serials began to appear in colour. Imagine!
My favourites were westerns—cowboys and Indians, as we thought of them in those innocent, bygone days—and I quickly developed a fondness for the rugged heroes who rode the purple sage.
In the early fifties, my parents acquired a television, black and white, of course, and Saturday mornings after breakfast became prime viewing time. With a lineup of westerns and cartoons, it was almost as good as being at the movies. I still remember my parents turning the TV off if I was still in my pyjamas, or if my bed wasn’t made, when I settled on the carpet to watch.
It wasn’t long ‘til I realized that every cowboy hero had a trusty sidekick. And years before I became aware of such concepts as racism or ageism, those sidekicks were men of diverse ethnicity, many of them old enough to be grandfathers. With perhaps one exception, there were no women.
The Lone Ranger, my ultimate hero, had Tonto, an American Indian. Hopalong Cassidy had ‘California’ Carlson, a bewhiskered, bowlegged geezer. And the Cisco Kid had Pancho, both Hispanics with huge sombreros.
There were others, as well. Gene Autry, with ‘Smiley’ Burnett, and later Pat Buttram; ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, with ‘Jingles’ P. Jones; and Roy Rogers, with ‘Gabby’ Hayes, and later Pat Brady. Rogers, the self-styled ‘King of the Cowboys’, also had the only female sidekick, Dale Evans (who, off-screen, was his wife).
The heroes were always the stars of their movies and TV shows, of course, while the sidekicks played supporting roles. And for a long time, I—being impressionable and loving attention—imagined I was the star in a real-life ‘movie’ of my own, assuming all around me were my supporting actors. Parents, siblings, friends—all trusty sidekicks, playing out their backup roles.
It never occurred to me back then that others might not feel the same way. For a long time, I didn’t perceive myself as a supporting actor in someone else’s story. Egocentricity, I learned years later, is one of the stages children pass through on their way to maturity; but apparently, I took my own sweet time on that journey. I was blessed, I now realize, with family and friends who either didn’t care about my delusions of greatness, or simply tolerated my selfish illusions out of the goodness of their hearts.
Eventually, the truth dawned that it was a fallacy to suppose I was the lead actor in everyone else’s movies. I came to realize that all of them were, legitimately, the stars of their own stories, and I, at best, a trusty sidekick—or, in some cases, merely a bit-player.
Getting married firmly cemented that truth for me, and becoming a father further reinforced it. I came to know the importance of being there for those dear to me, in effect earning their support in return, rather than just expecting it.
My lingering love of movies has me glued every year to telecasts of the Academy Awards, when the year’s best performances and productions are honoured by the industry. Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress seemed to me the most coveted prizes when I first began to tune in. But my perception has shifted over the years.
My grandchildren, five in all, are leading rich, exciting lives as they move from childhood to adolescence, discovering all life has to offer. They love me, and I them, but I’m hardly relevant anymore to their everyday experiences.
My daughters are mature, liberated women, pursuing rewarding careers alongside their husbands. They love me, too, but I orbit their stars now, not the reverse.
And my wife? Well, she remains the epitome of an autonomous woman—secure enough to keep seeking new adventures, caring enough to reach a hand back for me, her trusty sidekick.
That egocentric world I once carelessly inhabited is gone forever. At a point now where I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, I find security and an abiding comfort in being part of the cast in my loved-ones’ life-movies.
And I wonder how different a world we might have if every person on the planet—regardless of race, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, political leaning—could win an award as Best Supporting Actor, or Best Supporting Actress, in the lives of everyone around them.
That’s an Oscar I would happily accept!