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I didn't know until I got an AP brief yesterday that musician and actor Levon Helm was so on the ropes in his 16-year battle with throat cancer. Today, the inevitable announcement: Helm has left us. He was 71.
Of course, most know Helm from his tenure as the drummer/sometime vocalist of The Band (immortalized forever by Martin Scorsese's documentary of their swan song performance, "The Last Waltz"). But Helm also had a steady-enough acting career, beginning in 1980 with a significant part in Michael Apted's "Coal Miner's Daughter."
Indeed, when I think of Helm, it's rarely "The Weight" or "Up on Cripple Creek" that leaps to mind. It's actually his work opposite Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager's right-hand man, pilot Jack Ridley, in Philip Kaufman's "The Right Stuff" that registers first.
The reason isn't because Helm was particularly outstanding in the film (though his presence is all over it, given his narrator status throughout). Rather, I find myself thinking back to a high school psychology class taught by my school's Varsity basketball coach. The mind reels, I know, but while we may have hit the curriculum points necessary for legitimacy, I feel like I mainly remember movie talk and movie screenings randomly held in the class.
One such screening was "The Right Stuff," and though it was a film with which I was quite familiar (one of Dad's favorites), I hadn't actually sat down and watched it beginning to end. Coach was a big fan of the film and, in particular, Helm's work. I knew Helm's voice, "Take a load off, Fanny" being quite the ubiquitous song lyric, but I didn't know who he was or anything.
I remember him so much from the movie, though, because of something Coach said as the film was winding down. He even paused it for emphasis.
If you've seen "The Right Stuff," you'll recall a moment toward the end of the film as Chuck Yeager, forgotten hero that he was in the wake of the space program, still pushing the limits as a test pilot, still looking to own his part of the sky, sets off on a test run for old time's sake. Coach paused the video and told us to pay attention to a certain line that, in his view, was the greatest compliment he'd seen one man pay another. "It's right after the guy driving Levon Helm asks him a question," he told us.
Ridley and his driver head out in search of Yeager, whose plane has crashed, and the question comes: "Sir, over there. Is that a man?" As Helm's Ridley looks out in the heat-rippled distance, he sees Yeager alive and well, head held high. A smile creeps across Ridley's face, almost as if he was never worried about his friend, and he simply says, "Yeah, you damn right it is."
Great line. And indeed, who was Yeager if not the ultimate "man?"
It's a film I've grown to love, mostly for the story it tells of Yeager. When he glimpses a few sparkling stars in the dark of space at the apex of that last test flight, finally able to reach the heights he wasn't allowed due to lack of a college education, I get goosebumps. But I'll always tie Helm to the film for that moment, and for the great presence he is throughout.
Check out the scene I'm talking about below (with the specific moment coming around the 6:30 mark). Right after that, take another look at Helm and company's performance of "The Weight" from Scorsese's "The Last Waltz," never a bad idea.
Take a load off, Levon. You'll be missed.
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