"And right there for a minute I knew you so well."

Tori Amos, “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo"  

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Regarding Rod Thorp--With a Vengeance

A Memoir by Wanda Coleman

The writer as medium or keeper of the tribal flame—reporting on humankind from one’s particular toehold on the planet is the role I’ve nurtured, as an African-American writer. With it comes the responsibility of allowing those who might otherwise be forgotten to live. Writers may be visionaries or dreamers. At their worst, writers are, as Harlan Ellison often insists, thieves. Rare is the dreamer and cannibal, visionary and thief. Then there's the kind of writer Hollywood breeds and on which it thrives, the writer who cannibalizes and exploits for gain what others hold dear if not sacred. Roderick Thorp, acclaimed New York writer, late of Oxnard, as I knew him, was the latter.

In the mid 80s I was living in a 4-plex walk-up in Hollywood, on Heliotrope Drive, just north of Melrose—on the dark end of the hottest youth-culture cruise spot in Los Angeles. The landlady swore she had once rented that exact unit to 60s actor Vince Edwards (Ben Casey), to justify the outrageous rent. I paid begrudgingly, trapped there by the dynamics of racism and the scarcity of low-income housing. The funky neighborhood surrounding the Los Angeles City College campus, was a mix of Gay and punk-rocker hangs, the residents lower-middle class merchants and professionals, mainly new arrivals—Armenians, Latinos, Thais and Russian Jews. Vampira (Maila Nurmi), the actress from Plan 9 From Outer Space, was living in a dilapidated hexahedron down the block.

The fall Rod Thorp came into my life, I was freelancing between jobs, trying to jump-start a moribund scriptwriting career. I was also busy making my mark in L.A.’s full-tilt spoken-word scene, working on a third book of poems, writing an occasional article and short story. Rod had run into my husband poet Austin Straus and accompanied him home. They were acquaintances from Austin’s loft days in New York’s East Village. Nostalgia ruled and I did the wife thing, serving iced drinks, listening politely to reminiscences.

Soon, Rod was hanging out with us, dropping by, borrowing books and, to our surprise, showing up to hear us perform at local poetry venues. Rod’s specialty was the detective novel, based on his experience, purportedly while working for his father’s investigative business, and, according to what I remember, Rod got ideas from his father’s copious and detailed files. It was said that the hero in his second novel, The Detective, was based on Rod’s father. It was also rumored Rod made a cool half-million on the paperback rights. It was rare that highly paid commercial fiction writers took any notice of the Southern California poetry underground. But we welcomed Rod, a low-key, unpretentious man who would become a regular in our circle for roughly three years, 1984 through 1987.

At that time, racial tensions in Los Angeles were mounting. The Black community still vibrated from the Jonestown Massacre, in November 1978. Less than two months later, in January 1979, thirty-nine-year-old Eulia Mae Love was slain by twelve bullets from the guns of LAPD Officers Edward Hopson and Lloyd O’Callaghan. Love had allegedly wielded a butcher’s knife at a gas company serviceman over a disconnect order for nonpayment of a $22.09 dun. Love’s was the most high profile of the continual incidents resulting in death for Black citizens. The White community of Southern California was impervious, the national climate governed by Bernard Goetz, the NYC subway vigilante who had shot four Black teens.

The racial tensions of 1984 were akin to those tensions that had always existed in the Los Angeles into which I had been born and reared. They were at the heart of my work—and identity. This was the city I loved and hated, the city Rod Thorp was busily exploiting in his slow-selling 1978 novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Often speculating about Rod’s frequent visits, Austin and I wondered if Rod was milking us for material. We had enormous appetites for like-minded discourse, or "brainstorming," but worried that our passions for the cultural might make us susceptible to those with thievish motivations— jealousy, hunger, greed—under the guise of friendship. Cautiously, we decided Rod was trustworthy.

Rod liked to talk, gave off disarming warmth, and was extremely sharp. He claimed E. L. Doctorow as a mentor, and quoted him often. A gourmet cook, he enjoyed recreating dishes in the kitchen. A heavy drinker, he had restricted his intake and gone on a crash Herbal Life diet. Recently divorced, the heavyset, loose-fleshed, balding man lived alone with Dawn, the cat, in an upstairs two-bedroom apartment—with a big table and a bulletin board where he kept clippings of the various murder cases he was researching for novels.

Rod was working two agents, east coast and west, hunting package deals. We concluded that, contrary to his casualness, Rod was lonely, if a lone wolf, and that his visits were prompted by our conversational skills and Rod’s rocky readjustment to bachelorhood.

The Christmas of 85, he joined us for a benefit reading and after-party for the Valley Contemporary Writers, where I introduced him to my longtime friend, poet Sylvia Rosen. After that night, Rod and Sylvia began dating. We saw a lot less of Rod.

Immersed in my own demands, I touched bases with Sylvia between readings for updates on her romance with Rod. She described his habits of chain-smoking blank brand cigarettes, prowling thrift shops for bargains, and playing the horses at Hollywood Park and del Mar. But, she complained, he never stopped working. She was particularly miffed by his chronic eavesdropping, and how difficult it was to enjoy an evening when his attention was constantly on the conversations of others. Rod, she said, marveled at our poetry scene and had wondered aloud if there were a way to turn his observations of it into something commercially viable. According to Sylvia, Rod was always writing, even when he wasn’t in front of a legal tablet or keyboard. He was a disciplinarian and wrote a designated number of pages daily. While they were dating, he made a ritual of calling her every evening at five o’clock and discussing how many pages he had produced that day.

"It was as if he needed to report to someone," she said. "He was a writer who lived on film options between books." When working, Rod’s approach was often so matter-of-fact it stunned Sylvia. "Once he had this assignment to do an article for a pornography magazine. ‘Tell me your fantasies,’ he asked me. It was so bizarre. I said ‘No.’"

One afternoon, I heard a knock on the door downstairs. I shouted it was open and watched Rod huff his way upstairs. I complimented him on his weight loss. He mentioned high cholesterol. I didn’t think I had any reason to distrust him, yet I felt awkward having him there. He was my husband’s acquaintance and my girlfriend’s man. We didn’t have much in common to talk about. I hadn’t read a detective novel since the Nick Carter of my teens, explaining to Rod that Austin hadn’t gotten home from work and that he had interrupted my work on a new manuscript.

His latest hustle, Rod explained was the Laurel Canyon murders in which porno star John Holmes had been implicated (the movie Rainbow Drive would be a lesser Thorp success). He also had a bite on the movie end of the package deal for Nothing Lasts Forever, and would shortly be on his way for the meet with The Suits. But, he had a couple of hours between appointments and didn’t want to go back to his apartment. He thought he’d stop by because the studio was minutes away. Could he keep me company? I said okay, invited him to sit and offered coffee, tea, Hawaiian punch or ice water. Politely, I took my usual spot on the floor, barefoot in slacks and blouse, propped up on my elbows for the listen. Instead, I ended up doing all the talking as Rod engaged me on the subject of race relations, pointing out my marriage to a very Jewish ex-New Yorker. It was fertile ground, and I had things to say few in the pitch dens of Hollywood cared to hear.

Rod wanted to hear them.

His best feature was his eagle eyes, which had large bright translucent irises. As I talked, they made me uncomfortable. He stared at me so intensely, I wondered if I were being hypnotized or if he were wearing contact lenses, or both. His staring was accompanied by a tremendous and uncanny wanting, absent hints of sexual overture. Rod shot question after question at me, not quite grilling, but virtually without commenting on anything I said or offering any argument. This process of absorption was interrupted only when he needed another smoke or to use the restroom, or when I emptied the ashtray. I answered honestly, amused that he was so interested.

"He’d ask questions my psychiatrist wouldn’t ask," Sylvia said later. "He knew you were going to be a character." When Rod finally left, we parted very cordially. Rod thanked me and invited me to call him soon to get the name of his agent, who, he thought, could resurrect my scriptwriting career. It was one of the last times I saw Rod.

Minutes after Rod had scurried off for his appointment, Austin came home. I recounted the afternoon’s strange tête-à-tête. Austin wasn’t pleased, or as convinced as I that the wanting I sensed wasn’t sexual in nature. "He was really a pouncer. He’d pounce on anything," Sylvia said. "You couldn’t say anything he couldn’t dissect. He was always speculating about anyone he would see…what their life was like, where they lived, what they did for a living. He was always making up back stories."

The last time we heard from Rod, he had broken up with Sylvia and was purportedly scheduled to return briefly to New York to negotiate a deal on the Laurel Canyon murder story. His appointment that fateful afternoon had panned out for his biggest score since Frank Sinatra had starred in the movie version of The Detective. Under its new title, the second printing of Nothing Lasts Forever was going into immediate production as an action-adventure film scheduled for July release the coming year, 1988. He urged us to take the kids and see the movie when it was released. Rod Thorp then permanently dropped out of our circle, returning to Southern California to live in Oxnard.

Austin dislikes action-adventure films, and Rod Thorp’s name was no enticement, so one midsummer’s afternoon, I lugged the kids and friend Kika to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, five minutes from the house. We stood in a line half a block long. After getting seats, popcorn and sodas, we sat back to enjoy the flick.

I sharpened my eyes.

Long jaded by the too-often clumsy, ill-thought and pretentious product of Hollywood’s politically correct poseurs, I was cynical about Die Hard the moment Argyle (De’Voreaux White), the brown-toned savvy ex-cabbie turned virgin limousine driver appeared to greet the hero, NYPD’s John McClane, Rod Thorp’s alter ego, played energetically by Bruce Willis. The century was nearly over, and I had yet to see anyone (Spike included) nail racism to my satisfaction, on either the small screen or the large, in anything that wasn’t a documentary or art film. Now I was about to witness pal Rod’s version via screenplay by Jeb Stewart and Steven E. de Souza. I kicked back for the hijinks. While Argyle snaps his fingers to the funk (as opposed to running the meter), a high-voltage, multiethnic crew of Euro-trash thieves fronting off as terrorists, make their clean mean entrance. Neutralizing security, they then disrupt the penthouse suite Christmas shenanigans of multi-international corporate personnel. As our Bad Guys gleefully take hostages, they unknowingly trap the Teddy-toting, wisecracking yahoo John McClane in the 30-odd-floor Japanese-owned skyscraper. Little do they know, of course, that among the hostages is McClane’s estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia’s Molly), or that he’ll fight till hell’s frozen over to save the estranged mother of his children.

I watched the screen roar for forty-odd minutes, then gasped with a chill of recognition. Right-thinking, even-tempered Officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) appeared, the complete antithesis of the real LAPD cop, any age, color or gender. Anchored in Thorp’s fantasy, Officer Al Powell became McClane’s guardian Angeleno, maintaining valued if frequently interrupted citizen’s band radiophone contact with the NYPD cop turned self-deprecating shitkicker, notching up one fake terrorist after another despite interference from an inept LAPD SWAT team, the more inept FBI and a slew of dufus newshounds. (There are John Wayne and Roy Roger cracks, and McClane is affectionately called "Cowboy" by Powell.) I wasn’t crazy about McClane, my repulsion was reserved for Powell. But there was a flipside. Officer Powell appeared to be my male counterpart, lifted straight out of that one-sided conversation I had with Rod on that memorable afternoon many months before.

The longer I watched, the angrier I got.

It was enough that the film’s dialogue was peppered with idiomatic expressions I favored at the time ("running it," "running some bullshit," "I hear you," "when you rang," and "diddlysquat"). It was virtually impossible for me not to take Die Hard personally. Ironically, I had been reduced to the very formulaic stereotype I loathed. My questions were endless. Had Rod tacitly used me as the basis for the Powell character when discussing plot development? Had Rod taken one of my poetry books into the script conference? Had Rod spotted me early on and maneuvered reconnecting with Austin in order to study me?

Gratuitous slayings and non-threatening stereotypes aside—Argyle the finger-popper, Theo the super-nerd (Clearence Gilyerd, Jr.), and guardian cop Powell (the same surname of one of the officers that would beat Rodney King three years later), Rod—-through surrogates Stewart and de Souza-—it seemed, had gone way beyond copping a few writerly licks. If so, Rod, had not only stolen my words and personality, but he had perverted events I held dear. That they were packaged in high production values and snappy repartee was of no consolation.

Three instances in the film stood out among those: During one lull in the violence, Officer Powell snipes snidely, "Arrest ’em for not paying their electric bill?" Beneath his jibe at fellow officers is the Eulia Mae Love slaying mentioned above. In another, McClane and Powell engage in patter about eating Twinkies, a droll reference to the Twinkie-defense mounted for the assassin of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1977.

The third occurs during a bonding session when McClane asks Powell why he left the streets to man a desk. Powell replies, " I had an accident. I shot a 13-year-old kid." Powell believes himself so traumatized he can no longer fire his police special. A transparent setup for Die Hard’s silly finale, this exchange exploits the 1983 incident in which five-year-old Patrick Andrew Mason, a Black child, was fatally shot by Anthony Sperl, a Stanton police officer. Sperl had entered the apartment with a passkey, kicked in the bedroom door and shot the child who was playing Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns with his toy pistol and holster set.

Tripling my hurt and rage, was Die Hard’s undeniable success. It played like gangbusters. Among the millions of dollars flowing into the box offices nationwide, would be the millions of dollars of Black filmgoers, like me. Once again, we would put money into the pockets of those who exploited us in the guise of entertainment for want of enough alternatives.

But—-suppose I was wrong?

Suppose some smarmy script person had twisted Rod’s not-so-original PC ideas? How much of the blame should be shared by scriptwriters Stewart and de Souza? (Pseudonyms for Rod?) Or whoever else had their hand in that screenplay, from the director to the actors? It was the norm for books to alter radically when transformed into screenplays. Books were to be read, movies to be watched. I had not read Rod’s Nothing Lasts Forever to know for certain if Powell, as he appeared on screen, predated our talk or not. Nor did I intend to do so. Watching Die Hard was more than I could stomach. Was my rage misdirected? Painfully, I recalled my first TV script. In it, one of the production execs had decided to take a swipe at the Trousdale Estates in dialogue not written in my original script. That statement would unfairly be forever attributable to me. That considered, was I willing to give Rod the benefit of the doubt?


Thinking back, I wondered if Rod had carried a bug or micro tape recorder on his person. He favored safari jackets, loose khaki slacks and sweaters. Perhaps he had total recall or ran out to his car and scribbled notes. I once observed a dramaturge who always made a suspicious run on the latrine whenever something noteworthy came up in creative powwows. Rod, it seemed, had a strong bladder, if the weak heart that would eventually end his life twelve years later. Whatever Rod was, he was cool with it and looked you straight in the eye without a blink.

Suppose Rod was innocent. Suppose it was a confluence of coincidences? My mind was awhirl.

As the theatre emptied out, the kids played in the aisles while Kika shook me and asked if I were all right. Upset, I grabbed her shoulder, and hissed, "The dirty mutha ripped me off!" That wasn’t exactly what had happened, but at that instant, the actuality was too complex, and too fresh for me to get my tongue around it. Nevertheless, I would call Sylvia that night and make a like attempt. She listened patiently until I had cleared my rant, then said softly, "Guess where Rod got that title he was looking for?"

One day, after work, Sylvia’s car wouldn’t start. She had a hot date with Rod but was stuck in the lower level of a subterranean garage. The Automobile Club gave her a boost but warned that once the car stopped they couldn’t guarantee it would start again. She needed a new battery. Upset, she drove straight to the nearest Sears auto repair outlet. They installed an inexpensive but excellent battery, one of her long-time favorites. Then she hurried off to meet Rod, arriving late. Ever the gentleman, Rod had waited for Sylvia with the patience of a rock. When she explained what had happened, he listened, eyes gleaming with that familiar if uncanny light. Then she told him about her favorite Sears battery, how reliable it was, and how pleased she was to be relieved of worry. His eyes gleamed even brighter. Then Rod reminded her about that troublesome book of his, the one that was not moving in the bookstores. All Nothing Lasts Forever required was the proper new title to perk up sluggish sales. He reminded her that he had spent months searching for that title.

"Die Hard!" He said, trying out the name of the battery. "That would make a great title."

Then he thanked her for the help.



A former columnist for Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Emmy award winning TV scriptwriter, Wanda Coleman's non-fiction most recently appears in the autobiographical Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (Black Sparrow Press). Her books include A War of Eyes and Other Stories (1988), and the novel Mambo Hips & Make Believe (1999). She received the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Award for the best book of poetry published the previous year (Bathwater Wine), presented by The Academy of American Poets. The memoir chapbook Love-Ins with Nietzsche (Wake Up Heavy Press, 2000), was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Copyright May 2001: All rights reserved except for those offered to parties to whom this electronic transmission is directed. No part of this writing may be used or reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means by anyone other than those involved in the project for which this work is intended.

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