I don’t tend to get a flood of birthday greetings, but Willie Garson — whom I met 39 years ago this month, on our first night of Wesleyan University, when I was paired up with an 18-year-old sparkplug from New Jersey on a freshman-hall ice-breaking exercise — reliably remembered it, no matter where he happened to be or how many times I overlooked his.
This year I spent my birthday attending his funeral, and at no point did I receive a text reading “Happy Birthday, you tool,” or a phone call with the opening salvo “Shut up!” and to say it was missed is an impossible understatement.
While the public knew Willie for playing outsized characters like Stanford Blatch on “Sex and the City” and Mozzie on “White Collar,” the legion of friends he left behind knew Willie was a character as indelible as any he played.
Since he died at 57 of pancreatic cancer, Hollywood’s been ablaze with reminiscences; here are a few of mine.
He was a riot. I mean, pants-pissing funny. He did countless movie and TV roles and I don’t know that any of them captured how hilarious he was in person. He was an endless fount of wisecracks and stories, delivered with timing and inflections that had a whiff of an old-school Jewish comedian.
Boy did he love food. “Where are we eating” was an eternal question. I once saw an itinerary for a trip he was taking to Ireland, and he had every meal planned, with notes on what to order. Whenever I was hungry in L.A, I could text him and tell him my coordinates and he’d point me somewhere good, and he could do the same in cities from Vancouver to Florence.
In truth, he steered me to the occasional dud. He had a blind spot when it came to any place with old-school vibe or kitsch — subpar food didn’t dent the enjoyment he took in such spots. And I’ll give him that.
His passion for those places, and for food in general, is of a piece with the way he sucked the marrow out of life. With him, everything — the new hiking trail he’d found in Maine, the set he’d just seen in the gospel tent at his beloved New Orleans JazzFest, the soup dumplings he’d found in New York’s Chinatown — was “totally fantastic.” (Unless it was “totally ridiculous,” a different category altogether.)
Living well is an art, and he had a gift for it.
He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had strong opinions, a keen eye for people’s foibles, and a caustic wit. But beneath the cutting sarcasm was a big heart and a caring soul.
Kindness was a word he used a lot in his later years, and he devoted countless hours to hosting charitable events or otherwise showing up for worthy causes.
He was unbeatable company. “The life of the party” is a phrase I’ve seen more than once since he died. He was a life force who drew people to him, and was unfailingly fun to be around. I’d bet there were dozens of people who considered him a close friend and hundreds more who thought of him as a pal. That charm was key to his career success, I think.
But so was hard work. He was a go-getter who from a young age knew exactly what he wanted, and went after it with fierce focus and determination. And he didn’t fail to enjoy the rewards that came his way. Some actors may hate being recognized and bothered, but Willie wasn’t one of them. He quite seemed to enjoy his celebrity, and was always funny and gracious when fans approached him. He gave them a small taste of that energy I’m talking about, and I think he touched a lot of people that way.
In the end, though, being a dad to Nathen, the son he adopted in 2009 when Nathen was 7, was his proudest achievement. Willie had something big to give and needed Nathen to give it to. He went out and found him — I vividly recall him recounting how he’d spotted Nathen, and just knew — and their relationship was a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.
I just went looking for an email I wrote him last month — one where I had a chance to tell him how much I’d treasured our friendship — and came across a group message he sent out to friends last month, when he’d left New York, where he’d been shooting the “Sex and the City” reboot, and was back home in LA and knew just what he was facing.
“My focus is on Nathen, and peace, and grace,” he wrote.
Not his last words exactly, but ones to remember. Peace and grace to you, old pal.