Madeline Kahn was a special actor and by all accounts a wonderful person. She had that special something that made her light shine brightly in comedic and dramatic roles alike. Her performances never fail to delight and I continue to enjoy them no matter how often I see them.
While channel surfing on my TV one night I had the good fortune to stumble upon an episode of The American Theatre Wing in which she was a appearing along with a panel of theatre and film actors. At one point in the show the moderator asked each of the guests to recall how they got their start in the business. True to form Ms. Kahn’s tale delighted both audience and peers as she recounted her rib-tickling tale.
According to Ms. Kahn, as a High School student she enrolled in a drama class. If my memory serves me correctly it was the one and only class offered in her High School at the time. In her own words she was painfully shy and on the first day of class she made be-line for a seat in the back of the classroom where she would be able to blend in with the walls. In the course of the semester she only dared to speak on two occasions. On one such occasion she raised her hand, with considerable difficulty, to offer an opinion. What that opinion was she could not recall. When she finished speaking she returned to her role of “Gigot” and resumed her relationship with her chair and the walls. To her amazement her teacher asked to speak with her after class. About what she didn’t know. Reluctantly, Madeline did as instructed, approached her teacher and was immediately struck dumb when she was encouraged to audition for the drama department at Pace University. She had already decided on a career in education. Teaching children was her chosen profession. Acting was not the remotest consideration. Nevertheless her teacher saw a certain quality in her and urged her to go for it. After the conversation she came home and related the absurd conversation to her mother who also thought it a good idea. Madeline thought them both mad as hatters. The thought of acting terrified her and the whole concept seemed absurd, but mother and teacher were convinced it was a good idea. When the fateful day of the audition finally came it was raining. Glory halleluha! The perfect excuse to remain home. Her mother would not hear of it. Prodding her to get ready she all but pushed her out the door. When Madeline arrived for her audition she had nothing prepared so she had to wing it. Apparently her “winging” was more than enough and she was accepted into the acting program. The rest as they say is history. Ms. Kahn, before her untimely death at the age of 57, due to ovarian cancer, left us with hilarious and moving performances in “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein”, “Clue”, “High Anxiety”, “Paper Moon,” and many, many more.
Often times we don’t see ourselves accurately. Failure to acknowledge that there is more to us than meets the eye results in wasted opportunities. If we are fortunate enough to have someone that recognizes a unique or special ability, we may be able to realize our potential. Sadly, talent often gets buried beneath insecurity, lack of confidence and low self-esteem. At other times, as in Ms. Kahn’s case there is a teacher, mentor or parent that not only recognizes a unique “something”, but urges that we “go for it”. They see a quality that we are far too myopic to see in ourselves.
Looking back I can recall times in my own life when a mentor would have been extremely helpful. Someone that could provide me with honesty and encouragement and push me in the right direction. In spite of the self doubts and obstacles I faced I am here today doing the thing I love to do, working with people that give my life meaning. I did not know as younger man that I would be earning my living teaching acting. It was not in my playbook. It was something that evolved over time. It happened while I was making other plans. Unexpectedly. That’s the beauty of it.