Wednesday, October 14, 2015


I’m not sure I remember a more satisfying moment from my childhood than the movie moment when Charlie Bucket unwrapped the Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket from Mr. Willy Wonka… In your wildest dreams you could not imagine the marvelous surprises that await you!”

So you can imagine the thrill a generation later when I wrote a magazine article about Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie.

His rise to fame was remarkable. Here was a kid from Ohio who was performing at the Cleveland Playhouse children’s theater in 1970 when he was discovered by agents casting the film. They took some Polaroid pictures, tape-recorded him reading from some lines, called him in for a screen test a couple of months later… and suddenly 12-year-old Pete was Charlie Bucket, traveling overseas for the first time, to Munich, and acting opposite the likes of Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson.

He was basically playing himself—down to earth and able to be awed without losing a sense of self. But unlike Charlie, who gratefully inherited Wonka’s factory, Ostrum returned to Cleveland with the suspicion that filmmaking wasn’t quite his (edible) cup of tea. He even turned down producer David Wolper’s offer of a three-picture deal. “I enjoyed making the movie,” he told me, “but at that point, did I want to be a film actor for the rest of my life? I guess I didn’t.”

Instead, he found an entirely different calling. Shortly after he completed the film, his family acquired a horse. When a veterinarian arrived at the stables one day, Ostrum watched him work and had a life-changing epiphany. Three decades after his single film credit, Peter Ostrum has a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree on the wall of his practice in upstate Lowville, NY, instead of lickable wallpaper. He is surrounded not by Oompa Loompas, but by a handful of dogs and cats.

No, he doesn’t actually own one of the dozen or so original Golden Tickets, said to be a valuable collector’s item nowadays—just a clapstick slate and a couple of Wonka Bars. But Dr. Peter Ostrum is so content in his choices that perhaps the final lines of his sole movie appearance were prescient after all:

“But, Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted."

"What happened?"

"He lived happily ever after."

So in the only movie he ever made, Ostrum had a starring role, grabbed a Golden Ticket, piloted a Great Glass Elevator, inherited a candy conglomerate and cemented his place in film history. Might he be the ultimate one-hit wonder?

Malcolm Gladwell would plotz. The most talked-about and compelling part about Gladwell’s outstanding book Outliers was his decision to repeatedly trumpet the “10,000-hour rule”—the notion that the key to success in almost any field is, to a large extent, a matter of simply practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. The notion stems from the widespread belief, certainly generally valid, that achievement is all about perseverance. Practice makes perfect. Never say die. Try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed…

But sometimes, at first, you do succeed. Wildly. Like Peter Ostrum, a handful of folks have tried something once, achieved near perfection, then left it at that. They batted 1.000 for eternity.

A fellow named John Paciorek did so literally. He appeared in exactly one major league baseball game—for the old Houston Cold ‘45s on the last day of the 1963 season. In five times at bat, he singled three times, walked twice, scored four runs, and recorded three runs batted in. He also made a couple of nice running catches in the outfield. Paciorek was anointed Houston’s star of the future, but a series of injuries that began in the offseason derailed his career. That remarkable first game would prove to be the only big league game he ever played.

There are echoes of “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams: “Back then I thought, Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” Except Graham didn’t get to bat at all.

And sure, it’s tempting to call Paciorek the can’t-miss-kid who missed, but he did make it after all, right? And in that one game, he was simply flawless—he will forever have, literally, a perfect batting average.

But what about music, you ask? Isn’t that the source of the term one-hit wonder? Sure, there are scores of songs to choose from—hit singles from solo acts or band that never produced another. You know, like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, or “Come on Eileen”  by Dexys Midnight Runners, or “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. However, those weren’t the only songs by those artists—just the most successful ones.

Ah, but one particular can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head tune was recorded by a specific group of little-known musicians who joined for a single recording session. Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo, and Dale Frashuer couldn’t come up with suitable lyrics, so they substituted words like “hey hey” and “na na.” They were said to be so embarrassed by the song that they attributed it to a fictional band called Steam. The result: “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” became a number one single on the Billboard Top 100 in late 1969. To this day, it remains a sports stadium crowd-chant staple.
Nearly everybody knows the one song they recorded in a single session. That’s a one-hit wonder.

Okay, how about filmmakers? Well, if you’re a fan of zombie films, you surely have seen Night of the Living Dead, the paragon of pasty animated corpse flicks. But director George Romero once said his film was directly inspired by another, a 1962 black-and-white called Carnival of Souls, which was a micro-budget horror movie filmed by a guy named Herk Harvey in his Kansas hometown. It was the only film he ever completed before returning to a quiet life as a Kansas businessman, but it is referenced reverently by modern horror filmmakers.

If we’re talking reverence, however, let’s talk literature.

Let’s start with A Confederacy of Dunces, the unforgettable romp of fat and flatulent Ignatius J. Reilly. John Kennedy Toole wrote it, couldn’t snag a publisher, and committed suicide in 1969 at age 31. His book was published posthumously and, twelve years after his death, won the Pulitzer Prize. However, not many folks know that it wasn’t actually his first novel. He wrote The Neon Bible at the age of 16 in 1954 and couldn’t get that published either. It was eventually released eight years after Confederacy hit it big.

While a whole bunch of people consider Confederacy to be one of their favorite books, consensus suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird is THE most-loved piece of literature ever produced. Nearly every student has read it. There are nearly 30 million copies in print. In 1999, a Library Journal poll voted it Best Novel of the Century. I’m pretty sure I agree. And the movie was great, too.

Lee published the Pulitzer-winning book in 1960, then never published another novel for 55 years, although she did help her childhood pal Truman Capote in his research for In Cold Blood—and how’s that for another classic? “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again,” she once explained. Which is one reason publication of Go Set a Watchman was so… disappointing. Well, that and the fact that Atticus Finch turned out to be less than perfect.

But while I will be forever grateful to Harper Lee as an author’s inspiration, she no longer qualifies as a one-hit wonder. And I genuinely liked Peter Ostrum, but he’s not number one either. Nor is John Paciorek, even though I’m a baseball history nut.

No, I think I most love the story of John Daniels.

Daniels is believed to have snapped one photograph in his life. He did it on December 17, 1903, on a cold and windy day on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And he made it count. Daniel’s photograph is depicted on the North Carolina quarter. It has been blown up to a 10-foot-by-10-foot size and paraded through the state. It has been recreated in statues of bronze at almost the very location that it occurred. It is simply one of the most significant snapshots in human history.
On that day in 1903, Daniels was among a handful of people keeping busy at a particularly wind-ravaged spot in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a placed called Kill Devil Hills. The busiest two people were brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Daniels, a rescue worker from the local lifesaving station, was merely helping out where he could.

The story of the Wright brothers is the tale of the right men coming along at the right time. Daniels happened to be in the right place. After years of preparation, the Wrights pointed their aircraft into the wind. Orville set up a camera on a tripod, aiming it at a point he hoped the machine would reach when it left its take-off rail. He instructed Daniels to press the shutter if the aircraft actually left the ground. After about 45 feet, the flying machine lifted into the air, and 120 feet later it touched the earth again.

Daniels later claimed that he was so excited at the flight’s success that he thought he had forgotten to squeeze the bulb. But the photo was perfect, capturing the craft two feet off the ground, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. It was the very moment that changed the world.

The photograph has since been analyzed endlessly—from the location of footprints in the sand to the speed of the propellers—but it was actually the lesser of Daniels’s major thrills that day. After the Wright’s fourth successful flight, a gust of wind caught the Flyer, causing it—and Daniels, who had been holding on—to cartwheel across the beach. The Flyer was damaged and never flew again. Until 1937, when he finally took a flight to Cleveland, the same could have been said of Daniels, who explained, “I’ve had all the thrill I ever want in an airplane.”

Daniels spent the rest of his years in relative obscurity on the Carolina coast, and he may have been most proud not of his seminal photograph but of his pioneering bruises as the first airplane casualty. In fact, Orville Wright, who died within 24 hours of Daniels in 1948, used to joke that his friend “rode further in the plane than either of the inventors.” Of course, there were no photographs to prove it.

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