One Who Walked Alone

I was planning on writing about my father’s influence on me and my movie tastes for Father’s Day, and after watching The Whole Wide World- with its portrayal of Robert E. Howard as a man born in the wrong time, who went out of his way to shock and offend, who also ended his life prematurely with a gun- I had a lot to think about. My father shot himself in late September 1997. I learned about it on the 26th; it took a few days for someone to find him. So the tombstone just has an approximation.

My father’s real self was insulated within a constructed persona. He enjoyed offending people, being the life of the party, the company of women, and screwdrivers. After all, it’s hardly a drink; it’s practically breakfast. I spent a lot of time with him, but didn’t get to know him as well as I’d like. Though I don’t think anyone knew the real him; he was very protective of that, with his tough-guy demeanor of ’50s vintage American male raised on racing flathead V8 Fords; he could have walked out of American Graffiti or Last Exit to Brooklyn. I like Dice Clay because he reminds me of a parody of my old man.

I remember sitting next to my Dad during Star Wars, and looking over at him when Luke saw Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s barbecued skeletons. I was shocked, but seeing his lack of reaction made me realize it must be okay. The power of neglect. It’s one of my earliest movie memories; that and having to see a re-release of The AristoCats when everyone else went to see Animal House. My Uncle Paul wore out a VHS copy of the latter for us on his $800 top-loader VCR, so we made up for missing it on the big screen.

I used to go see Sly Stallone movies with my Dad a lot. First Blood was my first ’80s action movie. I still love the genre, though Sly is probably my least favorite star. My father liked him because his friend, my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone (who I elegized here) was his executive bodyguard, stunt double, knife trainer and fight choreographer for many years. He was a larger than life character. We had to go see Rocky IV, because he had some screen time. Cobra. Hell, we even suffered through Cliffhanger; but in Dad’s only movie review, he snored loudly through that one.

“Boy that was really exciting. I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan aren’t ya. Yeah me too. I love that guy. My heart’s beatin’ so fast I’m about to have a heart attack.”

Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson were two other actors we’d always watch. Death Hunt, where Bronson plays a trapper being chased by Mountie Marvin, was one of our favorites. I’ve got it on the DVR right now. Clint Eastwood was always good- Dirty Harry, the westerns, even Unforgiven. He liked Gene Hackman, too. Tough guys. Tommy Lee Jones. We watched a lot of trash and martial arts films too. David Carradine of course; Bruce Lee, and ’80s anomalies like Megaforce and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

But my father’s favorite actors were ones he was told he resembled. He was a narcissistic womanizer, and I was always surprised at his uncanny ability to hook up with younger women. For a while, he was Burt Reynolds. He had the cowboy hat and everything. This was during the Smokey and the Bandit period. My father looked as wrong without a mustache as Burt did in White Lightning and Deliverance. We never watched that Burt movie together, with the indignity of Ned Beatty’s white ass.

As he aged, Dad morphed into Sean Connery in The Presidio and Rising Sun. He even affected the ponytail, though it never got to The Rock-era lengths. Then as even Connery became an old man in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he had no one to mimic. If he’d only lived to see Entrapment, where an 80-something Connery gets with Catherine Zeta-Jones, he’d probably still be cruising around in his Corvette.


In his later years, the Vette got garaged and changed out for a black Saab convertible that he liked; he was trying to catch his image up with his age. He never made it to the age of the baby boomer. What actresses did he like? Barbra Streisand. Seriously. And Sandra Locke. Women who weren’t helpless, but always needed a man. That early ’60s image of womanhood, where they could live on their own, and be sexually liberated, but not too liberated. Let’s not get crazy here. Be a lady. At least in public.

Since his death I’ve always believed in the individual right to suicide. I find the laws against it hilarious. Suicide is acceptable in our stories, we just don’t call it that. Do Butch & Sundance take the cowards way out? Thelma & Louise? Kowalski in Vanishing Point? Maybe. I wish my father hadn’t done it, even though we had drifted apart by then. I think if he’d lived, he might not have liked who he was anymore, but I would have liked to talk with him more as age perhaps broke down the armored shell he’d built for himself. But like Howard, when I knew him, he walked that road alone.

…there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.
–Gerald Kersh

A Tribute to Tony Maffatone

“Uncle” Tony Maffatone

I recently watched Son of Rambow, a cute kid’s film set in ’80s Britain, about two young kids who make their own sequel to First Blood with a video camera. The film is riddled with the best scenes from that ur-action film, which I saw in the theater at the tender age of 11, with my father. Why? Because my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone was involved in it. Tony was my father’s best friend- if men from that era had BFFs. Men born in the ’40s were more like predatory animals than humans, and would sometimes tolerate each other on their own territory; my Dad and Tony were both hard-asses, and had a deep mutual respect. Both had served as police officers; my father moved to construction, and Uncle Tony became an executive bodyguard, eventually for Sylvester Stallone, which led to small roles, such as a mugger in Nighthawks and one of the two KGB officers spying on Rocky in IV; he’s the one who slips on the ice, which was scripted. He didn’t want to do it, but he did it for Stallone. If you watch the “making of” documentaries for Rambo: First Blood Part II, you can see Tony showing Sly how to fight with a knife. My scary knife collection got its start when Uncle Tony showed me his numbered Jimmy Lile Rambo knives, and a Moran ST-24– one of the Holy Grails for knife collectors.

Skip to 2:42, where Tony chases him from the car; his partner drives

When he was in Thailand and the Middle East working as a weapons consultant for Rambo III, he brought me back a pair of Thai dha swords, a Khyber knife, a kindjal and some Nepalese kukris; thus began a lifelong obsession with dangerous pointy things. My father had made a habit of giving me pocket knives, and a razor-sharp Western M-49 Bowie that hung on my wall, terrifying my grandmother, who had nightmares that it would fall down and behead me. When I got older, I would of course graduate to firearms- especially after getting to handle Tony’s MAC-10, one of the signature weapons of the ’80s. He also showed me the scars where he’d been shot on the job, tempering the respect I had for guns, which were never shown as toys.


Jimmy Lile’s knife from First Blood

Uncle Tony had a small role in some of the most memorable action movies of the ’80s. First Blood is still the best of the Rambo series if you ask me. I love the latest one, but it follows the same formula as the other sequels, while the first story was about how shabbily Vietnam veterans were treated both by the government and the people upon their return. It doesn’t have any hippies spitting on him; it shows the callous disregard of a small town police chief, played by Brian Dennehy, for the burned-out vagrant John Rambo, who only wants to pass through town as he looks up one of his war buddies. That buddy has died of cancer, from Agent Orange, and his family is living in a dilapidated shack.

Don’t push it…

The original gets a bad rap because things would turn 180 with the first sequel, which created the “one arm tied behind our back” and “POWs are still in camps 20 years later, for no reason” memes that fueled the ’80s. It was one of James Cameron’s first films, and has that rollercoaster of relentless action that he would perfect later with Aliens and Terminator 2. Rambo III would try the same formula in Afghanistan, to tepid results; the fight culminates with another duel against a Russian attack chopper, this time with Rambo in a tank, ramming it head-on in a rather unlikely scenario that probably sounded better on paper. The film starts with a great muay thai style stick fight between Rambo and a guy who looks like Al Jorgenson from Ministry, before settling in to a familiar story, where he has to rescue Colonel Trautman with the help of the mujaheddin and a cute Afghan kid, sort of a freedom fighter Short Round. The movie has been sneered at as “Rambo helps the Taliban,” but these guys would be more like Northern Alliance.

It gets a lot of flack as being utterly ridiculous, but it’s not really over the top- hell, it’s not even Over the Top! It’s just mediocre, except for a frighteningly expensive final battle involving tanks, helicopters, mujaheddin on horseback, and truck-mounted heavy machine-guns. There are a lot of explosions, but there’s no real urgency; the director would go on to stuff like The Neverending Story III and would never be allowed near an action movie again. It was the most expensive movie made at the time, but it doesn’t feel like it.


Moran’s ST-24 fighter

The fourth movie brings Rambo back to his bloody guerrilla roots and gives us a believable scene with Rambo manning a .50-cal and mowing down troops- at least he has a shield in the new one. Uncle Tony would be proud. Rambo forges his own knife similar to the Kachin rebel’s head-hunting dha chopper, and goes to town with it. Rambo III, the last movie Tony worked with Stallone on, is probably the last good Sly flick until Cop Land reminded people that he can act when forced. He’s never gone back to the crying emotional rage at the end of First Blood again, but that scene’s always worked for me. This third entry is also the last movie before Stallone started eating steroids by the handful- he looks trim and cut here, before ballooning in size for stuff like The Specialist, where his veiny swollen pecs in shower scene are so horrifying that are distracted from a naked Sharon Stone.

Roid boy

My father said that Tony had stopped working for Sly after this, because Stallone wanted to be part of his own security detail. The action movies had gone to his head; he thought he really was Rambo. Uncle Tony would go on to work for less showy clients, where Hollywood egos and extravagance wouldn’t interfere with the job. He concentrated on his hobby of diving, where he even developed his own equipment. A few years later he tragically died in a diving accident, around the wreck of the USS San Diego, in 2000. One of his close diving friends wrote a fitting epitaph for him here.
His ashes were cast into the sea, and I only learned years later while trying to get back in touch. The last time I saw him was at my own father’s funeral, and he was still in great shape into his late 50’s- regularly running marathons. The next time I dip my toes in the waters of the Jersey shore I’ll think of him. Unfortunately Google also brought up a hit on VeriSEAL, because his obituary article in the NY Daily News had a Hollywood producer named Marty Richards, one of Tony’s clients, claim that he was a “decorated Navy SEAL,” and “Rambo was based on him.” Uncle Tony never made any such claims to me. He was a police officer in Passaic, who trained in security measures and martial arts, and a hero to his friends, family and those clients he protected; there is no need to claim he was a SEAL to boost him up. And “Rambo” was based on the book First Blood by David Morrell; maybe basing the sequel on a “Back to ‘Nam” story was Tony’s idea, but I never heard about it. It’s sad that the boasting of a Hollywood asshole has to tarnish the memory of a good man who can’t defend himself.

update:

I had the honor of meeting David Morrell several times at Thrillerfest and Bouchercon. Rambo’s Daddy is a gracious and talented writer, and he was kind enough to give me a business card where he sits with Stallone, and my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone stands in the background, on the set of Rambo III:

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Rest in Peace, Uncle Tony. I’ll remember reading The Old Man and the Sea when our families vacationed together on Long Beach Island, and we sat on the porch watching the stormy waves hammer the shoreline; I’ll remember lifting weights on the bench in your back yard with you, and sharing dinner with your family. And whenever I see Stallone hold that survival knife to Brian Dennehy’s throat, warning him “Don’t push it- I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” I’ll remember that you were on set giving the iconic action star cues on how to handle himself with a weapon.

R.I.P.