Playwright Chip Deffaa Remembers Music and Television Star David Cassidy

REMEMBERING David Cassidy... By Chip Deffaa

"Others, who did not know him, can write obituaries about David Cassidy. I want to share some personal remembrances. I knew him, I liked him, I am saddened by his loss. I was glad that David chose me to ghost-write his autobiography, "C'Mon Get Happy" (by David Cassidy with Chip Deffaa, published by Warner Books). And writing that book with him was an intense experience. He was open, candid, frank, and a fantastic storyteller. He had a seemingly endless supply of self-deprecating stories to tell, which I appreciated. He shared everything with me, with the understanding that we could decide later what to put into the book, and what to keep private. I liked his openness.

He was a sweet, often-sad fellow, with a great deal of talent--more than I think he realized. He could get very down on himself, and he knew he had a self-defeating streak. But he brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people. And in his appearances--in concerts, in clubs, in legitimate theaters--he had great presence. (Not all television stars, needless to say, have muc presence on stage.)

He was unforgettable in "Blood Brothers," on Broadway and on tour--he was moving in the book scenes, and he sang in a strong, legit baritone that surprised a lot of people who only knew him from his cheery early, light pop hits. (Those early pop records were great in their own way, but there was a lot more to David Cassidy than that.) He did a fine job, too, starring on Broadway in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." And did musical theater in London, as well. He knew had to hold a stage. Maybe it was in his blood; both his father, Jack Cassidy, and his mother, Evelyn Ward, had played starring roles on Broadway--Jack's best-remembered Broadway performance was, perhaps, in "She Loves Me"; Evelyn Ward replaced Gwen Verdon as the star of "New Girl in Town."

I wish David had done more musical theater. He had a lot to offer in that field. (And I was impressed, too, by his work as a producer, not just performer.) But he was never quite sure what he wanted out of life. And he could be as impulsive as a teenager. That was part of his charm--that eternally youthful spirit he could project. Speaking with him--for better or for worse--I often felt like I was speaking with a teenager. Like he was still caught in the storms of adolescence. He could be moody and stubborn and temperamental, and dramatic. Then go out and deliver a great performance on stage--really glow on stage, really connect with the audience. Then return to brooding over some seemingly minor issue, worrying it to death. I affectionately made him a character in one of my plays, "Theater Boys." (Actor Ben Orlando, decked out in a shag wig and pooka shells, evoked him fairly well.)

I'm dedicating the next performance of my current musical play, "Irving Berlin: In Person" (at the 13th Street Theater in NYC), to David's memory, and will say a few words in remembrance of him after the performance. I was at that theater, with a friend who'd also known David, when we learned that he had passed. We were both brought down by the news. We both knew that David had not had an easy time, fighting his own personal demons, over the years.

He always worked hard. But he'd tell me, "It doesn't matter how much money I make because I'll just lose it anyway." He repeated that cycle of making and losing a good deal of money several times in his life. When he declared bankruptcy a few years ago, I was saddened but not surprised. He went through many years of psychotherapy, but some problems--like his recurring problems with drinking, his insecurity and trust issues--seemed too deep-rooted to ever fully resolve.
I liked him, and told him so. He responded: "You may be like me now. When you get to know me better, you probably won't like me so much. And you'll probably turn on me; everyone does."

He felt that many had turned on him over the years--starting with a famous father, Jack Cassidy, who'd had little time for David as a boy and left David absolutely nothing in his will. (David wound up paying $1,000 for his father's pocket watch at an estate sale, just to have something of his father's to remember him by.) And David noted bitterly that most of the Hollywood movers-and-shakers who treated him like a golden boy when he was on top ignored him when his popularity faded. He was sensitive and took such snubs personally.

At his peak in early 1970s, David Cassidy was the highest paid, most popular male solo concert artist in the world. He received 25,000 fan letters per week. His face adorned magazine covers--as well as lunch boxes, cereal boxes, beach towels, pillows, and anything else that marketing experts could think of A lot of people made money off of him. He netted surprisingly little from all of the merchandising--about $15,000. His manager--to whom he was fiercely loyal--had never dealt with anything remotely like having a teen idol as a client, and let a lot of money simply slip away.

At the peak of his fame,. David became a virtual prisoner in his own home. He could not go anywhere without being mobbed. Once, when he broke box-office records at Atlantic City's famed Steel Pier, he donned drag--a woman's dress and wig--just so he could pass through a crowd unnoticed. He had a hard time coping with the fame, and all of the craziness connected with it.

It was exhilarating for him to perform for fans who screamed non-stop through his triumphant Madison Square Garden concert. (And he got a kick out of hearing about the eight-year-old girl in the audience who said: "I know he's old--but he's beautiful and I want him!") It was frightening to him that hysterical fans wrecked limousines parked in front of the Garden. Security got him out of the concert by wrapping him in a blanket and placing him in the trunk of a Toyota; they drove him to a cheap motel in Queens. He got out of his sweat-soaked white jump suit, and took a 90-minute bath, wondering what in the world he was doing with his life.

He was horrified that hundreds of his fans were injured at one concert in England when everyone rushed towards the stage to be closer to him--and one fan was actually crushed to death in the frenzy. He isolated himself in his home after that, drinking and drugging to excess, just numbing himself. His parents made vain attempts to intervene. (You could not argue with David, if he wanted to do something.) He lived in seclusion--not performing, just feeling burned out--in the late 1970s. (His younger brother, Shaun Cassidy--promoted by the same manager who'd handled him--replaced him in that period as America's number-one teen idol.) David told me he regretted that he did so much drinking and drugging in the late '70s. He believed he was permanently damaged by that; that he lost, forever, much of his ability to experience happiness.

During his "teen idol" years of the early 1970s, he had innumerable sexual encounters with fans (which he could describe at great length in vivid detail, with self-deprecating wit), but they did not assuage his basic loneliness, he told me. Such encounters often were not emotionally satisfying, he said. He felt that many of his fans imagined he was the character he played on TV ("Keith Partridge" of "The Partridge Family")--and he knew that character was nothing like him. (He eventually married three times; his marriages all ended in divorce.)

On TV and on stage, David Cassidy sang light, cheery bubblegum pop songs. And he put them over with zest. Offstage, he preferred the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, B. B. King, John Mayall, Albert King, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Albert King. And could also appreciate the songs of the Gershwins and the big-band music of Artie Shaw.

He often told me he could not believe how quickly he became rich and famous, and he often questioned whether he deserved all of that fame and money. At age 18, he was taking home only $38.80, working in the mailroom of a textile company and unsuccessfully auditioning for shows in NYC. Two years later-- starring on the "Partridge Family" TV series, making recordings, and doing concerts--he was the world's number-one teen idol. His first recording, "I Think I Love You," became the biggest-selling record of 1970. He told me that he'd never even heard a recording of his voice before they made that record. (Shaun Cassidy told me that when David broke through to fame, he was not just surprised by David's success--"I didn't even know David could sing.")

David Cassidy made and lost millions. He shrugged it off, as best he could. I remember him telling me that he went through eight million dollars in the 1970s, adding, "That might not seem like a lot to you, Chip, but it seemed like a lot to me." Eight million dollars, I daresay, is a lot to anyone. And those were 1970s dollars. He went from living in a fabulous home to--when he bottomed out--crashing on the couch in a friend's apartment.

He was not materialistic. He didn't have many possessions or mementos from the years when he was on top. And he wasn't really interested in dwelling on those years. He gave me a scrapbook from his "teen heartthrobl" days, figuring I'd appreciate it more than he did. Sal Mineo, whom he thought the world of, gave David the drum set Sal had used in the movie "The Gene Krupa Story," David eventually gave it to one of his younger brothers.

He told me his family had lived simply when he was a boy; they could not afford a clothes dryer; the clothesline in the backyard worked just fine, he said. One day, he had me drive him to his boyhood home--23 Elm Street, West Orange, NJ. It made him happy, he said, that the house hadn't changed. And that the clothesline was still out back.

He wanted to see the local store ("Tory Corners") where his grandfather had bought him a Slinky and a Mr. Machine--popular toys of the time--when he was nine or ten. And the Eagle Rock Reservation woods where he used to play. And Holy Trinity Church where he sang in the choir ("before Hollywood wrecked me," he said).
Driving back to New York City on Route 3, he showed me the exact spot where his father had told him, when he was a kid, that his father and mother were divorced. The wounds still seemed fresh as he spoke of those days. He carried his hurts with him. He did not, as a rule, let them show in interviews he did on radio and TV; there he used his best acting skills (sometimes saying words I'd helped craft for him), suggesting he was happy with his life and optimistic about the future. Offstage though, he was frank in saying that very little gave him much satisfaction, that life was a real struggle. Show business was important to him. And he was proud to be part of such a successful showbiz family. (His brothers have all made their marks; so have his kids.) But it didn't bring him joy.

If I asked him to share a happy memory, it was apt to be from before he ever tasted fame. Maybe hiking with his best friend, in his teens--just getting back to nature, skinny-dipping. Simple pleasures. He often shared stories with me of friends from his youth, before he was famous. He made me feel like I knew one early friend of his who died, due to drugs, when they were just teens. He was remembering that friend and others who died early, when he dedicated "C'Mon Get Happy" to "all who traveled the road with me... and for those who got lost along the way."

It was touching to me the way he worried about--and tried to help--Danny Bonaduce, who'd played his younger brother on "The Partridge Family" TV show and was like a younger brother to him in real life. If he thought Danny was messing up or having problems, he did his best to keep Danny on the right path--even if he was having troubles of his own.

I once watched him address kids at a high school--trying to tell them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol (which he felt he knew about all too well). But the kids weren't interested in that. They asked him questions about his rise to fame, wanting him to tell them the secrets to getting rich and famous and happy. He tried to tell them that being a celebrity wasn't all it was cracked up to be, that drugs and alcohol had only brought him great sadness. Afterwards, he told me, "They didn't want to hear that; they didn't want to listen. I wouldn't have listened at their age, either."

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