Remembering Joe Viskocil: a great friend, Academy Award winning master of special effects, and lifelong maker of joy.

Giuseppe V. Academy Award

Joe Viskocil  1951 – 2014

Note: In August 0f 2014, we lost our good friend and Academy Award winning master of special effects, Joe Viskocil. Today I reprint my earlier post below, on what would have been his 65th birthday. The graphic above was shown on the air at the 2015 Academy Awards, during the portion of the program when luminaries from the motion industry who have passed away are honored and remembered.

Rest well, Giuseppe 

Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force who – through his work on so many major motion pictures — freely gave joy and pleasure to millions around the world. He was a true master of his craft.

He was the recipient of many honors, including an Academy award, yet my guess is that those who knew and loved him are probably not thinking very much about his credits or distinguished career. We only hear his infectious laughter, see the joyous smile with which he greeted his friends and colleagues, and sit around struggling to imagine a world without him in it. Because when all the lofty words about his talent have been exhausted, many of us will be left with his simple legacy of joy that easily transcends any awards or movie reviews or glowing magazine articles.

He created joy. He inspired gut-splitting laughter.  He was capable of absolutely glorious mischief, jokes, and teasing.  He relished the kind and generous gesture. And – most importantly for me, at least — he lived a life in which the ability to make, have and share fun was virtually a sacrament.

Who knew that, in all this fun, he was actually teaching us a lesson? Because in the way he lived his life, you slowly came to see that fun and laughter, shared generously and with love, was deadly serious business, nothing less than one of life’s fundamental fuels.  And, trust me; this was a guy who knew fun and laughter like nobody’s business.

Since we lost the comic genius Robin Williams yesterday, you may think I am describing him. A number of these details do apply. But this blog post is actually about someone else, a friend of close to 50 years and someone I wish you all could have known.

JoeViskocil blockade runner

Today, I write about my friend Joe Viskocil, Academy award-winning visual effects artist and master of cinematic pyrotechnics, who died yesterday in California at the age of 63. There are many places you can find out about his professional accomplishments, from the explosion of Death Star in the early Star Wars to the destruction of the White House in Independence Day. My purpose here is simply to note the passing of one sublimely nice fellow, a bringer of joy par excellence, and share just how much he will be missed by so many.

Joe had many friends, friends that I did not know. To me, Joe was part of a small group of 5 high school friends who attended South Hills High School in Covina, California together. For decades we have competed for each other’s laughter (the more raucous the better), written sketches and parodies in which we were both the writers and sole audience members, and been there for each other when laughter was the last thing on the agenda.

Now we are four.

If my hunch is right, a lot of other people who knew Joe are also now doing the same, profoundly sad mathematics of loss, taking stock of their lives, factoring Joe into the equation, and trying to figure out just what the world will be like when so much joy is subtracted. I wouldn’t pretend to do anyone else’s math, but I’d be willing to bet just one more dinner with Joe and the gang at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. that most of us – after all the subtracting – will still be left with more belly laughs and giggling than we know what to do with.

Rest well, Giuseppe.

One day I was 8 years old; then the world turned upside down: How a high-profile homicide in our quiet suburb changed everything.

I have often spoken about a traumatic childhood experience that — as much as anything — is responsible for my lifelong interest in the intersection of crime, media, and culture.

When I was 8 years old, growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, our community was stunned by the news that a well-known, respected physician had conspired with his mistress to murder his wife. The doctor, Bernard Finch,  was eventually convicted of first degree murder. His mistress, Carole Tregoff, was also found guilty.

The trauma for an 8-year-old kid was the sudden realization that what seemed safe and reliable and true could have a sinister and hidden underbelly, that good people might actually have secret lives that could be horribly flawed and even terrifying.

Today this seems obvious. The digital age has rendered privacy and secrecy almost extinct. It is harder — not impossible, but harder — to hide ominous secrets.

But this revelation about Dr. Finch turned our community upside down and I was immediately and permanently captivated with how frenzied news coverage could overwhelm our  small community.  In fact, I even began a scrapbook of coverage of the murder trial which, when discovered by my grandfather, set off a major debate in my family. Was it healthy for little Stevie to collect gruesome crime news rather than baseball cards? Ultimately, my grandfather settled the whole business by offering me $10 ( a lot in those days) if I would throw away the crime news and start a Los Angeles Dodgers scrapbook. I took the money, but from that day on I never lost my interest in the impact of a high-profile crimes on communities.

I wanted to share a link to a story about the case in the latest issue of Los Angeles Magazine. An Internet friend of mine growing up at the same time in the San Gabriel Valley, Gary Cliser, is responsible for the story and shares my fascination with the case. Gary is also an absolutely remarkable historian and collector of photographs  that tell the visual history of both the Finch case and the larger experience of growing up in a postwar California suburb. You should check out his work.

All I know is that one day I was 8 years old, and then the world turned upside down.

My life was never the same.

Covina and West Covina, California: Where I first dropped the dishes.

Covina Orange

I know that one person’s nostlagia  can be another person’s mind-numbing boredom. Sometimes the  things from the past that most touch us, that most bring us to life, are things which no audience — not even an audience of one — is eager to hear about.

So some of us keep a lot of our memories to ourself.  Or we try.

Last week, I had the still shocking experience of learning that one of my graduate students here in NYC grew up in the same southern California suburb I did, and that her family owned the Five Lanterns Chinese Retaurant, in Covina, California, the place I had my first job in 1965.

It's a UPS store now.

It’s a UPS store now.

I was a bus boy in that wonderful Chinese Restaurant, one of only two Chinese Restaurants for miles around in a suburb that — to this day — I recall as one of the least diverse places I have ever seen or visited.

The result is that, in the last week,  I have been overwhelmed with memories  of two  towns, West Covina and Covina, California, from which I had supposedly escaped close to 40 years ago.

Today at the former site of The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant: My First Job, 1965, Covina, California

Today at the former site of The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant: My First Job, 1965, Covina, California

I may have more to say later: For now, all I am feeling is the flimsiness of concepts  like escaping,  “getting away from it all,” or starting over. They may be occasionally useful in the course of a lifetime, but it seems that I have rarely  been able to truly escape or get away from anything.

Memories, joys, and hurts travel. And travel well.

I dropped an enormous tray of dishes at that restaurant. On a busy weekend night.  And until last week, that tray was gone forever.

It’s back.

A Tike style mug from The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant. I broke quite a few of these one night in December, 1965.

A Tike style mug from The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant. I broke quite a few of these one night in December, 1965.