By Jim Byrnes:
Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet. —Bob Dylan
"He is immortal. Born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1592, he is still alive. . . ." So began the preamble of the weekly syndicated television series, Highlander: The Series. Yours truly voiced those dramatic words for the five years I was with the show. Quite a ride in so many ways. On the most basic survival level, as an actor, five years of solid employment borders on the mystical. On a personal level, it birthed lifelong friendships and opened a world of travel and adventure just a little beyond what any of us can reasonably expect out of life. And on what I suppose I'd have to call a spiritual level, it provided me with one deep healing moment of solace. Here and there, I may share stories of the friendships and adventures; but here and now, allow me to share the story of that one special moment in the wee, wee hours of one particular early morn.
Highlander: The Series grew out of the hit 1986 film Highlander starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. The film—with its mix of mythology, time travel, swashbuckling swordplay, theme music from Queen, and its intimations of immortality—struck a chord with viewers and spawned a worldwide phenomenon. The idea and characters were born in the imagination of screenwriter Gregory Widen and were then nurtured by the production team of the late, lamented Bill Panzer and his business partner, Peter Davis. The success of the movie prompted a sequel and the idea of a weekly series for television. The L.A.-based producers, Bill and Peter, assembled a package that they shopped around the world in a bid for investors. It's an intense, high-stakes game fraught with financial and emotional peril, but those that know it know it well, and Panzer/Davis put together a Canada/France production deal, and in 1992 the cameras were set to roll.
Let me take a minute here to explore the story's basic premise: immortality. In this world, a race of beings exist who have the potential to live forever. Some are good, some are evil, and all are locked in a battle for ultimate supremacy because, you see, in the end there can be only one. These "immortals" only die when another of their kind takes their head and receives a "quickening" wherein all the powers of the unfortunate vanquished are imparted to the newly empowered victor. Pretty heady stuff, eh? (Pun intended, I suppose.) Ah, the land of make believe and, my, how people related to this fantasy world.
Now, to translate such a lofty and, I daresay, far-fetched notion from the vast scope of widescreen cinema to the familiarity of the box in your living room required a deft hand and a keen sense of focus. Grand ideas needed a subtle change and characters had to undergo slight alterations to make it all work. And then there were the demands of such a co-production: the mandated use of Canadian and French locations, nationality quotas when hiring actors, writers, producers, and crew. A complicated enterprise to say the least. Working in film or television closely resembles military ops. Poor prior planning promises piss poor performance. But with a solid cadre and command, anything is possible. The result becomes more than the sum of its parts. Bill and Peter assembled a team that seemed up to the challenge.
The cast for season one included British-born, L.A.-based Adrian Paul as our hero, Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, distant kin of Christopher Lambert's Connor MacLeod hero of the original film; Belgian actress Alexandra Vandernoot as Tessa Noel, sculptor and Duncan's lover; and Stan Kirsch as Richie Ryan, a young street kid taken under the mentoring wing of MacLeod. Pulling the creative strings (after season 1) was David Abramowitz, showbiz veteran, former synagogue cantor, and the man at the helm under the captaincy of Bill Panzer. Their vision guided the show. I loved it when in conversation with our brilliant set designer, Steve Geaghan, about the direction of the show, Steve said: "I get it, it's like a series of Talmudic dialogues with kickass." Well, there you have it, kids. Detractors spoke of the show's violence but, you know, the thing about it is, the show was about consequences. No one got away with anything, all scores were settled, even if it took centuries. Like Martha and the Vandellas told us; "There's nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide."
Season two brought changes. Among them was a new character, Joe Dawson, Tessa's untimely demise, and Richie's realization of his destiny as an immortal. The Dawson character was originally named Ian and drawn as an Englishman, a dealer in the antique and arcane and a member of The Watchers, an ancient society who knew of the existence of The Immortals and chronicled their exploits in their journals. Two well-known English actors had been offered the role but passed on it for reasons of their own. And so, somehow, of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine.
I got a call from my agent saying I was being offered a role on season two of Highlander shooting in Vancouver, a chance at a recurring role. The only requirement was a meeting with the Executive Producer for a talk and I would be guaranteed four episodes. Now that's a sweet audition. They were familiar with my work on Wiseguy, the CBS drama about undercover police work, and let's be honest, they were behind the eight ball as they were going to camera in three days and had a spot to fill, so they were taking a chance on me.
And so I met with Bill Panzer. A few shots of some very good Scotch whisky, a couple of bad jokes, and Bill and I hit it off. It was welcome aboard; those four shows turned into five incredible years. And then to one special moment in time . . .
During the second and third seasons of the show, the Dawson character evolved. He became "Joe," not an Ian; he left the antique book trade and opened a blues bar, revealed himself to be a sometime musician, crossed the demarcation line between The Watchers and Immortals, and faced execution by firing squad for betrayal of his Watcher oath—all just another day at the office. Season four began shooting in July, and we were back in the game. Now most Septembers, my parents would come to visit us in Vancouver. My birthday, my daughter Caitlin's birthday, and the beautiful Indian summers would all coincide, and late September became a very special family time.
Since we were well into the groove of our shooting schedule, I thought it might be fun to get Mom and Dad to come out and see how it all works in TV Land. A little time on set to see what transpires on a daily basis during production. Remember career day? Taking your kids to your job? Well, I thought why not take the parents along? In reading the script, I even saw the opportunity to get them a little screen time as extras. I got a positive response from the powers that be and set the wheels in motion. It looked to be a pretty straightforward shoot that morning, a three-page prologue establishing the jumping off point for that episode's storyline ("The Valkyrie").
The premise was simple enough: we were staging an amateur boxing tournament at the local community centre to honour the memory of our fallen friend Charlie DeSalvo and establish an annual event to benefit the neighbourhood improvement association. We were set up in the W.I.S.E. hall in east Van, a funky old multi-purpose venue often used for concerts, dances, social events, and—on this day—standing in as an old gym replete with a boxing ring. Richard Martin, the son of Dick Martin of Rowan and Martin's Laugh In fame, was our director. Terrific fellow that he is, he set up a shot placing the folks directly behind me, Adrian, and our other compatriot, Peter Wingfield, as we all took in the excitement of the amateur bouts.
Things went well with the usual starts and stops, lighting changes, camera angles, close ups, and a fair share of shots destined for the blooper reel. Mom and Dad of course had questions and comments about all the proceedings, the hows and the whys. Between takes, we threw back the bad coffee, snacks, and sandwiches at the craft service table and chatted with cast and crew. A fine time was had by all. Precious memories.
In March of 2002, Tom Byrnes passed away. Dad had had his share of ups and downs for a couple of years, but this was sudden and quite unexpected. It really did come as a shock to all of us, and it took its emotional toll. We did realize though that there was a certain blessing in the swiftness of it all. I think we have all seen the quiet horror of lingering suffering, and we knew in our hearts that his time had simply come. Six months short of his ninetieth birthday, he had had a pretty good at bat, and now we had to let him go. In the days and weeks after my father's death, the grief seemed to come in waves; but as time passed, the waves began to break more gently. Life goes on for those of us left behind. We just never had the chance to say goodbye.
Months later I awoke in the wee, wee hours. The wind had come up and sighed in the trees outside our window, a feeling of restlessness came over me. I tossed and turned and finally rose from bed and wandered the house. Down in the kitchen, I reread all the papers, finished all the crosswords, leafed through some magazines, and stared into the darkness. I thought of the lines of a Longfellow poem that my mother had once mysteriously recited from memory:
A feeling of sadness and longing, That is not akin to pain, And resembles sorrow only As the mist resembles the rain.
As a last gasp, I reached for the television remote: Jack LaLanne and his juicer, world weather, scrolling sports scores and highlights, Headline News . . . and then as the clock struck three: "He is immortal. Born in the Highlands of Scotland, etc. . . ." Well, I thought, this ought to put me back to sleep. Cut to more advertising, adult chat lines, Girls Gone Wild, career college, wonder drugs that cause more symptoms than they cure, the disclaimer, "viewer discretion is advised."
And then there we were. Me, Mom, Dad, and two of my buddies. Eating popcorn, kibitzing the fight, having fun. How long did it last, a second maybe, less than a blink in eternity, but there we were, together. Then, now, and always. I can't say I paid much attention to the rest of the show. Outside, the wind had blown away the last of the clouds, and a new moon hung low on the horizon. I slept.
"Who wants to live forever?"
Indeed . . .