R.I.P. Tom

Tom Wright in my play “Universal Rundle”
circa 1988

We have a sort of theme emerging today: first this celebration of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and now a eulogy to a character who dates from that era of experimental theatre in the Off-Off-Broadway wing.

Tom Wright was basically my mid-wife into New York’s fringe theatre scene when I moved here circa 1987. He was an old college friend of my sister-in-law’s, and an extremely lovable nut. For quite a long stretch of time he allowed us to house-sit rent free (and sometimes pet sit) in his very raw Tribeca loft on Greenwich Street about a half dozen blocks north of the World Trade Center. When I say raw, it was like a barn space. You could get splinters from the floor. It was located atop some kind of noisy mob-run waste transfer station. We slept in a cast iron bed. Tribeca was already full of artists then, but it had not yet become chic, upscale and posh. All of that followed Robert de Niro’s establishment of the Tribeca Film Center and Tribeca Grill (1989/90) just south of where we lived. At the time of which we speak I think primarily of grimy cobblestone streets and old brick warehouses with hippie and punk painters living there, having been pushed out of their previous district, neighboring Soho, which had become too expensive (just as Tribeca now has for most normal people).

The Tribeca space was basically Tom’s pied a terre for when he came into NYC to do theatre or whatever. I may be wrong, but I always assumed he was living on a trust fund, for all he seemed to do was shuttle back and forth between the loft, a family farm in Maryland, and upstate Hoosick, New York, the site of his old boarding school (confusingly spelled Hoosac, as opposed to the town’s spelling) where he directed the kids in productions every year. He seemed to have a zillion siblings. This plus the “family farm” always made me picture, surely unfairly, something like the Sedgwicks.

Anyway, I adored Tom. He was an old hippie character, around my brother’s age, and very much like my brother seemed to be an endless font of freaky, weird, hilarious stories. Most importantly, he was into the very sort of experimental theatre I had come there to do: he, wrote, directed, and acted. We both loved Sam Shepard. Tom’s own voice was impressionistic, poetic, and very uncommercial. He worked with people like Taylor Mead (who came to one of my shows that Tom had appeared in and I got to socialize with him on a couple of occasions). Tom was always dropping the names of characters from Warhol’s Factory and other colorful personalities he’d known. He directed Steve Buscemi and (his then performance partner) Mark Boone Jr in a piece, circa 1988. He had appeared in Eric Mitchell’s No Wave film Underground USA (1980) with Mead, Cookie Mueller, Patti Astor, John Lurie, Jackie Curtis and others (Jim Jarmusch was the sound man. A lot of sources incorrectly list another actor named Tom Wright as appearing in the film. Our Tom often billed himself as “T. Weir Wright” to avoid the confusion). He also appeared in Liza Bear’s 1990 Force of Circumstance with Mitchell. Tom had studied with Nicholas Ray at the Strasberg Institute, undoubtedly excellent preparation for all that.

What else can I tell ya? He was always surrounded by a pack of dogs. When we lived at his place, his main pooch was a one-quarter wolf/ German Shepherd named “Hooter”, and let me tell you, me taking care of Hooter was a growth experience. Hooter was terrifying, but he didn’t know it. He would affectionally jump on you, his massive paws pressed against your chest, and that wolf snout with its sharp teeth would be just opposite your face, grinning like he just ate your grandmother. I, who have been known to startle at the sight of a Chihuahua, was sorely tested. And I should mention that Tom himself was tall. Maybe 6′ 4″? So he’d walk Hooter around the neighborhood with a thick nautical rope for a leash, and the pair would be a most impressive sight. His watering hole of choice was a joint called Puffy’s. We often went in there with him. He was like the Mayor. Everybody knew him. He was best pals with the painter Jamie Dalglish, whom we got to know pretty well around this time. I’m pretty sure a show of Jamie’s was the first New York art opening I ever attended.

I should also mention that Tom was a massive head, and he smoked the strongest dope that I had ever encountered, on a daily basis. And, haha, I must say it was reflected in his personality. He was charming, sociable, funny, real weird, and also pretty forgetful and scatter-brained. He would often say things like, “Did I do that? I guess I did!” and then laugh at himself. On the handful of occasions my ex-wife and I had some of that pot we tended to get into epic Big Lebowski type screaming arguments borne of the fact that we couldn’t think straight: “Who said anything about ORANGES?!”

Per the photo above, Tom honored me by starring in a play of mine, the first one that was produced in New York, way over on the West Side at a now defunct theatre space across the street from the Hudson River. I wished I’d done more theatre with him, though we sure talked about it a lot, and he gave me plays he’d written to read. Once he paid me to paint a mural on the walls of his loft, when he was away someplace (England, maybe?) He had asked for a Southwest desert scene with mesas and buttes. He was probably expecting something more naturalistic than I delivered, for when he came back to my cartoonish, simplistic Krazy Kat landscape, he laughed and said, “Okay. Whatever!”. (Actually it was not unlike this Mardsen Hartley painting I saw recently at the Portland Museum of Art, so I guess it wasn’t so bad!):

I should also mention that he was a real handsome guy, with a very masculine energy; looked something like the actor Robert Ryan. At the time we were there his lady friend, who also lived in the building on the floor below us, was the actress Jodi Long. While we were living there (1988) she was in Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst movie with Natasha Richardson. I’ve just been reading about Jodi online and just learned that her parents had some sort of vaudeville/nightclub act. Rest assured I will be looking into that.

At any rate, around 1990 or so, my ex and I moved to Jersey City. Tom married his wife Annette in 1992 and moved to Ancram, NY in the Hudson Valley and had several kids. You can learn more about him and them in this nice obit for him here.

Flash forward to 2015. My show Horse Play was up at La Mama, starring Everett Quinton and Molly Pope, and who do I see standing there after one of the performances, like a ghost, his formerly salt and pepper hair now shock white, but Tom? It was absolutely magical. Having a play in the Ellen Stewart was something I’d wanted for decades. Having him there was kind of like a stamp of approval, like a turning of the wheel full circle. I snapped his picture that night, and goddamn it now I can’t find it. If I do, I’ll add it here. That was the last time I saw him, and I sure was grateful he was there. Especially so now that he’s left us for that Big Bohemian Artist Loft in the Sky.

Meantime, there is a memorial for him in Ancram tomorrow, July 10, at 4pm. All the info is here.