Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Charles Rocket

Was found dead in a field near his Connecticut home. He was 56.

The police claim that Rocket killed himself by slitting his own throat. I suppose that is possible, but man, what a grisly ragged way to exit. Maybe there's some deeper meaning here that hasn't been discerned. You don't often come across suicides like Rocket's.

Part of the first "Saturday Night Live" cast to succeed the original show in 1980, Rocket was pushed by producer Jean Doumanian to be her break-out star. He was tall, thin and very telegenic, and in those early episodes he displayed some comic talent, though oftentimes it was buried under unnecessary mugging and a pseudo-Bill Murray impression. With the swift ascension of 19-year-old featured player Eddie Murphy, Rocket, and pretty much the rest of that cast, was relegated to SNL's back seat. After 12 wildly-uneven episodes, NBC fired Doumanian and soon got rid of everyone except Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Rocket's big opportunity ended before it really had a chance to grow.

Of course, Rocket did himself no favors by uttering "fuck" at the end of a later episode. Given NBC's basement ratings at the time, and the horrid state of its flagship late night show, tossing an f-bomb on live TV was not the best career move for Rocket. While he did recover and worked pretty steadily in film and TV for years afterward, Rocket never realized the true stardom that was predicted for him when he reached SNL.

I never thought that Rocket was a first-rate comic actor. As I said, he had some moves, but usually he was saddled with subpar material and had a tendency to overdo it. His small role in "Dances With Wolves" showed that he had potential as a serious actor, and I've seen him in B-flicks where hints of a dramatic side were dropped here and there. On an episode of "thirtysomething", playing a famous actor doing a PSA for DAA, the ad agency run by the evil Miles Drentell (the wonderful Dave Clennon), Rocket was perfect in his depiction of a celebrity prick, which culminated in his nearly tearing the head off Timothy Busfield's Elliott (if you don't know who all these "thirtysomething" characters are, consider yourself lucky -- me, I'm a "t-something" geek, much to the wife's chagrin). Yet despite these flashes of dramatic promise, Rocket languished as a minor character actor.

Maybe that's why he ended his life -- the realization that, in his mid-50s, being a minor character actor was as good as it would get. It wouldn't be the first time that a despondent performer checked out because of an unfulfilled career. But then I saw that in the early-1970s, Rocket attended the Rhode Island School of Design, the famous art school that gave us Talking Heads (whose drummer Chris Frantz knew Rocket), Martin Mull, Gus Van Sant and cartoonist Roz Chast. Even if he'd hit the end of the Hollywood line, Rocket was no dopey waiter-turned-actor. Surely he could imagine a creative alternative for his later years.

But this is all speculation. Whatever drove him to it, Rocket endured what had to be some unbelievably painful final moments, which suggests that he possessed a dark sense of tragedy as well.