Randolph Mantooth has owed me a dollar since 1974.
At age eleven, my life was transformed by the discovery of Emergency!, the show about a pair of young paramedics in Seventies Los Angeles. I had a weekly assignation with Johnny Gage, fiery but earnest half of Squad 51, played by actor Randy Mantooth. He rearranged my molecules, and not just because I disregarded my father’s warnings about radiation and sat too close to the TV screen. Through our family’s solid state “wood”-paneled RCA, Randy/Johnny orchestrated my sexual awakening.
It wasn’t just the confident way he said “Clear” before slapping paddles on some poor schmoe’s chest as the actor portraying the schmoe did his best defibrillation interpretation. Johnny Gage was the Seventies equivalent of the Baywatch lifeguard, hot, fit and trained in the Heimlich Maneuver. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing more appealing than lying limp and lovely in the arms of a professional lifesaver. “One amp of epi” was paramedic for orgasm, a word I loosely understood, thanks to rainy afternoons spent with my mother’s copy of The Sensuous Woman by “J.”
Tucked between Valley of the Dolls and QB VII in my parents’ study, I discovered the thin paperback volume that picked up where Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret left off. The fact that the author wanted to be connected to this material only by an initial indicated that this was explosive stuff. I used my Get Smart smarts, “casually” going for Wite-Out or rubber bands, only to emerge with “J” tucked inside the waistband of my shorts (apply directly to affected area).
I became the mysterious J’s youngest and most devoted acolyte, training for the day when fate would bring me and Johnny together. J described herself as “a lady in the living room” and “a marvelous bitch in bed,” and that’s what I wanted to be. Through observation of my mother’s bridge club, I deduced that ladies wore control top L’eggs, pencil skirts and white heels (before Labor Day), while they drank gin and smoked Winstons. Too uncomfortable. I was not cut for lady-hood. I could, however, see becoming the epitome of the “marvelous bitch,” dressed in Pucci maxi-dresses, Greek sandals, and Jackie O shades, washing down Mother’s Little Helpers with a snifter of Drambuie. Armed with J’s book, I had all the tools I needed to become a counterculture sexpot.
J described herself as having “heavy thighs, lumpy hips, protruding teeth, a ski jump nose, poor posture, flat feet and uneven ears.” I had perfect ears, a dancer’s posture and plenty of time for braces; what I didn’t have was a clue. But by following J’s Sensuous Woman Program, I could get one. And so, as Johnny earned his stripes in the paramedic world, I worked diligently toward my womanhood badge.
I sped through Sensuality Exercises One through Three which involved (1) blindfolding yourself and touching things (feathers, saltines and the “unexpected firmness of velveteen,” not yourself), (2) closing your eyes, taking off your shirt and rubbing the aforementioned items “all over”, and (3) something that involved clean sheets and an “icy pool” of hand lotion. J warned about the dangers of becoming a narcissist. Translation: “Don’t wank too much.” No danger of that, as the remaining chapters focused solely on the care and feeding of the penis, and suggested for extracurricular reading: “How to Keep Fit After Thirty.”
I faithfully “trained like an athlete for the act of love.” Never mind that I had no idea what the “act of love” was. I was in sixth grade, and St. Paul’s School for Girls didn’t teach sex ed until seventh, at which point it occupied half of one Science period, the other half being devoted to fetal pig dissection. The lecture focused on “falling off the roof,” Mrs. Booze’s euphemism for getting your period, which, being uncomfortable, unsightly and potentially odiferous, was undeniably terrifying. The penis could only be worse.
I emerged befuddled from Mrs. Booze’s birds/bees/vas deferens lecture and turned to my friend, Christine. “You know, in sex, does he actually, you know, put it in? Or do the -- things, like, swim around till they get to, you know, the place?”
“In. He puts it all the way in.”
I sat in sober silence, unsure whether I loved even Mantooth enough to endure anything that disgusting.
Later, I pondered Tiger Beat, worshipping the centerfold of Mantooth reclining on his side, eyes burning with the question, “How much do you really love me?” “Clear!” And my quest to become the marvelous bitch was back on track, even if it necessitated being split in two by something I couldn’t begin to imagine.
I went to work on Sensuality Exercise Number Five, tongue stretches, visualizing Johnny bent over my languid body administering the kiss of life. Upon revival I would slip him the tongue as only the valedictorian of the sensuous woman program could. Tongue doing lip-laps per J’s instruction, I paged through the Tiger Beat classifieds.
That’s when I noticed it. “Join the Emergency! Fan Club and receive your personally autographed 8x10 photo.” I sprung into action, swiping one of Dad’s business envelopes and an eight cent stamp, stuck my dollar inside, licked with expert tonguery, and buried the missive in the outgoing mail. And so began thirty-four years of waiting for the mailman.
I rushed to the mailbox every day in anticipation of Randy’s arrival, only to find bills, bank statements and Highlights. I’d been a fool for sending cash in an envelope; my parents had warned me. I should have forged a check. I knew how; St. Paul’s had covered check-writing years before the human body.
The yearned-for fan club kit never arrived, and I moved on to new unrequited loves, ranging from Little Joe on Bonanza, to the boy who played Charlie Brown opposite my Lucy in the high school musical. Inevitably, the recurring themes of disappointment and actor-lust led me to move to New York to become an actress, with fans and stalkers of my own. Boys came and went, but the sting of Randy’s rejection stayed with me.
Recently, in an effort to evolve, I picked up the boxed set of Emergency! Season One, planning to conduct an anthropological investigation into the earliest stirrings in my, for want of a better word, pants. I pulled up a chair in front of the plasma, pressed play, and sat back to watch Emergency! The Pilot, all ninety minutes of it. Oh, Mantooth, must you continue to steal from me?
The show opens in the firehouse garage. The camera dollies past the shiny, unmanned trucks until we reach: the pole. Thick, long and slippery, we pan up, up, up (my what a long pole you have), till we reach: the entrance to the inner sanctum. We pass upward and through to the bed, free weights conveniently located nearby, in case the sleeping inhabitant wakes with deflated biceps. We move in close on the back of a handsome head, rumpled brown hair set off by tousled white sheets. He rolls over, and we meet: John Gage sleeping fireman, as played by young Mantooth.
We linger in extreme close-up on John’s features just long enough to imagine he’s dreaming of us, and then pan to the floor ... and Johnny’s pants. Not only is he slumbering fetchingly under his firehouse sheets, he’s apparently naked from the waist down. The camera lingers, and just as the image of a young pantsless fireboy takes hold -- the red lights go off.
Now I understand what Stanley Kowalski meant about he and Stella getting the “colored lights going.” The producers have crafted an Emergency orgasm. Johnny’s ready in an instant. (He’s wearing boxers.) Within seconds, Mantooth and his fellows are sliding down that pole, driving helter-skelter through the streets of Seventies LA, moving as one, hooking up their hoses, testing them for tightness, and whoosh! The money shot. The fire’s hot, but Johnny’s got this blaze under control.
No wonder I fell in lust with Boy Mantooth and his fire brigade. This was as subliminally pornographic as the Camel camel’s cock-nose. At eleven, I barely knew the difference between television and reality. In fact, I confess that I have spent most of my life since trying to get into the TV where a congenital drama queen like myself truly belongs. And thanks to my PhD-worthy study of episodic drama from 1972 to the present, I may not be a woman in uniform, but I’ve played one on TV, many times.
January, 2000, NBC’s Third Watch. I played Taylor, a demolition worker, half-buried in a building collapse. While defibrillation in the field was sadly unnecessary, I was dragged out of the rubble on a backboard. The power of thought had manifested itself; I had gone from watching a poor schmoe rescued on TV, to being the poor schmoe inside the TV.
This was not the glamorous experience I had hoped it would be. Between the beige jumpsuit, the work boots, and the carcinogenic stage dust, I felt like the ugly stepsister of a shipping container. I lay in a pile of fake rubble, dreading the moment of rescue, fearing emergency appeals for stunt doubles to lug me, the paralyzed behemoth, out the door.
TV stars don’t lift. They run out of burning buildings carrying hatchets and medical kits, while faceless strongmen do the serious carrying. Third Watch had hired New York’s famed Rescue One squad for the job. Mantooth cum fireman is hot, but a real New York firefighter up close and personal -- they don’t make hoses long enough to extinguish that kind of heat. The best-looking one leaned close to my dust-covered ear, called me beautiful, wrote his phone number on an old Shell gas receipt and slipped it into the pocket of my coveralls, where it remained, forgotten, when I returned my costume to wardrobe. My fireman’s digits were washed and spun back into pulp. Fireman interruptus.
Mantooth’s career suffered a similar fate. I lost track of him until 1987, which found him playing Clay Alden, scion of the whiter-than-Wonder Bread Alden dynasty on the soap opera, Loving. I, too, was now a working actor in New York City, hawking Subaru and Wisk, bartending, and doing plays in questionable neighborhoods for subway fare, or less.
Then I got the call. Mantooth’s (TV) daughter Tricia was engaged to blue-collar truck driver Trucker; I was hired to portray a tastefully dressed background blur at their wedding. The requested wardrobe: “attire suitable for a garden party”. Problem: my Eighties wardrobe leaned decidedly in the direction of Desperately Seeking Susan. My instinctive response to a “garden party” invite would be to personify the garden with artfully ripped green tights, a Bakelite vegetable necklace, carrot-colored streaks in my hair and a vintage “I Heart DDT” t-shirt held together by safety pins. My go-to footwear was a pair of massive black combat boots; they went with everything. But I would not allow a temporary sartorial hiccup to fuck with my future. I attacked my closet, unearthing an authentic flapper dress in coral, pairing it with white tights and tap shoes “borrowed” four years earlier from a summer stock production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I played the whore with gold lame stretch pants and no lines. When tap dancing was required, I bounced up and down, grinning and waving my arms like Shirley Temple gone to weed. A quick pass with the screwdriver and, taps off, I was good to go, believable enough as a coral-colored blob, swilling ginger ale from a plastic champagne flute behind Mantooth, faux-father of the faux-bride.
But this was more than an extra gig, and I was more than “atmosphere.” My child’s intuition had been dead on. Randy and I were connected on a soul level. And now, our destiny was going to manifest on the physical plane. To step on set was to make an entrance into the rest of my life. What was a forgotten fan club kit in comparison to being recognized as a great,undiscovered talent? I would be the first soap extra in repurposed tap shoes to be promoted to daytime diva on the spot. And if Randy played his cards right, I might just pull a few of my old Sensuous Woman techniques out of my bag of tricks.
The morning of “the wedding”, I handed the subway clerk a dollar-twenty-five in laundry quarters, the dregs of my bank account. It was okay, though. Mantooth owed me that dollar.
Allowing for thirteen years of inflation, he should be good for at least ten bucks. At long last,Randy was going to resuscitate me, or rather, my wallet.
I arrived on set and was whisked through hair and makeup, which consisted of a perfunctory powder and an ozone-obliterating geyser of hairspray. I now had “soap hair”: waterproof, fossilized, and preternaturally high.
A disembodied voice summoned “All wedding extras to the set.” My footsteps echoed the pounding of my heart as I climbed the steps toward the soundstage. My inner life was about to meet itself in the flesh.
I reached the heavy door marked “Closed Set - Do Not Enter,” and as if on cue, the hallway was bathed in swirling red emergency light signaling that taping was underway. I was caught up in some sort of dimension-shattering cosmic inevitability. All that was missing was the pole.
And so I entered Corinth, a plastic Garden of Eden, overrun with silk lilies, hand-painted AstroTurf, and cloudless blue cyclorama skies. Here every hour was magic hour, and Mantooth was king, CEO and father of the bride, all rolled into one.
That was when things began to go south. Rather than dispatching me to Mantooth’s side of the church, the stage manager sent me to the groom’s side with the other Jews, truck drivers and pudgy people. Lamenting my working class punim, I took my position by the canapés, and, suddenly, I felt Him near. Slowly, I turned to find myself just a few feet from Mantooth himself, now aged like a fine, slightly over-tanned wine. I had done it. By sheer force of imagination, I had transported myself from my childhood living room into Mantooth’s presence.
A fellow extra, Alan, so garden-party-worthy he looked like he’d been beamed straight out of Greenwich, Connecticut, followed my eye line. “You’re not even blinking. What’s up with that?” Overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, I gave him the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of my fantasy life, and, to my abject horror, he made a beeline for the ‘Tooth. As I watched Alan’s mouth move, I prayed to God and Werner Erhard that whatever he was saying included the words “adorable” and “hot tamale.” Then Alan pointed in my direction.
As I posed “nonchalantly” in my flapper dress and white tights, stomach sucked in and eyes bugged out, a blowfish at full blow, Mantooth’s eyes met mine. I smiled a smile that said, “Remember Sensuality Exercise Number Fifteen, The Hoover? That was always your favorite.”
Mantooth’s look replied, “Who let that in here?” And then he turned away.
Alan slithered back to me with a look of chagrin.
“What did you say to him?”
“That you loved him when you were eleven. What’s that guy’s problem, anyway?” I knew. I was the human equivalent of carbon dating. I made him feel like a fossil.
“Did you mention the dollar he owes me?” Alan lent me ten bucks to get home.
Fast forward to 2007. Loving and Mantooth’s career have long since bitten the dust. I, however, have become a writer for the soap opera One Life to Live, wrangling my own tribe of white faux-ristocrats, the Llanview Buchanans, cowboy oilmen who live on the Main Line, like the Bushes of Connecticut.
In my time on the job, I’ve executed a man by lethal injection (he survived), outed the Lieutenant Governor, split a mother and daughter into multiple personalities with rhyming names, stolen babies, shattered marriages, and engineered false arrests, a natural disaster, a matched set of mine collapses and three organ transplants, two of them successful.
So it is that I am sitting in a meeting discussing a white supremacist storyline. We’re mulling the character of the racist’s father, when my boss announces, “I just cast Randolph Mantooth.”
It’s out before I can stop it. Ordinarily, I never utter a word in these meetings, afraid that if I let down my guard, I may slip and tell the truth. If the outside world finds out what my insides are saying, I’ll be fired so fast time will go backwards, taking my bank account with it.
Too late. All heads turn toward me, as my sordid tale spills out: the 8x10 I’ve been waiting for since the Seventies, the Loving fiasco, the suppurating psychic wound left by Mantooth’s cavalier dismissal of my devotion.
My confession is met by the same expression previously seen in the mirthless eyes of Mantooth, his derisive stare salting me like an errant slug. My outburst is dismissed like the ravings of a garden gnome on crystal meth. But I refuse to slink off with my tale between my legs. Mantooth owes me, and one way or another, I will collect.
I visualize the moment Mantooth realizes he now works for me. For thirty years, I have registered barely a blip on his radar, but soon he will know me as air traffic control. He’s passing through my town.
At this point, I don’t even want to meet him. No, I intend to enjoy pulling his strings from the comfort of my living room. I will prepare a pu-pu platter of revenge. I am schooled in delicious evil, and I will have my dollar of flesh.
Mantooth will do what I say, and say what I want.
I’ll have him run into the show’s matriarch in the hospital waiting room, as her daughter with extra personalities undergoes her second liver transplant in as many months. Mantooth will offer Big Mama a cup of hospital coffee; she will respond with the standard knock at institutional beverages, then accept his kindness.
I know how actors think. This on-screen moment will send Randolph crowing to the soap press about his upcoming love affair with BM, ending a long stretch of romantic constipation for her, and heralding a big, fat, contract for him. He’ll start working out, get Botox, and rehearse his devil-may-care smile till his teeth hurt.
Once Mantooth embraces the idea of steady employment, I will send his character to jail to take the hit for his racist, arsonist, murderous, ex-baseball star son. I will write him weeks of scenes in an orange jumpsuit, letting him believe he’s headed for exoneration, high romance, and a daytime Emmy.
Overconfident Randolph will go out and buy a new car. And as soon as he drives that baby off the lot, I will kill him -- onscreen, where it’s permanent. Not at the hands of another major player, no. He will be shivved in the liver at the hands of a prison extra, preferably one with an actual rap sheet.
I will leave him devastated and broke, the way he left me all those years ago. Who says there is no justice?
Sadly, my revenge never achieves its full bloody bloom. The suits quickly discover how tough it is to tell a story about racism without minority characters. They pull the plug, ordering Mantooth iced in a fashion far colder and more mercenary than any I have imagined: he dies off-camera. I take satisfaction in writing him out using as few syllables as possible.
Entering the writers’ room a few weeks later, I sense something amiss when my boss actually meets my eyes. My missile shields go up. I reflexively compliment his Gucci loafers, and he hands me an 8x10 publicity photograph of Mantooth posed in front of a fire engine with his defibrillator kit. He has inscribed it: “To Leslie, Love and Kisses, Randolph Mantooth.”
I stare at the picture in shock and awe, wanting desperately to feel something. I’ve waited for this moment for thirty years. All eyes are on me, awaiting my response. And that’s when the marvelous bitch inside me slips and tells the truth.
“Thanks, but I’d rather have my dollar back.”