A few weeks ago was the last time I saw Sam. He was stretched out on our living room couch with his head in his wife Laura’s lap. I’d never seen him so content; and Laura was so loving.
He was very conversant and excited about his “new brain.” A year earlier, he had a brain operation for a tumor, but the cancer had returned. He said he was living in the present-no memories of the past and no expectation for tomorrow. Every moment was a new one, and nothing was ever repeated. He demonstrated to us how he could make up one tune after the other-each one new, never the same.
A few weeks later, when I heard about Sam’s passing, I put a big oak log on the fire, and for the next three hours, I watched it burn. Many visions of Sam flashed before me.
He was born with a smile and a twinkle in his eye that made the maternity ward nurses laugh. The day we took him home from St. Francis Hospital, they dressed him in a little polka dot clown suit and cap.
He grew up in a liberal family where art and self-expression were encouraged, and respect for Mother Nature emphasized. As the third of four rambunctious sons, Sam was the quiet and cool one. He became the family peacemaker. And he was always there for whichever brother needed support.
When Sam was a teen, we all worked, with the help of a contractor, on building an all-redwood home across the street from Skofield Park in Santa Barbara, and it was always Sam who could avoid the hard labor by suggesting a simpler way to solve a problem.
Later, when the city decided to move a favorite giant boulder from the creek bed in Rattlesnake Canyon, Sam perched himself up on the boulder and wouldn’t allow the trail crew to blow it up. He made the local press!
All four boys grew up performing in summer theater workshops, as a way to keep them occupied. They’d take parts in everything from Shakespeare plays to musicals. Professional actors were invited to Santa Barbara to participate in the shows, and being cast with them resulted in the boys’ introduction into Hollywood.
When Sam was at Santa Barbara Junior High, his brother Tim was in Texas, shooting The Last Picture Show. Tim was lonely and asked if Sam could be with him for a little while. When the director, Peter Bogdanovich, saw Sam, he cast him as the boy who cleaned the streets of Archer City with a broom. Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, in which he played the part of Private First Class Lance Johnson, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, where he played Leonard James, were two other early films that captured Sam’s personality. He was becoming typecast as the sweet innocent.
Aside from acting, Sam had many other gifts: He was an artist, writer, composer, philosopher, and a great dad and loving husband. He also was a talented sculptor and assisted me in creating the Dolphin Fountain at the Long Beach Aquarium.
As my log burned and I continued to reflect, I thought about how some logs burned fast and noisy and others more slowly, throwing off warmth and cheer in the room. I thought about the energy the log released, and how that energy would recycle into another Earth element, as the fire and its ashes glowed all night.
The next day, I removed the ashes, cooled them with water, and spread them under a new pepper tree we had just planted, replacing an old tree that had recently died. Those ashes will help nourish the Earth and the new tree. Its energy will recycle itself into other forms.
Through his films, Sam has touched and will touch millions of people, and like the log, his energy will be passed on. We’re all interconnected in the great web of life.
At his funeral, Sam was in the spotlight-all there focused on him. We’re all enriched by his life, and he has become a part of us forever. Sam reminds us that life is to be lived happily and in the moment, appreciating all the Earth offers and sharing the gifts of love and forgiveness.