I Shall never forget the time Graham Kennedy broke down and cried in front of me. He had cooked a splendid meal at his luxurious Kirribilli waterfront ... the lights of the Sydney skyline twinkled on the harbour and the Bang & Olufsen played in glorious high fidelity.Usually by coffee the consummate song-and-dance man would perform by singing along with his beloved Broadway musicals. This time it was Peter Pan, and when the CD came to Never Never Land, the mood changed as it never had before.
Nor will I ever forget the poignancy of that teary moment or the words that precipitated it:
You’ll have a treasure if you stay there
More precious far than gold
For once you’ve found your way there
You can never, never grow old.
Our friendship was still in its infancy, and I was yet to fully comprehend the complexity of his character. I still hadn’t figured out this gifted yet wretched product of poverty who had found his pot of gold early in life and was afraid to die. I was later to learn his solution was to accelerate his own demise. It’s one of the reasons he moved soon after to the Southern Highlands of NSW. The reclusive disintegration had begun.
Coincidentally or ironically (I’m not sure which) it was Peter Pan that brought us together two years earlier. In the late ’80s, I was the Nine Network’s bureau chief in Los Angeles and Graham had become aware of my work. In 1988, a fax arrived addressed to me as “Mr Mangos”. It was from Graham. He was having awful difficulty trying to find a specific Broadway original cast recording of Peter Pan with Mary Martin (mother of Larry Hagman). He asked in this missive in the most polite language if I’d be kind enough to make some inquiries to see if I could find a copy. He insisted I’d be reimbursed for my trouble. Trouble! The King of Television had asked a favour and thought it was a trouble. Needless to say, I found the recording he wanted and offered to help find other rare recordings and thus our friendship via fax had begun.
Some months later I was recalled to Sydney for just one week to fill in for Steve Liebman as compere of the Today Show opposite my close friend Elizabeth Hayes. It was during this week we were to have our first meal together. He suggested the very swish Kables restaurant at the then Regent Hotel. A stickler for punctuality (“I never, absolutely never keep people waiting”), he arrived two minutes earlier than the arranged time. I know because I had arrived five minutes early. He was surprised to see me, we nervously laughed it off, and proceeded to have one of the most memorable meals of my life.
TOP BANANA IN THE BIG APPLE, 1966
By February of ’89, I was his new straightman in the highly successful Coast to Coast program. It was a nervous start. I’d heard the rumours about his volatile temperament and I was in awe of his ability. But he liked me and respected my professionalism and nurtured me. After one of the first shows, he sent me a fax (time encoded 1.12am), which read:
“Beginning with tomorrow night, I emphasise the following: don’t, whatever happens, be anyone but yourself. Don’t ACT anyone else – that would be fatal. Don’t consider the oven [an in-joke about suicide]. If you feel uncomfortable for a few weeks – it may take me even longer – it took about 7 weeks with Ken [Sutcliffe]. Remember, it’s ME that has to learn something new not you – so long as you remain John Mangos, all will go well, I believe.”
The public personality was a creation. It wasn’t him. “Many people think I’m a television ‘personality’. I never have been! Just someone who acts it,” he wrote to me. He even ran his home like a theatre.
He believed in rehearsing and rehearsing until he got it right. Recipes, traffic routes, dinner party service ... even the routine of the woman he hired to deliver the papers and cook breakfast. She had to enter a certain way and deliver the meal on cue. The best ad-lib is the rehearsed one, he would often say. He was earning $12,500 a week (he started at GTV 9 in Melbourne in 1957 on $60) but started to feel the pressure of producing quality comedy five nights a week. Ever the professional on air, a dark side began to emerge at meals we would have after the show (usually at expensive Sydney restaurants in the quietest corner with his back to the dining room).
It was during this time I learnt most about his past. His lack of formal education and how, if it hadn’t been for television, he’d like to have become an English teacher. His low tolerance for sulkiness, (“When my mother died, I had to go on air that night and do jokes”); how he took the advice of Leo McKern and sailed in the owner’s suite of a cargo ship rather than a liner (“no other passengers – bliss!”)
One particular night he seemed consumed with ending it all. With the usual flourish reserved for the theatrical way in which he smoked his unfiltered French cigarettes, he pulled out the Mont Blanc fountain pen and wrote me instructions to contact his accountant and solicitor after his death. He signed it Graham C. Kennedy and dated it 13/3/89. I harboured absolutely no fears he would do anything irrational, and felt humbled by the intimacy of the gesture, but realised we wouldn’t be doing another year in television together, as planned, in 1990.
Instead he honoured an agreement with Nine boss Sam Chisholm to stay, but settled for the less strenuous weekly format of Funniest Home Videos Show. He relied more heavily on his writers and producers and began the migration from Sydney to the Southern Highlands.
The early years at Canyonleigh were lonesome but oddly liberating for him. “Aren’t you lonely?” I once asked. “Yes, but I was lonely in Sydney. At least here the air is fresh and I can walk out the front door.”
Relaxed and introspective, he would sometimes talk about the violent arguments between his parents, how he gravitated to his grandmother’s bosom, his two uncles (“one fought the Germans, the other fought the Japs”) and how one of them took liberties with the boy. Graham never resented him, claiming he equated it with affection.
He christened the 49ha property Clydesdale after his horses Dave and Sarah and acquired a golden retriever called Henry who would chomp at flies and intimidate the black snake that lived under the house.
For years I would regularly visit, we would eat and drink together, laugh, assassinate characters in good humour and listen to the ABC news ... that’s when it became obvious the boredom factor had set in.
He had an old Seiko watch which kept meticulous time. Just like the countdowns in a television studio, he would wait until two seconds before midday and hit the remote control to hear the last of the “pips” and the beginning of the fanfare introduction to the ABC news. It was a precise routine but he had little more to concern himself with than about how to make the routine more precise and eliminate the last pip.
He was having fun in his own Greta Garbo “I just want to be alone” and curmudgeonly Patrick White kind of way but the requests to return to work increased. He had a rubber stamp “Nil Interest” made ... in a precise routine he would hit the latest request and fax it back.
He spent much of his time reading. He had read most biographies of literary, arts and showbiz types, Johnny Carson, Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Patrick White ... and found Kitty Kelly’s The Royals captivating. Broadsheet newspapers were read cover to cover, he never read the Sundays. Also, thanks to well-cultivated contacts at Channels 9 and 7, he enjoyed a steady stream of videos of all the latest movies. And he had more time for drinking. First beer at midday, glass of red with lunch, first gin and tonic at 5pm and more red with dinner.
Then a 60th birthday request from Nine for an interview with Ray Martin. He felt obligated for the wine and helicopters showered upon him. It didn’t go well. Graham looked bloated and tense. He later explained the experience in a piece for TV Week in an article called “In his own words”.
“Ray Martin and I had worked together before, and he well knows that if I have the questions in advance, he’ll get a better interview. Everyone knows this – politicians in particular. Ray duly faxed the questions to me, but on the morning of the recording changed them. I was bewildered by this (I think a researcher let him down). I terminated the interview when I didn’t know what he was talking about and went upstairs to lunch.”
It was a critical turning point in his career. He vowed never to do television again.
Four years later, after a compassionate request from radio legend John Laws for an interview on his new program on Foxtel, the reply was kind but unambiguous:
If you are able to get in touch with John Laws direct would you thank him for his letter to me? I can’t remember ever receiving such a flattering and well-written one.
On my 60th birthday, four years ago, after a most unpleasant TV experience with Ray Martin and just days after being told I was a diabetic, I promised myself never to broadcast again. I’ll keep that promise.
Please tell John that I appreciate his most kind invitation and that I send heaps of love to him and the Princess.
Yours, as ever,
Ray Martin remembers the incident differently and strenuously denies he tried to upset Graham. The King, of course, had found his last excuse to get out of the spotlight, the comfort zone that created him, and only friends ever saw him again.
By now almost all communication was by fax. As usual it gave him control. We were all admonished for sending short messages on a full sheet of paper because it was wasteful.
After several years, his absence gave rise to speculation about his health. Articles reported he was “chronically ill”, that he had “emphysema”, that he was “gravely ill”. I was often asked if he had cancer or AIDS. In fact at 67, he had diabetes, some rheumatism, the odd creaky joint, a healthy capacity to whinge and the usual symptoms connected with smoking and drinking.
But by now the horses were gone and the dog had died. He was eating less and drinking more. One night, he fell down the stairs.
He was discovered the next morning on the floor by his housekeeper. He was rushed to the local hospital where pneumonia in one lung was treated effectively and efficiently, a fracture near his hip was repaired and he was diagnosed with brain damage. We were to learn he had Korsakoff’s syndrome (an alcohol-related condition) and we decided to keep it private.
The Sattlers, whose efforts were beyond the call of duty, were stoic in their love and support. Tony Sattler, a close friend and television producer, sold the farm and relocated him to a garden unit in Bowral where he could receive constant nursing care. Slowly, slowly he deteriorated, but he still managed to make jokes. Of the indignity of his incontinence, he remarked he didn’t mind the nappy because he “got a nice warm feeling every now and again”.
A week before his 69th birthday, he was bedridden and infirm. His wasted and frail, aching body could take no more. I paid a short and emotional visit. Still, the ashtray was by his bedside next to a radio tuned to ABC Radio National. I leaned over to kiss him on the forehead and he whispered, “Don’t get too close, it hurts.”
The next day he needed painkillers for the journey to hospital. Australia’s Peter Pan had slipped into his own Never Never Land. Incredibly, he recovered from that ordeal, the heart was beating, but time was standing still ... it was now a constant battle with pneumonia, a diet including morphine, and he had had a minor stroke ... he had noticeably lost the will, but not the ability, to land a killer punchline.
Just three days from his death, Noeline Brown (wife of Tony Sattler) noticed his arm making a jerking motion. Concerned, she asked: “How long’s this been going on?” His reply was the consummate comedian at his finest: “Since I was about six years old!” l
Vale the king