Monday, December 19, 2005


Interesting that I should have mentioned Dan White in Friday's post.  On Friday, John Spencer died of a heart attack.  In 1985 I saw John Spencer play Dan White in Execution of Justice at the Guthrie Theater.  I remember it vividly.  I went to the opening night performance, which was on a Friday in October of that year.  For those who don't know who Dan White was, he was a former San Francisco city supervisor (an elected official, like a councilman) who assassinated Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.  A few years later, Dan White was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, even though he brought a pistol into City Hall, and reloaded it after killing the mayor and before killing Milk.  He presented a novel defense: that the amount of chemicals he had ingested from the junk food he had consumed in the weeks leading up to the murders had given him some kind of diminished responsibility. 

The irony, which was lost on nobody except the jury, was that if White had murdered only the mayor, he probably would have been in prison for life.  But because he also killed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, he was convicted of a lesser crime.  The result was 6 years in prison.

At any rate, fast forward to October of 1985.  Execution of Justice opened on Friday.  On Sunday the news broke that in San Francisco, Dan White had asphyxiated himself in his garage.  Emily Mann, the author of Execution of Justice, flew back to Minneapolis to rewrite the ending of the play.  But the metatheatrical nature of the event has stuck with me ever since: all of the outrage engendered by the play abruptly resolved by a very real death.

So it is that John Spencer has always defined that moment for me--because although I never knew what Dan White looked like, John Spencer embodied him for me.  So that whenever I saw John Spencer on television or in films, I hearkened back to that extraordinary moment when theater and life intersected in a uniquely dramatic way.

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