For the last few days I have been spending some of my spare time listening to old clips of Jean Shepherd’s radio show. For anyone who might be reading this, Jean Shepherd is best known today as the author of the stories in the movie, “A Christmas Story”. For those of us who were fans of Shepherd in the 1960’s, the film just will never work. Jean Shepherd was a master radio story teller. Like most listeners, I had my own vision of what his stories looked like. Darrin McGavin was a fairly good comic actor, but he didn’t fit my view of what ‘the old man’ should look like. Movie retellings can rarely ever match the magic of a well told story. Sherpherd’s stories are particularly difficult to make into movies because the charm is in how one relates to the characters. The story of Flick sticking his tongue to a frozen pole works because we see ourselves doing the act (or something similar). Once that image is replaced with a real live child actor we remove ourselves from the story and become spectators. Perhaps a better director would have made the stories come more alive.
Jean Shepherd was someone who kept reusing the same material all his life. So, his radio stories were recycled as short stories, and recycled later as novels. Finally they were recycled for film.
Jean Shepherd was a hero to his fans, so it has been a bit sad to listen to interviews from people who knew him to realize what an SOB he was in real life. According to Larry Josephson: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2005/may/13/shepherds-flock/, he actually denied that he had children when he wrote his will. When the NY Times printed his obituary his son, Randall, contacted them and had them make a number of corrections. Basically he was a very insecure man who never accepted that the spotlight would pass him by.
Does any of this change my memories of his wonderful stories? No. But it does shine a little light on the sorry man who was so good in front of a microphone.
All of us have heroes. Over time most of those heroes leave the pedestal.