"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Family Business is Business


For a people whose belief in moving from obscurity to prosperity through an act of self-will was so fervent it impressed de Toqueville and created presidential myths from Lincoln to Clinton, Americans owe a great deal to the transfer of opportunities, skills and wealth from generation to generation, a process familiarly known as "passing down". A reinforcement of the dull descriptives by which many of us are named, carrying on the family trade has been a useful way to recruit labor, protect craft secrets, and guarantee summer employment for as long as there are lazy teenagers and tight regional job markets. And some names have come to mean more than others. In place of an aristocracy to alternately worship and resent, United States citizens have imagined into existence a faux-meritocracy based on which family name clusters around what endeavor the longest. These American fantasies of permanency and stability include first families of politics (Adams, Taft, Bush), wealth (Dupont, Hunt), show business (Barrymore, Fonda), auto racing (Petty, Unser) and funerals/litigation (Kennedy).

Americans today have a keener appreciation of the fine art of hanging on than at any time in their history. Politicians have made the wisdom of inheritance taxes a free space in rhetorical button-pushing bingo since Reagan was president. The Disney company has spent millions raised from movies featuring characters in the public domain lobbying for laws to forestall Mickey and Donald's suffering the same fate, guaranteeing decades of future profits for Uncle Walt's true children, Disney stockholders. The message of the moment is clear: make what you can, keep what you have. While the duties of a successful person's progeny used to be limited to showing up at the ballpark to shake the new record-holder's hand, or auctioning off an Oscar or two, these days the person who fails to fully exploit a previous generation's accomplishment risks being seen as the ultimate evil: a bad manager.

For those of us without a massive fortune or a pile of trademarks to inherit, it is that much more important to make the most of our inheritance. Luckily, decades of accelerated attention to this phenomenon have yielded five basic, successful strategies to make all your dreams come true — as long as those dreams are the kind that can be altered to fit the situation. Learn from these strategies, admire their best practitioners, and most importantly, remember how much you deserve what you have coming to you.

The Caretaker

Caretakers are all about access. Their basic strategy is to place themselves between a beloved creation and a still-rabid audience and claim their involvement is an extension of the creator's wishes — even if the nature of those desires must be inferred from beyond the grave. Once duly recognized as a keeper of the flame, the caretaker can dispense missives from the promised land with the measured touch of a Mr. Bumble. The perfect situation for the caretaker is to be placed in charge of an open-ended franchise targeted at anal completists. Christopher Tolkien and Brian Herbert are exemplars of this type, with multi-volume releases of first drafts or brand-new novels taken, cross-their-hearts, from papa's real, honest, left-behind notes. If criticized as a profiteer, the caretaker emphasizes his or her connection to the successful parent's life work, particularly if it ends up in a deal for a project celebrating the parent-child relationship, such as a suite of fairy stories or album of lullabies. While embracing the parent's vision is the most reliable way to pursue strategy, offering complementary skills necessary to maintain that legacy can be just as effective. Hugh Hefner popularized the Playboy philosophy by living it; Christy Hefner helped legitimize it because she didn't.

The Grateful Heir

In the biblical parable of the prodigal son, the title character had to burn through an entire inheritance and dine with pigs before realizing just how comfortable the couch was back home. A grateful heir enjoys the option of failing first, but may also embrace good genetic fortune without ever putting down the remote. The defining aspect of the grateful heir is a shrugged-shoulder grin at the opportunity presented, even if that means directing dad's orchestra rather than leading one of your own, like Frank Sinatra, Jr., or sitting at the end of Dad's bench of assistants like Bobby Knight scion Patrick. With an audience of octogenarians seeking decades-old comfort food, newspaper cartoons have managed to produce several fine examples of this type, including two interchangeable sons each from Mort "Beetle Bailey" Walker and Dik "Hagar the Horrible" Browne, all of whom work on their fathers' creations. No better refutation of the hippie lifestyle has ever made it into print than Chance Browne's statement on joining Dad at the drawing table in the mid-1970s: "Living out of a van wasn't what it once was." If neither one of your parents is a syndicated cartoonist, we suggest marrying into a family with a car dealership and prepping for local television commercial stardom.

The Legacy

The legacy gets to create an original body of work while appealing to audiences in a manner that brings to mind the successful parent. Not only might the legacy summon forth long-forgotten memories of a previously hard-to-copy icon, but the parent's career can serve as a form of cultural shorthand to place the offspring in a better career-launching position. As a result, Kate Hudson can directly evoke mother Goldie Hawn in her memorable early-movie phase without having to spend a few years dancing in a bikini between Arte Johnson skits, while Christopher Rice can call to mind his mother's hard-sell appeal to the wronged outsider in all of us without ever writing a paragraph about fangs, blood-drinking or leather riding boots. If this option sounds too good to be true, that's because a memory is harder to maintain than a perfect high school attendance record. For every Liza Minelli, there are dozens of Lorna Lufts. If your parents show little progress in becoming movie or recording stars, your only option may be to push them towards the ministry.

His Own Man

Some are born to carry on a parent's success, some seek it for their own, while others have it thrust upon them. As faithful students of the Richard Thomas biopic oeuvre may recall, Hank Williams Jr. didn't find his way to life success until he stopped creepily impersonating his father in novelty shows and wholeheartedly embraced his inner electric redneck. Not only did Bocephus benefit from the novelty of his career departure, but having established his truck-rock cred he could safely indulge in straight-on Natalie Cole singing with the dead dramatics, with 1985's "There's a Tear in My Beer."

The Victim

Some strategies are incredibly risky. Take the victim, a type that when seen against the background of sport can actually boast of a body count. Muhammad Ali undeniably damaged Joltin' Joe Frazier's reputation in the early 1970s by portraying him first as an Uncle Tom and then as a gorilla (hey, Don King laughed). But Frazier's greatest injuries came from self-sabotage, the harshest example of which was his allowing drastically underprepared son Marvis to crumble in terror not once but twice before vastly superior engines of destruction named Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. Without a doubt the finest models of the victim type were the various younger members of the "Von Erich" professional wrestling family. The Texas-based show promoter Jack Adkisson — who wrestled as Fritz Von Erich — lost five of his six children through a horrifying series of injuries and suicides blamed on the pressures of performing under the fabled (well, in Texas), completely made-up, Von Erich name. While these may sound like dim role models, the benefit of the victim strategy is that it's open to almost everyone. Very few parents can pass down a show business rolodex worth a damn, but most dispense guilt and abuse.

Embracing the strategy that's right for you may not lead to a lifetime of riches and happiness, but it guarantees your maximum enjoyment of the best kind of success of all — someone else's. And if the going gets tough, think of Patrick Wayne. Introduced to most of America in hilariously ironic fashion in his father's The Searchers as a soldier who achieved his military rank because of his family name, Wayne ignored this potential victimization to become a mini-legacy — at least in PSAs — and finally, with DVD audio track credits and interviews to his name, a part-time caretaker of the Duke's perplexing barrel-chested, flag-slinging cultural legend. It's plain scary to think how many Henson children that kind of coverage would require.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black