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In life, there are certain special moments. How many of these blessings arrive depends largely on the kind of life you lead and the people you fill it with. I’ve been fortunate enough to have plenty, none of which could ever hope to surpass the birth of my first and only son, Jacob Nathaniel. I’ve never felt closer to creation than I was in that moment; never once felt such monumental pride in my achievements. Another cherished memory entails walking into my local video store for the very first time with my father as a ten-year-old boy. From the first whiff of rich mahogany and hand-rolled tobacco, to the optical stimuli I was presented, courtesy of row upon row of meticulously lined VHS sleeves stretching as far as the musty haze allowed me to see, this was a real precious one. As I scanned my wide eyes across the glittering treasure trove before me, my entire future flashed before them in an instant. This was to be no isolated incident, this place was to become my second home throughout my entire adolescence and I damn well knew it in that moment. The first pubic sprout may have been some way off at this point, but this was unquestionably my very first taste of seduction.
Naturally, one of such tender years will invariably hone in on the real attention grabbers – The Thing, The Howling, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – or, in my case, Harry Bromley Davenport’s ludicrously lovable Xtro. This turned out to be our primary rental and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. You see, it opened the floodgates for further acquisitions, one of which had a particularly profound effect on me, I recall. That film was George A. Romero’s Martin. By all accounts, I was too wet behind the ears to ever hope to understand a film this cerebral and should have dismissed it out of hand, through fledgling hormones alone. But something inexplicable drew me towards it and I took a punt on this unknown quantity. That evening, as I slid Martin into my toploader, something previously dormant was awakened inside me. My dear friends, I do believe that is what is known as a special moment right there. Watching movies with my father was by far my favorite pastime as, while his muscles steadily wasted away, his devilish sense of humor never once threatened to diminish. Ordinarily, banter played a tremendous role in the customary father-son movie nights but not this time. Indeed, I didn’t actually discern his presence until the end credits had rolled.
The reason for this was simple – a certain baby-faced twenty-seven-year old debutant by the name of John Amplas. Romero’s original script called for a much older actor but, after witnessing John’s performance on stage, he re-wrote the character with him specifically in mind. The result was a performance so quietly commanding that I found myself hopelessly transfixed on him throughout and took something truly inestimable away from the experience, come the end. I’ve witnessed a lot of memorable turns in over thirty-five years as a student of film, but precious few that have resonated on as intimate a level as this one. I often liken the character of Martin to a cat as he displays so many feline characteristics. Timid and wary at first, he prefers not to be approached and would rather come to you on his own terms, but only when he feels secure in his environment. Sudden actions startle Martin and cornering him is certainly not advisable. Just like a cat, his most potent weapons are his eyes, and they happen to act as rather exquisite windows to within.
Should you not have had the exclusive pleasure of Martin, which Romero himself openly professed his undying love for, then I ain’t too proud to beg. It’s an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking featuring one of the most stirring lead performances in seventies cinema, period. Naturally I always wondered what John Amplas would be like in real life. The funny thing is, I reckon I always knew. The eyes don’t lie or, at least, these ones didn’t. Indeed, my love affair with cinema intensified after watching this gentleman ply his trade and the true significance of this transaction wouldn’t be known to me until many years later.
John continued to work with Romero, claiming screen-stealing roles in Dawn of The Dead, Knightriders, Creepshow, Day of the Dead and The Dark Half; not to mention pitching in a chilling turn as a spiteful Satanist in John A. Russo’s Midnight among others. What people may not be so aware of is his work on stage both as an actor and director, particularly his celebrated turn as Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s magnificent Glengarry Glen Ross. As a huge fan of James Foley’s flawless 1992 screen adaptation, I’d have paid my life savings plus the full contents of my pocket to have sat in on that one.
In 2015 I finally appraised Martin. I’ve written over 800 appraisals now and, if I’m lucky, then someone involved may just take the time to peruse what I’ve written. John didn’t only read the piece, he was the very first person to comment and this spoke volumes about a character that I could literally write volumes about. There wasn’t a trace of ego to be discerned from his gushing response, indeed, you’d have suspected by his reaction that the tables had been reversed entirely and he was the lifelong fan in the text bubble, not I. It came as no surprise, given that he is one of the most humble and dignified gentlemen in the industry. But it was still something of a joy to behold. Thanks to the kindness of a dear friend who knows us both, we shared a lengthy conversation on the phone soon after and I’m not sure I can even begin to explain what that delightful little tête-à-tête meant to me. Neither do I possess the correct verbs to elucidate the meaning of receiving a signed Martin still in the post just a few days later, touched by the great man himself. My soul was in disarray most utter in 2015, but unbeknownst to him, John Amplas gave it the kiss of life it was crying out for in the precise moment I opened that package.
I’ve been bowled over a fair few times in my life but this was one strike made all the sweeter by the fact that I just didn’t see it coming. My initial response was to book the first outward flight to Pittsburgh, track him down in the least stalker-like way, and plant a gentle kiss on his forehead for what this had meant to me. Alas, my money tree hasn’t been faring so well of late, so I decided to do the next best thing instead. Given that words are my thing, it seemed a no-brainer to offer a few up just to show my intense gratitude. But a simple thank you would no way suffice here.
Thus I wrote The Amplas Effect, an affectionate tribute to a man who epitomizes the salt of the earth and also an actor who truly understands the true meaning of soul and how to access this tool for the sake of your art. It’s no coincidence that John has gone on to teach acting to young adults looking to follow their dreams as he’s been there, done that, and is only too happy to pass on that experience. And there simply isn’t a solitary whiff of pretense about him.
Now that we’ve established the kind of lofty esteem I hold John in, how about we get to the big news that is eating me up from the inside? You see, one of the things John told me during our telephone conversation was that, one day, he’d thank me in person and I never felt like this gesture was hollow. Naturally I was never going to hold him to it as a 7,500 mile round trip is rather a long pilgrimage to undertake just to show your gratitude. But I lapped up the sentiment nonetheless as I knew full well it came from a sincere place. Two years later, and with timing no less than uncanny, I receive a message from John that very near cost me my seating. It has been requested that I join him for dinner in Covent Garden, London this Friday evening and no prizes for guessing my answer. It’s not every day you get to meet one of your all-time personal heroes but one thing’s for sure – it’ll be one I remember for the rest of my life. So what do you say we go eat then?
Tonight we were to be joined by two guests – John’s close friend and co-organizer of the upcoming Weekend of The Dead event in Manchester, Marcus Lewis, and his treasure of a 15-year-old daughter Natasha. Naturally, I arrived first like the eager beaver that I am and took my seat simply brimming with excitement. There’s usually a risk with meeting your idol that they won’t measure up to your expectations but I already knew that wasn’t applicable here. Don’t ask me how; some things you just know. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that John bared his soul to me the very first time I saw him on-screen all those years ago. Or simply the feeling I got from our telephone conversation that we were very similar creatures. Whatever it was, I was just thrilled to be proved right in my estimations.
Now let’s just crystallize something here shall we? I’m a shameless hugger and make absolutely no bones about it either. None of this “awfully nice to meet you” and polite handshake business, I’m going in for the kill and won’t return until either the cuddle has reached its natural conclusion or mace has been sprayed in my eyes. Actually that just makes me sound vaguely creepy but the point I’m trying to make is that I’d much rather start as I mean to go on than play it cool and work my way up to anything. Needless to say, I’d rein it in if I were meeting someone who I suspected would find the ordeal awkward but I get the sneaking feeling that John knew just how much this meant to me. If he didn’t, then he sure as shit did by the time our platter arrived. And what a handsome platter that was. I’m digressing but, as I clapped eyes on the prize just a few feet from my coordinates, I leapt from my seat like a Vegan in a steakhouse and landed directly in his personal space. That is to say, we hugged it out.
Eventually we took our places, placed our orders, and got straight down to current affairs. Weekend of The Dead will be celebrating its third year in Manchester this November and the guest list reads like a who’s who of Dead zone survivors and shufflers. Tom Savini, Lori Cardille, Judith O’Dea, Jarlath Conroy, Lynn Lowery, Russ Streiner, Sharon Ceccatti, Taso Stavrakis and, of course, the gentleman sitting to my left – them’s nine damn good reasons to be getting feverish.
Of course, there is an even greater poignancy to this year’s festival as we lost our very own Godfather of The Dead, George A. Romero, just months ago and each of us paid our respects to George in our own way. But it was John who knew him best and, listening to his affectionate recollections, it was more than clear the kind of genuine friendship they shared. We’re all in agreement – there’s a star on the Hollywood walk of fame that should already have this great man’s name etched into it. The film industry may have repeatedly passed George over, but none of us will ever forget him or the significant part he has played in our lives.
My attachment to Weekend of The Dead is now deeply intimate thanks to John and, in turn, Marcus. When John was recently approached to provide a written introduction for the event’s glossy A5 70-page programme, he instantly volunteered my name and asked my permission to include my 2015 tribute, The Amplas Effect. Needless to say, no blessing need be granted as this was an honor almost too tremendous to me. I’ve been a full-time scribe for four years now and never once have my words appeared in print. That duck is already being plucked as we speak and I wasn’t about to leave this dinner date without letting both men know just what this means to me. I haven’t once made a solitary nickel from my art but money can’t buy the kind of riches this gesture has lavished upon me. Precious few people I come face-to-face to in my pretty sheltered everyday life show an interest in my art. John does.
Indeed, he was fascinated to learn more of what makes me tick as a writer and I could barely spit my response out fast enough. You see, passion and soul play headlining roles in my output. I know John would have been aware by the manner in which my eyes lit up that I was beside myself at being afforded a rare chance to elucidate my motivation. Both men made the kind of cherished observations about my writing style that keep me keeping on, whenever my task appears thankless. I spy an enhanced sense of purpose on the horizon and reckon I owe a fairly hefty wedge of debt to the wonders of this evening’s acts of goodwill. My soul has done a great deal of cleansing and healing in recent years and has come through when I’ve needed it most, time and again. This felt like its reward for all those long nights in the trenches; a rare night off to bask in the wondrous rays of others.
It’s funny, I’m usually more of your in-and-out kind of diner. Tonight I found myself attempting to channel my inner Man of Steel and slow the earth’s polarity; just to hang things out a few precious moments longer. Alas, the London Underground threatens its own unwelcome witching hour curfew, and doesn’t take kindly to any moonlight stragglers. With chances of a lock-in looking decidedly slim, the time had come for us to bid one another our fond adieus and conclude an evening that I don’t feel could have been any more vital right now.
It was a ten minute walk from the restaurant to John’s hotel and I used this time asking him about his bountiful career on the stage and discussing a project or two currently in the pipeline that I’m looking to place him at the heart of. But there was one more thing I wanted to do, a potentially uncomfortable moment I preempted way back at our telephone conversation in 2015. You see, I hadn’t forgotten about the gentle forehead kiss I aimed to plant on him, and have never been one for blowing hot air around.
Tonight has meant so much to me and, as I stated at the offset, the timing couldn’t have been more uncanny. I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to reclaim my soul and it seems fitting that I wind up breaking bread with the person who inspired me to use it for the sake of art in the first place. What Marcus and his team have achieved with the independently financed and run Weekend of The Dead through passion and love alone is simply extraordinary, so it just seemed poetic that I meet this fine gentleman also and I love that Natasha was present too as there were three generations all around one dinner table. As for the mercurial John Amplas, one of the sweetest and most genuine men I’ve ever met, well I’d like to quote a certain Martin Madahas and put this line to bed once and for all. “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” Thanks to tonight, I’m starting to wonder – maybe there is magic, after all.
Truly, Really, Clearly, Sincerely,
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Grueheads Films 2017