You’d think that after 40-plus years in this business, I might have more faith in my readers sometimes.
But, no, I found myself turning into a doubting Thomas again after my recent Andy Griffith column, which mentioned his breakout performance in the classic Broadway/movie comedy “No Time for Sergeants.” The very next morning I opened an email from Cynthia Kaye, of Belleville, asking whether I knew that Griffith’s fictional role as Pvt. Will Stockdale, a naive and lovable Georgia country bumpkin, was based on a very real Belleville resident.
“‘No Time for Sergeants’ was taken from a book written about Wilbert Stockdale, a longtime Belleville resident and World War II veteran,” she wrote. “Wilbert was my neighbor (on Dale Allen Drive) for years and quite a character. He and his brother-in-law once bought an old upright piano, and Will played it in the back of the pickup truck all the way home. He and his wife, Ruby, have passed away, but I cherish their stories.”
Wow, I immediately thought. A Belleville man who played a large role in Ira Levin’s popular Broadway play and a hit film of 1958 that marked the movie debut of Don Knotts and ultimately led to the future award-winning Griffith-Knotts pairing on Andy’s long-running TV show. I have to use this in a column as soon as I can.
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But doubts soon began to flit through my mind. Normally, writers of fiction scrupulously follow the disclaimer that no character in their works portrays a real person, living or dead, to avoid lawsuits. Using the actual name of a living person seemed to shatter this taboo. Moreover, countless searches — from the real Stockdale’s obituary to countless movie websites — failed to turn up any such piece of trivia.
So was this someone who had misunderstood what she had been told? Or perhaps a man who used an odd coincidence to pull people’s legs? I was starting to get antsy, because I’ve had a colleague or two wind up with omelets on their faces for printing similar unsubstantiated stories. But who could I check with? Wilbert died in 2002 and his wife of 53 years passed in July 2015. Finally, I tracked down their only child — Brenda Damiani, of Palm Coast, Fla. — who quickly assured me that I should have trusted their good neighbor all along.
“I’m here to say that that is correct,” Damiani told me happily Wednesday morning. “The guy (Mac Hyman) who originally wrote (the book) “No Time for Sergeants” was in my father’s B-29 crew during World War II. Dad was the flight engineer aboard that plane and they flew reconnaissance together in the Pacific during the war.”
Little did her dad know, but Hyman was making mental notes of his crewmate’s colorful stories of growing up in the South, including his pet pig, Shakespeare, and good times around the family radio. Apparently, the two never collaborated after Hyman sat down to write his 1954 book, which Levin immediately adopted for an episode on “The United States Steel Hour” before expanding it into a full-blown Broadway play that would run nearly 800 performances and earn Griffith a Tony Award nomination.
“My dad never said that was the case,” Damiani said of the two possibly conferring. “(Hyman) was an officer in the crew and my dad was a noncom as flight engineer. And I don’t even know if my dad connected the dots in the very beginning. I guess later he probably did.”
Others certainly knew, however. Damiani has saved a “No Time for Sergeants” playbill in which the director remembers being stunned when his father-in-law told him he had met the real Stockdale at an Army Air Corps reunion three years before. Turns out that Stockdale, a Tennessee native, and his wife were faithful about attending reunions of the Third Photo Reconnaisance Group and the director’s father-in-law was a first sergeant of the group.
“The Third Photo Recon Group mapped all of the Burma Hump and the South Pacific prior to its invasion,” the director (whose name has been lost to time) wrote in his notes. After the atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stockdale was part of the crews who took pictures over the bomb sites, some of which Damiani thinks she still has stuffed away in a box somewhere.
She says she now regrets never arranging a meeting between Griffith and her father, but fondly remembers him reveling in the limelight once he realized he was the primary character in the popular work. And during her years in assisted living, Damiani’s mother, Ruby, often would amaze fellow residents with her family’s famous connection.
“The neat part about it was that Dad was very proud of his service overseas,” said Damiani, whose family boasts the “Sergeants” video, DVDs and several books among her and her husband, her two children and her grandson. “So this was kind of interesting that this was part of it when he was older. He didn’t get any fame from it or anything. It was just something that was kind of neat with family and friends and acquaintances that we talked about.”
And, Cynthia, I’ll never doubt you again.
What prompted the obligatory disclaimer found in fictional works that all names, characters or incidents are totally fictitious?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In late 1999, the power ballad “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” passed the historic 8-million performance plateau, making it the most-played song on American TV and radio during the 20th century, according to a list of the top 100 songs of the 1900s as compiled by Broadcast Music Inc. Co-written by Phil Spector, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, it took the Righteous Brothers about 40 takes to produce the song that hit No. 1 just before Valentine’s Day 1965. At the time, it was, at 3:45, the longest chart-topping song in history. Rounding out the top five were “Never My Love,” “Yesterday,” “Stand By Me” and “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.” For the complete list, including four each by the Beatles and Paul Simon (“Mrs. Robinson” was No. 7), go to www.bmi.com/news/entry/19991214_bmi_announces_top_100_songs_of_the_century.