Actor-writer who inspired DC Comics’ Harley Quinn character died Aug. 27 at age 67
When you arrive at home on a Tuesday evening and have to double-check your own address because there is a line of valet parkers in front, one of whom hands you a ticket, and when you proceed into your home of find a crowd of well-dressed people, most of whom you do not know, and an orangutan sitting on your chair at the head of the table — when all of this happens and you’re not really that surprised, there is a better than average chance that you are married to Arleen Sorkin.
The occasion on that Tuesday was a hastily arranged fundraiser for a South African human (and animal) rights organization, and the orangutan was by no means the only luminary I was surprised to find sitting in my chair over the three decades I spent with my big-hearted wife.
Wasn’t it only six months earlier that I’d opened my door to find Fayard Nicholas (seated) and his brother Harold (mopping his brow) — the legendary Nicholas brothers tap dancing team, then in their 80s, who, Arleen had decided, needed a fundraiser. They had just tapped their thanks.
Arleen’s charitable streak had been known to me since literally the day we met, as staff writers on a sitcom. At lunch she approached me. “My name is Arleen and I’m an empath. I hear a clicking in your jaw that may be TMJ. Here is the number of a dentist who can help.”
In the weeks that followed (the two of us clicked, the jaw stopped) I learned details of her impressive background. High school in a tough part of D.C. where her dancing prowess earned her the protection of some of the tougher girls…a shoe modeling career during which her legendary “perfect foot” led shoe designers to send her hundreds of pairs for her Cinderella-like assessment…a long stint in a woman’s cabaret group in New York….her casting on “Days of Our Lives” in the comic relief role as Calliope Jones.
But that first day I was equal parts enchanted and mystified. She’d already been the center square on “The Hollywood Squares,” why was she worrying about a stranger’s TMJ? I came to learn that she worried about everyone. Which often meant the bulk buying of items that “someone might need.” While I did grow accustomed to opening my front door and stepping into, say, a concert given by a newly out of the closet, 300-pound former NFL lineman whose singing aspiration she had decided to champion, I never quite got used to opening a cabinet door and having 12 defibrillators fall out (“who knows who might need one — they’re good to have!”). Other cabinets held quantities of baldness-reversing combs, battery-powered fly swatters, reversible belts with digital message display (“could help someone break the ice on a first date”). As a comedy writer I should be ashamed to admit I missed the irony when an opened closet nearly buried me alive under 15 earthquake preparedness kits.
I suppose I was close to unsurprise-able by the time I strode through the looking glass that had become my front door to find a lugubrious woman dressed in black now sitting in my chair, multiple heavy binders arrayed on the table. “I’ll take seven,” I heard my wife say. “Seven what?” I queried. “I never spend money on jewelry and we might need these for people” she said.
A healthy woman, with two healthy parents and a healthy husband, had just bought seven funeral plots.
In coming years, while raising two boys, Arleen’s career blossomed, though her ego never did. She once had a business card made for her wallet that just said “What’s her name…from that show”. She continued to act, produced an off-Broadway play, and co-created the sitcom “Fired Up” as well as co-writing the Jennifer Aniston feature “Picture Perfect,” among other credits. And the panoply of special guests occupying my chair as I arrived home never ceased.
Who, for example, was the large-knuckled woman nervously kneading her handkerchief? A recently incarcerated former roller derby queen who was desperate for work and wound up hired by Arleen as, what else, our children’s nanny. (Home run on that one: she’d have taken a bullet for those kids and she
Who was the distinguished Pakistani in ceremonial white suit drinking sugared tea? An interviewee for the documentary about Benazir Bhutto Arleen somehow came to be producing (“people need to know her story!”) and which would win her a Peabody award.
And who was the mysterious Austrian in trifocals arranging a set of tiny tools on the table that could have been part of an archaeologist’s arsenal? Well, that’s a simple story.
Arleen’s father, a balding, Maryland dentist had nurtured a six decades-long dream of a career as a Hollywood producer and regularly flew out and prevailed upon his daughter to get him meetings where he could pitch his ideas. There were favors called in, with God knows what promises extracted from Arleen, and many an executive, upon stepping into his waiting room and seeing an 80-year-old dentist clutching a thick sheaf of papers and sitting beside, say, a dark hooded figure clutching a scythe, might well have taken a beat before deciding whom to call in first.
The ideas were mostly not good, but her father would not quit, nor would his daughter’s wondrous love. She simply couldn’t bear to see his dream go unrealized. And there was that one idea that was, well, pretty good, the true story about the surgeon and his unschooled African American assistant who
jointly revolutionized the surgical treatment of blue babies.
For seven years Arleen pushed this idea around Hollywood, seeing it almost sold, then not, then sold and almost made, then not. And then, against every odd, “Something the Lord Made” was shot, aired on HBO, and won her father an Emmy.
Credited as a co-producer, he was not entitled to a statuette, but she could not bear to tell him that. And he’d already planned a party to display his trophy. Thus began the odyssey of finding an old Emmy, polishing it up, getting his name engraved on it, all in time to ship it back east. Halfway into the UPS box,
the statuette fell. Which returns us to the mysterious Austrian at my table, who turned out to be a
master jewelry restorer and who proceeded to operate on the recumbent Emmy. If she had been blue instead of gold it would have been a tableau straight from the movie.
One of the final times I sat with her at that dining table was for brunch last Father’s Day during which, rest assured, an Uber driver who’d recently taken her to a medical appointment was making his calypso singing debut as our accompaniment.
By this time, the disease she’d already fought for a dozen years had taken much of her strength. I don’t know by what celestial accounting fate had decided to reserve the worst possible disease for one who, upon hearing that our boys’ tap dance teacher had been shot, got him urgent medical care, away from danger, and a place to recuperate for two months (he lived to tap again, and called her every day on Mother’s Day). Hadn’t she earned fairer treatment, this woman who had once pulled off a Solomonic trifecta when she solved a school holiday dispute among parents by having the fifth grade class appear in costumes she’d had made that were Christmas-themed on one side, Hannukah-themed on the other — and gave the job to an old costumer friend who needed the work? But so it was. She was, this force, weakened.
But her spirit never flagged. She loved people, believed in them. I’m not sure Harley Quinn, the now world-famous character based upon Arleen and whose original voice she provided, wasn’t defined by that very quality, that achy loyalty, an unwillingness not to lead with her heart, come what may.
Two Sundays ago we gathered to say goodbye to our dentist, doctor, friend, spouse and mother to so many. Amid the tears, there was a last surprise. She had purchased not seven, but nine burial plots. There could be no doubt as to where she’d go. The middle.
Our center square, once and forever.
Christopher Lloyd, co-creator and executive producer of “Modern Family” and a 12-time Emmy winner, was married to actor-writer Arleen Sorkin for 33 years. Sorkin died Aug. 27 at age 67.