When we need a story on a 600-pound sumo wrestler or Don King's hair, a cry of " Franz Lidz!" goes up in our offices. Lidz is the senior writer whose treatments of such arcane topics—and a lot of more conventional sports subjects—consistently come from odd but unerring angles. Last week the same cry of " Franz Lidz!" went up in cineplexes throughout the U.S. Eleven-year-old actor Nathan Watt plays the young Franz in Hollywood's adaptation of Lidz's 1991 memoir, Unstrung Heroes, a bittersweet account of growing up with a terminally ill mom, a polymath dad and four eccentric uncles who provided the author with beguiling relief from a reality that was cruel and cold. Midway through the movie one uncle, Danny (played by Seinfeld icon Michael Richards), decides that Franz's given name, Stephen, is far too common and suggests he change it to Franz. As a delighted Uncle Arthur (Maury Chaykin) and a horrified father, Sidney ( John Turturro), look on, Watt tries out his new name. " Franz Lidz!" he says, enjoying the sound of it. "I'm Franz Lidz!"
At the film's New York premiere last week, Andie MacDowell, who plays Franz's mother, Selma, met the real-life Arthur, now 80, a sweet-tempered hoarder who lives in a cramped apartment packed with old newspapers and other detritus. She composed several poems to put in the notebooks Arthur totes around.
The movie was directed by Diane Keaton, who wasn't able to include several memorable scenes from the book. One was a trip to Yankee Stadium during which the paranoid Danny became certain that manager Casey Stengel and pitcher Bob Turley were plotting a pogrom on the mound and that Mickey Mantle was trying to kill him by sending foul balls his way. Anyone interested in a fully raveled Heroes needn't fear, however: Although the hardcover edition of the book can no longer be found in stores ("I think of the first edition as my children," says Lidz, "because I know where every one of them is"), the paperback will be released this week by Signet Books.
The unstrung uncles aren't the only Lidzes with a few frayed filaments. Franz, his wife, Maggie, and their daughters Gogo, 10, and Daisy, 7, live on six wooded acres called Barmy Farm, outside of Philadelphia. They share the spread with three llamas (Edgar, Ogar and Vanessa Snakehips), two Great Pyrenees pups (Cadmus and Europa), two geese (Officia and Malicia) and some three dozen exotic fowl, all named after cheeses in the Monty Python cheese-shop routine, except Petri, who's named after a dish. Says Franz, "We must be the only household in the world that subscribes to Llama, Poultry News, Sumo World and The New York Review of Books."
During a June 1994 visit to the set of the movie, the Lidzes hit it off with all the players, but Gogo and Daisy especially took to Nathan, who joshingly told his visiting girlfriends that he would only play with them under two conditions. One was that they had to call him Dad. The other was that they couldn't enter any trailer without saying the secret password. Psssst: Franz Lidz.