SI Vault
Robert Towne
August 06, 1984
With the Olympics under way in his native city, the author recalls with admiration two men of Los Angeles who were defined by how they moved in their elements
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August 06, 1984

In The Water, In The Air, In L.a.

With the Olympics under way in his native city, the author recalls with admiration two men of Los Angeles who were defined by how they moved in their elements

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Harvey's attitude toward gays was a revelation. "Harvey, you have such a pretty mouth and such green eyes," and Harvey would turn to the flirt, pointing the stem of his pipe genially. "I'll pretty mouth and green your eyes if you don't stop with the lip and do the dips without cheating, wise guy."

Everything about him in this city of cults, craziness and fits of homicidal weirdness that blow periodically across the basin like Santa Anas suggested balance, harmony and tolerance. He was an ambulating plea for tolerance, passionate but never impassioned about it. It was in his every manner and gesture.

In reviewing a movie of mine in 1982, a couple of critics suggested that I equate morality and movement, and I guess there's something to it: I close my eyes and in the afterimage recall the way Harvey walked—the way he moved does suggest his fundamental decency and humanity to me.

He'd bounce along Beverly Boulevard, wearing a sleeveless Kingston Trio-type button-down shirt of pale color (he wouldn't be caught dead wearing anything tight fitting), chino-type khakis or Levi's, sweat socks and the kind of moccasins they used to put pennies in (not Harvey, of course). His hands would be thrust in his pants as though he were about to push straight into a handstand from his own pockets. His mouth was wide, his lips on the thin side, and with or without a pipe his abiding expression was somewhere between an amused grin and a grimace (the kind when he strained to pump out the last rep of an exercise). With extraordinary cheekbones and deep planes beneath them, a wide but long and well-proportioned neck, a head that was bobbing and turning this way and that to catch the action, and with the straight-stemmed pipe flicking out of his mouth like a tongue, Harvey looked like something between a genial boxer and a handsome cobra puffed up and teased for action.

His body was always pale, with a light wash of freckles, and at about 6'1" and 200 pounds, was perfectly scaled. He wasn't "cut" with sinewy or stringy definition, he was, rather, "layered." as solid and pale as slabs of marble with their freckled patina. Too much definition, one felt, was like a tight-fitting T shirt for Harvey, too mannered. Harvey's body and build and movement, in short, seemed just about perfect to me—playful, powerful and curious. When he walked more slowly, it seemed as though he came from a planet like Mercury, half the size of ours, and so his limbs felt our greater gravity and our leaden atmosphere. But his natural strength and fluidity were more than equal to the extra weight and so when he'd wade rather than walk through air. it was with easy and deliberating grace. I was reminded of his method of moving by a Dian Fossey documentary on gorillas. In one scene Fossey was sitting on a blanket next to a huge silver-backed male of 300 or 400 pounds who took a piece of paper from her and handled it with such delicacy and grace that one came to see it took that much mass and that much power to appreciate the significance of the term "restraint."

Part of Harvey's grace and health included a healthy curiosity in those less gracefully formed. He did not have the bodybuilder's occasional syndrome, that paranoid and knee-jerk aversion to anything less than symmetrical or "perfect." I remember a day when, dressing to work out, I glanced over to an adjacent bench and saw to my shock that a young man who had removed his sweat pants revealed a gray leg—an artificial leg, in fact. It terrified me, because even though it had leather straps attached to it and appeared to be plastic, it was shaped like a leg and I couldn't imagine someone detaching it.

But Harvey took one look at it and with an exclamation of almost gleeful interest, said something like "Gee! Look at that!" and asked the young man in the cheeriest tone if he would mind taking off his leg, the very thing I dreaded to see. The young man promptly obliged, revealing a squishy pink stump at midthigh. Harvey lit up with pleasure, and he touched the stump, asked how it felt when in place in the prosthetic device, expressing wonder at how effective and unique the artificial leg was and how nicely the young man used what was left of his natural leg, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to chat about—and so it became. The young man's face lit up almost as much as Harvey's under the questioning, and there was no doubt that Harvey had made his day.

I have said that Harvey's body was virtually unblemished, and that's true. There was, however, a dark mole the size of a strawberry on the upper part of one of his perfectly shaped pectorals. It had been there for years, and I remember being surprised one day to see his chest taped. He'd decided to remove it, he said.

About a month later, Harvey was doing chin-ups and turned to me and said, "You know, I have a funny kind of pulling feeling under my armpit." and he trailed off without asking a question, just staring at me. His voice had a kind of natural reverb to it, so whenever he finished a sentence, the last syllable was liable to hang in the air like the last note from a rush of wind through glass chimes. I waited for a long moment staring back at him and said, as evenly as I could, "Hell. Harvey, you probably ought to go back to the doctor. I'm sure it doesn't matter, but it's got to be annoying anyway." It was the only time I'm aware of that I saw him look to another human being for reassurance about anything, and I know I failed him miserably.

Harvey was operated on a week later. He returned to the gym in a month, his side taped from shoulder to waist, as genial as ever. "Oh yeah, the doctors said it was malignant, but they cleaned it all out and got everything," he said with nonchalant certainty, and in a couple of weeks returned to the chin-up bar. A couple of weeks after that, Harvey disappeared from his gym, and I never saw him again. He fought against dying with that perfect body of his, and someone told me about six months later that he'd dropped below 90 pounds—even the 97-pound weakling would have had no trouble with him then. Still, I heard he kept going and trying to stay alive. He'd been having trouble with his marriage and managed, deliberately I think, to impregnate his wife so he'd leave a little more of life behind him on the way out.

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