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Father Confessor

June 17, 2010 By:
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Chuck Barris
He is the father of modern-day reality-game shows, but when it came to the rules of real parenthood, Chuck Barris concedes, as a father, he didn't know best.

It is all a moving admission from the man whose "Newlywed Game" and "Dating Game" were game for gotcha TV for many, but who, away from the hot lights of his "The Gong Show," was more gonzo dad.

Della delivers as a self-damnation of the way he cared for his sole child and, in some ways, his soul's splintering as the father of a bipolar victim who never bought into normal nonlinear living and died of an accidental overdose at age 36 in 1998.

It is an unusual offering to make book on, released just days before Father's Day. But in ways that go beyond the pale, strung out tale of youth wasted and wasted away, it is appropriate fare for anyone facing family with a similar father's daze.

Certainly, concedes Barris, a sweet successful native son with a certain sadness about him, he wishes he had answers for others who raised a child who razed the roof, but despite his book's intentions, he doesn't. What he has, instead, is a moving memoir of mistakes and dead-end missions to save a daughter who built a shrine to her father as mausoleum for her soul.

Is this, his fourth book -- George Clooney directed the adapted film of Barris' Confessions of a Dangerous Mind -- confessions of a dangerous dad? Barris, 81, muses. "Maybe that should have been the title instead."

Chapter and verse, the TV titan from Philly releases his emotional take on a life of eruptions and a lava-love that buried the relationship he had with daughter Della.

Frissons and fissures -- the book provides both. But catharsis for this Jewish father confessor? "I had to get it out of my system."

Barris' life has never been barren of excitement; he made a fortune working network, then syndication TV, and has written well-received books that flare with intrigue even as he demonstrates his flair for a well-crafted way with words.

Barris may have a hemmed and hawed appearance, but he wasn't hemmed in by lackluster dreams -- or without a Hemingway-style high life. After winning the game-show jackpot, he took his treasure hunt afloat, buying a houseboat and moving for a life of water-lapped luxury in St. Tropez, where he remained for years.

Yet a father's love -- and especially, a father's loss -- dog the man whose hang-dog looks have rendered him both cuddly and catnip to women throughout his career.

The creator of "The Newlywed Game" is forever stained with grief over the role his divorce from Della's mother had in his daughter's demise. Her slide into a demimonde and then death, he says, was greased by the bad breakup.

In describing that head-first slide buffeted by her bipolar condition, Barris resorts to what he considers a series of snapshots of life among the lost, but this is no Instamatic insight. The photos have taken years of posing and posturing, and Barris is not attempting to photo-shop the hurt out and picture it all as a positive.

The negatives, he allows, will always be negatives. He only hopes at this point he can change one aspect into one positive: "I wanted to tell others, parents who maybe are going through the same situation I went through, that they are not alone."

It is not a shrine to Della he has built, but a paper chase to meaning as only a book will allow this dad to deal with.

"I think she felt closeness to me; we did bond at one point," says Barris.

But bonds can be broken with a snip of inattentiveness.

"I definitely feel that I abandoned her when I sent her packing," the baggage she brought to their relationship bulging even more, stuffed with a wallet he endowed her with -- a cool $1 mil -- along with a wish that they not see each other again.

Buy they did, and that reunion redressed the difficulties during the interim: The next time he did see her was as if someone had taken a saw to her soul and split it along with her heart.

The TV entrepreneur, also a hit composer, rethinks the lyrics of that sad song he heard in his daughter's pleas. He says: "I [should] have taken her away for three, four months and spent time with her."

No one can change history; the time machine hasn't been built in time to save a fallen father's grace. Why be so hard on himself at this point? "I let her down," says Barris, baring the unmitigated pain.

Making book on a broken heart provides a dust jacket with more meaning than the one-time Nehru jacket-wearing wunderkind of reality TV ever had with Della. But he never meant for the printed word to provide a harsh sentence to others who loved his late daughter.

"Her mother, Lynn, died a year ago of lung cancer; she never read the book," he says. "I didn't want to upset her."

Religion provided neither balm nor bond; Jewish culturally, but not committed to its tenets -- "We are not observant; we would go to [temple] on the High Holidays" -- Judaism is discussed but without dimension in the book, which, ironically, is deeply enriching in exploring the shallow sharings of its family.

But Barris is not alone in believing that it takes a village to create a villain. He takes his share of responsibility, but says that his daughter did nothing or little to assuage her own pain: "She was diagnosed as bipolar, but would not go to see a psychiatrist. She very much wanted to be on her own."

As he owns up to his own failings, Barris concedes that the write stuff was drained from him for years. "After I finished Della, I lost the ability to write for a long time" although he has just started writing again, this one a mystery.

Enigmatic to the end, Barris berates himself yet bares his heart for all to see ... and learn. Recently, he ran into a man who hadn't seen his own son for years. "But he read the book, and called his son. 'And I told him I loved him,' he told me.

"If the book has that kind of effect, well, then it's worth it."

A Father's Day beginning for one, an ending for another?

"I don't celebrate Father's Day," says Barris with a forever sadness.


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