Ethan Maile, Actor/Writer

Resident at Westbeth, 1970s to 1990s

Moses Gunn

When I was a kid, my idol was the actor Moses Gunn. He and his family were our neighbors in those pioneering and incandescent years at Westbeth. His wife Gwen and my mother were both founding members of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, and their son Justin was my age, so it was a perfect familial fit.

Whenever Moses was in town, guaranteed, there would be a ring of our doorbell; and when I opened the door, there he’d be, dressed in the tan suede western cut suit that he loved so much, and he’d say in that incredibly beautiful baritone of his, “Hello there, young man! How are you, Ethan? Your mother around?” You knew then there’d be guests, good food, laughter, politics, talk of The Theatre and smoking till the wee hours in our dining room. It was always a special occasion even if it was just me and my mom for the night.

On the evenings we decided to go out to dinner, that’s when I’d remember Moses was a movie star. Somebody would ask for his autograph or engage him for a minute, and I would be awestruck by my association to him.

One summer, my brother and I went to visit Moses for a week while he was filming a TV show, called Father Murphy, at Old Tucson in Arizona. Mornings we went with Moses to the set with all the usual fuss, glamour and boredom that go with film sets, and after lunch we’d swim in the hotel pool and hang out till he returned. One afternoon, in a fight with my brother, a slammed door ripped my big toe nail off. Moses left the set at once and rushed back to take me to the hospital. As the doctor worked on me, tears engulfing my face, Moses gripped my hand and told me how brave I was. Mind you, he was still in costume, dressed as a cowboy, neckerchief, fake dirty Henley shirt, suede vest.

The last time I saw Moses, I had the lead in one of my college’s musicals, Girl Crazy. After the show, he insisted that we go back to my apartment on Beacon Hill. I lived on the top floor, and I began to notice his struggle up the final steps. This towering idol of my youth all of a sudden seemed so frail. But he wanted to talk about the show, acting, college.

When it was my turn to speak at his memorial, the words wouldn’t come. Just tears. My father, who was sitting behind me, leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder and gripped hard, the way fathers do to take some of the pain away, just like Moses had when he gripped my hand that long ago day back in the Old West.

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