July 2, 2007 — -- The following eulogy for Joel Siegel was read by Andrew Bergman at a funeral service at Riverside Chapel in New York City on Sunday.
You could deliver 10 different eulogies of Joel and they'd all be true. You could do one about heroic Joel, about hilarious Joel, about terrible-tempered Joe, about Joel the pushover, Joel the Jewish historian and about Joel the proud father of Dylan. For me, over 35 years, he was all those people, often at the same time.
In 1972, my ex-college roommate called from L.A. to say that a friend of his named Joel Siegel had gotten a great job at WCBS-TV and was moving east. Richie told me that Joel didn't know many people in New York and asked if Louise and I would have him over for dinner. When Joel did come over, three or four weeks later he already knew more people in New York than I did. He also knew definitively where to get the best pastrami and corned beef, where the oldest synagogue was and which was the better of the Pickle Kings on the Lower East Side.
Although he famously couldn't swim, Joel dove into New York right at the deep end because, of course, he had been destined to live here all his life. Although he rhapsodized about the Apple Pan and the Pantry in L.A. and about C.C. Brown's great hot fudge, Joel was an instant New Yorker. As if to make up for lost time, he consumed the art, culture and folklore of the city like the most eager of refugees. His enthusiasms were boundless, starting of course, with food; during that first year at WCBS, it seemed like every other story ended with Joel biting into a hot dog or a knish, or slurping down an egg cream. Joel and his weight was an ongoing saga; in all the years I knew him, I doubt if he ever gained more than 20 pounds, but he let you know about every ounce. And as sure as the swallows returning to Capistrano, every January Joel would return refreshed to the city he loved and happily gain them all back.
As the years moved on, he started getting into a higher grade of food and ever higher grades of wine, which he started stacking up in his basement like Scrooge McDuck, although, unlike Scrooge McDuck, he shared his wine with one and all. Joel was an absolutely world-class sharer. "I'm cooking this weekend," he would announce, and when he made dinner up in the country, he made it for everybody and their kids and if you had weekend guests, great, bring them along and as long as the kids didn't go near his vintage toy collection, everything was copacetic. "This is great," he would exclaim over and over, and it was great — the togetherness was great, the conversation was great, the brisket was great, that corn pudding thing he made was great and the jokes were great.
The jokes deserve a special section, because Joel loved comedy more than anything and his knowledge of it was encyclopedic, as it was for most things relating to Jews. Our Wednesday lunch, which began as a kind of ad hoc support group for Joel after his wife Jane died, has been for us the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York. For 25 years, the six of us — Joel, Jeff, the two Jerrys, Michael and I — have gone through a lot: marriages, unmarriages, deaths and births. Through all of it what held us together was our love for one another, our appreciation of each other's infinite peculiarities and the endless, roaring, screaming laughter. One had only to say "2-30," the incredibly appropriate time for this funeral and the punch line of an ancient and idiotic joke concerning a Chinese dentist to get Joel howling. Or "the mice were hunchback," said in any context at all, would produce that laugh you could hear a mile away.
The lunch has had many locations, and Joel was a prime mover in our ever-widening search for the perfect place, for the simple reason that he effectively got us banned from a number of New York's finer dining places. The old Russian Tea Room threw us out, then more ominously, Fresco by Scotto threw us out. We told Joel that his picture was being pasted on kitchens all over Manhattan as a public enemy, but he could have cared less — if he requested a simple hamburger, no cheese, no tomatoes, he expected to get it. The expression on the faces of the hapless waiters proudly bringing a tomato-and-cheese-covered burger to set before him, only to incur Joel's truly fabulous, flame-throwing rage was easily worth the price of admission. A ritual was repeated over 25 years: the rest of us would order, then the waiter would stand beside Joel as he scanned the menu as if it were a text of the Torah. Finally he would order something — and this far preceded his illness — he would order something and then totally deconstruct the dish, telling the waiter what exactly to leave out and what to substitute. The order would of course be totally screwed up and we would prepare to get thrown out of yet another restaurant.
Like a child, however, whenever you were ready to throttle Joel he would do something so fabulous that you would instantly forgive him. He was incredibly generous and his Christmas presents were always the best and the most thought out, as were his fabulous holiday cards, my favorite being the one where Iron Mike Tyson had his arm around a smiling Joel, with the inscription, "From Our Home to Yours."
When he had his first surgery, many years ago in the beginning of the 100-round bare-knuckle fight that was Joel's truly epic battle with colon cancer, at that time I visited him. He was a little woozy and he looked at me and said "Why did this happen to me?" "Because you're a movie critic," I told him. He started laughing, of course, and then asked me not to say anything else funny, because he was still sore from the surgery, but I realized later I was wrong. He was not a movie critic; he was a movie lover, as he was a lover and enthusiast of so many, many things. Unlike most critics who see films as targets in a shooting gallery, Joel really, really wanted to love the movies he screened and particularly in the past few years had been increasingly disappointed, like a spurned lover.
"I just saw the worst movie ever made," he would say. "You said that last week," we would tell him. "No, this is really the worst one." And it pained him. On the other hand, when a movie was even marginally good, he would go completely teenager nuts for it. The number of movies he described as "great" was countless, but he couldn't help it. He really, really wanted things to be great.
So many things in his life were great, he had achieved a celebrity that flabbergasted him and even if at least a third of the people who hailed him on the street would call out Gene Shalit's name, he truly loved every minute of it and truly appreciated the wonder of his enormous success. He certainly wasn't the handsomest man on television, he certainly wasn't the smoothest and he didn't have the most mellifluous voice. What he had was total authenticity. He was exactly what he appeared to be, which is why people greeted him like a second cousin. And maybe he was; Joel seemed to have relatives in every corner of the earth. Eight years ago, I visited Havana, about which I was very excited. "Look up my cousin there," he told me. " You have a cousin in Havana?" "Look in the phone book," he said, "it's the only Siegel."
Joel had been everywhere and met everyone. But of all the thrills in his life, Dylan Swansea Siegel was No. 1. "He's reading," he would say. "It's un-believable." And when Joel said "un-believable," he meant it. Everything about his son was a miracle to him, every word he uttered, every car he correctly identified on the highway, and I don't have the slightest doubt that Dylan's existence extended his own, that the reason Joel kept confounding one dire prognosis after another was Dylan's presence on this earth. And I think Ena's support and presence was an enormous comfort throughout.
We knew this was coming some day, but it's still an enormous shock. Last Tuesday, all the doctors told us that he wouldn't last the night. But as usual they had no idea who they were dealing with. All of us who knew and loved this wonderful, impossible, hilarious, stubborn soul knew that he would defy their predictions once again. All of us knew that he was still looking at that menu and nobody was going to rush him. He didn't live nearly long enough but he made damn sure you wouldn't forget him in a million years.