Mistaken identity

There are people who are good with names and there are people who are not. I am one of those people who are good with names. When I know your name I will know it forever, or at least until my mind goes.

It is not, however, a speedy process for names to affix themselves to my memory. I need to see you and hear your name at the same time, several times, before the cement begins to work.

The same goes for celebrities, especially performers in the early stages of renown. An actor will appear in a movie or television program or two, be seen dancing in a trendy night club or romping on an alluring Mediterranean beach, and maybe even win a minor award, and he or she is considered to be on his or her way. But his name will elude me until he has appeared, danced, romped or won several times, preferably in close succession. I will confuse him with other actors in similar stages of their careers.

Calvin will mention a name and I’ll ask, “Is he the one in that Fearless Fruit movie?” Calvin will say, “No, no, no! You’re thinking of Marvin Bartlesby, but he was in Renegade Methodist, not Fearless Fruit. I’m talking about Sherwin MacSkrutal.” Conversations like that happen a lot with me.

In the 1980’s it was Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks who confused me for a while. Between their respective movies and TV shows, these two fine talents muddled themselves for me into one brown-headed comic figure. It was not until Dragnet (1987) and Beetlejuice (1988) that the men assumed individual identities in my head. I was once a guest at a party in Idaho, two other guests at which were Messrs. Hanks and Keaton, but I thought better than to tell them about my earlier confusion.

Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock are two other performers whose identities jumbled themselves, at least for a time. Mystic Pizza came out in 1988, prompting my first awareness of Ms. Roberts’ considerable charm and talent. The problem for me—it is arguable to what extent the situation I am about to describe was a problem for Julia Roberts, since she never met me and appears nevertheless to have managed a high degree of success—was that Demolition Man was released only five years later, introducing Ms. Bullock to my mental mix and obfuscating the spunky-smart-hot-brunette demographic. (Careful readers will surely note that Demolition Man is a movie featuring Sylvester Stallone in a starring role. Those same readers will doubtless remark that I have often proclaimed with pride that I have never seen a Sylvester Stallone movie. In fact I have not. I never saw Demolition Man, but I viewed many posters advertising it.)


It is easy now to hear the names of the distinguished actors Scott Glenn and Tom Skerritt, and arrange them in our mind’s eye in their various roles. Between Ice Castles, Urban Cowboy, The Dead Zone, The Right Stuff, and Top Gun, how was a guy supposed to keep these craggily-handsome men straight?


This problem I describe applies far beyond the sphere of theatrical talent. Surely Americans of earlier times experienced confusion about their 19th and 23rd presidents. Who, after all, could pick Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison out of a police lineup?